John Higgs: WIlliam Blake vs the WorldJohn Higgs: Wil­li­am Blake vs the World
Weiden­feld & Nicolson, 2021
Hard­back: 400 pp

In Wil­li­am Blake vs the World we return to a world of riots, revolu­tions and rad­ic­als, dis­cuss move­ments from the Lev­el­lers of the six­teenth cen­tury to the psy­che­del­ic coun­ter­cul­ture of the 1960s, and explore the latest dis­cov­er­ies in neuro­bi­o­logy, quantum phys­ics and com­par­at­ive reli­gion. Tak­ing the read­er on wild detours into unfa­mil­i­ar ter­rit­ory, John Higgs places the bewil­der­ing eccent­ri­cit­ies of a most sin­gu­lar artist into context.

John Higg­s’s new book prom­ises a con­tem­por­ary take on the works of Wil­li­am Blake, mak­ing them rel­ev­ant to a mod­ern audi­ence gen­er­ally, and to the coun­ter­cul­ture in par­tic­u­lar. So, how well does it live up to its promise?

People and Scholars: Blake on the Highways and Byways

Hey Hell­bait, why are you wait­ing?
You got a gun — & there’s still stinkers liv­ing
give it to me straight, doc­tor
I can almost taste it
when you gonna show us your
Ken FoxThe Flowers of Rollex
William Blake

Wil­li­am Blake

Rarely has any artist gone from total obscur­ity to glob­al accept­ance as surely as Wil­li­am Blake—albeit that his tri­umph was some time com­ing. It is start­ling to think that the work many con­sider to be his greatest achieve­ment, Jer­u­s­alem, was prin­ted using an ori­gin­al meth­od of mass pro­duc­tion of Blake’s own design, yet sold as few as five cop­ies in his life­time. Blake’s books did­n’t need tech­niques of mass pro­duc­tion, since his read­ers were so few. His biggest suc­cess, Songs of Inno­cence and of Exper­i­ence, still sold less than thirty cop­ies. And yet, some­how, in the two cen­tur­ies since his death, Blake has acquired mass appeal. A small aca­dem­ic industry con­tin­ues to pub­lish theses and research papers ded­ic­ated to Blake, carving out new areas of research (recently: Queer Blake, ‘Sexy Blake’) while con­tinu­ing to mine older debates. In terms of Blake’s pop­u­lar recep­tion, books are reg­u­larly pro­duced that seek to bring him to a non-spe­cial­ist audi­ence, while the Tate Gal­lery exhib­i­tion of his work in 2019–2020 attrac­ted almost a quarter of a mil­lion vis­it­ors, prov­ing that such books have a ready audi­ence. John Higg­s’s new book, Wil­li­am Blake vs the World, was doubt­less ori­gin­ally pitched to be sold to this Tate audience.
Clearly, Blake has achieved some sort of broad accept­ance. For those such as myself, who believe he has some­thing vital and urgent to con­trib­ute, this is heart­en­ing. But a closer look reveals a more com­plic­ated pic­ture: while Blake has cer­tainly achieved accept­ance, it is not at all clear quite what it is about him that has been accepted.
Blake wrote dur­ing the dawn­ing of the mod­ern era, but did so from a point of view wholly oth­er than that of either the feud­al world that was then being over­thrown or the indus­tri­al soci­ety that was repla­cing it. Blake’s work embod­ies tra­di­tions of peas­ant and artis­an­al dis­sent that were sub­ter­ranean any­way through­out most of his­tory but had been almost com­pletely bur­ied by Blake’s time. His point of view was that of the enthu­si­ast­ic and inspired proph­et and preach­er, speak­ing not on the basis of the study of books alone, but primar­ily as one ‘pos­sessed by the spir­it’. As John Higgs puts it in his new book, Blake’s epic poems are “the work of someone in a dif­fer­ent state of con­scious­ness. [Their] com­pre­hens­ib­il­ity comes from [their] being writ­ten from the fourfold per­spect­ive of Etern­ity.“1 It is hard to exag­ger­ate the sheer oth­er­ness of Blake’s mind in full flow com­pared to the every­day con­scious­ness of the rest of us. As a res­ult, for most people, the mean­ing of Blake’s work is and was, as he him­self put it, “alto­geth­er hid­den from cor­por­eal under­stand­ing.“2

In Blake’s own time there were few bey­ond Blake him­self who could claim such a ‘cor­por­eal under­stand­ing’ of his work. This has changed in the inter­ven­ing years due to the efforts of Blake schol­ars such as Northrop Frye, G E Bent­ley, S Foster Damon, Har­old Bloom, and oth­ers,3 not to men­tion the con­tri­bu­tions of those such as Geof­frey Keynes who arranged the pub­lic­a­tion of fac­sim­iles of Blake’s work so it could be stud­ied by people way bey­ond the tiny circle of Blake’s ori­gin­al pat­rons and wealthy book col­lect­ors. Con­sequently, any­one pre­pared to put in the time can explore these works and achieve an under­stand­ing of the form of Blake’s myth, even if they do not exper­i­ence its vis­ion­ary insight as a res­ult. Here we can with some jus­ti­fic­a­tion speak of progress.

The situ­ation for non-expert and cas­u­al read­ers is dif­fer­ent. While our tech­nic­al under­stand­ing of Blake has pro­gressed, the pop­u­lar recep­tion of him is driv­en more power­fully by the tides of pub­lic opin­ion. In the absence of vis­ion­ary insight and enthusiasm—rarer today than in Blake’s time—the rad­ic­al oth­er­ness of Blake’s thought, and the tech­nic­al dif­fi­culties in under­stand­ing its sym­bol­ism, means there are often few points of ref­er­ence with which the non-expert can grasp his unique vis­ion. Often the read­er is forced back into rely­ing entirely on their exist­ing frame­work of under­stand­ing through which to read Blake. Thus, people end up find­ing in Blake only what they went look­ing for. As EP Thompson put it (quot­ing Northrop Frye, no doubt quot­ing someone else), they come to a pic­nic where Blake provides the words and they provide the meaning.
Higgs recounts the story of the neurosur­geon, Eben Alex­an­der III, who exper­i­enced a vis­ion­ary state while in a men­ingit­is-induced coma. On regain­ing nor­mal con­scious­ness he described the dif­fi­culty in relay­ing his exper­i­ence as akin to that of “a chim­pan­zee, becom­ing human for a single day to exper­i­ence all of the won­ders of human know­ledge, and then return­ing to one’s chimp friends and try­ing to tell them… [about] the cal­cu­lus and the immense scale of the uni­verse.“4 Because Blake’s work is in many ways a product of such vis­ion­ary states, pop­u­lar inter­pret­ers face an ana­log­ous prob­lem trans­lat­ing his ideas for a mass audi­ence. And yet it is this mass, pop­u­lar appro­pri­ation of Blake on which everything hinges: it is only if his ideas become embed­ded in pop­u­lar cul­ture that his vis­ions can have the impact he aspired to. Cer­tainly, they deserve to be enjoyed by more than just schol­ars, his­tor­i­ans and the enthu­si­asts of The Blake Soci­ety.

William Blake vs the World

Northrop Frye

In 2019 the writer John Higgs pub­lished a pamph­let, Wil­li­am Blake Now: Why He Mat­ters More Than Ever,5 which argued for Blake’s con­tin­ued rel­ev­ance. When it was announced that he would fol­low it up with a longer study of Blake, I was excited at the pro­spect of a book that, giv­en Higg­s’s back­ground, might help recon­nect Blake and the coun­ter­cul­ture. Oth­ers will have felt the same.
Higgs should be in a pos­i­tion to write such a book. His pre­vi­ous pub­lic­a­tions include a bio­graphy of the band The KLF, who are informed by the ideas of Dis­cor­d­i­an­ism and Chaos Magic; a bio­graphy of the acid pion­eer, high-priest of psy­che­delia, and guru of 60s coun­ter­cul­ture gen­er­ally, Timothy Leary; a mod­ish haunto­lo­gic­al account of Wat­ling Street, the ancient way built dur­ing the Roman occu­pa­tion of Bri­tain; and a his­tory of the 20th cen­tury described by the cult author and chaos magi­cian, Alan Moore, as an “illu­min­at­ing work of massive insight.“6

Higgs is described as a writer who “spe­cial­ises in find­ing pre­vi­ously unsus­pec­ted nar­rat­ives, hid­den in obscure corners of our his­tory and cul­ture, which can change the way we see the world“7. Here, clearly, is someone not con­strained by an aca­dem­ic straight­jack­et, someone who might have enough of the demot­ic, dis­sent­ing touch of Blake him­self to be able to relate Blake’s vis­ion to pop­u­lar con­cerns out­side aca­demia. For me, this made the pro­spect of read­ing the book excit­ing. The ques­tion I asked myself in the run-up to its publication—the ques­tion by which the book should be judged—is wheth­er Wil­li­am Blake vs the World would suc­ceed in show­ing what Blake has to offer the coun­ter­cul­ture to change and devel­op it, rather than simply claim­ing Blake for the coun­ter­cul­ture by map­ping him onto its exist­ing pre­oc­cu­pa­tions.

Hig­g’s book cer­tainly lives up to its prom­ise to move bey­ond the con­fines of aca­demia. As I’ll argue below, he is not afraid to pro­pose ori­gin­al inter­pret­a­tions of Blake that chal­lenge exist­ing ortho­dox­ies. He con­nects Blake with an extraordin­ar­ily broad range of oth­er­wise ostens­ibly very dif­fer­ent philo­sophies, dis­cip­lines and thinkers, includ­ing Lao Tzu, Ein­stein, Zen Buddhism, Dav­id Bowie, Tran­scend­ent­al Med­it­a­tion, Carl Jung, Eck­hardt Tolle and more. 
Con­versely, he devotes less time to mat­ters that have tra­di­tion­ally been vital to schol­ars study­ing Blake, such as the details of Blake’s Chris­ti­an faith, the pre­cise polit­ic­al con­text of his writ­ings in rela­tion to the Amer­ic­an and French Revolu­tions,8 and the his­tory of the dis­sent­ing cur­rents in the Eng­lish Civil War who com­bined polit­ics and reli­gion into a single apo­ca­lyptic out­look much as Blake did. This is per­haps to be expec­ted from a book that prom­ises to approach its sub­ject from a com­pletely new angle.

When it comes to Blake’s reli­gious views, Higgs goes as far as to ques­tion wheth­er Blake was a Chris­ti­an at all, which is at least as far as any­one else has gone pre­vi­ously regard­ing Blake’s het­ero­doxy.9 He won­ders if Blake might not actu­ally have been more of a Buddhist or a Daoist, or per­haps a pagan or athe­ist. Even­tu­ally, he cat­egor­ises Blake as a ‘Divine Human­ist’,10 on the grounds that “Divine Human­ism… sees human­ity as cent­ral in the con­cep­tion of the uni­verse… But it does not agree that this pos­i­tion leads to an athe­ist­ic, mater­i­al uni­verse… It declares that what exists in the mind is vital, and that ignor­ing or dis­miss­ing it is to fail to have a use­ful or truth­ful con­cep­tion of real­ity.“11 A more tra­di­tion­al approach might have recog­nised that, on the one hand, reg­u­lar Human­ism did not ‘ignore or dis­miss’ what went on in the human mind—far from it—but also that these beliefs are not at all incom­pat­ible with Chris­tian­ity. In fact, there has been a long his­tory with­in Chris­tian­ity of beliefs related to Blake’s, such as those of Jac­ob Böhme, Ori­gen and oth­ers. The tra­di­tion­al approach would have placed more emphas­is on the implic­a­tions of Blake’s belief in Christ as the Lamb of the Apo­ca­lypse in defin­ing his beliefs, which would put him at odds with Lao Tzu and the Buddha; and it would take into account Blake’s belief that the Bible is the worlds’ most power­ful work of the ima­gin­at­ive spir­it. It is always invig­or­at­ing to see someone step off the beaten track and adopt such an ori­gin­al approach, even though, in cases such as this, the inter­pret­a­tion is rather under­de­termined by the evid­ence, and not per­suas­ively argued for. Those dig­ging com­pletely new trenches don’t always dig very deep.

Higgs does­n’t hes­it­ate in attempt­ing to apply ideas from dis­cip­lines as widely sep­ar­ated as psy­cho­logy and neur­os­cience, quantum mech­an­ics, chaos the­ory and holo­graph­ics dir­ectly to Blake’s writ­ings, where per­haps a more con­ser­vat­ive author might have wor­ried about seem­ing ana­chron­ist­ic. Many will be impressed by the range and eccent­ri­city of Hig­g’s ref­er­ences: though of course, we must still ask wheth­er he’s put them to good use.

There are many use­ful dis­cus­sions of Blake’s work, his life and ideas in the book. The story of his struggles with cli­ents and pat­rons, and with the art world and its crit­ics, is well told, as is the tale of his rela­tion­ship to Sweden­borg, for example. Higg­s’s wide-ran­ging interests often pro­duce flashes of ori­gin­al insight as they col­lide with Blake’s world. He spots the deli­cious irony in the decision by the admin­is­trat­ors of St Paul’s cathed­ral to allow its fam­ous dome to be illu­min­ated for four nights from Blake’s birth­day on Nov 28th 2019 with an anim­ated ver­sion of one of Blake’s most fam­ous images, The Ancient of Days. The image depicts Urizen, one of the cent­ral char­ac­ters of Blake’s myth­o­logy. In Blake’s world, Urizen rep­res­ents, not God, but the Gnostic demi­urge who cre­ated our phys­ic­al world. Blake calls him “the mis­taken Demon of heav­en”,12 and later says out­right that “Satan is Urizen.“13 As Hicks notes “if any­one had approached the offi­cials of Saint Pauls to ask if they could pro­ject an image of Satan onto the dome, they surely would’ve said no.“14

The Ancient of Days pro­jec­ted on St Paul’s Dome (2019)
Pho­to­graph: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

Along­side lively flashes of insight, how­ever, there are also what I think are ser­i­ous mis­rep­res­ent­a­tions of Blake’s thought, the most import­ant of which are par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to Blake’s rela­tion­ship with the coun­ter­cul­ture. I will speak of these below. First I’ll take up two oth­er themes in the book which are worth spe­cial com­ment; first, regard­ing Blake’s men­tal health, and second, the man­ner of Higg­s’s approach to Blake, espe­cially his tend­ency to apply ideas from sci­ence and oth­er reli­gious and philo­soph­ic­al schools dir­ectly and uncrit­ic­ally to his subject.

Mental Health Issues

Geoffrey Keynes

Geof­frey Keynes

Blake’s men­tal health has long been a talk­ing point. In his own time, he was often judged to be mad, though rarely by those who knew him. Even then it was often unclear what was meant when he was described as such.15 Dif­fer­ent people had dif­fer­ent things in mind when describ­ing Blake this way. In Robert Hunt’s par­tic­u­larly offens­ive review of Blake’s 1809 solo exhib­i­tion, he attacks Blake in a man­ner meant to humi­li­ate him:

If… the sane part of the people of Eng­land required fresh proof of the alarm­ing increase of the effects of insan­ity, they will be too well con­vinced from it hav­ing lately spread into the hitherto sober region of Art… Such is the case with the pro­duc­tions and admirers of Wil­li­am Blake, an unfor­tu­nate lun­at­ic, whose per­son­al and offens­ive­ness secures him from con­fine­ment, and, con­sequently, of whom no pub­lic notice would’ve been taken.16

In this case, it is likely that Hunt con­sidered Blake’s great claims for his own art, which he com­pared to that of Raphael and Michaelan­gelo in his pro­spect­us for the exhib­i­tion,17 to be pre­sump­tu­ous com­ing from an artis­an, of low soci­ety, and he used the slur to put Blake firmly back in his place. Nev­er­the­less, it seems the idea that Blake was mad was already out there for Hunt to use against him. Such accus­a­tions of insan­ity were encour­aged by Blake’s undoubtedly eccent­ric beha­viour in speak­ing plainly among friends of his meet­ings and con­ver­sa­tions with spir­its, ghosts, and angels as blithely if he were recount­ing a chat with his barber.

