By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published in The Modern Review 1.2 (2005): 68-75.
None could break the web, no wings of fire.
So twisted the cords, & so knotted
The meshes: twisted like to the human brain
And called it, The Net of Religion.
—William Blake, The Book of Urizen
Christianity, this denial of the will to life become religion!
—Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals
On the surface, the openness with which Nietzsche carried William Blake’s torch represents one of the most unlikely fellowships in literary history. Few would argue that Nietzsche was not an atheist. Rarely one to tame the bite of his condemnations, Nietzsche’s characterization of the Christian as “the sick animal-man” and Christianity as “active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak” would seem to pit him irreconcilably against Blake, who is widely viewed as a Christian.
Yet Nietzsche, who ardently believed that great philosophers distinguish themselves by finding the courage to betray the very ideas they endorse, wrote as disdainfully of atheists as he did of the shame, guilt, delusion and apocalyptic inhibition he associated with Christianity. If these associations undermine human potential, then surely those “pale atheists” Nietzsche singled out in The Genealogy of Morals offer no desirable alternative, clinging just as resolutely to “faith” as the Christians he excoriates.
Nietzsche’s overt contempt for atheists was no mere rhetorical game. Throughout his work, he never distinguishes between varying shades of faith. Whether it is the Christian’s faith in God or the atheist’s faith in truth, all faith redounds to a “probability of deception” and proves nothing. Consistently mistrustful of ideals, Nietzsche recognizes that no belief system is possible without them, a flaw he identifies in atheism and Christianity alike.
For Nietzsche, the longer a popularly shared assumption endures, the more suspicious it becomes. “Truths that have become so old . . . are on the way toward becoming shaky,” he writes. “Once a truth has become that old, it is also on the way toward becoming a lie.” This skepticism of aged truths applies to all beliefs, regardless of how close they may be to Nietzsche’s own convictions.
Just as this unique intellectual approach precludes him from unwavering commitment to any particular strand of thought, it also demands that Nietzsche lend an ear to beliefs many atheists proudly deride. Whether or not Nietzsche succeeded at this is debatable. But the similarities between his Zarathustra and Jesus are difficult to overlook, and Nietzsche’s praise of Jesus in The Antichrist reveals a variety and boundlessness in Nietzsche’s work that transcends conventional atheism.
As with most labels, the word “atheist” is probably too claustrophobic to contain Nietzsche, especially when one understands that, if anything, his assertion that he is “dynamite” suggests he could be contained by nothing. Nietzsche’s atheism is of a richness and complexity no single word can fathom. The same applies to Blake: characterizations of his complex belief system as “Christian” ignore the intensely individual nature of his religious philosophy.
Such categorization is far less illuminating than an unfiltered inquiry into the ideas these thinkers explore. It is no surprise, then, that the two people who most successfully construct a bridge between these seemingly opposed perspectives are Blake and Nietzsche themselves. In particular, their insistence that the imagination is a tool by which human beings reclaim the genius ascribed to a “God” independent of themselves, that religion and reason inspire the complacent withdrawal and isolation of individuals, and that an unashamed embrace of sensuality is an affirmation of human creativity, are less concerned with religious or ideological allegiances and more interested in the cultivation of human potentiality.
Despite the unending neglect, poverty, illness and pain both writers endured over their lives, this optimism always triumphs in their work. When their oeuvres are combined into a unified force, they constitute one of the most eloquent and powerful endorsements of human potential ever conceived. This is not the “positive” or moral religion Nietzsche disdains as the false crutch of myth. It is a practicable response to the perplexing irony in human nature which both Blake and Nietzsche attempt to obliterate: the mighty struggle to recognize and accept our own latent powers.
Even in Blake’s most painful and tormented plates, his hopefulness and confidence in the might of human imagination remain unscathed. If Urizen has shackled his own wrists and ankles as he squats face-up weeping toward the sky in plate 58, still his head emits the luminous glow of creative power. Urizen is not tormented because he lacks the ability to liberate himself, but rather because of a refusal to recognize his innate ability to do so. Despite Urizen’s self-destructive restraint, this potential endures, awaiting Urizen’s courage and action.
The compasses, scales and weights Urizen imposes upon the world in The Book of Urizen fail him not because they are insufficient (though that is true), but specifically because they do not derive from this inexhaustible source of creative power within him; because, at last, “science” has met its match in human desire, and falls miserably short of its quest to qualify and limit it:
They began to weave curtains of darkness
They erected large pillars round the Void
With golden hooks fastened in the pillars
With infinite labour the Eternals
A woof wove, and called it Science.
