Ezekiel and the Burning Coal of Prophecy, by Rod Tweedy

Commodities and Idolatries



The Nature of Appearances

The name Ezekiel is perhaps the most well known and celebrated of all the Old Testament prophets, referenced by everyone from Blake to Quentin Tarantino. The extraordinary vision which he saw of the chariot of God coming toward him burning with flashing fire, moving “wheel within wheel” and driven by strange four-headed winged cherubim, has seared itself into the vision of every succeeding generation.

img_5904What Ezekiel saw has been variously interpreted – as a record of a profound mystical experience (as in the extensive and esoteric Jewish merkabah tradition), a glimpse into the nature of God, a literary text that has inspired poets from Dante and Blake to T. S. Eliot and Yeats, and in more recent times as a record of a possible encounter with extraterrestrial beings – even as a statement of a traumatic and possibly schizophrenic episode that the prophet experienced two and a half thousand years ago near the Chebal canal “in the land of the Chaldeans” (southern Mesopotamia), where he and three thousand other Jews had been deported and lived in exile.

When I was a kid there was an American children’s drama series called Project UFO which began every episode with the words: “Ezekiel saw the wheel. This is the wheel he said he saw.” – accompanied by a diagram of Ezekiel’s supposed UFO. It was a striking way to capture a child’s attention, but like many modern-day takes on Biblical passages and experiences, was also an incredibly literalist and diminished interpretation of Ezekiel’s original vision. Interestingly, this peculiarly ‘left brain’ way of seeing reality and understanding imaginative truth was one that historically emerged in the very cultures that Ezekiel grew up in and was surrounded by – the technologically advanced, newly literate, post-Sumerian high-rise cultures of Babylon, Egypt and the Near East.

ezekiel_25_17_by_chronicrick-d51w168What is remarkable about Ezekiel’s vision is that it’s actually aimed directly at this new literalist way of seeing. For Ezekiel, seeing phenomena as if they were discreet, objectified, literal ‘things’ – as ‘idols’ (from Greek eidōlon, meaning representation or illusory shape, literally “appearance, reflection in water or a mirror”) both obscured and reified their inherently transcendental and interconnected, relational nature – their true value. In this he shares a striking resemblance to another well-known social prophet, Karl Marx, who also exposed the ‘fetishistic’ nature of our modern belief in similar sorts of idols – commodities.

The Appearance of the Likeness Of

Ezekiel didn’t actually see ‘the wheel’. What he saw, he tells us, was something ‘in the likeness’ of a wheel. The key word here is ‘likeness’ – and the theme of likeness and appearance is in fact central to his entire vision. This is what he says he ‘sees’:

s-maria-daneu-02As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl. And the four had the same likeness, their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. (Ezekiel 1:16)

Almost every second phrase is ‘in the likeness of’, or ‘had the appearance of’, or ‘as it were’. This is all about metaphor.

What Ezekiel is doing is saying that metaphor is key to his vision – is central to his experience of what ‘God’ actually is and how it can be understood. And this, as we now know, is a very ‘right hemisphere’ view of things – it is the right side of the human brain, not the left, that understands and perceives metaphor, and it is this side of the brain that Ezekiel is trying to awaken and activate with his extraordinary vision of the ‘burning coals’ and the flashing ‘chariot’.

seraphim-12th-c-fresco-fresco-seraphim-12th-century-painting-drawing-rather-gone-out-of-fashionAs Iain McGilchrist notes, “Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphor. Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life” (M&E). Linking human consciousness to “life” (“to life itself”) is exactly what Ezekiel’s’ vision is trying to do, to communicate or transcribe, which is why the prevalence of metaphor – the repeated use of ‘likeness’, ‘as it were’ and so on – is so strong, so central to what this vision is all about. It’s the only way he can find to “reach outside the system of signs to life itself”, where “life itself” might also be defined as the “unrepresented” (to use Owen Barfield’s phrase), “God” (Ezekiel) the “implicit” and “transcendent” (McGilchrist), or the equally invisible but powerfully productive “species-being” and “species-life” (Marx).

Our left hemispheres, reading the passage, might not even notice the presence of this implicit heart-beat of metaphor – it might quickly jump to the “things” represented, which of course is what it’s so good at doing, and what it’s only interested in.  The left brain is after all deaf and blind to metaphor and simply ignores it – hence the meaning of the beautiful phrase in the Psalms, later re-imagined by Jesus: “They have ears, but they hear not”.

wings-jpegAnd hence also the crashing literalism of Project UFO‘s take on the meaning of Ezekiel’s vision – or indeed of countless Christian fundamentalist, as well as atheist fundamentalist interpretations (e.g. Richard Dawkins). All those ‘likenesses’, all those ‘as it were’s just disappear, evaporate. But once we’re aware of them, attuned to them, they become almost overpowering – as indeed they do for Ezekiel himself – as he sees not four living creatures but rather something in the ‘likeness of four living creatures’, hears ‘the sound of their wings like the sound of many waters, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army’, with an appearance ‘like burning coals of fire’, ‘like the appearance of torches moving to and fro’ – and above them ‘a likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal’ – and above all that, which is when this frenzy of metaphor-making reaches its real zenith:

there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.

