The video below is a lightly edited version of a talk to the Blake Society on February 17, 2021, about some of the ways in which Blake’s theory of religion developed throughout his art and poetry.
The video below is a lightly edited version of a talk to the Blake Society on February 17, 2021, about some of the ways in which Blake’s theory of religion developed throughout his art and poetry.
In a response to a question on his fan site, The Red Hand Files, earlier this year, Nick Cave listed Blake as one of his favourite poets – alongside Stevie Smith, W. B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson and a dozen others, describing them as the “poets whose company I consistently enjoy” (a phrase that may, either consciously or unconsciously, echo Blake’s comment in the album of the antiquary William Upcott as “one who is very much delighted with being in good Company”).
The connection between the two visionaries is hardly a new one. Indeed, by the early 2000s comparisons between Cave and Blake had become something of a stereotype. The Guardian called him “Ted Bundy with a William Blake obsession” (not, as it transpires, intended as a compliment in a fairly snippy review of the album Nocturama – admittedly not his best work), while Eric Carr, writing for Pitchfork, could throw away a smart jibe that until 1997 “the Nick Cave Songbook read like a set of William Blake Mad Libs filled in by undertakers, jilted lovers and John Wayne Gacy, with a few American folk covers thrown in for variety”. The psycho Blake/Cave comparison was a lazy, edgy meme for journalists who wished to portray themselves as literate without too much effort, although there were others who realised that the front man of the Bad Seeds was becoming a very different kind of person to the heroin-addicted figure who had destroyed his relationship with P. J. Harvey in the 90s. In a very good article for Salon in 2004, Thomas Bartlett only invoked Blake tangentially – to portray Cave as “A true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” – but the article overall treated the singer’s religious beliefs with much greater respect than was usually the case. A thoughtful tone was likewise struck by Russell Porter in The Beat Happening magazine (2008), who described Cave as writing with “a lyrical tone that owes as much to the visions of William Blake as it does to the street savvy tempo of William Chandler and Dashiel Hammet”.
Bartlett had made an astute observation that very few music journalists commented on Cave and religion. Almost certainly, this was due to supposedly secular reputation of pop music, which was commonly assumed to be fully of the devil’s party despite the well-known beliefs of figures as diverse as Prince, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As well as regularly invoking biblical motifs in his songs and his 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, Cave spoke explicitly about his relationship to Christianity in a programme for BBC 3 Religious Services in 1996. Entitled “The Flesh Made Word”, the transcript and Cave’s recording is available at NickCave.it.
The piece, lasting some seventeen minutes, provides a fairly detailed, autobiographical account of Cave’s relationship not merely with his Anglican upbringing but, more pointedly, how his father’s desire to inculcate a love of literature in his son was also a kind of spiritual ecstasy, an elevation from the mundane to the “divine essence of things”: “although he would have laughed at this notion, what my father was finding in his beloved literature was God.” Unlike his father, this pursuit of God was something that Cave began to pursue explicitly, taking an interest in relgious art against the desires of his instructors who thought he should be interested in more contemporary forms. The deity that first appealed to the young singer was the retributive creator and destroyer of the Old Testament, making him “a conduit for a God that spoke in a language written in bile and puke.” While he was happy with this for a while, it was eventually through the gospels – lovingly evoked by Cave as “four wonderful prose poems” – that Cave returned to the Jesus of his childhood. This was around the period that, in Berlin, he began to write And the Ass Saw the Angel: Jesus still spoke all too often in the language of the father to the singer at this point, but Cave also began to recognise the importance of an imagination that was explicitly Christian:
What Christ shows us here is that the creative imagination has the power to combat all enemies, that we are protected by the flow of our own inspiration. Clearly what Jesus most despised, what he really railed against time and time again, were the forces that represented the established order of things, symbolized by the scribes and Pharisees, those dull, small-minded scholars of religious law who dogged his every move. Christ saw them as enemies of the imagination, who actively blocked the spiritual flight of the people, and kept them bogged down with theological nitpicking, intellectualism, and law. What was Christ’s great bugbear, and what has sat like dung in the doorway of the Christian church ever since, was the Pharisees’ preoccupation with the law in preference to the logos. Said St. Paul to the Corinthians: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” So how can one be elevated spiritually, if they are loaded up with the chains of religious jurisprudence? How can the imagination be told how to behave? How can inspiration, or for that matter God, be moral?
Cave only invokes Blake once in this piece: “To loosely paraphrase William Blake: I myself did nothing; I just pointed a damning finger and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.” This is, indeed, a very loose paraphrase, taking its inspiration from plate 3 of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion: “We who dwell on Earth can do nothing of ourselves, every thing is conducted by Spirits, no less than Digestion or Sleep.” (E145) Cave invokes Shakespeare, Nabokov and Dostoevsky, but aside from the Bible it is only Blake he cites, and his chosen source is, frankly, astonishing: while various critics have noted the singer’s allusions to Blake’s lyrics – entirely understandable in a song writer – none have, to my knowledge, drawn attention to his familiarity with the difficult, late prophetic books. For me, the fact that Cave does not merely invoke Jerusalem but does so playfully suggests a possible familiarity that goes far beyond that of almost any other popular musician.
It is in the later prophetic books, I would argue, that Cave would discover ideas from Blake, most notably around the rejection of the Moral Law, that seem to have shaped his attitudes to the creative imagination. For Blake, “The Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself” (E132), and against this very existence itself the poet placed the dead letter of the law, which Albion recognises in his fallen state:
O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified
I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law:
There Babylon is builded in the Waste, founded in Human desolation. (E169)
Zoe Alderton has written about this programme in “Nick Cave: A Journey from the Anglican God to the Creative Christ“, observing the profoundly literary route through which the singer approaches spirituality. While noting the paraphrase of Blake, she fails to recognise the significance of it however: that Cave appears to believe so profoundly that faith is bound up with imagination owes much, I would argue, to the earlier poet who wrote in All Religions are One that spirituality is itself the Poetic Genius. What is more, as the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and a Bible of hell that retold an infernal account of Genesis via The Book of Urizen, Blake is a profoundly appealing artist to anyone seeking to understand a post-secular world while also avoiding the gins and traps of religion. Blake was a prophet and, like most prophets, he was without honour in his own country which worshipped instead the God of this world.
Of those writers who have noted Cave’s lyric indebtedness to Blake, Karen Welberry in an essay “Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter” (in the collection Cultural Seeds, edited by Tanya Dalziell and Karen Welberry) pointed out that “The Hammer Song” emulates Blake’s “Infant Sorrow” from Songs of Experience, echoing the line “My mother groand! My father wept / Into the dangerous world I leapt” in the opening stanza which ends: “My father raged and raged / And my mother wept”. She also observed that Blake read the poem on a BBC TV programme, Poetry Nation, in 1994 (p.54). John H. Baker offers some excellent insights into the use of Blake in Cave’s verse, whether echoes in the Bad Seeds’ debut album, From Her to Eternity, to the revelation that Christ was an artist which was Blake’s vision of Jesus (in his edited collection, The Art of Nick Cave). The most profound lyrical connection to the earlier poet is to be found in the 1990 track, “A Weeping Song”. It was David Fallon, in his “Blakean Notes in 1990s Pop Music”, who first pointed out that the song, included on the album The Good Son, was a contrary from Songs of Experience to match “Laughing Song” in Innocence, going on to repeat Wellberry’s observations on “The Hammer Song” and adding further allusions in Murder Ballads. Certainly in the 1990s, William Blake seems to have been very much on Nick Cave’s mind. (In Blake 2.0, edited by Steve Clark, Tristanne Connolly and Jason Whittaker, p.250.)
