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In his poem The Human Abstract, one of the Songs of Experience first published in 1794, William Blake wrote that:

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody poorwhite_colon


In an earlier manuscript draft, shown to the right, Blake had crossed out a different line. It read:

Pity could be no more
If there was nobody poor

This change suggests that Blake wanted to emphasise that it is neither natural nor accidental that some people are poor, but a consequence of human action, indeed action by us, the same people who do the pitying.

Human_abstract_draft_BL_Notebook_28a

But the change also bears a further interpretation: that it is in the pitying that we make people poor. It is not only that we could not pity people had we not already made them poor. If that were all Blake had meant, he could have used the past perfect tense:

Pity would be no more,
If we had not made somebody poorwhite_colon

Nor does Blake want to offer us an easy and innocent way to put this right in the future. If that were all he meant, he could have written a hopeful open conditional:

Pity shall be no more,
If we do not make somebody poorwhite_colon

Instead, in the published version, Blake uses the modal preterite did. The word did does not indicate that the action – not making somebody poor – is completed and in the past, but that it is remote (i.e. unlikely or not the case). Did indicates the unlikelihood of our not making somebody poor. The claim is what grammarians call a remote conditional. Blake, I think, means something like this:

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody poor
white_colon

(But we do / we did / we will do)

However, while the modality is remote, the time envisaged is unspecific. It could be past, or present, or future, or – probably the most natural reading – time in general. The implication is that we are in the habit of making somebody poor. It is not just something that we have done in the past, but that we do again when we pity them.

In suggesting this, Blake also satirises the apologetic view, held by some in his time, that the existence of poverty was in at least one respect fortunate: in providing the opportunity for the virtuous exercise of pity. He does so by employing ambiguity of voice. In altering his first line from ‘Pity could be no more’, to ‘Pity would be no more’ Blake changed the proposition from a statement of indisputable logical necessity which anyone might make, to a falsifiable prediction which invites us to wonder whom we are hearing speak.

And when we wonder who speaks, we find that Blake has rendered the answer thoroughly unclear. It is, after all, possible to read the first two lines as though spoken by someone who holds the apologetic view. Something valuable – pity – would be lost if poverty were abolished. Blake was certainly aware of this possible reading, because in I heard an angel singing, another manuscript poem left out of the published Songs of Experience, he gives very similar words to a Devil’s curse.



I heard a Devil curse
Over the heath & the furze
Mercy could be no more
If there was nobody poor


And pity no more could be
If all were as happy as we
At his curse the sun went down
And the heavens gave a frown

Blake_I_heard_an_angel_2_stanza

But in The Human Abstract we are not told who is speaking. It is perfectly possible to read such lines as though spoken by someone who seeks the abolition both of poverty and of its cause and effect: an insufferably disjoint pity. The words as published might be spoken by Devil or Angel. They express both innocence and experience in a single phrase:

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poorwhite_colon

After unsettling the reader in this way, and making a similarly ambiguous double-statement about mercy and unhappiness, Blake explains how we have got to the position in which both Devil and Angel could say the same thing. The rest of the poem is a devastating account of how we rationally persuade ourselves that the suffering we pity is not of our making and that we are acting meritoriously in pitying it, and how our pity thereby becomes corrupted – a selfish love – in its dependence on this unacknowledged suffering.



And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we
white_semicolon

And mutual fear brings peacewhite_semicolon
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tearswhite_colon
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his headwhite_semicolon
And the Catterpiller and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eatwhite_semicolon
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vainwhite_colon
There grows one in the Human Brain.


blake_human_abstract_plate_44

For Blake, pity is, among other things, a trap that we have made for ourselves. It draws us closer to those whom we wish to help, at the same time as it raises us above them. Those who pity are abstracted from the suffering of others. Pity creates condescension even as it seeks closeness. Worse still, we have made ourselves unaware that it does so, because in pitying we so heartily approve of ourselves. Pity, once made abstract by priests and scholars – the Catterpiller and Fly of Blake’s poem – mystifies and corrupts true relationships with others. We have become, through reason and abstraction, incapable of feeling in an immediate, warm, human way towards others.

However, Blake, as he often did in describing contraries, is not simply denouncing the sophistry of pitying. He is identifying something internally contradictory in pity, corresponding to the ‘two contrary states of the human soul’ that structure the Songs of Innocence and Experience. Yes, the apologetic justification of poverty is self-serving nonsense. But righteous denunciation of suffering is an insufficient response. It pretends to be uncorrupted by what it criticizes, and sets itself above it, as though it were not otherwise implicated. But since there can be no such uncorrupted perspective, such indignation is hypocritical too. We are caught up in the suffering that we witness, and we are mistaken if we think we can help while remaining outside, or above, it.


Furthermore, a naïve faith in pity is also insufficient. Blake concludes Holy Thursday, one of the Songs of Innocence, which describes an eerily regimented congregation of charity children, with the following line:

Then cherish pity lest you drive an angel from your door.

