Blake’s term for the psychopathic power of the Urizenic ‘rational’ mind when it is dissociated and divided from man’s imaginative and empathic consciousness was the “Red Dragon”. The term derives from the Biblical Book of Revelation, where the reality of things is supposed to be finally uncovered (‘apocalypsis‘, meaning “uncover, disclose, reveal”), but as usual with Blake, it’s given a surprisingly modern twist – one that is both psychological and politically radical in nature.
Blake’s presentation of the “dragon” form of Urizen as his final dissociated apotheosis (his “logical conclusion”, if you like), is a stinging critique of the very power and cognitive process that drove and underwrote much of the ‘Enlightenment’ project – the period in which he was living. The enormously powerful, as well as devastatingly disruptive, destructive and dehumanising, energy unleashed on Britain (and later Europe) on a vast – indeed global – scale was, Blake believed, the unregulated and domineering character of the instrumental left brain itself: what many Enlightenment thinkers rather naively simply called ‘Reason’. Blake analyses this celebrated function of the human brain and reveals that it was actually a peculiar and peculiarly distorted form of reason that was being developed and harnessed – “ratio-nality” (rather than reasonableness) – a self-enclosed, rapacious, and manipulative power that was being released into the world via the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism.
The Age of the Emissary
Iain McGilchrist, in his groundbreaking examination of the divided brain and its impact on Western culture, The Master and His Emissary, persuasively argues that the Industrial Revolution can be viewed as the left hemisphere’s “most daring assault” to date on the world: “this movement was obviously, colossally, man’s most brazen bid for power over the natural world, the grasping left hemisphere’s long-term agenda”. Indeed, in a fascinating passage he suggests that “the innate structures of the left hemisphere are, through technology, being incarnated in the world it has come to dominate”. This program of expansion he regards as the “aim” of the left hemisphere, replacing the experienced world of being (formerly enjoyed and apprehended as “other”) with narcissistic versions of itself, a vast virtual matrix of self-reflective laws and programs.
This new, “daring assault” also perhaps helps to explain why Blake, writing at the very beginning and in the epicentre of the industrial revolution in London, was so outraged by what he astutely saw as the start of its final phase—or what McGilchrist refers to as the “triumph of the left hemisphere”. Blake was both a horrified and perceptive witness to this historical development and a vivid and accurate analyser of its character and tendencies. Indeed, one of his most famous lines of poetry refers to this final domination of Urizenic rationality: the “dark Satanic mills” that many people often mistakenly believe allude to actual mills and industrial factories. But these “mills” are the Urizenic programs that he believed lay behind both the God of orthodox Christianity and the methodology of post-Newtonian science: the “Starry Mills of Satan”, as he refers to them in Milton.
Reason and Madness: the Fall into Division and Dis-integration
“‘To lose one’s reason’ is the old expression for madness. But an excess of rationality is the grounds of another kind of madness, that of schizophrenia” – McGilchrist
Many people’s idea of psychopathy probably derives from fictional characters such as Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is an especially interesting figure in this debate because he originates from a series of novels by Thomas Harris based on a particular painting by William Blake.
This painting is called “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun” (1805–1810) and it provides the inspiration, and title, for Harris’s first book in the sequence, Red Dragon, which is also the first book to feature Hannibal Lecter.
Lecter is, interestingly, not only a cannibalistic serial killer but also a psychiatrist. The central character in the initial book however is Francis Dolarhyde, who develops an obsession with Blake’s painting and becomes fixated with the sense of power and strength he thinks the Dragon exudes. “The picture had stunned him the first time he saw it. Never before had he seen anything that approached his graphic thought. He felt that Blake must have peeked in his ear and seen the Red Dragon”. It seems as if the Blake painting activates and stimulates certain “power” compulsions in him: the Red Dragon becomes a potent instantiation of the inner psychopath within his head, and perhaps within all our heads.
