Introduction: Symbols and Symptoms
In 2014, the psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist gave a remarkable talk on the art and symbolism of patients with schizophrenia or psychosis (‘Neuromania – Spiders, yes, but why cats?‘). The presentation was not only a fascinating insight into the nature of these conditions, and the implicit and intrinsic connections between symptoms and symbols, but also a profound exploration of the peculiar symbolism and imagery that more generally surrounds us in our supposedly hyper-rational cultures, and which artist and writer William Blake somehow understood and drew upon.
As pioneering psychologist Georg Groddeck noted, “the sickness is also a symbol, a representation of something going on within, a drama staged by the It [das Es], by means of which it announces what it could not say with the tongue” (The Book Of The It).
Symptom and symbol become almost interchangeable in this world of manifestation and self-realisation. Indeed, Groddeck often refers to “the symbol-making It”, observing that “the It cannot help but symbolize”. Groddeck’s theories of the “It” or “Id” profoundly influenced Freud, who formulated the much more Urizenic notion of the “id” as a threatening and destabilising force within our minds, rather than a spontaneous, hyper-aware, and potentially liberating and empowering (healing) energy resisting the forces of the repressive, over-rationalising egoic Selfhood. Both symptoms and symbols, for Groddeck, were ways for this underlying, imaginative reality or language to communicate itself, a way to “give Error a form”, as Blake put it.
McGilchrist explores this innate symbol-making propensity in patients with schizophrenia (a condition which interestingly mimics, as he observes, “right hemisphere damage” and in which “the right frontal lobe is underactive”). His discussion notes the remarkable recurrence of the symbol of the single Detached Eye, for example, in the artwork of this group, as well as their visual and psychological attraction towards the symbolism of cats/tigers, burning forests, pyramids, and sun-like “rays”. “Cats have a fascination for schizophrenic subjects”, observes McGilchrist, perhaps representing “the more ruthless and Machiavellian aspects of our nature”. He points to the striking commonalities between these paintings from schizophrenic subjects, and speculates on the ways in which they support claims about the two hemispheres and their functions, and indeed how they might relate to and be expressive of wider culture.
In terms of symbolism and symbolisation, “the disembodied Eye”, McGilchrist remarks, “is probably the single commonest finding in patients with schizophrenia”, though he also notes the striking appearance, and frequent reiteration, of the “Pyramid” as a symbol or focus of attention in psychotic subjects.
His whole talk, drawing on a rich combination of neurological, cultural, psychological, and aesthetic frameworks, is revelatory, and essential for anyone trying to understand the appearance of these symbols in various esoteric and “religious” traditions and iconography – from orthodox Christianity and the cultural symbolism of ancient Egypt to the iconography of the Enlightenment and the esoteric symbolism of the American dollar bill – the most widely circulated of modern symbols, as he notes.
The Visionary Arsonist: William Blake, Jonathan Martin, and the Burning Forest
Perhaps of particular interest in relation to Blake is McGilchrist’s discussion of the artwork of Jonathan Martin (1782–1838), the brother of the famous nineteenth-century artist John Martin, and someone who frequently heard voices – one of which in 1829 told him to burn down York Minster church, which he duly did (note the theme of burning fire, here literalised), and was promptly put into the Bedlam asylum. There he drew and painted extraordinary – and extraordinarily Blakean – pictures filled with burning tigers and lions, strikingly symmetrical faces, detached hands and eyes, and swirling, spiralling serpents, suggesting some sort of deep nexus or psychological patterning within the mind, connecting all of these features.
Below are four of Martin’s artworks, next to strikingly similar images in Blake’s work:
Martin’s artwork, like that of many subjects with schizophrenia, displays a highly unusual and distinctive (and again very Blakean) combination of text intruding onto images. Indeed, as McGilchrist suggests, this spontaneous combination of text and image is historically quite unusual in art, except in the artwork of subjects with schizophrenia.
Blake’s images are remarkable not only for giving such astonishing form to such visions and mental states, but for his own ability to distance himself from them (unlike say, Jonathan Martin – the difference being in part that Blake was in control of his visions – they weren’t in control of him). I am not therefore suggesting that Blake was schizophrenic – he seems to have been, in many respects, unusually sane and integrated – as one contemporary recalled of him, “I saw nothing but sanity” (Mr Calvert, cited by Gilchrist in his early Life of William Blake). What makes Blake’s works and thinking so compelling is precisely his remarkable understanding of the mental structures and processes that lay behind these disturbed ways of thinking, without however succumbing to them – indeed it is his understanding of them that allows him to stand back from them, and depict them so vividly and forcefully.
