What’s the Use of William Blake?

ARTS, 29 May 2023

Stephen F. Eisenman | CounterPunch - TRANSCEND Media Service

William Blake, The First Book of Urizen, plate 4 (detail), 1794, British Museum.

Fire in the Museum

26 May 2023 – What’s the use of William Blake? Or for that matter, what’s the use of any art and literature in an age of climate change, proxy wars, nuclear threat, pandemic, and the rise of fascism? Rather than study and enjoy works by long dead poets or painters, shouldn’t we focus on the emergency? If the museum is on fire, do we stroll the galleries, admiring the masterpieces or rush in and douse the flames?

Though I’ve never had to rescue artworks from a burning museum, I’ve experienced the art vs politics problem for years. I was for almost four decades a professor of art history, and despite radical convictions, was relatively detached from real-world politics. Now I help run an environmental justice organization as well as contribute to Counterpunch — and subject myself to more politics than is healthy for anybody. But at least I have no department meetings to attend.

I still enjoy looking at art and writing about it from time to time, especially the art of William Blake (1757-1827). He faced the art/politics dilemma too, though with the significant advantage of artistic and poetic genius. The first thing to know about Blake, apart from his extraordinary skill, is that he was clued in to the exigencies of his time: war and revolution; immiseration of the masses and enrichment of the few; the rise of the fossil fuel economy; and grave threats to political and expressive freedom. To Blake, what mattered in both art and politics, was radicalism, meaning getting to the heart of the matter, and imagination, freeing the mind to enable liberation. These ideas found a surprising reprise, we’ll see, in the aesthetic writings of the 20th century German philosopher, musicologist, and composer Theodor Adorno.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93), the book’s narrator asks the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel (who have come for dinner), how they can be so sure they heard the voice of God. Isaiah gives a surprising answer:

“I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then persuaded & remain confirm’d; that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote…. And in ages of imagination, this removed mountains.”

What Blake suggests here is that in revolutionary times, which he calls “ages of imagination,” righteous anger and public protest can change the world. Half a century later, Marx expressed a similar idea:

“The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses….To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter [and]….the categorical imperative is to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being [Marx’s emphasis].”

Criticism, theory, and art, Marx says, are no match for guns. Force must be met with force. But radical ideas become a material force when they seize the imagination of the masses. Among the skills required of any radical, Bertolt Brecht agreed in 1935, are the “keenness to recognize the truth,” and “the cunning to spread the truth among the many.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 5 (detail), 1790-93. Coll: Library of Congress.

Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was an effort to recognize and spread the truth, though its hand-printed form prevented it from reaching many readers. In this deluxe, 27-page book of pictures and prose, Blake extolls the revolutionary virtues of energy, exuberance, spontaneity, excess and imagination, and conjures a social and political order based on principles taught by Satan. “Energy is Eternal Delight” says the Devil. The following is a selection of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” from MHH:

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

“He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.”

“No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.”

“Prisons are built with stones of law, Brothels with bricks of religion.”

“The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.”

“The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”

“Exuberance is Beauty”

“Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desire.”

The illustration on plate 5 (above) shows the ancient Greek figure of Phaeton cast out of the sky for recklessly driving his father’s Helios’s chariot. (The Sun-God should have hidden the keys.) Phaeton is a figure of “excess” and “exuberance,” who clearly “soars too high.” But in being punished, he is also rewarded, according to Blake. He’s headed straight for the fires of Hell, the domain in which desire and imagination are rewarded. Even the horse will be redeemed – the saddle and bridle of “instruction” have been thrown off and the animal will soon gambol alongside the “tygers of wrath.”

The poem was written and illustrated between 1790 and 1793 during a particularly tumultuous time in British history. The 1789 revolution in France, initially greeted in England with official unconcern, became a political lightening rod, especially after the French king and queen were arrested and executed in January 1793. The English monarchy and conservative parliament feared similar fates, and war with France was declared. Even the vaguest threats to the English monarchy were now treated as seditious. Blake’s book contains many attacks upon kingship, as well as references to the mentally enfeebled English King George III, so it’s not surprising that Blake withheld his name from the title page of Marriage, and even its place of publication. He wished to remain undercover – at least for this, his most incendiary work.

