Blake and the Spiritual Body, by Northrop Frye

Awakening from the Material Body

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The central idea of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to put it crudely, is that the unrest which has produced the French and American revolutions indicates that the end of the world might come at any time. The end of the world, the apocalypse, is the objective counterpart of the resurrection of man, his return to the titanic bodily form he originally possessed. When we say that man has fallen, we mean that his soul has collapsed into the form of the body in which he now exists.

Hence, while no one could be less of an ascetic than Blake, the premise from which the ascetic starts is also his. The fallen body is “vile” (Marginalia to Wordsworth): it is the body of a peeled ape, a witch’s cauldron of tangled tissues and sodden excrement cooking in blood. This is as true of the nightingale as it is of the vulture, and as true of the tender virgin as it is of the gorilla. The physical nausea so painfully developed in Swift is an example of a soul’s disgusted reaction to its degraded state. But where the ascetics go wrong is in forgetting that all mental activity is also a bodily struggle, because based on sense experience. The prophecies resound with bitter complaints of the inadequacy of the body, of the impotence of the eye to see and of the nose to smell, but the moral in Blake is that the body is weak enough already without trying to split it in two. Now we cannot by taking thought add a cubit to our statutes; it is a change of worlds that is necessary, the lifting of the whole body to a fully imaginative plane by getting rid of the natural man.

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“The relation of soul to body is that of an oak to an acorn, not of a genie to a bottle”. There is no ‘Spirit in the Machine’, because there is no Machine

The transformation of the body into a spiritual substance is the Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection. Job puts this doctrine in the form of its essential paradox: “And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” There is no soul imprisoned within the body evaporating at death, but a living man armed with all the powers of his present body infinitely expanded. The relation of soul to body is that of an oak to an acorn, not of a genie to a bottle.

And there are no natural laws which the risen body must obey and no compulsory categories by which it must perceive. It is impossible to picture this except in terms of what we now see, and providing angels with wings is about as far as we can get. As Blake says, “From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth”; and we have no idea how many imaginative powers we do not 225px-TNNR_Series_a_Plate_6_(III)possess. But Jesus, says Paul:

shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself. (Phil. iii, 21.)

Esse est percipi, and because we perceive on the level of this body we see an independent nature in a looming and sinister perspective. We are still living in an age of giant stars just as the ants are still living in an age of giant ferns; the natural man is a mole, and all our mountains are his molehills. In the resurrection of the body the physical universe would take the form in which it would be perceived by the risen body, and the risen body would perceive it in the form of Paradise.


A long way to go: how reality appears to the fallen senses

The complete conquest of nature implied by the words “resurrection” and “apocalypse” is a mystery bound up with the end of time, but not with death. When the Selfhood is asked what it wants to do, it can only answer, with the Sibyl in Petronius, that it wants to die, and it thinks of death as a resolution. To the imagination physical death isolates the part that lives in the spiritual world; but as that world is the real here and the real now, we do not have to wait to die to live in it. “Whenever any Individual Rejects Error & Embraces Truth, a Last Judgment passes upon that Individual” (Blake, Vision of the Last Judgment). Similarly, the apocalypse could occur at any time in history if men wanted it badly enough to stop playing their silly game of hide-and-seek with nature.

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“Visionaries, artists, prophets and martyrs all live as though an apocalypse were around the corner”

Visionaries, artists, prophets and martyrs all live as though an apocalypse were around the corner, and without this sense of a potentially imminent crisis imagination loses most of its driving power. The expectation of a Last Judgment in the New Testament does not mean that the Christians of that time were victims of a mass delusion or that they were hypnotizing themselves in order to nerve themselves for martyrdom, but that they saw the physical as precariously balanced on the mental cowardice of man. And when Blake and Milton elaborate theories of history suggesting that time is reaching its final crisis during their own lives, they are only doing what Jesus did before them.

