William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 1 – McAllen, Texas

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa Espinasa
Photo: Teresa Espinasa

Finding Blake welcomes another powerful voice to our explorations. Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction and a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. In a compelling series of posts for Finding Blake — marking the publication of her Blakean novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios, in Mexico today — Adriana shares with us her remarkable journey from discovering Blake on a family trip to Texas, immersing herself in his work and her own in Mexico, the USA and London. 


When I think of where I first found Blake, the words come to me: “I found William Blake in Hell”. I like the idea.

Hell in this case was a shopping mall in McAllen, Texas, during the last holiday I spent with my family before leaving home. I must have been eighteen. I had heard of Blake before in terms so vague I can’t remember where or how, though I know I was curious.

Now, what was I doing in a shopping mall in McAllen, Texas? And, even more perplexing, what was Blake doing there?

I was born in Guadalajara, in Western Mexico, around the area where the country starts longing to become the north. There are some striking differences between north and south over there, with the north generally looking even more northwards — the ultimate goal being the USA. I’m not sure to what extent this is the case still now, but in my time certain kinds of families had this bizarre idea that going shopping in Texas could be called a holiday. The dogma was that things were so badly made in Mexico (all things: clothing, shoes, make-up, stationery, sweets, LPs, you name it… even people!) that it was necessary to cross to el otro lado (‘the other side’) to get quality stuff that was indispensable for living without sorrow. We made the expedition every year.

Hell - the shopping mall Image by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018
Hell – the shopping mall
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

Outgrowing the dogma

For years I believed in the dogma, but by the time I made that last trip I had outgrown it. At 16, after having read Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and A Room of One’s Own, I had decided that I didn’t only ‘like’ writing, but that I would become the real thing.

The discovery of vocation came with the side-effect of coming to thoroughly hate those shopping orgies, and on that last one — with all the drama that a teenager worth the name is capable of — I was thinking in despair of ways of saving my soul and intellect in the midst of that temple to vacuity at which my family, and many others, worshipped every day during those trips. “I don’t want clothes!”, I cried to myself in fury (though deep, deep inside I knew I did want some). “I want the things of the spirit! Where can I go in this godforsaken place to avoid contamination?”

The shopping mall had, believe it or not, a bookshop. And it was browsing its shelves in desperation that I came across the Penguin Classics edition of Blake’s Complete Poems. Maybe it was its thick spine that first called my attention, as I was yearning for pages to literally submerge myself in and swim away. I pulled it out and saw the cover.

I had never seen a Blake illustration before, and now I was suddenly confronted by Death on a Pale Horse: some irate deity, face hard as stone, riding on a white steed, seemingly torn between the powers of darkness and light… and darkness winning. It was powerful. Strange and slightly threatening, so utterly other from anything I had ever seen before. Then I read the back cover, which summarised the trajectory of an artist and poet who had been colossal: a visionary, rebellious, and misunderstood. “This is it,” I thought, and bought it.

Death on a Pale Horse Artist: William Blake c 1800
Death on a Pale Horse
Artist: William Blake c 1800
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Soon Blake would be crossing the border to Mexico with me.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Some years would pass without my seeing any more of Blake’s illustrations. Meanwhile, I endeavoured to read his complete poems. The journey started easily enough, but got more and more complicated as I moved forward. To start with, my Penguin edition displayed poetry in a way I found unnerving: with lines from alternative versions of the poems in brackets, the poems themselves divided according to a ‘plate’ number. I hadn’t understood the way Blake worked, nor in what an extraordinary manner his poems had been originally printed, and I resented the interrupted flow of words.

Then there were the words themselves. I was first drawn by the mirroring drama of the Songs of Innocence and Experience as much as by The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The latter’s prestige as an emblem of seditious poetry had reached even Guadalajara — which perhaps wasn’t that strange, it being in those times such a conservative city that poets there had truly no other choice than burning.

I was a big fan of Jim Morrison, and knowing that The Doors had taken their name from a Blakean verse (or from Aldous Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception, but he had taken it from Blake in any case) put Blake among my favourites way before I could claim I understood him. I was into Rimbaud and Les Chants de Maldoror. Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell seemed to me to be in that league: untamed, daring all conventional notions of good and evil to stand unshaken in the light of fierce lucidity. I was provoked too by the mystery I sensed in even what appeared to be Blake’s most straightforward poems. However, when I got to what we now call his Prophetic Poems, I was utterly baffled.

