Sunday, March 28, 2010

Vision and Allegory

‘He whose thought is stable and for whom time no longer flows lives in the eternal present, in the nunc stans... This eternal present is no longer a part of time, of duration: it is qualitatively different from our profane “present” – from that precarious present that peeps out faintly between two non-entities, the past and the future, and will cease with our death. The “favourable moment” of enlightenment may be compared with the flash that communicates a revelation, or with the mystical ecstasy which is prolonged, paradoxically, beyond time.’ Images and Symbols, Mircea Eliade

Vision is that ‘favourable moment of enlightenment… the flash that communicates a revelation’; it is simultaneously the immediate and the eternal, the profane and the sacred; it is the terrific union of temporal existence with supernal reality. Vision is supra-sensual, for it sublimates the lower faculty of perception into a direct and active correspondent with the Heaven above us, making divine beauty a tangible truth available to the terrestrial sphere.  The function of allegory sits in plain contrast to Vision, for the truth that it conveys is pure relative and therefore cannot transcend mimesis, or the imitation of the natural world; the rest of this essay hopes to further delineate the boundaries between Vision and Allegory.

’Allegory and Vision ought to be known as Two Distinct Things.’ Vision of the last Judgment, William Blake

The clearest area where we might observe the evidence of such a ‘conflict’ lies in the sacral domain of Art. First of all, it is both highly typical and highly tedious of scholars to persist in reducing the eminent works of Dante Alighieri to mild comparisons and allusions to things of a much lower category than what the artist is really stressing; these observations might even be factual but are entirely misplaced when studying The Divine Comedy or The New Life, and this is because they are by nature allegorical, and can thus only relate to things that are of a worldly type. We know that such methods are inadequate simply because we are aware of the visionary, anagogical understanding that perceives the sublime, esoteric beauty that emanates from the superior doctrine underlying the text, revealed to those endowed with a ‘healthy intellect’; this is not to say, however, that this ‘hidden’ level of beauty is at all isolated from the whole of the art; on the contrary, it is the potent force that effectively governs the very meaning of the art, and its comprehension thereby allows the art’s witness to properly integrate all levels of the work according to their hierarchical significance. We close this point with some poignant words from Northrop Frye:

‘The ultimate significance of a work of art is simply a dimension added to its literal meaning, which can no more be separated from it than the depth of a pool of water can be separated from its surface. Dante says that the profoundest understanding of poetry, which he calls anagogy, even in the literal sense, by the very things it signifies, signifies again some portion of the supernal things of eternal glory. All moral, historical, political, biographical and other “interpretations” should lead us directly from the superficial to the complete apprehension of the same thing, the single image of reality which the work of art is. Fearful Symmetry, Northrop Frye

There is no ‘modern’ artist more astutely alert to the vast chasm that resides between vision and allegory than William Blake, who says that our perception and understanding must be ‘not by deduction, but Immediate by Perception or Sense at once’.  He is presently referring to pastoral, augustan, and romantic artwork when he accuses poets and painters of pointing their focus away from their own art in a cheap and awkward comparison, which he calls allegory. The healthy alternative, therefore, is something that is direct and distinctive, an image of a man that conjures up not a lion in the imagination, but of a perfect, idyllic human being, standing erect in the radiant love of God. This kind of art is called ‘Vision or Imagination’, and which ‘is a Representation of what Eternally Exists’.

In Book X of the Republic, Plato expounds upon his metaphysic by speaking of the artistic function, of how it is even further removed from the ‘ultimate reality’ than the sensible realm is; this is called mimesis (at least in Plato’s case), or his idea that art is a mere representation of something that is already a representation of the ‘thing-in-itself’. While Plato was (in this exceedingly rare instance) somewhat shortsighted in failing to presently announce the higher, visionary qualities of art, something which Aristotle was actually much closer to in his Poetics, he nonetheless provides us with an accurate criticism of allegory. If something already mimics the ‘Eternal Idea’, and is thereby its phenomenon, it is of small necessity or utility that we should once again represent the representation; and that is precisely what allegorical artistry sets out to do. We know the fundaments of morality due to the visionary expositions of Scripture or to philosophical discourse, so the fables and folk tales and political rhetoric serve no greater cause than the education of lesser-minded men who cannot on their own approach the understanding of higher knowledge. The better artists, or Plato’s philosophers, can effectively visualize the intelligible realm, so far as they are able, and this results in the Aristotelian conception of art that demonstrates an idea’s stasis and immutability, and the Platonic conception of a principle’s security from the seemingly incessant river of change.

