Finding Blake’s formal announcement of the project’s film: Finding Blake: meeting William Blake in the 21st Century, or – memorialising the vegetal ephemeral.
“Forgive what you do not approve, & love me for this energetic exertion of my talent” — William Blake, Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion
When director James Murray-White heard that a new ledger stone for the final resting place of artist-poet William Blake was going to be made in his neighbourhood, in the renowned Kindersley Workshop in Cambridge, it reawakened his desire to explore Blake’s work and legacy. He set off on a three-year journey to find the contemporary relevance of this 18th and 19th century creative and spiritual force.
‘Finding Blake’ is the resulting feature-length document of the journey. James interviewed poets, priests, psychoanalysts and a rapper to get at the heart of Blake’s relevance today. Interwoven through the film is the creation of the stone itself — a stunning work of craft — from the stone being mined in Portland, Dorset, to its unveiling ceremony in the ‘Dissenters Graveyard’ in Bunhill Fields in London on the 191st anniversary of Blake’s death. We see the fine detail of the process: from choosing the stone, to its sizing and cutting out and bevelling, to the letter drawing out and then cutting, to gilding, and its final setting.
The film includes some of Blake’s key poems, and animated images, to take the audience into the mind of the artist, and to stimulate the deep imagination so lacking in our age.
“The green and pleasant land that Blake spoke about lives inside human beings: it’s the conversation between a possible template of happiness inside us, and an expression of that in the outer world”
— David Whyte, poet & philosopher, in the film.
Released in the wake of the recent Blake exhibition at Tate London, this brand new documentary seeks to continue the process of opening up this ‘poet – artist – prophet’ to a wider audience, and show his very real relevance at the heart of contemporary culture in Britain and the world in the midst of massive shifts in consciousness and active rebellion on our streets. As we today urgently seek to find answers to the climate emergency and the rank social injustice that divides communities, William Blake pointed towards finding a spiritual unity internally and externally, and strove to find his own system before the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of the industrial capitalist system enslaved him.
Completed just in time for submission to Sheffield DocFest, Finding Blake has a ‘crew and crowdfunders’ preview screening in mid-March, and screening dates are being planned in Cambridge, Bristol, London, Stroud, Newcastle, Cornwall, Cumbria and Scotland, as well as a pay-per-view online option (with additional footage and scenes). All details will be available shortly here on the project website — where, of course, we have many articles exploring all aspects of Blake’s life, career, and legacy, written by a wide range of scholars and creatives.
I give you the end of a golden string; Only wind it into a ball: It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate, Built in Jerusalem’s wall.
Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White announces the completion of the film behind the project, reveals the trailer for the film, celebrates the inspiration behind this work — and asks what Blake would make of the changes we are seeing in the world today.
So — we have a film: a 90-minute feature doc, Finding Blake: meeting William Blake in the 21st Century, or – memorialising the vegetal ephemeral. It was completed, fittingly, on Valentine’s Day. And it’s been a long labour of love — three years, and all my life and experience before that: poured into this.
It’s been a long wild ride. As Patti Smith sings in My Blakean Year:
“all that I envisioned, all that I had held dear, met with grave derision.” — Patti Smith
So I write this with a sense of reflection, and both an opening to the new, and an ending of the old. I’ve been coming and going with this project over these three years: having to put it down to focus on commercial work and pay the bills; deepening my activism and my engagement with the human community in doing so, equally emphasising a deeper connection with the Earth and the soil and engaging in the work of rewilding, inner and outer. And yet, always mindful of returning to the layers and levels of understanding of Blake’s zoas, and seeking to integrate so many aspects of life and the love and joy and horror of it all coming at me constantly, so that I can truly exist somewhere within these four levels of spiritual development.
That is what Blake’s life was all about, and why he still is such a strong source of inspiration. As Luis Carrido, Blake scholar — and, with his wife Carol, the re-discoverer of Blake’s final resting place underneath the plane tree in the Bunhill Fields ‘dissenters graveyard’ — says early in the film:
“It’s a movement of spiritual enlightenment. Blake helps us reach up to the infinite.” — Luis Carrido
So, remembering this, and constantly working with Luis and his words and the other interviewees on screen, and the ever-present solid, calm craft of Lida Kindersley, the constant tap-tap-tapping of chisel hitting stone in her workshop — which I hope I’ve used to good measure in the film as a sound experience as well as a visual metaphor, chipping away at the fixedness of life — I’ve brought all the material to the editing chipping block. Chipped away, always trying to reach up to the infinite, with all its beautiful and wrathful manifestations we find upon the way.
Blake was born for this time
Having dived into Blake’s life and legacy, and responded to it all with this project, I wonder what Blake would have made of the massive cultural shifts and rise in consciousness we are seeing manifest. It is deeply encouraging to see folk — young and old, from every walk of life — rising to challenge vested power and political corruption.
