Photo credit: The Block Museum of Art

On Feb. 7th I had the privilege of participating in a public program organized by the Block Museum (Northwestern University) as part of its William Blake in the Age of Aquarius exhibition. My talk considered the way artists and intellectuals in the sixties looked to Blake as a prophet of nuclear apocalypse. In his book Where the Wasteland Ends, Theodore Roszak — who popularized the word “counterculture” in the late 60s — argued that Blake spoke to an “apocalyptic era” threatened by nuclear holocaust. Blake “saw in the steady advance of science and machines,” Roszak wrote, “a terrifying aggression against precious human potentialities—and especially against visionary imagination.” For Roszak, Blake had embodied modern society’s self-destructive hyper-rationality in the figure of Urizen, the

William Blake – Ancient of Days

personification of abstract law, order, and reason – seen measuring the universe with a compass in the iconic Ancient of Days. In a seminar on Blake, poet Allen Ginsberg claimed the “triumph of Urizonic mentality is the “neutron bomb.” As G.K. Chesterton quipped, “A madman isn’t someone who’s lost his reason. He’s someone who has lost everything except his reason.” Urizen, for Roszak and Allen Ginsberg, prefigured the kind of insane “reason” Kubrick satirized in Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and the Blakean Bruce Conner in his Bombhead (2002).