Summary of Chapter Three of Fearful Symmetry: Beyond Good and Evil


Here is Clayton Chrusch’s excellent summary of Chapter Three of Fearful Symmetry. Beyond Good and Evil:

But as only the worst of men would torture other men in hell endlessly, given the power, those who believe God does this worship the devil, or the worst elements in man.

1. Evil is turning away from the imagination and restraining action.

I’ll let Frye introduce this chapter:

We now come to Blake’s ethical and political ideas, which, like his religion, are founded on his theory of knowledge. It is impossible for a human being to live completely in the world of sense. Somehow or other the floating linear series of impressions must be ordered and united by the mind. One must adopt either the way of imagination or the way of memory; no compromise or neutrality is possible. He who is not for the imagination is against it.

This whole introductory section is worth reading in the original. In short, evil is turning away from perception rather than passing through it to vision. Evil is an attempt to restrain the imagination, to restrain life, and so it is ultimately a death impulse. Restraint is what characterizes all evil–restraining oneself or restraining another. Evil is not active except where the purpose is to frustrate further activity. And so all vices are negative things–negations of action, negations of one’s senses, negations of imagination. It follows, as Blake writes, “all Act is Virtue.”

The negation of the imagination can also be thought of as a perversion of it. A perverted imagination descends quickly into either fear or cruelty. Cruelty is mischievous curiosity, and fear “is not so much the horror of the unknown as a fascinated attraction to it.” In society, the cruel become tyrants and the fearful become victims. Imaginative people are rare enough that history in retrospect looks very much like an unchanging parasitic relationship between tyrant and victim, a relationship supported as much by the cowardice of the victim as the cruelty of the tyrant.

The imagination is self-development, which “leads us into a higher state of integration with a larger imaginative unit which is ultimately God.” What is egocentric in us is incapable of the expansion outward that characterizes self-development. And so Blake accepts a view of original sin in which there are two parts to us, a part capable of only good, and a part capable of evil as well as good. So Frye writes, “Man has within him the principle of life and the principle of death: one is the imagination, the other the natural man.”

The cure for original sin is vision, a recognition that the world we live in is fallen but not final–that a better world and a better humanity are possible. Good, honest people who lack this vision are on the right side, but still have not achieved all they can. A person with vision is a prophet. Prophecy is not a mysterious ability of telling the future, it is simply the imaginative activity of “an honest man with a sharper perception and a clearer perspective than other honest men possess.” This perception reveals an “infinite and eternal reality.”

2. State religion is that of the self-righteous prig who is the Prince of this world.

The source of all tyranny is not in the temporal world, but in the sense of “a mysterious power lurking behind” powerful people. Generating this sense of mystery is the work of state religion and the caste of priests who administer it. So as pernicious as tyrants are, we cannot end tyranny by overthrowing tyrants. Tyranny is founded on false religion and the only cure for it is true religion.

You can tell false religion because it posits a God “who is unknown and mysterious because he is not inside us but somewhere else: where, only God knows. Second, it preaches submission, acceptance and unquestioning obedience.” False religion is state religion and exists to rationalize power, but it is constantly under attack by the imagination. The imagination causes false religion to constantly alter and solidify its form and eventually can succeed in forcing false religion into a consolidation of error, which is a perfect negation of truth. This consolidation of error makes false religion much more vulnerable than would the vagueness and fog which are its preferred anti-imaginative weapons.

False religion achieves its highest form in the God of official Christianity who was invented to counter the genuine teachings of Jesus. Frye writes,

This God is good and we are evil; yet, though he created us, he is somehow or other not responsible for our being evil, though he would consider it blasphemous either to assert that he is or to deny his omnipotence. All calamities and miseries are his will, and to that will we must be absolutely resigned even in thought and desire. The powers that be are ordained of him, and all might is divine right. The visions of artists and prophets are of little importance to him: he did not ordain those, but an invariable ritual and a set of immovable dogmas, which are more in keeping with the ideas of order. Both of these are deep mysteries, to be entrusted to a specially initiated class of servants. He keeps a grim watch over everything men do, and will finally put most of them in hell to scream eternally in torment, eternally meaning, of course, endlessly in time. A few, however, who have done as they have been told, that is, have done nothing creative, will be granted an immortality of the “pie in the sky when you die” variety.

Frye then qualifies this by saying, “It is easy to call this popular misunderstanding, but perhaps harder to deny that orthodox religion is founded on a compromise with it.” Worshipping a God who, among other things, tortures men forever, means worshipping the devil. This devil does not exist except as bogeyman projected by priests and rulers, and yet somehow this does not prevent him from being the “Prince of this world.”

As the Prince of this world, the devil demands obediance, uniformity, and mediocrity, all of which are called good in official morality. Thus, “all that is independent, free and energetic comes to be associated with evil.” Satan, who is the accuser of sin, is “not himself a sinner but a self-righteous prig.”

For Blake, engaging in good vs. evil battles, whatever one’s conception of good and evil, is an expression of a death impulse. Life requires a battle, but it is a battle between truth and error.

Satanism, in Blake’s time, was most perfectly expressed as Deism, characterized by a belief in the physical world as the only real one and an almost enthusiastic resignation to the conditions and restrictions the physical world imposes on human life. Though contentment seems like a reasonable approach to life, it fails spectacularly in practice, leading to hysteria and warfare. Furthermore, the imagination can never accept the fallen world that it finds itself in.

