Introduction: Politics and Vision
In the book by EO Abbott called Flatland: a Romance of Many Dimensions, ‘A Square’ tries to persuade his fellow two-dimensional beings – triangles, hexagons, and so on – that other dimensions are possible. William Blake lived in a four-dimensional moral world, and for that reason he was considered quite mad by ordinary citizens. He did not agree with them and is reported to have told a friend: ‘There are probably men shut up as mad in bedlam who are not so; that possibly the madmen outside have shut up the sane people.’
When he was four years old, God frightened the life out of him by looking in at his window. When he was about nine, walking on Peckham Rye, he saw a tree whose branches were covered in Angels. His father, told of this observation, prudently threatened to thrash him for lying, but it doesn’t seem to have done him any good. Half a century later, he told someone that he knew that Michangelo was much better at painting angels than Raphael, even though he had never been to Italy to see their pictures. His certainty was based upon the opinion of someone who had visited him recently, and who should certainly have known if the likeness was a good one, for his informant was the subject of the picture: the Archangel Gabriel.
All his life, Blake knew that the world of imagination was the true world, while that of industrial revolution London was certainly false. In the world which his imagination saw so clearly, individuals freely created beauty. But the other, ‘fallen’ world was a place where slavery, exploitation, self-interest and hypocrisy were rife.
He explained the way he saw things in a letter to the Reverend Dr. Trusler, in 1799,
I know that This World Is a World of IMAGINATION & Vision. I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun, & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. … To the eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he Sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers.
That explains his view of the relationship of art and nature.
Men think they can Copy Nature as Correctly as I copy Imagination. This they will find Impossible, & all Copiers or Pretended Copiers of Nature, from Rembrandt to Reynolds, Prove that Nature becomes to its Victim nothing but blots and blurs.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), he tried to explain how people generally saw the world falsely: ‘For man has closed himself up and sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.’ For Blake, the inability of his fellow Londoners to see those visions which were so clear to him was the consequence of the false, unbalanced way that they lived, the self-imposed blindness which hid reality from them. They lived in a way whose inhumanity hid itself from itself. But this implied that it was possible for them to live in a different world and to see it differently.
Blake and Marx in London
Marx, of course, did not see visions. But he also believed that the ordinary world and the way it was seen were not truly human. Whatever their huge differences, each of these men saw the entire world – nature, history and social life – as centred on the activity of the human social individual, enslaved but striving for freedom. Marx called the blindness which made it so hard for us to see the modern world truly, ‘the fetish-character of commodities’.
‘Marxism’, of course, could not abide such a juxtaposition. Its ‘complete, integral world outlook’, as expounded by Plekhanov, Lenin and others, is a clear illustration of that one-dimensional outlook that Blake called ‘single vision’, the enemy of imagination. The ideas of Marx, on the contrary, took forward Blake’s ‘fourfold vision’, which combined reason and imagination, sense and emotion. Marx both analysed the fracture of this quartet and showed how its unity could be actualised in revolutionary practice.
The visionary artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827) and the revolutionary thinker Karl Marx, born 60 years later, were equally hostile to eighteenth-century individualistic materialism, the predominant way of thinking of their own times, and, in a cruder form, of ours. In an early work, There is no Natural Religion (1788), Blake attacked the outlook promoted by John Locke, who he often linked with Bacon and Newton.
If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosophic and Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again. … He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only. Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.
I believe this is precisely what Marx meant, in the ‘First Thesis on Feuerbach’ – so disliked by ‘Marxists’ – when he also attacked materialism for not conceiving the world as ‘human sensuous activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively.’
The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism — that of Feuerbach included — is that the Object, actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, differentiated from thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. Hence he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’, activity.
Blake is unlikely even to have heard of his near contemporary, Hegel, so he did not know of that writer’s assertion that ‘the finite has no veritable being’. The appearance of the actual as limited and fixed could not be the end of the story. But Marx never forgot his ‘great teacher’, and spent his life in continual struggle and agreement with him. For Marx, freedom, the essence of the all-sided human being, involves opening up what is concealed and perverted by the malevolent magic power of capital. But Marx also shows how the path to freedom could be discerned within this power itself.But surely, isn’t Blake a ‘religious writer’, always talking about God? How can Marx have anything in common with him? Yes, but what kind of God? Blake’s Jesus is within the human individual. When he was very old, Crabb Robinson asked him about his religious ideas. ‘Jesus Christ is the only God,’ said the old man. But he added: ‘And so am I and so are you.’ Jesus, he explains many times, is Imagination.
