William Blake and “The Bible of Hell”

William Blake concludes his masterpiece, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, with a rather curious and enigmatic note:

Note.—This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend. We often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense,
which the world shall have if they behave well.
  I have also The Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no.
  One Law for the Lion and Ox is Oppression.

It’s a statement that is bound to shock your average, everyday Christian, and probably helped contribute much to the judgement that Blake was a lunatic. Actually, Blake wrote in a mythopoeic, symbolic and metaphorical language that was quite native to him (and to Hermeticism) that is also very characteristic of that mode of perception and attention that Iain McGilchrist calls “the Master”, in his impressive book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. This is exactly what Blake means when he states that he sees “thro’ the eye” and “not with the eye”. That’s just another way of describing the Master and Emissary modes of perception and attention we find in McGilchrist’s neurodynamics.

To what George Morgan called “Prosaic Man” (Urizenic Man, or the mind of “Single Vision”) all this looks like nonsense and lunacy. But to access Blake’s “fourfold vision” and his mythopoeic way of representing it requires some familiarity with the Hermetic Philosophy and the Hermetic symbolic code, as well as recognising that the psychological and sociological idioms in current usage were not available to Blake in his time. Terms like “the unconscious” or “collective unconscious” or “archetypes” or “cognitive dissonance”, etc. He may have eschewed them in any case as being too abstract and prosaic to have the effect he desired to achieve in the reader.

Blake was one for whom the Christ’s statements that “the body is the temple of the living God” and “the kingdom of heaven is within you” were just self-evident truths and living realities, and not just a matter of belief. Consequently, he recognised that the external, objective God of the Deists was a fake and a phoney that he called “Nobodaddy” (just as Nietzche looked forward to seeing the end of our “flowing out into a God”). God, for Blake, is called “Divine Imagination” or “the Universal Humanity”.

And, if you have watched neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk on her own “Stroke of Insight”, you should have no problem understanding what Blake means here. It is equivalent to Bolte-Taylor’s “Life Force Power of the Universe” (and here it is again for those who haven’t seen it)

In other words, what most of us hold to be “transcendental reality” was for Blake primary reality, and indeed the only true reality, and what we ordinarily call “reality” Blake saw from his own primary reality to be only a shadow or spectre of the real that he called “Ulro” or “Vala”, which are pretty much the equivalent of the Eastern concepts of Maya or Lila.

And in Blake’s primary reality, the natural language is not just symbols, metaphors and mythopoeic images in the conventional sense, but living polymorphic entities. The spiritual entities for Blake were symbolic forms that were alive as living knowledge, very much in the same way that the “archetypes of the collective unconscious” were living entities and symbolic forms for Carl Jung and quite polymorphic.

Now, Blake, we know, was quite fond of “the Devils” because, like him, they were devils because they hated religion. Blake hated religion because he saw it as belonging to the Ulro, and as designed to actually prevent people from entering into primary reality and discovering the “truth that sets free” by distraction and diversion. That is pretty much what we find also in Nietzsche’s critique of religion and the history of morals also.

(A Note of caution here: this is not therefore “Satanism”, which Blake would have seen as just as depraved and demented as conventional religion, since “Satan” for Blake was “Selfhood”, represented as the fallen form of Urizen. )

This provides the background needed to understand what Blake means by “reading the Bible in its infernal sense” and what he means by “the Bible of Hell”, some of which he already translated into The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

So, it is probably already occurred to you that what Blake means by reading the Bible in its “infernal sense” refers exactly to those truths of the kingdom that were suppressed or misunderstood over the generations by institutional Christianity and ended up cast into the outer darkness, as it were, and these were principally truths about the body and why the body was deemed to be the true temple, and it is actually and ironically “the Voice of the Devil” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that has to remind human beings of this fundamental truth, and that body and soul are not separate.

Blake would probably very likely approve of Whitman’s “I sing the body electric”. It would certainly also be Nietzsche’s “Dionysian” body.

So, what Blake means by “infernal sense” of the Bible refers to those truths of Scripture that were elided, misunderstood, misrepresented, perverted, or suppressed over the course of time.