The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness.’ Luke 11:34

Amongst traditional texts and teachers, visual perception is widely regarded as the highest of the senses; the eye is the gateway to the soul, they say, and the eye is the window through which our Intellect can see; not the ear, nor the nose, nor the tongue; none of these occupy the prestigious position that the eye proudly holds. God and His angels, the pagan deities and their avatars, do not make their full majesty known through sound, touch, or thought, but through a glorious revelation made manifest in human eyesight; not even rational discourse can truly conceive of infinity’s grandeur, of the awesome Absolute; it must be like Arjuna’s sudden humility when faced with the transcendent Krishna, or as the prophet John was blessed by God with the gift of Revelation through the medium of the angel. Human perception is not, of course, vision as we properly understand it; but it is the means by which we may know the real faculty of Intellect, namely, the discernment of all things created by God.

In summary, allegory is often mis-appropriated to something which it can have no serious bearing on, viz. the spiritual path and all of its dominions; for all of that which transcends the realm of the demiurge requires something much more potent than the dialectic method of ‘comparing’ and ‘contrasting’, of reducing the supernaturel to the merely natural. Dante’s opus is not prophetic and revelatory for its ability to make perennial events allegorical substance, but for the spiritual current that unites the entire text into a single comprehensive unit that does not bring God down to man, but actually lifts man to God, and this is climactically achieved through the sublime power of Intellect, the source and driving power behind our ever triumphant Vision. 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Four-fold Man

'Four Mighty ones are in every Man;
a Perfect Unity
Cannot Exist but from the Universal      
Brotherhood of Eden                  
The Universal Man. To Whom be
Glory Evermore Amen.' The Four Zoas

These are the 'Four Zoas': Urizen, the rational, commanding power who is of the South; Tharmas, the generative, bodily impulse who dwells in the West; Luvah, the emotional, desirous aspect who arises from the East; and Urthona, the burning, creative energy who rules the North; together they comprise the 'Four-fold Man' in his properly integrated form.

'But when Luvah assumed the world of Urizen Southward
And Albion was slain upon his Mountains & in his Tent.
All fell towards the Center, sinking downwards in dire ruin,
In the South remains a burning fire: in the East a Void
In the West, a World of raging Waters: in the North, solid Darkness
Unfathomable without end: but in the midst of these
Is built eternally the sublime Universe of Los & Enitharmon.' Jerusalem

When the Fall takes place and Albion slumbers upon his lifeless rock, the human psychic whole is disintegrated, and all four parts engage in a hopeless struggle for dominance. What specifically happens is that, with the exception of Urthona (which we will come back to), each Zoa assumes the place of another, so that no psychic component is performing its natural function, resulting in the inevitable discord of the entire self. Furthermore, as each part is at war with every other part, the individual suffers more and more from the tyranny of reason, or emotion, or bodily impulse, whichever the most potent aspect may be at the time. This internal conflict is truly irreconcilable due to the fact that each Zoa is inseparable from every other Zoa, ensuring that this will indeed be a war without a real, permanent victor.

'Blake's myth is above all psychological. His cosmology, theology, even epistemology are all transpositions of the central inquiry into the self.' ~ Leopold Damrosch Jr.

In his great unfinished poem, The Four Zoas, Blake dispenses with traditional 'psychic hierarchy' in elaborating a dynamic vitality that includes every function working as an essential part of the whole individual. So instead of the scholastic Reason bearing the proverbial Crown, Blake notices the absence of any overriding function, asserting instead a unified collaboration of all the components. This ideal, of course, is only possible in the 'enlightened' state, which brings us back to Urthona, or Los, who is Urthona's laborious 'Spectre'.