I would go further than Fallon to consider just how important the connection between “A Weeping Song” and Blake is. Cave does not merely allude to the earlier Romantic – which, as has been demonstrated here, is a repeated feature of the singer’s work. No: nearly 200 years after the publication of the original, Nick Cave decided to write another song of experience. This, for me, represents one of the most astonishing acts of imagination in the field of musical reception of Blake. Again and again the poet is set to music or even adapted more allusively by various performers, but to extend one of Blake’s most popular collections demonstrates a level of love and admiration that goes far beyond anything else encountered musically. The connection is also one that demonstrates Cave’s understanding of the deceptive simplicity of the earlier writer, whereby simple repetitions operate both musically and thematically to create a doorway to eternity via the simplest language of children.
Where Blake writes:
When the painted birds laugh in the shade
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread
Come live & be merry and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of Ha, Ha, He. (E11)
This is a weeping song
A song in which to weep
While all the men and women sleep
This is a weeping song
But I won’t be weeping long
As with Blake’s Songs, the spare economy of these words is allusive rather than diminutive, part of two different worlds – innocence and experience – where the simplicity of childhood vision sees a world beyond everyday normality. This is one of the means by which poetry can elevate us into visions of eternity.
Which leads, ultimately, to Cave’s most recent album, Ghosteen. I am fully aware that, like a witchfinder general, I am often keen to sniff out Blake wherever I can find him. This article is not intended as a review of Ghosteen, which I am still very much slowly coming to understand, but as I have demonstrated the singer-songwriter’s interest in William Blake is both very longstanding and far from superficial. At least one reviewer, Elizabeth Aubrey for the NME, has drawn attention to the echoes of William Blake in lines such as “It isn’t any fun to be standing here alone with nowhere to be / With a man mad with grief and on each side a thief / and everybody hanging from a tree” from the song “Sun Forest”. Such echoes are certainly there, and the musical style of the album continues that of its haunting predecessor, Skeleton Tree, the first album released after the tragic death of his son. The song that electrified me was “Fireflies”, which opens:
Jesus lying in his mother’s arms
Is a photon released from a dying star
We move through the forest at night
The sky is full of momentary light
And everything we need is just too far
We are photons released from a dying star
We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar
And everything is distant as the stars
I am here and you are where you are
The image invoked here – Jesus as photon from a dying star – is perhaps something closer to a piece that John Berryman (another of Cave’s favourite poems) might write, and yet in the line “We are the fireflies a child has trapped in a jar” I cannot help but hear another lyric by William Blake, “The Fly”:
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink & sing:
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
In the hands of another poet, this would be nihilism, and in the hands of another singer “Fireflies” would be an equally empty vision of death. Yet for Cave – guided by, I would argue, William Blake as much as those “wonderful prose poems” of the New Testament – what we come to in Ghosteen is that post-secular quest for a world of eternity, one that owes nothing to the religion of stocks and stones and everything to the creative imagination.
Jason Whittaker writes of Richard Wright’s Turner Prize winning work, that it “brings with it none of the overt Christian morality attached to Blake’s subject; rather, formal motifs repeat and circulate, creating a vision of the secular sublime”. However, Wright’s work has been likened to that of Blake, whose work is often steeped in religious reference, so could his work be considered truly secular?
There are difficulties in establishing the meaning of “secular” especially in terms of visual image, and there are monumental challenges around identifying “the sublime” – a notion that has been a preoccupation of many nineteenth century philosophers. As Carroll writes in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, “The sublime has had almost as many interpretations as it has appearances in philosophical literature” and argues that the concept of the sublime is resistant to a singular definition. Perhaps the absence of religion makes the notion of sublime more problematic? For many, “sublime” has other worldly, pseudo-religious connotations. Ultimately, despite Whittaker’s claim that Wright has created a vision, there may be other, more relevant artists, who could have been better regarded for creations of sublime secularity.
The Oxford Dictionary describes secular simply as “not connected with religious or spiritual matters”. But describing something by what it is not can be problematic. An attempt to identify a visual representation of an absence of something is challenging, but an attempt to find its epitome or a sublime, awe-inspiring representation of a missing notion is near impossible. The dictionary also says that “secular” is contrasted with “sacred” – again this is only a contrast, and is defining only as a negative. Secularity is not unlike peacefulness – a state which is simply defined as being the absence of violence – what peace looks like has been reduced to signifiers (doves, candles and rainbows). Secularity doesn’t appear to even have universally recognised symbols –everything that is without overt religious connotation could be judged as being secular.
Secular is also derivative of saeculum in Christian Latin meaning ‘the world” – as opposed to the Church. If secular is taken as the absence of religion, it is hard to argue that a European artist influenced by Blake, living in a Scottish pseudo-Christian environment, could produce something truly secular in spirit. Wright’s work does not only echo Blake’s, but the pure gold shimmer and scale the piece put me in mind of great Islamic works of the art of the ornament found in mosques and even Catholic churches.
According to some philosophers (notably Nietzsche), other measures of secularity include worldliness, classical tragedy and meaninglessness. The worldliness of this piece is undeniable, not perhaps in its form, but in what happens to it afterwards – it is painted over. Art critic Charlotte Higgins writes, “Wright’s point is that all art is mortal” and quotes Wright as saying, “the fragility of the experience is the hinge for me.” And although the content may lack a narrative of tragedy and may even be considered overtly biased towards the Apollonian aesthetic of beauty, there is tragedy is in its ultimate destruction – and therefore presents us with a Dionysian balance. In an interview after wining the Turner Prize Wright says, “I like the idea of there being nothing left when I am gone”.
Wright himself has not offered any deep meaning to the marks he makes – but could they be read as meaningless? It would be strong to insist that Wright’s work is nihilistic – unless the artist stated so himself. It might be dangerous to simply take Wright’s work as being secular ornament, when the associations with religious and cultural tradition remain strong, in particular the careful attention to pattern in Wright’s work, which echoes an Islamic trend. It is near impossible to read ornament and pattern as neutral – references to the multitude of traditions of pattern – both religious and secular –found in ‘The Grammar of the Ornament’ can be found in Wright’s work.
In a world acknowledged by a number of philosophers as being fraught with nihilism, we are forced to return to the option of filling this void with art and music, as Young indicates “[Art] enables us to enjoy a religious sentiment without the need to subscribe to any conceptual content”, providing a “catacomb where religious habit of mind can continue to exist”. Here perhaps lies the strongest argument for Richard Wright’s work being viewed a vision of secular sublime.
Many visual and non-visual creations by a wealth of artists across the ages are able to respond to the charge of being secular, but as a portrait artist I could not but wonder whether such a vision would contain some representation of the human being, or face. The human form could be said to be a poignant illustration of the “artistic taming of the horrible” a human portrait may have evoked a true, worldly vision. When promoting earth, individuality and the absence of reason and morale, how can any vision of secular sublime fail to contain a human?
