Emerson, Woolf and The Ordinary

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Another of my essays for the MOOC course on Modernism. Title: Compare the approach to the ordinary in Emerson and Woolf.

The word ‘ordinary’ is somewhat Janus-faced. It can stand for the conventional, which Ralph Waldo Emerson (born 1803) raved against, and it can suggest the ‘unspoilt’ and ‘the unexceptional’ which Virginia Woolf took as her raw material. In this essay, I explore how Emerson and Woolf encompass some of these meanings.

The very title of one of Emerson’s essays, Self-Reliance, signals his revolt against convention. He writes,

Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times. . .

A paragraph later he wonders why we attach so much importance to royalty and the aristocracy. This is the familiar Enlightenment denunciation of privilege which came to a head in the American and French Revolutions.

Kingdom and lordship, power and estate, are a gaudier vocabulary than private John and Edward in a small house and common day’s work; but the things of life are the same to both. Why all this deference to Alfred and Scanderberg and Gustavus?

In other words we are all subject to birth, disease and death on the one hand and moments of happiness on the other hand. It makes little difference whether we are kings or commoners. (Although historians often point out that those born in poverty have had a huge handicap. Anyway, Emerson was attacking the upper end of the social strata in this paragraph.)

Emerson’s view of the innate goodness of humankind can also remind us of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage.’ He writes:

What is the aboriginal Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded? [. . .] We note this primary wisdom as intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.

In calling upon us to be self-reliant Emerson is pointing to the opposite state of affairs; that we are mostly slaves of convention and the ideas of others. He describes us as weak figures in contrast to what exists in nature:

Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say ‘I think, I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage […] These roses under my window make no reference to former roses. . . there is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.

Along with Kant, Hegel, Diderot and Voltaire, he recognises the challenge of thinking for oneself. Remember Kant’s Sapere aude! – ‘Dare to find out.’ In this sense, the ‘ordinary’ is conflated with consensus thinking; with the dead weight of historicism. Like Rousseau he wants us to have the courage to be ‘ahistorical’ – to act from the ‘divine spark’ within. (Yes, Emerson believed in God; albeit his was a pantheistic belief.)

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motive of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a task-master.

He downgraded the tendency to seek virtue from past exemplars:

Whenever a mind is simple and receives divine wisdom, then old things pass away – means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now and absorbs past and future into the present hour. [. . .] The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and majesty of the soul.

Virginia Woolf not only embraced ‘the ordinary’ but, like a Zen Master, elevated it to ‘the extraordinary.’ In one of her last diary entries, written in 1941, she more than hints at her technique of writing fiction:

I mark Henry James’ sentence – observe perpetually. Observe the outcome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency. I find that it’s seven and I must cook dinner, haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.

Other lexical relatives of the word, ‘ordinary’ include, mundane, humdrum and routine. The repetitive, oppressive nature of life has been humorously portrayed in the film, Groundhog Day and more chillingly in Albert Camus’s essay, Sisyphus. Woolf’s evocation of the extraordinary amongst mundane, transient phenomena can be regarded as her revolt against the temporal and the tendency to ‘package’ experience as ‘this’ or ‘that.’ Woolf often achieves this expansive view of life by describing details in a decidedly mystical tone. Here in The Waves:

You hear me breathe. You see the beetle too carrying off a leaf on its back. It runs this way, then that way, so even your desire while you watch the beetle, to possess one single thing must waver, like the light in and out of the beach leaves. . .

One of the chief characteristics of modernism is its abandonment of religious faith and moral certainties. Lily, in To the Lighthouse, expresses it well:

The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

In the novel Lily’s painting is symbolic of the aesthetic outlook; to make something permanent within the impermanent:

In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability.

To bring some of these themes up to date: to live without a ‘comfort blanket’ belief in God is not difficult today. But to live a life of self-reliance and scepticism towards all consensus thinking requires inner resolution and courage. To resist rampant consumerism and negotiate a path through fake news and outright lies tests one’s faith in humankind. What can we rely on, apart from our own moral compass amidst today’s cultural convulsions? In the ordinary course of life we too easily think that what we have is permanent; status, health, possessions, relationships and so on. It can come as a shock that nothing we have is permanent. Woolf portrays this aspect of contemporary life vividly in her novels.

