Literature, Blake, and the World

In conversation with others, sometimes, when I mention that I am researching within English literature, the question is raised as to the relevance of literature in general, or more specific to my topic, the relevance and importance of William Blake.

To answer the first part – on the relevance of literature – it seems that literature is one of those things that requires communication of its insights from a place of understanding for its significance to be grasped. I don’t want to imply there is some kind of insider secret code involved here, because anyone can study literature, with some willingness and effort. But there is a journey into literature as a discipline; it takes time to learn to read and critique literature. There is a need for the unpacking of literature by the reader as critic. To the casual reader, there is always the surface of a text to skim over. This skimming may bring amusement, entertainment, escapism, dislike, or boredom, but such a mode of reading is likely to miss much of what the text contains. As Andy Mousley writes, in Literature and the Human, reading literature involves an engagement with one’s entire being.1

Literature must be unpacked, or interpreted, by the reader as critic. Communicating an interpretation to those unfamiliar with literature – and also how to approach literary texts – grants access to the deeper meaning of a text. This communication is an art in itself, and may also teach the critic many things. Yet the value of literature as a discipline is not as obvious as something like, say, medicine or science – these latter disciplines have very obvious value, for their products often solve concrete problems in tangible ways. Even if a person has no understanding of medicine themselves, they will easily understand its value – it cures the sick.

But literature is more subtle and subjective, though its implications are no less pervasive and profound. When you recognise how influential literature has been to shape society, culture, history, and our entire scope of human thought, it becomes hard to restrain it as some mere auxiliary to human life. For the individual who studies literature, it promotes many traits for personal development: understanding, perspective, sensibility, empathy, communication ability, and so on. Reading literature activates the mind’s faculties: rouses emotions, raises thoughts and questions, stimulates the imagination, exercises the intelligence, and may stir past memories – it is an experience. Like a story, literature is narrative, but it is also more than that – this is what makes it literature. It could be described as profound narrative; story containing great insight and meaning, story which has human relevance. The fact that literature exists, that it has endured time, crossed many cultural and historical changes and survived, is evidence for its profundity. Literature has wide implications, but understanding these requires some work. Learning to access the enduring power of literature and extrapolate its relevance into various contexts brings forth its gifts for the world. The critic’s role as communicator, as bridge between literature and the world, is essential here.

The second part of the question that others sometimes approach me with – the relevance of William Blake – is a subset of the above. I was searching the Internet this afternoon for some blogs on Blake and the thought occurred to me that there are two ways the question of Blake’s relevance can be approached. The first requires that the world (or rather, individuals in the world) approach Blake for who he is. That means understanding what Blake sought to communicate through his writing and art. It requires entering Blake’s world, which may appear in many ways unusual to our common experience of the world. This is no easy task, and you will likely return changed by it. Blake’s world is visionary; it is paradoxical, imaginative, intense, rich, colourful, emotive, dramatic, daimonic. Not everyone has an interest in such a world; nonetheless, Blake’s literature and art is relevant to our shared world. This becomes apparent when his literature (and art) is unpacked, interpreted, critiqued. Because of the difficulty of this task, there will be only a few willing to embark upon it and persevere until success is gained.

Those not willing to do this, perhaps the majority, would benefit from the second approach, which is brought about by those who understand Blake, then bring Blake to the world in various mediums. There is a blog named Zoamorphosis, edited by Jason Whittaker and Roger Whitson, which explores the evolution of Blake’s work among the arts, media, popular culture, and also scholarship. This, I would suggest, is an excellent blog for providing information on the links between Blake and the world. This is part of a larger project known as Blake 2.0, exploring the dissemination of Blake’s work and Blake research through advances in technology. As not everyone is willing to become a scholar of Blake, there are still many ways to approach Blake through the arts, media, and popular culture.

From my own research, I have come to see how Blake, most of whose works were written over two hundred years ago, has relevance to the world in the twenty-first century. Blake’s work is still being unpacked and interpreted by scholars, while also emanating through art, culture, and media within the wider world. Therefore, both approaches, to and from Blake, are important for growing an understanding of this unique visionary artist and poet. Blake’s (and literature’s) relevance is likely to become better understood through this bi-directional process.

 

Unknown Artist. Fools Cap Map of the World. c. 1590. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

 

Notes:
1 – Mousley, Andy. Literature and the Human: Criticism, Theory, Practice. Routledge, 2013, pp. 45-6.

