Tag Archive: Genius

The aphorisms of “Proverbs of Hell” operate on an antimonian rhetoric—indeed, their ideas often diametrical oppose to traditional conception. Such is there purpose: they are defibrillators for the soul, some shock, to stab into the stubborn, sluggish self and usurp pat formulations. Their infernal wisdom is one couched in dialectics. The proverb: “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are the roads of Genius” is curious in that we imbue notions like “improvement” and “genius” with positive valences and prefer to pair like with like, yet it is the “crooked roads,” those that we would traditionally think of negatively—i.e. difficult to traverse, hazardous—that those of Genius. They do not lead to Genius but are of it; Genius is an inhabited state rather than a telos. “Improvement” here is pejorative, an imposition on what would otherwise lead to natural discovery. Patching the world as we are able provides resolutions, which precludes revelation. James Joyce, a disciple of Blake’s, is particularly elucidating here, having his Stephen Dedalus espouse: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” The dark, the gaps, the crooked, the imperfections in the world or ourselves (self-constructed or foisted) are apertures though which we can launch our search for constitutive meaning. Any attempt at an accord requires a delving down to some constitutive core, a common denominator that ties things together—the essential element in things. The essential element of anything cannot be approached via any convention as that preconditions it in some regards; it is already tainted with some self-perceived sine qua non and thereby the object/subject in question is distorted. “The eye altering alters all,” said Blake, after all. Conventions must be unsaid, emptied, dispensed, “the lights, the definitions[1]” thrown away. Otherwise we buy into the myth of even referentiality—that our words possess an empirically verifiable equivalence with that to which they refer, that they get at some definitive quid. The man of Genius recognizes that the world must be experienced and seen afresh, worn anew, and platitudes, assuagments, or “improvements” prevent such.

[1] Stevens, Wallace. “The Man With the Blue Guitar.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1954. Print.

One of the things I have loved the most about Blake in my first few days of encountering his work is the constant not only opportunity, but obligation he offers his readers for interpretation. Moreover, it is not enough for Blake to simply force you to consider and offer possible interpretations of his works; he is constantly pushing readers to reevaluate all that they have taken as truth before. While the idea of truths may not seem initially evident in this quotation, I think Blake allows ample space to navigate toward what I have found to be one of his greatest themes thus far. In the comparison between the deliverance of Israel and the deliverance of Art, the two become similarly enslaved by Egypt and Nature and Imitation respectively. The original sculpture that Blake then adds graffiti like writing to is considered by many to be a masterpiece. This piece pulls from a variety of Greek sources and, thus, can be said to originate little and simple be imitating that which Sophocles or Virgil have already written. Blake pushes those who encounter his piece to consider how nature and imitation can act as enslaving forces. When characterized in this manner, it is clear that Blake finds them to be problematic for creation, a thought that stands apart from many of his contemporaries in a revolutionary way. In Blake’s mode of thought, nature and imitation, two sources of artistic creation that have long been revered, are not sources for artistic creation. These types of “art” are mere recitations of that which has already been created, no true innovation has really occurred. In this way, Blake reminds me of Ovid. The two are similarly wary of the tools with which they have to work and the ever-present possibility to become an Echo. Ovid provides a means of defying this possibility, interestingly, through Echo herself. While she is forced to repeat the words of others, she finds a way to repeat them to say something new and communicate her message. Blake’s answer to this pitfall of creation is relying on one’s own imagination and the tremendous capabilities it has for innovation and genius outside of what already exists.

Blake takes great offense from Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, as both men have radically different theories on art, however, some of their arguments, with their contradictions, overlap. Because Blake was not truly trained as a painter, but rather an engraver, he was never considered a fellow of the Royal Academy and thusly faced a bias from intellectual society towards his engravings. As Reynolds argues that the “Ideal Beauty” that artists portray is learned from experience–Blake, being an outsider of the Royal Academy asserts that “Reynolds Thinks that Man Learns all that he Knows I say on the Contrary That Man Brings All that he has or Can have Into the World with him.”

Blake’s Philosophy of Art emphasizes a certain–dare I say, mechanical–precision. He centers his ideal on the fact that “To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” Reynolds would argue that this method of creating art is the work of a “mechanik…[a] capricious changeling.” In essence, he is right regarding the mechanical part–however Blake does not paint with “Minute Neatness” to merely imitate, but to capture the image of the sublime. He goes to great depths to render his work as a product of vision: “Determinate & Perfect”–a snapshot of the artistic imagination. He demonstrates the “mechanical dexterity” of the artist that Reynolds praises of the “the Young Painter.”

So then it becomes a question of authority–Reynolds sees Blake as a mechanistic copier, deceiver while Blake looks at Reynolds with contempt as a man of contradiction–one who writes “Simulations of the Hypocrite who Smiles articulately where he means to Betray.” So who is right? Well, both of them, kind of: Blake sums it up nicely by stating that “Every Eye Sees differently As the Eye–Such the Object.” It is actually an answer of perception: what does the artist see? That is what the artist portrays, as according to Blake “All Forms are Perfect in the Poets Mind.”