William Blake: The Cistern and the Fountain
The cistern contains; the fountain overflows — William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”
I posted on this topic earlier, suggesting we bear this metaphor in mind while discussing the Seth material. So, let’s dive into it as a metaphor for the psycho-dynamics of energy.
Let’s address the full meaning of this proverb in the light of the full Seth quote we have been discussing, which you can access here.
Ego consciousness must now be familiarized with its roots, or it will turn into something else.
In Blake’s proverb, the cistern is the ego consciousness. It “contains” means, it organises the flux of psychic energy into cultural patterns, and more or less fixes these in symbols or systems of thought. The fountain which overflows, which is the energetic flux or “water of life”, is Seth’s “roots”, and is the source of the ego consciousness itself, and is sometimes called “inspiration”. “Expiration”, therefore, is a deadening, and might be considered the condition in which the cistern — the ego consciousness — has lost connection with the fountain — the roots.
Again, this dynamic of inspiration and expiration, and the connection of cistern to the fountain, is contained in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Also, the relation of cistern to fountain is Nietzsche’s philosophy of the relation of Apollonian light, reason, or Knowledge to Dionysian darkness or “wisdom”. Nietzsche himself frequently uses the symbol of a fountain to represent Dionysian energies surfacing.
“Almost too violently dost thou flow for me, thou fountain of delight! And often emptiest thou the goblet again, in wanting to fill it!”
“Energy is Eternal Delight” (Blake) and is the “waters of life” itself. These are the same “waters” of the Book of Genesis and the division of the “waters above from the waters below” probably the same description as cistern and fountain. The cistern as symbol of the ego consciousness is here “the goblet” or cup for Nietzsche. He also speaks of the “chamber of consciousness” for this, also mentioned earlier,
“Woe to the portentous curiosity that could manage to look out of and down from the chamber of consciousness through a slit and that now began to realize that man rests on the heartless, the greedy, the insatiable, and the murderous in the indifference of his ignorance, hanging in dreams, as it were, on the back of a tiger. In this constellation, where in the world does the urge for truth originate?”
“Hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger” is the same relation that Blake draws between the cistern and the overflowing fountain. In fact, Blake very frequently uses the same image, the Tiger, for the same meaning Nietzsche gave it — the Dionysian energies,
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
So, for people who have often puzzled about the meaning of Blake’s “tiger”, the clue to its interpretation is provided by Nietzsche. The Tyger is the Dionysian, and corresponds to the darker aspects of what Seth calls “the ancient force”. For comparison, if some compare the ego consciousness to a cork bobbing in the ocean, or a transient wave on the surface of this ocean, Neitzsche compares it to the experience of riding on the back of a tiger. The energies of the Dionysian (the unconscious) exist “beyond good and evil”. They are ambiguous and paradoxical, from the point of view of the ego consciousness which experiences them as being either “good” or “evil”.
Again, I refer you to Rumi’s poem “Green Ears” to see how Rumi himself handled the paradoxical character of this energy as being both creative and destructive, from the ego’s perspective.
The ego consciousness structure as “cistern” is also symbolised in Blake as “cavern”, as “cave” in Jean Gebser, as well as “chamber” in Nietzsche. Corresponding to Nietzsche’s description of the relation of ego consciousness to the Dionysian is Blake’s description of the narcissism of the ego consciousness, that is, an ego consciousness that has lost contact with the “fountain” or its roots,
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
This self-enclosure has today reached an extremity in the form of “the culture of narcissism”, the closure of the ego consciousness in upon itself in the form of mental tautology, which in earlier times was called “idolatry”. This is the problem, now, of the ego consciousness trapped in its own perspectivism (as analysed by Jean Gebser in his book The Ever-Present Origin), or what Nietzsche also called “nook-and-corner perspectives”, that is to say, what we call being “boxed into a corner” or having “painted oneself into a corner”. This “corner” is the angle, and the word “angle” is related to the word “anxiety” and “Angst” — a narrowing or constriction of consciousness and the possibilities of consciousness.
This is the ambiguity of perspectivisation. It opened up the vast third dimension of space to the human mind, but simultaneously locked and froze the ego consciousness into a narrow “point of view and line-of-thought” psychology, focussed in the eye (the chinks or slits), and which has now become a crisis of consciousness. Here is how the ego consciousness has developed over the Modern Era. Please compare the following symbolisations from da Vinci to Blake,
From da Vinci to the NSA and mass surveillance, the pattern is clear — the desire of the ego consciousness to become the omniscient All Seeing Eye, to appropriate the powers formerly reserved for the gods, but which has ended as this —
Tolkein’s “Eye of Sauron” surmounting a pyramid or tower is also the same image as Blake’s savage, false god, the Zoa “Urizen” (whose name is probably a contraction of, and allusion to, “Universal Reason”). And if you read Erich Kahler’s book The Tower and the Abyss, it is this “pyramid” of vision that is Kahler’s “Tower”, although he seems not to have fully realised it himself. The chief difference between the ancient “Tower of Babel” and this tower is this: one pertains to the ear, and the other to the eye as the chief organ of knowing of the ego consciousness.
These illustrations map the rise and fall of perspectivising perception. They are, in fact, images of the evolution of the ego consciousness structure (the “mental-rational consciousness”) of Modern Man over the last 500 years. They are the image of an ego consciousness that sought omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence. That is to say, that wanted to be God itself. Or, as Nietzsche put it, “”If there were a God, how could I possibly bear not to be God?”
