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.

Jerusalem in South Molton Street

This month Finding Blake launches a series of eight short video posts featuring readings of some of Blake's poems. We start the series with Matt's powerful reading of Jerusalam, Blake's most famous poem.

We took actor Matt Ray Brown to London to film him reading these in Blake's flat in South Molton Street. In this exclusive series, filmed and sound recorded by Finding Blake's Jonnie Howard, we showcase eight pieces -- some well known, some not so well known -- and delight in that they are being read probably in the very place they were written!
Jerusalem 

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.


Finding Blake team member Linda Richardson says of this poem: “The scientific, rational and analytical mind will never be able to understand the full meaning of William Blake’s work and art, because he is not speaking that language. We might agree that his work is imaginative, but he is a mystic and a prophet, so the purpose of his work is not to impart information, but to pull us deeply into his imaginative world and more importantly than that, we have to let his words imagine us.”


Notes

Matt Ray Brown reads eight Blake poems for Finding Blake and appeared in the original film for our Crowdfunder video. You can find all Finding Blake videos, as they are posted, on the Finding Blake Films at a Glance page in our Blakean Archive section. You can explore Matt’s work as an actor, including his showreel at Mandy.com, ‘the world’s largest creative community of actors, film and TV crew, theatre professionals, child actors, voiceover artists, dancers, singers, musicians, models and extras.’

The Unfolding and Unveiling

In this post, Finding Blake founder James Murray-White shares some of his encounters with William Blake, from childhood up to the present, including the recent Blake in Sussex exhibition at Petworth House.

My first encounter with William Blake happened fleetingly — as a boy, in  the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I have been there again recently, and of their huge archive of Blake prints and pictures, only four seem to be on permanent display — high on an upper gallery. Maybe it was these I saw, or possibly a temporary exhibition, although my overriding memories of childhood visits there were to the Egyptian mummies and the knights in armour on horseback! I feel my encounter with Blake was a fleeting ‘seeing’ that became an acknowledgement of the work, and a storing up for later.

Frontispiece from ‘Songs of Experience’: William Blake, 1825
Relief etching printed in orange-brown ink and hand-colored with watercolor and gold
Source: Metropolitan Museum, New York

That unfolding and unveiling of the glory and depth of Blake’s works and thought has emerged for me over the past few years: at a summer festival two years ago, with a group of 20 or so in the woods late at night, round a roaring fire — when the guitars and chatter paused, I piped up and said “does anyone know the words to Jerusalem?”, and we all were surprised that we all did, and sang many a rousing versions of it for a communal hour or two.

Then just last year, as I was walking on my way to film an interview with the ex-President of Tuvalu in the Amnesty Bookshop in Cambridge, I was stopped on the street by a friend who I knew to be a member of the Blake Society, who said he had a project to run by me. When we made time to meet properly and discuss, it turned out that the Blake Society had commissioned a new gravestone for Blake, and it was to be made here in Cambridge by renowned letter cutter Lida Kindersley. I had met Lida years before while researching for a play on artist Eric Gill (Lida’s husband David had been Gill’s chief apprentice, and is in the lineage of master crafts folk within the world), so I very quickly felt hooked in and knew that my time to ‘get into Blake’ was beginning.

Blake in Sussex

Then followed a year of deep-time research. I gathered as much material as I could — all the biographies, from Kathleen Raine to Peter Ackroyd, through to the latest (and very good) one by Tobias Churton, as well as books of images and his poetry — and got stuck in. My antennae are always active to Blake-related activities, and one of the highlights was a whole day’s walk led by writer Henry Eliot  a member of the Blake Society committee who also has an interest psychogeography and leads walks on writers works and lives. The walk was divided into the four themes around Blake’s The Four Zoas — characters in Blake’s prophetic work, The Four Zoas: The torments of Love & Jealousy in The Death and Judgment of Albion the Ancient Man.

This was a blast of Blakean energy — on the streets he knew well and trod daily, to the places he lived (most demolished or built over, apart from the South Molton Street flat). A highlight of this day was access to the Tyburn Convent, close by Marble Arch, once site of the infamous Tyburn Cross; London’s hangings took place here, which Blake was well aware of.

Fast forward to more recent blasts of Blake, including a trip to the wonderful ‘Blake in Sussex’ exhibition at Petworth House in West Sussex, followed the next day by filming the Blake Society’s visit to Lida’s studio to see and approve her lettering for the grave.

Twice so far this year I’ve found myself face to face with an original painting, and often a new one to me that I’ve not seen reproduced. There were a few highlights of ‘Blake in Sussex’ at Petworth House, particularly the depth and dimensions of The Sea of Time and Space (vision of the circle of the life of man) from 1821 (owned by The National Trust). Moving from the man in red to the angelic woman, pointing in opposite but aligned directions, through to the connections between tree and sea and sky and flesh and blood… On reflection it feels now that maybe the piece of art, or the creative form, appears to us right at the moment we need it to, and here was this ethereal vision.

The Sea of Time and Space (Vision of the Circle of the Life of Man) by William Blake, 1821. Pen and black ink, watercolour and gouache on gesso ground on stiff paper, 
Source: National Trust

A nature-based energy

It feels very special to have seen this gathering of images and words in this location, honouring William and Catherine Blake’s three years out of the grime and chaos of London. Although his time in Felpham came to a crushing end with his trial for sedition, the work he produced there — much of it commissioned by William Hayley or Lady Egremont (hence the Petworth connection) — I feel has an edge: a nature-based energy, connecting elements and exploding the human form.

After the exhibition, I felt doubly blessed to be shown the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a few miles from Petworth. This is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, owned and managed by the National Trust, with sweeping views around and down into a huge area of heath and woods, and out over Surrey towards London from the top of Gibbet Hill. My guide, Mark Goldthorpe, speculated that the Blakes might have come this way on their journey from London, and had a taste of this spectacular beauty too. I hope so.

Seeing the letters written out on Blake’s ‘new’ grave also feels special — to have been part of this journey from seeing Lida choose the stone, to now being at the point where she will start to cut the letters, makes a wonderful connection in craft and physicality. I’ve only come into this at a very late stage: the Blake Society have been trying to get this grave made for at least a dozen years, and it was an honour to be with them as they gathered round it and saw the design coming to fruition. More of that as the project progresses: do keep coming back to the site for updates.

This is a little of my connection to Blake, and my ‘deep time’ dive into his works and vision. I’ll write more of the project, and its aims and timeline, in a further post. Please feel free to share your connection to Blake with us here, with anecdotes and images: we’d love to hear.

Notes

You can find out about the recent exhibition, Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion and the history of Petworth House at the National Trust’s site. And there is information about William and Catherine Blakes’ cottage in Felpham at the Blake Cottage Trust site. The Guardian and Telegraph both have interesting articles on the recent exhibition: Maeve Kennedy’s Rare William Blake works to be exhibited in Sussex, where he lived (10/1/18) and Alistair Sooke’s The pastoral interlude that influenced a visionary (12/1/18).

The Devil’s Punch Bowl in Surrey is part of the National Trust’s Hindhead Commons and Devil’s Punch Bowl property.

Blake’s The Four Zoas are among the wide range of topics that American poet Robert Bly explored in a 1980s interview for New Dimensions Radio, William Blake and Beyond, which we’ve added to the Blakean articles collection in A Blakean Archive.