Book Review

John Higgs

William Blake vs. the World

London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2021, 400 pp.

ISBN: 9781474614351

Reviewed by Chris Nunn

This is an exceptional biography: one that shows its author to have talents more than equal to elucidating those of his subject. William Blake (1757–1827), poet, artist, visionary, and supposed madman, also invented a method of engraving when young which greatly simplified the production of illustrated books; as an old man he taught himself Italian in order to read Dante’s Divine Comedy in the original. John Higgs is not only an excellent writer and researcher but has a sophisticated, fully up to date grasp of the entire range of topics needed for an understanding of Blake’s life and ideas; the range extends from quantum physics through neurophysiology and psychol­ogy, to eighteenth-century intellectual fashions and Swedenborgian philosophy.

Blake was clearly a genius in the Mozart class at eliciting, picturing, and elaborating on unusual states of consciousness. As Mozart at a young age could ‘hear [a composition] all at once’, so Blake could directly ‘see’ aspects of both the overt and the hidden nature of the world. He attributed his visions to ‘imagination’, understanding that they were indeed hallucinations. These came in four categories: the first roughly corresponded to straightforward perception; the second, which was for him a customary mode of perception, added in meanings presented in symbolic form as when, for example, he ‘held a conversation’ with a thistle which he knew to be a thistle, but which simultaneously appeared to him as a crabby old man; the third and fourth levels occurred much more rarely to provide visions of ever deeper ‘spiritual’ realities.

Over the course of time he developed a very elaborate, idiosyncratic mythology in attempts to articulate his essentially ineffable experi­ences. For instance, he had considerable contempt for people who never got beyond his first level of ‘imagination’, which he attributed to the realm of ‘Urizen’ or ‘Newton’s sleep’ — a realm which falsely believes itself to be complete and which corresponds roughly to our currently popular concept of ‘left brain’, rational consciousness. Blake’s famous portrait of ‘Newton’ circumscribing the world with his compass was meant to convey an idea of confinement within a false or incomplete enlightenment; the fact that he portrayed Newton with the physique of a Greek god was perhaps intended to convey the further idea that Greek gods were often jailors of the same ilk; as was the creator God of the Old Testament whom Blake sometimes identified with Satan. Of course, all this was contrary to the main currents of both Enlightenment and religious thought at the time, leading to his being neglected or dismissed as crazy throughout much of his life. Many practical difficulties and hardships ensued. He never sold more than a few copies of his own works and had to earn his living as a jobbing engraver.

Was he actually mad? Even William Wordsworth (who never met Blake) thought so despite adding that ‘there is something in the mad­ness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott’. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who probably did briefly meet Blake) was less dismissive. Then, as an old man, Blake was adopted as a sort of mentor and mascot by a circle of romantic poets and artists who admired his work and found his personality sweet and amiable — an assessment with which only a few, other than his wife and perhaps his brother, would have agreed earlier in his life.

He has now been given the ultimate accolade of a statue in West­minster Abbey and has been rated thirty-eighth most influential Englishman of all time. The latter rating is more than a little ironic as Higgs persuasively argues that it depended mainly on an almost total modern misunderstanding of Blake’s meanings, especially those embodied in what has been called ‘the unofficial English National Anthem’, the hymn Jerusalem — ‘And did those feet in ancient times / Walk upon England’s mountains green.’ ‘Jerusalem’, for Blake, was an ‘emanation’ of a type of imagination while the feet in question were Joseph of Arimethea’s (or possibly belonged to the giant ‘Albion’), not Christ’s, acting as symbolic stand-ins for the source of a type of ‘inspiration’.

There was a stage, in Blake’s middle age, when neglect, mis­understandings, and especially harsh criticism of one of his major efforts to be understood had tipped him over into a borderline paranoid state (possibly secondary to a bout of depression, one might infer), but he appears to have recovered satisfactorily from this. More­over, he never at any time wholly lost insight into his ‘visions’, which had been a constant feature of his experience since childhood. They had more in common with the drug induced ones of Timothy Leary or Aldous Huxley than those experienced by mentally ill people. Blake, however, seems never to have taken psychedelics of any sort and was physically robust as well as mentally energetic, ruling out any rare metabolic disorder such as may have affected his contemporary, King George III. How then should we explain the origins of his visions and the direction his interpretation of them took? John Higgs explores these questions in some detail.

The third child of a fairly prosperous Soho hosier, Blake was recog­nized to be a sensitive boy with special artistic gifts. As a result, he was mainly ‘home schooled’, apart from attending art classes for a time, until apprenticed to an engraver. The home schooling seems mainly to have involved leaving him to his own devices. He had imaginary friends who accompanied him as he roamed about the nearby countryside which he seems to have perceived as often idyllic in contrast to the workshops and slums of the city. As he himself wrote, at the age of 14:

How sweet I roamed from field to field,

And tasted all the summer’s pride

Till I the prince of love beheld

Who in the sunny beams did glide!

There is little or no information about his mother’s influence, but one can infer that it may have been important both emotionally and in forming his opinions. One possibly important thing that is known is that, before her marriage to Blake senior, she had belonged to one of the many radical Christian sects that proliferated early in the eighteenth century, one with antinomian, ‘free love’ beliefs.

Blake was always a stubborn, combative contrarian in earlier life but his marriage worked unusually well, it appears, despite his occasional polygamous yearnings. Catherine, his wife, must have been a bit of a saint, but Blake at home can’t have been quite as ‘difficult’ as in his public persona. However, there simply isn’t enough informa­tion available to more than hint at the psychodynamics behind Blake’s development, and Higgs follows his subject by focusing on the role of ‘imagination’ in creating his perceptions and opinions, going on to consider how it may relate to the neuropsychology of experience.

