The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring 2012)
Under the Sign of Satan: William Blake in the Corporate University
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 14.1 (Spring 2012). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
“I in my Selfhood am that Satan. I am that Evil One.”
—William Blake, “Milton”
Imagine waking up in a world gone wrong. You can feel it: things are out of joint. The center’s not quite holding and all the rest. Yet imagine that world as being more agreeable—more secure, more organized, more civilized (in a certain sense)—than any world you had ever imagined inhabiting. One has a wealthy sponsor. One is sheltered, valued. There is the matter of prestige. There is a firm sense of identity, at the very least. One can do one’s work. Distractions are few, privileges many. Yet still there is little doubt: one lives in a world gone wrong.
William Blake found himself in such a position when he turned himself over to the protection of his prosperous, kindly friend, William Hayley. Hayley rescued Blake and his wife Catherine from poverty (maybe from financial ruin) and from the neglect that had plagued the poet-painter’s work. He brought them out of the blighted, glorious London that Blake loved and into the countryside. (Blake’s attitude toward Nature was complex, but overall unfavorable.) Hayley gave Blake time, space, and money; he tried to make the poet into a success.
Blake’s grand-sized visionary paintings did not sell? No one wanted to buy his gorgeous, sometimes rather garishly illuminated books? Very well. Hayley wanted Blake to succeed, and Blake did not wish to be dependent on Hayley’s charity forever. So Hayley put Blake to work painting miniatures, tiny portraits for broaches and necklaces. Blake, who loved to be expansive, was compelled to do small things. But Hayley loved Blake—Blake knew it. He truly wanted this man of genius to prosper, gain recognition, stand on his own two feet, and all the rest. In a sense, Blake never had a better friend than William Hayley.
No one liked it when Hulk Hogan came to town. At least no one I know did. Hulk came to Charlottesville to perform with his wrestling troupe at the John Paul Jones Arena at the University of Virginia. We had imagined, my faculty friends and I, that the arena would be the site for basketball games and maybe a graduation ceremony or two on rainy days. But not long after the grand opening of the arena, we heard about Hulk and his crew, and then we heard of a performance by something called Monster Trucks. The climax of the Monster Trucks show, I was told, came when a particularly monstrous monster truck, with tires taller than two or three men, rode over the tops of a line of parked vehicles, crushing them into a metal pulp. When the subject of Hulk Hogan and the Monster Trucks arose, my faculty buddies and I looked at each other in exasperated ways and blew out exasperated columns of air, as if to scatter the wrestlers and the steroidal trucks like so many leaves. But we did not say all that much. No, not much at all.
The University of Virginia, like virtually all universities, is a corporation. It requires revenue. It needs to generate funds. There is an operating budget, and expenses must be met, among them the expenses of maintaining me in the English department, and my friends in music, architecture, and religious studies.
That universities are becoming more corporate in orientation and aim is news to no one. We—like every other school that aspires to a certain status, a certain measure of success—have added layer upon layer of administrators. We have brought on no end of fundraisers. More than that, many of the deans once charged with overseeing academic affairs are now also out seeking money from donors. A story in the New York Times tells us that over the past two decades, colleges and universities in America have doubled their full-time support staff. Enrollment has increased only 40 percent, full time instructors rose by only fifty, and many of those new instructors are non-tenure-track. The article goes on to say that
the growth in support staff included some jobs that did not exist 20 years ago, like environmental sustainability officers and a broad array of information technology workers. The support staff category includes many different jobs, like residential-life staff, admissions and recruitment officers, fund-raisers, loan counselors and all the back-office staff positions responsible for complying with the new regulations and reporting requirements colleges face.1
With these changes, a new institutional culture is coming into being. Universities now teem with people who must do what people who work in corporations do: be responsive to their superiors, direct their underlings, romance their Blackberries, subordinate their identities, refrain from making mistakes, keep a gimlet eye always on the bottom line. Organization men and women have come, and they are doing what they can—for an administrator must administer something—to influence the shape of the university. Are they having an influence on the students? Often they don’t have to, for many of our students—not all, many—are already organization men and women. Though “organization man” is not the name in favor now; the current term of art is “leader.”