Emerson had a bulkhead against modernist angst – he had a religious faith. Woolf, on the other hand is more representative of modernism’s uncertainties and shifting sands. Her ‘despondency’ ended in suicide.

The etymological roots of the word ‘ordinary’ include the verb ‘to order’ in the sense of to arrange. Woolf’s existential/secular independence resulted in a modest, limited solution to the challenges of existence. She selected and ‘ordered’ words in paragraphs to create a fictional world which reflected the fragmentary, subjective world revealed by science, psychology and politics in the twentieth century.

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Urizen and Single Vision

I had some valuable feedback on my manuscript recently. I was taken to task on my apparent denunciation of reason. Here, I attempt to put my position, and Blake’s, in a more accurate light.

There is nothing wrong with the faculty of reason; many philosophers have singled it out as the defining attribute which makes us human. The only problem occurs when it is elevated or singled out as the only faculty or as the primary faculty whereby we attempt to find meaning in our lives. Many writers have revolted against this dominance of reason; writers such as Rousseau, Nietzsche, the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, and, of course, Blake. Blake personified the ‘rationalising faculty’ as Urizen; the word itself is a clever play on ‘your reason’ and ‘your horizon.’ Blake wrote The Book of Urizen in which he shows how Urizen separates himself from the other faculties of Imagination, Sensation, Intuition and Emotion.

One of the characteristics of ‘reasoning’ is that it attempts to create a model of reality and hence there is always a gulf between the model and reality. The model can be very useful, as are maps, but the danger is that we can mistake the model for reality. This abstraction of reality was partly what Blake was getting at, especially in his abhorrence of Locke, Hume and Bacon.

We can more accurately talk of ‘rationalism’ as a paradigm; a way of approaching reality.

Scott Preston, in his brilliant blog, The Chrysalis, talks of perspectivism. When the early Renaissance artists worked out how to represent perspective in two dimensions they also represented a major shift in outlook. The view of reality was now ‘a point of view’ – a view limited to one position in space (and time) and a view presented to the physical eye looking out at the world. Hitherto, in Byzantine art for example, the picture was not a representation of what the eye saw in one time-bound ‘view.’ Painting then was more ‘a composite’ of what the artist knew and felt and was a representation of Christian mythology. Scott Preston uses this analogy of painting to show how linear, logical thinking has dominated western culture for the last 500 years. He relates it to Blake’s Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep.

What, then is the solution; how can we escape from this restricted view? I don’t think there is a single answer to this – Blake’s prophetic books offer a detailed solution where contraries co-exist. On an individual level we can be more self-aware and not believe that we are our thoughts. We can cultivate an aesthetic appreciation of reality and integrate imagination, intuition, feeling, sensation and thought. Meditation is a method whereby the ‘hidden’ rejected parts of the psyche can come into the open; where the Beast can transform into Beauty.

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The image which I have copied in pen is clearly of someone in torment; Blake has different versions; some have the Urizen-figure surrounded by flames. I find this aspect of the suffering Urizen very relevant. Those of us who struggle with mental health issues know how the mind can imprison us with its relentless ‘washing machine’ of churning thoughts. Blake, too, sees us all as being in exile; we have forgotten our original faces. We have fallen into self-division; this manifests in many ways: body-mind dualism, thought-feeling conflicts, individualism-community tensions, right action conundrums and so on.

Looking at this image, say for a few minutes, is itself a way of by-passing, or tricking, our rationalising mind. Its form and colour may speak to you directly – this is the power of art: it is not about words. I invite you do the same with all of Blake’s work which can be found here: http://www.blakearchive.org

Blake’s view of how we use the senses is fundamental. He saw the error of empiricists such as John Locke who thought that truth could be found via the evidence of the senses. This was a too literal and restricted approach. Blake famously wrote that ‘if the doors of perception were cleansed, then everything would appear as it is, infinite.’ This is very similar to the Buddhist idea of observing the contents of the mind and letting the thoughts and feelings settle until the mind becomes like a mirror. Both Blake and Buddhism see our ordinary state of consciousness as being, potentially, problematic. It too readily distorts reality. Both, also, would agree that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our minds, other than the conditioning (mainly) from parents, teachers and institutions. Blake’s solution is complex and subtle but suffice it to say that he sees us as ‘spiritual beings’ and that we need to use what he terms Imagination or the Poetic Genius to free ourselves from the domination of Urizen.

