A Summary of Chapter One of Fearful Symmetry: The Case Against Locke


Clayton Chrusch has generously provided us with a lucid summary of the first five chapters of Fearful Symmetry; hopefully, a complete summary of the book is in the offing. We begin today with chapter one, and will make a weekly posting of each of the next four chapters.

Fearful Symmetry Chapter One: The Case against Locke

“The world we desire is more real than the world we passively accept.”

1. Blake wanted his poetry to be understood.

Frye’s project is to produce a commentary on William Blake’s poetry and thought. Partly this means placing Blake in his context: Blake is original, but he is emphatically part of a tradition, and it is important to set out what that tradition is. This also means placing the emphasis where Blake himself spent most of his creative effort: Blake is known for his short lyrics, but his long, difficult poems called “prophecies” form the largest part of his work, and Frye thus focuses on them. Though the prophetic works are difficult, Blake did not make them deliberately obscure. On the contrary, he wanted them to be understood. Energetic, determined readers will be able to understand these poems and will be richly rewarded.

Blake was a poet, and his poems should be treated as poetry and not as a veiled form of something else. Blake is a visionary, not a mystic or occultist. Blake parts ways with mystics in his belief in the power of words, a power that is not just expressive but also creative. He parts ways with occultists in his rejection of mystery. Positively speaking, a visionary like Blake perceives this world “with a new intensity of symbolism.” Blake was an artist first, before any spiritual commitments, and he pragmatically and irreverently used the spiritual world as a source of energy and material. Nevertheless Blake was a Christian and his views develop out of his Christianity.

2. Learning to read poetry means learning the language of poetry.

Blake adopted the Elizabethan view that the greatest poetry is allegorical. This allegory must be “addressed to the Intellectual powers” rather than “the Corporeal Understanding.” The corporeal understanding is understanding that is merely an explanation. If a poem means no more than its explanation, then it should have been written as an explanation in the first place. The “Intellectual powers,” on the other hand, refer to the acquired discipline of reading poetry as poetry. This discipline is founded on the principle that a poem is an imaginative unit. Learning this discipline means learning the language of poetry so that poetry no longer has to be translated into an explanation in order to be understood. Blake can teach us this language because he makes a corporeal understanding of his poems very difficult. But once we learn this poetic language, we will experience much greater pleasure in reading literature.

Frye also brings up Blake’s supposed madness. Madness must be understood as a “sterile, chaotic, and socially useless deviation from normal behavior.” In this sense, a creative genius like Blake is immeasurably saner than a commonplace mind.

3. Blake was a consistent thinker.

Blake was extremely consistent in his principles, and believed strongly in “obstinacy in maintaining what he believed to be true.” Not only was he consistent but he went to great pains to engrave and illustrate a carefully selected subset of his poems. These then should be considered as an official and unified canon in which we can expect to find a common structure of ideas. Blake set these ideas out very early in two series of aphorisms: All Religions Are One and There is No Natural Religion. These aphorisms deal largely with Blake’s theory of knowledge, and so the rest of this chapter will attempt to explain this theory–Blake’s epistemology.

4. Only perceptions are real, and we can only know the particular.

When he was young, Blake had carefully read Locke’s commonsense Essay concerning Human Understanding, and from then on Locke became for Blake “a symbol of every kind of evil, superstition, and tyranny.” In particular, Blake rejects Locke’s belief in the reality of a physical world apart from perception. Blake followed George Berkeley‘s idealism when he wrote, “Mental Things are alone Real.” Blake rejects Locke’s “atom” as the basic unit of reality. For Blake, the basic unit of existence is the “image” which he also, significantly, calls a “form.” An image or form is an object of perception, but it is not divided from the perceiving subject.

Locke was interested in the process he called “reflection” which involves producing abstractions and generalizations to understand sense experience. The mood of the eighteenth century was very strongly in favour of generalizations. Blake disapproved: he wrote, “Strictly Speaking All Knowledge Is Particular,” and “To Generalize is to be an Idiot.” Only an image can be known, and images are always particular. Generalization depends on memory, which “must always be less than the perception of the image.” Generalization then goes on to infer abstract qualities from our memories, and these qualities have even less reality than the memory. We speak of these qualities as if they have independent existence, but they do not. Frye writes, “things are real to the extent that they are sharply, clearly, particularly perceived by themselves and discriminated from one another.” Believing abstract qualities like proportion (for instance) to be real is “a flight from reality.”

An atom is a completely generic thing, a pure generalization. To see the world as a collection of atoms is to assert the abstract generality of existence, and to reject the reality of the particular. If the particular is not real, then our perception, which only reveals the particular, must be an illusion, and we cannot trust it. If we deny the reality of our perception, no assurance of any kind is possible. So the only sane and consistent approach to reality is to assume the images we perceive are reality.

Similarly, Blake rejects Locke’s division of the subject from the object, what he calls the “Cloven Fiction.” This separation is just another excuse to distrust and reject the real world of forms and retreat into a shadowy world of memories and abstractions which Blake calls “spectres.”

