Oedipus Rex, by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Seeing and Not Seeing: The Nature of the Modern Rational Self

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Pasolini’s Oedipus

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s remarkable film version of the story of Oedipus, true to both Sophocles’s original drama and yet filled with more contemporary, Freudian meanings and undertones, is one of the great achievements of modern cinema: both disturbing and revelatory. For anyone interested in the Oedipus complex (which, let’s face it, is all of us), this film is a must see (unless of course, like Oedipus, you don’t want to see).  With a shocking – in the sense of arresting and very unexpected – final scene, shocking for its beauty and sudden shift of meaning.

It’s a remarkably modern-feeling – almost shamanistic (as perhaps the original Greek dramas were) – version of this story. It feels both very contemporary and very ancient – seemingly fittingly so, for such an archetypal theme. 

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‘A Building of Eternal Death’: Blake, Stukeley, and the Meaning of Stonehenge

The Death of God and the Construction of Nature

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Introduction to Blake’s Stonehenge

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Stukeley’s Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d To The British Druids (1740), which made such a profound impression on Blake

The impact of William Stukeley’s work on the origins and spiritual meaning of Stonehenge on William Blake was considerable. Stukeley’s theories and investigations regarding the site have often been dismissed by later archeologists and historians – notably, his conjecture that Stonehenge originated with the Druids and Druidic culture, or antecedents of them. Yet his classic book recounting his discoveries, Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d To The British Druids (1740), which made such a profound impression on Blake, often feels highly contemporary – both prescient in many of its conjectures, and also immensely thought-provoking in a way that modern, Urizenic treatments of the site rarely are.

Stukeley cites Dr Halley, for example, who studied the site in the early 17th century and conjectured that the construction might be “2 or 3000 years old” – a remarkable assessment for the time (modern archaeologists believe it was constructed from 3000 BC to 2000 BC).  Stukeley was also centuries ahead of his time in his attention to the geometry and measurements of the structure, notably his observations of its use of the “royal cubit” (or “Druid cubit”), which are again a subject of huge interest today – linking the geometrical mind-set that constructed them to the mind-set and measuring system used by those constructing Solomon’s temple and the Egyptian pyramids. And of course igniting Blake’s interest in these measurements as the signature and cognitive hallmarks of the presence of Urizenic thinking, which Blake believed lay behind the entire creation of Stonehenge.

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The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness

Integrating the Inner and the Outer: How Society Shapes Who We Are

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In my 2017 book, The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness (Routledge), I explore how our social and economic contexts profoundly affect our mental health and well-being, and how modern neuroscientific and psychodynamic research has significantly developed our understanding of these wider discussions. The book therefore looks both inside and outside—indeed one of the main themes of the volume is that the conceptually discrete categories of “inner” and “outer” in reality constantly interact, shape, and inform each other. Severing these two worlds, it suggests, has led both to a devitalised and dissociated form of politics, and to a disengaged and disempowering form of therapy and analysis.

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“Rather than separating our understanding of economic and social practices from our understanding of affective development and human development, we need to bring them together, to align them: we need to realise that politics, the external world, is not a world without an ‘inner’.”

Drawing on a number of leading figures in these fields, including Iain McGilchrist, Sue Gerhardt, David Smail, Nick Totton, Joel Bakan, Nick Duffell, Dave Grossman, Joel Kovel, Jonathan Rowson, and James Hillman, the book argues that we need to understand people and their psychological distress in an essentially social and environmental context. Rather than separating our understanding of economic and social practices from our understanding of affective development and human development, we need to bring them together, to align them: we need to realise that politics, the external world, is not a world without an “inner”. And for this to happen, we need a new integrated model for mental health, and a new politics: we need a new dialogue between the political and personal worlds, and a recognition of how psychotherapeutic practice and the psyche both shape and are powerfully shaped by existing structures and interests.

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The Marriage Hearse: Blake, Jesus, and the Critique of Marriage and Family Values

Why Mr Blake Cried: Monogamy, Matrimony and the Mind-Forg’d Manacles

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In his fascinating exploration of the ideological status and function of traditional marriage and the role of ‘family values’, Theodore W. Jennings shows how in the Bible Jesus actually radically subverts these institutions and ways of relating, seeking to replace them with more inclusive, equal, and genuinely socially integrative forms of living. It is interesting in this respect that one of the first things that spiritual communities do is to replace the atomising, inward-looking, emotionally toxic and politically hierarchical structure of the ‘family’ with more open and egalitarian forms of living. Though in contemporary society, as in Jesus’s day, ‘The Family’ is held up as integral to its power structure and affective organisation of stratified, socially isolated, inward-looking, and hierarchical power dynamics, which the institution of The Family both transmits and reflects, another way of living, and of being is possible.  Breaking the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ that weld us to these old ways of thinking – and more importantly ways of feeling – was one of the central tasks of Jesus’s mission, and was both echoed and developed by the generation of radical poets and thinkers of Blake’s day, including Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Rousseau, and of course Blake himself.  Before a more awakened and liberated form of society can emerge, Blake suggests, we have to transcend our existing shackles (it is no coincidence that Jennings for example calls one of his chapters ‘Marriage, Family, and Slavery’ – echoing Wollstonecraft’s earlier critique of this institution for the regressive and toxic situations and spaces it generates). And in order to do that, we first need to understand what the concept of The Family actually is. 

