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.

Inspiration and Memory

If something is to stand up to scrutiny then it must be rigorous from as many angles as possible. This is the idea behind tradition: things stick around because they can endure the test of time. And what is this test? Well that depends what something is subjected to, what differing perspectives a thing is exposed to, placed into dialogue or debate with. I am referring to intellectual structures here: opinions, ideas, ideologies, philosophies, symbols, and the traditions that (slowly) grow from these. Something becomes a tradition when enough people see the value in it to invest their energy in it over time, and it is not eroded by neglect, or destroyed by countering points of view, and so on.

Within academia, there are traditions, a variety of them, and academia itself is a tradition. Living traditions are both preserved and evolving; they are not static things, but it is important that they keep a memory of their roots alive within them, a continuity, to enable their full power.

William Blake wrote of the Daughters of Memory and the Daughters of Inspiration. These are both types of the Muse. The Daughters of Memory are the sustainers of tradition,  the Daughters of Inspiration renew tradition. Blake equated the Daughters of Memory with the Classical tradition of Ancient Greece and Rome. He attributed the Daughters of Inspiration to the Hebraic tradition, which he placed more value in, because it arose from the inspiration of divine prophecy; that is, tradition renewed from the imagination, not solely carried through time via memory. Blake saw memory as dead and imagination as alive.

This same pair is found within us individually. Our memory sustains our identity across our lives, yet if we only had memory and no fresh input into our lives, what would we be? Dead is one way to symbolise such a state. The other extreme, of being entirely inspiration and no memory, certainly seems a more alive state – though this is too alive, an inspired presence without any trail of memory, a kind of psychosis. There needs to be a balance; our identity must have continuity over time, but not to the point of stagnation in Time. We also need to receive a degree of influx from beyond the circuits of what we already know. We need the new and the old, in a dynamic and constructive harmony.

Blake, William. Elohim Creating Adam. 1795. Tate Britain, London.

Returning to tradition, which is the memory of culture, we can see that throughout history there has always been the struggle between preserving tradition and renewing it; between defending it and ending it; between the old and the new. Where this is balanced – that happy medium has enabled both cultural stability and creative development – then society can flourish. Yet where people adopt a one-sided stance, and it really does not matter which side they stand on, then others will feel compelled to disagree and adopt the opposing stance.  You become a stance, rather than a representation of all that a human can be. It is like if you’re in a row-boat with another person. If you stand to one side, the boat tips up, so then the other person needs to take the other side to balance it again. There is a distortion in the craft when this tipping game occurs, and many problems ensure when this game becomes the focus, rather than focusing on the best way to move forward – and who can agree on what is best anyway? Perhaps there is a natural balancing mechanism in humanity; perhaps we need dynamic differences amongst us in order to thrive, rather than the bland agreement of sameness.

All of this becomes very complex, but at the same time, ideas such as the drama between memory and inspiration which William Blake writes about become points of meta-focus. They enable us to look at the dynamics of ourselves, our relationships, the world and its history, and the lives of other people from a much more sophisticated position. This is not saying you have to agree with Blake, or anyone for that matter – you can form your own conclusions – but without ever examining these kinds of things, we may simply remain closed without realising it,  a person who is only to “see all things thro’ narrow chinks of his[ or her] cavern.”1 That cavern is our memory, and the light that enters it is inspiration. To find the balance here between the two is no simple thing. What is wonderful about this is that in life, in every moment, we face this choice. If we can only realise this.


1 – William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 14.