I think that’s a terrific phrase – “the appearance of the likeness of” – a sort of meta-metaphor, rather similar perhaps to the extraordinary situation of a vision actually within a vision (43:1-12) that he later encounters, again drawing powerful attention to this non-representational aspect of what he sees. No wonder poor Ezekiel falls on his face, overcome with the sheer spiritual and neuronal overload of such intense imagery and right-hemisphere metaphor. For you can’t be in the right brain moment, and be conscious of it: the experience of “life itself” cannot be both explicit (left brain, representational, denotational, abstracted, known) and implicit at the same time: “Metaphor (subserved by the right hemisphere) comes before denotation (subserved by the left)” (M&E).

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car 1824-7 William Blake 1757-1827 Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the Art Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the the Art Fund 1919 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03369

Blake: ‘Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car’, revealing the profound influence of Ezekiel on his imagination: the merkabah chariot, the rainbow colours, the strange winged creatures, the multi-eyed wings

These poets and prophets intuited that our conscious sense of divine moments are thus like seeing the shadow, or ‘back’ of God: in this sense Ezekiel, like Moses on Mount Sinai, is permitted to glimpse “not the face but the back of God”. This sort of manifestation of the divine is usually denoted in the Bible by a special term, kabod, (or sometimes the Aramaic word shekinah, which like ‘merkabah” suggests the feminine, emanatory aspect of God) meaning “effulgence” or emanation – the fiery electricity of the divine essence, a term rather weakly rendered in most translations simply as “glory”. Ezekiel’s ‘vision’ is all about this – the whole section (Ezekiel 1:4-3:15) is often titled ‘The Glory of God’, a phrase which as we’ve seen doesn’t quite do justice to the crackling, thunderous, traumatising effect of these burning wheels blazing in the sky like molten metal and turning in the air apparently in every direction at once: “like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of a flash of lightning, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal, and a sound of tumult like the sound of an army.”

What is particularly striking about the mysterious “living creatures” at the centre of the vision (Blake uses the original Hebrew word for them, the Four ‘Zoas’), bearers of the throne, is that they have a “human likeness”. Indeed, at the climax of the vision, when Ezekiel manages to raise his dazzled eyes to look on the throne itself, he’s astonished to see that “seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” What Ezekiel is saying is that what we call humanity is a central “aspect” of “life itself”, of the nature of the unrepresented.  In fact, his vision involves a fascinating reversal of the original concept of ‘image of God’. He uses the specific word d’mut (meaning ‘likeness’, ‘similarity’), which first occurs in Genesis 1:26-27, where we’re told that God created human beings in his own ‘image’ or ‘likeness’. Again, this ‘likeness’ should not be understood literally (left brain), but rather that human imaginative consciousness is somehow a “likeness” of divine consciousness. There is a deep correlation, one which all poets and prophets have been sensitive to: “Non merita nome di creatore,” as Shelley (following Tasso), noted, “se non Iddio ed il Poeta.”

722px-jobs_evil_dreams-butts-1Here, in a striking reversal and development, God now appears to Ezekiel in the ‘likeness’ of a human being: “There humanity (’adam) is created in the likeness (demut) of God. Here God appears in the likeness of humanity (demut kemar’eh’adam). Humanity is in God’s image, God is in humanity’s image – a mysterious connaturality” (Blenkinsopp). This signals a significant shift in God-Man relations in the Bible: rather as the earlier traumatic experience of Job had called into question the nature of the apparently rather psychotic ‘God’ that seemed to enjoy inflicting so much misery on one of his “servants”; so the devastating experience of Babylonian exile – the sacking of Jerusalem, the burning of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 598 BC (just five years before Ezekiel’s vision, and the immediate context for it) – left the exiled community in Babylon utterly bewildered and bereft, painfully reimagining their whole relationship with “divinity”.