I don’t want to enlarge on Blake’s mythical-psychological world here; I just invite you to gaze on poor Urizen and ask yourselves, ‘How did he get to be like this?’ and ‘Do I ever feel like this?’

Darwin & Nietzsche: Prophets for Today

darwin as ape

This is my third essay for the Modernism MOOC I am doing. The tilte is: Darwin wrote ‘Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.’ Compare Darwin’s view of the persistent effects of the past with Nietzsche’s work.

A mere eighteen years separate Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (1887) from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859). What do these two intellectual giants have in common? Well, much more than appears at first sight. Nietzsche is credited with ‘killing off God’ and Darwin responsible for de-deifying humankind. In Darwin’s theory of evolution, we are not uniquely created by a creator-God. The nineteenth century was the century par excellence of the shaking of the foundations of eternal values and absolutes. Both of these men described homo sapiens as a creature determined by a long history: Nietzsche in terms of civilisation’s decadence and Darwin by the engine of natural selection. Darwin had also read Lyell’s Principles of Geology and realised the fossils he’d found proved the earth was many millions of years old. (Biblical accounts put the Earth at 6,000 years in age!)

Darwin only broached the subject of humankind’s descent in his The Descent of Man (1871) but he was well aware of the shock waves it would send throughout the world. He wrote:

The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely, that man is descended from some lowly organised form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many.

The cultural abyss brought about by the nineteenth century’s collapse of values has been described as ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ In this view, we are left seemingly to fend for ourselves in a mechanistic, meaningless world. However, neither Nietzsche or Darwin were philosophical nihilists or pessimists! Both thinkers analysed the past to shed light on the present and future. That subsequent thinkers have appropriated their ideas for their own ends is regrettable. (Scientific reductionism, for example, sees life as purely quantifiable and without intrinsic moral values. The Nazis appropriated ‘survival of the fittest’ in their ‘final solution.’)

Let us examine how these thinkers described the human condition and how, ultimately, today, their findings can be interpreted optimistically rather than being a formula for spiritual disenchantment.

In his Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin describes how he discovered many animals on the different islands of the Galapagos Islands which, although the same genus had different morphic details such as shape and size of beaks in finches:

Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small intimately-related group of birds, one might fancy from an original paucity of birds in the archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.

The huge amount of data he collected enabled him to come up with his theory of evolution by natural selection. The reverberations of his revolutionary theory can be still felt today in the USA where court cases have been held to determine whether evolution should be taught in schools! Evolution in the Darwinian sense is purely biological but perhaps Darwin himself thought that ‘cultural evolution’ would save humankind from its aggressive, dog-eat-dog inheritance. He writes of humankind’s evolution from savagery to ‘god-like intellect’ thus:

and the fact of his having risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, [in the world] may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future.

So, for Darwin, evolution does not diminish humankind; he emphasises our lowly origins but recognises our potential for the future. In hindsight, he has demolished our child-like attachment to an anthropomorphic God. However, his theory, once it was examined and argued over, caused a moral upheaval at the time which cannot be overestimated.

Nietzsche, too, caused consternation among the thinkers of his day. He is famously a ‘philosopher with a hammer.’ His approach is iconoclastic and he undermines the assumptions of the church, state and academia of his time. However, it is a mistake to regard him as a nihilist. He may remorselessly tear down the spiritual structures of his day but one of his books, Ecce Homo, is sub-titled, How One Becomes What One Is. Ultimately he is pleading for humankind to rise up from its legacy of consensus thinking and mental somnambulism. His concept of the Ubermensch is of the free-person who has struggled within him or herself and approaches life anew in each moment. Had he been alive today he would agree with Eckhart Tolle’s insistence on being mindful in the present moment. Only mature people will be able to live without the comfort-blanket of a father-figure God:

Few are made for independence – it is a privilege of the strong. (Beyond Good & Evil, 29)

Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful men and peoples, and ask yourself whether a tree, if it is to grow proudly into the sky, can do without bad weather and storms. (The Gay Science)

The independent thinkers create their own values to replace the values of the past which have been based on fear, rewards and punishments. The Ubermensch accepts the totality of his life; the challenges especially.

