Introduction: William Blake and Therapy
“Was William Blake mad?” is the usual question that comes up in any discussion of Blake and therapy. What was fascinating about psychoanalytic psychotherapist Carol Leader’s talk at the Blake Society event at the Freud Museum was the way in which she explored this connection between ‘Blake and the Therapists’ on a new and much more profound level. Indeed, her presentation was so thought-provoking that it makes you wonder why more hasn’t been written on this connection. As Tim Heath noted in his introduction to the talk, “whenever you converse with William Blake, whenever you dive into his work, it immediately becomes apparent why Blake intimated the coming of therapy.”
Blake’s exploration of the four “Zoas” and their emanations, for example, present us with a complex and vital dynamic within the human psyche, and indeed both Blake’s visual art and his written work revolve around these inner psychodynamics. “I rest not from my great task,” Blake proclaims at the start of his poem Jerusalem, “To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes/Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought”.
But relatively few critics and commentators have really picked up on this or explored its repercussions in relation to twentieth-century psychoanalytic thought.
S. Foster Damon’s superb Blake Dictionary contains some hints – typically acute but brief and tantalizing suggestions – of how Blake anticipates later psychoanalytic ways of thinking: his fourfold psychology prefiguring “Jung’s fourfold analysis of man”, for example, and Damon’s acute observation that Blake’s proto-Oedipal dynamics (such as those between Orc, Los, and Enitharmon) are a “startling anticipation of Freud’s Oedipus complex”.
Perhaps even more suggestive is the way in which Blake’s presentation of the “splitting” of the psyche antedates Ferenczi’s analysis of how the mind reacts to the experience of trauma through dissociation and fragmentation. I once worked in a bookshop that specialized in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy and was often struck by how many books had Blake illustrations on the covers of them – testimony, I think, to the resonance that Blake’s work, both visual and verbal, has for this audience.
But few psychoanalysts and psychotherapists themselves have written about Blake or focused on these resonances, and those that do are often disappointing. Ronald Britton, for example, a psychoanalyst and indeed former President of the British Psychoanalytical Society, has commented on Blake in his book Belief and Imagination, but he curiously misrepresents Blake as an “epistemic narcissist” who exhibits “what in psychoanalysis has been called infantile megalomania” – which makes you wonder how a profession devoted to understanding people can get people so wrong.
Blake and Jung
One of the central concerns of Carol Leader’s wonderful presentation was to explore the intimate and profound connections that exist between Blake’s ideas and images and the work of modern depth psychology, and in particular the ground-breaking work of Jung.
Depth psychology focuses on the unconscious, and on the unconscious processes that operate as part of therapy – something which immediately puts it in alignment with Blake’s own creative process, which, as he himself observed, is “addressed to the Imagination … & but mediately to the Understanding or Reason”. In this sense, as Shelley similarly noted, poetry acts above and beyond consciousness, and engages with the “inner” world, even as it is manifests in the “outer”. The contours of this inner world are not linear, Leader reminds us, but multi-dimensional, “multi-layered”, like a piece of paper folded up – in fact, she gave us all a piece of paper to fold up at the start of her talk (“to be folded in as many folds as possible”), and which was used as a visual aid to suggest how these layers function.
She started to open up this occluded and usually eclipsed internal world by turning to one of Blake’s last and greatest works, his Illustrations to the Book of Job. A hundred years before Freud and Jung, Leader observed, Blake presents us with “an incredibly powerful understanding about how the inner world works, and the types of images the inner world produces”. For example, we meet a God-like figure who is absolutely terrifying (“the Freudians would call this the archaic superego”), and who, in Job’s nightmare, is shown with cloven hoofs, hovering menacingly over the dreamer.
Through this illustration Blake suggests that the God who Job has passively obeyed and believed was ‘good’ might in fact be a demonic and usurping Power. Job’s nightmare gives form to his internal processes and powers, and in this the function of his vision relates to a key theme of depth psychology, which is the importance of dreams both in introducing such potent and revelatory symbols and also in providing or injecting a sense of “fluidity” into the imaginative lives of those patients who often seem to be “stuck” in a situation, or fixated by an idea or complex. In these states the mind often finds itself in a position, terrifyingly, where it is unable to move or free itself from its destructive processes, it’s own “mind-forg’d manacles”. Leader presents Blake’s Book of Job very much in these terms: as a terrifying, frozen nightmare giving way to a more fluid “dream”, through the creation or emergence of a symbol, or symbols, into consciousness – which the conscious mind can then grasp or hold on to in order to explore these latent and hidden powers. In this way, symbols and symptoms often coalesce, or become synonymous.