Poetic opacity

America a Prophesy published a year later, is equally radical, but its anti-colonial, abolitionist and free-love messages are veiled by a more complex syntax than MHH, plus a contrived mythic system and oddly named cast of angels, demons, gods, and mortals. In this and subsequent works, we meet Orc, Urizen, Los, Ololon, Rintrah, Palamabron, and Enitharmon among others. Each plot is more convoluted and less readable than the previous one. This obscurity must have been purposeful and intended in part, as protection against arrest. Among the measures instituted by Prime Minster William Pitt during his “reign of terror” in the mid 1790s, were the two “Gagging Acts” (1795). The first allowed individuals to be charged with treason merely for repeating, in speech or text, proscribed words and ideas, while the second limited the size of public gatherings. Poetic opacity allowed Blake to challenge established ideology and power without personal risk. Magistrates couldn’t bring charges of treason against Blake if they didn’t understand him!

Nevertheless, in 1803, at the end of his three-year stay at a quaint, coastal cottage at Felpham belonging to his friend and patron, the poet William Hayley, Blake “let his guard down,” as the literary historian Mark Crosby has written. A confrontation with a soldier who entered his garden escalated into a brawl, during which Blake is supposed to have “damned the King of England, his country and his subjects.” A few weeks later, Blake was charged with “seduction from allegiance and duty” (inciting a soldier to disloyalty), “seditious expressions,” and “assault.” These were very serious charges – especially since there was widespread fear that Napoleon might invade any time — and could have resulted in imprisonment, transportation to Botany Bay or even death. According to the complainants, Blake is also said to have uttered the following during the altercation:

“The French knew our strength very well and if Buonaparte should come he would be master of Europe in an hour’s time, that England might depend upon it that when he sat his foot on English Ground that Every Englishman would be put to his choice whether to have his throat cut or to join the French & that he was a strong Man and wuld] certainly begin to cut throats and the Strongest Man must conquer.”

That last clause was ambiguous. Was Napoleon or Blake the strong man who would be cutting English throats? Presumably the former, but a judge and jury might disagree. (It’s also possible the whole statement was made up.)

In the end, Hayley hired a good lawyer to represent Blake, the two prosecution witnesses contradicted each other, defense witnesses denied the allegations, and Blake was acquitted. We’ll never know whether Blake in fact cursed the sovereign, though we do know that in an annotation to his copy of Francis Bacon’s essays, he penned the sentence: “Everybody hates a King.” Luckily, he didn’t post it on Twitter!

In Milton, a Poem (1804-11), the illuminated book he began to compose after his return to London from Felpham, Blake describes the descent from heaven to earth of the 17th century author of Paradise Lost. We learn of the great poet’s recovery of his female alter-ego (she’s named Ololon), confrontation with his better self, Satan, and renunciation of “self-righteousness/in all its Hypocritic self-turpitude.” The language and imagery, however, is quite confusing to the average reader (even to the specialist). No suppression of authorship was necessary here; its radicalism was masked, except for the preface which escaped the censor’s notice:

“Rouse up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant hirelings! For we have hirelings in the Camp, the Court, and the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war. Painters! on you I call. Sculptors! Architects! suffer not the fashionable fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works, or the expensive advertising boasts that they make of such works…”

Blake’s “Rouse up” is his condemnation of writers and artists who care most of all for money and fame, and who think nothing of propagandizing for war – like the one against Napoleon. He also criticizes them for “expensive advertising boasts.” The word “advertising” – to describe a product or person for the purpose of promoting sales – was new to the 18th Century and had a taint. It was associated with the sale of personal and household goods and with criminal prosecution. The OED cites the following usage from 1797 (Encyclopedia Britannica): “In advertising a thief, we are obliged to mention his height, complexion, gait.” In place of self-promotion, Blake encouraged artists to cultivate the virtues of desire, love, energy, and communion.