In that sense he was in many ways the first psychoanalyst – as Foster Damon remarks, “I do think it extremely likely that the name of Blake the psychologist will figure in the history of science, as well as in the histories of literature, art, and philosophy.” In particular, Blake saw how these damaging processes and activities were not only experienced individually and subjectively, but also culturally and globally – in the forms of global mental collapse and disintegration that he witnessed in the practices of contemporary industrial capitalism and Newtonian science, driven as they were by a pathological form of exactly this type of schizophrenic instrumental reasoning (see Duffell, Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion—A Psychohistory, 2014).
It is perhaps significant in this context that McGilchrist defines schizophrenia as not a loss of “reason” so much as a form of excessive rationality. “‘To lose one’s reason’ is the old expression for madness”, he notes. “But an excess of rationality is the grounds of another kind of madness, that of schizophrenia” (The Master and his Emissary). Certain forms of madness such as schizophrenia are thus characterised “by an excessively detached, hyper-rational, reflexively self-aware, disembodied and alienated condition” in which “one’s own body becomes no longer the vehicle through which reality is experienced, but instead it is seen as just another object, sometimes a disturbingly alien object”, in a world full of other “devitalised machines”. This stance is, he observes, strikingly similar to the basis of the Cartesian philosophy.
Indeed, McGilchrist characterises this rather abstract and abstracting stance of “an excessively detached, hyper-rational, reflexively self-aware, disembodied and alienated condition” as being common to both schizophrenic thinking and post-Enlightenment philosophy, the intellectual or psychological framework for modernity. As he observes, the “conscious effort to distance oneself from one’s surroundings, refrain from normal action and interaction with them, suspend one’s normal assumptions and feelings about them and subject them to a detached scrutiny” is “an exercise which in the non-mentally ill is normally confined to philosophers”. Blake would probably have agreed:
Till a Philosophy of Five Senses was complete
Urizen wept & gave it into the hands of Newton & Locke
– The Song of Los
McGilchrist concludes that this form of excessive hyper-rationality, the characteristic of certain types of extreme psychosis, is the hallmark not only of subjects with schizophrenia but of modern culture itself: “Both schizophrenia and the modern condition, I suggest, deal with the same problem: a free-wheeling left hemisphere.” We are bound within and to this free-wheeling power, not merely through philosophy but through symbols, which work on a far deeper level on us. Hence the ubiquity of such symbols in our supposedly secular and “Enlightenment” modern age.
Hell’s Gates: Entering the Domain of Fallen Reason
The image below is from Jonathan Martin; it is called “Hell’s Gates”.
Perhaps one of the chief aspects or affects of this picture is anger. Roaring. And this is of significance as anger is the one emotion that consistently lateralizes to the left hemisphere of the brain, as McGilchrist explains: “Anger is robustly connected with left frontal activation. Aggression is motivating and dopamine plays a crucial role in the rewards it offers.” We can perhaps witness this activation here: a storm of fury, a rage to conquer and destroy, to control.
But equally striking in Martin’s drawings and artwork are images of ratios, symmetries, control – as if all this anger was being harnessed and rationalised, but was also, at heart, predatory and indeed rather psychopathic. In this, Martin’s Hell’s Gate, with its huge devouring lion, resembles Blake’s many depictions of the ‘Red Dragon’, the final form – or ‘logical conclusion’ as it were – of Urizen, the glorious former Son of God, Lucifer – revealed ultimately as a relentless, devouring, wanting (empty) program, characterised by ferocious and destructive anger as well as cunning manipulation.
The more purely rational Reason becomes, if you like, the more monstrous its manipulative and calculating nature emerges and is manifest. Until, Blake observes, it becomes finally its contemporary form, “the Dragon Urizen”: “the Dragon form of Urizen” (J 14:3, p. 158; FZ Night the Ninth).
Interestingly, McGilchrist himself also talks about Blake in this context, noting the striking words used in the first stanza of Blake’s famous poem about the Tyger, in which all these symbols appear: burning, forests, symmetry, eye, hand, bright, fearful – and all of which are to be found in Martin’s artwork, and indeed in much of the artwork done by schizophrenic subjects. The schizophrenic mind seems to be honing in on these images, expressive of its mode of being or way of seeing the world, or way of being in the world.
It is also striking how often these images of predators (tigers, lions, jaguars) recur in post-Babylonian cultures, often associated with elite power and control. They are frequently to be found on many royal emblems and coats of arms, and stand watch in front of numerous financial, military, and political institutions and establishments. They are signs and emblems of the type of psyche within them.
