No matter what difficulties he may have had with the Enlightenment discourse of liberty, Blake had no hesitation whatsoever in joining the radical attack on the patriarchal institutions of state religion and the political authority of the government: it is of course the established church where the little chimney sweeper’s parents “are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,/Who make up a heaven of our misery.”
This is where Jon Mee’s notion of Blake’s bricolage becomes essential to our understanding of his work. Even if in many important ways Paine could, and should, be configured as Blake’s philosophical and indeed political opponent, Blake rose to Paine’s defense against none other than the bishop of Llandaff himself. He did so privately, of course – for like Wordsworth he never published his attack on the bishop, though apparently unlike Wordsworth he withheld it not just from a simple practical fear of prosecution for seditious libel, but because “I have been commanded from Hell not to print this, as it is what our Enemies wish.”
However, Blake’s counterattack on state religion at a time when, he says, “the Beast & Whore rule without control” far transcends that of Paine and the advocates of liberty. Blake takes much more seriously than they do the continuity elaborated by the bishop of Llandaff between political and socio-economic order, and insists that a full critique of the behavioural codes imposed by “manuscript-assumed authority” and autocratic power would have to take on economic, religious, philosophical, and political issues at once. To Watson’s assertion in defence of class hierarchy that “God made both Rich and Poor,” Blake writes, “God made man happy & Rich, but the Subtil made the innocent, Poor. This must be a most wicked & blasphemous book.”
Indeed, the great significance of Blake’s annotations to Watson is not the fact, occasionally remarked upon by scholars (including Thompson) that Blake finds “Tom Paine is a better Christian than the Bishop,” but rather the sheer scale of Blake’s critique of authority, governmentality, and the moral virtues in these woefully under-read notations. What the annotations confirm is that the continual reiteration of the formula for patriarchal power, “God & Priest & King,” which occurs throughout Blake’s work as the signifier of autocratic authority, is a denunciation of the power of authoritarian discipline and behavioural codes in any form, and not merely the highly restricted and narrowly conceived state-political authority of aristocratic government which was the target of the advocates of liberty.
For Blake’s withering attack on the bishop of Llandaff – which he regarded with the utmost seriousness not as one of life’s “trifles, sports of time,” but rather as the “business of Eternity” – is a denunciation of the logic of disciplinary necessity and moral virtue as such, and a rejection of the dictatorial imposition of this logic in any of its forms, as well as an assault on the authority of written codes and manuscript authority. It is, in short, an attack on cruelty itself, cruelty understood, in Blake’s terms, as the enforcement of disciplinary necessity and moral virtue according to behavioural codes – including the very kinds of codes that so animated the hegemonic form of radicalism.
In Blake’s account the ultimate such code is of course the moral law of the Old Testament. “All Penal Laws court Transgression & therefore are cruelty & Murder,” writes Blake; “The laws of the Jews were (both ceremonial & real) the basest & most oppressive of human codes, & being like all other codes given under pretence of divine command were what Christ pronounced them, The Abomination that maketh desolate, i.e., State Religion, which is the source of all Cruelty.” The moral law and commandments of the Old Testament here become the basic forms of state religion and are seen to provide a basis for all other behavioural and penal codes as well as codes of moral behaviour and superiority over others. State religion and the state itself may, in narrowly political terms, serve as the practical limit for the enforcement of disciplinary necessity in any form; but the moral law of the Old Testament serves as a kind of ultimate disciplinary horizon, a master source for all forms of cruelty.
The realm of state politics – the realm in which the advocates of liberty were interested to the exclusion of any and all other considerations – is superseded in Blake’s critique of authority by his elaboration of a disciplinary network of commandment and obedience that is simply not reducible to questions of taxation and representation (in which Blake was not particularly interested). Hence, from Blake’s standpoint, a critique of state politics that does not confront the broader issue of disciplinary necessity, moral virtue, and the logic of commandment in a broader sense – including an economic sense – misses the point.
Moreover, a narrow critique of state politics in isolation from the network of disciplinary necessity and moral virtues with which it is tied up is doomed to failure precisely by virtue of its limited scope. If Blake agrees with Paine that “The Bible is all a State Trick, thro’ which tho’ the people at all times could see, they never had the Power to throw off,” one reason they never had the power to throw it off is that this “state trick” and the other repressive apparatuses of government are tied up with networks of coercion and disciplinarity – moral, religious, sexual, economic – that both constitute them and are reciprocally constituted by them in turn.