Changer of worlds 

For years too, I don’t think I understood them at all. But I wanted to. One thing I knew: that there was an energy contained in there which, though its core eluded me, had the power to change a world. I was intrigued and irritated by them in equal measure, upset at not being able to crack them open. Not even at that tender age was I so naïve as to believe that poetry could change the world — mainly because you’d first need for ‘the world’ to want to change, which is unusual — but I knew that it could certainly change worlds, and I wanted mine to be among them.

Gradually I got to see some reproductions of Blake’s illustrated poems, which brought one of the various quakes which have forced me to reformulate my appreciation of Blake throughout the decades: here was a man who, not contented with being able to change worlds, had created a whole universe himself. Through the union of word and image, that universe lacked nothing.

His pages formed so much more than a conventional poem, a conventional pictorial image or a conventional book. They were unrefutably alive, their elements woven with threads of most exquisite beauty, ignoring all common wisdom about formal rules. He was fierce like a wild beast, playful like a child. It was then that the text on the back cover of my Penguin edition took its fair dimension — William Blake was a free spirit. Freer than anyone I could think of. Maybe even freer than Rimbaud!

However, even in that discovery there was puzzlement. There were a couple of illustrations I didn’t like at all, particularly if seen against the stunning beauty of his other images, both the most ferocious and the most delicate ones. My general sense was that Blake had been a poet and artist in constant overflow, indomitable, for better or for worse. In this I was close to the truth, though I still didn’t know that much about his life, and it enticed me because I had an instinctive leaning to the force of excess in art (Blake would call it exuberance).

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell William Blake (1790)
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
William Blake (1790)
Library of Congress

He overwhelmed me, fascinated and provoked me. I wanted Blake. But I didn’t have him. 


Notes

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 today in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

 

In her next post for Finding Blake, Adriana recalls her adventures in breaking into Blake’s world, translating his poems into Spanish, creating a Blakean ‘sound collage’ for a Mexican rock band, and embarking on her third novel. But the real world also breaks in, in the form of a horrific massacre in Chiapas state, and the meaning of Blake’s prophetic poems takes on a new clarity for her. 

Divine Madness

We're excited to welcome another new voice to Finding Blake. James Fox shares the story of his accidental discovery of William Blake and, through his works, the key to a treasure that is a vision of the future - of humanity at home in the world.


It all began for me with one of those accidental discoveries made whilst randomly browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Glastonbury. Not looking for any special subject in particular – and Blake was certainly not on my mind – I somewhat apathetically pulled out a book simply entitled William Blake. It was written by John Middleton Murry, the prolific author of more than sixty books and editor of the Adelphi magazine. He was married to Katherine Mansfield and was part of a scene that included the likes of D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley, the latter portraying him as Denis Burlap in Point Counter Point.

Like Nietzsche’s discovery of Schopenhauer in a bookshop in Leipzig, opening the covers of William Blake was like parting the Doors of Aurora. As I read the opening sentences, then the first page, a spiritual sun began to glow inside me. Almost immediately I sensed the presence of treasure, or at least the key to treasure, of something I knew not what that I’d been searching for, explicitly for the last ten years (and which had taken me to some troubled regions), maybe my whole life. Ironically, or perhaps not so, it was in those troubled regions that the Countenance Divine had shone forth for me in a green and pleasant grove on the edge of Dartmoor. But that experience had evaporated like a mirage, the treasure locked away as a mere memory. But I quickly saw in those opening pages of William Blake that Middleton Murry himself had experienced the Countenance Divine; and when I later began reading the book properly was satisfied that it was this, what he terms ‘spiritual sensation’, and all its psychological and philosophical aspects and ramifications, that is at the core of Blake’s work.