In discussing the nature of the “Unconscious” Leader made a useful distinction between what post-Freudian psychoanalysis terms the “Unrepressed Unconscious” and the “Repressed Unconscious”, the latter being defined as something that you’ve already known (i.e., has already been conscious) but that you then repress “because it’s too difficult to know about”. This is very much Freud’s domain (and perhaps Blake’s). The “Unrepressed Unconscious”, on the other hand, was what particularly interested Jung: this form of the unconscious has never come into consciousness, due to structural reasons, and is similar in some ways to what he famously called the “Collective Unconscious”.
According to depth psychology, the Unrepressed Unconscious is characterized by such features as “non-directed thinking” (spontaneous, metaphorical, archaic) and “symmetry”. The question of “symmetry” really lay at the centre of Leader’s talk: she described it as a pattern or form that repeats itself (“this repeating and repeating”), and she sees a reflection of this in the work of Blake, whose poems and paintings, she suggests, often “play out the idea of symmetry”. Blake’s “fearful symmetry”, Leader argues, prefigures the ideas not only of modern depth psychology but also modern chaos theory, both of which are evident in the theories of the psychoanalyst and mathematician Ignacio Matte Blanco, whose ideas formed the main focus of the second half of the talk.
Blake and Matte Blanco: Symmetry and Asymmetry
In Matte Blanco’s formulation, contemporary physics and modern psychoanalytic theory are attempts at developing rule-based structures with which to understand, respectively, the apparently chaotic nature of fundamental physical reality and the equally “illogical” nature of unconscious psychical reality.
Though the unconscious, for example, might appear “chaotic” Matte Blanco believed that it operates according to its own implicate “logic”, and can be understood, for example, in terms of the principle of Generalization and the principle of Symmetry (The Unconscious as Infinite Sets, 1975). In the principle of Generalization, logic does not take account of individuals as such, it deals with them only as members of classes, and of classes of classes. In the principle of Symmetry, the logic treats the converse of any relation as identical to it; that is, it deals with relationships as symmetrical.
As Leader defined it this logic, or “bi-logic” as he termed it, is “the ability to look into the chaos and give it a structure” (bi-logic relates to the two modes of being, respectively symmetry and asymmetry in thought and reasoning and brain processes, in unconscious and in conscious modes of being). This is obviously an intriguing supposition, but it is also here where the theories seem most speculative, and also in some senses most un-Blakean. Both “generalization” and “symmetry” seem to be quite strongly associated in Blake’s work with Urizen – the desperate need of the rational (conscious) mind to seek to find, or impose, “logic” and rules on the universe.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, for example, Blake provocatively suggests that it is precisely the presence of this rationalising programme or compulsive drive within the mind that actually creates the fiction of an “irrational” or chaotic world in order to justify imposing its own structure and control, and which it orders (or rather “re-orders”) according to its inherent linear-sequencing, abstracting, internally-consistent rules and laws.
Psychic reality can certainly manifest itself in highly disruptive, terrifying ways – as Blake’s Job painfully realizes – but Blake’s genius is surely to suggest that these traumatic experiences stem not from the “unconscious” as such but from the repressive efforts of the rational consciousness in trying to impose logical rather than organic forms of “order” in the first place.
It was Job’s original model of “God” – i.e., his belief construct about the nature of reality (based upon an unconscious need to establish what it calls “order”, and his concomitant belief that God would reward him for being “good”, or “righteous”) – that created his nightmare, his suffering. His demonic God is not the result of “paranoia” but rather a deep insight into orthodox theistic belief systems that no longer become tenable.
And Job’s “unconscious” comes back to bite him not because the unconscious is chaotic or intrinsically unruly or threatening, but because vital processes and ways of relating have been blocked and frustrated by the rationalizing, moralizing consciousness that seeks to portray the energies of the unconscious in relentlessly negative terms.