‘By the Rivers of Babylon, There We Sat Down and We Wept’, by François-Joseph Navez

As Blenkinsopp explains, “Ezekiel is introduced as a diaspora prophet. He is among the deportees, and it is to them that his message is addressed. These communities were trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after passing through a terrible trauma. Their land had been devastated, the temple destroyed, many of their friends and relatives were dead, missing, or left behind, and they had to begin a new life from scratch.” In the plaintive, dejected words of the Psalms, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

This is the living context for Ezekiel’s life, for his vision. Knowing this does not diminish the impact or meaning of his experience, it deepens and extends it. And it deepens it because these sorts of struggles and traumas, these fierce “wrestlings with God” (which is what the term “Israel” or yisrael originally means – signifying the confrontation and engagement with God, as opposed to pure submission), are exactly how our understanding of the nature of reality – of the “gods”, the authorities – evolves. They are the cracks where, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, the dark gets in: it is only through the difficult processes of misery, humiliation, defeat, and distress that we – all of us – “suffer into truth” (Aeschylus). This is what slowly humanises ‘God’ (which in many ways is what the whole process of evolution has been about). Read this way, the Bible is actually a magnificent history of an inner story or journey: from exile to self-liberation, self-understanding.

maxresdefault-1So that when Ezekiel is taken up to the throne of the Super-Ego it’s actually the voice of a psychotic, self-lacerating God he hears; it’s of a soul – perhaps one could say the soul of the ‘social unconscious’, or ‘collective unconscious’ – in torment: “So I lifted my eyes towards the north, and behold, north of the altar gate, in the entrance, was this image of jealousy. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me from my sanctuary?’ ” (Ezekiel 8:5-6). These early prophets were acutely aware of the peculiar psychology of ‘Israel’ – their horrified right-hemisphere awareness, perhaps, both of what they were doing and of what was being done to them.

He said to me, “Have you seen this, son of man? Is it a trivial matter for the people of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here? Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them. (Ezekiel 8:17-18).

Modern readers might respond with an easy dismissal of this angry, jealous, and sometimes vindictive God, which I think is to completely miss the point – which is not that our dominant constructs and psychological belief-systems have often been so mean, so cruel (and indeed still are – just look at the seething anger and Old Testament judgmentalism of the social unconscious on Facebook), but that there has been this sort of raw, cosmic dialogue going on at all – a real wrestling, about what is possible, about what sort of world this is. Abraham Heschel acutely notes that “the prophet does not perceive God as a source of comfort and reassurance, but as an incessant demand. God is raging in the prophet’s words” (The Prophets). It’s a demanding and incessant voice that most, perhaps all, political and social activists have known only too well – a burning coal of rage and righteous indignation.


“God is raging in the prophet’s words”

Like Job, Ezekiel’s “vision” is a key transition in the evolution of God (or God/Human relations) – assimilating the historical experience of Babylon, and what that means. All generations I think have to go through this – have to challenge their ruling gods, their habitual ways of doing things, to re-write the cultural narratives: this, for Blake as for Ezekiel, is what being a prophet means. For as Blake observed,“the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God” (MHH). “Every honest man is a Prophet” he added, getting at the essential truth of the provocative social role of the prophet – as someone who, as Shelley remarked, sees into the present.

996948561-against_vietnam_war_1971Prophets in the modern sense of the word have never existed  Jonah was no prophet in the modern sense for his prophecy of Nineveh failed  Every honest man is a Prophet  he utters his opinion both of private & public matters/Thus/If you go on So/the result is So/He never says such a thing shall happen let you do what you will. a Prophet is a Seer not an Arbitrary Dictator. (Blake, Annotations to Watson)

What the prophet particularly ‘sees’ are the dangers of seeing literally rather than metaphorically (living by the letter of the law rather than the spirit, in the lexicon of the Bible), worshipping the image, not the imagination, the Emissary rather than the Master. As both Ezekiel and Marx ‘saw’, the vital imaginative and productive energy within us which sculpts and shapes the world around us, too often ends up enslaved and alienated from the very products of its own thought, its own labour, its own consciousness.


The psychological process of disavowal and projective identification

As Northrop Frye observed, for Blake this unconscious, self-objectifying process – this Sleep or “Fall into Division” as he called it – signified man’s “relapse from active creative energy to passivity. This passivity takes the form of wonder or awe at the world he has created. The Fall thus begins in Beulah, the divine garden identified with Eden in Genesis. Once he takes the fatal step of thinking the object-world independent of him, Albion sinks into a sleep symbolizing the passivity of his mind, and his creation separates and becomes the ‘female will’ or Mother Nature, the remote and inaccessible universe of tantalizing Mystery we now see” (Fearful Symmetry).


