“You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough…”
is president of his high school class, and holds no issues higher than those of Civil and Human Rights. His earliest political memory is the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004. His avatar lives on Key West, Florida.
One of the seminal features of mysticism is the way it wafts through the so-called real world like a Sufi dancer, untouched, on its own plane, showing itself in the most unlikely of places–like the modern political economy. That economy has today been exposed by an alien, yet overly familar, organism, neither dead nor alive nor even undead. Coronaviruses have been with us for as long as we have existed, and have, until now, come in two varieties. The common cold, which affects only the upper respiratory tract, is highly contagious, but like the poor, typically found to be more of an inconvenience than an actual danger. Other coronaviruses live in the lower respiratory tract, where, like revolutionaries, they can be highly lethal, but have difficulty spreading.
COVID-19 is the first to insist on having it all, both tracts, making it both contagious and deadly, but also sealing its ultimate fate. The common cold we will have with us, always–COVID-19, like the influenza of 1917-18, will either burn itself out or be destroyed. But not before becoming what it is itself, a parable of greed, exposing, as never before, the inequities of the modern world, the shocking extent, to which racism, for example, still overdetermines the lives of tens of millions of our fellow Americans, or how many tens of millions more are so close to the edge of ruin that they feel compelled to literally risk death than miss a single day’s pay.
All of this was, at a minimum, mystically anticipated by a polymath English poet, painter, engraver, and visionary of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. William Blake was nineteen when we declared our independence, thirty-one when the Constitution was ratified, and friend to Thomas Paine, whom he later helped spirit out of England when elites felt wronged by The Rights Of Man. He labored in joyful obscurity during his lifetime, content with the appreciation of then better-known peers like Samuel Coleridge.
It was really not until the psychadelic mid-20th century that he really entered the popular imagination, when his visionary imagery and fusions of art and letters made him a touchstone for Beat poets and the ’60’s counterculture. Allen Ginsburg, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Aldous Huxley all cited him as a key influence. The Doors took their name from his concept of “the doors of perception,” Philip Pullman’s popular fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, is rooted in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. And he lives on, still in joyful obscurity, in all of us, in quotes that we all know, but may not know are his, above all, and most meaningfully in the current environment, “to see the world in a grain of sand.” Or the planet in the body of a man, woman, or child who is also fighting for life today against relentless acquisition.
The era of William Blake, the Enlightenment, represented not only a change in philosophical, religious, and political thought but also a radical change in real political structures. Power, for thousands of years in Europe, was concentrated in the hands of a landed elite: the aristocracy. However, as technology and empire continued to grow, so did a new class: the bourgeoisie. This class was not concerned with cultivating the land; rather, this was the class of merchants and manufacturers, primarily concentrated in the cities. The aristocrats were a class steeped in tradition, belonging to noble families whose roots stretched back to the time of Charlemagne. They were far more concerned with points of Christian morality and finer living than with productivity. After all, it was the Church that morally and spiritually legitimized their rule. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, did not derive their power from entitlement but rather from their wealth. As such, they were far more concerned with productivity and the cultivation of material capital.
Some might call it a fool’s errand to apply the Marxian class categories, like “aristocratic” and “bourgeois,” to work that predates Marx’s birth by some 20 years. However, the work of William Blake seems keenly aware of the relationship between one’s social class and one’s political beliefs, especially as they are related to one’s role in the systems of production. Further, Blake is even more aware that different value systems serve to benefit different people, and that, at the end of the Enlightenment, this was especially the case for the bourgeois class and the aristocracy. The same differences in values that Blake finds are echoed in the writings of many other enlightenment thinkers. While, for thousands of years, land ownership was given to the aristocrats by a kind of heaven’s mandate, intellectual giants of the time, like John Locke, claimed that ownership of land was not derived from title but rather from productivity: who makes the most productive use of the land. This change in values reflects a change in power relations, which William Blake was particularly aware of. Much of Blake’s work comments on the differences between the values of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy.
