The Symbol of Symbolism: Unravelling the form and nature of the underlying Energy
Introduction: Entering the Serpent
Sometimes it’s good just to look at Blake’s images, and let them approach you, without any verbal text, theory, or explanation. An encounter with their other-ness. Over the next few weeks this site will be posting a number of articles exploring the meaning and importance of the symbol of the serpent in Blake’s work, which weaves throughout his vision, and twists and turns throughout his images.
But, to ground this discussion, and to invite the viewer to participate and ‘enter into’ – as Blake would say – these symbols – here is a gallery of Blake’s Snakes, to suggest what a recurring, dominant and powerful, potent, mesmerising, and active symbol it is in his Vision.
If the Spectator could Enter into these Images in his Imagination approaching them on the Fiery Chariot of his Contemplative Thought if he could Enter into Noahs Rainbow or into his bosom or could make a Friend & Companion of one of these Images of wonder which always intreats him to leave mortal things as he must know then would he arise from his Grave then would he meet the Lord in the Air & then he would be happy” (Blake, ‘Vision of the Last Judgment’)
This way of engaging with “these Images” is a markedly right hemisphere mode of engagement – a way of shifting the human brain from its usual ‘left hemisphere’ mode (linear, literal, functionalist, verbal, analytic, useful but essentially unreal and virtual) to a more right brain or ‘whole brain’ state – one grounded in the neurological and ontological primacy of the right hemisphere, which is the side of the brain that apprehends and delivers a more contextual, bodily, relational, and intuitive understanding of the world (McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary).
Maybe just feel what they do to you, rather than “think” about them – notice how they affect your nervous system, your affective system, the deeper reaches of your metaphorical and intuitive processes – which is what they call to, as in dreams. What do these serpents have in common? Indeed, do they have ideas or associations in common – or is it part of the nature of the serpent that it can be framed in multiple ways – in both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ polarities of thought, like energy itself? Also perhaps pay attention to the evolution of the snake: the serpent appears in many different guises in Blake’s illustrated works, perhaps paralleling and intertwining with the progress of the snake in the Bible, in some respects: from the rather hidden and tentative, suggestive, tempting snake in the Garden of Eden, to the huge devouring Dragon of Revelation – as the energy supplied by the serpent gets used or abused in ever more destructive and domineering ways (Blake links this evolution to the rise of the Urizenic, or ‘left hemispheric’ processes within the human brain). In a sense, the history of Blake’s work, and indeed the history of mankind, is the story of the evolution of the serpent: the snake’s progress.
One way of seeing them, for example, is as a symbol of what we today would call ‘energy’ (from Greek energeia, from en- ‘in, within’ + ergon ‘work’) – an underlying dynamic or process, fundamentally bound up with and constitutive of life – of generative life – from the twisting double helix of DNA, and the serpentine tendrils of plants that fill Blake’s illustrated margins, to the spiralling of galaxies and the circling spirals of the serpent’s motion itself, its constant shedding of skins, suggesting birth and rebirth, both protective and destructive – it’s twin aspects contained within its eyes.
It’s probably best to spend at least a couple of minutes on each image. Give time for their strange otherness to approach you, and engage with you. All art is an encounter. And often an encounter with something new and unexpected, which is why we need to give our minds time to adjust. For very functional and evolutionary reasons our minds tend to work in the opposite direction – to swiftly categorise and generalise, to make short cuts, to connect what we’re experiencing now with everything we’ve experienced before, so it becomes familiar and safe – a way of conserving the brain’s energy (Friston), and of filtering out most of reality in a sort of ‘quick and dirty’ way of operating in the world (Huxley). Imaginative art is a way of disrupting this. It needs time, indeed it opens up time, to allow us to do this – which is why so many people stand so long in front of paintings in art galleries. This is a different sort of encounter, a different kind of relationship. We go out to it, but, importantly, we also ready ourselves for a state of reception – the ‘negative capability’ or sense of active passivity that is a sine quo non of all artistic or creative experience and transformation (“a condition without which it could not be, and without which there is nothing”). So, be open. Be ready. And enter in.
The Serpent’s Tail
Coda: The Tale of the Tail: Reason & Energy: Urizen and the Serpent
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell. (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
The relationship between rationality and energy is a particularly vital one in Blake’s work. In many ways this is a fundamentally oppositional relation, as suggested in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where he presents them as being contrary states or modes: one connected with the body and the senses, and the other with reason and morality. He observes, for example, that “Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body; and that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.” But he also notes that this idea or concept of the Body and of Reason is an “Error”, promulgated by “Bibles and sacred codes”, in their consistent demonisation of Energy or the Body – as something to be controlled, conquered, suppressed, manacled, and continually fought against.
This Error can perhaps best be seen in Blake’s striking image of The Angel Michael Binding Satan:
However, Blake believed that this way of thinking – about the body and the soul, about light and dark, about good and evil – was fundamentally mistaken and toxic. These things are not dualisms or opposites, but contraries: that is to say, contrary aspects of one and the same underlying entity or process. One might perhaps best see the Michael/Dragon image in terms of the Chinese concept of yin and yang – as fundamentally interconnected:
It has been the catastrophe of the last 6000 years of human thinking and civiization, Blake believed, to have seen these contraries as being at war rather than as complimentary forces (and they are only at war from “St Michael’s” perspective): the aim of our cultures and psychologies being to always try to “defeat” or demonise the other – to try and “defeat” the “darkness”, for example. All orthodox states or ways of thinking – “All Bibles and sacred codes”, as he puts it – have participated in this dreadful Fall – the Fall of our imaginative perception of the reality of things. Thus, orthodox Christianity presents the body as sinful and bestial; orthodox Platonism presents this sensory world as illusory, as a prison for the “rational” soul or Logos; orthodox materialistic science presents the body as a mere machine (Cartesianism), and orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis presents the body-based “id” as a wild, irrational, seething cauldron – exactly, in fact, as orthodox science and orthodox religion have seen, and inhabited, the body.
