There is a definition of holiness in The Four Zoas, Blake’s great unpublished manuscript. This work was begun in Lambeth in 1797 and presents the evolution of Blake’s thought through the middle years of his life using poetry, art and erotica. Nestling between the naked human figures is this definition of divinity:
Where shall we take our stand to view the infinite & unbounded
Defining a concept through a question may not please a philosopher but artists often favour this approach. In the 20th century the visionary painter Stanley Spencer asked: What is the holiness of things except a thousand disparate celebrations of matrimony?
Whereas Spencer’s understanding of holiness may be obscure and idiosyncratic, Blake’s approach to divinity is clear. The purpose of a life is to build a platform from where you might view the infinite and the unbounded. This is easier to state than to achieve. Today most of us spend our lives working in the corporate world, yet how are we to seek the unlimited from within a limited company? Or the divine in a digital age?
Blake began the quest for divinity through a youthful enthusiasm for contraries. ‘Without contraries is no progression’. This love of dialectics permeates his early years and the enthusiasm can be seen in the titles of his Lambeth books: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
The most beautiful copy of the Songs, the one Blake had by his side at his death was given to EM Forster in 1904 and for over fifty years the novelist possessed the book. Perhaps the dialectical argument leapt from the page into Forster’s heart for it can be seen in his most famous quote: Only connect. “Only connect the prose and the passion”. As a man and as a writer Forster was attempting to find a place to take a stand. “Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man.”
Blake’s own search for the connected man, the person in whom the Four fragmented Zoas become one, found its fulfilment in his final illuminated work, Jerusalem or to give this uniquely difficult book its full title: Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion.
Albion is this unified man, the one who has found where to take his stand, and from where he can see the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour.
Albion is also the ancient name of England – the Roman view of the white cliffs and the Latin for white. Blake was playful with words and would often give clues to his mythology through the names of his Zoas or archetypes: Luvah for passion or Urizen for reason (your-reason not mine). So Blake will forgive me if I reduce the 100 pages of Jerusalem to a simple wordplay, and a play on his own name.
The etymology of Blake is Black, and as a printer Blake knew the delight of black ink on white paper. Yet as he grew older he moved beyond this simple dialectical pleasure of comparing black to white. He developed an almost alchemical passion to turn black into white, to transform Blake into Albion.
This emanation of a perfect person is the story of Jerusalem. With the unification of black and white and the commingling of reason and passion, Blake transformed dialectics into divinity. His great task was complete, and from this standpoint he could hold infinity in the palm of his hand and see heaven in a wild flower.
Such grand ambitions are not needed by all of us. The English visionary Eric Gill who is famous for his black and white wood engravings of young girls bathing was content to simply enjoy the pleasures of the dialectic. At the end of his life when Gill found wealth and success, he bought a large house and commissioned a special bathtub for his new home. This bath was carved out of black marble so he could enjoy the sight of white flesh against black stone.
Erotica, artists, stories … the digital age is a time of unrivalled choice. Yet at the heart of this vortex of facts and fiction is a fixed point, or rather two fixed points, the 1 and the 0 of the digital technology.
Blake would have enjoyed our multimedia age, and he would have seen immediately that the one and the zero are the contraries of our age. How do we find the path beyond a 1 and a 0 (between the ultimate rock and a hard place) to view the infinite and the unbounded?
In Jerusalem, Blake wrote,
There is a Grain of Sand in Lambeth that Satan cannot find
And in his other great book Milton there occurs the sister phrase:
There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find
Nor can his Watch Fiends find it, but the Industrious find
This moment and it multiply, & when it once is found
It renovates every Moment of the Day if rightly placed
To find this moment where he could break free from the mind-forged manacles of his day, Blake would try a number of tricks: madness, dissent, visions and ultimately his skill as an artist – ‘execution is the chariot of genius’. All these techniques he collectively called the Imagination.
‘The Imagination is not a state, it is the human existence itself.’ For Blake imagination meant a form of exegesis, the duty to use your professional gifts to interpret and reinterpret the world all the days of your life.
In the bible there is a story of the disciples on a boat on the lake of Galilee, fishing all night, yet catching nothing. And in the morning a stranger appears on the shore and calls out: Cast your net on the other side! And the disciples did and the net was full of fish.
When you are a child you marvel at the obedience of the fish to swim to their deaths. A little older and you puzzle at the humility of the fishermen to follow a suggestion from an amateur watching from the shore. Then as you leave childhood, the fish become a metaphor for truth and you realise we are all fishermen. But the process of exegesis never ends and in a digital age, when the world can be expressed with a one and a zero, with no room for anything between or beyond, where is the other side? Where do you cast the net?
Blake believed that when you meet such a fundamental impasse, you first identify the contrary states and then use the imagination to paint an escape. Let me now give a few images of people who have sought a stand to view the infinite and the unbounded.
In 1857, a hundred years after Blake’s birth, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was photographed wearing a top hat standing in front of the anchor chains of the Great Eastern, the greatest of his iron ships. As an engineer Brunel had so expanded the chains of cause and effect, which bind our expectations, that he could pass through a link of that chain like a camel through the eye of a needle.
The kingdom of heaven was imagined a century later by Teilhard de Chardin in a synthesis of the two great contraries of his age. The theologian tried to find a path between the Darwinian theory of Evolution and the biblical tradition of Adam and Eve. So Teilhard de Chardin made a leap of the imagination. He embraced the theory of evolution wholeheartedly and fused it with the biblical theory of creation. He proposed that we are indeed evolving, and the point we are evolving towards is the Godhead.
Finally, who is divine today in our digital age? It is difficult to be a judge on your own age and even more difficult to find an example that both the writer and the reader will agree upon. But suddenly into my mind leapt Michael Jackson, someone who is either divine or demonic.
Jackson has tried to marry the innocence of childhood with the sexuality of adulthood; he is a man who has transformed black into white through cosmetic surgery; a figure who through his virtuosity, madness, and dissent attracts our attention and our judgement.
Everyday during his trial you see him entering the courthouse in California where a guard runs a metal detector down his front, then orders him to turn to check his back. Jackson rises on his toes and then, in a moment that renovates every moment in the day, you see the dancer rise above our world and pirouette. Under his shoe is that grain of sand from Lambeth.
Chair of The Blake Society