Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White takes us to the ongoing International Rebellion of people in London and other cities around the world, organising against ecological and climate emergency — and finds Blake there.
Most readers will be aware there is an International Rebellion in progress, headed by climate change activists Extinction Rebellion. Here in London, five key sites are being successfully held and blockaded to stop traffic and to show society that we need to change our habits, we need to act as a community, and we need to do it now!
Stephen Micalef and the William Blake Congregation have been part of the action in Oxford Circus.
In the midst of a lively continuous party at the Oxford Circus the other evening, and just yards from the house in South Molton Street where William and Catherine lived for many years — Blake was in the middle of the crowd! Of course he was; he would be: Blake advocated for a complete revolution of the mind, the human soul and consciousness, and of the capitalist destructive system that has befallen us. Blake’s visionary spirit came out of the unrest of his age, when the Industrial Revolution was really hotting up and emissions of carbon were starting the damage to our ecosystem that we are living with now, and which threatens all of our species and the entire planet.
So, of course, Blake is right there in the midst of this partying Rebellion: he is stirring us all on for change!
There is more information about the International Rebellion at the Extinction Rebellion site; the action started on Monday 15th April — taking place on the streets of cities all over the world, from Auckland to Accra, Mexico City to Vancouver — to demand that governments take necessary action on the global Climate and Ecological Emergency.
In her poem and post for Finding Blake, Modest Things, poet Salli Hipkiss brings her own life-long love of William Blake to her growing concern with the problems of climate change and other environmental threats to human and other life
In this series for Finding Blake, James Fox has described psychological experiences he later came to understand through William Blake’s writings. The series is adapted from a talk James gave to the Mental Fight Club — a charity assisting recovery from mental illness through inspiring creative events and projects — and in this final part he outlines Pantheisticon, a Blakean-inspired project he is working on for cultivating the experience of feeling at home in the world.
In my previous posts, l described my own experiences of both the manacled egoic state (Blake’s Satanic mills) and the liberated ‘mystical’ state (Blake’s awakened Albion). I then elaborated Blake’s doctrine of the four zoas, relating them to underlying ideas of the psyche that may be met with in various belief systems throughout history and across cultures. (See also my previous post, Divine Madness.)
My own response to Blake’s vision and the task he announces is a manifesto, a programme of practice and study, to effect a nature spirituality. I call it Pantheisticon, a term I’ve borrowed from the eighteenth-century philosopher and pantheist John Toland.
Based on the four zoas and working with these functions or aspects of ourselves, this Pantheisticon manifesto includes four components: a mental engagement with natural philosophy (which corresponds to Urizen); a sensual engagement with the landscape (which corresponds to Tharmas);an intuitive engagement with the Imagination (which corresponds to Urthona); and an engagement of the feelings through the artistic expression of mystical experience and philosophy (which corresponds to Luvah or Los).
Urizen: mental engagement
The first component of Pantheisticon is mental engagement with natural philosophy. I use this term instead of ‘science’, not to be deliberately archaic, but to emphasise that this is an activity of the ratio when it acts in the service of spiritual nourishment. In our study of natural philosophy we draw on the products of the ratio as applied to the natural world.
Technology enables us to probe the world beyond the limits of our own senses:
new and strange creatures are revealed in the depths of the oceans;
life forms such as bacteria that are too small for us to see with our eyes are brought into experience through the microscope;
spacecraft provide us with a view of the atmosphere which, whilst beautiful in itself, reveals it to be the thinnest of envelopes, its apparent vulnerability and preciousness to all life on Earth made plain;
the Apollo programme enabled humans to watch the Earth rise from the Moon — and the beauty and preciousness of our planet, a droplet of blue in a bottomless void, is shockingly revealed to us;
and the great space telescopes peer beyond the stars of our galaxy and reveal the universe to be a soup of galaxies, each containing billions of stars — a glimpse towards the infinite and the eternal.
All this provides an awesome spatial and temporal backdrop to our own sense of being: it is Urizen rehabilitated; it is the rational faculty nourishing our spiritual selves.
The world is a manifestation of the infinite, and our particular human experience of the world we divide into the solid, the liquid, the gaseous and radiant energy. These elemental forms of our experience — earth, water, air and fire — we explore in our first component of Pantheisticon — the mental engagement with natural philosophy, or science — as we familiarise ourselves with the principal forms, processes and histories of our rocky world, its oceans and rivers, its climate, and that supreme source of energy without which there would be no life — the Sun.
We also familiarise ourselves with the basic nature of organic life, of the kingdoms of life and the history of their development. Finally, we familiarise ourselves with the universe beyond our little planet. Not extensive in-depth study; we do not become experts in these different sciences. But we gain sufficient of their essential flavour that we obtain a mental grasp of our place in the world and experience the awe, beauty and wonder of the forms that are all around us.
Tharmas and Urthona: sensation and intuition
Having utilised the power of the intellect through natural philosophy to grasp our place in the natural world and engage with its forms and processes, we proceed to our second component of pantheisticon: we inject into this mental engagement with the wider world the power of our faculty of sensation.
We venture into the landscape and experience those elemental forms most vividly, at first hand: the touch of a rock – its hardness, its smell, the little crystals embedded in it glistening in the Sun, the colourful strange lichens spreading across it. We hear the bubbling of the brook, we smell its earthy cool wetness rising up. We hear the bleat of a lamb, the swoosh of a crow cutting through the air. We feel the breeze on our face, hear it stirring in the trees. We feel an expansiveness in our hearts as we look up, the horizon stretched away, and we feel the warmth of the Sun on our skin.
In our third component, we engage our power of intuition. We find ourselves a secluded place where we will not be disturbed. We may be by a stream in a wood; we may be on a cliff top; but we are comfortable as we sit facing the Sun. We seek now to open ourselves to what Blake calls Urthona or the power of Imagination: to allow into our awareness that which seems to come from nowhere; to enable ourselves to become vessels as it were for spontaneous, intuitively received insight. This is the source of spiritual awakening. We cannot make it happen at will. Indeed trying to will it is a sign that the mental-ego is active — yet it is precisely this ego that must be annihilated, or at least disempowered.
So we close our eyes, we observe our body as a vessel empty of thoughts, and we simply observe the feeling of the movement of the breath inside that vessel; returning the attention when we discover it has been hijacked and taken outside the body into the world of ideas of things.
We maintain our meditation for fifteen minutes, or more. Then, we contemplate the intention of the practice, the spiritual ambition or goal one might say, which is to cultivate a mental state of clarity and tranquillity and to use the good qualities we happen to have in the service of others, and of oneself.
This is a process that disempowers the ego and allows the opening of one’s awareness to the intuitive and the imaginative. This results in the enhancing of the sensual experience of the place and a sense of existential immersion in the natural environment. It might even lead to mystical experience or the spiritual awakening to oneself as both divine and eternal. It is also the occasion in which one can become aware of those desires, those forces of nature, whose realisation as action in the service of others provides a purpose in life — a felt joy, meaning and vitality that arises when these forces flow through you.
If a feeling of reverence towards our natural surroundings has arisen through this meditation process, we express this by a simple devotional ritual of sensually engaging with the presence of the Infinite and its elemental manifestations. For example, the placing of the lips to a rock, the placing of a hand in a stream, feeling the breeze on the face and inhaling deeply of it, facing the Sun and feeling its heat on the skin, and, by shielding the eyes from the Sun, we see the azure dome of the sky: we become aware of the stars and the cosmos beyond, a vision towards the Infinite – which is eternal, unmoving, all-pervasive, and which manifests itself to us as this fire of the Sun, this air of the breeze, this water of the stream, this earth of the rock and of all the living creatures and ourselves made thereof.
Luvah: artistic expression of mystical experience
Finally, in the fourth component of pantheisticon we concern ourselves with the artistic expression of mystical experience and models of the mystical conception of the universe. This may be through the mediums of literature, poetry, painting or music, and concerns the expression of our own experiences, if we have had any, and also the experiences of others, so that, in the words of John Middleton Murry which I quoted in Universal Awareness, the first post in this series, about moments of mystical experience, “if we have not known them, there — in those four simple lines [of Blake’s poem] — one is offered to us”.