Blake disagreed. The Body is not demonic, but the source of our redemption, the gateway into eternity and paradise:
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
2. Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.
In one of his most epiphanic observations, Blake writes: “It indeed appear’d to Reason as if Desire was cast out; but the Devil’s account is, that the Messiah fell, and formed a Heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.” That is to say, through this fatal “Error” – in seeing the Body as something the holy, rational, pure “Light” of Reason (Logos) must defeat and dissociate itself from – the human soul radically divides, divorcing itself from the deep implicit impulses and unconscious (right hemisphere) ways of being and seeing, through which true divinity is to be found and apprehended – not through the ghastly, domineering, top-down, “hierarchical”, Logos-based mockery of divinity – as a “pure”, holy, abstract “God” in the skies – that is, in the “Up” world of left hemispheric abstraction and power positioning – often presented as a Geometric Representation, such as a Circle or a Triangle. “The Gods of Greece and Egypt were Mathematical Diagrams”. But, counters Blake, “God is not a Mathematical Diagram” (Laocoön). Those who worship Pythagorean triangles or abstract Circles worship only their own projected left hemispheric program: the abstract, lifeless ratios of Urizen.
This radical disjunct and division of thought – indeed radical division of the entire body (since our beliefs have powerful repercussions throughout our limbic, nervous, and affective systems and centres) – radically and fatally separates us from ourselves, and from each other, and from the true sources of divinity (the “heaven” that can be accessed through a wild flower, for example – by looking through it, not at it).
The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell.
For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at tree of life; and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy, whereas it now appears finite and corrupt.
This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment. But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged.
Hence the complicated history of our poor Serpent – caught on the one hand between being the symbol of the demonising projections of the Abstract Reason (in which it is seen as a symbol of the Body, always tempting us, sabotaging the rational egoic self, and leading us astray – politically, morally, and sexually); and on the other hand, a symbol of the “gnostic” Logos (divine Reason) itself – teaching us, through the subversion of the state of childlike “Paradise” and imprisonment within the materialistic world of the Demiurge – to lead us out – back – “Up” (inevitably always “Up” – a reliable sign of left hemispheric predominance) – to its supposedly pure, elevated, rational home among the stars.
That is to say, both of these versions of the serpent are forms of, or expressions of, or embodiments of, human dissociation.
The serpent itself, if one can speak about such a thing, in Blake’s work signifies the underlying Energy within all these systems of human thought, and indeed within all living things. E=mc2. “My friend the Angel climb’d up from his station into the mill: I remain’d alone, and then this appearance was no more; but I found myself sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river, by moonlight, hearing a harper, who sung to the harp; and his theme was: ‘The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind’.” (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
It is up to us how we use this eternal and delightful “Energy”. In the 6000 years since Babylon and Sumer, a destructive form of civilisation developed, led by the rise of new left brain astronomical priests who instigated not only dreadful and unprecedented social hierarchies but also new myths and stories that they told about the world – stories made in their image, in the image of the new Power that was now in control of the human brain, and at war with the newly subjugated and now “subconscious” forces (presented in these stories as fallen “Titans” – gigantic forms of bodily “Energy” that had now been defeated – just as St Michael is constantly shown in perpetual and everlasting struggle against his inner Dragon). The word “hierarchy” literally means “rule of the priests” – priests who now situated themselves not within human communities or within the “natural” world, but high up, cut off in enclosed and secretive “holy” “temples” – both words tellingly signify and point to this new dissociation and division that was incurring within their minds: temple means something “cut off” and set apart, as does sacred or holy – in Hebrew, קָדַשׁ or qadash).
Blake believed that the imaginative unconscious – the sleeping energy of the universe – takes the form of how we treat it. If we demonise it, try to conquer it, belittle it, brutalise it – as any psychoanalyst knows – it will rise up and, rightly, bite us in the ass. Religions or systems of thought that demonise sexuality experience this third law of subconscious motion very strongly and painfully, through their attitudes towards the human body and eros. It is a dragon energy that is not to be messed with. But it only becomes destructive when it is demonised – abused, harnessed, perverted for human-destructive ends – to attack Eros, for example. It is unsurprising, perhaps, that given the 6000 years of relentless demonisation and brutalisation in the hands of Christian priests, Platonic and Gnostic philosophers, Cartesian scientists, and Freudian psychoanalysts – that the serpent or dragon energy takes the form that we now see it, and experience it: what Blake call “the Dragon form of Urizen” (The Four Zoas):
Rod Tweedy, PhD, is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation (Karnac, 2012), a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience; the editor of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness (Karnac, 2016), and the editor of The Divided Therapist: Hemispheric Difference and Contemporary Psychotherapy (Routledge, 2020). He is also an active supporter of Veterans for Peace UK and and the user-led mental health organisation, Mental Fight Club.
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