Mind That Until Now Thought of Continuity, Our Torch, Then Saw It Flicker (The Last War in Albion Book Two Part Thirty-One: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: The War was revealed to have certain similarities to the life and work of William Blake, whose mythology was built around the dualism of the creator Los and the tyrannical geometer Urizen.
|Figure 954: Los recoils in horror from his work as Urizen’s body assembles itself. (By William Blake, from The Book of Urizen Copy G, written 1794, printed 1818)|
As Blake’s dualism suggests, his instinctive mode of resistance to Urizen, both within himself and without, was creation. Specifically, in Blake’s case, the creation of art. As The Book of Urizen itself makes clear by depicting Los’s failure, the point is not that this resistance will “stop” or “defeat” Urizen, or indeed any other figure one wishes to inveigh against. Indeed, the point is often simply a matter of need or compulsion. Much like Watchmen is simply not a thing one writes if one is capable of avoiding doing so, the ornately realized illuminated prophecies that Blake creates – especially the late career ones such as the fifty page Milton a Poem and the hundred page Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion – are not works that people create incidentally. In many ways, this is far more true for Blake than for Moore. Moore, after all, may not have been capable of stopping himself from writing Watchmen, but equally, he wouldn’t have written it were it not for the existence of a major comics company that wanted him to do a prestige project. It was a lucrative gig and, for all Moore’s eventual misgivings about it, a savvily chosen project. Blake’s work, on the other hand, was ostentatiously non-commercial. The illuminated prophecies used printing techniques of his own devising, not fitting into any existing market or practice. After an early flirtation with the relatively sellable notion of a children’s book of poetry in the form of Songs of Innocence, his illuminated work moved quickly and decisively towards the obscure and difficult. His insistence that each copy must be unique and of his hand severely limited sales. In short, Blake’s illuminated prophecies eschewed essentially every form of commercial sense known to man.
This is not to say that Blake lacked all business sense. He supplemented his work as a prophet with more conventional commercial illustration, thus generally managing to make ends meet, although it was at times a bitterly narrow thing. But Blake often resented this work, and the degree to which he was constantly haunted by paranoia about his friends and associates made things harder for him. As a result, he could turn on his employers, as he did with his patron at the start of the 19th century, William Hayley, who gave him lodging in a cottage at Felpham and a series of portrait commissions that kept him busy and well paid. He found the work deadening, however, eventually coming to describe Hayley as “an enemy of my spiritual life” and moving back to London, where he quickly started work on Milton and Jerusalem. It was this work, and other such things inspired directly by his visions that animated his passions, and when one arrived he would leap into action, calling for Catherine (or whoever else was nearby) to “reach me my things.” (Catherine, for her part, noted at one point, “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise.”)
|Figure 955: Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea (c. 1819-20)|
And yet it is worth asking exactly what these visions contained. Sometimes this is straightforward – Blake’s famed miniature The Ghost of a Flea, for instance, is a straightforward depiction of an apparition of William Gull that manifested during an 1819 seance. Other times, however, it’s substantially less clear. For instance, his 1790 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell begins its main section with the declaration “As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity.” On the one hand, this sounds like the sort of thing Blake would do. On the other, however, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is an elaborate pastiche of the “visions of hell” offered by writers like Milton and Dante, and particularly of Emmanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell, which casually drops claims like “I have often talked with angels on this subject,” strongly suggesting that Blake’s descriptions of visiting hell are less statements of personal revelation than a mere literary device.
But for all of this, it is difficult to entirely reject the idea of personal revelation within The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The book begins with a plate entitled “The Argument,” which describes the furious wanderings of the prophetic Rintrah, a figure who appears throughout Blake’s later mythology as one of Los and Enitharmon’s children, perhaps most significantly in Milton, one of the most self-evidently personal of Blake’s visionary works. Claiming that that Blake had a fully or even mostly realized version of the figure that would appear in his 1811 poem in 1790 would require a certain degree of critical bravado (although Rintrah also appears in 1794’s Europe a Prophecy, while it’s been suggested that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was actually finished as late as 1793, which would imply a more straightforward connection), but even without resorting to non-traditional critical devices such as the fractal and acausal nature of Eternity it seems fair to suggest that Blake’s subsequent reuse of the figure implies that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is not quite as straightforward as describing it as a Swedenborg parody would suggest. And more broadly, there are clearly personal moments in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, most notably when Blake offers a detailed description of learning his illuminated printing technique in “a printing-house in hell,” and, at the end of the book, when he writes of his friendship with an “angel, who has now become a devil” and of how “we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense, which the world shall have if they behave well. I have also The Bible of Hell – which the world shall have whether they will or no,” a claim that is traditionally interpreted as referring to The Book of Urizen.
