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?

Elsewhere on this site, Conor Kostick conducted an interview with Andy about this review and about his ideas on Blake and the counterculture generally.

People and Scholars: Blake on the Highways and Byways

Hey Hellbait, why are you waiting?
You got a gun – & there’s still stinkers living
BANG BANG
give it to me straight, doctor
I can almost taste it
when you gonna show us your
END GAME?

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 greatest 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)33
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)35

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 Innocence52

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.
67

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 liable to be rejected 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 prophets.

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
90

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

Hegel

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
London
2021-05-24

Notes

  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, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Default_mode_network>, 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.