Giving Error a Form: The role of the Unconscious Imagination
Introduction: The Myth of Creation
According to Blake, the materialization of Error, or the “Creation” as its popularly called, is the result of a dissociative split within consciousness itself, emanating from the radical alienation of the rationalizing and “objecting” (or objectifying) portion of consciousness from Being, perceiver from perceived (“it is the Reasoning Power/ An Abstract objecting power,” Jerusalem 10:13-14).
In mythology, this division or dissociation is embodied in the story of the separation of “Eve” from “Adam”. These aspects, as the Book of Genesis carefully notes, were originally portions or “likenesses” of ‘God’.
In the day that God created humankind (“adam”), in the likeness of God made he him; Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created. (Book of Genesis 5: 2-3)
As a result of this emerging state of Urizenic or “Spectre” psychology, the abstracted, instrumental ego perceives itself as being ‘in here’ and the world as ‘out there’, and it also then perceives the externalized world as being ‘natural’ (that is, beyond its imaginative control, and determining the now “passive” psyche) rather than as imaginative, the perceived form of its particular mode of experiencing reality.
But like all Errors, this externalized sense of world and reality has a positive part to play in the eventual liberation and self-realization of Man: it is an attempt to heal the internal and traumatized nature of the divide psyche. “Error is Created Truth is Eternal Error or Creation will be Burned Up & then & not till then Truth or Eternity will appear It is Burnt up the Moment Men cease to behold it” (LJ 95).
Nature disappears, or is consumed, when individual forms of consciousness cease to think of it as existing ‘outside’ of (their) being, or as temporal and finite.
It might be helpful to think of this process of giving Error a form, or what in the Book of Genesis is termed ‘creation’, as similar to that of producing ‘symptoms’: in many diseases and psychological disorders, for example, the body also gives error a form – it ‘materializes’ an inner dysfunction or disturbance so that this dysfunction can be made manifest or visible, and thence recognized. In that sense, seeing becomes believing.
By giving form to internal processes, the body spontaneously generates an extraordinarily sophisticated ‘language’ (one which seems to operate above and beyond ordinary consciousness) with which to understand its own processes. This seems to lie at the heart of what we call symbolism. Indeed, there seems to be a profound connection between symbols and symptoms.
The World as Symbol
As the great German psychoanalyst Georg Groddeck suggested in his revolutionary psychological work The Book of the It (a work which profoundly influenced Freud’s concept of the “id”), in many neurological and physical diseases the ‘symptom’ is both “a vital expression of the human organism” and “a significant symbol of the powers that rule” the patient.
In this sense, through the operations of the bodily or primary processes, “the sick man himself creates the disease”: the disease is a way of translating or manifesting an internal dysfunction, and as such allows for the possibility of recognition and cure. “[T]he sickness is also a symbol, a representation of something going on within, a drama staged by the It, by means of which it announces what it could not say with the tongue”.
Symptom and symbol become almost interchangeable in this world. Indeed, Groddeck often refers to “the symbol-making It”, observing that “the It cannot help but symbolize”. Symbols or symptoms seem to be subconciously generated through the “It”, just as they are in dreams. And perhaps for similar ends. The ever-increasing catalogue of symptoms and conditions to be found in contemporary diagnostic manuals are testimony to and indicators of the legion of ‘forms’ through which the primary processes within contemporary man chooses to assert and ex-press the dysfunctional nature and processes of the present egoic, hyper-rationalising pysche, as Blake also suggests through his work.
They are the litanies of a free-wheeling left hemispheric world: the compulsive, habitual, and repetitive symptoms that are so characteristic of the dysfunctional rationalizing Spectre, in Blake’s terms. Groddeck himself points to the egoic cause and nature of many of these complexes, as well as the innovative aspect of his treatment of them: “The new thing is merely the point of attack in the treatment, the symptom which appears to me to be there in all circumstances, the “I” ”:
My treatment, in so far as it is different from what it used to be, consists of the attempt to make conscious the unconscious complexes of the “I,” to do this systematically and with all the cunning and all the strength at my command.
The exact nature of this process of spontaneous or immediate symbol-making within the body is currently unknown, he remarks with refreshing candour. He gives it the enigmatic word “Es” (which is usually translated as “the It”, or the “id”) to denote its unseen and hidden nature, hidden that is from the externalizing and objectifying gaze of the ego. “I hold the view that man is animated by the Unknown, that there is within him an “Es,” an “It,” some wondrous force which directs both what he himself does, and what happens to him”.
