March 15

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Transform your artistic life with the philosophy of William Blake

I hope you will find Blake’s ideas as powerful as I do.
I believe that if more artists took William Blake as their artistic and spiritual role model, they would have happier and more productive lives.

If you are a creative, imaginative person, then you definitely need to read this essay.

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William Blake’s philosophy has been a source of strength for my entire artistic life.

Now, I admit that promising happiness to artists is a tall order.

Because — well, let’s be honest for a moment.

Being an artist — being a creative, imaginative person in general — often feels pretty crappy.

Now, I’m not saying art doesn’t have its perks.

I’m not saying that the work itself is not a wonderful thing.

But let’s be honest. Even when one is successful, one is not really successful. James Patterson has sold two billion books and yet few other writers take him seriously.

JK Rowling, after she finished the Harry Potter series, wrote crime novels under a different name, and those books went largely unnoticed by the world.

The living writers I most admire, you probably haven’t heard of.

It’s hard to make money from art, too. Even a bestselling writer like Tim Ferriss, who invented the diet practised by half of California, has commented that he can make far, far more cash advising a San Francisco start-up than he can by publishing a book.

It is simply so much easier to make a living from owning capital or assets, and using those capital or assets to earn an income, than it is by the daily struggle of selling imaginative, creative work.

The writer Jess Walter once pointed out to me that if there is one author who had everything, it is surely Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway had all the awards, wrote bestselling books, was a celebrity who lived across the world.

If artistic success could bring happiness, surely Ernest Hemingway should have a heroic share of it. And yet, even if we overlook the fact that Hemingway ended his own life, it doesn’t take a deep study of the man’s biography and work to discover that long before that act, Hemingway seems to have been profoundly melancholy and dissatified, that his later stories and essays seem consumed by bitterness, disdain, and regret.

And these people — Rowling, Ferriss, Hemingway — they are the winners!

For most artists, the world keeps up a barrier of absolute indifference, a barrier broken only by brief bursts of mockery and pity.

Most MFA students never finish their novel.

For many artistic people, the ruses that one comes up with to gain time — freelancing, or doing a PhD, for instance — frequently end up costing more time, and producing far less money, than one had ever expected.

Things are kind of dire, in other words.

America -- the prophecy

Why, then, would the ideas of an enigmatic eighteenth-century English poet be helpful to us today?

I know that when I started writing, I had no idea of the value I would one day place on Blake’s work.

I assumed he was the author I thought I knew, the creator of those brief odd poems The Songs of Innocence and the originator of platitudes like “To see a World in a Grain of Sand…”

However, while I was living and teaching in Taiwan, I came across the books of Northrop Frye, the Canadian scholar. I read Frye’s huge Anatomy of Criticism, which I liked but found hard to fully process — because it was so enormous and so wide-ranging.

I then thought I should try Frye’s first book, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake.

Fearful Symmetry

Reading it was like reading fire. I couldn’t believe the emotional impact the book had on me.

And I spent years afterwards studying Blake. I can remember, in a small room in Damascus, copying out lines from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, feeling blissfully happy.

I continue to re-read Fearful Symmetry every couple of years and it continues to amaze me.

Now, perhaps you should stop reading this post and go purchase a copy of the book. I hope it will change your life as it has changed mine.
However, before you go, I will quickly observe that I have recommended Fearful Symmetry to many people over the years, and very few people have finished the book, finding it hard to make any sense of.

This is a tragedy. People are missing out on a massive source of strength for their artistic lives, and Fearful Symmetry is pretty simple, even laugh-out-loud funny, once you have read it two or three times.

Well. It also helps to have extensively studied eighteenth-century English philosophy. And to have some familiarity with Christian and Jewish mysticism. And…

All right, the book is challenging.

Therefore, what follows is my best attempt to explain Frye’s account of William Blake, so that you can get the essentials right now, in the next few minutes, and be transformed.

Let’s see if I can pull it off.

Who is William Blake?

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, thinkers all across Europe were debating big questions about the human mind and the nature of perception.

To characterise the work of people like Descartes and Locke in a sentence: these philosophers developed ways of thinking about how the human mind worked, and how it related to the “outside” world.

This was not an abstract exercise, and it seems very likely that their books changed everything.

They outlined ways of thinking about thinking that — I think it’s fair to say — most of us still believe in now.

The way that they thought we thought is, more or less, the way we still think we think.

People like Descartes, Locke, and Hume started from the perspective that the human mind has a limited capacity to comprehend the outside world.

This is easy to understand: our minds are reliant on our five senses for information. As a result, doubt is the central human experience, because we cannot truly know very much.

Human thought seems to proceed by building up, inside each person’s skull, a sort of mirror of the real world. The central act of intelligence, therefore, by this philosophy, is one of matching (of creating internal thoughts that accurately match outside reality).

