William Blake and Doleful City of God: 3 – Visionary City

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa EspinasaIn her first two posts, Adriana Díaz Enciso recalled how her discovery of William Blake in a bookstore in Texas sparked a series of puzzling encounters with the poet and artist. Immersing herself in his work, Adriana also embarked on her own ambitious creation: Ciudad doliente de Dios, (‘Doleful City of God’) a Blakean novel which would take inspiration from horrific events in her own country, Mexico. Recovering from ill health and grief, she turned in a new direction: London. Here, Adriana recalls her experiences of an in-between world.    


During those years in London, I got glimpses of what Blake meant to England. Back in Mexico, he was someone that writers and artists knew about — truly known by few, who admired him in isolation — but in no way a central figure. Here, I started to understand that in his native country he was central and peripheral at the same time. He seemed to be revered and forgotten, beloved and derided in equal measure, still alive and, often, still misunderstood.

On the periphery … 

I couldn’t make any sense at all of ‘Jerusalem’ being sung at the Proms patriotic orgy. I could see that, for better or worse, Blake was a national figure and I would probably never get to fully understand that Blake – just as I couldn’t expect, for instance, a foreigner in Mexico to understand what it means to have grown up alongside the figure of the poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. ‘My’ Blake was then of the periphery in a different way, and though I was excluded from the national symbolism attached to him, I had the privilege of my unique approach, of being left to disentangle on my own what his art meant and how it was becoming the pillar of my novel, which had by then become the most important writing project of my life.

That’s why I didn’t approach the Blake Society for many years, and why I eschewed the heaviest scholarly works on Blake (some of which I found quite off the mark and soul-killing): I didn’t want interference in my understanding of him. I wanted to unravel Blake myself. I therefore continued inching along with my second draft. I finished it, after some years.

It was no good. I destroyed it again, and was now in sheer despair, feeling dead as a writer.

Despair, as is the case with everything in life, wouldn’t last forever. In 2008 I received a three-year writing grant from the Mexican equivalent of the Arts Council. It meant the time and peace of mind I needed for writing the novel all over again, and I leapt in. I followed the characters — Blake’s prophetic poems’ characters, in my own interpretation — in their quest for a sacred city, their wondering about humanity’s seemingly pointless suffering and the glimpses they had of such pain transfigured by a divinity that is no other than our own imagination. I followed them, seeking the meaning of beauty and compassion in the midst of manifold sorrows.

The Acteal massacre remained central to the plot. The character who in the novel mirrors Blake’s Orc embodied the struggle between the call for political action and the call of the spirit (which includes the artist’s vocation) in the face of atrocity. And several of the horrors described in the book have their source in real events which have taken place in Mexico.

… and between worlds

However, it was important to me that my ‘doleful city’ wasn’t set in any definite geographical space. The borders between the mundane and the visionary, the visible and the invisible, needed to be blurred, and the characters to keep on crossing from one into the other. They all find — and don’t — the sacred city. That city shares some lineaments with Mexico City, but also with a visionary London; a dome with a golden cross on top, which echoes St Paul’s, looms large in the characters’ visions. This city can’t be found on any map, and yet in the realm of literary truth, I do hope that its essence can be experienced now and then in Mexico City, in London, or any other city on Earth.

Doleful City of God: the visionary city Mexico City London, image by Adriana Díaz-Enciso
The visionary city
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

All the characters in my novel are seeking God’s answer to their pain and the pain of others. Some quite misguidedly, I have to say. All of them are looking also for the meaning of the Cross, and whereas the liberation hinted at in that most beautiful image of Christ nailed to a tree of golden fruits in Plate 76 of Blake’s Jerusalem is revealed to some, there is also a sinister mockery of the symbol when a murdered youth is tied to a cross on top of a mountain. This is something that actually happened in Mexico and left me wondering further on the meaning of so much woe and such brutality.

Needless to say, neither I nor my characters have reached any answer, but in my novel — Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God) — the characters find something that is perhaps of more worth: an intimation that the wonder of human existence reaches beyond the opposition of contraries through lucid vision and compassion, and that there is no real barrier between the visible and the invisible, matter and spirit.

While I was writing the novel, I sometimes went to Bunhill Fields. I liked sitting in that most gentle space by the fig tree and the old stone which tells us that Blake’s remains and those of his wife Catherine Sophia lie ‘nearby’. In those quiet moments, I pondered on what I was writing, sometimes asking whatever remained of Blake — wherever it is that we go after death (if we go anywhere) — to point me in the right direction… or, only half-jokingly, to forgive me if I got it all utterly wrong. 


Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.

Cover Ciudad doliente de Dios, crop, Adriana Díaz-EncisoAdriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. You can catch up with her first two posts about the writing of the book, William Blake & the Doleful City of God Part 1 – McAllen, Texas and Part 2 — London, England.

In her final post in this series, Adriana becomes immersed in the work of the Blake Society and her Doleful City of God finally arrives in the world. And Adriana discusses the meaning of Blake’s art for her in today’s world.

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