Eluding Nietzsche’s “tremendous squandering of all defensive energies that is the presupposition of every creative deed,” Urizen’s labored attempt at measuring the immeasurable—imposing reason where desire reigns—inverts imaginative vision into the wasteful employment of human faculties required to subdue nature. And yet, if anything is to be “subdued” in this situation, it is the “mathematical proportion” Blake names as the instrument Urizen relies on for his backward work. In Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “mathematical proportion was subdued by living proportion,” and even Urizen’s most valiant efforts will fail to revise that reality.
Urizen’s refusal to probe for eternity within himself is essentially a failure to achieve the vaunted “wakefulness” Nietzsche celebrates in his preface to Beyond Good and Evil. Consequently, everything in his life is haunted by the mind-forged manacles Blake observed while passing boys caked with a second skin of chimney soot on the streets of 18th-century London. Even Urizen’s books are “formd of metals,” the very metals from which his fetters are forged. It is precisely this self-denial that “must be questioned mercilessly and taken to court,” that serves as “the emasculation of art” and is so full of “charm” as to earn Nietzsche’s incorrigible suspicion.
Nietzsche’s assertion that “whoever has at some time built a ‘new heaven’ has found the power to do so only in his own hell” sounds rather triumphant on the surface, and would seem to reflect Urizen’s liberation from the chains of reason. In actuality, however, it reflects a profound error, a comforting but deluded fantasy that results from the kind of inactive contemplation and fear which, by their very passivity and withdrawal, are more capable of destruction than any form of aggression. One hears the distinct echo of Blake’s voice lurking beneath Nietzsche’s lines here: “active evil is better than passive good,” it whispers.
Blake and Nietzsche both establish that the failure of individuals to engage the imagination does not just limit them, but also limits anyone whom they might have awakened with the fruits of their creativity. For Blake especially, that creative drive extends to sensual experience as much as it pertains to art. One’s failure to share that experience with another binds both parties in Urizen’s fetters of fear, alienation and contemplative withdrawal. If the unexamined life truly is not worth living, then here it is “the sedentary life” which Nietzsche condemns as “the real sin against the holy spirit,” and “every kind of contempt for sex, every impurification of it by means of the concept ‘impure,’ is the crime par excellence against life.” Blake puts it more crudely: “sooner murder an infant in the cradle than nurse unacted desires.”
When Urizen’s daughter encounters “Orc” during Blake’s magnificent “Preludium” to America, the passage offers a stunning illustration of this dichotomy between the poles of Blake’s cosmos: repression and action. Referred to as the daughter or “Urthona” who, amid the many subplots of Blake’s complicated mythical narrative, took Urizen as her captor, Urizen’s daughter finds her roots in Blake’s earlier female figure by the name of Thel. The central figure in Blake’s early Book of Thel, Thel’s desire guides her into experience, only to mortify her with the sorrow and terror of mortality in the form of a lament expressed by “her own grave plot.” This lament with which Blake concludes the poem contains some of the finest writing in all of his work:
Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?
Or the glistening Eye to the poison of a smile!
Why are eyelids stord with arrows ready drawn,
Where a thousand fighting men in ambush lie?
Or an Eye of gifts & graces, show’ring fruits & coined gold!
Why a Tongue impress’d with honey from every wind?
Why an Ear, a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in?
Why a Nostril wide inhaling terror trembling and affright.
Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy!
Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?
Fleeing “with a shriek,” the terrified Thel retreats back to the safer confines of “Har,” a place where she will languish undeveloped in a state of innocence characterized by stultifying docility, cowardice and infantile ignorance. Turning the book of Genesis on its head, Blake insists on the desirability and transformative potential of the fall, a revision of Christian morality in which Satan becomes the more likely hero of Paradise Lost—Urizen unbound.
“Milton’s God . . . is the real Satan,” Northrop Frye writes in Fearful Symmetry, “the real God dwells in the real Eden, a city of flaming fire. Milton’s Satan is Orc, the power of human desire which gradually and inevitably declines into passive acceptance of impersonal law and external reason.” Orc’s attempt to overcome this inert passivity turns the opening of America into one of the most heated scenes in all of Blake’s work. More importantly, Blake’s reevaluation of the moral framework within which Milton conceived Paradise Lost inspires Blake to resurrect him in the epic Milton, charging him with the task of cleansing his epic of the Puritanical morality that breeds this “passive acceptance of impersonal law” drafted by the stifling God Blake parodies:
He created seven deadly sins drawing out his infernal scroll
Of Moral laws and cruel punishments upon the clouds of Jehovah
To pervert the Divine voice in its entrance to the earth
With thunder of war & trumpets sound, with armies of disease
Punishments & deaths mustered & number’d; Saying I am God alone
There is no other! Let all obey my principles of moral individuality.
Yet “no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments,” Blake writes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules.” Neither Blake nor Nietzsche accept Jesus as an embodiment of Christian morality; they accept him as an autonomous mind independent of any organized religion’s edicts and uninterested in dogmatic philosophies. They remove Christ from the cross to redirect his energy from symbolic death to active life, for “he died as he lived, as he taught,” Nietzsche writes in The Antichrist, “not to ‘redeem mankind’ but to demonstrate how one ought to live.”