Journalist Jon Ronson provides a fascinating insight into the psychic role and function of such predatory symbols in his study of Al Dunlap, the former CEO of Sunbeam Corp, a major transnational American electronics firm (note the presence of the “sunbeams” or rays again in the name – modern corporate logos showing suns with linear “rays” are too numerous to mention). At Sunbeam, Dunlop was responsible for what was then “the largest jump in New York Stock Exchange history”: profits soared amid a mass of redundancies (and, as was later discovered, massive fraud) – the sort of “rationalisation” that the 1980s and 90s were so famous for, ushering in modern neoliberalism. Ronson visited Dunlap in his lavish Florida mansion, as part of his research for his 2011 book The Psychopath Test. He noticed the unusually large number of ferocious sculptures of predatory animals filling the beautifully manicured lawns. “‘Lions,’ said Al Dunlap, showing me around”:
Lions. Jaguars. Lions. Always predators. Predators. Predators. Predators. I have a great belief in and a great respect for predators. Everything I did I had to go make happen.’
Item 5:Cunning/manipulativeI wrote in my reporter’s notepad.‘His statements may reveal a belief that the world is made up of “predators and prey”, or that it would be foolish not to exploit weaknesses in others.’
‘Gold too,’ I said. ‘There’s a lot of gold here too.’
Ronson’s observations are salutary in reminding us of how ubiquitous this predatory and pathological behaviour is in our culture. We become almost blasé about the terrifying number of lions and jaguars foisted upon our societies, as their emblems. The connections between the inner and the outer, between the economic practices and the underlying pathologies, strike Ronson as being potentially profound. “It’s a frightening and huge thought,” he mentions to Martha Stout of the Harvard Medical School, “that the ninety-nine per cent of us wandering around down here are having our lives pushed and pulled around by that psychopathic fraction up there.” “Yes,” she replies. “The higher you go up the ladder the greater the number of sociopaths you’ll find there” (The Psychopath Test).
Interestingly, just as schizophrenia is a condition characterised by right hemisphere damage and under-activity (and a correspondingly hyperactive left hemisphere), so too psychopathy, as McGilchrist notes, also seems to be rooted in profound right hemisphere deficits, resembling brain damage: “Psychopaths, who have no sense of guilt, shame or responsibility, have deficits in the right frontal lobe, particularly the right ventromedial and orbitofrontal cortex.” It is these types of peope who our culture and economy relentlessly promotes and rewards.
Ray of Light: The Externalised, Controlling God
McGilchrist notes the frequent belief amongst psychotic or schizophrenic subjects “that there are rays that are controlling them” – rays which are often drawn as long straight lines, emanating from the sun. He refers, for example, to the curious, linear solar lines that are described by Daniel Paul Schreber, the fascinating case study of Freud’s only treatment of psychosis (Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides), 1911). McGilchrist links these strange, emanating geometries to the belief in a sort of “puppet master” who must be controlling things, from above – a fascinating insight which perhaps links to contemporary conspiracy theory debates or the existence of the “Illuminati”, helping to explain contemporary political and social behaviour as both being manifestations of hyper-left brain phenomena or anxieties.
This idea comes from the feeling of not owning your own actions, not owning your own self – a lack of what Louis Sass calls ‘ipseity’ – the feeling of the automatic intuition that one is who one is – once it becomes alien from this, and starts to examine itself as an object in the world alongside other objects. And if one is not in control of oneself, who is in control? It must be a puppet master. (McGilchrist, ‘Neuromania’)
This unnerving sense of being controlled or observed recurs in representations of “the obvious observing Eye, which I think again represents a sense of being observed by something, or controlled by something – one doesn’t know what – which is presumably parts of the mind which is not conscious” (i.e., parts of the mind which have been forced underground, to become “not conscious”, due to its repressive, rationalising agency, and which now seems to act in a mysterious way upon it – exactly as in Freud’s theory in fact). McGilchrist links this rather paranoid sense or condition with schizophrenia as being “not a lack of reasoning; it is in fact a hypertrophy of rationality, in which everything that is intuitively understood has to be painfully and laboriously reasoned out from first principles”.
This correlation (or mis-correlation) between the so-called ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ aspects of the mind is surely fascinating, and a central aspect not only of all of our waking minds (within this Urizenic system), but of how symbolism itself operates. Freud famously declared that “the ego is not master in its own house” (A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis, 1917) – a sense here again of the rational, “conscious” mind being somehow “controlled’ or influenced from afar.
But this story, to adapt an observation of Blake’s, has been adopted by both parties. For in many ways it is not that the egoic, conscious mind has a sense of being controlled by something unconscious or alien – rather, the conscious mind is itself deeply unconscious (is “asleep”, as Blake would say) – and yet thinks it’s conscious – which might perhaps give rise to these odd symbols, or sensations, of itself – rather like trying to catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror which is always just out of sight.
So we’re in a sense imaginatively asleep, and have this curious sense that this ‘conscious’ state is not the whole picture; the detached Eye seems to both suggest another dimension, but equally acts as a sort of Guardian to prevent us from entering it, or perhaps from seeing it – the Eye always looks outwards, at us.