Exile and Alienation: Ezekiel in Babylon

This is why in the book of Ezekiel, there’s constant and varied reference made to idols and representations as distracting and delusive, so that divinity comes to be thought of as something that exists “out there”, separate from us, or concealed in “objects”. Blake put his finger on the basis of this psychological manoeuvre in a remarkable passage in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

c7f2f56100893df7b45c558328ab2b0b-1The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive. And particularly they studied the Genius of each city and country, placing it under its Mental Deity; Till a System was formed, which some took advantage of, and enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realise or abstract the Mental Deities from their objects—thus began Priesthood; Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales. And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things. Thus men forgot that All Deities reside in the Human breast.

“Thus men forgot that All Deities reside in the Human breast”: this understanding is what Ezekiel’s vision seeks to restore. Hence his constant reference to idols, to appearances, to likenesses, to false visions, to graven images, to representations – and in opposition to this unconscious literalising, objectifying, and alienating tendency of the human psyche, he reasserts the power of the poet-prophet, to rekindle our metaphors – to reawaken ‘God’: “Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! They are saying of me, ‘Is he not a maker of parables?’ ” (Ezekiel, 20:49). For Ezekiel, the prophet is a sort of “watchman” – someone who both looks out and protects (who ‘sees’) – and his life is a perpetual allegory (a “sign” as Ezekiel puts it), a maker not of idols and “representations” but of connections and metaphors – a “maker of parables”, of new ways of seeing.


cleansing the doors of perception

Saying that “All Deities” reside within humans is a remarkable, proto-Marxist, realisation. The complex task of the prophet was therefore to help cleanse “the doors of perception” – to challenge how the current System of abstracting and alienating human creativity and labour enslaves and trivialises us, and to lay bare and reveal the world-transformative power of human imaginative thought and energy. This involves opening our eyes: as Blake observes, in a passage that explicitly links this role of imaginative perception with his appreciation of Ezekiel as a prophet:

mhh-plate-12-blake-1I then asked Ezekiel why he ate dung, and lay so long on his right and left side. He answer’d, ‘The desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite: this the North American tribes practise, and is he honest who resists his genius or conscience only for the sake of present ease or gratification?’

…Then Ezekiel said: ‘The philosophy of the East taught the first principles of human perception. Some nations held one principle for the origin, and some another: we of Israel taught that the Poetic Genius (as you now call it) was the first principle and all the others merely derivative, which was the cause of our despising the Priests and Philosophers of other countries, and prophesying that all Gods would at last be proved to originate in ours and to be the tributaries of the Poetic Genius.

Again, we see here Blake locating “all Gods” within the human breast – as ” tributaries of the Poetic Genius”. “Free productive activity is the essence of human life” – it wasn’t actually Blake who said this but Karl Marx, but it could so easily have been Blake.


Seeing the Infinite

tv-shoppingThe opening words of Ezekiel’s vision – “As I looked, behold, ” – therefore point us to a key aspect of the experience, and one that’s perhaps easy to overlook: that this is all about ‘seeing’, about ‘vision’. Or rather, about different ways of seeing, and the fundamental role that “appearance” and “representation” (or idols, signs, images, icons) have in our culture, in our psychology. Ezekiel’s prophetic tirade is at a culture that worships the appearance, not the “life itself” –  the image not the imagination. “Son of man,” Ezekiel hears the divine voice within him say, “these men have taken their idols into their hearts … the house of Israel are all estranged from me through their idols.” This “estrangement” (Marx would later use the word “alienation”) Ezekiel links to the experience of exile in Egypt and the unconscious worship of such idols there, and again he does this through the metaphor of sight, of seeing:

And I said to them, ‘Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.’ But they rebelled against me and were not willing to listen to me. None of them cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt.

galleryimage-788775124-feb-14-2012-600x450This ‘feasting on’ is again a very resonant term: Marx said that the fetishism underlying modern consumerism is “the religion of sensuous appetites”. Thus, the “fantasy” of our desiring appetites tricks us into believing that an inanimate, external object might yield its projected, psychological character to gratify the desires of the worshipper. As David Pavon Cuellar acutely notes, “Fetishized commodities seem to retain and promise to return, when consumed, the subjective-social part lost by those alienated while producing them. The alienated have lost what they imagine or hope to find in what is fetishized” (Marxism and Psychoanalysis).

