William Blake in the Universe of Knowledge:
Philosophy, Genres, & Critical Method

Excerpts from Public & Private Discussions

by Ralph Dumain

Blake in the Universe of Knowledge

Date: Wed, 3 Apr 1996 22:09:05 -0800 (PST)

There are many things I have to say about Blake to various people and audiences, and what I have been discussing in this thread is just one of them. Here I have not been so much concentrating on the content of Blake's message, but on Blake as a mode of knowledge in the historical universe of knowledge. Bear with me and we will shall see whether this is a trivial exercise or something much more profound. Perhaps the reasons for my own sense of urgency will unfold.

Naturally, I am not the first person to recognize that poetic/symbolic communication is different from literal discursive communication, nor is Blake the only one who had profound truths to communicate symbolically rather than literally. Nor do I think that Blake could have written it all in plain English in expository form and he only chose to encode his ideas in mythic form for fear of state repression. There are consequences for the fact that he chose to express himself and apparently thought in the way that he did, as well as consequences for the fact that I am expressing myself in quite the opposite manner with a very different ostensible ontological commitment. Now, when Blake makes a statement, do we interpret his statement or its motive as being the exact same as someone who makes a statement, even one that reads similarly, in quite another mode of discourse based on a different way of thinking or different priorities, say in a philosophical essay? How do we relate the two different sets of statements and the ways of thinking and their motives?

Do you think this is a pointless intellectual exercise? Very well, when we try to relate Blake to science, to Newton, or to Plato, or to liberation theology, or to anything else we know in our universe of knowledge—things that may matter to us a great deal in constructing a picture of the totality of our world and the meanings of its contents—we are up against this question.

Take a statement such as "man is all imagination." Taken as a simple proposition, it's not one I would make. I imagine Blake meant what he said. Now we can just leave it as a proposition to be debated pro or con, or we can try to re-create in ourselves the psychological, cognitive experience that would lead to such a statement. What must it be like for a man of imagination, whose center of meaning comes from his own symbolic approach to the world, to look out on what according to the world of industrial capitalism is an external universe of dead objects, the land of Ulro? If I try, I can recreate something like that psychological approach to the world in my own head, and it's something I can empathize with, though I may not literally believe that to be true. Now if somebody sat down and wrote an essay trying to prove in a literal mode that the physical world is an illusion, an idea in my brain, etc., in the same way that one would argue any other issue in a logical manner, why should I assume that that person is coming from the same place Blake is, has the same motives for making the statement, or has experienced the content of this proposition in the same way?

[Comment on Blake & Ginsberg]

It might be quite a job to prove that certain of Blake's statements represent an entirely different experience and attitude from similar statements made by Plato, Plotinus, Berkeley, etc., but then we just might have evidence to show that something different was going on with Blake. Perhaps Plato's God, like the other Greek gods, was just a mathematical diagram.

There is already plenty of scholarship to demonstrate that Blake's contrary engagement with Newton is not simple know-nothing nostalgia for superstition and ignorance, nor is his problem Newton's physical theories per se. Blake is not even arguing on that level. The threat of Newton's naturalism to Blake's imagination is not any insipid fear that knowledge of the laws of nature would unweave a rainbow, no imbecilic nostalgic yearning for a creed outworn, no sentimental crap about how listening to the learned astronomer is a drag on just looking up at the stars. The one-dimensionality that Blake fears from the scientific imagination as embedded in the kind of society he lives in is in fact the same one-dimensionality that can be found in childish anti-scientific irrationalism or the dehumanizing ideological idiocy of turning quantum mechanics into a spiritual path. Blake is operating on an entirely different level.

Had Blake been a different kind of person, he would have criticized British empiricism and mechanical materialism in a very different manner, with an analytical apparatus that could have challenged this world view in a different way. Given his background in Christian radicalism, his imaginative life, his taking his psychological experience of the world as real, etc. etc., he formulated his critique of empiricism and reductive naturalism that leaves man a grovelling little root outside of himself in a different way than I would. (What did he understand or even care about Newton's physics, literally speaking, after all?) I'm willing to respect that Blake and I are travelling in different ontological modes, but then again there might be a real kinship between the two that accounts for my capacity to relate to him.

So the historical importance of Blake as a certain kind of teacher is not only in what he has to teach, but in the fact that he can teach us things, given his social position and using his methods, that Plato nor Aristotle nor Aquinas nor the whole lot of state tricksters have ever been able to teach nor could even dream of, since they would have undermined the justification for their own existence. Long before Feuerbach decided it was his mission to bring this whole tradition tumbling down, and before Marx completed the process by tying alienated consciousness to the division of labor and morally destroying forever the privileged position of the state intellectual as bearer of universal truth, Blake figured out the essentials of this whole problem, and formulated them in a peculiar language, based on symbols known and invented.

Sometime I will show why Jesus as destroyer of the Moral Virtues of the heathen is so important. In real history, this fictional character of Jesus did far less for humanity's development than the invention of the flush toilet, but in the system of Blake, Jesus as the annihilator of the moral system of the silly Greek and Latin slaves of the sword and all like them is critical and revolutionary.

These are just a few examples of what it means to situate Blake in the universe of knowledge. It is not an academic exercise at all—it's about the question of how we make sense out of our world and the tools around us we use to do so. It's a question as deep as human subjectivity itself—deep, deep, that's how deep it is.

Living in a society where the dominant spiritual forces are the Christian Coalition and the Nation of Islam, please believe that I feel an urgency in my work you can scarcely imagine.

(Ralph Dumain, 4 April 1996, 1:00 am EST, in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Thu, 14 Mar 1996 18:37:51 -0800 (PST)
"divinely inspired" what?

I am aware that poetry is not philosophy. My notion of systematicity is closer to Richard Blumberg's. Let me add also that I do not believe in an systematically airtight symbolic system. When I think of extracting a philosophy out of Blake, I proceed differently than Frye, for example. . . . I don't believe that all of Blake's symbolic structures are so tightly ordered that they can be turned into an axiomatic system. I suspect that if Blake could have presented his ideas in the discursive expository manner that philosophers do he would have done so. It does not seem likely to me that Blake worked out his ideas in the usual manner philosophers do, then encoded them into poetry, and left it for us to decode them back into the original frame of logically ordered abstract concepts. I don't think he thought this way, but I do think his thinking was remarkably systematic in ways that count. The symbolic form is a remarkable, even a unique way to conceptualize and communicate certain ideas. Could "Mock on, mock on" be communicated in any other way? "The Smile"? "The Mental Traveller"?

The idea is not to equate Blake with the usual philosophical discourse but to set up a fruitful comparison and let the sparks fly. I don't think Blake could have written what Hegel wrote, but I think Blake was light years ahead of all the Germans put together in certain respects. I'll take Blake's revolutionary Los and universal divine humanity over Hegel's petty bourgeois Geist any day. Philosophers think that thinking is their private property, but they are sadly mistaken. They are the most
conservative and bewildered of people. They don't laugh at my jokes. This is a sign of deep superficiality.

What Is Philosophy?

Mon, 23 Jun 1997 16:19:10 -0400

My interest in defining philosophy is not to impose such a rigid definition upon "philosophy" so as to make it completely discontinuous with "non-philosophy." Attempts to do so themselves pose interesting philosophical problems, as in Hegel or Hountondji. Whatever the roots and continuities one can find in formal philosophy as growing out of informal philosophy or folk wisdom, the fact that philosophy has evolved to a higher stage of formalization, elaboration, and abstractness is my point of departure. This higher stage is what philosophy essentially is and ought to be today. This is not to dismiss the philosophical content of less formalized thinking, but what makes philosophy "philosophy" is the extraction and explicit elaboration of the implicit logical structure of any given intellectual expression. Philosophy for me is the systematic investigation of the most general categories, concepts, and abstract ideas, their relations among themselves, and their relationship to concrete reality. Above all, philosophy is not merely the what (what one thinks, the beliefs one holds) but the how and why, the method and the underlying structure of thinking.

Hence for me the heart of philosophy is ontology, epistemology, and logic. Why, because it is their level of abstraction that serves as the basis for investigating the various domains of philosophical reflection. Of course I know there are recognized branches of philosophy such as aesthetics, ethics, political philosophy, etc. But what makes these areas something other than possible laundry lists of concrete assertions about this and that? The underlying methods, the logical investigations, the systematic conceptions of knowledge and reality that underlie assertions of an ethical, aesthetic, or political nature. . . .

Now please don't misunderstand my intent here. I have no academic turf to police. I despise the corruption and mediocrity of hackademia. I have no need to defend an absolute division of intellectual labor that cordons off "philosophy" from everything else. My point is to emphasize the level of abstraction at which "philosophy" works at its peak. Of course philosophical commitments, notions, ideas, systems, and doctrines can be and are embedded within a variety of genres. But philosophy, or any scientific method of analysis, ultimately serves to make the underlying logical structures of these systems explicit. One could, I suppose, analyze the philosophical system embedded in another person's poetry by writing a poem of one's own in response, as Blake did in "Milton." However, ultimately, the critic (or philosopher) is going to analyze the conceptual system in question in prose, as a logically connected, systematic investigation, explicit rather than metaphorical or implicit. In sum, my interest here is not to overvalue or devalue certain genres or the capacity of various people to think, but to show that productive philosophy in our age involves logical elaboration, abstraction, and explicitness as its evolutionary dynamic.

But this is not to say that people who have professionally monopolized the skills of symbol manipulation are inherently sophisticated thinkers while others are not. The reverse can often be proved to be the case. I think however that what makes philosophy philosophical is its underlying method, whether that exists implicitly or explicitly, in logical or metaphorical form. I think first and foremost of William Blake, the most revolutionary poet of all time, a cranky autodidact who lived his entire life locked in mortal combat with official culture and "western philosophy", who could not have written a philosophical treatise in the manner of Hegel but nonetheless had an underling methodology that gave him insights that far outdistanced all of the "philosophy" of his time. However, we who build on Blake's work do not work in the same poetic mode as he did, but in the mode of systematic analysis.

. . . . I do not begrudge the intellectual abilities of any of the literary, political, or social science people commandeered without their consent into the forging of a so-called philosophical tradition. I think that creative writers are very acute and astute, far more acute than "philosophers", as thinkers. For example, there is a rich mine of conceptual content, including philosophical content, in the work of Ralph Ellison. The problem is not with him or even people who cite him, but with those who would incorporate him into the genre "philosophy" while obscuring the nature and purposes of that genre and refusing to do justice themselves to what makes it a genre. . . .

Now what about the question of the practical goals of philosophy, and its relation to politics? I have said before and I'll say it again, that something can only be useful based upon what it really is. You can't be useful to anyone unless you've got some real skills to provide. Philosophy's skills are conceptual. Hence to define philosophy or its goal as to serve the people . . . is pretentious nonsense, manipulative ideology. If I were to define chemistry or physics in this way you would laugh at me. Philosophy is a mode of cognition and that is the only way it can be useful, and that is what makes it so useful, to penetrate beneath phenomenal appearances and ideological smokescreens to uncover the underlying essence of any phenomenon or picture of reality. To obscure the nature of philosophy as a quest for objective reality beyond mere appearance is the mission of the petty bourgeois intellectual who has lost faith in reason and now recognizes only brute force . . . .

