Imagination, Experience and the Limitations of Reason

Finding Blake is a project that explores the relevance of the work and life of William Blake to us, here and now. And what could be of greater relevance than the question of the balance between reason, experience and imagination in how we see ourselves, our world and its problems and promises? In this post, Kevin Fischer -- author of the book Converse in the Spirit: William Blake, Jacob Boehme & the Creative Spirit -- takes us to the heart of the matter.

Blake saw how reason can be limiting when it is too prominent, and too disconnected from our other vital faculties and capacities. As he wrote in Jerusalem, when “the Reasoning Power in Man [is] separated / From Imagination,” it encloses “itself as in steel, in a Ratio / Of the Things of Memory.”

In his recent and very important book on the workings of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist casts light on this. Imagination is primarily at work in the right hemisphere, while rationalism has a tendency to dominate in the left. McGilchrist writes, “in almost every case, what is new must first be present in the right hemisphere, before it can come into focus to the left.” It “is only … the right hemisphere that is in direct contact with the embodied living world: the left hemisphere is by comparison a virtual, bloodless affair.”

The left hemisphere, McGilchrist goes on, “deals with what it [already] knows … This process eventually becomes so automatic that we do not so much experience the world as experience our representation of the world … a virtual world, a copy.” Ultimately, the mind can become “disconnected from everything that is outside it.”

Breaking out of the already known

As Blake saw, the ‘Reasoning Power’ is an “Abstract objecting power, that Negatives every thing”. He wrote of those who are isolated and alienated by it: “Beyond the bounds of their own self their senses cannot penetrate” and “He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only.” For all its claims to be our primary means of gaining access to reality, this ‘Reasoning Power’ can therefore distance us from full, living knowledge and understanding; and the more it functions in isolation, in an enclosed ‘virtual’ world, the more it can slip into solipsism and fantasy.

Blake saw imagination as something profoundly different from fantasy. Contrary to common conception, this imagination is not about make-believe, the creation of the fantastical, nor is it wish-fulfilment. Blake regarded it as an essential part of life, a means of breaking out of the ‘dull round’ of the ‘ratio’ of abstract reason, of the already known, and through to that which is other than and beyond ourselves. It is a means of putting us more in touch with — and more into — the world, acting as a bridge between the experiencing individual and that which is experienced. It helps root us in living experience.

While imagination helps place us more fully in the world as it is, its relationship with that world is at the same time creative. Blake understood that true Art is a spiritual activity, a creative life that every individual should pursue: “The whole Business of Man Is The Arts & All Things Common” and “Christianity is Art.”

His vision is dynamic and imaginative, because reality is not fixed, finished, and unchanging, and thus capable of being fully and finally understood and explained. Rather, it is ongoing, evolving, ever-expanding. Blake thus stresses the need for each individual to encounter and interpret anew the truths that ‘reside in the human breast’. From the liberating possibilities of this understanding, Blake’s character Los asserts:

I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans
I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create

Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 100
William Blake
Source: The Blake Archive

Accordingly, his work is created with a view to opening … 

the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.

The eye of imagination not only looks outward, as it were, and so places us more firmly in the world around us, but also within. In many respects, Blake’s writings provide a profound insight into the workings of the human mind. That which is other than ourselves, beyond the ‘ratio’ of our reason, is also within us, and imagination is an important means of putting us in touch with it.

Reason and the exile

Vitally, Blake understood that there are profound capacities latent in each individual that for the most part remain unexplored and unrealised: immense possibilities that are naturally inherent within us, our birthright. He wrote that “Man is Born like a Garden ready Planted & Sown”, and “I always thought that the Human Mind was the most Prolific of All Things & Inexhaustible.”

The sublime riches of the inner life are

Shadowy to those who dwell not in them, meer possibilities:
But to those who enter into them they seem the only substances.

A great deal of Blake’s work is addressed to the ways in which human beings are shut off from awareness of all the potential that lies within them: “man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

In The Book of Urizen, he writes of those who cannot “rise at will / In the infinite void,” but are “bound down / To earth by their narrowing perceptions.” In Europe, the faculties of such persons are “Turn’d outward, barr’d and petrify’d against the infinite.” Blake equates this exile with the Fall of Man. Disembodied rationalism is a major source of this loss: “the Reasoning Spectre / Stands between the Vegetable Man & his Immortal Imagination.” The Spectre is “a false Body: an Incrustation over my Immortal/Spirit; a Selfhood.”

The Book of Urizen, copy G
William Blake
Source: The William Blake Archive

Ultimate authority resides in the infinite potential within the individual, for 

in your own Bosom you bear your Heaven And Earth, & all you behold, tho it appears Without it is Within In your Imagination of which this World of Mortality is but a Shadow.

Blake sought to awaken the mind from its usual, often habitual modes of understanding and perception, to a real and living awareness of the limited terms in which life can too often be lived. One such limitation is the assumption that we simply see things as they are, that our eye faithfully and fully sees what is there in the world, when in fact reality as we understand it is filtered through us. Again, Blake believed that life is not given and fixed. Man is not merely a tabula rasa on which reality writes itself. As he stated, “As a man is So he Sees.” When cut off too much from our imagination and the profound possibilities within us, the world that is seen and experienced shrinks:

If Perceptive Organs vary: Objects of Perception seem to vary:
If the Perceptive Organs close: their Objects seems to close also.

