Becoming the True Self

The Blake Project: Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake by Leo Damrosch.  Yale University Press.  332 pp.

In my last post in the Blake project, I spoke of a book that my wife was reading but that I had avoided because I wanted to explore my own reading of Blake’s work.  That strategy worked fine for his early works, right on up through The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which in some ways seemed a key to all of Blake’s thought.  But I have to confess that I was utterly mystified, and somewhat discouraged, by my first foray into Blake’s longer poems, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, an obscure narrative which seems to be about a sexually innocent young woman who is promised to one man then raped by another.  None of these beings seem to people our world.  They’re mythical figures.

I couldn’t understand the poem on even a literal level, especially couldn’t place it in the context of Blake’s work, or as a follow-up to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  I felt lost, not an uncommon reaction to Blake’s longer work.  My wife continued to be enthusiastic about what she was reading, but sorry that she’d bought the book on her Kindle, because she wanted to see better reproductions of the artwork.  So I bought this new book by Leo Damrosch, and I’m glad I did.

It’s not a biography; he says that the two earlier bios, one of which I’ve read, were perfectly adequate, and that in any case Blake had led a largely uneventful life; his real life was the work he produced.  Damrosch gives us a reading of the work—and a viewing of the artwork—that is academically informed, but is the work of an enthusiastic reader and lover of Blake.  He doesn’t for the most part come across as an academic.  As I mentioned before, I’d had my fill of Blake criticism as an undergraduate.

I read Blake as a prophet, an essentially religious writer, rather than as a poet.  It’s the same way I read Whitman.  I don’t think of Blake as an infallible guide, but I do think he was an enlightened being, not so much ahead of his time as outside of time altogether, like so many prophetic religious thinkers.  I also think that, if he had lived a couple of centuries later, he would have embraced Eastern teachings and enthusiastically studied them, as Allen Ginsberg—a great Blake admirer—did.  Damrosch’s book made me feel more than ever that Blake’s vision was aligned with Eastern teachings.  He invented a convoluted and perhaps needlessly difficult system of his own because he didn’t have access to that existing tradition.

Damrosch doesn’t hesitate to use language that previous Blake scholars were to adopt, saying that Blake experienced periods of depression and may have been bipolar, that he had what seemed to be psychotic episodes.  Such mental states aren’t unusual in a religious temperament.  It was perhaps after a depressed period that Blake came into a more manic phase and wrote what I take to be a poem about an enlightenment experience.  It was apparently unpublished in his lifetime.  He wrote it as part of a letter to his friend Thomas Butts.  Poetry seemed to just pour from the man.  It was as if his common language were poetic.

To my Friend Butts I write
My first Vision of Light
On the yellow sands sitting
The Sun was Emitting
His Glorious beams
From Heavens high Streams
Over Sea over Land
My Eyes did Expand
Into regions of air
Away from all Care
Into regions of fire
Remote from Desire
The Light of the Morning
Heavens Mountains adorning
In particles bright
The jewels of Light
Distinct shone & clear—
Amazd & in fear
I each particle gazed
Astonishd Amazed
For each was a Man
Human formd. Swift I ran
For they beckond to me
Remote by the Sea
Saying. Each grain of Sand
Every Stone on the Land
Each rock & each hill
Each fountain & rill
Each herb & each tree
Mountain hill Earth & Sea
Cloud Meteor & Star
Are Men Seen Afar
I stood in the Streams
Of Heavens bright beams
And Saw Felpham sweet
Beneath my bright feet
In soft Female charms
And in her fair arms
My Shadow I knew
And my wifes shadow too
And My Sister & Friend.
We like Infants descend
In our Shadows on Earth
Like a weak mortal birth
My Eyes more & more
Like a Sea without shore
Continue Expanding
The Heavens commanding
Till the jewels of Light
Heavenly Men beaming bright
Appeard as One Man
Who Complacent began
My limbs to infold
In his beams of bright gold
Like dross purgd away
All my mire & my clay
Soft consumd in delight
In his bosom sun bright
I remaind. Soft he smild
And I heard his voice Mild
Saying This is My Fold
O thou Ram hornd with gold
Who awakest from sleep
On the sides of the Deep
On the Mountains around
The roarings resound
Of the lion & wolf
The loud sea & deep gulf
These are guards of My Fold
O thou Ram hornd with gold
And the voice faded mild
I remaind as a Child
All I ever had known
Before me bright Shone
I saw you & your wife
By the fountains of Life
Such the Vision to me
Appeard on the Sea

What a letter to get from a friend.

Damrosch puts the longer poems in a helpful context.  Just as Blake was a religious dissenter (he was really more than that, finding no religion adequate to his vision), he was also a political rebel, and his earlier long poems, America, a Prophecy and Europe, a Prophecy were essentially political in nature.  But midway in his career he abandoned political writing and turned to his true subject, the psychic breakdown of the self and its re-integration.  That was the subject of the long poem that he never made into an illuminated book, The Four Zoas.  The system he created in that poem became the mythical system that he used in the long poems that did become illuminated books, Milton and Jerusalem.  Both of those books, like The Four Zoas, move toward an apocalypse, and it is in that apocalyptic moment that the re-constituted self sees through the appearances around him into the eternity that they represent.  That was Blake’s true subject, which he named in the early lyrics, seeing eternity in a grain of sand.

The mythical system does sound complicated, and he developed it through the years as he worked.  Urizen represents reason and moral law.  Luvah represents the emotions.  Urthona is creative imagination, which is a key faculty for Blake, perhaps the same as what he called Poetic Genius in All Religions Are One.  Thamas is a shadowy figure, but seems to be an “instinctual wholeness that keeps the entire structure intact.”

