Blake saw the old order earthquaking. As a young man in London in the 1780’s he eyewitnessed, perhaps participated in, the storming of Newgate Prison, arson, release of prisoners.1 The spirit of the times was the spirit of revolution: the over- turning of tyrants, of empires, of social, political conceptions, of human expectations, of world views. Newton had provided a scientific basis for the latest (Locke’s, for example, Rousseau’s) idea of man. That idea was being brought to test. Was man capable of self-government? Were his interests his brothers’? And though Blake would later envision an Adam of much more compelling complexity than the victimized boy wonder of the Enlightenment, his Eden would nonetheless incorporate the revolutionist ideals of liberty (Jerusalem) and fraternity (Eternal Brotherhood) that had been fanned to life by such concepts as Locke’s and Rousseau’s. (Egality is irrelevant to a system where individual identity is essential and eternal.)
For poets revolution would mean relief from neo-classic imitativeness and literary elitism. Revolution turned up a new source of power—the individual consciousness, elevated to significance. The overthrow of old orders, old world views, brought to view: the present. The overthrow of God meant the enthronement of Man, in particular the poet himself.
A hundred years after Blake died, the works of Heidegger began to appear. Again wars were revolutionizing men’s views of humanness and world. Again a new scientific paradigm (relativity, this time) had unhinged a world of concepts, founded a new. If the Romantics had been emboldened to take humanness as a starting point, to hope to balance hope on such a basis, Robespierre and Napoleon had obscured that hope, problematized anew the idea of man. Philosophy had been rethought by Nietzsche. The metaphysical assumptions that had undergirded Western thought since Plato were exposed as “lie.” The condition of man in a non-sensical universe, his soul a chimera, his God dead, was a state of abandonment, meaninglessness except for the meaning of existence itself, which was will to power pitted against will to power and bound to a pitiless fate of logic: eternal recurrence of the same.
At such a time in such a world the philosophy of Heidegger occurs as something very akin to vision. It is a philosophy of seeing, primordial confrontation with the primordial. When 2000 years of philosophy have been unseated, philosophy is back at the beginning, and that is where Heidegger discloses the original and persisting, if not eternal, Being.
The radical Blake, breaking up the ground, preparing the foundations for an era of Romanticism, should be expected to differ essentially from the existentialist pioneer Heidegger. But a review of their thought tempts me to claim some interesting points of agreement as well.
If we start at the beginning, we find that they assume a similarly radical point of departure, viewpoint. Blake’s viewpoint is visionary. He sees angels, hears voices, is struck down on a garden path. He writes down what he’s told, shown. Blake is not a mad man, nor is he in communication with spirits from “another world.” If there were an “other world” for Blake, it would be this one, for our everyday “vision” (conception, understanding) of the world is, according to him, a minimal fraction of the world we actually live in. The “world” for Blake, as for Heidegger, is always a matter of vision, of what we see and understand and name. What there is to see and understand and name is not an assortment of “objective” physical entities in a physical universe, though we find plants, animals, things, elements, in Blake’s visions—specimens that so-called knowledge has accrued. Such specimens are all for Blake forms of the imagination, some of them more fortuitous than others; and other forms can, shall appear instead or also, if or when the poetic imagination creates them.
Heidegger thinks. He is a philosopher; his viewpoint is philosophical. That is, he thinks through traditional Western philosophy. He re-thinks it; and he continues, in view of it, from out of it, to think Being. He thinks phenomenologically—that is, he confronts beings questioning their Being; they “shine forth” their meanings, truths; he creates language to hold open the view onto Being so illuminated. The words I have written here—“think,” “beings,” “Being,” “shine forth,” “meanings,” “truths”—must all be rethought Heidegger’s way. Heidegger would discount “visions” as such, dismiss “angels.” But when Heidegger’s words are re-thought, they open up a view of man and the universe—this very world and no other—which is as much a transformation of the everyday view as the Eden imagined by Blake.