About others’ experiences of feeling profoundly at home, of a sense of existential immersion, in the world, we may read for example the English mystic Richard Jeffries. We may engage with its expression in poetry, in the English Romantics (e.g. Tennyson, Shelley, Wordsworth); or in painting (e.g. Turner, van Gogh, Caspar Friedrich), or in music (e.g. Vaughan Williams, John Tavener, Beethoven).
We examine the basic pantheistic model of the universe, before comparing it with other theological/cosmological models, such as the panentheism found in Kabbalah, Sufism and Christian mysticism. We then focus on the expression of pantheism in Eastern mysticism, in modern physics, in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and finally in the poetry and painting of Blake.
Being at home in the world
Those are the four components of my manifesto of study and practice, of natural and mystical philosophy, of meditation and landscape experience. No doubt some will find this pantheisticon eccentric, peculiar even. But there is a serious point behind it, which is this. We modern men and women, we sons and daughters of Albion, cannot return to the Stone Age, before Urizen became misplaced.
We cannot remove from the world or our memory all that our excessive and misplaced ratio has brought about. But I share Blake’s vision, which is of a future in which we have awakened from our present human condition of feeling shut out from the sense of being at home in the world, and instead find ourselves living in our day to day world as one that is experienced as suffused, more or less, with the Countenance Divine; a living in which we have ceased to experience ourselves as separate, finite beings, trembling and sick in fear of the annihilation we suppose is inevitable, and instead experience all things, creatures and human beings, the Earth and the heavens above, as suffused with divinity: as radiant, at one and timeless.
And from this springs inevitably a sense of care towards our precious environment, and a compassion towards all creatures and human beings. Then we awaken spiritually. Then we begin to feel at home in the world once more; to open ourselves to the creative forces of the imagination which provide us with our purpose, joy and vitality.
My manifesto is an attempt to help bring about this kind of spiritual awakening which would avert the increasing psychological, social and environmental damage that our misplaced Urizen is causing. Pantheisticon is a Blakean-inspired re-imagining of nature spirituality for the twenty-first century.
James Fox is a philosopher and former researcher at the Open University and is a co-author of A Historical Dictionary of Leibniz’s Philosophy (Scarecrow Press, 2006). He is now mostly interested in mystical texts, especially pantheistic nature-based doctrines and practices which he sees as key to transforming our conception of ourselves in relation to the world: a transformation that can lead to the spiritual experience of total at-homeness in (at one with) the natural environment and hence to the feeling of a reverence and duty of care towards that environment. Prior to pursuing philosophy, he held a position in a climate research department at the UK Meteorological Office.
You can find out more about John Toland, the eighteenth-century philosopher, and his original writing on pantheisticon at Wikipedia.
In her previous posts, Adriana Díaz Enciso recalled how finding Blake on a family shopping trip out of Mexico sparked a series of puzzling encounters with the poet and artist and eventually caused her to embark on her own Blakean novel. Ciudad doliente de Dios would take her from horrific events in Mexico and a writing residency in the USA to Blake’s London. Here, Adriana completes the series, discussing her role in the work of the Blake Society, the publication of her novel and the meaning of Blake’s art as both path and goal.
Around the time I started rewriting the novel, I finally decided to get close to the Blake Society. So close in fact, that I became a Trustee for several years, then its Secretary. This is not the space to say what went wrong, which is documented elsewhere. I’d rather focus here on what nurtured me, what I learnt and what I enjoyed.
It was a joy and a source of renewed inspiration to see how Blake’s work and spirit are still alive for many people, including younger generations. I’ve found amazing, amusing or even daunting the passions that he can still stir — and I am fully aware that some might make similar comments regarding my own passion for Blake. Wondering who he really was in his homeland is very different from doing so in Mexico. The approach back there is by necessity more sober, focusing mainly on his work. Here in Britain, there are layers upon layers of symbolic dimensions touching on the aesthetic, the religious, the philosophical, the metaphysical, the social and the political.
