Christ’s troubled sleep from Milton’s ‘Paradise Regained’, Book IV lines 401-25, c.1816-18, by William Blake

Once again I am moved to share an excerpt from my friend Andrew’s Sunday epistle. Armed with a piercing intellect and a PhD in literature, he often crafts entrances into Blake or Milton or Donne that I would not be able to find on my own. With his lead, I find myself falling under the spell of Blake’s fierce passion all over again.

Most shared wisdom is shared because it is pragmatic and is popular because reductive. But in reality, light does not travel in straight lines, though it appears to do so. My foot and the rock it kicks are alike empty as interstellar space. The fixed grid of space-time disintegrates into paradox at its extremes. Biological evolution has designed us to understand the universe as it affects species survival, not to optimize intuition of particle physics. Darwinian adaptation fits us to our practical role, rewarding conformity with sensations of well being or joy, as we fulfill what we take to be our ’true nature’ (a sneaky theology coming from a depressed person). Auto-administered snorts of brain chemical divert us from paralyzing doubt even in the face of alarming gaps in evidence and logic, truly a manipulation by a cosmic genius of misdirection, a sleight-of-hand artist picking my mental pocket despite every vigilance.

Blake perceptively described memory as the enemy to inspiration. Memory locks into the particular, craving repetition and established order. Similarly, societies “remember” through the compulsion of traditional institutions that resist change. Blake saw this stolid imperviousness to vision as a spiritual wickedness, visible in every London street, in which the dogs of authority are set against the weak, those crying mercy are thrown in prison, and the rich unaccountably covet even the widow’s mite.

John recorded on parchment the great visions he saw in his cave in exile on the isle of Patmos. As a mere child, Blake too saw an angel in the tree outside his window and labored all his life to compose in word and etching his extended imagination of the spirit world. What did he experience? Memory cannot help there. As with every line or grace note of beauty, memory first must fade away before that window opens.

William Blake

. . . To bathe in the Waters of Life, to wash off the Not Human,
I come in Self-annihilation & the grandeur of Inspiration,
To cast off Rational Demonstration by Faith in the Saviour,
To cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration,
To cast off Bacon, Locke & Newton from Albion’s covering,
To take off his filthy garments & clothe him with Imagination
To cast aside from Poetry all that is not Inspiration,
That it no longer shall dare to mock with the aspersion of Madness
Cast on the Inspired by the tame high finisher of paltry Blots
Indefinite, or paltry Rhymes, or paltry Harmonies,
Who creeps into State Government like a catterpiller to destroy;
To cast off the idiot Questioner who is always questioning
But never capable of answering, who sits with a sly grin
Silent plotting when to question, like a thief in a cave,
Who publishes doubt & calls it knowledge, whose Science is Despair,
Whose pretence to knowledge is Envy, whose whole Science is
To destroy the wisdom of ages to gratify ravenous Envy
That rages round him like a Wolf day & night without rest:
He smiles with condescension, he talks of Benevolence & Virtue,
And those who act with Benevolence & Virtue they murder time on time.
These are the destroyers of Jerusalem, these are the murderers
Of Jesus, who deny the Faith & mock at Eternal Life…