The Fly

Little fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thought­less hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

Wil­li­am Blake, The Fly, Songs of Exper­i­ence, 1794.
At the tele­vised Vice-Pres­id­en­tial debate last week with Kamala Har­ris, Mike Pence spec­tac­u­larly ignored the fly that came to rest very pub­licly on his head. This act of wil­ful ignor­ance crowned Pence’s role at the side of Don­ald Trump as ‘the man who pre­ten­ded not to notice’.

Mike Pence and flyThe kinds of things Pence has not noticed recently include the deaths of over 200,000 US cit­izens from Coronavir­us, the deten­tion and isol­a­tion of chil­dren at the Mex­ic­an bor­der, raging wild­fires con­sum­ing parts of the coun­try as a res­ult of glob­al warm­ing, and the pro­mo­tion of white nation­al­ist ter­ror­ism by his over­seer, Don­ald Trump – Pharaoh and Pres­id­ent of the United States of Amer­ica. And now, in an epic fit of sol­ipsism, Pence decided that per­haps if he ignored the fly, mil­lions of oth­ers, watch­ing on TV, would also ignore it and solike the fires, the detained chil­dren and coronavir­us patientsthe fly would become a non-issue.

With respect to glob­al warm­ing, his attempt to ignore the fly stands in for his ignor­ing nature gen­er­ally. But any­way, who cares about this fly? Well, Blake did.

“How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?”

In Blake’s ‘four-fold vis­ion’, we do not see with the senses but through them.  

I assert, for myself, that I do not behold the out­ward cre­ation, and that to me it is hindrance and not action. “What!” it will be ques­tioned, “when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire some­what like a guinea?” Oh! no, no! I see an innu­mer­able com­pany of the heav­enly host cry­ing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” I ques­tion not my cor­por­eal eye any more than I would ques­tion a win­dow con­cern­ing a sight. I look through it, and not with it.
Blake, A Vis­ion of the Last Judg­ment, c. 1810.     

But this expan­ded per­cep­tion is not a mat­ter of Blake adding an over­lay to what is giv­en by the senses. Blake did not think his vis­ion of the heav­enly host was a mere hal­lu­cin­a­tion, rel­ev­ant only to him­self. He saw through the senses, but what he saw on the oth­er side was real.    

In ‘The Fly’, Blake ima­gines someone thought­lessly brush­ing away a fly, killing it in the pro­cess. The fly has long been a sym­bol in art of imper­man­ence and mor­tal­ity. Its invoc­a­tion is inten­ded to encour­age humil­ity. Blake goes way bey­ond this, ask­ing wheth­er his fly is not “a man like me”, but it seems a rhet­or­ic­al ques­tion, and he wants us to accept pre­cisely that the fly is com­par­able to a man, and the man to a fly. The sim­il­ar­ity, ver­ging on iden­tity in the essen­tials, is because the fly too is a centre of exper­i­ence. The fly is at the centre of its own “immense world of delight”  

I was think­ing of this as I heard a man­age­ment con­sult­ant talk this morn­ing about what could be done to mit­ig­ate and com­bat cli­mate destruc­tion. Many of the ideas were rad­ic­al. But ulti­mately they moved in a circle, com­batting the abuses of world polit­ics with cor­rect­ive meas­ures dealt from the same hand. This not to say that such steps are not vitally neces­sary. These are the the steps Mike Pence should be tak­ing, but will not.   What is “closed to the senses five” is the inner life of things. And without see­ing that nature is alive we simply can­not defend it fully, but will con­tin­ue to see it only as food for Mam­mon. Blake offers a view of nature that is not only alive, but alive spe­cific­ally in the sense that it exper­i­ences.  

At a meet­ing last night, Mer­lin Sheldrake dis­cussed his research into the work­ing of under­ground fungal net­works (myceli­um) in trop­ic­al forests. He argued that  we need to aban­don the ‘biped­al nar­ciss­ism’ which ima­gines that only humans have reas­on, and expand our concept of intel­li­gence to include oth­er life.

But these days this ‘intel­li­gence’ has become a watered down concept, whereby any­thing that responds to its envir­on­ment can be defined as pos­sess­ing intel­li­gence on these func­tion­al grounds alone. The term has become a mod­esty concept that allows sci­ent­ists to recog­nise mind without acknow­ledging it.

What mater­i­al­ist thought will not (yet) accept is that there is an inner life cor­res­pond­ing to this intel­li­gence, and that nature, if it does not exactly reas­on, cer­tainly wills and exper­i­ences. There is some­thing that it is like to be a fly. And I dare say, there is some­thing that it is like to be a mycelium. 

Without such an aware­ness we can­not save ourselves, because we can­not save our rela­tion­ship to nature. Only this sense of a desir­ing, exper­i­en­cing, nature can let us treat the world with the respect it deserves as a home of beings that are our peers.

Wil­li­am Blake
’The Fly’ from Songs of Inno­cense and Experience
The Fly
Andy Wilson
’The Fly’, from The Bril­liant New Her­cules: A Blake Reader