Of course, all these were issues Blake touched upon through his life and work. And it says much about the power with which he did so that so many years after his death, throngs of people are still seeking his meaning, finding new interpretations… sometimes with such a fierce feeling of appropriation of Blake that it borders on worship. I’ll get there later.
Blakean encounters and wounds
In the Blake Society I got to hear the most wonderful talks … and the most bizarre as well. Involved in organising several events, I’ll always be grateful for the chance to channel through them my wholehearted enthusiasm. There was a walk I led in Peckham Rye looking for Blake’s angels on trees; a midnight vigil in Blake’s surviving home in South Molton Street, waiting for our own Visionary Heads to appear as we echoed Blake’s gatherings with artist and astrologer John Varley; then there was the spirit of Orc, embodied in poet Jeremy Reed at the Occupy London encampment on a freezing December evening outside St Paul’s Cathedral; or taking children from Kids Company to read The Tyger to the tigers in London Zoo, the nonstop rain never dampening the children’s zeal.
There were also projects which met failure, such as that of founding Golgonooza, the City of Imagination built by Los, in the streets of London. I had envisaged having Blake’s images projected on buildings all over the city, making true his never materialised dream of being commissioned to paint murals. Then London would be, albeit briefly, a true visionary city. A completely unaffordable project, it was transformed into an illuminated talk at King’s College Arts and Humanities Festival: Golgonooza as the sacred city of the imagination; as the human body; as a reflection on failure. I said goodbye to the Blake Society, inviting Maitreyabandhu, a Buddhist poet of great insight, to talk about Blake and about the imagination as the supreme human faculty.
To be involved in all these projects in Blake’s London was a joy, and a privilege — something I would have never imagined possible when I bought that Penguin edition in a noisy shopping mall. And for that, I am grateful.
It’s impossible not to mention here as well the 2014 Blake Cottage appeal. Part of its leadership, I gave myself to it with full devotion and hope. It was a beautiful project; the support it received from the public was the most poignant certitude that Blake’s spirit is still alive and touching many. Working on it, I am sure, kept me alive during rather trying times.
Part of the plan was to make Blake’s cottage in Felpham, Sussex, a ‘house of refuge’ for persecuted writers. This, I thought, would be quite a concrete way of honouring what Blake stood for — and precisely in the place where he was accused of sedition. The appeal’s original conception meant for the cottage to be the materialisation, through collective effort, of what Blake believed in as a man and an artist.
True, things didn’t go that way, and the problems that ensued nearly killed me (in compensation, perhaps, for the project having kept me alive for a long while?). Yet I don’t regret one bit having invested so much of me in the dream. I believed in what we were doing, and as far as my own experience goes, the path walked with faith becomes the destination. The ordeal also gave me the chance to have a first-hand experience of a Blakean prophetic poem unfolding live, with all its acute drama. It might have been trying, but no one can say it wasn’t interesting. If I lost my Innocence in the Blake Society and the Blake Cottage appeal, I gained loads of Experience. I am therefore grateful.
Finding Blake again: Ciudad doliente de Dios
For a while, the wounds were so bad that I couldn’t even hear William Blake mentioned without my stomach hurting, and so I walked away from him for the first time in over thirty years. My Blakean novel was finished but not published, and finding a publisher was proving hard. But healing came. I knew I’d be alright the day when, out of the blue, I decided to visit Bunhill Fields again. I sat there, by the fig tree and the old stone with its chipped corner — a place which has become hallowed by the pilgrimage of so many — as I had often done while writing the novel. I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular. I just sat there, watching the trees, the pigeons flying, people passing by. It was a very happy day.
I’m now ready for Blake again.
Which is a good thing, because, after a long wait, Ciudad doliente de Dios was finally published last December in Mexico, by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Things therefore became quite intense. The novel had to go to print in October, which gave me the shortest time I’ve ever had to read the proofs of a book of mine (and this is my longest one).