The principal idea is that ‘imagination’, with ensuing cognitions and perceptions, can be freed and elaborated in people able and willing to downregulate their neural ‘default mode network’ and lose themselves in raw experience. Blake was innately talented in this direction, along with having both time and inclination to hone his talents in youth. His ‘hallucinations’ had the same origins as those occurring in deliberately sought or spontaneous mystical experience. For this reason, Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg can be considered birds of a feather despite their very different histories, and Higgs gives us a potted biography of Swedenborg in a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise.

Swedenborg (1688–1772) came from a different social class than Blake, familiar with court circles and the son of a theologian who became a bishop. Throughout most of his life he was known as a proto-scientist and engineer with a wide range of interests; sufficiently wide to have sometimes been regarded as ‘the Swedish Leonardo [da Vinci]’. Like Blake, he is said to have had ‘imaginary friends’ as a child but these soon faded away. Then, at the age of 53 (about 30 years before he died), he quite suddenly started to get frequent ‘visions’ of angels and of heaven and hell, which continued for the rest of his life. They were remarkably similar in overall quality to the ones Blake had experienced throughout his life, even though differ­ences of detail led Blake to regard him as deluded. He wrote numerous books describing his experiences, which Blake probably didn’t read before his own ‘visions’ were well established. He also seems to have developed psychic gifts, the most famous example being his description to the assembled guests of a fire that had started in Stockholm while he was attending a society dinner in Gothenburg.

Although Higgs doesn’t describe other comparable cases, Blake and Swedenborg are far from alone in experiencing apparently realistic immersive hallucinations, as Benny Shanon (2002), for example, has described in relation to ayahuasca experience. There’s a particularly interesting, non-drug-related case from the 1970s (Schatzman, 1980) worth describing because of neuropsychological findings relating to her experience. The eponymous ‘Ruth’ was a 25-year-old American expatriate who had accompanied her husband to London. She was referred to a psychiatrist because she had become increasingly frightened by intrusive and apparently wholly realistic hallucinations of people, most often her father, with whom she could hold conversations. Like Blake and Swedenborg, she too had had imaginary friends as a child, but otherwise was worlds apart from them.

She was very lucky with her psychiatrist. He didn’t try to give her antipsychotics, which would have been the standard treatment then, but encouraged her to get her hallucinations under voluntary control. She was soon able to get her ‘father’ to come and go at will and to summon hallucinations of other people too (including her psychiatrist while he was in the same room!). Then she learned to hallucinate herself at any desired age and to ‘merge with’ the summoned image. EEGs taken while she was hallucinating were consistent with ‘actually’ seeing and talking to someone, but electroretinograms were not. In other words, the hallucinations were ‘all in her own brain’. But that’s not the end of the story. Psychological testing showed she did not have eidetic memory when being her normal adult self but did have it when she ‘merged’ with her childhood self. More remarkable still, her reaction times on the Stroop test[1] were those of a normal adult when she was in her usual state of mind but those of a pre-reading age child when ‘merged’ with her infant self. Her voluntary hallucinations were clearly sufficient to accompany, or even to pro­duce, very real and major dynamic alterations in her brain which referred to past actualities. They were, in that sense, veridical. Is there any sense in which the same could be said of Blake’s?

Several chapters of the book explore in detail the possibility that Blake’s visions, along with the mythology that he developed around them, are worth taking seriously from a metaphysical point of view. One may feel that the attempt is a bit like taking a Rorschach test (extracting meanings from pictures of random ink blots), but Higgs does tell an insightful and convincing tale.

Blake was simply wrong about many things, so we would say nowadays with the benefit of hindsight, largely as a result of his belief in the absolute truth of his own direct experience. Some of his cosmo­logical concepts, on the other hand, echoed John Milton’s and were consistent with both current views of the ‘quantum vacuum’ and with an evolutionary version of Einstein’s ‘block universe’. But Blake’s underlying belief, and the thrust behind the development of both his art and mythology, seems to have been the rather Leibnizian idea that his own mind was indistinguishable from the cosmos; he was a sort of monad able to create, as well as to incorporate, reality. His mythology is an expression of his understanding of his own mind reflected in the cosmos — and he was, at the very least, a gifted proto-psychologist.

Principal features of his mythology depend on ideas that Heaven needs Hell quite as much as Hell needs Heaven, while personified features roughly corresponding to ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ are co-equal even if ‘Yin’ ones are sometimes to be viewed as ‘emanations’ from ‘Yang’. He was also convinced that minds and the cosmos are com­prised of four magisteria; ones relating to reason, to perceptual sensation, to emotion, and to creative imagination respectively. He thought creative imagination (the realm of ‘Los’ in his terminology) to be the most ‘heavenly’ zone and attributed many of the woes of his time to an unbalanced over-dependence on ‘reason’ (the realm of ‘Urizen’). That’s a very ‘twenty-first-century’ notion! Higgs sums it all up by saying that Blake can be regarded as ‘a divine humanist’, which seems apt enough and expressive of an emerging trend in contemporary consciousness studies. Perhaps we are at last beginning to catch up with him after two centuries of excessive devotion to ‘Urizen’!

References

Schatzman, M. (1980) The Story of Ruth, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Shanon, B. (2002) The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1]      The Stroop test involves looking at differences in reaction times to colours when a word describing the colour is printed in a different colour. Children who haven’t learned to read, if asked to press a button when they see something red, for example, will do so as quickly whether the red something is the word ‘red’ or the word ‘blue’. Once they’ve learned to read they take longer to react to the colour red if it says ‘blue’. The reactions are rapid and often pre-conscious.

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