Through the usu­al amp­li­fic­at­ory power of gos­sip, as it cir­cu­lates, the rumour that Blake might be delu­sion­al in see­ing such vis­ions could eas­ily turn into the con­vic­tion that he was def­in­itely mad. This idea could then take root as if it were a fact, as rumours do. It is not impossible that mat­ters were fur­ther exacer­bated by Blake’s occa­sion­al quer­ulous­ness and a tend­ency to speak more bluntly than was nor­mal in the polite soci­ety of the time, though his friends say that such dir­ect­ness was not Blake’s usu­al habit but some­thing he did only when he thought the occa­sion deman­ded it—i.e., that it was under his ration­al con­trol and not an afflic­tion that vis­ited him. This blunt­ness and iras­cib­il­ity alone could not them­selves have giv­en rise to the legend of Blake actu­ally being mad. At the root of that dia­gnos­is was the idea that Blake’s vis­ions were the hal­lu­cin­a­tions of someone with a men­tal disorder.

Against the back­ground of these accus­a­tions, it is worth not­ing that many who knew Blake per­son­ally and were aware of the talk of mad­ness were adam­ant that in his every­day demean­our and rela­tions with oth­ers Blake was not at all insane, but lucid and entirely ration­al: as Cor­neli­us Var­ley said, “there was noth­ing mad about him. People set down for mad any­thing dif­fer­ent from them­selves.“18. In his 1863 bio­graphy of Blake, Alex­an­der Gil­christ felt the need to address the issue head-on, devot­ing an entire chapter to the ques­tion. Obvi­ously, the rumour of Blake’s mad­ness was still in cir­cu­la­tion, or Gil­christ would not have felt the need to counter it. He meth­od­ic­ally details the many wit­nesses to Blake’s san­ity.19 

So, if Blake was sane in his day-to-day life, the ques­tion of wheth­er he was mad comes down solely to how you judge his vis­ions. If you regard them as delu­sion­al, the product of some sort of men­tal or neur­o­lo­gic­al dis­order, then you may find him mad; but if you see the vis­ions instead as Blake him­self under­stood them, as the res­ult of the exer­cise of proph­et­ic ima­gin­a­tion, you are likely to regard him instead as inspired. The major­ity of Blake schol­ars study him because they respect the coher­ence and integ­rity of his vis­ions. Con­sequently, they tend to see him as inspired rather than insane. They don’t deny how unusu­al and extraordin­ary his vis­ions were, but they either defend them out­right as the products of unsul­lied inspir­a­tion, or take the view that Blake’s sup­posed ‘mad­ness’ was really just the extraordin­ary form taken by his geni­us, such that, as Wordsworth said, “there is some­thing in the mad­ness of this man which interests me more than the san­ity of Lord Byron and Wal­ter Scott.”

In a lec­ture giv­en to the Ruskin Uni­on in 1907, ‘The San­ity of Wil­li­am Blake’,  Gre­ville Mac­Don­ald MD presen­ted the evid­ence and sum­mar­ised the case for Blake’s defend­ers. If his lan­guage seems now a little ana­chron­ist­ic, we could reply that so indeed are some of the attempts to dia­gnose Blake:

He was mad if we are to judge him by those many wise whose only idea of liv­ing in per­fect san­ity is to take in one another­’s wash­ing, and yet not wash it in pub­lic. He was mad if no man may see fur­ther than his neigh­bours without the sanc­tion of the Lun­acy Com­mis­sion; if no man has rights to proph­ecy; if none may use ter­rif­ic meta­phor without being accused of course real­ism; if none may call the dev­il black without being stig­mat­ised as small-minded; if none may light a candle without the sane world dis­put­ing his right to find a road through the dark­ness.20

Higgs takes a rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent approach to the ques­tion than his pre­de­cessors. First, he ignores the evid­ence provided by Gil­christ in order to claim instead that Blake “was gen­er­ally regarded as mad by those who knew him.“21 Not only is he happy to judge Blake mad over­all, but he reaches for the med­ic­al text­book whenev­er he wants to describe any unusu­al aspects of Blake’s vis­ions and his state of mind. This may be only anoth­er example of Higg­s’s enthu­si­asm for using sci­entif­ic ana­lys­is, which I dis­cuss below, but it leaves us with a dis­tor­ted view of Blake, without any bene­fits in terms of reveal­ing the nature of Blake’s unique mind or mak­ing it com­pre­hens­ible to those who are fas­cin­ated by it. To explain it in med­ic­al terms is to explain it in terms of what it had in com­mon, patho­lo­gic­ally, with oth­er minds, where­as what we actu­ally want to know is why it was so different.

As an instance of the author’s high-invest­ment, low-return patho­lo­gising tend­ency, he treats Blake’s ima­gin­a­tion as an expres­sion of the neur­o­lo­gic­al con­di­tion of hyper­phant­as­ia,22, claim­ing that “the case for Blake being hyper­phant­ast­ic is strong.“23 Nat­ur­ally there is actu­ally no way now to judge wheth­er Blake had an aut­ism-related con­di­tion such as hyper­phant­as­ia. As Higgs notes, hyper­phant­as­ia does not appear to cor­rel­ate with vis­ion­ary states,24 so one won­ders what is being explained by ascrib­ing it to Blake. And it is pure spec­u­la­tion to say that it is the some­times heightened empathy and anxi­ety exper­i­enced by those with hyper­phant­as­ia that under­pins Blake’s polit­ics and his right­eous anger.25 I prefer the explan­a­tion that Blake’s anger was caused by the con­di­tions in which some were forced to live in his day, rather than a pecu­li­ar neur­o­logy. There is also a hint in this argu­ment that people without such an abnor­mal neuro­physiolo­gic­al con­di­tion should prob­ably not nor­mally feel so strongly about the issues that agit­ated Blake, such as slavery and child labour.

At vari­ous points in the book, Higgs accuses Blake of being “bit­ter and deluded“26, “strange” and “dif­fi­cult“27, “blinded by para­noia and self-pity“28, of being a hypo­crite, and fail­ing “to prac­tice what he preached”,29. Taken on their own, some of these things are just quirks of char­ac­ter or ordin­ary mor­al fail­ings, but Higgs gath­ers them togeth­er to depict a Blake whose “men­tal health was in poor con­di­tion” at many points.30 While Higgs notes that “ret­ro­act­ive dia­gnos­is from his­tor­ic­al records is gen­er­ally prob­lem­at­ic”,31 that does­n’t pre­vent him not only from mak­ing judge­ments about the state of Blake’s men­tal health gen­er­ally, but in mak­ing spe­cif­ic diagnoses.

Blake in London and Felpham

In a let­ter to George Cum­ber­land in 1800, Blake described him­self as being “in a deep pit of mel­an­choly… without any real reas­on for it.“32 Two months later, he wrote to Cum­ber­land again, saying:

I have rent the black net & escap’d. See My Cot­tage at Felpham in joy
Beams over the sea a bright light over France, but the Web and the Veil I have left
Behind me at Lon­don res­ists every beam of light; hanging from heav­en to Earth
Drop­ping with Human gore. No! I have left it! I have torn it from my limbs
Blake, Let­ter to George Cum­ber­land (1800)
Higgs argues that Blake’s claim that Lon­don was then ‘Drop­ping with human gore’ “gives an insight into the depres­sion Blake was suf­fer­ing.“34 He does not seem to notice that the com­par­is­on being made here is between the “light over France” com­pared to a Lon­don which “res­ists every beam of light”. Ref­er­ences to gore recur through­out Blake’s poetry, almost invari­ably in asso­ci­ation with war and its Druidic­al sac­ri­fices. In oth­er words, Blake is com­par­ing polit­ic­al con­di­tions in France and Eng­land. The ‘gore’ then is an expres­sion of the polit­ic­al reac­tion grip­ping in Lon­don in response to events in France, with reac­tion mount­ing as the gov­ern­ment pre­pared for war. This ‘gore’ was no doubt deeply depress­ing, but such depres­sion is neither neces­sar­ily unusu­al, exag­ger­ated or patho­lo­gic­al. Higgs goes on to men­tion a let­ter Blake wrote to Thomas Butts a month later, detail­ing an intense vis­ion he had on the beach at Felpham:
My eyes more & more
Like a Sea without shore
Con­tin­ue expand­ing
The Heav­ens com­mand­ing
Till the Jew­els of Light
Hevenly Men beam­ing bright
Appeared as One Man
Blake, Let­ter to Thomas Butts (1800)

Com­par­ing the mel­an­choly Blake felt in Lon­don with the beatif­ic nature of this vis­ion only three months later in Felpham, Higgs decides that these “would now be thought of as bipolar and man­ic-depress­ive symp­toms.“36 This is quite a leap to make, giv­en not only that Blake had per­fectly good reas­ons to feel mel­an­chol­ic in Lon­don, due not only to the polit­ic­al situ­ation but also because his engrav­ing com­mis­sions were few and far between, and he was suf­fer­ing fin­an­cially as a res­ult. Blake wor­ried about how he was to sup­port him­self and Cath­er­ine. His pat­ron, Wil­li­am Hay­ley, aware of this, had arranged for Blake to rent the cot­tage in Felpham and also to give him reg­u­lar engrav­ing work to help sup­port him. Is it any won­der that Blake’s spir­its lif­ted after the move to Felpham, which took place between the mel­an­choly of July and the enthu­si­asm of Octo­ber? To put this down to a bipolar dis­order without fur­ther evid­ence seems, at the very min­im­um, rash.

A few years after this, Blake’s con­front­a­tion with a sol­dier in the garden of his Felpham cot­tage led him to be charged with sedi­tion, as the sol­dier claimed that, in the course of evict­ing him from the garden, Blake had ‘Damn’d’ the King and expressed sup­port for Napo­leon. Sedi­tion was then a cap­it­al offence, and although Blake was even­tu­ally acquit­ted, one can ima­gine the strain he was under dur­ing the six months until his acquit­tal. Sub­sequently, Blake often spec­u­lated that he was con­spired against on account of his polit­ic­al views, with known and unknown per­sons work­ing toward his down­fall. Some­times he sus­pec­ted friends and acquaint­ances of being caught up in such plots.

Higgs treats this as evid­ence that Blake was clin­ic­ally para­noid, but that is to com­pletely ignore the extent to which rad­ic­als of the time were per­se­cuted by both offi­cial and unof­fi­cial agen­cies. Many were run out of their jobs; oth­ers were run out of their homes as they were burned to the ground by mobs;37 some, like Tom Paine, had to flee the country—Blake is reputed to have been the per­son who warned Paine of the danger he faced and encour­aged him on his way to safety. Blake him­self had earli­er been ques­tioned at one point as a French spy, just as Col­eridge and his friends were spied on in turn by Brit­ish agents as they went hik­ing around the Quan­tock coun­tryside. The Defence of the Realm Act of 1798 leg­al­ised the form­a­tion of loy­al asso­ci­ations of armed pat­ri­ots, pre­cisely for the pur­poses of quelling rad­ic­als at home.38 So, while Blake may well have been wrong in his par­tic­u­lar sus­pi­cions about the con­spir­acies against him, he was per­fectly jus­ti­fied in his fears gen­er­ally: as they say, you’re not para­noid if they really are out to get you. In his lack of under­stand­ing of the patho­lo­gic­al nature of Brit­ish polit­ics at the time of the French Revolu­tion and Napo­leon­ic Wars, Higgs ignores Blake’s reas­on­able grounds for sus­pi­cion and chooses to patho­lo­gise him instead.

Blake and Hayley, Conspiracies and Air Looms

This patho­lo­gising of Blake reaches a peak in the chapter Higgs devotes to Blake’s men­tal health, ‘When I speak I offend’.39 This is a curi­ous piece of writ­ing because it does not focus on the evid­ence for or against Blake’s men­tal health—probably because there is actu­ally so little of such evid­ence, as opposed to gos­sip and innuendo—but talks in rather gen­er­al terms about the treat­ment of men­tal health at the time. The mad­ness of George II, and the polit­ic­al crisis it caused, is dis­cussed. Higgs rightly points out that “Nowadays we avoid derog­at­ory and unspe­cif­ic terms like ‘mad’ or ‘mad­house’ ”40, although he says this only a few sen­tences after call­ing George II a “bab­bling, straight-jack­eted lun­at­ic”.41 Some­thing of the his­tory of the treat­ment of men­tal dis­orders at Bed­lam is relayed, with an account of how inmates were seen as enter­tain­ment for curi­ous vis­it­ors on open days.

There are then almost four pages devoted to the story of James Tilly Mat­thews, who Higgs describes as the first per­son ever to have been iden­ti­fied as a para­noid schizo­phren­ic. He tells of how Mat­thews was arres­ted after denoun­cing Lord Liv­er­pool as a trait­or from the Vis­it­ors Gal­lery at West­min­ster. Under invest­ig­a­tion, Mat­thews said his mind was con­trolled by a com­plex machine, an ‘air loom’, bur­ied secretly some­where in Lon­don. Powered by wind­mill sails, which ‘wove the air’ like a loom in order to trans­mit mes­sages to Mat­thews wherever he was, con­trolling his thought and actions.42 Along with the story of the air loom, Mat­thews also told of clandes­tine circles of con­spir­at­ors oper­at­ing at home and abroad, and of his secret assig­na­tions in France to try to engin­eer peace between France and Bri­tain. One of the most sur­pris­ing things about the Mat­thews case is that, while the air loom was a clas­sic ‘influ­en­cing machine’ that mani­fests in some extreme states of para­noia, many of his stor­ies about his invovle­ment with spys and under­ground con­spir­at­ors turned out to be true.

James Tilly Mat­thews’s ‘Air-loom’ (detail)
Early 19th cen­tury. Cour­tesy Lib­rary of the Col­lege of Phys­i­cians of Philadelphia

Hav­ing told the story of Mat­thews at some length, Higgs turns his atten­tion back to Blake again, arguing that Blake’s account of his ant­ag­on­ist­ic rela­tions with Hay­ley in the ‘Bards’ Song’ sec­tion of Milton is proof of his para­noia, as well as a “deeply egot­ist­ic­al side to Blake which is at odds with the rest of his philo­sophy”.43 In this inter­pret­a­tion, Blake was not offen­ded because Hay­ley gave him inap­pro­pri­ate work and did not appre­ci­ate his geni­us and use it appro­pri­ately, but rather because of Blake’s “fear that Hay­ley [would] take [his] spe­cial gift away from him“44 and replace him as a Proph­et. Thus, Blake was simply refus­ing to share his gifts with Hay­ley, such that, for Blake, “Divine inspir­a­tion has now become a jeal­ously guarded prize which Hay­ley must nev­er have…45

It is dif­fi­cult to know what to make of this argu­ment, which plays hav­oc with what we know of the Blake-Hay­ley rela­tion­ship. Hay­ley clearly sought genu­inely to befriend and sup­port Blake, and did noth­ing delib­er­ately to offend him. He was par­tic­u­larly loy­al in his sup­port dur­ing his sedi­tion tri­al, provid­ing the fin­an­cial and leg­al aid Blake needed in order to get aquit­ted. But it is equally cer­tain that Hay­ley uncon­sciously pat­ron­ised Blake, and did not use his tal­ent appro­pri­ately, caus­ing him to waste time and effort, and frus­trat­ing him in what he con­sidered to be his life’s work.

Blake real­ised that, if he wanted to pro­duce the epic works he aspired to, he needed to break with Hay­ley, irre­spect­ive of the dis­rup­tion to his life­style and the fin­an­cial cost. Such a break would involve him giv­ing up the sea­side cot­tage that had made him so happy when he moved into it only a few years earli­er, to return to dirty, foggy Lon­don, full of spies and intrigues. It would mean los­ing a steady source of income. The pro­spect of cut­ting him­self off from his main pat­ron was a high-stake game for Blake. He had much to lose. He struggled with him­self but even­tu­ally decided he must fol­low his muse.

His account of that struggle in The Bard’s Song is both mov­ing and richly express­ive of the con­flicts involved. It is not a one-sided cri­ti­cism of Hay­ley either, as it grapples with Hay­ley’s uncon­scious motiv­a­tions with an aim to under­stand­ing him and pos­sibly achieve some recon­cili­ation. In retell­ing the story of the con­flict, Blake also deals with his own fail­ings, and with his own ‘spectre’ in the form of his self-doubt. He later depicts this in Jer­u­s­alem, when the Poet Los, at the fur­naces of inspir­a­tion and proph­esy, con­fronts the Spectre of Urthona (Urthona being the form of Los in etern­ity). His decision to break with Hay­ley and leave is what even­tu­ally gave us Milton and Jer­u­s­alem, the cul­min­at­ing works of the hero­ic peri­od of his art.