Even if the state forms a central node in the network of oppression, it cannot be successfully challenged on its own or in isolation from the rest of the network, which ties together other areas of life and work beyond that of the state. For Blake, as we have seen, the binding and limiting “finite forms of existence” inhabiting the state are the products of social and legal institutions (hospitals, churches, palaces); abolishing or reforming the state while leaving those finite forms intact does nothing to achieve freedom, which in Blake’s terms must be a freedom into the infinite, and away from the finitude of the “world of loneness.”
Moreover, the logic of disciplinary authority and of unalterable commandment is in Blake’s critique also the logic of the sovereign text. The definitive and unalterable – the reified – text lies in this sense at the heart of the network of disciplinary control. That Blake seeks to undermine the sovereignty of the text, and indeed sovereignty as such, can in this context no longer amount simply to a certain playfulness with words, but must also be recognised as a profoundly political activity.
“To me, who believe the Bible & profess myself a Christian,” Blake declares, “a defence of the Wickedness of the Israelites in murdering so many thousands under pretence of a command from God is altogether Abominable & Blasphemous.”
In reading Blake’s annotations to Watson, it is absolutely essential to bear in mind that Blake’s attack on state religion and on the invocation of divine right is, as Michael Ferber has suggested, an attack made in simultaneously religious, political, and philosophical terms. If we do not keep this in mind, we will, I believe, be unable to understand either Blake’s political beliefs or his religious ones, which are, it turns out, much more difficult to separate than much of the scholarship from the past five decades has led us to believe (indeed, Jackie DiSilvio’s study of Blake and the politics of religion makes this linkage especially clear, along with the ways in which Blake distances himself from the rather anti-plebeian politics of Milton).
The bishop of Llandaff draws Blake’s fire for his defence of political and military oppression as well as his defence of economic and moralistic dogmatism, both of which are incompatible with Blake’s own sense of his faith.
If Christ “died as an unbeliever,” it was, according to Blake, not because he lacked the kind of love that would animate the gospel, but because he refused to believe in the moral law and the commandments of God. “Was not Christ murder’d,” Blake writes, “because he taught that God loved all Men & was their father & forbad all contention for Worldly prosperity?” The operative contrast here, as in much – perhaps all – of Blake’s work, is between the iron codes of disciplinary cruelty and a deep and abiding faith in that love which cancels out selfhood (this is not the self-love of Paine and Volley), as well as in the everlasting gospel.
Ultimately, the gap between Bishop Watson’s decree that “God made both Rich and Poor” and Blake’s insistence that “God made Man happy and Rich,” signifies not only the distance between Blake and the established order, but also the yawning abyss between his position and that of the hegemonic liberal-radical tendency, with its strident emphasis on the moral virtue and moral superiority of the manly citizen.
Blake’s stress on love community, forgiveness, and freedom, his revulsion at “contention for Worldy prosperity,” is radically inconsistent with many of the liberal-radicals’ deep and abiding faith in the necessity of free competition on an open market (open both to competition and to the whole world), the exercise of moral virtue over dominated others, and the consequent persistence of a class hierarchy based on the accumulation of private property.
Even more important, however, we can find in Blake’s work an explicit renunciation of both the political oppression generated by the ancient régime and the economic oppression of the logic of the free market and commerce and its attendant discourse of the disciplinary necessity of labour. These were together beginning their rise to worldwide dominance in the 1790s as some of the radical arguments driving Paine and Thelwall reached their full fruition in the work of people like Malthus and Bentham, who, as Dickinson points out, would inspire the philosophical and political radicals of the nineteenth century.
Against such tendencies in radicalism, antinomianism comes to name not a particular religious belief as such but rather a plebeian cultural and political refusal of subordination. Blake’s faith gave him a standpoint from which to challenge not only the advocates of the landed aristocratic government, but also the cultural and political beliefs of the hegemonic liberal-radicalism. Blake’s most important criticisms – simultaneously and inextricably religious, poltiical, economic, philosophical, conceptual, and material – were levelled not only at an actually ruling class, but at a future ruling class; not only at a current mode of production, but at a future mode of production which was in the 1790s in its infancy; not only at the reactionary defenders of the state religion, but at the radicals who espoused the sacred cause of individual liberty.
Blake would define a form of freedom that went far beyond the notion of liberty celebrated by Paine. This is a form of freedom incompatible with restriction and confinement of any kind, especially the confinement marked by individual identity. Any attempt to restrict, contain, define, identify, is incompatible with this notion of freedom. Blake, in other words, searches for a notion of freedom for which even individual selfhood can be seen as punishing and as restrictive as any other kind of disciplinary incarceration.
This is an excerpt from Saree Makdisi’s classic work on Blake’s radical milieu, William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s, which explores how Blake questioned and even subverted the commercial, consumerist, and political liberties that his contemporaries championed, all while developing his own radical aesthetic. To buy the book please click here.