What, then, could Blake mean by saying he has “the Bible of Hell which the world shall have whether it will or no”? Hardly a physical book, and when you reflect on how Blake often uses the term “book” — as in the four Books of Urizen deemed to be Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron, each corresponding to one of the Greek “four Ages of Man”, so a book for Blake is also a symbolic form for some living reality. And since Blake saw his time as coincident with the beginnings of a “New Age”, we may concluded that the Bible of Hell is a reference to a new state of consciousness, and connected then with what we now call “the return of the repressed”.

It is quite possible, then (perhaps even likely) that what Blake calls “the Bible of Hell” and its revelation in our times is completely equivalent to Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism”, but in the sense of something apocalyptic or revelatory — what we call “shattering truth” that explodes the delusions of the narcissistic mind.

So, the Book of Hell is a revelation, but not in the mode or way that the conventional religious mind expects or anticipates this, as even the Book of Revelation anticipates — coming “like a thief in the night”.

This is also the great paradox (and irony) of Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism” as a consequence of the Death of God — it follows the pattern of the apocalyptic — a disclosure that is shattering and appears quite dreadful but is also something in process of revealing itself, and this is most likely also what Blake means by “the Bible of Hell” and by “the marriage of Heaven and Hell”, since Blake’s account of the final days of Urizen, of his fall and madness, is completely the equivalent of Nietzsche’s “death of God”.

The “Bible of Hell”, then, would be pretty much the same as what Carolyn Baker calls “Dark Gold”.

23 responses to “William Blake and “The Bible of Hell””

  1. Scott Preston says :

    I suppose you could say that the “occult reading of Scripture” is what Blake means by the Bible of Hell or about reading the Bible in its “infernal sense”. I doubt that Blake would have ever used the word “occultist” for himself or even “the occult” at all, since his own primary reality was not occluded or “occult” at all.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    “All that can be annihilated must be annihilated … the Reasoning Power in Man: This is a false Body; an Incrustation over my immortal Spirit; a Selfhood, which must be put off & annihilated always, To cleanse the Face of my Spirit by Self-examination.” — Blake

    So you could say here that Blake has a use for nihilism.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    Another very interesting essay on William Blake and “the Red Dragon”


  4. Scott Preston says :

    Was just trying to figure out whether there was any etymological connection between the words “shatter” and German “Schatten” (shadow), which seem so oddly similar. None that I could find, although one source noted that the word shatter might be connected to an old Norse term for “crazy” or “to act crazy”. But that’s the old Norse term “krasa” which is quite evidently “crazy”.

    But the term “scatter” (hence “scatter-brained”) is related to “shatter”.

    Still, no direct connection with “shadow” or “Schatten” that I can find.

  5. InfiniteWarrior says :

    Just one thing I don’t understand in relation to Gebser.

    Gebser’s observations don’t quite explain why it is that it has always been thus, which is to say, why it is that the “upper crust” of any “civilization” or “society” always has taken precedence over absolutely everything and everyone else until, of course, that civilization’s or society’s demise.

    It’s said that “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” but that still doesn’t quite explain this “upper (invisible) hand” thing we’ve got going on, either.

    “Egoic consciousness” goes quite a ways toward explaining it, but still obviously not in a way with which everyone can relate.

    Any thoughts on this?

    • Scott Preston says :

      Not sure I understand the question. Do you mean by “upper crust” the ruling elite or power elite?

    • Benjamin David Steele says :

      You predicted by own response. I’d point to egoic consciousness. Jaynes’ argues the early bicameral societies weren’t hierarchical in the way we think about it.

      I find it easier to relate to this by looking to anthropology. There are still existing tribes that entirely lack hierarchy or formal/permanent social roles at all, well other than maybe gender roles.

      The Piraha have no chiefs, tribal of elders, shamans, etc. Anyone could potentially take leadership role in a situation, depending on who else is present and what was needed at the moment.

      So, an “upper crust” doesn’t appear to be a human given. It is the product of a particular kind of culture. But it has become so pervasive that most moderns have come to think of it as universal to human nature.

  6. Benjamin David Steele says :

    What do you think of the idea of the imaginal? Are you familiar with thinkers such as Henry Corbin and Patrick Harpur? I’m not sure about Corbin, but Harpur discusses Blake and the seeing through rather than with the eye. Along with Carl Jung, there is also James Hillman.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Nietzsche actually approaches this with his distinction between Self and Ego, and between the “intuitive man” and “the rational man”. I’ve read something by Harpur and thought it was quite good (I have another book by him that I haven’t read yet). I’ve heard the name Corbin often, but still haven’t famiiarised myself with him.

