Thoughts on The Outsider, Part 3

Thoughts on The Outsider, Part 3

William Blake, Jerusalem: Frontispiece, Los Entering a Gothic Arch

Wilson turns now to William Blake, perhaps the greatest poet who ever walked the earth. Blake is what Wilson calls a “religious Outsider” (Wilson 136), as was Dostoevsky. He is similar to Nietzsche in that he is life-affirming, making statements, such as, “Energy is eternal delight” (Blake 251), and “For everything that lives is Holy, life delights in life” (Blake 305). Wilson believes there is a definite correlation between Blake and Nietzsche:

If we remember what Nietzsche has written of Dionysus in The Birth of Tragedy, what his two experiences of ‘pure will, free of the troubles of intellect’ meant to him, we shall understand how fundamentally similar Nietzsche’s vision was to Blake’s (Wilson 136).

Like Walt Whitman and Nietzsche, Blake is very much a lover of the physical world and of the human body. To Blake, there is no difference between body and soul, very much like my animaterialist viewpoint. Nietzsche says basically the same thing through Zarathustra: ” …the awakened, the enlightened man says: I am body entirely, and nothing beside; and soul is only a word for something in the body” (Nietzsche 61). I would disagree with Nietzsche and say the body is in the soul. Whitman, of course, sings the Body Electric. The following passage from Blake is a classic:

…first, the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged, this I shall do by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid.

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

For man has closed himself up, til he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern (Blake 257-258).

In Blake’s thinking, the body is the portion of the soul that is perceived by the five senses. Of course, his and Nietzsche’s view fly in the face of traditional Christian doctrine that sees the body as a frail, sinful vehicle for the soul to travel through this sin-sick planet. No! Body is soul and soul is body! We’ve heard it so many times, if the doors of perception were cleansed, but how often have we really thought about that phrase, apart from Huxley’s book detailing his mescaline experience, which went on to inspire Jim Morrison and The Doors? Blake is trying to show us that the body is not all there is! Sure, it is wonderful because it really is the empirical soul, and even has a part in imagination (Los). We have simply forgotten that it is the soul. If our senses were cleansed to be able to really see reality as it is, we would see all as infinite. Wilson writes,

Blake claims that the outside world is infinite and eternal, and would appear so to everyone if everyone could see things without the grime on their windows of perception. No doubt if Blake could have lived long enough to see Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ or the ‘Road at Dusk with Cypresses’, he would have said without hesitation: This man sees things as they are (Wilson 231).

In a passage from Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake explains what occurs when the brain is not operating as it was meant to, not interpreting reality as it should:

They told me that the night and day were all that I could see;
They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up;
And they inclosed my brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the abyss, a red round globe,
hot burning,
Til all from life I was obliterated and erased.
Instead of morn arises a bright shadow, like an eye
In the eastern cloud; instead of night, a sickly charnel house…(Blake 290-291).

Concerning this passage, Wilson explains what “Blake is intimating here is that the vision of things as ‘infinite and holy’ is not an abnormal vision, but the perfectly normal emotional state” (ibid.). Of course, we rarely experience the world of true reality any longer, since we have been conditioned to believe in materialism. We should be able to see a starry night, for example, the way Van Gogh painted it. That is reality, not the dumbed-down version that is but a simulacrum.

Blake used the symbol of Los for imagination, which he believes is the instrument of self-knowledge. Los encompasses the entire person, body and soul, emotions and intellect. But Wilson says “Los is only half of Blake’s picture of man’s inner states. The other half is the strange being called ‘the Spectre” (237). Wilson explains that the Spectre is “dead form. He is static consciousness” (Wilson 238). Most of us are in the Spectre’s grasp everyday. It is the “dead, conscious part of man that he mistakes for himself, the personality, the habits, the identity” (Wilson 238).

Hermann Hesse and Blake both knew there are two worlds, as have many other Outsiders. I wrote about this myself back in 2012, in my article, Swimming in Two Worlds.  Wilson says that Hesse, in both Steppenwolf and Demian, summarizes “those problems that Blake must certainly have known from a very early age; or, rather, two distinct ways of looking at the same world…It is the task of the artist to connect them” (Wilson 233-234).  Most people will tell you “that art is one thing, living another” (ibid.). This is one of the primary problems of the Outsider, especially the Romantic Outsider, which both Hesse and Blake were.

It is the literal mindset that Blake was adamantly opposed to. In a letter to his wealthy friend, Thomas Butts, he refers to it as “Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep” (Blake 210). Blake despised Isaac Newton because of the mechanical system he pushed into Western mass consciousness. Newton’s worldview, even though he himself was a secret alchemist, discounts the symbolic vision in favor of Nature as a cold, dead, mechanical machine that possesses only what we experience via the five physical senses. Blake called the human that embraced such a view “the caverned man” (Blake 315) in the sense that man has shut himself away exclusively in his cavern of the five senses, disallowing any other means of knowledge. This notion still dominates science in our day.

This section of the book ends with Blake’s proposal to solve the Outsider’s problem:

Go and develop the visionary faculty. Good. But how? 

It is a question to which, I must admit, I shall not be able to offer a selection from the full range of answers, as I have been able hitherto. The field is too big. In the next chapter, it must be deliberately limited to a few typical examples (Wilson 246).

The visionary faculty is the key, I believe, to cleansing the doors of perception from the cataract-like scales that cover our imaginative sight. How we do this is a difficult question at this point, but I am certain it will involve the Active Imagination, as Henry Corbin proposed, and as C.J Jung used in his journey to the nether regions of the soul and back again, documented in The Red Book.

My next article will conclude this series on The Outsider, with, hopefully, some possible solutions to our dilemma.


Works Cited

Blake. William. The Portable Blake. Ed. by Alfred Kazin. Penguin: New York, 1946.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. Penguin: New York, 1961.

Wilson, Colin. The Outsider. Diversion Books. Kindle Edition.


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