William Blake and Politics
As you know, I am a great admirer of the English visionary poet and artist William Blake. “Disciple” might be too strong a word for that in the same sense that Nietzsche considered himself a “disciple of the god Dionysus”. I am too much the critical spirit to be comfortable with discipleship.
Nonetheless, I recognise the value of discipleship as an important stage in the course of a life, as an apprenticeship is an important phase in life. But one does oneself and one’s teachers great wrong to remain a perpetual disciple. Not even Jesus or Buddha expected their disciples to remain disciples and nestlings forever, but to learn to soar on their own wings.
Or, as Nietzsche put it — the three metamorphoses from a camel to a lion to a child.
Recently, I concluded a book by David Erdman entitled Blake: Prophet Against Empire. Erdman’s book explorers the political implications and passions of Blake’s art and poetry, but often to the point of getting carried away by it so that Blake’s poetry and “vision” seem little more than political allegory or satire, after the fashion of, say, Jonathan Swift. While Erdman’s study is quite interesting, the temptation to reduce Blake’s vision to nothing but an allegory for the revolutionary and reactionary politics of his day is to fall into the very trap of “single vision & Newtons sleep” that Blake warned against, just as Nietzsche warned against those who would “mistake me for what I am not”.
So, it was with some surprise, given Erdman’s reputation as a Blake scholar, that I read him describe The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a “satire” of the Swedenborgians; or that Blake’s politics were essentially “theocratic” and that Blake admired the Catholic Church as a political model. I was quite puzzled by all that until I recollected the distressing tendency of contemporary scholars to classify everything in terms of “classical” or “romantic” consciousness, and the distorting tendency to lump Blake in with the latter, and with “the counter-Enlightenment” too.
While other artists and philosophers may conform to the paradigm of being “classical” or “romantic”, a Blake or a Nietzsche are not cut from the same cloth. But it is a common enough tendency to try to shoehorn them (or others) into one or the other category.
Blake’s art and politics could hardly be described as “theocratic”, or as romantic nostalgia. In his time, he was a revolutionary. His political choices did not determine what he called “vision”. Rather, his “vision” determined his political choices, and that vision was f0urfold, as he himself described it.
Now I fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And three fold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons sleep
(For a pretty good explanation of what Blake means by “vision”, see “Blake as Visionary“)
Blake attacked both the liberal (John Locke) and conservative (Edmund Burke) ideologies of his day as belonging to the same “single vision”. Coincidentally, Locke and Burke are often considered the “Fathers” of contemporary Anglo-Saxon liberalism and conservatism. Nor were human beings being rightly guided by State and Church. It was Blake’s sincere conviction that if human beings could be brought around to “cleansing the doors of perception” they would invariably also make the most appropriate political choices, which would follow from “vision”, and which would result in a “New Age” — the beginnings of which he saw prefigured in the French and American revolutions. The closest thing to which Blake’s politics inclined might be what we today refer to as “anarcho-socialism”.
“The whole business of man is the Arts: and all things in common”
As a political conclusion, that definitive statement follows from “vision”. It is not a conclusion that is arrived at by discursive logic or by syllogistic reasoning. For Blake, it is a conclusion proved by “vision” alone, which is “the Spirit of Prophecy”.
And it was “vision” and the same “Spirit of Prophecy” that composed The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, rather than being an artifice or conjuration for the purpose of satire. Blake did not pretend to the experience things which he did not. The forms of his imagination were immediate and direct spiritual realities — living symbols. The man who “saw” the sun as a heavenly host saw more than its outward form and attributes. He meant what he said when he wrote,
I assert for myself that I do not behold the outward creation and that to me it is hindrance and not action. ” What ! ” it will be questioned, “when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?” Oh! no, no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host, crying, ” Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty ! ” I question not my corporeal eye any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it and not with it.