This is the Jesus upon whom Nietzsche bestows his highest honor—that of “the free spirit” he celebrates prolifically throughout his work. Like Blake’s Jesus who “acted from impulse, not from rules,” Nietzsche’s “cares nothing for what is fixed: the world killeth, everything fixed killeth. The concept, the experience ‘life’ in the only form he knows it, is opposed to any kind of a world, formula, law, faith, dogma.” Here is the unbound and irrepressible force that comprises Blake’s vision of “The Human Imagination which is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus.” Yet Blake goes on at great length describing mammoth figures who fail to achieve this sublime life, and “the daughter of Urthona” is no exception.
Invoking the cosmic drama Blake would hone to perfection in his epics Jerusalem, The Four Zoas and Milton, the opening stanzas of America are typified by Blake’s wild, long lines and imagery denoting the ideas that distinguish his thought from the oppressive morality he identifies in traditional Christianity. Nameless, engulfed in shadow, and serving food and drink in cups made of symbolic “iron,” the virgin and iron-tongued daughter of Urthona moves in a world that reflects the muteness, imprisonment, and inaction of the inexperienced life into which Thel fled in fear. Even her ironic “crown”—a “helmet” concealing her “dark hair”—suggests an apprehensive invulnerability. She is mostly nude except for her “loins,” which are not covered by clothing because that would, as in Genesis, indicate a self-consciousness made possible only by experience. Instead, they are cloaked in “clouds,” whose concealment forestalls knowledge born of experience:
Invulnerable tho’ naked, save where clouds roll round her loins,
Their awful folds in the dark air; silent she stood as night;
For never from her iron tongue could voice or sound arise:
But dumb till that dread day when Orc assay’d his fierce embrace.
Experience is anticipated with terror and ignorance; its proximity in the form of Orc constitutes a “dread day.” Similar to the resurrected Jesus, Orc is what Harold Bloom describes in Blake’s Apocalypse as “a resuscitated God” who is, nonetheless, mortal, compelled to possess the daughter of Urthona by freeing himself from the chains that bind him. Orc’s sexual urges involve more than mere self-gratification; they promise, as Frye suggests, “the power of human desire to achieve a better world that produces revolution and foreshadows apocalypse.” Though this consummation is precisely the virile embodiment of revolutionary creativity Blake celebrates, the daughter of Urthona, in keeping with her earlier counterpart from The Book of Thel, reacts with anguish:
O what limb rending pains I feel. Thy fire & my frost
Mingle in howling pains, in furrows by lightnings rent;
This is eternal death; and this the torment long foretold.
Whereas Blake often describes the kind of contagious self-annihilation from which Urizen suffers as a failure to recognize that eternity is now, right at the tips of our fingers and festering undiscovered within us, Nietzsche probably scoffed at this talk of eternity and God, and undoubtedly would have admonished Blake for using an archaic and distinctly religious lexicon to describe a new paradox in which “God is dead” and the Christian church’s authority fades deeper into decline.
Yet just as Blake concludes that “the worship of God is honoring his gifts in other men each according to his genius . . . for there is no other God,” Nietzsche too alludes to a “Kingdom of God” that is “a condition of the heart.” Why await traditional Christianity’s promise of an afterlife in paradise which—when viewed through the lens Blake and Nietzsche polished—only rewards “passive good” with the conditional assurance of eternity at some unknown juncture in the future? “The Kingdom of God is not something one waits for,” Nietzsche elaborates. “It has no yesterday or tomorrow, it does not come in a thousand years—it is an experience within a heart; it is everywhere, it is nowhere.”
The excessive detail and narration with which Blake describes those who fail to pluck the fruits of the fall suggests that those fruits are not available to everyone. This is no crackpot utopia born of bumper-sticker-wisdom or the self-help section at Barnes & Noble. The realization of Blake’s vision is difficult and, though not altogether exclusive, the human frailties Blake examines suggest that it will remain beyond the capabilities of those who choose to bind themselves. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud rebukes the concept of a universal love of mankind because love is necessarily discriminatory and disproportionate (How else would we recognize it? How would we value it over more common affections?). Similarly, Blake relies on his bound Urizens and frail Thels to point our eyes toward the irrepressible Christs. Like Whitman, Blake offers a somewhat more hopeful vision than Nietzsche’s sterile separation of individuals into “weak” and “strong.” After all, Blake’s prophecy of a generative world liberated by Los at the end of Milton is a universal and collective triumph of mankind, and though moments of such victory are greatly outnumbered by instances of failure to realize it throughout Blake’s major works, the chance to overcome ourselves is always ours to seize—if we dare.