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Text, Identity, Subjectivity

Finding Ourselves in Literature and Art

James Rovira, Author

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Blake's Aesthetic Theology

Note: This paper was originally delivered at the 2012 College English Association national conference. Portions of this paper are drawn from James Rovira's monograph Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloombury 2010). If you enjoyed this paper, please consider encouraging your library to order the book.

William Blake’s religious consciousness has long been the subject of critical debate.  Some scholars, like James King, argue that Blake was essentially an orthodox Christian, while others, like John Mee and Peter J. Sorenson, believe Blake was a Gnostic critic of traditional Christianity. Harold Bloom and, mostly recently, Kathleen Quinney, believe that Blake was an atheist critic of England’s church, while in Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety, I affirm that Blake’s religious orientation was primarily Medieval (though not Roman Catholic) in character.  Such contradictory views are possible because Blake’s language about the Divine, particularly his image of the “Poetic Genius,” crosses, re-crosses, and bisects the boundary dividing art and theology. I will ultimately define Blake’s religious consciousness as a uniquely held aesthetic theology, one derived from Christianity but very difficult to identify with any one dogmatic tradition within Christianity. Blake's variety of Christianity emphasizes that God is an artist but employs the language of art to do so.  I will first describe the debate between organic and mechanical views of nature during Blake’s time, explain how this debate is not one between a scientific and religious view of the universe but between two competing religious views of the universe, and then position Blake in relationship to the two, defining his aesthetic theology as his response to this debate.

Any discussion of eighteenth-century science must begin with Isaac Newton. As the immediate originator of the mechanical philosophy, he was undoubtedly the most significant figure in English science from his time at least until Darwin and possibly until Einstein.  Picciotto records that Newton sat “for over 20 portraits and busts, of which thousands of copies were sold” so that “Newton became a brand” (p. 48).  Descriptions of Newton in literature such as John Hughes’s “The Ecstasy” (1735), which imagines “Newton’s soul soaring through heaven, like Milton’s Christ at the moment of creation,” and Alexander Pope’s “famous epitaph: ‘Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in night. / God said, Let Newton Be! And All was light’” (p. 49), virtually deify Newton.  Mary Wollstonecraft in her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) records “an ingenious conjecture respecting Newton: that he was probably a being of superior order, accidentally caged in a human body” (p. 295). 

Newton’s contribution, of course, was to provide a mathematic model that accounted for the observable behavior of objects both on earth and in the solar system. Because his system expounded fixed physical laws governing both terrestrial and celestial objects, the same rules worked for stars as well as apples.  Newton’s system stood opposed to the old Aristotelian system placing the earth and gross physical matter at one pole of existence and the Prime Mover at the other, with celestial spheres in between, so that presumably “a celestial body was more perfect the farther it was removed from the earth” (Grant, p. 138).  Newton’s universe was therefore far more democratic than Aristotle’s, a boon for English self-identity immediately following the English Civil War and the Restoration.  Newton’s description in the Principia of a universe operating by fixed laws popularized a mechanical model of the universe, one adopted by Locke, Adam Smith, and others. Ultimately, human beings were reduced to smaller machines within a larger mechanized universe. 

Against this vision of the universe is Coleridge’s, in which the world “was thought of as a web, an organism, a fabric, or a jungle, and was impossible for mortals to comprehend” (Hilton, p. 314).  One primary difference between the Coleridgean or organic and the Newtonian or mechanical views of the world lies in the point of view apprehending these systems. Paley’s natural theology, for example, implies a transcendent point of view. Comparing the universe to a gargantuan clock that requires a transcendent clockmaker, he creates the impression that we can grasp the universe entire, as if holding it in the palm of our hand. This impression contributed to the rhetorical deification of Newton in eighteenth-century literature, as surely only a semi-divine figure could possess so extensive a view of the cosmos. Coleridge’s metaphor of the universe as a “web” or “jungle,” on the other hand, emphasizes human immanence: human beings do not stand outside the system comprehending it all, even imaginatively, but are contained within it, so human thought cannot fully encompass all existence. The battle between religion and science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was therefore a battle between rival religious phenomenologies on the battlefield of science, not a battle between religion on one hand and empirical science on the other. Each phenomenology conceived of the universe and humanity’s relationship to it in very different terms. 

