You must have seen those poor fools who fall from life’s ragbag and haunt the streets of our cities wearing billboards screaming, “The end is nigh!” They are the stone in the shoe, the black seed between the teeth, the puzzle, the snag, the indiscretion in our orderly lives. But of course we don’t have orderly lives so when we come to town it is usually to buy something that will make our own ragbag lives more….(name your own desire here). The last thing we want is some fool telling us our lives are going to end before we have got it all nailed down and tidied up.
The fool for the day
Enter the enigmatic William Blake who may be England’s greatest artist, poet and prophet but who was considered by many of his contemporaries as just one of those poor, ragbag fools. He was described as superstitious, deluded and insane. And he was, and still is strange, startling and deeply unsettling because he lived in a world of vision and spirit which he declared to be the only reality that was eternal. He said, “Nature has no Outline, But Imagination has. Nature has no Tune, but Imagination has. Nature has no Supernatural, and dissolves; Imagination is Eternity.“
When we considered which day to launch the Finding Blake Website, April 1st was suggested. I thought April Fool’s Day was a terrible idea and then immediately realised that it would be the perfect day and very Blakean. There can be no greater fool, it would seem, than one who would burn most of his work, declaring, “I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame, for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory. I wish to do nothing for profit. I wish to live for art. I want nothing whatever. I am quite happy.”
Just read that to a contestant on The Apprentice, or Dragon’s Den. If you are weighing and judging William Blake with the checks and balances of a modern mind you will certainly think he is a fool. And on the day I am writing this I heard at the early church service:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)
“But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
The roads of genius
In another seemingly foolish declaration, he said, “Improvement makes straight, straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.”
Blake, it would seem, was a great non-dual thinker too, dissolving that ever repeated argument, ‘if God is so good how come he let’s bad things happen?’ Blake would say, “Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence.”
Perhaps Blake saw the human inclination we have to limit our lives, striving to straighten them out, to make them in an image of something glamorous, or successful. The villains are jailed, the heroes are splendid, and it all ends happily, but in our hearts we don’t believe a word of it because it is not our experience. In reality, life is unpredictable at best, and we rarely skip round the bends in the roads of our lives, we often stagger and occasionally crawl. But without this struggle we are nothing at all.
The doors of perception
Now surely it is time to move from the surface of life and find the inner, spiritual life that Blake contended was the only reality. Now is the time to leave the story of more possessions, more fame, more success and begin that inward journey described by Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it was, infinite.”
These days we see that Blake’s influence and genius extends to contemporary poets and filmmakers, to writers like Rossetti, Kerouac, Salman Rushdie, Philip Pullman, and musicians including Patti Smith, Joan Baez, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and many more. Some would even make a case for calling him the most important poet and artist of all time. His great impact was in making a powerful concoction of ideological words and images and pouring it over the establishment.
Whilst being rooted in Christianity, Blake followed in the tradition of Jesus and was sharply critical of the established church, stating, “As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priests lays his curse on the fairest joys.” It was Blake who invented the term, ‘the dark satanic mills’: words he used to define the three headed monster of State, Church and Industry, who were crushing and grinding the human spirit into a misery of squalid transactionalism.
This seeming ‘fool’ illustrated in words and images the slavery into which he saw the human being falling. Even more today than ever before is mankind creating his own oppression, utterly submissive because we will not wake up. Brexit is a clear demonstration of how easily we can be manipulated and how we will walk into one disaster after another, grovelling for leadership and desperate for meaning we are unable find within ourselves. Perhaps more than ever we need more fools like William Blake. Perhaps more than ever we need to wake up and listen to him.
Linda Richardson is an artist. Based in Cambridge, England, she makes work that engages the imagination and intuition and tries to make a creative space for the viewer to connect their inner nature with their outer nature to form ideas that are not rooted in convention, reason or rationality. However neither are they pure fantasy that provides and escape from humdrum life. Linda wants instead to awaken the senses to the beauty and wonder of the world in which we live, to activate the attention to the mystery of the human experience.
You can find more of Linda’s work at lindarichardson.net