By believing that the “object” (or “idol” in Ezekiel’s terms – eidōlon) has what we’re looking for, we simultaneously empty it out of ourselves – we both mystify or idealise objects and demystify and deplete ourselves. “Thus began”, as Blake grimly notes, “Priesthood” – the whole system of setting apart and objectifying the metaphors, the “as it were divine” as Shelley calls it. It is significant, for example, that the word “temple” simply means “set apart”, signifying the terrifying dissociation between human and divine that these post-Sumerian priest-led societies promulgated. Marx specifically links the “fetishism of commodities” to the earlier religious worship of totems, idols, and other externalised “objects”. Consumer capitalism, he observes, is in many ways just a peculiar version and perverse development of this process. Thus, for example, the worship of contemporary idols might include iPhones and Macs (widely believed to confer creativity on their users), Nike trainers (to denote or signify success, activity, beating the competition), Rolex (status), Harley-Davidson, or Marlboro (masculinity, power, individuality). Marx decoded all of these as forms of “fetishism”: feasting our eyes on (i.e., “consuming” – literally, of course) these apparent tokens, we get led away by our desires, and forget the social relations both hidden and “appearing” in, say, a sports car, a bottle of whiskey, a pair of trainers.


The Fetishism of Commodities

karl-marx4It is significant that Marx himself turns to the process of fetishism, and to religion, to make sense of the apparently “magical” quality of the commodity: “A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing”, he notes. “But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”. Indeed, as Peter Singer notes, these hidden “theological niceties” are key both to the power of the commodities and to Marx’s whole analysis:

Fetishism in anthropology refers to the primitive belief that godly powers can inhere in inanimate things (e.g., in totems). Marx borrows this concept to make sense of what he terms “commodity fetishism.” As Marx explains, people in a capitalist society begin to treat commodities as if value inhered in the objects themselves, rather than in the amount of real labour expended to produce the object: “The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things”. What is, in fact, a social relation between people (between capitalists and exploited laborers) instead assumes “the fantastic form of a relation between things”.

isweatThe “mysterious” character of the commodity is thus the result of the actual source of value and creativity (human labour) becoming externalised and reified in the form of what then becomes “the alien, objective world”, the world of appearances, of representations, of commodities. Marx’s genius was to show precisely how this happens – the mechanism through which human labour is converted into something that’s not only no longer simply the incarnated product of the worker’s labour but actually something which becomes elevated over him, and alienated from him. In Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), for example, Marx refers to “the externalisation of the worker in his product”:

The more the worker exerts himself in his work, the more powerful the alien, objective world becomes which he brings into being over against himself, the poorer he and his inner world become, and the less they belong to him. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains within himself. The worker places his life in the object; but now it no longer belongs to him, but to the object. The greater his activity, therefore, the fewer objects the worker possesses. What the product of his labour is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The externalization of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.



This “alien, objective world” – the streets, houses, skyscrapers, churches, malls that we’ve built but which now seem to stand over us, alien from us – Marx calls “a state of alienation, a state in which their own creations appear to them as alien”. Marx’s understanding of “alienation” echoes the Hebrew prophets’ concept of “exile”, or “estrangement”, the state of being in “Babylon”, in which appearances (idols and icons) are similarly imbued with a “mysterious” power, while the actual creative (i.e. genuinely transformative) agencies that shape them and invest them with value and life, are hidden. The relation of the worker to the commodity in Marx’s vision is therefore an echo or updating of the relation of God to the idols in Ezekiel’s.

Marx sees economic life (Blake would say “productive” life) as the chief form of contemporary human alienation. Many progressive thinkers of Marx’s own day (such as Feuerbach) believed that religion was the chief source or expression of man’s alienated spirit. But in a major break, Marx realised that man’s religious beliefs and practices were themselves the product of an even deeper form of alienation, which centred on our creative capacity as humans.

money_and_godThus, where the atheistic Feuerbach might have written ‘God’, Marx now substitutes the term ‘money’: “Money is the universal, self-constituted value of all things. Hence it has robbed the whole world, the human world as well as nature, of its proper value. Money is the alienated essence of man’s labour and life, and this alien essence dominates him as he worships it.” Money is also of course a commodity, and in representing exchange value in its “pure” form it’s also the easiest commodity to fetishise. Peter Singer explains the nature of this new form of “worship”, comparing again the projections of religion with those of modern capitalism:

According to Marx, commodities are mysterious things in which the social character of human labour appears to be an objective feature of the product of that labour. He illustrates this with religion. In religion, Marx says, the productions of the human brain seem to be independent beings. Similarly, with commodities, a social relation between human beings appears in the form of the value of a commodity, as if that value were objective and independent of human relations. (Singer)

“Like religious believers bowing before an idol,” Singer concludes, “we make a fetish of commodities by treating them as more than they really are.”



Building Jerusalem

Where Ezekiel sees the “mysterious character” of the idol as reflecting and displacing the invisible activity of “God”, Blake and Marx – both recognising that “All Deities” actually arise within humanity – realise that it actually points to the displacement of the productive, transformative power of human labour and imagination itself.

