Opposition is True Friendship: Christopher Hitchens and William Blake

Deepak Chopra once argued that Christopher Hitchens, one of the founders of the New Atheist movement, “dismisses every spiritual person out of hand, which means that he dismisses William Blake […] in the same breath that he dismisses Bible belt preachers.” Hitchens died yesterday at the age of 62 after a battle with esophageal cancer. In one of his most polemic works, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), Hitchens sketches a grand argument against spiritual faith, suggesting that the loss of faith “can be compensated by the newer and finer wonders that we have before us, as well as by immersion in the near miraculous work of Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy and Proust, all of which was also ‘man-made” (4).This struggle between religion and literature was well-known by William Blake, although he saw the progression in reverse. Blake was an avid reader of Constantin Volney. Volney argues in The Ruins: or, Meditations on the revolutions of empires: and The law of nature (1789) that priests created religion in order to pervert and control the imaginative work of artisans. Instead of inspiration, for Volney, religion invented laws to secure the power of the priestly caste and drew upon the visions of artists for its authority. While scholars like E.P. Thompson and Jon Mee argue that Blake did not subscribe to Volney’s atheism, it becomes difficult to understand just where atheism ends and Blake’s version of spirituality begins. Take, for example, his statement in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “all deities reside in the human breast.” Jason Whittaker, in his introduction to the poem, admits that “Blake’s final statement […] can be read as remarkably close to atheism: however it is more accurate to emphasize that in this and his other works he emphasises again and again the divine nature of humanity.”

Blake’s voice has been used powerfully in tracts by many atheists, several of them Hitchens’s friends. Salman Rushdie refers to Blake briefly in The Satanic Verses to emphasize the spiritual insanity of Gibreel Farishta. Whereas Blake describes seeing God as “seeing the infinite in everything,” again a reference to the divine nature of humanity, Gibreel’s “vision of the Supreme Being was not abstract in the least. He saw, sitting on the bed, a man of about the same age as himself….” More recently, Rushdie uses Blake’s character Nobodaddy (“the silent & invisible/ Father of jealousy”) in Luka and the Fire of Life to represent Luka’s fear of his father dying. Philip Pullman, another famous atheist and president of the William Blake society, turns to the prologue of Blake’s Europe (“will shew you alive/The world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy”) to conceptualize the central concept from His Dark Materials: dust. When interviewed by Donna Frietas about Dust, Pullman says that “Dust is a visual analog of everything that is consciousness: human thought, imagination, love, affection, kindness, good things, and curiosity, intellectual curiosity. All that stuff is pictured in my idea of dust. Our most profound duty, it seems to me, is to increase the presence of dust in the world.”

Pullman calls himself an atheist. And Hitchens celebrated Pullman’s atheism in the review of His Dark Materials in Vanity Fair, highlighting Pullman’s insistence that “I just think the real world is all we have, and that it’s beautiful, and that there ain’t no elsewhere.” Further, Hitchens seems to empathize with, if not support, this form of atheism in his own references to Blake. In Arguably, Hitchens celebrates Blake’s devotion to animals (“William Blake could experience the agony of animals as if they were his own”) and uses him to argue against policies that sentence children as adults (“William Blake […] perhaps excelled all other authors in his rage against cruelty to the young.”). In Love, Poverty, and War Hitchens identifies with Blake’s distaste for stupidity (“If I had to surmise another influence, it would be William Blake […] because, as Blake phrased it: “A Last Judgment is necessary because fools flourish”). In Hitch-22, Hitchens identifies with Blake’s tragic visionary eye by recalling an episode from his childhood. “Once, after staying with a school friend on the Mumbles peninsula of South Wales, I had been as distressed as William Blake by my brief glimpse of the hell-mouth scenes of the steelworks and coal-pits around Port Talbot.” The Blake that emerges in Hitchens’s work is completely stripped of all spiritual trappings, a passionate fighter against oppression.

But Hitchens also unrelentingly critiqued Blake’s spiritual position, likening it to a loss in faith or a prophetic mass that threatened to overshadow the rest of his work. In his collaboration with Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, Hitchens likens Blake’s relationship to Christianity as a cancer. “[h]e searched his mind for belief in its fraud like a terrified woman feeling her breast for a cancer, he gave himself up to prophetic fury that his mind might find his way back to the undefiled sources of knowledge for goodness.” In his review of Peter Ackroyd’s Albion for The Atlantic, Hitchens also accuses Blake of a sentimentality that is all too British: “William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem,’ celebrated for its line about ‘these dark Satanic mills’ still manages to speak of ‘England’s green and pleasant land. The country that generated the Industrial Revolution and built the largest empire still has a self-image that is somehow bucolic.”

Hitchens’s relationship with Blake is, perhaps, more complicated than Chopra’s characterization of dismisal, and yet it might best capture the opposition that is typical of many writers and their relationship with Blake. If, as Blake argues in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “opposition is true friendship,” perhaps Christopher Hitchens was a true friend of Blake.

Similar Posts: