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William Blake’s Most Beautiful Letter: The 20-Year-Old Artist’s Searing Defense of the Imagination and the Creative Spirit

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.”

William Blake’s Most Beautiful Letter: The 20-Year-Old Artist’s Searing Defense of the Imagination and the Creative Spirit

“The genius,” Schopenhauer wrote in his timeless distinction between genius and talent, “lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets, to whose well-regulated and comprehensible arrangement its wholly eccentric course is foreign.” Unlike the person of talent, whose work simply exceeds in excellence the work of their contemporaries and is therefore easily appreciated by them, Schopenhauer argued that person of genius produces work which differs not in mere degree of excellence but in kind of vision. It is therefore often ridiculed or, worse yet, entirely ignored by the creator’s contemporaries, to be rediscovered and appreciated only by posterity.

Arguably no genius embodies this tragic tenet more perfectly than William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827), who lived amid ridicule and died in relative obscurity, then went on to inspire generations of artists. He was a lifelong muse to Maurice Sendak and a kind of creative patron saint for Patti Smith. He produced stunning art for Milton’s Paradise Lost and labored over his drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy until his dying day. Centuries later, his verses continue to quench an immutable existential thirst.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Blake’s genius sprang from his unusual spiritual disposition. Both drawn to and discomfited by religion, he chose instead to live in a world of abstract spirituality, amid a self-created cosmogony, agnostic and often unabashedly antagonistic to scripture. His was an irreverent reverence, intellectually daring and contemptuous of dogma yet animated by unflinching faith in the human spirit, in our capacity for self-transcendence, and in the ability to ameliorate the sorrowful finitude of our lives by contacting eternity through the supreme conduits of truth and beauty — truth and beauty that continue to radiate from his art. He may have died in poverty, but he lived enriched and electrified by the mirth of creativity.

Nowhere does Blake’s singular genius and orientation of spirit shine more brilliantly than in a letter he wrote to a Reverend John Trusler in the summer of 1777, included in The Portable William Blake (public library), edited by the great Alfred Kazin.

William Blake, "The Last Supper"
William Blake, “The Last Supper”

Trusler was a priest and an early self-help entrepreneur of sorts, who authored books with titles like Hogarth Moralized, A Sure Way to Lengthen Life with Vigor, and The Way to be Rich and Respectable. Practicing his own preachings, he made non-negligible sums from his clever idea to sell sermons printed to appear handwritten so as to relieve the corner-cutting devout of the drudgery of composition. After seeing Blake’s “The Last Supper” exhibited at the Royal Academy in May of 1777, Trusler decided to commission him for a series of moralistically themed artworks intended to illustrate Trusler’s writings on subjects such as malevolence, benevolence, pride, and humility.

But, as might be expected when a visionary is mistaken for a hand for hire, trouble arose — Blake had his own visions for the art, but Trusler had very specific, rather crude ideas informed by the era’s popular caricature aesthetic. He wrote to Blake with a litany of criticisms, condemning his approach as overly transcendent and whimsical, and accusing him of having an imagination that belongs to “the world of spirits” and unbefitting Trusler’s worldly intentions.

First and last pages of Blake's letter to Trusler, August 23, 1777. (Images: British Library)
First and last pages of Blake’s letter to Trusler, August 23, 1777. (Images: British Library)

On August 16, 1777, a clearly aggravated and artistically indignant twenty-year-old Blake fires back in a letter brimming with the curious coalition undergirding all of his art — vexation with the status quo, deep personal torment, and unassailable creative buoyancy. He writes to Trusler:

I find more & more that my style of designing is a species by itself, and in this which I send you have been compelled by my Genius or Angel to follow where he led; if I were to act otherwise it would not fulfill the purpose for which alone I live, which is … to renew the lost art of the Greeks.

I attempted every morning for a fortnight together to follow your dictate, but when I found my attempts were in vain, resolved to show an independence which I know will please an author better than slavishly following the track of another, however admirable that track may be. At any rate, my excuse must be: I could not do otherwise; it was out of my power!

I know I begged of you to give me your ideas and promised to build on them; here I counted without my host. I now find my mistake.