Are both these “visions” paradigms of pure subjectivity? The word “subjectivity” has no meaning in reference to either system. Subjectivity belongs in a system of subjects and objects. “I think” is subjective. “Things” are objective. In our everyday understanding, we view our experience as a combination of these two factors. We see ourselves as subjects who hold views—partial, flawed, biased representations—of objective reality—things as they “really” are in themselves. We think that science is developing the best (most objective, most accurate) representation of the world. Reaching out as far outside the human experience of the world as possible—trying to outreach the very arm that is reaching, trying to subtract the fact and the effect of the arm—science scientifically measures and computes an objective universe (an objective real is the scientific model of totality, truth). Both Blake and Heidegger reject this objective (in both senses), this model.
The subject-object dichotomy describes a splitting up of what we call in total “life.” Blake eschews the principle of fracture (e.g., the body and soul are not separate entities; female emanations and rational spectres signify loss, breach, fall). “Objects” are forms the intellect creates, petrified forms of the fallen poetic imagination, objects of thought, objects created for destruction; they are error. (Of course, the activity of unfallen fourfold Eternal Man might be called thinking too, especially in a Heideggerian connection; it is spiritual warfare, eternal argument, eternal intellectual conflict of contraries. And while all objects are forms, all forms are not objects for Blake; there are true forms which endure forever.)
[There is another tempting issue here, as well: where the products of the imagination are false, erroneous forms, where Los catches up out of the void such errors as passions and desires and Enitharmon weaves them into bodies, forms: so that they can be destroyed. In this image of thinking, error is objectified in order to see it and reject it; it looks like a Hegelian process, development. Perhaps Blake’s Eternal Man too should be compared with Hegel’s ultimate Spirit.]
But when “objectivity” disappears into a product of the imagination, hasn’t human experience disappeared into pure subjectivity? No, for there is no subjectivity where there is no objectivity. Subjectivity is a partial aspect of a dual totality; for Blake, Eternal Man is the totality. All Other is error (or non-being; there is a Nothing alternative). Blake’s schema cannot be slipped inside the everyday concept of reality; it preempts it.
The subject-object split is error in Heidegger’s view too. Totality for Heidegger is Being. (Being exists in Nothingness and is pervaded by it.) In Being and Time he undertakes a reexamination of the grounding question of philosophy—the nature of Being. He approaches Being by way of beings, and the closest, richest being is the being that thinks Being—our Dasein. Caught in the tautology that science (and philosophy) has been trying to outreach or subtract from its project, Heidegger—as he must, given his method—takes the circle as a phenomenon to address. He does not deny the fact of the circle he’s (we’re) caught in; nor does he reject it as detrimental to his inquiry. He affirms it as the nature of the task of philosophy. The problem is not how to escape the circle, but how to use it properly. The circle is our “way” . . . . But isn’t the circle subjectivity?
The first point seems to go to subjectivity. But let us continue. The nature of Dasein’s relationship with whatever it encounters is an understanding of it in terms of its Being. Re-raising the original question of Being, Heidegger does not presume to know a priori what the Being of different entities is. Therefore, he avoids the error that Western philosophy made after Plato and Aristotle, when it took all Being as one kind of self-evident existence. Heidegger finds more than one kind of being.
Besides Dasein’s kind, which he calls “existence” (the kind of Being that interprets everything it confronts, experiences, in terms of Being; the kind of being that is, in an interpreting way), he finds ready-at-hand entities (equipment) and present-at-hand entities (things in themselves, unrelated to Dasein’s understanding of itself or to Dasein’s involvement in an equipmental environment). The latter kind of being is what we call objectivity. Heidegger is satisfied to call it that too, once he has clarified the new understanding of the term: objective (present-at-hand) entities are, as such, never separated from the Being of Dasein, since it is Dasein that interprets them as Being. Their kind of Being is different from Dasein’s, is a fundamental question for Dasein to address. But they are no more “real” than Dasein, and they cannot be grasped separate from or outside Dasein—for only Dasein understands entities in their Being. Just as Blake’s vision did, Heidegger’s. system swallows up objectivity; objectivity is part of the system. The error that haunts and blights our existence, in Heidegger’s view, is that we have taken the present-at-hand as separable and as “real.” For both Blake and Heidegger the fragmented, partial, abstract views we take of things distort our human experience, hide and steal it from us.
