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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The Matrix Meets Midsummer Night’s Dream

sf image

Neo puts a hand to his head and touches his hair. This….this isn’t

real?

No, it is the mental projection…of your digital self. Lovers and

Madmen have such seething Brains, such shaping Phantasies, that

apprehend  More than cool Reason ever comprehends.

This_ is the world that you know. The world as it was at the end

of the twentieth century. It exists now only as part of a neural-interactive

simulation, that _we_ call the Matrix.  You’ve been living in a dream world, Neo.

This…is the world as it exists today. Are you sure that we are awake? 

It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream.

What _is_ real? How do you _define_ real? If you’re

talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste

and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

Tell them that I, Pyramus am not Pyramus, but Bottom the Weaver,

this will put them out of fear.

The earth, scorched . . .the desert of the real…We have only

bits and pieces of information, but what we know for certain

is that some point in the early twenty-first century

all of mankind was united in celebration, and then apocalypse.

We marvelled at our own magnificence…. the poet’s eye turns dreams to shapes and gives

to airy nothing a local habitation and a Name. . .

A singular consciousness that spawned an entire race -then you will see, it is

not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

If we Shadows have offended

think but this, and all is mended: that you have slumbered here while these

Visions did appear and this weak and idle Theme, no more yielding but a Dream.

Extinction

formosan clouded leopard

our children need to know what we have done

they need to learn about our deadly greed

and know in their blood and bones that

living alongside wildlife is the only way

into the future that

studying the ecology of slugs may save the planet

and that facing hatred, greed and delusion is the big deal

*

we’re all in the shit if we don’t tell ’em now

*

if all invertebrates

disappeared

homo sapiens

would

become

extinct

if homo sapiens

became

extinct

all

life

would

fucking

flourish

*

our children need to know what we have done

Darwin’s Frogs no longer leap in the shrinking wetlands of Chile

the Formosan Clouded Leopard no longer hunts in the mountains of Taiwan

the Sri Lankan Spiny Eel no longer swims in the rivers of Sri Lanka

the Eskimo Curlew no longer calls over the snowy grasslands of Greenland

the Santa Cruz Pupfish is extinct kaput

the Western Black Rhinoceros no longer trundles across African plains

the Angel Shark no longer swims in the Black Sea

the Crescent Nail-Tailed Wallaby no longer lopes across the Australian Outback

the Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Fox no longer gorges on figs in the forest of Panay

Pallas’s Cormorant no longer goes fishing in the polluted rivers or toxic lakes of Russia

the Labrador Duck is extinct       dead as a Dodo

the Javan Lapwing no longer flaps its wings in Indonesian skies

the Tahiti Sandpiper no longer plaintively pipes on the river banks of Tahiti

even our house sparrows are in the shit

*

there’s no time for complacency

the bottom’s fallen out of the ground

forget your satanic gun culture

don’t deny that you deny climate change

take your foul mouth some place else

(such as the asteroid belt) where you can do less harm

if you’ve never seen the devil look in a mirror

don’t pretend you can’t see         our children

need to know what we’ve done      what we’re doing

*

don’t give them the legacy of our single vision

smell the earth, wake up, hear the cries

now         this is what we are doing

 

*

Note: It is frightening but true: Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day . It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.

Centre For Biological Diversity

Blake the Ecologist

thel frontspiece

As I wrote recently to my brother, my research for my Blake/Buddhism book is anything but systematic! I get sidetracked and find I’m reading texts which only have a tenuous link to Blake.

This is okay up to a point but I have to be aware that it may be a procrastinating device!

I thought I’d make use of some of my reading to introduce various ideas about William Blake which may not be widely appreciated. I am writing this blog to sort out my own ideas apart from anything else! I am myself, only scratching the surface of Blake’s world and feel I need a few more years to really internalise him.

I’d like to start by showing that he is both a mystic and ecologist. ‘Mystic’ may be an unfashionable word today and I would supplement the word by saying that Blake is a sort of Gnostic Master who can provide directions and instructions for each of us to follow. (Or in the manner of the Kabbala)

To lead us out of a fragmentary state of consciousness into wholeness.

Also, to many readers who are only familiar with Tyger and The Lamb, I would like to dismiss once and for all the idea that his poems are simple and childish; the opposite is true. His whole ouvre is among the most complex in all of literature and that includes Shakespeare, Dante and Milton. Needless, to say while his shorter poems can be understood from a few readings his prophetic poems cannot; they must be read again and again – with the help of commentaries and background reading.

Although Blake is not a pantheist of the likes of William Wordsworth, he nevertheless venerates nature – but not as something separate from consciousness (which may align him more with Bishop George Berkeley). He famously expresses this view in his reply to someone who asked about looking at the sun:

I assert, for myself, that I do not behold the outward creation, and that to me it is hindrance and not action. “What !” it will be questioned, “when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea !” Oh ! no, no ! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty !” I question not my corporeal eye any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it, and not with it.

