- Reality Against Society:William Blake, Antinomianism, and the American Counterculture
His Seventy Disciples sent
Against Religion & Government—William Blake, on the mission of Christ
William Blake (1757–1827) made a brief appearance in an earlier essay of mine for Common Knowledge titled "Comparative Mystics."1 There are many reasons to reinvoke this poet and artist for the present symposium on the historical, moral, and social importance of antisocial personalities. To begin with, Blake was just such a character. He was a deeply eccentric, marginal, and relatively unknown figure. His later and still growing fame could not have been guessed from his reputation in his own time. Some of his contemporaries considered him "an absolute lunatic," "a saint amongst the infidels & a heretic with the orthodox." Blake [End Page 98] was a man who "said many things tending to the corruption of Xtian morals" and who "outraged all common sense & rationality."2 The charge of madness was a common one in his own day and can still be heard occasionally in ours, even as an industry of elite scholarship sifts through and debates every detail of his personal mythology and largely hidden life. If Blake was once a relative nobody of very humble means, he is now an icon of Romantic art whose weird works sell for millions of dollars and draw adoring crowds at places like the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Tate in London, and the Huntington in California. Blake has arrived, as we say, but it is by no means clear at what he has arrived.
What I mean is that, unlike most dangerous characters who get canonized late, Blake has not come to seem less dangerous. The reason is that, as E. P. Thompson convincingly argued, the deep structure of Blake's art and thought is fundamentally antinomian. Literally against (anti-) the law (nomos), Blake was charged with sedition and put on trial in a series of events that terrified him, though the threat he posed and still poses is not antinomianism in a simply legal or criminal sense. Blake was a prophetic antinomian. He regarded himself as a prophet in the line of Isaiah and Ezekiel, and he gave the title "Prophecies" to some of his later works. Blake raged against not only social injustice but social justice as well. In ways that imply the transcendence of law, convention, and even culture, he raged against the mediocrities that stable cultures naturally generate. Theologically (or theosophically), Blake associated himself with the dark visions of Jacob Boehme. The banned writings of "Jacob Behmen," as Blake called him in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, posited a paradoxical God of good and evil and developed a mysterious dialectic of opposites that later figures, perhaps including Hegel, would pick up and develop (in various directions). Also influential on Blake's work were the Jewish and Christian Kabbalistic traditions, which similarly speculated on a Godhead encompassing both good and evil, both male and female, and thus generated any number of transmoral doctrines, erotic religious symbologies, and antinomian figures. Blake affiliated himself, moreover, with the Protestant Reformation, which had said No to theological orthodoxies and elaborate mythologies and to the seemingly stable ritual and iconographic traditions of Christianity, setting the stage for countless small and large dissents for centuries to come. Finally, and most obviously, there were the gospels themselves. Though by Blake's time the gospels' valorization of lawbreaking (violating the Sabbath, ignoring purity codes of all sorts, keeping company with prostitutes and sinners, and so on) and deeply transgressive teachings (the cannibalistic Eucharist and outrageous claims of personal divinity) had been tamed by familiarity, his Jesus was a figure who offended religious authority and outraged the pious on purpose. [End Page 99]
Drawing on these resources (whether drawing directly or indirectly we do not always know), Blake opposed not just the hegemonic discourses but also the commonsense assumptions of his social order, church, and state. At the same time, however, he was intensely religious and deeply engaged with the politics of his place and time (he wrote or "prophesied" passionately about both the French and American revolutions). His simultaneous engagement with, and transgressive disengagement from...