Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain…

In writing a couple of thoughts about William Blake I am engaging in a very minor piece of family heritage. My great-great-great grandfather, Alexander Gilchrist, wrote a biography of Blake, published in 1863. In fact, Alexander died of scarlet fever aged 33, before the book was completed. His wife, Anne, finished the work.

Prompted by an interest in Anne, I was recently drawn to Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Blake. I discovered that his life was sadder, and far funnier, than I had known. The archetype of the struggling artist is a cliché in our time; wander through Soho, Whitechapel or any arts college and you’ll see several dozen who might, in their cups, confess themselves a hidden genius. But the popular vision of the overlooked genius seems to prefer the saintly gazer into eternity, careless of worldly recognition. Not the angry, embittered rationaliser of their own defeat, enervated by disappointment which so many who strive can become. Blake, as Ackroyd observes, was both. He saw his work as of and for eternity yet railed against those who overlooked him, the fashions of the time that prevented any chance of his wider success and recognition. One of the saddest moments in Ackroyd’s book comes when detailing a private journal entry of Blake’s. Having outlined the worldly successes of his peers, Blake concludes ‘I was hid’. At a later time, or as an afterthought, he crosses through was and writes am: I am hid. For a man who was clear enough in his genius to emphatically and publicly compare himself to Michelangelo and Raphael and to declare his verse the greatest since the Iliad, the humiliation of being overlooked, passed over, must have been of hellish intensity.

Yet throughout the years of neglect Blake sustained a strong regimen of work and a belief in the imagination as his beacon, the core of all his various and complex visions, the proof of man’s divinity. And whilst every would-be artist should take inspiration from his tenacity, it is the second point that I find most inspirational. Like many mystics he perceived the physical world, which he called ‘vegetable’, as a brittle shell, a miserable husk of the spirit. The spirit, in contrast, was eternal and of God. But, or so I see it, even God was – at times – an emanation of the imagination.

It was encouraging to read this, as I’ve reached my own conclusions. When challenged by an esoterically-inclined friend as to what I believe, I told him that the only force that seems to unite or make sense of the endless human outpouring of myth, art, fiction, faith, scientific invention, song and untruth, is imagination. What others might call God, I call imagination. It is uniquely human and stands as my conception of the sacred without the creaking support of supernatural agency. I don’t need – though I may sometimes want – the attendant belief in the disembodied soul, gods, ancestral spirits or magical forces that always accompany a belief in divinity. Because the imagination – whilst taking its place in my private pantheon – is an entity of the vegetable world; an evolutionary by-product existing within, and because of, the human body. That we can build cathedrals, fight wars and conceive masterpieces all for the glory of an invisible force is the most terrible, farcical and wonderful proof of humanity. And that it was sparked at all, by hungry, vegetable humans – as a stick against a stone, charcoal scraped against a cave wall – is miracle enough for me. But I envy Blake his visions.

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13 responses to “Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain…

  1. mishari

    Fine piece. I reached pretty much the same conclusion years ago (of course, I’m much older than you). The writer/anthropologist Robert Ardrey put it well in the final pages of his book The Territorial Imperative, (I paraphrase from memory):

    We are not descended from fallen angels but from killer apes. That is the miracle of humankind. From murderous brutes to the builders of magnificent cathedrals, composers of glorious music and writers of beautiful poetry: that is the miracle and the wonder of mankind.

  2. Thanks for that quote, Mishari. A perfect encapsulation.

    It certainly seems, to me, an answer that is unifying and – whilst obviously not in the terms of believers – dignifying for all faiths and creative endeavours, to see them drawing from the same pool of human inspiration. I don’t doubt that Blake saw visions; my grandfather saw angels at the foot of his bed. But, for me, these were emanations from the mind, not outer agents.

    There’s a – rather daft – theory in a book called Development of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind which suggests that, for the ancients, visions of helpful spirits were projections of proplem-solving and other processes in pre-conscious humans. As true self-consciousness developed (the ‘Age of Embarasment’), this faded, creating wars and crisis as the ‘gods’ vanished. The author centred this process around (I think) the 8th century BC, when there seems to have been a historically-recognised global crisis.

  3. MeltonMowbray

    A distinguished ancestor, CKG. I read the book about thirty years ago-I think it was the standard work for a long time. Much better than the Wilson book, which was the only other biog I could find then (pre-web, of course).

    My memory is vague on this, but didn’t he write ‘I am hid’ at least in part in reaction to his trial for treason? That time he spent in Felpham working for Hayley (his only spell outside London, I think) is fascinating. I used to think that the story of his relationship with his employer (and the trial) would make a a very good subject for a play.