In the later epic, Jerusalem, perhaps Blake's most complete and quintessential work of art, the prophet of London depicts the imaginative power, personified in the character of Los, as constantly at work and at watch, ever striving for the reconciliation of Albion's divided self. Psychologically speaking, Los represents the ceaseless creative energy that is the only real Messiah of fallen humanity (Albion); and thus the function of Urthona is the single function of consciousness that remains intact in the 'vegetated state', and is yet merely partially recognized. At the end of Jerusalem, not only do 'the Sons of Eden praise Urthona's Spectre in songs Because he kept the Divine Vision in time of trouble', but when Albion sees Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Universal Humanity, he observes that he has taken the 'likeness & similitude of Los', which obviously implies the sublime divinity and Christian universality of artistic recreation. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Platonic Tradition

'The vegetable universe, opens like a flower from the Earth's center:
  In which is Eternity. It expands in stars to the Mundane Shell
  And there it meets Eternity again, both within and without,
  And the abstract voids between the stars are the Satanic Wheels.' Jerusalem

The most profoundly Platonic concept in Blake is, of course, the metaphysical aspect, which Plato grasps through the cultivation of higher reason, and Blake through imaginative vision. Plato and his followers down through history intuit a preconditioned, causal realm that is the primal source of all real existence, and its Ideas are the underlying, perfect forms of every apparent object in this world. Blake sees the same thing, visualizing eternal forms that persist in time in diverse identities but essentially unchanging.

'The Nature of Visionary Fancy or Imagination is very little known & the eternal nature & permanence of its ever Existent Images is considered as less permanent than the things Vegetable and Generative Nature yet the Oak dies as well as the Lettuce but its Eternal Image &Individuality never dies, but renews by its seed. Just so the Imaginative Image returns by the seed of Contemplative Thought.' Vision of the Last Judgment

Although Blake violently refused the tendency to abstract and generalize 'Minute Particulars' into general forms, he does not reject universals outright, merely the categorization of many varying individuals into one bloated aggregate that he found to be capriciously constructed and intellectually revolting. Universals exist, that is apparent, but, in reference to platonic thought, 'General forms have their vitality in Particulars'. So, while Plato assumed the universal forms to be multiple, Blake supposes only one universal form, namely, the 'Divine Humanity', from whence all others derive. The divine humanity is constituted by members of every type, all very much aware of their identity in the greater whole; simply stated, Plato put prominence on the forms, or the entirety of the universal, while Blake emphasized the distinction and particular merit of individuals and how they relate to the universal..

Another important platonic theme that Blake inherits is found in the common imagery that they share. For instance, Plato and his intellectual posterity discern certain alchemical motifs in traditional myth and literature; one being Plotinus' observation of Odysseus (nominally figured as a kind of 'lesser hero' for his low cunning and trickery) as the very 'type and image', marking him as the quintessential fallen man. He makes this distinction by virtue of the hero's displacement from Ithaca, his home, and his longing to return, and, when he is finally returned, he sheds his disguising rags just as the human sheds his body upon entrance into heaven. Moreover, the caves and water in general are widely depicted as 'female powers', associated with the purely physical, chaotic portion of of our world. Porphyry asks the question, 'What's water but the generated soul?...for souls descending into generation fly to moisture'. And Heraclitus, who prefigures a lot of platonic ideas: 'a dry soul is the wisest... moisture appears delightful to souls', although it is fatal to them. The seas are sun-less and storm-tossed, being bereft of spiritual light. When an image falls asleep, it has lost its vision of eternity, which initializes the sufferings of a Job, or an Odysseus. Raine says that, 'the symbolic event is parallel; for the separation of Satan, the human Selfhood, from the divine world is about to actuate such a cycle of Experience as the Platonic lapse of the soul'.

