As we discussed in class, a lot of Blake’s poetry is centered on the tension between contraries and the simultaneous embodiment of opposing states. We addressed the potential double-meanings in his works and the reciprocity of experience and innocence. These issues made me think of two articles I read pertaining to myths by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth.” This genre relies on constituent units that consist of a relation, and “bundles” of such relations form universal meaning. In many myths, the different realms oppose each other while contributing to the qualities of each other’s existence, which is possible “by the assertions that contradictory relationships are identical inasmuch as they are both self-contradictory in similar ways.” Many of the relationships portrayed in such tales show that contradictions are drawn to each other by the complimenting faculties of differentiation, and that “mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of oppositions toward their. But for Blake, asserting the oppositions is an end in itself and not merely a means for man to reconcile life’s contradictions, as Levi-Strauss seems to suggest. Blake’s concern is more to recognize the tensions of two opposing facets of existence and transcend the physical limitations through Poetic Genius. In his Proverbs of Hell, many of the axioms suggest a different, or more complex, meaning than one would infer from a first read, creating a layered definition composed of contradictions. One proverb I found interesting is: “Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.” This seemed to imply a cyclical nature of emotion in that the good and bad can be linked through excess: any human feeling when over-exerted becomes its opposition. This also suggests that when investigating two sides of an argument, contraries tend to blur together instead of maintaining a stark divide, which relates back to Levi-Strauss’s assertion that contraries are interdependent by the very fact of their opposition.
Considering both interpretations of opposing forces within existence, do you think its possible to reach a resolve between contraries? Or is Blake more on the right track with pursuing a sort of third-space accessible through the exertion of Poetic Genius?
Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” is an exercise in contrasts, contraries, and double meanings. The supposed philosophy of the Devil emphasizes wit over faith, action over thought, and self over others, but the proverbs are not always clear in their meaning. And this is one of Blake’s points – evil is encompassed in saying one thing and meaning another. Of course, Blake himself relies on contraries throughout his work, and his productions are not always easily interpreted either. We can explain this to a certain extent by noting that Blake fully engaged in presenting the opposing or contrary side of an argument, and perhaps it is his intent that we be not entirely sure of where his allegiances lie.
One of the proverbs in the last section declares, “Exuberance is Beauty.” What are we to make of this? Initially exuberance might bring to mind enthusiasm, but since it is a Proverb of Hell, we know that exuberance must be a concept at least traditionally associated with evil. Exuberance, in the context of Blake’s other Proverbs, likely refers to excess of word, thought, or deed. Acting upon lusts, overindulging in pleasure, and pursuing one’s own goals and ambitions at the expense of others – all of these are exuberant actions. They over-present the self and its interests. The last line of the Proverbs, “Enough! or Too Much” encapsulates this idea. Evil is bound up in the “too much” of life; restraint and restrictions are good. This is, of course, the traditional “moral” view; to the Devil, exuberance is not only right and good but also beautiful. It is the means by which life is made meaningful.
Where does the human Blake come down on this issue? His work, in many ways, is defined by exuberance – his visions are overwhelming in their style and color, his poems are sometimes incomprehensible because they are filled with so much meaning, and his adherence to his vision supplanted all other goals and desires. Blake’s art is certainly not defined by restraint. We can also reasonably say that Blake’s goal was to produce beauty: to create art that gave meaning to life and presented truth. To Blake, then, exuberance was beauty. We cannot say for sure whether Blake sympathized with the Devil as he perceived him or with his contrary. We can only know what Blake’s body of work itself tells us: that at least to some degree, Blake the artist believed that exuberance does make for beauty.