This is not “allegory” — at least, not in the usual sense of the world “allegory”. For Blake, the entire universe was a living symbolic form, and the inner truth of things could be perceived directly by “vision” — which for Blake was true “insight” — once the doors of perception (the physical senses) were cleansed. And Blake’s entire purpose in his art and poetry is not to just to record his own “vision”, but to help bring others to the same perception of the infinite and the eternal in all things by awakening the sleeping “Albion” and the fourfold vision. Thereupon, human beings will know exactly what they must do. Reason — the ego consciousness or “Urizen” — would thereafter assume its proper place as the servant of “vision” and “imagination”.
Blake was not “counter-Enlightenment” (or even “counter-Reformation”). He saw clearly that the European Enlightenment was dangerously incomplete. That is the prevailing theme of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil tracks very closely to Blake’s meaning, as well).
“I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead in at Heaven’s gate
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.”
If I harp on Jean Gebser’s “ever-present origin” and the “integral consciousness”, or Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”, it is because of my conviction that they have truly picked up Blake’s “golden thread”.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is packed full of significance, in that respect. Here, I want to reproduce one of Blake’s “Memorable Fancies” (although a little lengthy) as it pertains to Blake’s views,
An Angel came to me and said: ‘O pitiable foolish young man! O horrible! O dreadful state! consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity, to which thou art going in such career.’
I said: ‘perhaps you will be willing to shew me my eternal lot & we will contemplate together upon it and see whether your lot or mine is most desirable.’
So he took me thro’ a stable & thro’ a church & down into the church vault at the end of which was a mill: thro’ the mill we went, and came to a cave: down the winding cavern we groped our tedious way till a void boundless as a nether sky appear’d beneath us & we held by the roots of trees and hung over this immensity; but I said, ‘if you please we will commit ourselves to this void, and see whether providence is here also, if you will not, I will?’ but he answer’d: ‘do not presume, O young-man, but as we here remain, behold thy lot which will soon appear when the darkness passes away.’
So I remain’d with him, sitting in the twisted root of an oak; he was suspended in a fungus, which hung with the head downward into the deep.
By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us at an immense distance, was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey; which flew, or rather swum, in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption; & the air was full of them, & seem’d composed of them: these are Devils, and are called Powers of the air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? he said, ‘between the black & white spiders.’
But now, from between the black & white spiders, a cloud and fire burst and rolled thro’ the deep black’ning all beneath, so that the nether deep grew black as a sea, & rolled with a terrible noise; beneath us was nothing now to be seen but a black tempest, till looking east between the clouds & the waves, we saw a cataract of blood mixed with fire, and not many stones’ throw from us appear’d and sunk again the scaly fold of a monstrous serpent; at last, to the east, distant about three degrees appear’d a fiery crest above the waves; slowly it reared like a ridge of golden rocks, till we discover’d two globes of crimson fire, from which the sea fled away in clouds of smoke; and now we saw, it was the head of Leviathan; his forehead was divided into streaks of green & purple like those on a tyger’s forehead: soon we saw his mouth & red gills hang just above the raging foam tinging the black deep with beams of blood, advancing toward us with all the fury of a spiritual existence.
My friend the Angel climb’d up from his station into the mill; I remain’d alone, & then this appearance was no more, but I found myself sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moonlight, hearing a harper who sung to the harp; & his theme was: ‘The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.’
But I arose, and sought for the mill, & there I found my Angel, who surprised, asked me how I escaped?
I answer’d: ‘ All that we saw was owing to your metaphysics; for when you ran away, I found myself on a bank by moonlight hearing a harper, But now we have seen my eternal lot, shall I shew you yours?’ he laugh’d at my proposal; but I by force suddenly caught him in my arms, & flew westerly thro’ the night, till we were elevated above the earth’s shadow; then I flung myself with him directly into the body of the sun; here I clothed myself in white, & taking in my hand Swedenborg’s, volumes sunk from the glorious clime, and passed all the planets till we came to saturn: here I staid to rest & then leap’d into the void, between saturn & the fixed stars.
