This essay was writ­ten to accom­pany the pub­lic­a­tion by Robert Camp­bell Hende­r­son of plates by Serge Arnoux illus­trat­ing the Pro­verbs of Hell, from Blake’s The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell. The story of the dis­cov­ery of the plates is told below. Such an event required look­ing at the con­nec­tions Arnoux’s work high­lights between Blake and sur­real­ism, and spe­cific­ally their treat­ment of sex and sexu­al desire.  In this con­nec­tion, I look at at the use of Vesiva Pis­cis / man­dorla imagery in Chris­tian­ity, with par­tic­u­lar emphas­is on the ‘blood and wound’ piety of the Moravi­an church, of which Blake’s moth­er had been a member.  You can down­load a PDF of the essay by click­ing on the fol­low­ing links. There are two ver­sions: a short­er, excerp­ted ver­sion focusses on the Arnoux works, while the full ver­sion con­nects this with the story of Blake’s mother­’s involve­ment in the Moravi­an church, and with the use of sexu­al imagery in Blake, in par­tic­u­lar in A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment. Images by Serge Arnoux are copy­right of the estate of Serge Arnoux.

Serge Arnoux’s Mirror of Blake

Robert Camp­bell Henderson’s dis­cov­ery in 2018 of a series of twenty-sev­en engraved cop­per plates, aban­doned in a scrap met­al yard in Sar­lat-la-Can­éda in the Lot region of France, is an occult event of note, a spark leapt between eras. On find­ing the plates, Hende­r­son saw they were signed by a loc­al artist Serge Arnoux (1933–2014) and recog­nised their texts as trans­la­tions of Blake’s ‘Pro­verbs of Hell’, from The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell (1793). The plates had not been among the works sold at auc­tion after Arnoux’s death. Pos­sibly they ended up in the scrapyard when his wid­ow died in 2016 and her house was cleared. When Hende­r­son came upon them they were per­haps only days from being melted down and lost forever.

Arnoux had been based in Glanes, 30km east of Sar­lat, but he ran craft shops in sev­er­al vil­lages in the region selling his own designs—silk-screened cush­ions, scarves, wall hangings and the like. These were aimed at the tour­ists who flood the region dur­ing the hol­i­day sea­son. It seems he con­sidered the designs for his shops as his ‘day job’, and his real cre­at­ive focus was on the art he cre­ated out­side of this work. There is already a par­al­lel with Blake here—an artis­an who was unusu­al among the lit­er­ary greats in that he remained a work­er-for-hire, paid for com­mer­cial engrav­ing work, through­out his entire time as an artist.
We don’t know why the Blake plates were cre­ated by Arnoux. Per­haps he meant even­tu­ally to illus­trate the entire run of the pro­verbs in The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell (almost eighty in all). Per­haps they had been com­mis­sioned by a pub­lish­er. Per­haps they were meant for his port­fo­lio. The lat­ter is a per­suas­ive idea. With the pro­verbs cov­er­ing so much mor­al and intel­lec­tu­al ground, there’s a lot of mater­i­al to reflect on, which would suit someone cre­at­ing a port­fo­lio. But with so little inform­a­tion about Arnoux avail­able all we can do for now is spec­u­late about what Hende­r­son was lucky enough to dis­cov­er and astute enough to recognise.
Before dis­cuss­ing Arnoux’s engrav­ings for Blake we can place him in con­text, at least tent­at­ively, by look­ing at oth­er works of his. Scattered ref­er­ences online lead at first to images of some of his col­our prints and oil paint­ings, largely abstract in nature. There are also men­tions of his illus­tra­tions for the work of the New Jer­sey poet, Wil­li­am Mer­win (1927–2019), and of a col­lab­or­a­tion with the Moné­gasque anarch­ist poet, com­poser and chanteur, Léo Fer­ré (1916–1993). In addi­tion, Arnoux pro­duced a large folio work, la sexaphysique du text (1980), under his own name, in which he was pre­sum­ably uncon­strained in his choice of mater­i­al, mak­ing it the most reveal­ing of his works I was able to find.
Mer­win would later twice be recog­nised as the US Poet Laur­eate. In the six­ties he vaca­tioned in Le Causse de Gramat, where he met Arnoux and com­mis­sioned him to illus­trate three broad­side poems, The Wid­ow, Things and A Let­ter From Gussie. Merwin’s poetry is son­or­ous, polite and con­ven­tion­al. Arnoux’s illus­tra­tions for him will seem famil­i­ar to any­one who has seen the Blake plates-the same lop­ing text and gnom­ic characters.

Alma Matrix


 Anoth­er of Arnoux’s known col­lab­or­at­ors was someone per­haps more in tune with his outlook—the com­poser and sing­er, Léo Fer­ré. The two became acquain­ted in the early six­ties when they met in St Cere. Juli­ette Gréco recalled how, in con­cert, Fer­ré “cast a potent music­al and sexu­al spell over his listen­ers”. She also noted his “dra­mat­ic shifts of tone from sear­ing anarch­ist con­tempt for soci­ety, the church, the armed forces and the hypo­crisy of gov­ern­ment to tender, frank love songs.”1 In this at least there are obvi­ous echoes of Blake’s character.

Arnoux and Fer­ré are believed to have worked togeth­er on a num­ber of pro­jects over the course of more than a dec­ade. Arnoux helped Fer­ré find his home at Château de Pechrigal, in nearby Gour­don, and between them they installed a print­ing press on site. Ferré’s “sexu­al and sul­phur­ous” text, Alma Mat­rix was one of a series of five such works he wrote, though the only one illus­trated by Arnoux,2 pre­sum­ably with the inten­tion of print­ing it them­selves. Arnoux and Fer­ré began the pro­ject in 1970 but it remained unfin­ished, and an edited ver­sion of the work was only finally pub­lished by Ferré’s estate in 2000.3

The text itself fol­lows on from a pre­vi­ous story, Hot Box, which touched on Ferré’s encoun­ters with pros­ti­tutes. The ‘Alma Mat­rix’ of the title appears to be the vagina / vulva, which is rendered vari­ously by Arnoux on every oth­er page, appear­ing in many per­muta­tions. Accord­ing to Alar­ic Per­ro­lier, Arnoux ori­gin­ally pro­duced as many as forty “auto­mat­ic draw­ings” to accom­pany the text, though there are only thir­teen in the pub­lished ver­sion, not count­ing the illus­tra­tions for the cov­er.4 While they may have been inspired in the moment the images don’t look at all to have been cre­ated automatically.
The top­ic of the dis­cus­sion is announced in Arnoux’s design for the front cov­er, in the man­ner of a medi­ev­al Drop Cap, sur­roun­ded by writh­ing bod­ies that dec­or­ate the bor­der of the font, much like the lively tendrils Blake
threaded into so many of his engravings.
Serge Arnous:Alma Matrix (cover)
Some of the Alma Mat­rix images have an ele­ment of sur­real­ist estrange­ment, though the ideas are some­times laboured and inef­fect­ive. To the extent that the designs have clear inter­pret­a­tions they become signs rather than invit­a­tions to engage. Occa­sion­ally they are clichés: life and death flirt in the jux­ta­pos­i­tion of vulva and skel­et­on; there is an image of the vagina as the source of cas­tra­tion, which arrives in the form of shears. Some of these images are of their time. But occa­sion­ally here, and cer­tainly in the later la sexaphysique du texte, the body occa­sion­ally becomes a struc­ture of dis­ar­tic­u­lated globes, tubes, and flow­ing forms remin­is­cent of Hans Bellmer, Umberto Boc­cioni, Futur­ism and Cubism—in fact, accord­ing to Per­ro­lier, Bellmer was very much an inspir­a­tion for Fer­ré and Arnoux as they worked on Alma Mat­rix.5 Any con­nec­tion to Bellmer is a con­nec­tion into the heart of sur­real­ism, as Bellmer had not only con­trib­uted to the key journ­al, Minotaure,6 but his work is sat­ur­ated with the themes of sexu­al­ity and mor­tal­ity that inspired early surrealism.

