Among all the published opinions about things that influenced Blake, I have seen only a few discussions of his treatment of scientific ideas, mainly his rejections of Newton’s mathematical and physical assumptions, and very few comments on Blake’s position on the major philosophical controversies of his time.
A biologist, Jacob Bronowski, wrote a book about Blake, but Bronowski’s own biological, historical, and linguistic ideas were relatively conventional. Even though Blake’s work is full of images from biology, the critics ignore the fact that Emanuel Swedenborg published very advanced biological research in the middle of the 18th century, and that Erasmus Darwin [the grandfather of Charles] was known for presenting his ideas on biological evolution in poetry (especially Zoonomia).
The title of Blake’s book, The Four Zoas, has apparently never led scholars to ask whether it had anything in common with Zoonomia. Even though Blake made many disparaging remarks about Swedenborg’s religious books, many people have claimed that Blake was influenced by Swedenborg’s religious doctrines, while ignoring the possible influence of the scientific work.
Although the idea that “contradiction produces change” is associated with Hegel’s “Dialectic,” it was an old and well-known theme in philosophy. When Blake’s idea, that “without Contraries there is no progression,” is seen in context, I think it is appropriate to think that to a great extent, Blake derived the idea from a consideration of the sexes.
“Generation,” so often discussed in relation to the biblical “fall of man,” always leads to the issue of the productive interaction of the sexual contraries. The issue of sexual love permeates Blake’s work. I suspect that Blake produced even more explicitly sexual work, but since most of his work wasn’t really published, when his wife died in 1831, the bulk of his manuscripts and paintings were subject to the whims of their unsophisticated owners. But on the basis of his existing work, it is reasonable to say that sexual and imaginative energy was the motor that Blake saw producing intellectual advancement.
This male-female principle of change was more fully explored by Blake than by anyone previously, since he made it concrete and personal, rather than abstract. Working in history, human energy ran into the constrictive, limiting elements, the tyrannies of policy, philosophy, and commerce. For Blake, the interaction of energy with those limits became a philosophy of freedom and revolution.
While Blake discussed the importance of perception in understanding the world, he was remarkable in the care he took to make it clear that he saw the world “all alive,” in which grains of dust or sand, birds, worms, ants, flies, etc., perceived and experienced in ways that were not different from those of human life. Bishop Berkeley, who said that the material world outside the philosopher’s mind doesn’t exist, added as an afterthought that it exists in the mind of God.
If consciousness is the only guarantee of existence, there was no problem in the existence of Blake’s world, in which everything was alive and conscious.
The Tyger Lamb
Everyone finds it almost obligatory to describe ‘The Lamb’ as a symbol for Jesus, but then they find the Tyger’s symbolic meaning more problematic, and—from Coleridge in the early 19th century down to the newest publications at the end of the 20th century—people are boggled by the “obscurity” of ‘The Fly’. But in that poem, Blake makes it clear that there is no obscure symbolism, when he says “then am I a happy fly, if I live or if I die,” etc. The animal poems are expressions of Blake’s evolutionary, vitalistic, cosmology. The tyger, at least, would be too much for a creationist doctrine to handle. If worms and flies and ants are conscious and in the same situation as human beings, the bonds of sympathy and forgiveness are universal.
In a world that’s alive and developing, new knowledge is always possible, and imagination has the prophetic function of reporting the trends and processes of development, illuminating the paths toward the future. Reason is subordinate to invention and discovery.
The dualistic conception of matter as distinct from energy and consciousness is a constrictive illusion put in place by the forces of empire, and the living reality would be freed from the inert husks of the wrongly-conceived natural world, when in the future the world was freed of tyranny. After Blake, it would be nearly another century before others would see that the crude materialism of Newton and the Natural Philosophers was essentially a life-denying culmination of the worst trends of official religious dogma.
Old Nobodaddy: The orthodox God
A complete survey of Blake’s references to Christianity would be voluminous, and not all of them are immediately clear, and require a careful placing in the context of the ideas that were being discussed in London at that time. But it’s hard to reconcile the common description of him as a mystic with his reference to “Old Nobodaddy aloft,” or with his comment that Jehovah gives us a knock on the head, and Jesus soothes it.
He always defines god in human terms, so from the conventional viewpoint, he would probably be considered as an atheist or pantheist, but he didn’t describe himself or his friends as atheists. When people called Tom Paine an atheist, Blake defended him against the charge. Other friends, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, were sometimes called atheists, but in their writings, they never expressed very unconventional religious ideas. When we recall that in the early 1990s, George Bush expressed the idea that atheism should be illegal, it is easy to imagine that people in 18th century England wouldn’t have felt that it was safe to be called atheists.
In 1803, Blake apparently said something like “damn the king,” while getting a drunk soldier out of his yard, and was tried for sedition or treason. He was acquitted, because his far more scurrilous written comments hadn’t been published, and it didn’t occur to the government to look for documentary evidence to support their case. The fact that he printed his own work, and sold only a few copies of his books to affluent friends, probably saved his life, but it accounts for his obscurity during his own lifetime.
