Introduction: Blake’s Laocoön and the serpents of Morality
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.
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.
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.
The Laocoön Mindset: The Human Fall into Conquest and Civilisation
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.
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)
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).
Left Brain Morality vs. Right Brain Conscience
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)
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.
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).
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.
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.