Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Review of E.P. Thompson's Witness Against the Beast (1993)

There are never enough authors around who seem worth reading.  To examine a book by one of these happy few, E.P. Thompson, written as a treatise about another of their number, William Blake, is therefore such a delicious prospect that it seemed almost immoral.  I'm the kind of person who, if there are both green vegetables and macaroni and cheese on his plate, will eat the resented flora first, just to get it over with, and realize too late that he filled up on it before getting to the good stuff.  I am the same way with reading matter, in most cases.  As soon as I realized, however, that the first two-thirds of Thompson's book was entirely going to be taken up with an exposition of the theology of an obscure heretical sect in Britain called the Muggletonians, my Protestant conscience relaxed and let me read on.  This was starting to seem more like work.

I'll get back to those Muggletonians later on, but first let me assure you that this book is entirely redeemed by its final third, which was every bit as pleasurable as I had imagined.  Thompson was quite right to have fixated on Blake at this later point in his career: Blake marks the beginning, in many ways, of a strand of Romantic and humanistic socialism that Thompson himself would try to represent in the 20th century, though under the guise of a watery "New Left" Marxism that in fact had little native sympathy, in its jargon and conceits, for what he had in mind.  Thompson's Witness Against the Beast comes close to finally putting his finger on what he really did have in mind, and he finds a great deal of it in Blake.

What is this something he found in Blake?  It's hard to name, but I have found it there too.  The first time I read anything by Blake, it was in the "dark, satanic mill" of middle school English, and I was at first not impressed.  I think I more or less assumed at the time that all famous authors from history had to be boring, staid defenders of law and order and traditional religion, since they lived so long ago and had been allowed into school curricula.  Reading further in Blake in high school, however, -- and in the other poets of his era -- was one of the things that first disabused me of this notion.  I don't know if it was taking a second look at the "Auguries" and their visions ("The winner's shout, the loser's curse,/ Dance before dead England's hearse") or "London," or reexamining the lyrics to "Jerusalem"-- one of those profoundly revolutionary chants that has been misappropriated in Britain as a patriotic ode, as "This Land is Your Land" has been in this country.  But at any rate, I saw Blake anew.

When I started reading Blake in this light, along with Robert Burns and Shelley and even Byron, I thought: here, finally, are the people who think like I do.  Perhaps I rather too easily conflated what I found in these poets with "socialism" and "the Left" as a whole, when what I had really stumbled onto was a very distinctive tradition -- one that is hard to spot outside the English-speaking world.  It is the tradition of capital-D Dissent.

It starts with a rejection of religious orthodoxy ("the critique of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism," said Marx), but it reaches this point not via materialism or even necessarily by a turn to reason.  It is only in early nineteenth century byways of artisan London that you start finding fideist atheism-- that you first round upon these Romantic rebels declaring their innate "intuition" that the God of the Bible does not exist.  Blake, who could neither be described in any straightforward manner as a believer nor an atheist, fits somewhere in this-- to outsiders often incomprehensible --milieu.

The milieu was made possible by the proliferation of "Dissenting" sects in English history, all of which were mutually hostile to one another, and embroiled in hair-splitting controversies, and host to blasphemous doctrines, and bearing implausible and unfortunate names (like "Muggletonian").  They met with relative tolerance and forbearance (emphasis on "relative") from the British state (which treatment didn't stop them all from endlessly declaring the Crown to be the seat of "Satan's Kingdom" on Earth), and this meant that in the English-speaking world, radical dissent of both religious and political kinds has never had to evacuate the churches entirely-- or to declare its hostility to all forms of "religion."

This has been a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, it has made the English and American Left fairly incomprehensible to the Continental Left.  This is especially the case in America, where Dissenters of various stripes have always been at the helm of most reform causes and radical organizations ("Unitarians, Quakers, egg-heads, and old farts," as Jessica Mitford once snorted, half-affectionately).  This has probably stood in the way to some extent of the formation of effective, secular social democratic parties in the U.S.  The sort of people who would have staffed them were all, in America, channeling their energies into that capacity of forming "voluntary associations" with which our national character was for so long endued.

The fact that English-speaking heretics founded their own sects rather than just resigning membership in the State Church as they did in other countries has meant that in England and America, non-belief, blasphemy, and "infidelity" of various kinds have always had a religious character-- whereas the non-believers of other nations have thought that the whole point of non-belief was to escape from religion.  This led to much mutual incomprehension in Blake's day, as it does in ours.  Blake was both the most heretical and the most deeply religious of people.  For all the scorn he heaped on the orthodox, he resented equally the Continental "scoffers" and "doubters" ("Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau") as well as their British confreres, like Edward Gibbon.