What is Nietzsche’s legacy? Is it possible today to live a life-affirming life within a secular framework? What will replace God? Isn’t the defining feature of post modernism a moral vacuum or relativist values? Perhaps The Golden Rule would be a good place to start? This is the universal standard which says ‘do unto others what you would wish them to do to you!’ The negative formulation is – ‘don’t do to others what you would not wish them to do to you!’ Many of us today strive for equity, freedom of expression and fellowship based on empathy and compassion. Many of us today realise we live on a finite planet and that all life is connected. Climate change is a warning that we cannot go on exploiting the Earth’s resources; our self-serving short-term greed has not worked in the past. Only be living with more awareness of the consequences of what we do will we create a world fit for our grandchildren. We need to be content with less.

Both Nietzsche and Darwin were revolutionary thinkers who paved the way for a new way of approaching life. Both men dealt in detail with ‘the persistent effects of the past‘ but today we can see that these effects are not a hindrance but a spur to creating a world free from the shackles of superstition and bigotry. Their message is positive. It is rather like lancing a boil; all the rotten-ness had to be dispelled before healing could start.

Marx & Rousseau

 

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This is my second essay for the MOOC course on Modernism. The title is: Compare the role of historical progress in the ideas of Marx and Rousseau. Comments welcome.

 

Few thinkers can claim to encapsulate the idea of historical progress as much as Karl Marx, and Rousseau too envisaged a Utopian society; in other words, they both believed in the Enlightenment dictum of progress. However, as Rousseau was also a proto-Romantic, he was also interested in an individual’s subjective life. In the remainder of this essay, I intend to tease out these similarities and differences.

Marx based his dialectical materialism on Hegel’s idea of change and progress. He said that when a thesis was challenged by an antithesis, as a result of the consequent conflicts a synthesis came about which was a new creation. Marx interpreted this in terms of the proletariat rising up against the bourgeoisie and forming a socialist nation. In his Introduction to the Penguin edition of The Communist Manifesto, AJP Taylor writes:

This synthesis was socialism, an ideal society or Utopia where everyone would be happy without conflict for ever more.

Whether Marx would have really believed in the last part of that quote is perhaps questionable, and I’m sure AJP Taylor was being ironic!

Marx was true to the Enlightenment emphasis on progress. He applauded the ideals of the French Revolution; after all, it had succeeded in replacing the Divine Right of Monarchy with the rights of man in the famous trio of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity! Blanqui said that ‘it takes twenty-four hours to make a revolution.’ Marx, however, knew that a new political order takes much longer. AJP Taylor points out that the post-war Labour government in 1945, in Britain, came to power by a popular vote and ‘did what the people wanted’ (this is a good example of Rousseau’s ‘common will’) and therefore was nearer to the Marxist ideal than the French Republic after the revolution.

Marx famously begins the Manifesto with: ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. . . oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another.’ In 1848 the Industrial Revolution was embryonic; the railways still had to expand in Britain and Europe for example. Nevertheless, Marx saw the already established factory system as dehumanising:

Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world he has called up [. ]

These labourers who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

Where Marx and Rousseau agree is when Marx talks of the worker (proletariat) being alienated from his true self, able only to sell his labour in competition with others. In Rousseau’s view, this has come about through the increased complexity of society and by false values over-riding the ‘natural state’ of humanity. Marx sees it as a consequence of economics and the exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalist bosses. Marx is embedded in historicism; his aims and analysis can be summed up in one paragraph:

The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.

Now, let us consider Rousseau both as a political philosopher and as a typical Romantic.

Rousseau’s ‘social contract’ has many antecedents going back to Ancient Greece; think of Plato’s Republic for example. If by historical progress’ we mean belief in the creation of a better society, then Rousseau’s The Social Contract is a seminal work of propaganda. In what is regarded as his major work, he argues in great detail how a state should represent the interests of its people. However, Rousseau was really two personalities! He was the political thinker and the Romantic ‘outsider.’ I will outline what I mean in the remainder of the essay.