Now what about the political determinants of philosophy itself, given that it doesn't fall pure from the heavens? Don't let all this social democratic palaver about situated knowledges and context fool you, unless you want to be a fool! For this vacuous conceptual jumble is not what it pretends to be. There is of course a relationship between philosophical positions and the social forces that produce them, and a relationship between society (politics) and philosophy. But to merely reduce the conceptual content of philosophy to mere "interests" in abstracto, and mere social-situatedness in abstracto, including using that little gimmick of trotting out the holy trinity of race, gender, and class (but keeping the last of these three from being taken too seriously) for show, is the ruse of petty bourgeois cynical reason, and has neither method nor substance in it.

I have said that Plato is what you get when the ruling class discovers the power of abstraction. And I'll add: the ruling class of a society having evolved a certain mode of production and division of labor, essentially, not to be reduced to the phenomenal form of the Greeks, not the Europeans, not white males, and obviously in this case not heterosexuals. I have not said what about Plato's philosophy expresses the bias of the ruling class, nor have I specified what is of permanent and objective value that can be extracted from what Plato discovered, because after all, the intellectuals in class society have made real advances in knowledge, even while distorting reality to serve their needs and enthrone themselves as the embodiments of reason and universality. . . .

Blake, Interpretation, & Genre

Mon, 4 Aug 1997 23:37:44 -0700 (PDT)
Tim's Division of W.B.'s works (CRITICAL READING!)

At 03:28 PM 8/4/97 -0500, Jim WATT posted something really interesting:

Point Two: What he did have to say about this kind of critical reading (ie. applying genre and other formal critical tools) suggests we be pretty cautious about our own conclusions: "Fable is Allegory but what Critics call the Fable is Vision itself The Hebrew Bible & the Gospel of Jesus are not Allegory but Eternal Vision or Imagination of all that exists." (A Vision of the Last Judgement) (Erdman, 554)

Point Three: there are pretty obvious structural parallels between MHH, Book of Urizen, Milton & Jerusalem which demonstrate a need for a subtler critical vocabulary than the one we currently employ. Though there are parodic and ironic elements to all these works, they are NOT parodies and their irony is at least as difficult to state as is Euripides'. Furthermore, the provocative (and complex!) relationship between the earlier and later states of "For the Sexes" require us to be equally suspicious of simple readings of All Religions are One & "There is No Natural Religon."

This question as to how Blake himself would have wanted his works interpreted is a most profound one. . . .

I have not thought through how Blake would answer this question, but the recurring controversies on this list have made me ponder the question in general. The most obvious problem is that interpretation is of a different order or genre than poetry itself. If one could do criticism of one author by writing another literary work, say Milton, that is one possibility, but none of us on this list is doing that. We are writing in expository prose trying to explain, whether logically or incoherently, the meaning of what we read. Would Blake have tolerated any attempt to elucidate his ideas, or would he have rejected them all? Somebody asserted that Blake would be far more sympathetic to table-tippers than to academic Blake scholars, supposing that I am one of the latter, which I am not. Well, scholarship may seem too analytical and cold-blooded to some, but I don't look at it that way, and I have no stake in defending any academic industry. I don't believe that the said individual was correct in his assessment, either. My point here is that if we are going to make an effort to elucidate Blake's ideas at all, we have certain obligations, the nature of which can be debated, but which are still to my thinking different obligations from those incurred by people who make the poetry and visual art. Yet the literal, logical, expository mode in which we may be obligated to write may be (I'm not certain) anathema to what Blake would have wanted himself, even though it is entirely possible that in our own way we could do some justice (if not full) to what he actually had to say, including imposing rational standards upon our arguments and explanations that Blake seemingly rejected.

So I'm really interested in whatever light could be shed on Blake's own possible notions about his reception, or about attempts at understanding or explanation. I am certain that Blake would not be satisfied with rational explanations (for reasons I may clarify in the future), first of all because they cannot do justice to the imaginative experience Blake underwent and wanted others to have, but Blake's own possible canons for potential interpreters seems to be a virgin subject for discussion.

So Jim Watt, please elaborate, and others join in, preferably those with a penchant for logical thinking even about the a-logical.

Comparative Studies: Blake vs Philosophy & Doctrines

Tue, 5 Aug 1997 22:26:54 -0700 (PDT)
Tim's Division ....(CRITICAL READING!)

At 02:18 PM 8/5/97 -0500, WATT wrote:

I support your suggestion that we need to employ coherent prose and observe the ordinary standards of exposition and argument. W.B. certainly wouldn't object to that—the marginalia are as often the sketches for serious argument as they are expostulation. And the Vision of Last Judgement, the Catalogs and the Public Address are all instances of W.B. entering vigorously into the general aesthetic and moral issues of the day.

These examples are important, not to mention the more prose-like statements in the prophetic poems, e.g. protests against bloated general forms, generalizing and abstracting, negation and contraries. Of course I think many of Blake's poetic statements are coherent and logical as well—The Smile, Mary, I Feared the Fury of My Wind, etc.; but these constitute a different mode of communication than declarative statements through expository prose.

I can't say I'm up on the critical literature, but I'll bet there is much virgin territory to be explored in the relation between figurative communication and the literal in Blake, beyond the statements that have been made here that Blake recognized his own prophecies to be fiction though divinely inspired. At the risk of being incoherent and disconnected, let me just adduce a laundry list of considerations that suggest that the issues have not been thought out all the way.

1. Blake has been compared to philosophers he did or might have read, from Plato to Berkeley, not to mention others he didn't and those who postdate him. I believe the putative affinities are mistaken and greatly exaggerated.

2. In reading the publication put out by the Swedenborg Foundation, Opposition Is True Friendship, I was not only put off by Swedenborgianism but became more convinced than ever that Blake was not setting down some kind of a doctrine. (Which is why I'm discomfited with Pam's doctrinal formulations about Blake—divine love, etc.) Swedenborgianism is dull and bureaucratic, substitutes a finished product for an active process. Totally different from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

3. Reminding me that Blake wrote he was against ceremonies and preferred the active life. What is the active life? It is artistic production, to be sure, but also the active life of imagination itself. Not the product, but the process, the creative experience.

4. Blake says he doesn't regard the outward creation at all. This is a key, if scarcely believable statement. It is believable of course, in that Blake resists succumbing to the outward creation with all his might. This stance affects his attitude fundamentally to matters of the literal. You might say that in this Blake is similar to other traditional mystics and philosophers. I do not believe this, esp. in the case of philosophers. All ruling class philosophy and state religion has a vested interest in the outward creation, esp. in keeping it under control, no matter what its representatives say, and this is one more reason I don't believe Blake has anything in common with Plato.

5. "Tell me the acts O historian, and I'll reason on them as I please." In his appropriation of historical information, including the information contained in sacred books, Blake has a peculiar approach that I don't think has been adequately explored. There was a very interesting essay on Blake and history in Historicizing Blake. Point being, Blake comments on the literal "facts" in the prophetic, poetic mode. Here is a key to his approach to knowledge.

6. I do not believe that either conventional mystics or conventional philosophers are doing the same thing as Blake at all. (Has anybody gotten to the bottom of what Blake means as a way of knowing?) Hence, while some may feel that my mission to place Blake in the secular universe of knowledge is not the same thing that Blake would have wanted, it actually is my way of paying respect to Blake, from this side of eternity, not only in what he is to me (which is not arbitrary or self-indulgent, whatever else it may be lacking), but possibly also what he was to himself.

Motivation & Sources

Wed, 6 Aug 1997 11:08:38 -0700 (PDT)
Tim's Division ....(CRITICAL READING!) -Reply

I am reminded yet again of my unfulfilled obligations, to submit myself to the discipline of sorting out what in Blake must ultimately be attributed to his sources, references, and literary/symbolic/religious conventions, esp. of his immersion in the Bible . . . and what is best explained by turning mythology on its head and delineating Blake's possible underlying motivations that would explain his attachment to particular notions. Clearly, many of the particulars of Blake's landscape cannot be explained while ignoring the material he is working with. On the other hand, I think much of Blake's stuff, including many of his religious/esoteric notions, are better explained "materialistically", in other words, in terms of the motivations (not doctrines) that Blake had in holding them. For example, I believe that Blake's fixation (no pejorative connotations intended) on the forgiveness of sins as the characteristic that distinguishes his Christ from all pagan philosophy is not to be explained in terms of Blake's religious beliefs; rather, the doctrine itself is to be explained in what Blake sees in this notion, not as an abstraction, but in the context of life lived and the political structure of society. This is true also with the false tongue beneath Beulah, and I could enumerate many other examples. One can learn more from referring mythologies back to the life experiences which give rise to them than from the mythologies taken at their own valuation. Also, this is the source of what grabs and convinces people who don't count themselves as doctrinal believers or adherents—conversing with the devils who all hate religion, as Blake would say.

Blake and Genre and Method

Wed, 13 Aug 1997 23:56:24 -0700 (PDT)
Blake and Genre and Method

At 03:07 PM 8/13/97 -0700, Marcus Rudolf Brownell wrote such an excellent post, I hope he will permit a public response, as these matters concern all.

I absolutely agree as to the importance of three cardinal points that help to explain Blake's epistemology:

1) the importance of actively entering into the images,

2) the importance of reading (the Bible) in the visionary, diabolical sense,

3) the importance of determining the meaning of prophecy.

If anything, these points make it excruciatingly clear as to how different Blake was from the conventional "philosopher" even while engaging in high-level philosophical inquiry. Also, how different Blake's mode of expression is from most of us in the mode of logical explication most of the time. I've thought of (1) and (2) before, but I never thought about (3), let alone all three as an ensemble. This is very exciting.

Just a few comments on these points.

(1) This idea entered my head fairly recently. I think it has much to do with Blake rejecting ceremonies in favor of the active life (this is part of the active life, to recreate the imaginative experience rather than expounding doctrines), or to put it slightly differently, Blake's propensity to engage experiential realities (the source of myths) instead of propagandizing doctrines (Swedenborg's spiritual bureaucratic crap). This also relates to the literal imagination but also seeing through not with the eye.

(2) Diabolical reading (representing energy which also lies beneath the superstructure of ideas) justifies how Blake can be a heretic while still claiming to be a Christian, and his methods of correcting religion, Milton, etc. I am also convinced that diabolical reading is tied very tightly to the idea of "Tell Me the Acts O Historian", Blake's view of history and the historical record as well as of sacred books. Perhaps we should also think of Blake's rejection of the outward creation.

(3) Could prophecy have to do with whether Blake regarded his own works as fiction, albeit visionary? Blake does make some comments about his visionary experiences indicating a sophisticated relationship to them—no finite organical perception, etc.

. . . . Also appreciated your comments about (1) sources and influences, (2) meaning of reference to Isaiah.