Capitalism stifles and kills. Land ownership excludes and divides. Carbon production and emission destroys. And creativity, stilling the mind, listening, looking deeply — these are what re-invigorate and produce love and beauty and compassionate care.
Blake would love this time in the human story. He was born for it, and we thank him for the legacy of life that has helped bring this shift into being. I wonder if his energy truly went beyond, or if it was re-incarnated: to keep returning as bodhisattvas to guide us humbler mortals to enlightenment…
Wild weather and deep inspiration
Sitting down to edit often feels to me like sitting in the dentist’s chair and having my wisdom teeth pulled (I’ve had two out and still remember the pain and the size of the needles). There is an ominous phrase in the film world, often used by editors and all of us crafting away with cameras: ‘kill your babies’ — which really translates as ‘does your best material hold the story together and would the story survive without it?’ I’d much rather hand projects over — and I’ve worked with a few good editors on pieces of this — but ultimately it’s been my responsibility and I knew I must see it through.
“I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another mans I will not reason & compare:my business is to create”
It’s been wild weather outside the door: Storm Ciara was in full force when I arrived, and knocked out some of Cumbria’s water supply and left the land water-logged, cold, windy, and snowy up on the higher hills. And Storm Dennis is just coming up the land now as I finish the edit and write these words. Wonderful, wild weather to inspire my looking deep into this screen and allowing Blake to unfold…
I’m grateful to two dear friends who have been closely involved with Finding Blake since the beginning. Poet Clare Crossman and filmmaker Jonnie Howard both have been giving me constant advice and good guidance on this visual telling, and whose wise words I took with me to the editing retreat high up in the Cumbrian wilds.
Using film to find William Blake
To get my creative juices going, I took myself to see the new Terence Malick film A Hidden Life: a masterly telling of a true story of conscientious objection, and the soul-felt struggle of the individual who chose this path. The film isn’t about words, as with much of Malick’s recent work. He uses huge-scale cinematography to conjure emotions. Sweeping shots of mountains and the vast rolling (Austrian) landscapes, with beautiful intimate detail of grass and corn, and the vast deep joy of all of it.
One of the disappointments I felt at the big Blake exhibition at Tate Britain that finished at the top of this month, alongside the lack of A/V material, is that the big scale film panning across an artwork didn’t go into enough detail. What I would love to do with Blake is to use special lenses to really scrutinise some of the images — prints and paintings — in deep detail. Access to the images to do this requires a vast budget, and the institutions that hold the bulk of Blake’s oeuvre frown upon such deep scrutiny. There was a very fine film doing the rounds last year looking at Picasso’s early life, with magnificent slow close-ups of some of his work — a powerful way to really look at an image. Blake’s work would really benefit from this close observation by those with eyes to see.
I was up at Clare’s cottage a year ago last winter, and cut all the sequences in draft form. I have sat on them since, adding other bits of footage and doing more interviews, but wondering what was lacking in the overall project. Jonnie — a great filmmaker who has done some of the early camerawork for the project (including the beautifully shot David Whyte interview in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where Blake quite literally sat upon our shoulders) has been continually saying I should inject more personal input: Why have I been doing this? What’s my story here? And so I have. I hope it works: it was never going to be all about me — that thought abhors me, but I realise that ultimately it’s both the personal and the wider perspective that tells the story, and this is where the craft of telling is, whatever the story.
Clare, a fine poet, highly capable of soul-diving to heft out words of the Earth to bring ethical diamonds to us — has also been telling me to work deeper with the Blakean words: pull out the wisdom of his legacy and craft them visually. So I’ve crafted small film-poems (one of my favourite art forms indeed — and I hope this entire film and project is in itself a larger film-poem to creativity and the human spiritual journey itself: from womb to soil).
I have to leave that to you, dear viewer, to judge for yourself. Feedback, of course, is welcome, when you get to see the whole thing on a screen someplace. We welcome reviews here, or email me directly. I’ll probably be out on a moor someplace or lugging cameras to film beavers or wild bogs, and it might take a while to respond (most of the film projects this year are responses to, reflections upon, and recording elements of this beautiful natural world, so far from the inner reflectiveness that Finding Blake has been).
Bringing Finding Blake into the world
There is a preview screening next month for those closely involved and those who chipped in to the crowdfunding campaign to get Finding Blake up and running all those centuries ago … Space is extremely limited but if you’re keen to come, email me and I’ll see if we can squeeze you in.
I’m talking to a prestigious venue about an official launch event, probably late Spring, and also to other venues around the land to take Finding Blake on a mini-tour later in the year. All details will be released here in good time. If you’d love to bring Finding Blake to a screen near you, with or without me to introduce it and do a Q&A, do shout — happy to negotiate.