But even this seemingly innocent maxim undercuts itself, in providing a prudential, self-interested reason for virtue. Our feelings for others are also our feelings: concern for what comes to our door. To cherish, after all, is to value, or to hold dear. The innocent naïvely and falsely counterpose pity to selfishness, failing to see that pity also depends on selfishness. Human pity has to be – in at least one important sense – selfish. It belongs to us; we value it; and we hold it dear. This is both what makes it function, and corrupts it.

Blake is therefore not contrasting alternatives, but describing and criticising two contrary but mutually sustaining states. Reason divides our motives neatly in two: selfishness just for ourselves, and altruism just for others. But this is not the way that humans feel pity.


Blake_Holy_Thursday

This seems to me a powerful insight. Pity in the eighteenth century, after all, was both one of the great forces behind the support given to social and humanitarian movements, such as the anti-slavery campaign. At the same time, it was also, and among the same people, a sign of the supporters’ refined sensibilities. To feel wounded by accounts of slavery was a sign of one’s civilized sensitivity to the pain of others, of fine feelings unshared by the slaves who felt only their own pain. That this disjointness, as I term it in Other People’s Struggles, did not diminish the effectiveness of the anti-slavery movement – I argue that it may well have enhanced it – shows how correct Blake was to identify its doubleness.


Blake was also right to contrast the disjoint sympathy of pity with the spontaneous, warm, reciprocal concern that grows up between those similarly placed. Think of the conjoint, mutual, unmoralizing sympathies of the child-sweeps in The Chimney Sweeper, another of the Songs of Innocence, and contrast them with the disjoint, moralized, institutionalized charity of Holy Thursday.

Since Blake’s time, we have learned to be even more suspicious than he was of fine feelings as motives for helping behaviour. Pity has to a large extent been displaced by empathy, a form of fellow-feeling which seeks to diminish the distance between us and the suffering. Through imagination, and sometimes more than that, we seek conjointness.

Yet, to a degree that its advocates seem hardly to realize, empathy has in turn been made problematic by the proliferation of claims of unrecognized difference. If it is patronizing to pity others, it is often disrespectful to imagine that one can share others’ pain. Conjointness has proved elusive, and not only to outsiders, but also to those who seek to build their movements around shared identities and common predicaments.


Songs_of_Innocence,_copy_B,_1789_(Library_of_Congress)_object_16_The_Chimney_Sweeper


Social movements are a good place to examine these changes. How has the place of the outside sympathizer changed since social movements first began to appear in the late eighteenth century? Has it become especially problematic today? Or was it always so? Does it arise in every type of movement and activity, or only in some? Why, how and when do outsiders choose to participate in other people’s struggles? Why, how and when are they welcome? What sort of problems does their participation raise, and how have they been addressed? Can they, indeed, be solved?

My book Other People’s Struggles is an attempt to answer some of these questions. It proposes a theory to explain why, when and how outsiders participate in within social movements, and tests it with a series of historical case studies, ranging in time from the late eighteenth century anti-slavery movement to the anti-globalization movements of the present day.

You can find out more about the structure and contents of the book by clicking here. But before we leave Blake, let me finish by saying something about what I take from him, since he doesn’t appear in Other People’s Struggles.

There are three things especially worth consideration:

First, Blake suggests that the motivations of those who sympathise with others from outside are not simple. Their ‘selfless acts’, and their motivating feelings, as well as the feelings they arouse in the objects of their sympathies, are complex and contradictory. They are a matter of experience as well as innocence.

Secondly, he shows that the contradictions are caught up in each other. They are, in the proper sense of the word, ambivalent. The voices of innocence and experience cannot easily be separated. They emerge from a common source, and they interact.

Thirdly, Blake tells us where, after a long search, we will find this source. It lies, he suggests, in the Human Brain.

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IMAGE CREDITS: WILLIAM BLAKE, PITY (1795) (MONOPRINT, WITH INK AND WATERCOLOUR) TATE GALLERY, LONDON / WILLIAM BLAKE, DRAFT OF THE HUMAN IMAGE LATER THE HUMAN ABSTRACT AND I HEARD AN ANGEL SINGING FROM THE NOTEBOOK OF WILLIAM BLAKE (THE ROSSETTI MANUSCRIPT) (c 1787-c 1847) BRITISH MUSEUM DIGITISED MANUSCRIPTS ADD MS 49460 PAGE 107 (REV) AND PAGE 114 (REV) / WILLIAM BLAKE, THE HUMAN ABSTRACT FROM SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND OF EXPERIENCE (1795) (COPY L) YALE CENTER FOR BRITISH ART / WILLIAM BLAKE, HOLY THURSDAY FROM SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND OF EXPERIENCE (1789) (COPY G) YALE CENTER FOR BRITISH ART / WILLIAM BLAKE, THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER I FROM SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND OF EXPERIENCE (1789) (COPY B) LIBRARY OF CONGRESS / WILLIAM BLAKE, FIVE ILLUSTRATIONS FROM THORNTON’S VIRGIL (WOODCUTS, 1821).