How does a young person begin to qualify to become what is now called a leader? The essayist William Deresiewicz talks about the endless series of hoops that students have to jump through now if they hope to get into the right colleges: “Classes, standardized tests, extracurriculars in school, extracurriculars outside of school. Test prep courses, admissions coaches, private tutors.” What you get at the end, he says, are “great kids who [have] been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers.”2 They are, as one member of the generation observes, “excellent sheep.”
All colleges and universities want leaders. They recruit them from high school. They cultivate them once they have arrived. Colleges are determined to graduate leaders and send them into the world to become prosperous and grateful alumni. But who is a leader? A leader is someone who is drawn to organizations, learns their usages, internalizes their rules. He merges his identity with that of the organization. He always says “we.” He starts at the bottom, a leader in training. Then he progresses, always by gradual steps, as close to the top as his powers will allow. He begins “mentoring” other leaders. In his ascent, he is assiduous to get along with people. He blends in like a white moth on a white-washed picket fence. Everyone likes him. He gives no offense, and, where possible, he takes none. He questions the presiding powers, but in the manner of a minor angel, inquiring into the ways of his more opulently fledged brethren.
In “London,” perhaps his best-known poem, Blake takes on the role of one of the biblical prophets—Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah—and rambles through the great city. What he sees stuns him. He is sick to articulate rage about it. The human aspirations to kindliness, community, and gentleness have been drowned in hypocrisy. The little chimney sweeps cry “Every black’ning Church appalls.” The sweeps, orphaned, sold into something tantamount to slavery, get no succor from the church. Their cries blacken an already black hulking monolith. The soldier’s sigh “Runs in blood down Palace walls.” Wars far away—in America, among other places—have sent soldiers off to risk their lives, not for noble ends, but to suppress others’ liberty and open up new markets for British merchants.
But perhaps worst of all in Blake’s London is the state of love. (Blake greatly values heterosexual love—is in love with it, in fact.) The wandering prophet, edging toward rage, about to go over to Rintrah, as Blake liked to put it, hears “How the youthful Harlot’s curse / Blasts the newborn Infant’s tear / And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.” Prostitution is to Blake one of the worst human depravities. The man of property, subject to an arranged marriage, flies to the prostitute. She gives him an escape from his loveless marriage; she gives him some measure of intrigue and excitement; she also gives him syphilis, which infects his wife and ruins his marriage.
In Blake’s view, the church should engender a community of loving-kindness. The army should encourage bravery in just wars. People should meet and love regardless of finances and social class. Sexual joy should be the culmination of real attraction of body and mind, whether sanctified by marriage or not. Prophets should not be compelled to rage blindly through the streets of London, witnesses to human despair. “I mark,” says Blake, “in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” The prophet should offer wise and genial counsel and not be compelled to tremble with rage.
The engineering student sits in the fiction writer’s office and asks questions about her craft. This fiction thing, this art thing, what is it about? What is it about exactly? He has read some novels and plans to read many more. His grade point average is high. His SAT scores are also impressive. A nearly perfect score on the verbal test—he makes sure to mention this. He is—he knows—very smart.
But this fiction thing and poetry as well. How does one begin? (The fellow who wrote The Crying of Lot 49—what was his name?—he was an engineering student too, right?) There are, he’s heard, guidebooks that give step-by-step instructions. Does the teacher advise trying one?
The teacher’s way of writing fiction is to find an image, something that lodges in her mind for no reason she can understand. She writes the image down. She describes it as well as she can from a vantage point that is—maybe—not quite her own.
And then what? The student is truly interested.
She waits to see what will happen from there.
Sometimes something happens. Sometimes nothing.
This is writing? This is what you do?
Other people do it differently. But yes. I wait to see what will happen. She tells the student that if she lets her attention float with just the right amount of freedom, she’ll eventually go somewhere she’s fascinated by going.
