Charles Dickens and the Manufacture of Christmas
Introduction: Unpacking the Myth of Christmas
When we think of Christmas, we often think of the glowing celebrations and colourful conjuring-up of deep midwinter festivals and festivities, of the re-telling of a story that has gone back 2,000 years to the birth of a child in a manger, under a burning star, or even further back into time – to the glimmerings and Götterdämmerungs of much older, more ancestral pagan celebrations and rituals of solstice suns and the promise of the rebirth of the year, that make us feel somehow that we’re participating in some deep magic, some atavistic world of connection and history, as we cosy ourselves back in our sofas, turn on the TV, and pour another glass of mulled wine.
Unfolding Emissaries: Angels and Devils as Dialectic
Just as Blake believed that angels are inter-relational and can interpenetrate many dimensions, a part of the divine fabric that constitutes human imagination and an extended field of gravity-like attraction and connection (“betweenness”), this piece weaves together the thought of three different but interrelated Blake commentators on angels – Mia Forbes, S. Foster Damon, and Northrop Frye – thus hoping to build, in a sense, the wings of mutual communion and flight, ones which constitute the true or ‘best’ sense of the angelic in Blake: wings enfolded within wings.
“Angel” is the Greek word for “messenger” or “emissary”. Blake used the word in the specific sense only once, in expanding Matthew 1:20, where the Angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, bidding him marry Mary. In the Bible it is not always easy to be sure whether God himself may not be intended by the word. Blake combined the two: “I heard his voice in my sleep & his Angel in my dream” (Jerusalem). But anything that speaks of Eternity may be an angel; thus the tiny skylark is “a Mighty Angel” (Milton: 12; cf.L’Allegro).
“Every man’s leading propensity ought to be call’d his leading Virtue & his good Angel” (Blake, On Lavater). Blake had one (see ‘A Dream’, Songs of Innocence; or “The Angel that presided o’er my birth”, from Blake’s Notebook 1808-26); Milton had one (Milton); also the unfortunate heroine of ‘The Angel’ (Songs of Experience). Angels guard children and give them sleep (‘Night’, and ‘A Cradle Song’, Songs of Innocence).
Images of Transfiguration: Trasumanar and Transformation in Paradise
Introduction: Inside Blake’s Body
Dante’s journey in the otherworld has introduced generations of readers to the consequences of the divine judgment, the architecture of sin and salvation, the moral condemnation of materialism, and the pilgrim’s encounter with God. God is the “somma luce” (“eternal beam”), which cannot be grasped by means of human understanding. The blinding light of redemption thus remains a mystery untold in the Commedia.
Ahriman and Ormazd: The Creation of Urizen and the Billateral Mind
There is considerable evidence that Blake was influenced by Zoroastrian and Mithraic iconography in several illuminations for his and other’s poetry. When one compares the figures of god and daeva (diabolical spirit) with Blake’s drawings and engravings, the sheer number of parallels argues convincingly for some form of influence. Were there no other data than this to prove that Blake may have incorporated elements of representations of the bull-slaying ritual, of Arimanes or Ahriman, god of dark, and Ormazd, god of light, into his visual art, the evidence would seem persuasive.
Countering the Beast and the Whore: Revolution as Revelation
In February 1979, the great American poet and writer Allen Ginsberg gave a series of remarkable lectures on the prophetic books of William Blake, providing teachings and commentary on their meaning. They were delivered to the students at the Naropa Institute (Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado.
This is an edited version of his lectures on Blake’s prophetic work America a Prophecy, which explores themes of empire, liberation, terror, the role of prophetic anger, and the centrality of imagination in the struggle to envision and to realise a better world.
“We’re teaching our kids not how to remember, but how to kill”
“The media in our modern information society have done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing and have thereby become part of society’s unspoken conspiracy of deception that glorifies killing and war. There are exceptions … but for the most part we are given James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Rambo, and Indiana Jones blithely and remorselessly killing men by the hundreds.”
Introduction: Sex and Killing
Why should we study killing? One might just as readily ask, Why study sex? The two questions have much in common. Every society has a blind spot, an area into which it has great difficulty looking. Today that blind spot is killing. A century ago it was sex.
Sex is a natural and essential part of life. A society that has no sex has no society in one generation. Today our society has begun the slow, painful process of escaping from the pathological dichotomy of simultaneous sexual repression and obsession. But we may have begun our escape from one denial only to fall into a new and possibly even more dangerous one. A new repression, revolving around killing and death, precisely parallels the pattern established by the previous sexual repression.
Part of the reason for our lack of knowledge in this area is that combat is, like sex, laden with a baggage of expectations and myths. In the same way that we did not understand what was occurring in the bedroom, we have not understood what was occurring on the battlefield. Our ignorance of the destructive act matched that of the procreative act.