Dolaryde takes up bodybuilding, in order to emphasis and extenuate his interest in (and craving for) physical power—and to perhaps imitate the imposing sinuous form of Blake’s Dragon figure, which he has tattooed onto his back. “He carried the picture with him for days, photographed and enlarged it in the dark-room at night. He was agitated much of the time. He posted the painting beside his mirror in the weight room and stared at it while he pumped”.
Harris’s novel is a startling reminder of the brilliance and potency of Blake’s images, their ability to connect with deep processes and motivations within the human psyche, and their contemporary resonance. Dolarhyde himself presents a number of typical psychopathic traits: lack of empathy, a grandiose sense of self, deceitfulness, absence of remorse, and of course an overwhelming interest in, and craving for, power. What makes him different from many corporate psychopaths, however, is the literalism with which he pursues these devouring lusts. Harris’s novel points to the first signification of the Red Dragon: power.
But what sort of power exactly is it? In Harris’s novel, it is the power to manipulate and use others, and to enjoy this. Is this what makes his power psychopathic? Or rational? Or is it simply the violent nature and graphic ends that Dolarhyde pursues, that makes it psychopathic? In other words, how far is the ruthless pursuit of power—of explicitly and knowingly using other people to get what one desires—itself pathological? Interestingly, Dolaryde (like Hannibal Lecter) is presented as highly intelligent: indeed, it is precisely his application of rationality in order to deliver these ends that makes his actions so compelling. Blake himself identified the Dragon with Reason, the Holy Reasoning Power—the “God” of the left hemisphere who, in Harris’s novel, the character Dolarhyde (dollar-hide?) invokes in order to get what he wants. What makes his actions so extreme is partly that he comes to personally identify with this “God” or Power.
From the beginning, he and the Dragon had been one. He was Becoming and the Dragon was his higher self. Their bodies, voices, wills were one. [Harris, The Red Dragon]
Instead of what Blake calls the “religious” who passively “obey” Reason, the more grandiose and psychopathic actively identify with the “Reasoning Power” itself. They seem to enjoy this identification, this forbidden and mesmeric sudden boost of power—a god-like power of life and death in the case of violent psychopaths and serial killers.
It is the Urizenic “God” of the left hemisphere who is being addressed by the psychopathic Dolarhyde: for him, this Power God is not a superego deity whom he should passively obey (as the “good” passively “obey Reason”); instead he comes to associate himself with this Power—raw, manipulative, dissecting—and therefore to endorse and deify the ruthless, self-enclosed, and non-empathic programs of the brain.
It is obvious from Dolarhyde’s testimony, as it is from other psychopaths, that this is the “rush” they experience—perhaps another left-brain version (or mockery) of “being God”, is deciding how to kill, and who to kill, and in deciding how to “use” people. As Hannibal Lecter points out to Will Graham, the law-enforcement officer who also kills (in a different “context”, as an FBI agent): “Really, didn’t you feel so bad because killing him felt so good? Think about it, but don’t worry about it. Why shouldn’t it feel good? It must feel good to God—He does it all the time, and are we not made in His image?” What part of the brain would it feel good to?
In Blake’s psychological universe these acts participate in a particular sort of ego-centric program. The source of the Dragon in the brain can be activated by anyone. Lecter’s question raises an interesting point. For Dolarhyde’s actions suggest that his psychopathy and propensity to violence and murder is not just a left hemisphere “version” of what is “good”, but is a sort of reverse or mirror-image copy of it: an “anti- good” perhaps. That is to say, in a way, that it is a sort of good. The question is, good for whom, or what? In such an ambivalent universe, it is sourced in the same thing—a love for the good: but in one universe it is what is good for the ego, for power (premised on separation and aloneness); and in the other, it is what is good for everyone, for connections, and for the body. In some ways Dolaryhde is simply taking the love of the “good” of the ego to its logical, or rational, conclusion.