With this, reductionism is born, “comprehending great, as very small.” Exiled from the best part of his inner nature, man shrinks accordingly. Blake repeatedly writes of his characters, “they became what they beheld.”

Cleansing the imagination

Conversely, when the imagination is properly at work in the outer and inner worlds, both come more to life. To put this in another way, through imagination we experience more; and what we experience — and so understand — grows, expands. This true, imaginative life looks out at the end of A Vision of the Last Judgment:

I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight … I look thro it & not with it.

The inner, spiritual self looks out and sees through the outer. When this imaginative eye is engaged with the world, that which has been drained of life by habit and over-familiarity, by the ‘ratio’, the ‘dull round’ of what we already know, is seen and experienced anew, as if for the very first time:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear as it is: infinite.

Through imagination we experience a far greater sense of the full reality of existence — that is, we truly see, feel and know how astonishing, how utterly extraordinary it is to be alive in the world. And as the outward world is not shut off from the imaginative and creative life of the inward, the reality of the world comes more to life. As “every thing that lives is Holy”, the outward world reflects back the life of the spirit.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Copy H, Plate 14
William Blake

In Blake’s poem Europe, a Fairy evokes this living interplay. The narrator asks, “What is the material world, and is it dead?” Having sung of “the eternal world that ever groweth”, the Fairy promises “I’ll … shew you all alive / The world, when every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.”

The same vision is expressed in Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.

Imagination creates the bridge between — and makes possible awareness of the inter-relationship between — the human and the divine. Blake wrote that “God only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men.” As the figure of the Saviour says at the beginning of Jerusalem:

I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine … I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and friend; Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me: Lo! We are One.

In particular, imagination is vital because it helps put us in touch with that which is other than ourselves, in the outside world, not least other people. Empathic, it connects us with other human beings. It is that in which, as Blake perceived, ‘All/Human Forms’ are ‘identified’:

He who would see the Divinity must see him in his Children One first, in friendship & love; then a Divine Family, & in the midst Jesus will appear.

When reason is too shut off from all of the other human faculties and capacities, it can abstract us from our humanity. As Blake puts it, in “Attempting to be more than Man We become less.” Compassion, for instance, has to be experienced, felt, lived, with an imaginative connection with others. Without it, morality becomes theoretical, legalistic, oppressive and, too often, hypocritical. Embodied imagination humanises us, and places us very much in the world as human beings. And when this happens, true Reason can function.

Exploring our potential through imagination, Blake both encourages and urges us to make new discoveries and to create new forms for the life of the spirit. Reality is inexhaustible, and, when imaginatively engaged with, continually reveals new possibilities: there is “no Limit of Expansion … no Limit of Translucence.”


Notes

Kevin Fischer is the author of Converse in the Spirit: William Blake, Jacob Boehme, and the Creative Spirit (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004). He is working on a novel about a visionary artist, which takes as its theme spiritual exile and homecoming. This post is based on the lecture William Blake & Jacob Boehme: Imagination, Experience & the Limitations of Reason, which was given at the Temenos Academy, and is published in the Temenos Academy Review 20 (2017). The full paper can be found here.

Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary was published by Yale University Press in 2009. You can download the introduction to the book, and discover much more, at Iain McGilchrist’s website. And you can read a 2015 interview Iain McGilchrist gave at Interalia Magazine. 

Iain McGilchrist gave the 2016 Blake Society Lecture, The Infinite Brain and the Narrow Circle.

 

Strange Mystery Flower

Finding Blake welcomes songwriter and musician Roger Arias, whose Strange Mystery Flower adaptation of four of William Blake's poems featured in the Other Blakean Artefacts section of our Blakean Archive. Here, Roger describes how this musical project arose from his personal encounter with Blake's poems and from the journey these accompanied him on.

This is the story of the birth of a musical project, Strange Mystery Flower.

It all begins in Ferrol, a port city located in Galicia, on the northwest of Spain, some time in early 2014. One of the many musicians who live in this run-down and quaint city comes home after a night of partying and, after a small discussion with his girlfriend, he takes the first book he finds in his humble library and goes to his room. Needless to say, he was so wasted that his eyes closed before opening a miserable page. The next day, with the foreseeable hangover, he opens one eye and finds a small cover in front of his face that reads like this: William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience. He begins to flip through it and immediately perceives and senses something that connects him with those verses. Some melodies begin to play around in his head. Curiously, he does not remember having acquired that book and it does not belong to his girlfriend either; the explanation of how it got home, which for sure exists, is still a mystery today. The name of this musician is Roger Arias.

Travelling with a Blakean spirit

Returning to the subject in question, from that first encounter the book accompanies him everywhere and Roger becomes more and more familiar with the Blakean spirit. On those days, the first two songs arise, inspired by the poems Spring and Night. Already fully aware of the powerful connection he is feeling at a deep, almost spiritual level, he decides to shelve the book for another, more timely, occasion.