These primordial ideas captured by the Platonic tradition are rejuvenated in Blake, who enriches his symbolic world with lively allusions to these arcane images; the most obvious parallel is the giant figure Albion, who is constantly depicted as asleep, groaning, desperately desirous of some place he has little conscious idea of. The long poem 'The Book of Thel', which asks why souls must be birthed and placed into mortal bodies, is largely based off of the Platonic descent of the soul. The lovely Thel, upon viewing the terrors of the generated world, takes Plotinus' advice (figuratively speaking, of course) and retreats back 'into the vales of Har'. The poem 'Luvah', the converse of 'The Book of Thel', tells of Vala who, lured by the seeming wonders of earth, is led by the erotic Luvah, who shows her his utopia of shadows; but when Vala loses Luvah (a highly symbolic and necessary event), she has nothing left but a vacant world of endless toil and perpetual dusk. Blake is ultimately dissatisfied with both Thel and Vala, and it is not until his later works that his own vision is truly complete; when he has finally discovered his own particular identity in the great myriad of multiplicity. 

Monday, March 15, 2010


‘To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society.’ RW Emerson


One of the most positively astonishing things about our existence in this strange and open world is this apparent fact that every single one of us is irrevocably, inescapably, and absolutely alone; there is no avoiding this point, no matter how hard we work to free ourselves through dressing up our ego, through the achievement of personal, temporal power, or through whatever superficial means that so many of us try in our desperate and strikingly futile attempt to be released from this dark and infernal fact that human consciousness is purely singular. It is impossible to conceive of some ‘multi-faceted consciousness’, thinking, doing, being innumerable entities simultaneously.  And yet here we are, seemingly trapped in a reality that logically drifts toward unity, coherence, oneness, while we hide ourselves in the ugly dross of an indefinite need for a comfortable multiplicity, a state where we do not need personal integrity due to the notion that we are not actually alone and therefore not actually responsible for our own salvation.

The compelling truth about solitude is that it wholeheartedly denies this weak conception of numbers, and how we can hide in them; solitude has no need for the approval of outsiders as it already has the firm and uncompromising approval of itself. It is a center expanding outward; already convinced of its own self-worth it has little care for the appearances encircling it. Whereas the One has no need of the many, the many requires the One, which succinctly expresses the fundamental relationship between the trend towards solitude and the trend towards company.

To become solitary, it is not enough to escape the company of others; it is enough to cease dependence on the idea of company. To realize first and foremost that you were born stranded and alone in a great yet foreign land is to know solitude; to peer into the starry heavens during a nocturnal stroll is to know solitude; and to finally look into the eyes of a loved one as we journey on from this world is to know solitude. The truth is that these perennial images of ‘cosmic loneliness’ are actually quite terrifying; and we run, we run from them weeping and dismayed, clutching at the garments of our beloved mother, who offers a clear and immediate sense of safety from the horrors of this universe; and yet we are all the while keenly aware that this benevolent deity who pats our back and strokes our hair is not actually God.

It is necessary to love our mother; she raises us from infancy, clothes our naked flesh, and protects us with a ferocity akin to that of the remote wilderness. In order to love God, however, it is necessary to leave our mother; love her just as well, but reach beyond the relative comfort of her embrace and step into the cosmos as a child finally steps into a man, with resolution and an abundant sense of purpose. The motion that drives a man away from his mother and into the Unknown is the same as that which drives a man towards solitude, towards a certain vision of reality that is not quite identical to the one he has previously known, but one that is rather similar to that which he knew in boyhood, where the world is painted in a motley of reds and greens and blues, where every image seems to take on a new and vibrant shape and colour, where every villain is cunning, low, and visibly evil, and where every lady is startling, rapturous, and wonderful (if she is not a witch, that is). The man has effectively transcended boyhood to discover boyhood, beautifully reshaped in the crystallized reflection of a wiser and healthier maturity.

Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’ Matt. 18: 3-4

For all of this passion about oneness and vision and whatnot, we have spent precious few words on the nature of solitude itself, which we hope to presently rectify by delineating a certain process by which one realizes its deep and universal potential. Reaching into the dark depths of reality, to become stronger by means of facing the hard fact of our estrangement, is the first step towards solitude; to plumb through the multidimensional fabric which makes our world what it is with the poetic awareness of an adventurer is the second; these two we have already described in part, but it is the third and final step which is the only one that can deliver us to the full meaning of the solitary state.