      Bortoft’s distinction between authentic and counterfeit wholes (a Whole and a totality, in Gebser’s terms) would also imply some facility in “seeing thro’ the eye” and not with the eye.

      This is evidently the meaning of the passage from Matthew: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light (Matt 6:22)”, which is, of course, what Gebser calls “diaphaneity”. Some translations don’t use “single” but “clear”, for I can see how this “eye be single” could easily be misconstrued to mean “Single Vision”.

      That would actually be a pretty good example of what Blake means by reading Scripture in its “infernal sense”. Where some might take “eye be single” as literal, Blake would see it rather in its “occult” sense. Blake uses this term “infernal” to mean the hidden or the occult meaning within the symbol, where the symbolic form has lost its diaphaneity or transparency or translucent quality.

      So, the Bible of Hell is, for Blake, actually the Bible read in a way in which the symbolic code is transparent and not opaque or secret.

  7. Scott Preston says :

    “We are led to Believe a Lie
    When we see not Thro the Eye
    Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
    When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light
    God Appears & God is Light
    To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
    But does a Human Form Display
    To those who Dwell in Realms of day” — Blake, Auguries of Innocence

    This is another aspect of Blake’s “Bible of Hell” that I perhaps should have highlighted more fully in the post.

    This passage, of course, seems to contradict the belief that “one cannot look upon God and live”, and as we read in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, what Christians refer to as “the fires of Hell” are for Blake actually the light of the world and “our Energies”. But that light is so intense it is experienced as a consuming fire. And this consuming fire is exactly what Blake sees as the beginnings of the New Age.

    So, those who dwell in realms of night misconstrue the light with a consuming fire which, in some ways it is, because fire has always been also a symbol of the light of consciousness.

    So, for Blake, those who run from the consuming fire are also fleeing from the presence of their God and taking refuge in “the Lie”. For Blake, this consuming fire which strips away apparent surfaces and reveals what was hid is the revelation of the godhead, and this is “the Bible of Hell”.

  8. Charles says :

    Harpur is a good writer. His book Daimonic Reality is worthwhile in this context. The challenge is to beyond literalism, the psychological need for closure, duality and accept paradox. Kastrup ( Meaning in Absurdity) suggests letting go of the concept of bivalence, the idea that phenomena, whatever they are, must be true or false, either/or. Roszak talks about the habit of duality – the sacred and profane being a prime example. He writes

    but every dichotomy this culture to, forces us to choose, and every choosing is a repressing, the exile of some outlawed part of ourselves.

    • Benjamin David Steele says :

      That particular book by Harpur is good. It’s probably the first I read by him. I’m fond of the concept of the daimonic and, for some reason, it always brings to mind the Fortean. John Keel’s books are a fun and crazy ride. But slightly more intellectually respectable is Jacques Vallee. About Corbin, I might have first learned of him from Imagination Is Reality: Western Nirvana in Jung, Hillman, Barfield, and Cassirer by Roberts Avens.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Yes. Daimonic Reality was the title of the book I read by Harpur, and I really should re-read it again. It was quite good, and I’ve forgotten most of what was in it (it was some time ago).

  9. Charles says :

    Regarding Henry Corbin. Tom Cheetam wrote a good book on Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism -The World Turned Inside Out. Yes Daimonic Reality is a good book. Harpur is insightful about many ideas. Jeffrey Kripal is a good writer on similar ideas. I like Authors of the Impossible. Chapters on Jacques Vallee and Charles Fort.

  10. Steve says :

    Henry Corbin wrote a wonderful letter to a friend. Google Corbin on Monotheism and Polytheism.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      No idea if this is the result you had in mind, but: Corbin on Monotheism and Polytheism.

      Fantastic! Thank you.

      PS: If you want to direct someone directly to an URL, you can just copy and paste the URL from the address bar in your browser into a WP comment and it will get them there, because WP automatically converts URLs to destinations. No HTML required.

      (Seriously. WP really needs to provide — at least — a basic editor for its comments sections on “free” blogs. Just sayin’.)

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