Why don’t you just start with what fascinates you?
I don’t always know, the writer confesses. I don’t always really know.
Satan weeps frequently. It’s surprising, but true. In Blake’s epic, “Milton,” Satan is a cultivated, thoughtful, highly sensitive specimen of what the eighteenth century liked to call a Man of Sensibility. He is not overwhelmingly intellectual. He appears to put feelings before thoughts. Nor is he the fiery, rather charismatic figure that Milton conjures up with a massive more-than-Achillean shield and a spear to which the tallest Norwegian pine tree is but a wand. Blake’s Satan has no tail, no claws, no fangs, no cloven foot, not even an odor of pitch on arrival and departure. This Satan is urbanely kind. He is Hayley, the man who brought Blake out of London to Felpham, so Blake the genius might be saved. Of course there are the miniatures, which Blake does not wish to paint. “When Hayley finds out what you cannot do / That is the very thing he’ll set you to,” Blake complains. There are also some tensions in sensibility: Hayley, who is Satan, is rather on the refined side. “Hayley on his toilette seeing the soap / Cries, ‘Homer is very much improv’d by Pope.’” Hayley prefers Pope’s refined translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey to Homer’s actual unflinching vision. Being on the toilet, close to his odorous humanity, makes Hayley long for purity, long for Pope.
Hayley—and Satan, too—love poetry. They are drawn to poets; they find them mysterious, alluring, perhaps rather enviable. But then comes the question: why should they, Satan and Hayley, not be poets as well? Already they have succeeded brilliantly at what they have set their hands to do. Hayley is good at business, better than good. As for Satan—here matters get more complicated. Satan has a cosmic role: he presides over time, clock time, ordering, duration. He is the lord of Chronos. All forms of regulation, consistency, and order fall under his power. He grinds time the way a farmer grinds wheat. No sand grain passes through the glass of time without Satan’s awareness and approval. He propels the sun punctually through the houses of the zodiac. He measures the shadows on the moon’s white face. He is God as a watchmaker, God as a supreme engineer.
But this is not enough for him. Satan also wants to be a poet. He is infatuated with Palamabron, the giant figure who wields the harrow. Palamabron breaks in order to create again; he engraves the soil. His work is sustenance to those who hunger in spirit as well as body. Palamabron concentrates all that Blake feels to be true about true artists. An idealization? Yes, maybe. But Blake deals in giant forms—grand, emblematic concentrations of force.
Finally Satan prevails upon Los, father of the eternals, to let him take Palamabron’s harrow from his hands. What happens then? “Satan labour’d all day—it was a thousand years.” Or at least it probably feels that way to Blake—the age of Pope and Dryden and Joshua Reynolds and Locke and Hobbes is a desert of tedium to Blake. It probably feels like a millennium. Engineers—people who want to understand art, draw blue prints, and then get to work constructing things—are now the lords of light who live where true thinkers and artists should reside. A mess!
The mess has a double dimension, though. Palamabron’s poetic attendants—Blake calls then “gnomes”—take over Satan’s time-grinding mills. They get drunk as a tribe of monkeys and stumble around singing the songs of Palamabron. Minutes presumably last hours now; sometimes seconds probably expand into days; some days go blink and are gone. Another mess! The gnomes want to get back to the field, start engraving, start creating again—though getting drunk and messing with temporality is probably diverting to them for a little while.
Satan always wants to grasp the harrow—he wants to be lord high commissioner of everything and creator spirit, all at the same time. He wants to dominate time—as the bureaucrat of the minute—and also to live outside of time where real creation takes place. He wants to engineer odes.
Sometimes Blake loses all of his patience with Satan and wants to purge him out and away. Get thee behind me, and all of that. In “Milton” there is a culminating scene in which Blake, possessed by an apocalyptic fury, goes on about being washed clean in the blood of the lamb and purging away all of the non-human, until “Generation is swallowed up in Regeneration,” nature is swallowed up by true human culture. No more Satan then, no more crippling dualisms, just the bliss of ongoing creation, which Blake calls Eden.
