William Blake’s Bounding Line

dante bolake

From The Divine Comedy: Dante

This will fit in somewhere in my book. I thought I’d post it as it can easily stand alone, without reference to the rest of my book.

It is revelatory to spend a good half hour or so simply looking at Blake’s visual art without trying to interpret its meaning. You will quickly see that he much prefers the swirling, flaming line to the straight line! What could be a greater signifier of his revulsion of static, fossilised philosophy and attitudes? His visual exuberance is testimony to his aphorism, Energy is Eternal Delight.

The Job engravings do not appear quite as exuberant compared to some of his coloured images elsewhere; they seem much more controlled. This is partly because he used copperplate engraving; however there is much in the way of exuberant energy once we begin to look and examine the imagery, shapes and the composition of each plate. There are the obvious flaming shapes in engravings 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 11, 13, 16, and 18. But even the more serene plates are usually framed by swirling flames, vines, flowers, snakes and even abstract curves.

I have already hinted at the reason for this predilection for flaming shapes, that he is visually representing spiritual and physical energy. Blake believed that the artist should represent the unseen spiritual world; almost an impossible task you may think! He regarded the clearly defined line as superior to the three-dimensional, modelled, shape. Partly this is a result of his choice of medium when he was an apprentice; engraving. He chose a linear style as it is peculiar to engraving but he also was influenced by seeing Greek Vases and Gothic Art early in his career.

Here are Blake’s own words about line from an essay he wrote about the Book of Ruth:

The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling…. What is it that builds a house and plants a garden, but the definite and determinate? What is it that distinguishes honesty from knavery, but the hard and wirey line of rectitude and certainty in the actions and intentions. Leave out this line and you leave out life itself; all is chaos again. . .

Above all, though, we must remember that the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, in his lifetime, and he predicted the tyrannical effects of industrialisation upon humankind. Now, of course, an engineer who designs machines uses a ruler! Yes, a straight edge; perhaps this too explains why Blake made so much use of the ‘bounding line.’ It represented ‘vital life’ when, in contrast, all of the machinery he saw -with its interlocking cogs, girders and rivets – represented ‘eternal death.’ (We only need to recall that, in his day, children, some as young as 6yrs, spent over 12 hours on one shift working in factories.)

PS. This is not a Luddite Manifesto! Blake was not against science/technology on principle; he just saw that it would come to dominate the spiritual potential of humankind and narrow our outlook. In a word (or rather in a phrase!), he predicted the philosophy of scientific materialism which is entrenched in the so called developed nations today! (What would he think of man-made global warming?)

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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.’

 

Regeneration

frozen lake

Strangely I submitted this to an online literary magazine and it was accepted. Unfortunately I can’t remember which one;  shows how important it is to make a note of where we send pieces!

 

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 and heard 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!

 

Nietzsche, Part Two: Who am I?

ecce homo pic

In this Part Two I explore Nietzsche’s view of the self and compare it to the Buddhist view. I also examine what Nietzsche meant by freedom and what existential freedom can be for us today.

I should emphasise that Nietzsche is never prescriptive although his aphoristic style gives the impression that he is. I don’t have the same qualms about being non-prescriptive!

When I was a teenager – and perhaps being unsociable – my mother would often say to me, “Be yourself, Eric.” Needless to say this irritated me because I sensed an ulterior message of ‘be who I want you to be.’

Of course adolescence is the prime time to explore who we are. However, the question is far from straight-forward. Some people seem to arrive at their ‘identity’ as if there were a ready-made mould simply to be filled. They then spend the remainder of their lives reasonably content with their roles: teacher, lawyer, bus driver, builder, wife, husband and so on. Their role and the people they meet contribute to a ‘hardening’ of their character. No doubt many continue to grow psychologically and spiritually, but many others live out their lives ‘being someone else.’ (That is, living The Looking Glass Self – Charles Horton Cooley coined this term to express how the self is shaped by the reflected opinions of others around us.)