One final remark: my interest in genres of communication is not intended to reduce the issues involved to mere phenomenal matters of language and literary form. On the contrary, it is a way of approaching the ontological issues, and especially the relation between the worlds of thought and the outward creation. To appreciate the differences is to approach the decisive distinction between Blake and idealist philosophers, to understand why astrology is taxonomic trivia at best and oppressive reactionary cosmology at worst, and to realize why quantum mechanics has no spiritual content of any kind—just to allude to certain people's shallow fixations.

Thu, 14 Aug 1997 20:03:17 -0700 (PDT)
Blake and Genre and Method

At 09:21 AM 8/14/97 -0700, Steve Perry wrote:

One of the points I was making in my all to laconical post of late is that the method of speech reveals the motive. As speech itself is political, it is important to understand the motive within the subtext. What is truly amazing in Blake in particular and Poetry in general is that the subtext of the speech is the creation or at least the attempt of moving us into an unfamiliar world where familiar truths become bared in unfamiliar light, and therefore made new.

Good stuff.

This stripping away of context is exactly the opposite of most philosophical and political writing, which makes points by carefully creating a context that will lead the reader to an intentionally engendered conclusion.

I love this point about context. I've noticed that all the lefties n' liberals now worship context. I think this reflects how deeply academics are enmeshed in bureaucratic structures. If you took away their context, they would fall to pieces. I almost gave an intellectual-political semi-comrade a heart attack by denouncing her worship of context in a lecture she gave.

One speech is argumentative and persuasive while the other is revelatory or even prophetic.

In other words, Blake is not trying to prove a doctrine to you dear reader, but to show you a model of reality as he experiences it and let its self-evidence shine through.

I understand Ralph's concern about the speech that enwraps astrology, quantum physics and much "new age" doggerel. It tends to use metaphor and symbol in systems instead of "setting another before one". At the same time though I am sympathetic regarding the difficulty of talking holistically about the world with everyday speech which on the face of which is anything but holistic. Symbolic systems are a way of bringing larger truths into everyday reality. Poetic speech is away of bringing everyday reality in contact with the sublime. The Urizenic is putting the system over, or on top of reality before we experience it. The speech of Los or Poetic speech lays reality naked, and seduces us towards innocence.

I don't quite understand this. Your narrative is coded in a way unfamiliar to me. All I can do is share my own complaint: postmodern writing represents to me a regression to metaphorical infantilism (signaling a collapse in the face of fascism), being neither literal nor symbolic, but an ambiguous in-between, neither science nor myth, but a mythical form of quasi-scientific explanation, like Lacan or the shit Homi Bhabha writes. All I can say is: Kiss my tropes.

Inner & Outer & Non-Identity

Thu, 14 Aug 1997 21:18:32 -0700 (PDT)
external or internal inspiration

I am not convinced by M.T. Smith's argument . . . .

One recent thread discussed the distinction between "outer" inspiration "imposed" on the poet from outside, and "inner" inspiration arising from the poet's own initiative. . . . For us, especially if we value the empirical world over the imaginative one (and almost all of the discussion that I remember did so tip the balance), the distinction between outer and inner can seem important.

I believe this assertion comes from false premises. The distinction does not rest upon prioritizing the outer empirical (I won't even touch the question of the inner empirical.) When Blake says he sees the heavenly host and not a flaming disk the size of a guinea when gazing upward, some kind of a distinction is being addressed, even if it be the prelude to the reconstruction of a greater unity.

In MHH all deities reside in the human breast, not because Blake is a solipsistic idealist, but because there is no separation between human and divine.

Something is missing here. It seems to me that Blake is aiming at both distinction and reversal. Distinction in not confusing finite organical perceptions with the identification of deities. Reversal in inverting the usual casual prioritization of outer to inner. If the cosmos and the original man were one, and the original man were all imagination, then we can understand the meaning of what the human breast is and what resides in it.

However, Blake does reject the outer creation, not because he believes in dualism, but because he needs to effect the reversal. Something is wrong in the world itself and not merely because we refuse to get with the program (Brahmin BS). That the world came to be where the external perspective dominates marks the primordial crime.

So when a recent poster said that Blake realized that his visions were "fictions," I think that the term is very misleading. There is a wholeness in Blake's vision that simply obliterates that distinction.

Something is missing here. True I believe that the terminology of "fiction" may be problematic, but Blake himself hints at the complexities of the ontological status of prophecies even while possibly engaging in conflation. Conflation perhaps is where "belief" enters in.

Now if somebody wanted to contradict me, I'd be interested in an explanation of Blake's republican forehead, the Lavater annotations, and those bats who have left the brains of those who won't believe. If Blake is trying to say that the outward is a sign of the inward, we have to be careful of where we want to go with this, for Blake doesn't believe in fitted and fitting, and believes that the outward creation is an obstruction. Furthermore, Blake is out to destroy the cosmological postulate of the ruling class: "As above, so below." In effect, Blake is telling the astrologers: "Kiss my black ass!"

The Sacred, the Secular, the Symbolic

Fri, 15 Aug 1997 02:23:28 -0700 (PDT)
external or internal inspiration

Thanks to Mark Trevor Smith for the clarifications. Not only clarifies, but illuminates.

At 11:41 PM 8/14/97 CDT, MTS231F@vma.smsu.edu wrote:

Some Blake lovers would love to rescue Blake from himself by denying that he really believed that he saw those visions. He did see them, but how is the question.


Not in any finite organical way, but in another way, a way of viewing that does not question the mechanics of the eye but surpasses it.

Quite a delicate ontic position to describe.

Sometimes he rejects the outer creation, but not always. For example, the praise of the wiry bounding line is a praise of creation. Sex is not only evidence of the Fall, but is also a means of recapturing the unity that has been lost. Fall and Creation are disasters, but that does not mean that they should or can be avoided. They are part of the whole picture.

That is true. Blake avoids dualism, asceticism, and even escapism. Blake negates Plato. . . .

"Conflation perhaps is where 'belief' enters in." And this really intrigues me. What do you mean?

Perhaps this relates to Damrosch's relentless "secular" approach that you criticized, and maybe to that delicate ontic position described above. I don't want to take short-cuts, which is why I have alluded several times to doing justice to Blake from this side of eternity. That is why I brought up the question of genres, not to reduce the problem to modes of communication, but to show, again from this side of eternity, the ontological issues implied in the different genres. Criticism may be as obscurantist as you like, but inasmuch as it is committed to a logical, prose-like mode of exposition, to some extent it must be committed to a "scientific", "secularized" analysis of Blake. I believe this is even the fate of the most spiritualized explanations, not spirituality in the sense of blasting away surface appearances to enter the depths of human nature, but in the sense of occultist, supernatural, or metaphysically religious explanations. When Blake gets explained by esoteric doctrines, he might as well be Swedenborg, though an improved model.

Then there is the reality of symbolic communication and whom Blake reaches. There are a number of highly militant atheists among Blake fans, including me. Blake does not reach these people by getting them to accept doctrines contrary to their sensbilities and commitments, because Blake is not fundamentally trying to "prove" anything, but show us the truths behind human experience. Blake, as a product of the modern world, of modernism itself, cannot assume, like the Catholic Church, that symbolism can be bureaucratically deployed in the service of already accepted doctrine in a top-down fashion. Rather, Blake's ideas have to "prove" themselves from the bottom-up, not exactly inductively, but something like that. They have to convince not only the religious but the devils who all hate religion. They prove themselves true by constructing a convincing model of human experience, of human reality. One doesn't have to "believe" in anything contrary to sense.

Yet it would seem Blake goes beyond this, not everywhere, but overall. Blake does believe in eternal life, life after death, apparently, when these vegetable bodies perish. I can't go there. "Fear and hope are vision"—a highly tense statement, isn't it? Blake recognizes that he is walking on a tightrope, that he needs that leap of faith to get him over what is otherwise completely an empirical approach to the world, from the inside out! And if man is all imagination, it means Blake believes in the reality of his imagination, not like most idealists, i.e. projecting their fantasies onto external reality, but in the sense that imagination is the true home of humanity, of the entire cosmos, rather than a projection of the perishing body. Do you see the subtlety of this position? Conflation is the motor of belief, when that belief goes beyond "believe and try", when that trying reaches for life after death.

I came really close to feeling this way about 20 years ago, and it is a thin line to walk, but at the end of the day I am still a materialist. I can almost put myself in Blake's position, but not quite.

(From the first days of 1980, the year of Reagan's election, I had occasion after occasion to deal with the growing irrationalism around me, seeing the intellectual swing to the right that I noticed had infected the academy in those few years I lost contact with it completely, and then I decided I had to be absolutely clear about what I stood for, and also not to put up with the counterculture crap around me any longer. If the astrologer piss-ants need to know, I studied all the fraudulent mystical popularizers of quantum mechanics with scrupulous thoroughness, and had to spend countless man hours explaining to my friends why it was all bullshit, and why it portended the advent of fascism. Astrology and the occult (I read some justifications of astrology too) are very intimately tied in with fascism, and I noticed that every single devotee of such ideas I knew, without exception, was in the grip of some very reactionary thinking and incapacity to grasp the dynamics of this world. As below, so above!)

In any event, it will take a lot of convincing to make me think this is equivalent to Plato, or Berkeley, or for that matter Dilthey. I don't believe it.

The Greek gods, or perhaps the Greek realm of the Ideal, may all really have been just mathematical diagrams. The idealism produced by Reason is hard for me to understand. I thought objective idealism was nonsense, and I could not understand what made it plausible, and then I read an obscure book called The Philosophy of Spinoza and Brunner by Walter Bernard (New York: Spinoza Institute of America, 1934), which set it all out brilliantly (including the superiority of Hegel to Kant), and once I gained a glimmer of the precious secrets of objective idealism, I laughed and laughed! How exquisitely tautological. No wonder Blake rejected Reason. Remember, Reason is not just Blake and Newton and Locke and Descartes (who perfected the philosophy of five senses), Reason is Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas and the Catholic Church and hosts of other mass murderers. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell finishes these people off.

Your characterization of Blake's position is brilliant, but you see even you are caught up in the ambiguities both of Blake's position and trying to explain it.

There is one thing I am quite sure of: it is one of the shocking flashes of illumination I have experienced in the past week and a half. Blake was no free-associating space cadet, just spouting any old random drivel like certain spiritualist airheads . . . : he tested his visions in the heartless, unforgiving crucible of daily, empirical, rough and tough reality. Oh yes he did! In the past few days I have experienced epiphany after epiphany in the shocking conversions and inversions between inwardness and outwardness, in my every interaction with every person with whom I have come into contact. And I know what that phrase means that the Christian religion teaches that no man is indifferent to you and will be equally useful to you either way as friend or enemy if you use him as he deserves. A hard statement, a hard-assed statement, but the truth! In watching and listening to people grapple with their lives and the oppressive realities that hang over them, the external facts of physicality, I have measured each and every one as they become converted into my inwardness, and the products of my inwardness undergo their conversions into external reality. It is an absolutely startling sensation to live on the edge like this. This is not academia; it is putting your whole self on the line. I am no Blake, but this is what Blake did do with much greater imaginative powers than mine. What people whine about political activism (in the USA!) is puny compared to this process, not that I artificially separate those two realms either, but part of politics (being the same thing as religion and theater), is the painful reconstruction of the whole from the fragmentary evidence of the traces it leaves in all its victims. In advanced capitalist society, there are just layers and layers and layers of appearance, monstrous hierarchies of phenomenal form, alienated from their generating essence.

