The Golden Compasses: William Blake and Freemasonry

The Single Eye, the Dividers, and the Pyramid: Understanding the God of This World 

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Introduction

Blake has always attracted those who are interested in the esoteric, the occult, and the deeper or more spiritual systems of thought. In his own time (1757-1827), Freemasonry was one of the most prominent and progressive of these systems – its members included Goethe, Mozart, Voltaire, and many of the key architects of the American and French revolutions (Benjamin Franklin, George Washington; Lafayette, Marat, Danton, and Robespierre), which have therefore often been seen as essentially Masonic projects. 

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Blake and the Tree of Good and Evil, by Erik McCarthy

Going Beyond Good & Evil: Restoring Eden in the Brain 

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Introduction: Blake’s Laocoön and the serpents of Morality 

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The original Laocoön. In Blake’s reading, the serpents overcoming the priest represent the twin Powers or programs of “Good” and “Evil”, which eventually suffocate him, and his vision of God.

The question, and questioning, of morality, is central to one of Blake’s most iconic and futuristic images, the Laocoön. Even though Blake’s best-known works often combine image and text in a single plate, the Laocoön stands apart as the only one to be centered around a faithful copy of a piece of antique sculpture, a fact which attests to its hold on his imagination.

Another arresting feature of the plate is the atypical density of its textual matter, composed in at least two distinct scripts and three different languages, and the seemingly arbitrary, discontinuous manner of its arrangement on the page. Julia Wright observes, “the design recalls a jigsaw puzzle more than a page from an emblem book, graffiti more than an engraving, and marginal annotations more than aphorisms on art” . 

It resembles no other work by Blake, and he left no instructions on how his wide-ranging statements should be organized, or in what order they should be read. Without an obvious starting point, one could try a conventional approach, beginning with the first line of horizontal text at the top of the page: “Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on but War only”; but then one could just as well start at the bottom, with the caption identifying the three figures as “הי & his two sons Satan & Adam.” Either way, the reader is sure not to get far before having to stop and decide where to begin again; and from there one choice seems as good as another.

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Narcissus 2.0: Left Brain Technology and Civilisation, by Marshall McLuhan

How the phonetic alphabet drove the Fall into Division

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 Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is widely considered to be “the most important book ever written on communication,” and is famous for introducing the concepts of the “global village” and “the medium is the message”. But it’s really much more than even that – it’s a wholesale critique of how technology, from the radical development of the phonetic alphabet by mercantile and bureaucratic Phoenician traders in the 7th-8th century BC (“by Phoenician business men”), to the dramatic impact of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century, and the even greater impacts and consequences of radio, television, and the internet (by modern “business men”) in the 20th-21st centuries, has radically changed our way of being, our way of thinking, our way of relating, and even our way of feeling, remaking our very bodies – as he observes in this compelling article – in its own image.

McLuhan’s arguments are remarkable, not only for their own acute perceptions and analysis of the nature of media, and his striking framing of this development in terms of the left and right hemispheres, but also for the light they shine on Blake’s in many ways similar and equally radical critique of what is often called “civilisation”. McLuhan frequently references Blake, as someone who he felt recognised these changes and cognitive shifts and really understood the nature of “media”. As he acutely observes, Blake saw Newton and Locke and others as hyponitized Narcissus types quite unable to meet the challenge of mechanism.

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Blake and the Zodiac, by Rod Tweedy

Here Comes the Sun King: Forging the Template of Solar Consciousness

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Introduction: The Forms and the Archetypes of Being

There’s a fascinating tradition of thought that links early formulations of the twelve aspects or ‘faces’ of the Zodiac with Plato’s esoteric theory of the Forms, the fundamental geometries and patterns which generate our world, and which casts an intriguing light on the original meaning of the Zodiacal Signs and their significance.

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William Blake and The Body of Vision, by Rosalind Atkinson

Vision and De-Vision: Sexuality, Slavery, and the Fall of Perception

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Introduction to William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion

This essay examines how almost the entire critical discussion of Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion enacts the exact dynamics (which we could anachronistically label ‘rape culture’) that the poem itself dramatises in order to dissect. I hope it can be of interest beyond Blake enthusiasts to anyone wanting to understand if being interested in ‘how we perceive’ affects our political and social ideas and positions, and to anyone interested in how dualistic ways of seeing (encompassing transcendence and materialism equally) abuse our bodies and the world.

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William Blake on Self and Soul, by Laura Quinney

William Blake and the illusion of Selfhood

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Introduction: Blake the Radical Psychologist

It has always been clear that William Blake was both a political radical and a radical psychologist. The most illuminating interpretations of Blake— by Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Brian Wilkie, and Mary Lynn Johnson, to name a few— emphasize his subtlety and innovation in the understanding of human psychology.

This article addresses what Blake said about a specific aspect of psychology— a reflexive aspect, deeper and stranger in itself than thought and feeling— the subject’s experience of its own interiority. What is the self’s relation to itself?

Blake thought that under certain conditions, it was bound to be anxious and lonely. That is, he thought that if the self is identified with the main consciousness or “I,” especially the “I” as a center of rationality, it will feel solitary and insecure.

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Creative Imagination and Mystical Experience in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabî, by Henry Corbin

God as Imagination: the Image and the Imaginer in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabî

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Introduction: Ibn ‘Arabî and Islamic mysticism

Screen Shot 2021-04-21 at 12.13.24According to Professor Henry Corbin, one of the 20th century’s most prolific scholars of Islamic mysticism, Ibn ‘Arabî (1165–1240) was “a spiritual genius who was not only one of the greatest masters of Sufism in Islam, but also one of the great mystics of all time.”

