Tag Archive: Swedenborg

“Truth can never be told so as to be understood”

I think the most fascinating line in Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” is the very last one. He writes, “Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not to be believ’d” (73). If we read the rest of “Proverbs of Hell” with this line in mind, we can begin unpacking Blake’s complicated rhetoric. First of all, Blake has named this piece “Proverbs of Hell.” A proverb is generally understood to convey truth or advice, and the most famous example of collection of proverbs is the book of Proverbs in the Bible. However, Blake’s last proverb contradicts the fundamental meaning of a proverb—a proverb is a fundamental truth, yet Blake is arguing that truth can never be told in a way that conveys understanding. This is a theme we see woven throughout Blake’s works—truth cannot merely be heard and believed, it must be imagined. The complicated imagery and rhetoric of “Proverbs of Hell” is not meant to be taken at face value. Instead, this piece as a whole acts as a foil for both the book of Proverbs and the religious teachings of Blake’s contemporaries, such as Emanuel Swedenborg. Much like he does in “The voice of the Devil,” Blake uses an unbelievable narrator (someone from hell) to cast doubt on this work, and to force readers to make comparisons between these proverbs and the proverbs of religion. When compared, are they really all that different? In this way, Blake is inspiring his readers to find their own truth—for after all, “truth can never be told so as to be understood.”

Marriage is not friendship

After learning about Blake’s Moravian tradition, I will assume I am not the only who feel slightly uncomfortable about the Sifting Time theologies. Yes, we cannot deny the influence of Moravian on Blake, so does that of Swedenborg. However, I don’t see Blake’s devil will agree with either of them. The voice of the Devil is definitely anti-Swedenborg, who believes in the separation of spirit and body: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that called Body is a portion of Soul” (70). Meanwhile, I don’t think the devil will believe the actual sexual relationship between Soul and Body, Heaven and Hell, as a good idea. Instead, the Blakean character says: “Opposition is True Friendship” (78). Blake does not characterize the relationship between contraries as marriage or sexual, but as friendship. This word choice reveals Blake’s fundamental difference from Moravian tradition. Moravian tradition believes that the only way to transcend rules and see vision is to reconcile the contraries between Body and Soul through sex. Blake does not want to reconcile the contraries because “without contraries is no progression” (69). When contraries are reconciled, there will not be contraries and people will stop thinking. Thus, new rules will be established. What Blake wants instead is a constant breaking of law. What he pursues is this constant motion of transcending. A word like Marriage in the title of this series is against the theory of contraries because a marital relationship is too intimate for contraries.

Contraries and Connotations

I find it quite interesting that Blake employs the religious and rational in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell to intrinsically and syntactically suggest the state of contraries that he discusses and upholds. The “Proverbs of Hell” section serves as a dual contrary, both representing and juxtaposing the biblical Book of Proverbs in content and intent. Indeed, Solomon’s Book of Proverbs contains its own set of contraries (appropriately, as this further reinforces Blake’s prophetic contention that the world as a whole exists as a system of contraries and the tension among and between them all–a sort of symbiotic coexistence), most apparently with its comparison and contrast of “wisdom” and “foolishness.” While this section serves to represent religion, the realm of reason is also incorporated into the text, most obviously through Blake’s employment of the Aristotelian, logical form of syllogism: “[The Devourer and the Prolific] are always upon the earth, & they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence. [therefore] Religion is an endeavor to reconcile the two” (76). In this case, Blake is referring to systematic/organized religion.

Considering contraries in this way, the title takes on even greater significance. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell metaphorically symbolizes the enactment of Swedenborg’s “doctrine of correspondence”–pitting good against evil in an equilibriumatic state of contrariness. The concept of marriage as a relationship fosters the implication of symbiosis as the two partners work for their own individual gains and those of their partnership reciprocally and contradictorily. Blake recognizes this dynamic relationship of contraries with his statement: “Opposition is true Friendship” (78).