Alan Moore on William Blake’s contempt for Newton

Published 5 December 2014

As a major show of the revolutionary William Blake’s work opens in Oxford, Alan Moore, the legendary comic book author, delights in the artist’s subtle satire of Isaac Newton.

  • It was during the Restoration, after the chaotic opening break of civil war where heads rather than polished balls were sunk in corner pockets, that the sport of billiards first became prominent and handed Isaac Newton a convenient metaphor on which to hang his laws of motion. This trick shot, predictably in a predictable and mechanistic universe, led to the table-clearing volley of acclaim cementing Newton’s godlike status, while enshrining his ideas as the sole rudder and the only sextant of the human mind in its ongoing expedition.

    In his later life, when having such a near-divinity both unemployed and unrewarded proved embarrassing, he was made Warden of the Mint. This posting, meant as no more than a sinecure, had not anticipated Newton’s post-apotheosis energies and drives. Within three years he’d overseen a Great Recoinage which revealed almost a fifth of hammered silver coins for counterfeits; eavesdropped in taverns, Holmes-like, posing as a harmless gin-sot; and had himself made a Justice of the Peace in all of the Home Counties. This allowed him to interrogate and sentence 28 rogue coiners who were subsequently hacked to bits at Tyburn. After this, now Master of the Mint, he next employed the same successful strategy in Scotland. The resultant common currency was the foundation stone on which was raised that currently precarious entity, Great Britain. His zeal undiminished, Newton went on to shift Britain from a silver standard to a gold standard without announcing it as such and helped create a number of those fiscal mechanisms, the recoil and ricochet from which have us so intractably snookered in the present day.

    No matter that he lost his shirt during the South Sea Bubble’s bursting in 1721 through speculating on derivatives. No matter that he spuriously shoehorned indigo into a spectrum which transparently had no more than three primary and three secondary colours, simply to ensure a fit with alchemical numerology and its apparent rule of sevens: by his death he had been elevated to the more-than-mortal station of a National Hero, as revered and as beloved as Lord Nelson, both his ideas and his status as an icon sacrosanct and unassailable. In its conceptions of itself and of its workings, in its pauper-trampling economies and even in the rainbow of its artists’ palettes, Isaac Newton was the architect and author of the entire world and world view into which Blake’s birth propelled him.

    In this watercolour-finished print (above), the two-dimensional original of Eduardo Paolozzi RA’s titan British Library doorstop, we can see the artist of necessity adopting a symbolic or satiric camouflage, a device with which to conceal his fiercely critical intent. The image was engendered only a few years after a red-capped Blake, inspired by France’s Revolution in those days before the details of the Terror became evident, had watched while Newgate Prison burned during the Gordon Riots. From the swift and harsh reprisals which ensued – the vigilante mobs, the lynchings, the sedition trials – Blake had absorbed the lesson that in order to present his shocking and incendiary visions without compromise or retribution he must first create a code or language, a mythology, a system of his own in both his painting and his poetry, a sacred discourse which might prove impervious to the profane.

  • William Blake, Newton

    William Blake, Newton, 1795.

    Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper. 46 x 60 cm. © Philadelphia Museum of Art.

  • The first thing which we notice about Blake’s Newton is that, as in the artist’s depiction of a two-eyed and two-handed Nelson taming the Leviathan, a literal resemblance is neither apparent nor intended. Rather, what’s portrayed is an idealised essence, an idea-form of Newton that in Blake’s perception hangs suspended in the cloudy medium of a mass imagination. Blake, conceivably, was practising low-tech spirit photography intent on capturing the glamour of an individual; what that person meant rather than what they were, or looked like, or presented as.

    It is Newton’s significance that is delineated here, and it does not appear as if in William Blake’s opinion that significance was necessarily benign. His Newton sits as if in judgement far above at least the intellectual cosmos, one forefinger prissily extended and dividers calibrating the strict limits of the real, eyes full of bland entitlement, the Nobodaddy demiurge of The Ancient of Days as a much younger man, with an expensive perm and Bullingdon Club membership. Hanging redundant over his left shoulder the white drape denoting a celestial nature is unfurled to form the parchment roll on which he makes his measurements, a thick-necked superhuman squatting in some rough-hewn and primordial paradise before time is commenced, a world of pure geometry without organic complications. Blake’s contempt, expressed in terms of ludicrously flattering idolatry, is obvious.

    Although the rational was a component of the Lambeth visionary’s cosmology, it did not dominate his view to the exclusion of less quantifiable considerations, such as those of spirit and of poetry. For Blake, the boundaries of Newton’s thought were the cold, stone parameters of an internal dungeon to which all humanity had been condemned without its comprehension or its knowledge. Despite the invigorating consequences Newton’s influence would have for a then-nascent industry, Blake would elsewhere describe this rigid and reductive pall as ‘Newton’s Sleep’, a drowse insensible to vision or to ethical restraint beneath which it appeared the world had fallen. Goya to the contrary, here the monstrosity was birthed not by the sleep of reason, but instead born from that sleep which reason represented. From our own industrially despoiled and bankrupted contemporary perspective, Blake’s view surely seems a product of extraordinary prescience rather than of the angel-addled madness which some of his less insightful critics have attributed.

    Blake’s satire here, for all its straight-faced classicism, is perhaps not very far removed from that of his contemporary and fellow Gothic Gilray in the savagery of its invective, nor is it without a hint of that artist’s not infrequent scatology. As Newton sits in single-minded concentration, crouched above his calculations and immune to the more fractal charm of blue and orange lichens spattering the rocky backdrop, his chill bench has the distinct appearance of a bidet or commode. Enthroned, a god of knowledge showers his pearls of wisdom on the species through a process of mere peristalsis, heedless of the fact that mankind’s dream-life is thus rendered a materialist latrine.

    William Blake: Apprentice and Master is at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until 1 March 2015.
    Alan Moore is a writer, performer and and patron of the Blake Society. He is best known for his work in comic books.