In a sentiment that Tchaikovsky would echo exactly a century later in his lamentation about the paradox of commissioned work and creative freedom, Blake argues that what prohibited him from obeying Trusler’s demands was the impossibility — nay, the sacrilege — of disobeying the muse:

[I] cannot previously describe in words what I mean to design, for fear I should evaporate the spirit of my invention… And tho’ I call them mine, I know that they are not mine, being of the same opinion with Milton when he says that the Muse visits his slumbers and awakes and governs his song when morn purples the East, and being also in the predicament of that prophet who says: “I cannot go beyond the command of the Lord, to speak good or bad.”

One of Blake’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy

Trusler was incensed and fired further criticism. Before replying to Trusler, Blake wryly confided in his dear friend and lifelong supporter George Cumberland, who had introduced Trusler to Blake’s work and had facilitated the commission: “I could not help smiling at the difference between the doctrines of Dr. Trusler and those of Christ,”

In what remains his greatest letter, Blake defends his vision to Trusler — but his words radiate a larger, more universal and eternal defense of the creative spirit against all the forces which continually try to corrupt it, contract it, and contain it within a suffocating smallness of purpose.

On August 23, 1777, a part-sincere, part-sardonic Blake addresses Trusler’s complaint that his art warrants explanation and is simply too imaginative:

I really am sorry that you are fallen out with the spiritual world, especially if I should have to answer for it… If I am wrong, I am wrong in good company… What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.

Asserting that Trusler’s eye has been “perverted by caricature prints, which ought not to abound so much as they do,” Blake makes a beautiful case for beauty (or ugliness) being in the eye of the beholder, implying that the art of living lies largely in training the eye to attend to what is beautiful and noble — an argument all the more urgent amid our present culture of rampant cynicism and a media ecosystem that traffics in outrage as its chief currency.

Blake writes:

Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth. I feel that a man may be happy in this world. And I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.

[…]

You certainly mistake, when you say that the visions of fancy are not to be found in this world. To me this world is all one continued vision of fancy or imagination, and I feel flattered when I am told so.

There is no greater testament to the enchantment of the real world, Blake argues, than the imagination of children, who see the grand and eternal in the ordinary and who are, as E.B. White would argue three centuries later, “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.” Blake writes:

I am happy to find a great majority of fellow mortals who can elucidate my visions, and particularly they have been elucidated by children, who have taken a greater delight in contemplating my pictures than I even hoped. Neither youth nor childhood is folly or incapacity. Some children are fools and so are some old men. But there is a vast majority on the side of imagination or spiritual sensation.

Another of Blake’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy

Complying with the era’s epistolary etiquette, Blake ends with a signature comically courteous in the contrasting context of his defiant letter:

I am, Revd. Sir, your very obedient servant,

WILLIAM BLAKE.

Couple the altogether indispensable Portable William Blake (public library) with Patti Smith’s loving homage to Blake, then complement this particular portion with artist Anne Truitt’s beautiful meditation on what sustains the creative spirit.

BP

100 Days of Overthinking: An Illustrated Diary of Mental Meanderings

A visual serenade to presence and a lamentation of how we continually eject ourselves from it.

100 Days of Overthinking: An Illustrated Diary of Mental Meanderings

“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” William James wrote in his timeless treatise on attention and multitasking, and yet at any given moment we notice only a fraction of what is actually going on around us. The vast majority of our attention is spent on rumination, speculation, daydreaming, and the various acrobatics of anxiety, hope, and fear that occupy our inwardly oriented minds. But while mind-wandering may be integral to creativity, it has also been shown to rob us of happiness by ejecting us from presence.

That all too human tendency is what Brooklyn-based Dominican designer María Sanoja confronts in 100 Days of Overthinking.

Day 1
Day 1

Sanoja writes:

I was overthinking, as usual, when I bumped into this blackboard outside a café that I pass by every day. I realized that I’m often so absorbed in my own thoughts that I miss the simple, beautiful things that surround me. My overthinking often keeps me from being present.

In an effort to be more mindful of these overthoughts and bring herself back into presence with whatever was before and around her, she set out to notice and record one hundred such moments. In each daily drawings, Sanoja captures something that beckoned her attention alongside the respective mental meandering.

