William Blake and the illusion of Selfhood
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.
Rational Psychopathy: The Urizenic Brain and its Fall into Division
Blake’s term for the psychopathic power of the Urizenic ‘rational’ mind when it is dissociated and divided from man’s imaginative and empathic consciousness was the “Red Dragon”. The term derives from the Biblical Book of Revelation, where the reality of things is supposed to be finally uncovered (‘apocalypsis‘, meaning “uncover, disclose, reveal”), but as usual with Blake, it’s given a surprisingly modern twist – one that is both psychological and politically radical in nature.
Blake’s presentation of the “dragon” form of Urizen as his final dissociated apotheosis (his “logical conclusion”, if you like), is a stinging critique of the very power and cognitive process that drove and underwrote much of the ‘Enlightenment’ project – the period in which he was living. The enormously powerful, as well as devastatingly disruptive, destructive and dehumanising, energy unleashed on Britain (and later Europe) on a vast – indeed global – scale was, Blake believed, the unregulated and domineering character of the instrumental left brain itself: what many Enlightenment thinkers rather naively simply called ‘Reason’. Blake analyses this celebrated function of the human brain and reveals that it was actually a peculiar and peculiarly distorted form of reason that was being developed and harnessed – “ratio-nality” (rather than reasonableness) – a self-enclosed, rapacious, and manipulative power that was being released into the world via the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism.