It all began for me with one of those accidental discoveries made whilst randomly browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Glastonbury. Not looking for any special subject in particular – and Blake was certainly not on my mind – I somewhat apathetically pulled out a book simply entitled William Blake. It was written by John Middleton Murry, the prolific author of more than sixty books and editor of the Adelphi magazine. He was married to Katherine Mansfield and was part of a scene that included the likes of D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley, the latter portraying him as Denis Burlap in Point Counter Point.
Like Nietzsche’s discovery of Schopenhauer in a bookshop in Leipzig, opening the covers of William Blake was like parting the Doors of Aurora. As I read the opening sentences, then the first page, a spiritual sun began to glow inside me. Almost immediately I sensed the presence of treasure, or at least the key to treasure, of something I knew not what that I’d been searching for, explicitly for the last ten years (and which had taken me to some troubled regions), maybe my whole life. Ironically, or perhaps not so, it was in those troubled regions that the Countenance Divine had shone forth for me in a green and pleasant grove on the edge of Dartmoor. But that experience had evaporated like a mirage, the treasure locked away as a mere memory. But I quickly saw in those opening pages of William Blake that Middleton Murry himself had experienced the Countenance Divine; and when I later began reading the book properly was satisfied that it was this, what he terms ‘spiritual sensation’, and all its psychological and philosophical aspects and ramifications, that is at the core of Blake’s work.
Urizen the emissary becomes master
With Middleton Murry’s book behind me I read an edition of Blake’s complete illuminated books and from previously being bemused on account of being unable to make any sense of Blake’s writings I now found myself in a series of excursions into worlds and landscapes in which difficult and elusive existential concerns and psychological forces and states were brought into plain sight by means of the theatre of poetry and imagery. I encountered Urizen – a menacing presence, yet also a sad one. He is our rational faculty; but when he is wrongly placed in our psyche, when he ceases to be an instrument of our creative, active forces and, in Iain McGilchrist’s words, ceases to be emissary and assumes the role of master, then he tries to direct our lives through knowledge of the ‘best way to live’. This ‘ethical’ knowledge of right and wrong action either originates in some omniscient source (God the Father) or has to be worked out by the human intellect. Being a philosopher trained in the Western tradition, and not subscribing to the notion of God the Father, I set out to know, in some form or another, the incontrovertible nature of the universe, myself and their relationship – that I might obtain this knowledge of right living.
It has been said that (Western) philosophy, ultimately, is asking the question: how should we live? Fortunately most philosophers don’t apply this to their own lives, preferring to confine it to the study or the classroom. I, on the other hand, like a madman, threw myself into reading whatever philosophy, religion or science I thought might deliver me of that ‘incontrovertible’ knowledge of how to live (for the best). Coming as this did on the back of a recently completed PhD on the history of philosophy, it is no wonder that I found myself under mental strain and began to suffer from insomnia – although the cause of this was not apparent to me at the time. Finding myself awake in the middle of the night, agitated, my mind whirring, but impelled by some subterranean imperative (to know the All), apprehensive of the tiredness that would plague the day to come – I realised that I had a problem. And the way you solve problems is by the intellect, by thinking things through. And so the knot of threads that was my mental state was pulled yet tighter.
Months passed before moments of realisation came, and went, that the root of my problem lay in obsessive thinking. When this realisation possessed me, the urge to think abated, and the world became a calm and present place. But, like one possessed of a demon, sooner or later the imperative ‘to know’, like a flywheel that can’t shed its momentum, would hijack my mental life-energy until once more I found myself in the same dark cave, wide awake, pulling on that tangled knot.
But one day I found William Blake in the cave beside me when, reading Milton, I heard him say:
To cast off the idiot Questioner, who is always questioning
But never capable of answering, who sits with a sly grin
Silent plotting when, like a thief in a cave.
When reading There Is No Natural Religion I heard:
More! More! Is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.
If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot.
In Jerusalem I came across the tyrannical monster of Urizen poised over the spontaneous creative life force of Los:
And I saw in that monster the nature of my own obsessive thinking.
But in The Book of Urizen I came across this mental tyrant in a different guise:
Here was a tormented creature, eyes closed, wrists and ankles shackled, imprisoned in a world of his own in-turned psychical nature – and I saw myself in this creature. And my anger towards him melted into sadness: he had never intended to unleash this misery and despair; he had not set out to be a tyrant and suppressor of the joy, meaningfulness and vitality of life. If it had not been for his emergence into our psyche during the last Ice Age we would not be here today. Yet, something had obviously gone wrong. And this was something to do with the magnitude of the psychical energy that this Urizenic rational faculty had drawn upon and bloated itself with, and which had resulted in an excessive preoccupation with shadowy abstract materials and a shutting out of the direct sensing of the presence of the world. Thus:
He who sees the Infinite in all things, sees God.
He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only.
Los at home in the world
I recall awakening in the middle of the night in a flat in Kentish town, whilst in London to attend a meeting of the Blake Society. The final image of Jerusalem appeared before me as the visually realised solution to the problem of Urizen:
Los stands with a hammer in one hand and dividers in the other. The hammer is the creative spontaneous life force of the Imagination; the dividers are the measuring, partitioning rational faculty indispensable for day-to-day life. But now, the two are in harmony: now, the ratio is the instrument of art and imagination. Los is at home in the world, at one with its divine presence that shines forth in its elemental modes: solid land, trees; the flowing river, the Moon; the fiery Sun; the translucent air through which the stars and the universe are seen.
I had been trained in the Western philosophical tradition before my interests turned to mystical doctrines, which I then studied at the theoretical and practical level for some years. However, I had not been able to concert all that I had imbued or tried out into any kind of satisfying and productive outlet. Though not claiming to have read exhaustively in the world’s mystical treatises, I have found in Blake’s work the most profound account of mystical experience – an experience we are told is ineffable – and a philosophy that treats of and makes sense of most of the ‘major questions’ concerning the human condition: issues which academic philosophers continue to churn over as they have for more than two thousand years, often in a rationally pompous yet bloodless and boring fashion. Blake, on the other hand, can say in a few lines of poetry, and say it better, what most academic philosophers cannot say in a book.
On the mystical:
To see a world in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild flower.
On the ontological:
That an Eternal life awaits the worms of sixty winters
In an allegorical abode where existence hath never come.
On the epistemological:
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.
In poems such as The Chimney Sweeper Blake can also show us – and in affecting ways – the lived personal experience of those who suffer due to the absence of the spiritual in our day-to-day world.
For me, Blake is foremost a spiritual visionary; his poetic works and art are the means by which he shows us his vision. This vision is of a future in which we have awakened from our present human condition of being shut out from the sense of being at home in the world, and instead find ourselves in a state in which the world we live in day to day is experienced as suffused, more or less, with the Countenance Divine; 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 the sense of the preciousness and beauty of the planet upon which almost everything we know and experience and live for is located; a desire naturally wells up that instils in us a sense of care towards our precious environment, and a compassion towards all creatures and human beings.
We 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 we can re-place him, and in so doing allow ourselves to wake up spiritually: 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; to feel at one with and hence to wish to care for our natural environment and other creatures; and to use Urizen, now as instrument, in the service of this new mode of being.
Finding Blake has spurred me to try to develop some sort of nature-based mystical philosophy and shaman-like practice for today that will help to bring about this kind of spiritual awakening and avert the increasing psychological, social and environmental damage that our misplaced Urizen is causing. A keystone in this endeavour would be Blake’s work. I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who shares this vision or is working in this area. May the spirit of Blake guide me!
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.