William Blake (1757 – 1827) is one of the most intriguing artists ever to have walked the face of this earth. An English poet and painter, he conceived his own mythology, rich in symbolism and meaning, based on a thorough knowledge of Classical Antiquity and the Biblical traditions.
I first became attracted to his work by reading Gil Bailie’s book Violence Unveiled – Humanity at the Crossroads. The cover showed The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve, one of William Blake’s later paintings.
Struck by this powerful image and the equally powerful writings of Bailie, I delved into some of Blake’s poems. I knew he took a critical stance toward organised religion, as well as toward an idealization or ‘idolization’ of Reason.
Reading his poems, I soon discovered a human soul who was concerned with and moved by ‘the core business of Christ’: the refusal of sacrifice in the name of some ‘Higher Entity’ (be it a God, an Institution, a State or an Idea). Of course, this refusal might paradoxically imply that one is sacrificed by those who don’t respond to the call of a Love which desires ‘mercy, not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9:13). The Everlasting Gospel seems especially challenging, with sentences like these: God wants not man to humble himself: That is the trick of the Ancient Elf. This is the race that Jesus ran: Humble to God, haughty to man…
Perhaps most remarkable, William Blake shows a profound understanding with regard to the origin of ‘resentment’ in this poem. We all have the tendency to look out for what is socially acceptable, be it consciously or unconsciously. Depending on the particular group we want to be part of, we imitate certain behaviors and clothing styles. Likewise, we even hang on to certain ideas, rules and norms, defining what is morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for our particular group. It’s, in a sense, ironic and even funny that one of the best propagated ideas in our western society today is the idea we should be independent and not easily manipulated individuals. So, it has become the social norm to say of oneself “I’m an autonomous, critical individual, not easily imitating others”. But, by presenting such images of our own ‘independency’, we precisely imitate everyone else desiring a similar autonomy and boasting of themselves in a similar way. René Girard has called the denial of the imitative or ‘mimetic’ nature of a certain, but basic, type of human desire a ‘romantic illusion’ (see Deceit, Desire and the Novel).
Anyway, if we frustrate ourselves by adhering an acceptable ‘image’ (and, for example, refuse to recognize our ‘relational, non-independent nature’ as human beings), we might get frustrated by others who don’t seem to follow that image. For frustrating certain desires in order to satisfy our need to obtain a social status only makes these desires grow stronger. So others, who do follow the desires we suppress for ourselves, become a ‘stumbling block’ we want to get rid of. Very often, we can’t stand the confrontation with the fulfillment of our deepest, frustrated desires by these others. We become jealous of them. We would like to imitate their way of behaving, but precisely because we fear to lose our socially acceptable image, we deny being jealous of them. In the end, we’ll even state we find their behavior morally repulsive. Of course, this is a self-deception to comfort oneself. This process is exactly what Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) called ‘resentment’. In Girard’s terms this resentment is part of the ‘romantic lie’, as this feeling once again denounces the mimetic nature of desire – the resentful individual doesn’t recognize being jealous of the one whose behavior he resents. Unlike Nietzsche, Girard doesn’t consider Judeo-Christian tradition as the source of a morality based on resentment, but, on the contrary, as a tradition which precisely uncovers the mimetic tendencies underlying our hate towards others.
By expulsing or ‘sacrificing’ the others we consider ‘morally wrong’, we actually try to conjure our own, ‘secret’ desire to be ‘morally wrong’. We try to convince ourselves and the ones of our own ‘group’ that we in no way resemble the ‘others’ we’re expulsing. As a tragic consequence of our enslavement to a dishonest self-image, we will not only victimize others, but we will also develop ways to secretly fulfill our frustrated desires – as they do have become ‘unmanageable’ and ‘too big’ to handle. So our desire to be ‘morally just and socially acceptable’ (‘chaste’) ignites a hypocritical lifestyle. This can be prevented if we are honest about ourselves and acknowledge certain desires in healthy, non-destructive ways – in other words if we, like Mary Magdalen or the adulteress from John’s gospel (John 8:1-11), look at ourselves through the eyes of Grace, and no longer through the eyes of those who might ‘press charges’ against us and who want us to ‘humble’ ourselves ‘in dark pretence to chastity’. That Grace, embodied so eminently by Jesus who ‘loved the sinner but condemned the sin’, indeed ‘reshapes’ sinners and empowers them to ‘sin no more’.
Like René Girard, Max Scheler (1874-1928) and other Christian thinkers, William Blake once again points to the origin of ‘bad’ i.e. ‘envious’ desire (covet), resentment and sacrificial impulses – all part of the ‘original sin’ – in his magnificent poem:
When first I let these devils in,
In dark pretence to chastity
Blaspheming Love, blaspheming Thee,
Thence rose secret adulteries,
And thence did covet also rise
Read the full poem by clicking here.
Blake, as a Christian visionary, became very sensitive toward processes of victimization, as this is shown by yet another illustration of his to J. G. Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796).
The Little Black Boy, a poem addressing a similar theme as this shocking, indeed ‘unveiling’ image, can be found by clicking here. In this poem, Blake first and foremost explores the dynamics of Divine Love and Grace, which call for ‘imitation’, once more…
Divine Love is different from Envy which Blake, time and again, considers the source of all evil (the original sin). A fragment from his poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion puts it this way:
Can that be Love, that drinks another as a sponge drinks water,
That clouds with jealousy his nights, with weepings all the day,
To spin a web of age around him, grey and hoary, dark;
Till his eyes sicken at the fruit that hangs before his sight?
Such is self-love that envies all, a creeping skeleton,
With lamplike eyes watching around the frozen marriage bed!
Makes you think…