How Morality Damns Us: Blake and the Tree of Good and Evil, by Erik McCarthy

Going Beyond Good & Evil: Restoring Eden in the Brain 

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Introduction: Blake’s Laocoön and the serpents of Morality 

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The original Laocoön. In Blake’s reading, the serpents overcoming the priest represent the twin Powers or programs of “Good” and “Evil”, which eventually suffocate him, and his vision of God.

The question, and questioning, of morality, is central to one of Blake’s most iconic and futuristic images, the Laocoön. Even though Blake’s best-known works often combine image and text in a single plate, the Laocoön stands apart as the only one to be centered around a faithful copy of a piece of antique sculpture, a fact which attests to its hold on his imagination.

Another arresting feature of the plate is the atypical density of its textual matter, composed in at least two distinct scripts and three different languages, and the seemingly arbitrary, discontinuous manner of its arrangement on the page. Julia Wright observes, “the design recalls a jigsaw puzzle more than a page from an emblem book, graffiti more than an engraving, and marginal annotations more than aphorisms on art” . 

It resembles no other work by Blake, and he left no instructions on how his wide-ranging statements should be organized, or in what order they should be read. Without an obvious starting point, one could try a conventional approach, beginning with the first line of horizontal text at the top of the page: “Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on but War only”; but then one could just as well start at the bottom, with the caption identifying the three figures as “הי & his two sons Satan & Adam.” Either way, the reader is sure not to get far before having to stop and decide where to begin again; and from there one choice seems as good as another.

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“It resembles no other work by Blake, and he left no instructions on how his wide-ranging statements should be organized, or in what order they should be read.” Holistic, four-dimensional text-image art, a century before Picasso and Einstein and two centuries before Banksy and Basquiat.

Eventually, the addled viewer must rotate the page almost a full 360 degrees in order to decipher all of Blake’s inscriptions, rather like the turning of a kaleidoscope, producing an arbitrary sequence or pattern of syntactic elements that is different with every reading. This represents a radical departure from his previous aphoristic and epigraphic writings, such as the early syllogistic tractates There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One (both c. 1788), or the captions in his emblem book The Gates of Paradise (c. 1793), or the “Proverbs” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c. 1790), all of which are somewhat more conventional in structure and relatively easy to read.

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The Medium is the Message: Blake’s Laocoön forces us to question the connection between word and image, between the line-based technology (as Marshall McLuhan puts it) of the alphabetic language (converting everything into a left-brain, linear, “A-Z’ mind-set), and the fluidity and freedom of multidimensional, “broadcast” or right hemisphere living form. “Morality”, or the moral “program” instilled or inserted into us at the Fall, converts reality and human behaviour into the same, linear, “cause and effect”, black-and-white way of thinking as the alphabet does. It therefore thrives on Codes and written Commandments. Laocoön is being suffocated, surrounded and strangled by text, by type, as much as by snakes. 

The Laocoön seems intentionally to provoke the viewer, defying generic conventions and bewildering the restless gaze with a pressing mob of words, crammed in wherever Blake could make room, even to the point of having to reduce the size of his script when necessary, without any regard for harmonious composition or ease of reading. Here word and image occupy the same ludic space, vying for the viewer’s attention. The figures seem to struggle as much against the encroaching text as the serpents wound about their limbs. Like a sprawling amoeboid thing out of some 1950s science fiction nightmare, the written word completely engulfs the drawing, yet cannot permeate its stalwart outline; nor, for all their convulsive pushing and stretching, can the drawn figures tear through the condensed, membranous writing.

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It Came From Beneath The Sea: the story of the Laocoön underlies and underwrites many modern science fiction films and stories: the avenging serpentine creatures from the inner ‘Black Lagoon’ within our psyches, with which the new “rationalising’ cultures of Greece and Sumer were now at war. We see these serpents as “evil” and destructive, but we have made them that way through the moralising program which now sees all bodily energy in these terms. Laocoön was a prophet in the city of Troy who warned everyone not to accept the Trojan Horse (Greek rationalistic cunning), interpreted as a gift in honour of Poseidon god of the sea, because of deceptive connotations. They ignored him, and moments later his two sons were killed by two giant sea serpents, sent by Athena (representative of the new cunning, rationalising archetype and Power that had taken control of Greek culture).

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The Laocoön Mindset: The Human Fall into Conquest and Civilisation 

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“The Gods of Priam are the Cherubim of Moses & Solomon: The Hosts of Heaven”

For Blake’s contemporaries, no less than for the ancient Greeks and Romans before them, the Laocoön sculpture became a potent symbol of conquest and cultural puissance; while the spiritual significance of its form, as the visionary embodiment of one of the “eternal principles or characters of human life” (Descriptive Catalogue, 1809), was obscured by the crass contingencies of European culture and history.