It is in many ways unfortunate that Groddeck’s “Es” is often translated as “It”, as in our languages “It” usually implies something impersonal, external, and separate – the very opposite of what Groddeck is trying to get at. Philosopher Martin Buber, for example, famously contrasted the impersonal “It” stance, which denies relationship, to the “Thou” stance, noting that treating other people as if they were just objects (turning them into an “It”) is one of the worst things you can do to another human being. In that sense, Groddeck’s Es might better be translated as a profoundly inter-relational “Thou” – which would certainly be an interesting alternative for what Freud perhaps rather coldly and misleadingly simply termed “the Unconscious”.
Es more properly denotes the profound encounter with an “other”, with the “unknown” – whatever that might be – and which, as psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist notes, is the fundamental quality or feature of what defines the right hemisphere, the side of our minds (as Allan N. Schore has shown) that is directly biologically correlated with the unconscious (Groddeck’s “id” or “Es”). It is the one also in touch with fundamental reality, as contrasted with the virtual, self-enclosed rationalising world of the Urizenic left brain. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of the right-hemisphere, McGilchrist remarks, is precisely its openness to the “Other”, and it is in relation to the Other, he suggests, that the brain hemispheres essentially differ:
I believe the essential difference between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere is that the right hemisphere pays attention to the Other, whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, with which it sees itself in profound relation. (McGilchrist, 2009)
The operations of this animating “Unknown” within the individual, as described by both Groddeck and McGilchrist, are curiously evocative of the strange planetary surface of ‘Solaris’ in Tarkovsky’s 1972 film: “The It is always in eruption”, “It bubbles and boils, and casts up now this bit of experience, now that” :
[F]or it is the unknown It, not the conscious intelligence, which is responsible for various diseases. They do not invade us as enemies from the outside, but are purposeful creations of our microcosmos, our It.
He therefore cannot point directly to what this “It” is. To point to it would be to put it ‘outside’ again. So instead, he says, he tells “stories” – case histories in reality – which might help illustrate what this peculiar animating power might be. It is his job as a physician, he adds, to listen to these stories. He has no ‘power’ to cure or treat the ‘patient’, he notes – only the “It” within the patient can do that. This is a rare modesty amongst psychoanalysts.
Groddeck is equally radical in his insistence that “A sick man wishes to be sick”. According to this non-egoic way of interpreting disease, the ‘Id’ of the man wishes to be ill – or rather, he observes, a sick Id produces a sick body:
Illness has a purpose; it has to resolve the conflict, to repress it, or to prevent what is already repressed from entering consciousness; it has to punish a sin against a commandment … Whoever breaks an arm has either sinned or wished to commit a sin with that arm, perhaps murder, perhaps theft or masturbation; whoever grows blind, desires no more to see, has sinned with his eyes or wishes to sin with them; whoever gets hoarse has a secret and dares not tell it aloud.
The modern Groddeck: Canadian physician Gabor Maté in many ways extends and develops Groddeck’s original holistic, non-reductive, understanding of our inner life, and of mental distress and illness. As he notes in the above talk: “At this point, the question comes up, ‘are we blaming the person for the disease? Are we saying that they’re responsible for their illness?’ The answer is no, and the answer is yes. No, we’re not blaming anybody; yes, they’re responsible. But ‘responsible’ here doesn’t mean a sense of blame; it simply means that how they live their lives has a lot to do with their illness. And if we bring in the issue of responsibility, we’re actually empowering the client. Why we’re not blaming people though is because these patterns are completely unconscious” (at 36.30 in).
This is clearly very similar to the unorthodox, ‘psychosomatic’ perception of disease that is sometimes found in the Gospels. In Groddeck’s example, the symptom is both a “symbol” and a bodily correction or manifestation of some prohibitive (usually moralistic or egoic) false reasoning: the illness takes upon itself this repression. And the purpose of the ‘doctor’ or analyst here is simply to receive the story of the illness:
The success of the treatment is not determined by what we prescribe, according to our lights, but by what the It of the sick man makes of our prescriptions. If this were not so, every broken limb that was correctly set and bandaged would have to heal. If there were really so great a difference between the doings of a surgeon and those of an internist, a neurologist or a quack, one would rightly boast of one’s successes and be ashamed of one’s failures. But one has no such right. We do it, but we have no right to do it.
In a striking reversal of the usual interpretation of how psychoanalysis works, Groddeck concludes that “I was confronted with the strange fact that I was not treating the patient, but that the patient was treating me; or, to translate it into my language, the It of this fellow being tried so to transform my It, did in fact so transform it, that it came to be useful for its purpose”. This prefigures Laing’s similar observation of the patient-doctor relationship: that it is the doctor who constitutes the patient by calling himself the doctor.
The Covering Cherub: Revealing the true nature of Ego
Such interpretations are difficult to accept. Groddeck is aware of this, and explains why: they are difficult to accept because of the ego. The ego is reluctant to concede that it is not only secondary in these processes, but frequently the cause of the illness/symptoms itself. The reluctance of the patient’s ego to recognize this, he observes, is usually mirrored by the equal reluctance of the physician also to concede this.
