A Tale of Two Seers: William Blake and Jean Gebser

A challenge has arisen in my reading of Frye’s interpretation of William Blake that requires a serious and ambitious effort to correlate the visionary poetry of William Blake with the visionary philosophy of Jean Gebser. The veracity of their respective views of consciousness, society and history depends upon their visions being demonstrated to be mutually consistent.

We have earlier noted the correspondences between Blake’s “fourfold vision” and his four “Zoas” with Jean Gebser’s insights into the history of civilisations as being, in effect, a history of the mutations of consciousness, where civilisational types are appreciated as being particular “structures of consciousness”.  For Gebser, there have been correspondingly only four civilizational types hitherto. These he calls the archaic, the magical, the mythical, and the mental (or mental-rational). In addition, he anticipates yet a fifth mutational form or structure, presently in process of “irruption”, that he calls the emerging “integral” or holistic.

We have suggested that this emerging “integral consciousness structure” corresponds with Blake’s vision of Integral Man who he calls “Albion”. We have also suggested that the archetypal pattern for this potential integration is also represented in the legend of the Buddha and The Guardians of the Four Directions, which narrates how the Buddha, upon his enlightenment, received from the Guardians the gift of their own begging bowls, but which he “for the sake of the dharma” united with his own – or how the four become the fifth or “quintessence” (as the word means).

The fact that the Guardians give up their “begging bowls” is meaningful in itself, for it signifies the fulfillment of the times, the end of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), lack, or neediness which the empty “begging” bowl also signifies, which the four Guardians, like Blake’s Zoas, could only achieve through the mediacy of the reconciling fifth element or quintessence, which is the peace-maker, in the same way that the Four Evangelists, in their zoomorphic aspects, are reconciled through the mediation of Christ consciousness and the cross, or “the Logos”, which is also that which is called “the Dharma”.

It seems we will have to take this correspondence to yet another level of interpretation. We are dealing with an archetypal pattern, which is to say that it is not merely arbitrary or accidental. Other traditions have very similar narratives of fulfillment, such as the Sioux Sacred Hoop and the four directions of the hoop in which “speaking from the centre of the voice,” or speaking from the centre of the Sacred Hoop, which is truth-speaking, plays the same role as the image of the Christian cross and the Buddha’s gesture of uniting and reconciling the Guardians of the Four Directions. This pattern belongs also to Blake’s reconciliation of the four Zoas through Albion. In Gebser, this is the reconciliation of the four structures of consciousness, or civilisational types, through the Integral. What they all mean is “fulfillment of the times”, the end of malaise or of the existential condition called “dukkha” or lack.

In that sense only can there be any meaning at all in Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis. It is mythic image only, and its character of “deficient rationality,” or as a symptom of the deficient mental, is its confusion of ideology and mythology.  (In that sense, too, it is equally what Gebser would call “deficient mythical”). The End of History pertains, also, to the fulfillment of the times, and as such belongs to the mythical or symbolic imagination and consciousness structure.

These various “consciousness structures” are “the times”, as is any civilizational type. This is consistent with Augustine’s view that “time is of the soul”, but “the soul” here corresponds to different types of identities in terms of these structures of consciousness. “The fulfillment of the times” is the achievement of the integral consciousness which, in practical terms, would be the achievement of a universal history appropriate for the Global Era such as that attempted by the “speech-thinker” Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. In fact, an authentically realized “Planetary Civilisation” or true “globalism” would be the effective manifestation of the successful accomplishment of integral consciousness, which is the Peace-Maker. Jeremy Rifkin has named this “the empathic civilisation”, but that is just another way of stating the same thing. That would, in some sense, be the realisation of Blake’s four “Virtues” which he named, in his own idiosyncratic way, “Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love”.

But, to return to the issue at hand, the pertinent passage from Frye’s Fearful Symmetry that necessitated this article is this,

“The totality of imaginative power, of which the matrix is art, is what we ordinarily call culture or civilization. Everything worth doing and done well is an art, whether love, conversation, religion, education, sport, cookery or commerce.” (p. 89)

This is Frye’s sympathetic interpretation of Blake’s teaching of the primacy of the creative imagination, which Blake calls “the Poetic Genius” as being “the true Man”. It is contained in his fundamental manifesto, as it were, “All Religions are One” as the first Principle:

“That the Poetic Genius is the true Man, and that the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius. Likewise that the forms of all things are derived from their Genius. which by the Ancients was call’d an Angel & Spirit & Demon”

As the body is the “outward form” of the Poetic Genius, which is Imagination, so are civilisations also as art forms. Blake calls the true Man or Poetic Genius, “the Artist.” Meister Eckhart called the true self “The Aristocrat”; Ralph Waldo Emerson called the true self “The Oversoul”; Jung and Nietzsche simply name this “The Self”; some use “Essence,” while others use the term “Soul”; Seth uses the term “Energy Personality Essence” in addition to “Soul”. They are equivalent terms.