I have recently visited Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac at Musée Rodin and also seen Gustav Klimt’s Three Ages of Woman which was inspired by a Rodin piece – Gates of Hell. Two works of art containing the human, that could equally be explored as secular visions. Although Rodin may have tried to capture Balzac’s genius in this monument to him, is it a stretch to suggest it held qualities of the secular sublime? Is the artists religious stance relevant? As a sculpture of a human it is of this world, (although the plinth may betray this) and perhaps speaks of the tragedy in genius – although it does not horrify or compel. It is perhaps, knowing Rodin’s love of classics that permits him access to this discourse – although also a lover of reason (The Thinker) Rodin was far from nihilistic. There is some argument that science and reason, over religion could be taken as secular.
Klimt’s paintings and drawings were packed full of eroticism, humour and dominant female figures. Drawing inspiration from Greek classics, Klimt was said to employ a sublime sensitivity and a “decadent aesthetism”. At the time of his painting he was breaking all religious taboos and his portrayal of the mortal human was both tragic and beautiful. His work is both compelling and horrifying.
Although my conclusions may feel as ambiguous as the many attempts to define the secular (and the sublime), on balance the assessment is that yes, Wright’s work at least references such a vision. It has a worldliness to it and a tragedy in it’s unmaking – one could even suggest that it was the painting over of the work, its destruction, which ultimately defined it as sublime. However, as Wright is able to tell us what his art is about – I conclude that it is far from nihilistic. I have juxtaposed Wright’s work with that of Rodin and Klimt, which may be unfair and even irrelevant, but demonstrates that Wright’s work may not be the best example of the secular sublime. However Wright’s work and Whittaker’s views certainly offer a useful starting point that allows us to ask – what does a vision of the secular sublime look like?
As James Rovira explains in the introduction to his book, despite the widespread dissemination of Søren Kierkegaard’s concepts in the early twentieth century, full-scale applications of those concepts to Blake remain relatively rare. What is surprising about this is that Kierkegaard was an important link between Harold Bloom’s and Northrop Frye’s theories of influence and their work on Blake, yet aside from a small number of essays the only book-length study of Blake and Kierkegaard is Lorraine Clark’s Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of Dialectic, published in 1991. Rovira suggests that widespread disillusionment with the religious contexts within which Kierkegaard worked is one reason why this philosopher, whose ideas are so fruitful to a study of Blake, has been widely overlooked; in any case, the various transformations that have taken place in discourses around religion in the public sphere in the intervening two decades since the appearance of Clark’s book mean that a re-evaluation of the relation between Blake and Kierkegaard is a timely one. Rovira may be seen to complement Clark in some ways, dealing as he does with texts prior to 1800 rather than after that date, and he concentrates less on the process of dialectic rather than the reasons why, in both Blake and Kierkegaard, acts of creation may generate a sense of anxiety within the self that is not adequately explained by current post-structuralist and deconstructionist theories.
This said, Rovira is somewhat more extensive than Clark in his treatment of both Blake and Kierkegaard. The opening chapter is generally excellent in providing information about the historical contexts in which both figures worked – my one proviso being that sometimes Rovira’s more emphatic statements about similarities between Denmark in the 1830s and 40s and Britain under a constitutional monarchy in the 1760s appear occasionally to make claims that, to me, would apply to many countries in western Europe and the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century. Part of my response, however, is due also to the fact that my own knowledge of Denmark at the time is poor and so, while attempts to provide a link between Blake and Kierkegaard in terms of the socio-political environments within which they both worked reads to me as occasional special pleading, I did enjoy and appreciate greatly Rovira’s treatment of Kierkegaard’s background. This provides some extremely useful insights into how his writings were produced and how they may be read by later generations of readers.
When turning to shared intellectual contexts, any sense of special pleading disappears completely: instead, by tracing Socratic and classical models of human personality, Rovira indicates thoroughly and clearly what Blake and Kierkegaard shared in terms of a philosophical heritage which formed both the points of origin and catalysts for reaction in each of their profoundly religious critiques of what it means to be human. Rovira notes how Kierkegaard came to the Socratic tradition via the German Romantics, a development which means that “[i]rony is not a mere trope in Kierkegaard’s thinking but, at least potentially, an existential stance.” (p.39) Socratic irony allows space for an existential self, and Rovira’s reading of the development of a dialectical author through Kierkegaard’s various philosophical texts is fascinating, emphasising as it does a deep critical and masterly engagement with existential doubt via pseudonymous authors such as Haufniensis and Anti-Climacus. Rovira follows this with a suitably thoughtful examination of Blake’s often complex relation to and use of Plato – sometimes demonstrating affinities to Platonic idealistic thought, as in his letter to Trusler in 1799, at other times ambivalent towards Plato. As Blake’s “world of ideal forms is a visceral one” (p.49), so Rovira suggests it is better to consider him as working in a tradition or genre of “apocalyptic” rather than “Platonic” idealism. This is an obvious enough point in many ways, but important in that Rovira follows it through that too often neglected tradition of religious thought from Augustine and Origen via Erasmus that allows Blake to be critical of the literal and scriptural materialisms of both the Thomas Paines and Bishop Watsons of his day.
This ties very neatly into Rovira’s account of classical models of personality that flourished in both Blake’s and Kierkegaard’s day, which in chapter three are related to the dialectical process in Kierkegaard’s transition from aesthetic to ethical personalities, as well as the movement in Blake from innocence to experience. This dynamic relation within the self, one of the clearest and most fruitful points of contact between both writers, also shares some features with Clark’s work, although Rovira provides a much fuller context for a study of Blake as he emphasises the movement between innocence and experience in Blake’s early works of the late 1780s and early 1790s. Within the third chapter are some particularly effective interpretations of the Songs, The Book of Thel, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion in particular, with Rovira indicating that rather than a standard path of progression from innocence to experience to higher, or organised innocence, we should instead the developmental process as “differentiations within innocence itself that are not usually registered within innocence” (p.71). Kierkegaard’s own model was the development of a bodily-oriented subject in the aesthetic stage, followed by a soul-oriented ethical stage, with a final spirit-oriented religious subject. Coyness – or, indeed, antagonism – among many secular critics about this spirit-oriented, religious subjectivity, tends to mean that those critics tend to ignore the joyous paradox that the self discovers its own eternal sense precisely at the moment that it annihilates self. Rovira is completely right to focus on this religious experience, too often brushed aside, as corresponding to Blake’s sense of visionary consciousness: as such, both Blake and Kierkegaard were able to “confront Enlightenment psychologies that mechanize human beings” (p.92), emphasising instead a break with immanence and environment that enables creation instead of reaction.