When we have mastered our fear of the outside world, our courage is strengthened and bravery will come easily when any particular danger threatens. So, the awakening of internal virtues arises through the conquest of what we see externally; the same applies when we go out from our mother and into the frigidity of space to begin the tempering of spirit, mind, and body, where our ‘internal virtues’ are once again easier to access. The final and most important part of this entire process is the coming out again. It is not terribly difficult to follow these ‘drives’ toward solitude, where we might easily fall prey to some kind of satanic greed for individual power, or some savage misanthropy; but it is quite difficult indeed to control these ‘drives’.

The fullness of solitude is not to be ‘solitary’ at all; instead, it is to be at peace with God, the world, our fellow man. Our being in solitude is to be in communion with our soul, the fount of wisdom of not merely our own thoughts, but of Eternity; it is our essential link which connects us to all human ancestry, all posterity, and will serve us solitary seekers by re-uniting man with man, brother with brother, not in any profane, political sense, but in the far greater context of a resurrected humanity meeting the shining face of God, of Christ during the Last Judgment. This, then, is the third and final step towards true solitude: the overcoming of the inner world to edify the outer world; our interior perspectives are materialized into something (which we call Vision) that sees everything exterior in the same beneficent light.

This wonderful ‘blossoming out’ of the internal intellect into perspective and the remastered shape of our character is easiest to observe by acknowledging the fact that what we perceive is entirely dictated by what we know and whom we really are; an Oriental sage, for instance, might gaze at a single stone marring the flow of a trickling stream for hours on end while someone well-versed in metallurgy might well see in the stone a material value, dragging it away to examine it in detail. If we seriously pursue the ‘solitary state’ we will find that the truth bequeathed to us through our triumph over luxury, our mastery over darkness, etc., will shockingly alter our perception to something altogether keener, altogether wiser in its general activities. This is true to such an extent that, after going through the peace or nightmare of being alone in both body and spirit, we actually experience the joys of being in this world with so many different things, so many different places that we explore and appreciate on a far greater level than previously thought possible. So, the natural result of loneliness is freedom; and the natural result of solitude is fellowship, if not in personal companionship, but at least in the way we view the world.

To bring this rather ambitious and poetic statement back to more grounded terms, for the mere convenience of our more grounded readers (the lot of you be damned), we mean only that the path of the solitary necessarily begins in darkness, as the seeker survives the ‘dark night of the soul’ and so forth, and necessarily ends in the sunny realms of day, where the seeker can look on his past trails as inferior but no less necessary. Simply stated, perfect solitude is that which does not fear the terrors of fate, of realizing oneself as truly alone in the universe, and neither is it afraid of the pressures of the outside world, of going about in fellowship with other men and creatures; solitude knows freedom from this world for it is ultimately stranded and alone in this world; and solitude knows beauty in this world for it walks happily amongst this world. There is not even any fretful ambiguity: we are as free to enjoy the beauty of this land as an artist is to enjoy his own creation, only we have the same delight in experiencing it again and again and again, forever onward through the vast and splendid halls of time…

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ Matt. 6:6

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Gilbert K. Chesterton - 'Orthodoxy': A Book Review

In a world that has turned its collective back on the founding principles of the Christian Church, having no time or space for the man of faith, the few that still adhere to the founding Western Tradition shine all the brighter due to the ever enclosing darkness. In Orthodoxy, which constitutes the literary counterpart to his Heretics, a polemical work that strives to negate instead of affirm, Gilbert Keith Chesterton constructs a surprisingly poetic defense of Catholic doctrine; his playful wit and charming images present a wholly personal outlook on something that he finds romantic and truly fantastic, a refreshing perspective often neglected when seen through the sterile lens of merely 'intellectual' scholarship, and yet sacrifices none of its 'theological' clarity thereby.

