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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Borges, Blake, Christ, and art

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Here's a post for a Sunday, a post for Lent... Reading a Borges interview made me think of that singular visionary, William Blake, sitting with his wife in the garden at Felpham, or glimpsing angels among haymakers, and or spying them up in a tree, the bright wings spangling the branches like stars.

Borges on Christ as artist

Jorge Luis Borges to Denis Dutton:

 ...I don’t know who said that, was it Bernard Shaw? — he said, arguments convince nobody. No, Emerson. He said, arguments convince nobody. And I suppose he was right, even if you think of proofs for the existence of God, for example — no? In that case, if arguments convince nobody, a man may be convinced by parables or fables or what? Or fictions. Those are far more convincing than the syllogism — and they are, I suppose. Well, of course, when I think of something in terms of Jesus Christ. As far as I remember, he never used arguments; he used style, he used certain metaphors. It’s very strange — yes, and he always used very striking sentences. He would not say, I don’t come to bring peace but war — “I do not come to bring peace but a sword.” The Christ, he thought in parables. Well, according to — I think that it was Blake who said that a man should be — I mean, if he is a Christian — should be not only just but he should be intelligent ... he should also be an artist, since Christ had been teaching art through his own way of preaching, because every one of the sentences of Christ, if not every single utterance of Christ, has a literary value, and may be thought of as a metaphor or as a parable.

Christ the Word and art

Borges called himself an agnostic. His description of Christ as working through style, metaphor, and parable seems highly appropriate for a savior called the Word. (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God. John 1:1.) That comment about every sentence of Christ being of literary value certainly sounds like Blake. In fact, "every sentence" being of literary value fulfills Blake's ideas about unceasing praise, which is art.

Blake, the Laocoön, and art as the Tree of Life

Borges's reference reminds me of the inscriptions circling Blake's depiction (etched and engraved in intaglio) of the famous Laocoön and his sons group (circa 200 B. C. - 70 A. D.), which he perceives as portraying God with Adam and Satan. Blake's copy-work dates from around 1815, but the winding, colorful inscriptions were added more than a decade later. These lines are fascinating, and many of them pronounce on the intersection of Christ and art.

A selection of William Blake's art-related inscriptions around the Laocoön, Copy B (Essick collection):*

Prayer is the Study of Art. 
Praise is the Practise of Art. 
The Eternal Body of Man is Imagination, that is God himself. 
It manifests itself in his Works of Art (in Eternity All is Vision) 
The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Man
Art is the Tree of Life   God is Jesus 
The Whole Business of Man is the Arts 
Jesus His Apostles and Disciples were all Artists 
Christianity is Art and not Money    Money is its Curse 
Israel delivered from Egypt is Art delivered from Nature and Imitation 
You must leave Fathers and Mothers and Houses and Lands
if they stand in the way of Art
Without Unceasing Practise, nothing can be done   Practise is Art

*Ampersands signified by "and"

It's interesting how these interrelate. Evidently unceasing "practise" means unceasing praise, since praise is the "practise" of art. All of life, then, becomes praise that expresses itself as art. And art is visonary, flourishing, and apparent in lives that might not, on the surface, appear to be devoted to art as we now think of it.


  1. I like what William Wordsworth said of Blake . . . that he was a mad [insane] genius. In Blake's case, I wonder if the two-word label is unnecessarily redundant. "Readers" of Blake make mistakes when they encounter only the black-and-white ink on a page (i.e., the text of Blake's work). The full artistic rendering must be "read" and imaginatively appreciated. I wish that I could fully appreciate Blake, but his more complex works (Jerusalem; Four Zoas; etc.) elude me except for occasional glimpses. Of course, I do not see either dead people or angels in trees (as did Blake), so I am somewhat limited.

    1. Wordsworth also said that the way Blake was mad interested him more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott, you know! That remark reminds me of Johnson talking of poet Christopher Smart's madness and his tendency to drop to his knees and pray in the street, and saying he'd "as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one."

      I doubt that Blake would say you were limited (unless you chose to reject your imagination) but that you had a different set of gifts to use than he did. Just a guess--

  2. Because, maybe, I'm reading Augustine's Confessions, where he says right at the beginning that he will seek God through prayer, I see Blake's "practice as praise" as a seeking of God through art, looking for the Creator via sub-creation.

    Blake has always made me uncomfortable, but there's something admirable in his forward motion, his exploration of ideas, his overwhelming desire for certainty. He must've been great fun at parties.

    1. Oh, yes, I think that is exactly right.

      Blake is interesting in part because he makes almost everybody who reads him uncomfortable or puzzled in some way... And he makes us question how he is using words and images we might take for granted. He has energy, which he early on characterizes as an attribute of God: "Energy is eternal delight."

  3. re: Blake
    I think he would have avoided parties. My guess derives from my reading of several Blake biographies, one of the most fascinating being the one by Peter Ackroyd. One intriguing episode includes Blake's insult to the king via some local soldiers, which nearly put Blake in prison. As for Blake's social life, I think he spent almost all of his time with his wife (who also did watercolors on his prints), and he thoroughly enjoyed his buckets of beer. If he were around today, he would have been heavily medicated by a psychiatrist who would know of no other way of dealing with Blake's eccentricities.

    1. Oh, you mean when he was in Felpham--yes, that's an interesting episode. I probably ought to read that biography, even though I don't care all that much about writers' lives.

      He did have friends, though... and younger people who admired him, like Linnell, who was the means of our having those wondrous "Divine Comedy" pieces. Does the Ackroyd book question his links to friends?

      His closeness to his "Kate" seems very sweet. I like the story of him singing and praising on his deathbed, and then pausing to draw a portrait of his wife.

      I have a close friend who is an artist in several not-usually-connected fields, and who sees frequent visions and sees visitors from the land of the dead, often before hearing about a death. Nevertheless, this person has done splendid work outside of art and is acknowledged to be an expert administrator. When I consider the energy and variety of this person, I have an inkling of what it meant to be Blake.

    2. I hope I have no misrepresented Ackroyd by saying what I have said about Blake and his friendships. My foggy memories from the Ackroyd book are just that: foggy. I do remember, though, that the book is more than biography; it is also literary criticism. Perhaps I ought to pull it down from m shelves and read it again. However, if I do so, I will then be drawn into reading Blake. Then the headaches will begin again. Egads! What on earth (or heaven) is Blake up to in those longer poems! The author of Revelation has nothing on Blake when it comes to symbolism and imagery.

    3. Well, yes! But perhaps you could stick to "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" and "Thel" and the "Songs of Innocence and Experience." That would be safe, wouldn't it? XD

      I have never been brave enough to wade through all of Blake, though I've splashed about a bit in the later poems. It would be pleasant (I think) to understand them, but the mastery would be a challenge.

    4. However, at the moment I am working on taxes, and that is worse.

  4. Taxes, marriage, heaven, and Hell.........Yikes!

    1. Perhaps to say "taxes" and "hell" is to be redundant. I shall leave marriage alone, though mine is closer to heaven! Whew.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.