William Blake and Quantum Mechanics—NOT!
Blakes for Our Time?

by Ralph Dumain

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

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. . . . .

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

Sat, 30 Mar 1996 23:40:57 -0800 (PST)


In re: William Blake and the Moderns, edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Annette S. Levitt; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

I have already reviewed Minna Doskow's "The Humanized Universe of Blake and Marx", clearly the best and the one unequivocally worthwhile essay in this volume. I am inherently suspicious of comparative studies, especially when it comes to Blake. So many have misappropriated Blake for pernicious ends—Yeats, Ellis, the Surrealists, Raine, Harper, or some of the dumbbells who would link Blake to the Zen Buddhist interpretation of quantum mechanics—all based on dubious comparative methods, which in the final analysis rest on abstracting certain properties of Blake that correspond to their own interests—e.g. the imagination—and reducing Blake to the level of their own paltry, reactionary ideologies. I feel to spit.

The introduction to this volume ("The Tradition of Enacted Forms") has many virtues, not the least of which is the repudiation of Eliot's reactionary vision of culture. And there is this delightful passage:

Blake is the most extreme and the most modern of the Romantics; none of his contemporaries or immediate followers went as far as he in pursuit of political, philosophical, or artistic revolutions. (p. xi)

However, the interposition of Nietzsche and Heidegger on the following page—two reactionary misfits who have nothing whatever in common with Blake—once again reminds us of intellectual bankruptcy . . . .

[See also Blake & Ginsberg compared.]

(Ralph Dumain, 31 March 1996, 2:30 am EST)

19 June 1997

I read "An Audience for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" by John Howard (Blake Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, Fall 1970, pp. 19-52). It is a very good article, though it doesn't have anything to do with the theoretical question of the audience as such. The audience is the Swedenborgians, because Blake's MHH is a detailed attack on their turn towards conservatism and their attack on Blake's publisher.

This is a meaty article. It also gives me more fuel for what I wrote against the spiritualist airheads. For I don't believe that the central purpose of Blake is to espouse doctrine or mythology, as one can clearly see in MHH. For Blake was interested in the exercise of imaginative power. If knowledge is immediate by perception and not something to be reasoned out, that places us in a strange predicament, since we are not the ones producing Blake's imaginative works. He didn't have to analyze his own stuff beyond what he put into producing it. So if we must analyze it, would it not be better to analyze it materialistically rather than idealistically, the latter meaning aiming for doctrines as the endpoint? I think the literal imagination exists not for taking statements literally, but for taking the experience of imagining literally. Blake's "doctrine" is not ceremonies, but the active life, or the praxis of imagination.

One further thought. Blake has a rep for being anti-science. There are some paragraphs in the article about the discovery of the plant Uranus (same root as Urizen), and how that was used by Priestly to embarrass the Swedenborgians, since it revealed Swedenborg's ignorance of astronomy, which he sought to correlate with his spiritual cosmology. Well, Blake also uses the same astronomical facts to ridicule Swedenborgianism. Since when does Blake use science to attack spiritualism? Here is my reading: among other things, Blake's project is to counteract the ruling class adage "as above, so below", and so Blake's attack is not upon science, but on the identification of the spiritual realm with the starry voids. Blake reveals the futility of trying to make spiritual hay out of mundane scientific and natural realities. Like turning quantum mechanics into mysticism, perhaps?

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

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.

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

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!

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

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. . . .

6 November 1997
Blakes for our Time/ prophets

There is a sad tendency to assume that any escapist occult or mystical piffle is somehow validated by being labelled spiritual. There is no sense of responsibility, and this fol-de-rol becomes the escape by which one can safely avoid dealing head-on with the real challenges Blake presents to the world. It's good to know all the sources and ingredients that got dumped into Blake's stew, but ultimately, the Kabbalah and Swedenborg are superficial trivia compared to the original, historically unprecedented, revolutionary challenges that Blake presents to the entire alienated, oppressive history of culture and civilization as we know it: its metaphysics, its epistemology, its logic, its conception of human nature, its morality, its religion, all of its rituals and institutions from baptism to burial, everything that binds and restrains from the dark delusions of Moses on Mt. Sinai to the slave-trading empiricism of the British bourgeoisie. Blake is not an escapist Tory like Coleridge building a palace of Art to drown out the shrieks and groans of the oppressed. Blake's every poop and fart was directed at the negation of this actual, inverted world. Everything that counts in Blake is a criticism of us and our world, our assumptions about human life and behavior, and any esoteric bric-a-brac is useful only to the extent that its serves these purposes.

I think it would be rather difficult nowadays to create an adequate mythic universe through poetry, and where's the audience? (There's a huge audience for poetry now, thanks to poetry slams and hip-hop, but it's all one-dimensional and insipid.) We need mythic structures for our time, and I don't think traditional religious symbolism is going to do. Here I think of science fiction novels more than anything else, but very selectively.

I mentioned Stanislaw Lem because he has created mythic structures that are very much of our time: I'm thinking particularly of Solaris. Its brilliance is that it poses fundamental questions about the nature of human personality and the intelligibility of intelligent life forms radically outside of our experience, so we are made to ponder the ineffable mystery of autonomous individual personality when faced with counterfeit copies of known personalities and the unknown psychic life of the alien planetary life force that creates them out of the unconscious memories of the visiting Earthlings.