One of the most appealing aspects of Orthodoxy is the way in which Chesterton describes the truth of what he has seen; he is perfectly poetic in explaining the poetry of Christianity. Fascinating metaphors and similes abound on every page, showing his cheerful insight by way of pictures and dramatic diagrams in a manner not unlike Scripture itself; there is seemingly nothing that Chesterton cannot find analogous to the Christian faith! Furthermore, Chesterton possesses an endearing cleverness that somehow manages to invert something supposedly self-evident into a shocking aphorism that forces the reader to re-evaluate what he presently believes, what the world believes. An example of this is found in Chesterton's explanation of what he calls the 'Eternal Revolution':

'But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption of things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must always be painting it again; that is, you must always be having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.'

This idea of the 'Eternal Revolution' has more philosophical pertinence than it might seem at first. There is a telling quote from someone whom I do not precisely recall that goes: 'seek not the ancients; seek what they sought'. This concisely exposes the reason why mere memory and mere conservatism and 'revivalist' nonsense amounts to nothing more than confused attempts at realizing truth in our own time, which is what every such attempt ultimately boils down to. Chesterton recognizes this, and asserts that Christianity, though with fixed ideals, perpetually watches and works to paint that post again and again without rest, without leaving it to rot in stagnation.

Another essential idea expressed in these pages supposes a kind of dichotomy extant between the scientific 'factual' evidence of the ostensible workings of this world, and that of positive mythology, of a thriving and child-like imagination. Speaking in wildly benevolent and sympathetic tones, Chesterton accuses the empirical 'positivist' school of assigning abstract and meaningless 'laws' to our reality, which effectively reveal a concerted effort in reducing our genius, our faculty of imagination to a simple 'fantasy', to be indulged only in the picture books of youth. In opposing this with what he calls his 'first and last philosophy', and which he 'learnt in a nursery', Chesterton defiantly proclaims that fairy tales are 'entirely reasonable', and that 'Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense'. Although someone can really write an extensive book on such an idea, we will do our best to clarify it in a single paragraph.

Whereas those in 'Fairyland' submit to the universal reason, that some things are indeed necessary ('For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters'), the 'learned men' in the 'natural realm' are busy preaching that such cosmic events such as 'dawn and death' are 'rational' and 'inevitable'. This is quite simply false according to the 'ethics of Elfland', which instead apply the standard of imagination to 'test' these so-called 'facts'. This reviewer will make a respectful bow to the author, and allow him the final word on the subject...

'They (the learned men) talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit was just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees makes three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton's nose, Newton's nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity: because we cannot conceive of the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike.'

Throughout Orthodoxy, Chesterton always reveals how each particular strand in his overall philosophy accords to the Christian doctrine. In considering the prior idea, for instance, he avers that the 'weird repetitions' that comprise scientific 'law' is a poor substitute for the imagination that envisions God continually resurrecting the Sun, the Moon,and everything in between, but that it could all conceivably end if he should ever tire of such extreme monotony. Thus is Chesterton's reasoning for the superiority of imaginative mythology in general, and Christianity in particular, when compared with the fundamentally limited theories of modern man.

As previously stated, Orthodoxy is an entirely personal account of how one's own opinions are well-met with the greater Christian Tradition, and suffers nothing by it. Quite the opposite, actually, considering how much dry academic material is being thrown our way under the pretense of it being absolute and without boundary; Orthodoxy is different in that it expressly appeals to the rigid needs of a man's intellect as well as warmly approaching the sensibilities of a man's heart without becoming overtly sentimental. Chesterton breaks the barrier in giving us a philosophy that does not merely spout off one's random contrivances, one's egotistic claims (even if the author himself admits to this), and neither does he repeat the same weary mistakes that the Western scholarly world has been making since the Middle Ages; instead, Chesterton introduces us to something veritably profound in its honesty, rigorous in its good-humoured consistency, and sincerely heartfelt in its enduring faith to something beyond all of us. To conclude with one of our favourite passages, we quote what was also the final words of Orthodoxy...

'The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up to a mountain to pray. There was something that he covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.'

Read this book online here...

