The Cistern and the Fountain

“The cistern contains, the fountain overflows” — William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”

I was just glancing over some notes, and recollected this “Proverb of Hell” from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I thought I would comment on this briefly, as it will come in handy in subsequent posts. In form, it recalls the title of Erich Kahler’s interesting book The Tower and the Abyss, and the “cistern” and the “fountain” do correspond to Kahler’s abyss and tower, respectively.

“The cistern contains, the fountain overflows” might be taken as an appropriate metaphor for the relation of ego consciousness to the unconscious, or equivalently of the reasoning intellect to the imagination or the “intuitive”. It does map the psycho-dynamics of the energetic relationship that exists between ego consciousness and the so-called “unconscious”. The image of water here is a symbol of psychic energy, and the pattern of its dynamics as the separate, but complementary, functions of cistern and fountain. The cistern receives the overflow or surplus from the fountain and stores it, ie, conducts it, contains it, and organises it, while the fountain corresponds to Jean Gebser’s “ever-present origin”.

We find similar metaphors in Nietzsche’s writings about the relationship of ego consciousness to the Dionysian, and the association of those energies with “fountain”, such as his “Night Song” and “Of the Rabble” from Zarathustra.  Sometimes ego consciousness is symbolised by a cup, which is but another kind of cistern. A strict Freudian might suggest that it is an erotic image of the relation of female sexual energy to male sexual energy, as cistern to fountain correspondingly.  Well, he’s welcome to that interpretation, and it is probably true enough — as far as it goes — for the relation of cistern to fountain is, here, a marriage, in the sense of a hieros gamos.

It is enough to bear the proverb in mind for the time being. Hell’s proverb about the relationship of cistern and fountain will come in useful later, not only as a metaphor about psychic energy and of the relationship of ego consciousness to its roots, but also as an  image of the relationship of time to eternity.



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