These contextual accounts take up more half of the book, and the final two chapters are given over to a reading of the problematic of generation more generally in Blake and Kierkegaard, followed by a detailed consideration of creation anxiety in The [First] Book of Urizen. As Rovira observes, in classical models procreation serves as the foundation for all future acts of creativity (and out of this creation anxiety arising from the attempt to create life and form outside of natural processes). In the first part of chapter 4, Rovira draws fairly extensively on Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety (written under the pseudonym Haufniensis) to help explain some of the dialectical processes at work in Blake’s concept of “Generation”, suggesting that both writers share a common concern with the relations of procreation and the fall of man that were relatively widespread throughout Christian Europe, if rarely dealt with as imaginatively as by these two writers. His summary of Blake’s concept as at work in Visions of the Daughter of Albion is particularly worth repeating:
These are the principle elements of Blake’s critique of fallen generation: it divides the self; it alienates feminine, sensual joy through both male aggression and male introversion; and it alienates both of these from each other, so that male sexuality finds its only expression through the aggressive impulse signified by Bromion. (p.112)
Sexual procreation is the model for all human creativity as understood by Blake and Kierkegaard, but it is the figure of Urizen, argues Rovira in his final chapter, that the full extent of creation anxiety as exhibiting tensions “between monarchy and democracy, science and religion, and nature and artifice” (p.121) finds its fullest expression. Again, Rovira particularly draws upon The Concept of Anxiety to help explain this demon-creator, but he also makes some interesting asides (for example via gnostic traditions) that also include some particularly telling criticisms of other commentators on Blake: a notable example of this is the tendency of Blake critics to see an attack on the Anglican church as an attack on all Christianity, defined as a somewhat generic “traditional” or “orthodox” Christianity. Rovira is quite correct to draw attention to the vagueness of such dismissals, although his discussion of Blake’s religious beliefs in terms of such things as Gnosticism would have benefited from further consideration of the discovery in recent years by biographical discoveries that place Blake’s mother in a Moravian tradition. Rovira is on more certain ground when dealing with the tensions between science and religion in the Urizen books, and I particularly enjoyed his readings of Urizen as the pre-eminent demonic character in Blake’s poetry (a position usually – though not always – reserved for Orc). Again, Haufniensis/Kierkegaard is the most pertinent text here, explaining the “misrelation to eternity” developed through the concept of spiritlessness, the “neither guilty nor not guilty” that operates as a “talking machine”. Ironically, this is a state without anxiety for the spiritless who may even then appear happy. “As a result,” observes Rovira, in a telling final few pages, “it is political and religious life, spiritlessness ‘is a perfect idol worshipper…’ Revivalists, kings, dictators, populist presidents, and fascists find their political fields ripe for harvest in a culture of spiritlessness.” (p.140)
Rovira’s book is an involved but extremely rewarding book, one that delves fully into the complex and sophisticated dialectical processes involved in Kierkegaard’s thought . There are two minor points where I take slight issue with Blake and Kierkegaard, both of them involving contextual materials. One of these, in terms of Denmark’s social and political history may be entirely due to my own lack of knowledge, though the other, regarding the Moravian contexts of Blake’s religious thought does require discussion in such texts that deal with Blake’s theological concerns. However, what Rovira does with incredible dedication and perspicacity is to trace through a discourse of profound spiritual and religious attention that does not easily sit well with many current frameworks for discussing Blake’s work, largely due to the fact that we tend to over-secularise and simplify the Christian doctrines within which writers such as Blake and Kierkegaard worked. Rovira’s reading of Urizen the “Creator-Monarch”, dictatorial in his act of fallen generation precisely because he refuses to consider the spiritual engagement of creation that is both the source and recompense of anxiety, is masterful while Blake and Kierkegaard as a whole is a carefully thought-through and argued text.
The second book by Ankarsjö to be published by McFarland, William Blake and Religion shares some themes with his earlier title, William Blake and Gender (2006) in that one of the aims of this book is to take recent discoveries about the religious background of Blake’s family and explore these in relation to his views on sexuality. Most important for Ankarsjö’s ideas is the work undertaken by Marsha Keith Schuchard in Why Mrs Blake Cried (2006) and various essays by Keri Davies that have uncovered links between Blake’s mother and the Moravian church. The Moravians, a religious group that had its roots in the followers of John Hus in fifteenth century Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic), experienced a religious revival in the eighteenth century under the charismatic leadership of Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf during which period they encouraged greater equality between the sexes in comparison to most religious movements of the time, and established a small but devoted church. In addition to the research of Schuchard and Davies (to which may be added Robert Rix’s re-evaluation of Blake’s relations to the various religious sects of his day in William Blake and the Cultures of Radical Christianity, 2007), the most important figures to William Blake and Religion are David Worrall, who cast fresh light into the activities undertaken by Swedenborgians at the end of the eighteenth century, and Helen Bruder because of her re-evaluation of Blake and gender studies in her extremely influential and important book, William Blake and the Daughters of Albion (1997).
Ankarsjö sets out these foundational figures in his introduction, as well as providing a brief detour via one dead end of Blake studies that occasionally rears its head (though not with academics working in the field), the late E.P. Thompson’s assertion that Blake was a Muggletonian in his 1993 book, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. Dealing with Thompson briskly, Ankarsjö’s task is to focus instead on the effect that newly discovered materials relating to Moravianism will have on our understanding of Blake. As such, with particular emphasis on both religion and sexuality, William Blake and Religion is probably one of the first of what is likely to be a growing number of texts that will explore the intersection between Blake and the Moravian Church. In addition, in his first and best chapter, Ankarsjö also pays attention to the continuing influence of Swedenborgianism, the teachings and church established by the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg who claimed constant and visionary experiences of the spiritual world, throughout the 1790s (which many – though by no means all – of Blake scholars assume the artist had turned his back on after publication of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), as well as a more prickly relationship with Unitarianism, which influenced a number of his contemporaries that Blake would have encountered via the circle gathered around the publisher Joseph Johnson. Ankarsjö is clear and convincing when outlining these religious contexts, and makes some extremely interesting and relevant observations, for example in his repetition of Keri Davies’s comment at the Blake 250 conference in 2007 that the position of Moravianism as neither dissenting from, nor wholly within, the mainstream Anglican church means that we shall probably have to revise many oft-repeated (and dearly held) assumptions about the dissenting radicalism of Blake’s background.
This chapter is by far and away the best in the book, but some problems emerge when dealing with the next two chapters, “Blake’s Religion” and “Blake’s Sexuality”. Part of the difficulty emerges with the step that sometimes appears to be made once the Moravianism of Blake’s background is recognised: it seems very clear that Blake’s mother was a Moravian, and also that Blake’s parents attended a Moravian church. As such, it is extremely probable that Blake grew up in a household that was infused with Moravian values. However, to follow this to the conclusion that Blake himself was a Moravian, or strongly influenced by Moravian ideas, is much more problematic. Keri Davies is always careful when drawing such conclusions – much more so than Schuchard, in my opinion – but Ankarsjö to me appears to dither and this sometimes creates problems with understanding entirely what the relationship with Moravianism brings. Some sections, for example when dealing with notions of conjugal (or conjugial, in Swedenborg’s phrase) love appear to be very profitable when explaining Blake’s own attitudes towards religion, but the chapter “Blake’s Religion” as a whole ends up somewhat confusing: it is hard, in the end, to pin down what Blake’s religion was. This is due to two reasons, one of which I think is a fault with Ankarsjö approach to his subject, one of which is much more general.