Or, if you're an old curmudgeon like myself who cannot stand blobs of virtual text, buy the book here... (under $10!)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Symbolizing Divinity

'It is we alone who have devised cause, sequence, reciprocity, relativity, constraint, number, law, freedom, motive and purpose; and when we interpret and intermix this symbol-world, as 'being in itself, with things, we act once more as we have always acted-mythologically.' F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Symbolism is the art of defining higher ideas of this existence through visual, comprehensible effect, or tangible form that is manifest in religious, literary, and mythological content. This is precisely Blake's intent when he visualizes his 'Eternal Reality', and precisely what occurs when he brings the 'Divine Humanity' into personification through the 'Fourfold Man'. Although many consider Blake a Romantic anomaly, who acts without prior foundation, there are others (like Kathleen Raine, for example) who have pioneered a perspective which suggests that Blake actually operated on a solid tradition, drawing from platonic sources such as Plotinus, Porphyry, and Thomas Taylor the Platonist, as well as from alchemical, hermetic, and mystical sources such as the Corpus Hermeticum, Paracelsus, and Jacob Boehme. The main similarity between these two strains of ideas is their common utility of symbolism; they share the same alchemical images, constituting the primary elements which Blake borrows on a constant basis, some of which can be traced as early as his 'Songs of Innocence and Experience'.

Now, regarding the symbolism itself, Blake identifies both explicit and implicit themes of the human psychological strata and summarily attaches a distinctly human personification to that particular theme, which exemplifies not only its apparent characteristics, but essential function and, most importantly for Blake, its distorted function after the Fall. Blake assumes a mostly orthodox perception of the metaphorical 'fall' of mankind: Albion, the original creative energy, imagines a beautiful, feminine image that he himself becomes delighted and entranced with, and in so doing supposes that she has a will outside of himself; and thus the generation of the 'Female Will', and thus the genesis of 'Ulro', the world of generation.

However much this essentially complies with the traditional conception of the Fall, Blake does make a few of his own modifications; the main one being a claim that the fall of divinity and the creation of the physical world were the same event; that they were indeed simultaneous. Knowing that all reality is mental, the perception of a physical dimension already alerts us to the evidence that our perception is fallen, incomplete, and derivative; the natural consequences of this crisis obviously lead us to believe that the decline in our perceptive faculty is continuous, a theory that is easily ratified by the demise of mythological hierophany, the ever more limited understanding of the 'symbolic world', 'personalized' theology, scientific abstraction, et cetera. Despite the diminution of divinity perceptible to ordinary understanding, imagination is clearly extant and, especially for Blake, manifests itself in universal symbolic format, allowing us a visual foundation upon which we can rebuild true, primordial perception.

'Whereas the philosophes saw Christianity as merely symbolic, Blake saw it as supremely symbolic. Dogmatic doubt hid from their eyes the philosophic myth.' - Leopold Damrosch Jr.

The above quote implies another area of disagreement between Blake himself and not only with the philosophes, the neoclassical Augustans, the reasoners and doubters of his time, but a disagreement also with contemporary theologians, dogmatists, and moralists. Amongst countless other items, Blake opposed the literal historicism of latter-day scholars, who naively reconstruct a Biblical dogma using only the hard data of the scripture, failing to perceive the symbolic and imaginative significance of its content, which inevitably results in an oppressive, inflexible morality, and a lifeless, absolutist, ugly theology. Blake's view inherits Dante's idea of anagogy, where the scripture is interpreted as it relates to 'prophetic vision', which necessarily incorporates the higher principles of 'Eternal Reality'. The Blakean symbols everywhere visualize ideas and themes of these 'higher principles', whether they refer to certain elements of epistemology, alchemy, psychology, eschatology, and so on. And, finally, as Damrosch says, 'Symbols are mental constructs which create, rather than mirror, the reality they claim to represent'. So symbolic reality attains a greater ontological status than the very state which they represent due to their a priori configuration of mental perception; we define reality, and we do this best through visionary, mental perception, not sensual feeling vis-a-vis Lockean empiricism.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Blakean Metaphysic

As true vision perceives the very essence of reality, it cannot help but be metaphysical by nature. The difference with Blake is that, though he identifies different realms of reality, these are really only domains of knowing, making Blake's metaphysic purely epistemological; indeed, methods of knowing form the philosophic crucible of Blake's entire worldview, and are thus present in all aspects, symbolic or otherwise.

