Why Mr Blake Cried: Monogamy, Matrimony and the Mind-Forg’d Manacles
In his fascinating exploration of the ideological status and function of traditional marriage and the role of ‘family values’, Theodore W. Jennings shows how in the Bible Jesus actually radically subverts these institutions and ways of relating, seeking to replace them with more inclusive, equal, and genuinely socially integrative forms of living. It is interesting in this respect that one of the first things that spiritual communities do is to replace the atomising, inward-looking, emotionally toxic and politically hierarchical structure of the ‘family’ with more open and egalitarian forms of living. Though in contemporary society, as in Jesus’s day, ‘The Family’ is held up as integral to its power structure and affective organisation of stratified, socially isolated, inward-looking, and hierarchical power dynamics, which the institution of The Family both transmits and reflects, another way of living, and of being is possible.
Breaking the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ that weld us to these old ways of thinking – and more importantly ways of feeling – was one of the central tasks of Jesus’s mission, and was both echoed and developed by the generation of radical poets and thinkers of Blake’s day, including Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Rousseau, and of course Blake himself. Before a more awakened and liberated form of society can emerge, Blake suggests, we have to transcend our existing shackles (it is no coincidence that Jennings for example calls one of his chapters ‘Marriage, Family, and Slavery’ – echoing Wollstonecraft’s earlier critique of this institution for the regressive and toxic situations and spaces it generates). And in order to do that, we first need to understand what the concept of The Family actually is.
Consciousness and Revolution
The previous post reprinted Blake’s Europe a prophecy, written shortly after the French Revolution and depicting the political and psychological womb out of which it emerged. His illustrations and text are dense, poetic, and richly ambiguous. Here I unpack some of the main themes of the poem, which revolve around Blake’s critique of materialism, and explore the psychological subtext of the poem. As Paley notes, the function of the prophetic form for Blake was “to expose the otherwise hidden motives and consequences of human decisions”. Blake’s concept of ‘prophecy’ is therefore a form of political psychoanalysis, a powerful new way of going under the skin of contemporary events and accessing the deep psychological and sexual dynamics that lie behind both religious and political structures. This superimposition of different fields of reference (simultaneously political, sexual, religious, psychological) is one of the things that makes Blake’s works so striking and distinct, as well as so dense and multivalent. It is also a feature of his thinking that he has in common with modern psychoanalytic approaches. As Adam Phillips notes:
You can only understand anything that matters — dreams, neurotic symptoms, literature — by overinterpreting it; by seeing it from different aspects as the product of multiple impulses. Authority wants to replace the world with itself. Overinterpretation means not being stopped in your tracks by what you are most persuaded by; it means assuming that to believe one interpretation is to radically misunderstand the object one is interpreting, and indeed interpretation itself.
Blake located the source of contemporary struggle in a specific complex of psycho-social structures and dynamics, which we still see being played out and repeated in contemporary European politics. Until we learn to understand and recognise these processes, Blake believed, we will be doomed to repeat the same underlying cycle again and again: a world where revolution becomes simply endless re-cycling.