Category Archives: Blake

Thanks to Clayton Chrusch


Fearful Symmetry was the very last of Frye’s major works that I read, and by the time I  first read it, I had re-read just about everything else a few times over. I don’t know why I put it off for so long. I rationalized that it is a youthful work (even though it is clearly not that), a mere precursor to Anatomy where the “real work” begins, and a study narrowly focused on a still somewhat obscure poet. So, predictably enough, when I finally came to read it, it blew open all the doors and sent my carefully arranged mental furniture flying. It’s a book that still haunts me. Fearful Symmetry possesses all of Frye’s runic power to summon up the fearsome but benign authority of the Magus/prophet: not, as he says elsewhere, the oppressive mystery that conceals, but the liberating mystery that reveals.

I am therefore very grateful that Clayton Chrusch has undertaken to provide us with a weekly summary, chapter by chapter. By the time I reach the end of each installment, I’m a little breathless with excitement. Such is the power of the book that Clayton’s lucid exposition effortlessly taps into it. I look forward to his next.

Summary of Chapter Two of Fearful Symmetry: The Rising God


Here is Clayton Chrusch’s summary of the second chapter of Fearful Symmetry.  (His summary of chapter one can be found here):

Fearful Symmetry Chapter Two: The Rising God

Man is All Imagination. God is Man & exists in us & we in him.

1. God is the fully developed human imagination.

This chapter presents Blake’s theology. His theology is based on the identity of God with humanity and in particular with the fully developed human imagination. God must be human because we cannot perceive anything greater than human. Since existence is perception, nothing superhuman can exist. Furthermore, the fact that Jesus was fully God and fully man means that God posseses no attributes which are not human.

We are God in our perceptions. No one can perceive God, but when we perceive the particular, we perceive as God. An egotistical perception sees a general reality, but a divine perception sees a particular reality. Blake calls the perception of a general reality experience, and the perception of a particular reality innocence.

What is true of perception is true of creation–when we create, we create as God. Frye writes, “all creators are contained in the Creator.” For Blake, worshipping God means honouring the creativity of human beings, and honouring most those with the most developed imaginations. The more people suppress their imaginations, the more they turn their backs on God, that is, their own divinity. But turning our backs on our divinity also means turning our backs on our humanity–it is what is great in us that makes us human, not what is small. God is the species, and humans are individuals of that species. God is the essence, and we are the identities arising from that essence. God is the body, and we are the limbs.

2. Against God as a designer

It’s wrong to look to Blake for an informed opinion of all things. There are some things that Blake was simply not interested in. He was not interested in mathematics, for instance, and though he may seem to disparage it, a sympathetic reader will realize that Blake is really attacking superstitious uses of mathematics. These include occult math, that is, numerology, and the kind of scientific reductionism that sees reality as merely an abstract mathematical design rather than the concrete mental creation that it is.

In some of Blake’s poems, Blake uses numbers and diagrams, but these are part of the imaginative unity of the poems and do not indicate “any affinity with mathematical mysticism.”

Blake could not bring himself to believe in a God that is a designer rather than a creator.

3. Against God as an impersonal and mechanical power

Blake dislikes Newton partly because of the kind of theology that Newton’s universe suggests. Such a vast universe governed by mechanical laws suggests a God that is a great impersonal and mechanical power. Such a theology would be further encouraged by the 19th century discovery of “the immense stretch of geological time, in which nothing particularly cheerful seems to have occurred.” Such a God is distasteful to Blake not only because it must be a tyrant, but because it reduces the whole universe and all of life to less than conscious activity.

Blake agrees with the followers of the Newtonian Gods that God is the essence of life. But the followers of Newtonian Gods discover the essence of life by abstracting life until they get to the simple idea of motion. This is the same lowest-common-denominator approach to discovering reality that Blake hates so much in Locke. Blake sees that, of all beings, humans are most alive and so the essence of life is found in human attributes such as intelligence, imagination, judgment, and conscious purpose. And so God must possess all these attributes.

As for evolution, a Blakean must interpret it not as a mechanical process of stimulus and response, and certainly not as intelligent design, but as an exuberant imaginative development in all possible directions.