Damrosch compares the system to Freud’s model, but the two men saw things differently; for Freud, repression of instinctual desires was necessary, but for Blake it was a “definition of sickness.”  More congenial for Blake is Jung’s system, where thinking corresponds to Urizen, intuition to Urthona, emotion to Luvah, and sense perception to Tharmas.  The idea was to integrate those four functions, not giving superiority to any one.  Jung, like Blake, saw the confrontation with the psyche as essentially spiritual, leading to a state that he named individuation.  That might correspond to the apocalyptic realization that Blake spoke of and wrote about dramatically, though he was speaking of an inner process.

I did plenty of therapy in my life, years of it before I ever even heard of spiritual practice, and I read a lot of Jung during that period.  I thought I was engaged in a quest for sanity and balance (really a relief from pain), didn’t see myself as having a spiritual goal. But my final therapist was himself a deeply spiritual man, who sometimes put what we were doing in a larger context.  And it was soon after I finished therapy that I moved quite naturally into spiritual practice.

I would say that, when I began all of that, I was dominated by thinking, and largely repressed my emotions.  I exercised intuition in my writing, though it seemed mysterious and miraculous (and still does).  Writing was my spiritual practice and religious act, though I didn’t understand that at the time.  I was in touch with my instinctual nature—with sense perceptions—primarily through sex, with which I was obsessed.  My sensual life focused on sex.

The first goal of therapy was to release my emotions.  They had been frozen by my father’s death when I was sixteen; I couldn’t handle that event and therefore couldn’t be emotional about anything.  Years of therapy freed up my emotions.  My confrontation with my father’s death was the great psychic task of my life.

What fascinates me is the way that spiritual practice is a natural way to bring about psychic integration.  It’s not a quick fix, and there’s no guarantee, but it’s a tried and true method.  For most people, I would guess, the thinking and emotional parts of the psyche are dominant and somewhat out of control.  My primary psychic problem was anxiety, which involved excessive and obsessive thinking.  My periods of psychic breakdown took place when I tried to think through questions that were essentially religious.  The thinking function wasn’t much help with my spiritual dilemmas.

Sitting meditation deals directly with that impasse.  It tells you to let thoughts and emotions come and go, not ignoring them but not engaging with them.  You keep coming back to some simple physical function, usually the breathing.  That constant return to the body tends to open up sensual experience in general, so that you hear and feel things more acutely as you sit, begin to take in the world more fully in the rest of your life.  Sitting also puts you in touch with your intuitive faculty, or your creative faculty, or Poetic Genius, whatever name you want to give it.  That’s also what people call True Self, or Buddha nature.  It’s the part of you that you come in touch with, but never really know.  It’s beyond knowing.  It’s another kind of encounter altogether.

Blake’s spiritual practice was his art.  That may be why he worked so hard and so incessantly.  He needed it to deal with the divisions of his psyche.  He got to a point, though, where he was in touch with that deeper part of himself constantly; his wife Catherine made the famous remark, “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company, he is always in Paradise.”  He had visions, and those may have been psychotic episodes, but he also had that view of the world as Paradise that he described in his enlightenment poem.  The integration of his psyche was a long difficult process, but seems to have ended in joy.  He is said to have died singing.

Blake’s relationship with Catherine was extremely important.  Under the influence of spiritual freethinkers like Swedenborg he seems to have believed in free love, what we would nowadays called polyamory, but no one claims he acted on it.  He was devoted to Catherine and taught her to read and write; she was also extremely important to his creative work, because she would sit still and silently while he was working and thereby act as a kind of anchor during his creative frenzies.  She was also his colorist; a lot of the coloring of his art was done by Catherine.

But Blake was not an early feminist.  He believed in the superiority of men over women, that the correct function for a woman was as a helpmate to her man.  He also seemed to think that sexuality was ultimately a dark force that could lead men into ruin, and that women in that way were a temptation for men, not entirely to be trusted.  His overall vision blamed women for many of men’s problems.  I trust Damrosch as he says these things because he seems to be a reliable guide elsewhere, but this wasn’t the impression I got from Blake’s early work, especially The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  His views must have changed.

Perhaps the most interesting single chapter in the book is Damrosh’s account of Blake’s theology, which I have not read elsewhere.  Blake didn’t believe in a patriarchal creator God in the sky, as many of his contemporaries did.  He believed in a divine spark in everything.  Damrosch quotes Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy describing God as the “wholly other”; as the Book of Revelations says, “Thou only art holy.”   Blake thought that was exactly wrong.  He said specifically that everything that lives is holy.  “Jesus was perhaps endowed with exceptional divine inspiration,” Damrosch says, “but if so he differed from the rest of us in degree, not in kind.”  As Blake said to Crabb Robinson, “He is the only God.  And so am I and so are you.”  Jesus sacrificed his selfhood specifically so that he could become the True Self, an expression which Blake used and which is common in Eastern thought.  It is that True Self that we actually all are.  Beyond God and this divine spirit in everything was another force, which Blake saw as energy.  So much of his art expresses that energy, and embodies it.  And he encapsulated those feelings in his brief statement in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Energy is eternal delight.”

I actually found in the end that Damrosch’s book was more valuable than the Ackroyd biography, which I’ve read twice.  He puts Blake’s work into a context from which I feel I can approach it.  I don’t know how that will go.  But the works I now hope to read are Milton and Jerusalem, perhaps with The Four Zoas for context.  Damrosch sees these two illuminated books as Blake’s great work.  In his lifetime he printed just four copies of one, five of the other.