As I am more or less thinking aloud here I’d like to consider The Book Of Thel which is one of Blake’s early works and not so well known. In this illustrated manuscript Blake devises a dialogue between consciousness and materiality. Thel, who personifies female pubescent innocence, asks plants and animals about existence, particularly about the impermanence of life (very Buddhist!). In turn she asks a lilly, a cloud, a lump of clay and a worm these existential questions. What, I can hear you cry, talking plants and animals; how naively anthropomorphic! Ah, well, appearances can be deceptive and one thing Blake is not, is anthropomorphic. Here is the first section:

(The lines in bold are my commentary. Odd spellings are Blake’s own spellings.)

THEL’S MOTTO
Does the Eagle know what is in the pit?
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole:
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod?
Or Love in a golden bowl?

I

The daughters of Mne Seraphim led round their sunny flocks.

All but the youngest; she in paleness sought the secret air.

To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day:

Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard:

And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew.

O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?

Why fade these children of the spring? born but to smile & fall. 

Ah! Thel is like a watry bow. and like a parting cloud.

Like a reflection in a glass. like shadows in the water. 

Like dreams of infants. like a smile upon an infants face,

Like the doves voice, like transient day, like music in the air; 

Ah! gentle may I lay me down, and gentle rest my head,

And gentle sleep the sleep of death. and gentle hear the voice

Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time.

I have underlined the lines which I relate to these words from a Buddhist scripture:

Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world/a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a child’s laugh, a phantasm, a dream.

The lilly answers Thel:

The Lilly of the valley breathing in the humble grass

Answer’d the lovely maid and said: I am a watry weed,

And I am very small, and love to dwell in lowly vales;

So weak, the gilded butterfly scarce perches on my head.

Yet I am visited from heaven and he that smiles on all.

Walks in the valley. and each morn over me spreads his hand

Saying, rejoice thou humble grass, thou new-born lilly flower,

Thou gentle maid of silent valleys. and of modest brooks;

For thou shalt be clothed in light, and fed with morning manna:

Till summers heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs

To flourish in eternal vales: then why should Thel complain,

Why should the mistress of the vales of Har, utter a sigh.

She ceasd & smild in tears, then sat down in her silver shrine.

And Thel answers:

Thel answered. O thou little virgin of the peaceful valley.

Giving to those that cannot crave, the voiceless, the o’ertired.

Thy breath doth nourish the innocent lamb, he smells thy milky garments,

He crops thy flowers. while thou sittest smiling in his face,

Wiping his mild and meekin mouth from all contagious taints.

Thy wine doth purify the golden honey, thy perfume,

Which thou dost scatter on every little blade of grass that springs,

Revives the milked cow, & tames the fire-breathing steed.

Thel understands that everything in nature is interconnected; she is learning to be a good ecologist for someone so young. However, she can’t see the purpose of her life. She enquires:

But Thel is like a faint cloud kindled at the rising sun:

I vanish from my pearly throne, and who shall find my place?”

Why not ask the cloud?

“Queen of the vales,” the Lily answered, “ask the tender cloud,

And it shall tell thee why it glitters in the morning sky,

And why it scatters its bright beauty thro’ the humid air.

Descend, O little cloud, & hover before the eyes of Thel.”

The Cloud descended, and the Lily bowd her modest head,

And went to mind her numerous charge among the verdant grass.

II

“O little Cloud,” the virgin said, “I charge thee tell to me,

Why thou complainest not when in one hour thou fade away:

Then we shall seek thee but not find; ah, Thel is like to Thee.

I pass away, yet I complain, and no one hears my voice.”

Why do I have to suffer? Why do loved ones have to die? “Our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

The Cloud then shew’d his golden head & his bright form emerg’d,

Hovering and glittering on the air before the face of Thel.

“O virgin, know’st thou not our steeds drink of the golden springs

Where Luvah doth renew his horses? Look’st thou on my youth,

And fearest thou because I vanish and am seen no more,

Nothing remains? O maid, I tell thee, when I pass away,

It is to tenfold life, to love, to peace, and raptures holy:

Unseen descending, weigh my light wings upon balmy flowers,

And court the fair eyed dew, to take me to her shining tent:

The weeping virgin trembling kneels before the risen sun,

Till we arise link’d in a golden band, and never part,

But walk united, bearing food to all our tender flowers.”

Is this a scientific/ecological description of the water-cycle? Everything is in flux and interconnected. Perhaps we can allow things to change, in our minds, if we do not cling to phenomena?

