Unsystematic Observations on William Blake

I’m not exactly progressing at the pace of a clipper ship through Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, his study of William Blake. It’s more like tacking. I’m occasionally drawn up short by some unusual reference or remark that seems to run parallel to something found in the Seth books or in Castaneda, or which reminds of passages or remarks found in other books I’ve recently been reading. Then I scribble down a few notes and spend the rest of the day pondering over them. Here’s a few unsystematic jigsaw puzzle-piece observations that I hope to shape into a more comprehensive picture in future (say, by the time I finish Frye’s book?).

Since Frye relies for his study of Blake much more than most scholars on marginal notes found in the books Blake read, and extracts from letters not typically found in Blake’s published works, novel opportunities for new insights into the workings of his consciousness give reason to pause and reflect. Some might call it “connecting the dots”, for that certainly feels like what it is.

According to Frye, Blake seldom read any books except those by authors whose views he detested and loathed, so there is a great abundance of marginal notes to be find in those. Naturally, they tend to be short, pithy, and sometimes cutting, but also might seem very obscure and cryptic until they are brought into relation with the statements of others whose consciousness might be considered to be more attuned to, and aligned with, Blake’s own, in which case they become mutually illuminating and clarifying.

So, here’s my attempt to bring them into relation to one another. Maybe it will help others also. I have retained the gist of Frye’s own way of identifying the source of the comment (eg. “marg. to Lataver” means a marginal note in Blake’s hand found in that particular author’s book).

First of all, though, we need to understand Blake’s hostility to those whom he considered as belonging to the evils of the Age, principally Locke, Bacon, Newton, Voltaire, Reynolds and also Rousseau (amongst others). And one of the things that Blake adamantly derides in John Locke, especially, is the assumption that the individual is originally “tabula rasa” (blank slate) and merely has external impressions or sensations imprinted on the mind. Blake’s argument against that assumption that there are no “innate ideas” is actually a very potent critique.

Reynolds Thinks that Man Learns all that he knows. I say on the Contrary that Man Brings All that he has and can have Into the World with him. Man is Born Like a Garden ready Planted & Sown. This World is too poor to produce one Seed. 

Innate Ideas are in Every Man, Born with him; they are truly Himself. The Man who says that we have No Innate Ideas must be a Fool & Knave, Having No Con-Science or Innate Science.” (Marg notes to Reynolds, quoted here p. 23).

What Blake means by “Innate Ideas”, though, are not quite “ideas” (concepts) as we understand the word “ideas”. They are more like innate predispositions or propensities, and which constitute life tasks,

Every man’s leading propensity ought to be call’d his leading Virtue & his good Angel”

In other places, this is called by Blake a man’s (or woman’s) innate “Genius”, which in Blake is pretty much identical with “Imagination”.  This notion of “Innate Ideas” which constitute “propensities” or innate predispositions isn’t much different from what Castaneda’s don Juan called “predilection”, and it is a word that occurs fairly regularly in don Juan’s conversations with Castaneda.

And it seems quite clear that what Blake calls a “propensity” which is the “leading Virtue” has the same meaning as what don Juan calls the warrior’s “predilection”, and that these have also been termed in other contexts by the inadequate term “Innate Idea”, which translates as an innate “talent” to be expressed and developed, or a life “task” to be pursued and fulfilled. And this is quite consistent with the views expressed by Seth as published by Jane Roberts in numerous “Seth” books.

So, one of the chief obstacles to a sympathetic appreciation and hearing for Blake, Castaneda, Seth, etc is this whole thesis of “predilections” or “innate ideas”, for not only does it call to mind a notion of a “soul”, but also, by implication, that our perception of what is real must also be conditioned and framed by these very same “propensities” or “predilections” that Blake calls our “leading Virtue” or Angel.

And to the extent that a human being (and not just a human being, as it turns out) is born with “innate ideas” — that is to say, with a propensity or predilection — then another comment from Blake follows logically,

Each thing is its own cause and its own effect” (“marg. To Lataver” quoted in Frye p. 36)

Now, what that statement basically amounts to is what the Seth identity insistently and consistently states: “You create the reality you know”. In other words, your perception of reality constitutes that reality because your perception is a function of your predilection or “leading Virtue” (however perverted the expression and enactment of that “Virtue” may become). In Nietzsche, this “each thing is its own cause and its own effect” is expressed as the human being become “a self-revolving wheel”, or in his Zarathustra, his statement that “fundamentally, we experience only ourselves” which has been confused by narcissistic types with being damnable narcissism when it is, in fact, the diametrical opposite of narcissism. It is self-realisation for the fact that it is very close to — even identical with — what Zen Buddhists call a satori. Nietzsche’s insight is not different at all from Seth’s insistence that “you create the reality you know”, and it is not different at all from Blake’s statement that we are our own cause and effect. That is just another way of stating what is called “the karmic law” of action and reaction.

If I may tie a few things together, at this point, or “connect the dots” , as it were, we can come to a few conclusions.

