Logic and Mysticism: William Blake, Bertrand Russell, and Allen Ginsberg

The Way to Truth: The Lamb or the Tyger?

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The Ancient of Days over Bikini Atoll, where America exploded a massive hydrogen bomb in 1954. It was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. On witnessing the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, a piece of Hindu scripture ran through the mind of scientist Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”

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Introduction: Blake and Bertrand Russell

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Entrance to the rooms Russell occupied as a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge University, where he first heard the sound of Blake’s Tyger.

In the first volume of his autobiography, Nobel Prize laureate Bertrand Russell recalled being stopped dead in his tracks while trying to descend a staircase in Trinity College Cambridge by his friend Crompton reciting Blake’s poem The Tyger. He wrote:

One of my earliest memories of Crompton is of meeting him in the darkest part of a winding College staircase and his suddenly quoting, without any previous word, the whole of “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright.” I had never, till that moment, heard of Blake, and the poem affected me so much that I came dizzy and had to lean against the wall.

The encounter with Blake’s Tyger seems to have made a lasting impression on the mathematician and philosopher. Russell returned to him again in his 1918 essay Mysticism and Logic, where he suggested that the search for truth could be reached both through hard science and pure speculation. In the essay Russell contrasts two “great men,” Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose “scientific impulse reigns quite unchecked,” and poet William Blake, in whom “a strong hostility to science co-exists with profound mystic insight.” It’s interesting that Russell chooses Blake for an example.

Metaphysics, or the attempt to conceive the world as a whole by means of thought, has been developed, from the first, by the union and conflict of two very different human impulses, the one urging men towards mysticism, the other urging them towards science. Some men have achieved greatness through one of these impulses alone, others through the other alone: in Hume, for example, the scientific impulse reigns quite unchecked, while in Blake a strong hostility to science co-exists with profound mystic insight. But the greatest men who have been philosophers have felt the need both of science and of mysticism: the attempt to harmonise the two was what made their life, and what always must, for all its arduous uncertainty, make philosophy, to some minds, a greater thing than either science or religion.

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Vision requires both rationality and intuition, logic and mysticism. Though Russell choses to divide these aspects to illustrate their differences, through the examples of Hume and Blake, in reality all deep thinking requires a marriage of both. As John Maynard Keynes observed, “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians”. And Blake was not anti-science or anti-logic, but merely mistrustful of its contemporary domineering role, which he thought was bad science as well as for bad for humanity. In the climax of his great mystical poem The Four Zoas, for example, he writes: “The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns”, a phrase which should make anyone who considers Blake to be “anti-science” pause and reconsider.

Later, in answer to a direct question posed by interviewer Woodrow Wyatt about the “practical use of your sort of philosophy to a man who wants to know how to conduct himself,” Russell replies:

I think nobody should be certain of anything. If you’re certain, you’re certainly wrong because nothing deserves certainty. So one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with a certain element of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of the doubt … One has in practical life to act upon probabilities, and what I should look to philosophy to do is to encourage people to act with vigor without complete certainty.

In Mysticism and Logic Russell sums up his position succinctly: “The greatest men who have been philosophers have felt the need of science and of mysticism: the attempt to harmonise the two was what made their life, and what always must, for all its arduous uncertainty, make philosophy, to some minds, a greater thing than either science or religion.”

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“Koan of student off cliff”: Allen Ginsberg and Bertrand Russell discuss William Blake

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Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997)

In 1962, Allen Ginsberg wrote to Russell about Blake, sharing his own earlier visions of Blake, when he had “heard” Blake speaking to him in his New York apartment. As we have seen, Bertrand Russell also experienced visions of William Blake, and Ginsberg wrote about it at different moments in this letter, clearly curious about these striking encounters:

What happened to you with Blake? Any further significance to the sensation that nearly made you faint?
[…]
Would Blake say that Tiger be scared by bomb?
[…]
What does Blake say to you?
[…]
I hope you put your experience of Blake on verbal record in more detail, it may be helpful.

Those lines convey a fear of being abnormal, and there are clues about his anxiety of being considered crazy about his Blake visions. Ginsberg is almost oppressive, asking many times about the effect the Blake visions had on Russell, as if to reassure himself with the desire of being normal (“helpful”), or at least reassured he was not the only one illuminated by Blake.

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“Even as Ginsberg wrote this letter, from India, the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding in the waters off the coast of Cuba.” Image: Bertrand Russell at an anti-nuclear demonstration in 1961, two years before Ginsberg wrote to him about Blake and expressing his own fears about the prospect of nuclear war.

There was also, at the time, the intense paranoia going around that was instilled by the global anxieties over the prospect of nuclear war – even as Ginsberg wrote this letter, from India, the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding in the waters off the coast of Cuba.

Ginsberg had earlier written to Russell about the arms race, and had received a reply in which Russell stated that world-wide nuclear annihilation was a near certainty. That comment unnerved Allen since he respected Russell’s opinion, so he wrote back for clarification. Since both Ginsberg and Russell had studied William Blake and had even experienced visions of Blake, there were several references to Blake’s work in this exchange.