As a result, we call someone “adult” or “mature” when their internal mirror of the world accurately describes the general, universal, shared reality that we believe is “out there” in reality.

What about feelings?

This philosophy allows for emotion as part of a healthy adult’s mind, but only (I think it is fair to say) as a sort of lucky mistake.

Elon Musk, we agree, is unusually driven, and this quality comes out of his particular emotional make-up, but we don’t think he is crazed or unhinged. He is simply lucky in that modern-day people tend to admire driven people.

Similarly, we can admire a person who sees an angel and, as a result of that religious vision, goes off to found a thriving hospital for the poor. We understand that unusual emotional experiences can be necessary to get things started in this world.

However, a person who reports just seeing a bunch of angels, and doesn’t seem to have done anything cool with this experience — well, this person, to us, probably sounds kind of crazy, because we know that angels don’t exist, or if they do, they are supposed to be confined to heaven or invisible.

The primary role of the mind to make sense of what is really there, and to act accordingly.

This philosophy is TERRIBLE for artists.

Artists are held, in this worldview, to be a bit like the man who sees an angel and founds a hospital: the angel is obviously not real, but the inspiration is seen as worthwhile because it produces something the rest of us can use.

It would be better if the dude could get to work without the angel, but hey, we’ll take what we can get. Sick people need doctors.

Artists, therefore, are oddly emotional types who just can’t see things the way the rest of us do. Their mirror of reality is broken, somehow, but in a useful way. They are inspired to be impractical.

Their work, as a result, is a luxury for those who can afford it.

It is either “entertainment,” useful for when you want to relax and forget your troubles, or “important”: worthy, dull stuff that the social elites chew like spinach in order to improve themselves.

A person, in this way of thinking, would be perfectly well off if he chose to confine his life to “reality” — no reading, no music, no sport or crime dramas. He might seem a little boring to the rest of us. We might wonder why he was not interested in diversion and spectacle.

But we would never think to question the soundness of his mind.

To be an artist in such a world is inherently crappy.

It’s not just that, in such a world, an artist is unavoidably in the business of producing luxuries and diversions that no one really needs.

Yes, it would be nice to have tickets to Hamilton, and the time to read that poetry collection my friend just published, and the wall-space to support my town’s oil painters, but, well, life is hard. I got bills to pay.

No, what’s worse is that artists must believe that their only value comes out of a certain form of mental derangement.

If they were just like everyone else, they would not create anything, because art is a species of overly-intense emotion.

Normal people see reality. They are the default.

(Quick note 1: I don’t want to imply that all unhappiness faced by artists is due to philosophical reasons. Probably Hemingway would be have been best served by modern-day medicine and counselling. I’m merely saying that part of the general artistic dissatisfaction, reported by countless creative types, is in fact due to the strain of living in an unfriendly world.)

(Quick note 2: to religious readers of this post: of course, some of what I have said will not sound quite right. Forgive me: this post is already very long.)

The point is: today, to be an artist is to see something other than reality, and this makes one weird.

William Blake, however, disagrees with all of this.

His entire body of work is intended to be a rejection of such a world view.

Now, Locke and Hume were famous in their time, and while he was alive, Blake was unknown to almost everyone. The few who had read his work, such as Wordworth, considering him to be basically insane.

However, his vision of the human mind, and of the universe, was intended to be a rival to theirs.

This is Blake:

“What!” it will be questioned, “when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?” Oh! no, no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!”

In fact, part of Blake’s goal was to provide living, working artists with a very different philosophy, one that did not denigrate or question their contribution.

Transform your view with the proverbs of hell

He also believed that were such an artistic worldview to take hold, the universe itself would be transformed.

If you are a creative, imaginative person, therefore, it seems like you should be really interested in what Blake has to say.

His philosphy could improve your art and your mental well-being.

A brother, a sister, and an idiot

Locke argued that we learn everything from experience and sensory input. Blake disagrees.

Blake constantly critiques and demeans the idea that he should respect a shared, general reality “out there.”

Yes, there is a material world that all people experience together, and yes, there is a general human character that people of all ages share, but to believe that humanity is meant to accept that reality as it is — this is a disaster, Blake argues.

It is a disaster for the individual who believes it, for society, and for the planet.

This does not mean we should live in a dream world. We shouldn’t, says Blake, try to survive on our fantasies of what life should be like.

But we also shouldn’t take “scientific reality” as the default, as the normal state of things.

Huh. This sounds tricky, doesn’t it?

Does this mean Blake is just a crazy person? If not, why not?

Here’s a story, to try to illustrate this point.

Imagine that three siblings visit a small town in Iowa.

The eldest sibling is Marcus, a brilliant physicist and inventor. The middle sibling is Clarissa, a highly respected economist and financial advisor. The youngest sibling is Dave, who is not really good at anything.