One of the first Blakean figures representing Aristocracy is the Lion in Songs of Innocence and Experience. The Lion as a symbol of nobility is a tradition beginning in antiquity. The brightest star in the constellation Leo (the lion), for example, is Regulus, meaning “little king.” Blake maintains this association, between lions and kingliness, throughout the songs. In the poem Night, the Lion says “my bright mane forever shall shine like the gold, as I guard over the fold.” Here Blake maintains the regality of the Lion in many ways. His use of “gold” conforms to traditional associations between gold and kingliness. The fact that he “guards over the fold” is similar to the traditional purpose of the noble class: protecting a piece of territory and its inhabitants from lawlessness and banditry. Blake’s connection between lions and nobility becomes more explicit in the poem Little Girl Found. The parents of the little girl, looking into the Lion’s eyes, find “a spirit, armed in gold. On his head a crown. On his shoulders down, plow’d his golden hair.” Here, wearing a crown and again covered in gold, the Lion is meant to be seen as a king. Perhaps there is also some significance to his choice of the word “plow’d,” a term usually reserved for agriculture, which is the province of the aristocrat.
If the Lion is a symbol of nobility, then it is in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that we are first presented his bourgeois counterpart: the Fox. In the Proverbs of Hell, Blake contrasts the social position of the Fox and the Lion. He says that “the fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion.” This reflects the very real political condition of the aristocrat and the bourgeois businessman. While the aristocrat gains his power from a heaven’s mandate, supported by the church, the businessman sustains himself from his own business acumen. This difference is also somewhat reflected in The Tyger. Blake lists the powers of the Tyger, including his “dread hand” and “dread feet,” and asks how it is possible for the same god to create a creature of fearsome might and also create a meek animal like a lamb. Fundamentally, this poem and proverb both question the fairness of aristocracy as an institution. How is it fair that the Tyger, or the aristocrat, is granted supreme power from birth? His use of the “Tyger” as opposed to the Lion, in this instance, suggests a criticism of the aristocracy because tigers, symbolically, don’t carry the same implications of virtue and nobility as a Lion. It is merely a powerful and exceptionally vicious beast. The proverbs, in general, seem to favor a bourgeois moral system. For example, in many cases, it advocates for increasing productivity at all costs and posits production as a good, ipso facto.
In fact, the proverbs argue for an almost hedonistic commitment to production. The proverbs say that “you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough,” and advises that one should “drive [their] cart over the bones of the dead.” For the legions of hell, in Blake, productivity is the highest good. Blake seems to be in explicit opposition to this moral system. This is evidenced by the fact that the “Fox,” while certainly weaker, symbolically, than the Lion, is still a predatory animal. Goodness, in the Songs of Innocence and Experience, is represented as pastoral. The Lamb is the figure of absolute goodness and innocence for Blake. Just as the Tyger and the Lion (in the first part of Night) predate on the weak, the proverbs say that the “cut worm forgives the plow.” This says that those who are victims of this moral system, which prioritizes productivity overall, should accept their own subjugation for the higher purpose of production: a moral system that inherently benefits those who own the means of production. The Fox also oppresses the weak but does so through cunning, not through strength. However, despite the fact that they are both oppressors, Blake begins to suggest some inevitable conflict between the Fox and the Lion. The proverbs say that “the Fox condemns the trap, not himself.” This suggests that the Fox is naturally inclined to criticize the systems which ensnare it. It’s also somewhat ironic that the figure he chooses to represent the bourgeoisie also is an animal frequently hunted for sport by British aristocrats. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell also rejects the totalizing nature of Christian ethics, which support the aristocracy. It says, “one law for the Lion and the ox is oppression.” This rejects the notion that divine laws of nature are somehow ethical simply because god designed the earth. It is unfair that the lion is given the strength to devour the ox. The right of the entitled and strong few over the weak is not justice. It is oppression.
