‘The Human Form Divine’: Radicalism and Orthodoxy in William Blake, by Rowan Williams

The Human Imagination and the Eternal Body

 

Priests promoting Conflict and Soldiers promoting Peace

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

All pray in their distress;

And to these virtues of delight

Return their thankfulness.

 

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is God, our father dear,

And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is Man, his child and care.

 

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face,

And Love, the human form divine,

And Peace, the human dress.

 

Then every man, of every clime,

That prays in his distress,

Prays to the human form divine,

Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

 

And all must love the human form,

In heathen, Turk, or Jew;

Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too.

Blake might have been surprised to learn that these verses, ‘The Divine Image’, from Songs of Innocence, are sometimes printed – and sung – as a hymn. On their own, they are indeed a touchingly direct statement of a certain kind of Christian humanism, apparently optimistic and universalist – a suitable text for the enlightened, perhaps rather Tolystoyan, Christian who looks to Blake as part of his or her canon.

But Blake is a dialectical writer, to a rare and vertiginous degree, and to understand what a text like this means we also have to read his own reply to it – indeed, his own critique of it. The textual history of this dialogue is itself intriguing, as if he could not easily settle on how he was to ‘voice’ the necessary riposte. His first attempt, not finally included in the Songs of Experience, survives in a design from 1791 or 1792:

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Blake’s Christ-Consciousness, by Kathleen Raine

The Evolution of Vision

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BLAKE is only known to have attended a religious service three times in his life: he was baptized, in the year 1757, at the beautiful font of St. James’s, Piccadilly. He was married in Battersea Old Church; and at his own wish, his burial service (he died in 1827) was according to the rites of the Church of England. His admiration for such dissenters as John Wesley and William Law notwithstanding, he preferred the national Church to non-conformity; perhaps in part because of his love for those Gothic churches—and especially Westminster Abbey—in whose architecture he saw the true expression of the spirit, in contrast with Wren’s St. Paul’s, which he saw as a monument to Deism and human reason. His last great work was the splendid but incomplete series of illustrations to Dante; he admired St. Teresa of Avila, and the French Quietists, Fénélon and Mme Guyon, no less than the Protestant mystics, of whom two in particular—Jakob Boehme and Emmanuel Swedenborg—were his acknowledged masters.

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Blake contrasted the “Living Form” of Gothic (infinite, organic) with the cold rationalism of Wren’s “monument to Deism”: round, rational, and religious

He declared himself a Christian without reservation: “I still and shall to Eternity Embrace Christianity and Adore him who is the Express image of God” he declared. He never had any period of doubt, early or late. But what kind of Christian was our great visionary and national prophet?

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Ezekiel and the Burning Coal of Prophecy, by Rod Tweedy

Commodities and Idolatries

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The Nature of Appearances

The name Ezekiel is perhaps the most well known and celebrated of all the Old Testament prophets, referenced by everyone from Blake to Quentin Tarantino. The extraordinary vision which he saw of the chariot of God coming toward him burning with flashing fire, moving “wheel within wheel” and driven by strange four-headed winged cherubim, has seared itself into the vision of every succeeding generation.

img_5904What Ezekiel saw has been variously interpreted – as a record of a profound mystical experience (as in the extensive and esoteric Jewish merkabah tradition), a glimpse into the nature of God, a literary text that has inspired poets from Dante and Blake to T. S. Eliot and Yeats, and in more recent times as a record of a possible encounter with extraterrestrial beings – even as a statement of a traumatic and possibly schizophrenic episode that the prophet experienced two and a half thousand years ago near the Chebal canal “in the land of the Chaldeans” (southern Mesopotamia), where he and three thousand other Jews had been deported and lived in exile.