Eric Berne was among the first to describe how assigned roles can suffocate us and in the last 50yrs or so the burgeoning market of self-awareness courses and books has encouraged us to examine our identities and question our very thoughts and feelings in order to find out ‘who we are.’

Is it possible that Nietzsche was thinking along these lines? The sub-title of his Ecce Homo is the wonderfully pregnant aphoristic, Becoming Who You Are! And in Untimely Meditations this aphorism is even more to the point:

All that you are now, doing, thinking, desiring, is not you yourself. (my emphasise)

As we saw in Part One Nietzsche denies that there is a permanent, unchanging self – he seems to confirm David Hume’s insight that thoughts and feelings come and go independently of any agent. Buddhism has the same idea or rather, insight, with its anatta – here is a definition taken from a Buddhist Dictionary:

As applied to man it states that there is no permanent ego or self. . . which make up the personality. The Buddha, however, nowhere denied the existence of an ego, but taught that no permanent entity. . . can be found in any of the human faculties.

Here, for comparison is a longer quote from Nietzsche:

Owing to the phenomenon ‘thought’, the ego is taken for granted; but up to the present everybody believed. . . that there was something unconditionally certain in the notion ‘I think’, and that by analogy with our understanding of all other causal reactions this ‘I’ was the given cause of the thinking. However customary and indispensable this fiction may have become now, this fact proves nothing against the imaginary nature of its origin; it might be a life-preserving belief and still be false.

Will to Power; 483

And it is obvious that Nietzsche sees the individual as a ‘ community of selves,’ – and that the free spirit is aware of the multiplicity and harmonises the community. I think his ”will to power’ is the harmonising factor. Just one quote:

The highest man would have the highest multiplicity of drives in the relatively greatest strength that can be endured. Indeed, where the plant ‘human being’ shows itself strongest one finds instincts that conflict powerfully but are controlled.

Will to Power, 966

Some people, when they first come across this idea of ‘no-self’ (or the notion that they don’t originate their thoughts) begin to experience panic, as if they are going to somehow disappear or disintegrate. Of course it can be unsettling and that is all to the good. However, Buddhism is not saying the self is a complete illusion or that we should not act as if we were individual agents with free will. It is rather like the physicists’ description of reality consisting of indeterminate sub atomic particles in an endless energetic flux. We don’t go around (unless you are a quantum physicist!) visualising this sub atomic world; tables and trees are still solid to all intents and purposes. By analogy the self is separate and acting-on-the-world – but, there is a deeper reality also there once we question appearances.

It was Heraclitus who said we never step in the same river twice. Nietzsche too sees everything in a state of flux or ‘becoming.’ He also echoes Eckhart Tolle’s insistence that the ‘present moment’ is the only reality:

the present must not under any circumstances be justified by a future nor must the past be justified for the sake of the present. . . Strictly speaking nothing of the nature of Being must be allowed to remain – because in that case Becoming loses its value. .

Will to Power 708

And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

But the best parables should speak of time and becoming: they should be a eulogy and a justification of all transitoriness.

If we think of present-moment moments when we were, say transfixed by the beauty of a bird’s song, or moved by a painting, we can clearly see that we are much more than our thoughts and feelings or even our memories. In that moment consciousness is heightened and the ‘small self’ transcended. We are not aware of ourselves as a ‘particular person’ or as ‘someone’ carrying out a particular role.