Spectres, Shadows, Emanations, and Eternals

To understand William Blake’s writing is both extremely simple and entirely challenging. It all depends on which parts of his work you read. He has many types of poems. Songs of Innocence is the best entry point I would recommend. Then Songs of Experience, followed by his other shorter poems. You can read his biography – there’s a number of them around (Peter Ackroyd’s Blake is good for a general audience; G. E. Bentley’s The Stranger from Paradise is a recommended academic biography). Then there’s Blake’s songs, his plays and stories, his epigrams and annotations, and his letters – as well as a miscellanea of other works.

Then there are his illuminated books. These are where it becomes challenging. The Blake Archive is the best online source for these. And if you can’t visit a GLAM (gallery, library, archive, or museum) building that has displays of his original prints, you may be able to find a book containing them – I recommend David Bindman’s William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books. And if you’re seriously wanting to study Blake, a copy of Erdman’s The Complete Prose and Poetry of William Blake is a must. (The Blake Archive also has Erdman’s text on-line.)

So why is it challenging to study these illuminated works? Here’s a sample, chosen largely at random from Blake’s Milton:

Daughters of Beulah! Muses who inspire the Poet’s Song,
Record the journey of immortal Milton thro’ you Realms
Of terror & mild moony luster, in soft sexual delusions
Of varied beauty, to delight the wanderer and repose
His burning thirst & descending down the Nerves of my right arm
From out the Portals of my Brain, where by your ministry
The Eternal Great Humanity Divine planted his Paradise,
And in it caus’d the Spectres of the Dead to take sweet forms
In likeness of himself.1

So unless you’re Blake himself or someone well versed in his work, you may find his language somewhat obscure. Many early scholars gave up and called Blake mad. It’s somewhat understandable, for it takes some time to orientate yourself to Blake. But dig deeper and persist, and the power of his poetry grows with time.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have attempted to outline some of the basic elements of Blake’s vision as I develop my understanding of it. So I will now continue with this by adding some descriptions, as I interpret them at this point, of the four terms the title of this post is made from: Spectres, Shadows, Emanations, and Eternals. These terms are all types of beings, and in another sense, aspects of the one being, the human. So here goes.

Spectres are the haunting persona of the human who has fallen into the world of time and space. They haunt through preying upon the person’s fears, doubts, insecurities, hatred, jealousy, and other darker emotions. In this way the Spectre is a presence that works to bring a person further into the fallen world. It is a fragment of the person, much like the Jungian shadow, which requires effort to face, gain mastery over, and reintegrate consciously. To the degree a person gains mastery over their own Spectre, they are able to not succumb to the imprisoning of effect of the fallen world.

Shadows are similar to Spectres. They are the pale counterpart of an aspect of being, a powerless residue that is a passive form of its original. In this sense, the shadow is the outcome of the defeated person, similar to the classical Greek shade. Think zombie-brain couch-potato; a person who does not live out their full potential, having been suppressed and defeated.

Emanations are the female aspects of being. Blake’s human is ultimately (in their restored state) androgynous, as a harmonious blend of both male and female qualities. The female aspect – the Emanation – gives the capacity for relating, while the male aspect gives the capacity of creative will. Together the two form a mutual symbiosis of complete being. There are many Emanations in Blake’s cosmos, ranging from heavenly to diabolical; these either facilitate or hamper the freedom of the individual. The divine Emanation, Jerusalem, represents the freedom of genuine love, which is merciful, integrative, and liberating. Emanations can also become separated from their counterpart, which creates the experience of being in conflict with one’s environment, deceived, seduced, or afflicted by it in relation to one’s actions. This occurs because the Emanation provides the medium through which one’s surroundings are related to,  for the exercise of one’s creative will.

Eternals are the restored humans of Blake’s cosmos. They are free from the limitations of space and time, and can instead create their own space and time as they wish, in order to experience various realities. They are the creator, the ultimate artist – on par with God – rather than the created; they are subjects, not objects. They dwell in Eden, which is very different from the Biblical idea of Eden – being a state of perpetual striving in creative rapture and vision. From Eden, they may rest every so often in Beulah, the paradisaical dream realm, but from there is the risk that they may then fall into lower states if they become too immersed in the dreams they create and forget their eternal self. Yet it is also by this process that they may integrate the experiences of lesser states, and thereby grow in love and wisdom. Eventually, a fallen being is restored to Eternity, often by the help of other Eternals (which is the main plot of Blake’s magnum opus, Jerusalem). The Eternals are complete humans; those who have integrated the various aspects of themselves (mentioned above).

