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”.