Logic and Mysticism: William Blake, Bertrand Russell, and Allen Ginsberg

The Way to Truth: The Lamb or the Tyger?

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The Ancient of Days over Bikini Atoll, where America exploded a massive hydrogen bomb in 1954. It was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. On witnessing the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, a piece of Hindu scripture ran through the mind of scientist Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”

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Introduction: Blake and Bertrand Russell

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Entrance to the rooms Russell occupied as a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge University, where he first heard the sound of Blake’s Tyger.

In the first volume of his autobiography, Nobel Prize laureate Bertrand Russell recalled being stopped dead in his tracks while trying to descend a staircase in Trinity College Cambridge by his friend Crompton reciting Blake’s poem The Tyger. He wrote:

One of my earliest memories of Crompton is of meeting him in the darkest part of a winding College staircase and his suddenly quoting, without any previous word, the whole of “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright.” I had never, till that moment, heard of Blake, and the poem affected me so much that I came dizzy and had to lean against the wall.

The encounter with Blake’s Tyger seems to have made a lasting impression on the mathematician and philosopher. Russell returned to him again in his 1918 essay Mysticism and Logic, where he suggested that the search for truth could be reached both through hard science and pure speculation. In the essay Russell contrasts two “great men,” Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose “scientific impulse reigns quite unchecked,” and poet William Blake, in whom “a strong hostility to science co-exists with profound mystic insight.” It’s interesting that Russell chooses Blake for an example.

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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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Opening the Doors: William Blake, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beat Generation

Howl: The War of this World against Vision and Imagination

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Old New York

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Introduction: Blake & the Beats

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Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) in front of the opening lines of Howl, referencing Blake in its opening section

William Blake’s influence on the Beat Generation is arguably more significant than that of any other writer or artist. Most notably he was Ginsberg’s “guru” and the “catalyst” for his poetry, and even warranted a mention in “Howl”. Blake supposedly appeared to Ginsberg in 1945 and read “Ah Sun-flower”, and again in 1948 when Ginsberg was reading “The Sick Rose”. He explained,

I was never able to figure out whether I was having a religious vision, a hallucinatory experience, or what, but it was the deepest ‘spiritual’ experience I had in my life, and determined my karma as poet. That’s the-key pivotal turnabout of my own existence. That’s why I was hung up on setting Blake to music.

Visions were important to Blake, who claimed that his poetry was not necessarily a work that he created, but something channeled through him. He referred to himself as a “true Orator” and claimed that poetry came from a voice that he simply wrote down.

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Revolution of the Psyche, by Krishnamurti

The Thinker and the Thought: “What you are, the world is. So your problem is the world’s problem”

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Revolutions

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Introduction

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Krishnamurti in 1910. The year before, theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater, who claimed clairvoyance, had noticed Krishnamurti on the Society’s beach on the Adyar river and was amazed by the “most wonderful aura he had ever seen, without a particle of selfishness in it.” Leadbeater was convinced that the boy would become a spiritual teacher and a great orator; the likely “vehicle for the Lord Maitreya” in theosophical doctrine, an advanced spiritual entity periodically appearing on Earth as a World Teacher to guide the evolution of humankind. Krishnamurti later rejected this role, and indeed rejected the whole idea of following “roles”, after an intense spiritual experience in 1922.

Jiddu Krishnamurti was an Indian philosopher, speaker, and writer. In his early life, he was groomed to be the new ‘World Teacher’ (the Theosophical concept of Maitreya), but he later rejected this mantle and withdrew from the Theosophy organization behind it.

His interests included psychological revolution, the nature of mind, meditation, holistic inquiry, human relationships, and bringing about radical change in society. He stressed the need for a revolution in the psyche of every human being and emphasised that such revolution cannot be brought about by any external authority, be it religious, political, or social.

Krishnamurti was often seen as a spiritual master, although he interestingly mistrusted all religions and denounced the Eastern convention of deifying living spiritual masters. This gives some of his thinking an unusual and indeed at times devastating honesty. Perhaps nowhere is this more seen than in his critiques of the ego – the basis of both the modern personality and of most orthodox psychoanalytic thinking (the purpose of much Freudian and Jungian analysis is actually to strengthen the ego). The goal in Krishnamurti’s vision seems to be to go beyond both ‘self’ and beyond ‘mind’ (which, like Tolle, Krishnamurti equates with ego or what Blake calls “Selfhood”). “Judgement and comparison commit us irrevocably to duality”, he says – and we can never be happy therefore while we are in this state. And neither can those around us.