la sexaphysique du texte

Serge Arnoux, Hans Bellmer, Umberto Boccioni
Left: Serge Arnoux, image from Alma Mat­rix. Cen­ter: Hans Bellmer, The DollRight: Umberto Boc­cioni.
Erot­ic themes con­tin­ue in Arnoux’s self-pub­lished la sexaphysique du text (1980). The pages are mostly laid out in com­bin­a­tions of pho­tomont­age and typo­graphy, with what look like occa­sion­al pen­cil sketches. The mont­ages are often Dadaist­ic, with machinery com­bined in rhythmic pat­terns or sug­gest­ive structures.
The cov­er of la sexaphysique du texte prom­in­ently fea­tures a gar­land of roses in the curved form of the Vesica Pis­cis,7 sur­round­ing a key­hole. The Vesica Pis­cis and the rose alike are sym­bols of Aph­rod­ite. The Vesica was used by Chris­ti­ans from around the 5th cen­tury as a sym­bol of Christ, due per­haps to its resemb­lance to a fish, and Christ’s injunc­tion that his dis­ciples become ‘fish­ers of men’. It also sym­bol­ises the vulva.
Serge Arnoux: la sexaphysique du texte (cover detail)
Serge Arnoux
la sexaphysique du texte (cov­er detail)
If it seems even remotely con­tro­ver­sial to asso­ci­ate the Vesica-as-vulva with Christ, we know that it was not always so: the sym­bol was once a com­mon­place in Chris­ti­an art. As the over­lap of two circles, the shape embod­ies abstractly the idea of Christ exist­ing in both spir­itu­al and phys­ic­al worlds. And as Christ was born of a woman, the asso­ci­ation with, and sug­ges­tion of the vulva comes eas­ily, with the Vesica then con­sidered as ‘the womb of the world’. There are count­less examples in reli­gious art of images of Christ and Mary alike sur­roun­ded by aure­ola in the shape of the Vesica. It is espe­cially asso­ci­ated with images of Christ in the Last Judge­ment, and of Mary in images of the Assump­tion.8
Vesica Piscis
Images of Mary and Christ with Vis­ica Pes­cis Aureolae
Sim­il­arly, the clas­sic Mar­seilles tar­ot design fea­tures what seems to be inten­ded as the (admit­tedly dis­tor­ted) Vesica in the final card of the Major Arcana, The World, XXI. That there are rem­nants of pagan Moth­er God­dess wor­ship in all this is obvious.


Mar­seilles tar­ot trump XXI, The World, and the Womb of the World
The vulva reappears in a num­ber of semi-abstract images in la sexaphysique du texte that could eas­ily have been first pre­pared for Alma Mat­rix. As in Alma Mat­rix, images of female sex and sexu­al­ity appear, though now in a more occult con­text. Giv­en the tim­ing and the fact that the final pub­lished ver­sion of Alma Mat­rix included only a part of the work cre­ated for it by Arnoux, I won­der if some of the mater­i­al of this kind inla sexaphysique du texte wasn’t in fact ori­gin­ally cre­ated with Alma Mat­rix in mind.
Serge Arnoux
Page from la sexaphysique du texte

The texts accom­pa­ny­ing the mont­ages are slo­gan­eer­ing but obscure: “le dol­lar relève la tête can­on”inter­dit aux vieux”. The effect is of a par­ody of an advert or a polit­ic­al pamph­let, but emphas­ising the inter­play of image and text, its inde­pend­ent ‘life’, apart from the lit­er­al mes­sage. Per­haps the texts cohere bet­ter for a nat­ive French speak­er. La sexaphysique con­tains the only pho­tomont­ages I found by Arnoux. These look con­sist­ently like those of Max Ernst, for example in his sur­real­ist ‘nov­el’, Une Semaine De Bonté (1934), where there is the same mar­riage of absurdity and lev­ity. But then, Arnoux might have know the work of Terry Gil­li­am, who could also be ima­gined to have had a hand in here.

Serge Arnoux: la sexaphysique du texte images
Serge Arnoux: la sexaphysique du texte (image detail)
Serge Arnoux
Pages from la sexaphysique du texte

Arnoux and Surrealism

The sur­real­ist influ­ence on Arnoux here is appar­ent. The very title, la sexaphysique du text, hints at the sort of cathex­is and rean­im­a­tion of text and world that sur­real­ism prom­ised. Such an influ­ence would be easy to account for. Sur­real­ism dom­in­ates the pre­vi­ous cen­tury of French art as its most rad­ic­al and mean­ing­ful cur­rent. As such, its con­cepts have become the prop­erty of any­one who cares to use them. What artist could not be aware of sur­real­ism and its resources? The erot­ic and sexu­al themes of Arnoux’s work are ideal for treat­ment by sur­real­ism, with its focus on the uncon­scious, the bizarre and the occluded. The ques­tion is not wheth­er Arnoux was famil­i­ar with sur­real­ism gen­er­ally, but what aspects of it he was most aware of and sym­path­et­ic toward.

There are bio­graph­ic­al reas­ons to believe that bey­ond this gen­er­al artist­ic inher­it­ance Arnoux would have had an imme­di­ate famili­ar­ity with and under­stand­ing of sur­real­ism. First, his col­lab­or­at­or and friend Fer­ré had deb­uted as a sing­er after the war in the Parisi­an clubs and cab­arets fre­quen­ted by Bre­ton and the sur­real­ists, and he was close enough to them to under­stand their work, which he would have shared with Arnoux. In 1961 Fer­ré released an album of his music­al set­tings of the poems of the sur­real­ist, Louis Aragon.9 And their joint appre­ci­ation of Bellmer, and the recog­ni­tion of his influ­ence, is itself a tie dir­ectly into the world of sur­real­ism, even if Bellmer wasn’t a core member.

One of Arnoux’s shops was in the medi­ev­al vil­lage of St. Cirq-Lapopie. The vil­lage has long a pop­u­la­tion coun­ted in the low hun­dreds. From 1950 until his death in 1966, one of its’ cit­izens was André Bre­ton. It is not hard to ima­gine Arnoux and Bre­ton meet­ing, espe­cially as they had a mutu­al friend in Pierre Daura (1896–1976), who also reg­u­larly vis­ited the vil­lage. I ima­gine them in a cafe, arguing the case between Breton’s revolu­tion­ary Marx­ism and Ferré’s Kropotkinite anarchism.

Daura was ori­gin­ally from Bar­celona. He moved to France and become a mem­ber of the abstrac­tion­ist Cercle et Car­ré group in Par­is, which attrac­ted the likes of Kurt Schwit­ters and Hans Arp, and con­tri­bu­tions from Kand­in­sky and Mon­dri­an. Daura later fought with the Repub­lic­ans in the Span­ish Civil War, emig­rat­ing to the US after the defeat of the Repub­lic, and spend­ing sum­mers in St. Cirq-Lapopie, where he met Arnoux. The Cercle et Car­ré group was broadly opposed to sur­real­ism in favour of abstrac­tion­ism, but Daura would no doubt have shared his under­stand­ing of sur­real­ism and many oth­er top­ics dur­ing his friend­ship with Arnoux.

, but IhIn any case, Arnoux was immersed in an artist­ic milieu that had sur­real­ism in its blood, for or against. And Arnoux did not neces­sar­ily have to learn of sur­real­ism indir­ectly, from his friends—he is believed to have stud­ied at the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décor­at­ifs under Mar­cel Duchamp’s broth­er, Gaston.