First of all, Ankarsjö tends to cherry-pick texts, looking for ones that may reinforce his approach to Moravianism in particular but also that Blake continued to look towards Swedenborgianism. This, for me, is extremely unsatisfactory because some of Blake’s most profound and extensive documents dealing with religion, such as the late epic Jerusalem or The Everlasting Gospel, offer complexities which could easily deny the more straightforward application of Ankarsjö’s thesis. This leads to the more general point: few other English writers (or, indeed, artists) spent more time than Blake in dealing with the topic of religion and the divine, but any attempt to pin down Blake in terms of a particular sect appears to me doomed to failure because of the idiosyncracies of Blake’s spiritual vision, his fairly consistent refusal to participate in a church (unless, perhaps, it is because as Keri Davies has suggested the Anglican Church was, in the end, broad enough to encompass his vision). I emphasise here the idiosyncracy of Blake’s religious views rather than the Romantic “eccentricity” which Ankarsjö rightly dismisses in his introduction: Blake was a deep and profound thinker on religious topics, not least in that he perceived the fundamental problems of attempting to fix experiences of the divine within human structures, systems against which he always struggled. In the end, my problem with this part of William Blake and Religion results from a degree of confusion as to whether Ankarsjö is proposing what we may call a “strong” theory of Blake and Moravianism, where that religion helps to explain more or less completely the framework of Blake’s belief – the evidence for which I find rather hard to accept; or whether he is working towards a “weak” theory, in which Blake’s Moravian background predisposes him towards a number of tenets and attitudes, for example with regard to ecumenicism and sexual love, which – by contrast – does appear extremely enlightening for me.
Although I found myself somewhat confused as to Ankarsjö’s aims in the chapter on Blake’s religion, a more serious flaw is to be encountered in his chapter on Blake’s sexuality. Before turning to this flaw, it is right to remark on where Ankarsjö’s comments are illuminating, for example in reinforcing the attitudes towards “free love” that were developing both among Blake’s radical associates of the eighteenth century and “conjugal love” that existed in the Moravian Church and Swedenborgianism.William Blake and Religion has much to say that is useful in this regard, although again the tendency to jump between different Blakean texts can be confusing. However, where the flaw exists is that Ankarsjö’s apparent desire to claim Blake as a proto-feminist can be rather unsophisticated and extremely problematic. The repeated assertions by Anne Mellor as to Blake’s intrinsic sexism is a coarse and unhelpful position, one which Helen Bruder in particular has treated to appropriate criticism (and which has also been aided by more work by scholars such as Davies into Blake’s early female collectors). However, Bruder maintains a healthily caustic attitude to Blake’s sexual politics which seems largely to vanish in William Blake and Religion. Ankarsjö’s desire to read white where others read black leads him, in my opinion, into some rather bizarre interpretations.
For example, in a comment that actually appears in the chapter “Blake’s Religion”, Ankarsjö makes the following observation of Blake’s comment in his description of the painting “The Last Judgement” that “There is no such thing in Eternity as a Female Will”:
First, it has to be pointed out that Blake here is strictly following the creation myth from Genesis, which clearly was in line with his increasing interest in the Bible and traditional Christianity at this point in time. In Genesis, as we know, woman was created from a body part of man in order to be his life companion. If we, as Blake, follow the analogy through to the other extreme, as it were, then man and woman are reunited and are as one. Hence, as much as man has no will of his own in eternity, neither has woman. Quite simply, separate and individual wills do not exist. (p.66)
To place Blake’s thought in a biblical tradition is perfectly correct, and it may also be right that Blake did not believe in the existence of separate female or male wills (and Ankarsjö’s remarks on the role of the Spectre in Blake’s writings as a ravenous, separate male will are also appropriate here). However, there remains a problem for me in Blake’s remark that the rush to embrace him as a proto-feminist fails to encompass sufficiently: even if Blake does not believe in a separate male will in eternity, he offers no denunciation of it that is comparable to his denunciation of the female. The rejection of a separate male will remains, unfortunately, implicit throughout too much of his writing, while the renunciation of female will is, equally unfortunately, far too explicit at times. More simply, Blake may not be a sexist, but sometimes his rhetoric comes very close to reinforcing sexist stereotypes; there are blind spots which we should not neglect. As such, like Bruder and Tristanne Connolly, I am less keen to smooth over some of the sexual ambiguities in Blake’s works while accepting, like those critics and Ankarsjö himself that denunciations of “sexist” Blake have been based on rather crude interpretations of the sexual politics of his poetry.
Ankarsjö’s final chapter, on “Blake’s Utopian ‘Colony'” offers an interesting discussion of slavery that owes much to the work of David Worrall. Ankarsjö’s contribution is to offer a critical reading of some of Worrall’s arguments, in particular the almost entirely negative interpretation of the proposed Swedenborgian colony in Sierre Leone in terms of its gender equality, so that Ankarsjö discovers more sympathy to proto-feminist arguments among the Swedenborgians than Worrall does – though in the end he agrees that it was a largely patriarchal exercise. In addition, he offers some significant comments on similar utopian colonies from the time, such as those by Unitarians. Where the chapter is on more shaky ground is in assuming that the conference attended by Blake in 1789, and where a colony in Sierre Leone would have been under discussion, still continues to influence Blake’s work on his final epics, Milton and Jerusalem after 1808; indeed, the chapter ends unsatisfactorily with a rather cursory pointer towards Blake’s attitudes on slavery that would surely have benefited from contextualisation in the evangelical fervour surrounding the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.
William Blake and Religion offers some valuable contributions and summaries of contemporary arguments surrounding Blake’s Moravian background. When discussing the interrelation of Moravianism with Swedenborgianism and even Unitarianism, it is clear and eminently useful as a guide. The book is more confused, unfortunately, as to offering an account of Blake’s religion, probably because it strives a little too hard to map out the influence of Moravianism throughout Blake’s work which, in my opinion, tends to distort sometimes what Blake had to say on the subject. In the light of current research it is clear that Blake must have been marked by Moravianism – and yet the implied move to read Blake as a Moravian appears unsatisfactory at times in discussing Blake’s own thoughts on religion and the divine.
Once again Blake’s “Jerusalem” is in the news. While the famous hymn is incredibly popular at weddings in particular, it appears that so many ministers are banning it that the Church of England has issued new guidelines stating that it is neither too nationalistic nor too militaristic. This is one that returns every so often, and for the past couple of decades the Church has had a problem with “Jerusalem” – something that is not entirely surprising considering Blake’s own attitude to organised religion and, unfortunately, the hymn’s occasional but pernicious associations with the far right.
While the nation debates (once again) whether it is suitable for banns or only to be banned, here are ten things about the poem to help you make up your own mind:
Zoapod 15: Of the Devil’s Party – Blake’s Marriage and Milton’s Paradise Lost
A reading of Blake’s commentary on Milton’s Paradise Lost in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, explaining the significance of his statement that Milton was “a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it”.
This podcast is taken from chapter four of the Zoamorphosis Essential Introductions: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Today is the anniversary of the death of Kathleen Raine, poet and Blake scholar, who won a number of prizes for her works (including a CBE in 2000) and continued to write a significant number of books until just before her death, a revised version of her Collected Poems appearing in 2000.
