Arrows of Desire: William Blake and True Political Dissent

This is the birthday of William Blake, born 250 years ago today. He is rightly celebrated by Terry Eagleton in the Guardian as a political radical in the truest, deepest sense, committed to the liberation of mind and body from the "Beast and the Whore" -- state and church -- and to the common good. At Eagleton notes, Blake's sense of transcendence was undergir
ded with a grim realization of the abiding perfidy and imperfection of all human kind; he was no mere dreamer, no "Panglossian progressive." Yet at its core, his vision blazed with a noble creed: "Everything that lives is holy."

Let us celebrate such a man -- and such a vision -- in our dark, degraded times.

From "The original political vision: sex, art and transformation" (Guardian):

Blake's politics were not just a matter of wishful thinking, as so many radical schemes are today. Across the Atlantic one great anti-colonial revolution had held out the promise of liberty, and to the poet's delight another had broken out in the streets of Paris. Together they promised to bring an end to the rule of state and church - "the Beast and the Whore", as Blake knew them. Most of our own writers, however, seem to know little of politics beyond the value of individual liberties.

In this, they are faithful to the libertarian lineage of John Milton; but Milton knew rather more about politics than freedom of expression. In his greatest poem, he mourned the paradise that radical Puritans had hoped to witness on earth. As mythologer-in-chief of the English 17th-century revolution, he urged the cutting off of the king's head, and was lucky to escape with his own. It is hard to imagine Craig Raine or Ian McEwan posing a threat to the state...

Politics today is largely a question of management and administration. Blake, by contrast, viewed the political as inseparable from art, ethics, sexuality and the imagination. It was about the emancipation of desire, not its manipulation. Desire for him was an infinite delight, and his whole project was to rescue it from the repressive regime of priests and kings. His sense of how sexuality can turn pathological through repression is strikingly close to Freud's. To see the body as it really is, free from illusion and ideology, is to see that its roots run down to eternity. "If the doors of perception were cleansed," he claims, "everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." Political states keep power by convincing us of our limitations.

They do so, too, by persuading us to be "moderate"; Blake, however, was not enamoured of the third way. The New Testament that Gordon Brown reads in his Presbyterian fashion as a model of prudence, conscience and sobriety, Blake read as a hymn to creative recklessness. He sees that Jesus's ethics are extravagant, hostile to the calculative spirit of the utilitarians. If they ask for your coat, give them your cloak; if they ask you to walk one mile, walk two. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, and those who restrain their desires do so because their desires are feeble enough to be restrained.

The energy captured in Blake's watercolours and engravings is his riposte to mechanistic thought. In a land of dark Satanic mills, the exuberant uselessness of art was a scandal to hard-headed pragmatists. Art set its face against abstraction and calculation: "To generalise is to be an Idiot," Blake writes. And again: "The whole business of Man is the arts, and all things in common." The middle-class Anglicans who sing his great hymn Jerusalem are unwittingly celebrating a communist future.

Brothels, Blake wrote, are built with bricks of religion. Today, hardly a single Christian politician believes with Blake that any form of Christian faith that is not an affront to the state is worthless. Blake was no dewy-eyed radical, convinced as he was of the reality of the Fall. He had a radical Protestant sense of human corruption. His vision of humankind was darker than that of the Panglossian progressives of our own time, with their vacuous talk of "moving on". Yet it was more hopeful as well. London had lapsed into Babylon; but it remained true that "everything that lives is holy", and it might still prove possible to transform the city into the New Jerusalem.

*The picture below is Blake's painting of Nebuchadnezzar: the fallen tyrant, cursed by God for his depredations.*