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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Brain Pickings: Loneliness, the City, William Blake

Adventures in the art of being alone, Thoreau on how to use civil disobedience to advance justice, Blake's searing defense of the creative spirit, Amanda Palmer and her dad cover classic protest songs, and more.Email formatted oddly or truncated?
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WelcomeHello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition – James Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the most important ingredient in good parenting, George Saunders on writing, and more – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation â€“ I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,”artist Louise Bourgeoise wrote in her diary at the end of a long and illustrious life as she contemplated how solitude enriches creative work. It’s a lovely sentiment, but as empowering as it may be to those willing to embrace solitude, it can be tremendously lonesome-making to those for whom loneliness has contracted the space of trust and love into a suffocating penitentiary. For if in solitude, as Wendell Berry memorably wrote, “one’s inner voices become audible [and] one responds more clearly to other lives,” in loneliness one’s inner scream becomes deafening, deadening, severing any thread of connection to other lives. 
How to break free of that prison and reinhabit the space of trust and love is what Olivia Laing explores in The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (public library) — an extraordinary more-than-memoir; a sort of memoir-plus-plus, partway between Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk and the diary of Virginia Woolf; a lyrical account of wading through a period of self-expatriation, both physical and psychological, in which Laing paints an intimate portrait of loneliness as “a populated place: a city in itself.” 
Art by Isol from Daytime Visions
After the sudden collapse of a romance marked by extreme elation, Laing left her native England and took her shattered heart to New York, “that teeming island of gneiss and concrete and glass.” The daily, bone-deep loneliness she experienced there was both paralyzing in its all-consuming potency and, paradoxically, a strange invitation to aliveness. Indeed, her choice to leave home and wander a foreign city is itself a rich metaphor for the paradoxical nature of loneliness, animated by equal parts restlessness and stupor, capable of turning one into a voluntary vagabond and a catatonic recluse all at once, yet somehow a vitalizing laboratory for self-discovery. The pit of loneliness, she found, could “drive one to consider some of the larger questions of what it is to be alive.” 
She writes:
There were things that burned away at me, not only as a private individual, but also as a citizen of our century, our pixelated age. What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people, particularly if we don’t find speaking easy? Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty? And is technology helping with these things? Does it draw us closer together, or trap us behind screens?
Bedeviled by this acute emotional anguish, Laing seeks consolation in the great patron saints of loneliness in twentieth-century creative culture. From this eclectic tribe of the lonesome — including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday, and Nan Goldin — Laing chooses four artists as her companions charting the terra incognita of loneliness: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz, who had all “grappled in their lives as well as work with loneliness and its attendant issues.”
Olivia Laing
She considers, for instance, Warhol — an artist whom Laing had always dismissed until the was submerged in loneliness herself. (“I’d seen the screen-printed cows and Chairman Maos a thousand times, and I thought they were vacuous and empty, disregarding them as we often do with things we’ve looked at but failed properly to see.”) She writes:
Warhol’s art patrols the space between people, conducting a grand philosophical investigation into closeness and distance, intimacy and estrangement. Like many lonely people, he was an inveterate hoarder, making and surrounding himself with objects, barriers against the demands of human intimacy. Terrified of physical contact, he rarely left the house without an armoury of cameras and tape recorders, using them to broker and buffer interactions: behaviour that has light to shed on how we deploy technology in our own century of so-called connectivity.
Woven into the fabric of Laing’s personal experience are inquiries into the nature, context, and background of these four artists’ lives and their works most preoccupied with loneliness. But just as it would be unfair to call Laing’s masterpiece only a “memoir,” it would be unfair to call these threads “art history,” for they are rather the opposite, a kind of “art present” — elegant and erudite meditations on how art is present with us, how it invites us to be present with ourselves and bears witness to that presence, alleviating our loneliness in the process. 
Laing examines the particular, pervasive form of loneliness in the eye of a city aswirl with humanity:
Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure. 
You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. Unhappy, as the dictionary has it, as a result of being without the companionship of others. Hardly any wonder, then, that it can reach its apotheosis in a crowd.
As scientists are continuing to unpeel the physiological effects of loneliness, it is no surprise that this psychological state comes with an almost bodily dimension, which Laing captures vividly:
What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, is what I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.
There is, of course, a universe of difference between solitude and loneliness — two radically different interior orientations toward the same exterior circumstance of lacking companionship. We speak of â€œfertile solitude” as a developmental achievement essential for our creative capacity, but loneliness is barren and destructive; it cottons in apathy the will to create. More than that, it seems to signal an existential failing — a social stigma the nuances of which Laing addresses beautifully:
Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much a part of one’s being as laughing easily or having red hair. Then again, it can be transient, lapping in and out in reaction to external circumstance, like the loneliness that follows on the heels of a bereavement, break-up or change in social circles. 
Like depression, like melancholy or restlessness, it is subject too to pathologisation, to being considered a disease. It has been said emphatically that loneliness serves no purpose… Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think any experience so much a part of our common shared lives can be entirely devoid of meaning, without a richness and a value of some kind.
With an eye to Virginia Woolf’s unforgettable diary writings on loneliness and creativity, Laing speculates:
Loneliness might be taking you towards an otherwise unreachable experience of reality.
Adrift and alone in the city that promises its inhabitants â€œthe gift of privacy with the excitement of participation,”Laing cycles through a zoetrope of temporary homes — sublets, friends’ apartments, and various borrowed quarters, only amplifying the sense of otherness and alienation as she is forced to make “a life among someone else’s things, in a home that someone else has created and long since.” 
Art by Carson Ellis from Home
But therein lies an inescapable metaphor for life itself — we are, after all, subletting our very existence from a city and a society and a world that have been there for much longer than we have, already arranged in a way that might not be to our taste, that might not be how the building would be laid out and its interior designed were we to do it from scratch ourselves. And yet we are left to make ourselves at home in the way things are, imperfect and sometimes downright ugly. The measure of a life has to do with this subletting ability — with how well we are able to settle into this borrowed, imperfect abode and how much beauty we can bring into existence with however little control over its design we may have.