Blake suggests that, to adopt a metaphor used by both Freud and Plato in their metaphors of the self, the egoic “rider” creates the wayward “horse” by calling itself the rider. Take this rider away, and what you are left with is not an engulfing chaos (“the scaly fold of a monstrous serpent”), but rather “a pleasant bank beside a river by moon light hearing a harper” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
It is the rational “Angel’s” “Analytics” that had produced the nightmare, which it then projected onto the unconscious as “Leviathan”, and it is modern-day psycho-“Analytics” who, following Freud, repeat this error. As Marilyn Butler remarks of Blake: “his hell is a productive energizing chaos. In particular he sings the delights of disobedience”. In this the supposedly “Unrepressed Unconscious” works much more like the model of the “Repressed Unconscious” of course, but then it is ambiguous where exactly consciousness and unconsciousness divide, and indeed where the repressed stops and the unrepressed starts. Perhaps the Repressed and Unrepressed cannot be distinguished so easily: the repressed unconscious seems to throw up images and archetypes from the unrepressed. Even Freud recognised that the seemingly rational egoic “consciousness” often displays “unconsciousness” and acts as a repressor at times, blurring any neat, Urizenic difference.
If the Blakean “Unconscious” is perhaps a more dynamic and positive entity than that suggested by post-Freudian psychoanalysis, the fundamental importance of mathematics and geometry in the work of Matte Blanco also seems rather at odds with Blake’s view of these. Blake famously remarked that “God is not a Mathematical Diagram” and spent much of his life railing against the geometrical ideology of everyone from Plato to Newton.
For Blake, the language of mathematics is one that is always only retrospectively read back into nature. This is why Blake constantly emphasizes how much this science is based not on immediate knowledge of the world but rather on “memory”: mathematics for him is a retrospective language, laboriously worked out behind closed doors, always looking back and over its shoulder at the world. He explicitly contrasted “mathematic form” with “living form”: “Mathematic Form is Eternal in the Reasoning Memory”, he noted, “Living Form is Eternal Existence”. And to underline the vital difference between the rational or Platonic and the spiritual or imaginative he added, “Grecian is Mathematic Form. Gothic is Living Form”.
Leader’s presentation was fascinating in its attempts to align the symmetrical, numerical “infinite sets” of Mandelbrot and Matte Blanco with the role of repeated or multiplied images in Blake’s work (the multitudinous “eyes” in his painting of The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns, for example, or the many hands of Jung’s own painting of the little dreamer, up against a huge dragon with the repetitive pattern of “loads of hands”, “loads of spots”).
She might be right – I am not a mathematician, and certainly these comparisons are suggestive – and one of the great virtues of Blake’s work is that it is so open to different ways of seeing, so multi-interpretational. But my sense of Blake is almost asymmetrically opposite: what is striking about the universe is surely its deep asymmetry (from brain hemispheres to universes), and that the “symmetries” are, pace Matte Blanco, a feature of the rationalizing Urizenic mind, not of deep imaginative reality.
The Tyger’s “fearful symmetry” (as Leader notes, the only time Blake uses this word) belongs to Urizen, as does the symbol of the stars of course, such as those which preside over Job’s rational suffering and unconsciousness. Surely the suggestion in Blake’s work is that reality, the deep truth, is asymmetrical, spontaneously self-organizing, vital, fluid, diverse, contrary – and that it is actually rational consciousness that is currently problematic and pathological.
In this sense Freud’s iceberg model of the mind is upside down: what we need to do, as psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Charles Rycroft astutely argued, is not go beyond the pleasure principle but go beyond the reality principle (‘Beyond the Reality Principle’, in Imagination and Reality: Psychoanalytical Essays). This is because Freud’s “reality’ is based on profound repression and the normalization of what Rycroft calls a “psychoneurotic” dissociation between the rational and intuitive, one which Freud presupposed was normal but which is actually (as Blake correctly intuited) pathological.
In describing the potentially enormously beneficial work of therapy, Carol Leader was eloquent on how our minds so often tend to get “stuck” – trapped in compulsive, repeating cycles of thought, and unable to let go of or work through an experience. These are profound, and profoundly disturbing states, and Leader was both acute and moving in her descriptions of patients who get caught in these states, repeating litanies of self-lacerating mantras: ‘Why does this always happen to me?’, ‘I’m never going to talk to her again!’ and so on – the ‘always’ and ‘never’ clauses indicative, as Leader brilliantly noted, of this ‘stickiness’ of the mind.
But this ‘stickiness’ is also surely a feature of the ‘left hemisphere’, as Iain McGilchrist’s recent work in this area suggests: it is precisely the rationalizing, Urizenic, ‘conscious’ mind (the mind skilled in “analytics” as Blake would say) that the ego unfortunately identifies with, and its incessant loops of judgmental, moralizing, self-isolating systems of thought.