Blake did not idealize nature and possessed no illusions about “noble savages” living in a state of nature. Nature is cruel, and anything living in a state of nature is savage. Nature achieves its highest form where both it and people are cultivated. For Blake, the central symbol of the imagination is a city, in other words, a world and a nature with a human form where the imagination “has developed and conquered rather than survived and ‘fitted.'”

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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.

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Merv Nicholson: Desire (3)


The third and last of Merv’s series on Desire.  The first and second posts can be found here and here.

The big point, the astonishing point, is that Frye valued desire.  (His mentor, Blake, did too, of course.)  This is a far bigger point about Frye than almost anything else.

For example, a key passage from Anatomy of Criticism:

“’The desire of man being infinite,’ said Blake, ‘the possession is infinite and himself infinite.’  If Blake is thought a prejudiced witness on this point, we may cite Hooker: ‘That there is somewhat higher than either of these two (sensual and intellectual perfection), no other proof doth need than the very process of man’s desire, which being natural should be frustrate, if there were not some farther thing wherein it might rest at the length contented, which in the former it cannot do.’”

 Frye was a radical thinker—someone who went to the “roots”—but he was not a political radical (not in any simple way, that is).  He was not a Leftist.  He was, however, a committed Social Democrat and supporter of the New Democratic Party of Canada (in the U.S. that would make him an extreme leftist “liberal”).  He detested Stalinism and authoritarianism of any stripe; there is an anarchist strain in his outlook.  It’s interesting that his wife seems to have been much further to the left than Frye was.

 The most important thing that Freud and Frye had in common was that their name begins with FR and has one syllable.  Freud, in Frye’s view, was a pessimistic thinker and an authoritarian: Freud was deeply mistrustful of human desire and regarded desire as dangerous: it must be carefully clipped and pruned, whatever its value for ambitious men, like him.  In this—and this is the real point—Freud was consistent with conservative thinkers generally. 

 Most of tradition and traditional thought is hostile to human desire.  

Why this is so is an interesting question.  But the point is that it isn’t Frye.  Frye valued human desire—indeed his whole way of thinking is an affirmation of human desire.  This is an astonishing and vital fact about him.

 Frye was different.

Bob Rodgers: “Recovering William Blake”


A memoir of Blake, Frye and the 60s from Bob Rodgers.  Bob is a former grad student of Frye’s who became a documentary filmmaker.

When I set out for university my motives were not entirely laudable. Movies about universities made their social life look appealing and I wanted a way out of Flin Flon anyway. Also, in the 1950s,  if you managed to scrape through matriculation with a B average university was just something you did.  Tuition was cheap, summer jobs plentiful and lucrative, so why not? What friends who had gone before me said was: “Don’t take Science or Engineering. They’re hard. Take Arts”.

By second year I was having a splendid time. I played basketball for the University of Manitoba Bisons and endless hands of Bridge in the student union cafeteria. I got fake ID so I could drink at the Pembina beer parlor. I went to movie previews on Academy Road every Thursday, and to curling bees and dances on weekends, and there was a whole residence of pretty girls to date so long as you got them in by eleven. In all of these things I don’t remember being much different from anyone else I knew in Arts.

With one exception. One fellow called Lennie who sat beside me in my poetry course was unlike my basketball friends and my home town friends. He was a Ukrainian from the mysterious “North End”, a section of Winnipeg beyond the CPR tracks that was as foreign to me as Bukovina. If a professor assigned a library book and you got round to looking it up it was always gone. I’d find out later Lennie had it.

Sitting in the cafeteria one day Lennie said: “What do you make of William Blake?” I was circumspect. I remembered reading “The Tyger”, “Ah! Sunflower”,  and “The Chimney Sweep” in High School, and we had all grown up singing Blake’s “Jerusalem”on occasions of patriotic fervor for the British Empire. I wasn’t ready to admit to him that I had been trying to read Blake’s epic poem, ‘Jerusalem’, and found it impenetrable. He pushed the book he’d been reading toward me and went for coffee refills. It was The Collected Works of William Blake, the Keynes edition of 1956. He knew I fancied Milton, which he didn’t. He left a page open where I read: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” I read the lines several times, trying to figure out what Blake was saying.

