Blake & Nature Spirituality: 1 – Universal Awareness

In Divine Madness James Fox described how he’d found in Blake’s work a poetic and visual representation of a psycho-spiritual philosophy that accounted for his own embroilment in the machinery and over-thinking of the rational ego, and the suffering that follows from that. He’d found in Blake glimpses of a consciousness freed from the egoic state. In the first of a new three-part series, James expands on his experiences of mental states and of universal awareness. Later posts will elaborate Blake’s doctrine of the four Zoas, and outline a project James is working on: a manifesto, a programme of practice and study to cultivate a mental space that has an understanding of its place in the world. 


Following a chance meeting with Robin Hatton-Gore at Blake’s new gravestone in August, following its unveiling the day before, I was invited to give a talk to the Mental Fight Club, a charity of which he is a trustee and which aims to assist recovery from mental illness through inspiring creative events and projects. Blake is regarded as the spirit guide of the club through founder Sarah Wheeler’s love of his work. The material here is based on the talk I gave at the Dragon Café in Borough, London, in November 2018. 

Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion (copy E, printed c1821) Source: The William Blake Archive www.blakearchive.org

Mental fight

A few years ago I would awake in the middle of the night, heart beating quickly, my nerves jangling, a vice around my forehead and a nauseous feeling of something sour and rotten welling up. Unable to return to sleep I would get up, make a cup of tea and settle down in another room with a notebook and pen to sort out my problem. I would try to work out, think out, what it was that was disturbing my sleep and producing the unpleasant physical sensations. 

As well as my day job in publishing I was working in my spare time on a philosophical project of my own, which was intended to solve (don’t laugh) all those apparent dilemmas that philosophers have been working over for more than 2,000 years – and continue to do so today. What is the meaning of life? Where is it to be found? Are we really annihilated at death? What is the ultimate nature of the world, of ourselves and of our relationship to it?

This was an over-ambitious project, following on from a PhD in the history of philosophy, alongside work editing academic texts. My rational faculty was in overdrive – though I could not see this at the time. And so the knotted ball of string that was my mind, the stress of which was waking me in the night, was pulled yet tighter when I got up to think my way out of my problem.

I had always been interested in the fundamental nature of the world. One of my earliest memories is of my mother teaching me astronomy prior to attending primary school. My first proper job had been in the natural sciences – meteorology. But I was also interested in the fundamental nature of ourselves as human beings – and this had led me into philosophy. The desire to pull together my philosophical interests and express them in my latest project was therefore my raison d’être – and so, despite finding myself in a situation where I was suffering from stress and insomnia, I could not give up this project that was overtaxing me. And nor was I prepared to change my day job or my other day-to-day living arrangements, out of a concern that it would disrupt my supposed life’s work. Worse was to come. Writing, something I had always done since my first novellas at age ten, became an increasingly fraught process, adding to stress. I was creatively blocked, able neither to realise my raison d’être nor to change my situation.

A universal awareness 

During those disturbed months I would find solace in a secluded grove I frequented on the edge of Dartmoor, near to where I live. Rarely encountering other people there, the only sounds are those of the birds, the breeze in the trees and the grass and the gently flowing stream.

On one such visit, after sitting in the sunlight for some time, trying to relax and calm the ideas competing for attention inside my brain, each with their own self-imagined importance and urgency, I opened my eyes to see the tree by the stream had been invested with some strange, new, enhanced presence. And as I gazed upon it a light-headedness possessed me, as not just the tree but everything in my experience – the very nature of experience itself – began to undergo a transformation that was both alien, entirely novel and unknown. This was not frightening, but came with the immediate sense that something very remarkable, very unusual, was announcing itself to me.

Jerusalem, Albion Rising - a universal awareness. From The William Blake Archive
Jerusalem, Albion Rising Source: The William Blake Archive http://www.blakearchive.org/

Had the world changed or had I changed? The raging swarm of ideas that had been plaguing me had been miraculously taken away: whether a million miles away, or even annihilated entirely, essentially beyond the world I now found myself in. My mental space, cleansed of thoughts, had become a crystalline substance, as had the world of things: my mind and the world were one. There was nothing left of ‘me’ except as a particular point of view in space and time at which a universal awareness was disclosing itself – to itself.

