Monday, February 20, 2006

William Blake: Schizophrenic?

Edward Friedlander, M.D., The pathguy, has available on his website a copy of his English Literature thesis, William Blake's Milton: Meaning and Madness, in which he argues for a diagnosis of William Blake as a schizophrenic.
As a medical doctor, I will try to break new ground in an area which has been ignored. I am going to suggest that Milton, in contrast to most works of literature, was to a very large extent conceived and executed unconsciously. The faculties of the mind of which we are ordinarily unaware worked much more freely in the composition of Milton than in the production of narratives by most other authors.

The way Blake's mind worked made him different from other people. It is possible to account for Blake's visions, much of his system, and the facility with which he received his "inspirations" with a single hypothesis. To date, no medical doctor with a literary background has ever reviewed the Blake records, or offered an opinion to the literary community.

I will review all the biographical information that we have regarding Blake's "visions" and "voices". I will then develop the case for Blake's having had schizophrenia. This is the commonest cause of hallucinations during clear consciousness. It affects around one percent of adults in our country, and was about this prevalent in Blake's England.

Such diagnoses post mortem and sans body are interesting speculations (though EoR feels they can only ever remain speculations), and Dr Friedlander makes an interesting argument from Milton, Blake's letters, and contemporary accounts for the similarity between Blake's visions and poetry, and the experiences of schizophrenics.

Blake's visions have certainly been fertile ground for theorising of all forms, with their gnostic sensibilities, and their remarkable similarities to the psychology later developed by Carl Jung, and Dr Friendlander is not the first (nor, EoR posits, the last) to psychoanalyse him. EoR remains unconvinced (and also feels that the exercise is intellectual rather than relevant to Blake's work). Interestingly, Peter Ackroyd's biography Blake (pretty much the standard biography) contains no index entry for schizophrenia or mental illness.

Dr Friedlander concludes
Let no one misunderstand me. Blake's writings and pictures are extremely interesting and valuable. Blake has opened worlds of marvels and great beauty to us. Blake rejected social injustice and mechanical philosophies just like most of us do.

But I believe that William Blake was wrong about his visions and voices. They are not guides to metaphysical truths for all of us. I find that Blake's visions of the end of the world and the transformation of all people's perceptions were figments of his sick brain. Like the sons of Los, I believe that it is better to live and work for good in the world as it really is.

I believe that Blake was wrong. But I hope that he was right. Then, when we understand his works, we will have broken through the "limits of opacity and contraction", and enter a larger, more meaningful world.

While EoR agrees with the first paragraph of that conclusion, he can't agree with Dr Friedlander's claim that Blake was not concerned with the "world as it really is" (and suspects Dr Friedlander's Christianity is surfacing here) given Blake's outrage at suffering and slavery, at war and repression, and his poems in Songs of Experience such as London, or this excerpt from The Four Zoas:
What is the price of Experience do men buy it for a song
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath his house his wife his children
Wisdom is sold in the desolate marketplace where none come to buy
And in the witherd field where the farmer plows in vain

It is an easy thing to triumph in the summers sun
And in the vintage & to sing on the waggon loaded with corn
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer
To listen to the hungry ravens cry in wintry season
When the red blood is filld with wine & with the marrow of lambs
It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements
To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughter house moan
To see a god on every wind & a blessing on every blast
To hear sounds of love in the thunder storm that destroys our enemies house
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, & the sickness that cuts off his children
While our olive & vine sing & laugh round our door & our children bring fruits & flowers
Then the groan & the dolor are quite forgotten & the slave grinding at the mill
And the captive in chains & the poor in the prison, & the soldier in the field
When the shatterd bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead
It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity
Thus could I sing & thus rejoice, but it is not so with me!

As Jacob Bronowski says in the introduction to his selection of Blake's poems and letters:
He was and he remained robust, matter-of-fact, and a rebel. He is as downright a rebel in the later religious writings as in his early Radical ones. Blake's form of Christianity was heretical, for it identified Christ the Son with all spiritual goodness and made God the Father a symbol of terror and tyranny. And this, the Gnostic or Manichaean heresy, is not merely a technical nicety among sects: it is a crux in Blake's mind. God to Blake personified absolute authority, and Christ personified the human character; and Blake was on the side of man against authority, at the end of his life when he called the authority Church and God, as much as at the beginning when he called it State and King. [...] The subject is the distortion of man by the rigid frame of law and society and the conventional systems; and the triumph is always the liberation of man by his own energies. The subject is war, tyranny, and poverty; the triumph is human freedom. [...] Blake read in these the signs of all human longing, and gave them an imaginative force which makes them still vivid to our generation, the generation of Belsen, and which makes his writing a universal monument of th spirit.

Or, as Blake said towards the end of his life
I have been very near the Gates of Death & have returned very weak & an Old Man feeble & tottering, but not in Spirit & Life, not in The Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for Ever. In that I am stronger & stronger as this Foolish Body decays.

The William Blake Archive

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