5. Blake’s relativism.

For Blake, the body and the soul are the same thing. We call it a body when it is an object and a soul when it is a subject. But since the division of subject and object is not real, neither is the division between body and soul. Blake also uses several other words as synonyms for soul: mind, intellect, poetic genious, fancy, and most importantly, imagination. Frye writes,

If a man perceived is a form or image, man perceiving is a former or imaginer, so that ‘imagination’ is the regular term used by Blake to denote man as an acting and perceiving being. That is, a man’s imagination is his life.

Blake was a relativist in the sense that be believed “nothing is real beyond the imaginative patterns men make of reality.” These patterns will be unique for each individual, and so there is a different reality for every human being. Locke wants us to believe that there is one reality determined by a majority vote of normal men. Creative geniuses would not have a vote, and if they did, they could not win. Locke therefore uses mediocre perception as his standard for reality, but for Blake every perception is an action and like all human actions, perceptions vary along a continuum from involuntary to voluntary. It is the perceptions that are most voluntary, that are motivated by “passionate desire” and “intense joy” that are most real. This is true regardless of the context within which those perceptions take place, whether it be science, farming, or poetry. A person with these kinds of perceptions “sees all that he can see of all that he wants to see.” People who think along the lines Locke sets down want to be reassured that they see what everyone else sees, that is, they are paralyzed by doubt. They “see all they want to see of all that they can see.”

There is a material world that is common to all individuals, but it has no reality independent of our perceptions.

6. “The world we desire is more real than the world we passively accept.”

How is it that we can perceive however we want and still remain sane? For Blake, there is an “inner unity to the character of the perceiver.” This character is innate. And just as an acorn wants to grow into an oak, a human being wants to perceive the coherent imaginative vision that already exists in her, in an undeveloped state. She will be conditioned by her circumstances, but her unique vision will remain and, given a chance, unfold. Growing into our innate character means developing “a unified mental vision of experience” which will ensure that our “perceptions will thus be charged with an intelligible and coherent meaning.” And so the orderliness of our world is guaranteed not by its objective physical reality but rather by our unique, innate, and unchanging character–which is revealed only when we develop our imagination.

If we choose the unimaginative path, the path of Locke, then sense experience is random, chaotic, largely meaningless, and when we do find meaning in things, it is by dividing the world into foolish general antitheses such as “emotion vs. intellect,” “mind vs. body,” “choice vs. compulsion.” These dualities are abstracted from our experience but do not actually apply to reality.

Frye writes, “The fact that the concrete is more real than the general” is proved by art’s “vividness and directness of impact, as compared with reasoning.” He goes on to say:

It is, then, through art that we understand why perception is superior to abstraction, why perception is meaningless without an imaginative ordering of it, why the validity of such ordering depends on the normality of the perceiving mind, why that normality must be associated with genius rather than mediocrity, and why genius must be associated with the creative power of the artist. This last, which is what Blake means by “vision,” is the goal of all freedom, energy, and wisdom.

What we imagine may depend on memory, but it depends more on clear perception. It is not possible to be imaginative without first being perceptive, and all art is a struggle to develop perception into creation. This creation is a higher reality because it is more intensely charged with meaning than random sense experience, or sense experience stamped into the uniform mold of social consensus.

So, for Blake, there are three worlds, an egocentric world of abstract ideas and foolish antitheses, an ordinary world of subject and object that we achieve when we open up our perception, and a visionary world that we create out of the ordinary one and that we enter into through art. We tend to think the lower worlds are more real because we are more accustomed to them, but in fact it is the higher worlds that are more real, and we would see this if we chose to live in them.

In the world of the imagination, we are totally free and can do whatever we desire. But people at least since Plato, have hated and tried to suppress desire and freedom because of the belief they lead to chaos. But art proves that the fulfillment of desire through energetic, unlimited freedom is the opposite of chaos. We all feel, at least in childhood, that if we imagine something we can make it real. Sensible adults eventually teach us to accept reality as it is. But this is a mistake. The imagination alone creates reality, and so, as Frye writes, “the world we desire is more real than the world we passively accept.”

7. Art is anything that contributes to culture.

By “art,” Blake means something broader than what we would call art. Blake would include religion, philosophy, history, and science, though any of these can become enemies of the imagination in the wrong hands. He does not want to curtail the expressions of culture, quite the opposite.

All of the disciplines mentioned, when practiced correctly, develop coherent imaginative patterns to unify perception. Blake and Frye insist that the imaginative pattern is the reality, as opposed to the material world which is chaos before being formed and ordered by the imagination.

8. Blake is no lonely mystic.

So we should not think of Blake as a lonely mystic retreating from reality.

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One thought on “A Summary of Chapter One of Fearful Symmetry: The Case Against Locke

  1. Nicholas William Graham

    This is great stuff, Clayton. Sorry, I took so long to get around to it. But I promise I will send you regular comments as I go through it.

    I compiled a book: NORTHROP FRYE AND VISIONARY REALISM (1991) much along the same lines, liberally plundering passages from
    FEARFUL SYMMETRY, but not as good as your work.

    I entitled the first four chapters: 1) Philosophy; 2) Theology; 3) Ethics and Politics; 4) Art as self-appropriation.

    Part II

    5) The Poetic Cycle of Decline; 6) The Cycle of Vision in Literature;
    7) The Cycle of Vision in Society, 8) The Cycle of Vision in Language.

    At first glance, what you’ve done looks terrific and I look forward to giving it a careful reading, which I’m sure I’ll enjoy.



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