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-22-11-04In his long “prophetic” poem Jerusalem, for example, Blake hones in on this active, transformative agency within humans both as the true source of the divine and also as the essential, indeed the only, means of liberating us. Thus, “to labour in knowledge”, he says, “is to build up Jerusalem; and to despise knowledge is to despise Jerusalem and her Builders”. Indeed, he rounds on religion (as Marx was to do only a decade or two later) for its idealistic and disdainful view of human labour:  “O ye Religious, discountenance every one among you who shall pretend to despise Art and Science! … What is the life of Man but Art and Science?”  Those who despise and diminish the products or fruits of human labour (“Art and Science”) despise and diminish God, for Blake – for there is no other God. In fact, he calls “the liberty both of body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination” the fundamental “Gospel” of Jesus:

I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination. The Apostles knew of no other Gospel.

“What were all their spiritual gifts?” he asks his readers. “What is the Divine Spirit? Is the Holy Ghost any other than an Intellectual Fountain? What is the harvest of the Gospel and its labours? What is that talent which it is a curse to hide? What are the treasures of Heaven which we are to lay up for ourselves? Are they any other than mental studies and performances?”


Blake’s printing press in his Lambeth studio, where he laboured day after day to “build up Jerusalem”

Blake’s whole life and work was itself a remarkable paean to the capacities and wonders of such “labours”, and his final great poem Jerusalem is similarly filled with praise for human productive ability – its “harvests”, its “labours”, its “pursuits”, its “performances”, its “buildings”. Under industrial capitalism, Blake saw, the system which surrounded and raged around his little workshop in Lambeth, these harvests were continually being blighted, with man’s “labours” constantly being turned against him, “wheel without wheel” (to use Blake’s brilliant phrase, in deliberate inversion of Ezekiel’s original “wheel within wheel”). For Blake, this “dark Satanic” system of exploitation and oppression is both the generator of enormous human distress and misery, and also a blasphemous perversion of “the Gospel and its labours”. Both theologically and economically he saw capitalism as based on an utter contempt and disdain for our ability to transform and liberate the world – to transform it in the “likeness” of the human.

Blake would therefore have heartily approved of Marx’s critical approach to orthodox religion, as well as his championing of the value of human labour.  After the passage asking “What is the life of Man but Art and Science?”, cited above, Blake updates Ezekiel’s original “vision” in rather a startling way:

william_blake_sconfitta_1795-1I stood among my valleys of the south

And saw a flame of fire, even as a Wheel

Of fire surrounding all the heavens …

By it the Sun was rolld into an orb:

By it the Moon faded into a globe,

Travelling thro the night: for from its dire

And restless fury, Man himself shrunk up

Into a little root a fathom long.

And I asked a Watcher & a Holy-One

Its Name? He answerd. ‘It is the Wheel of Religion.’

but495-1-1-wc-300-1Just as Ezekiel, as an earlier prophet, had challenged and redefined – recoded – our understanding of “divinity’ for the sixth century, so Blake is rebooting and upgrading our modern understanding, realising that religion itself has become part of the system of idolatry and enslavement that it originally sought to free us from. For the rather hierarchical “Wheel of fire”, and authoritarian “chariot” (merkabah) of the earlier model of God has become part of a system belittling human value, human labour: from being a “likeness” of God, man in modern systems of thought (including orthodox Christianity, including orthodox science, including orthodox capitalism) has been naturalised and literalised as “a little root a fathom long”. Religion itself becomes enchained to the system which binds it, just as every human labour is bound to it, and anyone who challenges the system or defends humanity can expect a hard ride: it was precisely because he strove “against the current of this Wheel”, Blake notes, that Jesus himself was put to death.



The connection between Blake and Ezekiel’s understanding “God” as a dynamic, relational, and invisible energy and Marx’s recognition of the god-like, transformative aspect of human social labour, lies behind the correlation between commodities and idols that I’m making. In both, an implicit and transformative energy becomes alienated and falsified through the very products of that energy: as Marx notes, in both religious idolatry and commodity fetishism the productions of human labour appear as independent beings.  We have seen that for Blake, “God” only exists and emerges within humanity, within our imaginative labour (our “Poetic Genius”), and that therefore all human “Art and Science” are manifestations – “incarnations” (to use Marx’s word) – of God. The job of prophets, he believed, was to remind us of this – to draw attention to the unique “value” of human labour and to liberate us from any system that exploits it, enslaves it, or belittles it.


The word ‘Productivity’ might be a useful one to connect Blake and Marx here – whether one thinks of this as creative energy, the poetic genius, species-being, human labour, or indeed the burning coals of the chariot of God. And it’s notable that Marx got his conception of the evolving, dynamic nature of human consciousness through labour from Hegel’s concept of history as the progressive revelation or dialectical evolution of ‘Geist’, a complex term that is often translated simply as “mind” (a sort of Super-mind, or collective mind) but which also means “spirit”.