The resurrection of the body means the resurrection of all the body and as the physical body has a sexual origin, the sexual life, Blake says, becomes a human one, which means that sex is transformed, not eliminated. In eternity, Blake remarks dryly:

Embraces are Cominglings from the Head even to the Feet,

And not a pompous High Priest entering by a Secret Place. (Jerusalem).

That is why in the Bible the apocalypse is often referred to as a wedding, a union in love in which the relation of man to nature becomes the relation of the lover to the beloved, the Bridegroom to the Bride. And as the Bride in Blake is Jerusalem, a city in Eden and a “married land” in Beulah, it is in Beulah that the sexual aspect of life becomes fulfilled. But Beulah is the state of existence directly above our own, hence the apocalypse will begin by “an improvement of sensual enjoyment” (MHH)—Blake uses the adjective deliberately.

MHH Plate 14, Blake (1)

And as the risen body perceives the new world the old one perishes in flames. Why flames? Because fire is the greatest possible combination in this world of heat and light, and the risen body lives in the greatest possible combination of the spiritual forms of heat and light: energy or desire, and reason or vision. Fire destroys the solid form of nature, and those who have believed nature to be solid will find themselves in a lake of fire at the Dies Irae. But the imagination cannot be consumed by fire, for it is fire; the burning bush of God which never exhausts its material. It is this fire that “delights in its form” (Blake, French Revolution).

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every act of imagination is a consummation

The word “consummation,” often applied to the apocalypse, refers both to the burning world and the sacred marriage. Paradise itself is a place of flaming fire, the fires being the “lustful” passions which there are fully gratified. They are also “thought-creating fires” because gratified desire produces reason. Eden is a fiery city, as is indicated in Ezekiel’s speech to the Covering Cherub: “Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God … thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire.” Similarly the three whom Nebuchadnezzar put into a fiery furnace were seen to be walking unhurt in the fire with the Son of God.

Since the Fall, there has been a flaming sword over Paradise, and fire is now something to be approached with more circumspection. Orthodox theology tells us that in the eternal world the fires of hell have heat without light, and that heaven is a blaze of golden light, the question of heat being slurred over. Remembering that passion and desire are spiritual heat, such doctrines tell us symbolically that desires are hellish and that we shall be tortured forever for having them, whereas those who have emasculated their passions will be admitted to a heaven in which the kind of divine love they enjoy, while its exact nature unknown, is certain to be something very, very pure.

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‘And stay out!’ The church, having severed the rational, pure head from the desire-filled body, has effectively excluded itself from the garden of ‘sensual enjoyment’

Like forest animals, the orthodox have a fascinated horror of fire and its torments, and when we come down to the skeptical obscurantism of the “new philosophy” “the element of fire is quite put out” (Donne, An Anatomie of the World). What is coming is the union of heat and light, a marriage of heaven and hell. By “hell” Blake means an upsurge of desire and passion within the rising body so great that it will destroy the present starry heaven, and he calls it “hell” because that is what the orthodox call it. Here Blake’s meaning has been misunderstood, and deserves more explanation.

Everything that furthers and increases the creative life is really good. The growth of creative energy is the tree of life which enables men to attain an eternal existence. Whatever is pleasing to society, whatever is cautious, prudent and undistinguished, or else vicious and cruel if society happens to be feeling that way, is morally good. The growth of morality is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil which leads to death. The former is the gospel; the latter the “law” under which all non-Christians, and most of the nominal Christians, live. Michael explains to Adam in Paradise Lost that it is the business of the law to discover sin rather than remove it.

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the judgmental left brain is more interested in gambling with concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ than paying attention to the transformation that’s actually going on behind it

Moral good and moral evil do not represent any genuine opposition. The one wages wars and executes criminals; the other murders. The one exploits labor; the other robs. The one establishes marriage on the destruction virginity; the other rapes. But they have a common enemy, the power of genius and prophecy. In terms of moral good it is not the murderer or the robber but the prophet who is really evil. Barabbas may be safely released, for it is impossible that his robberies can destroy the social structure of Pilate and Caiaphas; but there is deadly danger in Jesus and John the Baptist, who must be got rid of at all costs.