3. Progress can only be made by the conflict of contraries.

Blake sometimes ironically calls those who defend tyranny Angels and views his corresponding role as that of a Devil, in constant mental battle against the Angels. The Angels, though they defend tyranny, are useful to society because tyranny is based on confusion rather than error. Angels clarify confusion into error and thus make it possible to cast it out. And so progress can only be made in this conflict of “contraries.”

Prophets like Blake must also convert those who are neutral, those who do not act because they have come to expect every act will be followed by retribution. Retribution is always wrong because its effect is always to neutralize action. Though retribution is a necessary part of fallen life, it never succeeds in accomplishing something positive.

But Blake is not tolerant of sin. Sin is real and much more serious than neutral people usually accept. Blake insisted on condemning sin severely. This is followed by a forgiveness which distinguishes between the person and the state of sin. The person needs to be delivered and the state of sin is what she needs to be delivered from. This Blakean wrath followed by pity is the opposite of the Satanic approach to sin which is accusation followed by self-righteousness. Hell therefore can be thought of as the world the self-righteous create for themselves. If there were any forgiveness in hell, it would cease to be hell.

Blake himself, though wrathful, is not self-righteous even to the self-righteous, but rather feels “infinite tenderness for the weak and foolish” and “a sense of exceptional responsibility” to help them.

4. Eden, the only abiding place of real joy.

In this section Frye argues that Eden, the unfallen world, is neither a protected child-like world nor a dangerous world suitable for conquerors. It is a world of creative struggle and of discovery. And this makes it the only world where real joy is possible.

5. Sex, femininity and our helpless dependence on nature.

Descending from Eden to Beulah, Frye describes sexual love in its fallen and unfallen forms.

The unfallen form of what we love and create is our emanation, something that is not outside of us, but that we are united with. Clearly this union can be a sexual union, and it is through sexual love that “most of us enter the imaginative world.” Sexual love brings us into a fuller human world.

Fallen sexual morality hates sex, thinks of it as an animal activity, and only has use of it as the bait in the trap of monogamous marriage. The children produced by sexual relationship, like sexual partners, are objects of possession. Out of this fallen morality arises the formidable socially conservative model of family, a major weapon in state religion.

Nature is symbolically female because we are born helplessly dependent on nature as we are to our mothers. Nature is also symbolically feminine in relation to the artist who plants his imaginative seed in nature in order to generate art. This helpless dependence on an objective reality is one of the reasons this world is fallen. Frye writes, “This independent nourishing force in nature Blake calls the female will.”

Though women are certainly not identical with the female will, Frye claims that female-worship in whatever form it takes, means worshipping the female will, which means worshipping nature, which means accepting all of nature’s brutality.

6. Artists need money.

Descending from Beulah to the mundane world of Generation, Frye discusses Blake’s views about money. Blake was poor and knew better than to romanticize an artist’s poverty. Money is a necessity, and poverty an evil imposed by clever people on the innocent. But even improvements in economic justice are insufficient because as long as there is money, people will seek happiness in possession.

7. The difference between art and psychosis

Descending finally to Ulro, the hellish level of Blake’s cosmology, we must consider ghosts and other horrors. For Frye, the most important issue that arises while considering this level is how to distinguish the imaginative from the imaginary, the genuine vision from the hallucination.

Frye begins by again rejecting the view that things are real if they are outside the mind and not real if they are only inside the mind. In both cases, if we perceive them, they are part of our experience. But two different attitudes are possible. One is an imaginative attitude which takes control of perception and makes it communicable. The other attitude is one of fear, passivity, and withdrawal. People are harassed, haunted, and isolated by the imaginary entities they experience. The visions of spirits that Blake saw worked as unpaid models, forced to pose for Blake at his convenience. There is a superficial similarity between visions of an artist and the visions of someone who is psychotic or dreaming but the differences are profound.

8. The simplicity of Jesus’s ethics and its betrayal by established churches

In this section Frye offers a detailed and extensive account of Blakes interpretation of Jesus’s ethics. Or rather, since Jesus’s ethics reduce to something so simple–the forgiveness of sins and the condemnation of self-righteousness and smug skepticism–Frye, Blake, and Jesus concentrate on what is “beyond good and evil,” which is the question of heaven and hell.

For all Jesus’ teaching centers on the imminent destruction of this world and the eternal permanence of heaven and hell, these latter being not places but states of mind. Jesus however did not discuss this in terms of good and evil, but in terms of life and death, the fruitful and the barren. The law of God that we must obey is the law of our own spiritual growth. Those who embezzle God’s talents are praised; those who are afraid to touch them are reviled.

Those who lack vision but live by faith and thus clothe the naked and feed the hungry will be granted vision because “because they have realized the divine dignity of man.”

In this world, there is no visible Christian church. Christian life is so much broader than what passes for Christianity. Converting to Christianity in this world means nothing in itself. Christianity is nothing but the free use of the imagination and the true church is “a communion of visionaries.”

Heaven is this world as it appears to the awakened imagination, and those who try to approach it by way of restraint, caution, good behaviour, or voluntary drabness, will find themselves traveling toward hell […] hell being similarly this world as it appears to the repressed imagination.

Blake had little patience for the repressions of the official church. Frye captures his contempt in the following quotation: “The Modern Church Crucifies Christ with the Head Downwards.”

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