For now, until Finding Blake manifests onto a screen near you, here to whet your Blakean appetite is the trailer for the film.
In her previous posts, Adriana Díaz Enciso recalled how finding Blake on a family shopping trip out of Mexico sparked a series of puzzling encounters with the poet and artist and eventually caused her to embark on her own Blakean novel. Ciudad doliente de Dios would take her from horrific events in Mexico and a writing residency in the USA to Blake’s London. Here, Adriana completes the series, discussing her role in the work of the Blake Society, the publication of her novel and the meaning of Blake’s art as both path and goal.
Around the time I started rewriting the novel, I finally decided to get close to the Blake Society. So close in fact, that I became a Trustee for several years, then its Secretary. This is not the space to say what went wrong, which is documented elsewhere. I’d rather focus here on what nurtured me, what I learnt and what I enjoyed.
It was a joy and a source of renewed inspiration to see how Blake’s work and spirit are still alive for many people, including younger generations. I’ve found amazing, amusing or even daunting the passions that he can still stir — and I am fully aware that some might make similar comments regarding my own passion for Blake. Wondering who he really was in his homeland is very different from doing so in Mexico. The approach back there is by necessity more sober, focusing mainly on his work. Here in Britain, there are layers upon layers of symbolic dimensions touching on the aesthetic, the religious, the philosophical, the metaphysical, the social and the political.
Of course, all these were issues Blake touched upon through his life and work. And it says much about the power with which he did so that so many years after his death, throngs of people are still seeking his meaning, finding new interpretations… sometimes with such a fierce feeling of appropriation of Blake that it borders on worship. I’ll get there later.
Blakean encounters and wounds
In the Blake Society I got to hear the most wonderful talks … and the most bizarre as well. Involved in organising several events, I’ll always be grateful for the chance to channel through them my wholehearted enthusiasm. There was a walk I led in Peckham Rye looking for Blake’s angels on trees; a midnight vigil in Blake’s surviving home in South Molton Street, waiting for our own Visionary Heads to appear as we echoed Blake’s gatherings with artist and astrologer John Varley; then there was the spirit of Orc, embodied in poet Jeremy Reed at the Occupy London encampment on a freezing December evening outside St Paul’s Cathedral; or taking children from Kids Company to read The Tyger to the tigers in London Zoo, the nonstop rain never dampening the children’s zeal.
There were also projects which met failure, such as that of founding Golgonooza, the City of Imagination built by Los, in the streets of London. I had envisaged having Blake’s images projected on buildings all over the city, making true his never materialised dream of being commissioned to paint murals. Then London would be, albeit briefly, a true visionary city. A completely unaffordable project, it was transformed into an illuminated talk at King’s College Arts and Humanities Festival: Golgonooza as the sacred city of the imagination; as the human body; as a reflection on failure. I said goodbye to the Blake Society, inviting Maitreyabandhu, a Buddhist poet of great insight, to talk about Blake and about the imagination as the supreme human faculty.
To be involved in all these projects in Blake’s London was a joy, and a privilege — something I would have never imagined possible when I bought that Penguin edition in a noisy shopping mall. And for that, I am grateful.
It’s impossible not to mention here as well the 2014 Blake Cottage appeal. Part of its leadership, I gave myself to it with full devotion and hope. It was a beautiful project; the support it received from the public was the most poignant certitude that Blake’s spirit is still alive and touching many. Working on it, I am sure, kept me alive during rather trying times.
Part of the plan was to make Blake’s cottage in Felpham, Sussex, a ‘house of refuge’ for persecuted writers. This, I thought, would be quite a concrete way of honouring what Blake stood for — and precisely in the place where he was accused of sedition. The appeal’s original conception meant for the cottage to be the materialisation, through collective effort, of what Blake believed in as a man and an artist.
True, things didn’t go that way, and the problems that ensued nearly killed me (in compensation, perhaps, for the project having kept me alive for a long while?). Yet I don’t regret one bit having invested so much of me in the dream. I believed in what we were doing, and as far as my own experience goes, the path walked with faith becomes the destination. The ordeal also gave me the chance to have a first-hand experience of a Blakean prophetic poem unfolding live, with all its acute drama. It might have been trying, but no one can say it wasn’t interesting. If I lost my Innocence in the Blake Society and the Blake Cottage appeal, I gained loads of Experience. I am therefore grateful.