Los and the Spectre of Urthona

Los con­fronts the Spectre of Urthona
Blake, Jer­u­s­alem pl6. Cour­tesy of The Blake Archive

Higgs has not fin­ished though. I’d wondered while read­ing it why he spent so much time telling the story of James Mat­thews. The answer came in the con­clu­sion of this ana­lys­is of Blake’s mad­ness, where he declares that Blake’s mind was in fact rather like that of Mat­thews, the para­noid schizophrenic—incapable of deal­ing with the com­plex­ity of the mod­ern world and instead retreat­ing into fantasy:

Like James Tilly Mat­thews, Blake found that retreat­ing into warm delu­sion worked as a pro­tec­tion from a cold, indif­fer­ent world. Without his new nar­rat­ive, Blake would have no altern­at­ive but to face up to a deeply uncom­fort­able scen­ario. In this, he was gen­er­ally regarded as mad by those who knew him, this mad­ness was what made his work unap­peal­ing to the mar­ket, des­pite his obvi­ous tal­ents, and Hay­ley’s pat­ron­ship was essen­tially char­ity, offered to a man who was judged unable to earn money or sup­port his wife. It is under­stand­able, per­haps, that Blake would use his ima­gin­a­tion to come up with a far grander a more flat­ter­ing story.46

As with oth­er aspects of Higg­s’s account of Blake, you can­’t accuse him of lack­ing ori­gin­al­ity. But there is a price to be paid for cre­at­ing this sen­sa­tion­al­ist and dis­tor­ted nar­rat­ive. Instead of recount­ing the struggles of the artist and proph­et to record and com­mu­nic­ate his vis­ion, his dif­fi­culties in earn­ing a liv­ing to sup­port him in his work, the prob­lems this cre­ated in terms of his con­flic­ted rela­tions with his pat­rons and sup­port­ers, and his reac­tions to the polit­ic­al storms raging around him, what we are offered instead is a much less inter­est­ing, though very mod­ern account of neur­os­is and jeal­ousy; an account of how Blake lacked the simple gen­er­os­ity of spir­it to recog­nise his own lim­it­a­tions, of how he needed to acknow­ledge the feel­ings and gifts of oth­ers, and sim­il­ar nos­trums of the mind­ful­ness industry.

This tep­id long-dis­tance rela­tion­ship coun­selling is then spiced up by a sen­sa­tion­al­ised account of a bipolar, depress­ive, bor­der­line para­noid schizo­phren­ic con­jur­ing up his own occult myth­o­logy as an attempt at self-help. To round it off, the close of the book offers a happy end­ing in which Blake finds peace and heals him­self, becom­ing hap­pi­er in old age by learn­ing to bal­ance the vari­ous ‘men­tal ener­gies’ rep­res­en­ted by his fig­ures of Urizen, Tharmas, Luvah and Urthona: “after labour­ing for dec­ades on a myth about the rebal­an­cing of the mind, Blake had made peace with his own Demons. It was as if he had writ­ten him­self into har­mony.“47 Higgs even com­ments on “the spir­itu­al nature of surf­ing” in help­ing one check the overly-ration­al­ist mind.48 Maybe that is what Blake was up to on the beach at Felpham when he had his vis­ion there.

The prob­lem in this telling is not merely the hubris involved in dia­gnos­ing the long-depar­ted on the basis of bar­rack-room psy­cho­logy, or the homepath­ic dilu­tion of the dynam­ics of Blake’s Zoas into a well­ness-clin­ic tale of bal­anced men­tal ener­gies, but also that by depict­ing Blake as a ‘crazy’ Higgs treats him as a case study, rather than an indi­vidu­al, and robs him belatedly of his sub­jectiv­ity. In Blake’s case this means divert­ing atten­tion from the sub­jectiv­ity of a man whose greatest interest to us should be pre­cisely that unique sub­jectiv­ity in full flight. Rather than explain Blake, it explains him away.

Sweeping Through the Market of Ideas

Resemb­lance does not make things as much alike as dif­fer­ence makes them unalike
Mon­taigne, Of Exper­i­ence

James Joyce

James Joyce

It is a key selling point for this book that the author comes to Blake with a dif­fer­ent set of skills and exper­i­ences to those of the usu­al Blake schol­ar. Those tra­di­tion­al skills would include a know­ledge of Scrip­ture; aware­ness of the tra­di­tion of Chris­ti­an epic, and the works of Dante and Milton in par­tic­u­lar; an under­stand­ing of the dis­sent­ing cul­ture that gave rise to Blake, includ­ing the Sweden­bor­gi­ans, the Moravi­ans and oth­ers; and finally, know­ledge of the polit­ic­al envir­on­ment to which Blake respon­ded, includ­ing Brit­ish his­tory since the Civil War, and the Amer­ic­an and French Revolu­tions. Some people bring know­ledge of more focussed issues rel­ev­ant to Blake, such as gender polit­ics, slavery and the abol­i­tion­ist move­ment, Neo­pla­ton­ism and gnosti­cism, and so on.

Higgs comes at Blake from a dif­fer­ent angle. His press release men­tions his interest in “the latest dis­cov­er­ies in neuro­bi­o­logy, quantum phys­ics and com­par­at­ive reli­gion”, and prom­ises to take the read­er on “wild detours into unfa­mil­i­ar ter­rit­ory.“49 Such a broad range of per­spect­ives prom­ises to open up new vis­tas on Blake for the read­er. In prac­tice, I found that these per­spect­ives were not that unfa­mil­i­ar in them­selves, being rather the stand­ard fare of coun­ter­cul­tur­al banter. Far from being the latest dis­cov­er­ies in the field, the ideas on offer are mostly reas­on­ably well known, even if some are still only hypotheses.

My own interests prob­ably have as much in com­mon with Higg­s’s as they do with Blake schol­ars, and I’m as enthu­si­ast­ic about late-night stoner meta­phys­ic­al debate as the next per­son. I think it right and prop­er that we apply the broad­est range of our under­stand­ing to Blake, mak­ing con­nec­tions far and wide. The implic­a­tions of Blake’s thought are far-reach­ing, so it is not sur­pris­ing that we should be able to con­nect it with a wide range of per­spect­ives. I have no objec­tion to any of this. My prob­lem is with the occa­sion­ally clumsy man­ner in which this know­ledge is applied.

Tom Dacre’s States of Innocence and Experience

Before get­ting to some of the unusu­al ideas Higgs brings to bear, let’s talk about his under­stand­ing of Blake’s poetry itself. For a book about Blake, there is rel­at­ively little dis­cus­sion of the poetry, oth­er than the ana­lys­is of Blake’s men­tal health in the ‘Bard’s Song’, men­tioned above, and scattered quotes from Blake’s best known works, such as the hymn Jer­u­s­alem (ie. not the epic poem of the same name, but the lyr­ic in the intro­duc­tion to Milton, turned by Sir Hubert Parry into the hymn that is now sung as an unof­fi­cial Nation­al Anthem at sport­ing events and the Proms, stir­ring pat­ri­ot­ic sen­ti­ments that would have been abhor­rent to Blake himself). 

When Higgs engages with Songs of Inno­cence and of Exper­i­ence he comes ser­i­ously unstuck, naively assum­ing that when the char­ac­ters in the Songs speak, they are express­ing Blake’s own views. This can be a trap when read­ing any fic­tion, but it is an espe­cially griev­ous mis­take when read­ing Songs of Inno­cence and of Exper­i­ence. As D G Gill­ham put it in his study of the Songs:

In lyr­ic­al poetry, it is true, we may very often take the sen­ti­ments offered as being the poet’s very own, but this is not always so. In the Songs this decidedly can­not be the case, cer­tainly not always—there is too marked a diversity in the atti­tudes presen­ted. One would expect the read­er of the Songs, on mak­ing this dis­cov­ery, to take all the poems with some cau­tion; to won­der, when read­ing every one of them, if Blake is speak­ing in his own voice, or if he is present­ing a pos­sible atti­tude for our inspec­tion. The out­come of such an exam­in­a­tion should be the real­iz­a­tion that none of the Songs can be taken simply as a dir­ect per­son­al utter­ance. Inno­cence is not self-aware in a way that allows it to describe itself, and the poet must stand out­side the state. From the mock­ing tone of many of the Songs of Exper­i­ence it is clear that the poet does not suf­fer from the delu­sions he asso­ci­ates with that con­di­tion. Again, the poet stands bey­ond the state depic­ted. Blake, in short, is detached from the con­di­tions of aware­ness imposed on the speak­ers of his poems.50

Tom Dacre the Sweep
Blake, Songs of Exper­i­ence, Cour­tesy The Blake Archive

Higgs dives head­long into this trap when dis­cuss­ing ‘The Chim­ney Sweep­er’ from Songs of Inno­cence. The poem describes the des­per­ate situ­ation of boys sold by their impov­er­ished fam­il­ies into life as a sweep. Many such boys suffered death, deform­ity and disease—blindness and testic­u­lar can­cer in particular—from the cramped and dirty cir­cum­stances of their work. In Blake’s poem, the young sweep Tom Dacre has a ter­ri­fy­ing vis­ion in which he him­self along with “thou­sands of sweep­ers Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack / Were all of them lock­’d up in coffins of black,51 the coffins of the dream being the very chim­neys they sweep dur­ing the day. In Tom’s dream, an Angel appears and unlocks the coffins, free­ing the boys;

And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his fath­er & nev­er want joy.
And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho’ the morn­ing was cold, Tom was happy & warm,
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
Blake, The Chim­ney Sweep, Songs of Inno­cence

Many read­ers will find the last line chilling: “if all do their duty, they need fear no harm.” It embod­ies the point of view of innocence—its faith that, in the final reck­on­ing, God will look after the sweeps if they are obed­i­ent (mean­ing, if they keep climb­ing up the chim­neys that are killing them)—whereas the read­er under­stands the real situ­ation of the young sweeps of Lon­don, and how very little chance they have of escap­ing their fate. Blake sets the image of the child’s inno­cent belief against the (implied) back­ground of cruel real­ity. The effect is both to share the sense of inno­cence and shock the read­er, whose heart goes out to the orphan, Tom. It is like that moment in a hor­ror film, where the char­ac­ters are wan­der­ing care­lessly around an aban­doned house, unaware of what you, the view­er, can plainly see: the killer in the shadows.

Higgs offers a very dif­fer­ent read­ing of the poem, arguing that it is not Tom the sweep who is inno­cent and naive, but Wil­li­am Blake:

This last line was in keep­ing with a gen­er­al theme in Songs of Inno­cence, the idea that a lov­ing paternal God would pro­tect all who were good. This was both naive and untrue, as the real­ity of child sweeps lives demon­strated. When Blake came to write a com­pan­ion verse for Songs of Exper­i­ence five years later, he had clearly real­ised his mis­take.53

Higgs is refer­ring here to Blake’s later poem about the sweeps. Between the poems in Songs of Inno­cence and the later Songs of Exper­i­ence there is much doub­ling and mir­ror­ing of themes, with­in each col­lec­tion and between them, and even between dif­fer­ent prin­ted ver­sions of the same poem. A num­ber of the poems in one col­lec­tion have a cor­res­pond­ing ‘reply’ in the oth­er. For example, there are songs in both col­lec­tions called ‘The Little Boy Lost, and ‘The Little Boy Found’; ‘Infant Joy’ in Songs of Inno­cence, is met with an answer­ing ‘Infant Sor­row’ in Songs of Exper­i­ence; ‘The Lamb’ in Songs on Inno­cence is mirrored by ‘The Tyger’ in the later work. Des­pite the sur­face sim­pli­city of the poems, the effect is some­thing of a hall of mir­rors. And there is a poem ‘The Chim­ney Sweep’ in Songs of Exper­i­ence, with a very dif­fer­ent atti­tude to the situ­ation of the sweeps to that of Songs of Inno­cence:
Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the win­ter­’s snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heav­en of our misery.

Blake, The Chim­ney Sweep, Songs of Exper­i­ence54

This is the voice of exper­i­ence. Blake’s con­trast­ing poems of inno­cence and exper­i­ence are not polit­ic­al tracts out­lining the points of view of Blake at dif­fer­ent times. They are poems that reflect con­trary states of the soul, the states of inno­cence and exper­i­ence, so that those states can be recalled and thought of. Higgs, on the oth­er hand, invites us to take the unlikely pos­i­tion that the young­er Blake had naive views about polit­ics, and even knew them to be so when he pub­lished them as poems, advert­ising his own naiv­ety by call­ing them Songs of Inno­cence. Then at some point, he wised up polit­ic­ally to real­ise that the situ­ation of Lon­don’s sweeps was per­haps not so great after all, and wrote a new poem to record his new views, as a “later cor­rect­ive to the naiv­ety of the ori­gin­al.“55

This is a flimsy read­ing. It should go without say­ing that there is no reas­on to think that Blake, a man who wore the red ‘cap of liberty’ in sym­pathy with the French Revolu­tion, ever believed that the sweeps would be looked after by God’s provid­ence, as opposed to polit­ic­al action. He would have been aware of the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the Child Labour Act of 1789, a rad­ic­al bill that was diluted in the House of Lords to allow chil­dren as young as eight to con­tin­ue to work as sweeps. To be fair, in line with Higg­s’s gen­er­al under­stand­ing of Blake’s con­trar­ies (the con­text in which Higgs dis­cusses the poem), he does not see it exactly as a mat­ter of repla­cing one view with anoth­er, or of describ­ing poet­ic­ally dif­fer­ent states of being, but of hav­ing two con­flict­ing views which are some­how both right. How­ever, that simply reflects yet anoth­er way in which he has mis­un­der­stood Blake, which I dis­cuss below.

Such a super­fi­cial view of Blake’s poetry will get no one very far in under­stand­ing Blake. Blake is import­ant to us primar­ily not as a the­or­et­ic­al philo­soph­er or a polit­ic­al the­or­ist, but as an artist and poet. To fail to under­stand how to read lyr­ic poetry in a book about Blake is to leave one­self unable to explain what he was about.

The Dancing Woo

A dif­fer­ent kind of prob­lem char­ac­ter­ises Higg­s’s attempts to explain Blake’s work by import­ing ideas from phys­ics, neur­os­cience and vari­ous non-West­ern forms of spir­itu­al­ity. Giv­en that the selling point of the book is that these per­spect­ives are going to be used for the first time to illu­min­ate Blake, this is dis­ap­point­ing. Higgs is far from alone in this, with the tend­ency among New Age authors being to con­flate spir­itu­al, psy­cho­lo­gic­al and phys­ic­al con­cepts on the basis of appar­ent sim­il­ar­it­ies, to argue that they are say­ing the same thing, turn­ing what are some­times sug­gest­ive cor­res­pond­ences into much bolder asser­tions of pre­ced­ence and mys­tic­al foresight. 

Dan­cing Wu Li Mas­ters
Data mod­elled for the Com­pact Muon Solen­oid detect­or on the Large Had­ron Col­lider (LHC) at CERN

For example, hav­ing out­lined Blake’s idea of the realm of Beu­lah as a place where con­trar­ies coex­ist, out of which Urizen cre­ates the gen­er­ated world, and men­tion­ing anoth­er of Blake’s realms, Udan-Adan (which S Foster Damon sum­mar­ises as “a con­di­tion of form­less­ness, of the indef­in­ite”),56, Higgs says that these both resemble the realm of quantum mechanics:

If we are look­ing for a mod­ern, sci­entif­ic concept we can equate with the unin­formed void bey­ond our mater­i­al uni­verse, out of which Urizen cre­ates the world through an act of intel­lec­tu­al reas­on, then the quantum realm is an obvi­ous can­did­ate.57

But arguing on the basis of vague resemb­lances con­fuses more than it explains. For example, while both Beu­lah and the quantum realm can be said to be inde­term­in­ate, it makes no sense to ima­gine that the quantum realm, like Beu­lah, might con­tain con­trari­et­ies such as energy and reas­on, and love and hate. Arguing for a sim­il­ar­ity between Beu­lah and the uncon­scious is highly sug­gest­ive. Arguing that Beu­lah and the quantum realm are the same is a step too far.