Blake’s attitude toward the empirical sciences throughout his career was ambivalent at best, but at least by the time he wrote Jerusalem he distinguished between good and bad, or true and false, or Urizenic and redeemed uses of the physical sciences.  In face, in Jerusalem Blake called redeemed science one of the “labours of the Gospel” (E, p. 232). But Jerusalem’s early narrative tells us that 
Every Substance is clothed, they name them Good & Evil 
From them they make an Abstract, which is a Negation 
Not only of the Substance from which it is derived 
A murderer of its own Body:  but also a murderer 
Of every Divine Member:  it is the Reasoning Power 
An Abstract objecting power, that Negatives every thing 
This is the Spectre of Man:  the Holy Reasoning Power  (E, p. 153) 
“Objecting” probably shouldn’t be understood in the sense of “making objects out of” as that would give the abstract reasoning power a positive, creative function when to Blake it is pure negation. “Objecting” is better understood as a form of negation: objecting to, disagreeing with, or denying, making this passage a repetition of his critique of false religious consciousness in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where Blake asserts that the categories of good and evil are religious misunderstandings of contraries.  Contraries in this passage in Jerusalem are good but “clothed”—hidden, covered up, fallen like Adam and Eve—then misnamed “good and evil” by a false religious consciousness.  
In Jerusalem, Blake’s character Los resists this negation to establish a new relation among minds through art: “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans / I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create” (E, p. 153). Where the mechanical philosophy would have us believe that it presents a transcendent view of the entire system of existence, Los—symbolic of creative activity itself—understands the created nature of systems of thought, that they present an artificial transcendence at best, and that we can only apprehend existence from within. Blake’s critique is of any scientific methodology that transforms itself into a ruling, all-encompassing phenomenology. Blake would rein in systematizing by defining it as the activity of an immanent subjectivity rather accepting its claims that it provides a transcendent point of view from outside existence.

It is against this background that Blake’s theology should be understood, one that presents both positive and negative visions of an immanent creator. Blake’s negative creator is Urizen, his embodiment of instrumental reason acting independently of other human faculties, who in The [First] Book of Urizen creates a world solely for the purpose of imposing his moral laws. Blake adopts a Gnostic narrative to tell Urizen’s story, one in which a fallen or rebellious sub-creator creates material nature to both set himself up as God and to entrap or enslave the true God, but who in turn becomes entrapped within it. When human beings finally appear in Urizen’s new world, they are as unwilling to obey Urizen’s laws as the Eternals were. This fallen creator is implicated in human fallenness, and in this case is not really a creator of material nature at all, but rather a creator of a phenomenology of nature. It is no coincidence that Urizen is closely associated with Bacon, Newton, and Locke in Blake’s mythological works. While not representing Newton himself, Urizen represents the rhetorically deified Newton whose systems changed the way England thought about every field of knowledge. Blake’s Urizen therefore embodies the impulse to create transcendent systems that define the existence of all those within it, or is rather the impulse itself behind figures such as Bacon, Newton, or Locke, and it is within this artificially transcendent phenomenology of nature that the true God has been caught.  

The creator of the material world itself, on the other hand, is the Poetic Genius of Blake’s early manifestos, “All Religions are One” and “There is No Natural Religion [a]” and “[b].” “All Religions are One” establishes in seven principles the idea of a universal distribution of the Poetic Genius among all objects, in which all participate, individually, in their own manner and whose outward forms are derived from the nature of their participation in this universal Poetic Genius. Within “All Religions Are One,” individuality is a filter of sorts, or a mediator, between the universal Poetic Genius and the plethora of outward forms that we experience on a daily basis.  

