The world turned inside out

When I first came to live in Switzerland as a present to myself (for landing in 'tax efficient' Zug), I bought the two volumes of Kathleen Raine's 'Blake and Tradition'. Beautiful volumes now sadly out of print unlike 'Blake and Antiquity' the foreshortened version of these her Paul Mellon lectures. Last night, after a three year pause, I managed to finish the second volume.

They are masterly and beautifully illustrated.

Under her PhD supervisor at Cambridge, none other than C.S. Lewis, she set out to read everything that Blake was known to have read or reasonably supposed, from textual evidence, might have read; and, against this back drop, read the poems and the paintings. Her argument is, simply put, that Blake was the conscious inheritor of a tradition, a Christian esotericism, woven of elements from the Bible, Neo-Platonism, Christian Cabala, Boehme; and, more closely to hand Bishop Berkeley and Emmanuel Swedenborg and was writing in opposition to the new materialism of Locke and Newton.

Blake is a visionary poet and painter but he never stops at his art for the art has a sacred function that is nothing more nor less than redemptive. Just as he argues one sees through the eye, not with it, for the world is the body of imaginative perception, so too do you see through art to the nature of the real (and the manner by which the real is obscured from sight).

And Blake is a thinker - even when his mythology is being obscure, when reference builds upon reference, when untangled you recognize his precision. Nor is he a passive inheritor, he is as likely to correct Swedenborg, in many ways his inspiring master, as he is to criticize Newton or Locke! Though at times irascible, he is also generous, even Newton squeaks into the restored kingdom at the end. For the 'hells' we may find ourselves in are 'states' we pass through not places of permanent entrapment.

At Blake's heart, Raine effectively shows, is a sophisticated 'idealism' (as it would come to be known). The world is because it is perceived, nothing exists that is not perceived. The world is a creation of mind and that mind, ultimately, as Berkeley argued, is the 'mind of God'. Nothing does, or indeed can, exist outside this but what is critical is how one perceives.

Is your viewing open to, and aligned with, the divine in which case everything is seen as holy, and whole, within a unifying imagination? Or is it bounded by self-interest that sees one self as separate, over against the world, a world that itself is seen composed of separate things bumping up against each other in space? The choice is yours, rinse your seeing clean and see whole or limp through life seeing separation.

Every sinew of Blake's mythology, argument, image and song is bent towards the ability of the former. Read aright he literally turns your world around. The inner no longer dwells as a by product of the outer but the world is seen from the inside out - an imaginative reality rather than a 'real thing'.

This is, of course, a way of seeing the world that is deeply implicated with both Buddhism and Hinduism but if one were to imagine that this was simply the preserve of the 'religious' (however apparently unconventional as Blake's was), you would be heartily wrong. Idealism as a philosophical position is happily making a comeback, robustly and lustily helped upon its way by the strange worlds revealed by quantum mechanics and neuro-physiology.

Czeslaw Milosz reports that at an unnamed American university last century, the physics faculty opposed the appointment of a Blake scholar in the English department (!) because of Blake's criticism of Newton! It may well turn out that Blake will have the last laugh. (My favorite current defender of this position can be found here:


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