Tag Archives: radicalism

Witness Against the Beast

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by E P Thompson.

Thompson Witness Against the Beast

E.P. Thompson’s Witness Against the Beast is a wonderful piece of history and criticism. Its subtitle “William Blake and the Moral Law” might have more accurately been “William Blake Against the Moral Law,” since that is the position expressed in Blake’s works. Thompson points the fact out again and again, while noting the earlier critics who have managed to ignore it.

“Inheritance,” the first of the book’s two sections, paints a cultural backdrop for Blake in the world of English antinomian religion. The second “Human Images” treats Blake’s biography and works in relation to that tradition and to the Republican and Deist impulses of the late eighteenth century. Thompson focuses on the Songs of Innocence and Experience, with some attention to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and commissioned paintings. He is very sympathetic to Blake, and avers himself to be a “Muggletonian Marxist” (the first term referencing an antinomian sect which may have influenced Blake through his family). At the same time, he seems careful not to project his own ideas onto Blake — much more careful than most Blake critics of my reading — and not to rashly infer lines of influence or authorial intentions.

The fifteen black and white plates in the book are very well chosen. In the course of illustrating Thompson’s points, they also make up one of the best possible collections of Blake’s images on such a small scale.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Alberto Toscano.

Toscano Fanaticism

Although “fanaticism” is a pejorative of highly varied applications, sometimes significantly opposite to one another, Alberto Toscano’s book is not a mere study of rhetoric. It delves into a long modern development of paradigms for the fanatic, ranging from the German Peasants’ Revolt to Islam to the French Revolution to Marxism.

Reading this 2009 book and considering current usage made me realize that “fanatic” has somewhat fallen out of vogue, with “extremist” taking its place in the vernacular. Chapter 2 had me reflecting on Q-anon under the category of “millenarian crisis cult.” A point of repeated emphasis is the divergence between viewing fanaticism as benighted irrational passion on one hand and uncompromising adherence to abstract ideals on the other. Although I was less familiar with the latter tendency, Toscano supplies many important instances of it from the eighteenth century to the present.

The examinations and arguments here engage a long span of continental philosophy, from Kant and Hegel to Agamben and Derrida. The penultimate chapter does a good job of rescuing Marxist insights on religion from being tossed out with the facile secularization hypothesis to which they are commonly attached. And the final chapter was of special value in its examination of the “political religion” diagnosis, where thinkers “consider extreme or illiberal political ideologies as types or perversions of religion.” Toscano admirably teases out the motives and consequences of such a move, and I was fortunate to have fresh in my memory a good narrative to anchor some of the high-flown analysis here, having read not too long ago Benson’s 1907 novel Lord of the World.

This book is a work of genuine theory, suspicious of recent intellectual trends, and alert to the accumulation of arguments around its focus. It is not at all an easy read, and I often had to make a second pass at a paragraph to be sure I had grasped the sense of it. Toscano also took as given the reader’s awareness of various modern thinkers, and if I had been just a little less well-read myself, I suspect that much of the attention I gave to this text would have been unrewarded.

Solomon’s Secret Arts

Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment by Paul Kléber Monod, from Yale University Press, is a recent release that may be of interest [HT Arts & Letters Daily, also].

Paul Kléber Monod's Solomon's Secret Arts from Yale University Press


“The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are known as the Age of Enlightenment, a time of science and reason. But in this illuminating book, Paul Monod reveals the surprising extent to which Newton, Boyle, Locke, and other giants of rational thought and empiricism also embraced the spiritual, the magical, and the occult.

Although public acceptance of occult and magical practices waxed and waned during this period they survived underground, experiencing a considerable revival in the mid-eighteenth century with the rise of new antiestablishment religious denominations. The occult spilled over into politics with the radicalism of the French Revolution and into literature in early Romanticism. Even when official disapproval was at its strongest, the evidence points to a growing audience for occult publications as well as to subversive popular enthusiasm. Ultimately, finds Monod, the occult was not discarded in favor of ‘reason’ but was incorporated into new forms of learning. In that sense, the occult is part of the modern world, not simply a relic of an unenlightened past, and is still with us today.”