Raine (1908-2003) was raised in Northumberland, an experience related in the first volume of her Autobiographies, Farewell Happy Fields, and Ilford, Essex, before going onto study at Girton College, Cambridge. Her experience there was not entirely happy and, with a series of failed marriages and unrequited love affairs, she returned to the paganism of her childhood, for which the models were W. B. Yeats, Edwin Muir and William Blake. In 1980 she founded the journal Temenos, followed later by the Temenos Academy in 1990, focusing on the role of spirituality. At the time of her death, she was living in London.
The influence of Blake is most obvious in Raine’s critical work, notably the two-volume study, Blake and Tradition (1968), but also shorter studies and essays including Golgonooza, City of Imagination (1991), but Blake was also important to Raine’s creative work. For example in the second volume of her autobiography, The Land Unknown (1975) she described how Bertha Yeats confirmed her view of Blake as “a supreme teacher within an age-old tradition as that to which Yeats had also come” (Autobiographies 257-8).
This view of Blake as an esoteric, even occult, teacher was very much in evidence in Blake and Tradition, which traced a hidden tradition from the mythical work of Hermes Trismegistus through the works of Plato and the Enneads of Plotinus to the English Neoplatonist Thomas Taylor and hence to Blake. She was also one of the first critics to credit Blake’s development of Songs of Innocence to the influence of Mary Wollstonecraft and, in poems such as ‘Book of Hours’ or the journal Temenos, demonstrated repeatedly her particular debt to Yeats and Blake.
The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis. Timb D. Hoswell
HoWa: House of Waho/Lulu, 2009. pp. 102. $15.95. ISBN: 978 1 60489 042 6.
It is fascinating to see how Blake gets embroiled in mini-cyclones of controversy (particularly considering his obscurity during his own lifetime). The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis has been attracting a great deal of attention online, primarily due to Creationists latching onto it as an ultimate refutation of Darwinism. As Hoswell, currently researching a PhD at the Australian Catholic University, Sydney, remarks in his preface to the book, this promotion of The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis as some simple anti-Darwinian text completely misses the point of his study, which does not seek to invalidate either biology as a science or evolution as a scientific theory, but rather to explore the “epistemic problem” facing scientists who seek “either to discover or create a sound foundation for knowledge.” This book, as Hoswell states in his conclusion, is merely the first step in considering the obstacles set in the way of those who wish to ascribe to imagination a role in structuring our knowledge of the world around us, and a revised edition is now available from Lulu.com.
An epistemological critique of science is not itself particularly unique, of course: constructivism, for example, has a complex history since Jean Piaget emphasised the development of scientific knowledge out of peer interactions from the late 1920s onwards, and Thomas Kuhn’s term “paradigm shift” has been immensely popular (if also frequently misunderstood and contentious) since its introduction in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. These theorists and many others have emphasised the non-objective elements of scientific knowledge, although the sensible critiques of empiricism and positivism are not concerned to support the foundations of Creationist belief any more than Hoswell’s book. What is particularly interesting about this particular text is the serious evaluation of Blake as a philosopher rather than simply poet or artist dealing with our ideas of the foundations of knowledge, and where The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis demonstrates its originality is by considering the intrinsic role that imagination has to play in all processes of knowledge, linking the insights provided by Blake with those of the anarchist philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend. Of course, it is possible to find some similar insights in critics from Northrop Frye onwards, but these tend to gloss over Blake’s most explicit philosophical texts, the tractates There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One, published in 1788.
In his preface, Hoswell discourages viewing his work as an example of so-called “post-atheism”, but instead begins the book proper with what he characterises as the problem for much scientific epistemology, referred to here as both “the Cartesian Quandary” and “the Darwinian Paradox” (with refutations offered in the form of predicate/propositional calculus in the appendices). The first draws on the assumption by Enlightenment philosophers that if God had provided us with reason to understand creation, yet that understanding indicates the absence of God, what foundation is there for our knowledge? If we are simply animals like any other (Darwin’s premise), then belief is adaptive and there is no ground for believing in the truth of evolution: all our knowledge may be faulty, without any fundamental certainties. Descartes attempted to square the circle through a reformulation of the ontological argument, positing a necessary existence of God (if my idea of God is perfect but he does not exist, then he is not perfect – therefore God, defined as perfection, must exist), an argument that never escapes its own circularity and, as Kant pointed out, depended on the assumption that existence is more perfect than non-existence. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, while offering various (and somewhat cursory) rejections of this and other arguments for the existence of God, offers a metaphor of the crane ratcheting up levels of complexity to explain his view of how human consciousness can emerge without recourse to a higher, supernatural power. Dawkins’ own quandary (as well as the fact that his own metaphor relies too much on the old fallacy of the argument from analogy) is that the very Darwinism of his evolutionary biology that insists the watchmaker is blind cannot provide epistemological proof for those beliefs, and it is this faith of science in its own truth that Hoswell correctly identifies as the root of the problem. Interestingly, Hoswell distinguishes the position of the scientist concerned to find a foundation of truth for his ideas from that of what he refers to as the “engineer”, who by contrast is “interested in the principle of use… A large-scale theory of the cosmos is pointless for him unless it contains information he can use to design and build things from.” (18) For the engineer, knowledge is neither necessarily transcendent or immanent: he or she does not need to work out “what reality is” but simply to find the way in which it is contingent to the matter in hand, what Hoswell calls “engineer’s reality” in his conclusion. Dawkins’ crane frequently sticks, has to rely on metaphysical speculations such as multiverses to find the origins of his proof that God is a delusion: from the engineer’s point of view, who cares where the crane came from so long as it works?
Strictly speaking, God could actually be dispensed with but the fault of the Cartesian Quandary would remain, as evidenced by a tendency of positivist science to hypostasise an essential condition – such as the laws of nature – as the underlying reality that will offer proof of the crane’s origins. To repeat, as Hoswell does throughout the book, this is not to say that science does not work – that it is not effective – but to emphasise the epistemological problems of proof which science frequently recognises as problems but then forgets when it seeks to explain its models and theories as explaining how reality is and falls into a reductive positivism. When criticising Hume’s prejudice against fiction and imagination, Hoswell refers to Wittgenstein’s humorous four-dimensional cube as an example of how new knowledge may be created that does not reference the world around us: the reason why this is important is that theories of logical positivism were influenced by Wittgenstein’s early work on codifying language – a position rejected by Wittgenstein’s later anti-systematic language games.
One of my particular pleasures when reading this book is the close attention paid by Hoswell to Blake’s There is No Natural Religion and (to a lesser extent) All Religions Are One, which he uses as one element in his demolition of the Humean prejudice against fiction and imagination. If knowledge can only be synthesised by reason from sense impressions, then how can we account for the accumulation of knowledge that cannot be perceived directly (such as x-rays or sub-atomic particles)? Hume – in a statement from The Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding that, as Hoswell points out, is much more restrictive than Locke’s account for the accumulation of knowledge – argues that imagination “cannot exceed that original stock of ideas furnished by the internal and external senses” (cited 19). Moreover, “Every idea is copied from some preceding impression or sentiment; and where we cannot find any impression, we may be certain that there is no idea.” (Cited 22) As Blake pithily observes in proposition III from series A of There is No Natural Religion, “From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth”. Blake’s innovation, argues Hoswell, is to begin from the observation that what we perceive in this world is not merely sensory: “On the most primary level of sense data, man doesn’t see electromagnetic radiation reflected from the visible light spectrum forming patterns in the ocular lens, he sees actual objects. He doesn’t just receive sound waves he hears noise.” (29) Perception goes beyond empirical experience and the reason why Blake’s epistemology is so important is because by making imagination the starting point for the act of perception (a point that is not dissimilar to Coleridge’s distinction of the primary and secondary imagination in the Biographia Literaria) he provides a means of explaining how new knowledge may emerge.