    That letter to Cumberland near the end of his life has always impressed me: ‘I have been very near the Gates of Death, and have returned very weak and an Old Man, feeble and tottering, but not in Spirit and Life, not in The Real Man the Imagination, which Liveth for Ever.’

    Brings a tear to the eye every time.

  4. Being a diabetic I have a lot of experience of blood sugar levels which can radically alter your perceptions. Whilst I don’t believe in angels or the above there are states of consciousness that if you are religiously inclined can be interpreted that way.

    A few months ago I had to give blood as part of a diabetic MOT and the nurse screwed up the process, causing a vein to go into shock and causing me to pass out. I never remember my dreams but for a while I was in a Dulux ad running through intense green fields with a cerulean blue sky. Corny but incredibly vivid. When I came to ( I was only out for 90 seconds ) the nurse was staring at me and for 20 seconds I had no idea who she was and absolutely no idea where I was. I was drenched it sweat, white as a sheet but it was a fantastic experience.

    I wouldn’t try to claim mystics are merely diabetics or suffer intense migraines ( though it’s believed Hildegarde of Bingen suffered thus ) but I am fascinated by how the body’s chemical balances can allow you to carry on in an altered state of mind without you necessarily twigging. Of course it’s one thing to have a vision and another to give it artistic form which is the inexplicable bit I think.

  5. MM, the quote comes from Reynolds’ Discourses on Art:

    ‘Having spent the vigour my Youth & Genius under the Oppression of Sr Joshua & his Gang of Cunning Hired Knaves Without Employment & as much as could possibly be Without Bread…While Sr Joshua was rolling in Riches, Barry was Poor & Unemploy’d except by his own Energy; Mortimer was call’d a Madman, & only Portrait Painting applauded by the Rich & Great … Fuseli, Indignant, almost hid himself. I am hid.’

    His time in Felpham was, indeed, his only time away from London. Hayley seems a fascinating paradox; a pompous twit and compassionate patron. Indeed, Blake seems to have been well served with friends, considering his eccentricities and temper.

    I had the same thought myself, about a play. I even considered having a go at one, although a very good friend (with whom I’ve directed in the past) directed a play about Blake meeting Tom Paine last year.

  6. @Al,

    I’m glad you found something to enjoy in your experience! What you describe reminds me of my own dreams, when I’m very close to waking. They are often lucid dreams – I can tell that I’m dreaming, sometimes alter events or examine objects, people and sights that interest me. When lucid dreaming the colours are extremely vivid, as you describe – electric blues, reds and greens.

    Of course, most visions – religious or otherwise – are induced by natural elements. Although Blake’s seem to have been constant, consistent and available whatever his mood or state of digestion. However, whether a vision is provoked by Zeus or cheese, in my view it is still a vision if it offers material for self-reflection or a spur to creativity.

  7. XB When we were in Taiwan we cam across temples in the middle of streets full of busy shops that had a drop-in quality to them ( I think it was shinto-ism ). The religion wasn’t confined to Sundays or special days so the relationship with the gods had a much more informal quality. From documentaries I’ve seen ( so it must be true ) Brazilian candomble has a similar relaxed feel although they do use trances to commune with the gods.

  8. Kim,

    Very interesting to hear of this blood connection which cannot but be fortuitous given your belief in the ppwer of the imagination, laudable that, nay even inspiring.

    As it happens I’m currently doing Blake too,finding this was nice timing for me. Thanks.

  9. mishari

    I was going to alert you to the Kraut Rock blog at the Graun, then I checked the comments…I should have known. Mention of KR probably makes your computer chime like Big Ben…I must get a hold of that Cope book (or a facsimile).

  10. mishari

    PS: your clock’s wrong.

  11. Thanks, Mishari.

    The Kraut-signal lit up the night sky over Clapham the moment the article was posted. Actually, it was GU music obsessive Jason Parkes on Facebook.

  12. parallax

    Seriously inappropriate place to comment but I know of no other way to say – sorry to hear about your Dad Kim.

    Weirdly (yeh I know, it’s a reverse-snob-adverb thing I enjoy) I’ve found myself watching a heap of family-crises films. Not now, but another time, you may wanna watch – or even rewatch – Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions.

    Cheers, take care, parallax

  13. Hi Para,

    Sorry, haven’t checked in here for a while. Many thanks for the kind words. Hope all’s well with you.

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