The Plates

Which brings us to Arnoux’s treat­ment of Blake’s pro­verbs.The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell (1793) is an unusu­al work for Blake. Blake’s world-view rests largely impli­cit in his great poems.The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell is more expli­cit, and is as close as he came to writ­ing a manifesto.
The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell is writ­ten in the shad­ow of the French Revolution—an out­burst of revolu­tion­ary spir­itu­al and cre­at­ive energy to greet the new dawn—but it is also a reac­tion to the teach­ings of Emanuel Sweden­borg, with whose church Blake and his wife Cath­er­ine had been involved. Blake kicks against Swedenborg’s mor­al­ism: where Sweden­borg inher­its a tra­di­tion­al con­trast between good and evil, law and desire, Blake rev­els in sub­vert­ing and con­fus­ing such polar­it­ies, cel­eb­rat­ing the ‘demon­ic’ ener­gies of mor­tal pas­sion while decry­ing the ‘angel­ic’ hypo­crisy of mor­al law. By such con­trasts Blake pro­vokes the read­er toward per­son­al insight, a ’final judge­ment’ and an apocalypse.

Plates sev­en to ten ofThe Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell con­sist of Blake’s ‘Pro­verbs of Hell’. Pithy and aph­or­ist­ic, they con­tain some of Blake’s best-known lines out­side of Jer­u­s­alem and ‘The Tiger’ (“How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight, closed to your senses five?”), and it is a selec­tion of these that Arnoux illus­trated with his engrav­ings, using the Daniel Rops trans­la­tions of 1946, rather than the bet­ter known 1922 trans­la­tion by Andre Gidé.10

Serge Arnoux: No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings
Serge Arnoux
No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings
Some of Blake’s pro­verbs are rendered with a simple illus­tra­tion of the idea (‘Prudence is a rich ugly old maid’‘No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings’‘The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friend­ship’‘Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep). Bey­ond that, Arnoux uses a range of approaches and tech­niques to struc­ture his responses to Blake.
In a series of illus­tra­tions Arnoux cre­ates mask-like images that look like occult sym­bols he has coined for him­self (‘He whose face gives no light, shall nev­er become a star’‘Folly is the cloke of knavery’‘Damn, braces, bless relaxes’). Some of the images (the demon and the gaggle of wasted rev­el­lers on ‘the road of excess’) inter­pret the pro­verbs lit­er­ally, oth­ers are pitched at an angle to the lit­er­al sense of Blake’s words, some­times expand­ing on them.
Serge Arnoux: What is now proved was once only imagin'd
Serge Arnoux
What is now proved was once only imagin’d
In an unusu­al inter­pret­a­tion of the pro­verb ‘What is now proved was once only imagin’d’, Arnoux depicts what looks at first like a lum­ber­ing Heath-Robin­son con­trap­tion. Closer inspec­tion shows that its free­wheel­ing cogs and gears are driv­ing it toward the flee­ing people at its feet, its claws flail­ing at them, while the light from its brow illu­min­ates all and opens up everything for inspec­tion. It is an image of advan­cing indus­tri­al soci­ety, an incarn­a­tion of Urizen, and also rep­res­ents the ration­al mind sunk in what Blake called “Newton’s sleep”. It is an image of the towers at Canary Warf, rais­ing their fists against infinity.
Serge Arnoux: He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence
Serge Arnoux:
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence
In ‘He who desires but acts not, breeds pes­ti­lence’, the pes­ti­lence itself is locked into the circle of desire and needs, with human bod­ies, birds and insects entwined, mutu­ally devour­ing. This image per­haps goes bey­ond even Blake him­self in depict­ing desire as thor­oughly trans-human. It is alive with ‘pan-inten­tion­al­ist’, Empe­doclean will, desire and ‘love’. That is to say, it depicts nature alive with desire.
Serge Arnoux: The nakedness of woman is the work of God
Serge Arnoux:
The naked­ness of woman is the work of God
In the illus­tra­tion for anoth­er of Blake’s pro­verbs cel­eb­rat­ing bulbous and fleshy things—‘The naked­ness of woman is the work of God—Arnoux cre­ates an image in which the deper­son­al­ised (head­less) body of woman is laid out again a tree which itself is a cru­ci­fix. A trin­ity of stars, mod­elled on the woman’s pubic hair, stand at the top of the image. Mirrored below is anoth­er trin­ity, with three cop­ies of the same, head­less woman dan­cing in uni­son. The object of desire is nat­ur­al, wed­ded to nature, but is also the site of the incarn­a­tion, the mys­tery of God’s appear­ance in the world. This idea, intu­ited by Arnoux, sails close to the erot­ic theo­logy of Blake, as we’ll see. The cru­ci­fix appears again in ‘Listen to the fools reproach!’, along with Arnoux’s char­ac­ter­ist­ic hom­un­culi sat at the foot of the cross, play­ing the part of those fools that ignore Christ’s message.
Serge Arnoux: Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps
Serge Arnoux:
Excess of sor­row laughs. Excess of joy weeps
Anoth­er trin­ity is present in Arnoux’s design for ‘Excess of sor­row laughs. Excess of joy weeps’, which has a rare (for Arnoux) form­al eleg­ance, with two characters—joy and sorrow—entwined to form a third, com­pos­ite char­ac­ter, the entire design tak­ing on the shape of a vase.
Serge Arnoux: The hours of folly are measur'd by the clock, but of wisdom- no clock can measure
Serge arnoux and Paul Klee's Angel of History
Left: Serge Arnoux: ‘The hours of folly are meas­ur’d by the clock, but of wis­dom- no clock can meas­ure’. Right: Paul Klee: The Angel of His­tory.
Again, three char­ac­ters appear in the illus­tra­tion for ‘The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock, but of wisdom—no clock can meas­ure. The fore­ground char­ac­ter is a bes­ti­al, anim­ated clock, with the text of the pro­verb woven into the chain that binds togeth­er the num­bers on the clock face, the clock’s hands being wil­ted. The num­bers on the clock face are the ‘hours of folly’. Echo­ing the main char­ac­ter, two sim­il­ar fig­ures stalk behind, but this time without the num­bers or hands—perhaps the ‘hours of wis­dom’. Look­ing at the main fig­ure I was reminded of Klee’s Angelus Novus, as inter­preted by Wal­ter Ben­jamin in Theses on the Philo­sophy of His­tory (1940) as ‘The Angel of His­tory’. Ben­jamin ima­gines the angel being blas­ted back­wards by the force of history—the ‘hours of folly’. Arnoux’s angel has the oafish look of Pa Ubu about him.
Serge Arnoux: Bring out number weight & measure in a year of dearth
Serge Arnoux
Bring out num­ber weight & meas­ure in a year of dearth
Blake’s pro­verb, ‘Bring out num­ber weight & meas­ure in a year of dearth’, is not easy to inter­pret. I read it as an iron­ic obser­va­tion: in a time of short­age, everything will be care­fully meas­ured out, and we’ll be drawn into arguing over our ‘fair share’ rather than address­ing the gen­er­al, com­mon short­age. Dearth is divis­ive. Arnoux’s design cre­ates a form­al­ised, geo­met­ric space, with abstractly depic­ted scales break­ing out of the ground to shat­ter the land­scape. One pan of the scale con­tains the reas­on­ing eye that sur­veys the scene, the oth­er con­tains expres­sion­less lips. The ground itself is broken up again by a meas­ur­ing grid. Behind the scale’s cent­ral sup­port­ing bar is what looks like a stone tool, per­haps sym­bol­ising the emer­gence of ration­al tech­nique. In the dis­tance, the sun starts to drop beneath the hori­zon. In Blake’s terms, it is a Urizen­ic land­scape, where the ration­al­ising mind raises hav­oc. It resembles a work of Renais­sance reli­gious allegory.
Serge Arnoux: Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion
Serge Arnoux Pris­ons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion
One of Arnoux’s most intensely sur­real­ist­ic images for Blake illus­trates the pro­verb, ‘Pris­ons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Reli­gion’. Once again there is a tri­logy of forms, in this case a cent­ral char­ac­ter, enthroned but bound, read­ing from a book (of law? is that a cru­ci­fix on the cov­er?). To one side in the back­ground, a seated woman wears a dark, cir­cu­lar mask which echoes that of the main char­ac­ter, with equally fea­ture­less and life­less eye­holes. The woman’s legs straddle a door that opens into the plinth she sits on, allow­ing access to her. On the oth­er side of the cent­ral law­giver is a for­ti­fied build­ing. Two roads lead to the woman and castle respect­ively. The fig­ures at the rear rep­res­ent the pris­on and brothel. The cent­ral fig­ure sits before an arch that is both veget­able and anim­al, the branches like limbs entwined. The fig­ures taken togeth­er are stern. Above the cent­ral arch is a bird with splayed wings, or, if you like, a moth’s antennae.
Serge Arnoux: Exuberance is Beauty !
Serge Arnoux Exuber­ence is Beauty
Arnoux’s plate for ‘Exuber­ance is Beauty!’ is unusu­al in that it is not an image set against a back­ground, but a riot of veget­able motion that crowds out the pictori­al space. The image has taken over. Leaves, flowers, and grass cov­er the page so that it bursts with life. Just to the right of centre at the bot­tom, two fig­ures, part-human and part-veget­able lounge in the petals of one of the flowers. Their feet become tendrils run­ning off into the plant­like. The fig­ures are lan­guid, unlike the dynam­ism of those of Blake’s ‘Mil­dew Blight­ing Ears of Corn’, which this detail imme­di­ately reminded me of.