Seeing and Not Seeing: The Nature of the Modern Rational Self
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s remarkable film version of the story of Oedipus, true to both Sophocles’s original drama and yet filled with more contemporary, Freudian meanings and undertones, is one of the great achievements of modern cinema: both disturbing and revelatory. For anyone interested in the Oedipus complex (which, let’s face it, is all of us), this film is a must see (unless of course, like Oedipus, you don’t want to see). With a shocking – in the sense of arresting and very unexpected – final scene, shocking for its beauty and sudden shift of meaning.
It’s a remarkably modern-feeling – almost shamanistic (as perhaps the original Greek dramas were) – version of this story. It feels both very contemporary and very ancient – seemingly fittingly so, for such an archetypal theme.
The Death of God and the Construction of Nature
Introduction to Blake’s Stonehenge
Stukeley’s Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d To The British Druids (1740), which made such a profound impression on Blake
The impact of William Stukeley’s work on the origins and spiritual meaning of Stonehenge on William Blake was considerable. Stukeley’s theories and investigations regarding the site have often been dismissed by later archeologists and historians – notably, his conjecture that Stonehenge originated with the Druids and Druidic culture, or antecedents of them. Yet his classic book recounting his discoveries, Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d To The British Druids (1740), which made such a profound impression on Blake, often feels highly contemporary – both prescient in many of its conjectures, and also immensely thought-provoking in a way that modern, Urizenic treatments of the site rarely are.
Stukeley cites Dr Halley, for example, who studied the site in the early 17th century and conjectured that the construction might be “2 or 3000 years old” – a remarkable assessment for the time (modern archaeologists believe it was constructed from 3000 BC to 2000 BC). Stukeley was also centuries ahead of his time in his attention to the geometry and measurements of the structure, notably his observations of its use of the “royal cubit” (or “Druid cubit”), which are again a subject of huge interest today – linking the geometrical mind-set that constructed them to the mind-set and measuring system used by those constructing Solomon’s temple and the Egyptian pyramids. And of course igniting Blake’s interest in these measurements as the signature and cognitive hallmarks of the presence of Urizenic thinking, which Blake believed lay behind the entire creation of Stonehenge.
Integrating the Inner and the Outer: How Society Shapes Who We Are
In my 2017 book, The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness (Routledge), I explore how our social and economic contexts profoundly affect our mental health and well-being, and how modern neuroscientific and psychodynamic research has significantly developed our understanding of these wider discussions. The book therefore looks both inside and outside—indeed one of the main themes of the volume is that the conceptually discrete categories of “inner” and “outer” in reality constantly interact, shape, and inform each other. Severing these two worlds, it suggests, has led both to a devitalised and dissociated form of politics, and to a disengaged and disempowering form of therapy and analysis.
“Rather than separating our understanding of economic and social practices from our understanding of affective development and human development, we need to bring them together, to align them: we need to realise that politics, the external world, is not a world without an ‘inner’.”
Drawing on a number of leading figures in these fields, including Iain McGilchrist, Sue Gerhardt, David Smail, Nick Totton, Joel Bakan, Nick Duffell, Dave Grossman, Joel Kovel, Jonathan Rowson, and James Hillman, the book argues that we need to understand people and their psychological distress in an essentially social and environmental context. Rather than separating our understanding of economic and social practices from our understanding of affective development and human development, we need to bring them together, to align them: we need to realise that politics, the external world, is not a world without an “inner”. And for this to happen, we need a new integrated model for mental health, and a new politics: we need a new dialogue between the political and personal worlds, and a recognition of how psychotherapeutic practice and the psyche both shape and are powerfully shaped by existing structures and interests.
Why Mr Blake Cried: Monogamy, Matrimony and the Mind-Forg’d Manacles
In his fascinating exploration of the ideological status and function of traditional marriage and the role of ‘family values’, Theodore W. Jennings shows how in the Bible Jesus actually radically subverts these institutions and ways of relating, seeking to replace them with more inclusive, equal, and genuinely socially integrative forms of living. It is interesting in this respect that one of the first things that spiritual communities do is to replace the atomising, inward-looking, emotionally toxic and politically hierarchical structure of the ‘family’ with more open and egalitarian forms of living. Though in contemporary society, as in Jesus’s day, ‘The Family’ is held up as integral to its power structure and affective organisation of stratified, socially isolated, inward-looking, and hierarchical power dynamics, which the institution of The Family both transmits and reflects, another way of living, and of being is possible.
Breaking the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ that weld us to these old ways of thinking – and more importantly ways of feeling – was one of the central tasks of Jesus’s mission, and was both echoed and developed by the generation of radical poets and thinkers of Blake’s day, including Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Rousseau, and of course Blake himself. Before a more awakened and liberated form of society can emerge, Blake suggests, we have to transcend our existing shackles (it is no coincidence that Jennings for example calls one of his chapters ‘Marriage, Family, and Slavery’ – echoing Wollstonecraft’s earlier critique of this institution for the regressive and toxic situations and spaces it generates). And in order to do that, we first need to understand what the concept of The Family actually is.