As he notes, it tends to undermine both the status, and the fees, usually accredited to the ‘doctor’ in these situations. “[I]n spite of my firm belief in the all-powerfulness of the It, I am still a physician, that in spite of my conviction of the determination of all my thoughts and deeds by forces lying outside consciousness, I nevertheless always continue to treat the sick, and act before myself and others as if I were responsible for the success or failure of my treatment. The essential quality of man is conceit and overestimation of self”.
As a doctor, therefore, he recognizes that his ego is often the very thing that prevents him from helping the ‘id’ of the patient: “Even to get this amount of insight was difficult, for you will understand that it absolutely reversed my position in regard to the patient. It was no longer important to give him instructions, to prescribe for him what I considered right, but to change in such a way that he could use me”. This standing back and letting go of the ego within the physician seems to correspond with and reflect the necessary process of healing within the patient. “It seems to me that the hardest thing in life is to let oneself go, to wait for the voice of the It in oneself or another, and to follow that. But it is worth while. One gradually becomes a child again, and you know, ‘Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’”
Fundamentally, everything that goes on in a man is done by the It. And it is good that it is so. And it is also good, at least once in a lifetime, to stand quietly by, and as far as possible to give oneself up to the consideration of how things happen outside our knowledge or our power.
One wonders what might have happened to psychoanalysis had it taken Groddeck’s route, instead of Freud’s dissociative and psychoneurotic royal road. It is interesting that Freud mentions Groddeck in The Ego and the Id (1923), crediting him with first analyzing the nature of this “Id”, which he then re-formulated in his own theory of the unconscious. However, for Freud, as Laurence Durrell pointed out, “the ego is supreme” whereas for Groddeck “the ego appeared as a contemptible mask fathered on us by the intellect, which, by imposing upon the human being, persuaded him that he was motivated by forces within the control of his conscious mind”.
In Blake’s framework, it is the imagination rather than the “It” that “gives Error a form”, but both point to the same primary processes within the “Imagination or the Divine Body in Every Man” (On Berkley). For Blake, as for Groddeck, Rycroft, McGilchrist and Tolle, it is the imaginative processes of the body, rather than the rationalizing mind, that are primary and indeed “divine”. “Man Brings All that he has or Can have Into the World with him. Man is Born Like a Garden ready Planted & Sown This World is too poor to produce one Seed (Blake, On Reynolds).
As Groddeck noted in his examination of the subconscious processes through which the “id” operates, “everything that goes on in a man is done by the It”, the primary and imaginative power. Blake repeatedly returns to the processes through which this secret “Thou” or “Garden” materializes itself. These are for the most part completely hidden to the Urizenic ‘conscious’ mind, which is alternately fascinated by them (and will pay millions of dollars to “possess”) and terrified of them, demonizing them as lustful and sinful, or else as pre-determined and mechanical. The egoic conscious mind thinks that something ‘outside’ produces these forms, these symbols, and in a sense it is right: having alienated itself from existence, the Urizenic mind experiences most things as separate from itself and therefore it interprets them in terms of determinism (genetics) or mechanics (automatic processes). As a result it has no idea that the imagination, far from being a marginal and unreliable aspect of being human, is actually what the ancient Poets called ‘God’, the continuing and eternal forming agency within all Being. As Paul said of this this profound, sacred, agency, “in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17: 28).
The Human Imagination
Because what is materialized in this world are “forms” or images, Blake ascribes the production of these forms to the formative power, the “imaginative” or creative power, which humans also experience operating within themselves. “The Nature of Visionary Fancy or Imagination is very little Known”, Blake notes, “& the Eternal nature & permanence of its ever Existent Images is considerd as less permanent than the things of Vegetative & Generative Nature” (VLJ).
It seems to the rational “eye” that it is “Nature” that produces all of these forms and images; as we have seen, this is because of the alienating processes within the dissociated left hemisphere, which objectifies its own experience and maps them onto a narcissistic model of its own programs (isolated, linear, mechanical, abstractly existing, and so on).
But even so, the conscious mind is aware that there is an unreality or impermanence about all of the ‘external’ forms that it encounters, and that moreover it cannot ultimately extricate itself from the apparent ‘objects’ that it desperately wants to believe are ‘out there’.
In quantum mechanics, the ‘observer paradox’ presents profound problems for classical notions of objectivity: thus, in the famous “Schrodinger cat” thought experiment, the observer becomes ‘entangled’ (Verschränkung) in the process of observation itself. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, the human act of measurement actively alters the state of the system being measured. This is seemingly another case of the “Escher’s hands” situation that McGilchrist so eloquently discusses in relation to bihemispheric lateralization (The Master and his Emissary), whereby both aspects of something bring the other into being: “Our attention is responsive to the world, but the world is responsive to our attention. The situation presents a paradox for linear analysis, like M.C. Escher’s hand that draws the hand that draws the hand …” (2009, p. 134).