Tom Paine’s writing was published and widely read in pre-revolutionary America, but he was considered a criminal in England, and Blake was credited with saving his life by helping him escape to France. Politically and ethically, Blake’s writing is similar to that of Paine, Godwin, and Wollstonecraft (often called the “first feminist”), but his language is usually more vivid. It was probably the clarity of his political opposition that made his work unpublishable during his lifetime. The first “complete” collection of his work was published in 1927, and until that year, very few people had seen more than a few of his most famous poems.
Blake printed his work by hand, without a press, by writing the text backwards on copper plates, surrounded by his drawings, and then etching away the surrounding copper, so that the image remained elevated, and could be inked and printed as if it were a wood-block. If he hadn’t devised this method for printing a few copies of his books, it isn’t likely that much of the work would have survived.
Shortly after the French Revolution, William Wordsworth was associated with the Blake-Wollstonecraft-Godwin group’s defense of the revolution, but he moved away from the ideals of that group, and adopted more socially acceptable ideas. He finally became England’s poet laureate. Liberty, equality, and brotherhood were replaced by blandly conformist ideas.
The type of individualism that Wordsworth came to advocate was interesting because it was a rejection of exactly that part of Blake’s belief that Blake considered to be the essence of Christianity, namely, forgiveness, brotherhood, and bonds of sympathy connecting all beings. In its place, Wordsworth adopted a memory-centered doctrine. During Wordsworth’s lifetime, his ideology was exceedingly successful, but its rationalistic overtones have kept it tied to the past; it had nothing to offer the future. I think we can get some insight into Wordsworth’s mind by considering that, on the basis of reading Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, he decided that they were written by an insane person. (Blake was aware that slow-witted people, who couldn’t follow unconventional thoughts, often considered him to be crazy.) Everywhere in Blake’s work, it is clear that he never underestimated the possibilities of the future, and never imposed false limits onto anything, but he didn’t tolerate vagueness or empty abstraction. Sharp definition was essential, and unique particulars were the basis for beauty and knowledge.
Creation through Opposition
For Blake, the dialectical principal was a feature of the world itself, but it also informed his method, his technique, and his “rhetoric.” One of Blake’s powerful insights was that intellectual clarity is achieved by contradiction, opposition, contrast, making distinctions as well as comparisons. The principle of intensification through opposition had special features when it was developed in his painting and writing.
Blake gave much of the credit for his style of thinking to the process of spending thousands of hours in the practice of etching. The image you create in the conventional etching technique is made when acid “bites” into the lines that will be inked; in Blake’s new technique, the image is made permanent by the acid’s corroding away of everything except the sharply defined image. The decisive, dividing, line is essential.
Anyone who has spent even a few hours of intense effort working in dry-point or etching understands that, when you stop, the appearance of the world is altered by changes that have taken place in your eyes and brain. Often, his “metaphors” are literal imaginative insights that have great generality. This kind of knowledge distinguishes the work of a craftsman from that of an academic. The probability is that Blake’s art led him to appreciate compatible ideas when he found them, and it doesn’t seem likely that he was “influenced” by them the way an academic is influenced by books, since Blake had his own “sources” that are generally neglected by intellectuals.
Heaven is Part of Hell
Blake found that contrasts made meanings clear, and made language vivid. Heaven and Hell, Clod and Pebble, Lamb and Tyger, Angel and Devil, Greek and Jew, Innocence and Experience, presented contrasts that encouraged the reader to think about the range of possibilities Blake had in mind. He was always consciously trying to energize the reader’s mind to get out of dogmatic ruts, to look at things freshly, so he often used the polarities in ways that would surprise the reader, ironically reversing familiar references.
A pious commonplace would be contrasted with the disturbing realities that it normally hid. Both in his writing and in conversation, Blake was often playful and teasing, and over-serious people have usually taken him too literally.
Academic commentators are so often attached to their erudite pieties that it seems that they can’t read English. In the 18th century, a clod meant just what it means in the 20th century, either a lump of dirt, or a lunkhead. In the ‘Clod and the Pebble’, when the Clod speaks the properly sanctimonious phrases, justifying its oppressed misery with a dogma, we have a clue regarding Blake’s attitude, but then he makes it perfectly clear by speaking of Heaven’s despite, literally, Heaven’s malice (a concept that appears many times in different forms in other parts of his work).
Either the commentators assume that the word “despite” had a different meaning in the 18th century (it didn’t), or they assume that Blake made an error of diction, because they choose to alter the meaning to “despite Heaven.” Just as judges aren’t allowed to change the wording of the laws that they interpret, literary experts aren’t allowed to rewrite texts to make them better suit their interpretation.
The same insensitivity to the world of concrete experience that has allowed so many commentators to read their own ideas into Blake, ignoring what he said in plain English, makes satire and irony and sarcasm inaccessible to many people who otherwise seem intelligent; this is especially apparent when scientists comment on literature. Forming an imaginative synthesis of the writer and his meaning requires mental flexibility and energy, rather than just analytical acuity.
Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Brain
Everyone who described Blake’s physical appearance remarked on his large head. Blake commented that he didn’t like to travel or undergo physical strain, because of its effects on his health. The brain is an energetically expensive organ, which consumes large amounts of glucose. A very large brain puts a special burden on the liver’s ability to store energy, and is likely to make a person conscious of physiological processes.
Blake’s descriptions of the process of seeing show that he was integrating his experience into his knowledge, describing brain physiology, incorporating his perceptions and the best scientific knowledge that was available to him, into a philosophical description of the place of conscious life in the world. The pulsation of an artery was the unit of time, a red blood corpuscle was the unit of space, enclosing eternity and infinity, eliminating arbitrary and abstract entities, and placing human life within cosmic life, while revealing cosmic life within the individual.
The Ideology of the Dead Machine: Orthodox Science
The idea of a “biological cosmos” seems strange only when it is considered against an ideology which maintains that life is alone in an immense dead universe. The assumption of a dead, unintelligent, randomly moving physical world is the creation of a series of theological ideas, which Blake perceived as essentially Satanic. Blake used the language of these theologies, but inverted them, showing the ways they were used to obscure reality, and to impose a perverse way of life onto the living world.
Fred Hoyle, the astronomer, said “If this were an entirely scientific matter, there is little doubt from the evidence that the case for a fundamentally biological universe would be regarded as substantially proven.”
Over the last few decades, biologists feel that they have established the “biochemical unity of life,” in which biochemical cycles and genetic codes are widely shared. The idea of ecological interdependence has come to be recognized as an essential part of life, or (as demonstrated by Vernadsky, and suggested by Hoyle) a cosmic principle.
Blake often called himself a Christian, and defined Christianity in many novel ways, as art, love, politics, science, but specifically, in his version of Christianity, forgiveness was an essential idea, and nothing lives for itself only. Blake’s Christianity as Art was a concrete part of living, and he ridiculed some of the abstract theosophical definitions of god that were common in his time. When his remarks are considered against the background of Spinozistic pantheism, it is the intensification and personalization, the avoidance of abstractions that could permit the attribution of passivity or inertness to any part of reality, that stand out.
When he said that the world is alive, he meant that it is a defect of perception that makes Newton’s world seem passive, empty, and dead. A few years ago, a movement that called itself “deep ecology” tried to absolutize the ideas of ecology; Blake’s view of the interactive unity of life was as well thought out as any that preceded Vernadsky’s cosmology.
Rather than elevating any of the ideas of Christianity to an absolute doctrine, Blake used them as parts of an organic whole. The principle of forgiveness was presented as the appropriate response to a world which is always new. The desire for vengeance comes from a delusive commitment to the world of memory. Virginity is constantly renewed in the world of imaginative life.
While Blake said that you can’t forgive someone until they stop hurting you, the desire to be forgiven indicates that there is an opportunity to resolve the problem.
Although most mathematicians and computer-so-called-scientists are committed to a rationalistic, past-oriented view of their mental operations, and some scientists accept that ideology along with mathematics, the valid, discovery-oriented sciences have to be future-oriented. A first step in avoiding dogmatic assumptions might be phrased as “remembering what you are,” a living being, and asking how you know things: The interaction with other beings, exchanging energy and information with the environment, experiencing yourself in the world.
Holistic medicine and holistic psychology came into existence as attempts to overcome the dogmatic compartmentalization of reality that is endemic. Whenever rigidity is a problem, looking for ways to create new patterns that by-pass the petrified pattern can lead to a solution. Parkinson’s disease and other physical problems have been approached using techniques of intensified or varied stimulation. Increased stimulation – even electromagnetic stimulation – appears to open alternative patterns. Music, dance, and swimming have been used successfully to improve fluidity in various neurological diseases. Kurt Goldstein (The Organism) worked with brain injuries, and found that the brain has a variety of ways to restore a new balance. Raising the amount of energy that’s available can allow natural processes to create a better synthesis. Political and social problems that are culturally determined may follow rules similar to those of organic brain disease.
The Soul as Body
Blake was clearly aware that the reason for making limiting assumptions was to maintain control, and to profit from another’s suffering. Seeing that the sadistic assumptions that were put in place to regulate human life rested on a dichotomizing of soul from body, Blake’s correction was to replace them with a unity of consciousness and substance, a living world rather than a dead world.
An imaginative study of his work has the potential to rouse one’s abilities and to open an unlimited world of possibilities. “I give you the end of a golden string, Only wind it into a ball, It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate, Built in Jerusalem’s wall.” Blake knew that his work, like anything new in the world, could be understood only by an active mental process.
Ray Peat is editor and researcher of a popular and well-known monthly newsletter on nutritiona and health, as well as author of a number of cutting-edge publications that look at aging, nutrition, and hormones from a biochemical perspective. His work centres on biological development and in particular the study of progesterone, and the hormones closely related to it, as protectors of the body’s structure and energy against the harmful effects of estrogen, radiation, stress, and lack of oxygen. The key idea of his research is that “energy and structure are interdependent, at every level”.
This is an edited version of his article ‘Can art instruct science? William Blake as biological visionary‘ (© Ray Peat 2006) and is reproduced by kind permission of the author. For more information please visit his website.