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 an epistemological attitude towards the world, showing 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 suggests that one of the 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.
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.
What 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.
What 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.
“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 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.
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.”
In a remarkable article in the Guardian last year, associate editor Martin Kettle argued that “English radicalism needs to recapture the spirit of Blake” – that in a political world dominated by bureaucracy, think-tanking, consumerism, and a small-minded, reductive sense of cultural identity we need a re-infusion of imagination, passion, vision, and integrity. Indeed, he ended his piece with the provocative question, “Without the dream of Albion, how can England arise and Britain come together again in the common cause?” (Guardian)
Harvard neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, commenting on the subtle but significant differences between how each hemisphere of our brain understands and engages with the world, observed that “the two halves of my brain don’t just perceive and think in different ways at a neurological level, but they demonstrate very different values based upon the types of information they perceive, and thus exhibit very different personalities” (My Stroke of Insight).
‘Dear Sir, I am still far from recoverd & dare not get out in the cold air. Yet I lose nothing by it—Dante goes on the better, which is all I care about’ – William Blake
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ – Matthew 5:17
‘No thing can become manifest to itself without opposition’ – Boehme
Among William Blake’s last works was a series of illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy. It was an ambitious project for a man of 67 to begin, and he didn’t live to complete it. Even in its unfinished state, however, the series is a rich and fascinating work of art that can add to our understanding of Blake’s philosophy and artistic goals, and be enjoyed for its strange beauty.
In many ways, I believe that Michael Eigen is attempting to restore to psychology a dimension suppressed by the scientistic ambitions of the academicized discipline, where the drastic attempt to reduce language to a vehicle for hard data makes of language itself nothing but an empty shell, good only to serve as a frame for the apparent objectivity of statistics. Where Freud could only grudgingly wonder at poetry as a form of psychological gnosis, Eigen understands that poetry—and, very possibly, therapy, too—has the function of revealing who we are. “Poetry”, he says, “is dusting off the true self”.
For those in cars, planes and fast trains, here’s three excellent audio podcasts giving an overview to Blake’s life and works. The programmes include interviews with top Blake scholars such as Northrop Frye, Kathleen Raine and Gerald Bentley, and excellent readings from Blake’s own poetry and letters.