We are perceiving beings, first and foremost. Consciousness and not thinking, is primary. The Cartesian cogito or res cogitans is not cause but effect, in so far that I must first be conscious of myself thinking before I can perceive myself engaged in thinking and conclude “I am thinking” or “this is thinking”. Thinking is secondary to what we are, and does not express the fundamental essence of who or what we are. The failure to discriminate between perception and thinking is what leads to absurdities like “ideology is consciousness”.

Secondly, our perceptions are guided by “innate ideas” (what is called sometimes a “ruling idea”) but which is better expressed as a “propensity” or “predilection”, and that this is equally expressed in the “absurd” Zen koan “show me your face before you were born”. This “face before you were born” is equally what the culture philosopher Jean Gebser calls “the ever-present origin”. What Blake calls your “leading Virtue” or “Angel” is your innate predilection or “innate idea”, and which Jung interpreted as an “archetype”. Nietzsche’s formula for self-realisation, “Become what you are!” is the equivalent of all these correspondences. Ironically, in Nietzsche’s case, it expresses the essential meaning of the parable of the Prodigal Son and of the myth of Narcissus, because “Become what you are!” presupposes that we have actually to begin with become what we are not.

I would say that those who refer to men like Blake, Nietzsche, Goethe, Vico, etc as belonging to the “counter-Enlightenment” do so only under this one condition, and mistake the reasoning and intention of these men as belonging to something they call “Romantic” and therefore, “reactionary”.  I would suggest that the shoe is on the other foot.  It hinged on the question of “innate ideas” (really, propensities or predilections) as against the Enlightenment principle of “tabula rasa“, because upon that distinction rests the reality or unreality of something called “soul”, and also, following that, the question of freedom versus determinism which is equally the confusion of perception and sensation which Nietzsche condemned as the confusion of “higher” values with “lower” values — or what he called “nihilism”.

For what is the real significance of the “death of God” if not “death of soul”?

5 responses to “Unsystematic Observations on William Blake”

  1. amothman33 says :

    consciousness is a divine manifestation in human psyche or soul. not everyone who has tools of perception, has perception, we all know those who have ears but hear not , have eyes but see not etc.i fully agree God never dies ,but human faithful perception that die, no wonder Blake despised the mentioned.

  2. erikleo says :

    Reference to your last sentence, Nietzsche certainly did not equate death of God with death of the soul. His whole ouvre could be seen as a hymn to the re-animation of the soul. I too am ploughing through Frye as background for my book on Blake. He is pretty much on the the ball isn’t he?

    • Scott Preston says :

      Thanks for your comment. I think, though, that the death of God and the death of soul are related in Nietzsche, certainly after his incinerating “stare into the abyss” after which Nietzsche-Zarathustra carries his own ashes up the mountain for his ten years sojourn in the wilderness. That the soul is reborn (and so is god) afterwards, Phoenix-like, as Dionysus and the Dionysian soul…this is Nietzsche’s new soul and new God… the god within. Nietzsche’s chief objection to “God” is our “flowing out into a God”, and that God must die (it is Blake’s Urizen only), so that the soul can be revived and resuscitated. Ironically, Nietzsche can’t dispense with the idea of the soul’s immortality (“joy wants deep, deep eternity”) and simply translates this into his peculiar notion of Eternal Recurrence.

      I’ve always been puzzled why so few Nietzsche interpreters ever draw comparisons of Nietzsche with Blake. But Steve, one of the Chrysalis readers, found an old essay where the author does make the comparison. I’ll find the link to that and repost it if you are interested?

    • Scott Preston says :

      Hello erikleo. I’ll post the link to the essay by A.R. Orage in any case. It’s dated 1906, (and even the cover is, I think, the Phoenix — can’t make it out too clearly). It’s one of the better essays on Nietzsche that I’ve read.


    • Scott Preston says :

      I probably should add (although I’m sure you’ve noted this already from Zarathustra) that the new Dionysian soul, as Nietzsche interprets it, is the Nietzschean “self” as described in the chapter “The Despisers of the Body”


      This Nietzschean soul is a little paradoxical — no longer a “child of God” but identical with god, even though the “child” is the last transform of the soul after the camel and the lion.

      These are all these recurrent Christian memes in Nietzsche that too few of Nietzsche’s interpreters have even bothered to notice (Hollingdale does, in his introduction to one of Nietzsche’s books, but in a most trivial way). Much of Nietzsche’s revaluation of values is simply an ironic return to the understandings of “primitive Christianity”, when, by some accounts, Christ and Dionysus were treated as the same, or that “the body is the temple of the living God” precluded any contempt for the body or for flesh (“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” — pretty “Blakean” too).

      I’ve noted in a few places in The Chrysalis where Nietzsche’s “revaluation of values” was, ironically, a return to primitive Christianity, but also a couple passages in his Zarathustra where he plagiarised the Suf poet/mystic Rumi.

      Nietzsche did indeed think as he lived and lived as he thought — ironically.

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