Blake called his Christianity “The Everlasting Gospel”, and as he articulates in that poem, the affirmation of man’s divinity implies a rejection all inequality and authority:
This is the race that Jesus ran
Humble to God Haughty to Man
Cursing the Rulers before the People
Even to the temples highest Steeple …
If thou humblest thyself thou humblest me
Thou also dwellst in Eternity
Thou art a Man God is no more
Thy own humanity learn to adore.
Blake’s humanistic Christianity has been acknowledged by most critics. What must be understood, in addition, is that his use of the myth of Albion, trinitarian doctrine, and the idea of a “mystical body of Christ” demands that we read The Four Zoas as a myth which is simultaneously psychological and social. “What are the Natures of those Living Creatures [the Zoas],” Blake tells us, “no Individual Knoweth” , for they evoke a social reality lost to fallen man.
In fact, Blake’s mysticism is unique in its emphasis upon social incarnation. In his version of mythology, the Neoplatonist fall from the One into the Many signifies on one level a spiritual loss brought about by social fragmentation. Everywhere in his poetry Blake insists that entrance into that dimension in which the human spirit is one requires abandonment of all forms of individualism, domination, and ideological exclusion which cuts one off from extended divinity in the human community. For the “Divine Image” is found only in collective humanity:
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
This is by no means a merely ethical vision. In Blake’s dialectic, the “divine” powers of consciousness in spirit and body, energy and matter are dissipated when the flow of that energy is obstructed by social atomisation and conflict, reducing humanity thereby to the passivity of inert individual bodies, the “worm of sixty winters” which he so deplored. In Blake’s vision, one might say: mysticism is the highest state of communism.
Communism as applied Christianity
If Blake drew out most concretely the social implications of rooting mysticism in communism and vice versa, the tradition was as old as Christianity itself, and surfaced repeatedly throughout the Middle Ages. A.L. Morton points to the radical roots of Blake’s faith when he reminds us that the “everlasting gospel” was the watchword of both the radical incarnationalist and the revolutionary, millenarian traditions. The phrase can be traced back to the apocalyptic spirituality of Joachim de Fiore, a twelfth-century abbot from whom radical Christians drew their historical mythology.
Joachim preached that history fell into three ages, the age of the father, or law; the age of the son, or the church; and the age of the spirit, in which both those props would become unnecessary and the evangelium aeternum would be directly revealed in the human heart. Joachim’s vision posited immediate entry into this third age, in which humanity, existing on a spiritual place in contemplative bliss, would require neither property, nor marriage, nor political authority.
His vision was barely articulated, however, before the idea of the “new age” had been brought down to earth by others with revolutionary aspirations. At first, the everlasting gospel inspired Franciscan Spirituals to lives of voluntary poverty in proclamation of the belief that Christian life was completely incompatible with the accumulation of material wealth, views which soon threw them into serious conflict with a worldly church.
Eventually, a splinter group under Fra Dolcino, called the Apostolic Brethren, were led to pursue a third age socially identified with community of goods and complete political liberty, an experiment which resulted in armed conflict with existing authorities.
Such ideas survive into Blake’s era; as late as 1774 we find Shakers leaving England to establish Utopian socialist communities in the New World, having been, in their words, “commissioned of the Almighty God to preach the everlasting Gospel to America.” Blake’s own communist vision emerges clearly when he parodies the Lord’s Prayer as follows:
“Our Father Augustus Caesar, who art in these thy Substantial Telescopic Heavens. Holiness to Thy Name or Title, & reverence to Thy Shadow. Thy Kingship come upon Earth first & then in Heaven. Give us day by day our Real Taxed Substantial Money bought Bread & deliver from the Holy Ghost whatever cannot be Taxed; lead us not to read the Bible, but let our Bible be Virgil & Shakespeare, & deliver us from Poverty in Jesus, that Evil One. For thine is the Kingship, or Allegoric Godship, & the Power or War, & the Glory, or Law, Ages after Ages in thy Descendants; for God is only an Allegory of Kings & nothing else. Amen.”