Urizen the emissary becomes master

With Middleton Murry’s book behind me I read an edition of Blake’s complete illuminated books and from previously being bemused on account of being unable to make any sense of Blake’s writings I now found myself in a series of excursions into worlds and landscapes in which difficult and elusive existential concerns and psychological forces and states were brought into plain sight by means of the theatre of poetry and imagery. I encountered Urizen – a menacing presence, yet also a sad one. He is our rational faculty; but when he is wrongly placed in our psyche, when he ceases to be an instrument of our creative, active forces and, in Iain McGilchrist’s words, ceases to be emissary and assumes the role of master, then he tries to direct our lives through knowledge of the ‘best way to live’. This ‘ethical’ knowledge of right and wrong action either originates in some omniscient source (God the Father) or has to be worked out by the human intellect. Being a philosopher trained in the Western tradition, and not subscribing to the notion of God the Father, I set out to know, in some form or another, the incontrovertible nature of the universe, myself and their relationship – that I might obtain this knowledge of right living.

It has been said that (Western) philosophy, ultimately, is asking the question: how should we live? Fortunately most philosophers don’t apply this to their own lives, preferring to confine it to the study or the classroom. I, on the other hand, like a madman, threw myself into reading whatever philosophy, religion or science I thought might deliver me of that ‘incontrovertible’ knowledge of how to live (for the best). Coming as this did on the back of a recently completed PhD on the history of philosophy, it is no wonder that I found myself under mental strain and began to suffer from insomnia – although the cause of this was not apparent to me at the time. Finding myself awake in the middle of the night, agitated, my mind whirring, but impelled by some subterranean imperative (to know the All), apprehensive of the tiredness that would plague the day to come – I realised that I had a problem. And the way you solve problems is by the intellect, by thinking things through. And so the knot of threads that was my mental state was pulled yet tighter.

Months passed before moments of realisation came, and went, that the root of my problem lay in obsessive thinking. When this realisation possessed me, the urge to think abated, and the world became a calm and present place. But, like one possessed of a demon, sooner or later the imperative ‘to know’, like a flywheel that can’t shed its momentum, would hijack my mental life-energy until once more I found myself in the same dark cave, wide awake, pulling on that tangled knot.

But one day I found William Blake in the cave beside me when, reading Milton, I heard him say:

To cast off the idiot Questioner, who is always questioning
But never capable of answering, who sits with a sly grin
Silent plotting when, like a thief in a cave.

When reading There Is No Natural Religion I heard:

More! More! Is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.
If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot.

In Jerusalem I came across the tyrannical monster of Urizen poised over the spontaneous creative life force of Los:

Spectre over Los, Plate 6 Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion by William Blake Copy E
Source: The William Blake Archive via Wikimedia

And I saw in that monster the nature of my own obsessive thinking.
But in The Book of Urizen I came across this mental tyrant in a different guise:

The First Book of Urizen, Plate 12 (Bentley 22), William Blake
Source: Yale Center for British Art Paul Mellon Collection

Here was a tormented creature, eyes closed, wrists and ankles shackled, imprisoned in a world of his own in-turned psychical nature – and I saw myself in this creature. And my anger towards him melted into sadness: he had never intended to unleash this misery and despair; he had not set out to be a tyrant and suppressor of the joy, meaningfulness and vitality of life. If it had not been for his emergence into our psyche during the last Ice Age we would not be here today. Yet, something had obviously gone wrong. And this was something to do with the magnitude of the psychical energy that this Urizenic rational faculty had drawn upon and bloated itself with, and which had resulted in an excessive preoccupation with shadowy abstract materials and a shutting out of the direct sensing of the presence of the world. Thus:

He who sees the Infinite in all things, sees God.
He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only.

Los at home in the world

I recall awakening in the middle of the night in a flat in Kentish town, whilst in London to attend a meeting of the Blake Society. The final image of Jerusalem appeared before me as the visually realised solution to the problem of Urizen:

Two forms of Los with Enitharmon, Plate 100 of Jerusalem, William Blake
Source: The William Blake Archive via Wikimedia

Los stands with a hammer in one hand and dividers in the other. The hammer is the creative spontaneous life force of the Imagination; the dividers are the measuring, partitioning rational faculty indispensable for day-to-day life. But now, the two are in harmony: now, the ratio is the instrument of art and imagination. Los is at home in the world, at one with its divine presence that shines forth in its elemental modes: solid land, trees; the flowing river, the Moon; the fiery Sun; the translucent air through which the stars and the universe are seen.