What does Dave see as he walks through the town? We might assume that Dave sees the everyday reality of the town, the obvious stuff. He notices the vacant lots on the main street, the damp air from the morning’s rain, the weak signal on his phone. He sees the people and the cars moving on the street. He goes into a bar and orders a beer.

Now Marcus, his physicist brother, walks through. And he sees what Dave saw. But that’s not all Marcus sees. When he looks at the spluttering traffic lights, the warnings of a weak cell signal, he sees more than Dave. He sees errors in engineering, in wiring, in the allocation of electrical resources.

He sees infrastructure that should have been replaced twenty years ago, and he already has a vague plan of how the town could cheaply upgrade its materials.

Now Clarissa, the economist, walks through the town. And she doesn’t see what Marcus sees. How could she? She’s not a physicist.

Instead, she notes the vacant buildings, the quality of the inhabitants’ clothes. She makes guesses about the sources of employment, the lack of investment.

She compares what she sees in the town to what she knows of Iowa’s general unemployment rate. She devises a quick economic fix the town’s mayor could implement.

Three different visions of the same place.

What Dave sees, as he sits drinking his beer, may be “reality,” but — ultimately — it is not worth basing any kind of philosophy on what Dave sees. What his brother and sister see is not only more interesting, it is simply more.

They see MORE of the town than he does.

Vision is more real than reality.

A person might agree with that sentence, and yet still feel uncomfortable.

After all, Marcus and Clarissa merely have “ideas.” They may be very clever, but that’s not the same as reality.

Blake would respond that if there is one central human urge, it is to remake the world to fit our imaginations.

Look at the history of the planet. People in every corner of the world took what was originally a rather dangerous, rather inhospitable place, and through the work of people like Marcus and Clarissa, they turned wolves into dogs, wheat into bread, speech into writing, inclinations into laws, and hops into beer.

They bred the poison out of almonds.

Nowadays, whenever someone says that they love “nature,” they almost always mean, in fact, that they love a particular kind of art.

What they love is not nature, but rather the product of countless farmers, hunter gatherers, landscape architects, park wardens, and travel writers.

Real nature, for most of us, would either be boring or terrifying.

Human history is the history of the Word made Flesh, of vision become truth.

Poor Dave

Now imagine that Dave has got himself arrested, and Marcus and Clarissa need to stick around to get him released.

During that time, Marcus shows the elected officials how to rewire the entire downtown; Clarissa guides the local business owners to launch a new economic initiative.

A year later, the town resembles not what Dave saw, but what his siblings saw. Their vision was real, not fanciful.

Their insight was truer than Dave’s sight.

Now, this is just a story. In our actual lives, stuff is complicated and change is slow, uncertain.

The process of an engineering insight leading to a town with better phone signal is obviously a tricky one.

It can be hard to see, day to day, how the insight of a genius or a society is transforming the world.

But this is exactly why artists are so important.

Art is the central human activity because art is the most obvious, clearest promise of this human capacity. Maya Angelou starts of with a blank sheet of paper: from nothing, she makes a poem. Picasso starts from a canvas and creates Guernica.

Artists show us that reality is something which we create, and we create it because we saw and knew it in our desire.

Northrop Frye sums this principle up in a paragraph that gives me chills every time I return to it:

Nearly all of us have felt, at least in childhood, that if we imagine that a thing is so, it therefore either is so or can be made to become so. All of us have to learn that this almost never happens, or happens only in limited ways; but the visionary, like the child, continues to belive that it always ought to happen. We are so possessed with the idea of the duty of acceptance that we are inclined to forget our mental birthright, and prudent and sensible people encourage us in this. That is why Blake is so full of aphorisms like “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” Such wisdom is based on the fact that imagination creates reality, and as desire is a part of imagination, the world we desire is more real than the world we passively accept.

Wow.

Marriage of Heaven and Hell -- transform your artistic life with William Blake

The prison of Ulro

Okay. Now things get a bit more complicated.

Blake doesn’t just think that Dave is unlucky to be a bit of an idiot. No, Blake thinks there is something actually wrong with Dave’s way of seeing the world.

It’s not really Dave’s fault: rather, philosophers like Locke, and scientists like Newton, have misled Dave about reality, with terrible consequences.

Dave is their victim, and for this they deserve absolute condemnation:

He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall neer get out

The problem is this: there is something worse than reality.

In practice, someone like Dave is not actually going to walk around looking at the town and see small, dull things about it. Only characters in literary novels do that.

In practice, Dave is actually going to spend most of his time in his head.

Everything he sees as he walks around — a woman who refuses to meet his eye, the selection of beers in the local pub — these all reinforce a whole series of abstract theories that Dave has acquired about the world.