My new friend returned with coffee and sat watching as I skipped through the passages he had flagged in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell section.

Exuberance is beauty. (I liked that idea. For the same reason I preferred Anthony to Octavius.)

How do you know but evr’y bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five? (That was the one I couldn’t get my head around at all.)

The cistern contains: the fountain overflows. (Same thing.)

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. (Whoa there. I was learning about excess in my extra-curricular activities, and thought it more likely they led in the opposite direction.)

What is now proved was once only imagined. (Well all right. So you don’t invent or discover anything without having imagination.)

The cut worm forgives the plough. (Is that what they meant when they said you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs? Not exactly. A worm isn’t like an egg and a plough isn’t like an omelette.)

Better murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires. (That was an unsettling one. Like some Nietzsche things I’d been reading it sounded dangerous.)

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Mervyn Nicholson: Desire (2)


“Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained, and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling.  And being restrained, it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire. . . . Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”  “Enough, or too much”—but never less than enough.

That’s Blake.  That’s Frye. 

Yes, Frye did refer to human beings as psychotic apes, contemplating the record of misery and horror that history displays.  “Desire” in Frye, as in Blake, is of course not the same as the compulsion to hurt and control others—“to govern the unwilling”—which is a mental illness, not desire at all.  Frye was not like Freud, especially on the issue of desire.  It is ironic, Frye says, that Freud has become a prophet of eros—ironic, because Freud was deeply pessimistic about human nature; he wanted, Moses-like, to hand down the law from his height of authority.  Frye was not a pessimist of this type, at all. 

That’s another thing that makes him so different.  Consistent with his profound valuation of desire, Frye was deeply committed to what goes with it, namely, an insistence on the value and meaning of life, confidence in the meaningfulness of existence, in fact in the divinity of life.  There is something divine in human nature—that’s Frye.  Indeed this divine aspect is manifested in our desires, in our wishes and their converse, our fears, and what we do about our fears and desires.  Such a conviction is utterly at odds with poststructuralism, particularly in deconstruction, which floated on a sea of shallow, leisure-class pessimism.

But then, on the topic of desire, Frye is unlike most of intellectual culture.  Desire is almost universally devalued—in religion (Christianity-Judaism-Islam is full of it), in philosophy, in psychology (certainly in the psychoanalytic tradition, which so many academics find irresistibly appealing), in economics—you name it.  Curiously, the one area that consistently respects desire is literature—Frye’s area.  By contrast, the prevailing attitude is that human desire is a problem, often THE problem.  “Good” is reflexively understood to mean “obedience.”  (“Were you good today?” Mommy asks, meaning “Did you do what you were told—did you obey?”)  If people could only stick to obeying authority—doing what they are told to do, wanting what they are told to want, and no more—they would be OK.  Instead, they foolishly listen to desire.  Ignorant desire then gets them into all kinds of problems and causes problems for those who obey.  This is of course Freud’s program: superego, with its “Don’t” command, must replace “libido.”  “Thou shalt not,” as Blake puts it in “The Garden of Love.”  Even in economics, supposedly about people doing what they want, scarcity is the ruling principle.  There is not enough.  Some people will have to do without. 

In fact, this is a key reason why desire is so much distrusted: desire incites disobedience, chaos, disorder.  Most of history shows us a tiny minority of the population in control of the rest of the population, who work for a living (as opposed to owning for a living).  Unless those who do the work have their desires carefully pruned to fit the dominant arrangement, there is going to be trouble.  There are a lot of reasons why desire is so distrusted, and it is not an accident that Blake is considered and considered himself a radical.

Frye was not a radical quite in Blake’s style, but there are plenty of radical currents in his thinking.  You don’t have to read far in his notebooks—or his publications—to find him saying radical things, things that have annoyed a lot of people.  One of the most important things he says is to insist on the value of human desire.

This partly explains, by the way, why he is so despised in the academy today.