Blake’s Beasts

This is a chapter from my book in progress.

This is another striking engraving, almost mandala-like in its design and symmetry. There are some beautiful colour versions including this one. (My commentary is for the black and white engraving; if you want to compare them see the Blake Archive online.)

God at the top of the composition points down to the circle below Job where two beasts are enclosed on a circle. They are Behemoth with a human ear and a scaly Leviathan upturned in a seascape. Wicksteed sees them as monstrous, ‘terrible in their magnitude and their might, but unillumined by intelligence, or the knowledge of brotherhood.’

When we consider the natural world and its many ‘food-webs’ we soon realise it is a case of eat and be eaten in the wild. Every life-form is preying on some other life-form in order to live and reproduce. There is a lot of sex, killing and devouring in nature! If we also reflect on the millions of years in which dinosaurs lived and ruled the earth the vision of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ becomes even more obvious. (The largest land animal that has ever existed throughout earth’s long history was a species of titanosaur. The fossil remains of one suggests that the creature weighed around 77tons, was 130 ft long and 66 ft tall. It lived around 100-95 million years ago – named by scientists as Patagotitan mayorum.)

This is a useful alternative picture to put alongside the television wildlife programmes which are so popular and are mostly upbeat and promote the marvels and wonders of nature.

Blake of course did not know about natural selection but if he had lived in the time of Darwin perhaps he would have embraced his account of the creation and evolution of nature (including human beings?)!

In his own words:

[Nature] is a Creation that groans, living on Death, where Fish & Bird & Beast & Man & Tree & Metal & Stone live by Devouring, going into Eternal Death, continually.

Jerusalem

From a human point of view this alternative view of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ is another example of dukkha. In human terms there is no meaning or purpose in all of the competition within species, or killing between species – the evolutionary biologist’s mantra is, ‘each generation of a species needs to get its genes into the next generation.’ If, like Richard Dawkins, you can accept that this is ‘the greatest story ever told’ – the title of one of his books about evolution – then you will probably understand human love, creativity and aesthetics as mere by-products of evolution.

It is sobering to think that Blake lived when the industrial revolution was in full swing. What would he make of space flight, atomic bombs, military drones, factory assembly lines, and the computerisation of warfare? Probably he’d say, ‘I told you so.’ My point is not to be a Luddite, but merely to suggest that technology has this knock-on exponential effect and we unconsciously start to ‘worship’ it instead of ‘God’ (or instead of prioritising human values such as equality, self-knowledge or peace of mind) – and there has been a phenomenon going in an opposite direction during this scientific and technological progress; a diminishing of the stature of human beings. We become mere cogs in the vast machinery of societies; as envisioned by Blake and countless writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Blake was concerned primarily about how the worship of Urizen (scientific materialism in our thinking) had a detrimental effect on consciousness and the ‘soul’ rather than being simply critical of science and technology per se.

Wicksteed says of this plate,

This design shows us the creation of the outer or natural world, which to Blake seemed but a shadow of the world within.

Joseph Wicksteed

Are we to believe that Blake was an out and out Gnostic; that he believed that the visible world was created by a demiurge and was intrinsically evil? Christopher Rowland explains that the bible itself is often ‘gnostic’ in terms of divine beings wielding power:

Of course the emergence of a contrast between an exalted divinity and lesser divine powers, and the opposition between God and Satan, are all deeply rooted in the bible. [. . .] other parts of the Hebrew Bible, suggest that, whilst God may have been the ultimate source of power in the universe, he was not the only one to wield such power.

Christopher Rowland

It is not my purpose in this book to trace all of Blake’s influences; sufficient to say that he read and admired Jacob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg both of whom believed in a ‘spirit world.’ The latter wrote The True Christian Religion where we see that he believed literally in spirits, ‘One day as I was talking with an angel. . . and ‘as I was walking around Hell. . ‘ Blake actually satirises him in A Memorable Fancy so Blake’s understanding of angels and spirits is ambiguous to say the least.

For our purposes it is irrelevant whether we understand these elements as literal or allegorical although the latter position will serve us best in the long run. It is far more crucial to grasp Blake’s prescriptive project concerning how to ‘cleanse the doors of perception.’ One thing is certain and that is Blake was concerned how to fully appreciate this world as opposed to any ‘afterlife.’

