Sometimes you need some help to see what's directly in front of you: It's often the most difficult thing to see. Looking for a compressed vision of the state of America now, I'm inclined to turn not to any of our esteemed journalist-pundits or renowned public intellectuals but in the direction of the poet William Blake, who did his work 200 years ago.
If he were to recast "London," probably his best-known poem, for the uses of the present, he might be inclined to retitle it "New York" or "Washington" and update some of the diction. Other than that, I'm not sure that he would have to change all that much. Grandly, shockingly, the poem reveals us to ourselves.
"London" is spoken by a poet-prophet wandering through the imperial city, stunned by what he sees and feels. Human misery is everywhere around him: "I ... mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe." There are a number of sources for this misery, but maybe the main one—or at least the one Blake cites first—is the locking down of human consciousness. The people Blake sees are miserable in large part because their minds are radically restricted by oppressive ways of thinking. They are the victims of "mind-forg'd manacles." That is, they are imprisoned by their own mental limits and by the limits imposed upon them by others.
What does it mean, from Blake's perspective, to be mentally imprisoned? It means, among other things, that you see the world from your own private perspective. You look out for your own advantage. You pursue your own success. You hog and hoard. You've entered the state that Blake calls the state of Selfhood, which is individualist, reductive, and isolating.
You think that affirming Selfhood will get you what you want in the world—the Self is a radical pragmatist. But all the state of Selfhood does is to cut you off from the possibility of a better life. The ascendancy of Selfhood isolates you from other humans. Selfhood destroys the drive for community and solidarity. It makes you lonely, frustrated, and angry—on your face come "marks of weakness, marks of woe."
Through the eyes of the poet-prophet who narrates "London," we see that the spirit of Selfhood dominates in three very consequential places. The prophet tells us, first of all, "How the Chimney-sweepers cry / Every black'ning Church appalls." The chimney sweepers of Blake's London were children who had, for all purposes, been sold into slavery. Frequently they came from countryside families too poor to feed them. For a price, their parents presented them to owners of chimney-sweeping companies. To those mothers and fathers, it was better than seeing their children starve. It was necessary that children do this job: You had to be small and lithe to scramble up and down the chimneys and to get them cleaned out. There were accidents—children fell from roofs and down flues and ended up crippled for life. Still, the need for the sweeps was strong. Chimney fires could beget larger blazes that would destroy blocks and blocks of wooden houses.
The chimney sweeps cry out, in Blake's dream-vision, and their cry turns material and darkens the walls of the church. Why the church? Presumably because Christians—clergymen, in particular—ought to be standing up for the children and making sure they are not ill-treated. Jesus said that it was a better thing to put a millstone around your neck and fling yourself into the abyss than to harm a child. The church, as Blake sees it, prefers the abyss to the vision of Christ. That vision is centered upon compassion. Jesus brings into the Western world an idea already potently influential in the East through the teachings of Confucius, Buddha, and the Hindu sages. Committing oneself to compassion means committing oneself to the idea that every man and woman is of value—no one is intrinsically better than anyone else. We all owe each other loving kindness.
Blake suggests that if you want to understand the moral state of a country, you had better check first and see how it deals with its children. Does it treat them with loving kindness, or does it exploit them? Does it look down upon them from the perspective of the greedy and frightened Selfhood, or regard them with the generosity of the enlightened Soul? Blake's verdict on his own nation is not hard to discern. Can our own nation claim to be doing better?
Amid blazing wealth, great numbers of American children do not get enough to eat. Perhaps they are not starving, but they are hungry. The food they do get is overprocessed junk, which will in time make them sick. They live in horrible dwellings, both in the country and in the city. They go to bad schools, where there are few or no books, and where the teachers are overworked and overwhelmed. Many American children are as trapped in their own lives as the poor chimney sweeps were trapped in theirs. There is simply no better place for them to go.
Meanwhile, rich Americans plunder the nation, taking all they can get and then diving in for more. The Selfhood is so scared of the future, so isolated and loveless, that it is constantly grasping for security. Its fear makes it almost entirely without conscience. The only thing that might save the Selfhood is to surrender its aggressive individualism and seek solidarity with others through compassion—but this possibility is one that the Self cannot and will not understand. The Self believes that if it could only get to the next rung of wealth, the next tier of society, the next level of recognition and success, then all would be well.
Next, the prophet looks out into the larger, political world where, he says, "the hapless Soldier's sigh / Runs in blood down Palace walls." The "hapless soldier," we can presume, is the fighting man pressed into service because of his own poverty or through outright coercion. He's then sent half a world away to defend the empire, so that the burghers at home can continue to enrich themselves. Blake may well be thinking of the redcoats sent across the world to America to try to put down the revolution, which Blake saw as one of the great human movements for liberation. (He writes a brief celebratory epic about our rebellion of 1776 called "America: a Prophecy.") Blake doesn't blame the soldier—he's "hapless." His cry of distress runs in blood down the palace walls, and no one inside hears it or sees it. The soldier is shedding blood—his blood—for people who care nothing about him.