Philip Rayner claims that Arnoux’s image “does not seem to share the sur­real­ists’ icon­o­graphy or themes”.11 I am not so sure. But in any case, the ‘exuber­ance’ cap­tured here by Arnoux is a trib­ute to Blake’s belief, expressed inThe Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell, that “everything that lives is holy. Life delights in life.”

Exuberence (detail)
Serge Arnoux Exuber­ence is Beauty! (detail)
Blake, Mildew Blighting Ears of Corn
Wil­li­am Blake Mil­dew Blight­ing Ears of Corn
A vari­ety of styles and tech­niques are at work in Arnoux’s illus­tra­tions. Some are clearly not sur­real­ist in either meth­od or intent. But those images that go bey­ond the lit­er­al illus­tra­tion of a pro­verb are the ones with a sur­real­ist effect of trans­fer­ring the centre of mean­ing out of the imme­di­ate. lit­er­al con­text, fore­ground­ing the immense strange­ness of things. These images are the most true to the extremity of Blake’s vision.
We can ask why sur­real­ism seems par­tic­u­larly suited to an engage­ment with Blake. It may seem unlikely that Blake should have such an affin­ity, giv­en the cen­tury or more that sep­ar­ates them.

We don’t know how Arnoux came to be inter­ested in Blake’s work, but it is a fact that sur­real­ism recog­nised itself in Blake. Bre­ton had described Young’s Night Thoughts, as illus­trated by Blake, as “thor­oughly sur­real­ist”. In 1927, Phil­lippe Sou­pault (who in 1920 had been the co-author, with Bre­ton, of the ori­gin­al auto­mat­ist nov­el, The Mag­net­ic Fields) pub­lished his trans­la­tion of Blake’s Songs of Inno­cence and Exper­i­ence. He sub­sequently wrote a bio­graphy and ana­lys­is of Blake, not­ing that “None of [England’s] sons… was more utterly dis­con­cert­ing to her sense of pro­pri­ety than Wil­li­am Blake”.12 Like Bre­ton, Sou­pault focussed on Blake’s illus­tra­tions for Night Thoughts as pro­to­typ­ic­ally surrealist.

Automatism, Freud and Desire

In its early years sur­real­ism was pre­dic­ated on the primacy of ‘psych­ic auto­mat­ism’. In the First Sur­real­ist Mani­festo (1924) Bre­ton defines sur­real­ism as “psych­ic auto­mat­ism in its pure state, by which one pro­poses to express… the actu­al func­tion­ing of thought… exempt from any aes­thet­ic or mor­al con­cern.”13 Blake some­times cre­ated in just such a state—claiming to have writ­ten Jer­u­s­alem “twelve or some­times twenty or thirty lines at a time without pre­med­it­a­tion and even against my will.”14 This use of auto­mat­ism served the same end for both Blake and Bre­ton: it allowed them, in dif­fer­ent ways, to access myths and truths from bey­ond the shores of cal­cu­la­tion and reas­on, it allowed them to sur­face con­tent more power­ful and more real than their every­day thoughts. Blake was at least as suc­cess­ful as any sur­real­ist in min­ing this resource. Arnoux him­self also sought this region, or some­thing ana­log­ous. In la sexaphysique du texte he quotes Oscar Wilde, “l’ordre est un etat pre­caire qui ne pres­age rien de bon.” (“order is a pre­cari­ous state which does not bode well”), which expresses well enough the mood of much of Blake’s work and that of the sur­real­ists alike.

The works of Blake, the sur­real­ists and Arnoux are awash with images of desire and sexu­al­ity. The bridge between them is formed via Freud’s ideas of psych­ic life. The sur­real­ists’ fas­cin­a­tion with Freud and their ambi­tion to mani­fest the uncon­scious are obvi­ous. They were alive to the power of the forces behind every­day con­scious­ness, in what Freud and the sur­real­ists knew as the uncon­scious. And the total­ity of con­scious­ness and uncon­scious­ness togeth­er is ruled by desire. But this desire (its emer­gence, its con­tra­dic­tions, and its frus­tra­tions) was just as import­ant to Blake.

The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell is cent­rally con­cerned with the elev­a­tion of will, pas­sion and desire to the centre of life, pla­cing ‘energy’ before ‘reas­on’:

Those who restrain Desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrain­er or Reas­on usurps its place and gov­erns the unwill­ing.15

Blake could be fol­low­ing Jakob Böhme here, as Böhme pos­ited desire as the ‘First Prop­erty of Etern­al Nature’.16 But in Blake’s hands this desire was more often con­ceived dir­ectly, not as a meta­phys­ic­al prin­ciple, an abstract yearn­ing or an airy sub­lim­ated ‘libido’, but rather it is under­stood primar­ily, or pro­to­typ­ic­ally, as sexu­al desire, which Blake nev­er tires of defend­ing against legions of pious cen­sors and critics.

Blake’s interest in the chthon­ic power of desire, and its repres­sion, is not merely one item on his agenda but under­pins his work as a whole, with its depic­tion of the wars between the vari­ous spir­itu­al powers of Albion, their split­ting and doub­ling. Blake pred­ates Freud, of course, but he did not need to know of Freud to share the same space because, as Auden said, “the whole of Freud’s teach­ing may be found in The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell.”17 There is a deep affin­ity between frac­tured Albion and the dis­so­ci­ated man.

That Old Time Religion: Moravian Piety

One of the sources of Blake’s atti­tude to desire and the senses was undoubtedly the reli­gion of his moth­er Cath­er­ine, who had belonged to the Moravi­an church on Fet­ter Lane while mar­ried to her first hus­band.18 The Moravi­ans encour­aged an intim­ate form of ador­a­tion of Christ, up to and includ­ing frankly erot­ic fantas­ies involving the wounds Christ received on the cross (‘blood and wound piety’), focus­sing espe­cially on the wound Christ suffered when stabbed with a lance by a Roman sol­dier to fin­ish him off. This wound they called Christ’s ‘side hole’. Mem­bers were encour­aged to med­it­ate on it, think­ing of Christ’s suf­fer­ing while ima­gin­ing lying in it, caress­ing and even lick­ing it. In her let­ter of applic­a­tion to the Moravi­an Church Blake’s moth­er, Cath­er­ine, recor­ded dream­ing of caress­ing and lick­ing this vulva-like ’side-wound’. For sim­il­ar reas­ons, the church also paid spe­cial atten­tion to Christ’s cir­cum­cised penis as an object of prayer.
Moravian devotional image
Moravi­an devo­tion­al image of the ‘side-hole’ of Christ. ‘Wie warm­sichs liegt im Seitelein / Ehre dem Seiten­shrein’ (‘How warm it is lying in the little side / Hon­or the side shrine’)

It’s been said that if the Moravi­ans meant the side hole to be a vulva, they wouldn’t have depic­ted it so often as a hori­zont­al wound. This is to take the mat­ter too lit­er­ally. The con­nec­tion with the vulva seems plain in some con­texts, but in oth­ers the image itself dilates to become a rep­res­ent­at­ive of ori­fices more generally—lips, anus and beyond—and the bor­ders between self and oth­ers, which are all so heav­ily suf­fused with erot­ic and libid­in­al charge.