This, perhaps, is what makes his actions shocking, as well as compelling. Without any compensating interest in or feeling for others, and the “good” that this too may deliver, and abstracted from any living context or imaginative bond with humans, what remains? It is the “ego”. And what sort of thing really is the ego, once stripped from any vestiges of empathy or imagination?
Instrumental reasoning seems to be hard-wired into this kind of “good”: manipulation and control of others, for self. In a sense it is almost not even for self—it becomes purely compulsive, a program or activity running for its own sake, out of control. These questions of what is “good” and how appeals to it can be easily manipulated and form the basis of certain pathologies, recur throughout the novel. Thus we are told that as a boy, Dolarhyde tried to please his callous and sadistic grandmother, and be a “good boy” for her. “He wanted to do right.” But unfortunately, wanting to please an Authority (or God) who is actually sadistic, means that what becomes normalised as “good” or rational might actually be a further perpetuation of sadism and callous manipulation. This is not “ego” so much as the misuse (or perhaps, more disturbingly, simply the “use”) of these programs of obedience and of being “good”, in order to manipulate our children. Later in the novel, Dolaryhde has tied up Reba, the woman he has confusingly started to have actual feelings for: “If I untie you and let you sit up, will you be good? Don’t try to run. I can catch you. Will you be good?”
The part of the brain that might feel “good” in killing, as Lecter puts it, is surely that part of the brain that also enjoys putting others down, beating them, winning, using them, undermining them. Murder is a perverse act, and one that Blake repeatedly turns to as a metaphor.
To hinder another is not an act it is the contrary it is a restraint on action both in ourselves & in the person hinderd. for he who hinders another omits his own duty. at the time
Murdering is Hindering Another
Theft is Hindering Another
Backbiting. Undermining C[i]rcumventing & whatever is Negative is Vice [Blake, ‘On Lavater’]
What boys do to summer flies on a small and local scale, the serial killer does to other humans on an extended and particularly heartless scale, but do they share similar psychological or neurological sources and programs? Indeed, Gloucester’s observation in King Lear, that “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport”, again points to the possibility of a rather violent and sadistic God or gods (or aspect of God): a cruel “Nobodaddy” as Blake referred to this sort of “God” construction.
Surely this moral and psychological ambivalence and complexity is the fascination of Lecter as a character. He replicates, in a slightly altered form, the detective processes—of deduction, getting beneath the surfaces, investigation, uncovery, control, power—of the apparently rational and the apparently sane, in such a way as to call both into question. This is the source of the strange and compelling bond he has with the detectives whom he deals with (Will Graham, Clarice Starling), and his ability to unnerve them by suggesting this connection and indeed identification. Will Graham wants to see inside people’s heads: and so does Lecter. “He fumbles at your head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle, doesn’t he?” observes Lecter of Chilton, the chief of staff at the Chesapeake State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, in a curiously evocative phrase (suggesting an implicit connection between sex and Urizenic control). And Chilton himself had earlier said of the apparently insane serial killer (who likes to eat people’s faces): “Lecter is so lucid, so perceptive; he’s trained in psychiatry”. Reason always wants to get under the skin of things, it seems.
“‘How did it feel to lock your stepmother in a closet?’ the interviewer asked Case Study H. ‘It felt invigorating,’ he replied. ‘It felt good. I had some power. I was in control.’” To which journalist Jon Ronson—applying Hare’s Psychopath Checklist criteria—notes, “Item 2: Grandiose sense of self-worth” (Ronson, The Psychopath Test). This interest in power and control is usually accompanied by an equal disinterest in remorse and empathy. The more one, the more the other. Individuals with psychopathy, according to Hare’s checklist, usually display what he calls “shallow affect”—an emotional impairment that makes them seem in some ways both quite cold and also unable to experience any real depth of emotion. “Displays of emotion are dramatic, shallow, short lived, leaving the impression that he is play acting” (cited in Ronson).
