Fiat Lux: The Perception of Spacetime and the Fallen Imagination
Introduction: Cosmos as Masterpiece
Francisco de Holanda, self-portrait (c. 1573), the artist presenting his book
As many critics have pointed out, the remarkable work of the Portuguese Renaissance artist Francisco de Holanda “seems to predict another singular genius: William Blake, whom it predates by two centuries” (Michael Benson, Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time). Equally remarkable is the fact that many of Holanda’s most astonishing paintings were only discovered a few decades ago. As Benson notes in his compelling examination of visual depictions of the creation of the universe and of Holanda’s work in particular (a rarity in itself in Western academic studies, as there is still almost nothing written about this pioneering figure):
Perhaps the most extraordinary set of pictures depicting space-time’s origins dates from 1573. Discovered in the mid-20th century in an obscure notebook in the National Library of Spain, it was painted by the Portuguese artist and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student and lifelong friend of Michelangelo.
Tyger, Tyger: The Predators, the Single Eye, and the Pyramids within our Heads
Introduction: Symbols and Symptoms
In 2014, the psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist gave a remarkable talk on the art and symbolism of patients with schizophrenia or psychosis (‘Neuromania – Spiders, yes, but why cats?‘). The presentation was not only a fascinating insight into the nature of these conditions, and the implicit and intrinsic connections between symptoms and symbols, but also a profound exploration of the peculiar symbolism and imagery that more generally surrounds us in our supposedly hyper-rational cultures, and which artist and writer William Blake somehow understood and drew upon.
The Single Eye, the Dividers, and the Pyramid: Understanding the God of This World
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.
How the phonetic alphabet drove the Fall into Division
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.“