Pri­or to the wave func­tion col­lapse, the quantum state does not con­tain all the con­trar­ies exist­ing togeth­er in a non-ant­ag­on­ist­ic har­mony. It con­tains poten­tial, but the poten­tial is not actu­al­ised. Neither is the quantum realm really as non-ration­al as Higgs ima­gines. It’s true that until its wave func­tion col­lapses a quantum sys­tem can­’t be said to be in any par­tic­u­lar state. But the pos­sible out­comes are con­strained prob­ab­il­ist­ic­ally. Any­one famil­i­ar with the math­em­at­ics describ­ing the wave func­tion would prob­ably not describe it as embody­ing a purely chaot­ic state of exist­ence. Des­pite cos­met­ic sim­il­ar­it­ies between Beu­lah and the quantum realm, we are talk­ing about dif­fer­ent things, and it is not clear what the advant­age is in pre­tend­ing otherwise.

Higgs makes the famil­i­ar New Age ges­ture of run­ning togeth­er con­tem­por­ary phys­ics with non-West­ern reli­gions such as Buddhism, Tao­ism and Hinduism, and then adds Blake to the list:

Many mys­tics and reli­gions over the cen­tur­ies have talked about a fun­da­ment­al void sim­il­ar to the one described by Blake. It has been giv­en vari­ous names, such as Brah­man or the Dao. Blake gave this ocean of form­less poten­tial the name Udan-Adan. He repeatedly refers to it as being found at a scale too small for nor­mal human per­cep­tion, which fur­ther sup­ports the asso­ci­ation with the quantum realm.58

This rop­ing togeth­er of quantum mech­an­ics, Blake, Hinduism and Tao­ism can only be made to work by ignor­ing the many dif­fer­ent schools with­in these lat­ter tra­di­tions, and treat­ing them as mono­lith­ic, where­as they are in fact as rich and var­ied as the West­ern tra­di­tions to which they are so often contrasted.

For example, Higgs describes the philo­sophy of the Ved­anta, under­ly­ing Hinduism, as ‘neut­ral mon­ist’, on the grounds that the Vedas talk of the iden­tity of the Brah­man and the Atman,59 where­as in real­ity there are many, con­flict­ing, philo­soph­ic­al schools with­in Hindu tra­di­tion, from the mater­i­al­ism of Char­vaka through to the dual­ism of Dvaita, and many points in between. Higgs does speak of dif­fer­ent schools with­in Ved­ic cul­ture, but, hav­ing found the school that agrees with his line of thought, he tends to take it as rep­res­ent­at­ive of how the tra­di­tion gen­er­ally views a par­tic­u­lar ques­tion. Find­ing cor­res­pond­ences between reli­gions is a noble pur­suit, provid­ing an import­ant coun­ter­weight to sec­tari­an­ism. In the words of one of his earli­est illu­min­ated pub­lic­a­tions, Blake believed that ‘All Reli­gions are One’, because he saw they were all expres­sions of the same divine ima­gin­a­tion.60 But we can­not estab­lish this unity by ignor­ing the unique details of each reli­gion, and cer­tainly not by con­fus­ing them all with physics.

Sim­il­ar con­sid­er­a­tions hold for Buddhism. Ever since the pub­lic­a­tion of the books, The Tao of Phys­ics (1975) and The Dan­cing Wu Li Mas­ters (1979)61 it has been com­mon for New Age authors to see Buddhism and Hinduism as anti­cip­at­ing the find­ings of mod­ern phys­ics. There is no harm in mak­ing comparisons—philosophically rich tra­di­tions such as these may well be sug­gest­ive in help­ing us think about sci­entif­ic dis­cov­er­ies that often defy com­mon sense—but the sim­il­ar­it­ies are often exag­ger­ated, and the inter­pret­a­tion of the tra­di­tions is retro-fit­ted to make the com­par­is­on work. 

As Don­ald Lopez argues, the case for see­ing Buddhism as anti­cip­at­ing mod­ern sci­ence depends very much on which Buddhist school you favour (Mahay­ana, Theravada, Tibetan, Zen, etc.), and which sci­ence you try to com­pare it with.62 Par­tis­ans of Buddhism have long argued that it is some­how in closer accord with sci­ence than oth­er reli­gions, and have tried to prove it by com­par­ing aspects of Buddhism with cur­rent find­ings in sci­ence. These claims have their ori­gins in the his­tory of imper­i­al­ism, as Buddhists found them­selves defend­ing their reli­gion against the cri­ti­cisms of Chris­ti­an mis­sion­ar­ies by arguing that it was in fact not a reli­gion per se but some­thing more akin to sci­ence.63 In 1937, T’ai-hsü, the ‘Lead­er of the Chinese Buddhists’, wrote a per­son­al let­ter to Hitler recom­mend­ing Buddhism as a doc­trine fully in line with Nazi race sci­ence.64 Less polit­ic­ally con­tro­ver­sial, before the rise of relativ­ity and quantum mech­an­ics, it was argued by Buddhists that their sci­ence of psy­cho­logy, out­lined as early as the 3rd cen­tury CE in the Abhid­hamma Piṭaka, was com­pletely in har­mony with mod­ern sci­ence because it offered a rigidly determ­in­ist­ic mod­el of the human mind, uncan­nily sim­il­ar to the atom­ist­ic view of West­ern sci­ence, with psych­ic ‘citta’ repla­cing atoms, and with sim­il­arly inflex­ible laws gov­ern­ing their inter­ac­tion. In the attempts to align Buddhism and sci­ence, both sides of the equa­tion are mov­ing targets.

Some­times, sus­tain­ing these argu­ments requires some not-so-subtle sleight of hand. For instance, Higgs men­tions Blake’s claim that:

every Space smal­ler than a Glob­ule of Man’s blood. Opens into etern­ity of which this veget­able Earth is but a shad­ow65

He argues that “this is anoth­er of Blake’s ideas that can also be found in Tao­ism,“66 and to prove it, he quotes Verse 32 of the Tao Te Ching:

The Tao can­’t be per­ceived.
Smal­ler than an elec­tron,
It con­tains uncount­able galax­ies.

If the Tao Te Ching did say such a thing it would be remark­able, as it would show that know­ledge of elec­trons exis­ted in 6th cen­tury BCE China, revolu­tion­ising our know­ledge of the his­tory of sci­ence. And that is before you get to the mys­tery of how Lao Tsu came to hold a view of the unreal­ity of space that was not for­mu­lated again until the late 20th cen­tury. But, of course, the Tao Te Ching says no such thing, and the use of terms like ‘elec­tron’ and ‘galax­ies’ is merely an exer­cise in poet­ic license by the trans­lat­or, Steph­en Mitchell. Still, you may think, per­haps the ori­gin­al verse, des­pite not using mod­ern vocab­u­lary, nev­er­the­less expresses the same idea; that tiny volumes of space can con­tain immens­it­ies. A look at some altern­at­ive trans­la­tions sug­gests otherwise.

Tao remains ever name­less.
How­ever insig­ni­fic­ant may be the sim­pli­city of those who cul­tiv­ate it
The Empire does not pre­sume to claim their ser­vices as Min­is­ters.
Fre­der­ic H. Balfour, 1884
The Tao, con­sidered as unchan­ging, has no name.
Though in its prim­or­di­al sim­pli­city it may be small, the whole world dares not deal with one embody­ing it as a min­is­ter.
James Legge, 1891
Tao the abso­lute has no name.
But although insig­ni­fic­ant in its ori­gin­al sim­pli­city, the world does not pre­sume to demean it.
Wal­ter Gorn Old, 1904
Tao is etern­al, but has no name;
The Uncarved Block, though seem­ingly of small account,
Is great­er than any­thing that is under heav­en.
Arthur Waley, 1934
Tao is abso­lute and has no name.
Though the uncarved wood is small,
It can­not be employed by any­one.
Lin Yutang, 1948
The Way etern­al has no name.
A block of wood untooled, though small,
May still excel in the world.
Ray­mond B. Blakney, 1955
The Tao is forever undefined.
Small though it is in the unformed state, it can­not be grasped.
Gia-Fu FengJane Eng­lish, 1972
The Tao, etern­ally name­less
Its sim­pli­city, although imper­cept­ible
Can­not be treated by the world as sub­ser­vi­ent
Derek Lin, 2006

So, the evid­ence we are offered of the sym­metry between Blake and Lao Tsu is no evid­ence at all. But does it mat­ter? What if it turned out that there were sim­il­ar­it­ies between Lao Tzu and Wil­li­am Blake’s ideas about space, and mod­ern pro­pos­als in phys­ics about the holo­graph­ic nature of space, such that space can be said to be an illu­sion. If those phys­ic­al the­or­ies were later rejec­ted by sci­ence (they are, after all, cur­rently not proven the­or­ies but only hypo­theses, and likely to be refuted by sci­ent­ists even­tu­ally), would any­one con­clude that there­fore Blake and the Tao Te Ching were wrong too? Hope­fully not, since any sim­il­ar­it­ies here are sug­gest­ive rather than sub­stan­tial. Blake was not mak­ing a point fun­da­ment­ally about phys­ic­al space, but rather about the nature of vis­ion. Dis­prov­ing the phys­ics would not dis­prove Blake, because Blake and the phys­i­cists are talk­ing about dif­fer­ent things. Blake’s ima­gin­a­tion was vast enough that he could envis­age states of exist­ence that are every bit as mind-bog­gling as those of mod­ern phys­ics and cos­mo­logy. The fact that phys­i­cists can now ima­gine sim­il­ar things way bey­ond the abil­ity of com­mon sense to appre­hend proves the range and power of Blake’s ima­gin­a­tion, but it does not make him a phys­i­cist any more than it makes mod­ern phys­i­cists visionaries.

A Little Science is a Dangerous Thing

I have high­lighted two ways in which Higg­s’s approach dis­torts his account of Blake. First, Higgs mis­un­der­stands what Blake is doing in his poetry, and second, his attempts to merge Blake with mod­ern phys­ics and non-West­ern philo­soph­ic­al tra­di­tions, as if they were all address­ing the same ques­tions, are mis­guided. Also worth men­tion­ing is the sci­ent­ism of this approach—an enthu­si­asm for apply­ing sci­entif­ic con­cepts where they either don’t fit or where noth­ing is gained by apply­ing them. It’s as if the use of sci­entif­ic and tech­nic­al terms alone added weight to an argu­ment. This is not uncom­mon with New Age authors, who will berate hyper-ration­al, sci­ent­ist­ic West­ern soci­ety one minute then imme­di­ately move on to apply tech­nic­al terms in an uncrit­ic­al way as if they were magic charms.

I men­tioned an example earli­er when talk­ing about Blake’s sup­posed hyper­phant­as­ia. There are oth­er examples in the book. To pick one at ran­dom, Higgs tells the story of how Emmanuel Sweden­borg spent the first fifty-sev­en years of his life as a ration­al­ist and sci­ent­ist, a chem­ist, and Assessor of Mines to the Swedish gov­ern­ment, before sud­denly start­ing to receive a stream of lucid vis­ions in which he saw demons and angels, and had the free run of heav­en and hell. Higgs tells us that:

Carl Jung described exper­i­ences like this as enan­ti­o­dro­mi­al. He defines an enan­ti­o­dro­mia as “the emer­gence of the uncon­scious oppos­ite in the course of time”… In this way, Sweden­borg flipped from being a ration­al, estab­lish­ment fig­ure into a full-blown vis­ion­ary mys­tic.68

Without telling me what else this applic­a­tion of the term ‘enan­ti­o­dro­mi­al’ implies about Sweden­borg, I am none the wiser. The concept has its ori­gins in Her­ac­litus, who pro­posed it as a law that everything turns into its oppos­ite in order to main­tain the bal­ance of things. Jung merely gives the idea a psy­cho­lo­gic­al gloss. Pre­sum­ably, the con­di­tion does not apply to all sci­ent­ists in all cir­cum­stances, or there would be far more vis­ion­ar­ies around. There­fore, there must be some­thing about Sweden­borg that made him a vis­ion­ary oth­er than the mere fact that he had pre­vi­ously been a sci­ent­ist. And there­fore the applic­a­tion of the concept of enan­ti­o­dro­mia by itself explains noth­ing in this con­text, or, if it does, the implic­a­tions are not spelt out. So why bring in enan­ti­o­dro­mia at all?

Default mode net­work connectivity

Higgs is more rig­or­ous in apply­ing the idea of the brain’s Default Mode Net­work (DMN), or task-neg­at­ive net­work, to Blake. The Default Mode Net­work is an area of the brain activ­ated when we are not per­form­ing goal-ori­ented tasks, such as when we are in a state of wake­ful rest, per­haps day­dream­ing. It is also activ­ated when we are think­ing of ourselves or oth­ers, or when think­ing of the past and future. For all these reas­ons, the Default Mode Net­work is con­sidered by some to be poten­tially the neur­o­lo­gic­al basis for our sense of self.69

As with all research into the phys­ic­al basis of the mind, res­ults in this area are tent­at­ive, and it is best to pro­ceed with cau­tion when apply­ing them. Higgs makes use of this research to make a num­ber of sug­ges­tions, some more plaus­ible than oth­ers. In the first place, he notes that Blake repeatedly spoke of anni­hil­at­ing the self—for example, where he has Milton say “I will go down to self-anni­hil­a­tion and etern­al death.“70 He also notes that “high-func­tion­ing ath­letes… talk about becom­ing so focussed that they lose all sense of time and space and ego.71 Since the Default Mode Net­work is asso­ci­ated with a sense of the self, and has been proven to become deac­tiv­ated dur­ing goal-ori­ented tasks such as those of the ath­lete, he con­cludes that the ‘self-anni­hil­a­tion’ of Blake and Milton must there­fore be the same as the sense of ‘flow’ and ‘being in the zone’ exper­i­enced by an ath­lete, and that all of these states must be caused by deac­tiv­a­tion of the Default Mode Network.

This equi­val­ence between ath­leti­cism and vis­ion­ary exper­i­ence is assumed rather than argued for. Hav­ing made it, Higgs goes on to draw fur­ther con­clu­sions that seem ungroun­ded in the sci­ence. He sug­gests that vis­ion­ary exper­i­ences are con­vin­cing, not because they provide access to a deep­er real­ity, but rather that vis­ion­ary exper­i­ence has great­er author­ity than oth­er exper­i­ences because of the sup­pres­sion of our sense of self when the Default Mode Net­work is not activated:

When you are present and self-aware you are able to ques­tion what is going on around you, and apply data some cri­ti­cisms where neces­sary. But when the self is absent there is no use to ques­tion any­thing, so all that there is can only be accep­ted as an argu­able and true.72

In itself, regard­ing the oper­a­tion of the Default Mode Net­work, this isn’t unreas­on­able. But for Higgs, who assumes that Blake’s vis­ions are caused by the Default Mode Net­work going off­line, this means that, “the idea that Blake’s vis­ions con­vinced him that there was a great­er real­ity than the mater­i­al world can then be accep­ted, without hav­ing to also accept that this was true.“73 In oth­er words, the idea of the Default Mode Net­work is used to argue that Blake’s vis­ions were unreal: hal­lu­cin­a­tions rather than vis­ions. They only seemed real to Blake because of the sup­pres­sion of activ­ity in the Default Mode Net­work while he was in that state.

First, I am not con­vinced that the best way to under­stand Blake is to assume that his vis­ions were unreal. The bene­fits in study­ing Blake come from assum­ing he was right in what he described, rather than assum­ing he was mis­taken but fooled by the Default Mode Net­work into think­ing oth­er­wise. Not only that, but Higgs is arguing at cross pur­poses with him­self here. He implies else­where that Blake’s vis­ions allow him to see and under­stand things (about space, about time, etc.) that are only now being con­firmed by sci­ence. On the oth­er hand, he uses mod­ern sci­ence to argue that Blake’s vis­ions were unreal. Which is it to be?