That is why no one can be saved by moral virtue. But it does not follow that Barabbas is in a higher imaginative state than Caiaphas. This takes us back by another road to our distinction of contrary and negation. The criminal is not the contrary but the negation of the morally good man; he breaks the law, but he has no gospel. And though the prophet is regarded by society as a devil or messenger from hell, he never practises the vice of “hindering another.” There is much that is really good in moral good: the prophet is concerned only to disentangle it from the easy virtue of moral cowardice.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, therefore, has nothing to do with the simple inversion of moral good and evil which is known as sadism, and which forms an important aspect of Romantic culture. This is a traditional error in the interpretation of Blake, and one which ignores the fact that Blake attaches two meanings to the word “hell,” one real and the other ironic. There is a real hell in the human mind, and it achieves the physical form of dungeons, whips, racks and all the miserable panoply of fear. Such a hell consolidates a moral virtue founded on terror with a moral evil founded on cruelty, and it exists because it is believed to be a part of “necessity.” The more degenerate the society, the more obvious this alliance of moral good and evil against the power of genius becomes.

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“There is a real hell in the human mind”: Blake’s depiction of Cain, tormented by his act of violence

Those who know better can see that, as evil is a negation, this hell would be, in the spiritual world, nothingness, a monstrous multiple of zero. No one could go on living in it after the Last judgment, because no one can exist in a state of nonexistence, the postapocalyptic hell of unending torment being, like the fallen sun, “a phantasy of evil Man.” Whatever foreshadows the Last judgment thus foreshadows the annihilation of hell, and of the believers in it who are negations, “the Elect from before the foundation of the world,” and can have no existence after those foundations have disappeared. Hence for these “Elect” anything which makes persecution and oppression seem less “necessary,” that is, any blow struck for human freedom, is their hell, and the announcement of a new hope, a new courage, a new faith and a new vision is, to them, “the voice of the devil”. The darkness does not comprehend the light; evil spirits fade on the crowing of the cock, and from their point of view it is the cock that is the evil spirit, the herald of the light which afflicts them with the “frantic pain” of the spirit in the “Mad Song.”

abel.a.p1.100We have more definite evidence for the same point in The Ghost of Abel, which is addressed to Byron and is apparently conceived as an answer to that poet’s Cain. Cain is provided by Byron with a great deal of imaginative vision. He knows that the tyrant of the sky who demands docility is unworthy of worship, for if Adam had ignorance Jehovah had malice. He knows that his true enemy is death, and suspects that the flaming sword before Paradise has something to do with death. With the aid of Lucifer he journeys into previous worlds far older than Adam of “past leviathans” and a Golden Age of “intelligent, good, great, and glorious things,” returning to the earth dizzy with a star-dazzled enlightenment.

In the course of the journey Lucifer has dropped the suggestion that “it may be death leads to the highest knowledge,” which links itself at once with Cain’s own feeling that the understanding of death is his own ultimate victory—in other words, with the converse principle that the highest knowledge leads to death. It is from this that the state of mind develops which prompts him to murder Abel. Blake’s conception of Byron’s meaning is, apparently, that imaginative vision has something diabolic attached to it, and that the visionary is not only doomed to be an outcast and an exile, but that even crime may well be an inseparable part of a genius above the law, as illustrated in a murder which was the product of an intellectual awakening.

The Ghost of Abel makes the point that murder cannot be part of genius but is always part of morality, and that genius must break with virtue and vice alike. It is “bad” to commit a murder: granted, but it does not thereby become “good” to murder the murderer. That is the monotonous pendulum of revenge which goes on ticking all through history. Abel worshiped a “good” God who wanted sheep murdered; Cain in killing him was sacrificing to a “bad” God who wanted human beings murdered. But both were the same God, and that God Satan, who makes all his virtue out of necessity. Both Cain’s murderousness and Abel’s desire for revenge encourage this Satan to proclaim, in a parody of the Biblical account, that human blood is more acceptable to him than the blood of animals. The true God descends at once and sets a mark on Cain to prevent the meaningless counteraction of “bad” crime and “good” punishment from going any further.