But one emotion that they do seem to feel is contempt. This contempt is often manifested in their views of emotional, ordinary humans. “One time, Bob [Hare] said, one of his researchers interviewed a bank robber who told him a cashier had soiled herself from fear as he pointed his gun at her. ‘It was pathetic,’ the bank robber had told Bob’s researcher, ‘seeing her soil herself like that’.” A similar contempt for the lives and behaviour of most ordinary human beings seems fairly endemic if not de rigueur within the upper echelons of corporate and political, and often environmental, organisations, as the observations of Joel Bakan and Anita Roddick suggest: “The language of business”, notes Roddick, “is not the language of the soul or the language of humanity. It’s a language of indifference; it’s a language of separation, of secrecy, of hierarchy [that] is fashioning a schizophrenia in many of us” (cited in Bakan, The Corporation).
“There’s a preponderance of psychopaths – people with a complete lack of human empathy – at the heart of the political and business elites”. Ronson notes that about 1% of the population are considered to be ‘psychopathic’. However, among business leaders and CEOs this level quadruples, and “[Robert] Hare said the reason why is because capitalism at its most ruthless rewards psychopathic behaviour – the lack of empathy, the glibness, being cunning, manipulative – in fact capitalism perhaps at its most remorseless is a physical manifestation of psychopathy – it’s like a form of psychopathy that’s come down to affect us all” (Ronson).
A particularly revealing insight into the peculiar nature of psychopathy, its sexualisation of power, and its rather compulsive need for (and enjoyment of) violence and/or bloodletting, is suggested by various experiments using what is called the “Startle Reflex” test. In this, subjects are shown graphic and disturbing pictures, and then an incredibly loud noise is suddenly let off in their ear. “The non-psychopaths would leap with astonishment. The psychopaths would remain comparatively serene”.
This apparent serenity, a calm in the face of normally anxious or violent situations, also often makes them good leaders in “high Mach” [i.e. Machiavellian] organisations. For Hare, it also suggests that not only were the more psychopathic not squeamish at seeing these unpleasant and grotesque images (such as crime-scene photographs of blown-apart faces), but they seemed to be actively absorbed—engrossed—in them—which is also why their reactions were so muted. They seem to see them “as fascinating puzzles to be solved”: to be solved presumably by the puzzle-solving part of the human brain, the Holy Reasoning Power. The “Startle Reflex” test was important for Hare in suggesting that certain processes and features of psychopathy might have specific related brain reflexes and functions. That the brains of psychopaths, in other words, might be a fascinating puzzle to be solved.
The Dragon Urizen: Rationality, War, and Druid Sacrifice
Damon remarks that “Blake refers to the ‘Serpent Temples’ (Jerusalem) and even calls them ‘Dragon Temples’, because Deism promotes war” (Damon, A Blake Dictionary). This latter designation is of particular significance, as we shall see, because of the psychopathic identity of the “Dragon Urizen”
Why did you take Vengeance O ye Sons of the mighty Albion?
Planting these Oaken Groves: Erecting these Dragon Temples
Injury the Lord heals but Vengeance cannot be healed [Jerusalem]
Blake refers to druidic architecture as “Dragon Temples” because the Dragon is the form that Urizenic Reasoning (“the chains of rocks of Reasonings: of unhewn Demonstrations”) takes when taken to its logical or “rational” end—the worship of Power through the sacrifice of Humanity. Those who worship at this altar, no matter whether they regard themselves as secular or religious, activate the same psychological and neurological processes. They activate “Urizen”, who, in Blake’s work, is the Power that responds to this demand for “order” and “justice” (or murder and vengeance). Thus, every atrocity and horror has been done in the name of establishing or re-establishing Order, or ‘purifying’ and cleansing the state, or avenging a previous act. No leader presents himself as a murderous psychopath: all leaders embarking on war portray themselves as moral, righteous, or holy.