Higgs bor­rows the idea of the Default Mode Net­work to explain Blake’s sus­cept­ib­il­ity to proph­et­ic vis­ions, saying:

Because Blake was not ini­tially sent to school as a child, he was not trained in the nor­mal aca­dem­ic way of divid­ing the world into cat­egor­ies and learn Eng­lish the facts. This may be a factor in why his default mode net­work does not seem to have been as well defined as those of oth­er chil­dren.74

I can­’t find any research con­nect­ing the effic­acy of the Default Mode Net­work with the early learn­ing of facts and cat­egor­ies, so this may just be guess­work on Higg­s’s part. Of course, the Default Mode Net­work must be con­struc­ted in the pro­cess of child devel­op­ment, but I don’t see why this would be depend­ent on the learn­ing of facts, and I don’t see why the learn­ing of facts should be depend­ent on going to school. Chil­dren obtain a sense of self by learn­ing to dis­tin­guish them­selves from oth­ers, and in manip­u­lat­ing the world around them, but this will hap­pen wheth­er the child goes to school or not. It is also dubi­ous to assume that it is only at school that chil­dren learn of facts and categories—Blake had homeschool­ing from his fam­ily, and read the Bible and much else besides, all of which would have exposed him to such learning.

Before the intro­duc­tion of com­puls­ory edu­ca­tion, many chil­dren did not go to school. As we have seen, some were sent out as chim­ney sweeps rather than receiv­ing an edu­ca­tion: yet they did not become proph­ets. And there remains only one Wil­li­am Blake. As with the applic­a­tion of the concept of anan­ti­o­dro­mia to Sweden­borg, the idea is too abstract and gen­er­al to work when applied so directly.

From the Counterculture to the New Age

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Gins­berg

I’ve spoken in sev­er­al places here of ‘the coun­ter­cul­ture’, and of Higgs com­ing from a coun­ter­cul­tur­al point of view, but Higg­s’s out­look should more prop­erly be described as that of the New Age. Theodore Rosza­k’s con­tem­por­ary account of the 60s coun­ter­cul­ture, The Mak­ing of a Counter Cul­ture,75 opens with an epi­graph taken from Blake’s call to arms in the open­ing of Milton, thus pla­cing Blake, fig­ur­at­ively speak­ing, at the centre of the action:

Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your fore­heads against the ignor­ant Hire­lings! For we have Hire­lings in the Camp, the Court, & the Uni­ver­sity: who would if they could, for ever depress Men­tal & pro­long Cor­por­eal War.76

Roszak was not alone in con­nect­ing Blake so integ­rally to the 60s coun­ter­cul­ture. He proved to be a darling of the move­ment, cel­eb­rated by every­one from Beat Gen­er­a­tion god­fath­er, Allen Gins­berg, through protest sing­er and icon Bob Dylan, to the Marx­ist-Sur­real­ists of the Situ­ation­ist Inter­na­tion­al. It was dur­ing these years that Blake’s repu­ta­tion as England’s great dis­sent­ing proph­et and vis­ion­ary was cemented.

Before there was Roszak, there was Aldous Hux­ley. Hux­ley wrote The Doors of Per­cep­tion (1954) and Heav­en and Hell (1956) recount­ing his exper­i­ences with mes­caline and explor­ing the themes of vis­ion and per­cep­tion they inspired, con­nect­ing these with the ideas he had pro­posed in his earli­er work on com­par­at­ive reli­gion, The Per­en­ni­al Philo­sophy, in which he sought to isol­ate “[the] Highest Com­mon Factor of all theo­lo­gies”.77 The titles of these books trum­peted the influ­ence of Blake, with Heav­en and Hell taken, of course, from the title of Blake’s The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell, and The Doors of Per­cep­tion refer­ring to one of the pro­verbs to be found with­in that book, “If the doors of per­cep­tion were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: infin­ite.”78

In com­bin­ing the themes of vis­ion­ary exper­i­ence, spir­itu­al­ity and psy­che­del­ic chem­istry with his cri­tique of admin­istered soci­ety, Hux­ley not only laid the found­a­tions of the coun­ter­cul­ture, but he built Wil­li­am Blake right into them. The weav­ing togeth­er of such pre­vi­ously dis­par­ate themes laid the basis for a total cri­tique of soci­ety, from its soul­less con­sumer­ism to its wars and eco­lo­gic­al van­dal­ism, and this cri­tique brought to a head the dif­fer­ent dimen­sions of Blake’s thought, teas­ing them out then rolling them into a single, incen­di­ary pack­age. Through Hux­ley, through Gins­berg, Dylan and many oth­ers, all of whom recog­nised in him the out­stand­ing proph­et of the revolu­tion to come, Blake became the “presid­ing spir­it of Six­ties coun­ter­cul­ture“79

Through­out Rosza­k’s book it is assumed, as it was by those involved, that the val­ues of the 60s coun­ter­cul­ture not only opposed those of the dom­in­ant cul­ture in terms of its most fun­da­ment­al out­look regard­ing the very mean­ing of exist­ence and our rela­tion­ship with nature, but that these val­ues also implied, and indeed deman­ded, a polit­ic­al con­front­a­tion with power. Such con­front­a­tion usu­ally focussed on the fight against imper­i­al­ism (Viet­nam), racism (Mal­colm X, Black Pan­thers), homo­pho­bia (Stone­wall and the Gay Lib­er­a­tion Front), and women’s oppres­sion (‘Women’s Lib’). Ulti­mately, many in the coun­ter­cul­ture came to chal­lenge cap­it­al­ism itself, as the eco­nom­ic sys­tem that held all of these griev­ances togeth­er. The organ­ic polit­ics of the coun­ter­cul­ture fuelled the growth of the New Left, cre­at­ing a gen­er­a­tion of Left­ist agit­at­ors, the­or­eti­cians and cul­tur­al crit­ics. In May ’68, stu­dents and work­ers in Par­is looked set to shake the French state to its found­a­tions. Polit­ics and the coun­ter­cul­ture were coextensive.

The Decline of Politics

Since the hey­day of the 60s, the polit­ic­al move­ments it pro­duced have become more like spe­cial­ised cam­paigns, each divorced from the oth­ers, some­times com­pet­ing with one anoth­er, while the con­nec­tion between polit­ics and coun­ter­cul­ture as such has been broken: from riot­ing against the police at Stone­wall, gay lib­er­a­tion has turned into the cor­por­ate-sponsored Pink Pride. The part­ing of the ways between coun­ter­cul­ture and polit­ics means that the coun­ter­cul­ture today con­cerns itself almost entirely with mat­ters of life­style and ‘spir­itu­al­ity’. Evac­u­ated of polit­ics, the coun­ter­cul­ture becomes ‘New Ageism’, and if New Ageism has a polit­ic­al view at all it is a quiet­ist­ic rejec­tion of polit­ics as such, ‘a plague on all your houses’. Polit­ic­al protest con­tin­ues, of course: the point is that such protest is now divorced from the coun­ter­cul­ture, even when the per­son­nel involved overlap.

Anti-War March Chicago 1968

coun­ter­cul­ture polit­ics
An anti­war march in Chica­go before the 1968 Demo­crat­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion. Photo: Dav­id Wilson/Wikimedia Commons

This depol­it­i­cising of the coun­ter­cul­ture is taken for gran­ted in Higg­s’s book, which treats pub­lic polit­ics as a mat­ter for spe­cial­ists (‘act­iv­ists’). In this view, the only way polit­ics neces­sar­ily affects indi­vidu­als is in terms of per­son­al atti­tudes and every­day beha­viour: “True polit­ics are not ideo­lo­gies to dis­cuss, but an atti­tude to your rela­tion­ship with the world which is enacted in your daily life.“80 Polit­ics is no longer about struc­tures of exploit­a­tion and oppres­sion, but essen­tially about per­son­al mat­ters. This goes bey­ond say­ing that ‘the per­son­al is polit­ic­al’, which is undoubtedly true, to hold­ing that polit­ics con­sists entirely of attend­ing to per­son­al (and inter-per­son­al) issues.

William Blake: The Last Antinomian Standing

This atti­tude is pro­jec­ted back onto Blake. Higgs claims that polit­ics was “sec­ond­ary” for Blake,81 but just as with his inter­pret­a­tion of The Chim­ney Sweep, this is a read­ing that hov­ers over the sur­face of the text without wor­ry­ing unduly about what lies beneath. It’s true that Blake did­n’t write polit­ic­al tracts in the style of Tom Paine, but say­ing that is merely to say that Blake was an artist, not a polit­ic­al agit­at­or. It also assumes a dicho­tomy between polit­ics and enthu­si­ast­ic reli­gion that is more a product of our time than of Blake’s. Paine, for example, although a revolu­tion­ary hos­tile to organ­ised reli­gion and the ‘divine right of Kings’, nev­er­the­less suf­fused his own works with bib­lic­al ref­er­ences, just as Blake’s work is sat­ur­ated with politics.

Dav­id Erd­man has traced the many ways in which Blake’s texts refer to polit­ic­al events going on around him.82 How­ever, in demon­strat­ing the polit­ic­al nature of Blake’s work by show­ing how Blake so often refers to con­crete polit­ic­al events, Erd­man inad­vert­ently detracts from the way in which polit­ics runs through all of Blake’s work, even when he isn’t deal­ing expli­citly with his­tory. As Jon Mee reminds us: “Rad­ic­al dis­course is often oper­at­ive in what may seem the most unlikely places and informs Blakes lan­guage at almost every level.”83

Blake did not write polit­ic­al tracts but polit­ics suf­fuses his vis­ions non­ethe­less. because, for Blake, “Reli­gion & Polit­ics [are] the Same Thing… Broth­er­hood is Reli­gion“84 Higgs instead sug­gests that polit­ics is “mean­ing­less, ran­dom chaos”, in which “no one [is] in con­trol”, and that the belief oth­er­wise is the res­ult of clin­ic­al para­noia.85 Since polit­ics is chaos any­way, Higgs does not treat Blake’s anti­no­mi­an beliefs as a mat­ter of con­vic­tion, spec­u­lat­ing instead that Blake’s “lack of interest in fash­ion made him more drawn toward old ideas than his wealth­i­er and bet­ter-edu­cated peers.“86

Hav­ing a reified view of polit­ics as a spe­cial­ised occu­pa­tion for act­iv­ists, Higgs, there­fore, finds it par­tic­u­larly sig­ni­fic­ant that “Blake was not one for join­ing groups and he res­isted organ­ised move­ments”,87 and that he “was not known for his affil­i­ations with polit­ic­al parties or sup­port for par­tic­u­lar can­did­ates“88 He seems unaware that even the Ranters, the extreme anti­no­mi­an com­mun­ists he iden­ti­fies as Blake’s closest polit­ic­al allies,89 did not affil­i­ate with polit­ic­al parties, or indeed with any kind of organ­isa­tion at all. Mass polit­ic­al parties are the products of uni­ver­sal suf­frage and mod­ern­ity and did not exist as such in Blake’s time. Nev­er­the­less, Blake mixed with mem­bers of such organ­isa­tions as did exist, such as the Lon­don Cor­res­pond­ing Soci­ety. In the intro­duc­tion to Jer­u­s­alem, Blake pens a hymn to the Lon­don he loved:

The Jews-harp-house & the Green Man;
The Ponds where Boys to bathe delight:
The fields of Cows by Wil­lans farm:
Shine in Jer­u­s­alems pleas­ant sight.
Blake, Jer­u­s­alem

The first pub­lic house he men­tions, The Jews Harp, was in fields that today are part of Regents Park, just north of today’s Euston Rd. It was also named as the ven­ue from which it was said the Lon­don Cor­res­pond­ing Soci­ety was to sound the call for a nation­al upris­ing, with the pro-Mon­archy paper The Toma­hawk announ­cing that “Some of the Jac­obin Reformers avow, that the Jews Harp House Meet­ing is for the pur­pose of call­ing the Mul­ti­tude. To Arms!“91 Even at its most bucol­ic, Blake’s poetry sim­mers with politics.

Polit­ics then and now is about much more than join­ing a group or sup­port­ing elect­or­al can­did­ates, and more too than ‘inter­per­son­al polit­ics’. Even when Blake was involved in dir­ect action, being present at the storm­ing of Newg­ate Pris­on dur­ing the Gor­don riots, Higgs insists that what inter­ested Blake was not polit­ics but psy­cho­lo­gic­al drama. Against all the evid­ence, Higgs sys­tem­at­ic­ally tries to sup­press any evid­ence of Blake’s polit­ic­al enthu­si­asm, even while he admits that Blake belonged to the rad­ic­al tra­di­tion.92 He assumes that polit­ics is a psy­cho­lo­gic­al prob­lem rather than a social neces­sity and obligation.

This polit­ic­al quiet­ism is rooted in how he con­ceives of the deep­est fea­tures of Blake’s dia­lectic of mind and nature, and in how Blake thought of human reas­on and ima­gin­a­tion in rela­tion to nature. The most prom­in­ent tend­ency in the book is the one that under­pins this quiet­ism. To unpick the issue we must take a detour to con­sider Blake’s rela­tion to some aspects of the his­tory of West­ern philosophy.

Brains, Minds and Spirits: Blake and Philosophy


The life of God—the life which the mind appre­hends and enjoys as it rises to the abso­lute unity of all things—may be described as a play of love with itself; but this idea sinks to an edi­fy­ing tru­ism, or even to a plat­it­ude, when it does not embrace in it the earn­est­ness, the pain, the patience, and labor, involved in the neg­at­ive aspect of things.
Hegel, The Phe­nomen­o­logy of Spir­it § 19 (1807)

Higgs is bold enough to try to loc­ate Blake with­in the tra­di­tion of philo­soph­ic­al debates about mind and mat­ter, and the mind-body prob­lem. This is tricky because Blake him­self made no attempt to sys­tem­at­ise his views in this way. He stud­ied some philo­soph­ic­al works, and he cer­tainly had strong views on the mat­ter, as he did on most mat­ters, but he did not cre­ate his own sys­tem with ref­er­ence to that of oth­er philo­soph­ers, or jus­ti­fy it in their terms. Des­pite this, dis­cuss­ing Blake in rela­tion to these debates can throw some use­ful light on the logic of his position.

Higgs paints a pic­ture of the philo­soph­ic­al altern­at­ives on offer to Blake, then pos­i­tions him in rela­tion to them. There is mater­i­al­ism, in which only mat­ter exists, and mind is an illu­sion or epi­phen­omen­on that can have no effect on the mater­i­al world; ideal­ism, on the con­trary, holds that only mind exists and that it is the sep­ar­ate exist­ence and effect­ive­ness of mat­ter that is illus­ory; and finally, there is dual­ism, accord­ing to which, both mind and mat­ter are said to exist, as two com­pletely dif­fer­ent and incom­pat­ible types of sub­stance, with the two nev­er­the­less man­aging some­how to inter­act, or at least coin­cide and stay in step. Ideal­ism and mater­i­al­ism are both ‘mon­ist’ philo­sophies, as they each claim that only one kind of sub­stance exists; mind or mat­ter, respectively.

In light of Blake’s ellipt­ic­al claim that “Man has no Body dis­tinct from his soul; for that called Body is a por­tion of a Soul dis­cerned by the five senses”,93 it is not hard to see him as either an ideal­ist (since body is only ‘a por­tion of soul’) or, as Higgs has it, a ‘dual aspect mon­ist’, for whom body and soul are simply two sides of a third, under­ly­ing sub­stance (so that soul and body are both ‘por­tions’ of each oth­er). But how one cat­egor­ises Blake’s pos­i­tion is less import­ant than what you think the cat­egor­isa­tion says about how Blake saw the rela­tions between mind and nature. Higgs con­trasts the sup­posed mon­ism of India and China with the dual­ism of the West, and implies that Blake stood alone in the West as a mon­ist against a sea of West­ern aca­dem­ic opin­ion that was essen­tially dualistic:

for Blake to insist that the body was part of the soul was to go against cen­tur­ies of West­ern assump­tions and philo­sophy… The assump­tion is that they at the heart of West­ern philo­sophy were bur­ied so deeply in their men­tal mod­els of the world that they had become invis­ible, and as such could not be ques­tioned. In those cir­cum­stances, Blakes bab­bling pos­i­tion was nev­er going to make any sense. To the clas­sic­ally edu­cated, they could only be cat­egor­ised as mad­ness.94

This ser­i­ously dis­torts the pic­ture of Blake’s rela­tion to West­ern philo­sophy in a num­ber of ways.

