Picture books have a noble, if slightly crazy heritage. The engraver William Blake was one of the first to master the difficult process of making text and images interpenetrate in exciting and mutually enriching ways; sometimes that interpenetration is so mysterious, a reader may well wonder if Blake’s poetry and the accompanying illustration have been mismatched. While I don’t claim to make sense of the mercurial and seemingly perverse reversals in Blake’s ideology, I am very interested in him because he was renegade and a seeker of truth - even if that search led him into sometimes alarming territory (he apparently persuaded his wife to experiment with delaying or extending his orgasm with his wife; I don't know how easy she found it).
Many of Blake’s ideas foreshadow or perhaps echo those of many mystics and spiritual guides. His belief that all states eventually led to their opposite thus affirming the illusion of time and difference, belief in the essential unity of every thing, that a ‘firm perswasion’ causes a thing to become and is the only indicator of not only belief but reality, tallies with the ideas about faith I was playing with in The Land of Decoration. ‘In ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains’, the prophet Isaiah tells one of Blake’s protagonists, ‘but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of anything’.
One of Blake’s main preoccupations (and in this he is not all that different from his contemporaries), is imagination, or ‘divine fancy’. Blake says that imagination is the divine in humans. There is a beauty in science and mathematics, and a sort of perfection, a symmetry. Blake says that divinity first manifested itself in verbal form, however. In plate 12, ‘A Memorable Fancy’, Ezekiel tells the poet/dreamer/protagonist ‘we of Israel taught that the Poetic Genus (as you now call it) was the first principle and all the others merely derivative, which was the cause of our despising the Priests and Philosophers of other countries and prophesying that all Gods would (plate 13) at last be proved to originate in ours and to be the tributaries of Poetic Genius.’ Of course, Blake was 'crazy'. But then there is the mythography surrounding the beginning of our world; that it began with words in darkness, not shapes, not textures, not even images. They all came later. The world began with sounds.
Elsewhere (plate 16) Blake divides mankind into two categories: ‘Prolific’, or creative minds, and ‘Devourers’ or reasoning minds, which devour what imaginative minds create without giving anything themselves. To the Devourer ‘it seems that the producers are in his(?) chains but it is no so. He only take portions of existence and fancies that the whole’; critics and reviewers who take pleasure in tearing down, and deploy the mind instead of felt perception. When Blake opens a Bible it proves to reveal the entrance to a pit of organised religion, in which Devourers are found, feeding upon one another, even upon themselves, perhaps without realising it, though they themselves are chained (I am not sure if he meant organised religion literally or simply rigid, dogmatic structures of thought). The forms couple, kiss, savage one another, gorge themselves and putrefy. Blake and the angel can hardly stand the smell and retreat, Blake taking one skeleton with him: ‘Aristotle’s Analytics’. He then dismisses the angel too, ‘whose works are only Analytics’.
If words and the mind are used divisively, to break down instead of to joyfully create; if they are used to exclude, to condemn and to judge, the result is emotional and spiritual cannibalism. However, Blake goes on to say: ‘the Prolific would cease to be prolific unless the Devourer as a sea received the excess of his delights.’ Positive energy needs negative as light needs darkness. Everything needs to be tempered, to be proved, to be tested. Opposition can make something stronger. It can also destroy a thing altogether. Which may be necessary for something new to arise: a prime example of this is the presecution of the brave and brilliant writer Rachel Cusk, following her revelatory memoirs, which should have been praised from the rooftops as liberating to so many women (and men) and were instead often shamelessly pilloried and castigated. She says following their reception she almost 'shed' her self, as having a self had always meant getting blamed for it. Her recent fiction is truly original; the critic's perturbation, offence, censure (jealousy?) and bile only proved to make their victim stronger - or at least, transformed her to such an extent that she has now risen; transcended them all; been refined out of existence - and hence is untouchable.