The plate makes clear that for Blake the struggling figure of Laocoön, “ΟΦΙουΧος” (Greek for “Ophiucus,” the serpent-holder), embodies the original, pre-Druidic fall from divine unity into the divided world of “Space & Time,” where humanity is continually subjected to the tyranny of the corporeal senses and moral law, “propagating / Generation & Death”. Accordingly, his Laocoön represents Yah “הי,” or Jehovah, “The Angel of the Divine Presence”, whose egotism and ambition led to the creation of Adam, “The Natural Man / & not the Soul / or Imagination”, from earthy matter (“Adamah”); and “The Great Satan or Reason,” whose “Wife [is] The Goddess Nature” Lilith, or “תיליל” in Hebrew.


The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan, by Blake (c. 1805). Note how the central figure of Nelson, the emblem for British conquest and colonialism, is wreathed and entwined in the coils of a vast serpent, again sent from the sea, ‘Leviathan’. As the Tate note, “Blake shows these national figures guiding biblical monsters bringing chaos and destruction to the world.”

As Blake notes in A Vision of the Last Judgment (1810), “That Angel of the Divine Presence mentiond in Exodus XIVc 19v & in other Places this Angel is frequently calld by the Name of Jehovah Elohim”. Blake addresses this tyrant figure in the fragmented manuscript of The Everlasting Gospel:

Thou Angel of the Presence Divine

That didst create this Body of Mine

Wherefore has[t] thou writ these Laws

And Created Hells dark jaws

Tho thou was so pure & bright

That Heaven was Impure in thy Sight

Tho thy Oath turnd Heaven Pale

Tho thy Covenant built Hells Jail

Tho thou didst all to Chaos roll

With the Serpent for its soul (29-40)

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The Angel of the Divine Presence Bringing Eve to Adam, by Blake (1803). As Damon notes, “The Angel of the Divine Presence is Satan. He may take the form of an angel of Light and is often mistaken for God. As the unfallen Lucifer, he is the first of the seven Eyes of God.” He seems to be linked with Purity, as Lucifer is with Light: “thou wast so pure and bright/That Heaven was impure in thy sight”. This pathological obsession with Purity – the generation of the Tree of Good & Evil – has some striking similarities with what Baron-Cohen identifies as rather “autistic” or Zero Empathy states and individuals, who manifest a surprising obsession with specifically moral codes. He observes in many autistic people not an absence of morality, but rather the emergence of “super-developed moral codes in people with autism, being intolerant of those who bend the rules”. These moral codes are not based on any empathy (as they have none) but on logic: individuals with autism tend to be intolerant of law-breaking and transgression “because it violates the moral system they have constructed through brute logic alone. As such, people who are Zero-Positive (those with Asperger Syndrome) are often among the law-enforcers, not the law-breakers” (Zero Degrees Of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty). They are drawn to binary systems such as “either true or false” or good/bad, law-breaker/law-keeper, not because of any interest in the inner lives of other human beings, but because it is simple: it is a cost-effective, quick way to impose order on an otherwise frightening and seemingly illogical world (Tweedy, 2013). Note the dreadful, beautiful iciness of the blues in Blake’s image, capturing the internal affective state of such a “God” and its cold, inhuman Purity.

Similarly in Jerusalem, while Albion slept, Blake notes that “Satan & Adam & the whole World was Created by the Elohim”. In Milton and The Four Zoas, Adam and Satan symbolize the paired limits of “Opacity” and “Contraction” respectively (FZ 56.19-21). Opacity suggests the impotence of the sense organs to perceive the eternal world beyond material existence; while contraction describes the oppressive effect of the reasoning mind as it circumscribes the world with mechanical laws predicated on the “Cloven Fiction” of binary divisions (“The Keys,” For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise).

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Erick Beltrán, Laocoön’s Dream (2018). According to Beltrán, since the Greeks, we have re-perpetuated the same symbols of empire, conquest and monotheism. The question is, as with any system of power abuse, how to break the cycle? In Beltrán’s reading of the myth of Troy, Laocoön was able to see the war machine because he was able to read outside of the given in order to see what it really was. However, like the title of the installation, this is all still a dream; according to Beltrán, the majority of Mexicans continue to swallow the beguiling gift whole. Los Muertos Nos Previenen means ‘The Dead Warn Us’, the perennial message from the archetypal unconscious.

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Left Brain Morality vs. Right Brain Conscience

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Job’s God is actually Satan.

The principal architect of this dichotomous universe is the “Avenger” Satan, Jehovah’s agent of “Moral Virtues,” which are “continual Accusers of Sin & promote Eternal Wars & Dominency over others” rather than “the Religion of Jesus, Forgiveness of Sin” (Marginalia; Jerusalem, “To the Deists”). “Every Religion that Preaches Vengeance for Sin is the Religion of the Enemy & Avenger; and not of the Forgiver of Sin, and their God is Satan.”