At root, though, is Blake’s insistence that “reality” is a play of Energy and Form (or “Image”), and that the Imagination is what works, via perception, to translate energy into form. In an age of atom-splitting and quantum mechanics, this is a very contemporary notion, but which must have seemed totally obscure or even mad to Blake’s contemporaries. It does, nonetheless, also resonate with Seth’s insistence that the physical body is the image that the soul entity has of itself under physical conditions, and which he compared to a “spacesuit” for operating within the conditions or parameters of the physical space-time system.

Since civilisations, too, are artifacts of the active imagination (ie, “eternity is in love with the productions of time”, as Blake put it), Gebser’s “structures of consciousness” must be, equivalently, states of the imagination as well as issues of perception. And Blake does, indeed, have four states of the imagination that correspond to the complexity of vision, as from his famous passage

Now I fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And three fold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons sleep

There is, apparently (thanks to Frye for this) more to this passage than I realized, for the fourfold vision pertains to four states of the imagination. Blake gives these states the names Ulro, Generation, Beulah, and Eden, and since states of the imagination and perception produce civilizational types, there must be a correspondence between these and Jean Gebser’s four civilizational types as structures of consciousness. “States of the imagination” is a phrase synonymous with “structures of consciousness”. And since Energy, through desire (Blake’s “passion”), always strives to realize or manifest itself in Form as the principle of “self-realisation” (Frye uses the term “self-development” because, in 1947, “self-realisation” may not have been then in vogue), civilisations are energetic forms or productions of the various states of the imagination appropriate to them.

This means that Ulro, Generation, Beulah, and Eden should correspond to Gebser’s Archaic, Magical, Mythical, and Mental structures of consciousness. And we could just as well call “states of the imagination” or “structures of consciousness” also “the moods of the soul”, which produce different structures or structuring (therefore different experience) of time and space, conceived as civilizational types, and which isn’t much different, in that respect, from notions of “the ruling idea” or “Zeitgeist” of different eras.

In another sense, we can call these “moods of the soul” its “dreamings”. I think I am entitled to do so because I have on my bookshelf a very “serious” book about the history of the Modern Era and the Age of Reason, and it is called The Dream of Reason. Likewise, mythology has been likened to dream and even interpreted as the projection of “dream”. So, I think there is precedent for thinking of civilizational types as the dreamings of a soul not yet awakened to the full truth and reality of its being.

Here is our first difficulty, then. How do Blake’s four “states of the imagination” correlate to Gebser’s “structures of consciousness”, if they do at all? And how could they not if there is a fundamental truth and reality to the vision of both? We need to describe them and map them out.

We’ll take Blake’s most famous passage about the fourfold vision (perhaps) cited above and use that as our “base camp” for striking out to explore and for returning again. It seems central to everything he ever did.

“Single vision & Newtons sleep” is the state of the imagination or mood called Ulro. Ulro, for Blake, is Hell. It is symbolized as being a barren wilderness or wasteland of rock and sand. It is the state of the lowest energetic potential, practically stupour, of the imagination, energetic potential being the equivalent of creativity and perception and therefore of vitality. It is this state that Rene Guenon laments as being the present “reign of quantity”, which Jacques Ellul critiqued in his works on The Technological System, as well as Gabriel Marcel in his Man Against Mass Society. In The Middle Mind, Curtis White also critiques the present state of affairs in much the same terms as Blake – the atrophy of the imagination. It is evidently the condition of what Frye terms “the commonplace mind” and is the equivalent of Nietzsche’s “Last Man”. It corresponds to the state Jean Gebser calls “the deficient mode” of the mental-rational structure of consciousness.

“Single vision” evidently is the “Point-of-View” and “Line-of-Thought” mode of perception that Gebser identifies with narrow perspectivising perception, which is space-dominated or space-obsessed or -possessed. It is what Blake denounces in the works of Locke, Bacon, Newton, and others. Ulro is Gebser’s “deficient rational” mode of functioning.

“Generation” is two-fold vision. It is the realm of the vegetative. In Blake’s symbolism, the fall of man occurred when man “fell upon the stems of vegetation”, which is pretty obscure, but it seems to mean the beginnings of duality, the first consciousness of desire being frustrated by the world’s resistance to the satisfaction of desire. It would seem to correspond to Gebser’s “magical structure of consciousness” since magic begins only when human consciousness begins to sense the beginning of a separation between itself and Nature which must then be bridged by magical technique and which attests to an uneasiness or anxiety about existence. It is a first inkling of a separate identity, the first sense of man’s maladjustment to Nature. That separation is not complete because of what is called “participation mystique”, which is the affinity of all things (and affinity is the absence of “definity”, which is a feature of the mental-rational absolute separation of subject and object).

This is the plant world, and sacred forests and sacred oaks, the Green Man are dominant images, often terrifying ones. They are the elders of that world and even the word for world is “forest,” as Ursula Le Guin noted in a book by that title. German Welt (world) and Wald (forest) are related. Perhaps even the word “forest” is connected with “before” and for-est for being the most “before”. This world of affinities and magical efficacy is still evident in the workings of what is called today “placebo” and “nocebo” effects.

