Thursday, May 14, 2015

`Enchain the Mind in Voluntary Shackles'

When I read the line in “London” about “mind-forg’d manacles,” I think of a superficially similar metaphor coined half a century earlier: “enchain the mind in voluntary shackles.” As usual, Blake is complaining about his fellow citizens of England. Not for them – about them. As with so many professional rebels – Thoreau comes to mind – Blake’s distaste for his neighbors is barely concealed. Politics is personal when rooted in self-righteous antipathy for one’s fellows. The second phrase, applied to the vanity of human nature, is Dr. Johnson’s in The Rambler #137, published in 1751:

“To expect that the intricacies of science will be pierced by a careless glance, or the eminences of fame ascended without labour, is to expect a particular privilege, a power denied to the rest of mankind; but to suppose that the maze is inscrutable to diligence, or the heights inaccessible to perseverance, is to submit tamely to the tyranny of fancy, and enchain the mind in voluntary shackles.”

In modern parlance, Johnson refers to “self-sabotage.” If the alternatives are hard work or surrender, many choose the less laborious course. With its hand maidens self-pity and resentment, laziness is at the root of much impotent despair. However, I would like to temporarily remove that final phrase from its place in Johnson’s moral essay and “re-contextualize” it, as the boys down at the bowling alley would say. I know from experience that works of art can enslave me, for seconds or decades. The music of Bill Evans, the paintings of Edward Hopper, the poems of Philip Larkin – my relations with each can be fairly described as willing submission. One surrenders to great art. But even in such surrender we can see the active collaboration of a well-exercised sensibility. The longer one reads Larkin, the more we learn about the single line at hand and the entire body of his work, the more we “enchain the mind in voluntary shackles.”


Subbuteo said...

Too hard on William Blake. He was certainly a queer, and in some ways marvellous fish but not, I think, a misanthropist. A rebel at the time of the French Revolution - his type sparked of much of the decent political reform of the 19th Century.

Miguel (St. Orberose) said...

Blake meant Mankind, not the English in particular. And I never read anything about him that showed him having anything but love for people. No one who knew him intimately ever accused him of misanthropy, arrogance or self-righteousness. And for his soul-crushing ordeals, he never considered himself but a happy man.