As McGilchrist explains, “there is a curious phenomenon of ‘stickiness’ about the attention exhibited by the left hemisphere, which is related to its relative inflexibility … The left hemisphere’s ‘stickiness’, its tendency to recur to what it is familiar with, tends to reinforce whatever it is already doing. There is a reflexivity to the process, as if trapped in a hall of mirrors: it only discovers more of what it already knows, and it only does more of what it already is doing” (The Master and his Emissary).
This sense of the “stuck” mind doing “more of what it already is doing” and knowing “what it already knows” is immediately suggestive of Blake’s Urizenic “mills” and indeed of his definition of what ‘ratio-nalising’ actually consists in: “Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more”. Once again, the symmetries seem to belong to Urizenic consciousness, the rational ego, and it is this that causes so much damage to the human mind in Blake’s psychomachias.
Conversely, the world beyond the conscious – Blake’s “World of Imagination” – seems to be not symmetrical but asymmetrical: it is not homogenous and “all the same”, but rather multitudinous. Indeed, it is “Urizen” who wants everything to be the same, to be unified – “One command, one joy, one desire,/One curse, one weight, one measure/One King, one God, one Law”. The Blakean “Unconscious” rejects this form of order or structure because “One Law for the Lion & Ox” is not peace and unity, as rational “logic” supposes, but “Oppression”.
Instead, Leader interprets Blake’s world in which contraries are both necessary and equal as somehow similar to Matte Blanco’s representation of the symmetrical unconscious, a world of dull dense symmetries (“this symmetrical thickness”) in which “everything’s become the same” and where all opposites disappear: “it’s a world of total peace, and it’s also a place of catatonia”, where the Lion and the Lamb are one.
Again, this interpretation of the unbearable deadness of infinity may be a projection of the rationalizing mind. Interestingly, Leader herself remarks that as the “symmetrical thickness” of the unconscious unfolds through the action of therapy – and at this point we were invited to unfold our pieces of paper, to illustrate how this unravels and opens up itself, through the saviour of “logic” (or “bi-logic”, as Matte Blanco puts it) – the form of apparently “asymmetrical” consciousness increasingly becomes like “a sort of computer mind”, characterized by linear processing, and ultimately “without any feeling at all”.
So I think there is a tension here: post-Freudian psychoanalysis would like to see this unfolding, this therapy, as a positive attempt at imposing “order” on to the apparently chaotic and threatening “unconscious”, by bringing it into consciousness, into light, into order, (“where id was, there ego shall be”, as Freud famously summarised the goal of his form of rationalised psychoanalysis), whereas Blake might challenge some of these assumptions about adaption to the “reality principle”, and point out the analytic mind’s own role or complicity in creating mental illness by calling these potentially liberating disturbances “disorders” in the first place. As R.D. Laing once remarked, it is in some ways the doctor who creates the patient by calling himself the doctor (The Divided Self).
Similarly, Rycroft suggests that therapy works, but not by imposing consciousness and order: “the aim of psycho-analytical treatment”, he noted, “is not primarily to make the unconscious conscious, nor to widen or strengthen the ego, but to re-establish the connexion between dissociated psychic functions, so that the patient ceases to feel that there is an inherent antagonism between his imaginative and adaptive capacities”. Groddeck made a similar point, that what heals the patient is not the doctor or the analyst but the “id” of the patient – which is a disarming honesty given the fees the former often charge (The Book of the It).
The Four Fold Psyche
Carol Leader’s talk also unfolded many extraordinary and thought-provoking similitudes and correspondences between Blake’s work and that of Jungian psychoanalysts and depth psychologists. She drew intriguing parallels between the need to recognize and face one’s “Spectre” (in Blake’s works) and confront one’s “Shadow” (in Jung terms); she explored the often striking and pregnant correlations between Blake’s “Emanations” and Jung’s “animas”; and made suggestive connections between the fourfold psychologies of both writers. In this, Leader has provided an immensely valuable perspective to explore these correspondences, and to trace these threads.
But the differences are also notable, and perhaps equally valuable, and one area where Jung and Blake seem to diverge quite profoundly is that concerning the “Selfhood”. As Tim Heath acutely pointed out in his introduction, one of Blake’s key themes is the “annihilation of the Selfhood”: this is neither an easy concept to discuss nor an easy process to undergo, but it is central to his work and remains one of his most provocative and challenging aspects. There were questions at the end of the talk which pointed to the possible tension here between Blake and the work of post-Freudian psychoanalysts. Responding to the query that both Freud and Jung seem to want to actually strengthen the ego, Leader made an interesting distinction between a “good” or healthy ego, and what Winnicott termed a “false self”. This distinction may be valid but it is also complex and ambiguous: what Winnicott terms the “False Self” is in some ways very similar to what Freud termed the “normal” ego (a protective, socialized mechanism or mask – “the mask, which conceals this subtle reservation of all control under intellectual rationalizations”, as Freudian psychoanalyst Joan Riviere put it).