And so the antimonies of social democratic reasoning become apparent, from postmodern liberal pluralism to the vortices of G— B—, who on the one hand exults in free-floating vortices, and on the other, comes down to hard empirical facts . . . when feeling politically violated (like Derridumb and Lyoturd [to use an example in reverse] circling the wagons against interpretive freebasing when Heidegger gets called on the carpet for his Nazism). And yet G— was not even paying attention to what I wrote, which was . . . a recognition in self and others as to the rigidity and abstraction that comes out of social blockage. (We'll leave Ghandi as favorite liberal pin-up girl for another discussion.) How does G—'s dippy citation of free-floating vortexes co-habit with such rock-solid political coordinates as South Africa and Afro-American slaves? And where do her arbitrary and sloppy readings of me intersect with my own notions of what I said? Perhaps Friedrich Engels could provide a clue: "The unity of the world is in its materiality."

*   *   *

Quoting myself:

Now if somebody wanted to contradict me, I'd be interested in an explanation of Blake's republican forehead, the Lavater annotations, and those bats who have left the brains of those who won't believe. If Blake is trying to say that the outward is a sign of the inward, we have to be careful of where we want to go with this, for Blake doesn't believe in fitted and fitting, and believes that the outward creation is an obstruction. . . .

Explain why a person who hates predestination and starry jealousy (astrology) flirts with phrenology, says genius is born not made, that the world is too poor to raise one seed, makes physical phenomena (animals) the expression of inward states (but does not see natural disasters and physical misfortunes as divine punishment or bad karma). In other words, hit me with the strongest counterexamples to my hypothesis you can find, explore the possible explanations, and then explain your explanations.

C.L.R. James, the Division of Labor, & the Universe of Knowledge

17 August 1997
Excerpts from personal e-mail

I'm particularly interested in poet/prophets because their concerns seem to be so rooted in reality and especially social reality, but they speak of reality that goes beyond "sides" in already existing systems.

Interesting concept. Never thought of this. Sounds almost Hegelian—the new comes in the form of the esoteric, mystical, and prophetic.

As you mention in your "division of labor" post, Blake's political involvement should not be gauged by what groups he signed up with and that sort of measurement. (I hope my paraphrase reflects the gist of what you meant.)

C.L.R. James said just about the exact thing in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he made fun of Sartre and also sought to fight the intellectual premises of both liberal America and Stalinist Russia (i.e. social detachment or narcissistic despair vs. art as propaganda). I've been kicking ass . . . trying to break through the stubborn dualism that plagues lefties in academe, as they vacillate between autonomous theory and manipuative pragmatist social usefulness. (Note their approach to hiphop, for example, which is entirely opportunistic.)

. . . . I came pretty late to this conception [the usefulness of understanding genres of communication]. Maybe I should mention some different stages I've gone through.

Back around 1980, when I was young and innocent, I noticed some very interesting things going on in Blake from a philosophical point of view. I wanted to write a book about Blake as philosopher, so I made some notes, reviewed a lot of literature, and so on. This was a hobby as it still is, and I never followed through, though for years I went over in my head an essay I would write on Blake's epistemology. There is literature out there of course, esp. pertaining to Blake's opposition to empiricism. One example of how I thought about this can be found on the Blake list, i.e. some comments I wrote about "There is No Natural Religion."

At the time I was indifferent to genre and much else. I didn't care whether it was poetry, I didn't care whether it was mysticism. I was interested in extracting and abstracting some philosophical ideas out of the poetry (and annotations, letters, etc.).

My prime years get pissed away doing other things, and then in the early '90s I get involved with C.L.R. James. Using a lot of material that was then unpublished, and some of the published stuff, I catch on to something fascinating that James is up to, and then I catch on to his Hegelian Marxist methodology of viewing the division of labor and the intellectuals. That affects everything I do from there on in. For example, I go back and study the Young Hegelians and the young Marx and I learn some lessons that have escaped previous commentators. Everything I do from there on in is affected by my obsession with intellectual life and the division of labor.

When I broach the topic of comparing Blake to Hegel, I have a number of issues in mind, but I settle on the question of where they are situated in society as intellectuals and how they relate to traditions. E.P. Thompson's Witness Against the Beast really fascinated me, because Thompson is aware of this problem in everything he writes, and the basic nature of his work really inspired me, not that I've drawn on it specifically. The fact of Blake being apart from and opposed to official culture caught my attention, and the fact that he was not a professional philosopher, but I don't think I was thinking about genres per se, at least not explicitly. (Though I had felt for years that Blake was not up to the same thing as the usual idealist philosophers.) So at this stage recognition of genres meant recognizing that Blake was not writing something called "philosophy".

The post you cite was probably the fruits of my thinking about the division of labor initially inspired by James.

However, I had to think of what Blake meant by the literal imagination, and then why Blake read so differently than Swedenborg, and why I was disturbed by P—'s posts. Finally I had to come to terms with the differences between writing analyses of Blake's work and the actual work itself. Meaning that one has to go beneath apparent likenesses or dissimilarities to discover the real processes and motives in what two different thinkers are doing. Ultimately, this question of genre came up.

Your post inspired me because it was a novel way for me of making precise this question of genre. The reason I had never thought of doing something so obvious is that, being a die-hard atheist, I hate mystical writings and never read the Bible, and though I was aware of how much the Bible meant to Blake, I never bothered to follow through on the implications of same, being tone-deaf to the whole tradition, as it were. I got some of the proper inspiration from Thompson, but I never followed through. Your post crystallized some thoughts floating around in my head and added new ones.

Blake, German Irrationalist Philosophy, & Eastern Mysticism

Sun, 31 Aug 1997 18:28:47 -0700 (PDT)

. . . . I outlined my views on how I think genre bears on making the comparisons between Blake's views and various philosophers. . . . I continued this theme ["Blake and Genre and Method"] in one private post, tracing my own development from concern over Blake's epistemology, to my interest in intellectuals and the division of labor and how people fit into or respond differentially to traditions, and finally to this question of genre. . . .

I don't have much more to say about genre yet, except that I have reverted to reading philosophy in my spare time. I'm reading the chapter on vitalism in Lukacs' The Destruction of Reason. This book is universally reviled, but for me it's a real hoot.

Now what interests me about Lukacs, the same thing that everyone else condemns him for, is that in The Destruction of Reason, Lukacs is interested in connecting up the idealist tradition he detests to the evolution of imperialism and the inability or unwillingness of philosophers to transcend their alienated ideological preoccupations by scientifically facing up to the social totality as it is and hence recognizing the validity of the workers movement. That is, Lukacs has a sociological and political explanation for the evolution of subjective idealist philosophy itself. And I think this is why all the sophisticated exponents of Western Marxism detest this book, since they are all infected with what Lukacs rejects.

It is true, however, that much is missing from this book, a remarkable absence given that it is 865 pages in English translation. Many of the connecting links in the argument are missing. Lukacs mostly assumes a familiarity with the subject matter, and so he picks out certain aspects of the subjectivist philosophies he criticizes and then links them up to a certain stage of imperialism. He is thus accused of being tendentious and conspiratorial in his analysis of philosophical trends. I would prefer to think he is taking some short cuts, for I believe he is on the right track.

I think I'm going to have to devote some attention to the differences I see between Blake and the entire German philosophical tradition of irrationalism /existentialism /lebensphilosophie. (I lump the Dane Kierkegaard in here too, since he's part of it.) I'm going to have to prove that there is a distinction between (a) the radical separation of the inner and outer worlds found in Blake and (b) the analogous separation one finds in the reactionary Teutonic thugs from Kierkegaard to Heidegger.

I think the distinction will have to be based on at least four components:

(1) the subjective inwardness appealed to by the existentialist tradition is a pure abstraction, but for Blake it is not;

(2) there is a difference between the analytical methods the philosophers use to justify their subjectivist philosophy and the role of imagination in Blake's work;

(3) there is a difference between the sense of responsibility Blake feels for the outside world, for other subjectivities and against the system responsible for human suffering, that differs remarkably from the selfish or even downright conservative thinking within the German idealist philosophical tradition;

(4) hence there must be a different dynamic at work in Blake relating the inner world to the outward creation, and the subjective to the objective. This will show the difference between Blake and the German subjective idealists, and as a bonus also the decisive difference between Blake's concerns and the cretins who indulge in the mystification of quantum mechanics. . . .

Imagination vs the Philosophers

Tue, 2 Sep 1997 22:43:15 -0700 (PDT)
Priorities and Metaphor

I want to emphasize two key notions:

(1) That imagination or the poetic genius is so central to Blake that it may serve as possibly the key that distinguishes him from all "philosophers";

(2) That whatever we may ultimately prove about the relation of inner experience to the outer world, or the outer as manifestation of inner states, or positive valuation of nature, sensuality, etc., according to Blake, I maintain that the way in which Blake prioritizes the imaginative point of view effectively creates a radical rupture with the literal nature of the external world, a rupture that no "philosopher" in the so-called western tradition would ultimately tolerate. One can demonstrate this even before arguing that Blake's purpose was not to justify but to overturn the cosmic order.

As happy circumstance would have it, this evening I read an article I downloaded last night from the online journal Romanticism on the Net, no. 3, August 1996. The article is "The Sublime of the Bible" by David M. Baulch, and you will without doubt find this a rewarding read. Among other things, it links MHH to Milton in a way that will help illuminate the questions that people, e.g. R. Albright, keep raising about Blake's development. I think even the notion of "infernal" reading is mentioned. There is also mention of the function of the prophet. But I won't go into detail in this post. I must, however, cite two remarkable statements:

Rather than identifying the Bible as the source of error as in The Marriage, Milton shows the necessity for an individual's re-envisioning of the Bible as a site of aesthetic experiences rather than as a Christian history and guide to Moral Law. The binary of Angels and Devils in The Marriage is supplanted by a threefold division within fallen humanity between the Reprobate, the Redeemed, and the elect in Milton . . . .

And much later on:

It follows then that when Blake writes about 'the Sublime of the Bible,' it is not the Bible itself that functions as a sublime object; instead, the Bible becomes the site of the sublime experience for a Redeemed or Reprobate reader. The reader's experience of the sublime is his or her ability to imaginatively apprehend the visionary perspective implicit in the text; one which 'is altogether hidden from the Corporeal Understanding'. The 'Corporeal Understanding' depends upon what Kant calls the pure concepts to which the faculty of the understanding refers . . . . [plus reference to Burke] . . . . By employing the Intellectual powers, Blake asks his reader to consider the ground of experience in terms of the sublime boundlessness of one's ability to create imaginative mental images. In this way, the text provides images that can potentially dislocate a reader's perspective of the natural world and thus manifest the unlimited constructive powers of the imagination."