When I was a kid there was an American children’s drama series called Project UFO which began every episode with the words: “Ezekiel saw the wheel. This is the wheel he said he saw.” – accompanied by a diagram of Ezekiel’s supposed UFO. It was a striking way to capture a child’s attention, but like many modern-day takes on Biblical passages and experiences, was also an incredibly literalist and diminished interpretation of Ezekiel’s original vision. Interestingly, this peculiarly ‘left brain’ way of seeing reality and understanding imaginative truth was one that historically emerged in the very cultures that Ezekiel grew up in and was surrounded by – the technologically advanced, newly literate, post-Sumerian high-rise cultures of Babylon, Egypt and the Near East.

ezekiel_25_17_by_chronicrick-d51w168What is remarkable about Ezekiel’s vision is that it’s actually aimed directly at this new literalist way of seeing. For Ezekiel, seeing ‘things’ as if they were discreet, objectified, literal representations – as ‘idols’ (from Greek eidōlon, meaning image or shape, literally “appearance, reflection in water or a mirror”) both obscured and reified their inherently transcendental and interconnected, relational nature – their true value. As the following article suggests, in this he shares a striking similarity with another well-known social prophet, Karl Marx, who similarly exposed the ‘fetishistic’ nature of our modern belief in similar sorts of idols – commodities.

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Review of 2016

A New Year, A New Self, A New Politics

Thank you to everyone who’s followed the posts this year, left comments, suggested ideas, and supported thehumandivine project in its first year. Over the last twelve months we’ve posted a new blog each week, covering everything from Kabbalah and Brexit to neuroscience and the sexuality of God – all united by an approach rooted in William Blake’s imaginative and radical take on God. We hope this will be a useful resource for anyone wanting to explore Blake’s alternative vision and its relevance for today.

blake7-xmas-1But in 2017 thehumandivine is changing! From January the site is going to develop in new and exciting ways: instead of weekly articles there’ll be more in-depth monthly posts exploring key passages from the Bible (Book of Job, Ezekiel, etc) from a radical Blakean perspective, to help illuminate them and also to suggest their relevance to what’s happening today, and how these narratives and thought systems continue to shape both our inner and outer lives.

Blake read the Bible not as “the word of God” to be followed literally but as a profound record of the psychological evolution of humanity – its terrifying psychic splits and dissections, its self-alienation and state of “exile”, its fall into “division”, its capacity for forgiveness, and its longing for integration and wholeness.

We’re also hoping to develop the themes of the website in practical ways: there are plans to organise a conference next summer to explore the implications of Blake for contemporary theology and to see if the Church can be shifted more in a Blakean direction. The theme of the conference will be Blake’s observation: “The Vision of Christ that thou dost see Is my Vision’s Greatest Enemy” – and what he means by this. Watch this space!

 

Here’s a selection of some of the highlights from 2016:

tumblr_inline_mn9yw5yacg1qz4rgpNICK CAVE: The Flesh Made Word: A Poetic Interpretation

1-brexit-1ROD TWEEDY: William Blake, Brexit and the Re-Awakening of Albion

this-screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-22-12-40IAIN McGILCHRIST: William Blake and the Divided Brain

558386_440269706046483_367614937_nSHAMS TABRIZI: The 40 Rules of Love

ecstasy-1PETER ANDERSON: Poetry & Madness: Blake, Eigen & the Psychotic God

blake-a1-1-bigCHRISTOPHER Z. HOBSON: Anarchism and William Blake’s Idea of Jesus

image142-1ERIC PYLE: Blake’s Illustrations of Dante’s Hell

The Ghost of a Flea c.1819-20 by William Blake 1757-1827E.M. NOTENBOOM: From Hell: Alan Moore and William Blake

milton_pic-1ANDREI BURKE: The Secret World and Sexual Rebellion of William Blake

theatre2-jpeg-3SUSANNE M. SKLAR: Blake’s Jerusalem as Visionary Theatre

 

Happy Christmas!!

 

The Genius of Blake, by Philip Pullman

Keeping the Divine Vision in Time of Trouble

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There was no one like William Blake. There had been no one like him before and there has been no one like him since. He’s unique not only among English poets but among writers and artists from anywhere in the world. Poets and critics of his own time were unsure whether he was mad; Wordsworth thought he undoubtedly was but said there was something in Blake’s madness that interested him more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.

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William Blake and the Divided Brain, by Iain McGilchrist

The Infinite Brain and the Narrow Circle

The Blake Society Annual Lecture was this year given by Iain McGilchrist, whose remarkable book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World is widely regarded as one of the most important texts of the twenty-first century.

