My newsletter gets sent out 8 times a year – you can subscribe here. This is the newsletter that was sent on 1 August 2019…
Higgs’ Blakean Octannual Manual #13
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs
Time for the Announcement Klaxon – I have a BRAND NEW BOOK coming out on September 5th – it is short, cheap and called WILLIAM BLAKE NOW:
Much of how we understand Blake now is framed in the ideas of Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Jim Morrison and the 1960s counterculture in general. We think of him in terms of anti-authoritarian individualism, sexual freedom, the New Age, and so on. Which is all very well, but the 1960s were a long time ago and we have learnt a lot since then. In this little book, I explain why I think that Blake is more relevant to the 2020s than he was to the 1960s.
It’s a breezy 15,000 words, only £5.99 in paperback and £3.99 on Kindle, and pre-ordering is heroic.
This will be followed by a full length book called WILLIAM BLAKE VS THE WORLD in 2021.
Whenever I talk about optimism in public, I’m always careful to stress the difference between blind optimism and pragmatic optimism. Blind optimism is in denial of reality and it doesn’t usually end well. Since my last newsletter, the UK has suddenly become awash with blind optimism.
No doubt this current political Project Optimism is only designed to survive until the coming general election, but it’s interesting to see the impact it is already having. The algorithms of social media and the business models of broadcast and print media don’t usually allow optimism through in any form, so it’s not surprising that a fair chunk of the electorate are giddy drunk on it all. This has led to the dawning realisation among commentators that perhaps just complaining about everything isn’t enough, and that it might be necessary to imagine something worth building.
I fear that this public wave of blind optimism will be used as an argument against optimism of all types – especially if the dreaded “optimism = leave, pessimism = remain” narrative catches on – so it’s worth defining what I mean by pragmatic optimism. I’ll give an example.
A couple of weeks ago I went to Romney Marsh to visit the little black cottage where the late film director Derek Jarman lived in the final years of his life, after he had been diagnosed with HIV. It is in a deeply strange landscape, so unrelentingly bleak and eerie that it transcends horrible and becomes almost wonderful.
Here, in the shadow of the Dungeness nuclear power station, Jarman decided that he would use his last days to grow a garden. That the land around his cottage was shingle, and that very little would grow in the salt-sprayed damp, did not stop him. He understood the limitations and worked with them. He erected raised beds, little stone cairns and obelisks, and found by trial and error which plants would survive. The fame of his garden grew, and it is now seen as much a part of his legacy as his films. In the bleakest of situations, he made something beautiful that still impacts on people decades after he died. The garden now attracts a steady stream of visitors (although pilgrims should keep to a respectful distance as the house is privately occupied).
This is pragmatic optimism in a nutshell – understanding the difficulties, not being in denial of them, and then choosing to be optimistic and proactive regardless, because logically and spiritually it is the best available option. It is easier to criticise and moan, of course, but what does that get you? Not a garden like this, that’s for sure. Not something anyone will treasure.
On his Red Hand Files website, the singer Nick Cave described this position beautifully: “Either we respond to the indifference of the universe with self-pity and narcissism – as if the world has in some way personally betrayed us – and live our lives in a cynical, pessimistic and self-serving manner; or we stand tall, set our eyes clearly upon this unfeeling universe and love it all the same – even though, or especially because, it doesn’t love us. This act of cosmic defiance, of subversive optimism, of unconditional and insubordinate love, is the greatest act of human beauty we can perform.”
When put as powerfully as that, you have to wonder why this attitude is such an outlier. True, some people psychologically get off on hopelessness, but for such a mass movement it has very little going for it.
I like Cave’s phrase ‘subversive optimism’ very much, incidentally. I think I might try using that instead of ‘pragmatic optimism’, and see how that goes. I’ve also just discovered that the Tumblr/fandom world have a word for the attitude Jarman demonstrated, hopepunk, which is another phrase I’m all for. The ‘-punk‘ suffix suggests a DIY attitude, and an awareness that the task of building a worthy reality tunnel falls to you alone. You’re not trying to make everything perfect for everyone. That’s not your responsibility. You’re just trying to improve the place you find yourself in, on your own terms.
All this is hardly new. As the old proverb says, “better to light a candle than to curse the dark.” The cosmos is vast and dark and cold. The stars are only a tiny part of it, and they are a long way from each other. But still, they are stars.
On the side of Jarman’s cottage is painted an excerpt from John Donne’s seventeenth century poem The Sun Rising, which address the sun itself. It ends:
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere
If you’re in Edinburgh and want some hopepunk stand up, get yourself along to see Andrew O’Neill’s new show WE ARE NOT IN THE LEAST AFRAID OF RUINS, WE CARRY A NEW WORLD IN OUR HEARTS. I’ve seen a preview and it is great – heartily recommended.
BBC Radio 4 Extra has put together a career overview of the poet Salena Godden, which you can and indeed should listen to here. I am planning to clone Salena, incidentally – I admittedly haven’t worked out the technical side of this yet, but I’m thinking that raising an army of about 500 Salenas is the way forward.
You should also know that the entire Tool back catalogue is finally hitting streaming services tomorrow – and that a new album will follow at the end of this month.
Midlands folk – I’m doing a talk on Saturday August 31st at the Moseley Folk Festival, come along and say hi, there will be books!
Over near Seattle, Andrew Shaw of The Silent Academy has put out a book of couplets. These are impossible things written down in two lines that begin with the word imagine – and then the word imagine is deleted. I wrote a foreword for his collection.
I wrote a thing for The Quietus about the Lovecraftian horror that is Yesterday by the Beatles.
I also wrote about Eton and all the murder.
That’s it for this newsletter – I will report back in at the equinox. I’m sure you’re now thinking of scrolling all the way back up to the top to find the pre-order link for William Blake Now, aren’t you? Tell you what, to save you the trouble, I’ll just put it here again. You’re welcome!