Possessing and Perceiving: William Blake and the Art of Perception
Introduction: In the Beginning was the Image
“Seeing comes before words.” We are rooted in imagination.
Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.
But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.
The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.
The Human Form Divine: Sacred geometry and its relationship to our physiology
Section 1: The Nature of Sacred Geometry
Measuring Urizen: The geometry of geometry
This first section explores what is meant by “sacred geometry”, studying and measuring its terms in relation to the study of physiology, the ‘science of life’. It therefore provides a sort of “geometry of geometry”. This seems apposite: the very idea of measuring is after all embedded in the word “geometry”, which comes from the ancient Greek words Geos, meaning “Earth”, and Metron, meaning “to measure”. The act or assumption of measurement is therefore contained within the system that is used to measure reality. Urizen thereby inscribes itself in the very utensils it uses to explore the deep: as Neil Postman acutely observed, “within every technology there is embedded an ideology” (Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology). These sorts of isomorphic (or “fractal”) repetitions and self-reflections constitute one of the defining characteristics of sacred geometry.
Sacred geometry is usually understood as the science and study of the fundamental patterns, shapes, forms, proportions, and ratios that constitute the basic nature of physical, physiological, and psychological reality. In ancient traditions, these geometries were considered ‘sacred’ because they recurred with such remarkable frequency and on so many different levels, thereby seeming to suggest a ‘hidden order’ to the world. As Skinner notes, “geometry and numbers are sacred because they codify the hidden order behind creation”. As such, they were sometimes considered to reveal the “mind” of God: as Galileo succinctly put it, “Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe.”
The Zoas and the Zodiac
Blake and Varley
Blake and Varley: Portrait of Blake by Thomas Phillips (1807), and portrait of Varley by John Linnell (1820)
Blake’s friendship with the artist and astrologer John Varley (1778–1842) is one of the most unusual and intriguing of all Blake’s unusual and intriguing friendships. They first met in 1818, when they were living as near-neighbours in London, and it is Varley we have to thank for the remarkable series of drawings of ‘Visionary Heads’ that Blake made, in the company of Varley, over a number of late-night (or rather early morning) meetings – or ‘seances’ as some people called them – that they had, usually at Varley’s house, 10 Great Titchfield Street, off Oxford Street, which was near to Blake’s in South Molton Street. These drawings included the famous image of ‘The Ghost of The Flea’; it is a rather remarkable fact that this Ghost arose out of their discussions about astrology and the possible influence of the position of the planets on both our psychology and physiognomy. The Ghost (or Spiritual Form) of the Flea, apparently, denoted ‘Gemini’.
Blake’s drawings (including that of the Flea) were used by Varley for his 1828 book A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy – the only time that Blake collaborated with someone else on the production of a book. And what an fascinating book it is: ‘Zodiacal Physiognomy’ is surely one of the most intriguing titles for a book ever. But what exactly was zodiacal physiognomy?
Seeing with the Heart
Shams of Tabriz was a Persian Sufi and roaming dervish who lived at the end of the twelfth/ early thirteenth century. He was the spiritual teacher and advisor of Rumi, and indeed it’s often said that Rumi was a professor who Shams transformed into a mystic, a lover, and a poet. They spent months together, lost in a kind of ecstatic mystical communion known as “sobhet” — conversing and gazing at each other until a deeper conversation occurred without words. There are many legends describing their meeting in Konya: Rumi was taught by Shams in seclusion for 40 days, and the period after this is described as Rumi’s ‘mysticism’, where sufis danced, played music (rabab), and drank wine. It is in this time, that the concept of “whirling dervishes” originated.
Revolutions in Being: The Meaning of the Nativity in Blake’s Vision
It is strange how the worship of the Christ-child penetrated the hard old Roman-built world. It was like the perfume of a lily, of a mass of lilies, whose roots have broken rocky soil, whose shining whiteness enchants the air. An infant conquered the nations; the human race lifted up its eyes and sang a new song.
