Wednesday, August 22, 2012

God IV

The conventional understanding of God is that he will get you and put you in a dark hot
place forever if you don't do exactly as you are told, by his priest of course. In 1741, 
sixteen years before Blake's birth, a New England divine named Jonathan Edwards
wrote and delivered a sermon which he named, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry 
God"; historians tell us that it scared literally thousands of people into the Christian 
church. A similiar vision of God has haunted multitudes before and after Blake even 
own to the present day. Besides the superstitious fear it has aroused, this understanding 
of God has contributed to oceans of blood shed by well meaning Christians through the 

Relating this conventional understanding to one of Blake's earliest experiences, his 
brief career in school yields a distinctive image of God as a Transcendental 
Schoolmaster. As soon as Blake reached the age of reason, he rejected such a God as
radically and uniquivocally as he had rejected the flesh and blood schoolmaster. He saw
such an image of God standing at the apex of a pyramid of human unhappiness, of 
exploitation, oppression, misery and hatred. He saw the divine right of kings and all 
those who derive their authority from the Crown. He saw their lackey priests extorting 
tithes from the people, collected by the 18th century equivalent of the IRS, and often 
giving little in return.

He saw the emerging divine right of industrialists to work seven year old children 
fourteen hours a day at hard labor and reward them with a pittance. This image of God 
was most horrendously embodied in the judges and executioners who disposed of the 
child criminals. He saw the press gangs with royal authority to capture and drug anyone 
lacking upper class credentials; their poor victims woke up aboard ship in a state of 
virtual slavery, and following the brave Roman tradition they learned to fear their 
officers more than the enemy. Blake felt an intense mystic union with the suffering 
masses and even the suffering masters: he knew that a prison officer has to be just as 
sick as the men he guards.

All these social programs were devised to teach poor devils to do what they were told, 
and behind them all stood the grim Transcendental Schoolmaster with the god sized 
birch rod. How could a self respecting person with any human sensitivity be other than 
an atheist! But Blake was never an atheist. Somehow he had to come to terms with God. 
If the above were a true representation of God, then he would rebel against God with 
his last breath. The young Blake identified with Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost: such a 
God is a sneaking serpent, and Blake would spend his life as "the just man raging in the 
wilds". Schizophrenia might be the normal reaction to certain social conditions.

The August Schoolmaster exists to enforce good and to prohibit or punish evil. The 
trouble with good and evil is that in this fallen world they are always defined by the 
man with the biggest stick. He of course sees himself as the likeness of God, God's 
earthly representative. So the most oppressive tyrant, the most colossal mass murderer, 
the most authentic Caesar becomes the Son of Heaven. The list is long and gruesome, 
and Blake knew his history.

Although he wouldn't dream of worshipping such a deity, Blake had no hesitancy about 
calling him God; he simply refused to call him a good God. Wide reading in Oriental, 
Greek, and Norse mythology had led him to an acquaintance with any number of 
malevolent gods. In his poetry he used these pagan images to flesh out the God of 
Wrath whom he found in the Old Testament. For perhaps fifteen years Blake's creative 
energies were largely expended in a conscious and deliberate overt rebellion against the 
conventional image of the Old Testament God. During those years he subjected that 
image to a searching and unique psychological analysis; it fills the pages of the Blake 

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