Imagination (khayâl), as Corbin has shown, plays a major role in Ibn ‘Arabî’s writings. In the Openings, for example, he says about it, “After the knowledge of the divine names and of self-disclosure and its all-pervadingness, no pillar of knowledge is more complete”.

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William Blake, Nick Cave, and the Origins of Creativity

Nick Cave on William Blake: Where does Creativity come from? 

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The Australian musician and songwriter Nick Cave, responding on his website ‘The Red Hand Files‘ to the question ‘How do you know when you have written something worthwhile? What is your process?’, remarks that Blake’s insights into the nature of Imagination and the imaginative process were key to him in this:

In Issue #87 I wrote about my favourite line from the New Testament: ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained standing there in front of the tomb.’ To me, this line seems to sum up, among other things, the process of songwriting. William Blake said ‘Jesus is the imagination’ and these words have always resonated with me. They have bound together the notion of Jesus and the creative act, and lifted it into the supernatural sphere.

The moment of the cave.

This is a surely a fascinating observation, and connection. Why particularly that line from the Bible, that stood out for him so much, amid so many other striking lines? What was it about the image of the tomb, or the sense of both the possibility of emptiness and of emergence, the moment of waiting or expectation, that so resonated with him?  Was it some sort of analogy between the resurrected tomb and the cave of creativity, of ‘Imagination’? Thankfully, Cave himself provided some further illumination:

A large part of the process of songwriting is spent waiting in a state of attention before the unknown. We stand in vigil, waiting for Jesus to emerge from the tomb — the divine idea, the beautiful idea — and reveal Himself.

Cave’s sense that there is something ‘transcendent’ about our creative moments and experiences is very striking, and very unexpected in our commercialised, cynical, post-modern age. And also unexpected in an artist not writing from any orthodox religious perspective (“I’m not religious, and I’m not a Christian,” he once remarked, “but I do reserve the right to believe in the possibility of a god.”) Cave is aware that there is something profoundly strange about creativity, something mysterious (or “supernatural” as he puts it) about the process by which songs, and images, and poetry, emerge out of, apparently, thin air. Cave suggests that Blake is right to connect them not to material or mundane processes in this world but to something altogether deeper and more mysterious.

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Mysterium Coniunctionis: Jung, Blake and the alchemy of the Brain, by Rod Tweedy

The Philosopher’s Stone and the integration of the Brain

Introduction

Mysterium Coniunctionis was Jung’s last great work. He was engaged on it for more than a decade, from 1941-1954, and finished it in his eightieth year. The book therefore occupies, as one critic observed, “the culminating position in his writings” (The Collected Works of C.G. Jung). In it he compellingly links the practices of alchemy and psychology through a profound analysis of symbolism and an examination of their shared ideas of the integration and ‘union of opposites’. As he notes, “Not only does this modern psychological discipline give us the key to the secrets of alchemy, but, conversely, alchemy provides the psychology of the unconscious with a meaningful historical basis.”

It’s a fascinating, illuminating, and at times breath-taking study, which draws not only on a wide number of alchemical texts but also on Kabbalistic ideas and symbols such as Adam Kadmon (Primordial Man), the Sefirot, and the union of the ‘Holy One’ and his bride. According to Jung, humankind has historically moved from a condition in which it projects the contents of its unconscious onto the world and heavens to one in which, as a result of a total identification with the rational powers of the ego, it has not only withdrawn its vivifying projections from the world but also fails to recognize or understand the archetypes of the unconscious mind.

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Blake, Misunderstood? Review of Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead’

Josephine A. McQuail reviews Olga Tokarczuk’s award-winning Blakean novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones. Riverhead Books, 2009; translation © 2018)

Images from Spoor, the 2017 Polish film directed by Agnieszka Holland, adapted from the novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. Above: Agnieszka Mandat and Miroslave Krobot (Photo: Palk Robert/Next Film); Below: poster for the film (Photo: (WP:NFCC#4).

Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019 (the prize was delayed, due to various scandals involving some members of the Nobel Prize Committee). Her 2007 novel Flights was translated into English finally in 2018, winning the Man Booker Prize, and paving the way for the Nobel Prize.

Tokarczuk’s novel Flights won the Man Booker Prize in 2018

Tokarczuk speculated, “Sometimes I wonder how my life would have worked out if my books had been translated into English sooner … because English is the language that’s spoken worldwide, and when a book appears in English it is made universal, it becomes a global publication” (quoted in Armitstead). 

As anyone who has read Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and remembers “The Proverbs of Hell” will recognize, the title of Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel is a quote from William Blake – or technically a paraphrase, as the actual quote is “Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead.”

Not to give anything away, but the quote has a lot of relevance to the plot of the novel, as it turns out. Tokarczuk’s protagonist Janina is an elderly woman who has a passion for horoscopes; a skill that comes into play when her neighbors turn up dead.  She lives full time in a country setting in rural Poland bordering on the Czech Republic (as Olga Tokarczuk herself does).  She lives on a plateau, with harsh weather, and pointedly, calls it “the world of Urizen” (p. 56) (Urizen in Blake, or “Your Reason” as it is sometimes pronounced, is a cold, repressive force).

Each of the seventeen chapters has an epigraph by William Blake – quotes (as vaguely indicated in the Author’s Note) taken from “the Proverbs of Hell, Auguries of Innocence, The Mental Traveller and the letters of William Blake” (p. 275). The misattribution of “The Proverbs of Hell” (and not Marriage of Heaven and Hell) is puzzling, and also the lack of mention of The Book of Urizen, which is specifically discussed and quoted in the novel (“What demon hath formed this adominable void?”, p. 71). Like the misquote of the Proverb of Hell in the title, are these subtle signals that we have not the “real” Blake alluded to here, but a “filtered” one?

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