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.

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, with the ensuring celebrations gradually deteriorating. 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’s work 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.