Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Book Review: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (In Full Color) by William Blake (Dover Publications 1994 Kindle facsimile edition, originally 1794)

This is a splendid (and cheap) ebook edition of Blake’s classic. It is an unabridged copy of the original 1794 edition. Apparently, Blake painstakingly etched the drawings and hand-drawn text on copper plates in order to print them and then colored them by hand.  He referred to this style of books as “illuminated printing.” Nine copies of this illuminated book made from 1789-1790 are known to exist. There were 27 plates in this volume. In the Dover edition the text is also reproduced by itself following the artwork.

William Blake was quite an original thinker, an accomplished and daring painter, poet, philosopher, possibly a genius regarding human nature and psychology, and general “shit-stirrer.” His use of “reversal magic” in this volume is exemplary. According to the introduction:

“… Blake believed in the power of the imagination and in the stultifying effects of conventionality. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, these beliefs are illustrated not only by Blake’s reversal of traditional notions of Good and Evil, Angels and Devils, and Heaven and Hell, but by his celebration of the tensions produced by these “contraries.” Such tensions, according to Blake, are necessary to progress and creativity.”

Reversal seems to be a theme throughout the text,

Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility,
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where lions roam.

“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to human existence.”

Good and evil, he says, arise from the contraries:  “Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.” He sees the depiction of evil as erroneous, as arising from the false dualism of body and soul. He sees the body as a portion of the soul and reason as the outward or bound energy of the body.

Some of the text appears bizarre and unconventional at times, even blasphemous as he gives accounts of reality from the viewpoint of the Devil. He refers in the text to Milton’s Paradise Lost and several times to the mystic Swedenborg – lambasting him much of the time.  Interestingly, he acknowledges the true poet as of the Devil’s party and cites Milton as being in this category.

Here we find the – Proverbs of Hell – sayings according to those in hell who see their realm as one of genius while others see it as one of torment. Some famous quotes adorn this section. Here are a selected few:

Shame is Pride’s cloak; The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom; If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise; The most sublime act is to set another before you; You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

At the end of this section he gives an interesting and scathing history of religion:

“The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive”

“And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity.”

“Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects; Thus began Priesthood.”

“Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.”

“And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things.”

“Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.”

I think it is interesting that he notes the progression from “poetic tales” to ordainment by the Gods. Mircea Eliade noted something quite similar when he says the Hebrews seemed to originate the idea of History as Theophany, as “God’s Will.”

The text goes on with dialogue with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. Ezekiel says that Eastern philosophies taught the first principles of perception and that “we” of Israel taught Poetic Genius as the first principle that all derives from. This, says Ezekiel, was the origin of “our” despising of Priests and Philosophers of other countries.

“… we so loved our God, that we cursed in his name all the deities of surrounding nations, and asserted that they had rebelled.”

Here also occurs his famous quote echoed by Aldous Huxley in the title of his book about his mescaline experiences and the origin of the name for the rock band, the Doors:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite”

He gives a sort of parable of producer and consumer - the Prolific and the Devourer he calls them. He sees them as a necessary polar principle and says that religion endeavors to reconcile them, presumably an exercise in futility.

Another story – all illustrated in the original mind you – occurs where he travels with an Angel companion to some abyss where they compare their lots. After encountering terrifying visions he comes upon a harper on a riverbank who sings:

“The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.”

This is an interesting story in several ways but afterwards he notes that Angels can be vain and ignorant of the wisdom of their human companions. Again he derides Swedenborg as merely repeating the words from the books of angels. Further he notes that Swedenborg was another one of those religious ones he accused of being hypocritical as he fails to converse with devils, or those who despise religion. He suggests that Swedenborg was superficial. Conceited, and missing a large segment of human nature. In comparison, he praises Paracelsus, Jacob Behmen, Dante, and Shakespeare as more worthy.

He gives another tale of meeting of angel and devil where the devil proceeds to mock the ten commandments in a logical fashion. He explains how Jesus broke every one of them.

“I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments: Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”

The final section is called – A Song of Liberty – and is rather cryptic to me. It is a call to be released from the slavery and tyranny of the conventions of custom, religion, and kingdom/government.

“… Nor pale religious letchery call that virginity, that wishes but acts not!”

The last statement is:

“For every thing that lives is Holy.”

Simply put, this book is a blasphemous masterpiece, a courageous and logical countering of the bully of religious and cultural convention – of Blake’s time (and all times) – which is the beginning of what became known as the Romantic Era – where the exaltation of the individual rose in prominence and the exaltation of dogmatic convention weakened. Blake is considered a Gnostic Saint in the Thelemic tradition and rightly so I think as he shows himself as a deep thinker, a talented artist, and a courageous and innovative individual. He exemplifies the ideal of striving to be independent of convention and all of its hypocrisy and capacity for tyranny.




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