This, perhaps, is why Laing found her only, if temporary, respite from loneliness in an activity propelled by the very act of leaving this borrowed home: walking. In a passage that calls to mind Robert Walser’s exquisite serenade to the soul-nourishment of the walk, she writes:
In certain circumstances, being outside, not fitting in, can be a source of satisfaction, even pleasure. There are kinds of solitude that provide a respite from loneliness, a holiday if not a cure. Sometimes as I walked, roaming under the stanchions of the Williamsburg Bridge or following the East River all the way to the silvery hulk of the U.N., I could forget my sorry self, becoming instead as porous and borderless as the mist, pleasurably adrift on the currents of the city.
But whatever semblance of a more solid inner center these peripatetic escapes into solitude offered, it was a brittle solidity:
I didn’t get this feeling when I was in my apartment; only when I was outside, either entirely alone or submerged in a crowd. In these situations I felt liberated from the persistent weight of loneliness, the sensation of wrongness, the agitation around stigma and judgement and visibility. But it didn’t take much to shatter the illusion of self-forgetfulness, to bring me back not only to myself but to the familiar, excruciating sense of lack.
Edward Hopper: Nighthawks (1942)
It was in the lacuna between self-forgetfulness and self-discovery that Laing found herself drawn to the artists who became her companions in a journey both toward and away from loneliness. There is Edward Hopper with his iconic Nighthawks aglow in eerie jade, of which Laing writes:
There is no colour in existence that so powerfully communicates urban alienation, the atomisation of human beings inside the edifices they create, as this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity, and which is inextricably associated with the nocturnal city, the city of glass towers, of empty illuminated offices and neon signs.
[…]
The diner was a place of refuge, absolutely, but there was no visible entrance, no way to get in or out. There was a cartoonish, ochre-coloured door at the back of the painting, leading perhaps into a grimy kitchen. But from the street, the room was sealed: an urban aquarium, a glass cell.
[…]
Green on green, glass on glass, a mood that expanded the longer I lingered, breeding disquiet.
Hopper himself had a conflicted relationship with the common interpretation that loneliness was a central theme of his work. Although he often denied that it was a deliberate creative choice, he once conceded in an interview: â€œI probably am a lonely one.” Laing, whose attention and sensitivity to even the subtlest texture of experience are what make the book so wonderful, considers how Hopper’s choice of language captures the essence of loneliness:
It’s an unusual formulation, a lonely one; not at all the same thing as admitting one is lonely. Instead, it suggests with that a, that unassuming indefinite article, a fact that loneliness by its nature resists. Though it feels entirely isolating, a private burden no one else could possibly experience or share, it is in reality a communal state, inhabited by many people. In fact, current studies suggest that more than a quarter of American adults suffers from loneliness, independent of race, education and ethnicity, while 45 per cent of British adults report feeling lonely either often or sometimes. Marriage and high income serve as mild deterrents, but the truth is that few of us are absolutely immune to feeling a greater longing for connection than we find ourselves able to satisfy. The lonely ones, a hundred million strong. Hardly any wonder Hopper’s paintings remain so popular, and so endlessly reproduced.
Reading his halting confession, one begins to see why his work is not just compelling but also consoling, especially when viewed en masse. It’s true that he painted, not once but many times, the loneliness of a large city, where the possibilities of connection are repeatedly defeated by the dehumanising apparatus of urban life. But didn’t he also paint loneliness as a large city, revealing it as a shared, democratic place, inhabited, whether willingly or not, by many souls?
[…]
What Hopper captures is beautiful as well as frightening. They aren’t sentimental, his pictures, but there is an extraordinary attentiveness to them… As if loneliness was something worth looking at. More than that, as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’s strange, estranging spell.
David Wojnarowicz by Peter Hujar (Peter Hujar Archive)
For the artists accompanying Laing on her journey — including Henry Darger, the brilliant and mentally ill Chicago janitor whose posthumously discovered paintings made him one of the most celebrated outsider artists of the twentieth century, and the creative polymath David Wojnarowicz, still in his thirties when AIDS took his life — loneliness was often twined with another profound affliction of the psyche: loss. In a passage evocative of Paul Goodman’s taxonomy of the nine types of silence, Laing offers a taxonomy of lonelinesses through the lens of loss:
Loss is a cousin of loneliness. They intersect and overlap, and so it’s not surprising that a work of mourning might invoke a feeling of aloneness, of separation. Mortality is lonely. Physical existence is lonely by its nature, stuck in a body that’s moving inexorably towards decay, shrinking, wastage and fracture. Then there’s the loneliness of bereavement, the loneliness of lost or damaged love, of missing one or many specific people, the loneliness of mourning.
But this lonesomeness of mortality finds its antidote in the abiding consolations of immortal works of art. â€œArt holds out the promise of inner wholeness,” philosopher Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong wrote in their inquiry into the seven psychological functions of art, and if loneliness is, as Laing puts it, “a longing for integration, for a sense of feeling whole,” what better answer to that longing than art? After all, in the immortal words of James Baldwin, “only an artist can tell, and only artists have told since we have heard of man, what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it.” 
Looking back on her experience, Laing writes:
There are so many things that art can’t do. It can’t bring the dead back to life, it can’t mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change. All the same, it does have some extraordinary functions, some odd negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate and enrich each other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.
If I sound adamant it is because I am speaking from personal experience. When I came to New York I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.
But as profoundly personal as loneliness may feel, it is inseparable from the political dimensions of public life. In a closing passage that calls to mind Audre Lorde’s clarion call for breaking our silences against structural injustice, Laing adds:
There is a gentrification that is happening to cities, and there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. Amidst the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings — depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage — are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice or, on the other hand, to the native texture of embodiment, of doing time, as David Wojnarowicz memorably put it, in a rented body, with all the attendant grief and frustration that entails.
I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.
Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each another. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.
The Lonely City is a layered and endlessly rewarding book, among the finest I have ever read. Complement it with Rebecca Solnit on how we find ourselves by getting lost, David Whyte on the transfiguration of aloneness, Alfred Kazin on loneliness and the immigrant experience, and Sara Maitland on how to be alone without being lonely.

