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Blake, Beethoven, and the Tragic Genius of Outsiderdom

Blake, Beethoven, and the Tragic Genius of Outsiderdom

There is a peculiar kind of loneliness seeded by the sense of being on the outside of the culture and the society inside which one is supposed to live. But along with its quiet anguish, outsiderdom brings its own recompenses and rewards. Hannah Arendt considered it a power and a privilege for the intellectually awake person. Pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff saw it as necessary for the visionary scientist. James Baldwin believed that the role and responsibility of the artist was to wage a “lover’s war” on his or her culture, tirelessly pushing in from the outside to upend society’s complacent interior stability.

But perhaps the greatest, most abiding case for this state of outsiderdom as a centerpiece of genius — outsiderdom both self-chosen and imposed by the peculiar burdens of brilliance — comes from William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827). So argues Alfred Kazin, one of the most insightful and elegant writers of the past century, in his beautiful opening essay for The Portable William Blake (public library) — the indispensable 1977 volume that gave us Blake’s searing defense of the imagination and the creative spirit.

In his 1951 memoir, Kazin himself had written beautifully about the loneliness of outsiderdom — an experience so acute and so defining of his own life that it became the lens through which he examined Blake’s genius and its implications for our broader understanding of art, innovation, and the creative spirit.

William Blake (left) and Ludwig van Beethoven.
William Blake (left) and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Kazin writes:

In 1827 there died, undoubtedly unknown to each other, two plebeian Europeans of supreme originality: Ludwig van Beethoven and William Blake.


Blake had instinctive musical gifts; in his youth and old age he spontaneously, when in company, sang melodies to his own lyrics. Musicians who heard them set them down; I wish I knew where. Even on his deathbed, where he worked to the last, he composed songs. But he had no formal musical knowledge and apparently no interest in musical thought. Self-educated in every field except engraving, to which he had been apprenticed at fourteen, his only interest in most ideas outside his own was to refute them. He always lived and worked very much alone, with a wife whom he trained to be the mirror of his mind. The world let him alone. He was entirely preoccupied with his designs, his poems, and the burden — which he felt more than any writer whom I know — of the finiteness of man before the whole creation.

Beethoven’s isolation, Kazin argues, was of a different nature — less conscious and less voluntary — and its consequences for the life of his creative spirit were therefore different as well. He writes of the great composer:

He was separated from society by his deafness, his pride, his awkward relations with women, relatives, patrons, inadequate musicians. He was isolated, as all original minds are, by the need to develop absolutely in his own way. The isolation was made tragic, against his will, by his deafness and social pride. At the same time he was one of the famous virtuosos of Europe, the heir of Mozart and the pupil of Haydn, and the occasional grumpy favorite of the musical princes of Vienna. His isolation was an involuntary personal tragedy, as it was by necessity a social fact. He did not resign himself to it, and only with the greatest courage learned to submit to it. If he was solitary, it was in a great tradition. As he was influenced by his predecessors, so he became the fountainhead of the principal musical thought that came after him.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Unlike Beethoven, Blake severed contact with his culture and his past completely and deliberately — something at the heart of the timelessly electrifying letter in which he defended himself against a patron who had accused him of being too unconcerned with the real world and too animated by the life of the imagination. His outsiderdom was fully self-elected — Blake flung the gates of his culture wide open with his own self-taught hands and marched boldly through them, his back forever turned to the citadel of convention.

Kazin, who two decades earlier had written beautifully about how our vantage point shapes our reality, writes:

Blake’s isolation was — I sometimes think it still is — absolute. It was the isolation of a mind that sought to make the best of heaven and earth, in the image of neither. It was isolation of a totally different kind of human vision; of an unappeasable longing for the absolute integration of man, in his total nature, with the universe. It was the isolation of a temperament run on fixed ideas; and incidentally, of a craftsman who could not earn a living.

Kazin considers Blake’s outsiderdom as an orientation of spirit both absolutely singular to the great artist and abounding with parallels across a great many facets of creative culture, familiar to those who have voyaged along the artist’s path:

There are analogies to Blake’s position in a world which has so many displaced persons as our own; but they are inadequate. Blake’s isolation may be likened to that of the revolutionary who sits in his grubby room writing manifestoes against a society that pays him no attention, with footnotes against other revolutionaries who think him mad. It was that of the author who prints his own books. It was that of the sweetly smiling crank who sits forever in publishers’ offices, with a vast portfolio under his arm, explaining with undiminishable confidence that only through his vision will the world be saved. It was that of the engraver who stopped getting assignments because he turned each one into an act of independent creation.

Celebrating Blake as “one of the subtlest and most far-reaching figures in the intellectual liberation of Europe,” Kazin once again contrasts Blake’s uncommon outsiderdom — the wellspring of his genius and visionary creativity — with that of his famously brilliant contemporaries, the Beethovens of creative history:

Beethoven could not hear the world, but he always believed in it. His struggles to sustain himself in it, on the highest level of his creative self-respect, were vehement because he could never escape the tyranny of the actual. He was against material despotisms, and knew them to be real. Blake was also against them; but he came to see every hindrance to man’s imaginative self-liberation as a fiction bred by the division in man himself. He was against society in toto: its prisons, churches, money, morals, fashionable opinions; he did not think that the faults of society stemmed from the faulty organization of society. To him the only restriction over man are always in his own mind.

Kazin contemplates how Blake’s particular paradox sheds light on our general notion of genius:

It is the mark of a genius like Blake, or Dostoevsky, or Lawrence, that what is purest and most consistent in his thought burns away his own suffering and fanaticism, while his art speaks to what is most deeply human in us.


But there is even more in Blake’s total revelation of himself, a rage against society, a deeply ingrained personal misery, that underlies his creative exuberance and gives it a melancholy and over-assertive personal force. He defends himself in so many secret ways that when he speaks of himself, at abrupt moments, his utterances have the heart-breaking appeal of someone who cries out: “I am really different from what you know!”

In a closing passage that calls to mind James Baldwin’s abiding wisdom on how the artist’s struggle for integrity illuminates the universal human struggle of being, Kazin writes:

Blake’s tragedy was the human tragedy, made more difficult because his own fierce will to a better life prevented him from accepting any part of it… That is the personal cost he paid for his vision, as it helps us to understand his need of a myth that would do away with tragedy. But as there is something deeper than tragedy in Blake’s life, so at the heart of his work there is always the call to us to recover our lost sight. Blake was a man who had all the contraries of human existence in his hands, and he never forgot that it is the function of man to resolve them.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly indispensable The Portable William Blake with Virginia Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, then revisit Blake’s stunning engravings for Paradise Lost and Kazin on embracing contradiction and the power of the critical imagination.

Published August 8, 2016




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