Blake as Antifa

After his death in 1827, Blake was nearly forgotten, except for a few artist-disciples called The Ancients, chief among whom was Samuel Palmer. But within about a generation, Blake was re-discovered, first by the English poets Dante Gabriel Rosetti and A.G. Swinburne, then the American Walt Whitman and the Irish W.B. Yeats. By the 1920s, his work had entered the canon, though he was still considered an eccentric. In the 1950s, Blake was taken up by Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets and artists in New York and San Francisco, and a decade later by a broader counterculture of Hippies, Yippies and anti-war protesters. He inspired Bob Dylan, The Doors, and Jimi Hendrix, and for a while, reproductions of his artworks were frequent in dorm rooms and head shops. But unlike the better-known visionary artist Vincent van Gogh, Blake’s works have not, for the most part, been turned into kitsch, with the single exception of his lines from the Preface to Milton that begin, “And did those feet in ancient times…” which was turned into an Anglican hymn and misrepresented as an homage to Merry Old England.

The reason Blake’s works were and still are of use to war protesters, advocates of queer liberation, prison abolitionists, and animal rights activists is that they are expressions of “honest indignation” that keep alive the dream of an “age of imagination,” i.e. revolution. The purpose of Blake’s obscurity and difficulty wasn’t only to outsmart the censors; it was to attack conventional language itself, what some later philosophers and critics — for example the Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno — called “instrumental reason.” The latter is the kind of thinking which focuses on profit and loss, judgement and law, measurement and enclosure, efficiency and rationality, and objectivity and universality. Blake on the other hand, affirmed “the substance underlying appearance” and a moral and political order that was anti-selfish, anti-individualist, antinomian, anti-war, and anti-capitalist. Blake stands on the side of the antis today who want to overturn hierarchies of class, race, gender, and species, abolish the repressive prison system, halt the destruction of Earth systems, and stop fascism. Blake was Antifa.

Adorno in the City of Angels

More than a hundred years after Blake’s death, in the wake of Nazism and fascism, Theodor Adorno argued, much like Blake, that the artist’s first responsibility was to generate moral and political energy. However, that radical commitment might in the end demand poetic silence: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

When Adorno composed that aphorism, for an essay called “Culture Critique and Society,” he was living on the west side of Los Angeles, among other world-sick emigres, including the composer Arnold Schoenberg, philosopher Max Horkheimer, the playwright Brecht and novelist Thomas Mann. Adorno had been thinking and writing about both mass and elite culture for some time: jazz and big-band music, Hollywood films, astrology columns, Wagner’s operas, and the celebrity conductor Arturo Toscanini. All of it, he believed – high and low, popular and refined – had fallen under the spell of stereotype and kitsch, marketing and conformism, racism and parochialism; all of it was subject to the discipline of instrumental reason and the calculus of monopoly capitalism.

Even the music, art, and literature he most admired – works that were independent, original, and challenging – like the 12-tone compositions of Alban Berg, the novels of James Joyce and plays of Samuel Beckett — served as alibis for the rest of the culture and were thus complicit in the political regression of the age. To write poetry with the full knowledge of what capitalist culture had allowed – or what it failed to prevent — was barbaric. Even to live when so many others had been killed, was a kind of barbarism. Those who escaped war-torn Europe or somehow survived the concentration and death camps must have possessed a measure of coldness and calculation – a brutality even. That rationality was the logic of the killers; it had to be renounced.

But even as Adorno reached that disturbing conclusion, he rejected it. Wasn’t there the risk of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” as he wrote in Minima Moralia (1951). To fully embrace the thesis that writing “poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” would be to “extirpate, with the false, all that was true also…and so to bring about directly the barbarism that culture is reproached with furthering indirectly.” It must be the case, he reasoned, that serious works of art reveal underlying social truths. In a court of law, the process of “discovery” exposes the facts underlying a criminal complaint and makes possible a fair trial. So, the most ambitious art, music, and literature, he believed, provides testimony that’s essential in the struggle against fascism.

David E. James, Theodor W. Adorno, 316 S. Kenter Avenue, Brentwood, from The Homes of the Stars, 2021. Courtesy the artist.

In Los Angeles from 1938-‘49, Adorno found safety and the space to draft some of his most important works, including sections of The Authoritarian Personality (1950), Philosophy of New Music (1949), and Dialectic Of Enlightenment (1947) written with his friend Horkheimer. (The latter headed the Institute of Social Research, relocated from Frankfurt to New York City with a branch in Los Angeles.) In Los Angeles, Adorno rented a comfortable cottage and discovered beauty in the gardens of Brentwood and surrounding neighborhoods:

“But best of all are the incredibly intense, in no way reproducible colors…All the red, blue and violet activity found there would appear laughable on any illustration, but it is overwhelming when one sees the real thing.”