As I stated in Part One, we today have a tremendous advantage over Nietzsche; many of us are incorporating meditational practices into our lives. For example the Buddhist anatta is not mere philosophy or metaphysics – it can be a real aid for us in letting thoughts and feelings pass though consciousness. I’m thinking of the problematic or painful thoughts of course, but it applies to all thoughts really. If I keep having the thought that ‘so and so ignores my emails because he isn’t interested in my ideas’ I may slip into a whole narrative of judgemental thoughts and end up in self-loathing. We may be able to accept the idea, ‘don’t believe everything you think,’ but ‘don’t believe everything you feel,’ is much more difficult. Most of the time we invest our identity in what we think and especially what we feel. Buddhism says this is delusive and I think Nietzsche is saying something similar. Getting to know how our minds work and the tricks they play on us is all part of what today is called mindfulness. I know of no other method other than some sort of mind-awareness practice such as mindfulness – which can enable us to respond in freedom to circumstances. If we are not self-aware in this respect we will be reactive to life, always acting from conditioning, rather than proactive. Where Nietzsche isn’t prescriptive, we can be prescriptive. (Even a book like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People talks of changing the obsolete scripts we were handed out in childhood/during our education etc.)

Another area where there is a huge overlap between Buddhism and Nietzsche is in the acknowledgement of suffering as part of life and how to incorporate it positively into our lives. As we saw in Part One Nietzsche’s solution is in his amor fati – to praise in spite of. Buddhism sees the cause of suffering (secondary suffering that is, as explained in Part One) as ‘grasping’ at things which we think will be advantageous to us and rejecting what we think will be disadvantageous.

Ahjan Chah emphasises that mindfulness of our likes and dislikes is a constant effort, not for the faint-hearted!

The Dhamma (Teaching) of the Buddha is profound and refined. It isn’t easy to comprehend.. If true wisdom has not yet arisen you can’t see it. . . When you experience happiness you think there will be only happiness. Whenever there is suffering you think there will only be suffering. You see only one side and thus it’s never-ending. There are two sides to everything; you must see both. Then when happiness arises, you don’t get lost; when suffering arises, you don’t get lost.. .. you see that they are interdependent.

Food For the Heart.

I am afraid if we want to be really free existentially and spiritually we will have to go against the current of accepted values and opinions. Nietzsche of course exemplifies this alone-ness. Here he is writing about the pioneer, ‘we free spirits’.

Solitude, that dread goddess. . . encircles him . . who today knows what solitude is? . . .If once he hardly dared to ask ‘Why so apart, so alone, renouncing all I loved? Already hearing the answer.

You had to become master over yourself. . of your own good qualities. Formerly they were your masters. You had to acquire power over your Yes and No and withhold them in accordance with your higher aims.” (my emphasis)

Human, All too Human

If we can become more all-embracing in our attitude to life and less self-concerned we will find our sense of self changing; I have had to incorporate my experience of depression into the context of Buddhist training and it has meant going into some very dark places. Once the journey has been started it is likely painful memories and feelings will surface. We use right effort and patient endurance to convert the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion into generosity, compassion and wisdom. Likewise, Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ is a good antidote to akrasia ( the inability to act according to our good judgement) and helps us to keep our minds receptive to new experiences and to grow in self-knowledge.

Although Nietzsche is all too often associated with wilfulness, and Dionysian abandon, one of his last acts before insanity overtook his last years, was to throw his arms around an ill-treated horse in an act of empathy. And who said he never wrote about love?

To have travelled the whole circumference of the modern soul, and to have sat in all its corners – my ambition, my torment, and my happiness. (sounds like becoming friends with hatred, greed and delusion to me!) Veritably to have overcome pessimism, and, as the result thereof, to have acquired the eyes of Goethe – full of love and goodwill.

The Will to Power, 1031

Nietzsche: would you be prepared to re-live your life in exactly the same way?

penguin nietzsche reader

Dipping into Nietzsche: would you be prepared to re-live your life in exactly the same way?

Part One

Nietzsche is both a heroic and tragic figure. He epitomises the individualist; the person who finds the ordinary conventions and values of life trivial and stultifying. Who cannot be moved by the picture of him striding over the mountain tops, ‘6000 feet beyond man and time’, when ‘the abysmal thought’ came unannounced into his mind.