First of all, let us summarise his political philosophy which is based in historicism. His idea of ‘the general will’ has a long history. The people of a country have interests, some of which are individual and some are held in common. The challenge is how to govern a state so that the people have their interest upheld and individuals are not in conflict. Rousseau’s ‘common will’ sees society as a ‘social organism’ and the will of this conglomerate is distinguished from the will of any individual. (Perhaps the Highway Code is a good analogy: we don’t make up the rules but each driver is happy to abide by these rules.) The ‘body politic’ is sovereign – being both the ruler and the ruled. Even the head of state (king or statesman) is only carrying out the will of the people. Here we have the origins of modern democracy but we can see how imperfect the application of the idea is too. For example, a dictator can convince people that he is acting in their best interests. We should also remember that general suffrage was non-existent in Rousseau’s time.

Now for Rousseau’s other self. In his later years, he suffered from paranoia and wrote his autobiography which dealt with his inner world. He also wrote Meditations of a Solitary Walker. This is an account of his walks in Switzerland but he spends a great deal of time expounding his personal philosophy which is not at all dependent on any historical perspective. He explores the typical Romantic trope of living apart from society. He writes about his feelings which is, again, typical of Romantics (such as Keats, Shelley or Wordsworth):

Thrown into the whirlpool of life while still a child, I learned from early experience that I was not made for this world, and that in it I would never attain the state to which my heart aspired. . . my imagination learned to leap over the boundaries of a life hardly begun [. . .] in search of a fixed and stable resting place. [. . ] This desire. . . has at all times led me to seek after the nature and purpose of my being with greater determination than I have seen in anyone else.

This is more the kind of statement one would expect from a spiritual seeker; these sentiments can occur to anyone in any time period. He continues:

For my part, when I have set out to learn something, my aim has been to gain knowledge for myself and not be a teacher; I have always thought that before instructing others one should begin by knowing enough for one’s needs, and of all the studies I have undertaken in my life among men, there is hardly one I would not equally have taken if I had been confined to a desert island for the rest of my days. Lonely meditation. . . lead the solitary to seek for the purpose of all he sees and the cause of all he feels.

His inclination is to follow Socrates’ imperative, know thyself. What Socrates spoke of over two thousand years ago is still relevant today; these ‘eternal verities’ do not depend on fashion, time or place.

Rousseau seems to have been a troubled personality but nevertheless perhaps gained some sort of inner peace towards the end of his life. As we all must do, he learnt to accept the transitory nature of life:

I have learnt to bear the yoke of necessity without complaining. Where previously I strove to cling on to a host of things, now, when I have lost hold of them all one after another, I have at last regained a firm footing.

Rousseau had one foot in the historical process and one in the timeless world of self-inquiry.

In conclusion, we can see that Marx was more deeply a ‘man of historical process’ than Rousseau although Rousseau was also a ‘man of progress’ in his political. philosophical work.

Bronowski’s Blake

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Some people & not a few Artists have asserted that the Painter of this Picture would not have done so well if he had been properly Encourag’d. Let those who think so, reflect on the State of Nations under Poverty & their incapability of Art; tho’ Art is Above Either, the Argument is better for Affluence than Poverty; & tho’ he would not have been a greater Artist, yet he would have produc’d Greater works of Art in proportion to his means.

In this quote from Blake he is talking of himself in the third person! However, it also brings to the fore the relationship of all artists to society and vice versa. How important are the Arts in society? How much value does the public attach to writers, artists and musicians in the UK for instance? Some commentators think of the English as philistines! The Irish in contrast are lovers of literature. How much can the state support and encourage the Arts is a perennial question. Be that as it may I leave the question open as I am simply ‘thinking aloud’ in this post and have not any particular thesis to advance!

What prompted me to post is that I have been reading Jacob Bronowski’s William Blake. When it was first published in 1944 it got the reputation of being a Marxist analysis. He puts Blake fairly and squarely in the industrial and economic conditions of his time. This is why I find it a revealing read. In my book I am focusing on Blake’s spiritual message and it is useful to have a historical counterpart. Bronowski wasn’t the first to highlight the social and economic conditions of Blake’s world, but perhaps he painted Blake as a man of his time much more than as a visionary poet/artist.

In the first chapter he states his aim:

The Life of Blake and his thought. . . are there in the history of the time; in the names of Pitt, of Paine, and of Napoleon; in the hopes of rationalists, and in the despair of craftsmen. Unless we know these, we shall not understand Blake’s poems, we shall not understand his thought, because we shall not speak his language.

And here, just one example, showing how property had become more important than human beings:

When Locke wrote in 1690 there were fewer than 50 hanging crimes. By the time Blake was a boy (1767) there were 150. Most of the new hanging crimes were crimes against wealth. Men were hanged for stealing a few shillings from a shop.