I had been trained in the Western philosophical tradition before my interests turned to mystical doctrines, which I then studied at the theoretical and practical level for some years. However, I had not been able to concert all that I had imbued or tried out into any kind of satisfying and productive outlet. Though not claiming to have read exhaustively in the world’s mystical treatises, I have found in Blake’s work the most profound account of mystical experience – an experience we are told is ineffable – and a philosophy that treats of and makes sense of most of the ‘major questions’ concerning the human condition: issues which academic philosophers continue to churn over as they have for more than two thousand years, often in a rationally pompous yet bloodless and boring fashion. Blake, on the other hand, can say in a few lines of poetry, and say it better, what most academic philosophers cannot say in a book.

On the mystical:

To see a world in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild flower.

On the ontological:

That an Eternal life awaits the worms of sixty winters
In an allegorical abode where existence hath never come.

On the epistemological:

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character, the Philosophic &
Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things
& stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.

In poems such as The Chimney Sweeper Blake can also show us – and in affecting ways – the lived personal experience of those who suffer due to the absence of the spiritual in our day-to-day world.

Countenance Divine

For me, Blake is foremost a spiritual visionary; his poetic works and art are the means by which he shows us his vision. This vision is of a future in which we have awakened from our present human condition of being shut out from the sense of being at home in the world, and instead find ourselves in a state in which the world we live in day to day is experienced as suffused, more or less, with the Countenance Divine; in which we have ceased to experience ourselves as separate, finite beings, trembling and sick in fear of the annihilation we suppose is inevitable, and instead experience all things, creatures and human beings, the Earth and the heavens above, as suffused with divinity: as radiant, at one and timeless. And from this springs inevitably the sense of the preciousness and beauty of the planet upon which almost everything we know and experience and live for is located; a desire naturally wells up that instils in us a sense of care towards our precious environment, and a compassion towards all creatures and human beings.

We cannot return to the Stone Age, before Urizen became misplaced: we cannot remove from the world or our memory all that our excessive and misplaced ratio has brought about. But we can re-place him, and in so doing allow ourselves to wake up spiritually: to feel at home in the world once more; to open ourselves to the creative forces of the imagination which provide us with our purpose, joy and vitality; to feel at one with and hence to wish to care for our natural environment and other creatures; and to use Urizen, now as instrument, in the service of this new mode of being.

Finding Blake has spurred me to try to develop some sort of nature-based mystical philosophy and shaman-like practice for today that will help to bring about this kind of spiritual awakening and avert the increasing psychological, social and environmental damage that our misplaced Urizen is causing. A keystone in this endeavour would be Blake’s work. I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who shares this vision or is working in this area. May the spirit of Blake guide me! 


Notes

James Fox is a philosopher and former researcher at the Open University and is a co-author of A Historical Dictionary of Leibniz’s Philosophy (Scarecrow Press, 2006). He is now mostly interested in mystical texts, especially pantheistic nature-based doctrines and practices which he sees as key to transforming our conception of ourselves in relation to the world: a transformation that can lead to the spiritual experience of total at-homeness in (at one with) the natural environment and hence to the feeling of a reverence and duty of care towards that environment. Prior to pursuing philosophy, he held a position in a climate research department at the UK Meteorological Office.

My Streets Are My, Ideas of Imagination

Niall McDevitt is a walking artist who specialises in the revolutionary poets of London, particularly Blake, Rimbaud, Shakespeare and Yeats. Who better, then, for Finding Blake to ask to share a post with us on finding William Blake on the streets? 

If Blake was telling the truth when he said ‘My Streets are My, Ideas of Imagination’, then we should look for William Blake in the streets.

As well as the great writings and the magical paintings, there is an infinity of Blake sites in London, Britain and the wider cosmos. 

The first site I encountered was his baptismal font. I’d had the honour of having an early poem included in a display by London Buses. Friends of the Earth organised it and Roger McGough chose the poems. Off-Duty was my first mature poem (though I’ve written many immature ones since.) It was displayed on routes 38 and 73 for a year. Apparently there were 7 million passenger journeys in that period so I could lay claim to a vast readership. At the end of the year we were given laminated editions of our poems and went on a mystery tour by bus. 

The destination turned out to be St James’ Church, Piccadilly. The church is a Wren masterpiece and the marble baptismal font by Grinling Gibbons is a masterpiece within a masterpiece. Blake was baptised there on December 11th, 1757. It was probably the first occasion on which he saw images of Adam and Eve. 

