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.

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.

The Fourfold Universe

William Blake’s world-view appears to be quite unique, not in every aspect, but for the most part. Much has been written about his work, and many connections have been drawn to other sources – Neoplatonism, the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Milton, among others. Blake typically renders new ideas from traditional sources, and the resemblance is reduced. Then there are those he opposed, often quite strongly, such as Locke, Bacon, Newton, and Joshua Reynolds, who indirectly did their part to form his ideas. Yet Blake claims much of his work to come from a higher source, as though divinely inspired, such as in his writing about his magnum opus, Jerusalem:

I have written this Poem from immediate Dictation twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time without Premeditation & even against my Will. the Time it has taken in writing was thus renderd Non Existent. & an immense Poem Exists which seems to be the Labour of a long Life all producd without Labour or Study.

– William Blake in a letter to Thomas Butts, 25 April 18031

Does one call this poetic inspiration, automatic writing, or perhaps even divine channeling? The answer to this really depends what one means by these terms. I won’t go into this topic here, but instead return to my opening statement on the uniqueness of Blake’s world-view, and outline an aspect of that.

Four States of Vision

Many times Blake writes of four states of vision in describing his cosmo-psychology. The four states of Blake’s system are both states of human experience and worlds in themselves.

The highest state is that of fourfold vision, which is synonymous with the complete awareness of Eternity and Infinity. This is why it is the highest state. Fourfold vision is possible, Blake writes throughout his works, through the complete integration of the human being in Divine Imagination, which is the true human nature. Such a human is limited only by the limits they consciously apply to their own experiences. This is the creativity of the artist par excellence, with the universe and self as limitless canvas. Blake calls this state Eden.

Yet as most of us experience, we are not in this state. The capacity required for such a state is great, and most of us certainly fall short of this on many levels: emotionally, in our ideas of the world, in terms of character, and in our capacity to withstand the energy of sublime experiences. Blake declares that as humans we are closed up in narrowness, not living our full potential. This reduction is described through three progressively less-complete states.

I will start with the lowest, onefold vision. This is the completely myopic state of consciousness, where there is only one truth (one’s own perspective, obviously) and that truth is selfishly centred on using the world for one’s own gain and expansion of power. Onefold vision is a state of exclusive rationality, dominating over all other human faculties, leaving the mind cold, hard, and calculating – it reflects the extreme Newtonian mechanical universe; without life beyond mechanism, without heart or spirit. This is a state of blind narcissism and isolation from relationship. Onefold vision is called Ulro.

The next state, Twofold vision is the world of animal instinct. It is nature in its struggle for survival. In twofold vision, oppositions are in conflict. This is very much the struggle of human beings in the world, where things are gained and lost, where there is suffering followed by joy followed by suffering again, where winter is too cold and summer is too hot. It is a realm of passion and conflicting energies. Creation is possible but then destruction is inevitable. Obviously there can be no peace from here. Twofold vision is named Generation.

The state of threefold vision appears as a paradise compared to these previous two, though it is not the ultimate state. Threefold vision is where opposites attain to a state of balance, they become equal, and so loving relationship can ensure. Threefold vision is a pleasant paradise, a restful place of delights. But it is a state of sleepy delights; desire is fulfilled, pleasure, restfulness and contentment are natural, but there is nothing more than this. Blake calls this state Beulah.

Beulah is not the ultimate because it is constrained by pleasant conditions. And much like a good childhood, it is a sheltered paradise, sheltered from the various energies of wider experience. The difference then between threefold and fourfold vision is that fourfold vision contains threefold vision (innocence), but also twofold vision (experience) and onefold vision (rationality), whereas threefold vision cannot handle twofold or onefold states. A child in their innocence is peaceful in a pleasant garden but not so in a war-zone, for example, unless they are a remarkable child. Threefold vision is not complete.

Fourfold vision is the complete integration of the human being, which is the integration of all lower states. From the state of fourfold vision, all that can be possibly conceived by the Imagination can become reality. If you think about this, this can be a terrifying thought, particularly if you are not ready for what your own Imagination might came up with. So the human of fourfold vision, which is Eternal Man (the term man refers to the species, being gender inclusive), must be capable of withstanding such experiences. Fourfold vision is the capacity for all experience, an awareness that is boundless and undaunted by that boundlessness. Another way to say this is that fourfold vision is Heaven, Hell, and Earth as one – it is the human capacity for Infinity and its endless exploration. This is Blake’s equivalent of God, for to Blake, Humanity is God through their Divine Imagination.

That is a brief outline of Blake’s fourfold cosmo-psychology.

 

Notes:
1 – From a letter written to Thomas Butts, 25 April 1803. Keynes, Geoffrey, The Letters of William Blake, Macmillan 1956, p. 83, archive.org/stream/lettersofwilliam002199mbp/lettersofwilliam002199mbp_djvu.txt.