The God of the Old Testament, on the contrary, is the wrathful God. This God who judges Adam, as Milton reported, and who is so gratified at the Crucifixion of His Son, is a cruel tyrant, the source of all cruelty and falsehood. In a notebook, Blake describes this monster with characteristic irreverence:
Old Nobodaddy up aloft farted & belchd & coughd
And said I love hanging & drawing & quartering
Every bit as well as war & slaughtering.
This divine personage is linked by Blake with God the Father, with institutional religion and with state power. He is the source of all kinds of moral law, restrictive rules with which individuals are brutally forced to comply, and which destroy their humanity.
William Blake was a Londoner, who grew up as the city was taking its modern shape. When he lived in Lambeth, there was a high-tech, steam-driven flour mill, the Albion, at the end of his road. Later he lived in South Molton Street, close to the Tyburn gallows-tree. Apprenticed to an engraver, he tried all his life – with little success – to make his living as an artisan. He also studied drawing and painting, and combined all these accomplishments in his life’s work. (He is also thought to have sung his early poetry, but never learnt to write down the melodies he composed.)
In the 1780s and 1790s, he was part of London’s radical circles, including its radical religious life. His relations with the Swedenborgian New Church and the Muggletonian and other sects has been much discussed. One thing is certain: he was fiercely hostile to all state forms and established religion, associating it with oppression and slavery. In the Book of Urizen, he writes of ‘His ancient infinite mansion: One command, one joy, one desire, One curse, one weight, one measure One King, one God, one Law.’
Until the end of the century, he was actively involved with support for the American and French revolutions and the fight to abolish slavery. In the 1780s and 1790s, he believed that the freedom he longed for was actually at hand, but later he was less optimistic. But he never ‘ceased from mental fight’ against the prevailing ideas of his time.
Enlightening the Enlightenment
Two aspects of seventeenth and eighteenth century thought are important here: the conception of imagination and the problem of good and evil. And Blake’s approach to these two problems form the axes of his entire work. Of course, a category like ‘The Enlightenment’ covers a wide variety of ideas, and some of the most important figures who are included in this term had by the end of the eighteenth century begun to point out the contradictions within it, but there was a widespread notion that opposed what was imaginary to what was real.
Sheldrake notes that modern materialist science has become “a fundamentalist belief system” ruled over by a “scientific priesthood” every bit as dogmatic and close-minded as the belief systems it originally sought to replace. We therefore need “an enlightenment of the Enlightenment”, he notes, and in this compelling talk – originally banned by TED after pressure from today’s high priests of science – he challenges the ten main dogmas of modern science.
Hobbes had thought the question of imagination important enough to devote the second chapter of Leviathan to showing how imagination is dependent on sensation:
After the object is removed, or the eye shut, we still retain an image of the thing seen, though more obscure than when we see it. And this is it, the Latins call Imagination.
Locke, for whom all correct knowledge originated in sense impressions, took it for granted that anything imagined was ‘mere idea’. And Hume put it like this:
But though our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty…it is really confined within very narrow limits. … All this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.)
Blake’s entire outlook was founded upon his hatred for such notions. As he learned from the work of Paracelsus, imagination was an active, creative power. When he saw himself as a prophet, this for him was the same as being an artist. His work as a graphic artist and poet aimed to change the way everybody saw the world so as to open the way for freedom.
For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite, and holy whereas now it appears finite and corrupt. This will come to pass through an improvement of sensual enjoyment.
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.
If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
Imagination was not a faculty possessed by a few talented humans. It was the essence of freedom, of the truly human, and potentially available to everybody. That is why poetry was not just a particular literary medium: along with painting, it was the only way the infinite of imagination could find expression. The unity of the imagined, envisioned work of art showed how we all might ‘see infinity in a grain of sand.’