Ulro and Generation represent the fallen states of the imagination, in Blake’s terms – its lowest level of activity, creativity, or vitality. Beulah and Eden are the two states of higher activity.

Beulah is the threefold vision or world. The word “Beulah” comes, apparently, from the Book of Isaiah where it signifies “marriage” and offspring from marriage. Family is its image and it is threefold in the sense of being a unified relationship between Father, Mother, and Child (synthesis) as its basic representative.  Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell may be an attempt to describe the higher state of imagination he names Beulah, and which appears to most closely correspond to what Gebser calls the mythical structure of consciousness or symbolic thinking rather than discursive logic is the dominant mode of relationship between consciousness and world.

Since “eros” and the mythical are often coincident, Beulah as marriage and the association of eros with the mythical (any symbol is, in a sense, a marriage of the perceptual and the sensate without either getting lost in the other) it would seem to correspond. But on this I’m not entirely certain. In any event, if Generation knows only “pleasure or pain” and thus sensate, Beulah knows this as joy and sorrow, which is a “higher” mode of functioning than in terms of pleasure and pain.

Eden is Blake’s term for “fourfold” world, and the fourfold world includes everything “prior” or antecedent to it. If one of the Zoas is, in particular, associated with one of the states of the imagination and therefore with a soul mood or structure of consciousness and is the “ruling idea” or Zeitgeist of the civilisation type it represents, the fourfold vision would appear to bring all these into relationship with each other. This might be symbolized by the legendary four rivers that fed the Garden of Eden and which appear to symbolise what is symbolised by “The Guardians of the Four Directions” noted above.

But “Eden” in this sense only corresponds to what Gebser calls “archaic” consciousness, which is non-differentiated consciousness that knows neither I or It, subject or object. In mental-rational terms it would be referred to as the “primal soup” or “primal grey goo”, and so on.  In fact, in Blake the archaic consciousness is represented by the words “when the Soul slept in beams of Light”, which is the state of innocence (innocence and ignorance being, in effect, the same word). This state is best rendered in terms of what Freud called “the oceanic feeling”.

The state of non-differentiation or non-discrimination is represented in the Eden myth by the fact that Adam and Eve did not know they were naked until they ate of the Tree of Knowledge and “their eyes were opened”; they became self-conscious and therefore entered into the structure of consciousness represented by contraries or duality, not just “I” and “It”, which is the mental-rational opposition of the fully realized ego, but also “I” and “Thou” of the separation of Man and God. This state is what Blake calls “Generation”.

While the correspondences between Blake and Gebser are, indeed, suggestive, they are for me still inconclusive. It could be that there are different valuations placed by Blake and Gebser upon each of these states or structures. Blake’s ambition was to restore Man to “what the ancients call’d the Golden Age” – the “New Jerusalem” by “cleansing the Doors of Perception”. But Blake’s understanding of history and evolution is quite insufficient. He seems to have believed the Biblical account of Creation and its timeline more literally than he should. Gebser, on the other hand, is oriented towards the future. His “integral consciousness” is not a “restoration” of anything remotely resembling a past “Golden Age”, but a new mutation.

So while they each may, indeed, have identified something common in the universal human experience in terms of “states of imagination” and “structures of consciousness”, they may have each had a predilection to interpret the relationship between these differently.

This will require more work on my part to clarify. There can be little doubt, however, that Blake’s “states of the imagination” as Frye interprets these have the same meaning as Gebser’s “structures of consciousness”, but would they understand the same thing by them?

3 responses to “A Tale of Two Seers: William Blake and Jean Gebser”

  1. amothman33 says :

    But would we understand the same thing by the terms used or the interpretation given? thank you for a lucid interpretation for the dialogue between the energy and the form ,the form and formless. I now understand the sufi saying …we are asleep only to get up when we die. May god save us from the atrophy of the imagination.As you said understanding the message require a lot of work on our part.Thank you again.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I now understand the sufi saying …we are asleep only to get up when we die

      I rather hope we might wake up and get up before we die rather than wait until when we die, lest we altogether die.

      Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy wrote something similar, though. In the natural order of things, birth precedes death. But in the spiritual order death precedes birth. In that statement is something of the belief that the physical world is an inverted or mirrored image of the spiritual, and something of that in Omar Khayyam’s statement that “only a hair separates the false from the true”. William Blake said something similar to Khayyam “Any thing possible to be believed is an image of the truth” — in other words, there is a distinction between what we call “fact” and “truth”, just as there is a distinction between “belief” and “faith” for the same reasons. They look similar, but one is only the image, and another the reality.

      And so it is with so many other values that are being “quantified” or “reduced” — “assimilation” as the false image of “integration”, and also the inverted or reversed image of “universality”. The “natural man” is an ape, really — the monkey man. He’s a caricature of the “true man” and thus, an inverted or reversed image also. And so, most of his values are also inverted or reversed from true, just as in the mirror we see ourselves reversed.

  2. amothman33 says :

    Blind in this one is blinder in the other.Release from the body makes us enjoy the biggest picture.. that is why silence is very important in this life. Let go and start the awakening journey.

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