Thompson is admirably restrained in trying to tease out "Blake's theology" or "Blake's religious views."  If Thompson wasn't able to put a name to what these were, then it probably can't be done.  But he does show that Blake clearly resonated with the moral condemnation of the wrathful Jehovah that he found in the Deist and atheist writers of his day.  Blake's God is not the God of the orthodox-- its inmost character is "Forgiveness," not punishment; its external form is "imaginary"; and it exists only within human beings ("men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast" Quoted in Thompson, p.212).  But this humanization of the divine was also a divinization of humanity-- in other words, it didn't mean materialism, for Blake, as it did for many enlightened infidels.  Here he completely broke with the Deists.

Blake was especially ill-disposed toward the mechanical psychology of his day, Thompson shows us, with its conviction that "self-interest" is the only active principle of human life, and that the most one could expect of people, morally, was a sort of languid "benevolence" founded on a rational calculation of one's own ultimate advantage.   Blake, in Thompson's telling, was quite firmly convinced that love could have no material basis and had to be founded on a Gospel of mercy, even if there was no true God outside of human affections.

Ever since Blake, Romantic infidels in this English-speaking tradition have been similarly working backward from the moral condemnation of the God of fire and brimstone to the idea that such a God does not really exist.  The only sort of critique of religion that makes real sense to the Romantic infidel is that of Byron's Prometheus, or of John Stuart Mill's famous words: "if such a being can sentence me to hell, to hell I will go."  (Poor Mill.  He was a born Romantic whose father tried to channel his native love of humanity into such paltry and bloodless doctrines as Benthamism and materialism.  No wonder he rebelled against both and yet couldn't ever fully escape their categories.)

All of this has been much to the consternation of more rationalistic atheists, who think the biggest problem with religion is just that it is "stupid" in a rather obvious way and ought to be outgrown.   It seems a misuse of energy, they would say, to expend a lot of indignation on a Being you don't think is real.  And logically, the work of the Blakean infidel does seem to be rather putting the cart before the horse, to use a favorite expression of Thompson. But emotionally, the Blakean maneuver seems just right to those of us who are besotted Romantics.  Some of us had no real choice in the matter, after all.  Even if we think, in high school, that we are discovering something new for ourselves when we resonate with Blake and Shelley and Burns, we are really just going back to the source of what we had already picked up in the cradle-- what had reached us through the slow osmosis of Dissent, percolating as it did from artisan London, down through the heretical movements on this shore which sprang from it via Priestley and George Fox and the Universalists, through various tiny and ever-feuding Protestant sects, and on down to our parents, "Unitarians, Quakers, egg-heads, and old-farts" as they probably are.

Thompson, whose parents were Methodist missionaries, is one of these unfortunate people who really had no choice in the matter.  Same goes for Bertrand Russell, who imbibed some of Bloomsbury's Gibbon-esque secularism in his adult career, yet remained underneath a religious Dissenter and Romantic infidel.  He writes most movingly in his Autobiography of two influences on his adolescent development: Significantly, they are the poetry of Percy Byssche Shelley and the moral instruction of his Protestant grandmother.  Even more significantly, this grandmother's favorite Bible verse, and the one that left the deepest imprint on Russell's adult conscience, was Exodus 23:2: "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil."

This last quote brings us back again to those Muggletonians-- and to one of the basic problems with the Dissenting tradition.  Now, I like the Dissenters.  Like Thompson and Russell, I have little choice in that matter.  But the essence of Dissent, as implied in its name, is its antagonism to something external.  Dissenting sects have often held up the ideas of democracy and human fellowship and harmonious relations.  Yet, like all prophets of peace, they are in fact relentlessly ornery and disputatious scoundrels, who throughout their history divided and subdivided amongst themselves into smaller, mutually antagonistic phalanxes until, as in the case of Blake, they often ended up as sects of one (To give another example of this phenomenon, Thompson, in the course of his researches, actually meets the 'last Muggletonian').  Of course, most of the time they did not actively persecute one another.  Part of this is due to the fact that most forbade violence in their creeds, though such prohibitions have seldom stopped sectarians in the past from bloodying their hands-- especially not when "violence" is defined up front, as it was among the Muggletonians, as something evil that the other people do-- not a temptation to which the saints might also be subject.  A greater portion of the cause of the lack of sectarian violence among the Dissenters was undoubtedly the simple fact that they never gained the state power they'd need to hound their opponents.  None of this stopped them, of course, from getting armed to the teeth with "spiritual weapons" ("Mental Fight," was what Blake called it.)

