Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Majestic Vision - Introducing Prophecy

"Whatever Blake's prophecies may be, they can hardly be code messages. They may need interpretation, but not deciphering: there can be no 'key' and no open-sesame formula and no patented system of translation." - Northrop Frye

The prophet of London has attracted a vast and eclectic following of readers and interpreters, and every one of them seems to understand Blake's work as something distinct from every other understanding, often adopting a 'mystical' approach, trying to find evidence in the artistic imagery to support the theory that Blake was part of the tradition of Orpheus, or of the Gnostics, or again of some secret Dionysian-Christ cult, whatever it might be. This is actually quite ironic, seeing as Blake himself showed open disdain for his contemporary obscurities, and for the 'spiritual mysteries' that persist in many of the religio-mythical traditions.

 Obviously, we cannot really avoid making our own particular reading of the material, which is naturally affected by our own perspectives and impressions of the work; but we can nevertheless hope to grasp Blake from a wider angle, seeing in his paintings and his literature a unified approach to a kind of invigorated mythology that is his founding creation. Blake himself says of his own work: 'The Nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative it is an Endeavour to Restore what the Ancients calld the Golden Age'. The artist who visualized himself as a sort of prophet understood the world around him as something increasingly depraved and materialistic, caught in an irreconcilable cycle of tyranny and bloody revolution; and his response, his great solution remained constant: imaginative rebirth; his entire artistic production revolves around this premise of resurrecting what lies dormant in man, and how exactly we can succeed in this.

By the time of the late Seventeenth Century, the Western intellectual society had already suffered the initial philosophical traumas of Hobbesian naturalism, Lockean empiricism, Cartesian mind / body dualism, and most importantly to Blake, the dire results of the continental Enlightenment, personified in the form of Voltaire, who stood not only for the 'rationalistic' pretensions of deism, but also for the limited 'humanism' which deism necessarily implies. Blake saw nothing better in the Church, either, an organization he felt to be built upon a primarily moral construct which limited the freedom of its subjects to a perverse and unlikely chastity. The individual proponents of these schools of thought are deemed to be 'Angels', or those wishing to preserve the status quo; and those aligned against them are 'Devils', or those who release primal or imaginative 'energies'.

The 'Angelic Order' is essentially what Blake himself is fighting against, and his aim to restore the 'Golden Age' is indicative of his intent to resuscitate the dying genius in man to eradicate all kinds of illusion through the nihilistic storm of apocalypse. As far as his execution is concerned, the fundamental means which Blake appropriates is the development of a beautiful, almost magical symbolism which he utilizes in his grand attempt to 're-mythologize' a 'de-mythologized' world. All of this will be covered in greater detail below, but this, his imperative vision which governs his every choice of word, every stroke of the brush, must remain central to the effort in properly appreciating William Blake.

 Finally, it may be noticed that Blake sometimes 'contradicts' himself; indeed, there have been some (like Leopold Damrosch Jr.) who maintain that Blake never really assimilates his enormous mythological undertaking into a fully comprehensive system that agrees with every particular tangent that his vision allows, but instead develops his worldview on a progressive basis, never completely satisfying his own epistemic. While this might actually have some truth to it, the very scope of Blake's visionary output goes far beyond the Hegelian synthetic resolution of thesis and antithesis, and which cannot be reduced by such critically logical complaints due to its being sustained by the lofty traditions of high prophecy and an imaginative eschatology, thereby attaining its own certain logic. Additionally, Blake is immune to such attacks by virtue of the constancy in theme underlying the prophetic works and the shorter poems that is clearly apparent; so, while individual ideas might sometimes conflict with one another, the overall composition of his majestic symbolism, and the spiritual ideas made clear by the symbolism, totally absolve the 'madman' of any serious contradiction.

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