Consistently, Blake identifies true Christianity with the just society, demanding in Jerusalem, “Are not Religion & Politics the Same Thing? Brotherhood is Religion”.
Brotherhood is Religion
Underlying The Four Zoas is the central myth which pervades the prophecies, the idea that this apocalyptic age would be a return to the conditions of that primitive Eden where human beings had once lived in love and cooperation. “All had originally one language,” Blake writes, “and one religion, this was the religion of Jesus, the everlasting Gospel”. The same myth appears in Jerusalem where the sleep of Albion, equated with the flooding of Atlantis, signifies the disintegration of the primitive community:
Awake, awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!
I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine;
Fibres of love from man to man thro Albions pleasant land.
In all the dark Atlantic vale down from the hills of Surrey
A black water accumulates, return Albion! return!
Thy brethren call thee, and thy fathers, and thy sons,
Thy nurses and thy mothers, thy sisters and thy daughters
Weep at thy souls disease, and the Divine Vision is darkend
Similarly, in The Four Zoas, the fall is described as a fragmentation, a shattering of “The Universal Family” in which humanity lived as “One Man … & that one Man/They call Jesus the Christ & they in him & he in them/Live in Perfect harmony in Eden the land of life”. In this epic, Blake will sing of Albion’s “fall into Division & his Resurrection to Unity”, of the breakdown of the good society and its ultimate reconstruction.
The Eternal Man mourns the Zoas’ divided state as “war within my members”, and cries, “rent from Eternal brotherhood we die & are no more”. The dissolution of the community means death to Albion, who, once his collective powers are asleep, survives only as a shrunken self, a shadow of his former life:
& he sunk down
From the Supporting arms of the Eternal Saviour; who disposed
The pale limbs of his Eternal Individuality
Upon The Rock of Ages
The Golden Age Among American Natives
Blake’s conception of “eternal brotherhood” has a concrete significance which should not be overlooked, for, in fact, primitive cultures were often literal brotherhoods, organised into clans whose members descended from a common ancestor.
We are reminded in this regard by anthropologist Leslie White that “legends of the Golden Age might conceivably be ethnic memories of a time and a society when all men were brothers,” while E.B. Taylor tells us, “kinship” and “kindliness” went together. Blake would have been familiar with this condition through all its traces remaining in the Old Testament whose prophets harkened back for their mores to the old tribal brotherhood.
But a more immediate inspiration was also available, for among such American Indians as the Iroquois, a group of related clans was semantically defined as a brotherhood, or phatry. Blake tells us, moreover, that his ideas about the primal state were directly influenced by what he had gleaned about the Indians. Information was readily available in contemporary accounts by travelers and missionaries, which enabled as insightful an observer as Blake to leap to a kind of nascent comparative anthropology.
Accounts of Native Americans and other newly discovered tribes could provide Blake with support for his contention that humanity’s original condition involved egalitarian social relations, sexual liberty, and spiritual powers obliterated from the Genesis view of origins. In this sense, the new ethnographical information available at that time affected Blake as Lewis Henry Morgan’s work on the Iroquois would later affect Engels and twentieth-century anthropology and archaeology would influence feminist theory, causing Blake to anticipate many of their judgments.
Commentators on Indian mores invariably remarked upon their egalitarianism. Indeed, the one aspect of Indian life most striking to outside observers was the savages’ apparent disregard for private property. Hence a United States secretary of war would write in 1789 that all the Indian needed to join the march of progress was “a love for exclusive property.”
No Property, No Jealousy
Nor would Blake have been the first to connect the collectivism of these people with Christian ideas of Eden and the Fall; it was a common observation of missionaries. In 1770 Father Jacob Beget wrote admiringly of the California native that “envy, jealousy and slander embitter not his life, and he is not exposed to the fear of losing what he possesses, nor to the care of increasing it; … the Californians do not know the meaning of meum and teum, those two ideas which, according to St. Gregory, fill the days of our existence with bitterness and unaccountable evils.”
Similarly, the eighteenth-century traveler Lahontan observed, “These savages know nothing of mine and thine, for it may be said that what belongs to me, belongs to another … They think it strange that some should have more goods than others, and that those who have more should be more esteemed than those who have less.”