Thoreau on How to Use Civil Disobedience to Advance Justice

“Truth always rests with the minority,” the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote in his diary in 1846 as he contemplated the individual vs. the crowd and why we conform“because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”
Around the same time, across the Atlantic, 29-year-old Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) was beginning to contend with the subject of minority rights and civil justice after the horrors of the Mexican-American War compounded the outrage at slavery that had been seething in him for years. 
Having recently benefited from trailblazing feminist Margaret Fuller’s conscientious mentorship, the young writer set about committing his outrage to words in what became Resistance to Civil Government, better known as Civil Disobedience (free ebook | public library).
Published in 1849 — well before Thoreau’s vivid writings about the glory of nature and the spiritual rewards of walking â€” this politically and socially awake masterpiece went on to influence such titans of culture as Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi (whose forgotten correspondence about violence, peace, and human natureis strewn with echoes of Thoreau), and informed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideals of nonviolent resistance.
More than half a century before women got the right to vote — an era predating â€œthe invention of women,” when “man” actually meant man — Thoreau writes:
Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it. 
After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice… Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? … Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents on injustice.
In a sentiment of acute timeliness as we are called to confront the atrocities of today’s criminal justice system and the systemic injustices of mass incarceration, Thoreau adds:
Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
To the intuitive outcry of what is to be done, which bellows from deep in the soul of any human being who has managed to stay woke, Thoreau answers:
Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.
Civil Disobedience is an indispensable read for every democratically minded, socially conscious human being awake to justice. Complement it with Walt Whitman on how literature bolsters democracy, Eleanor Roosevelt on our individual responsibility in social change, and James Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, then revisit Thoreau on the art of walkingthe sanctity of librarieswhat it really means to be awakethe vital difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius.