‘Here,’ said I, ‘is your lot, in this space, if space it may be call’d.’ Soon we saw the stable and the church, & I took him to the altar and open’d the Bible, and lo! it was a deep pit, into which I descended driving the Angel before me, soon we saw seven houses of brick; one we enter’d; in it were a number of monkeys, baboons, & all of that species, chain’d by the middle, grinning and snatching at one another, but witheld by the shortness of their chains: however, I saw that they sometimes grew numerous, and then the weak were caught by the strong, and with a grinning aspect, first coupled with, & then devour’d, by plucking off first one limb and then another till the body was left a helpless trunk; this after grinning & kissing it with seeming fondness they devour’d too; and here & there I saw one savourily picking the flesh off of his own tail; as the stench terribly annoy’d us both, we went into the mill, & I in my hand brought the skeleton of a body, which in the mill was Aristotle’s Analytics.
So the Angel said: ‘thy phantasy has imposed upon me, & thou oughtest to be ashamed.’
I answer’d: ‘we impose on one another, & it is but lost time to converse with you whose works are only Analytics.’
First, to understand what Blake means by this “memorable fancy” you must forgo everything you think you understand by the name “angel”. For Blake, “angels” are imposters and hoaxers, and their appearance as supernal or divine beings is what we might call “perception management”, or what Blake calls here an “imposition”. Their appearance as “angels” is the outward projection of their sense of their own righteousness. Blake allows the “angel” to impose upon him with a vision of his supposed destiny, but then calls the angel’s bluff. (“Angels” is a term Blake also uses for the agents of Church and State, or agents of “morality” and of “law & order”). The angel’s “bluff” Blake calls “metaphysics” and “Aristotle’s Analytics” or just “analytics”.
But then Blake turns the tables on the angel with his own “imposition”, by showing the angel his own destiny — the consequence of his own “metaphysics” and “analytics” — the Enlightenment, in other words — carried to their logical, necessary conclusion: the debasement and degradation of the human form as an apelike creature (something Nietzsche was to revolt against, also, nearly a century after Blake). Therein Blake demonstrates “the spirit of prophecy” in presciently anticipating the spiritual degradation of the human form to the status of “the naked ape” or “monkey man” as a necessary and ironic consequence of the angel’s own “metaphysics” and “analytics” — the consequence of “single vision”, in other words.
Blake was not “counter-Enlightenment” except only in the narrowest of interpretations. He welcomed it, in fact. But he also saw, from his fourfold vision, the limitations of the mental-rational consciousness and the consequences of those limitations. We’ve explored those limitations in earlier posts on “point-of-view, line-of-thought” consciousness and the “pyramid of perception”.
Here’s another way of looking at the difference between Blake’s vision of a “New Age” and what he sees as the limitations of the Enlightenment.
In an earlier post, I remarked on the difference between Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vetruvian Man” and Blake’s “Albion”. They seem to invite comparison, so here they are again. You may see that they are very different representations of the human ideal
Da Vinci’s illustration emphasizes ratio, proportion, order. It is a very geometric and somewhat static conception, even to the point where the figure seems trapped or imprisoned by the geometries of his form. It is, in rational terms, clear, pristine, precise, and beautiful in its own terms. Who cannot be moved by it?
Yet, here is Blake’s “Glad Day” or “Albion Reborn” for comparison (and I can’t help but think that Blake had da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” in the back of his mind with this),
Albion still retains all the proper proportions, ratios, and perspectivism of the da Vinci illustration. There is nothing disproportionate, irrational, or unperspectival about “Glad Day”. But the figure is moving. It is surging forth. It is also radiant. If da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is “rational”, but static, Blake’s Albion is “radiant” — no longer confined by the geometrical. Ratio and proportion have not been abandoned. They’ve been transcended. This is the “gladness” of the Glad Day. Albion is Vitruvian Man who has transcended himself, and now as radiant as da Vinci man was rational. One might even say, Vitruvian Man is Parmenidean Man (Being), and Blake’s Albion Reborn is Heraclitean Man (Becoming).
That is Blake’s statement of his “New Age”.