Serge Arnou Page from le sexaphysique du texte

Such lat­ent erot­i­cism, com­bined with the genu­inely enlightened atti­tudes of the church lead­ers toward everything to do with sexu­al­ity, and the exper­i­ment­al atti­tude of some of the more adven­tur­ous among the con­greg­a­tion,19 even­tu­ally led to a series of scan­dals that caused the lead­er­ship to retreat to a more con­ser­vat­ive pos­i­tion, at least openly. But there were many who learned their faith dur­ing these earli­er ‘years of sift­ing’ in which the Church was tested by the scan­dal.20

Moravian folk art
Moravi­an folk art, by Mari­ane von Wat­teville. It shows her kneel­ing inside Christ’s side hole and being sprayed by the blood of Christ.
Absorb­ing influ­ences from Piet­ism, the Hus­sites of the ‘Unity of Brethren’ in Bohemia, Kab­bal­ism gen­er­ally and the cult around the Jew­ish heretic, Sabbatai Zevi in par­tic­u­lar, the Moravi­an founder and lead­er, Count Zin­zen­dorf, not only elev­ated feel­ing and the heart as the road to God, focus­sing on ima­gin­at­ive empathy with Christ in his pas­sion, but also pos­it­ively den­ig­rated ‘head learn­ing’ and reason—a view very much in the tra­di­tion of Böhme, and cent­ral to Blake’s philo­sophy. Doc­trin­al reli­gion was held to be inher­ently schis­mat­ic; only love can unite a con­greg­a­tion.

The tra­di­tion­al churches held that sex with­in mar­riage, if it could not be avoided, could be thought of as any­thing between a regret­table neces­sity and a sac­red oblig­a­tion to cre­ate and mul­tiply, depend­ing on who you asked. The gist of the Moravi­ans’ innov­a­tion was to ima­gine that sex as such, as paradig­mat­ic uni­on was, at least poten­tially, a sac­red com­mu­nion. Sex was no longer thought of solely as a moment of repro­duc­tion, and no longer needed the cloak of mar­riage to be val­id. Cru­cially, “[the ] Moravi­ans began to believe that the uni­on with Christ could be exper­i­enced not only dur­ing mar­it­al inter­course but dur­ing extramar­it­al sex as well.”21 This brought them sig­ni­fic­antly closer to the long-stand­ing pop­u­lar rejec­tion of priestly mor­al­ising in favour of bod­ily pleas­ure. This view—associated in Eng­land with the views of the Ranters and the extreme left wing of the Eng­lish Revolution—was usu­ally simply ignored as being beneath con­sid­er­a­tion, but on the rare occa­sions any­one asked the peas­ants their opin­ion it might emerge. For example, it is evid­enced by the inquis­i­tion at Mon­tail­lou in 1318–25, where it turned out dur­ing ques­tion­ing that the peas­ant woman Grazide Liz­ier believed that sex was only sin­ful if it was done out of habit or duty rather than for pleas­ure (“In those days it pleased me, and it pleased the priest, that he should know me car­nally, and be known by me; and so I did not think I was sin­ning, and neither did he. But now, with him, it does not please me any more. And so now, if he knew me car­nally, I should think it a sin.”)22

The Moravi­ans did not aban­don their con­greg­a­tion to guilt-free sex in the man­ner of Grazide Liz­ier, how­ever. They thought that while sex should be pas­sion­ate it should not be lust­ful. One of their devo­tion­al cards depicts male ejac­u­la­tion as a fig­ur­at­ive bless­ing of the womb, and advises the man to read aloud a hymn at the moment of cli­max. Des­pite this reser­va­tion it is undeni­able that the church’s new teach­ing opened the con­greg­a­tion to wildly dif­fer­ent ideas about sex than pre­vailed in the ortho­dox churches.

In the emphas­is on pas­sion above Reas­on, and espe­cially in the emphas­is on sex as a sac­red act, pre­fig­ur­ing the unity of the indi­vidu­al and God, the Moravi­ans per­haps come close to the views of the some of the earli­est gnostics, such as those of Valentinus and his fol­low­ers in the early 2nd Cen­tury AD, who it is said sought “the fruit of the heart and an impres­sion of [God’s] will” through sim­il­ar means.

The Sifting

In 1748, under the influ­ence of Zizendorf’s son, Chris­ti­an Ren­atus (pic­tured here, and known to every­one as ‘Christel’) it was announced at the key Moravi­an com­munity at Her­rnhaag, where the church had built its new base after Zizendorf’s expul­sion from Sax­ony, that the single men liv­ing togeth­er should hence­forth no longer be clas­si­fied as men at all but as ‘sis­ters’, all wed­ded to their hus­band, Christ. Fur­ther­more, Chris­ti­an announced that he him­self had become the liv­ing embod­i­ment of Christ’s ‘side hole’, and encour­aged the oth­er single men of the con­greg­a­tion to kiss and caress him as part of their wor­ship. He argued that there was no longer need for tra­di­tion­al Com­mu­nion, but that instead the men could enter the side hole phys­ic­ally, “as a man enters his wife”. Christel was emphat­ic that such phys­ic­al embrace was the real com­mu­nion, and that “no longer was the joy of uni­on with Christ a joy for the soul; it has become a phys­ic­al exper­i­ence and a delight”.23

One his­tor­i­an of the Moravi­an Church con­cluded that, at the Her­rnhaag centre at least, this was “a time in which vir­tu­ally any­thing was pos­sible in the realms of gender, sex, and spir­itu­al­ity.”24 But Christel’s announce­ments and the accom­pa­ny­ing efflor­es­cence of sexu­al and reli­gious exper­i­ment­a­tion threatened to bring the church into dis­rep­ute at a time when its lead­ers were seek­ing offi­cial recog­ni­tion from vari­ous states in Ger­many and abroad, and this triggered a great back­lash from the lead­er­ship, who wrote of these years as the time of a great test­ing, or ‘sift­ing’ of the church and con­greg­a­tion. In an epic Oed­ip­al drama, the back­lash was led by Christel’s fath­er, Zizen­dorf him­self. His wife, and second in com­mand, Anna Nitschmann, asked Christel “God in Heav­en! Are you all crazy or what?”25 Christel was quickly removed from his pos­i­tion at Her­rnhaag and sent to sup­port his fath­er in London.

Blake and Sexual Revolution

All this happened before Blake’s birth, and Blake him­self was a mem­ber of Swedenborg’s New Church rather than the Moravi­ans. Blake’s moth­er may have con­tin­ued her rela­tion­ship with the Moravi­ans after the death of her first hus­band, in 1751. Mar­sha Keith Schuchard argues that she remained in con­tact for some years after­wards, while oth­ers dis­pute the evid­ence.26

But whatever her form­al rela­tion­ship to the church, it is unlikely that Blake’s moth­er broke sud­denly and entirely with the Moravi­an out­look and sens­ib­il­ity, even if no longer a mem­ber of the con­greg­a­tion, and Blake would have been immersed in his parent’s reli­gious views and demean­our long before set­ting off on his own course. Blake’s fath­er too was, accord­ing to A L Mor­ton, “cer­tainly a dis­sent­er, though of what per­sua­sion is unknown”. 27 There is every reas­on to believe that Blake grew up in an envir­on­ment that dis­cussed rad­ic­al dis­sent­ing ideas, though we may nev­er know the pre­cise admixture.