Strange Mystery Flower Cover design: Mario Feal © 2018

That time would be September 2014. Roger acquires a complete anthology of Blake’s poetry entitled See a world in a grain of sand and prepares a small suitcase with clothes. These two things, as well as a guitar, a sleeping bag, some other books and some records (among which were some compilations of acid folk that a good friend had recommended), are his only companions on a trip that he decides to make to the north of Italy.

From poetical to musical sketches

Once this trip starts, and after making several stops in the north of Spain (specifically in Asturias and the Basque Country, where he meets old friends and plays a few gigs that help him defray the cost of the trip), he arrives in a small village located in the Odesa National Park in the Pyrenees, a natural border between Spain and France. There he opens for the first time the recently acquired book by Blake. He finds, at the very beginning, Blake’s Poetical Sketches, which include a short poem entitled Song first by a shepherd, whose first and timely verse is “Welcome, stranger, to this place … “, and immediately a melody emerges as a ray of light to accompany these verses in the most appropriate environment, the high Pyrenean mountains. There also arose Miss Gittipin’s second song.

Song first by a shepherd

It is only the beginning. After several weeks, the protagonist of this story has musicalized twenty-four poems! As well as his first song in Italian, although this is another story… Most of the songs that emerge over the next few days do so in situations analogous to the content of the poem, as in the aforementioned Song first by a shepherd. For example, at a certain moment that Roger needs to rest from driving all day, he leaves the highway and arrives at a charming little town called Colle di Val d’Elsa. In a small park located on a hill in front of the village and the bell tower of its church, the musician sits on a bench to regain strength and watches how a lady takes care of a boy and a girl playing in the field and the swings. After a while, Roger opens the book and finds a poem titled Nurse’s song. The melody appears immediately.

On another occasion, wandering around inner Tuscany, he arrives at a town called Tarquinia, in the heart of Etruria. After having dinner in a tavern of the village, where he is talking for a while with the innkeeper (a nice man who even showed him the Etruscan tombs located in the basement of his bar) he goes to sleep in his car, as usual. After an hour of rest, loud noises awaken him; it seemed like the sky was falling on Tarquinia. It is one of the typical end-of-summer storms in Tuscany. At that moment he decides to spend the night in a tunnel near the town that he had glimpsed in his walk before dinner. In that tunnel, that night, Roger opens the book and a new song is born, The Little Vagabond.

Strange mystery flowering

In the same way, many more songs emerge from the inspired mind of this “little vagabond” throughout his journey through the transalpine country. Genoa, Modena, Siena, Florence, the Mediterranean coast, the Adriatic side, Foligno, Assisi and a few other places are some of the ones Roger visit and where many of these songs are created. It is a magical journey, in all senses, which emerges from a strong intuition and in which certain energies that surpass reason and understanding accompany and shield the musician along this adventure; or so he feels. At the end of it, he realises that he has a treasure worthy of being shared with his family, so when he gets home he locks himself up for a few days to register and record these songs with his guitar and voice. It would be nice enjoying them with his family and friends.

Roger Arias
Photograph: Oscar Millarengo © 2018

Shortly after, he decides to record four of them in a more complete and professional way with the help of his sister, Amparo Arias, as second voice of the project and the musician / arranger Raúl Diz, as well as other punctual collaborations, such as the cellist Macarena Montesinos or the bassist Íñigo Uzarmendi.

And that’s the way this EP of four songs was born, accompanied by the desire to be shared with the world thanks to this project, once dreamed by Roger, and in which Blake and other great poets of humanity will be sung. I do hope it has a long and intense journey ahead: Strange Mystery Flower


Notes

Roger Arias is a musician, singer, songwriter and independent producer from Galicia. But above all he is a lover of the nature and the sea, a researcher of the weaknesses of the heart, a portrayer of the society we live in, a passionate reader, an inveterate cinephile, an intrepid traveler, a unique bohemian… activities that have had a strong influence in his music and art through all his albums, videoclips and concerts. Recently he has published a joint album with the Madrid musician Charlie Mysterio, with the name of Os Peregrinos and published by Elefant Records. 

You can find four of Roger’s Blake-inspired songs for Strange Mystery Flower on YouTube and on Bandcamp

NB: This post originally contained a link to an article which we suggested was about Strange Flower Mystery, but as Roger himself quickly pointed out was referring to another band! See our Corrections page.

 

 

Divine Madness

We're excited to welcome another new voice to Finding Blake. James Fox shares the story of his accidental discovery of William Blake and, through his works, the key to a treasure that is a vision of the future - of humanity at home in the world.


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:

Spectre over Los, Plate 6 Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion by William Blake Copy E
Source: The William Blake Archive via Wikimedia

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:

The First Book of Urizen, Plate 12 (Bentley 22), William Blake
Source: Yale Center for British Art Paul Mellon Collection

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:

Two forms of Los with Enitharmon, Plate 100 of Jerusalem, William Blake
Source: The William Blake Archive via Wikimedia

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.

Countenance Divine

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! 


Notes

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.