A Review of ‘Unfolding the Mythological Unconscious: An Illuminated Talk’ by Carol Leader
Introduction: William Blake and Therapy
“Was William Blake mad?” is the usual question that comes up in any discussion of Blake and therapy. What was fascinating about psychoanalytic psychotherapist Carol Leader’s talk at the Blake Society event at the Freud Museum was the way in which she explored this connection between ‘Blake and the Therapists’ on a new and much more profound level. Indeed, her presentation was so thought-provoking that it makes you wonder why more hasn’t been written on this connection. As Tim Heath noted in his introduction to the talk, “whenever you converse with William Blake, whenever you dive into his work, it immediately becomes apparent why Blake intimated the coming of therapy.”
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.
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 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.
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.