You Got Me Singing: Jack and Amanda Palmer’s Elegy for Time and Ode to the Dignity of the Downtrodden and the Dispossessed

“After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Aldous Huxley wrote. It was near-silence that had stretched between Amanda Palmer and her father, Jack, from the time she was nine months old, when her mother left Jack, until she was an adult. And then there was music — music as memoir, music as lamentation, music as the myriad inexpressible complexities that lie between regret and redemption.
Jack and Amanda, 1977
In 2015, after nearly a decade of tentatively dancing around the idea of collaborating, Jack and Amanda walked into the legendary Dreamland Studio in upstate New York, founded by Albert Grossman, onetime manager of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. The iconic cover of Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home was shot at Grossman’s house nearby.
The result — a labor of love in every possible dimension of the phrase — is the almost unbearably beautiful Jack and Amanda Palmer: You Got Me Singing. Gracing it is a cover staged after the Dylan classic and photographed at the same location by Kyle Cassidy.
I wrote the liner notes, which say everything I have to say about this miraculously wonderful record:
“A society must assume that it is stable,” James Baldwin wrote, “but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”
Folk music, more than any other art, invites each generation to come to terms with this perennial instability. Beneath the intergenerational dialogue between Jack and Amanda Palmer is a larger conversation with time through the inescapably entwined dimensions of the personal and the political. The twelve songs they spent years choosing together are a reminder that what we experience as the present moment, with all of its shrieking urgency, is a bellowing echo of a past yet to be redeemed. The trials and triumphs of our time, from civil rights to marriage equality, have a gestational period stretching back generations. 
An album of cover songs, like culture itself, is an hourglass — the same material passes through the narrow opening of the present, back and forth, over and over again. Jack tweaked and retrofitted the lyrics to Phil Ochs’s piercing protest song “In the Heat of the Summer,” adding, “Another black kid facedown in the road / whose life did not seem to matter,” and suddenly the half-century between the Harlem riots of 1964 and the Black Lives Matter movement crumbles into a single grain of sand. Sinéad O’Connor wrote “Black Boys On Mopeds” in 1983, after a young black man named Colin Roach was shot dead by British police and his killers were acquitted. As the song is beckoned back to life in the wake of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner’s deaths, we are chilled out of our self-congratulatory illusion of progress — however far we may have come, we have a long way to go. 
There is a Victorian nursery rhyme, “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” a phantasmagorical children’s poem by Eugene Field which was originally set to music by another family duo, Lucy and Carly Simoan. There is country death song (“Louise”), a traditional Scottish lullaby (“Skye Boat Song”) about a journey to Amanda’s immigrant Grandmother’s Island of Origin, a modern-day gay rights anthem (“Glacier”), and an ode to simple and humble human connection (“I Love You So Much”) written by a hometown friend of Amanda’s. The songs are strung together by a connective thread woven of the old ideals of folk music — ideals about equality and love and human dignity, all the more urgent today if there is any hope to be had for our civil society and our inner lives.
When Amanda was nine months old, her parents’ separation brought her up to Boston and left Jack in New York City. There were short visits and school vacations and a somewhat reserved relationship; it wasn’t until Amanda was in her late twenties and touring solo, on her own terms, that music created a new connective tissue between father and daughter. They reentered each other’s lives through the gateway of cover songs; together, they played a Leonard Cohen tune (“Night Comes On”) at one of Amanda’s DC shows, and a year later, another one (“One of Us Cannot Be Wrong”). So began — in 2009 — the tentative idea to record the songs for posterity. Finally, in 2015, Jack and Amanda walked into Dreamland Studio in rural upstate New York, recording for seven days straight. Those two Cohen songs didn’t make the list, but Jack suggested “You Got Me Singing” as a perfect statement to open the album. 
“All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seeger, that great patron saint of protest music once observed, and there was another link on the way– Amanda was seven months pregnant with her first child. These timeless and acutely timely songs became a soundtrack to Anthony-and-Ash-for-short’s final weeks in his mother’s womb. 
What emerges is a record of searing tenderness and sorrowful optimism, harmonizing heartbreak and hope — for this particular father and daughter, and for the world itself. This collection of songs is an elegy in the proper sense — a dialogue between loss and celebration, reminding us what we so easily forget: that every life carries weight; that even the downtrodden and the dispossessed are animated by tremendous dignity; that life is not something that happens to us, much less something that has already happened to us, but something we actively construct and calibrate each day.
The album, designed by Debbie Millman and Emily Weiland, is available in signed 180-gram vinyl, signed or unsigned CD, and $1 digital download
For a taste of the magic, here is a beautiful animated short film for one of the songs on the record, Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, with art by David Mack:
Amanda’s work, like my own, is sustained by donations — so join me in supporting her life-giving art on on Patreon.

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”
Trusler was a priest and an early self-help entrepreneur of sorts, who authored books with titles like Hogarth MoralizedA 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)
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.”
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: â€œI 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, â€œthe 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

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