I really love William Blake, not the least because he seems to me to be the most radical of Christian thinkers (there was a reason he believed that what most people, even Christians, label with “the names divine of Jesus and Jehovah” is actually Satan). Much of his worldview, I believe, can be found in his illustrations — for example, this color printing he composed in 1795, God Judging Adam.
This is subjective, of course, but a lot sticks out to me in this particular piece. The first point is that God and Adam look virtually the same; God is clothed, Adam is not (notice also Adam’s missing arm[s]) relative to God), but both men look similar overall. There’s also a gold tether that connects the two, running from God’s hand to Adam’s head. Second, the horse (presumably upon which Adam must ride out of Eden) appears almost to be cut from the silhouette-throne God sits on. Similar colors, and the back legs seem to “pop” right out of the overall throne itself, as evidenced by the negative space left over. Third, the throne God sits on, relative to the horse’s back legs, seems almost to resemble a skull (similar to Frank Meshberger’s suggested interpretation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam). This third point may be the most subjective aspect, of course, but it seems to me to unite the previous two points into an overall message: Adam is not a properly separate being from God — not ontologically, at least. Looking just like God, and lacking clothes yet bound together by a gold tether, and exiled on a horse ejected from God’s own skull-throne, Adam is God displacing God’s own self from God’s own mind.
In sum, in this piece, it seems to me the overall message Blake wishes to convey is this: Adam is God having displaced Himself from Himself.
There’s a lot to think through here, but I think this is the start of an interesting Blakean theology — or, perhaps more properly, a Blakean mytho-poetic worldview. Additionally, it would be nice to know which of Blake’s characters this (God and/or Adam) is. Sometimes Blake gets tamed and domesticated back into a politely Protestant Christianity by describing his characters as clunky biblical equivalents, when they’re personalities unto themselves. For instance, Urizen often gets described as just “God” (such as in Blake’s 1794 watercolor The Ancient of Days), when Urizen is not necessarily the worship-worthy God many think of when they hear that term; rather, he is the personification of life’s tendency to suffocate itself in structure and imposed “order.” This is to say nothing of Albion, an arguably far higher “God” than Urizen ever could be, Urizen being only a piece of Albion.
In any event, knowing if there was a particular character Blake had in mind from his mythos would help with interpretation, but overall I think this piece is a prime example of what makes Blake such an exciting thinker, even (perhaps especially) to those who may feel entirely burned out by the dry and domesticated religion of the modern mainstream — a sentiment with which I think Blake would very much empathize. Actually, this piece reminds me of a joke told by Slavoj Zizek:
“There is a nice joke about Jesus Christ: in order to relax after the arduous work of preaching and performing miracles, Jesus decided to take a short break on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. During a game of golf with one of his apostles, there was a difficult shot to be performed; Jesus did it badly and the ball ended up in the water, so he did his usual trick: he walked on the water to the place where the ball was, reached down and picked it up. When Jesus tried the same shot again, the apostle told him that this is a very difficult one — only someone like Tiger Woods can do it; Jesus replied, ‘What the hell, I am the son of God, I can do what Tiger Woods can do!’ and took another strike. The ball again landed in the water, so Jesus again took a walk on the surface of the water to retrieve it. At this point, a group of American tourists walked by and one of them, observing what was going on, turned to the apostle and said: ‘My god, who is this guy there? Does he think he is Jesus or what?’ The apostle replies: ‘No, the jerk thinks he is Tiger Woods!’
“This is how fantasmatic identification works: no one, not even God himself, is directly what he is; everybody needs an external, decentered point of identification.”
— Zizek’s Jokes (MIT Press, 2014), 10
- Thomas J.J. Altizer, The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake (Davies Group Publishers, 2003)
- Harold Bloom, Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument (Cornell University Press, 1970)
- Leo Damrosch, Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake (Yale University Press, 2015)
- Slavoj Zizek, John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (MIT Press, 2011)
- Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (MIT Press, 2003)