“Dost thou O little Cloud? I fear that I am not like thee;

For I walk through the vales of Har and smell the sweetest flowers,

But I feed not the little flowers; I hear the warbling birds,

But I feed not the warbling birds; they fly and seek their food;

But Thel delights in these no more, because I fade away,

And all shall say, ‘Without a use this shining woman liv’d,

Or did she only live to be at death the food of worms?'”

The cloud is about to give some unsavoury philosophical explanation – you have a purpose ; you are food for the worm!

The Cloud reclind upon his airy throne and answer’d thus:

“Then if thou art the food of worms, O virgin of the skies,

How great thy use, how great thy blessing! Every thing that lives

Lives not alone, nor for itself; fear not, and I will call

The weak worm from its lowly bed, and thou shalt hear its voice.

Come forth, worm of the silent valley, to thy pensive queen.”

Nothing is separate, including human beings. Birth, growth and death are sacraments – as Swinburne says: “eternal generation in which one life is given for another.” It is our “human all too human” (Nietzsche) view – our anthropocentric standpoint which obscures this eagle-eyed view. The aphorism at the head of the poem shows the two ways of looking at life; looking at particulars from the mole’s viewpoint and the sweeping wider-distance view of the eagle.

The helpless worm arose, and sat upon the Lily’s leaf,

And the bright Cloud saild on, to find his partner in the vale.

III

Then Thel astonish’d view’d the Worm upon its dewy bed.

“Art thou a Worm? Image of weakness, art thou but a Worm?

I see thee like an infant wrapped in the Lily’s leaf;

Ah, weep not, little voice, thou can’st not speak, but thou can’st weep.

Is this a Worm? I see thee lay helpless & naked, weeping,

And none to answer, none to cherish thee with mother’s smiles.”

The Clod of Clay heard the Worm’s voice, & raisd her pitying head;

She bow’d over the weeping infant, and her life exhal’d

In milky fondness; then on Thel she fix’d her humble eyes.

“O beauty of the vales of Har! we live not for ourselves;

Thou seest me the meanest thing, and so I am indeed;

My bosom of itself is cold, and of itself is dark,

But he that loves the lowly, pours his oil upon my head,

And kisses me, and binds his nuptial bands around my breast,

And says: ‘Thou mother of my children, I have loved thee

And I have given thee a crown that none can take away.’

But how this is, sweet maid, I know not, and I cannot know;

I ponder, and I cannot ponder; yet I live and love.”

Thel had never thought that a worm could be valued; Darwin said that life would disappear if it were not for the humble worm! What about coral reefs dying and climate change today. Is this a direct result of the Enlightenment valorization of Reason; a result of Cartsian dualism? Dualism sees a separation between mind and matter, subject and object. This ‘meme’ has led to us seeing a world of insentient matter, there for endless exploitation. Perhaps Gaia is having her revenge now with climate change. Thel may not have heard of Rene Descarte or dualism, but she is a natural philosopher.

The daughter of beauty wip’d her pitying tears with her white veil,

And said: “Alas! I knew not this, and therefore did I weep.

That God would love a Worm, I knew, and punish the evil foot

That, wilful, bruis’d its helpless form; but that he cherish’d it

With milk and oil I never knew; and therefore did I weep,

And I complaind in the mild air, because I fade away,

And lay me down in thy cold bed, and leave my shining lot.”

“Queen of the vales,” the matron Clay answered, “I heard thy sighs,

And all thy moans flew o’er my roof, but I have call’d them down.

Wilt thou, O Queen, enter my house? ’tis given thee to enter

And to return: fear nothing, enter with thy virgin feet.”

IV

The eternal gates’ terrific porter lifted the northern bar:

Thel enter’d in & saw the secrets of the land unknown.

She saw the couches of the dead, & where the fibrous roots

Of every heart on earth infixes deep its restless twists:

A land of sorrows & of tears where never smile was seen.

She wanderd in the land of clouds thro’ valleys dark, listning

Dolours & lamentations; waiting oft beside a dewy grave,

She stood in silence, listning to the voices of the ground,

Till to her own grave plot she came, & there she sat down,

And heard this voice of sorrow breathed from the hollow pit:

“Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?

Or the glistning Eye to the poison of a smile?

Why are Eyelids stord with arrows ready drawn,

Where a thousand fighting men in ambush lie?

Or an Eye of gifts & graces, show’ring fruits and coined gold?

Why a Tongue impress’d with honey from every wind?

Why an Ear, a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in?

Why a Nostril wide inhaling terror, trembling, and affright?

Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy?

Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?”

This penultimate verse illustrates the limited, shrunken life if it is merely based on sense-experience. A crucial word in Blake’s scheme is ‘corporeal’ and by the use of such personifications as Urizen and the Spectre he warned us of the dangers of cutting ourselves off from both nature and the numinous. He said:

Ancient poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses (his word for the indwelling spirit or Buddha Nature if you are a Buddhist) But once Reason was crowned kingmen forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.’ Put rather simplistically he sees wholeness where we have division and separateness. His ‘fourfold vision’ was the high point of a consciousness where the ‘doors of perception were cleansed’ and ‘everything appeared infinite.’