But the conscious mind is also aware that the particular forms which we experience (so-called ‘matter’, ie. the subject material of perception) are somehow less real than their underlying generative or formative processes. “[T]he Oak dies as well as the Lettuce but Its Eternal Image & Individuality never dies. but renews by its seed” (VLJ). The conscious mind does not know how this happens and perhaps would rather not think about it. The process seems to lie well outside of its box. But Blake turns our face to look at it:
This world of Imagination is the World of Eternity it is the Divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the Vegetated body This World <of Imagination> is Infinite & Eternal whereas the world of Generation or Vegetation is Finite & [for a small moment] Temporal There Exist in that Eternal World the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature (VLJ).
This perhaps sounds at first sight like Plato’s theory of Forms, but in fact Blake’s and Plato’s view of Forms point in completely opposite directions.
Thus for Plato, the particular ‘form’ in front of him, for example a tree, is an unreal and degraded ‘copy’ of an abstract ‘idea’ of the tree which the rational mind possesses, and this ‘idea’ within our heads is itself a copy of an ‘ideal’ Tree, in whose Form our idea of the tree is made. The tree in front of him is therefore at least two removes away from the “Real” Tree. It is not hard to see why Plato has been viewed as a rather left brain philosopher.
The ontological implications of Plato’s theory are catastrophic both for embodied living and for the human individual, who is left feeling completely alienated in front of a ghostly shadow of the shadow of a real tree. This is Plato’s “reality principle”. It is based on a model of reality in which the body is a prison for the rational mind.
For Blake, on the other hemisphere, the particular tree in front of him is the real tree. And the more particular it is, the realer it becomes. “To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit” he affirmed, noting that all knowledge was, strictly speaking, “Particular” in this sense.
Plato’s ‘general’ or abstract Tree, is an attempt to deny not only the reality of being, but the immediacy of human awareness. “To Generalize is to be an Idiot”, Blake therefore countered: “General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess” (On Reynolds) – an observation that would quietly put to bed many a contemporary television programme.
Throughout his work Blake contrasts this rationalizing, generalizing mode of perception and epistemology with an imaginative and bodily, or ‘grounded’ one. It was an attempt to restore reality to this world. “Knowledge is not by deduction but Immediate by Perception or Sense at once Christ addresses himself to the Man not to his Reason Plato did not bring Life & Immortality to Light Jesus only did this” (On Berkeley).
Indeed, the difference between the “rational” and the “real” mode of perception repeatedly returns to these two key figures, Plato and Jesus. For Blake, what Plato does is to teach ‘Doubt’, a distrust and indeed dismissal of the actual world with which our senses are acquainted, and which our imaginative perceptions realize – an ontological scepticism that is found in both empirical and rationalist schools of philosophy. Such philosophy originates in “Reason” and is addressed to the “Reason”: to the left hemisphere in Man.
This form of knowledge may be adequate for manipulating the world and constructing closed systems of analytics, but it fools itself if it thinks that its self-enclosed abstract world corresponds in any meaningful way to “reality”. As McGilchrist notes, the left hemisphere delivers a useful, but less truthful version of reality: “I do not only mean that the right hemisphere starts the process of bringing the world into being. I mean that it does so because it is more in touch with reality, and that it has not just temporal or developmental priority, but ontological supremacy”.
it is in reality the right hemisphere that sees more, that is more in touch with reality, and is more intellectually sophisticated …The left hemisphere does not understand things, so much as process them: it is the right hemisphere that is the basis of understanding. (Rowson & McGilchrist, 2017)
It is precisely because the right hemisphere is “more in touch with reality” than the analytic left, that its knowledge is more real. “Jesus considered Imagination to be the Real Man”, observed Blake, and everywhere in his thought the figure of Jesus stands as an incarnation of the right hemisphere’s imaginative and “ontological supremacy”. “What Jesus came to Remove was the Heathen or Platonic Philosophy which blinds the Eye of Imagination The Real Man” (To Berkley).
Blake liked the human imagination not because it was fun, or allowed him to write poetry, though these are fine and certainly part of its appeal, but because it is the faculty that actually apprehends, and participates in, reality. To be imaginative is to make things more real, more realised. And “[T]o the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself” (Letter to Trusler, 23 August 1799). In this new or “integrated” world, what you ‘real’-ize, is what is real. “Being one with life is being one with Now. You then realize that you don’t live your life, but life lives you. Life is the dancer, and you are the dance” (Tolle, A New Earth, 2005).