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.

 

If the Fool Would Persist in His Folly …

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’.

Title page of the Illustrations of the Book of Job
William Blake, 1826
Source: Wikipedia / The Blake Archive www.blakearchive.org/

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.

The treadmill

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.

Job’s Evil Dreams – pen and black ink, grey wash, and watercolour, over traces of graphite
William Blake
Source: Wikipedia / Morgan Library & Museum www.themorgan.org/

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.

When the Morning Stars Sang Together – Pen and black ink, grey wash, and watercolour, over traces of graphite
William Blake
Source: Wikipedia / Morgan Library & Museum www.themorgan.org/

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 universeit 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. 


Notes

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.

Another Jerusalem

Finding Blake welcomes back artist, musician, illustrator, songwriter and poet Salli Hipkiss, with a new poem – Another Jerusalem – and her account of the inspiration for this work in dream, and in the work and wisdom of Blake and other thinkers and writers.

Another Jerusalem 

I dreamed I danced beside a wall with unknown friends, maybe three.  
No music played but still within we heard a call and danced, beside a wall. 

The dream went on, the second night a bigger crowd was there. 
No words were passed but all were light of foot and many smiles were shared.  

Night three the crowd was bigger still, all dancing while the wall stood soft 
Somehow, though limestone made and marked where countless hands had pressed  

And whispered truths and prayers and dreams and curses...  
This time we chose freedom from speech and danced our stories.  

The next night still the party grew: all silent dancers, full of smiles. 
I woke in wonder that such vivid smiling people could be conjured just by dream. 

Where we have walls, where speech brings argument, disharmony: 
Bring only inner music. 
Bring no words. 
But dance with wild abandon  
Become friends with unknown dreamers 
Belong to all nations Come barefoot 
And dance. 

Salli Hipkiss © 6th April 2018. All rights reserved.

Writing an introduction to this poem seems a little out of place in some ways, suggesting as it does a move beyond words! However, a little placing in context might appeal to some people, so here goes…

Some acts of creation take years to come to fruition, and some, happily, come along almost effortlessly, and so it was with this poem. It really was inspired by a vivid dream that unfolded pretty much as the poem tells!

However, reflecting on the dream and writing the poem as a response, I found myself recalling real walls that exist or have existed or are sadly being proposed in current times. 

In April this year the Dalai Lama published a book for young people called A Call For Revolution. In it he presents the idea of a revolution of compassion. He remembers being present in 1989 as the Berlin Wall was dismantled by the young people of East and West Germany. He says:

“I feel very emotional thinking back to the moment when I arrived, candle in hand, at the site where the wall had been breached.  The jubilant crowd lifted me up onto the rubble. It was an extraordinary moment and I felt the breath of peace and freedom exhaling throughout the world.”

Inspired by such positive, peaceful, collective actions, through the book he calls for young people today to commit to a Charter of Universal Responsibility that actively leads to peace and the dissolution of constructed divisions, whether physical or ideological. 

Finding a common ground

Writing in the 13th-century the Persian poet and Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī wrote the beautiful lines:

Out beyond 
Ideas of right doing 
And wrong doing: 
There is a field, 
I’ll meet you there.

I am intrigued by places that allow people to find ‘common ground’, or where they are at least able to put aside differences and meet with open hearts. The wall in my dream was not a specific place, but more a feeling for this kind of inclusive space. 

While reflecting on the dream, the wall that kept coming back into my mind was the Western Wall in Jerusalem, also known as the Wailing Wall, Kotel, or in Arabic as Ḥā’iṭ al-Burāq. I decided therefore to title the poem Another Jerusalem, reflecting both on modern-day Jerusalem and William Blake’s poem of the same name, and the famous song Jerusalem, which is based on text from Blake’s poem Milton

The Western Wall has deep meaning and history for Jews, Christians and Muslims and the Jerusalem walls are listed, along with the Old City of Jerusalem, on the UNESCO World Heritage Site List. As one of the ‘status quo of the Holy Land’ sites it is a place of pilgrimage for all and now forms a fragile meeting point of cultures and religions, rather than a physical division.

The idea that a wall, originally designed to divide, to keep some in and others out, might inadvertently become a meeting point, resonated with the theme I had taken from the dream.  There are also many meeting points between different religions and ideologies that become evident when we look for similarities rather than differences.

Writing in the 18th-century, Blake boldly illustrated the aphorism: “All Religions Are One.”

‘All Religions Are One’, by William Blake 1788
Public Domain: Wikipedia

This recalls for me another lovely poem by Rumi:

Spring overall. But inside us
There is another unity.
Behind each eye
One glowing weather.
Every forest branch moves differently
In the breeze, but as they sway
They connect at the roots.