I was electrified by these passages.

I think one of the effects this essay had on me was to recognize that my obsession with epistemology has a long way to go before it can encompass this level of interpretation. I mean that literary criticism adds a whole new floor, maybe several floors, to the edifice of epistemology. But also that maybe we are not assured that the bottom epistemological floor of literary interpretation rests directly upon the top floor of the epistemology of the literal world.

I have avoided the hermeneutical tradition in philosophy like the plague. (I almost gagged when I saw Gadamer in person, while everyone else was fawning and slurping.) Presumably hermeneutics, which also has its origins in Bible interpretation, is capable of comprehending such literary phenomena. Still, it will take a lot of convincing to get me to believe that people who analyze imaginative works are similar to the people who create them, who live and dwell in the imagination.

Which brings me to my point about the philosophers. I think their inner life is rather different from the poets, perhaps also the objects of their attention. This may even be true of philosophers with a poetic bent. (As for poets with a philosophical bent, I don't know what to say, except I that need to bring up Coleridge in the near future.) I'll have to study up on this some more.

Blake, Existentialism, & Taoism

Thu, 4 Sep 1997 09:55:49 -0700 (PDT)

. . . . At 11:00 PM 9/2/97 -0700, Steve Perry wrote:

Blakes imagination differs from these philosophers in at least one very important way. Their analytical models arose to support scientific positivism. One must really understand Husserl before one can really see what Heidegger and Sartre are really doing epistemologically, and though it is not so easy to see in Kierkegaard or say Doestoevsky, there is also an element of making objective social forces so that the subjective self can negotiate freely.

I can't say I know this stuff inside out, but I find this blanket statement hard to accept. I would imagine some of these people sought to support positivism, Dilthey maybe? But it seems others did just the opposite. They uncritically projected positivism onto the natural sciences precisely to have an excuse to escape from them and claim their internal realm as sacrosanct territory free from the annoying incursion of material reality, scientific objectivity, and accountability.

Ralph I know you'll hate this part, but Blake's imagination looks more like a Taoist model (the only philosophical model I can relate it to) which doesn't see the self as transcendental, but sees the shedding of the objectification of the world and the other that the existentialists find necessary, to discover freedom in a sort of praxis of creativity that is the annihilation of exactly that which separates us from the world and the other.

I'm not sure I remember my Taoism from 25 years ago with crystal clarity, but I don't recognize this. As for this annihilation of what separates us from the world and the other: for Blake, this involves the overcoming of oppression (and of the bloated and general forms that suppress individuality), precisely that ingredient conveniently missing from the formulations of both you and MTS, who likened Blake to Brahmanism contrary to my insistent differentiation.

I've seen this apolitical vision in several interpretations of the Songs of Experience. The line is: you are the victim only of your own illusions. This is the big lie. . . .

Thu, 4 Sep 1997 22:01:54 -0700 (PDT)

At 06:02 PM 9/4/97 -0700, Steve Perry wrote:

I see Blake as instructing us toward that mastery. That inner illusion, however is no less than that of the burden of history, social oppression, etc., as well as our own less petty defects. The story of Albion is both the story of the individual and the species. And it is the sleep of Albion from which we must all awaken to redeem humankind. I see that Blake's sense of the self is similar to the Taoist, but I see that his prescription of praxis is definitely Western.

Two observations. One is your admission that the awakening you speak of is a collective effort. The prophet's role then is to call upon the people to wake up. One person can't do it alone. This is different from a purely individualistic vision of self-liberation through changing your perception, and once you change it, things are cool. This of course is the view of eastern mysticism as filtered through western middle class consumerist culture—looking out for #1 on the cosmic scale, something I had plenty of exposure to back in the 1970s, no thank you. Whether this is a step up from feudalism I'll leave others to judge, but the problem even with much of the original mystical crap is that it says: you can't change the world, so get with the program and change your attitude. This is the view of the ruling class, of course, and directly contrary to Blake's view. I'll get back to the Songs of Experience shortly.

Secondly, you have not explained clearly how Blake's sense of the self is Taoist, or explained how Taoism preaches the reversal of the existing order of things. As I recall Taoism, it came about as a rejection of civilization by people grown disillusioned with its cruelty and oppression. They had nothing to offer except ironic withdrawal from the social world, rejection of artifice, and back to nature, or conversely, ironic advice that the ideal ruler is most effective by not striving to do anything (to do without doing). Taoism is subversive as an antidote to Confucianism, but how revolutionary it is is debatable. Now, I'm aware that "nature" has different connotations for the Chinese than it does for Christians, but Blake as a radical Christian saw "nature" not as the standard, but as something to be overthrown. Taoism is not quite so forthright in making such a statement; its attitude is more ironic, more superficially practical. I think of the business about "straw dogs" from the Tao Te Ching, also some of the parables of Chuang Tzu. The Taoists, like Blake in the Songs of Experience, recognize that the world is treacherous, and their advice for getting through it has parallels to Blake's, but I don't see anything resembling Blake's apocalyptic vision of cosmic reversal. And that's probably why the "enlightened" middle class here loved this stuff so much before there were VCRs, Walkmans, CDs, and IBM-PCs. Me me me me me me me.

Now back to the Songs of Experience. The Earth is not exactly parallel to individual humans or even collective humanity, so I'm not certain how your analogy of collective self-liberation holds. What I find objectionable in some interpretations of "Earth's Answer" is the notion that Earth is only the victim of her misguided perceptions. This really turns my stomach. Now it may be as some suggest that her condition makes it impossible for her to properly receive the Bard's message if the Bard is the good guy they make him out to be. That makes sense: here in Washington we call that the plantation mentality. (The preachers here, of course, are the ones responsible for exploiting and reinforcing that mentality, rather than excising it.) However, Earth really and truly is the victim of Starry Jealousy. (The stars are always negative for Blake. So much for astrology.) Earth can't ameliorate her condition without doing something about those twinkly little bastards glowering down at her.

Moral of the story: Blake is on the other side of the fence from all guru hustlers and smug feudal civil servants (and not a few porkchop preachers). . . .

Blake & Our Time

4 November 1997
Blake & Ginsberg / Blakes for our time

At various times I have either praised or criticized Allen Ginsberg; I think a few times I even compared and contrasted him to Blake. Profanity, however, does not distinguish Ginsberg from Blake, whose best thinking was done when he rose up from shite before he sat down to write. Ginsberg, too indiscriminate about the company he kept, and too ready to embrace the whole world, in the typically American and salutary but sometimes self-indulgent effort to transcend mere "culture" and to unify art and life, was too apt to lose track of that wiry, bounding line that keeps track of where one is and doesn't get lost in a peace-and-love, save-the-whales sort of bohemian sentimental fog. Ginsberg's own interpretation of Blake is rather superficial. Blake's depth, like other people's, was fed by not only growing up in and chafing against a repressive environment and seeking a release, but by becoming very advanced in a very backward culture and having no hope of expressing his perspective in everyday life, hence having to perfect it in the ideal realm of art. The USA in the 1940s was also repressive, but the circumstances were very different, as were the responses.

The fact remains that Blake was a decisive influence on Ginsberg, helping him to keep the spirit of prophecy alive in a time of darkness. Ginsberg became a major influence in popular and alternative culture, taking Blake with him and thus helping Blake to persist as a living cultural force for our time. Blake + Harlem -> Ginsberg. That also makes Blake an important ingredient of American culture, and I'm proud that is so.

*   *   *

. . . another way of saying—ooh, it's so far out, it's beyond our ken. . . . it's another purely external approach, trying to calibrate the essence of a phenomenon by such external details as being unpopular or obscure. So the mechanical transposition of Blake as the weirdo of the 1790s to our own time is as unenlightening as can be, as it remains entirely a matter of form, whilst not a word is said about content. Whereas the question ought to be: what would a Blake of 1997 have to say, and how would it necessarily differ from what what the Blake of 1797 had to say?

Here are some questions for consideration:

(1) What are the elements of Blake's thought that would remain the same and what would have to change? See below for hints.

(2) Given the advances not only of 200 years of natural-scientific knowledge but of social science of all kinds—anthropology, psychology, history, also philosophy and crucially our knowledge of all world and localized religions and belief systems, how would Blake's world view have to give and be modified while keeping with its spirit? To what extent could Blake's heterodox Christianity and home-made philosophy forged in opposition to empiricism as well as to state religion sustain itself in the face of all that has been learned since his time?

(3) Is poetry in the symbolic mode and with the kind of symbolism Blake uses still a viable vehicle for the expression of the ideas that need to be expressed nowadays? Would a Blake for our time have to express himself in a different mode or a different genre, say science fiction (not like the retrograde drivel of Star Wars or Star Trek but say something in the vein of Samuel R. Delaney or Stanislaw Lem)?

(4) If the role of the prophet is not only to bitch about what is, but to negate the enthralled consciousness of the actual by way of the elevated consciousness of the potential, then what is there that needs to be said that transcends the mere recognition of the actual and points the way toward the creation of that which does not yet exist?

There is practically nothing in popular or elite culture that does this; there is nobody in the field of literary criticism that can do this or even recognize the problem. We live in a time more cynically sophisticated than any other moment in world history, and yet our imaginations are paralyzed. The level of self-consciousness in our time compared to Blake's would have shocked him, yet the popular and academic consciousness persists in insipidity and delusion. Our critics can go no further than to smugly criticize the past by means of the self-knowledge of the present, poaching off revolutions that other people made that they never would have nor could have, pretending to be daring but resting comfortably on the achievements of other people's social movements by spouting the self-satisfied banalities of bourgeois feminism, postcolonialism, and so on. Dissent has been fully sublated by the culture industry, and the cynical consciousness that everything is a scam still manages to maintain the status quo, since There Is No Alternative and we are a nation of couch potatoes. So if you want to defend the imagination, instead of indulging in brainless hero-worship, why not use yours, to face your society?

25 February 1998
Extract from personal e-mail
Blakes for our Time/ prophets

. . . . Of course Blake is heavily invested in all this religious stuff, an orientation quite alien to my own. All the more amazing that, by thinking through his philosophy in this medium, he should come out with something so amazingly modern and original. If you read my posts on genres on the Blake list, maybe you will get a feeling for how I deal with these issues. I have no training whatsoever as a literary critic, remember, not one course, not one class. When I was working on Blake's philosophy circa 1980, my approach was simply to extract the rational philosophical kernel from the symbolic medium and deal with that as a system of epistemological ideas. That's my youthful naivete. But the fact that Blake really believes in the Fall and Redemption, etc., necessitates more serious attention to the religious-mystical framework in which Blake's revolutionary epistemological work and insights into human nature and institutions are worked out.