I suspect that if Blake wandered down Pennsylvania Avenue today and looked at the White House and then went on past Congress, he would see much the same thing. Our soldiers fight in foreign wars and often fight valiantly. But in the field, they have been undersupported and undersupplied. And they return to the general indifference of their government and frequently of their fellow citizens. Often they can't get the medical treatment they need for their wounds. More often they can't get the psychiatric care that's necessary for the traumas that war has inflicted on them.
This is so, in part, because the nation is not united behind their efforts. There was no formal declaration of war in the Middle East so that America never had to commit itself wholly to the fight. There is no draft, so that the children of the middle class can avoid service and the middle class itself can neglect to think about the war at all, if it wishes. Middle-class people can go on seeking success and prosperity for themselves and their children, without considering our wars: They can live, unbothered, in the alluring but ultimately ruinous state of the Selfhood.
Blake has an instinct for the significant spot—the place where he can cast his glance to see into the state of the nation's spirit. In the ancient world, courage was one of the pre-eminent virtues: It is the virtue of Rome and Athens. Just so compassion is the virtue of Jerusalem, and of the dusty Indian roads the Buddha walked, and the out-of-the-way villages in China where Confucius played his flute and drank a bit of wine and joked with and instructed his disciples.
To truly exercise courage, a soldier must be able to feel that he or she is fighting in a just war—as Blake thought the American revolutionaries were. The soldier must also feel the support of the nation. The soldiers who went to fight for Britain in America didn't feel unity back home: Great men like Edmund Burke sympathized with the American cause, and others concurred. Nor do our soldiers now feel any great support or collective appreciation behind them.
With things so bad, where is renovation to come from? Blake, the High Romantic, had a couple of answers to this question. He believes in the power of imagination, and he believes in the redemptive force of a certain kind of erotic love. Blake's sense of the possibilities of erotic love is a lot like that of Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium. Aristophanes' myth is both grotesque and lovely, and it ends by affirming that all of us seek what has come to be known as our other half, the individual who can complete us—make us whole, rather than partial.
A High Romantic, one might say, is someone who believes passionately in the idea that by joining, sexually and spiritually, with the beloved, one can be transformed into a higher, better version of oneself and help to transform the beloved as well. Blake believed this literally: He tried to make his marriage to Catherine a conjunction of soul mates. He also commits himself to a more complex version of the idea in his poems. There the poet figure is in constant search for the Emanation, the female being who can give him erotic and creative energy.
What is the condition of the erotic life that Blake sees around him in London? It has gone over to prostitution—the whore and the john dominate Blake's vision. For Blake, sex is a sacred matter: It's at the heart of the ceremony of fusion between one human spirit and another. To make of sex something that is bought and sold is to give over to the Selfhood something that rightfully belongs to the Soul. To Blake it is an enormous surrender, for a purified Eros actually can throw off the state of Selfhood. Prostitution gives one of the spirit's best means for rebirth away to the enemy. The fruit of prostitution is disease, both physical and spiritual. The "youthful Harlot's curse / Blasts the new born Infant's tear / And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse." The infant inherits syphilis from his mother; the bride from her husband, who has been consorting with the harlot. And along with this physical decay comes spiritual sickness.
Love for sale! That is perhaps the greatest oxymoron. Love is never for sale, but sex always has been and will be. The Internet is probably the greatest market for sex without love that has ever existed. Hunger for pornography epitomizes the erotic life of the Selfhood in its current state. Porn is exciting, isolating, and attractive. It uncouples physical desire from the desire of the spirit, denying the very existence of the latter. Someone addicted to porn is someone who has given up on the possibility of a transforming love. Such a love involves risk—the risk of rejection, the risk of shame. The Selfhood is frightened of both these things, so it denies the possibility of erotic renovation and plays it safe.
Then there are our much-used and touted dating services, which help people get to know something about their potential partner's inner lives (perhaps). But because so much is done indirectly, through the mediation of the Internet, one never knows if there will be a passionate attraction, at least until the moment of meeting. Blake requires both from love—connection and passion. Anything less will not give you the force and fire necessary for renovation.
Compassion, courage, and erotic life have all fallen to disease in Blake's world, as I believe they have in our own. But though the tone of Blake's great poem is angry and impatient, it is also hopeful. Blake shows us where to look—those children, those soldiers, the prostitute on the street—in order to visit clarifying judgment on ourselves. But he also shows us the way to renewal: That way is through love and through the exercise of a poetic imagination that never gives up on itself or on the responsive powers of other men and women, who on some level always want to be freed from the prison of Self.
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man.
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new born Infant's tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.