Finding Blake gratefully received an enquiry from Eric Nicholson via our Contact page, offering us a glimpse of his draft book on William Blake and Personal Awakening. Eric is a practising Zen Buddhist and a retired art teacher. We wanted to share some of his insights and reflections with our readers; the book should appeal to anyone interested in Blake and to readers interested in personal growth. Here is an extract from the introduction and the first chapter.
No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.
– Carl Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self (1951)
My approach in this book is to look at Blake’s twenty-two illustrations of the Book of Job as a narrative describing the despair and subsequent rebirth and redemption of Job, and to apply the ideas to our own spiritual journeys.
William Blake and Personal Awakening
We will, therefore, be travelling into some very dark places and using ‘self-inquiry’ in the manner of Socrates’ imperative ‘know thyself’. If, like me, you have sometimes felt that your life has consisted of one mistake after another, this might be the book for you. If you have ever suffered from depression or acute anxiety and sensed that the experience was existential and spiritual, rather than simply a medical or pathological problem, you may find some pointers in my analysis. Needless to say, to get the most out of the ideas here we will have to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves and be prepared to dig under the surface of our personas. That is the only requirement; you do not need to accept any system, any religion, or anyone’s ideas about God. Our journey will be a shared journey where I hope you will engage with the arguments. Starting at the title page engraving, Blake will be our guide.
I am not a sage. I am just an ordinary human being who struggles with depression and to whom the question of ‘peace of mind’ is the most important question in the world. Perhaps you too are interested in this question. If so you may find Blake’s Job speaks to you as it does to me.
There are many illuminating books and commentaries about Blake’s system and about the Job engravings. However, this book is not a straightforward commentary on Blake’s Illustrations of The Book of Job – his actual title for the series. Instead, I interpret Blake’s series of illustrations in spiritual terms relevant to life today. I relate his ideas to Buddhist thought as Soto Zen Buddhism is the practice I have first hand experience of. The correspondences between the two are remarkable.
Suffering and the end of suffering
The historical Buddha said, I teach only one thing; suffering and the end of suffering. ‘Dukkha’ was the Sanskrit word traditionally used and ‘suffering’ is a rather crude translation of its meaning; ‘an unavoidable, universal, unsatisfactory element to corporeal life’ is a better way of thinking about it. Mick Jagger’s lyrics in Satisfaction also describe dukkha in a popular context.
William Blake’s twenty-two engravings of the Book of Job are the culmination of a forty-year preoccupation with the subject. In the mid-1780s he completed a drawing showing Job’s wife and his friends. This was followed by nineteen stunning watercolours illustrating the whole narrative of the biblical Job filtered through Blake’s unique vision.
In 1821, John Linnell borrowed the watercolours and traced the series, which Blake then coloured. Two years later Linnell commissioned the engravings, which Blake did on copper plates, using a conventional intaglio technique. (I have examined the set in the British Museum and they are in such a pristine condition that incised lines the width of a human hair are still unblemished.) Linnell gave an advanced payment of £100 and added £50, and other sums, some time later. They were dated 1825 but only printed as a set in 1826, one year before Blake’s death. Considering the small size of the black and white prints (8.4 x 6.5 inch) the richness of both the pictorial elements and the intellectual content is astonishing. It is no wonder that these final Job engravings, done near the end of Blake’s life, are so deeply felt and masterful in technique.
To our twenty-first century eyes Blake’s visual work can appear at first sight to be archaic and naively anthropomorphic. (His use of theatrical gestures in his work may have been partly derived from the theatre of his day, and his pastel colouring from other Georgian contemporaries.) However, once we get past the seeming barrier of anthropomorphism we can appreciate that, in fact, his work is deeply spiritual, and at the same time, humanistic and a much-needed counterbalance to scientific materialism. The fact that nearly all of his visual representations, done throughout his life, include human figures is deeply significant, given that today the stature of the individual has diminished so alarmingly: globally, with shopping malls full and places of worship emptying, ‘homo economicus’ seems to have totally replaced ‘homo spiritualis’.
A Dragoning path under the sun
When I first went to a Buddhist monastery I was somewhat surprised, and fascinated, that after seated meditation we did walking meditation by walking slowly and silently in a circular fashion. During ceremonies we also walked in a ‘dragoning’ path as we circumambulated the meditation hall. The monks explained that these movements were always in a clockwise direction. On reflection I realised that this is the same direction as the sun’s path through the sky and therefore there is a feeling of ‘rightness’ and that the counter-clockwise movement would seem somehow unnatural.
Blake engraved his seven angels moving clockwise in this title page where he has both Hebrew and Gothic lettering. Foster Damon, in his Blake Dictionary, explains that the bottom-most angel is Shaddhi who is looking backwards as if mid-way in the pilgrimage of regeneration. The leading angel with his face averted is Jesus. Is his face averted to show a spiritual inwardness or is it because he has not yet been incarnated? He is, anyhow, unambiguously, the leading angel, and so is symbolic of that urge within each of us to find spiritual truth. (Blake did not believe in bodily resurrection or in the conventional doctrines espoused by institutional Christianity. However, his whole system describes in detail continuous spiritual rebirth which, incidentally, has many non-Christian antecedents.) In Buddhism this desire for truth, or spiritual aspiration, is called Bodhicitta.