27 February 1998
Extract from personal e-mail
Blakes for our Time/ prophets

. . . . I think in a few decisive respects MHH is Blake's most radically iconoclastic work. Well, Marriage of Heaven and Hell has a lot to do with active intellect vs. doctrine, and dramatic reversal of conventional perspectives, and overturning of the metaphysical correlates of ruling class hierarchies. How would this translate into today? Well, a reversal of the structure of appearances, satire and irony directed against the assumptions behind our ruling ideologies. This rather than trying to link Zen Buddhism to quantum mechanics or postmodernism to Native American cosmology (no kidding, I know people who have done this).

'Given Blake's "mystical" temperament, how would he now defend the "Everlasting Gospel" without falling into new age obscurantism?': I'm not sure.

Well, one problem is not only the advance in knowledge of natural phenomena, history, anthropology, etc., that make our historical moment radically different from Blake's (See the Blake "genres" thread, where I and Tim Linnell suggest that Blake's own philosophy was unique to that historical moment and could not be replicated in another time), but Blake's opposition to the literal facts of the material world (vs. his devotion to the literal imagination). I'm beginning to think your comments on detournement are very profound and represent an advance for me. . . .

Blake, Traditions & the Division of Labor

30 July 1998
Extract from personal e-mail

It would take some time to explain the basis of my Blake philosophy project. Here is a very brief version. I am interested in placing Blake in intellectual history with respect to "philosophy" as an organized discipline, which Blake was outside of. Hence I am also interested in the properties of different genres of written discourse, though I do not share the discourse obsession of the postmodernist types. My ultimate interest is the historical development of intellectuals from the standpoint of the division of labor, and what it means to be an outsider confronting official traditions.

Rational vs Mystical Criticism

Sun, 30 Aug 1998 11:28:43 -0700 (PDT)
Some thoughts / opiates

Given that his whole work appears to me to be a crying out for increased spirituality (for want of a better word) I wonder what is left to the reader who has no religion. A social vision that includes a wider religious outlook than Karl [Marx] had is a potentialy glorious vision in my eyes, it is why I love Blake. Still though I am very interested to know how others feel about Blake's social outlook; if you take out some of the religious beliefs then Blake's portrait changes entirely.

I don't know that this question can be answered in the way that it is formulated. Does spirituality = religious beliefs? What does it mean to take out religious beliefs? Do atheists only accept literary naturalism as a genre to enjoy? Do they go about responding to symbolic texts in a fundamentally different way than other people do, aside from the obvious case of official sacred texts of various religions? Unless we are talking about accepting symbolic texts as literal narratives, like fundamentalist troglodytes, all readings are going to be interpretive readings. So the question would be the canons and aims of interpretation, the decoding of ideologies, one's background conceptions of the world, social structure, and human behavior.

I don't make a practice of covering all the Marxist literature on Blake, but in my experience, I've come across only one seriously textually obtuse Marxist reading: Sabri-Tabrizi's The Heaven and Hell of William Blake, which perhaps not coincidentally was published by the presses of various Communist parties. . . . Fred Whitehead once wrote an article about the then separate streams of political and religious interpretation of Blake, in which he warned of the inadequacies of reducing critical activity to simply translating Blake's symbolic structures into political terms, i.e. decoding them to find the political references and messages.

I'd like to turn your question around: what do the mystical/esoteric/religious/occultist critics add to the understanding of Blake, beyond being able to explain the references and make the links and decode some of the language? I don't find these religious fussbudgets particularly deep or insightful, imbued with a propensity to penetrate beneath the obvious or delve deeply into the obscurities of human nature. And they all lack the earthiness that Blake obviously had, which made his spirituality tangible and meaningful, because it directly connected to life experience and the oppressive conditions of the day, not merely pontification and propagandizing of supersensible doctrines from on high.

Blake & Bourdieu

1 September 1998
Extract from personal e-mail
Blake & Bourdieu

Are you at all familiar with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu? I'm reading his book The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger . . . . I welcome all efforts at discrediting Heidegger, but this one is unique in Bourdieu's use of the field of philosophy as institutionally demarcated from other venues of discourse to show how Heidegger plays off the tension resulting from maintaining the demarcation while covertly addressing himself to both sides of it at once. This is a fascinating way of approaching my area of interest, philosophy and the division of labor. Bourdieu has used his methods to show how specialists function in a variety of fields, including literature. More generally, this book has stimulated some brainstorming about various social, intellectual and artistic roles. I can't say I completely understand or endorse Bourdieu's methods, but they inspire some really interesting avenues of research.

How would Bourdieu analyze Blake as poet and artist and his positioning of himself in a world to which he was hostile but still wanted to make his way in spite of his unwillingness to compromise? Also the question of the spheres and genres of discourse and relationship to the various currents and options of the time? . . . I found nothing linking Bourdieu and Blake, but I also found not one single reference linking Bourdieu and Romanticism, although there is plenty on Bourdieu and literature. . . . it would be really neat to collaborate on a project of this sort. I guess it would have to be a grand synthesis of Eaves, Mee, and a whole lot of other diverse work, and I'm not sure what a Bourdieu-type analysis would reveal that would be new, or whether such methods are really conducive to understand all types of people in a certain field, or just the more personally ambitious.

Tue, 1 Sep 1998 19:39:47 -0700 (PDT)
Ralph's questions

It looks like the process of clarification, your remarks as well as mine, are helping to clarify the inner logic (as well as the tensions) within Blake's reasoning about religion.

At 07:47 PM 9/1/98, Izak Bouwer wrote:

Religion is not just a bunch of intellectual concepts that can be discarded by whim. Religion, in Blake's use of the term, is interwoven (since we are so) with history, culture, psyche, and "bodily sensation,"

Now this is a really important point! Even were religion totally negative, it can't be wished away by a superficial rationalism. Also, this view of religion is consistent with Blake's odd (to us) use of the words "belief" and "unbelief". His use of the word "Atheist" as a pejorative, however, would be consistent with the mainstream equation of an atheist as a person with no principles (per Berkeley's slanders in Alciphron).

and attempts to direct us toward the Spiritual life. It is necessarily inadequate, since based on our earthly condition, but it protects us from falling into spiritual oblivion by reminding us of the Spirit in us. . . .

Your explanation of Blake's reconciliation of historical variation with the Poetic Genius does make sense. I'm not entirely convinced by the positive twist the above comments gives religions. So you think (I think you said this before) that even though they entrap the joys of eternity, these pernicious religions set a limit to man's fall? I'll have to mull this over. But right now I'm thinking of the Song of Los, in which Blake links the traditional dark delusions of Moses and his ilk to Newton and Locke, where the philosophy of five sense is complete. This is a brilliant history of ideology on the part of Blake. But how would you interpret this historical progression in light of the rest of your argument?

From _VLJ_ (K619): "Many Persons, such as Paine & Voltaire, with some of the Ancient Greeks, say: 'we will not converse concerning Good & Evil; we will live in Paradise & Liberty.' You may do so in Spirit, but not in the Mortal Body as you pretend, till after the Last Judgment . . ." The same is true of religion: It cannot be discarded till after the Last Judgment, simply because its function persists as long as our earthboundness persists.

This is the most thought-provoking quote you've adduced.

Reminds me of "Mock on Mock on", which is a very subtle poem, which, as some of the more preceptive critics have noted (see the essay in Historicizing Blake), is not diametrically in opposition to Rousseau etc., but more shows up their limitations.

One should try and understand what Blake means here by "Christianity." It is obviously not meant to refer to historic dates or persons. His "Christianity" is a tag for his own symbolical reading of the Bible, in which Biblical names represent spiritual states or qualities. These states and qualities of the Spirit exist wherever man is found, and in Blake's view were purer in antiquity ("Golden Age").

Of course. But doesn't this confirm the argument that Blake is trapped within the specific metaphorical structure of Bible belief, and taken literally, contradicts himself? How could one argue with a well-intentioned deist (Paine) on such a basis? Of course Blake is not so narrow not to realize that there is a principle that goes beyond his own specific cultural expression of it, or couldn't recognize the same principle in other religious clothing. The same is true I'm sure for the snubby-nose business; Blake was surely aware that everyone sees the world in their own image; that every nation thinks of itself the primordial Albion, has its own ideal of beauty, etc. However, when one cannot state one's principles outright in abstract language but is forced to do so through symbolism, is this not a limitation in the modern world? Would this not constitute the persistence of ideological language in the midst of a critique of ideology? Does this show (see our discussion from last summer) that a Blake was definitely the product of a unique historical moment, and could not exist in our time in analogous configuration?

Blake also says that man must have some religion or no, it's either the everlasting gospel or something bad. Again the central concept of religion determines the logical and semantic structure of all his "spiritual" rather then literal meaning of all his terms. Such a use of terminology would not pass muster today except among ideologists, such as those Fundamentalists who equate secular humanism with religion. If one decodes Blake's master trope of "religion" to mean total way of life including value system, cultural habits, etc., you could make a case for him indeed, but only in poetry, not in prose.

. . . . Well, the point is really to show the contradictions in Blake. If Blake wants to get ugly with racial insults, two can play that game. More importantly, though, this is the same Blake who said all must love the human form in heathen turk and jew. Mighty white of you, Will. But seriously, folks, it is evident that Blake knew better than his scurrilous [anti-Semitic] remarks would suggest, and it is one of those contradictions between universalizing and particularistic language in his work. I do not think he was duplicitous; rather, I think he was thinking through the problems of his time in the language that he knew, and the fact that he worked out extremely advanced, modern epistemological and political perspectives in a religious language dates and places him such that he could not be duplicated elsewhere.

Symbolic & Literal Meaning

Thu, 10 Sep 1998 09:55:27 -0700 (PDT)
Ralph's questions

This topic of literal vs transcendent meaning is very interesting. I believe that there is a faculty in us that can respond to symbolic language aimed at spiritual truth, but for this to be allowed to happen the discursive intellect must be stilled, e.g. through meditation. It is widely accepted that abstract language alone simply cannot do the trick (some of the old guys were very sophisticated in their reasoning techniques, and would have found a way for sure).

I've been writing on and off about these matters for a year at east, perhaps more? Did I ever aim a protest at symbolic language as opposed to literal language? What about that huge discussion a year or more about genres, about the relation between criticism (secular, prose) and Blake's prophetic utterances (sacred, poetry)? My recent comments were directed at a particular aspect of Blake's symbolic language which form a rather deceptive semantic subsystem for the reasons I stated. My capacity for relating to poetry is second to no-one's, but it has nothing to do with the nonsense . . . about stilling the intellect. What is the difference between intellect and intuition other than one is conscious and labored and the other is spontaneous? The ability to perceive the content is the same. Either your mind is organized to do so or not. Do you think there is something superior and spiritual about shapeless blather and drivel?

It is also rather obvious that, just as a picture is worth a thousand words, so a poem can say in four lines what volumes cannot say in prose. But what is transcendent or mysterious about this? Of course it's true, but again, a justification for complete nonsense?

You seem to criticize Blake's method of using symbolic language, whether in poetry or prose, as the medium for transmitting his insights. In today's world of "semantic universes" you seem to expect that it should be possible to express the same insights in abstract language.

