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Humanism in literature: William Blake.

I once found a volume, The Theology of William Blake, in an obscure corner of a library. At the time, I was reading Mark Schorer's William Blake: The Politics of Vision, which treats the poet as a secular artist who used biblical and esoteric literature for his engravings and poems. I appreciated Schorer's position, which dispelled for me the notion that Blake was a mystic. And so it was jarring for me to suppose that he might have had a theology, and I returned The Theology of William Blake unopened to the shelf. Since then, I have come to see that theologians may be atheistic. Theology in itself presupposes no necessary beliefs and can be simply issue, oriented. Today, I would be more accepting of the title if I saw it on the shelf, more inclined to investigate.

The view of Blake which I received from Schorer, while secular, was not humanistic in the sense of the ancient Greeks, nor of the Renaissance with its stress on classical languages, nor certainly either of the Enlightenment with its appeal to rationality or the modern pragmatic or positivist ethos. Rather, it was a humanism based upon human, kind's faculties of imagination and vision. A vitally new understanding of humanism is hardly likely to result in regarding William Blake as a special exemplar, for he has his debits as well as his credits. Even so, what this poet-engraver stands for is something worldly. Mark Schorer, himself secular, brilliantly illuminated the secular in Blake, who emerges as someone less worldly from the pages of another study from the mid-1940s--Northrop Frye's Fearful Symmetry.

In spite of his reputation for mysticism, Blake early wrote clearly naturalistic poems like "The Ecchoing Green," "To Autumn," and "Laughing Song." Down-to-earth concerns enter into the two "Chimney Sweep" poems as well as "London" But apart from such gleanings from these and other short poems for which he has long been famous, it is to Blake's own brand of thinking that we must turn for something compellingly relevant. This is not uniformly so, since Blake was not conceptually systematic or even always consistent. A key idea is that there is no transcendent God but, rather, an all-encompassing Universal or Primal Man--once whole when in Eden but then broken into four parts, the Zoas. Thus, the biblical account of the fall of humanity, coinciding with the exile of Adam and Eve from Eden, does not for Blake involve original sin. Humanity's alienation is not to be overcome by a supernatural redeemer granting salvation but, rather, by human imagination, which can return us to our original wholeness. With such redemption by the imagination of poetic genius, there would be an improvement in bodily sense and sensual enjoyment.

In this scheme, as noted, sin is missing, and along with it such asceticisms as have their source in the biblical story of Eden. Here, its Blakean equivalent has a secular-enough name: selfhood, a state of attempted self-sufficiency, in isolation, following fragmentation from Universal Man. For Blake, such selfhood was to be demolished by "self-annihilation" for the sake of "identity"--a gathering into original wholeness. From a humanist standpoint, Blake is here on the "debit" side, since this view is in opposition to the modern concern with human selfhood and self-development. Also, his use of otherworldly terms like divine, spirit, soul, angel, apocalypse, resurrection, and redemption appears to humanists to tally up for him further debits.

Yet these and other terms are only in keeping with such biblical and esoteric sources which Blake used to further his pictorial and literary art. Important here is that he abandoned the biblical creator sky-god for humankind in universal proportions. Where Blake includes a creator god (Urizen) in his galaxy of mythical beings, he is a "mistaken Demon of heaven. . . . thy labor vain, to form men into thine image." The unworldly language might be seen as the necessary price to pay for a world view supportive of a post-Blakean understanding of human beings as self-estranged and alienated from their fellows and from nature and in a state of psychic chaos. Blake's modes of communication via visual art and poetry are more vivid than the abstractions of philosophy. Still, his central concern with the one Universal Man and the four fragmented Zoas echoes the philosophical question of the One and the Many.

Just as Blake sides with the claims of the dialectic with his "without contraries there is no progression," so in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" there is a kind of Nietzschean transvaluation of values whereby it is good to unite the interests of heaven with those of hell. The latter, while evil, is also bodily energy and eternal delight. Blake's assault on reason (Rousseau, Voltaire, and Newton were special targets) will vex Enlightenment humanists with their enshrined rationality. There is the famous Blake picture of the senile sky-god Urizen holding a measuring instrument, a picture which powerfully makes its point. The artist's concern, however, may just as well be our own--to inveigh against a creator-god who rules in the name of mechanization and measurement.

Lest we feel that Blake, with his other-worldly terminology, deprecates nature or opposes humankind to it, we need to see that his "Vala" (mere nature) can be humanized by imagination. Moreover, in the words of one of his proverbs of hell, "Where man is not, nature is barren." Human cultivation of the earth is obviously implied. (Admittedly, this takes an ironic twist in our new era of intense ecological concern.) The importance attached both to nature and to the empirical in Blake is affirmed in "There Is No Natural Religion," where the points are made that the human being "is only a natural organ subject to sense," that perception occurs through bodily organs, that organic perceptions mean organic thoughts, and that desires and perceptions "must be limited to objects of sense"

The nineteenth-century thinker Ludwig Feuerbach was convinced that human beings, over the millennia, had projected their powers onto the gods, to which they then submitted. Blake says much the same thing in the text to plate eleven of "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," where, in summary, ancient poets celebrated the world, ascribing to each part of it "mental deity." Following this, "a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects; thus began Priesthood." Then, religious rituals were derived from the ancient poetry and, finally, declaring that what was occurring was by the gods' orders, "thus men forgot that all deities reside in the human breast."
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Author:Lawson, William
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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