But there is an important difference in the objects of Blake’s and Heidegger’s worlds. All objects in Blake’s world are made of the stuff of human consciousness. There is no limit to the possibilities of forms, of stuff to make them of. Of course there are dire, tormenting, crippling limitations to the stuff available to the consciousness of fallen man, closed off from the infinite Eternal (not space, not time) by the false forms (including the physical sense organs and the body, as well as concepts, systems of concepts, visions) that he inherits as a child of Los and Enitharmon. But everything in the field of consciousness, including chaos and abyss, belongs to human psychology.
In Heidegger, something is different. The experience of Dasein is human, is conscious, but the beings that Dasein encounters are not the stuff of human psychology, not forms of the poetic imagination. Though access to entities in the world and to Being in general is made only by way of human consciousness, and though the “world” is a kind of systematic construct of human consciousness—a form of the poetic imagination—still the nature of the totality, if Being can be called a totality, is not psychological.
Hasn’t Heidegger restated Kant’s description of a phenomenal- noumenal universe? No. The “abstractions” that Kant declared to be out of reach to us are redefined grounded in phenomena redefined. All of our experience belongs to Being. Nothing is missing, though the Being of everything is in question, is the question of thinking, our task.
Another point of comparison between the two systems is their analysis of human nature. Both Blake and Heidegger yearn back to a better time. For Blake it is the epic Golden Age of the fourfold Eternal Man. For Heidegger it is the pre-Socratic Greek experience of Being. Both thinkers think that the human condition is fallen/falling. Both give an inclusive, complex description of Man. I will not give a full description of Dasein, though many aspects will appear here; but I will attempt to compare it in some respects to Blake’s Eternal Man.
The concept of human nature as fourfold—the four aspects represented in the four Zoas as emotion, intellect, body, and imagination—provides, I believe, a new analysis, at the time, of the nature of human being; Blake’s pre-psychological configuration is new as well: four separate powers working together in human (not mechanical) interrelationships. The nature of humanity as a Brotherhood of spiritual warriors, in joyful opposition to each other, is new (precursor, perhaps, of Nietzsche’s will to power). The nature of human activity as thinking and thinking as an ongoing violence of joyful, terrific clashing of contraries is, if not a totally new set of concepts (Plato’s dialectic was a calmer affair; Hegel’s was probably not available to Blake), a new set of images, a humanizing re-vision.
Heidegger’s characterization of Dasein is, like Blake’s Eternal Man’s, a description of consciousness. Like Blake’s description, Heidegger’s characterizes consciousness as a totality, in which particular structures are discernible. And again the configuration is not of parts-to-whole but of structures involved in complex interrelationships. In order to describe consciousness, Heidegger, like Blake, transforms old terminology (in his system, as in Blakes’s, languag-ing—the poetic creating of forms—amounts to a transforming of vision), and he re-thinks received knowledge, from the ground of Being up. The most fundamental and the most radical distinguishing feature in the thought of Heidegger is this refusal to break up the totality of Being. (As we shall see, he refuses to exclude even error, even death.) And so to disclose a particular structure (an “existentiale”) in Dasein’s being, Heidegger describes the whole from the perspective of that structure. Each existentiale is described as it operates in the totality of Dasein’s being. Every existentiale is involved in every other one; to speak of one separately would be impossible, would be to fracture and mis-take being.