No no no. I think one would be hard put to express the insights of the simplest poems—The Smile, I feared the fury of my wind, The Fly, etc—in abstract language. That's why we have poetry. But there is a problem with the semantic universe that defines Christianity-atheism-belief-unbelief in the way that it does. If you remember last year's discussions about what a Blake would be like today, the question of mythologies, science fiction, etc., this is what I mean about symbolic universes. Blake created his own and grafted it on to a highly mutated Christian symbolism. Could anyone do the same today? A contemporary Blake might have to create an entirely fictional mythology, like a science fiction writer, because we know too much about the different religions, mythologies, and literatures of the world to be satisfied by Christian symbolism alone.

Now I don't think that can be done easily, if at all, for the reason that the 'spiritual truths' can be recognized and allowed to come forward and take on substance in one's being only if "mental chatter" is sufficiently stilled. When language use is symbolical, the immediate layer of literal meaning, at least, is removed and should therefore not draw down associated "principles" of the discursive thinking machine, usually acting to further obscure spiritual meaning.

This is pernicious nonsense. Chatter still or no, you can only perceive what your life experience has taught you to perceive. You can't pretend to be open-minded or anything else. Either you've got it or you don't. If you don't, you develop yourself until you do get it. You and your pals . . . seem to think there is something high flown and spiritual about being naive and ignorant. You also seem to think Blake himself would countenance an attitude conducive to favoring marshmallow fluff for brains. And that is why you will always be confused.

"One basis for science and another for life is a priori a lie." — Karl Marx

Thu, 10 Sep 1998 09:55:32 -0700 (PDT)
Izak's answer

So, is it true that you think poetry can not be taken literally, that it must be decoded, that it is ONLY composed of symbolic language? Because I don't agree. We read Blake as poetry because that is where his mind functioned, that is the genre he created in. . . . We discuss him in prose because that is where our minds are functioning WHEN WE READ BLAKE, the genre that most of us feel we can be most analytical in. But there's no real reason why that should be.

There isn't? Then you try to carry on a discussion in poetry, and I don't mean like rap. It is rather difficult to analyze a poem by writing another poem, though not impossible. I've tried it a few times; it's like inventing aphorisms and proverbs, it takes work. How many of us could write a Milton and how often? The point is, you still have to have the smarts to find the best way to say what you want to say, and that is a far cry from the doggerel in verse one finds [here, from another discussant].

I doubt our minds are functioning in prose when we read Blake or any other poem. I don't think that is possible to read a poem in such a way, unless you are reading it for the 50th time. . . .

If poetry doesn't mean what it says, then why do some people use it to communicate? Why would Blake not say what he meant? What if poetry is itself a whole other way of thinking and it lies locked off in a corner of the brain by the logical, reasoning, analytical part. And the only way to access it is to practice accessing it, allowing yourself to live in it everyday, so that all those modes of thinking can co-exist.

Did I ever give the impression of being a cold-blooded number-cruncher? Sometimes poetry is the only way to say what you mean. But you've got to have something in you to say and as a reader got to have something to with which to grasp the meaning, and that something is intelligence. It's the ability to see beyond surface appearances and see deeper patterns in the organization of the world you live in. But that something is organized, it's not the vaporous slop that some people . . . think is spiritual. How could I forget how desperate people in this world are, that their minds are dangling at the end of a rope?

Metaphor & Motivation

Sat, 19 Sep 1998 11:54:51 -0700 (PDT)
"Hi, in Utopia you have big parties?"

In the prolonged discussions on genres, literalism, metaphor, Blakes for our time, etc., a year ago on the list, I was quite scrupulous in respecting the differences and points of contact between Blake and his interpreters. One need not (and cannot) try to place oneself in Blake's shoes; it is better to understand the implications of being or not being in them and the relationship between those two conditions. Secondly, one cannot fully appreciate the source until one begins asking questions about what motivates him. This implies certain background assumptions about human motivation, causality, social context, the relationship between thought and reality, etc. I am not unconscious of my own assumptions. However, the spiritual pride of space cadets whose left hand knows not what the right one does, and think they have an inside track because their eye is on the sparrow, galls the hell out of me, because such people invariably show how much they are unconscious of, how complacent and shallow and uninspired is their inquiry into phenomena beneath surface appearances. The superficiality is not accidental; it is the effect of alienation and psychological repression. The perception of same and the need to fight ruthlessly against those conditions is one trait that Blake and I indubitably share, a commonality more important than any differences.

Whether one chooses to ride the horses of instruction or unleash the tygers of wrath becomes an irrelevant issue beyond a certain point. This also Blake understood better than most.

"I fear'd the fury of my wind ...."

Fri, 25 Sep 1998 14:12:57 -0700 (PDT)
invoking spirits—Bert

At 11:41 AM 9/25/98 -0400, Bert Stern wrote:

And then, inevitably there's Blake himself. This one from VLJ, 82; E:560 is talismanic for me:

"if the Spectator could Enter into these Images in his Imagination approaching them on the Fiery Chariot of his Contemplative Thought if he could Enter into Noahs Rainbow or into his bosom or could make a Friend & Companion of one of these Images of wonder which always intreats him to leave mortal things as he must know then would he arise from his Grave then would he meet the Lord in the Air & then he would be happy."

It's not only a powerful statement but it reinforces two realizations I think are important to gather about Blake: (1) Blake is not just interested in propagating doctrines; he wants you to enter into the concrete imaginative experience of the scenes he portrays, hence the importance of the literal imagination and how it should not be arbitrarily imposed upon by "reason" (cf. e.g. the Marriage); (2) focus on the workings of the literal imagination means a negation of the literalness of what we call the literal world; Blake jumps levels completely and shows his indifference to what he calls the natural world. This I contend is radically different from what even the most idealist of philosophers do, as one of their prime purposes is to keep a tight grip over the material world and see to it that everybody follows orders.

Another passage that for me is crucial in this context occurs during the "awakening of Albion,' in 'Milton'." In the great chant fr 25:66 to 26:12, L celebrates (in anticipation) the fulfillment of the generative world in its imaginative forms--that is, the redemption. It is alive, accoring to the formula of 25:20-21, with singing, dancing constellations, of gorgeous clothed flies that dance & sport in summer (note the suggestion of "unified field" here in the metaphoric links between constellations and flies), in trees on the mountains uttering propehecies. These, Blake says, are the sons of Los. These are aspects of the fourfold world that is all around us, though we do not choose to see.

Awakening implies sleep, but is it just us sleeping or is nature sleeping too? It would seem that what we call Nature must also undergo a transformation and not just our perception. Then again, I suppose the formulation of this question is also depending who and what comprises "our".

". . .We see only as it were >the hem of their garments / when with our vegetable eyes we view these wond'rous Visions (26:11-12) Here is the world in which "every Natural Effect has a Spiritual Cause, and Not / A Natural: for a Natural Cause only seems, it is a Delusion / of Ulro."

Delusion or not, we're still stuck in this mess. My memory has gone soft here. How does Blake explain natural events? He doesn't believe that natural disasters and misfortunes are God's punishment for sin, unless I've forgotten something. Is it the devil's work? Or is it just the spontaneous workings of the fallen world? Then what are the spiritual causes? What is the spiritual meaning of viruses and bacteria, hurricanes and bee stings? What were Blake's views on medicine? How did Blake maintain his view in the light of his own need to practically manage his affairs? A person who says he doesn't see a flaming disc the size of a guinea but sees the heavenly host of the Almighty is not telling me much about he navigates his way about daily life, which he must do Delusion or no.

Date: Thu, 5 Nov 1998 08:49:42 -0800 (PST)
R: Any news?-Reply-Reply [New Age yadda yadda yadda]

Blake made a few remarks about natural causes and spiritual causes, but these remarks are virtually useless to determine what actual attitudes he may have had toward such matters. As an artisan alienated from the burgeoning industrial revolution, Blake's hostility to scientific methods is more ideological than substantive, based on his suspicions as to what type of human beings were being created by the monstrous abstraction and impersonality of modern industry. There wasn't much to the medicine of his time; it had not yet become even scientific, let alone industrialized and mass produced. Do we know enough to know what his attitudes were to the techniques prevalent in his time? Blake presents a problem for analysis because of his militant refusal to deal in matters on the literal plane on which we all must live. If you choose to see the heavenly host and not a flaming disk when you look up in the sky, probably you won't have a great deal to say one way or the other about medicaments and leeches and inoculations. I'm not aware of Blake scholarship that has delved into the question of natural causality.

From Skip Gates to Hegel to Blake

23 May 2001
Extract from personal e-mail

My written work in progress on Skippy [Gates] was interrupted by some more urgent issues. The dog ate my homework. I was given an ultimatum . . . at the very moment that I had a conceptual breakthrough as a result of my reaction to your post on Wordsworth and Blake (two quite different figures). It came to me in a flash how to generalize the issues I had been formulating in my ongoing review of Skippy, which turned out to be a much bigger project. That is, it all became clear to me what the issues were in the process of thinking about Hurston, Ishmael Reed, Blake, and Hegel, and I got a flash of inspiration as to how to proceed in comparing the mythopoeic imagination to Hegel's way of the concept. Not only have I figured out how to criticize all these black writers, but I have a much better way of formulating the limitations of Blake's symbolic constructs. If you hadn't gotten on my nerves that day, I would never have been so productive. For me, all that disagreement was exciting. But in this anxiety-ridden world of the knowledge industry, the least sign of discord yields a moral panic.

Melville Studies: The Genre Argument Again

30 May 2002
reality and unreality (an argghhosy)
[On Herman Melville's Moby Dick: my argument again]

. . . . As to sacred and secular: I have barely lost my virginity with respect to Melville, but I have long experience with my favorite poet, William Blake, who may be one of the most demanding figures in human history to interpret. All of criticism is a process of translation, and I take it that serious criticism of our time is customarily secular in one primary sense: criticism operates by means of connected, logically constructed and argued expository prose, that can be understood, confirmed or disconfirmed by other discursive arguments. You could write a poem as a form of criticism of another poet, as Blake did with Milton, but most of us, even amateurs, do not do this most of the time. Hence, in explaining a highly symbolic—even religious or mystical construct—we are put into a primary conflict of genres. The authors we attempt to explicate did not, could not, or would not explain their own works in the way that we do. An author who thinks symbolically, or whose evidence of systematic thought is couched in symbolic language, presents a problem of translation for critics to want to explain rationally the meanings couched in symbolic expression. This doesn't mean that we necessarily disrespect the difference between the "religious" production of texts and their "rational" interpretation and explication.

The world views of would-be interpreters will determine what needs to be interpreted or explained, and here the bases of disagreement should be well in evidence. Hence there are at least two levels on which one could argue about "reductive" readings: (1) the complexities obvious in the texts to be analyzed, (2) the accounting for them on an analytical basis on a different plane from the perceptible intent or framework of the author.

