Is it possible for entire societies to grow ill? Can a large population become mentally unstable?
William Blake thought so. Blake, the first major English Romantic poet, diagnosed his society in a striking and original way. He found that the culture, especially in its more refined reaches, was possessed by obsessive judgment and reckless, cruel condemnation. Blake created poetic images to concentrate these cultural tendencies. In his visionary poems, he wrote about the Spectre, which embodies the spirit of fear—in particular fear of love and imagination. He wrote about Nobodaddy, his image for the Judeo-Christian God as the culture perceived him. Nobodaddy is a repressive and cruel god, who detests all efforts of the imagination—he is non- and anti-creative, and fathers precisely Nothing. Thus, the name—Nobodaddy, Nobody’s Daddy. There’s also Urizen, drawer of boundaries, lord of limits. All three of these figures embody Blake’s sense that there is something awry in the culture. The forces of prohibition have grown more powerful and more deranged, and they threaten to stifle the capacity to create and the power to love.
Blake did not hate morality, but he hated moralism and he believed that his culture had been overwhelmed by it. Blake saw these prohibitive figures not only as emblems for the culture at large, but also as images for the forces inside individuals that kept them mentally sterile and afraid. (Over a hundred years after Blake wrote, Sigmund Freud began talking about a comparable figure, the cruelly judgmental super-ego.) Blake daringly proposed that it was possible to map interior and exterior life simultaneously.
Might Blake’s perception about late 18th century British culture have some bearing on our own? Might we also, as a culture and as individuals, be possessed by Spectres? There is some evidence to suggest that this is so. Judgment is rampant in our on-line culture and outside it. Someone is always being censured, denounced, canceled, or denied. Our institutions are ever more rule infested. We learn quite regularly what behavior absolutely will not be tolerated. And what is tolerated today may be forbidden tomorrow. We watch our words, watch our acts, watch who we associate with, ever in fear of the social Spectre.
The Spectre watches and is watched in its turn. Those who administer judgment—the school bureaucrat, the on-line scold, the department’s righteous crank—may seem to possess considerable power. They can initiate social ostracism, hamstring careers, stigmatize colleagues, maybe for life. Many walk in fear of them. But Blake suggests that the truth is a little more complicated. The Spectres who run through our lives and seem to rule on-line culture are themselves haunted. They live in fear of judgment, condemnation, shame. Blake thinks that every Spectre has their Spectre, and often more than one. The haunters are haunted—fearing that if they step out of line, the hateful spirits will descend upon them.
Often they try to hold their Spectres at bay by doing Spectral work in their behalf. If they bedevil others, maybe they’ll get some peace from their own self-judging demons. And, at least in my observation, this can work, if only for a while. There is a relief and a release that rises from calling out another. It feels good to get the scapegoating game going, or to join in early. One is among the elect now. One is enlightened, free from sin. But when you feed the Spectre, it seems only to grow stronger. All the condemnatory power the judges unleash upon others comes back at them, redoubled. The cure? Judge more, judge harshly, judge with keener subtlety. Keep the game going.
Did Blake have a cure for haunting? Did he feel that there was any way to overcome the Spectre? Yes, he did. Blake’s first weapon against the Spectre was the creative imagination. We need not only to see and see accurately the present, with all its Spectre driven sorrows. We also need to imagine a future that will be free of pathological condemnation. In his short epic Milton, Milton wrestles with Urizen, the drawer of worthless boundaries, slapping red clay on the monster, and humanizing him.
Another force on Blake’s side is love. When you can find a beloved and embrace them without fear or jealousy, you can open your imagination and forge forward together to find new life. You can do this, even when your Spectre is looming over you. Blake’s work is a symbolic quest to annul the Spectre and embrace what he calls the Emanation, the full form of what one loves and desires.
There’s a third spiritual resource as well. Blake is a Christian, though not a conventional one. (As we’ve seen, he does not have much time for standard versions of God the Father.) At the heart of Jesus’s teaching, for Blake, is one lesson, forgiveness. Forgiveness is Blake’s solution to guilt and persecution. We forgive others and we forgive ourselves and if we do so imaginatively and fully, we can be reborn, if only for a while. “And throughout all eternity, I forgive you and you forgive me. As our dear Redeemer said, ‘This the wine, and this the bread.’”1
Bold and fruitful words in the late 18th century. Perhaps just as bold and just as fruitful now.
- Blake, William. “My Spectre Around Me Night & Day.” In The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Romantic Poetry and Prose, edited by Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom, 62. London and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Mark Edmundson is University Professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia. He is the author of numerous works of cultural criticism, including fourteen books. He lives in Batesville, VA.