Day 61
Day 61
Day 51
Day 51
Day 65
Day 65

With the sensibility of a children’s book for grownups partway between Catherine Lepage’s Thin Slices of Anxiety, Andrew Kuo’s Wheel of Worry, and Jean-Pierre Weill’s Well of Being, the resulting pairings radiate the absurd mismatch between the physical reality of the exterior world and the subjective reality of our interior world, exposing the parallel universe of psychoemotional experience that we so often inhabit as our bodies traverse the so-called real world.

Day 38
Day 38
Day 12
Day 12
Day 25
Day 25
Day 49
Day 49
Day 42
Day 42
Day 55
Day 55
Day 58
Day 58
Day 60
Day 60
Day 62
Day 62
Day 63
Day 63
Day 70
Day 70
Day 69
Day 69
Day 68
Day 68
Day 13
Day 13
Day 14
Day 14
Day 80
Day 80
Day 74
Day 74

Sanoja’s 100 Days of Overthinking part of the annual 100 Days Project initiative by the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts, which tasks students with envisioning a creative operation, performing it for one hundred consecutive days, and documenting the ongoing process in a public medium, and which also gave us Turkish designer Yasemin Uyar’s lyrical visualizations of city life.

BP

The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: Astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on the Transcendence of Nature and Fishing as a Metaphor for the Pursuit of Knowledge

“We are surrounded by mystery, by what we don’t know and, more dramatically, by what we can’t know.”

The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: Astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on the Transcendence of Nature and Fishing as a Metaphor for the Pursuit of Knowledge

“You put that line,” the great director Robert Altman enthused about his love of fishing, “and you don’t know what’s on the other end. Your imagination is under there.”

In The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher’s Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything (public library), Dartmouth astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser argues that angling into the unknown to plumb its imaginative possibilities is also what science does. At the age of eleven, well before he became a theoretical physicist and came to study questions once considered outside the realm of science — question about the origin and nature of the universe — Gleiser grew enchanted with fishing as “a portal into a spiritual dimension of being, a way to transcend the clutch of time.”

Like gardening, an activity of larger metaphorical dimensions, fishing, Gleiser found, offers an apt metaphor for the essence of the scientific spirit. He writes:

Fishing teaches us to be patient, tolerant, humble — key qualities needed in research. How often do fishermen go to the water with their rods, dreaming of the day’s catch, only to come home empty-handed? Likewise, how often do scientists passionately explore an idea for days, weeks, months, years even, only to be forced to accept that it leads nowhere? Notwithstanding the frequent failures, and just as in fishing, they keep coming back, even if the odds for success are pretty low. The thrill is in beating the odds, occasionally landing a big fish or an idea that reveals something new about the world.

In fishing and in science we flirt with the elusive. We stare at the water, and sometimes we see a fish stir underneath the surface or even jump, betraying its presence. But the watery world is not our own, and we can only conjecture about what really goes on down there, polarized lenses and all. The line and the hook are our probes into this other realm, which we perceive only very imperfectly.

Art by Shaun Tan for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

Echoing pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff’s beautiful meditation on the poetics of curiosity and our natural blinders to reality, Gleiser adds:

We see very little of what really goes on around us. Science is our probe into invisible realms, be it the world of the very small, of bacteria, of atoms, of elementary particles, or the world of the very large, of stars, galaxies, and even the Universe as a whole. We see these through our tools of exploration– our reality amplifiers — the telescopes, the microscopes, and the many other instruments of detection, the rod and line of the natural scientist. If we are persistent, once in a while we see Nature stir, even jump, revealing the simple beauty of the unexpected.

In one particularly poetic passage, Gleiser recounts his own encounter with that simple, scintillating beauty during a walk in the wilderness after a lecture in England. He writes:

A public footpath meanders along the river. I approached it through a narrow alleyway just beneath the castle. A huge sycamore bowed ceremoniously over the dark green water. I paused to appreciate the view, infused with a deep sense of peace. A cloud of mayflies wobbled just above the current, joyfully celebrating their twenty-four-hour existence. Suddenly, out of the depths, a salmon leaped some three feet into the air, swallowed one of them, and dived back with a noisy splash. The fish must have been at least six pounds, maybe more. I just stood there, motionless, mouth agape.

