Blake’s work was revolutionary, not least in springing from an original and highly idiosyncratic concentration on visionary imagination. This essay will consider briefly an aspect of this complex theme and make a conjecture about its source.
Blake believed in the divine self, existing in the imagination, regarding anything separate or outside as a source of evil. He thought that truth was formed only by the imagination and not received by perception or influenced by factual evidence. This chimes with psychoanalytic theories that understand the inner world, or unconscious phantasy life, to be as important to the individual as external reality. Blake’s visions would have been of great interest to a psychotherapist and their nature and content would have been explored. But there is a difference between Blake’s ideas and those of psychoanalysis, because what is thought to be helpful to the person in therapy is an understanding of the interplay between internal and external reality.
When I first looked at his paintings I drew completely the wrong conclusions, perhaps because I was seduced by the notion that the white figures symbolized beauty and purity and I did not question this notion. Blake would have concluded that my eyes deceived me, and that I had listened to what I had been taught by others, instead of drawing on my imagination.
On first looking at Blake’s dramatic watercolour ‘The Good and Evil Angels’ I was struck by the dramatic event-taking place in which an evil angel was threatening to take possession of a vulnerable baby who was cradled in the arms of the good angel. The good angel (Raphael or Michael) and the baby are the personification of purity having pure white skin, with the vaguest hint of pink, and pale blonde hair. The good angel looks alarmed and is turning away to prevent the baby from
being stolen and harmed by the devil. The baby’s arms are splayed as in the startle-reflex of young infants, showing that the baby is terrified of falling. The evil angel’s skin is a dark pink with shading and dramatic orange and yellow flames denoting that he is coming from Hell surround him. His face bears a grim unnerving expression that is exaggerated by his having two wall eyes.
It came as a surprise to learn that Blake saw the devil as trying to rescue mankind (the baby) from the ostensibly good angel who stands for what Blake believed to be diabolical authoritarian religion. The carefully drawn muscles and strong physique of the bad angel convey an energetic force, which is being actively curtailed by his foot being shackled. The constrained foot could stand for everything that threatened Blake’s belief in the divine nature of the self. He regarded anyone using empirical investigation to learn and question beliefs as enemies of the mind.
“Professional questioners such as empirical or natural philosophers are agents of Satan – Bacon, Locke and Newton in particular: Bacon for seeking truth through reason as opposed to revelation; Locke for his emphasis on learning through experience as opposed to Blake’s belief that ‘Man is a garden ready planted and sown”’ (Johnson and Grant 1979: 443); and Newton for formulating the laws of nature in a material universe that Blake abhorred and proof by mathematics, which he despised. ‘Science is the Tree of Death’ wrote Blake. (Keynes 1959:777)”1
Blake’s understanding of existence was that of an apocalyptic cycle, starting and finishing with a state of innocence: the divine self. Loss of innocence is a process that commences with conception and continues through life, until innocence is regained upon reconnection with the divine self. Blake’s adherence to an innocent vision of eternal nature could be understood psychologically as being akin to an infant dominated by the pleasure principal. This is a narcissistic stage in our development when survival of the self is paramount and centres on being warm, fed and feeling replete.
“Infancy! Fearless, lustful, happy, nestling for delight
In laps of pleasure. Innocence! honest, open, seeking
The vigorous joys of morning light open to virgin bliss,
Who taught thee modesty, subtil modesty, child of night and sleep?”2
The watercolour “Satan in his Original Glory” (pen and ink watercolor on paper 1805) illustrated his idea of a visionary divine self in possession of an eternal nature. Satan stands majestically framed by diaphanous wings, clad in a cloak with a multitude of tiny fairies in its hem. He has a feminine beauty with arresting brown eyes and his head is full of soft curls. His luminous curvaceous white body has an ethereal quality as he stands centre-stage against the subdued orange and russet hues of his wings and cloak. Blake believed that there were impediments to attaining divine reunion, one of them being the division of the sexes. Satan’s feminine beauty in this picture could be seen as a state of asexuality from a time before the Creation – a state of perfection free from mental pain, conflicting emotions of love and hate and the vicissitudes of human relationships. The apotheosis in Blake’s mind was being reconnected with one’s divine self and in this state sexual or generational differences are non-existent. Satan in his transcendent beauty is in a state of innocence and his open arms could be seen as an invitation to us to emulate him.
Blake’s ideas obliterated differences between the sexes and generations. These beliefs protected him from painful feelings of jealousy and envy, which are aroused by the triangular relationships found in family life. Ronald Britton wrote that,
“Belief, treated as the truth, was for Blake the limiting membrane of an otherwise bottomless void, the only curb on the total mental disintegration that followed the act of creation.”3
The infant is drawn as being in the gripe of the instinctual startle reflex and is pulling away from the adult figures in the painting. The terrified infant is in danger of falling psychologically into the abyss. My conjecture is that there was a traumatic event in Blake’s early life that led him to pull away from relationships with his parents, family and external reality.
My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud;
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my fathers hands:
Striving against my swaddling bands:
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mothers breast.4
Was his response to the cruelty of his experiences of the external world to turn to an imaginary world, a visionary understanding of himself and of life?
- Ronald Britton, Belief and Imagination (1998), p. 181.
- Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1808).
- Britton, op cit, p, 180
- Infant Sorrow, from Songs of Experience (1794)