For just like Dolarhyde in Harris’s Red Dragon, the dissociated rational mind craves power. And what feeds its craving for power is human sacrifice, whether literal, economic, military, or ritual. This desire for Power has historical and indeed theological roots. As Damon notes, the cause of Urizen’s downfall is “that of the traditional Satan: the desire for dominion, which he does not renounce until the Last Judgment”.
And one of the points of contention in that myth between “Satan” (the light-bearing Angel of the Divine Presence) and “God” was Satan’s belief that he was actually holier than God (Blake, The Everlasting Gospel). For Lucifer, rather like Thomas Dolaryde, the lucid, intelligent, superior, and equally psychopathic serial killer in Red Dragon, was also “known to be a perfectionist.” It is this very urge to “perfection”, this fascination with it, however, that ultimately makes him not angelic but dragon-like. As Dolaryhde educates Freddy Lounds, the journalist who had questioned the rational psychopath’s sexual potency in a newspaper article, and whom he is about to consume:
TD: ‘Do you feel privileged?’
FL: ‘It’s a privilege. But I have to tell you, man to man, that I’m scared. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re scared. If you have a great idea you wouldn’t have to scare me for me to really be impressed.’
TD: ‘Man to man. Man to man. You use that expression to imply frankness, Mr Lounds, I appreciate that. But you see, I am not a man. I began as one but, by the Grace of God and my own Will, I have become Other and More than a man. You say you’re frightened. Do you believe that God is in attendance here, Mr Lounds?’
It’s a tricky question to answer. But the key point is Dolarhyde’s aspiration to become,—to become “More than a man.” Before he tortures Lounds, and in a reference to the latter’s profession as reporter for the Tattler, Dolarhyde shows him a series of photo-journalist slides:
The first slide was Blake’s painting, the great Man-Dragon, wings flared and tail lashing, poised above the Woman Clothed with the Sun.
‘Do you see now?’
Individuals with psychopathy routinely believe that they are “More than man”. Indeed, as Cleckley notes, the psychopath seems to view humans as both doll-like and easy to manipulate, as well as subjects to observe and study. “His rational power enables him to mimic directly the complex play of human living” (Cleckley, The Mask of Sanity), and yet the psychopath seems always to stand outside of, or in his terms, “above”, those he mimics and uses. As Cleckley observes: “we are dealing here not with a complete man at all but with something that suggests a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly”.
It is exactly this “persistent blocking”, or dissociation between the logical and the imaginative modes of being, that Blake presents as the basis for the psychological deterioration and historical degradation of “reason” into an insane and devouring, consuming appetite: the Dragon. An utterly disconnected, divided Reason—“pure” Reason if you like—would not be a precision instrument, let alone a luminous Angel, but a ravenous, compulsive program, endlessly driven to dissect, devour, manipulate, and use.
This is the final form in which both Dante and Milton present the traditional bringer of light, or ‘en-lightenment’, Lucifer. As Damon remarks, “Urizen, in a mistaken attempt to be more and more purely himself, sinks lower and lower. He becomes the architect of the Visible Universe. He supports the Religion of Moral Virtue, which finally snares even himself. Finally he sinks so low that he loses all semblance of humanity, and is nothing but a ravening dragon” (Damon). “Even his splendid logical faculties will, in real life situations, produce not actual reasoning but that imitation of reasoning known as rationalization”, as Cleckley says of the psychopath; at his worst, it will produce the psychotic destruction of humanity itself.
In this sense, Dolarhyde both knew and didn’t know his Blake. He recognised the Power communicated and transmitted by his Red Dragon figure, but not, it seems, its pitiful and self-divided origin within the brain. For in a revelation of the true meaning of the rational, egoic aspiration of reason to become like God, Blake shows the paradoxical and self-damning dividing mechanism on which it is rooted: “Attempting to be more than Man We become less” (The Four Zoas). What those who aspire to become “more than Man” end up sacrificing is their own humanity.
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.