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Postscript: Blake’s Abnormal Psychology

Lest we drop off to sleep and dream that a few decades ago the subject of Blake’s lunacy passed quietly into the innocent and nostalgic half-light of primitive psychology, it might not be a bad idea to add a short postscript to Raymond Lister’s note. Abnormal Psychology: Current Perspectives is a hefty and up-to-date textbook widely used, for instance, in upper-level undergraduate courses, the early years of medical school, and the like. It was edited by a board of “contributing consultants” so long and so pee-aitch-deed and em-deed that it would put the editorial pages of some scholarly journals to shame. It professes the radical tolerance for mental differences of Laing and like-minded thinkers: “To see the manifest problems and illnesses of our society is to question the concept of the ‘well-adjusted person.’ To know the effect on language, literature, and art of the work of ‘mentally disturbed’ individuals is to be hesitant in pressing the claims of the homogenous ‘normal’ society as the greatest good.” “Acceptance means understanding.” “Establishing standard norms of acceptable behavior and labeling so-called inappropriate acts ‘abnormal’ has important consequences in terms of sanctioning a form of social control. Only by recognizing the importance of diversity and change does a society foster individual freedom and growth.”

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Then, in the section on “Psychoses,” a couple of pages after three of Van Gogh’s paintings are reproduced with a caption remarking how his paintings “are a powerful representation of the blending of psychotic chaos and artistic genius,” we come across a reproduction of Sin, Death, and Satan at the Gates of Hell, from Blake’s illustrations of Paradise Lost, accompanying a caption that I suppose the Paradise Lost picture is intended to document.

An early-nineteenth-century writer referred to William Blake as “an unfortunate lunatic whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.” A retrospective diagnosis of Blake would probably label him a paranoid schizophrenic, for he made no secret of the fact that he was “ . . . under the direction of Messengers from Heaven, Daily and Nightly.” Blake’s first hallucination involving divine personages occurred at the age of four, and succeeding “visions” probably provided much of the material for his illustrations of works such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, which includes Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell, shown above. This watercolor illustration depicts Satan advancing from the left, preparing to confront Death, right. In the center, thrusting them apart, is Sin. Flames writhe in the background, and to the right is Hell’s latticed gate.

Curtis L. Barrett et al., contributing consultants, Abnormal Psychology: Current Perspectives (Del Mar, Calif.: CRM Books, 1972), p. 249, fig. 12.2.

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