Let’s return to our original question, did Blake believe the material world was evil? Clearly, posed like this it is seen as absurd; how could someone who writes, ‘Everything that lives is holy’ believe that this world is evil! The only evil Blake is cognisant of is whatever reinforces Single Vision – but many factors make up this single vision and the transformation to Fourfold Vision is difficult and subtle.

Renunciation is a word often used in a Buddhist context; usually when someone decides to renounce ‘household life’ and become a monk. However, it can also be used to describe the Buddhist path followed by a lay person. Unfortunately the word has negative connotations and may have ascetic overtones.

Speaking personally I came to Buddhism out of despair; I was sick of suffering and knew that psychology, philosophy and any other ‘worldly’ prescription for my malaise was inadequate. I came to ‘renounce’ the ordinary method of looking for satisfaction in the usual places such as career, intellectual pursuits, cultural activities, relationships and so on. John Middleton Murray expresses the difference between material knowledge and spiritual knowledge very well:

The cry of the human soul is for ever more knowledge. Were the only knowledge to be had that of the Five Senses and the Reason, which reduces all things to an abstract sameness, this hunger of the soul would drive men mad; more knowledge would be only ‘a repetition of the same dull round.’ But this hunger of the soul can be satisfied. But it can be satisfied only if there is a knowledge of a different kind from that of Reason and the Five Senses: and this knowledge must be of such a kind that to know one single thing by its means is to know all. . . If he can see the Eternal Individuality in every thing, then at every moment of such knowledge, he knows not merely the particular thing but the mode in which it is real; the mode in which all things are real, and in which they are real. That mode is Eternity. In the knowledge of Eternity the desire of man for All is justified: in an eternal moment he can possess All, and in possessing All, he becomes All.

J Middleton Murray

This is similar to how Eckhart Tolle speaks of the difference between one’s ‘life situation’ and ‘being.’

What you refer to as your ‘life’ should more accurately be called your ‘life situation.’ It is psychological time: past and future. Certain things in the past didn’t go the way you wanted them to go. You are still resisting what happened in the past, and now you are resisting what is. Hope is what keeps you going, but hope keeps you focussed on the future, and this continued focus perpetuate your denial of the Now and therefore your unhappiness. . .Your life situation exists in time. Your life is now. Your life situation is mind-stuff. Your life is real. Find the ‘narrow gate that leads to life.’ Narrow your life down to this moment. Your life situation may be full of problems – most life situations are – but find out if you have any problems at this moment. Not tomorrow or in ten minutes, but now. Do you have a problem now?

Eckhart Tolle

If ever there was a poet of the Now it must surely be Blake.

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

(Eternity)

I think there is some equivalence between Blake’s Poetic-Genius and Eckhart Tolle’s ‘mindful’ focussing on the present. Both are eloquent about the identification of self with mere thinking and self-consciousness. In There is No Natural Religion Blake says:

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again. (emphasis added)

NNR

This is the real meaning of his ‘dark satanic mills.’ He often used the metaphor of mill machinery to stand for this mechanical, prosaic approach to life. Locke thought we come into the world as blank slates and that perception is passive. Blake disagrees and says we possess wisdom from the beginning and that our perception is heightened by the use of imagination and intention.

Innate ideas are in Every Man, Born with him: they are truly himself. The Man who says that we have no Innate Ideas must be a Fool & Knave, having No Conscience or Innate Science.

Annotation to Reynolds

Frye comments on this quotation:

Sense experience is itself a chaos. . . The wise man will choose what he wants to do with his perceptions just as he will choose the books he wants to read, and his perceptions will thus be charged with an intelligible and coherent meaning. Meaning for him, that is, pointing to his own mind and not to, for instance, nature.

Northrop Frye

We should now be able to see that Blake did not belittle or undervalue the natural world. He simply prioritised the Imagination and saw the ‘developed’ human being as the creator of her world; a creation accomplished by ‘cleansing the doors of perception’ anew in each moment. Blake concurs completely with Tolle’s ‘present moment’ – in Milton he has these wonderful lines:

There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find,

Nor can his Watch Fiends find it; but the Industrious find

This Moment & it multiply & when it is found

It renovates every Moment of the Day, if rightly placed.

Milton

This is no different to Soto Zen’s, ‘when hungry eat, when tired sleep, and when doing the dishes just do the dishes.’