“Slowly the perfume, the song reacted in beauty in men’s minds, and the beauty took to itself form and colour and rhythm, became incarnate in churches and statues, gorgeous in tapestries and paintings, vocal in poetry and music.” (Image: detail from Fra Angelico’s Annunciation of Cortona,1433–1434).
Slowly, through those centuries of a crumbling empire and a resilient faith, the perfume, the song reacted in beauty in men’s minds, and the beauty took to itself form and colour and rhythm, became incarnate in churches and statues, gorgeous in tapestries and paintings, vocal in poetry and music. The human spirit passed from Caesar to Saint Francis, from the Colosseum to Chartres Cathedral, from pagan frescoes to Fra Angelico, from Greek choruses to Palestrina, from Virgil and the cynical later poets of a disillusioned autocracy to Dante and the epics and lyrics of new languages seeded and nourished by the old.
The Worship of the Serpent: The Awakening of Eve and the Generation of Nature
The Symbol of the Serpent: Introduction to Blavatsky’s work
Blake’s art speaks in symbols. But what exactly are symbols? And why are all of the deepest ancient esoteric truths always communicated through symbol and image? Pike suggests that symbols are the most powerful way to mediate and convey a “truth” that lies beyond ordinary conscious, “rational” thought programmes and parameters: “The first learning in the world consisted chiefly in symbols. The wisdom of the Chaldæans, Phœnicians, Egyptians, Jews; of Zoroaster, Sanchoniathon, Pherecydes, Syrus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, of all the ancients, that is come to our hand, is symbolic. It was the mode, says Serranus on Plato’s Symposium, of the Ancient Philosophers, to represent truth by certain symbols and hidden images.”
And one of the most powerful, and recurrent, of all these ancient symbols, he notes, is that of the serpent or dragon. “This will be found to be confirmed by an examination of some of the Symbols used in the Mysteries. One of the most famous of these was THE SERPENT. The Cosmogony of the Hebrews and that of the Gnostics designated this reptile as the author of the fate of Souls. It was consecrated in the Mysteries of Bacchus and in those of Eleusis. Pluto overcame the virtue of Proserpine under the form of a serpent; and, like the Egyptian God Serapis, was always pictured seated on a serpent, or with that reptile entwined about him.”
The Divided Therapist: Hemispheric Difference and Contemporary Psychotherapy
In The God of the Left Hemisphere I explored the remarkable connections between the activities and functions of the human brain that writer William Blake termed ‘Urizen’ and the powerful complex of rationalising and ordering processes which modern neuroscience identifies as ‘left hemisphere’ brain activity. In The Divided Therapist I extend this analysis, exploring its implications for our mental health and the practice of therapy itself – the regeneration and reintegration of the psyche. If the first book was about the “fall into Division”, this book is about the “Resurrection to Unity”: the restoration of psychic wholeness.
The Symbol of Symbolism: Unravelling the form and nature of the underlying Energy
Introduction: Entering the Serpent
Sometimes it’s good just to look at Blake’s images, and let them approach you, without any verbal text, theory, or explanation. An encounter with their other-ness. Over the next few weeks this site will be posting a number of articles exploring the meaning and importance of the symbol of the serpent in Blake’s work, which weaves throughout his vision, and twists and turns throughout his images.
Milton’s Dark Materials: the Dissociations of the Human Brain
One of the aims of Blake’s work is to encourage integration of the various disconnected aspects of the human brain and body. Under Urizenic (left brain dominant) systems, these often become split off and psychotic – a form of dissociative identity disorder, presented in the Bible, Dante, and Milton as separate-headed ‘demons’ – the compulsive and obsessive nature of processes that are not properly integrated. The cause of this is usually a form of hyper-rationalisation, which McGilchrist and Louis Sass associate both with schizo-phrenia and modern forms of madness.