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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The Gnostic Eve: William Blake and The Secret Doctrine, by H. P. Blavatsky

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.”

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‘To Defend the Bible in This Year 1798 Would Cost a Man His Life’, by Morton D. Paley

‘The Harlot and the Giant’ from William Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Purgatorio. It’s basically a depiction of modern Britain in a form that would get past the censors

 

Censorship, Surveillance and the Power of the State: The Whore and the Beast

1798: one of the spiritual low points of modern British history, and the year of Malthus’s Essay on Population. Shelley called Malthus “the apostle of the rich” and Engels later described Malthus’s vision as “the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair.” Malthus’s influence on modern eugenic and environmental thinking, as well as Darwinism, has been massive.

For many of us, 1798 was the year of the Lyrical Ballads. But it was also the year of Napoleon in Egypt, the uprising of the United Irishmen and its bloody aftermath, of Malthus’s first Essay on Population, and the year of “the most draconian, anti-radical crackdown of the entire Pittite ‘Terror’” (Ian McCalmon, New Jerusalems).

For William Blake, it was a seemingly unexceptional year, a year for which there are no known letters and no known published works other than some commerical engravings. But it was also the year in which he wrote on the verso of the title page of Bishop Richard Watson’s An Apology for the Bible: “To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life” and then “The Beast and the Whore rule without controls.” The Bishop’s Apology was an attack upon The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, and Blake’s notes were a vehement counter-attack upon Bishop Watson. Why should Blake want to defend Thomas Paine, with whom he had some important points of disagreement, so unequivocally?

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Against Nature, by Steven Vogel

 Recognising ourselves in Nature

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Vogel’s work is one of the best accounts, and critical interrogations, of the concept of ‘Nature’ ever written.  Its thoughtful and careful analysis of this complex and ambiguous concept makes you realise how crude and incoherent many of our contemporary discussions of Nature are. This is really environmental and philosophical thinking on a new level of precision and engagement, and is equally important for its revelatory implications for our understanding of ‘natural science’, both as a practice and as an epistemological attitude towards the world, suggesting how what we call science is less an unproblematic description of an objective world and more a social product or construction shaped by ideology and concealed assumptions about the status of the ‘observer’. Indeed, he notes that one of the main points or byproducts of the concept of ‘Nature’ is precisely to naturalise these ideological and socially informed ways of thinking and relating to the world.

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Ezekiel and the Burning Coal of Prophecy, by Rod Tweedy

Commodities and Idolatries

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The Nature of Appearances

The name Ezekiel is perhaps the most well known and celebrated of all the Old Testament prophets, referenced by everyone from Blake to Quentin Tarantino. The extraordinary vision which he saw of the chariot of God coming toward him burning with flashing fire, moving “wheel within wheel” and driven by strange four-headed winged cherubim, has seared itself into the vision of every succeeding generation.

img_5904What Ezekiel saw has been variously interpreted – as a record of a profound mystical experience (as in the extensive and esoteric Jewish merkabah tradition), a glimpse into the nature of God, a literary text that has inspired poets from Dante and Blake to T. S. Eliot and Yeats, and in more recent times as a record of a possible encounter with extraterrestrial beings – even as a statement of a traumatic and possibly schizophrenic episode that the prophet experienced two and a half thousand years ago near the Chebal canal “in the land of the Chaldeans” (southern Mesopotamia), where he and three thousand other Jews had been deported and lived in exile.

When I was a kid there was an American children’s drama series called Project UFO which began every episode with the words: “Ezekiel saw the wheel. This is the wheel he said he saw.” – accompanied by a diagram of Ezekiel’s supposed UFO. It was a striking way to capture a child’s attention, but like many modern-day takes on Biblical passages and experiences, was also an incredibly literalist and diminished interpretation of Ezekiel’s original vision. Interestingly, this peculiarly ‘left brain’ way of seeing reality and understanding imaginative truth was one that historically emerged in the very cultures that Ezekiel grew up in and was surrounded by – the technologically advanced, newly literate, post-Sumerian high-rise cultures of Babylon, Egypt and the Near East.

ezekiel_25_17_by_chronicrick-d51w168What is remarkable about Ezekiel’s vision is that it’s actually aimed directly at this new literalist way of seeing. For Ezekiel, seeing phenomena as if they were discreet, objectified, literal ‘things’ – as ‘idols’ (from Greek eidōlon, meaning representation or illusory shape, literally “appearance, reflection in water or a mirror”) both obscured and reified their inherently transcendental and interconnected, relational nature – their true value. In this he shares a striking resemblance to another well-known social prophet, Karl Marx, who also exposed the ‘fetishistic’ nature of our modern belief in similar sorts of idols – commodities.

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The Great Selfhood Satan: The Pathological Nature of the Human Ego

William Blake, Eckhart Tolle, and the Obstacle to God

“Imagine a chief of police trying to find an arsonist when the arsonist is the chief of police” (Tolle)

I am your Rational Power O Albion & that Human Form

You call Divine, is but a Worm seventy inches long
That creeps forth in a night & is dried in the morning sun

In fortuitous concourse of memorys accumulated & lost …

So spoke the Spectre to Albion. he is the Great Selfhood

Satan: Worshipd as God by the Mighty Ones of the Earth

Having a white Dot calld a Center from which branches out

A Circle in continual gyrations (Blake, Jerusalem)

 

The Spectre

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“The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man,” Blake succinctly notes in Jerusalem, and throughout his works he consistently links the “spectral” or compulsive aspect of divided and divisive rationality with the contemporary form of human reason itself:

… it is the Reasoning Power
An Abstract objecting power, that Negatives every thing

This is the Spectre of Man, the Holy Reasoning Power
And in its Holiness is closed the Abomination of Desolation.

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Opening the Doors of Perception, by Aldous Huxley

William Blake, Mescaline, and the end of Time

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Huxley cited his fascination with Blake as a primary factor in his decision to take mescaline, which he hoped would help him transcend the self and see the world without the usual filters on reality: “the drug would admit me at least for a few hours, into the kind of inner world described by Blake.” His book of the experience, The Doors of Perception, is itself eye-opening: one of the most careful and precise deconstructions of “normal” perception ever written: “The function of the brain and nervous system is in the main eliminative”, he observed, “leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful”. The drug allowed him to see that what we normally call “reality” is in fact the product of a massive filtering out of reality, a systematic closing of the doors, leaving only the programs of measurement (“ratio-ing”) and utility – reality as it would necessarily appear “to an animal obsessed with survival.”

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