This work both intrigues and confuses for two reasons: first, it seems to present a type of Christian animism, affirming with animism that every natural object has a spiritual nature or controlling genius, but affirming with Christianity that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures are an “original derivation” of the Poetic Genius.  We should note that all other derivations of the Poetic Genius are “adapted to the weakness of every individual.” Blake’s affirmation of a unique participation of the Jewish and Christian scriptures in the Poetic Genius – something necessary due to the “confined nature of bodily sensation” – seems to anticipate his appropriation of the kenosis in “There Is No Natural Religion,” that “God becomes as we are that we may be as he is,” the Poetic Genius appearing unmediated by cultural limitations in the case of Christ.

But “All Religions are One” is also intriguing because it begins with a very Lockean “Argument”: “As the true method of knowledge is experiment the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences. This faculty I treat of.” The faculty that experiences, in Blake, is a faculty that experiences both individuality and diversity, recognizing infinite variations upon a single theme. Blake draws attention here, however, not to a transcendent God but to this God’s product: his immanentist theology draws attention to the individual’s experience of the variety of the Poetic Genius’s works and the individual’s intuition of a union with it all. One question lingers, though: what exactly is this faculty that experiments?  Blake diverges from the Lockean assumption that it is human sense perception, or the human imagination understood only as the organizer of human sense perception, ideas that he develops in “There Is No Natural Religion.”  

“There Is No Natural Religion” is the second of Blake’s early manifestos and is divided into parts [a] and [b], the first part repeating Lockean assumptions about the dependence of human learning upon sense perception while the second part undermines those assumptions.  [a] concludes with the affirmation that “The desires & perceptions of man untaught by any thing but organs of sense, must be limited to objects of sense,” while [b] begins with the assertion that “Mans perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception. he percieves more than sense (tho' ever so acute) can discover.”

[b] goes on to affirm the infinite nature of human desire and, by extension, the infinite nature of human beings themselves, claiming that despair is necessarily the lot of those who seek to limit human perception to sensory perception.  Therefore the “faculty that experiences” of “All Religions Are One” both perceives the surface contours of material nature and perceives through those contours to an infinite reality.  It is a faculty that experiences infinite desire, desire that is necessarily dissatisfied with what material nature offers because what it seeks lies beyond it.  

Blake concludes “There Is No Natural Religion” with an appropriation of the kenosis – “Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is” – which serves as his commentary on the work of the Poetic Genius in the world. It is immanent, but immanent not only within human sense perception, but also within human desire. It is immanent within both human material existence and human immaterial existence, encouraging a vision of a world that is infinitely and creatively varied, seeking to reproduce that infinite creativity within individualized poetic geniuses who first generate their own outward form and then, themselves, create: create systems, create art, create poetry, create sciences. It is visionary as well, apprehending the Poetic Genius behind and beneath all other existent things, and loving the universal Poetic Genius in the unique creative productions of all lesser beings. Because it does not delude itself into imagining its own transcendence, all else exists alongside it, and existence in all of its forms is a means of better seeing the universal Poetic Genius in all the varieties of its manifestations. 

However, I would also like to draw attention to the way that Blake complicates both sides of the mechanical/organicist debate.  He rejects the mechanical philosophy’s claims, but he does so by immanentizing them. As a result, he also complicates the organicist/immanentist point of view, as “immanent” is not necessarily always “good” – it is possible for an immanentist consciousness to be deformed.  Furthermore, he also asserts the goodness of both positions: both Urizen and Los are creators. Urizen, along with the sciences, are not evils to be rejected, but fallen human elements to be redeemed. Los and Urizen are meant to be bound to one another: the problem with Urizen’s fall is that it involves all of the Eternals in a misrelation between themselves and others because they are all meant to be united with him and he with they.  Blake’s response to the dilemma posed by the deformations involved in both organicist and mechanical philosophies is art, which is a work of each individual Poetic Genius in the world, as we act imitatively of the greater Poetic Genius in our smaller acts of creation to redeem our immanent existence through our art, to tirelessly bring imagination to bear upon the brokenness and deformations involved in human existence. Blake’s theology is therefore aesthetic rather than conceptual and personal rather than abstract, distributing God throughout, within, and above all creation.  

References may be found at the sitewide Works Cited page.
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