[…]

Was it an omen? Of course it was! Only a fool, blind, sad rationalist would wave away something like this, dismissing it as a mere coincidence. When an event is meaningful it becomes more than a mere coincidence. I’m not saying that some supreme supernatural power or some river spirit planted the message just for me. That would be nonsensical and hopelessly self-centered. The salmon jumped, and I happened to be right there to see it. Why take away from the simple beauty of what had just happened, attributing it to an invisible and elusive conductor? What should be worshipped here is not some invisible, unknowable magic hand but the serendipity of the event, the emotional impact it had on me. The salmon’s timeline and my own overlapped for a few brief seconds of pure and absolute bliss. There is no need to bring anyone or anything else into the picture.

The gap between our expectations and this marvel of the unexpected, of course, is what gave rise to ancient mythologies and superstitions. But learning to inhabit that gap is at the heart of what Alan Lightman has so memorably called “the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.” It is part of, and perhaps the whole of, our search for meaning. Gleiser writes:

The meaning of life is to find meaning in life.

“The Unborn Fish” by Bhajju Shyam from Creation, an illustrated cosmogony of ancient Indian myths

With a lucid eye to how our ancestors went about finding meaning, Gleiser notes:

The whole notion of a supernatural influence doesn’t really make sense. After all, an “influence” denotes a physical occurrence or an event. And an occurrence is something that happens in the physical world through some kind of energy exchange. Any kind of energy exchange or force is very natural and requires a very natural cause. In other words, as soon as the supernatural becomes physical enough to be noticed or detected in some way, it can’t remain supernatural anymore. A “supernatural influence” is an oxymoron.

[…]

The unexplainable — to be distinguished from the not-yet-explained, which is the province of science — is unavoidable. And should be welcomed. We are surrounded by mystery, by what we don’t know and, more dramatically, by what we can’t know.

Echoing Hannah Arendt’s insistence on the importance of unanswerable questions and building upon his own earlier work about the mystery of nature and the nature of mystery, Gleiser considers the necessity of embracing doubt as an integral part of our pursuit of knowledge:

If our accumulated knowledge of the world makes up an island, the island grows as we learn more. (It may also occasionally shrink, as we discard an erroneous theory or explanation.) As with every island, this one is also surrounded by an ocean, in this case the ocean of the unknown. However — and here is the twist — as the island grows, so do the shores of our ignorance, the boundary between the known and the unknown. In other words, new knowledge generates new unknowns. Unless we stop asking questions about Nature, there is no possible end to our search.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s timeless clarion call for the discipline of doubt, Gleiser adds:

We must conclude that this ever-growing body of knowledge called science cannot explain all there is for the simple reason that we won’t ever know all there is to explain. How could we possibly know all the questions to ask? To presume that we can know all there is to know only shows how supremely arrogant some people can be. It also flies against all that we have learned about how science generates knowledge.

[…]

But … understand the limitations of science is not the same as labeling it as weak or exposing it to the criticism of antiscience groups, such as Bible literalists. It is, in fact, liberating to those who consider it, as it frees science from the burden of being godlike, all-knowing and all-powerful. It protects its integrity in a time when so many claims from scientists get inflated beyond their validity, either by those making them (they should know better) or by the media… Furthermore … why should we want to know everything? Imagine how sad it would be if, one day, we arrived at the end of knowledge. With no more questions to ask, our creativity would be stifled, our fire within extinguished. That, to me, would be incomparably worse than embracing doubt as the unavoidable partner of a curious mind. Science remains our most effective tool to explore the world in its myriad manifestations. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is a human invention and that, as such, it does have limitations. Every system of knowledge is fallible.

And yet limited as it may be, science is still our finest searchlight for knowledge amid the darkness of the unknown — knowledge which we transmute into wisdom, out of which we then wrest meaning — or, rather, meanings. Looking back on his own path to becoming a scientist with the modern makings of a natural philosopher, Gleiser reflects:

This manifold devotion, this search for different ways to connect with something bigger than I am, can only be called love. Einstein called it the experience of the mysterious — “the cosmic religious feeling” — to him the most significant we could have, the awe we feel as we contemplate Creation. (By “Creation” with a capital C I mean the totality of Nature.) In my view, it is the purest form of spirituality, the manifold experience of our profound connection with the cosmos. From Nature we came, in Nature we are, to Nature we go.

Complement Gleiser’s altogether excellent The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected with Alan Lightman on the transcendence of discovery and 19-year-old Sylvia Plath on finding nonreligious divinity in nature.

BP

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