According to Blake, “Conscience” is innate, “Self Evident Truth” (Marginalia); it is “the voice of God” as opposed to “Our judgment of right & wrong,” which is the voice of “Reason” or Satan, who sometimes appears to Blake as an Apollonian archer-god:

When Satan first the black bow bent

And the Moral Law from the Gospel rent

He forgd the Law into a Sword

And spilld the blood of mercys Lord

(Jerusalem, “To the Deists” [“I saw a Monk of Charlemaine”] 52.17-20)

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The same God, writing his Book of Accusations. Note the same twin Stone Tablets, like grave stones, again behind him.

Blake’s marvellous colour print Elohim Creating Adam is a similarly grim interpretation of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling fresco. Rather than a serpent, Adam is portrayed wound in the coils of a gigantic earthworm, symbol not of moral but natural law (the serpent of moral virtues torments Eve (Sin) in the companion print Satan Exulting over Eve, a mirror image of the former.


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“a mirror image of the former”: Elohim Exulting over Adam/Satan Creating Eve

To espouse moral virtue is to practice atheism, to embrace “Allegories & dissimulations” and deny “Visionary Fancy or Imagination” and “all Intellectual Gifts … of the Holy Ghost,” whereupon “only Contention remains to Man” (VLJ): “you cannot have Moral Virtue without the Slavery of that half of the Human Race who hate <what you call> Moral Virtue”. As Blake writes in the plate, “the Root of Good & Evil / [is] in The Accusation of Sin”.

By “eating the Tree of Knowledge for Satans Gratification” (VLJ), humanity suffers the deep sleep of reason, “the Sleep which the Soul may fall into in its deadly dreams of Good & Evil when it leaves Paradise [with] <following> the Serpent” and confounds itself in “Satans Labyrinth,” “puzzling themselves” about “what is Good & Evil or … Right or Wrong”. This moral entanglement, “The Combats of Good & Evil”, is symbolized in the plate by the two winding serpents, clearly identified by Blake as “Good” and “Evil”: “Serpent Reasonings us entice Of Good & Evil: Virtue & Vice” (“Keys” 7-8).

Although responsible for imposing his individual will upon Eternity, thereby creating the divided, vegetative universe, Blake’s Jehovah/Laocoön does not appear here as the tyrannical law-giver of the Israelites, author of “the basest & most oppressive of human codes … i.e. State Religion which is the Source of all Cruelty” (Marginalia); rather, he represents the awakening of “conscience,” a fallen god struggling to rouse himself from reasoning unconsciousness, “the Sleep of Ulro” (Jerusalem), and to extricate himself from the bonds of natural and moral law of which he, himself, is the creator: he “repented that he had made Adam / … & it grieved him at his heart” (Laocoön).

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“This apocalyptic realization comes when spiritual vision supersedes corporeal perception, and this requires a vigorous imaginative leap.” For Blake, Jesus was the divine program in the Human Brain that brought an end to Accusation, that is to say, an end to Sin. Jesus realised that his whole culture was being consumed and crippled by the idea of sin, or moral self-righteousness and accusation of others. “Jesus” came into the world, according to Blake, not to save us from “Sin” but to eradicate the whole notion of “Sin” or evil, which Blake (like Jesus) saw as standing in the way of God, of mutual relationships and human community, and of self-development. We are constantly thwarted, he observed, by our internalisation of this program, through the vicious Superego, or “Nobodaddy”. “For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?” (Matthew 9:5).

Truth alone is eternal; “Error is Created” (VLJ), and as Blake reminds us in the plate, “What can be Created / Can be Destroyed”; it is yet possible, through “Spiritual War” and “Mental Fight” (Milton, Preface), to shatter the “Vegetable Glass of Nature” and restore “the Permanent Realities of Every Thing” in the “World of Eternity,” “throwing off the Temporal that the Eternal might be Established” (VLJ). “Whenever any Individual Rejects Error & Embraces Truth a Last Judgment passes upon that Individual”.

This apocalyptic realization comes when spiritual vision supersedes corporeal perception, and this requires a vigorous imaginative leap. With his right leg drawn up and right arm extended towards heaven, Blake’s Jehovah/Laocoön appears to be making such a leap, but has not yet left the earth, nor escaped the trammels of poisonous moral virtue; his energetic figure represents “Mental Fight,” the precipitous moment between the lassitude of spiritual slumber and the apocalyptic ecstasy of visionary awakening. 

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This is an excerpt from William Blake’s Laocoön: The Genealogy Of A Form by Erik McCarthy. To read the full article, please click here.

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