Finding Blake again: Ciudad doliente de Dios
For a while, the wounds were so bad that I couldn’t even hear William Blake mentioned without my stomach hurting, and so I walked away from him for the first time in over thirty years. My Blakean novel was finished but not published, and finding a publisher was proving hard. But healing came. I knew I’d be alright the day when, out of the blue, I decided to visit Bunhill Fields again. I sat there, by the fig tree and the old stone with its chipped corner — a place which has become hallowed by the pilgrimage of so many — as I had often done while writing the novel. I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular. I just sat there, watching the trees, the pigeons flying, people passing by. It was a very happy day.
I’m now ready for Blake again.
Which is a good thing, because, after a long wait, Ciudad doliente de Dios was finally published last December in Mexico, by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Things therefore became quite intense. The novel had to go to print in October, which gave me the shortest time I’ve ever had to read the proofs of a book of mine (and this is my longest one).
It being a book I finished five years ago, I was at moments tempted to rewrite again. It wouldn’t have been wise though, as it would have meant more destroying than building. On the whole, I decided to trust the writer I was then. It has been twenty-one years since I started working on this novel. I believe it has indeed reached the point when it has to go out into the world.
On reading the proofs, I was reminded of what a strange novel it is. I liked that. As a dialogue with Blake’s prophetic poems the visionary mattered more than any conventions of modern fiction, and it feels right to have been loyal to that intent.
I was struck too by the degree to which this is a Christian book, in the sense that Blake was Christian (I hope!). I felt somewhat melancholic. I’ve talked before of how I’d been a Christian who responded to the symbolic power of the myth while struggling with the dogma. Precisely in the years I was finishing the novel, I started to walk away from the remnants of my identity as a Christian, as I discovered Buddhism. There aren’t so many contradictions, and I even find much that sounds utterly Buddhist in Blake himself. Ultimately, the quest of my characters for the meaning of the cross and the figure of Christ is a quest for understanding of suffering, and it’s moved by compassion. The questions in it remain utterly genuine and alive for me.
Another matter I pondered on while reading the proofs is the extent to which the tragedies endured by the country where I was born take centre stage in the novel. Set on the visionary rather than the mundane side of reality, it doesn’t take place in any ‘real’ geographical spot. Its characters walk towards the sacred city, led by an image of St Paul’s Cathedral. However, the unfathomable suffering of a country called Mexico has been woven around the cosmogony of William Blake, in an effort to understand and to find meaning. I do hope, therefore, that Ciudad doliente de Dios honours all the people who have endured such suffering with courage and even — as is the case of the community Las Abejas, members of which were the victims of the Acteal massacre — with hope.
Blake: art as path and goal
It must be clear by now, the importance that William Blake has had in my life, as a writer and a human being. He’s an artist and poet who talks to me. One whom I honour and admire for the way he lived the extremely hard battle it was his lot to fight. A sublime and truly inspired but misunderstood artist who endured mockery, incomprehension and poverty.
However, William Blake is not a saint, and in coming closer to some other people’s appreciation of him, I believe that the kind of fanaticism encountered around him now and then is a great loss: a deviation of what really matters in his legacy.
There is no doubt that he lived an exemplary life, as a courageous human being who remained steadfastly faithful to his call, his passions and his principles, against all odds. He believed in the power of art and the imagination to transform human life by helping us break through the veils which hinder our awareness of transcendent reality. And he considered this power the essence of divinity in human existence. He devoted his life to that vision, and therefore to create beauty and meaning. What else can we possibly demand from him?
He gave us more than enough, and like any true artist, he demands in turn our full regard for his work, our full responsiveness. Any other extraneous meaning whimsically projected onto him is a deviation from this. Blake’s belief in being able to communicate with certain spirits (his brother Robert’s; the sages he saw on the shores of Felpham; and his angels) wouldn’t be more interesting than any other person’s perhaps unusual beliefs, had he not linked that faith to a greater, encompassing one: his faith in the human spirit, capacious enough to hold within it God, the universe and all the questions hence derived.
Furthermore, he was adamant about art’s paramount importance in the life of man, believing that a society which stands with its back to the arts is impoverished, lame and crass. Art was, to him, the vehicle, the path and the goal: what he dedicated his life to. If we make any claim to having accepted his gift for posterity, it is to his images and his poetry that we must turn — and they are certainly not for the literal-minded.
We live in times of confusion, when the arts are often understood either as a commodity, novelty, entertainment, a sorry mirror for the vacuous existence of the consumer society, or (with good but misguided intentions) as a by-product of sociology, which then becomes surreptitiously an instrument for social engineering.
All these approaches strip art of its transcendent principle, and when that happens, art is dead. The death of art means the death of a society’s spirit, of human freedom. That is why artists such as William Blake are important, and it is a thing to celebrate that there are many individuals in younger generations who understand this and want to make Blake’s art and poetry a part of their lives.
The art and the poetry of a man who lived on earth. Nothing more and nothing less.
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.