Hegel and German Idealism

In fact, Blake lived at a time of a great out­pour­ing of ideal­ist (and hence, mon­ist) thought in the West, begin­ning with Kant and cul­min­at­ing with Hegel, who not only had a back­ground in piet­ism sim­il­ar to that of the Moravi­an tra­di­tion in which Blake was (partly) brought up, but also greatly admired the mys­tic, Jac­ob Böhme, who he con­sidered “the first Ger­man philo­soph­er” and who was a sig­ni­fic­ant influ­ence on Blake.95 Giv­en these over­laps there is much poten­tially to be had by com­par­ing Blake and Hegel, to see what they made of these shared points of ref­er­ence, and in par­tic­u­lar how Hegel can shed light on Blake’s concept of contraries.

Aldous Huxley

Aldous Hux­ley

At one point, Higgs dis­cusses the par­al­lels between Blake’s and Col­eridge’s view of the ima­gin­a­tion. This is a use­ful and insight­ful dis­cus­sion, but it would have been far rich­er if he’d been aware of just how deeply Col­eridge’s views were indebted to Ger­man Ideal­ism, which he stud­ied closely. On this basis, Col­eridge spoke of how nature itself spoke a sym­bol­ic lan­guage that respon­ded to the ima­gin­a­tion of the mind observing it. This recog­ni­tion of the sym­metry between mind and nature, com­bined with the recog­ni­tion that Col­eridge and Blake were circ­ling around the same issues, might have pro­duced a far more subtle under­stand­ing of Blake’s views of mind and mat­ter if it had led Higgs to be more sens­it­ive to sim­il­ar aspects of Blake’s thought.96

Des­pite the snappy char­ac­ter­isa­tion of Blake’s pos­i­tion as ‘neut­ral mon­ist’, Higgs has trouble present­ing a con­sist­ent pic­ture of what Blake believed. At one point he says that “what we think of as the extern­al world is a product of the human mind“97, and “You are the cre­at­or of the uni­verse inside your head“98—so, hav­ing argued that mind and mat­ter are two faces of the same real­ity, on a par with one anoth­er (‘neut­ral mon­ism’), it now sounds as though there is some­thing appar­ently ‘extern­al’ to mind which nev­er­the­less is still its cre­ation. At oth­er points, how­ever, this ‘extern­al’ world seems not to be cre­ated solely by mind at all, but rather to be an autonom­ous source of ‘inform­a­tion’ which the mind uses in turn to con­struct a pic­ture of this extern­al­ity. In this telling, the mind, which only a few moments ago was presen­ted as being supremely act­ive in cre­at­ing real­ity, now seems to be merely the pass­ive recip­i­ent of data phoned in by the world.99

Back to Locke and Empiricism

Higgs sets out to unpick what are admit­tedly dif­fi­cult argu­ments. One sur­pris­ing aspect of his approach is how strongly he leans on the tra­di­tion of empir­i­cism to explain the work­ings of con­scious­ness— sur­pris­ing because empir­i­cism is the embod­i­ment of the pass­ive view of mind Blake rails against.

In An Essay Con­cern­ing Human Under­stand­ing (1689) the key empir­i­cist philo­soph­er, John Locke (1632–1704) con­sidered the mind to be a tab­ula rasa (a ‘scraped tab­let’, or blank sheet), which was then inscribed by data received from nature in the form of exper­i­ence. The mind is pass­ive in this, oth­er than in its abil­ity to then com­bine and com­pare the data provided to it, using simple logic­al oper­a­tions to build up a stock of memor­ies, con­cepts and beliefs, pro­cessing raw impres­sions to turn them into pro­gress­ively more com­plex ideas.

Such was Blake’s hos­til­ity to this depic­tion of mind that he included Locke among his ‘unholy trin­ity’, along with Fran­cis Bacon and Isaac New­ton. He sees Locke as one of the aspects of Albion’s Satan­ic spectre (“Am I not Bacon & New­ton & Locke who teach Humil­ity to Man!”).100 It is Lock­e’s image of the mech­an­ic­al pro­cessing of extern­al data, and the cor­res­pond­ing idea of a par­al­lel world of blind gen­er­a­tion, that Blake asso­ci­ates with “the image of looms, a mech­an­ic­al form of cre­ation which pro­duces the veil of nature that must be rent at the apo­ca­lyptic moment.“101 These looms in turn are asso­ci­ated with the ‘starry wheels’ and the fam­ous ‘Satan­ic Mills’, both of which are images of ali­en­ated labour and mind­less exist­ence. For Blake, Lock­e’s key error was his belief that the mind was a blank slate and that its con­tent could only come from nature.

Giv­en this, when Higgs begins an explan­a­tion of Blake’s views by assert­ing that “Babies’ brains are like blank slates,“102 the phrase fairly leaps off the page. He invites the read­er to con­duct a thought exper­i­ment, designed to demon­strate Blake’s view of mind, by saying;

Ima­gine that your mind was wiped clean, so that it was as blank and fresh as that of a new­born baby. Then ima­gine you are on the top of the hill in an unex­plored wil­der­ness. Your brain has no imme­di­ate access to this world because it is locked away inside the dark, silent cav­ern of your skull. The only way it can make sense of your envir­on­ment is my inter­pret­ing the mes­sages being received by your senses.103

For empir­i­cists, this is some­thing like the prim­al scene; for Blake it was a deist spell cast to keep people wan­der­ing around blind in the abyss.

Anti-War March Chicago 1968

The empir­i­cist’s cat
Illus­trat­ing the trouble an empir­i­cist goes to in order to per­ceive a cat

There is a sense in which this is unfair to Higgs. Giv­en the loose man­ner of his treat­ment of the philo­soph­ic­al argu­ments, it’s pos­sible that you could in fact find evid­ence there for any num­ber of dif­fer­ent views of mind… and also for the oppos­ing view. His explan­a­tions of things are like cats’ cradles—with each move­ment of the hand, each turn of the page, the threads of the argu­ment are recon­figured. What is not in doubt though, is the mod­el of mind he ends up with, which he believes is also Blake’s mod­el. I would sum­mar­ise this mod­el as an abso­lute ideal­ism tempered by empir­i­cism. Such a com­bin­a­tion is a chi­mera, full of con­tra­dic­tions. But it is what’s on offer.
The first part of the mod­el con­sists of the empir­i­cism described earli­er: it’s assumed that ‘data’ comes from the ‘extern­al’ world into the brain, and there it is pro­cessed.104 How­ever, while Locke thinks this pro­cessing con­sists of fairly mech­an­ic­al oper­a­tions of com­par­is­on and com­bin­a­tion, Higgs takes from Blake the idea of the power of the ima­gin­a­tion to argue that the same data can be com­bined to pro­duce mod­els that can take any form we want. With the right frame of mind (the right bal­ance of men­tal ener­gies, as he might put it) we can pro­duce lit­er­ally any mod­el of the world we require, where all such forms are equally val­id. “We live inside our mod­els and rely on them to make sense of the oth­er­wise unknow­able world.“105

While Locke believed that if we com­bined sense-data care­fully we could cre­ate an accur­ate mod­el of the world that sup­plied it, for Higgs exper­i­ence is the ulti­mate plas­ti­cine, and can be moul­ded into any form at all. Real­ity itself is unknow­able: for all the talk of mon­ism, it is assumed that mind and mat­ter are wholly ‘oth­er’, incom­pre­hens­ible to one anoth­er, so that the world bey­ond is ulti­mately an unknow­able ding-an-sich: “The brain is an illu­sion fact­ory… we live in a men­tal mod­el of real­ity, rather than real­ity itself… we [should] stop con­fus­ing ideas with real­ity.“106 The only error we can com­mit here is the Urizen­ic one of believ­ing that any par­tic­u­lar mod­el we’ve built for ourselves is bet­ter than any anoth­er. All mod­els are equally false, all are equally true. You might sum this up as say­ing, in a vari­ation on Aleister Crow­ley’s motto, “Noth­ing is [par­tic­u­larly] true, everything is permitted.”

Stoner Dialectics and the Taming of Orc

So then because thou art luke­warm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
Rev­el­a­tion 3:16

Harold Bloom

Har­old Bloom

If you feel I have just wasted some of your time on the thin gruel of aca­dem­ic onto­logy when we could have been talk­ing about, eg., the War in Heav­en, I apo­lo­gise, but it is the back­ground neces­sary to explain the basis of the most dis­ap­point­ing aspect of this kal­eido­scope of a book—namely the way that the belief that ‘all real­ity tun­nels are equal’, while it prom­ises the excit­ing con­clu­sion that “everything is per­mit­ted”, in fact leads only to passiv­ity and ambi­val­ence. This can be seen most clearly in the way the book talks about Blake’s concept of contraries.

As with the dis­cus­sion of onto­logy, Higg­s’s views at first glance are a bit of a muddle. He begins by quot­ing Blake’s key idea about the nature of con­trar­ies, his claim that “Without Con­trar­ies is no pro­gres­sion. Attrac­tion and Repul­sion, Reas­on and Energy, Love and Hate are neces­sary to Human exist­ence.“107 Higgs com­ments; “So import­ant to Blake is this dynam­ic that he makes a start­ling claim: ‘Oppos­i­tion is true Friend­ship’.“108 It is likely that the imme­di­ate inspir­a­tion for Blake here was Jac­ob Böhme, with his idea that the hot and cold, dark and light sides of God are all neces­sary, but the idea has a ped­i­gree run­ning back at least as far as Her­ac­litus, around 500 BCE, who argued for just such a unity of oppos­ites, say­ing that the struggle between oppos­ites was what cre­ated the world from moment to moment. He called these oppos­i­tion­al pro­cesses ἔρις (eris), ‘strife’. In Blake’s time, Hegel built an entire philo­sophy on the basis of such dia­lect­ic­al strife, describ­ing the pro­cess by which Abso­lute Spir­it moves towards self-con­scious­ness through a pro­cess of intern­al dif­fer­en­ti­ation and a struggle between the res­ult­ing cas­cad­ing anti­nom­ies; thes­is and anti­thes­is. Hegel­’s Sci­ence of Logic cap­tures the com­plex medi­ations involved in this unfold­ing of the Absolute.

Anti-War March Chicago 1968

Blake’s cat
The first beast of Revelation

Higgs flounders as he tries to deal with the argu­ment about con­trar­ies. His start­ing point is that, since Blake argues that the con­flict between con­trar­ies is neces­sary, there­fore, when it comes to the con­flict between good and evil, he “was unin­ter­ested in cam­paign­ing for one side or the oth­er. Instead, he argued for the neces­sity of both”,109 and that “One reas­on why Blake’s work proves to be so mul­ti­fa­ceted is because of the way he accepts all sides.“110 There is some­thing a little dizzy­ing about try­ing to com­bine the ideas that ‘oppos­i­tion is friend­ship’ and ‘not tak­ing sides’—and this in a book whose very title, Wil­li­am Blake vs the World, seems to place Blake essen­tially at odds with things. Blake ‘accepts all sides’, but Higgs insists that nev­er­the­less “Blake is not try­ing to remain neut­ral. His pos­i­tion is not… that all per­spect­ives are equally val­id. He is quite pre­pared to call out one side as good and the oth­er evil. Instead, his pos­i­tion is that both sides of the clash are neces­sary.“111 So, Blake “is not try­ing to remain neut­ral”, but he “was unin­ter­ested in cam­paign­ing for one side or the oth­er”. At this stage it seems to me that Higgs is either being dev­il­ishly bril­liant or is just some­what con­fused. Of course, he will say that he is not equi­voc­at­ing, but merely see­ing both sides of the argument.

On Contraries and Partisanship: Taking Sides

What cre­ates this appar­ent equi­voc­a­tion is Higg­s’s attempt to talk about the world from two places at the same time. On the one hand he speaks from with­in the con­flict between the con­trar­ies, in which we all take sides and act as moments in the wider move­ment of things, and in which ‘oppos­i­tion is true friend­ship’. On the oth­er hand, he wants to adopt a God-like pos­i­tion, above the fray and out­side the struggles of this world. This is to try to adopt the unme­di­ated view of the Abso­lute. From this per­spect­ive, it can be observed, as Higgs does, that all con­trar­ies and all points of view are neces­sary, as they all play their role. Hegel under­stood that such a per­spect­ive out­side the con­flict of con­trar­ies is a fantasy. From such a point of view all dif­fer­ences dis­ap­pear. This is “the dark night in which all cows are grey”, as Hegel said of Schelling’s sim­il­ar concept of the abso­lute: which is to say, from this ima­gined dis­em­bod­ied point of view, out­side of his­tory, everything looks of equal sig­ni­fic­ance, and noth­ing can be clearly dif­fer­en­ti­ated. Blake had not stud­ied Hegel, but his inform­al dia­lectics accord closely with Hegel­’s sense of the imman­ence of dia­lectics, the sense that it is not pos­sible to leapfrog the dia­lectic or stand out­side it. Blake did indeed think that the con­trar­ies were all in some sense neces­sary to the move­ment of the total­ity of things, but he also said that “The voice of hon­est indig­na­tion is the voice of God.“112 Blake took sides and called it as he saw it. He did not let worry­ng about keep­ing con­trar­ies in bal­ance hold him back. He fought to win.

In the present­a­tion of his argu­ment, Higgs shuttles between these two oppos­ing view­points, but in his prac­tic­al con­clu­sions he is firm: hedge your bets, keep your powder dry, and always assume that you are at least half wrong, because the oth­er side has an equally val­id point of view. It is this sup­posedly nobler per­spect­ive that lies behind his judge­ment that polit­ics is just a chaos of oppos­ing view­points, with none of them any bet­ter than the oth­er. It nev­er occurs to him, for example, that some views may be neces­sary only so that they can be over­come, because the act of over­com­ing them enriches the over­com­ing force. Higgs argues that because thes­is and anti­thes­is are both neces­sary, it is wrong to work for the vic­tory of the one over the oth­er. He is con­sist­ent in apply­ing this to pretty much any and all arguments:

… most writers pos­i­tion them­selves on one side of a divide and argue pas­sion­ately that their per­spect­ive is the cor­rect or most val­id one. A writer like Richard Dawkins is firmly in favour of a mater­i­al­ist view of the world, for example; while a writer like Deepak Chop­ra cham­pi­ons a spir­itu­al per­spect­ive. The works of Ayn Rand cam­paign for isol­ated, indi­vidu­al­ist­ic liber­tari­an­ism, while an author and sci­ent­ists such as James Love­lock argues for a hol­ist­ic, sys­tem­ic com­mun­al per­spect­ive. Single focus stud­ies like these are a hall­mark of West­ern thought. They are pre­dic­ated on the belief that, in order to under­stand some­thing, you need to focus on it, isol­ate it from extern­al factors, and then take it apart from what it is made of.
Blake eschews this sin­gu­lar approach. His think­ing often has more in com­mon with Chinese thought.113

I sus­pect I won’t be alone in find­ing it con­fus­ing to hear that the hol­ist­ic thought of James Love­lock is the product of a point of view that isol­ates things from extern­al factors and takes them apart to exam­ine them in isol­a­tion. It seems to me that the word ‘hol­ist­ic’ here is a power­ful clue that Love­lock in fact is pulling in the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion. And I do not know what to make of the idea that, after almost a cen­tury of liv­ing under Com­mun­ism, the Chinese can be said to have avoided choos­ing sides in the dis­pute between Ayn Rand and collectivism.