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the concept of ‘good’ cannot exist without the concept of ‘evil’, and both damn us into the cycle of revenge and the satisfaction of being ‘holier than thou’

All philosophies founded on sense experience are founded on a timid fear of expanding the powers of the mind, which uses the senses. All life lived on such principles takes caution and fear to be cardinal virtues. That is why “reason” in the bad sense is the same thing as morality. Here again we see that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell belongs in the tradition of great satire. A Tale of a Tub shows us how the official theologies of Christianity are all rationalizings directed to one end, the end of getting along with a fallen world, and of achieving as much Selfhood domination in it as possible. In other words, it makes the identification of reasoning and moral virtue complete. The next step is for Swift to add to this portrayal of the intellectual and moral degradation of man, a physical degradation. The body is the form of the soul, and the degraded soul is the filthy and nauseating aspect of the body. The Yahoo, therefore, is man presented wholly in terms of his fall, and represents a conception of that fall not greatly different from the one set forth in Blake.

The Soul Hovering over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life c.1805 William Blake 1757-1827 Bequeathed by Sir Hugh Walpole 1941

” The body is the form of the soul”: therefore the way we see our body reflects the form of our soul. (Blake, ‘The Soul Hovering over the Body’)

Satire is an acid that corrodes everything it touches, and Blake saw in the acid bath he gave his engravings a symbol of his approach:

blake_acid (1)But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.

This implies that condemnation is only part of the satirist’s work: his attack on the evil and foolish merely allows what he reveals to stand out in bolder relief. The satirist who does nothing but watch people make fools of themselves is simply pouring acid all over the plate, and achieves only a featureless disintegration. But the great satirist is an apocalyptic visionary like every other great artist, if only by implication, for his caricature leads us irresistibly away from the passive assumption that the unorganized data of sense experience are reliable and consistent, and afford the only means of contact with reality.

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“printing in the infernal method, by corrosives” – one of Blake’s copperplates on which the salutary corrosives were poured, to reveal the image

Satirists often give to life a logical and self-consistent shift of perspective, showing mankind in a telescope as wriggling Lilliputians, in a microscope as stinking Brobdingnagians, or through the eyes of an ass, like Apuleius, or a drunk, like Petronius. In satire like this the reality of sense experience turns out to be merely a series of customary associations. And in Rabelais, where huge creatures rear up and tear themselves out of Paris and Touraine, bellowing for drink and women, combing cannon balls out of their hair, eating six pilgrims in a salad, excreting like dinosaurs and copulating like the ancient sons of God who made free with the daughters of men, we come perhaps closest of all to what Blake meant by the resurrection of the body. Rabelais’ characters are what Blake called his, “Giant forms,” and they are the horsemen who ride over the earth in the day of the trumpet and alarm, where we, in our sublunary world, see nothing but anguish and death:

The enemies, after that they were awaked, seeing on one side the fire in the camp, and on the other the inundation of the urinal deluge, could not tell what to say, nor what to think. Some said, that it was the end of the world, and the final judgment, which ought to be by fire (Rabelais, 11, xxviii ).

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, with its blistering ridicule of the wisdom that dwells with prudence, with its rowdy guffaws at the doctrines of a torturing hell and a boring heaven which are taught by cowards to dupes, is perhaps the epilogue to the golden age of English satire. It has been said that in Blake’s “To the Muses” the eighteenth century dies to music. The eighteenth century was a little too healthy to expire in any such trifle, and perhaps it would be better to say that in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell the age of Swift and Sterne and Fielding and Hogarth plunges into a vigorous Beethovenish coda which, though organically related to what has gone before, contains much new material and is big with portents of the movements to follow.

Northrop Frye was an eminent Canadian literary critic and literary theorist, considered to be one of the most influential of the 20th century. The article above is taken from his remarkable study of Blake, Fearful Symmetry (1947), one of the greatest interpretations of Blake’s works ever written. 



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