A Case for, and an Appreciation of, Invention

By Saf Shams

“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 3, William Blake)

Illustration credit: Sanjan Randhawa

The Romantic movement of the late 18th century was a multi-pronged one, with the larger themes spotlighting individualism, nature, imagination, and emotion, to name a few. But I would like to draw your attention to another of the many heads of this proverbial hydra: invention.

Born in 1757, William Blake would go on to have a largely under-the-radar career throughout his life and have his works delved into in seriousness only starting in the 20th century by critic Northrop Frye (no, the UofT building was, unfortunately, not a literary critic, but it was named after one). The most awe-inspiring piece of Blake’s work is a testament of that theme of invention held by the romantics, a book full of artistic renditions which could be categorized as one of the first attempts at a graphic novel: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The book’s font is simply gorgeous, with little graphics of wispy lines and miniature figures filling the space between paragraphs, accompanied by much larger pictures of figures drawn in a fantastic style. As well, if you were to look at this book, you’d instead think it a book from a fantasy world. And I highly suggest you do take a look at it as it is freely available on www.blakearchive.org.

Beyond the artistry of printing, however, lies a book full of ideas which were revolutionary and representative of the ideas of Romanticism. A piece that depicts Hell as more than the traditional big-bad-hellfire place, condemns the strict structure of organized religion, delves into the nature of humanity, and, most of all, explores the contrarian unison of the abstract. But the criticism I shall leave to more learned scholars than myself, such as Frye.

Rather, what I’d like to draw attention to and appreciate is the beauty of invention. Blake joins together artistic innovation with literary revolution to express his work. Invention, then, is the muse of this piece. And just as the Romantics like Blake dared to step into the uncharted and invent such remarkable traditions, I invite you to invent as we dance about on the parapets of Valentine’s Day.

Now, just to be clear, I am not advocating for you to create a whole new style of printing or create a magnificent book challenging the widespread beliefs of our times in a stunning masterpiece. Blake was a Romantic with a capital R, and I am advocating to all the romantics with a lower-case r on Valentine’s Day, so the expectations are much more mundane but equally faithful to the idea of invention. You need not officiate a wedding between Heaven and Hell by reinventing the divine, but inventing a cute nickname for your loved one, making a recipe with a new and interesting twist for your family, or creating a new handshake with your best-friend all qualify.

That’s a small lesson we may choose to take from this piece by Blake and perhaps a contradiction within itself: even when separated by time and place, we are connected by something that livens existence up a little bit, invention.

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