Among the existentiales of Dasein we find characteristics of Blake’s Eternal Man. One structure of Dasein is Being-with. Dasein is always already Being-with others, others whose character is, in reference to our Dasein, a reciprocal Dasein-with. Perhaps this structure, a kind of co-consciousness, is comparable to Blake’s Eternal Brotherhood. The task of Dasein (like the activity of Blake’s Man) is thinking. And thinking is not an armchair mildmannered reflection on abstractions; thinking is primordial confrontation with beings in their Being, gaining or regaining territory for a “World” (Blake would say “vision”), from a selfconcealing “Earth”—the Being that is still closed, undisclosed. The nature of thinking is to disclose, to unconceal (the first order of Being is closed-ness, concealment). The ground so gained, the space so illuminated, is not a clearing of eternal “truth,” however. Any new “truth” revealed in the clearing-World—is a view onto the essential conflict between World and Earth. What is gained and held on to by means of language, which holds the “truth” in view, is our most elemental—violent—experience: consciousness confronting unconsciousness. [There are psychological implications common to Blake and Heidegger that I would call “Freudian” except that both Blake and Heidegger denounced fragmenting, distancing, pseudo-scientific methods like those the discipline of psychology uses to analyze human being.] Blake’s and Heidegger’s descriptions of the human task of thinking, and of thinking as a fearful task beyond the appetites and capabilities of ladies and gentlemen, have a fundamental kinship.
For both Blake and Heidegger the human totality is not a static truth but a dynamic consciousing, not a truncated “I think,” but a terrible thinking (Blake would say creating) of a universe, involving opposition, strife. In Blake’s cosmos (above, a place that is nowhere—not in space, that fixed form, error), we find chaos and abyss and the indefinite as well as Eden and Beulah and an earth inside the false Mundane Shell. We may find anything imaginable in Blake’s universe. Precisely. The total Man (the Lamb of God) is the Poetic Imagination. The totality of Eden is something like Plato’s realm of forms now animated and humanized. It is no place for women and children (Beulah [something like the subconscious] is provided for them and other weaklings), and yet eternal forms—eternal individual identities, eternal contraries—are engaged in furious combat everywhere all the time. It is the human being be-ing: the human imagination.
In Heidegger there is less blood and smoke, subtler shrieks and groans, but there is not less violence; there is ultimately a more formidable prospect, for there is not the assurance that the end and totality of things is Man.
Another way in which Dasein differs from Eternal Man is in the nature of human error. Dasein is subject to error not because it (Dasein) is fallible or stupid or weak, but because beings often present themselves to Dasein falsely; they dissemble, block each other from view, present only symptomatic effects of other beings, or refuse outright to present themselves. Not all beings are so reluctant or stubborn, of course. “Truth” is the presencing of beings in their Being, which radiates, scintillates, “speaks” to Dasein when Dasein approaches it in such a way as to set it free. But untruth and truth are equipri- mordial and equipresent, and the world of historic Dasein is structured of both through and through. Untruth is as essential as truth.
And fallenness is a very different matter in the two systems. For Blake, when one aspect of the fourfold entity Eternal Man (Urizen, the intellect) presumed (scholarly) superiority over the others [when reason became abstract, bookish], and when another (Luvah, the emotion) presumed to usurp the neglected realm [when emotion governed life instead of reason], Man fell. Reason became unhumanized, inflexible, tyrannical law; love became jealous and lustful; the body became a mechanical conglomerate of separate organs, unpredictable and destructive; and the fallen imagination created partial and distorted forms, including sin and death.
The salvation (not a Blake term) of Fallen Man is achieved through (1) the objectifying of error until it is consumed utterly, apocalyptically; (2) the redemption of sin by the Lamb of God. Sin can be redeemed, though it is necessary only for one of the three classes of men—those who can neither believe nor disbelieve, the doubters. Error cannot be redeemed; it must be annihilated. Pride—false selfhood—is the Satanic state, one state of error. And “states” are another kind of fixed form, annihilable. (Individuals are not states, are eternal.) In The Four Zoas each of the four fallen Zoas claims, “I am God” at one triumphant time or another. Each is humbled in one terrible way or another. All are restored eventually to their original condition in the risen Man Eternal.
Blake’s vocabulary, like Heidegger’s, has been thought in a special way. Without Blake’s special definitions of terms, the paragraph above reads in many respects like a traditional interpretation of a passage of Scripture. But the Zoas, fallen or risen, evince a human nature and experience and meaning that would be thoroughly damnable from a fundamentalist Christian point of view. God is in Man—not the other way around. Sin is not untenable; error is. And the primary error of fallen Man—domination of the rational over the emotional and the physical and the imaginative aspects of man—is most clearly and thoroughly inculcated and promu1gated by the false doctrines of the Christian religion itself, whose “virtues” are false, hypocritical and stultifying. It is the Christian religion, along with other debilitating systems of thought such as the empty, atomistic theories of Newton, Locke, and Rousseau, that binds the fallen world to blindness, misery, and self destruction. And salvation? To find his way again, fallen man must look, not outward into the void he thinks he sees stretching to the ends, if any, of a physical universe, but inward, where the “gates” of head, heart, and, especially, loins open onto the Eternal realm.