The busload of poets were invited to read their poems in turn by the font. As well as mine, I sang an acapella version of Blake’s London

After that experience I was hooked on Blake and Blake sites. London was transformed. It was as if I had been baptised again and had a new guardian angel. Not bad for a lapsed Catholic. 

William Blake in ‘The Spirit of Soho Mural’, squeezed in between John Logie Baird and William Hazlitt.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Since then I’ve gone on to develop a series of William Blake walks as well as many other poetry-related walks. ‘The William Blake Walk’ became well known, was written about by the author Nigel Richardson, and ended up included in an article on The Great British Walks. In the year of Blake’s 250th anniversary, I went round the route with a BBC sound technician. They didn’t tell me exactly what they had in mind. 

On November 27th – the day before Blake’s birthday – The Poet of Albion was broadcast, featuring such luminaries as Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, and Tom Paulin. The show was presented by Jenny Uglow and interspersed with chunks from my walk, booming from the very streets Blake had lived, studied, worked and died in. There was perhaps only one drawback about The Poet of Albion: a preposterously jolly tribute to the hymn Jerusalem by none other than Boris Johnson, whom I think of as a kind of Urizen in nappies. 

Jeremy Reed with Helen Moore and Niall McDevitt performing at the site of Blake’s birth, William Blake House.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Other walks I have invented are The William Blake / Wat Tyler Walk which commences where Blake died and finishes at his burial place. En route, it takes in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Gordon Riots of 1780. The latter was the major London insurgency of Blake’s lifetime, and he was an eyewitness to its defining moment, the burning of Newgate Prison, which was like a ‘storming of the Bastille’ nine years in advance. 

Looking south, I have developed another exploration which fuses two areas and two poets. The Rimbaud Blake Waterloo Lambeth Walk tells the stories of French poet Arthur Rimbaud living in Stamford Road in 1874, and of Blake’s decade in Hercules Road from 1790-1800. The big question is: could Rimbaud have known of Blake, or seen a Blake illuminated book, or even read Blake? The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by Blake and A Season in Hell by Rimbaud are two of the greatest prose poems in the western tradition. 

A monument to Blake’s friend John Flaxman on the site of Flaxman’s house where Blake attended lectures by the philosopher Thomas Taylor.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

After a West End walk, an East End walk, and a southern peregrination, the last of the four directions is north. I am currently researching a walk ‘From Tyburn to Primrose Hill’, as well as a Hampstead walk specially commissioned by The Idler

One of the sites I am looking for is the site of The Jew’s Harp Tavern, cited in the prophetic book Jerusalem. Its footprint is probably in Regents Park, above Portland Place. It might be near the bottom of the Broad Walk, or on the Redhill Street of today. Did Blake have a glass of porter there? All I know is, it will be hard work finding the exact spot, but no pub will be there to quench my thirst. 

Niall McDevitt in Bunhill Fields.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Notes

Niall McDevitt is the author of three critically acclaimed collections of poetry, b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010), Porterloo (International Times, 2013) and Firing Slits: Jerusalem Colportage (New River Press, 2016). He is a walking artist who specialises in the revolutionary poets of London, particularly Blake, Rimbaud, Shakespeare and Yeats. He blogs at poetopography.wordpress.com

You can find a 2009 piece that Niall wrote for BBC London on William Blake as Urban Shaman and Psychogeographer in the Blakean articles page of our Blakean Archive. And you will find details of the various literary walks — including the Blake Walks — that Niall leads, at the New River Press site.

The line ‘My streets are my, Ideas of Imagination’ comes from Jerusalem: the Emanation of the Giant Albion — one of Blake’s prophetic book, which “tells the story of the fall of Albion, Blake’s embodiment of man, Britain or the western world as a whole. The poetic narrative takes the form of a ‘drama of the psyche, couched in the dense symbolism of Blake’s self-constructed mythology.” (Wikipedia)

I behold London; a Human awful wonder of God!
He says: Return, Albion, return! I give myself for thee: 
My Streets are my, Ideas of Imagination.
Awake Albion, awake! and let us awake up together.
My Houses are Thoughts: my Inhabitants; Affections,
The children of my thoughts...