From here, Hoswell proceeds to the second Humean prejudice, the assumption that empirical observation has access to antecedents in the real world that form the basis of our ideas through sense impressions, an assumption that forms the basis of the attempt, via August Comte, John Stuart Mill and the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, to provide a coherent, reductive theory for verifying knowledge. One refutation derives from Hume’s contemporary, Thomas Reid, whose emphasis on the sensus communis (common sense) as a means of framing perception emphasised the active nature of imagination in organising sense impressions. As Hoswell observes, rather than assuming “that the coherence of experience is the result of the unity of the empirical world antecedent to our impressions” (57), the theoretical and conceptual contexts in which we operate are required for us to make sense of the world around us (he gives the example of attempts to understand and describe cellular structures before Schleiden and Schwann provided a formal, coherent theory that allowed us to “know” what we were looking at, a similar point underlying Foucault’s understanding of how the archive conceptualises and organises knowledge). Because Blake understands the fundamental importance of the disunity of languages (citing plate 11 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which Blake discusses the origins of religion in the stories of poets), he is able to ascribe an active and positive role to imagination in that process of conceptualising reality rather than being limited to the passive reception of antecedent impressions. As Blake wrote in his conclusion to Series B of There is No Natural Religion:
If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ration of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again… He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only. (Cited 28)
The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis returned me Blake’s early tractates. I must be honest that my tendency is to skip these before settling down to the “real” matter of Blake’s career as author of the illuminated books from Songs of Innocence onwards, but as manifestos of his philosophical position they represent a sort of ground-clearing before putting into practice poetic and artistic principles. The attention paid by critics to these tractates tends to receive less attention than the other illuminated books, though Donald Ault’s Visionary Physics: Blake’s Response to Newton and Stuart Peterfreund’s William Blake in a Newtonian World cover some similar ground in terms of dealing with non-empiricist approaches to knowledge. Probably the most important text in this field is Wayne Glausser’s Locke and Blake: A Conversation Across the Eighteenth Century (1998), which begins by warning of the tendency to caricature Blake’s view of Locke as a “convenient foil”. Hoswell does not caricature Locke but instead recognises that the search for a fundamental reality – one, ironically, that is pre-empirical although amenable to the senses – is the rationalist “God” that lies at the root of Descartes’ Quandary. The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis is not without flaws – some of which Hoswell himself draws attention to. Thus the link between Blake and Feyerabend is more implied at many points than explicitly argued, and the author indicates that this is really the work of a future project. Also, the pre-publication manuscript I was sent for review includes a number of typos that I hope were edited out before publication (if not, he needs a good editor). Despite these criticisms – and perhaps the more fundamental one that acknowledging imagination as a foundation of knowledge does not necessarily help us with discriminating knowledge drawn from imagination, a subject dealt with in a different way in Kant’s Critique of Judgement and acknowledged by the author in his final conclusion – Hoswell makes a strong case for Blake’s search for the infinite rather than truth as a source of human creativity and thus removes “the chief obstacle impeding anyone wishing to build an epistemological foundation based on imagination.” (79)
Released just before Easter, Pullman’s latest novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, has become a publishing sensation, attracting considerable reviews and a great deal of attention. As President of the Blake Society, Pullman’s attraction to Blake is a deep and profound one, manifested at various points in the trilogy His Dark Materials and also The Adventures of John Blake. As such, there are several moments when Blake’s influence is a telling one in this particular novel – though before dealing with this in any detail it is important to make some general points regarding The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
Firstly, and in this I agree with a significant number of critics who have previously reviewed the novel, Pullman’s spare and simple style is immensely effective. Whether it was his intended effect to send readers back to the Bible is a moot point, but in many ways Pullman’s plain and unadorned writing is reminiscent of certain translations of the gospels of Mark and Matthew in particular (the latter, of course, a particular favourite of Marxist film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini). The undoubted power of the words of the good man Jesus made me wonder at times whether Pullman’s book even has designs on becoming a fifth gospel, one aimed at secular and atheist (or at least agnostic) readers, reminding them that while they may have cast off the bond of superstition perhaps they have also thrown out too much that is of undoubted good.
Much of the plot of The Good Man is largely familiar, aside from Pullman’s central conceit that Mary gave birth not to one child but two, Jesus and Christ (and carping by some readers that “Christ” is not a proper name but rather a title is completely irrelevant to Pullman’s parable). Events largely follow those of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), while John is treated suspiciously as the mystic and mystifier, the source of conversations such as the following between the unnamed stranger and Christ on the purpose of truth as being more important than history:
There is time and there is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of these things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God. (99)
There is something in these words that at first sounds a little reminiscent of Blake (as in the aphorism “Eternity is in love with the productions of time” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), but the objective of the stranger, an allegory for the church, is completely un-Blakean, the message being that the church must lie in order to maintain power. Regarding the use of the Johannine gospel, Pullman appears to more or less reject the fourth evangelist, although there is an irony in that one of the most potent stories of Jesus’s life, that of the woman taken in adultery who is saved from death by Jesus’s simple admonition, translated here by Pullman as “If there’s one you who has never committed a sin, he can throw the first stone” (154) – one of the strongest examples of the power of forgiveness of sin – is only found in John 7.53-8.11. Indeed, this is one of the problems I found with the book as a whole: Christ frequently rewrites Jesus’s life to emphasise the message that he believes to be most important, but then Pullman’s revisionary act also picks and chooses those parts that he obviously prefers.
What, then, of the Blakean aspects of the novel? The gospel narrative is, of course, much bigger than Blake, but Blake remains one of the most important commentators in English art and literature on the Bible and it is unsurprising that Pullman has taken elemnets from the Romantic. What first attracted my attention was a serialised extract that included his chapter on the conception of Jesus and Christ:
At that time, Mary was about sixteen years old, and Joseph had never touched her.
One night in her bedroom she heard a whisper through her window.
“Mary, do you know how beautiful you are? You are the most lovely of all women. The Lord must have favoured you especially, to be so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips . . .”
She was confused, and said “Who are you?”
“I am an angel,” said the voice. “Let me in and I shall tell you a secret that only you must know.”
She opened the window and let him in. In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.
“What is the secret?” she said.
“You are going to conceive a child,” said the angel. (7)
The all-too human circumstances of the conception of the son of God are extremely familiar from the following lines of Blake’s epic, Jerusalem:
in the Visions of Elohim Jehovah, behold Joseph & Mary
And be comforted O Jerusalem in the Visions of Jehovah Elohim
She looked & saw Joseph the Carpenter in Nazareth & Mary
His espoused Wife. And Mary said, If thou put me away from thee
Dost thou not murder me? Joseph spoke in anger & fury. Should I
Marry a Harlot & an Adulteress? Mary answerd, Art thou more pure
Than thy Maker who forgiveth Sins & calls again Her that is Lost
Tho She hates. he calls her again in love. I love my dear Joseph
But he driveth me away from his presence. yet I hear the voice of God
In the voice of my Husband. tho he is angry for a moment, he will not
Utterly cast me away. if I were pure, never could I taste the sweets
Of the Forgive[ne]ss of Sins! if I were holy! I never could behold the tears
Of love! of him who loves me in the midst of his anger in furnace of fire.