Thompson has a tendency to romanticize these Dissenters.  He particularly settles on the "Muggletonians" as objects of his praise and devotes, as I say, the first two-thirds of the book to exploring the byways of their thought.  In finding this in a book ostensibly devoted to the subject of William Blake, it occurs to one to ask: "what is really going on here?"  The question of whether or not Blake was influenced by the Muggletonians must be one of the least interesting scholastic pin-dances I've come across.  Usually, E.P. Thompson does not write with the sort of idle curiosity that motivates your typical student of Assyrian grammar or Hittite poetry.  There is usually some political motive at work in Thompsonian historical scholarship-- so what is it here?

Ah, I see it now: Thompson cares so much about these obscure and rather unsympathetic sectaries because he was a sectary himself within the one great "world religion" of the 20th century-- Marxism.  Thompson broke early on with the Stalinist hardliners and drifted away from Communist orthodoxy over the course of his career, especially in his questioning of the triumphant and progressive view of history displayed in much dialectical materialism, in his increasing interest in religious ideas as a resource for social criticism, and in his humane opposition to the crimes of Marxism-Leninism in the states where it had come into power.  Yet like the Muggletonians, Thompson was never quite willing, on my reading, to simply accept that there is no one "Satan's kingdom" and no one party of the saints in the world, even if his search for the saints brought him into ever smaller and smaller circles of acquaintance.  In the '70s, Thompson was still scanning the heavens for a sign that Soviet Russia was about to undergo the transformation he had been expecting all his life, the arrival of the "New Jerusalem," when somehow people would wake up one day and no longer be alienated from one another and from the products of their labor. Leszek Kolakowski was rightly withering in his response to E.P. Thompson's "Open Letter" on these and related subjects.  Kolakowski first quotes Thompson: "My own utopia, two hundred years ahead, [...] would be a world (as D. H. Lawrence would have it) where the 'money values' give way before the 'life values', or (as Blake would have it) 'corporeal' will give way to 'mental' war. […]"  Kolakowski's ironic further comment: "This is a very good sample of socialist writing. It amounts to saying that the world should be good, and not bad, and I am entirely on your side on this issue."

Thompson in all of these respects is very much a Dissenting sectary -- in all its best and worst features.  He still seems to regard the second coming as just around the corner, even if he has despaired of the official bodies that claim to be able to bring it into being.  There is still a New Jerusalem out there, even if the present world is under Satan's power.

But of course, there is no perfect society and there is no utterly irredeemable society either.  There is no party of saints and no party of Satan.  The Dissenter who never realizes this, and is never led by it to adopt a more compassionate and forgiving attitude toward the frailties of human nature, who persists in attributing Satanic agency to all her enemies, is bound to simply shrink into her own private company, eventually deciding that she must be the only true saint there is.

I have a lot of admiration for the Dissenting spirit.  I am a big believer in what Graham Greene called the "virtue of disloyalty."  There is a line in the autobiography of Sheila Fitzpatrick which offers both a version of my own satisfactorily incoherent philosophy of life and further evidence that this peculiar Dissenting tradition is alive and well in English-speaking lands (even far-flung ones-- like Australia).  "As my father taught me about democracy," says Fitzpatrick, "[...] he simultaneously taught me the paradox: we are democrats, and that means accepting the will of the people, despite the fact (said with a triumphant grin) that 'the majority is always wrong.'"

There's something about that that seems exactly right to me.  But the relentless disputatiousness of it  raises a very difficult and sobering question: what is to be done with the Dissenter in the New Jerusalem, should it ever come into being?  Could Blake or Thompson or Russell or Mill stand a single bare second in the presence of eternal harmony and brotherly love?  Wouldn't they do what such ornery people always do, wherever they are placed, and cause trouble?

More seriously, the best in William Blake, as in all Dissenters, was brought out by adversity.  The heroism of his character is well expressed in two virtues that Thompson makes the emotional centerpieces of the story he unfolds: first, "compassion" and second, "indignation."  Yet, in the New Jerusalem, what would there be to feel indignant about?  For whom should one show compassion when all live together in health and happiness and harmony?

There is a line in Blake's poem on the "Human Abstract," which Thompson passes over as simply an instance of Blake's satire on the sophistries of official ideology.  And perhaps that is all it was intended to be.  To me, however, it seems to pose a deeply disturbing and apposite question about Blake himself, and about all Dissenters, regardless of the intent Blake had in writing it.  I will end with its words:

"Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we."

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