Nietzsche’s master- stroke is his much misunderstood Eternal Recurrence. The relevant passage is from The Gay Science/The Joyful Wisdom:

The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life
to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann, translator

Buddhist metaphysical ideas about karma are too complex to go into detail here but suffice it to say that everything we have thought or done in the past determines the sort of person we are in the present. One saying which has become common currency is – what we think today determines who we are tomorrow, which suggest it is widely understood outside of Buddhism. Here is a simple example of how we could create negative karma: if we are nasty to people habitually, one of the consequences is likely to be a lack of friends. If we are always criticising others we will suffer consequences; probably again people will avoid us. Why bother? (some might say!) The whole point of Buddhist training for me from the beginning was that I was sick of myself; I wanted to do something about myself. I wanted to change! (Keep this in mind as you will come across the same idea in Ivan Osokin’s story.) Any genuine spiritual training addresses these questions, ‘is it possible to change for the better? Is it possible to find lasting peace of mind?’ Surely everyone of us, if we are honest and have enough courage for self-reflection, has regrets about our past? (Not that many of us are like Edith Piaf with her Je ne Regrette – although perhaps she was only putting Nietzsche’s philosophy into practice?)

I wrote the above before I’d read the relevant chapter in Alexander Nahamas’, Nietzsche, Life as Literature. He dismisses a cosmological view of eternal recurrence preferring to interpret Nietzsche’s idea in psychological terms. His chapter devoted to Nietzsche’s idea is of considerable subtlety so I will merely pick out a few of the peaks and ‘free-associate’ a little.

It is vital to grasp that although Nietzsche describes his insight as ‘that abysmal thought’ – he paradoxically sees it as the ultimate spiritual test wherein we either succumb to life’s ills and challenges or completely accept them (how Buddhist is that!). This is how he puts it:

My formula for greatness for a human being is amor fati (love of one’s fate): that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it – all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary – but love it.

Ecce Homo

Nehamas describes how all actions, situations and circumstances are interconnected in ways which sound to me very similar to the Buddhist idea of Indra’s Net; here is a typical description:

In the realm of the god Indra a vast net stretches infinitely in all directions. In each “eye” of the net there is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel also reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever effects one jewel effects them all. The metaphor illustrates the interpenetration of all phenomena. Everything contains everything else. At the same time, each individual thing is not hindered by or confused with all the other individual things.

At the same time Nehamas wonders why Nietzsche’s demon does not offer an opportunity for us to put right the mistakes we made in our previous life/lives, instead of mechanically repeating the life as if it were fixed. (Remember Nietzsche is thinking hypothetically.) The answer is related to Nietzsche’s view of the self being non-substantive (more Buddhist parallels):

There is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything. . . our entire science still lies under the misleading influence of language. . (This ‘no self’ in Buddhism is referred to as ‘anatta’)

The Genealogy of Morals

and

our bad habit of taking a mnemonic, an abbreviated formula, to be an entity, finally as a cause, eg. to say of lightening ‘it flashes.’ Or the little word ‘I’.

Will to Power, 548

Nietzsche believes that everything is so interconnected that if one detail in an event of the past were hypothetically changed the whole event would be different. Therefore – ‘there is no thing without other things.’ We need to accept good and evil as we imagine them to be; the warp and woof of existence.

Zarathustra asks:

Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamoured; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, “You please me, happiness! Abide moment!” then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamoured.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Nehamas continues: a life that was different in any way would simply not be our life: it would be the life of a different person. To want to be different in any way is for Nietzsche to want to be different in every way; it is to want, impossible as that is, to be someone else.. . if we were to have another life it would necessarily have to be, if it were to be our life at all, the very same life we have already had.

Now, you are probably thinking that this is all very theoretical and that it doesn’t have much practical relevance for our actual lives. I personally have found that if you use Nietzsche’s idea as a ‘thought experiment’, it sheds considerable light on how we regard such things as regret, shame and contrition. One of Nietzsche’s enduring ideas is that interpretation and re-interpretation are essential approaches to experience; this is a very optimistic standpoint which may alleviate the possible pessimistic reaction to the idea of his eternal recurrence.

