The Higgs book grows more and more fascinating with each page. I’m now up to Chapter Eight, and have journeyed through a host of issues, historical, scientific, political, and artistic. The author does a fine job of walking us through the relevant facts, setting up context, and bringing in other historical figures, past and present. When he speculates about Blake’s mind, he gives us quotes from his works, from people who knew him, or others who studied him. And his close readings of the poems are sound. But perhaps the key to the biography so far, and Blake himself, is the power and centrality of the imagination, and how Blake used it to create his worlds, his mythologies, and his philosophies.
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
— William Blake
Blake’s independence of mind and heart also stand out. He wanted no part of organized religion, politics, or any group that might force conformity, and he tells us why, so Higgs does too. Another inference drawn from the book so far: Blake was a tenacious free thinker, someone next to impossible to pin down into any “camp” or “school.” But if we must, I’d go with left-libertarian, philosophically, though for part of his life, he predated the usage of “left” or “right” as socio-political markers. Born in 1757, it wasn’t until after the French Assembly of 1789 that this appeared on the scene. But his knowledge of the English Radical Tradition, going back to the Diggers and Levelers of the 1600s, especially, and his fiercely anti-authoritarian critiques, lend more than enough weight for that assessment. A dissident against both Church and State, a champion of the poor, the outcast, the powerless, a lover of sexual liberation and equality — Blake was thoroughly unique, but has a host of cousins among the world’s “radicals,” past and present.
Since it’s apparent the book is thick with new information and analysis, at least to me, I’ll make this blog post the last about the bio for now, and try to sum things up a bit early. I love the way Higgs brings in everyone from Emanuel Swedenborg, to Mary Wollstonecraft, to Freud, Jung, and Timothy Leary to help paint this portrait. And learning about recent (neuroscience) terms such as aphantasia and hyperphantasia opens up a wealth of potential for further exploration. They also may be keys to Blake’s mind, and people like him. The effects of vivid imaging and the intense practice to move ever higher into other realms of the imagination . . . . the lack or abundance of abilities to picture things in the Mind’s Eye — I want to know much more about all of that.
Which points me to this as well: The more we learn about the brain, its complexities and once hidden realms, and the impact of one’s environment on all the above, the more obvious our past and present errors become. For thousands of years, we humans have dismissed, exiled, jailed or executed those we consider “different.” With a little imagination, a dash of compassion, and a sprinkling of patience, there is much to be learned from the Outsider, the Freak, the Fool, the Dissident. Walk in their moccasins. Listen. They may have something extraordinary to tell us.