 

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13 comments on “Blake’s Beasts

  1. A great read, Eric!

    Three quotations jumped up and down for my attention:-

    (1) ‘…but merely to suggest that technology has this knock-on exponential effect and we unconsciously start to ‘worship’ it instead of ‘God’ (or instead of prioritising human values such as equality, self-knowledge or peace of mind) – and there has been a phenomenon going in an opposite direction during this scientific and technological progress; a diminishing of the stature of human beings. We become mere cogs in the vast machinery of societies; as envisioned by Blake and countless writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries…’

    I’ve recently read Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Homo Deus’ a horrifying vision of the future which argues that we are in fact merely algorithmic machines and fit quite naturally into the computerised nightmare that’s upon us. It’s not a far cry from Gurdjieff’s ‘We are machines’ from which bit of paradoxical enlightenment, in The Fourth Way, there are ways out. Harari seems to be suggesting that there is no way out.

    One way out for Gurdjieff is to realise that there are at least three Forces: Affirming, Denying and a Third Force which is about arriving at a state of balance which can be reinforced by living with a proper balance of Emotion, Intellect and Action or Limbic, Neocortical, & background brain functions. I’ve been trying to formulate a response to Harari along these lines. Balance is the essence of Self-remembering which can keep us immune to all influences.

    (2) ‘…The only evil Blake is cognisant of is whatever reinforces Single Vision – but many factors make up this single vision and the transformation to Fourfold Vision is difficult and subtle.

    I’d forgotten about this. It’s a long time since I got my mind round Blake but it’s great to be reminded of it. Coming at it afresh, I wonder if Blake’s Single Vision is that which confines itself exclusively to one way of seeing things, through Intellect, or Emotion or Action, say. A possible Fourfold Vision, in Fourth Way terms is to recognise that there are Forces of Denying, Affirming, Third Force and then What One Does about it in life. I am here just musing.

    Single Vision locks us into one way, unbalanced, of Being which leads to distorted vision. Gurdjieff recommends doing things OTHERWISE for a start, at least.

    The reinforcement of Single Vision comes at us from all directions: the mania for sport, the gobbledegook of Chat Shows, the dumbing down of intellect in public discourse, the provocation of emotional responses to serious political issues, encouragement in the media of empty opinionating, headline blaring… all of which confuses the senses… makes them impure.

    (3) The quotation from Northrop Frye: ‘Sense experience is itself a chaos…’ It is normally clouded by ratiocination & reaction so it doesn’t come to us pure – hence the chaos? Gurdjieff advocates the reception of ‘pure impressions’ as being more important to the human digestive system than food & drink. ‘Cleansing the Doors of Perception’ is the antidote to Harari’s dire vision. It’s the Zen notion of ‘satori’ perhaps.

    Thanks, Eric, for making me think early in the morning!

    Liked by 2 people

    • erikleo says:

      “The reinforcement of Single Vision comes at us from all directions: the mania for sport, the gobbledegook of Chat Shows, the dumbing down of intellect in public discourse, the provocation of emotional responses to serious political issues, encouragement in the media of empty opinionating, headline blaring… all of which confuses the senses… makes them impure.”

      Yes, Blake personified all this as Urizen – very clever play on words: your horizon, your reason! It is risky to simplify but perhaps his position can be summed up in his, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would be as it is, infinite”! In Buddhism, anatta is an experiential ‘fact’ – the personality in Gurdjieff’s system? I refer to this expansion of consciousness by my easy-to-remember phrase: ‘the nightingale effect’, as I had this experience of two-fold vision (Blake) when coming upon a nightingale singing its head off in France. It is on my blog – perhaps you saw my video – it is titled Keats’ Nightingale?

      These experiences are not necessarily to be sought after but they are a sort of touchstone, showing that, in Colin Wilson’s phrase, ‘Ordinary consciousness is a liar’!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know this but I think Eckhart Tolle has been heavily influenced by Gurdjieff – his great ideas seem to be congruent with his…

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  3. erikleo says:

    Oops, I didn’t mean anatta was the same as Gurdjieff’s Personality! No- self is perhaps nearer to G’s Essence!? (I was thinking too fast, in my previous post!)