Yet at other times one feels that Blake rather likes Satan, much as he rather liked Hayley. “Corporeal friends are spiritual enemies,” Blake famously said. Yes, perhaps. But perhaps only to the measure that artists, those spiritual questers, allow them to be. Palamabron could presumably have told Los—the executive faculty of the mind, the spirit of the age, whatever he might be—to Take Off when he demanded the plough for Satan. Artists need Satan to run the world. There must be surgeons and airline pilots and directors of academic fundraising. Satan is after all “Prince of the Starry Hosts / And of the Wheels of Heaven,” and in this there is some honor—as long as Satan retains his place and stays off Palamabron’s rightful turf.
Artists need a Satanic side sometimes, too. You’ve got to know how to butter your parsnips, Frost said. (“Provide, provide!,” he cries out to his old crone who was once a star of the silver screen and is now scouring the front steps “with pail and rag.”) Satan often knows where the butter dish is stored.
It can be tempting for the artist to give up and hand everything over to Satan. Or to be too compliant when Satan asks: Are there books with blueprints for how to write a poem? Of course there are, the weary and neglected writer replies. Good ones, too. She resolves that tonight maybe she will have a peek.
The contemporary artist can be prone to forget what he stands for in a way that Blake never did. Or he can get weary, as Blake surely did, of endorsing his ideals in a culture that cares little for them. Blake knew what he wanted: love that exalted lover and beloved. He knew that the measure of a society is the care, affection, and wisdom that it expends on children. Blake disliked war; he preferred what he called “mental fight.” But he surely preferred just wars, like the American Revolution, which gladdened and amazed him, to unjust ones. He wanted poets to be prophets and to call things as they saw them. He told us these things in “London.” He seems to have meant them. He left his giant forms to remind us.
Hulk Hogan and those Monster Trucks are giant forms in their own ways. They are, I suppose, Satan’s idea of poetry at its very worst: obvious, noisy, and lucrative. They are such gross caricatures that in time even Satan is probably made weary of them. He would dearly love it, I half believe, if Palamabron in his current form would take the harrow out of Satan’s hands and tell Hulk, who seems as amiable as Hayley, that it is time to go home. But the contemporary Palamabron has experienced deconstruction and pragmatism and cultural studies, and he knows how to see the world with what Nietzsche called a “perspectival seeing.” He doubts his every reflex, Palamabron does. He cannot love what he loves. He cannot believe in eternal truth or everlasting beauty. So now he abides Satan who in his heart probably does not want to be tolerated half so well.
For why did the administrators who seem more and more to dominate the academic scene come to academia in the first place? Why didn’t they stay in business where the salaries are higher, the perks cushier, and where everyone seems to receive weekly and gratis a zippy, new, hand-held wireless device? Maybe they came because they wanted to learn things—enduring things, humane things. They wanted to be in a place where people talked about Plato and Blake and Shakespeare and Schopenhauer, rather than exclusively about Hulk Hogan and the bottom line. I sometimes think that there are more potential intellectual idealists among the administrators than among the faculty. But as long as we professors can’t tell them exactly what is wrong with Hulk Hogan and the Monster Trucks, what are they supposed to do? As long as we can’t say why Shakespeare is better than the next episode of Jersey Shore, how will they help us and help universities to be enduring centers of learning and of art?
If you do not cultivate (and discipline) Satan, he will grow ever more powerful and ever more pragmatic. He will come to represent worldly values and nothing else, and his confidence in these values will grow and grow. So when Satan in his current guise finally tells Palamabron to fall down and worship him, what will—what can?—Palamabron do?
- Tamar Lewin, “Staff Jobs on Campus Outpace Enrollment,” The New York Times (20 April 2009): <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/21/education/21college.html>.
- William Deresiewicz, “Solitude and Leadership,” The American Scholar (Spring 2010): <http://theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/>.