I am not sug­gest­ing that any of the Blake fam­ily were Moravi­ans dur­ing Wil­li­am Blake’s child­hood, or that they prac­ticed any­thing like the cere­mon­ies at Her­rnhaag. But neither can we assume that Cath­er­ine broke entirely with her earli­er beliefs, and we take it for gran­ted that she imbued some­thing of her out­look into Blake and her oth­er chil­dren. Blake’s earli­est years—during which he taught him­self to read while he stud­ied the Bible, and saw his first visions—laid the ground for everything that was to fol­low. Dis­sent­ing reli­gious opin­ion was a key part of Blake’s upbring­ing and, as Sou­pault put it, “Blake’s child­hood affords a key to the whole of his sub­sequent exist­ence.”28

As a mat­ter of fact, Sweden­borg had been a mem­ber of the Fet­ter Lane Moravi­ans him­self for a while and applied to join their con­greg­a­tion. He was rejec­ted. John and Charles Wes­ley were also vis­it­ors to the church. And Sweden­borg fol­lowed through on the logic of the piet­ist­ic emphas­is on things of the heart, arguing in later works that erot­ic love was of divine ori­gin. The vari­ous dis­sent­ing churches—Moravians, Sweden­bor­gi­ans and many more—were not sealed off from one anoth­er, but exchanged ideas, form­ing a pool of dis­sent­ing opin­ion, and indi­vidu­als moved between them. In any case, there is no hard and fast con­trast to be made between the Moravi­an and Sweden­bor­gi­an churches, and between the reli­gion of the moth­er and the son.

Robert Rix has sug­ges­ted that while Blake was with Swedenborg’s New Jer­u­s­alem Church in Great East­cheap he was likely aligned with the most rad­ic­al thinkers among them, led by Masons such as the abol­i­tion­ist Carl Wad­ström,29 and the alchem­ist, August Nor­denskjöld, who togeth­er envis­aged a revolu­tion­ary world in which slavery and sexu­al oppres­sion alike were abol­ished. They planned to build a theo­crat­ic colony on the basis of that free­dom. But Wad­ström and Nor­denskjöld caused a scan­dal and were expelled from the Lon­don con­greg­a­tion when they pub­lished a col­lec­tion of Swedenborg’s sup­pressed texts on sexu­al rela­tions, Chaste Delights of Con­jugal Love, which were believed by their crit­ics to encour­age ‘con­cu­bin­age’ and sexu­al equal­ity. Blake aban­doned Sweden­borg around the time of these expul­sions. It is not pos­sible to learn the details of the dis­pute because, just as with the ’sift­ing’ among the Moravi­ans, the rel­ev­ant pages of the church’s minute books have been torn out.

Much has been made of the story that Blake ‘made Mrs Blake cry’ by pro­pos­ing to bring a ‘con­cu­bine’ into their rela­tion­ship. This tale took off in the first bio­graphy of Blake, in 1863, in which the author, Alex­an­der Gil­christ, claimed that the strife between Wil­li­am and Cath­er­ine was due to a “not wholly unpro­voked” jeal­ousy on the wife’s part. But that is all he tells you. In their later bio­graphy, in 1883, Ellis and Yeats run with this idea, going on to claim spe­cific­ally of Blake that “there is the pos­sib­il­ity that he enter­tained men­tally some poly­gam­ous pro­ject”. If there is any­thing to the story at all, giv­en the con­text it seems reas­on­able to won­der wheth­er this ‘poly­gam­ous pro­ject’ might have any­thing to do with Wad­ström and Nordenskjöld’s plans to start a colony in Sierra Leone based on their under­stand­ing of the doc­trines of the Sweden­borg church, up to and includ­ing their inter­pret­a­tion of Swedenborg’s ideas on polygamy.

While Blake chal­lenged oppres­sion in all forms, he saw that the paradig­mat­ic form of oppres­sion is sexu­al, and that mar­riage was its most obvi­ous mani­fest­a­tion. Blake’s con­cepts of free­dom and desire are so intim­ately entwined that, as Mor­ton Paley put it, “Blake envi­sions, not revolu­tion and sexu­al free­dom, but a revolu­tion which is libid­in­al in nature.”30 Blake’s pos­i­tion as a polit­ic­al rad­ic­al, and his views as a sexu­al revolu­tion­ary, com­pletely converge.

It is this libid­in­al dimen­sion of Blake’s thought that is most eas­ily glossed over, wheth­er inten­tion­ally or not. This repres­sion began right after Blake’s death when his execut­or, Fre­d­er­ick Tath­am, took to burn­ing any­thing in Blake’s work that might cause a scan­dal. Along with the artist John Lin­nell, Tathem also took the less extreme route of merely alter­ing Blake’s work to obscure any­thing dis­rep­ut­able: the two of them went so far as to draw under­pants over Blake’s erect penis in his self-por­trait in Milton. What Tath­am and Lin­nell feared was that people would dis­cov­er Blake’s close interest in sex. They wanted to pro­tect Blake’s repu­ta­tion, already tar­nished by accus­a­tions of madness.
A spir­it of uncon­scious cen­sor­ship sur­vives today. There are many ver­sions of Blake on offer in ‘the des­ol­ate market’—Blake as a polit­ic­al rad­ic­al, Blake as a cham­pi­on of the spir­it of Albion, Blake as the paradig­mat­ic out­sider artist, and so on—and few of them have much need or interest in emphas­ising the cent­ral­ity of sexu­al desire to his work.
Chapel image, Vala / Four Zoas
Wil­li­am Blake
Detail from The Four Zoas (1822)
Des­pite this enough evid­ence sur­vives for us to see how far Blake could take these ideas. In his note­books for Vala (The Four Zoas), Blake cre­ates an image of a crowned woman with her gen­it­als drawn as a chapel, a site of wor­ship and con­tem­pla­tion. Such an image would be quite at home among the Moravi­an Fet­ter Lane con­greg­a­tion or in the pages of Ferré’s Alma Mat­rix. In his sketches for illus­tra­tions for The Book of Enoch, Blake depicts a woman vis­ited by two Angels who would pro­cre­ate with her to cre­ate a gen­er­a­tion of giants.
Blake: Two Angels Descending, Vala / The Four Zoas (1822)
Wil­li­am Blake
‘Two Angels Des­cend­ing’, from Blake’s sketches for illus­tra­tions of The Book of Enoch (1822)

The same idea anim­ates some of Blake’s best known images. For instance, the scene in Blake’s A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment (1808) is in some ways tra­di­tion­al, with saved souls rising up to their reward in heav­en on the left of the image, while sin­ners fall down toward per­di­tion on the right. But in the centre of the image, at its focal point, Blake depicts what the Nation­al Trust (who own the paint­ing) call a ‘uter­us’.31 The paint­ing was com­mis­sioned by the Count­ess of Egre­mont, who had nine chil­dren by her hus­band before being aban­doned by him.32 The Nation­al Trust’s idea is that the ‘uter­us’ is there to high­light the Count­esses’ devo­tion as a wife in bear­ing so many chil­dren, and thus acts as a rebuke to her hus­band for abandon­ing her. But the sym­bol­ism runs deep­er, and onto grounds less often main­tained by the Nation­al Trust: for the man raised by a Moravi­an moth­er who dreamed of lick­ing the ’side-wound’ of Christ, and for a proph­et who under­stood the decis­ive part played by desire in the order of things, it was not the wife’s leg­al, con­jugal duty as a child bear­er that was to be cel­eb­rated, but the sac­ra­ment of sex itself, which bound her and her errant hus­band together—a sac­ra­ment val­id in its own right, without the inter­ces­sion of mar­riage or childbirth.