A Nike sweatshop: How human labour is organised under capitalism. But we don’t ‘see’ the human labour, or the social relations that created it, in the finished commodity

Both senses are incarnated in human consciousness for Hegel, which is uniquely aware: the only form of life in which the universe itself sees itself and “knows itself divine” (as Shelley put it). For both Hegel and Marx, this underlying spirit or mind becomes divided and alienated from itself (in Hegel, through the division into “subject” and “object”): the task of history is to somehow reintegrate and reconcile these divisions and alienations. Marx realised that the alienation occurred in the process of production and creation itself: capitalism might be seen rather like a coercive system which compels women to produce children which are then immediately taken away and turned into commodities, into exchange-value. It’s no wonder, in this system, that the producer feels alienated from his or her “labour”. Producing things, imagining things, is what we do, as a species – so this relentless estrangement is particularly damaging for us. As Marx says, “Productive life … is species-life”: it is therefore in activity, in production, that we humans show ourselves to be species-beings, homo faber. And all true value, Marx observed, derives from its status as “crystallised social labour”.

city-puffed-foodIf you put those two ideas together – that value is crystallised species-being, and that labour is what allows ‘value’ to emerge into the world, then human productivity, in the sense of free productive activity is, as Singer notes, “the essence of human life. Whatever is produced in this way – a statue, a house, or a piece of cloth – is therefore the essence of human life made into a physical object. Marx calls this ‘the objectification of the species-life’.” But, rather as with earlier fetishism, or with Ezekiel’s “idols”, we only see appearances, representations: if we go into a supermarket, we don’t “see” the labour, we only see the representation (which rather like Ezekiel’s metaphors only have value in terms of processes, motions, relations). The object can’t exist without the labour, but we don’t see the labour – we see the product. You can’t see the “productivity” – our species-being –  in the commodity directly: human labour is objectified in it – hence, labour (process) becomes again objectified in a thing (a representation). We live in a world surrounded by representations, by appearances; we live in a supermarket of alienation.


Ezekiel and the King of Tyre


Tyre currency

Interestingly, this world of exchange, markets, and commodities, had its origins in the very same post-Sumerian cultures that Ezekiel himself was born into. Perhaps the greatest commercial and mercantile centre in his own day was Tyre, an early example of what might today be called globalisation: by the sixth century BC (when Ezekiel was alive) it had become a byword for a certain sort of opulence and consumerism, and is referenced as such repeatedly in the Bible, usually negatively by prophets who raged against it. As Muilenburg notes, “It is against the background of Phoenician mercantile power and political diplomacy, or Aramaean commercial interests and military pressure, and of the politics of the Omri dynasty [6th King of Israel, 9th BC]  that we are to read the accounts of the prophetic activity of Elijah, Elisha, and Micaiah” (Old Testament Prophecy). And indeed of Ezekiel.


Phoenician trading routes

Ezekiel reserves some of his most withering, as well as acute, comments for his “Prophecy against Tyre”, whom it describes as “merchant to the peoples of many coastlands”. Before he damns it, Ezekiel gives us a wonderful glimpse into the extraordinary riches and extensive trading networks that had already been developed by this adventurous trading people:

Tarshish did business with you because of your great wealth of every

kind; silver, iron, tin, and lead they exchanged for your wares.

Javan, Tubal, and Meshech traded with you; they exchanged

human beings and vessels of bronze for your merchandise.

From Beth-togarmah they exchanged horses, war horses,

and mules for your wares. The men of Dedan traded with you.

Many coastlands were your ownspecial markets; they brought you

in payment ivory tusks and ebony. Syria did business with you

because of your abundant goods; they exchanged for your wares

emeralds, purple, embroidered work, fine linen, coral, and ruby.

Judah and the land of Israel traded with you; they exchanged

for your merchandise wheat of Minnith, meal, honey, oil,

and balm. (Ezekiel, 27:12-17)


Riches, power, dominion, precious stones, crowns: Blake titled this picture ‘Satan in his Original Glory’

And yet, in what has become a familiar story, all of this wealth and industry, all of this human labour, as Ezekiel sadly observes, was ultimately simply part of a wider system used to oppress people, to wage war, to magnify a few but immiserate the many. “O Tyre”, he laments, “by your great wisdom in your trade you have increased your wealth, and you heart has become proud in your wealth”. This “pride”, he notes, is rooted in a rather brutal, if clever, way of elevating its elites, its commercial and political leaders, while blithely mistreating everyone else:

In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence in your midst … you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendour. With your abundant wealth and merchandise you enriched the kings of the earth. Now you are wrecked by the seas. (Ezekiel, 27-28).