Some commentators find the last couplet unexpected but is it? Thel returns to Har, symbol of self-centredness. Why does she do this? Perhaps she is not yet strong enough to stand on her own feet and realise she is both a particular being and one with all existence? She has an excellent excuse of being young. There is plenty time for her to let Experience work on her inner self; plenty of time for her to make mistakes and learn from them.

The Virgin started from her seat, & with a shriek

Fled back unhinderd till she came into the vales of Har.

William Blake

220px-europe_a_prophecy_copy_d_object_1_bentley_1_erdman_i_keynes_i_british_museum

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. . .

Remembrance

Just in time for Remembrance Sunday. I took some lines from the following writers to compose this flash fiction.

Remembrance & Redemption

Apologies to St John of the Cross, George Herbert, George Barker, George Macbeth, Edward Lucie-Smith, David Holbrook and Jack Clemo.

In the darkness I crept out, my house being wrapped in sleep.

I am the man who has seen affliction. My enemy has driven me away and made me walk in darkness. He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones.

I leaned into the driving sleet. I found them between far hills by a frozen lake on a patch of deep snow. How could I have been the only witness? Whoever lived in that house must have seen what I saw and heard. So severe the black frost that it bent the white burden of the bracken. Only one red shoe and a discarded glove showed through the snow. I had a vision of the world’s dark deeds. I could smell incinerator smoke; I saw bodies shovelled into dark pits. Children buried in a frozen lake. How long must I bear the unbearable; how long in this shadow of death? I retraced my steps but only succeeded in going round in circles.

It goes, the fever leaves me – my clumsy tongue no longer bursts my lips. I wore a black band on my arm. I thought they’d crucify me; I heard howling throughout the dark night.

Two of them came like bears out of the white forest; one held me in his arms. Dead wood with its load of stones brought to life again. He touched me lightly on the cheek. I lay quite still. I threw away my care and left my fear and trembling behind. Bright sun flooded the forest floor.

I rose up from my ancient grave. Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright!

Design for Life

bruno-munari

My book (not yet published) is very much along the lines of Alain de Botton’s and John Armstrong’s Art as Therapy. In their book they unashamedly posit the idea that art should be didactic. What they mean is that contemplating visual art can help us to live more meaningful lives. They believe art appreciation should not just be an aesthetic experience but an existential one where questions such as, who am I? or, what really matters in this life? can be asked.

The two authors itemise some psychological frailties they think art can help ameliorate. Among these frailties are

  1. We forget what really matters

  2. We tend to lose hope and all too easily get mired in the negative

  3. We feel isolated. (“Living lives of quiet desparation”?)

  4. We lose sight of the fact that we are each a community of selves and respond by default to situations as if our likes and dislikes were fixed

  5. We are hard to get to know and are mysterious to ourselves

  6. We reject many experiences because they don’t fit into our self-images

  7. We are taken in by the glamour of the contemporary scene.

They offer the counterparts for these frailties and educate us in how to look at art with new eyes and minds.

I deliberately left off reading their book until I’d finished writing mine; I didn’t want to plagiarise their ideas! Now that I’ve finished my book I can see how mine overlaps with theirs but has a completely different orientation. Mine is a more in-depth meditation on self-inquiry and the other big difference is mine is in the context of Renaissance art.

Reading Art as Therapy reminded me of another wonderful book by Bruno Munari, Design as Art.

It is a modest paperback of some 200pages. Like de Botton and Armstrong he delights in the well-made functional object of everyday life. Like all artists Munari has an original take on things. Here he talks about an orange as if it were a man-made object:

Each section or container consists of a plastic-like material large enough to contain the juice but easy to handle during the dismemberment of the global form. The sections are attached to one another by a very weak, though adequate, adhesive. The outer or packing container, following the growing tendency of today, is not returnable and may be thrown away.

His point is that designers can learn from the natural world, which is not an original thought but he champions the simple and the functional as opposed to the over-elaborate and expensive status symbol in so many examples. This Penguin Classic is full of his own quirky and amusing drawings; for example he has 7 pages taken up with drawings on ‘Variations on the Theme of the Human Face’! (See image at the head of this post)

What these books have in common is a belief that we can live in an environment where we don’t waste resources or exploit others, and where we can enjoy the appearance of things. Both books insist that we are not educated enough in how to distinguish the ugly from the beautiful; that even architects, for example, too often go along with fashion and expediency.

Next time you see a new housing development see if the materials and design are harmonious or is it a matter of cheap, mass produced ‘little boxes’ for our little consumer lives? Why aren’t all new domestic and public buildings fitted with solar panels? Expense? Use some of the money from cancelling Trident!