By its definition, a proverb is a short pithy saying in general use, stating a truth or piece of advice. Our book’s footnote labels the adages in Blake’s Proverbs of Hell to be “nuggets of infernal wisdom,” provocative and paradoxical lines on the state of man. Fascinated with the fluctuations between contraries, Blake presents these sayings not only to prompt a revaluation of biblical proverbs but also to undermine any systemic understanding of rules governing life, nature, and religion. To place the Proverbs of Hell in a historical context, I will discuss one of Blake’s influencers, the artist Henry Fuseli, and a modern-day disciple, the musician Marilyn Manson.Image

Illustrating the hellish possibilities of the Romantic imagination, Fuseli’s best-known painting The Nightmare simultaneously depicts a sleeping woman and the contents of her dream—an incubus. By depicting two mutually exclusive states in one scene, Fuseli forces his viewers to consider the contrary states of reality and nightmare together, a strategy Blake later employs in his own writings and prints. The conclusion of the Proverbs of Hell states, “And at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things. Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.” Just as Blake refuses to define deities in the traditional angel/demon dichotomy, The Nightmare visualizes the possible emanation of a fiendish deity from the mind of a human woman.

A contemporary embodiment of Blake’s fascination with contraries, the name Marilyn Manson itself is a juxtaposition of two opposing American figures: Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson. Like his printmaking predecessor, Manson expresses his beliefs through multiple mediums, including books, art, and music. During a 2011 poetry reading at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Manson read selections from the Proverbs of Hell. Considering Blake’s unyielding support for social commentary, no matter how radical, I am sure he would be pleased to know his thought-provoking proverbs are still being used to question governing structures and inspire the consideration of contrary states in contemporary society.

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