In our increasingly multi-cultural societies it feels as if we could possibly be closer than at any other time in history to realising that we are all part of one big family tree: that we all “connect at the roots”.  In the way of this is a clinging to a simplistic world-view that divides people into ‘Us and Them’.

In Jerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion Blake describes:

…two contraries which are called Qualities and with
Which every substance is clothed, (they) name them good and evil
From them they make an abstract…

The italics on ‘Qualities’ are my own, for although this is the usual transcription, I can’t help wondering if the word Blake might have had in mind was ‘Dualities, which also fits with the general flow of his ideas. ‘Dualities’, polarising notions of good and evil, lead too easily to concepts of ‘Us and Them’.

A short distance away from Jerusalem today the Israel and Palestine conflict remains unresolved. A new wall is being proposed along the Mexico and USA border, to many people’s dismay. Surely at this time humanity needs to be putting its creative energy into moving beyond the kind of divisive ‘abstract’ thinking that Blake was exploring: thinking which can too easily make an ‘evil’ out of a ‘contrary’.

The Dalai Lama has written:

“In November 2015 after the Paris terrorist attacks, I faced up to the failure of religion. Every religion persists in cultivating that which divides us, instead of uniting us around what brings us together… There is an urgent need to go beyond religion. It is possible to live without religion, but can one live without love and compassion? The answer is no.”

A creative force for peace

In Jerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion Blake talks of: “Striving with systems to deliver individuals from their systems”

There seems to me something generous in Blake’s forging of his personal mythology or ‘system’, in his rejection of the oppressive qualities of religious doctrine, and his own unique interpretation of Christianity. His personal striving for freedom of creative imagination paves the way for others to follow their own paths, leading to a multiplicity of visions: a route that in turn leads perhaps to unity and universality through diversity.

Blake writes :

I must make a system, or be enslav’d by another Man’s,
I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to create.

Creativity is such a powerful force for peace. Indeed peace is often found more easily when adversaries focus on a joint creative or collaborative project, rather than on the ‘serious business’ (usually through talking) of creating peace itself. Similarly peace of mind or even happiness usually elude us when we focus on them as ends in themselves, but ‘find us’ when we focus on positive external endeavours, especially those that benefit other people rather than just ourselves.

Thus, maybe it is all our ‘business to create’. To make our own ‘systems’ but to recognise they are our own and to therefore recognise that others’ ‘systems’ are theirs and equally valid. This moves beyond tolerance somehow and becomes refreshingly immediate and both inclusive and expansive.   

At my most optimistic, I like to consider that perhaps even the controversial current proposal to build a wall between Mexico and the USA might inadvertently act as a meeting point, pulling many individuals and nations together in voicing their common feeling that the wall shouldn’t be built, and that those seeking refuge across borders all around the world should be helped rather than punished.

The voice of compassion

In Blake’s Jerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion his feminine figure of Jerusalem:

…stretchd her hand toward the Moon & spoke
Why should Punishment Weave the Veil with Iron Wheels of War
When Forgiveness might it Weave with Wings of Cherubim…

I think Blake was ahead of his time in giving Jerusalem a feminine character and attributing to her the voice of compassion. Writing in 2017 the Dalai Lama says:

“I have a dream: Women will become national leaders… I call upon the next generation of young women to be the mothers of the Revolution of Compassion that this century so desperately needs.”

Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Plate 2, copy E.
Relief etching with watercolour additions.
William Blake
Public Domain: The William Blake Archive

As I write these lines, the full moon is just rising over the birch trees close to my house, reminding me again how connected we all are over time and space and across differences in ideology: connected by our views of the same night skies and illuminating celestial bodies and through the tapestries of our dreams.

I can’t claim to hold company with any of the great poets, writers, thinkers and leaders I recall here, but in its humble way I hope my poem Another Jerusalem, adds another voice to the gentle but urgent call for unity, inclusivity and compassion, rather than duality and antagonism, alongside the recognition that it is all ‘our business to create’, in order to achieve a lasting dance of peace. 


Notes

Salli Hipkiss is a poet, writer, artist, songwriter, and singer who for fifteen years has worked freelance as a creative practitioner and teacher/advocate of arts and sustainability, recently alongside being a full-time home-schooling Mum. Salli’s creative work has moved between art, music, illustration, songwriting, poetry, novel-writing and more.  She is passionate about human creativity and individual flourishing, and about environmental sustainability and regeneration, and is curious about how the two areas can be symbiotic, leading to a holistic vision of wellbeing. Some of her portfolio can be explored on her website: www.sallihipkiss.com

You can read about Blake’s poemJerusalem, The Emanation of The Giant Albion at this Wikipedia page and hear recordings of the poem on the Blake Society’s site.

Check out our More Resources page for further sources of Blake poems and art.