His extraordinary talk on William Blake shows how a profound understanding of contemporary neuroscience and hemispheric difference can illuminate and reveal hidden dimensions of Blake’s thought, a writer and thinker so at home with contraries, asymmetries, and the deep processes of the human brain. It is quite simply the best talk on Blake that has ever been given or is ever likely to be given. Prepare to have your hemispheres altered!

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The Political Meaning of the Nativity, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan

The Longing for Peace and Liberation from Contemporary Domination Systems

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Because of the importance of Christmas, how we understand the stories of Jesus’s birth matters. What we think they’re about – how we hear them, read them, interpret them – matters. They are often sentimentalised. And, of course, there is emotional power in them. But the stories of Jesus’s birth are more than sentimental. The stories of the first Christmas are both personal and political. They speak of personal and political transformation. Set in the first-century context, they are comprehensive and passionate visions of another way of seeing life and of living our lives.

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“they are about a different way of seeing”

They challenge the common life, the status quo, of most times and places. Even as they are tidings of comfort and joy, they are edgy and challenging. They confront “normalcy”, what we call “the normalcy of civilisation” – the way most societies, most human cultures, have been and are organised. The personal and political meanings can be distinguished but not separated without betraying one or the other. They are about us – our hopes and fears. And they are about a different kind of world. God’s dream for us is not simply peace of mind, but peace on earth.

 

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The Problem with Religion, by S. Foster Damon

All Religions are One

The Blasphemer c.1800 William Blake 1757-1827 Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05195

Religion, so Blake believed, was the basic problem of mankind. Early in his life he conceived the idea of a fundamental and universal religion that he developed throughout his life.

He was born in the third – Revolutionary –  generation of the eighteenth century. The orthodox Anglican Church had become devoted to place-hunting and was spiritually dead. The Dissenters considered themselves members of this church, but keep apart. Deism had captured the intellectual world and established the “Age of Reason” by denying all miracles and revelations. Generally the public was hostile to all religious controversies, which had been responsible for some of the bloodiest pages in religion. “Enthusiasm” was a term of contempt.

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The Great Selfhood Satan: The Pathological Nature of the Human Ego

William Blake, Eckhart Tolle, and the Obstacle to God

“Imagine a chief of police trying to find an arsonist when the arsonist is the chief of police” (Tolle)

I am your Rational Power O Albion & that Human Form

You call Divine, is but a Worm seventy inches long
That creeps forth in a night & is dried in the morning sun

In fortuitous concourse of memorys accumulated & lost …

So spoke the Spectre to Albion. he is the Great Selfhood

Satan: Worshipd as God by the Mighty Ones of the Earth

Having a white Dot calld a Center from which branches out

A Circle in continual gyrations (Blake, Jerusalem)

 

The Spectre

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“The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man,” Blake succinctly notes in Jerusalem, and throughout his works he consistently links the “spectral” or compulsive aspect of divided and divisive rationality with the contemporary form of human reason itself:

… it is the Reasoning Power
An Abstract objecting power, that Negatives every thing

This is the Spectre of Man, the Holy Reasoning Power
And in its Holiness is closed the Abomination of Desolation.

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Meeting Blake for the First Time, by Henry Crabb Robinson

Seeing Blake Plain

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Life mask of Blake, taken in 1823

“Of all the records of his latter years,” the poet and critic Swinburne once noted of Blake, “the most valuable, perhaps, are those furnished by Mr. Crabb Robinson, whose cautious and vivid transcription of Blake’s actual speech is worth more than much vague remark, or than any commentary now possible to give.” Others may have understood Blake better than Crabb Robinson – by profession a lawyer and journalist – but no one else was so attentive to his speech, which he carefully recorded in his private diaries (eventually published in 1869 as Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence).

The extraordinary accounts of his meetings with Blake help to answer some key questions: What did Blake sound like? How did he engage with others – what was it like to be in Blake’s company? Thanks to Crabbe Robinson’s remarkable and meticulously recorded entries, we can gain entry and access into Blake’s private world – a sense of what it was like to be the same room as Blake. And also to hear his thoughts – “on art, and on poetry, and on religion” as Crabb Robinson summarises it – including Blake’s view of the nature of imagination, the two Suns, having met Socrates, why there is suffering as well as joy in heaven, his criticism of Jesus, the prelapsarian union of the sexes, Wordsworth’s atheism, and why education is the great sin.

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