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The Golden Compasses: William Blake and Freemasonry

The Single Eye, the Dividers, and the Pyramid: Understanding the God of This World 

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Introduction

Blake has always attracted those who are interested in the esoteric, the occult, and the deeper or more spiritual systems of thought. In his own time (1757-1827), Freemasonry was one of the most prominent and progressive of these systems – its members included Goethe, Mozart, Voltaire, and many of the key architects of the American and French revolutions (Benjamin Franklin, George Washington; Lafayette, Marat, Danton, and Robespierre), which have therefore often been seen as essentially Masonic projects. 

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How Morality Damns Us: Blake and the Tree of Good and Evil, by Erik McCarthy

Going Beyond Good & Evil: Restoring Eden in the Brain 

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Introduction: Blake’s Laocoön and the serpents of Morality 

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The original Laocoön. In Blake’s reading, the serpents overcoming the priest represent the twin Powers or programs of “Good” and “Evil”, which eventually suffocate him, and his vision of God.

The question, and questioning, of morality, is central to one of Blake’s most iconic and futuristic images, the Laocoön. Even though Blake’s best-known works often combine image and text in a single plate, the Laocoön stands apart as the only one to be centered around a faithful copy of a piece of antique sculpture, a fact which attests to its hold on his imagination.

Another arresting feature of the plate is the atypical density of its textual matter, composed in at least two distinct scripts and three different languages, and the seemingly arbitrary, discontinuous manner of its arrangement on the page. Julia Wright observes, “the design recalls a jigsaw puzzle more than a page from an emblem book, graffiti more than an engraving, and marginal annotations more than aphorisms on art” . 

It resembles no other work by Blake, and he left no instructions on how his wide-ranging statements should be organized, or in what order they should be read. Without an obvious starting point, one could try a conventional approach, beginning with the first line of horizontal text at the top of the page: “Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on but War only”; but then one could just as well start at the bottom, with the caption identifying the three figures as “הי & his two sons Satan & Adam.” Either way, the reader is sure not to get far before having to stop and decide where to begin again; and from there one choice seems as good as another.

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Narcissus 2.0: Left Brain Technology and Civilisation, by Marshall McLuhan

How the phonetic alphabet drove the Fall into Division

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 Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is widely considered to be “the most important book ever written on communication,” and is famous for introducing the concepts of the “global village” and “the medium is the message”. But it’s really much more than even that – it’s a wholesale critique of how technology, from the radical development of the phonetic alphabet by mercantile and bureaucratic Phoenician traders in the 7th-8th century BC (“by Phoenician business men”), to the dramatic impact of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century, and the even greater impacts and consequences of radio, television, and the internet (by modern “business men”) in the 20th-21st centuries, has radically changed our way of being, our way of thinking, our way of relating, and even our way of feeling, remaking our very bodies – as he observes in this compelling article – in its own image.

McLuhan’s arguments are remarkable, not only for their own acute perceptions and analysis of the nature of media, and his striking framing of this development in terms of the left and right hemispheres, but also for the light they shine on Blake’s in many ways similar and equally radical critique of what is often called “civilisation”. McLuhan frequently references Blake, as someone who he felt recognised these changes and cognitive shifts and really understood the nature of “media”. As he acutely observes, Blake saw Newton and Locke and others as hyponitized Narcissus types quite unable to meet the challenge of mechanism.

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Blake and the Zodiac, by Rod Tweedy

Here Comes the Sun King: Forging the Template of Solar Consciousness

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Introduction: The Forms and the Archetypes of Being

There’s a fascinating tradition of thought that links early formulations of the twelve aspects or ‘faces’ of the Zodiac with Plato’s esoteric theory of the Forms, the fundamental geometries and patterns which generate our world, and which casts an intriguing light on the original meaning of the Zodiacal Signs and their significance.

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William Blake and The Body of Vision, by Rosalind Atkinson

Vision and De-Vision: Sexuality, Slavery, and the Fall of Perception

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Introduction to William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion

This essay examines how almost the entire critical discussion of Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion enacts the exact dynamics (which we could anachronistically label ‘rape culture’) that the poem itself dramatises in order to dissect. I hope it can be of interest beyond Blake enthusiasts to anyone wanting to understand if being interested in ‘how we perceive’ affects our political and social ideas and positions, and to anyone interested in how dualistic ways of seeing (encompassing transcendence and materialism equally) abuse our bodies and the world.

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William Blake on Self and Soul, by Laura Quinney

William Blake and the illusion of Selfhood

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Introduction: Blake the Radical Psychologist

It has always been clear that William Blake was both a political radical and a radical psychologist. The most illuminating interpretations of Blake— by Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Brian Wilkie, and Mary Lynn Johnson, to name a few— emphasize his subtlety and innovation in the understanding of human psychology.

This article addresses what Blake said about a specific aspect of psychology— a reflexive aspect, deeper and stranger in itself than thought and feeling— the subject’s experience of its own interiority. What is the self’s relation to itself?

Blake thought that under certain conditions, it was bound to be anxious and lonely. That is, he thought that if the self is identified with the main consciousness or “I,” especially the “I” as a center of rationality, it will feel solitary and insecure.

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