In order to re-awaken Albion, or the creative humanity complete in itself, we must realize a 'spiritualized' mode of seeing, an active epistemic that appears in direct and intended contrast to the passive sense impressions of empirical science. This is reality itself, as Blake affirms: 'Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence Itself'. The Gospels, and the prophecies found in Ezekiel, Acts, and the Book of Revelation, are all higher forms of this true divine vision, graciously preserved in their purity, and altogether characterize the Biblical tradition that Blake wishes to exhume from its miserable tomb and to once more exalt on high. He ultimately wishes to see 'Eternity in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower'; to see the infinitely beautiful in every single perception: this is precisely what he means by the spiritual, imaginative vision.

Although this is a grand and visually lofty idea, it is hardly the sole, exclusive type of 're-awakening'; it does, however, entail any other individual method, though its form might appear differently. Northrop Frye, the pre-eminent Blake scholar, says that, ' there are exactly as many realities as there are men'. This leads us to another central idea: the differentiation between 'General forms' and 'Minute Particulars'; Blake believes that the former results in a spurious aggregate comprised of an array of particulars assembled by the 'tools of Satan', or 'Memory', and 'Ratio', or fallen reason. This is when the individual loses its particular vitality and is crudely absorbed into the monstrous generality, which cares only for an equality en masse and not for the specific needs of its members.

Blake encounters an essential problem early on when he tries to visualize just how the individual becomes part of the greater 'universal Humanity' while yet retaining his identity; some have said of him in regard to this complexity: 'Bake is a dualist who wants and tries to be a monist'. Whether he ever truly solves this problem is debatable, but this question is important to keep in mind. For the present, it is to be known that Blake's most ambitious goal in this regard is to preserve a man's particular reality whilst according it to the overall humanity, and not losing its vitality to abstraction and generalities in the process.

The declaration, 'As a man is So he Sees', helps us in comprehending that subject and object are not two different things but one inseparable reality. If we visualize the external world in terms of our own internal understanding, what is the mundane reality but the physical extension of our own ideas? The old philosophical proverb, esse est percipi, or being is perception, applies immediately to the present context, as nothing really is if it is not attached with a particular identity deriving from our highest sense, viz. imagination. Thus we can see how a proper delineation of the sacred and the profane takes place; when something is spotted and brought into artistic detail by imaginative vision, it is bequeathed with a certain sacrality; and when something is obscure and irrelevant to everything but the sensual, it is deemed illusory and thus profane.

Another important idea related to Blake's metaphysic / epistemic, returning to the notion of a dualistic monist, is his view of the conditional duality of the physical dimension. Throughout Blake's work we find hints to a theory of opposites, where they agree and where they conflict, but nowhere is it more thoroughly considered than in his iconic poem, 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell'. Within the text, Blake posits two seemingly irreconcilable sides or factions that are always opposed; and yet they are equally necessary. The problem that Blake sees is that one of them will overcome the other in power and become absolute, inheriting a tendency to ostracize its opposite in moralistic terms, resulting in a deep 'psychological' repression of the conquered faction. Blake makes the attempt to show that neither are inherently Good or Evil, but merely a different side of the same coin, so to speak, and that our progress is inherently linked to the maintenance of these opposites.

This has been a very broad brush-stroke of some gigantic themes, and by no means an exhaustive exposition of 'the Blakean metaphysic'; but now the reader will be acquainted with several of Blake's primary themes, allowing us to fill in the details with much greater ease. In closing, it is remarkable to note the very method Blake uses in his engravings, or corroding away the excess to reveal the imprint, is a direct parallel to Blake's artistic assault on the philosophical pedantry and the social caprice of his day; it might be said, perhaps, that Blake had learned how to 'philosophize with a hammer' before that caustic philologist had even been born...

"But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid." - 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell'.