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  4. Tom Cummings says:

    A most thought-provoking post, Eric! Like Colin, I found numerous passages that “jumped up and down for my attention” – in my case, the biggest jumper was your discussion of coming to Buddhism out of despair. I came to Buddhism less out of despair and more out of exasperation at my continual failing to overcome any number of habitual patterns of unskillful behavior. Buddhism has finally taught me (or rather, is teaching me – the work is far from finished) that it’s not about becoming a better self, it’s about being less of a self. I am of course not surprised to find so much Buddhist wisdom in your post here, but am surprised to discover such Buddhist overtones in Blake, with whose work I am embarrassingly unfamiliar. I look forward to your book!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. erikleo says:

    Thanks for your comment Tom. A good place to start with Blake is Songs of Innocence & Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. You can see with the titles alone, Blake is interested in bringing ‘opposites’ together. He said ‘without contraries, there is no progress.’ That is one of the things that makes him radical and which I admire. A Buddhist sutra says – ‘when the opposites arise the Buddha-mind is lost’ (!) [Dogen]

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  6. During a rainy yesterday , I was thinking about all this! Gurdjieff has what I think is a neat way of classifying Influences: the things that could be said to reinforce Single Vision (‘the mania for sport, the gobbledegook of Chat Shows, the dumbing down of intellect in public discourse, the provocation of emotional responses to serious political issues, encouragement in the media of empty opinionating, headline blaring’ … power, ambition, paying the mortgage… etc) he would describe as A-Influences, by which the everyday Personality is bewitched; A-Influences are to be contrasted with B-Influences – those which can be gained from what we regard as ‘sacred’ texts – Blake’s writings, the Bible, Socrates’ thoughts, in my case Richard Jefferies in ‘The Story of My Heart’, Buddhist writings, Zen texts and so on; C-Influences are the Great People themselves whom we are rarely privileged to come across – Jesus, Gurdjieff, those who have had a profound influence on us through music and poetry, or even said things to us that have affected us greatly. We have to be careful whom we define thus!

    I’ve always been obsessed by the excitement of comparing ‘systems’ of thinking – extracting what appear to be same/similar concepts, processes, ideas going under different nomenclature. Many approaches – same/similar kinds of outcomes. So Blake, Zen, Gurdjieff, the Enneagram for me knit up together while always remaining integral to themselves. I suppose I aim for some kind of eclectic pot-pourri!

    ‘Without opposites, no progression’, for example, is well illustrated by the Pendulum notion in the Fourth Way. I have a Glob on it somewhere in my WordPress site. I use the Pendulum practically as an exercise to get to ‘Third Force’: I have people standing swaying to Pachelbel’s Canon physically being pendula and getting them, with an issue in mind about which they have identified ‘opposites’ (tops of the pendulum swing), gradually to stop at the bottom of the swing where, as if by magic, some third possibility emerges without conscious thought. A kind of ‘progression’…

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  7. http://wp.me/p1QjJc-dh this is the Link to one of the Pendulum globs!

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    • erikleo says:

      Thanks Colin, I look forward to reading it. Yes, A influences, B influences and so on make a lot of sense. I’ve also come across people referring to A Influences as ‘soap opera’!

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    • erikleo says:

      I’ve read your pendulum blog Colin. I introduced Nichol’s Living Time to my father when he was in his 70s and he greatly appreciated it. I think in zazen we are doing pretty much what you describe: not identifying with our thoughts and then in daily life recognising that the same urge is there to take one position dogmatically over the opposite. And coming back always to the here and now.

      One sutra starts;

      The Great way is not hard to live
      If you make your choices without grasping.
      Not holding on to like or aversion
      There is understanding with clarity
      But with a hair’s breadth of discrimination
      The universe is split into Heaven and Earth.
      If you wish to see what is there
      Better drop your for and against.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. JOHN SANDERS says:

    I just got back to this. I might understand it better on a re read. I can’t spot anything wrong with it. the states of the world, as planet earth, nature and human society are drastically worse now than in Blake’s time. Populations exploded with the industrialisation and urbanisation, and the planet is racing towards disaster, with or without a global nuclear war. I saw in guardian that people are noticing their vehicle windscreens no longer become spattered with dead insects. It seems decades since this happened. the top 1% control the rest of us and have hidey holes (carribean isles not as safe as they thought) and would happily see huge chunks of mankind perish. some might even fancy living on the moon or mars. some say t may is a puppet under the control of some multi billionaires. obama and george w bush are concerned about the divisions , inequalities and conflicts in US society, and obama wants to restore hope. Perhaps the only link from now to Blake’s time is industrialisation. previous millenia had their problems, but populations were much smaller and food sources plentiful. medieval monks got tired of salmon and chicken meals. civilisations rose and fell. now the threats to survival are global. hope to see further chapters soon. john s

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