This logic is applied even to the heart of Blake’s sys­tem. For example, in The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell, Blake speaks of the two great classes of human­ity, the Pro­lif­ic and the Devour­ing: “one por­tion of being, is the Pro­lif­ic. the oth­er, the Devour­ing: to the devour­er it seems as if the pro­du­cer was in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes por­tions of exist­ence and fan­cies that the whole.“114 Blake him­self was clearly among the ‘pro­lif­ic’, or what you might call the pro­duct­ive and cre­at­ive. But Higg­s’s quiet­ist per­spect­ive leads him to argue that, “Oth­er writers might praise the pro­lif­ic and con­demn the Devour­ers, but Blake under­stands that both types are needed to keep the world turn­ing.“115

Jacob Böhme

Jac­ob Böhme

Higgs repeatedly argues that Blake’s world­view invovles sit­ting on every fence the world has to offer, because “to try to solve prob­lems by favour­ing one side and dis­miss­ing the oth­er is to fail to under­stand how the world works.“116 I’ll call this ‘stoner dia­lectics’ since it involves ima­gin­ing you have achieved a grand over­view of things and their mutu­al depend­ence and inter­con­nec­tion, while also mak­ing it unlikely that you’ll make the effort to actu­ally get up and do any­thing. It is made pos­sible by the onto­logy out­lined above, in which it is believed that con­trar­ies are merely ideas, and that the mind is infin­itely cre­at­ive, and thus can adopt any point of view. This means also that the mind can also empath­ise with any point of view, see both sides of the coin, and so on. Indeed: the only implic­a­tion here is that one not become attached to any par­tic­u­lar point of view or take it too ser­i­ously. Con­trar­ies can be over­come because “[they] are noth­ing more sol­id than ideas.“117 His­tory and soci­ety (or angels and dev­ils, as you prefer) are wished away to leave only the omni­po­tent indi­vidu­al mind work­ing on infin­itely plastic ideas. Hav­ing made all of real­ity a men­tal con­struct, cre­ated by the ‘illu­sion fact­ory’ of the mind, and hav­ing taken from Blake the idea of the omni­po­tence of the ima­gin­a­tion, the mind is free to think whatever it fan­cies, to adopt any point of view, and to stand com­pletely above the world it has cre­ated, look­ing down with supreme indif­fer­ence, pos­sibly par­ing its nails.

Keeping the World Turning

Tellingly, Higgs takes it for gran­ted here that our job is to “keep the world turn­ing”, as he puts it, and ensure noth­ing fun­da­ment­al ever changes. All sides of the argu­ment are neces­sary to the con­tinu­ity of things, to abol­ish one side or the oth­er would be to undo real­ity itself: “without the energy of clash­ing per­spect­ives, the uni­verse would ground to a halt and die“118 He ignores the apo­ca­lyptic vis­ion that inspired the dis­sent­ing polit­ics of the left-wing of the Eng­lish Civil War, with their belief that the end times were near in which God would tear down Babylon and ush­er in the ‘New Jer­u­s­alem’ in its place. Blake sits squarely with­in that tra­di­tion,119  as the title of his greatest work, Jer­u­s­alem, sug­gests; but Higgs chooses to ignore the apo­ca­lyptic aspect of Blake’s thought in favour of a pic­ture of Blake as someone inter­ested in mind­ful­ness and self-improve­ment rather than imman­entising the eschat­on.

Higgs sees it as our respons­ib­il­ity to keep all the con­trar­ies in bal­ance so that everything car­ries on tick­ing along nicely and his­tory con­tin­ues on its way, where­as Blake belonged to that apo­ca­lyptic tra­di­tion which, as Wal­ter Ben­jamin put it in his ‘Theses on the Philo­sophy of His­tory’, sought to “make the con­tinuum of his­tory explode.“120

Edmund Burke and the Taming of Orc

This cre­ates the prob­lem of what to do with Orc, Blake’s spir­it of revolu­tion. It is always Orc that hoves into view when revolu­tion shows its face. Blake made Orc the great anti-author­it­ari­an lev­el­ler of tyr­ants. The prob­lem from Higg­s’s point of view is that, as a revolu­tion­ary, Orc threatens to over­turn the apple­cart and upset the order of things by insist­ing on hav­ing his way. From the Joacham­ite apo­ca­lyptic point of view, Orc’s fire is that of the Holy Spir­it of the third age come to cleanse the world. The danger, accord­ing to stoner dia­lectics, is that Orc’s enthu­si­asm will des­troy the world: the prom­ise, from the apo­ca­lyptic point of view, is that Orc will ush­er in a new world in its place.

Higgs accepts that Orc is neces­sary in the grand scheme of things, stand­ing against Urizen­ic oppression:

Orc was fre­quently explored as the con­trary of Urizen, because the engine of pro­gress was often powered by the dynam­ic struggle between ordered con­ven­tion and the fire of revolu­tion… Orc is deeply anti-author­it­ari­an. He jus­ti­fies his furi­ous destruc­tion on the grounds that it is the only way to over­throw what keeps us down and pre­vents us from reach­ing our true poten­tial.121

But, while Orc helps motor the ‘engine of pro­gress’, he is nev­er­the­less a dan­ger­ous force that must be curbed: “Blake… recog­nised and under­stood the neces­sity of sup­press­ing Orc’s revolu­tion­ary fire.“122 The prob­lem for Higgs is that, while he recog­nises that Blake sup­por­ted the French Revolu­tion, his belief in the neces­sity of keep­ing all con­trar­ies in motion means that he basic­ally accepts the view of those such as Edmund Burke, who laid the found­a­tions of mod­ern con­ser­vat­ism with his polem­ic against the French Revolu­tion, Reflec­tions on the Revolu­tion in France (1790), where he argues against any attempt at a revolu­tion­ary restruc­tur­ing of soci­ety. For Burke, tra­di­tion­al soci­ety embod­ies an imper­fect but work­able sys­tem of organ­ic checks and bal­ances, which ration­al­ist inter­ven­tion ruins, cre­at­ing viol­ence and dis­order. This con­ser­vat­ive view chimes neatly with Hig­g’s belief that all exist­ing con­trar­ies should be left in play. Thus he argues that revolu­tions must end in tears—or rather, of course, blood:

For all that revolu­tions can sweep away the unjust and the tyr­an­nic­al and can be neces­sary and unavoid­able, they also have a dark after­math. In prac­tice, revolu­tions typ­ic­ally lead to a power vacu­um which res­ults in blood­shed and the rise of a power­ful mil­it­ary lead­er, such as Napo­leon or Crom­well. From Blake’s accounts of Orc, we see that he under­stood this pro­cess clearly.123

Once again, I may have been unfair to Higgs—unlike Burke he does allow for a little bit of revolu­tion, but not so much as to cause any trouble. In this read­ing, Orc is no longer the holy spir­it at large, the holy fire of revolu­tion, but a regret­table destruct­ive energy unleashed by the pro­cess of his­tory, which must be curbed and suppressed.

This places Orc in a far less sig­ni­fic­ant role than Blake’s texts actu­ally sug­gest. Orc is made to sound like an unfor­tu­nate side effect of history—necessary to its work­ing but, like all forces and ideas in Higg­s’s world, need­ing to be kept in bal­ance: ‘all things in mod­er­a­tion’. And yet, in the clos­ing lines of Blake’s threnody to European revolu­tion, Europe: A Proph­ecy, it does not read to me as if the Zoa of the ima­gin­a­tion, Los—generally con­sidered a cipher for Blake himself—is pre­par­ing to restrain Orc. Rather he sounds ready to rally to Orc’s revolu­tion him­self, and calls his chil­dren to join in:

But ter­rible Orc, when he beheld the morn­ing in the east,
Shot from the heights of Enitharmon;
And in the vine­yards of red France appear’d the light of his fury.

The Sun glow’d fiery red!
The furi­ous ter­rors flew around!
On golden chari­ots raging, with red wheels drop­ping with blood;
The Lions lash their wrath­ful tails!
The Tigers catch upon the prey & suck the ruddy tide:
And Enithar­mon groans and cries in anguish and dismay.
Then Los arose his head he reard in snaky thun­ders clad:
And with a cry that shook all nature to the upmost pole,
Called all his sons to the strife of blood.
Blake, Europe a Proph­ecy (1794)124

I’m Only Sleeping

Giv­en Higg­s’s fond­ness for keep­ing the con­trar­ies in bal­ance, it is no sur­prise that he is espe­cially attrac­ted to Blake’s realm of Beu­lah, “a place where Con­trari­et­ies are equally true”.125 Higgs describes Beu­lah by saying:

The inab­il­ity for dis­pute to exist in the state of Beu­lah is not because one con­trary pos­i­tion has been wiped away, but because in the state of grace that typ­i­fies Beu­lah there is no ant­ag­on­ism felt towards either extreme. They both exist, are recog­nised, and are simply accep­ted.126

The Blake schol­ar, S Foster Damon, con­sidered Beu­lah to be a ver­sion of the uncon­scious, because:

It is now well-known that in the sub­con­scious, love and hate coex­ist without affect­ing each oth­er, also ten­der­ness and cruelty, pro­duc­tion of sound lost, clean­li­ness and filth, and oth­er such split impulses.127

For Higgs, Beu­lah rep­res­ents a sort of ideal, a space in which things are inde­term­in­ate and con­trar­ies can coex­ist. He likens it to the world of quantum mech­an­ics, in which all pos­sib­il­it­ies exist until the ration­al­ising power of the mind (‘the observ­er’) sep­ar­ates them in an act of creation:

… the way in which this inef­fable cos­mos is trans­formed into a fixed, logic­al world can be said to be an act of cre­ation, in which the def­in­ite appears out of the indef­in­ite. A pro­cess such as this is cent­ral to Blake’s own per­son­al philo­sophy. It is the work of one of the key char­ac­ters in his myth­o­logy. His name is Urizen. Urizen is the per­son­i­fic­a­tion of reas­on. He is the intel­lect that cre­ates law, he is con­trolling and asso­ci­ated with lan­guage, and it is he who con­structs the human-scale world of ration­al­ity and logic in which the coun­try pos­i­tions can­not both be phys­ic­ally true.128

For Blake, Beu­lah exis­ted as an inter­me­di­ary between Etern­ity and Ulro (the world of mat­ter and gen­er­a­tion). It is the lun­ar realm of the uncon­scious, where con­tra­dic­tions abide and coex­ist. As a world of the uncon­scious, Beu­lah is also the world of sleep and dream­ing. It is a dreamy state that can inspire, provid­ing the ‘Daugh­ters of Inspir­a­tion’ to guide the Proph­et, but it is not in any sense an ideal:

The Lamb cre­ated Beu­lah as a refuge from the gigant­ic war­fare of ideas in Etern­ity; here flock all those who are exhausted, the weak, the ter­ri­fied Eman­a­tions, to rest in sleep. In spite of the Con­trari­et­ies, no dis­putes occur which would dis­turb their repose.129

Here we see the dif­fer­ence between the real Blake, who envis­ages Beu­lah as a tem­por­ary haven, where the soul can seek inspir­a­tion to pre­pare itself to fight ‘Men­tal War’ in Etern­ity, and Higg­s’s Blake, for whom Beu­lah resembles an ideal, like the Buddhist Nir­vana. For Higgs it is the Satan­ic Urizen who shat­ters the sym­metry of this void by intro­du­cing his determ­in­a­tions of right and wrong, and it is this act of judge­ment, of mak­ing a judge­ment, that dis­turbs the peace of the abyss and casts us out of para­dise. Blake him­self sees the end-game as tak­ing sides in the War in Etern­ity, fight­ing it through to its con­clu­sion, while Higgs would like to tarry in Beu­lah, safe in the know­ledge that none of the con­trar­ies there will over­reach itself and upset his sleep.

This quiet­ist­ic refus­al to take sides, this long­ing for the peace of sleep, reaches its zenith when it is applied by Higgs to Blake’s entire philo­sophy to con­clude that:

Blake set him­self up as a con­trary. Help­fully, he also taught us about the nature of con­trar­ies. The goal isn’t to choose one side and declare it to be the one cor­rect truth. Instead, we must accept that both con­trar­ies are neces­sary and that any philo­sophy that includes one at the expense of the oth­er is incom­plete. It is the ten­sion between the two poles, and a dynam­ic con­ver­sa­tion which they start, that mat­ters. Hav­ing learnt this we should no longer feel that we must choose between Blake and the deist enlight­en­ment philo­sophy of a dead, mean­ing­less mater­i­al world.130

Higgs is entitled to his view, which flows more or less inex­or­ably from the under­stand­ing of mind and mat­ter, and of the con­trari­et­ies, that he defends in his book. But it is a first for me to read a work on Blake that goes as far as con­clud­ing that there is noth­ing to choose between Blake’s vis­ion and soul­less mater­i­al­ism, that both are simply talk­ing points in some New Age debat­ing soci­ety. People so unmoved by Blake gen­er­ally find oth­er things to write about.

Last Train to Lilliput

Many stood silent & busied in their fam­il­ies
And many said We see no Vis­ions in the dark­som air
Meas­ure the course of that sul­phur orb that lights the dark­some day
Set sta­tions on this breed­ing Earth & let us buy & sell

Blake, The Four Zoas131

[the Pro­lif­ic and the Devouring]
These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be enemies; who­ever tries to recon­cile them seeks to des­troy existence.
Reli­gion is an endeav­our to recon­cile the two.
Note. Jesus Christ did not wish to unite but to seper­ate them, as in the Par­able of sheep and goats! & he says I came not to send Peace but a Sword.

Blake, The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell132

I have sown Dragon’s teeth and reaped only fleas.
Hein­rich Heine

Gulliver in Lilliput

Gul­li­v­er in Lilliput

My hope when I star­ted read­ing this book was that it would use Blake to fan the embers of the coun­ter­cul­ture he was the inspir­a­tion for, help­ing reignite it the way he’d inflamed it to begin with. As the Syr­i­an upris­ing and Black Lives Mat­ter protests demon­strate, polit­ic­al oppos­i­tion to the Beast and Babylon is not lack­ing: what is lack­ing is the kind of pas­sion­ate, total­ising vis­ion Blake embodies—the ambi­tion to steal the fire of the Gods.

To my dis­ap­point­ment, Wil­li­am Blake vs the World turned out to have a dif­fer­ent Blake and a dif­fer­ent agenda in mind. The press release accom­pa­ny­ing it notes that, in the light of Blake’s vis­ion of con­trar­ies exist­ing in har­mony in Beu­lah, Blake’s uni­ver­sal pop­ular­ity might make him a flag or totem around which every­one could rally, left and right, good and evil:

[Blake] appeals to both the left and the right, and his words are sung at both Labour and Con­ser­vat­ive party con­fer­ences. He is an inspir­a­tion to both the estab­lish­ment and the counter cul­ture. He even man­ages to appeal to athe­ists as well as reli­gious or spir­itu­ally inclined people. Thanks to polit­ic­al and cul­tur­al tri­bal­ism, egged on by the algorithms of social media, we are cur­rently a pro­foundly divided coun­try. The need for a fig­ure that can bring people togeth­er like Blake has nev­er been great­er… he is such a uni­fy­ing fig­ure… due to his belief that we can­not gain a true under­stand­ing of the world if we refused to include oppos­ing pos­i­tions… Wil­li­am Blake shows us that divi­sion lim­its everyone—and that it can be over­come.133

This sounds rather Churchil­lian, and you can eas­ily ima­gine that if it were a speech at a con­fer­ence, the del­eg­ates would get up at the end to sing Jer­u­s­alem. Essen­tially, Higgs pro­poses that Blake be used as the glue to forge a Cos­mic Pop­u­lar Front, along the lines of the Pop­u­lar Fronts of WWII, which pro­ver­bi­ally united ‘bish­ops and brick­ies’ in the struggle against fas­cism. Except that this time he pos­sibly even wants the fas­cists on board too, as his tent is so broad as to include lit­er­ally every­one. After all, the Eng­lish Defence League are also part of the set of Blake enthu­si­asts, hav­ing pub­lished a his­tory of their move­ment under the name Billy Blake. Higgs appears to think that Blake’s image of coex­ist­ing con­trar­ies can act as a mod­el for a unity encom­passing every­one from the richest gas-guzz­ling, bit­coin-stuffed olig­arch and his apo­lo­gists down to the lowli­est den­iz­ens of your neigh­bour­hood food bank.