Ah my Mary: said Joseph: weeping over & embracing her closely in
His arms: Doth he forgive Jerusalem & not exact Purity from her who is
Polluted. I heard his voice in my sleep O his Angel in my dream:
Saying, Doth Jehovah Forgive a Debt only on condition that it shall
Be Payed? Doth he Forgive Pollution only on conditions of Purity
That Debt is not Forgiven! That Pollution is not Forgiven (61.1-19, E211-2)
In Blake, the immaculateness of Jesus’s conception is not that Mary has no experience of sex, but that Joseph refuses to enforce the Mosaic law. My initial reading of the Pullman chapter had been to see it as a direct parallel to Blake’s lines, as well as the mischievous debunking that takes place in The Everlasting Gospel:
Was Jesus Chaste or did he
Give any Lessons of Chastity
The morning blushd fiery red
Mary was found in Adulterous bed
Earth groand beneath & Heaven above
Trembled at discovery of Love
On reading the whole novel, however, Pullman’s representation of Mary is a more complex one. Pullman’s Mary (unlike Blake’s) appears to be something of a simpleton rather than an innocent, for she takes Christ specifically to be her child, reserving Jesus for Joseph (14). The harshness of this assessment, however, does depend on taking the title of Pullman’s book at face value: throughout much of the novel, Christ is clearly a scoundrel, but by the end it is difficult not to feel sympathy for him.
The reason for this lies in the characters of Jesus and Pullman. It is when depicting the former that Pullman often reads at his most Blakean: Jesus is a natural rebel, and during one of his first appearances in the temple (taken from Luke chapter two), the learning ascribed to him by the evangelist is instead transferred to Christ, with Jesus instead daubing graffiti on the temple walls. In the chapter “Joseph Greets his Son”, it is Jesus who is the prodigal son, and Pullman elsewhere describes Jesus as “impulsive”, a word surely employed to evoke Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where a devil describes how Jesus breaks the ten commandments and concludes, “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules.” (plates 23-4 E43) Pullman, it must be said, does not quite emphasise the rebelliousness of Jesus quite as much as Blake does (as, for example, when he emphasises in his version of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus’s emphasis on fulfilling Mosaic law, something which Blake always kicks against), but his Jesus is given to spontaneous action that cannot be seen as anything but seditious by the self-righteous, as when he creates birds from clay on the sabbath – a story drawn from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and the Qu’ran rather than more orthodox Christian sources.
In the story of the clay birds, it is Christ rather than Jesus who brings them to life. As Christ himself realises, he is calculating, rational, cautious – everything that his brother is not. Pullman’s Christ is very much a god of this world, one who wants fairness, logic and order as well as glory and power. The radical nature of Jesus’s kingdom of heaven is that it is unfair – that God gives love to lilies in the field and birds in the trees as much as to grafting men and women. In many ways, it is Christ who is the more “modern” character in the book, given to introspection and self-analysis in a way that never occurs with Jesus – and it is this that, ultimately, makes him sympathetic to the reader. Christ’s problem is that he clearly is too much a man and, if early in the novel there is something despicable about him that makes him appear a true scoundrel, as when he takes the role of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness, by the end his own recognition of his shortcomings and failings is what makes him much more attractive. He is tricked by his own vanity and ambition into playing the part of Judas, and becomes so disgusted with this that by the end of the novel, having (almost accidentally) given hope to the disciples by making them believe that Jesus is risen again, he has turned his back on the world and become a net-maker. This is the only time that he seems content – until tempted once more by the mysterious stranger and his dormant desire to give more coherent shape to the story.
A number of reviewers have remarked on the fact that Christ is an analogue for Pullman. This, to me, seems both a fair assessment and also an indication of how Christ surprises through sympathy in the story. Jesus is radical – as Christ says at the end of the book, “He wanted perfection; he asked too much of people” (244) – while Christ is fallible. And just as Christ is an example of that familiar construct, the unreliable narrator, so Pullman in the end has to be an unreliable author. In most cases, I think this is a role that Pullman is perfectly content with – he wishes to undermine the authority of the transcendental narrative by which organised religion gains so much of his power, and if Christ is, after Nietzsche, human, all too human, then Pullman’s own humanism must recognise a deeper empathy with this failed divinity.
However, there are for me a couple of times in the novel when Pullman does appear to desire an alternative transcendental ground for his own narrative, one that will provide (as all such grounds do) at least the illusion of securer footing for his resistance to religion. The most notable moment is in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus launches into an atheistical tirade against God (191-201) which, while powerful, heartfelt, and full of good sense, simply does not sound like Jesus. By this I mean that Pullman the Christ, who has so deftly played with the gospel stories, now leaves those evangelists behind and makes Jesus his mouthpiece; this section felt to me very much a selection of ideas that Pullman wanted Jesus to express. I have no problem whatsoever with the sentiments that appear here – indeed I agree with many of them – but Jesus as ventriloquist’s dummy feels very much like a conjuring trick of the kind that Pullman wishes to denounce when it is employed by the church.
The second time when this happens is earlier in the novel, when Christ has sex with a prostitute. In many ways, this is one of the most interesting parts of the book, demonstrating Christ’s scoundrel nature while also – through his painful humiliation – eliciting sympathy from the reader. And yet, while reading and re-reading it, I couldn’t help but feel that this was another trick on Pullman’s part, a slightly gratuitous, extra-biblical degradation of Christ inserted into the novel to whip up some scandal and additional publicity. It is an extremely well-written chapter, and I shall not forget it quickly, but its inclusion does feel like an additional piece of authorial manipulation that did make me view Pullman’s rhetorical tricks much more suspiciously.
This is a shame, because the ultimate surprise of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is just how appealing it makes much of the gospel story, treating it as a perfectly human and understandable story rather than one shrouded in mystery and requiring the mediation of the church (a process that, Pullman alludes to again and again, began with Saint Paul’s revisionary exercise). In many respects, Pullman’s story often reads almost as a new translation rather than fiction despite the – rather forbidding – reminder on the back cover that “This is a STORY”. I have alluded to a few explicitly Blakean elements within the novel, but this is not by any means simply a retread of Blake’s ideas as alternative orthodoxy. Rather, Pullman appears to share with Blake a desire to reinterpret the Bible as parable requiring active, hermeneutic activity on the part of the reader. And Blake, despite all his injunctions against Urizenic reason, could be quite the rationalist when it came to the good book, as in the following defence of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason against Bishop Watson: “Of what consequence is it whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch or no. If Paine trifles in some of his objections it is folly to confute him so seriously in them & leave his more material ones unanswered Public Records as If Public Records were True” (E617). Or, more simply: “Both read the Bible day & night \ But thou readst black where I read white.” (E524)