I now experienced my own awareness as that of this universal awareness – and I saw, I felt, that I was eternal. The idea of my own death meant nothing to me now. Sure, my own body would one day cease to function organically and be transformed by fire or worms; but my awareness, my sentience, my very self – that was eternal. And so I found myself in a state of bliss, of the profoundest tranquillity – of the revelation of Heaven on Earth – in which a divine presence seemed to penetrate and radiate out of every thing, tranquillising all movement such that I seemed to become aware of a stillness in the motion of the leaves in the trees and of a silence in the sound of the pouring of the stream. And yet, this blissful state, this Heaven on Earth, I now saw, is present always – it is here now – we just have to awaken to it.

In this state I felt that I had arrived at that which I had been searching for philosophically for many years. The sense of completion, of having found the Holy Grail. Yet, as is usual with mystical experience, I found myself sinking back into the ego-world, the vision afforded me now reduced to a mere memory. In the return to my old state I found myself still creatively blocked, and the stress returned and the feeling of rotten acidic bilge water seeping up once more – if anything, worse than ever.

An opened door  

Previously I had been on a quest for treasure, the nature of which I knew not what. Now I knew its nature. Now I had touched the philosopher’s stone and had to touch it again. But how? For the treasure had been revealed to me. The door had been opened for me. I did not have the key myself. I had never had it.

Then one day, in the spring of 2017, I found myself in Glastonbury, browsing in a second-hand bookshop while Mrs Fox did some shopping of her own. 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. Murry 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. Both Lawrence and Huxley were interested in mysticism. The title of one of Huxley’s books on the subject, The Doors of Perception, is taken from Blake’s work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Doors rock group took their name from Huxley’s work.

John Middleton Murry
John Middleton Murry Source: Pinterest

I opened the covers of William Blake. Murry begins with a quote from Blake’s An Island in the Moon:

When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still.

Murry then writes:

There is the magic. One’s heart sinks to rest; and everything else becomes still. Stillness within, stillness without. For those voices are not heard with the bodily ear; that laughter breaks no silence … The clamour lapses into an eternal moment, and the world is born anew. The sentient soul is bathed in the waters of the spirit. The doors of perception are cleansed; and the world gleams forth with the bloom and brightness of a new creation.

As I read, a spiritual sun began to glow inside me. Almost immediately I sensed the presence of that key I’d been searching for since what Blake calls the Countenance Divine had shone forth for me in that green and pleasant grove on the edge of Dartmoor.

Murry continues:

This experience, whether it comes to us mediately through the creation of art, or immediately in a timeless instant of pure contemplation, is twofold in its character. It reveals the world without, and it reveals the world within. Objectively, that which we contemplate – be it sight or sound, directly or at one remove – is, as it were, clarified. The veil of quotidian perception is lifted. Subjectively, we are also clarified. The world and we, alike, are cleansed. Both pass into a new medium: the medium of Imagination, as Blake called it. In that medium we touch a new order of reality – a new reality in ourselves, and in the object which we contemplate.

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 Blake terms ‘spiritual sensation’, and all its psychological and philosophical aspects and ramifications, that is at the core of his work. 


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.

James attended the unveiling of Blake’s new gravestone at Bunhill Fields in August 2018. Here, you can see a short interview he gave there to Finding Blake’s James Murray-White.

Building on the Countenance Divine and universal awareness, in his next post, James elaborates Blake’s doctrine of the Four Zoas, and relates them to underlying ideas of the psyche that may be met with in various belief systems throughout history and across cultures.

Mental Fight Club describes itself as, “in essence, an adventure story.” Founded by Sarah Wheeler, drawing inspiration from poets Ben Okri and William Blake and other muses, the club’s mission is “to put on imaginative events for people of all mental experience. All our events seek to connect our inner and our outer world and ourselves to one another, whoever we may be.” Mental Fight Club created and meets at the Dragon Café. 

William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 2 – London, England

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa EspinasaIn the first post in her series marking publication of her Blakean novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios, writer and translator Adriana Díaz-Enciso shared her unexpected introduction to William Blake on a family shopping trip from Mexico to Texas. Adriana now continues the story, recalling her adventures breaking into Blake’s world — and Blake’s London: attempting to understand the writings, images and vision of a man she felt to be a free spirit with an instinctive leaning to the force of excess in art. “He overwhelmed me, fascinated and provoked me. I wanted Blake. But I didn’t have him.”


At some point, I thought that maybe if I translated him, I would manage to break into his world. I therefore translated his early series of poems to the Seasons. The translations were published in a poetry leaflet, to the editorial board of which I had been generously invited by older and much wiser poets than me. Its name was Magia Menor, after Borges’ verse, “To write a poem is to work a minor magic.” It was beautifully printed, a work of love, and I wish that my copies had not been lost when, many years later, I left Mexico. I would like to read those translations of mine now, even if I fear they weren’t that good. The fact was, in any case, that I still hadn’t managed to fully grasp Blake.