William Blake: A Vision of The Last Judgement
Wil­li­am Blake
A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment (1808)

The centre of the image is formed by four angels blow­ing trum­pets to awaken the dead, and just beneath is the Whore of Babylon, the arche­type of faith­less­ness. She is depic­ted as being stripped and burned by fire, which Blake says rep­res­ents “the Etern­al Con­suma­tion of Veget­able Life & Death with its Lusts”.33 Above the cent­ral image of the paint­ing are Adam and Eve, pray­ing either side of the cent­ral cher­ubim, posi­tioned in the region of the clit­or­is. The ori­gin­al cher­ubim, of course, were rep­res­en­ted as carved fig­ures above the Ark of the Cov­en­ant, where they embraced above it.

Blake’s use of the Vesica / man­dorla in this con­text also makes sense in reli­gious terms. As pre­vi­ously noted, in Chris­ti­an art the man­dorla is often asso­ci­ated with the Last Judge­ment and the Ascension—moments of trans­ition between phys­ic­al and the tran­scend­ent­al realms. Extend­ing this to refer to the vulva makes sense if you think of birth as Blake did, as a trans­ition from the tran­scend­ent­al into nature. That the moment of Christ’s birth and the moment of his Ascen­sion should mir­ror one anoth­er in this way is not a sur­prise. It is the same jour­ney, going in oppos­ite directions.

Blake’s Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment is sym­met­ric­al, form­al, and there­fore inten­ded as sym­bol­ic rather than real­ist­ic. Some see it as con­tain­ing the image of a skull, con­clud­ing that Blake’s mes­sage here is that the ‘final judge­ment’ takes place in the mind of the indi­vidu­al. I don’t see the skull but it is cor­rect to say that the image depicts a per­son­al apo­ca­lypse.34 In this, Blake very much fol­lowed Sweden­borg, who had prom­ised a ‘New Jer­u­s­alem’ in which those who under­stood the new dis­pens­a­tion would exper­i­ence an ‘intern­al mil­len­ni­um’. Blake’s own text Jer­u­s­alem like­wise prom­ised a “Jer­u­s­alem in every indi­vidu­al man”.35 In Blake’s hands, such a final judge­ment when it takes place revolves around energy, desire and ima­gin­a­tion, in line with the injunc­tion in The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell“He who desires but acts not, breeds pes­ti­lence.”36 It is a trans­form­a­tion of one’s entire being, not just a modi­fic­a­tion to the belief system.

I have emphas­ised the appro­pri­ate­ness of Arnoux’s most sur­real inter­pret­a­tions of Blake’s pro­verbs, and the shared con­cern of Blake, Arnoux and the sur­real­ists with the libido and sexu­al desire. In doing so, I want to recov­er a more com­plete image of Blake than we are nor­mally allowed, which I believe Arnoux helps with by means of the con­text into which he inserts Blake. This is not a mat­ter of claim­ing that Arnoux and Blake shared the same ideas or the same eso­ter­ic code, but rather that both sim­il­arly register the power of the irra­tion­al. For Arnoux to treat of Blake at all, and to rep­res­ent him that way he has, draws atten­tion to that aspect of Blake which is often passed over. It is already well known that the sur­real­ists saluted Blake as a fel­low spir­it, but I think it less well under­stood just how much over­lap there is in their cent­ral con­cerns and attitudes.

Blake as a Contemporary

Blake said, ”If the per­cept­ive organs vary: objects of per­cep­tion seem to vary.”37 When the object is Blake him­self, there are as many per­cep­tions as there are people to see him. Each view­er seems to install what is merely an aspect of Blake at the centre of their per­cep­tion of him, and then make the rest of Blake rotate around this point—such a view, which “takes only por­tions of exist­ence and fan­cies that the whole”. We must cut through this to ask what Blake rep­res­ents alto­geth­er. Some see Blake as the rad­ic­al artis­an, denounced as a sedi­tion­ary by Private Schofield, who claimed Blake had attacked him cry­ing “damn the King!”: Blake could have hung as a res­ult. Then there is spir­itu­al Blake, not so much the ascet­ic mys­tic as a naive wit­ness to sprites, angels, and ghosts—the mys­ti­cism of day­dream­ers rather than saints. Kath­leen Raine has Blake immersed up to his inky neck in Neo­pla­ton­ism, turn­ing him into a cipher for Plotinus and Thomas Taylor. So the ques­tion is, eg., wheth­er Blake is fun­da­ment­ally a (theo­lo­gic­ally inspired) polit­ic­al insur­rec­tion­ary, mix­ing with the crowds assault­ing Newg­ate Pris­on, or is he essen­tially the seer, wit­ness to oth­er dimen­sions; or a recycled Neo­pla­ton­ist tricked out in an engraver’s apron? And how would any of these images sur­vive if we put desire near the centre of our image of him?

The truth is that Blake was all of these things and none. He fused togeth­er what today seem like anti­podes of spir­it and action, art, polit­ics and eso­ter­i­cism. Eli­ot fam­ously said that Blake suffered from “a cer­tain mean­ness of cul­ture”, and so had cre­ated his ima­gin­at­ive worlds almost ex nihilo.38 On the con­trary, Blake seems some­times not so much an indi­vidu­al per­son­al­ity as a field of con­vec­tion, chan­nel­ling up cur­rents of artis­an­al anti­no­mi­an­ism that hadn’t broken the sur­face of soci­ety since the Ranters dec­or­ated the Eng­lish Civil War with their ser­mons delivered in pub­lic houses, where they excor­i­ated the rich while mock­ing the church and mor­al law. This is the cul­ture Blake was rooted in. The his­tor­i­an A L Mor­ton was so con­vinced of this that he argued that Blake must have read the works of the Ranter, Abiez­er Coppe.39

The dif­fer­ent impres­sions of Blake are made easi­er by the open­ness of his art. His work is always open to con­tra­dict­ory read­ings, which makes it a gate­way to the uncon­scious. But it also means you can see any­thing you want there, depend­ing on how you are looking

Desire is cent­ral to all this, as it is to the ima­gin­a­tion, which Blake called “the body of Christ”. But this ima­gin­a­tion is a two way street, and it must be exer­cised in order to really engage with Blake. The more it is exer­cised the more thor­oughly we engage with him. In his notes to A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment, Blake said, ”if the spec­tat­or could enter into these images in his ima­gin­a­tion approach­ing them on the fiery chari­ot of his con­tem­plat­ive thought… then would he arise from his grave”.40The ambi­gu­ity pro­duced by the many mean­ings Blake builds into his work is cre­ated delib­er­ately. It doesn’t reflect an under­ly­ing ambi­val­ence in Blake but rather a com­mit­ment to free­dom and proph­et­ic speech. The Moravi­ans had encour­aged wide read­ing of mul­tiple texts because they under­stood the threat of doc­trin­al pur­ity and con­sist­ency. Blake builds this mul­ti­pli­city into his work. To see Blake cor­rectly we must approach him the right way.

Blake is often presen­ted as a man out of sorts and out of time; the artis­an about to be sub­merged by indus­tri­al cap­it­al and the fact­ory sys­tem; the out­sider artist, ignored by the march of offi­cial art; the mil­len­ari­an dream­er out of step with quo­tidi­an his­tory. But these vir­tu­al char­ac­ters are in fact only mis­un­der­stood facets of a single, poten­tially more mod­ern personality—Blake, the occult, revolu­tion­ary sur­real­ist who divined the nature of an indus­tri­al soci­ety that was still devel­op­ing in his time, and the deform­a­tions it cre­ates in our being. If Blake is ana­chron­ist­ic, that is not because his time had passed while he was alive, but because his true time has yet to come. To register the truth of Blake’s art is to see a world that does not yet exist, the image of which is stored up by Blake as a refuge, a “sym­bol­ic fort­ress and a haven” (Ken­neth Rexroth).41 By fore­ground­ing aspects of Blake’s work that are usu­ally down­played, and by mak­ing prac­tic­al con­nec­tions between Blake and sur­real­ism, Serge Arnoux helps us to bet­ter see, and under­stand, this new fig­ure of Blake, emer­ging from his time into ours.