Enlightenment thinkers opposed the Christian belief in the radical sinfulness of human beings with the optimistic certainty that they were basically good. Even Kant’s summary of the Enlightenment could not evade these conflicting views: he was sure that, at bottom, man was radically evil.
Blake was strongly against both views, both orthodox religious belief, and the Deism which sought to rationalise it. He fiercely attacks all the teachings of the State Churches that pain, suffering and conflict are the products of human sin. With institutionalised religion he associates abstract Reason.
Like Hegel, Blake studied Jakob Boehme (‘Behmen’, as he was called in the English translation), and through his work linked up with the Hermetic, Gnostic, Cabbalistic, alchemical traditions. He does not accept any one of these predecessors unconditionally, but he learnt from them to see Creation as the same event as the Fall, not a one-off event, but one which continually happens inside the human heart. Blake is an Antinomian, heir to those centuries of persecuted heretics who believed that, when a merciful Jesus redeems us, the Law of the angry God is cancelled. Blake stresses especially the tyrannical nature of all law governing sexuality.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he begins to work out the implications of these notions, taking the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost as his starting point. Satan represents Energy, without which there is no Creation. Revolting against the tyranny of the Wrathful God, Satan opens the way for all freedom. But this is also the revolt against Reason, matter and law.
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason Evil is the active springing from Energy.
The Marriage ends with a Song of Liberty, an account of the revolutionary victory of Imagination, which had begun in Paris. ‘Look up! Look up! O citizen of London, enlarge thy countenance! …
For everything that lives is Holy.’
Blake is not an irrationalist. What he rejects is the abstractly rational, that cold mechanical logic which excludes emotion, forgiveness, loving, sensuality. There has to be a marriage of the contraries. (For him, contraries are not negations, which are at perpetual war.)
The Songs of Innocence and Experience, also dating from the period of the French Revolution, containing some of the best-known poetry in the language, must be taken as a whole. Blake’s ‘innocence’, the uncorrupted outlook of childhood, is not yet a clear vision of the world, and ‘experience’ is certainly not cynical disillusion. It only seems like this in the ‘fallen’ world. These ‘two contrary states of the human soul’ are both required for freedom.
Look, for example, at the two ‘Chimney Sweeper’ poems. The innocent one ends:
And the Angel told Tom if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for a father & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags & our brushes to work,
Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm,
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
But we know perfectly well that Tom had been sold by his parents to a life of climbing up chimneys, so that his childhood has already been destroyed. The corresponding Song of Experience ends:
And because I am happy & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.
‘The Tyger’, a Song of Experience, is coupled with ’The Lamb’, and Blake wants both. That powerful sequence of hammer-blow questions addressed to the Tyger, includes a reference to ‘deadly terrors’, because Blake is thinking especially of the French Revolution, whose wrathful energy is both destructive and liberatory. Each question forces us to the answer ‘God’, culminating in the question: ‘Did he who made the lamb make thee?’ Creation involved both the angry God Nobodaddy, and the merciful Jesus.
Many accounts of Blake stress, with good reason, the social criticism of London at the end of the eighteenth century. But that is not enough. Look, for example at the powerful Song of Experience called ‘London’:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames doth flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweepers cry,
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless soldiers sigh,
Runs in blood down palace walls.
But most at midnight hour I hear,
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plague the marriage hearse.
These short lines bring together the misery and fear which dominate those city streets, exploitation, especially of children, the inhumanity of State power and religion and twisted sexuality and its terrible consequences, again, for children, both the new-born and the child prostitute. But notice that the ‘manacles’ which binds all of these together are ‘mind-forg’d’.
Capitalism, the machine that grinds us all
About 1800, Blake began his poem Milton. Its Preface contains a sort of art manifesto:
Painters! On you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashionable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works.
Then follows the best-known and most ridiculously misunderstood of all songs in English: Jerusalem. (We ought to try to forget the patriotic music by Sir Hubert Parry, and the orchestration by Sir Edward Elgar, but it is hard to do so! It was recently chosen in some poll as an alternative National Anthem.) It is true that ‘those dark, Satanic mills’ are undoubtedly smoking factories, exploiting the labour of children and their parents. But they are also much more. The mill is for Blake a machine in which ‘wheel outside wheel, with cogs tyrannic moving by compulsion each other’, express cold, emotionless logic, as well as a religion of unbending rules enforced by the State. So, when the ladies of the Women’s Institute belt out Parry’s melody, they don’t know that they are condemning above all the established Church, and especially its fear and hatred of sexual freedom.