William Blake, Milton a Poem, plate 40 (detail). Coll: Library of Congress.

Adorno’s Los Angeles was like Blake’s Felpham; each presided over by angels. In Blake’s case, it was Ololon, Milton’s emanation, shown in plate 40 hovering in the air; in Adorno’s, the city itself, personified: the City of Angels — Jim Morrison’s “another lost angel.” Blake and Adorno’s cottages even look a bit alike!

But behind the “incredibly intense” colors of Los Angeles, the cultural and political landscape of the city was dispiriting. Anti-communism, if not fascism, everywhere outpaced the progress of social democracy. While Roosevelt’s New Deal introduced many new, welfare programs, Father Charles Coughlin’s nativist, anti-Semitic and racist speeches and sermons were as widely heard as any of the president’s “fireside chats.” Coughlin’s popularity peaked between 1932 and ‘34, when about a third of the nation listened to his weekly broadcasts. A few years later, the aviator, isolationist and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh attracted millions of admirers for his newspaper columns, radio broadcasts and rallies. The German American Bund, openly allied with Nazi Germany, held boisterous rallies across the country. A Bund event at Deutsche Haus in downtown L.A. in 1938, attracted thousands. Another at Madison Square Garden in New York a year later, 20,000. Adorno must have attentively followed news of these events and heard them on the radio – it was his professional duty as scholar at the Institute of Social Research and later as one of the lead investigators for the Authoritarian Personality project. In 1939, Adorno published a short book about the broadcasts of the fascist, radio preacher Martin Luther Thomas. What Adorno wrote about him could have been applied to any of the demagogues of that time — and ours:

The more impersonal our order becomes, the more important personality becomes as an ideology. The more the individual is reduced to a mere cog, the more the idea of the uniqueness of the individual, his autonomy and importance has to be stressed as a compensation for his actual weakness….It can even be said that part of the secret of totalitarian leadership, is that the leader presents the image of an autonomous personality actually denied his followers.

Progressive forces rarely gained the upper hand in California during those years. Upton Sinclair, socialist author of The Jungle, in 1934 organized the End Poverty in California campaign, culminating in his run for governor. He garnered almost 40% of votes but was defeated by dirty tricks and the failure of mainstream Democrats, including President Roosevelt, to support him. Four years later, another EPIC candidate, Culbert Olson was elected governor on the Democratic ticket, and at once set out to extend New Deal reforms by establishing a State Relief Administration. But within a short time, he and his EPIC allies were set on their heels.

The Soviet/Nazi non-aggression pact in August 1939, divided the left and gave ammunition to die-hard anti-communists. An Un-American Activities Committee was formed in the California State Senate in 1941, to parallel the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee established in Washington three years earlier. Led by Sen. Jack Tenney of Los Angeles, it aimed to root our communists in the SRA. Olson himself was charged with harboring communists in his administration. Other fascist milestones that year include Lindberg addressing 30,000 people at an isolationist America First rally at the Hollywood Bowl. All the major newspapers in the state, including The Los Angeles Times, Oakland Tribune and the Hearst newspapers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, were rabidly anti-communist and illiberal, spearheading every possible reactionary witch-hunt. Republican Los Angeles mayor, Fletcher Bowron, elected in 1938 as a reform candidate, soon became a zealous proponent of the internment of Californians of Japanese descent, even promoting a law that would strip many of their American citizenship.

After the conclusion of the war in 1945, as the cold-war dawned, Southern California became the epicenter of the defense industry, its executives and workers easily motivated to promote the most virulent strains of anti-communism. State Senator Tenney’s committee led the assault on communists (real and supposed), socialists, and even just liberals in public schools, colleges and universities, labor unions and other civil society organizations. Books were banned from school libraries for insufficient patriotism and for the merest suggestion of sex education. Loyalty oaths for civil servants and professors were mandated. Tenney even travelled to Washington in 1947 to warn HUAC of the dangerously subversive activities of Charlie Chaplin, Fredrick March, Frank Sinatra, John Garfield, and Edward G. Robinson.