As we’ve seen, for Blake it was only in Beulah—a dream­like, sleep­ing state—that con­trar­ies could coex­ist in this way. In the real world, it is unlikely that the mere men­tion of Blake’s name will be enough to recon­cile Black Amer­ica and the Ku Klux Klan, Bashar Assad and the Syr­i­an Upris­ing. To remind ourselves, The inab­il­ity for dis­pute to exist in the state of Beu­lah is… because in… Beu­lah there is no ant­ag­on­ism felt towards either extreme”.134 In Higg­s’s world, how­ever, the con­trar­ies can all be resolved because, as we’ve seen, “[they] are noth­ing more sol­id than ideas,“135 and ideas can always be trumped by the ima­gin­a­tion. In order words, Higg­s’s uto­pia requires only that the olig­arch and pau­per agree to sus­pend any mutu­al ant­ag­on­ism they may have felt. I don’t know about you, but I can­not help but feel that this is an unequal exchange that will bene­fit one side more than the oth­er. I con­fess that Higg­s’s polit­ic­al con­clu­sions reminded me of the poem:

I’d like to teach the world to sing
In per­fect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company
I’d like to see the world for once
All stand­ing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills
For peace through­out the land

Except, of course, that this is not a poem by Blake but the lyr­ics of a TV advert­ise­ment for the Coca Cola cor­por­a­tion from 1971, in which the beau­ti­ful people of all col­ours and per­sua­sions held hands and danced, dream­ing of a bet­ter world while chug­ging down sug­ary water. Not unlike this book, the advert traded on the lan­guage of the coun­ter­cul­ture to talk of love and unity while ignor­ing the issues that keep us divided, and all in the interests of keep­ing us all ‘keep­ing on’. The advert was effect­ive in selling the drink, but it did­n’t unite the world, because you can­’t just wish ant­ag­on­isms away in polit­ics the way you can in dreams. This was not Blake’s way.

It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflic­ted
To speak the laws of prudence to the house­less wan­der­er

Then the groan & the dol­or are quite for­got­ten & the slave grind­ing at the mill
And the cap­tive in chains & the poor in the pris­on, & the sol­dier in the field
When the shat­terd bone hath laid him groan­ing among the hap­pi­er dead
It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosper­ity
Thus could I sing & thus rejoice, but it is not so with me!

Blake, The Four Zoas136

At one point early on in read­ing this book an image popped into my mind, and then would not leave me alone. I ima­gined the scene from Gul­li­v­er­’s Travels, where Gul­li­v­er awakens on the beach in the land of Lil­li­put, where the people are minute, to find him­self held down by hun­dreds of little threads. Of course, for the tiny people of Lil­li­put, the threads were sturdy ropes. It seemed to me that the argu­ments in the course of this book were each like one of these threads, each argu­ment, one after the oth­er, attempt­ing to keep the giant Blake down to the size of the people of Lil­li­put. But the attempts of the Lil­li­pu­tians are wasted: as soon as Gul­li­v­er awakens he is eas­ily able to lift him­self up, and the tiny threads all break.

My prob­lem with this book is that it seeks to reduce a giant, Blake, to the dimen­sions of a Lilliputian—a pro­ponent of men­tal health through mod­er­a­tion; a polit­ic­al rad­ic­al whose aim is not justice but peace at all costs; an advoc­ate of a tran­scend­ence equi­val­ent to that which can be achieved through any sport­ing activ­ity that gets you ‘in the zone’. Ulti­mately, per­haps this does not mat­ter. When a coun­ter­cul­ture worth its name does finally ree­m­erge, it will recog­nise the real Blake as its own and will not be fooled for a moment by this Lil­li­pu­tian. The shame is only that those look­ing today for an image of the real Blake that can inspire us to such new, vastly great­er heights, will find scant evid­ence of him here.

Andy Wilson


  1. John Higgs, Wil­li­am Blake vs the World (Proof), Lon­don: Weiden­feld & Nicolson, p221.
  2. Blake, Let­ter to Thomas Butts July 6th 1803, in Dav­id Erd­man, The Com­plete Poetry and Prose of Wil­li­am Blake, New York: Ran­dom House, 1988, p730.
  3. For the found­a­tion­al ana­lyses of Blake’s myth­o­logy and sym­bol­ism, see Northrop Frye, Fear­ful Sym­metry: A Study of Wil­li­am Blake (1947), Prin­ceton Uni­ver­sity Press, 1990; Har­old Bloom, Blake’s Apo­ca­lypse (1963), New York: Doubleday & Co, 1963; and S Foster Damon, A Blake Dic­tion­ary: The Ideas and Sym­bols of Wil­li­am Blake (1965), Leban­on: Uni­ver­sity Press of New Eng­land, 1988. G E Bent­ley authored and edited sev­er­al books essen­tial to the under­stand­ing of Blake’s life and work, includ­ing The Stranger from Para­dise: A Bio­graphy of Wil­li­am Blake, Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 2003.
  4. Eben Alex­an­der III, quoted in Higgs, p14.
  5. John Higgs, Wil­li­am Blake Now: Why He Mat­ters More Than Ever, Lon­don: Wieden­feld & Nicolson, 2019. In fact, the pamph­let turned out to be some early chapters of the book as it was being writ­ten, released early in their own right as a pre­curs­or to it.
  6. John Higgs, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Mil­lion Pounds, Lon­don: Wieden­feld & Nicolson, 2013; I Have Amer­ica Sur­roun­ded: The Life of Timothy Leary, The Fri­day Pro­ject, 2006; Wat­ling Street: Travels Through Bri­tain and Its Ever-Present Past, Lon­don: Wieden­feld & Nicolson, 2018; Stranger Than We Can Ima­gine: An Altern­at­ive His­tory of the 20th Cen­tury, Lon­don: Wieden­feld & Nicolson, 2015.
  7. Press Release: Wil­li­am Blake vs the World, Wieden­feld & Nicolson, May 2021
  8. For an account of the ways in which Blake’s poetry reflects the details of polit­ic­al con­flict, and in par­tic­u­lar, the Amer­ic­an War of Inde­pend­ence and the French Revolu­tion, see Dav­id Erd­man, Proph­et Against Empire: A Poet’s Inter­pret­a­tion of the His­tory of His Own Time, New York: Dover Pub­lic­a­tions, 1991 (1954).
  9. “It [is] very hard to agree with Blake’s opin­ion of him­self as a Chris­ti­an.” Higgs, p268.
  10. Higgs, pp270f
  11. Higgs, p272.
  12. Blake, Vis­ions of the Daugh­ters of Albion pl5, Erd­man p48.
  13. Blake, Milton I 10:1, Erd­man p104.
  14. Higgs, p266.
  15. It is not done to speak glibly of people being ‘mad’ any­more, as opposed to speak­ing of spe­cif­ic men­tal health symp­toms and dia­gnoses. How­ever, this is the term used in con­nec­tion with Blake in the past, and around which debate still turns. It refers to an unspe­cified, vague and non-spe­cif­ic men­tal dysfunction.
  16. Robert Hunt, The Exam­iner, 17 Septem­ber 1809, in G E Bent­ley (ed), Blake Records: Second Edi­tion, Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 2004, pp282‑3.
  17. See Blake, A Descript­ive Cata­logue (1809), Erd­man p529.
  18. Cor­neli­us Var­ley, quoted in Alex­an­der Gil­christ, Life of Wil­li­am Blake, Lon­don: Dent & Sons, 1942, p321.
  19. Gil­christ either quotes or oth­er­wise relays opin­ions to this effect from friends and acquaint­ances of Blake from every peri­od of his life, includ­ing Wil­li­am Hay­ley, Robert Cromek, Thomas and Mary Butts and many oth­ers over the course of sev­er­al pages. See Gil­christ, ibid, pp321f.
  20. Gre­ville Mac­Don­ald MD, The San­ity of Wil­li­am Blake, Lon­don: Fifield, 1908, p8.
  21. Higgs, p193.
  22. Higgs, pp113f.
  23. Higgs, p114.
  24. Higgs, p116.
  25. Higgs, pp115, 116.
  26. Higgs, p194.
  27. Higgs, p203.
  28. Higgs, p204.
  29. Higgs, p194.
  30. Higgs, p188
  31. Higgs p180.
  32. Blake, Let­ter to George Cum­ber­land 2nd July 1800, Erd­man p700.
  33. Blake, Let­ter to George Cum­ber­land 1st Septem­ber 1800, in G E Bent­ley, Blake Records: Second Edi­tion, Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 2004, pp95‑7.
  34. Higgs p158.
  35. Blake, Let­ter to Thomas Butts 2nd Octo­ber 1800, Erd­man  p712.
  36. Higgs, p160.
  37. The rad­ic­al dis­sent­er and sci­ent­ist, Joseph Priestley, who moved in some of the same circles as Blake, had his Birm­ing­ham home burned down dur­ing riots against sym­path­isers of the French Revolu­tion in 1791.
  38. Dav­id Erd­man (1954), p311.
  39. Higgs, pp180f.
  40. Higgs p 181.
  41. Higgs p180.
  42. For the full story of James Tilley Mat­thews, see Mike Jay, The Influ­en­cing Machine: James Tilley Mat­thews and the Air Loom, Strange Attract­or Press, 2012.
  43. Higgs, p192.
  44. Higgs, ibid.
  45. Higgs, ibid.
  46. Higgs p193.
  47. Higgs, p255.
  48. Higgs, p279.
  49. Wil­li­am Blake vs the World, Press Release, Weiden­feld & Nicolson, May 2021.
  50. D G Gill­ham, Blake’s Con­trary States: The Songs of Inno­cence and of Exper­i­ence as Dra­mat­ic Poems, Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 1966, pp3‑4
  51. Blake, The Chim­ney Sweep­er, Songs of Inno­cence and Exper­i­ence pl2, Erd­man p10.
  52. Blake, ibid.
  53. Higgs, p45.
  54. Blake, The Chim­ney Sweep, Songs of Exper­i­ence pl37, Erd­man p23.
  55. Higgs, p45.
  56. S Foster Damon, op cit, p416.
  57. Higgs, p55.
  58. Higgs, pp53‑4.
  59. Higgs, p164.
  60. Blake, All Reli­gions are One (1788), in Erd­man pp1‑2.
  61. Frijtof Kapra, The Tao of Phys­ics: An Explor­a­tion of the Par­al­lels Between Mod­ern Phys­ics and East­ern Mys­ti­cism, Shambhala Pub­lic­a­tions, 1975; Gary Zukav, The Dan­cing Wu Li Mas­ters: An Over­view of the New Phys­ics, New York: Wil­li­am Mor­row and Com­pany, 1979.
  62. Don­ald S Lopez Jr, Buddhism and Sci­ence: A Guide for the Per­plexed, Uni­ver­sity of Chica­go Press, 2008.
  63. Ibid, pxi.
  64. Quoted in  Don­ald S Lopez Jr, ibid, p74.
  65. Blake, Milton I  29:21–2, Erd­man p127.
  66. Higgs, p54.
  67. Steph­en Mitchell (tr), Tao Te Ching, 1995. Quoted in Higgs, p54.
  68. Higgs, p87‑8.
  69. Jes­sica Andrews-Hanna, ‘The Brain’s Default Net­work and its Adapt­ive Role in Intern­al Men­ta­tion’, quoted in ‘Default Mode Net­work’ n18, Wiki­pe­dia, <>, accessed 2021-05-23.
  70. Blake, Milton I 14:22, Erd­man p108.
  71. Higgs, p23.
  72. Higgs, p26.
  73. Higgs, p27.
  74. Higgs, p32.
  75. Theodore Roszak, The Mak­ing of a Counter Cul­ture: Reflec­tions on the Tech­no­crat­ic Soci­ety and Its Youth­ful Oppos­i­tion, New York: Anchor Books, 1969
  76. Blake, Milton I:1, in Dav­id Erd­man (ed), The Com­plete Poetry and Prose of Wil­li­am Blake, New York: Ran­dom House, 1988, p95.
  77. Aldous Hux­ley, The Per­en­ni­al Philo­sophy, Lon­don: Chatto and Win­dus, 1945, Dust Jacket.
  78. Blake, The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell pl14, Erd­manp39.
  79. Luke Walk­er, Wil­li­am Blake in the 1960s: Coun­ter­cul­ture and Rad­ic­al Recep­tion, PhD Thes­is, Uni­ver­sity of Sus­sex, June 2014, p4. 
  80. Higgs, p83.
  81. Higgs, p80.
  82. Dav­id Erd­man, Proph­et Against Empire: A Poet’s Inter­pret­a­tion of the His­tory of His Own Time, New York: Dover Pub­lic­a­tions, 1954.
  83. Jon Mee, Dan­ger­ous Enthu­si­asm: Wil­li­am Blake and the Cul­ture of Rad­ic­al­ism in the 1790s, Oxford: Clar­en­don Press, 1992, p1.
  84. Blake, Jer­u­s­alem III 57:10–1, Erd­man p207.
  85. Higgs, p186.
  86. Higgs, p77.
  87. Higgs, p77.
  88. Higgs, p79.
  89. Higgs, p75.
  90. Blake, Jer­u­s­alem II 27:13–6, Erd­man p172.
  91. ‘Olla Por­ida’, The Toma­hawk, 7th Decem­ber 1795.
  92. Higgs, p79.
  93. Blake, The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell pl4, Erd­man, p34.
  94. Higgs, p165.
  95. On the influ­ence of piet­ism and Böhme on Hegel, see Glenn Alex­an­der Magee, Hegel and the Her­met­ic Tra­di­tion, Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity Press, 2008.
  96. Though there is still con­sid­er­able work to be done to elab­or­ate Blake’s thought in this regard, and his pos­i­tion is not the same as Col­eridge’s, whatever over­laps may exist. Blake regarded Wordsworth’s poetry, which reflec­ted a sim­il­ar sym­metry between mind and nature, as a pan­the­ist­ic vari­ation on Deism, ima­gin­ing nature itself to be ensouled.
  97. Higgs, p60.
  98. Higgs, p211.
  99. Higgs, pp57‑8.
  100. Blake, Jer­u­s­alem I 54:16, Erd­man p203.
  101. James C Evans, Blake, Locke, & The Concept of ‘Gen­er­a­tion’, in Blake: An Illus­trated Quaterly Vol.9 Issue 2 Fall 1975.
  102. Higgs, p27.
  103. Higgs, pp57‑8.
  104. It is this aspect of mod­ern psy­cho­logy, in which the mind is seen as a simple pro­cessing machine, that resembles the logic of the Buddhist Abhid­hamma Piṭaka, men­tioned above
  105. Higgs, p242.
  106. Higgs, p57.
  107. Blake, The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell pl3, Erd­man p34; quoted in Higgs p47.
  108. Higgs, p47.
  109. Higgs, p47
  110. Higgs, p48
  111. Higgs, p48.
  112. Blake, ‘A Mem­or­able Fancy’, The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell p28, Erd­man p38.
  113. Higgs, p47.
  114. Blake, The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell pl16, Erd­man p40.
  115. Higgs, p102.
  116. Higgs, p48.
  117. Higgs, p55.
  118. Higgs, p49.
  119. See BlakeThe French Revolu­tion (1791), Amer­ica: A Proph­ecy (1793), and Europe: A Proph­ecy (1794).
  120. Wal­ter Ben­jamin, ‘Theses on the Philo­sophy of His­tory’, Thes­is XV, in Han­nah Aren­dt (ed), Harry Zohn (tr), Illu­min­a­tions: Essays and Reflec­tions, New York: Schock­en Books, p261.
  121. Higgs, p69.
  122. Higgs, ibid.
  123. Higgs, p70.
  124. Blake, Europe: A Proph­esy 14:37–15:11, Erd­man p66.
  125. Blake uses this same phrase to intro­duce the realm of Beu­lah in both Milton and Jer­u­s­alem, thereby under­lin­ing its import­ance to his con­cep­tion. See Milton II 30:1, Erd­man p129, and Jer­u­s­alem II 48:14, Erd­man p196.
  126. Higgs, p49.
  127. S Foster Damon, op cit, p 42.
  128. Higgs, p50.
  129. S Foster Damon, ibid.
  130. Higgs, p272‑3
  131. Blake, The Four Zoas II 28:16–9, Erd­man p318.
  132. Blake, The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell 16–17, Erd­man p40.
  133. Wil­li­am Blake vs the World, Press Release, Weiden­feld & Nicolson, May 2021.
  134. S Foster Damon, ibid, p42.
  135. Higgs, p55.
  136. Blake, The Four Zoas II 35:11–36:14, Erd­man p325.