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.

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William Blake

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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. . .