The Horses Of Instruction

It is likely that I have the details of the story wrong, but it goes something like this: some time in the late 60s, a muck-raking journalist for a right-wing paper visits A. S. Neill’s experimental school Summerhill, and is horrified to report that the Maoist slogan “the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction” is written in large letters across one of the blackboards. The joke being, of course, that it’s not Mao (who spoke of “paper tigers”) at all, but Blake: one of the Proverbs of Hell. One can nevertheless imagine Badiou carefully glossing Blake, extracting the philosophical nectars and essences from the clamour of imagery, the strange precision of invention.

Visiting the Tate Britain Blake exhibition yesterday, I wondered whether the accumulation of materials might reach a sort of metaphysical critical mass, and induce visions and spiritual derangement in visitors — “Jerusalem syndrome”, so to speak. Was it all going to be a bit overwhelming? In the event, the exhibition foregrounded Blake as a working artist, bringing the famous work back into its commercial connections with patrons and commissioners, and placing it alongside minor studies and sketches. It wasn’t totally demystifying, but it kept the whole thing from being shrouded in wafty effusions.

The portraits especially have a remarkable ability to concentrate ideas in sensuous form: the livid, watery-eyed debasement of Nebuchadnezzar, the crouched, classically-hewn Newton turning his back on the materium and constructing figures on a pure white scroll. I felt that Satan Calling Up His Legions came perhaps as close as possible in painting to depicting Milton’s “darkness visible”.

A superb critical notice by Danny Hayward in Artforum underlines the muscularity, the “hard and wiry line of rectitude”, in all of Blake’s figures. Many years ago I was taken on a school trip to see Pierre Boulez conducting Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at the Welsh National Opera. Boulez came out to address the visiting school parties beforehand, and told us something about how he approached the work, with an emphasis on extreme clarity, avoiding at all costs the kind of soupy, sentimental wallowing that Debussy’s intensely gorgeous post-Wagnerian harmonies can invite. I remember little of the opera, besides some ingenious staging and the pervasive weirdness of Maeterlinck’s story, but was impressed by the notion that it was best to approach music as rich and imagistic as Debussy’s in an austere spirit, to keep Wagnerian romantic nationalist phantoms at bay. In a similar way, the Tate’s carefully historicising Blake gave us the real meat on the bones, rather than the last night of the Proms.