He does however, see Blake as a revolutionary thinker. The question of how much we can change society for the better and how much any change in society can change us as individuals is analysed in these nicely nuanced paragraphs:

There must be an end to wilful famine. Man must be set free, to make his good. But he must make his good, himself. It is not a grace given to him, even by revolutions. They can give him the means to be good. . . Revolutions can free him from self-interest. . . but they have not then remade man; they have freed him to remake himself.

For Blake, who knew that the French Revolution had made a better society, knew also that it had not made a good society. He did not believe that societies can be good. They can be means to good: as means they can be better or worse: they can be good for an end, and for a time; but, because they are means, they cannot be good in themselves. Blake did not shirk the contraries, from his society to a better society. He did not lack the fire raging against content, and raging to remake society. . .But Blake did not shirk the heavier knowledge, that a society remade will remain a society to be remade. The society remade will take on the same rigour of death, unless in turn it submits to progress through its new contrary. The contraries of thesis and antithesis do not end.

I have always been suspicious of political activists for this reason; they too often seek to change society before changing themselves. If we remain at the mercy of inner hatred, envy and greed how can we expect society to be free of these destructive elements? Krishnamurti almost made this point his battle-cry! And it is, clearly, the position of all spiritual traditions. My thesis, in my book, is also founded on this position. It is not a question of ignoring society or withdrawing from it. Blake was pretty much engaged in society most of his life although he had his moments of isolation and despair. The Buddhist position is that once a person no longer acts from selfish desires (hatred, greed and delusion) they will be in a better position to contribute to the common good.

Anyone interested in Blake will enjoy Bronowski’s book – those interested in social history especially so. He goes into much detail about working conditions, commerce and vested interests.

We no longer send children up chimneys, we no longer employ children in factories in the UK but I wonder, have we made all that much progress? How much ‘work’ is enhancing? Isn’t the majority of ‘work’ wage-slavery? I’m lucky because I am retired and can pursue interests which are life-enhancing. I try and do my bit to care for the environment such as re-cycling and being in Friends of the Earth. We now know that there has been a huge environmental price to pay for our consumer life-styles. Something has to change if we want a world fit for our children to live fulfilling lives in.

Marriage of Heaven & Hell

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This is my small tribute to William Blake. I took two lines from his Marriage of Heaven & Hell and illustrated them with pen. He had not chosen to illustrate this part of his poem. I have alluded to a few Blakean and spiritual themes, so the drawing will repay close inspection. Jung’s words: No tree grows to heaven unless it roots reach down to hell, come to mind.

 

William Blake’s Visions

This is an extract from an Appendix I’ve written for my Blake book. I thought I’d post it here as it has been a while since I posted anything.

As distasteful as the subject of ‘seeing spirits’ is to our twenty first century minds, I am afraid we will have to consider such strange claims made by Blake, that he saw, for example:

a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.

This, one of many such statements, was when he was a boy walking in Peckham Rye. Foster Damon asserts:

Blake’s visions were not supernatural: they were intensifications of normal experience. He believed that ‘all men partake of it, but it is lost by not being cultivated.’

It is certainly less problematic to understand Blake’s visions in this way but Blake also unambiguously believed in an afterlife and that the spirit exists independently from the body. (He says he saw his dying brother’s spirit ascend through the bedroom ceiling for example.) Seemingly, the question is not so clear-cut as Damon would have us believe. I think there are a number of strands which need untangling. Firstly, let us agree with Damon as far as his explanation goes. Artists, especially, interpret sense experience visually. Some even have ‘eidetic’ perception; that is, they can vividly visualise things that are not present in their immediate environment. Let us posit that Blake was, most likely, one such artist. This obviously explains how he could visualise the spirits of Milton, Solomon, Nelson and other historical figures.

Perhaps, then, all of Blake’s visions can be explained in such a manner; he had the artist’s proverbial vivid imagination. If we add to that his Neo-Platonic philosophy, then the problem could be solved. We have to remember that for Blake the interior mind of Imagination was pre-eminent. As Kathleen Raine reminds us:

In the material world of objects measurement, quantification, is the sole means of knowledge. In the world of immeasurable life, moods and meanings, states of being, heavens and hells, paradises and dreams cannot be quantified. . . the inner worlds have at all times been populous with gods and angels, demons and fairy people, embodiments and enactors of thoughts and moods of a mental universe.