“She didn’t look at me because women only like men who…”

“These places always have terrible beer because…”

Dave has been taught by Locke that the world is a real thing existing independently outside of his skull, and he has been taught by Newton that the universe is a series of endlessly spinning wheels. This is not a very hospitable place, in other words.

Inevitably, he retreats into a hazy mental world of resentments, theories, and judgements.

It would be one thing if Dave could remain in the “actual” world of reality, which Blake calls “Generation,” the world of things and events.

But the truth is much worse: people like Dave spend most of their time in a lower world, which Blake calls “Ulro.” Ulro is ego-centric, self-centred, and often bitter world of abstraction.

Rather than see this town, or that pub, such people generally see only a reflection of their pre-existing beliefs.

Locke’s philosophy is bad, or dangerous, because it encourages people to see less.

And Newton’s philosophy is bad, or dangerous, because it leads people to think that they are a tiny cog in an infinitely large wheel.

Therefore, when they are presented with a moral choice, people tend to assume that they are simply obligated to behave a certain way.

They believe in a whole series of abstractions — the state, history, crime — and they allow those abstractions to make their decisions for them. They assume that stuff has to happen a certain way. If a decision has to be made, that decision has already been taken, elsewhere.

But this idea of necessity is a complete fiction. Reality is here, and now, and nowhere else.

We can all act, and transform the world, and all our acts matter.

A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State

Blake is as critical of the secular idea that the universe is a spinning set of wheels as he is of the religious idea that God created the universe six thousand years ago.

Both philosophies enshrine the idea of necessity. Both tell people that the real story of the world is beyond their ability to perceive, is too big and serious, and was put in place countless years before their birth, for a purpose they do not need to understand.

The root of all evil is necessity.

People continue to perform the most horrifying acts because they believe they have to.

Where can a revolution come from?

Art is essential to healthy human life, as a result.

Art is the great counter weight to necessity.

People are all the time saying what art must be, and art is forever and always overthrowing those certainties.

People are all the time saying that a thing was decided ages ago, because “Western culture is x” or “Women are predisposed to y,” but art is always new. Artists are always showing us that the only real time is now, and we are the only real things in the universe.

Now, this is not intended to be a biographical description of the typical artist. Artists, too, can spend a lot of their time in “Ulro,” in bitter self-reflection.

Lord, don’t I know it?

But Blake makes a complete distinction between an artist’s life and her work.

When artists work on their actual art, they necessarily have to move up into vision, because while the different arts have their own principles and structures, it is impossible to make real art from pure abstractions. Each work demands enormous attention to the specific, the particular, the unique.

Even if a novelist believes in an idea like “plot,” she cannot make progress in a novel before she accepts that this particular work requires a unique interpretation and application of that idea.

Here is Blake:

To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.

The artist, therefore, may be an eccentric in his or her regular life. Indeed, she may deliberately act eccentric in order to persuade sensible middle-class customers to buy her stuff.

But the making of art is not itself eccentric.

Rather, it is the most insightful, grounded, and normal activity a human being can undertake.

An artist who believes that art is some kind of luxury, or a quirk of personality, will inevitably damage her work. She has been misled by a faulty picture of reality.

As a result, she will end up adding something to her art that doesn’t need to be there: too much fanciful elaboration, too much hazy mystery, too many compulsive hooks and twists, too much unreality.

Art, in fact, is simply the act of seeing more clearly than everyone else.

All right.

You are interested in Blake’s ideas. But you have questions.

What about King Arthur?

What about Blake’s interpretation of the Book of Genesis?

And, if art is just about seeing clearly, what are all Blake’s outlandish paintings and engravings about?

How is a scene like this meant to be “reality”?

‘Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve’; watercolor by William Blake for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1808
‘Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve’; watercolor by William Blake for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1808

Well, the key thing is that Blake doesn’t believe that the world we perceive is the correct one.

This world clearly sucks too much to be actual reality.

So there has to be a different world, or a different way of seeing the current one. There has to be a prophetic vision — or nothing makes sense.

So I would like to talk about Blake’s vision of prophecy.

I would like to share Blake’s amazing ideas about the Garden of Eden and the Fall.

I would like to comment on his brilliant sayings and proverbs, such as “He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.”

I would like to talk about Orc fighting Urizen. I would like to talk about Los the blacksmith and the specter.

However, this post is already 4,000 words long.

I’m worried you have to get back to work, or are about to finish on the treadmill, or you just didn’t expect to read such a long essay.

Therefore, this post will have a sequel: “The Supernatural Psychology of William Blake.”

Let me know if you enjoyed this one and would like to read the sequel: leave a comment, or email me.

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artistic life, eighteenth century philosophy, leftwing politics, literary fiction, locke, Northrop Frye, william blake, writing1


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  • This was fascinating, and would have continued reading.Much food for thought, and it makes sense, at least to me. We all live in the same world, but we all perceive it differently.

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