‘Jerusalem’ by MC Nobody (known more widely as Sway) shows the MC, whose face is concealed by a black balaclava, kidnapping the monarch form a school assembly in which a black boy songs William Blake’s hymn, ‘Jerusalem’. Scenes of the Queen being taken through supermarkets, council estates, pubs, streets, and various domestic settings, including the toilet, are accompanied by MC Nobody’s social commentary on the state of the nation. He tells the audience: ‘I can take you where the Queen ain’t never been, and Gordon B ain’t never seen”. The Queen’s position is lowered by placing her in everyday situations, and these incongruous images give force to the rapper’s critique. The video places into question the relation between the nation’s elite and people’s everyday lives. Through the grotesque aesthetic that lowers the Queen, placing her on a toilet instead if a throne, Nobody draws attention to the condition of England. His rap attempts to rehabilitate ideas of political accountability and leadership, social and economic responsibility, and communal life.
What follows is an attempt to ‘justify the ways of God to men’. It takes the form of the return to Albion’s shores of the poet Milton, whose earlier efforts to accomplish this task had dissatisfied him. Now, he has one thing in his favour: Blake. He can show the way
To cleanse the Face of my Spirit by Self-examination.
To bathe in the waters of life; to wash off the Not Human
I come in Self-annihilation & the grandeur of Inspiration
To cast off Rational Demonstration by faith in the Saviour.
Blake’s hostility to rational demonstration was seen in his attitude to Bacon as “satan’s arsehole”, illustrated in the margin of his copy of the writings of the English philosopher.
The Brain: The War in Heaven
The last three decades of Blake’s life were devoted to the elaboration of ever more complex structures. Vala, or the Four Zoas aimed to be the most comprehensive account, but was never finished. In his complicated story, Blake seeks to represent simultaneously the Cosmos, the social order and the human psyche, all couched in terms of mythical characters called ‘Eternals’. Blake insists that he is not going in for allegory, where abstractions are personified. This is symbolism, a vision of what actually is, what ‘eternally exists’.
Eternity is a balanced association of four ‘Zoas’: Reason, Creative Imagination, Emotion and Sensation. Following the Cabbalistic story, there is a Creation-Fall catastrophe, in which each of them becomes a separate and hostile ‘fallen’ being. Thus, for example, Imagination and Reason each persist in our ‘fallen world’, but each of them is turned against itself as it is set against the other. Blake took a lifetime to tell their story and even then never finished it.
Urizen, who is abstract reason, self-righteousness, exemplified in Newton, Bacon and Locke. Urizen writes in brass-bound books with pens of steel. He is the enemy of Urthona, who is creative imagination, Luvah, emotion and love, and Tharmas, the senses. When Urizen’s pride and jealousy of Man leads him to break out of Eternity, he becomes Satan, the jealous, angry God of this, the Fallen World. He creates a world of geometric regularity, suppressed sex and oppressive law, going under the name of merciless, unforgiving Justice.
Urizen’s hypocrisy is an important aspect of his being.
And his soul sicken’d! he curs’d
Both sons & daughters; for he saw
That no flesh nor spirit could keep
His iron laws one moment,
For he saw that life liv’d upon death
The Ox in the slaughter house moans
The Dog at the wintry door
And he wept and called in Pity
And his tears flowed down on the winds.
Eventually, in a Last Judgement, he is forced to realise his error and accept the need for all four to unite. He is then regenerated, along with the whole of the universe.
After the Fall, each individual element breaks into a female ‘Emanation’ and a male ’Spectre’, the latter being the rational entity.
The Spectre Is the Reasoning Power in Man; & when separated
From Imagination, and closing itself as in steel, in a Ratio
Of the Things of Memory, It then frames Laws & Moralities
To destroy Imagination!
Luvah starts as Love and is transformed into Hate and wars against Urizen, causing the Fall. Tharmas, identified with the senses, and especially with sex, is transformed from ‘the mildest son of heaven’. He begets Los, Urthona’s Spectre, the artist, worldly expression of Creative Imagination. It is Los, who is usually Blake himself, who eventually brings about the redemption of humanity and the building of Jerusalem. In this task he is helped by his son Orc, the spirit of Revolution.