While The Marriage of Heaven and Hell attempts to resolve the differences between heaven (aristocratic) and hell (bourgeois) into some kind of union (hence the choice of the word marriage), Milton A Poem, explicitly describes the origins and implications of such a conflict. The dispute between the characters of Milton A Poem originates in a transition of power, namely the transition of the Harrow from the hands of Palamabron to the hands of Satan. Again there is an emphasis on the godliness of agricultural work, the work controlled by the aristocrat. Satan, on the other hand, is originally charged with “mills, and ovens, and cauldrons.” Because he works in the “starry mills” of eternity, Satan is oppressed by Palamabron. Satan is essentially a slave to Palamabron who cuts the grain, which Satan is forced to mill into flour: “the Miller of Eternity made subservient to the Great Harvest.” This is a clear representation of the domination of the landed elite over the manufacturing class. However, it becomes clear that Satan is not meant to continue in servitude from his first conversation with Los. Although the reader is not told the question which prompts Los’s response, we can assume by its content that Satan has pleaded with Los to allow him to operate Palamabron’s Harrow. Los furiously responds that Satan “cans’t not drive the Harrow in pity’s paths” and that “thy [Satan’s] work is eternal death…thou cans’t have eternal life.” This valorization of farm work (eternal life) over more mechanized work (eternal death) is typical of Blake’s idealization of pastoral life. However, despite being commanded by Los, it is clear that Satan has more power in the affairs of humanity than Palamabron does. It is Satan who forms the perceived world of mortals, not Palamabron: “to Mortals, thy [Satan’s] Mills seem everything & and the Harrow of Shaddai a scheme of human conduct invisible & incomprehensible.” Los claims that the world, as perceived by Mortals, is not connected to the divine. Rather, the world seems to be formed by the work of Satan, whose “Starry Mills” literally surrounds them in the heavens.
This description of Satan as an entity that surrounds humanity and limits their potential to perceive the almighty resembles Blakes’s description of the mundane shell, which is described as the “hardened shadow” that obscures the perceptions of mortals from perceiving the infinite. If Satan controls the “starry mills,” then the black space between each celestial body represents the mundane shell, which human beings are blind to. To them, the only substance of importance is the light-producing stars. Again, this is a reflection of productive versus non-productive work. The stars are perceived as all-encompassing because they work with positive space, they create light, much like a mill creates flour. A Harrow, however, is an implement designed to cut into the soil. It deals with negative space, the darkness in the heavens, which the mortals are blind to. The work of Palamabron, who plows with the Harrow of Shaddai (meaning the Harrow of the almighty) is “incomprehensible” to the mortals for this reason. Blake is claiming here that mortals no longer understand the world as one governed by divine providence, but rather as one governed by simple physical processes. This is emphasized when Los calls Satan “Newton’s Pantocrator,” meaning ruler of all. If Satan, the factory boss, is the absolute ruler of Newton, Blake is claiming that the physical reality of the world, as understood by mortals in Blake’s lifetime, has come to be defined in service of production: the world has become mechanical.
Although it was written decades later, Das Kapital comments on a similar problem of deception in the context of commodity fetishism. Marx observed an increasing “domination of things” in capitalist culture. This is to say that people have become insistent that the “inherent value” of commodities governs all social relations, through the market. According to Marx, this has become such a prevalent belief that “changes in the price of a metal (gold) can, under certain conditions…create economic crises – unemployment, currency depreciation, stock collapses, etc.” Marx finds this belief to be analogous to the “misty realm of religion,” where people’s own personal beliefs and imagination can become actualized into reality and have serious consequences for the material world. Similarly, Blake is commenting throughout his work on the totalizing effects of Enlightenment-era doctrine and connecting it to the new mode of production. As capitalism is for Marx, the work of Newton for Blake inserts itself into all aspects of human life and understanding, such that it is impossible to see life as anything but a mechanical or mathematical theorem.
How does Blake account for this paradigm shift in human thought? What is the mechanism by which Satan changes the perception of the mortals, compelling them to close themselves off to the infinite? Los is initially convinced into giving Satan his plow through Satan’s extreme mildness. He makes the mistake of confusing a lack of intensity with the presence of goodness. Over and over, the reader is told of Satan’s mildness. When Palamabron brings his accusation of Satan to Los, for the abuse of his gnome-workers, he fears that Los will not believe him for Satan’s “extreme mildness.“ He goes on to say to Los, “you know Satan’s mildness and his self-imposition, seeming a brother, being a tyrant, even thinking himself a brother, while he is murdering the just.” In other words, Satan inserts himself into power very insidiously. He, the mill boss, is so blinded by his own understanding of the world as a mundane mechanism of production, that he cannot understand why he is a tyrant, even while mistreating Palamabron’s gnomes and horses, who are “maddened” and “oppress’d.”
This is because, much like the Fox in the proverbs, Satan values production as the highest good. Just like the mortals, to whom Satan’s factories seem everything, Satan himself is blind to the infinite. His myopia is characterized as literal blindness by Blake: “his bosom grew opake against the divine vision…hid him from sight, in an extreme blackness and darkness…In Satan’s bosom a vast and unfathomable abyss.” In essence, Satan is able to assume power because he is blind to the infinite. He is unable to see a world higher than himself, trapped within himself by the opaqueness of his heart. Blake characterizes this obscurity as a kind of moral obscurity, saying that Satan crafts his own moral system from himself, fashioning a world where his behavior and best interest are the highest good. He makes “laws from his own identity” and compels “others to serve him in moral gratitude and submission.” An analogous situation in history might be found during the reign of Constantine in the Roman Empire. Simply through the right emperor attaining power, an entire nation, which at one time believed that throwing Christians into a pit of wild animals was good fun, might suddenly find itself the most Christian nation in the world. When Satan assumes the power of God, by taking the Harrow of the almighty, he imposes on the world, a moral system which benefits himself. This is the moral system of the bourgeois.
The means by which this new satanic ethic becomes the dominant ideology is through both intellectual and martial warfare. The intellectual war is waged by Satan’s philosopher disciples. The first of these disciples, we are told, is Milton himself, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels & god and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” In Milton A Poem as well, Palamabron and Rintrah come to Los and accuse Milton of being on the side of Satan and Orc. They accuse Milton’s “religion” of fomenting violent revolution against the established order in England, claiming that it is his aim to “unchain Orc” and “let loose satan” upon the “back of Albion.” They blame his daughters, “Rahab” and “Tirzah,” for the birth of “Rousseau” and “Voltaire,” two enlightenment thinkers, widely regarded as architects of the French Revolution. Again, Blake implies the conflict of two moral systems, driven by the mill-boss against the landed elite. The violence of this conflict is emphasized by the fact that Milton is supposed, by Palamabron and Rintrah, to be on the side of Orc, who represents the violent revolutions of the Enlightenment Era: “Lo Orc arises on the Atlantic. Lo his blood and fire glow on America’s shore.” They then accuse Milton of trying to renew the “trojan gods” and perpetuate “war & glory” into eternity. This is ironic because, at the very beginning of the poem, Blake says that Milton’s work was “curb’d by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek and Latin slaves of the sword.”
It is at this point that we can see a bit more sympathy for the devil through Los, who responds to his sons’ accusations by admonishing them not to wage war against Milton: “go not forth in Martyrdoms & Wars.” Los claims that an old Edenic prophecy states that Milton will “break the chains of jealousy from all its roots.” Here it is important to recognize that Blake sees jealousy as one of the principle roots of evil in human life. In the Human Abstract, he cites “selfish loves” as causing the end of peace. Jealousy and selfish love are synonymous, as a jealous person covets something only for themself. At this moment, we realize the irony of Palamabron’s and Rintrah’s wrath. They hate Satan and Milton for stirring Orc and causing violence, and yet they seek to remedy this by begging their father to “destroy” Milton. Los, on the otherhand, sees Milton as a part of a progress, just as Marx might, to some higher level of existence. He does not deny that Milton’s arrival may result in Orc’s increasing activity or in giving more power to Satan.
In conclusion, Blake views the transition of productive power from the hands of the aristocracy to the hands of the bourgeoisie to be a change with fundamentally violent repercussions both metaphorically and literally. There is a violence which is done to traditional conceptions of ethics and morality. People who traditionally were entitled to power might now have to contend for it in the market. While the strength of the lion used to be the highest and most elite virtue, now perhaps it is the cunning foxes who are strongest. Interestingly however, Blake sees deep flaws in both the lion and the fox. In favor of the Lion, on the one hand, he admires the pastoral life of the aristocracy. On the other hand, he finds the system of aristocracy to be inherently violent and deeply unfair. As for the fox, although he believes the bourgeoisie are an improvement on the aristocracy for their belief in meritocracy, he also finds their obsession with productivity, a symptom of their respect for merit, to be a dehumanizing and stupefying force. Although Blake was by no means a royalist, he saw, unlike many other Enlightenment thinkers, the vices of bourgeois morality, and recognized that the inevitable violence between it and an aristocratic value system was not a battle between the Lion and the Lamb but between two predators. Optimistically, Blake does not see this cycle of conflicting beliefs and violence as a rule for all history. He believes this conflict is creating something, an almost dialectic progression towards the building of Jerusalem among those dark satanic mills.
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