While I am waiting to see if my first book finds a publisher I’m writing a second one with the title, Agony and Ecstasy in Modern Art. I am looking at works of art from 1800 onwards and analysing them in terms of modern anxieties and relating them to how we can live more meaningful lives. Here is an extract on Urizen, one of Blake’s symbolic figures.
UPDATE – JAN 2017 The second book is in ‘cold storage’ as I am now working on a book about Blake’s Book of Job and Buddhism.
William Blake will be a significant figure throughout this book and representative of my overall thesis. The titles of his hand-made illuminated books alone signal one of my fundamental themes: The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, and Songs of Innocence and Experience. The idea of ‘contraries’ and how to reconcile them is crucial to understanding Blake’s work. This idea of contraries is very similar to the Buddhist warning; “When the opposites arise the Buddha Mind is lost.” (Eihei Dogen – 1200-1253). Admittedly this is difficult to put into practice but it is undeniable that much of our personal suffering comes about through our clinging to pleasurable experiences and mentally fighting against unpleasant experiences. Buddhism has a third position which some think is near to Kipling’s advice in his poem, If. We treat the pleasant and unpleasant in the same way, as equals. If I find an art gallery which rejects my paintings then that is the reality; it is no use me railing against the gallery or harbouring resentment. No profit, in me taking it personally.
The complexity and richness of Blake’s world make some contemporary artists and writers seem somewhat asinine and anaemic. His personal mythology requires detailed investigation; the meanings are not immediate. It would take a life-time to understand even a fraction of his unique vision. The best we can do here is to take a few of his images and texts and analyse them in terms of my overall thesis.
I’ve chosen this first image as it is so iconic and an arresting design, rich with symbolism. The figure is Urizen who is represented as a demi-urge dividing the world with his compass. Elsewhere Blake depicts Newton wielding compasses. The obvious symbolism is that the rational mind divides the world and experiences into abstractions and thereafter these symbols are taken as reality and become falsehoods. As, always with Blake there is more to it than that!
In their extraordinarily insightful commentary on Blake’s, Book of Urizen, Kay and Roger Eason use the phrase ‘spiritual travel.’
In The Book of Urizen Blake depicts the state of consciousness which opposes spiritual travel in the character and actions of Urizen. In so doing, Blake provides an extraordinary statement in apophatic terms about the state of consciousness spiritual travel requires. . . to discover how to initiate a spiritual journey, we must first recognise the adversary who prevents it. Blake’s Urizen is the adversary; through Urizen Blake exemplifies all the errors of a reasoning mind and the reality it builds, the fallacious reality which obscures and obstructs the path to infinite perception. Urizen represents a state of consciousness. . . derived from the separation of body and soul which. . . generates a world centred in corporeal needs and desires.
(Compare this to modern interpretations of the nature and action of mind which show how we construct our worlds through our senses, thoughts, past experience and desires.)
Clearly the Easons are using the term, ‘spiritual travel’ as an equivalent of my term, ‘self-inquiry’. They, and Blake, are interested in the metaphorical spiritual journey, exemplified by Joseph Campbell, spiritual teachers of different contemplative traditions, and by many others.
‘Urizen’, when spoken or pronounced sounds like, ‘your reason’ and ‘your horizon’. Blake sees a fundamental error in taking what we experience through our senses as the whole truth or reality of existence. That is the horizon of our experience unless we are aware of our prejudices, biases and recognise that the sensory world alone presents a false picture. Interestingly Buddhism calls the senses, the Six Thieves, because our attention goes out to grasp whatever the senses latch onto as being desirable! (In Buddhism thought itself is the sixth sense). If we simply live from our opinions and sense experiences, the senses in this understanding are stealing our original serenity and contentment.
Famously, when Blake was asked about his inspiration he replied, “I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would question a Window concerning Sight. I look through it & not with it.”
He also wrote, the fool sees not the same tree as a wise man.
This is easier to understand but perhaps difficult to actualise in everyday life. How many times do we have a knee-jerk reaction to beauty? “Oh, what a fantastic sunset!” or “Aren’t those flowers lovely?” We are not really looking with our minds. An artist sees everything as if for the first time. That is why a landscape painter will notice every tone of green, every shape and every texture even if she is ‘off duty’ and simply out for a countryside walk.
The devaluation of human potential could also be illustrated today in the claustrophobic world of consumerism. The sensory life, even one where relationships are elevated to the ultimate purpose of life, is limiting and hardly superior to animal existence. Again, this is similar to the Buddhist, samsara: the endless pursuit of happiness with its attendant frustrations, pain and creation of false desires (a world ‘centred on corporeal needs and desires’). Non-Buddhist readers may be wondering, at this point, how we break the ‘habit-circuit’ and live with greater awareness. In a nutshell, by meditating; but more about this as we progress.
Some readers, alternatively, may be thinking, what harm in the sensory life? The distinction between living a life based on sensual stimulus (this includes thought and feeling) and one based on what I’m going to term holistic-present-moment-awareness is crucial to my thesis. More about this as we make headway. What Buddhists and Blake agree about is that the world we think we inhabit is a false construction (also borne out by much psychological and neurological research). One simple example: you are in a room with people you’ve never met. As you talk together you take an immediate dislike to Jones. You don’t know why! However, if you practised mindfulness/self-inquiry, you would realise he reminded you of that bearded man at college who humiliated you. Alarm bells would ring and you would be alerted and make allowances for your prejudice. Multiply this example thousands of times and you may get a sense that we each live in a limiting, subjective world of phantoms, where we react unconsciously to events triggered by our individual quirks and past experiences.
Blake identifies Urizen with the law makers of religion. God knows ( forgive the pun) what he would make of ISIS! Perhaps he would say, “I told you so”! Urizen is the partial rational mind and that is why he is so convincing and dangerous. We can see him at work in government manifestos, international affairs and authoritarian parenting. Blake has him as a ‘fallen angel’ who used to live with the Eternals where contrary states co-existed in harmony.
There is a church in Newcastle upon Tyne which seems to exemplify Urizen; I wonder if he is the pastor there! It has a slogan above the door, Hate Evil! No: love evil; otherwise you will end up projecting it onto minority groups or the ‘other’ in a foreign land. See how radical Blake (and true spirituality) is? Blake ridiculed and castigated institutional religion, and who can argue against the awful facts of the many atrocities carried out in the name of God? (By loving evil, I don’t mean become a serial murderer; I mean recognise the Shadow in yourself – hatred, greed and delusion in Buddhist terminology – and do something about it; start to convert and cleanse these poisons. Even that nasty thought you have about the woman your husband spends time with is there to be acknowledged and let go of! Nurture compassion towards the anger within; like a loving mother being patient with her unruly child.)
Blake sees a marriage of heaven and earth -where opposites co-exist – as being essential to living as a fully conscious being. To quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to human Existence. From the contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive which obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Urizen is there as an example of how not to live! He took up arms and fought ‘immorality’ as a nineteenth century Christian missionary (thou shalt not!) who hated sex, dancing and freedom of expression; in a word, the life-force. Modern day Urizens, people, who would rather reform others than themselves, can be seen in cult leaders, other religious leaders, some politicians and in psychotic murderers. However we do not need to look at these extremes to see Urizen at work all around us! And not many of us ever expected a President Urizen to be voted into office in the USA, but it has come to pass.
And Urizen, craving with hunger,
Stung with the odours of Nature,
Explor’d his dens around.
He form’d a line & plummet
To divide the Abyss beneath.
He form’d a dividing rule:
He formed scales to weigh;
He formed massy weights;
He formed a brazen quadrant;
He formed golden compasses. . .