Blake shared this appreciation and lauded the liberty of primitive peoples in opposition to the increasingly dominant bourgeois myth of progress which saw all mankind rising from the horrors of barbarism to the crowning achievements of European empire. In his view, the worst barbarism resulted from the growth of inequality and conflict in advanced civilisations. Bristling at Bishop Watson’s smug observation that “man, in a nearly savage state, approaches to brute creation,” Blake retorts, “Read the Eddas of Iceland, the Songs of Fingal the accounts of the North American Savages (as they are called) Likewise Read Homer’s Iliad, he was certainly a Savage … in the Bishops sense … & yet he was no fool”.
Blake’s admiration for the native undoubtedly was inspired as well by their uninhibited sexuality, those “unnatural consanguinities and friendships” (Jerusalem) described by horrified European observers:
The young men have licence to addict themselves to evil as soon as they are able, and the young girls prostitute themselves as soon as they are capable. Even fathers and mothers commonly act as pimps to their daughters. At night the young women and girls run from one hut to another, and the young men do the same and take their pleasure where they like, without, however, doing any violence, for they rely entirely on the will of the woman. The husband does the same with regard to his nearest neighbour and the wife with regard to the nearest male neighbour; nor does any jealousy appear amongst them on that account, and they incur no shame or dishonour.
‘A kind of sexual communism’
Such practices confirmed another aspect of the golden age myth, largely but not entirely suppressed under Christianity, the idea that it was a state characterised by a kind of sexual communism. We have already noted such accounts of primitive society in Aristotle, Varro, Diodorus Siculus, the spurious Epistle of Pope Clement, and Gratian. Herodotus, for example, described the Agathrysi as practising promiscuity so that they all might be brothers and a single family so as to avoid suspicion and jealousy. Ideas of a sexual Eden were revived, as we have seen, by the Adamite cults of the late Middle Ages, and were prominent among the Ranters of Milton’s England.
Blake’s belief in an era before Adam led him to identify the institution of marriage described in Genesis as part of the Fall which characterised Adam’s generation. Thus Henry Crabbe Robinson reports: “He was as wild as ever … but he was led today to make assertions more palpably mischievous, if capable of influencing other minds, & immoral … than anything he had said before. As for instance, that he had learned from the Bible that wives should be in common. And when I objected that marriage was a Divine institution, he referred to the Bible ‘that from the beginning it was not so.’ “ The first aspect of the Fall which Blake recounts in The Four Zoas is the establishment of monogamy. The sexuality of Eden is described as untrammelled self-expression: “in the Auricular Nerves of Human life/Which is the Earth of Eden, [Albion] his Emanations propagated” (FZ 4:1-2). This state is repeatedly evoked throughout the poem as a time of complete harmony between the individual and the community, man and woman, body and spirit. Hence the Spectre of Urthona yearns
To reunite in those mild fields of happy Eternity
Where thou [Enitharmon] & I in undivided Essence walkd about
Imbodied. thou my garden of delight & I the spirit in the garden
Mutual there we dwelt in one anothers joy revolving
Days of Eternity with Tharmas mild & Luvah sweet melodious
Upon our waters. This thou well rememberest listen I will tell
What thou forgettest. They in us & we in them alternate Livd
Drinking the joys of Universal Manhood.
In this original state, according to Blake, the “Universal Manhood” was androgynous; men and women were united in complete sexual gratification, as he contends in Jerusalem:
Humanity knows not of Sex: wherefore are Sexes in Beulah?
In Beulah the Female lets down her beautiful Tabernacle;
Which the male enters magnificent between her Cherubim.
The above article is an excerpt from War of Titans: Blake’s Critique of Milton and the Politics of Religion by Jackie DiSalvo. To read the full book please click here. Jackie DiSalvo is a professor at Baruch College, a member of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, and a member of the Occupy Wall Street Labor Support/Outreach Working Group.
Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, from his final symphony, is a piece of music not only about the divine in man, but also by the divine in man. Without this music God would be less.