From Zero to Infinity, and Beyond

In his time, William Blake was a zero – well not exactly, but he certainly didn’t amount to much among the reputed society of the day. Georgian England preferred those who fed the British Empire in its already burgeoning, behemothic presence. But Blake had a larger vision, and the problem with such larger visions is that they often don’t fit within conventional schemes.

Blake was considered a zero, a nobody, and his attempts to be at least a respected member of British artistic and literary society, at least a one,  were met with derision, discouragement, and convenient looking-the-other-way, along with a good peppering of accusations of madness for posterity. This didn’t stop Blake; in fact, it encouraged him. His view was that the self-respecting society of Enlightenment, Church, and Empire was the zero: within his cosmology, he placed these institutions in his lowest world, Ulro, the extreme contraction of rationalisation and tyrannical control.

He wasn’t alone here, as these were revolutionary times. There was opposition to the French monarchy, which literally lost its head in 1793, but with the ensuring celebrations gradually deteriorating. And other revolutionaries, such as Thomas Paine, were causing a great stir in America. In short, these were dangerous times for anyone who considered Empire as deserving a score of zero. Blake generally kept quite and went about his work.

He died (in 1827) and seemed forgotten, but his vision remained in his many works. And his vision gradually grew, shook off that zero he had been scored with, and in the new thinking of Victorian England, his poetry slowly began to gain a little merit. And this process continued into the twentieth century. Blake gained some recognition in popular culture: influencing musicians such as Bob Dylan, Allens Ginsberg, and U2; inspiring writers like Philip Pullman and Tracy Chevalier;  appearing in comics, such as those by Alan Moore; and in Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp, as well as gaining a mention in other films. Meanwhile, understanding the complex intricacies of Blake’s mythos has been left to academics, who have made great gains.

No longer is Blake considered wholly mad; perhaps holy-mad to some. But generally he is seen as a self-educated, culturally informed, somewhat eccentric, inspired and talented artist: in other words, more-or-less a genius. And what is significant about his work is the direction it takes. From the zero of Ulro – the state of contraction and opacity of human consciousness – Blake’s mythic vision leads to infinity: the complete awakening of human imagination and the creative powers of genius (in the broadest sense) that this provides. Blake calls this state of infinite consciousness Eden.

Blake is no longer a zero. From zero to infinity, Blake’s vision continues to unfold itself within the global cultural-sphere today.

Blake, William. Europe: A Prophecy, plate 17. 1794. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.

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