First and foremost there is Samuel R. Delany, who creates mythic structures that could not have existed in previous times, questioning virtually every conceivable assumption about human identity and behavior. First and foremost, I think of The Einstein Intersection, Triton, and the first two Neveryon books, though most of his SF novels deal with fundamental mythic structures.

Otherwise, I am more familiar with Afro-American culture, but here I am rather old-fashioned, too. There is both a repository of folklore as well as the philosophical confrontation with modernity, and I have drawn inspiration from Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston (selectively), and others. A number of avant-garde jazz musicians have been myth-makers, but I find their actual artistic work more compelling as objects of contemplation than their home-made mysticisms, though they too have some interesting characteristics. I'm thinking of Sun Ra and Anthony Braxton first off the bat.

8 November 1997
Blakes for our Time/ prophets

Someone offered the conjecture that Blake lived at the only time he could have become the Blake that we know. This supplements my point about the unique combination of metaphysical elements that reflects a particular juncture in history. For example, that Blake would make his criticism of empiricism (with the unprecedentedly brilliant linkage of the "philosophy of five senses" to the entire previous history of ruling class religion and metaphysics, a move that predates Engels by decades) from the standpoint of a radical heretical Christianity, obstinately rejecting even the possibility that "rocks" could be "the parents of men", implies certain constraints on time, place, and educational background. To be so thoroughly a product of modernity and yet so capable of justifying unprecedented ideas in terms of religious tradition suggests those constraints.

If one can come to understand the deeper relationships among the various ingredients of Blake's philosophy, one would be in a better position to extrapolate changes in parameters that would force changes in Blake's thinking. Take, for example, the tension in Blake between his criticism of all sacred books and his insistence on the primacy of the Bible, even to be read in the infernal sense. To put it another way: the contradiction between the notion that all religions are one and the insistence on Christianity as a unique historical vehicle of prophetic revelation. Or, Blake's skating on thin ice whilst responding to Paine's objections to the Bible. Or Blake's insistence that windows are only to look through, with equal insistence on the literal imagination. With the growth and development of all kinds of knowledge, about the various world religions, philosophies, sciences, philosophies, history, etc., what strains would likely to be placed on Blake's unique self-positioning?

It is not difficult to determine what a more modern Blake would not do. The Blake who would admit to seeing only the heavenly host in place of the literal sun would certainly never stoop to reading any mystical import into quantum mechanics, which would simply be an opportunistic reduction of the power of imagination to the most banal of secular applications, but would see such an ideology for what it is, a commodity-fetishist reduction of humanity's essential selfhood to a debased, mechanized age that has even lost faith in its own rational pretenses (and a harbinger of fascism in Weimar Germany as was the philosophy of the Nazi Heidegger). Blake would have seen the same thing in the paradoxes of quantum mechanics as he saw in the notion of the infinitesimal: the inability of the secular consciousness of Ulro, permanently caught up in contradictions, to attain the ultimate coherence it seeks. However, Blake would never have been interested in indulgence in petty incoherent drivel as a bourgeois reaction formation against bourgeois rationality, for the intellect would disappear along with any firm and bounding line of rectitude. The heavenly host prancing about in quarks and atoms and molecules and nucleopeptides and DNA would not be those literal entities, for "their search was all in vain": the invisible tree of consciousness grows in the human brain, and it still can't be weighed, taxed, or measured.

The question remains: what would the heavenly host now look like? Had Blake grown up watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Journey into the Unknown, Star Trek, reading Dune or The Fall of the Towers or The Martian Chronicles, later in life seeing Babylon 5 or the recent Earth: Final Conflict, what would he have had to do about the sources of his imagination, given a pallette much larger to work with than the Bible, than all the sacred texts of the pre-modern world put together? Well surely he would have had to go about attacking the reactionary feudalist patriarchal ideology behind The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, the dishonesty, elitism, and huckerism of Stranger in a Strange Land, the adolescent Cold War liberalism of the original Star Trek, the post-Cold War liberalism of diversity management in the various new Star Trek series, and so forth. But other than unmasking the ideology that still stubbornly holds us in thrall even in our age of seemingly taboo-free cynicism, what would be the foundation stone of a contemporary Blake's visual, poetical, symbolic, religious imagination?

"The deep truth is imageless." — P.B. Shelley

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. . . .

12 September 1998

The influence of the empiricism and the superficial rationalism Blake detested was everywhere, in the philosophy of mind, aesthetics, in theology, in every department of life that affected Blake directly. Blake responded to the social effect of the new industrial order and its accompanying mindset on human psychology. That's what bothered him. What physics or chemistry or the rest was all about literally speaking was of no concern to Blake whatever. When Blake rails against Newton & Bacon & Locke occupying the very threshold of eternal life, he means this quite literally in that for him the seat of eternal life is the imagination, and if that threshold is being occupied by usurpers whose frame of mind would degrade it, that's the enemy for Blake.

Compiled & edited by Ralph Dumain 25 January 2004
©2004 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

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