David James, Bertolt Brecht. 1063 26th St. Santa Monica, (1942-47), from The Homes of the Stars, 2021. Courtesy the artist.

That year, HUAC began its own broad investigation of supposed communist infiltration of the movie industry. Eleven writers and directors were called to testify, and ten of them refused to answer questions. They were convicted of contempt of Congress, imprisoned for a year, and blacklisted from the industry. They were known as The Hollywood Ten. The 11th was Adorno’s friend, the playwright and poet Brecht who denied membership in the Communist Party (though he was a committed, lower C communist), and mocked the proceedings by challenging its translations of his poems and songs. He was nevertheless condemned by fellow film industry writers for answering questions at all, and soon emigrated to Zurich and then East Berlin. Brecht’s poems and “elegies” about Los Angeles, speak to the weariness and wariness of the leftist emigres, and their sense of residing in the belly of the capitalist beast. He was Adorno’s friend and almost neighbor, but embittered by his experience writing for Hollywood:

“On Thinking about Hell, I gather
My brother Shelley found it was a place
Much like the city of London. I
Who live in Los Angeles and not in London
Find, on thinking about Hell, that it must be
Still more like Los Angeles”

In 1948, a year after the HUAC incursion into Hollywood, the Rand Corporation (“Research and Development”) was established as an offshoot of the Douglas Aircraft Company. General Curtis LeMay, who advocated nuclear war against the Soviet Union, was its first appointee. RAND was initially headquartered at Santa Monica Airport, (a short drive down Bundy Ave from Adorno’s house) and its first research project was a Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship (SM-11827) intended to expand the reach and capacity of the U.S. Air Force. Rand soon, thereafter, also began to recruit social scientists to support its security and other policy work. This was the context of Adorno’s Los Angeles in 1949 when he wrote ‘Cultural Critique and Society,” mused about poetry after Auschwitz, and developed a critique of positivist sociology that would culminate, 20 years later, in The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology.

The use and non-use of art

Adorno’s last book, published posthumously, was Aesthetic Theory (1970); it’s there that his ideas and even writing style resemble at times, Blake’s. Adorno dispensed with chapters, headings, and rubrics. Even paragraph breaks are missing on many pages. He rejected strict linearity in thought and motif, preferring instead circuits of reference, allusion, and repetition, like Blake did in his prophetic books. In its breathlessness, allusiveness, and peculiar jargon – “image character,” “thing-like” “administered world,” “blasts open,” and “movement at a standstill” – Aesthetic Theory recalls Blake’s Milton and Jerusalem, Emanation of the Great Albion. Both authors aspired to the epic. But most of all, the two come together in their agreement about the usefullness and the uselessness of art.

Adorno believed that because the social and political order of monopoly capitalism is so debased by violence, cruelty, greed, and antipathy to nature (including human and animal nature), the best works of art must be expressions of negation: the “social antithesis of society.” Thus, the bare, unaccommodating, styptic, stringent, or ironic character of so much of the modern art he admired, such as the music of Schoenberg, Berg and later, Karlheinz Stockhausen; the theatre of Samuel Beckett; and the painting of Wols. These works expose difficult to accept social and political truth that must be grasped if the current system is to be overturned.

But at the same time, the most important function of art according to Adorno, is its sublime uselessness. Only by denying instrumental logic – the requirement that every human act, expression or creation serve an instructive, productive, and quantifiable end can the artwork be understood as radical. An artwork’s autonomy comprises its “truth content” far more than any supposed sociocultural meaning. Only so-called “autonomous” or non-propositional works of art, according to Adorno, can point to a future in which human creative potential is realized and individuality confirmed.

For Blake too, art must transcend its mundane, empirical character. Otherwise, it’s just an instrument of oppressive reason, law, science, discipline, and punishment. Blake was an anti-naturalist in an age when naturalistic landscape painting (Alexander Cozens, Thomas Gainsborough, and John Constable), and portraiture (Gainsborough again, Joshua Reynolds and George Romney) were triumphant. For Blake, painting and poetry were most profoundly radical when they were most imaginative and free. And imagination for Blake, we have seen, was another word for revolution. To blast open “the doors of perception” was the best use for art then — and it still is: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite./For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern” (MHH).


Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. He can be reached at: s-eisenman@northwestern.edu

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