The Infinite IAM: Coleridge, Blake, and the Primary Imagination

The Poet and God: Participating in the Wave Potential Field

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Introduction

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), portrait by Peter Vandyke, 1795

In Chapter XIII of his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge formulated his concept of the imagination, or “the esemplastic power” (meaning “shaping or having the power to shape disparate things into a unified whole”). It was a passage that would come to define and articulate not only the Romantic conception of imagination, but the nature of God, being, perception, and our relation to the universe:

The Imagination then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.

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The Biographia Literaria is a unique fusion of literary criticism and personal autobiography written by Coleridge and published in 1817

Coleridge’s earliest definition of imagination actually comes at the beginning of his Lecture on the Slave Trade (1795), where he also talks about issues of creativity and “combination”, past and present, and imagination as a “vivifying” power or faculty.

The restless, transformative aspect of imaginative processes seem to both reflect, participate in, and co-create wider evolutionary processes of transformation – hence its role in what he strikingly calls here “the ascent of Being”, and which Shelley had also alluded to in his  great revolutionary poem Queen Mab (1813). In the very last lines of that poem, Shelley presents life, in all its great variety of forms, as embodying and transmitting a ceaseless and “necessarily beneficent” evolutionary process that entwines itself with what he here calls Necessity:

And life, in multitudinous shapes,
Still pressing forward where no term can be,

Like hungry and unresting flame

Curls round the eternal columns of its strength.

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“The ascent of Being”. Image: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (c. 1818). The great Romantic philosophers and writers were all deeply aware that the universe, far from being at the dead mechanism of the earlier ‘Enlightenment’ age , was essentially alive, responsive, relational, dynamic, and awake.

These writers and thinkers sensed a resonance or relationality between what they were doing as creative artists, and the activity they saw all around them – the constant transmutation of form, the vivifying and implicit energy within being – within the interconnected “web of being” as Shelley referred to it in Queen Mab.

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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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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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The Rise of Eco-fascism: Nature, Nazis, and Green Ideology, by Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier

Vala’s Reich: The Idealisation of Nature and the Denigration of Humanity

It may come as a surprise to learn that the history of ecological politics has not always been inherently and necessarily progressive and benign. In fact, ecological ideas have a history of being distorted and placed in the service of highly regressive ends — even of fascism itself. As this article shows, important tendencies in German “ecologism,” which has long roots in nineteenth-century nature mysticism, fed into the rise of Nazism in the twentieth century.

During the Third Reich, Nazi “ecologists” even made organic farming, vegetarianism, nature worship, and related themes into key elements not only in their ideology but in their governmental policies. Moreover, Nazi “ecological” ideology was used to justify the destruction of European Jewry. Yet some of the themes that Nazi ideologists articulated bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to themes familiar to ecologically concerned people today.

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The End of Nature:  Blake and Pantheism, by Rod Tweedy

Babylon, Nature-worship, and the Sleep of Albion 

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‘Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!’

As Kathleen Raine has noted, “the sleep of Albion is in a word the materialist mentality of the modern West.” However, this “materialist mentality”, for Blake, denotes not only the belief in the Newtonian universe of orthodox Science, which many are now questioning, but also the belief in “Nature” itself. For Blake, the “Creation” – the emergence of an apparently objective, natural, and material world – and Albion’s fall into “Sleep” were one and the same event.

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