This “protective” sense of self is in fact strikingly evocative of what Blake terms the “Covering Cherub” – the egoic “Self” that acts both to guard “eternity” and to stop us from entering it. Blake elsewhere calls this false self an “incrustation”: “This is a false Body: an Incrustation over my Immortal/Spirit; a Selfhood, which must be put off & annihilated alway”, and which he associates with “the Spectre; the Reasoning Power in Man”. Indeed, Freud himself suggests such an identification of the orthodox ego and the “false self” in his late theory of “the ego as constituted in its nucleus by a series of alienating identifications”. As Adam Phillips has noted, in this he produced a theory of “the Ego, which does bear some comparison with the False Self”.
Jung’s own adherence to the principle of self was even more problematic and evident, both in his own life and in his analytical thought. As Edinger (one of his most able and influential proponents) explains, the purpose of Jungian analytical psychology is for patients “to learn how to be more effectively selfish and more effective in the use of their personal power”: “What is required is not the extirpation of selfishness … but rather that it be wedded to consciousness and thus becomes effective”. Jung believed in modifying one’s own personal self in order to bring it in alignment with the greater “Self”, with a capital “S”.
But this greater Self in Jung’s work correlates strongly with what Blake also termed “the Great Selfhood”, also known, he notes, as “Satan” (‘Satan’ being Blake’s term for the rationalizing Ego, considered as a State rather than as an individual). This identification is only intensified further by Blake’s equation of this “Great Selfhood Satan” with mandala-like geometric symbols, such as those used in the alchemical imagery so beloved of Jung:
I am your Rational Power O Albion & that Human Form
You call Divine, is but a Worm seventy inches long …
So spoke the Spectre to Albion. he is the Great Selfhood
Satan: Worshipd as God by the Mighty Ones of the Earth
Having a white Dot calld a Center from which branches out
A Circle in continual gyrations
According to Blake, all belief systems which worship a “God” in the form of a mathematical or geometrical pattern or symmetrical mandala, therefore, are worshipping not the true divinity, but the other “God”, the “Angel of the Divine Presence” as Blake refers to him, and who, as he says, is often mistaken for the real “God”. This mandala-like attribution to the “Great Selfhood” was noticed by Jung, who acutely commented that “one might perhaps regard the mandala as a reflection of the egocentric nature of consciousness”, and its God is a white Dot in a geometrical, perfect Circle. I raise these points here simply because I feel more needs to be said about this subject, given the pathological nature of the contemporary ego (as Eckhart Tolle has eloquently suggested), and the lack of serious criticism or debate about this within the psychoanalytic community.
In exploring these correlations and drawing these connections between Blake’s approach and that of modern psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, Carol Leader has instigated a thought-provoking, wide-ranging, and immensely valuable discussion that will I think have implications for both Blakean research and psychoanalytic practice. There will inevitably be disagreements – “without contraries is no progression”, and opposition genuinely is true friendship – but out of the discussion that she has initiated, both therapeutic practice and our understanding of Blake’s pioneering approach can be significantly enriched and developed.
The asymmetries between the two approaches may also turn out to be as interesting and telling as the symmetries. Leader is an actor and presenter as well as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and looking at her images of Blakean visions and Jungian mandalas during her Blake talk I was reminded of one of the much-loved programmes that she presented in the 1970s, in which there were also mandala-like ‘windows’ (famously, there was an arched, a square, and a round window) which the camera would slowly zoom through into a short outside film. (She discusses these windows, and the programme, in her fascinating chapter on Play School in the recent book Television and Psychoanalysis, in the context of Winnicott’s theory of “transitional objects” and how children’s television programmes form part of our personal “genera”). These were always rather magical moments in the programme, mysteriously suggesting that television screens were not simply something that you looked at, but which you could go through. In this, perhaps they resemble the Blakean images that she threw on the walls of the room in the Freud Museum, where apparently Freud once slept.
Roderick Tweedy is 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). For the video recording of Carol Leader’s talk, please click here.