In fact, we all have visions. Every night when we are asleep we dream and see events and people who are not in the same room as us! Is it much of a further step to consider the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences when people see a bright light, go down a tunnel, witness a review of their life and are welcomed by celestial beings? These NDE’s have been so well documented as to require no elaboration here. I am not even too interested in whether they are authentic visions or the result of altered brain chemistry. I am more interested in how they relate to Blake’s experiences. In 1983 Dr Bruce Greyson devised a scale showing the common features of NDEs.

The Greyson Scale

-Experiencing an altered state of time

-Experiencing accelerated thought processes

-Life review

-Sense of sudden understanding

-Feelings of peace

-Feeling of joy

-Feeling of cosmic oneness

-Seeing/feeling surrounded by light

-Having vivid sensations

-Extrasensory perception

-Experiencing visions

-Experiencing a sense of being out of physical body

-Experiencing a sense of an ‘otherworldly’ environment

-Experiencing a sense of a mystical entity

-Experiencing a sense of deceased/religious figures

-Experiencing a sense of a border or point of no return

The scale is used to assess the NDEs of people who report such experiences, but for our purposes let us see how each item correlates with Blake’s experience. I would suggest that all of the items are within Blake’s experience as recorded in his letters, poems or contemporary accounts. The only possible exceptions are ‘life review’ and the last on the list, but that is because of the particular context of the experience; that of near death. (Although, even on his death bed, Blake started singing about the heaven he could ‘see’ and was about to enter!) Blake would not be interested in whether such experiences are ‘real’ or could be measured by electrodes in the brain. As far as he was concerned his visions were part of his experience and needed no further authentication. (Carl Jung wrote about UFOs but he didn’t imagine that we were literally being visited by aliens!)

Incidentally, a Gallup Survey1 in the USA in 1982 concluded that NDEs had occurred to 8 million people or 4% of the population. That is a lot of people and shows that Blake’s experience, whilst admittedly not NDE, cannot be dismissed as hallucination of mere fantasy. We know so little about consciousness, so at the least, we should keep an open mind about so called visions.

The final aspect of this topic we should consider is that of ‘interior locution’ or the sense that we have received a kind of interior spoken message. Blake wrote to Crabb Robinson:

I write when commanded by the spirits and I see the words fly about the room in all directions.

‘Channelling’ is the modern counterpart of this kind of inspiration. Two of the most popular books of this kind are A Course in Miracles and the Conversations with God series by Neale Donald Walsch. In his Introduction to Conversations With God, book Three, the author states:

This is an extraordinary book. I say that as someone who has had very little to do with writing it. All I did, really, was “show up,” ask a few questions, then take dictation. That is all I have done since 1992, when this conversation with God began. It was in that year that, deeply depressed, I called out in anguish: What does it take to make life work? I wrote these questions out. . . in an angry letter to God. To my shock and surprise God answered. The reply came in the form of words whispered in my mind by a Voiceless Voice.

We probably will quibble about Walsh thinking it really was the ‘voice of God’, however, we can see that fundamentally this kind of inspiration has been going on since the dawn of history. His words, ‘I cried out in anguish’ may remind you of my cry for help, and, why is it that in millions of similar cases a ‘reply’ of sorts usually comes? We are back to the idea of there being something greater than ourselves or our little egos. Some people call this God, whilst others may just allow it to be something beyond their intellectual understanding. This is where a secular version of Buddhism parts company with ‘religious’ Buddhism. As, mentioned before, the nearest Soto Zen (religious Buddhism) comes to there being a numinous, eternal dimension to life and death is in the use of words such as the Unborn, and the Eternal.

Let us leave the final word to Blake:

Now that I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to any one else: That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoyed, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserved & at liberty from the doubts of other Mortals. . . Doubts are always pernicious [. . .] I take your advice. I see the face of my Heavenly Father; he lays his Hand upon my head & gives a blessing to all my works. . . through Hell will I sing forth his Praises. . .Excuse my, perhaps, too great Enthusiasm.

Letter to Thomas Butts, 25 April 1803


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1. Quoted in What Happens When We Die, by Dr. Sam Parnia.