Screenshot 2022-03-01 at 16.25.34This is the full, remarkable, letter to “Dear Earl Russell” with his experience of hearing the voice of Blake while masturbating in a New York tenement:

 

Allen Ginsberg [Calcutta, India] to Bertrand Russell [England] October 4, 1962 

Dear Earl Russell: 

I wept to receive your letter, while walking back to room on Calcutta street. 

What does Blake do? My experience is 1948, alone on couch in NY had masturbated, then reading The Sunflower suddenly heard ancient tender voice speak aloud, “Ah Sunflower weary of time” (Blake sounded like the Ancient of Days)—bliss answered yearning —felt “Eternity”—out window building corners, images of sentience everywhere.

Then “The Sick Rose” poem, auditory presence again and sensational consciousness / limitless behind Death—body physical lightness also. Continued with “Little Girl Lost” (How can Lyca Sleep / if her parents weep / if her Hart does ache / then let Lyca wake)—Kafkian madness doom event, my deepest sense data experiences age 22.

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Same flashes continued a week, catalyzed by Blake poems, I anticipating them, even precipitated epiphanies by yelling alone in room. Finally days later isolated walking on Columbia Univ. path, same sensation crept over me, but without Fatherly voice —suddenly a new feeling of cosmic cancer (universe will eat me alive)—scared me and ended recurrence of these sensations. 

Later, with hallucinogens, approximation of same “events” of consciousness, sometimes absolutely ecstatic and sometimes absolutely frightening. Complete literal dissolution of Self seemed to lead to immediate physical death. Never stabilized a continuously enlarged or widened area of consciousness. 

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The Sick World: “Sometimes absolutely ecstatic and sometimes absolutely frightening”

That’s what I meant when I asked if you knew any “scientific step of consciousness.” 

What happened to you with Blake? Any further significance to the sensation that nearly made you faint? Any hint of alternative to “the world of politics entailing lifeless organization … and … diminution of individual sensibility …”? 

“Act or Perish!” I’ve tried as poet 6 years to catalyze in others the sensation Blake woke. Meanwhile assembling long anti-bomb-politics poetry—which leads maybe action but not to awareness and depth consciousnesses. 

But now you say “Imminent nuclear annihilation … this is the priority … the nuclear technology is faulty … Rockets hair trigger … problem in elementary mathematical statistics: nuclear war is a matter of statistical near certainty …” 

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The Invisible Worm: “the nuclear technology is faulty”

I thought a week, hesitating to burden you with my individual sensibility and ambivalences. No time, no time. You’re blowing Gabriel clarion, it wakes individual hopes. Everybody’s entranced with death wish: Coffeehouse westernized Indians for instance: “What difference, does the universe really need Man?…. Who’ll care when it’s over?” or “I’d rather die a goofy disorganized human me than be compelled to organize against organization.” I feel that also natural, the bomb-doom and dissolution of my separate Ginsberg consciousness. I loathe to get involved in even friendly anti-bomb organizations. Even you gather power, by frightening or compelling (act or perish) individuals into accepting your evaluation reality and “statistical near certainty.” 

Vague suspicions … I don’t want to become a monster ego gathering organization power by scaring people about death, … introducing another factor into the mass of statistics, namely my own hysteria and ego scream contributing to the high tension that makes the military jittery 

Laughing at death, laughing at bombs better reduce tension. Would Blake say that Tiger be scared by bomb? Yet your letter made me think that doom sounded serious. 

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Einstein and Buddha say that “all conceptions” of the universe are “arbitrary,” i.e. conceptions of a Conceiver, it doesn’t matter except to Man. To Be or Not to Be, is the question. You say, To Be? Why? This question is central, is the cause of the whole Apocalypse. Can anyone answer, except by acting, to blow it up, or stop it from being blowed up? 

I mean the cancer at the heart of history right now is, disillusion with this life in space. That’s why I wonder if there is any deeper answer than “Priority.” What does Blake say to you? 

All I know is, I’ve lived in the midst of apparent worldly events and apparent transcendental insights, and it all adds up to I don’t know what. I hardly trust any appearance anymore, statistical or intuitive. I’d rather drift and see. 

How exact is your statement of statistical probability? Has comprehensive survey of bomb networks been possible to make, sufficient for anyone to project a date of “probable” occurrence of network error? 

Can you boil down your awareness of danger into a verbal formula (not a slogan) of several sentences factual data and conclusion that can be plastered on walls everywhere, memorized and passed from mouth to ear. This might penetrate public consciousness in U.S. and Russia. 

That is, if there is statistical near certainty that machine will explode, can you PROVE it SUCCINCTLY enough in public for basic facts to move thru mass media? 

If you can’t do this, can you formulate a succinct request to governments that they provide you (or Pugwash) with enough data on bomb networks to make a specific projection of likely date and probably error that would precipitate holocaust? 

The urgent request itself, even unanswered, would formulate the probability problem, and government equivocation of same, in public awareness. 

I enclose some money—please have sent me any printed documents that back your assertion of probability. The assertion is powerful, coming from you, but I would like more basis to judge. 

I hope you put your experience of Blake on verbal record in more detail, it may be helpful. 

Koan of student off cliff. 

Love or teeth and counting the steps of the sun Kali worship in Bengal next week. 

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“Would Blake say that Tiger be scared by bomb?”

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