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.

Fighting a Poverty of the Imagination

To kick off our new Finding Blake website, project creator James Murray-White reflects on what inspired him to create the project and invite others to join him in celebrating the vision of William Blake, a uniquely British radical.

It is engrained in our culture to follow the head from school onwards. I live in Cambridge, where the push to be educated and use the power of a good education to rise up the ladder is in the air. It leaches from the fabric of the traditional university buildings and the new buildings of start-up companies and business centres, the sixth form and village colleges … and I don’t suggest that it’s wrong, just that it is not the only way. Head must follow heart.

A transformation of the inner life

Kathleen Raine, who did so much to promote Blake’s vision through her own life and writings, wrote in her 1970 biography of him: “Blake gradually renounced politics for something more radical: not religion, in the sense of a system of beliefs and observances, but a transformation of the inner life, a rebirth of ‘the true man’. Politics and religion alike came to seem to him an evasion of ‘the one thing needful’.”

William Blake (World of Art Library), by Kathleen Raine (Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1970)

I spent a day recently with dear friends who have two wonderful kids. We were out in a nearby village, exploring a new forest school that has recently opened up. The kids who were also exploring were probably kids of academics or, like all of us in this area, affiliated with the University in some way (I make part of my living right now filming University lectures). But here was the opportunity to snuffle through leaves, to make willow sculptures, to climb trees, play on swings, to learn how to make and tend an open fire and to cook potatoes on it: an early chance to play and to create.

Maybe these children, the me’s and the you’s of tomorrow – who will live in a post-Brexit dawn, with different political realities, new leaders, and a capitalist system at breaking point – will learn enough at this forest school, running amongst the trees with curiosity and imagination, to create personal systems of belief, self-sufficiency, and resilience to create a better vision – “to build Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant land”.

A vision that shatters

I heard a piece on Radio 4 about homelessness, and the speaker talked of the danger of becoming caught in ‘the poverty of the imagination’, and it struck me that that’s the reason I’m doing this project: using the new grave stone to highlight the immense power of the vision Blake developed and left to the world. It’s a vision that shatters mental slavery and poverty of the heart, can restore and develop vision and intuition, and engender feeling back in our world. Finding our way back to knowing: “and we are put on this earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love.”

A friend came by recently and talked of the unique mystical tradition that Blake developed and was part of, and how this is very different from the Eastern mysticism that many of us have sought out over the years, both in the East – in Tibet and, in my case, Mongolia – and through the influx of Tibetan and Thai monks and lamas settling in Europe. Blake’s visions were uniquely rooted within his London life and the three years he lived in Felpham in Sussex, and as far as I know the East was very far from his sphere of influence*. So it’s the unique Britishness of Blake that needs (again, in my view) to be savoured, explored deeply; and my job is to further pull out those shards of light and shining imagination, and bring them to a wider audience.


Notes

* If anyone knows of any research that brings east and west together within Blake’s work, please do let me know!

Poet Kathleen Raine‘s biography, William Blake was published in 1970 as part of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art Library series: ‘a classic study of William Blake, a man for whom the arts were not an end in themselves, but expressed his vision of the spiritual drama of the English national being. This volume presents a comprehensive view of Blake’s artistic achievements and a compelling and moving portrait of the life and thought of an extraordinary genius.’

Raine died in 2003, aged 95, and her obituary in the Guardian described her as “a poet who believed in the sacred nature of all life, all true art and wisdom, and her own calling. She knew as a small child that poetry was her vocation. William Blake was her master, and she shared his belief that ‘one power alone makes a poet – imagination, the divine vision’.”

The letter of William Blake to Revd John Trusler is quoted in an essay by Maria de Gonzales de Leon, A letter from the young William Blake in defence of imagination (12/5/17) on the website Faena Aleph; “In one of Blake’s most beautiful letters, the then 20-year-old poet – always uncomfortable with the social conventions of his era – assured his client that, despite having tried to follow the directions regarding the illustrations, his style was unique and unlike any other. The images he’d commanded had been dictated by ‘my Genius or Angel,’ one which he followed blindly. Blake’s final explanation is irrevocable: “I could not do otherwise; it was out of my power!”

The British Library commentary on the letter (the images shown here are taken from their online archive) says that: “In this letter Blake sets out how his mind worked. Particularly the statement ‘I see every thing I paint in this world’, refers to Blake’s eidetic vision – seeing as real and concrete the images which appeared to him as visions. But he describes these visions also as an act of will: people can see beauty either in a coin or in the sun, Nature as ‘all Ridicule and Deformity’ (and here he is referring to works by artists such as Gillray and Rowlandson – the ‘caricature prints’ that have ‘perverted’ Trusler’s eye), while Blake says ‘by these I shall not regulate my proportions’ … On the outside of the letter Dr Trusler has written ‘Blake dimmed by superstition’; while Blake clearly had a dim view of Trusler’s view of art, calling it ‘caricature’.”