Certainly large swaths of The Book of Urizen are anticipated by The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which explicitly associates Reason, Good, and Heaven before denouncing the idea that “Energy, called Evil, is alone from the body, and that Reason, called Good, is alone from the soul” and instead proclaiming that “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul, for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five senses” and that “Energy is the only life and is from the body, and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy,” a line that alludes to the double pun of Urizen’s name, which parses both as “your reason” and “horizon.” Although Energy, being grounded in material existence and with a clear connotation of sexuality (a recurrently difficult subject for Blake, whose occasional advocacy of free love led to difficulties, not least of which was Catherine’s horrified response to his suggestion that they might attempt a polyamorous marriage) , does not equate straightforwardly to Los’s frenzied creativity, its position as an opposite pole to Reason’s authority resonates clearly.
This, of course, puts Blake in the relatively awkward position of defending Hell against Heaven and Evil against Good, a rhetorical feat that goes a long way towards explaining why, along with Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is the most accessible and widely read of Blake’s works. Indeed, Blake’s defense is animated and passionate. Blake takes as his starting point Milton’s depiction of Satan, who is infamously the most interesting character in Paradise Lost by miles despite nominally being the villain. Blake suggests, in one of the work’s most quoted lines, that this is because Milton was “a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” But it is the first, less often included words of this quote that are really key; it is not merely that Milton secretly agreed with his Satan, but that any true poet must do so. Hell, in other words, is a source of provocation and inspiration.
|Figure 956: The Proverbs of Hell. (By William Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Copy I, 1790, Printed 1827)|
This is exemplified in the book’s famed “Proverbs of Hell,” a lengthy section of pleasantly heretical aphorisms, including oft-quoted ones like “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” and “the tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,” as well as less-often bromides like “drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead,” “he whose face gives no light shall never become a star,” “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,” “the bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship,” “you never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough,” “improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are the roads of genius,” and the sublime “everything possible to be believed is an image of truth.”
It is clear, reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that Blake’s heart is in the defense of Hell. This is perhaps no surprise; Blake’s instinctive love for the rebellious and insurrectionary is a constant feature of his work. And, of course, it is here that the satirical nature of the work becomes most important. But for all the passion of his defense, it’s not quite right to say that Blake sides with Hell over Heaven. The point, after all, is their marriage – a sense of balance between them. It’s just that a world where Heaven dominates, however, balance requires him to back the losing side. But the point is not so much the matter of which is superior as it is the basic fact of their opposition. As Blake puts it, “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.”
Blake is offering a sort of prototypical version of the Hegelian/Marxist dialectic here, which suggests that oppositions and their eventual resolution through synthesis (or marriage, if you will) is the driving engine of history. But this is all too often a tired and unenlightening rhetoric, and it is another iteration of the claim within The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that is perhaps the most interesting in terms of the War: “Opposition is true friendship.” It is an odd way to look at the various rivalries that have exploded, from time to time, into psychic warfare for the heart of Albion. And yet there is much to it. What would Crowley have been without the Golden Dawn to rebel against, or Spare without Crowley to serve as his foil? More than that, though, is it not the fact that the Golden Dawn unraveled in the face of Crowley’s public disclosures what distinguishes it from the many forgotten and abandoned occult orders, or that Spare showed that Crowley’s baroque systems could be short-circuited what allowed them a useful afterlife? Any magus knows that it is impossible to work a spell without clear intent, and nothing clarifies intent like opposition.
But as mentioned, by this standard Blake had no true friends; only those who, like Catherine, respected and pitied him. He wrote in mindful opposition to writers like Swedenborg and Milton, but both were dead by the time he addressed them, their replies to him limited to his own dreams and visions. He existed singularly within his time; and perhaps within any other. Given this, it is perhaps no surprise that he turned his vision inward, making a rival of himself to serve in place of the one the world would and could not provide. [continued]