The reader who is familiar with Carl Jung is likely to notice some similarities (the anima, shadow etc.) with these aspects of the human which Blake described a century prior to Jung. Blake is not the only one to do this, of course, as he studied many earlier writers, including Jakob Böhme and Paracelsus. The vision which Blake presents revives (in part) a mode of thinking from the medieval era, while also drawing upon earlier influences, such as the Old Testament and British folklore. Yet it is not simply the past Blake sought; his work is also highly original, which is why he uses original names for many of his own characters. He was primarily an artist, even though his ideas appear mystical, philosophical, or traditional. Approaching his work as art, whether visual or poetic, is perhaps the best way to begin to enter into what initially appears obscure to the unfamiliar reader.

 

Notes:
1 – From ‘Milton (excerpts)/Book the First’, Wikisource: en.wikisource.org/wiki/Milton_%28excerpts%29/Book_the_First

 

Blake, Cultural Contrast, and the Cultivation of Eternity

William Blake despised the classical culture of Ancient Greece and Rome, even while adapting its ideas (such as Plato’s Ideal Forms). He considered these cultures the antithesis of real art, bringers of war, destroyers of humanity. Neither did Blake appreciate the ancient (pre-Christian) British culture for its elite priestly class, the druids, to which were attributed the many stone circles and other megalithic formations, but to Blake were in the business of human sacrifice and the maintenance of a tyrannical control over the populace. Along with classical and druid culture, Blake also places Deism in the same oppressive category.  Deism is somewhat of a hybrid of Christianity and Enlightenment science, where God created the world to operate under the laws of science and left it be with we humans in it.  Deism does not acknowledge revelation as a means of knowledge, but instead relies on empiricism and reason for understanding truth.

So these three – classicism, the druids, and the deists – are classified as natural religion to Blake because they isolate humanity within the mundane world. Now one may argue these are not so earthbound as Blake describes them as, but were Blake around these days, and were you to engage in debate with him, you’d not likely convince him otherwise. (And that’s okay, because the aim here is to understand Blake, not change his mind.) These cultures of natural religion are Blake’s main enemies throughout his oeuvre (painted with a broad and general brush). And here the term enemies is not too strong, since Blake was vehemently opposed to them and not afraid to say so. His mythos writes them throughout as in one way or another contributing to the negating void-state known as Ulro, which is a state of tyranny upon humankind, until humans wake from their spiritual sleep.

On the upside, Blake looks to the prophets of the Old Testament, to the Gothic-Christian monks who were the intellectual and spiritual torch-bearers for England during the Dark Ages (which Blake considered a culture of wisdom and true art), and to various individuals – inspired geniuses – such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Albrecht Dürer,  Shakespeare, and Jesus (on whom he has his own unorthodox views). It is such cultures and individuals which aid the restoration of a golden age.

This vision for a golden age was centred upon art. To Blake art was a spiritual practice. Considering he lived within a predominantly Christian society, his view was unorthodox: that the true Christian was an artist who exercised the imagination to restore the vision of eternity among human culture. He considered this vision to be universal, manifesting in select ways in different times, cultures, and individuals, but always originating in one divine humanity, which he called Poetic Genius. Humans who strived with their creative imagination could tap into this genius and reintegrate their being into eternity, as eternal artists of the imagination, thereby bringing creations of eternal forms, of art and science and wisdom, into the world, into earthly culture. Such a culture could restore on earth the completeness of human nature; the individual living as a balanced, complete human being; a harmonious integration of what Blake calls the Four Zoas in his mythos: Reason (Urizen), Imagination (Urthona), Sensuality (Tharmas), and Emotion/Energy (Luvah).

Blake saw this human connection (individually and culturally) with eternity, with Poetic Genius – the origin and ‘blueprint’ for human wholeness – as the normal state for humanity, from which many people, in his time, had fallen from. This normal, eternal state was no static paradise, but a continual striving in the work of the creative imagination; to discover, experience, explore, and express eternal art, science, and culture based upon wisdom.

Blake’s Jerusalem

I now enter into a study of William Blake’s epic poem, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion.

William Blake’s Jerusalem plate 1, c. 1804-1820.