Other thinkers have wrestled with the problem. Consider the Russian writer, P. D. Ouspensky’s novella, The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. (Ground Hog Day uses the same idea of eternal recurrence to great effect.) Ivan – in the novella – goes to a magician and asks to be sent back to his childhood in order to live his life over again and avoid all the mistakes he’s made. As we reflect on our past mistakes, naturally shame and regret will arise and it takes courage even to look; many people will not even acknowledge they’ve made mistakes. The question Nietzsche poses is; can we embrace all of it; the joys, woes and shame together; could we go back to our childhood and welcome the magician’s deal on condition that everything would occur exactly as the first time?

If you are wondering what happened to Ivan Osokin, he goes back to his childhood and repeats his life and makes exactly the same decisions as before, because he could not remain ‘present’ to the present. In Ouspensky’s terminology he was too identified with the situations he found himself in. (This aspect of mindfulness in the present moment is not something that Nietzsche discusses (and probably isn’t familiar with?) and could be considered to be the one factor missing from his account.) It is quite moving towards the end when he has glimpses of deeper realities when he is more alert; more present. This is the magician speaking when Ivan returns to him after re-living his life:

You know that everything repeats again and again. There have been other people who made the same discovery but they could make nothing more of it. If you could change something in yourself you could use this knowledge for your own advantage. You say you have nothing. Not quite. You have your life. So you can sacrifice your life. (my emphasis)

In the story, Ouspensky could have had Ivan become aware of his habitual reactive responses to life, and hence show him able to change. (Change often happens if we acknowledge our mistakes and vow not to repeat them, and then live in the ‘Now’. ) However, to show Ivan repeating the same mistakes drives the message home, that he is pinioned to the ‘wheel of life.’ Ouspensky’s view is somewhat pessimistic compared to Nietzsche’s.

To sum up: Osokin illustrates our common experience of regret and wanting to change the past. If this regret leads to us re-orientating our lives, becoming less self-concerned then all the better. This is where Buddhism, or any genuine spiritual practice, scores over Nietzsche! Ouspensky’s story is the antithesis of Nietzsche’s view as Osokin certainly cannot accept his past. He is ultimately a ‘nay-sayer.

As I’ve tried to argue, Nietzsche does not intend the idea of Eternal Recurrence to be taken literally. It is a thought experiment to focus our attention on the will, past events, self forgiveness and a celebration of life, ‘in spite of’. No amount of thinking will enable most of us to shout a resounding ‘Yes’ to the question, ‘Would you be prepared to live your life again exactly as before?’ But it may be possible to forgive ourselves and live in the present.

This is a good place to end Part One. Part Two will be posted some time in May. For anyone new to Nietzsche I’d recommend the ‘Penguin Classic’, A Nietzsche Reader (Translation by R. J. Hollindale) in which extracts from Nietzsche’s books are arranged chronologically. There is also a humorous and accurate short video here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ti9zdpLlXf0

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.

Sea Fever

trapped seal

The subject this week for my writing group is to write a parody of a well know poem. Here is mine.

Sea Fever

[Apologies to John Masefield]

I must go down to the sea again, to the dirty sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a Greenpeace ship and a cause to sail her by;

And the oil slick and the dead fish and the oiled gulls drowning;

And a green scum on the sea’s face and a poisonous dawn breaking.

*

I must go down to the sea again to rescue the beached whales;

Most are covered in oily sludge so our futile rescue fails;

And all I ask is a clean-up plan and a white surf flying,

And a pure spray and dolphins leaping and bright gannets diving.

*

I must go down to the sea again and offer up a prayer

For the dolphins caught in plastic nets and seals gasping for air.

And all I ask is a global plan to honour life on earth;

To work together for a green vision and a glorious new birth.