Blake, Trump, and the Road of Excess: An Urban Legend

June 16, 2016 | 3 books mentioned 1 4 min read


A few weeks ago I was reading Leo Damrosch’s new biography of William Blake, Eternity’s Sunrise, and came across the following:

The library in Donald Trump’s extravagant edifice on Central Park in New York reportedly displays [a] Proverb of Hell, transformed into a self-congratulatory slogan: ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’

covercoverI blinked and set about hunting down the source of this rumor (which Damrosch does not cite). Who could resist the irony? Donald Trump, the poster boy for capitalist braggadocio, has two of William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” (from his The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) framed on the wall of the library in his Trump International Hotel & Tower overlooking Central Park: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom;” “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” Either Trump completely misreads Blake (who wrote elsewhere, “Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on…”), or he is reading Blake in a completely Blakean way, thumbing his nose at 21st-century progressives who, much as they share Blake’s scorn for the “moral law,” still moralize against greed and conspicuous consumption. As it happens, this is a story about misreading, but not by Trump. “It’s a lie, but it’s a good lie,” as my undergraduate history professor used to say.

My research led me to a New Yorker article from 2003 about the competition between Trump’s luxury condos and the Time Warner Center across the street. New property owners at the Time Warner Center were greeted by mocking signs hung on the Trump Tower: “Your views aren’t so great, are they?” Ben McGrath went to investigate.

A recent visit to a fifty-first-floor penthouse apartment of Trump’s (price: twenty-one million) confirmed one of the basic claims: the views are undeniably ‘awesome’ and ‘unobstructed.’ A representative of the Time Warner Center last week refused to offer a comparative view. For fifty dollars, however, it was possible to buy a ticket to ‘Rooms with a View of Central Park,’ a design exhibit sponsored by Architectural Digest and held on the seventy-third (i.e., forty-sixth) floor of One Central Park. On Wednesday afternoon, several dozen interior-design buffs ambled through two elegantly furnished condos with such varied luxuries as leather floors and a television in the gentleman’s closet.

In the ‘library dining Room,’ which featured framed proverbs from William Blake (‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom;’ ‘You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough’), a group of well-dressed women gathered near the window to take in the view. Competing for their attention with the trees in Central Park was a mess of satellite dishes and antennae planted atop Trump International, and the boastful sign.

“One Central Park” is the name of the south tower of the Time Warner Center, located on Columbus Circle, whereas One Central Park West is the physical address of the Trump tower. Confusing? Yes. Nonetheless, it is clear from the context that the Blake proverbs occupy a dining room in a private condo in the Time Warner Center, not the Trump building (which is visible from the windows on the tour).

Mike Goode, a Blake scholar, read the episode differently and used it to open his article “Blakespotting,” which appeared in 2006 in Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, one of the most esteemed and most rigorously edited literary journals. According to Goode, “the penthouse atop Donald Trump’s 1 Central Park West complex boasts a ‘Library Dining Room’ that features framed proverbs from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” He goes on to note, “it is difficult to defend the position that the proverb, once dislocated from Blake’s copperplate and relocated onto the gilded walls of a luxury penthouse, cannot mean what Trump seems to want it to mean there.”Although Goode is right about Blake’s predilection for proverbial lines that are easily removed from their context and deployed elsewhere, he himself has disregarded context in favor of the keywords Blake and Trump.

covercoverGoode’s report was picked up by several other scholars whom one would expect to know better. According to Jonathan Roberts in his book William Blake’s Poetry, an introduction aimed at undergraduates, “The fact is that Blake’s works, both visual and poetic, often appear in contexts that seem not only irrelevant, but sometimes even antithetical to their original meanings. An example is the use of Blake by Donald Trump” — and then Roberts quotes from Goode. Roger Whitson, in a blog based on a panel on digital humanities at the 2014 meeting of the Modern Language Association, mentioned “Donald Trump puts a Blake quote on the top of Trump Tower” as an example of how Blake’s “images and words form a kind of pre-Internet creative commons with subsequent artists, amateurs, makers, and public figures.” When Goode recycled the story in another article six years later, he placed the proverbs more concisely (and even more misleadingly) on “Donald Trump’s dining room walls.” Finally, it turns up in Damrosch’s book. The story seems poised to become part of Blake lore, as enduring as that of William and Catherine Blake reading Paradise Lost aloud while naked in their Lambeth garden: a tempting anecdote, but most likely apocryphal.

Of course, even if it isn’t Trump’s, the appropriation of the proverb in a luxury Manhattan condo is still worthy of comment. Roads of excess indeed lead to palaces, and if Blake’s professional readers (mostly academics who wear their genteel poverty as a badge of honor) are uncomfortable with the deployment of the proverb, it is entirely Blakean to shatter our sense of propriety; Blake’s proverbs are all about overturning conventional notions of respectability. Yet Trump is now a frontrunner in a presidential campaign, and these same Blakean proverbs are used in a February 2016 article explaining, and in part justifying, his ascendancy.

In this campaign, candidates’ language has come under intense media scrutiny, as it should. One commentator in 2015 described the election rhetoric so far as “unnervingly free of thought.” Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Trump was itself a baffling verbal exercise, compared to “performance art…even slam poetry.” In such a climate, when Facebook memes daily attribute words to people (living and dead) who never said them, it is incumbent on scholars — on all of us — to read responsibly, to distinguish between truth and what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness,” even when the latter would better fit the story we want to tell. As Blake said elsewhere, “He who will not defend Truth, may be compelled to defend a Lie.”

Image Credit: Wikipedia and YouTube.

is Professor of English at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and the author of Blake and the City.

One comment:

  1. Will never understand why there can be a blockbuster line of comments (in this case, for a recent essay on Ernest Hemingway) in one area of The Millions and the tumbleweeds are rolling and crickets chirping in another comment section. Enjoyed the rich stew of associations in this essay! Also very serendipitous, as just this morning, one of the Washington Post’s (now banned by Trump) editorials was on the topic of the truly Olympian scale of Trump’s “untruthiness.”

    The season is right for more naked Blake reading in the Murphy gardens!

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