When I had moved to Mexico City, several years after those first translations, I once thought that the only way through was to translate the whole of Blake’s poems. I never got to start. It was such a daunting venture… After all, one of Mexico’s most deservedly beloved poets, Xavier Villaurrutia, had made a humbler attempt with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and who was I to try the harder stuff?

Still, I kept on pulling my Penguin edition from the shelf and reading, until it was so battered I had to replace it with another copy, this time with Elohim Creating Adam on the cover. Wondering what it was that this poetry kept on withholding from me, I was nevertheless convinced that it was of infinite value.

Beginnings of a Blakean novel 

For a while I let the matter rest… a bit. But I couldn’t forget altogether that Blake’s work was waiting for me. When in 1995-6 I was writing lyrics for Babel, the third album by Mexican rock band Santa Sabina, I thought the album required Blake to make a brief appearance, and this materialised in a kind of ‘sound collage’ of his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Baudelaire’s Les Litanies de Satan and a text of my own. And I read on. Slowly, I was getting closer.

Then, around 1997, I started making notes for what would then be my third novel. 

Its subject would be a question: what is the meaning of human pain? I was then reading lots of what we may call hermetic writings: Paracelsus, works on alchemy, Giordano Bruno and Frances Yates’ work on him and the Hermetic tradition. This reading material obeyed a longing. Like so many others before me, I was looking for a transcendent meaning of human life. I also wanted to know whether the seemingly inexhaustible pain endured by humanity could be lived and understood in such a way that we could rise above it and find healing in wisdom and compassion so great that they would escape description.

There was a strong Christian element in my wondering, via Julian of Norwich, St Theresa of Avila and other Christian mystics, though I was also eagerly reading Sufi sages such as Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi, Al-Ghazālī, and Henri Corbin’s works on both Avicenna and the ancient Iranian mystic tradition, with its archetypal Celestial Earth and the imaginal world. I couldn’t fail to see the evident coincidences between the concept of imagination elucidated by Corbin and that of William Blake.

The Christian preoccupation can partly be explained by the fact that I was raised a Catholic, attending a nuns’ school from age seven to 18. I had always been drawn to the figure of Christ, and I guess that I sincerely tried to be a fervent Christian, but soon the Church itself stood in my way. Its motions seemed empty to me, devoid of the mystery of serious ritual. Also, as my social awareness developed, I found the obvious link between mainstream Catholicism and power in Mexico; how the Church, save few exceptions, had become allied to the most conservative and un-Christian mores. I quietly stepped out of the Church, but I wanted to be fervent. I kept on being fascinated by Christ, even if the literal interpretation of his being the son of a divine Father was always hard for me. What took a hold on me was that most beautiful symbol of a god who becomes human to share man’s pain (rather than atoning for his sins). The more I read Blake, the more I agreed with his unique vision of Christ.

Soon, the idea started to take root in me that this novel should have the work of William Blake as its foundations.

Then, on 22 December 1997, a horrid massacre took place in the village of Acteal, Chiapas (a state in South East Mexico), when 45 indigenous people — including children and pregnant women — who belonged to the pacifist group Las Abejas were murdered by a paramilitary group while they were praying. The horror of this attack shook the country, and I couldn’t stop wondering whether such extreme suffering, and the impunity which followed the crime, could be just an occurrence in an indifferent universe; whether there was no transcendence, no redemption, no meaning.

And it was then that, fifteen years after finding Blake in a shopping mall in Texas, the meaning of his prophetic poems truly opened its gates for me. Acteal would become a pivotal point in my novel, and by then it was clear that the book would draw on precisely those poems which had eluded me for so long as its main source of inspiration. Their characters would be the novel’s characters. That was the beginning of twenty further years pondering on Blake.

Acteal. Collage by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018, with Press photo: Cuartoscuro
Acteal
Collage by Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018, with Press photo: Cuartoscuro

I took Blake with me, briefly, back to the USA: in the Spring of 1998 I was granted a writing residency at what was then called Ledig House International Writers’ Colony, to write the Blakean novel. I carried with me my Blake, my hermetic books, my grief over the multiplied bloodshed in my country, and my pondering. It was in the idyllic landscape of upstate New York where the first draft of the novel was finished. I don’t remember how many weeks I spent there. Six, perhaps? I had never before had such a chance to concentrate on my writing with no distractions, surrounded by nature, sharing the findings and the pitfalls of the process with other writers from many different countries. I remember those weeks as one of the moments in my life that Satan cannot find. 