But fallenness for Heidegger is a different matter. First, it is not a having fallen from a golden state of bliss. There was indeed, in his view, a better time for us. Early Greeks enjoyed a primordial experience of beings and Being that is lost to us because Western philosophy overlooked and then forgot the question of Being. Heidegger’s account of a philosophical falling off into abstract erroneous conceptions of life is essentially like Blake’s. But the term “falling” for Heidegger refers to a different experience. It is not a having fallen; it is a falling, a now-ongoing falling. Dasein is always already falling. At his most authentic resolute Being, Dasein is primarily and for the most part falling. “Falling” means guilt, redefined as thrownness, which involves facticity and finitude. Briefly(!), Dasein always finds himself in medias res: already he has a past (we will call it a past; temporality is a central part of Heidegger’s system, as it is of Blake’s, and similar in some fundamental respects), of which he is guilty. He is not guilty in a theological sense, but in an existential sense, i.e., he finds himself already to be a being of a particular kind and to have acted already toward effects he has not calculated or foreseen. He exists, moreover, in a world of significances which are articulated primarily and for the most part by a “they.” At the very core of Dasein’s being there is a they-self. One possible mode of being that is available to Dasein is authentic resoluteness. (Heidegger claims that one mode of being is not superior to another.) An I-self (authenticity) becomes available when Dasein, as Being-toward-death, recognizes its essential individuality, “non-relational and not to be outstripped,” separate from Being-in-the-world. That is, Dasein faces not-Being (the recognition of its own inevitable death), in the face of which it recognizes its own Being for the first time. Now Dasein may choose to take upon itself the responsibility for its own Being—as thrown, guilty, finite—(resoluteness must be chosen), thereby assuming an I-self (authenticity)—though it is never at any time emptied of the they-self.
This is hardly a “salvation.” It seems to be an awakening to abandonment. But it seems similar to Blake’s Eternal Man’s condition: the Dasein takes on total godlike responsibility for its own life.
Heidegger, like Nietzsche before him, like Blake before both, exposes the current interpretation (philosophical, scientific) of “reality” as false, fallen, petrified language (Nietzsche’s “lie,” Blake’s fallen vision). Included among the fallen forms is the concept of human psychology as emotion, intellect, body, and imagination. Included is the notion that error is essentially unsubstantial, destructible, that truth is somehow, somewhere, total and secure, that a cure for fallenness is possible. And though Blake subordinated God to Man, for Heidegger God is dead (the questions we used to put to Him are readdressed to Being).
One overall difference in the systems of Blake and Heidegger is, of course, the difference between vision and philosophy. But that difference seems to me to be a difference in method, not in matter. Another difference is the difference between exuberant faith and a sobered, darkened courage. Blake’s faith in the eternal nature of identities and an eventual resurrection to a (furious) human fullness is justification for joy; Heidegger’s conception of finite existence, delimited everywhere, inside and out, by Nothing, is a more sobering prospect, but when we rethink finite existence with Heidegger, we find that nothing ever imagined or hoped (or dreaded or feared) is missing here; re-viewed, life is found to be presenc-ing still. It is possible to re-think joy.
And though there are other numerous, and important, differences between Blake and Heidegger, of personal attributes and affinities, of knowledge and experience, besides the fact of different historical times and places, the two men were nevertheless alike in at least one aspect so fundamental as to overwhelm or eclipse many of the disparities: the first concern of both was the meaning of humanness, the ultimate grounds of our existence and the means we may grasp to empower our lives.
David V. Erdman, Blake, Prophet Against Empire, 3d ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1977, p. 9.↩