Christopher Hampton’s Radical Blake

by Ralph Dumain

The book itself [*] is a strong Marxist blast against the influence of postmodern trends in literary studies. The other chapters deal with Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantics and the age of revolution and reaction (Wordsworth, Shelley, Burke), Matthew Arnold, William Morris, T.S. Eliot, Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson (vs. Althusser). Two strong characteristics of the book are the political passion of the author and his strong reaction against the mentality of defeat and despair so characteristic of 20th century writers.

I don't find anything strikingly original in his view of Blake, but I am taken by his passion for the subject. Hampton doesn't wring his hands over whether or not Blake had an audience, whether or not he was politically engaged, or whether Blake was too obscure for any potential reading public. Hampton doesn't care if others dismiss Blake as some starry eyed, old-fashioned utopian dreamer. He pours scorn upon the likes of cultural mandarins such as Eliot and Leavis who cavalierly dismissed Blake as beneath what they consider to be Culture. Hampton has no patience for the apostles of decay and pessimism, nor even with figures on the left who gave into defeat and despair such as Orwell and Koestler. Less even does he have patience with outright reactionaries such as Pound, Yeats, and Eliot. Rather, Hampton is interested in Blake's relevance for our time in terms of how he faced the horrors of his own. Blake faced the world as it really was, in all its brutality, without blinders, yet he could not be broken. This is the central significance of Blake:

He refused to be seduced or defeated by the operative powers that ruled his world. In an age of violence and perverted idealism very like our own, he saw things deeply but clearly; and nothing—not neglect or failure or his increasing sense of isolation—could diminish that insight or destroy his happy confidence in himself or his assurance that he was fundamentally right in his commitment to and his vision of humanity. He was a fighter; and his concept of the New Jerusalem—grounded as it was on a dialectic of the contrary states . . . enabled him to stand firm against surrender, and to generate a language of expectation, defiance and struggle on which to build for a creative alternative to the bankrupt imperatives of the existing order. For him the choice was clear: 'To labour in Knowledge is to Build up Jerusalem, & to Despise Knowledge is to Despise Jerusalem and her builders'. . . . [p. 58]

Now this is just what I feel and think, not only about Blake, but about the world.

Blake's vision of a world remade, of a world modelled on the creative energies of men and women, fully recognizes the difficulty of the struggle that has to be fought for its realization. He knew how powerful the oppressors of Albion were, for indeed they dominated his world and the system he lived under seemed ruthlessly intent upon stifling and suppressing all attempts to break free from its ideologies. Hence Blake's sceptical perception that men and women in society must always fail to achieve his vision of Jerusalem; because no society that he knew could accommodate the multiplicity of people's needs or the perversity of their passions. And hence the relevance of his methods—his dialectic of continual renewal and of incompleteness which refuses to permit the reader to pin down or to separate out the enriching contradictions and ambiguities of the texts. As he saw it, there would have to be many transmutations, many forms of revolutionary change, before society could ever rid itself of its murderously repressive institutions." [p. 66]

Excellently put.

This relates to other discussions, especially of comparative studies. It is obvious to me how different is Blake's temperament not only from the reactionary moderns, but from those who give in to death and decay. Oddly enough, I've been interested in comparisons between Blake and Adorno in spite of the latter's alleged defeatism and pessimism, not only because he too mentioned redemption, and not only because of his abstract vision of humanity released from crippling alienation which he sought to resist in the realm of theory if nowhere else, but because of the similarities I saw in Blake's methods and Adorno's negative dialectic. Now that we are discussing Sartre, I would say that any reasonable comparison would have to foreground an affirmative view of humanity or "optimism" on the part of Sartre, as distinguished from defeatist or fascist (Heidegger) versions of existentialism and related thought systems.

(Written 27 August 1998, Edited & uploaded 11 January 2004)
©1998, 2004 Ralph Dumain

Hampton, Christopher. “Blake's Witness: Keeping the Divine Vision in Time of Trouble”, in The Ideology of the Text (Milton Keynes, England; Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1990), chapter 5, pp. 55-67. [—> main text]

William Blake Study Guide

Pessimism as Philosophy: A Jaundiced Selected Annotated Bibliography

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Uploaded 11 January 2004
Link added 21 May 2014

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