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It is in the light of this that we might understand the severe critique of Blake that Higgs has to offer us, a critique so severe that one might wonder what he finds to admire in him.

In Why Blake matters Higgs complains that Blake 'expressed the belief that the Earth was flat, for example, and denied that atoms could exist. His belief that there was more to mind than intellect blinded him to the importance of reason.'

He elaborates on this in Blake vs the world:

'There are many aspects of Blake’s thought which, from a twenty-first-century perspective, we can comfortably deny. The idea that the male is primary and that the female is an emanation of the male, for example, can be dropped without much controversy. It may still be staunchly defended by theologians, alchemists and traditionalists, but they are an increasingly small minority.'

Well, yes, certainly there aren't many people nowadays (not even among 'theologians, alchemists and traditionalists') who think that women are emanations of men. One may doubt if there were ever many people who thought that. In Blake's system it is certainly true that 'emanations', which are usually presented as being good, are female, just as 'spectres', which are usually presented as being bad, are male. But we're talking about a symbolic system whose intention it is to convey the experiences of the mind. If we start treating the prophetic books as descriptions of the external world as we experience it through the senses the whole thing will fall apart even before we begin.

But Higgs is magnanimous: 'Perhaps if we make allowances for this [the limitations of the age in which he lived, an age in which, we are told, people believed that women emanated from men - PB] when we consider Blake, future historians will be kind enough to make a similar allowance when they look back at us.' He continues: 'Blake's denial of reason has also not aged well. Blake believed only what his senses showed him and as a result he insisted that the world was flat and that atoms did not exist.'

The first point to be made here is that Blake emphatically did not believe only what his senses showed him: 

How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way
Is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?

A recurring theme in Blake is the creation of the senses presented as a horror story, as in this account of Los (let us call him the Imagination though it's more complicated than that) creating a physical form for Urizen (let us call him the reasoning faculty though it's more complicated than that):

In harrowing fear rolling round
His nervous brain shot branches
Round the branches of his heart
On high into two little orbs
And fixed in two little caves,
Hiding carefully from the wind
His eyes beheld the deep
And a third age passed over
And a state of dismal woe.

A passage actually quoted elsewhere by Higgs. 

Of course that was written before Darwin came along. We know a lot more nowadays about how eyes are formed Although those of us who have read Richard Dawkins's Climbing Mount Improbable may still have doubts as to whether it can be fully explained by natural selection nonetheless we do know that it wasn't done by Los the Blacksmith, spectre of the fallen Zoa Urthona, creating a body over many ages of dismal woe for the fallen Zoa Urizen. But we can make allowances for the age of ignorance in which poor Blake was living.


Blake denies the existence of the atom in a letter written towards the end of his life to his friend and patron George Cumberland, but as always it has to be read in context and the context is complicated: 'I know too well that the great majority of Englishmen are fond of the indefinite which they measure by Newton's doctrine of the fluxions of an atom, a thing which does not exist. These are politicians and think that Republican art is inimical to their atom, for a line or a lineament is not formed by chance. A line is a line in its minutest subdivisions, straight or crooked. It is itself, not intermeasurable by anything else.'

Blake is defending his own method of art against the fashion for what he called 'blotting and blurring' but, as so often, he extends this specific argument into a more general world view, defending the line as experienced by the craftsman against the line as experienced by the mathematician. The craftsman's line is a simple, single act. The mathematician's line is a series of dots, each represented by a number. The mathematician sees the world in terms of what we may now think of as pixels, different arrangements of tiny elements that are identical, therefore intermeasurable. Infinitesimal calculus, as developed by Newton and Leibniz is an attempt mathematically to measure continuity, including the continuity of time. It works for a huge variety of practical applications but it isn't true to the real nature of things, the real nature of 'a line or a lineament' as they exist in the imagination. The same can be said of Einstein's time treated as a fourth dimension and his 'space-time.' It is a fiction that works for certain practical purposes. And of quantum mechanics which, imagining time as a succession of discrete particles of space, has much in common with Newton's infinitesimal calculus. Interestingly, Higgs understands the fictional nature of these mathematical devices when, in Stranger than Fiction he sings the praises of what he calls 'multiple-model agnosticism':

'Multiple-model agnosticism is an approach familiar to any scientist. Scientists do not possess a grand theory of everything, but they do have a number of competing and contradictory models, which are valid at certain scales and in certain circumstances. A good illustration of this point is the satellite navigation device in a car. The silicon chip inside it utilises our understanding of the quantum world; the GPS satellite it relies on to find its position was placed in orbit by Newtonian physics; and that satellite relies on Einstein’s theory of relativity in order to be accurate. Even though the quantum, Newtonian and relativity models all contradict each other, the satnav still works.'

Blake evokes the atom again in what may well be my own all time favourite poem, the poem that begins Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau:

The atoms of Democritus
And Newton's particles of light
Are sands upon the Dead Sea shore
Where Israel's tents do shine so bright.

Blake does not actually deny the existence of the 'sands upon the Dead Sea shore'. He just feels that they are dead while the living reality lies in mind, represented here by the shining tents. One actually feels he quite likes Newton's corpuscular theory of light, an anticipation of Einstein's photons. Remember that for Blake, in order to experience the holiness of anything (a white cloud for example) we have to imagine it in relation to the human form. And then read this from a poem in a letter addressed to Thomas Butts (not the same letter or poem quoted earlier on the fourfold vision):

To my friend Butts I write
My first vision of Light
On the yellow sands sitting,
The Sun was emitting
His glorious beams
From Heaven's high streams.
Over sea, over land
My eyes did expand
Into regions of air
Away from all care
Into regions of fire
Remote from desire;
The light of the morning
Heavens mountains adorning:
In particles bright
The jewels of light
Distinct shone and clear.
Amazed and in fear
I each particle gazed,
Astonished, amazed;
For each was a man
Human-formed. Swift I ran,
For they beckoned to me
Remote by the sea,
Saying: 'Each grain of sand,
'Every stone on the land,
'Each rock and each hill
'Each fountain and rill,
'Each herb and each tree,
'Mountain, hill, earth and sea,
'Cloud, meteor, star
'Are men seen afar.'