A week in New York City followed, the novel still close against me while I sensed that my brief sojourn in heaven was quickly shifting into something less luminous.

Blake’s London calling 

I returned to Mexico City, which seemed burdened with the weight of violence, and enveloped in my own sadness as I confronted the collapse of my marriage. A nearly fatal pneumonia put a stop to work of any kind for a few months, and the end of 1998 passed by in a kind of blur marked by loss, grief, and the minutiae of convalescence. By January 1999 the doctor declared me out of danger, and that’s when I decided to leave Mexico, as suddenly as the other changes in my life had taken place. The answer to where I would go was obvious: London, of course, that “Human awful wonder of God.”

It was London because of all the literature by Londoners or set in London that I had read since I was little; it was London because of Virginia Woolf, thanks to whom I had been driven to take my writing seriously; it was London because of my beloved Charles Dickens, and it was London because of those visionary authors who had transformed it into a city beyond the limits of mundane existence, such as Arthur Machen and, of course, William Blake. I came here ready to start revising the manuscript of my novel, sure that it would be greatly improved by being in the streets that Blake had walked.

Battersea Power Station, Blake's London, by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018
Battersea Power Station
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

My love affair with London was passionate from day one. It was what I had dreamt it to be, what I feared it might not be, and more. My favourite books were alive here, and so was the spirit of the authors who had immortalised the city — some, we could even say, hallowed it. My own literary London included, of course, Blake’s London: Soho, St James’s Church in Piccadilly where he was baptised, his Lambeth and those of his works that they had on show back then at the Tate. Although this was mundane London, thriving on power and greed as it has always done, it was also, simultaneously, visionary London, where the material fabric of reality could be seen through for an equally powerful spiritual force to be revealed. The hardship and loneliness I experienced during those first years in the great city were no reason to leave: I had found here what I often called ‘the mirror of my soul’, and the most fertile ground for the development of my voice as a writer. 

This meant that, as I started revising my Blakean novel, I found it wanting. So wanting, in fact, that I destroyed its manuscript (both printed and electronic). But I kept all my notes. The structure remained, and so did its aim. It was just that I wasn’t telling it right. The years-long process to rewrite it started. It was a painful one: the struggle for survival meant that I didn’t have enough time or mental space for concentrating on such a complex book. Though I did write other books in those years (poetry, short stories and another, shorter novel), I felt grief and frustration because I couldn’t go forward with the Blakean story.

Notes for the novel’s chapters

Notes for the novel's chapters, by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018
Notes for the novel’s chapters.
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

Still, I worked intermittently on it and kept as close as I could to Blake. I attended, for instance, the major Blake exhibition at the Tate, which ran from the end of 2000 to February 2001. That exhibition made me redefine the novel, as my understanding of Blake grew much deeper. My memory of that visit is of going round the exhibition for hours in a kind of trance, shaken by the contrasts between the exquisite beauty of Blake’s pictorial work and its violence, moved by the pathos of his endless struggle and the indifference he faced, and stirred by the way he transformed the cruelty and crassness of the mundane into the beauty and might of a greater reality. His was the way to live a life, the only way for a true artist. I was also struck with more poignancy by the utterly unique nature of his pictorial art and his poetry, inextricably joined together.

I bought at the Tate Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Blake, which became a soul companion through my lonely explorations of Blake’s London. It brought home the dimensions of Blake’s struggle in a world that failed to see, to feel and understand; a struggle which was therefore of art and of the spirit, for he knew they couldn’t be separated, and a struggle for transcendence, for the ultimate liberation of man through his imagination, which was ultimately divinity in him. Which other artist had spelled out our ultimate nature so clearly? Ackroyd’s biography guided me through further readings of the prophetic poems, so that my second Penguin copy was now starting to look as battered as the first one.

Some years later, seeing the actual copies of some of Blake’s illuminated poems in the quiet of the Prints and Drawings Department in the British Museum left me in tears: no reproduction will ever be able to show the exquisiteness, the nuances, the delicacy and otherworldly beauty of those pages. You can sense in them, fully alive, the love, the care and the faith with which they were created. 


Notes

Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.

Cover Ciudad doliente de Dios, crop, Adriana Díaz-EncisoAdriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. You can catch up with the first post in her series about the writing of the book — William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 1 – McAllen, Texas.

In her next post for Finding Blake, Adriana moves deeper into Blake’s London, and her novel takes shape as its characters seek their answers on the borders of the mundane and the visionary, visible and invisible.  

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.