William Blake and the Placebo (and Nocebo) Effect
You have probably all heard of the placebo and nocebo effects (and perhaps the former moreso than the latter). The words are Latin for “I will please” or “I will harm” respectively, and might be construed as the red and blue pills that Morpheus offers Neo in The Matrix, or the potions and pills that Alice takes in Wonderland — one pill makes you bigger, the other makes you small.
Experimental science very much deplores the placebo and nocebo effects, not only because they are uncontrollable but also because they smack of “magic” (which they are), and tend to throw a monkey wrench in the works. Nonetheless, placebo and nocebo effects are unavoidable and, moreover, are connected with the issues of Observer Created Reality (OCR) or Consciousness Created Reality (CCR) in the musings of much contemporary physics.
Basically, it all has to do with what is called “intentionality” or “the intentionality of consciousness” and which is true creativity. Every act of attention or perception is also an intentional act, not at all passive. And this is what Iain McGilchrist means in The Master and his Emissary when he speaks of the “mode of attention” determining the “mode of being”, or as William Blake put it, “As a Man is, so He Sees.” This is very much the same as the principle of Heraclitus that “character is fate”, which is also, basically, a statement about placebo and nocebo effect. Moreover, what we call “sorcery” or “magic” is, as Castaneda records it in his experience, the manipulation of intent more than perception because it is this intent that shapes or guides the act of perception and the nature of the perceived.
This is also the nature of propaganda or “perception management”. The propagandist does not manipulate perception so much as this intentionality. Many people are vulnerable to propaganda and perception management because they are distracted by the belief that the propagandist is trying to manipulate their “thinking”, which is only a secondary objective. But by manipulating intent, which is usually the act of consciousness at a more subliminal or subtle level of perception and thinking, the propagandist can alter the nature of thinking and perception itself. In those terms, it can just as well be said that the propagandist exploits the underlying principles involved in the placebo and nocebo effects. And since most people are oblivious about the real nature of perception and the implied intentionality of all perception, they are easily had without even knowing it.
The easiest way to understand William Blake’s poetry and mythology is to realise that, for Blake, it’s all placebo or nocebo effect. There is no boundary, no moment when the placebo effect (or nocebo effect) begins or finishes. It is continuous. This world-shaping or world=forming potency of consciousness, considered as intentionality, is what Blake calls “the Human Imagination” or “Imagination” more generally, and it is the “Divine Imagination” because it is the creative principle in the human form, regardless of whether it manifests in placebo or nocebo outcomes. And whether the outcome is one or the other is tied up with the belief system. The belief system determines how that intent is to be made actual. It provides the blueprint or specifications, as it were. In those terms, the Ulro, or Shadowland that we call “ordinary reality”, is actually a product of the nocebo effect. It is an intentional object, made by the mind of man and is tightly-coupled with the belief system. So, basically, all of Blake’s poetry and mythology is an examination of how the placebo and nocebo effects, as the work of “Imagination”, play out in reality. In Blake’s terms, then, all that we call “reality” is an intentional object, and everything in that reality is the manifestation of an intent — an intent which manifests either as placebo or nocebo characteristics. Notions of Heaven or Hell, nirvana or samsara, are connected with the placebo and nocebo effects.
It is in this very sense that Jean Gebser insists that the magical structure of consciousness (or the mythical and archaic, too) are still very much active in the psychic ecology of modern man, albeit at a “level” below the ego consciousness. Gebser was particularly concerned about the magical structure precisely because of the nocebo effect and its tendency to become, as we say today, “viral” — or what we also call “psychic contagion”.
Blake’s “Zoas” have both their unfallen and their fallen aspects, and these are somewhat connected with the placebo and nocebo effects, respectively. And so, too, is the “New Jerusalem” and the “Ulro”.
So, understanding the “Divine Imagination” as intentionality, and the working out of this intentionality in terms of placebo and nocebo effects, goes a long way in unraveling the enigma of Blake’s otherwise cryptic mythology. And I’d say, too, that the chief value of Castaneda’s writings is that they are all about the workings of “intent” as the formative or creative power in the human psyche.