I ran across this quote the other day:
I am wrapped in mortality, my flesh is a prison, my bones the bars of death. What is mortality but the things related to the body, which dies? What is immortality but the things related to the spirit, which lives eternally? What is the joy of heaven but improvement of the things of the spirit? What are the pains of hell but ignorance and bodily lust, idleness and devastation of the things of the spirit? The imagination is not a state, it is human existence itself.
— William Blake
I do not like this quote. It has become an irritation to me like a burr under a horse’s saddle.
The idea that “my flesh is a prison” is a negative attitude about the body. Who said the body was bad? Doesn’t the Bible say that the body is a temple? I understand that Blake is alluding to the fact that the body is the cause of a great many sins due to its impulses and urges. I can even see how the body is a limit or a boundary to many things, such as the complete union of a man and woman. The bodies of lovers touch and intermingle with each other, but the complete and total union, as in the union of their minds and souls, is still separated by the physical boundaries of their bodies. The body only becomes a prison if one makes that their attitude.
The body is a wonderfully created thing. It can feel the embrace of another person. It can feel the cool breeze blowing on ones face, smell a rose, see the glory of the colors in a Monet painting, taste the marvels of a chocolate chip cookie, and hear the intricacies in a musical piece by Beethoven. The body also feels the pangs of hunger and the excruciating pain of broken bones. And how about the wide spectrum of emotions that go along with these feelings? To be alive in the world is to feel the world. It is an integral part of being human. To take that away is to remove a big part of our humanity. Isn’t that one of the reasons why God came to us as the man Jesus?
The body, as with anything of this world, will surely die. The body is mortal. What about immortality? I understand Blake’s allusion to the eternity of the soul, and concerns with the soul will last an eternity. Perhaps I have a problem with the word immortality. Someone wrote (maybe C.S. Lewis?) that immortality is one of the things Christians need to give up on. Immortality implies living forever within time and space. Heaven is outside of time and space. Why do you want to remain in the universe forever? (Or at least until it eventually ends?) Immortality, to me at least, also implies separateness from God. Immortality is to single yourself out from the crowd of humanity, as if you are special and no one else is. Immortality elevates your piece in the mosaic of humanity to the single most important contribution to the whole picture. Everyone is important. Every piece in the mosaic is important, not just one. (Conversely, if a single piece is missing, then the whole picture is incomplete.) Where is the humility in immortality?
The separation of body and spirit, like the separation of mind and body, is a false dichotomy. Sure, the body dies and the spirit is eternal, but they are linked together. They are an integrated whole, not separable. The one cannot exist without the other while in this world. Why drag down one part and exalt the other when both should be lifted up and appreciated together? Together they make a mystery to be embraced, not subdivided.
As for the “imagination…is human existence itself”, well, I think not. Granted, imagination is a very big part of being human. Imagination has solved a lot our problems within the world and produced some fantastic works of art, but imagination is not all of what it is to be human. Blake overstates its importance, even within artistic hyperbole. I would go as far to say that it is our imagination that gets in the way of us truly finding and understanding God. God is infinite, and our imaginations are finite. How can we wrap our imagination around all of God? Any image of God is incomplete to some degree.
What about some of our false images of God? Like the policeman god who determines what is right or wrong; the accountant god who tallies up all the good and bad things and if the good outnumbers the bad, you go to heaven; the aspirin god who fixes everything when things go bad; the gimme-god; the mountain-top god who just sits alone and watches humanity without any interaction; and the catechism god who is the pat answer to all questions, but involvement with him demands no personal commitment. (Ever notice how most attacks by atheists on the belief in God are attacks against false images of God?)
Our imagination even interferes with ourselves trying to love other people. Ever had a preconceived idea or prejudice about someone else??
And finally, there is true suffering and pain in the world, and that requires us to love and give mercy. Unfortunately, as Blake alluded to, most of the “pains of hell” are of our own making. As Buddha said, “Suffering is wishing things were other than they are.” I wonder if our suffering does not test and build up our spirit, rather than devastate it?
I do have to admit that I like one part of Blake’s quote: “What is the joy of heaven but improvement of the things of the spirit?” I would add that heaven smiles too when we take care of our bodies.
I apologize for this rant. I thank Michael for posting Blake’s quote. It caused me to think.