Blake & Ideology

11 June 2002
Extract from personal e-mail

I still haven't had a chance to look at DiSalvo, and any Blake project is a huge project. I now have Ideology and Utopia in the Poetry of William Blake, and that would be my first priority. I've thought a bit about Blake and the theory of genres we used to discuss on the old Blake list. I've also thought about the contradiction between Blake's constant subversion of fixed doctrinal statements in favor of concrete experience that his symbols point to, on the one hand, and on the other, his twisting and turning with concepts and labels—as to the definitions of belief and unbelief, religion and atheism, his attempt to impose Christianity on the Jews, his Bibliocentrism (which contradicts The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), etc. This also relates to Blake's struggle against ideology combined with residual ideological (i.e. not self-transparent) aspects in Blake's world view, which shows up the limits of symbolic thinking. But these thoughts arise spontaneously in streams of consciousness and are not part of a current disciplined project.

Blake & Genres: The Discussion Revived

Fri, 28 Mar 2003 15:09:53 -0500
Awake O Sleeper!

At 04:25 PM 3/28/2003 +0000, Jeff wrote:

. . . They [scientists] look through microscopes, dissecting tissue from rats and cadavers to try to find the meaning of life. That is like trying to scrape at the pigment of The Last Supper to find out the identity of Leonardo Da Vinci . The meaning is not in the tissues, they only represent the meaning. The meaning is inside, in the subtle Blueprint IDEA of the realms of Imagination. Blake knew this—"The Gods of the earth and sea sought thro' Nature to find this Tree; But their search was all in vain; There grows one in the Human Brain."

This is important: it's Blake's ironic critique of empiricism and mechanical materialism (pure physicalism). It pinpoints the limitations of the thinking of his time, limitations that are still with us, embodied in the dichotomy of positivism and lebensphilosophie that have plagued not only cognitive science but bourgeois thought in general for at least a century and a half but which first broke out as an open conflict during the Romantic period.

I argued in the old Blake list that Blake as a poet wrote in a different genre from "philosophy", which doesn't mean he's not philosophical but rather works on a different plane from the literal tasks of philosophers, hence he should be distinguished from the philosophers he occasionally poaches on—Berkeley, Neoplatonists, etc. We had a very interesting discussion of genres. Since then I discovered (but have not yet read) the work of Angela Esterhammer on speech act theory and Blake, which I hope will be of use. Blake did not attempt as philosophers (strictly defined) did, such as Schelling, to come up with any sort of unification of the spiritual perspective and natural science. I've also argued that such a synthesis would represent the very natural religion (an agent of repression) Blake abjured. No Schellingian naturphilosophie here, let alone the medieval great chain of Urizenic being.

Blake's act of resistance to the material world is more radical than that of any idealist philosopher. (Do you see the sun as a disc, the size of a guinea? etc. etc.) The 'literal imagination' is decidedly non-literal regarding the physical universe. What remains in question is Blake's use of the natural world as metaphoric of mental states. (See also Baine, Rodney M. The Scattered Portions: William Blake's Biological Symbolism. Athens, GA: the author, 1986.) One troubling aspect is Blake's use of the anti-semitic physiognomist Lavater.

Wed, 07 Jan 2004 16:27:56 -0500
Blake vs abstraction & the dilemma of criticism (1)

Several years ago on the old Blake list I was engaged in a fascinating discussion of the concept of genre, in which I attempted to present a perspective on the relationship (correspondences and differences) between Blake's sacred/symbolic texts and our secular/analytical translations of them. I found a curious parallel, which I would not call an equivalency, between the sacred/secular opposition and the poetry/criticism one. I also believe that criticism is meaningless unless it is based on rational argument, which puts us in a peculiar relationship to sacred/symbolic texts whose authors would not have them rationally justified in such a manner. So while the process of translating them into rational language and finding equivalencies for them that can be logically discussed is legitimate and necessary, the difference should also be kept in mind as well. This situation is also parallel, though not exactly equivalent to, the problem of equivocation that always comes up when people try to have their cake and eat it too in liberalizing otherwise antiquated religious beliefs, which are suddenly shown via rational reconstruction to "really mean" something other than what they really meant in their originating contexts. This also has a distant thought structurally very different relationship to the esoteric/exoteric duality and the ideology of the perennial philosophy. It also relates to tendencies within German idealism to assert that religion and philosophy, or different religions, are different in form but identical in content. The poetry/criticism translation process is hardly this equivocal or dishonest, but there is always the issue of assuming that our rational apprehension of the rational content to be excavated from a symbolic or narrative text reflects the author's own rationality or maybe I should say the text's own rationality. I am not talking just about what some dismiss as the intentional fallacy, because one can even find rationality in texts, belief systems, cultural practices, etc., without any consideration of authors or their conscious intentions. I mean here elision of the difference (and the transformation that takes place) between the original text and its rational interpretation, which can be used as a pretext for denying one's own rationality and opportunistically claiming identity between oneself and others, i.e. submitting to ideology and the irrationalism of popular belief.

I have also in mind the relationship between representation (vorstellung) and Concept in Hegel, and the equivocations I see in his view of Christianity, which has been argued about for 130 years and which itself issued in epoch-making movements, such as the Young Hegelians (Bauer, Feuerbach, Marx). I also have in mind the Blake-Hegel comparisons that have been made from Altizer, Punter, and on down, which, to the extent that I recall them, I don't believe in.Blake hated the world of abstractions with which he was surrounded (theological as well as philosophical, scientific, and political). He resisted them, as well as inherited beliefs, from within his own mythopoeic imagination, rather than from without (in the abstract conceptual manner), though Blake was indeed capable of abstract thinking and brilliantly so. The process of radical critique from within, smashing myth and ideology from within rather than attacking it externally from the standpoint of conceptual analysis, in the manner of the Enlightenment, needs to be thought through. The secondary literature for accomplishing this represents a variety of intellectual capital, for Biblical hermeneutics and studies of the apocalyptic imagination are just as epistemologically relevant as the other sort of studies I favor.

Hence I see the relationship between Concept and vorstellung differently than a mere complementary one. There is not only a war between the two but a war within each. If there is going to be a partnership, it should be predicated upon a recognition of difference, and upon the congruence of the wars waged within each.


More thoughts on how I place Blake logically and how my thinking has evolved over the years: the question: Blake's anomalous position as autodidact, radical dissenting artisan, visual artist, then poet, then philosophical anti-philosopher. Begin with Blake as radical artisan and autodidact, starting out as a dissenting Christian radical and artist, then as inventor adapting existing technology to one-man artistic production, eventually becoming also an ideological innovator, disrupting accepted forms of representation both iconic and verbal subverting them from within. Blake opposes : (1) abstract philosophy, (2) the cultural capital of educated classes (including Hellenism, classicism); campaigning against these abstractions and systems of representation.

The story to be told and to be explained is how a visual artist came to be a poet, and philosophical critic, in his 30s, subverting philosophy, religion, myth, and culture from within its forms of representation.

In addition to his visual commentaries on other people's works he illustrated and disagreed with, and his own illuminated books, consider also Blake's parodic use of logical argument: "There is no Natural Religion" (1788), "All Religions Are One", "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell".

He even reconfigures and registers the upheavals of his own personal mythology in his later works: "Vala", "Milton", "Jerusalem".

Meanwhile he continues writing non-mythological poems in his notebooks, including the Songs, but also numerous unpublished poems.

Blake pushes from within, from his concrete exploration of imagination against abstraction & official systems of representation, struggling with representation and abstraction via the way of representation (the "literall imagination") rather than by the way of the Concept .

Blake's difference with respect to the universe of knowledge was glimpsed by E.P. Thompson: i.e., how Blake was and was not situated in this "tradition" or that. But did Thompson say all that was needed to be said?

The implications of Blake's location have rarely been fully comprehended. This has also to do with the confusion of genres: that when Blake writes philosophically he is not pursuing the same aims as "philosophers". There is a whole history of misplaced comparativism , in placing Blake in relation with:

(1) Romantics
(2) The "perennial philosophy" (traditional mysticism/esoterism)
(3) Hegel
(4) Neoplatonism
(5) Berkeley
(6) Kierkegaard
(7) Nietzsche
(8) Heidegger
(9) Goethe?
(10) deconstruction/poststructuralism
(11) Novalis?
(12) Schlegel?
(13) anarchism?
(14) naturphilosophie
             a. Coleridge
             b. quantum mechanics
             c. chaos theory

How did my thinking evolve? My original concern was to unearth an implicit epistemology from Blake that would explain his profound insight into human nature and questioning of all of the tacit assumptions of human motivation and social organization. I abstracted out of Blake what I considered to be his rational philosophical core, hidden in his symbolism and esoteric framework. Two decades ago I did not pay much attention to the complications of proceeding in this manner, though I was aware that a rational reconstruction of someone else's thought is obviously something very different from the original. Others had written on this aspect of Blake, such as Blake's objection to empiricism, his peculiar fascination with Newton, etc. (Find references also to Minna Doskow.) I wanted to write a book about this, after reviewing a considerable amount of secondary literature of philosophical import. I even sketched an outline of an essay I wanted to write called "The Ultraleftist Epistemology of William Blake."

I got distracted from this path for about a decade and a half. When I again had time to think about Blake, I reached a new stage by the mid-1990s, transcending my abstraction of Blake as a philosopher.

These were the new issues I pursued (some of them discussed on the Blake discussion list, even on the Hegel list):

(1) Where and how to place Blake in the universe of knowledge
(2) The question of traditions
(3) theory of genres (eventually speech acts? see Angela Esterhammer)
(4) system of underlying motivation / covert symbolic economy
(5) division of labor
(6) autodidacts

There are some additional ingredients that affected my outlook in the past few years:

(7) what is the "literall imagination"
(8) function of imagination vs. repression
(9) Blake vs. Coleridge: heresy & apocalyptic vision (find ref. to chapter in book)
(10) Blake on education (find article on Blake vs. repressive child-rearing views of even Enlightenment philosophers)

Finally, there are new ideas that have emerged recently:
(11) Representation vs. Concept (compared to Hegel; inspired by my work on Skip Gates)
(12) The primacy of Blake as visual artist / artisan
(13) the whole enchilada: total structure of culture: what we can learn about the problem of fighting one's way through the contradictory cultural totality of the modern(izing) world.

On the question of concept vs. representation, compare the evolution of German philosophy: how Hegel turns against kunstphilosophie, while yet compromising with representation in religion. The second alternative would be a complete conceptual break. The tensions in this compromise broke out following Hegel's death, with Bruno Bauer's atheism as the next stage of self-consciousness, a development which nonetheless was still contained within the bounds of the ideological forms of appearance, until Marx's historical materialism puts an end to all this. But the post-Hegel (non-Marxist) development was not even the path of Enlightenment materialism (except Feuerbach?), either radical (unbound) or bourgeois (stabilizing new social order). What are the implications of my concerns for this whole line of historical development?

[written 24 June 2001, rev. 27 June 2001]

Compiled & edited by Ralph Dumain 10 January 2004
©2004 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

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Uploaded 10 January 2004
Rev. 13 January 2004

©2004 Ralph Dumain