Freud himself referred to the existence within what he intriguingly called the “two rooms” of the mind of a sort of “Watchman” figure, guarding or hindering the passage between them.
On the threshold between these two rooms a watchman performs his function: he examines the different mental impulses, acts as a censor, and will not admit them into the drawing-room if they displease him … It is the same watchman whom we get to know as resistance when we try to lift the repression by means of the analytic treatment. (Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis)
Freud’s hypothesis of the watchman brilliantly captures the nature of the left hemispheric observer who guards access into consciousness (the deeper dimensions of the mind), an agency or activity that constantly examines, censors, watches, analyses, judges, and “performs his function”. It is the watchman, Freud notes, “whom we get to know” as the prime agent of resistance and repression; and it is, contrariwise, the unconscious right hemisphere with its much more open, freer, and less judgmental stance that the therapist must try to engage for successful treatment to occur – ie to get beyond the watchman, the single Eye.
Freud’s comments regarding the “watchman” have fascinating similarities with what Gazzaniga has more recently termed the left brain “interpreter” (see for example ‘Brain and Conscious Experience’, 2002). “There is a specialised left hemisphere system we have designated as the ‘interpreter’,” he notes – a highly advanced and specialised critical and interpretive structure (hence its name). This left hemispheric interpreter “constructs theories to assimilate perceived information” according to internal, self-consistent theories, and acts to reject any information or experience that might disrupt this internal logic. “The left hemisphere’s capacity for continual interpretation” observes Gazzaniga, “suggests that it is always looking for order and reason, even where there is none”.
It seems to be this watchman or interpreter that acts as both a censor and a guard for egoic consciousness. Thus, as Freud notes, “in investigating resistance, we have learnt that it emanates from forces of the ego” – that is to say, repression does not emanate from the (right brain) unconscious, but from the apparently “conscious”, left brain system. The conscious mind is not however aware of doing this, hence the rather curious situation in which the apparently conscious mind generates the (repressed) unconscious due to its own unconsciousness. Bypassing the watchman is both difficult and dangerous: Freud repeatedly notes how immensely fraught this seemingly simple procedure is, and how deeply resistant the conscious, explicit self is to both change and self-knowledge.
McGilchrist also mentions the Eye of Horus in this context of the all-observing single Eye, in ways that are particularly thought-provoking in relation to what Blake termed “Single Vision” – the way of seeing the world in terms of Urizenic measurement, in terms of an apparently rational, conscious (or “solar”) mind, and in terms of the domineering left brain: “the Eye of Horus was the basis of the beginnings of geometry and measurement” he remarks (the ideogram for the Eye of Horus being made up of mathematical symbols, which together constituted his “Eye”). This new geometrical, rationalising mode of attention signalled the ascendancy within the human brain of the peculiar and particular new egoic “solar” consciousness with its striking, single, Eye” (Tweedy, The God of the Left Hemisphere, 2012).
Depictions of all these symbols of a newly dominant, hyper-active left brain – the predators, the detached and detaching eye, the geometric pyramids – fill our culture and our lines of sight – and therefore our heads. They constitute the ideological templates for how we see reality – or rather, how we are meant to see reality, according to this newly dominant Program within our brains.
McGilchrist notes the surprising number of spontaneous depictions of Egyptian pyramids, for example, even in poor, working class patients with schizophrenia or psychosis living in south London in the nineteenth century – who had presumably never actually seen a pyramid or a lion, and yet whose minds were spontaneously filled with them, as part of the peculiar disruptions and dissociation to their brains. He notes that, historically and culturally, such “pyramids start to appear, along with the Eye, in the Reformation” – when “the left hemisphere begins its comeback, if you like” – he shows the Pontormo painting of Christ (see image above) with both the single eye and pyramid, painted in the early Renaissance as illustrative of this shift – and interestingly observes that the parts of God’s anatomy that tend to get represented in art of this period “are the Eye and the Hand” – both very left hemispheric in their associations (the grasping, manipulating hand; the detaching and observing mode of attention of the new “Holy Reasoning Power”, as Blake describes the Urizenic power now in charge) and both body parts represented, usually, as being detached and disembodied – “things that point and control”.
McGilchrist repeatedly links these as symbols also of the so-called “Enlightenment” – the final dominance of the left hemisphere over the right – and symptomatic of “what you would expect if there was an over-drive of the left hemisphere and an under-drive, if you like, of the right hemisphere”.
Watch the full talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkVwGpOXhf8
Rod Tweedy, PhD, is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation (Routledge, 2013), 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 (Routledge, 2017), and the editor of The Divided Therapist: Hemispheric Difference and Contemporary Psychotherapy (Routledge, 2021). He is also an active supporter of Veterans for Peace UK and and the user-led mental health organisation, Mental Fight Club.