William Blake: A Vision of The Last Judgement (detail)
Wil­li­am Blake
A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment (1808) (detail)
Andy Wilson 1‑Jan-2021
Down­load the full essay here.


  1. Juli­ette Greco, quoted in Ferré’s obit­u­ary in The Inde­pend­ent, 19 July 1993.
  3. Pub­lished on April 25, 2000 by La Mém­oire et la Mer, Les Étoiles collection.
  4. Accord­ing to Per­ro­lier, Arnoux joined Ferre at his new home in Italy to work on the pro­ject: “Stim­u­lated, in reac­tion to twenty aph­or­isms and ‘sexu­al’ verses pro­posed by Léo, Serge Arnoux pro­duced around forty ‘auto­mat­ic’ draw­ings; not­ably fem­in­ine bod­ies with fant­ast­ic shapes, dir­ectly inspired by Hans Bellmer. The duo’s ini­tial ambi­tion is to offer full pages and to cre­ate col­lages that can unfold in relief on double-pages.“, accessed Oct 2020.
  5. ibid
  6. Eight­een pho­to­graphs of Bellmer’s sig­na­ture scult­pure, The Doll, appeared in the year it was cre­ated, in Minotaure No. 6, Winter 1934.
  7. Also known as the Mandorla—Italian for the almond that the shape resembles.
  8. George Fer­guson, Signs and Sym­bols in Chris­ti­an Art, Lon­don: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1961, p 148.
  9. Léo Fer­réLes Chan­sons d’Aragon, released in 1961.
  10. See Robert Hende­r­son’s notes, accessed Oct 2020.
  11. Dr Philip Rayner, A Semi­ot­ic Ana­lys­is of ‘Lux­uri­ance ô Beau­té!’,, accessed Oct 2020.
  12. Phil­lippe Sou­pault, J Lewis May (tr), Wil­li­am Blake, Lon­don: Bod­ley Head Ltd, 1928, p 9.
  13. Andre Bre­ton, ‘First Sur­real­ist Mani­festo’ (1924), in Mani­fes­tos of Sur­real­ism, Richard Seaver and Helen Lane (trans), Ann Arbor, 1972, p 26.
  14. Blake, Let­ter to Thomas Butts, 25 April 1803, in Dav­id Erd­man (ed), The Com­plete Poetry and Prose of Wil­li­am Blake, New York: Ran­dom House, 1965/1988, p 729.
  15. Blake, The Voice of the Dev­il, in The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell, Erd­man, p 34.
  16. Jakob Böhme, The ‘Key’ of Jac­ob Boehme: The Clav­is (An Explan­a­tion of Some Prin­cip­al Points and Expres­sions in His Writ­ings) (1624), Grand Rap­ids: Phanes Press, 1991, p 26.
  17. W H Auden, ‘Psy­cho­logy and Art Today’ (1935), reprin­ted in The Eng­lish Auden, New York: Ran­dom House, 1977, p 339.
  18. See Mar­sha Keith Schuchard, Why Mrs Blake Cried: Wil­li­am Blake and the Erot­ic Ima­gin­a­tion, Lon­don: Cen­tury Ran­dom House, 2006.
  19. This exper­i­ment­al atti­tude was itself remark­able. Tra­di­tion­al reli­gion clings con­ser­vat­ively to the approved inter­pret­a­tion of canon­ic­al texts, and places its emphas­is on tra­di­tion. The Moravi­ans, as they believed the end times to be imman­ent, expec­ted the chosen to rap­idly per­fect them­selves in the run up to its arrival, and so encour­aged innov­a­tion in both the­ory and practice.
  20. The image of sift­ing is used in the Bible to indic­ate the test­ing of people, through which they are sor­ted into the wheat and the chaff . See , for example, Luke 22:31–32, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has deman­ded per­mis­sion to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail.” The term is used by Moravi­ans to refer spe­cific­ally to the crisis in the church caused by these scandals.
  21. Paul Peuck­er, A Time of Sift­ing: Mys­tic­al Mar­riage and the Crisis of Moravi­an Piety In the Eight­eenth Cen­tury, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State Uni­ver­sity Press, 2015, p 2.
  22. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Mon­tail­lou: Cath­ars and Cath­ol­ics in a French Vil­lage 1294–1324, Lindon: Pen­guin, 2002. It is rare for any­one to have thought the testi­mony of the peas­ants to be worth pre­serving, and the doc­u­ment­a­tion from Mon­tail­lou only sur­vived because in this case the inquis­it­or, Jacques Fourni­er, Bish­op of Pam­i­ers, later became Pope Bene­dict XII, and his records were pre­served in the Vat­ic­an Library
  23. Peuck­er, ibid, pp 84–5.
  24. Aaron Fogel­man, Jesus is Female: Moravi­ans and the Chal­lenge of Rad­ic­al Reli­gion in Early Amer­ica, 2007, Phil­adelphia: Uni­ver­sity of Phil­adelphia, p 73.
  25. Quoted in Peuck­er, p 46.
  26. See G E Bent­ley’s review of Schuchard’s book in The Blake Quarterly XL:IV, Spring 2007, online at
  27. A L Mor­ton, ‘The Ever­last­ing Gos­pel: A Study in the Sources of Wil­li­am Blake’, in A L Mor­ton, His­tory and the Ima­gin­a­tion: Selec­ted Writ­ings, ed. Mar­got Heine­mann and Wil­lie Thompson, Lon­don: Lawrence and Wis­hart Ltd, 1990, p 107.
  28. Sou­pault (1928), p 12.
  29. Wad­ström was later to move to France, where he con­tin­ued his agit­a­tion against slavery and called the world’s first con­fer­ence on the colo­ni­al ques­tion in 1799.
  30. Mor­ton Paley, Energy and Ima­gin­a­tion: The Devel­op­ment of Blake’s Thought, Oxford: Clar­en­don Press, 1970, p 16.
  31., accessed Oct 2020.
  32. You can see the Count­ess imme­di­ately to the left of the cent­ral image, sur­roun­ded by the six of her chil­dren who sur­vived child­birth, although in his descript­ive essay A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment, Blake also treats this image of a moth­er and her chil­dren as sym­bol­ic of the church. Erd­man, ibid, p 559.
  33. Blake, A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment, Erd­man, ibid, p 558.
  34. “Some people flat­ter them­selves that there will be no Last Judg­ment, and that bad art will be adop­ted and mixed with good art—that error or exper­i­ment will make a part of truth; and they boast that it is its found­a­tion. These people flat­ter them­selves; I will not flat­ter them. Error is cre­ated, truth is etern­al. Error or cre­ation will be burned up, and then, and not till then, truth or etern­ity will appear. It is burned up the moment men cease to behold it.” Blake, A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment, in Erd­man, ibid, p 656.
  35. Blake, Jer­u­s­alem, pl 39:39, Erd­man, ibid, p 187.
  36. Blake, The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell, pl 7:5, Erd­man, ibid, p 35.
  37. Blake, Jer­u­s­alem, pl 30:55, Erd­man, ibid, p 177.
  38. T S Eli­ot, Selec­ted Essays, New York: Har­court, Brace and World, 1960, p 279.
  39. Accord­ing to Chris­toph­er Hill, in his appre­ci­ation of Mor­ton, ‘The People’s His­tor­i­an’, in A L Mor­ton, ibid, p 17.
  40. Blake, A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment, Erd­man, ibid, p 560.
  41. Ken­neth Rexroth, review of The Let­ters of Wil­li­am Blake (ed. Geof­frey Keynes), in The Nation, 2nd March 1957.