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But what gives him the confidence to imagine the thistle as human? A comment he made in the margins of Swedenborg's Wisdom of angels concerning Divine Love and Divine Wisdom may help us to understand. Swedenborg writes: 'In all the Heaven there is no idea of God other than that of a man.' Blake agrees: 'Man can have no idea of anything greater than man, as a cup cannot contain more than its capaciousness.' In another comment he writes: 'Think of a white cloud as being holy, you cannot love it; but think of a holy man within the cloud, love springs up in your thoughts, for to think of holiness distinct from man is impossible to the affections. Thought alone can make monsters, but the affections cannot.'

The issue, then, is what we mean by 'imagination'. This is the central issue for Higgs - his answer to the question Why Blake matters': 'there is a core idea that lies at the heart of his work. It is an idea that has spread through our culture in the same diverse, widespread and untraceable way that forgotten artists influence the world. It is the reason why Blake keeps bubbling back into our culture through unpoliced mediums such as graffiti or videogames, rather than through establishment endorsement. The idea is this: the human imagination is divine.'

However, as Higgs rightly says (in Why Blake matters):

'It’s worth stressing, however, that Blake’s understanding of imagination is different to how the word is typically understood today. If you ask someone in the twenty-first century what the word ‘imagination’ means, they will probably say that it is just making stuff up. This is not how the word used to be understood. According to the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, there was an important difference between fantasy and imagination.'

So what is the distinction?

'Imagination was the arrival, from the depths of consciousness, of something genuinely new --- something original ... something never seen before.'

He elaborates on what he means by this in Blake vs the world:

'When the filmmaker George Lucas dreamt up the Star Wars universe – which became a mental playground for generations of children, spawned a multibillion-dollar empire and irreversibly changed the movie industry – that was an act of imagination. When committees of creatives are tasked by the current owners of the Star Wars intellectual property to produce more Star Wars content, that is no longer an act of imagination. Instead, it is playing around with existing ideas and falls into Coleridge’s lesser category of fantasy.'

Well. That's one way of looking at it. Here is another, taken from Yeats's introduction to his edition of Blake's poems, published in 1906:

'"God is in the lowest effects as well as in the highest causes," he wrote on the margin of a copy of Lavater's Aphorisms. "For let it be remembered that creation is God descending according to the weakness of man. Our Lord is the word of God, and everything on earth is the word of God, and in its essence is God." That portion of creation, however, which we can touch and see with our bodily senses is "infected" with the power of Satan, one of whose names is "Opacity"; whereas that other portion which we can touch and see with the spiritual senses, and which we call "imagination" is truly "the body of God" and the only reality; but we must struggle to really mount towards that imaginative world, and not allow ourselves to be deceived by "memory" disguising itself as imagination. We thus mount by poetry, music and art, which seek forever "to cast off all that is not inspiration" and "the rotten rags of memory," and to become, "the divine members."' 

There's a lot that could be said in elaboration of all that, but I hope the reader gets the point. Without wishing to belittle the enjoyment I remember having when I saw Star Wars so many years ago, with Blake we are in a different world. But of course Blake (and Yeats) could be wrong. The idea that imagination could be a cleansing of the doors of perception so that we can see clearly a reality that transcends the 'opaque' reality of our normal perception could be completely delusional. One suspects that this is what Higgs really thinks and were he ever to meet up with Blake, they wouldn't get on very well


The difference between them is manifest in Higgs's views on consciousness. Higgs draws what I think is a rather good analogy between the physical brain and a television set. The mechanics of the television set are the means by which the image reaches us but in no way do they account for the nature of the image. So far so good. But elsewhere he says:

'Reality is silent, as we understand the term. The collision of objects causes waves to ripple through the air, but this is not the same as ‘sound’ as we subjectively experience it. The qualities of birdsong, guitar chords or laughter that so delight us are created by our minds, based on air ripples detected by our ears, and they exist only there. Another example is colour, which also does not exist in external reality. Different wavelengths of light are reflected off different surfaces, and these different wavelengths are registered by our eyes, which send this information to our brains.'

The famous example is the tree falling in the forest with no-one to hear it. It doesn't make a sound. This is precisely the distinctions between 'primary' and 'secondary' qualities that characterised the thinking of Blake's great enemy. John Locke. For Locke qualities like colour and sound only exist in the mind while the reality of the object lay in its colourless and soundless measurable qualities - the waves rippling through the air. This distinction was challenged by the philosopher of 'idealism', George Berkeley, who showed that the measurable qualities were as much functions of the mind as sound and colour. In a passage in his Commonplace Book which Yeats enjoyed quoting, Berkeley says: 'There are men who say there are invisible extensions. There are others who say that the wall is not white, the fire is not hot. We Irishmen cannot attain to these truths.'

For Blake the reality of the object lies in mind. What is not of the nature of mind is abstract. It isn't vision of any sort, not even single vision. It is 'Newton's sleep.' It should be clear, however, that for Blake mind was something other than our own individual minds. In the prophetic books the schema of mind is given in the 'four zoas' - the four living creatures of the vision of Ezekiel, and we as individuals participate in it. It is within us but equally we are within it. Thus, since mind is the only reality, the tree falling in the forest is an event in mind, in the universal mind, the divine Humanity. Higgs seems to acknowledge this when he says 'As far as he was concerned, the imagination of man was the source of everything both physical and spiritual' but he continues: 'By taking this stance, Blake sidestepped the categories of idealism and materialism and he avoided the dualist question of whether the physical or the immaterial had primacy.' On the contrary, Blake was a thoroughgoing idealist for whom matter, or 'the physical', represented 'the limit of opacity', identified with Satan - the mental category most impervious to vision.