It being a book I finished five years ago, I was at moments tempted to rewrite again. It wouldn’t have been wise though, as it would have meant more destroying than building. On the whole, I decided to trust the writer I was then. It has been twenty-one years since I started working on this novel. I believe it has indeed reached the point when it has to go out into the world.
On reading the proofs, I was reminded of what a strange novel it is. I liked that. As a dialogue with Blake’s prophetic poems the visionary mattered more than any conventions of modern fiction, and it feels right to have been loyal to that intent.
I was struck too by the degree to which this is a Christian book, in the sense that Blake was Christian (I hope!). I felt somewhat melancholic. I’ve talked before of how I’d been a Christian who responded to the symbolic power of the myth while struggling with the dogma. Precisely in the years I was finishing the novel, I started to walk away from the remnants of my identity as a Christian, as I discovered Buddhism. There aren’t so many contradictions, and I even find much that sounds utterly Buddhist in Blake himself. Ultimately, the quest of my characters for the meaning of the cross and the figure of Christ is a quest for understanding of suffering, and it’s moved by compassion. The questions in it remain utterly genuine and alive for me.
Another matter I pondered on while reading the proofs is the extent to which the tragedies endured by the country where I was born take centre stage in the novel. Set on the visionary rather than the mundane side of reality, it doesn’t take place in any ‘real’ geographical spot. Its characters walk towards the sacred city, led by an image of St Paul’s Cathedral. However, the unfathomable suffering of a country called Mexico has been woven around the cosmogony of William Blake, in an effort to understand and to find meaning. I do hope, therefore, that Ciudad doliente de Dios honours all the people who have endured such suffering with courage and even — as is the case of the community Las Abejas, members of which were the victims of the Acteal massacre — with hope.
Blake: art as path and goal
It must be clear by now, the importance that William Blake has had in my life, as a writer and a human being. He’s an artist and poet who talks to me. One whom I honour and admire for the way he lived the extremely hard battle it was his lot to fight. A sublime and truly inspired but misunderstood artist who endured mockery, incomprehension and poverty.
However, William Blake is not a saint, and in coming closer to some other people’s appreciation of him, I believe that the kind of fanaticism encountered around him now and then is a great loss: a deviation of what really matters in his legacy.
There is no doubt that he lived an exemplary life, as a courageous human being who remained steadfastly faithful to his call, his passions and his principles, against all odds. He believed in the power of art and the imagination to transform human life by helping us break through the veils which hinder our awareness of transcendent reality. And he considered this power the essence of divinity in human existence. He devoted his life to that vision, and therefore to create beauty and meaning. What else can we possibly demand from him?
He gave us more than enough, and like any true artist, he demands in turn our full regard for his work, our full responsiveness. Any other extraneous meaning whimsically projected onto him is a deviation from this. Blake’s belief in being able to communicate with certain spirits (his brother Robert’s; the sages he saw on the shores of Felpham; and his angels) wouldn’t be more interesting than any other person’s perhaps unusual beliefs, had he not linked that faith to a greater, encompassing one: his faith in the human spirit, capacious enough to hold within it God, the universe and all the questions hence derived.
Furthermore, he was adamant about art’s paramount importance in the life of man, believing that a society which stands with its back to the arts is impoverished, lame and crass. Art was, to him, the vehicle, the path and the goal: what he dedicated his life to. If we make any claim to having accepted his gift for posterity, it is to his images and his poetry that we must turn — and they are certainly not for the literal-minded.
We live in times of confusion, when the arts are often understood either as a commodity, novelty, entertainment, a sorry mirror for the vacuous existence of the consumer society, or (with good but misguided intentions) as a by-product of sociology, which then becomes surreptitiously an instrument for social engineering.
All these approaches strip art of its transcendent principle, and when that happens, art is dead. The death of art means the death of a society’s spirit, of human freedom. That is why artists such as William Blake are important, and it is a thing to celebrate that there are many individuals in younger generations who understand this and want to make Blake’s art and poetry a part of their lives.
The art and the poetry of a man who lived on earth. Nothing more and nothing less.
Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.