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‘Why War?’: The Freud-Einstein Letters

War in the Mind: Psychoanalysing the origins of war

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Introduction: Freud and Einstein on War

In 1931, the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation invited Albert Einstein to a cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas about politics and peace with a thinker of his choosing. He selected Sigmund Freud, whom he had met briefly in 1927 and whose work, despite being skeptical of psychoanalysis, the legendary physicist had come to admire. A series of letters followed, discussing the abstract generalities of human nature and the potential concrete steps for reducing violence in the world.

In a twist of irony, the correspondence was only published in 1933 — after Hitler, who would eventually banish both Einstein and Freud into exile, rose to power — in a slim limited-edition pamphlet titled Why War?. Only 2,000 copies of the English translation were printed, most of which were lost during the war. But the gist of the correspondence, which remains surprisingly little-known, is preserved in the 1960 volume Einstein on Peace, featuring a foreword by none other than Bertand Russell. 

The initial letter came from Einstein, who posed the question, ‘Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?’  Freud sets out his response, exploring various aspects of human nature which illustrate how war appears virtually inevitable.

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Fearful Symmetry: Blake and the Symbolism of the Left Brain, by Iain McGilchrist

TygerTyger: The Predators, the Single Eye, and the Pyramids within our Heads

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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.

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‘A Building of Eternal Death’: Blake, Stukeley, and the Meaning of Stonehenge

The Death of God and the Construction of Nature

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Introduction to Blake’s Stonehenge

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Stukeley’s Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d To The British Druids (1740), which made such a profound impression on Blake

The impact of William Stukeley’s work on the origins and spiritual meaning of Stonehenge on William Blake was considerable. Stukeley’s theories and investigations regarding the site have often been dismissed by later archeologists and historians – notably, his conjecture that Stonehenge originated with the Druids and Druidic culture, or antecedents of them. Yet his classic book recounting his discoveries, Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d To The British Druids (1740), which made such a profound impression on Blake, often feels highly contemporary – both prescient in many of its conjectures, and also immensely thought-provoking in a way that modern, Urizenic treatments of the site rarely are.

Stukeley cites Dr Halley, for example, who studied the site in the early 17th century and conjectured that the construction might be “2 or 3000 years old” – a remarkable assessment for the time (modern archaeologists believe it was constructed from 3000 BC to 2000 BC).  Stukeley was also centuries ahead of his time in his attention to the geometry and measurements of the structure, notably his observations of its use of the “royal cubit” (or “Druid cubit”), which are again a subject of huge interest today – linking the geometrical mind-set that constructed them to the mind-set and measuring system used by those constructing Solomon’s temple and the Egyptian pyramids. And of course igniting Blake’s interest in these measurements as the signature and cognitive hallmarks of the presence of Urizenic thinking, which Blake believed lay behind the entire creation of Stonehenge.

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Narcissus 2.0: Left Brain Technology and Civilisation, by Marshall McLuhan

How the phonetic alphabet drove the Fall into Division

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 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.

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Blake and the Zodiac, by Rod Tweedy

Here Comes the Sun King: Forging the Template of Solar Consciousness

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Introduction: The Forms and the Archetypes of Being

There’s a fascinating tradition of thought that links early formulations of the twelve aspects or ‘faces’ of the Zodiac with Plato’s esoteric theory of the Forms, the fundamental geometries and patterns which generate our world, and which casts an intriguing light on the original meaning of the Zodiacal Signs and their significance.

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Creative Imagination and Mystical Experience in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabî, by Henry Corbin

God as Imagination: the Image and the Imaginer in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabî

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Introduction: Ibn ‘Arabî and Islamic mysticism

Screen Shot 2021-04-21 at 12.13.24According to Professor Henry Corbin, one of the 20th century’s most prolific scholars of Islamic mysticism, Ibn ‘Arabî (1165–1240) was “a spiritual genius who was not only one of the greatest masters of Sufism in Islam, but also one of the great mystics of all time.”

Imagination (khayâl), as Corbin has shown, plays a major role in Ibn ‘Arabî’s writings. In the Openings, for example, he says about it, “After the knowledge of the divine names and of self-disclosure and its all-pervadingness, no pillar of knowledge is more complete”.

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