The image of God in the Modern Era is also the image of the perspective eye. The God of the Middle Ages was he in whom “we live, move and have our being”. The God of the philosophers, however (that is, the God of the mental-rational consciousness and who is this very thing as “Universal Reason”) was God as Clockmaker and Architect a God remote in time (“ancient of days” in Blake’s terms) who, winding up his universe at the beginning of time, set it in motion and then retired to wherever gods retire. Laplace, although a faithful Catholic, nonetheless felt that his logical system of the world had no need of God as an hypothesis. Most people have misunderstood this to mean Laplace was an atheist, which he was not. He was a Deist. God, nonetheless, remained “First Cause” or prime mover, but no longer everywhere all the time. This role was now assumed by Reason itself.
Is this understood? The God of the Modern Era is the perspectivising ego consciousness itself, who, taking his “point of view” at the beginning of time, surveys all time and space from this point of view, but nonetheless, remains himself fixed and trapped in this “point of view”, no longer an active participant in his creation, which has become all Object. Eventually, this “God”, who is the image of the modern ego consciousness itself, disappeared altogether in the remoteness and the abyss of deep time. Nietzsche announced this as “the death of God”.
This death of God and the crisis of the ego consciousness are related. The name “God” was simply the way the ego consciousness organised, in an intelligible manner, its relationship to “the fountain” or “roots” as source of its life and identity. This God, as a “point of view” god, grew more and more remote in time — a prisoner of time himself — as the ego consciousness became more and more detached from consciousness of its roots, until this God disappeared altogether into the depths of infinity — the “vanishing point” of the perspective artists of the Renaissance. The result? Nietzsche as madman of the marketplace announcing the death of God in The Gay Science,
“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
This God, of course, had to die. But, as Nietzsche makes clear here, this death of God is also a crisis of the ego consciousness which must also share this God’s fate because the God of the Deists was nothing but the ego consciousness itself “flowing out into a God”.
And that brings us back, once more, to Seth’s warning, Ego consciousness must now be familiarized with its roots, or it will turn into something else. The death of God as All-Seeing, but perspectivising eye is the contemporary tragedy of the ego consciousness, but also necessary to clear the deck for the rediscovery of the authentic source of life and identity in what Jean Gebser calls “the ever-present origin” and what Seth is calling “roots”.
This is ultimately what Blake wants us to understand as well in this image of the cistern and fountain, and his poetry is full of symbols of the flow of psychic energy through the human form and of the sources of this energy in the here and now, not the remote past. Genesis, for Blake, is every moment. But this was unintelligible for minds that had fallen under the spell of Urizen, Ancient of Days, who was the false “point of view” perspectivising God of the mental-rational consciousness (as illustrated above).
More on this to come.
Supplemental: The illustrations above are meant to depict the shape of the Modern Mind — the structure of the mental-rational consciousness as a perspectivising construct. They map, from da Vinci through Descartes, through the Enlightenment, to the present, the evolution of that structure over 500 years. I think you might find all this quite astonishing.
Blake’s “Ancient of Days”, who is Urizen, shows that Blake was quite aware of this structure — Urizen in his Orb as all seeing eye, while the pryamid of perspectivising vision is depicted in his calipers. This is the shape of dialectical reason — synthesis built atop a base of thesis and anti-thesis, forming a pyramid. There is a certain tragic irony in the fact that people confuse Blake’s “Ancient of Days” with “God”, and do not realise Blake was depicting a false, savage god, a god of iron and a usurper. Urizen is one of the fallen Zoas of disintegrate Primal Man Albion, unaware of his own relationship to the other Zoas also fallen into disintegrate state. Urizen is cold rationality and rationalism, hence his name. His spirit is therefore strongly connected to the image of Sauron in Tolkien.
General Electric, significantly, actually commissioned a frieze of Blake’s Ancient of Days to hang over the doorway to its headquarters. Ironic it is, although Urizen’s association with energies is accurate, they apparently did not understand Blake’s intent.
It’s unfortunate that the discursive mode of presenting arguments — drawing them out in words over time — is the one we still need to follow, because the problem is that, over time, one also loses the thread through the labyrinth. What should be presented in its very “all at onceness” loses something in the translation into discourse.
Unfortunately, we do not as yet have a mode of communication that has overcome time like we have space. The one mode that would make that possible, and overcome the limits of discursive logic, is telepathy and that hasn’t as yet been well developed. I suspect, though, that it was the norm in pre-history.
The one attempt that has been made that comes to mind is Pablo Picasso. He tries to overcome the limitations of discursive logic and the trap of perspectivism by representing all times at once — all perspectives at once — so that one takes in, in a single glance, the entirety of the object as if seen from many different times or perspectives simultaneously. This is Picasso’s significance — that he attempts to break free of the perspectivist trap and hold on awareness. He’s struggling to represent the “all-at-onceness” of things so characteristic of our times. But that means, a restructuring of the ego consciousness, too — of its mode of perception. To the old consciousness structure — the “train of thought” structure — it was always “one damned thing after another”. But the truth of our post-modern condition is that it is now “everything all the time”, and not “one damned thing after another”.
Time is, in some sense, contracting and imploding. This is dismantling the old consciousness that thought in terms of ‘train-of-thought’, ‘line-of-thought’ and ‘point of view’. Hence the anxieties of the present time. The ego consciousness feels besieged by time — the problem of everything all the time.
Picasso is, in fact, a fine example of Seth’s ego consciousness attempting to organise knew unconscious knowledge — at least, making a good stab at it.