In Jerusalem, his last great narrative and longest poem, Blake tells of man’s last push for redemption. Jerusalem is defined as liberty. But as in Vala and the Four Zoas, only after she has overcome many adventures does she reveal her ability to give man what he wants.
Awake! Awake Jerusalem! O lovely Emanation of Albion
Awake and overspread all Nations as in Ancient Time
For lo! The Night of Death is past and the Eternal Day
Appears upon our hills: Awake Jerusalem and come away.
Albion represents the ordinary man, whose fall and resurrection are the subject of the action. This is how Blake depicts the use of the labor of the young people of Albion’s England:
And in their stead, intricate wheels invented, wheel without wheel:
To perplex youth in their outgoings, & to bind to labours in Albion
Of day & night the myriads of eternity that they may grind
And polish brass & iron hour after hour laborious task!
Kept ignorant of its use, that they might spend the days of wisdom
In sorrowful drudgery, to obtain a scanty pittance of bread:
In ignorance to view a small portion & think that All,
And call it Demonstration: blind to all the simple rules of life.
There is no need to repeat: Marx is not Blake. But while ‘Marxism’ merely sought some changes in economic structure, Marx was concerned with ‘self-alteration’ [Selbstveränderung], ‘the alteration of men on a mass scale’. This question of self-alteration – the aspect which Marx has in common with Blake – is not an aspect but the whole point of Marx. (It is not surprising that Engels, who got this point confused, found it impossible to include it in his edition of Theses on Feuerbach, the only version we had until quite recently.)
As Marx says:
Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (ie, human) being – a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. … Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be the solution.
And a few pages later,
The abolition of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities, but it is this emancipation precisely because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human.
Thus, achieving the overthrow of relations based upon private property in ‘an association of free producers’, implies the total self-transformation of humanity, the ‘emancipation of the senses’. Blake would have felt at home in such a new moral world, as some the revolutionaries of 1968 began to see.
This conception of an alternative way of life is central to all Marx’s work. In particular, it is the contrast with what exists which is crucial for Marx’s chief work, Capital. He gives a critique of political economy, of the method of the work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo – always contrasting political economy with mere economics. He expounded his view of the system that they propounded. It is nowhere presented directly. Marx’s method is to give it is as the opposite of all methods which do.
Marx, in another way that he unconsciously follows Blake, is intent on showing how the false ways life are inseparable from false ways of thinking. In Capital he follows Blake’s hero Paracelsus in characterising the labour process, the essential activity of the human species, as beginning with imagination. (See Volume 1, Chapter 7, first Section.) In political economy, everything starts with definition.
Marx was about half a century after Blake, half a century which saw the rise of the modern workers movement. So whereas the first beginnings of that movement left Blake quite cold, Marx was able to link it with his conception of communism.
In the conflict between social relations of production and powers of production, which appears in this, the fallen world, we have to base ourselves on the unity of the two. The very elements which appear to drive them into opposition – and which do indeed so drive them to war between us human beings – have their resolution in the elements of harmony. This is the power of Marx’s thought, and of that of Blake. In the battles which rage, the thinking of these two men, misunderstood by so many of their devoted followers, marks them out as the great prophets of unity.
Let me conclude with another ‘song of liberty’, from America: a Prophecy.
The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up;
The bones of death, the cov’ring clay, the sinews shrunk & dry’d.
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing! awakening!
Spring like redeemed captives when their bonds & bars are burst;
Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field;
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years;
Rise up and look out, his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open.
And let his wife and children return from the opressors scourge;
They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream,
Singing. The Sun has left his blackness and has found a fresher morning
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear and cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and the Lion & Wolf shall cease.
Cyril Smith (1929-2008) taught statistics at the London School of Economics and is the author of a number of books on Marx including Communist Society and Marxist Theory (1988), Marx at the Millennium (1996), and Karl Marx and the Future of the Human (2005). The above post is an edited version of his chapter ‘Marx and the Fourfold Vision of William Blake’, in Karl Marx and the Future of the Human. To read the full article, please click here.