Joseph Wicksteed, in his masterful book Blake’s Vision of the Book of Job, is percipient about the sun in relation to the title page:
We are, in this book … concerned not so much with the visible part of the current, which carries the sun … to his height in the south and down again into the west, but with the part below the horizon, by which the unseen sun is taken back through the underworld, to reappear again in the east.
There has always been this symbolic view of rebirth concerning the sun but the circular motion can also symbolise the repetitive nature of human existence. In today’s world, with its treadmill of consumerism, we may all too easily find ourselves repeating Macbeth’s despairing lines: ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in the petty pace from day to day / until the last syllable of recorded time.’ And remember, Shakespeare’s eponymous protagonist wonders at the end of the speech if, ‘life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.’ This is Blake’s Ulro or Eternal Death, a state in which some of us might live out our lives when we are content to be passive and unreflecting; content to go along with consensus thinking. It is the ‘unconscious’ life described by Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now. The whole of Blake’s system is really a roadmap on how to avoid this bleak state of affairs and approach circumstances from a receptive, compassionate position.
The film Groundhog Day also brilliantly captures this repetitive aspect to our lives.
For readers unfamiliar with the film, cynical and egotistic TV weatherman Phil Connors gets stuck in an inexplicable time loop that makes him relive the same day over and over. First, it depresses him; then he thinks he can control it, perhaps even win the love of his field director, Rita. When that fails, he sinks further into depression until he discovers that goodness and kindness may be just the qualities to win her love, as well as break the loop. He delivers the line that so many of us relate to: ‘What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing really mattered?’ To which his drinking buddy responds, ‘That about sums it up for me.’ His liberation is dependent on his ‘change of heart’ and this is exactly what Job needs to do. We, also, may feel we need to do this if our lives feel somewhat jaded. (Thanks to Peter Garfinkel for this summary, which I’ve adapted from his article in Lion’s Roar, February 2018.)
… he would become wise
As we shall discover with Blake, everything has its obverse. As he wrote, ‘if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.’ (Proverbs of Hell). The piece of grit in the oyster enables the pearl to form; the scary feeling that we are on a treadmill may wake us up. Leonard Cohen also wrote perceptively about this idea when he wrote, ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in’ (from his 1992 Album, Anthem). Clearly, although conditions may be challenging, or we experience despair, we can still win through to a more integrated vision, if we persevere and do not give in. This is what Job does; he doesn’t give in, and, this is what we can also do, even if our twenty-first century challenges are somewhat different, in their specifics, from Job’s.
In the final lines of the Heart Sutra, one translation has:
O Buddha, going, going, going on beyond
And always going on beyond
Always becoming Buddha.
– Rev. Master Jiyu Kennett, Liturgy of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives for the Laity.
This underscores the ceaseless activity of spiritual training and I believe Blake would concur completely with the exhortation. To ‘always become Buddha,’ means, amongst other things, to acknowledge our spiritual essence, or ‘Buddha nature.’ In today’s world, when scientific materialism and the post-modern paradigm have convinced most of us that we live in a meaningless, ‘indifferent universe‘ it is a challenge to recognise what Blake calls our ‘divine nature.’
Andrew Solomon, in his wonderful book, Blake’s Job: A Message for Our Time, sums up Blake’s view of the divine nature of humankind eloquently:
Blake’s purpose is to show … for each individual … moral authority is seen to emanate wholly from the spiritual centre, which is at once the essence of his own being and his link with the universal … It will become apparent that the more fully he is identified with this inner reality, the more clearly he will see and value the same reality which is at the centre of all other beings, so that love becomes the mainspring of his will.
In Buddhism we often say ‘Buddha recognises Buddha’ concerning everyone we meet, however challenging a person might be. Can we see the Buddha nature even within that irritating person who always presses our buttons?
So, even in this title page, Blake succeeds in packing in so much with so little. Did you notice that three of the angels are holding scrolls and one a quill? Right at the start of his visual narrative he is declaring his absolute belief in the redemptive purpose of his art. Unlike some artists, he was not making art for art’s sake; he expected us to work hard at unravelling his deep message, which he thought would help each of us in our own spiritual development.
Eric Nicholson is now retired and lives in Gateshead, UK. He worked as an art teacher and in other fields of education. He has followed the Soto Zen Buddhist practice for over thirty years and enjoys countryside conservation, visiting art galleries and fell walking. Eric has published articles and poetry, mainly online, and he blogs at www.erikleo.wordpress.com (including more Blake-related pieces). Eric says of his book, William Blake and Personal Awakening, “I am now at the stage of looking for a literary agent and hope to be published in 2019.”
William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell is from Geoffrey Keynes’s edited Blake Complete Writings, published by Oxford University Press, 1966.
Foster Damon’s Blake Dictionary was published by Thames & Hudson, 1973.
The quotation from Jiyu-Kennett’s Zen is Eternal Life is from The Liturgy of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives for the Laity, Rev P.T.N.H. Jiyu-Kennett, published by Shasta Abbey, 1987.
Andrew Solomon’s Blake’s Job: A Message for Our Time was published by Palamabron Press, 1993.
Joseph Wicksteed, Blake’s Vision of the Book of Job was published by JM Dent & Sons Ltd, 1924.