This reference to “wisdom” is especially significant in this context, because “wisdom” in the Old Testament texts was a code word for a specific sort of instrumental, technological form of ‘know-how’ – precisely the sort of technical know-how that allowed these elites to take control of their societies (through advanced navigational, trading, accountancy, and astronomical skills – the secret algorithms by which these early business leaders stacked their decks).


The highly advanced left-brain priests of Sumer and Babylon developed astronomy and astrology, as well as inventing the Zodiac, the 24-hour day, and the 60-minute hour: mechanical time. Observatories were attached to the temples.

As Blenkinsopp observes, this sort of – what we would now call “left brain dominant” – thinking, also underwrote their concepts and claims to divine status, to the right to rule:  “The claim to divine status is associated with the possession of wisdom, a term that includes the kind of intellectual problem solving that the biblical tradition associates with Solomon (1 Kings 4:29-34; 10:3-4) and a range of technological skills. The example of Solomon also reminds us that it is also the quality which allows a ruler to govern.” In my book The God of the Left Hemisphere I explore in greater detail the peculiarly “left brain” nature of these belief systems, and their abiding legacy in modern economic and political systems of Babylonian control and legitimacy.

And Ezekiel himself notices the ‘paradoxical’ or ambiguous nature of such left brain “wisdom”, noting that underlying all the ostensible glory and glamour of Tyre, it is ultimately a “death-dealing” culture and will not endure. The doomed character of his prophecy for Tyre is simply based on an intuitive grasp of the deeply toxic nature of this sort of “wisdom” once it becomes dominant in a culture, or a psyche:  “So, we are told,” notes Blenkinsop, “it will be with this city famed throughout the world for its intellectual and technological preeminence. Because Tyre, represented by its ruler, has aspired to godlike status”.


‘Tower of Babel’: Du Zhenjun’s set of paintings and photographs nicely illustrate the Babylonian basis of modernity

But Tyre is simply another example, in McGilchrist’s terms, of the “Emissary” aspiring to be “Master”, but having none of the humanity, relational depth, contextual understanding, or metaphorical and empathic richness, on which any living culture depends. This is just clever, exploitative know-how, the sort that can momentarily elevate itself and become successful, but due to its underlying arrogance, inhumanity and unconsciousness, ultimately always comes undone. This is the secret of Ezekiel’s prophecy – as indeed it was of Greek tragedy (hubris). As McGilchrist notes in his discussion of the cultural importance of the rise of these startling “Apollonian” elements in ancient cultures around this time (the first millennium BC), “surely these, it seems to me, represent the most positive aspects of the left hemisphere, in its guise as Lucifer, the bringer of light?” (M&E). Positive, in advancing the technological and productive capacities of human society; but equally Luciferian in its appalling inhumanity and self-enslavement. This is why Ezekiel recognises an earlier figure lurking in the psyche of the “King of Tyre”: “You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering”. As readers of the Bible would have known, this is a reference to the “covering cherub” (“O guardian cherub”) that stands in the garden of God to stop us from knowing what “life itself” really means. As Blake notes:

I behold the Visions of my deadly Sleep of Six Thousand Years

Dazling around thy skirts like a Serpent of precious stones & gold
I know it is my Self (Jerusalem)

The “precious stones & gold” to which Albion alludes to here is the pathological Ego – what Blake termed the egoic “Self” or “Selfhood” – the “Covering Cherub coming on in darkness” in order to try and prevent Albion from realising his true condition. Seeking to elevate the left hemisphere into “godlike” status – as “Master” rather than Emissary – with the promise of power, and knowledge, and dominion, is how it does this.  Not only are these “precious stones” the symbols of egos in Blake’s work (following Ezekiel), but the very attribution of value and importance to such material objects was in itself also a sign of the emergence of the Selfhood, and this historical development—the rise of materialism—again seems to have roots in the cultures of Babylon and Sumer around six thousand years ago.


Rod Tweedy is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation, a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience, and the editor of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness.  He is an active supporter of Veterans for Peace UK and has written a number of articles on war and militarism, including My Name is Legion: The British Legion and the Control of Remembrance and How We See War.


Don McLean’s post-Vietnam take on Psalm 137: the experience of trauma in a foreign land


  1. roy · March 26, 2017

    note in the book Where the Wasteland Ends, Theodore Roszak’s critique of Marx in his chapter on Blake. He specifically mentions the Urizenic basis of Marx’s material and industrial values.


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