William Blake and The New Age
I awoke this morning with Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell on my mind, put the coffee on, and settled down to revisiting this very peculiar work. To most people, I suspect, it looks like the writings of a lunatic. That’s understandable, I suppose. Unless you know alchemy and the Hermetic Code it could very well be mistaken for insanity.
Blake, though, is very lucid, and is here speaking to psychic or spiritual realities that are just as valid, objective, and lawful as anything we call “ordinary reality”. You could say that the spiritual reality described by Blake is “symbolic” or “metaphoric”, but only in the same sense that our everyday reality is also symbolic and metaphoric, which indeed it is. But that means, in those terms, that the metaphorical or symbolic forms (or archetypes as Jung calls them) are also real, living entities. And whether we know it or not, we ourselves are also such living archetypes for symbolic forms or metaphorical beings — or, to put that another way, magical and mythical. In those terms, then, the strange entities of alchemy and of Blake’s vision have the same ontological status as we have. We, too, are symbols that have life.
It is not the case the Blake borrowed or appropriated these magical and mythical beings from alchemy as simply representational signs. They are beings of what we might call “the enchanted realm” and were just as real to others in the genuine Hermetic tradition. In his memoir of The Sufis of Andalusia, for example, the Sufi master ibn Arabi describes the enchanted realm in almost the exact same terms as Blake.
My curiosity in revisiting The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which is a prophecy about the “New Age” that Blake believed was already aborning in his time, is connected with my recent musings on “Peak Chaos”. Even before Nietzsche had announced the advent of his “two centuries of nihilism” with the ominous words incipit tragoedia (“the tragedy begins”) Blake had already anticipated the “corrosive” and “consuming fire” that would attend its onset in much the same sense as Nietzsche — the apocalyptic “dance of Shiva” the Nataraja, as it were. The Nataraja is a very profound symbol of what we might call “creative destruction” — simultaneously being the awful and the awesome, the dance that is the alternation of terror and wonder, and is indeed the most appropriate symbol not only of Blake’s “consuming fire” and New Age, and of Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism”, but also of Jean Gebser’s “double-movement” of disintegration and re-integration that he sees as characteristic of our times.
The climactic moment in Shiva’s dance of creative destruction, or what I’m referring to here as “Peak Chaos”, is subtle but evident. It’s indicated by the one hand raised in a gesture of re-assurance — a gesture that says, basically, “fear not!”. That’s the moment of insight represented here as Shiva’s dance upon the corpse of Ignorance or delusion. What is this saying? That “Peak Chaos” subsides when insight is attained.
There is in this whirl of Shiva’s four arms the echo of Blake’s own “Four Zoas” of the disintegrate Adam as well as the four arms or directions of Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”. Especially when you compare Blake’s own illustration of the “fourfold self” with Shiva the correspondence becomes rather evident
Shiva is “Adam” — the Anthropos and the Androgyne. Shiva corresponds to one of those that Blake calls “the Antediluvians who are our Energies”. I could go on at some length about the symbolism of the Nataraja but that’s not my intention with this post. Shiva, as “crisis”, and Shiva’s gesture of assurance resonates with Rosenstock-Huessy’s statement that “crisis is a blessing in disguise because it compels us to wake up.” That’s the meaning of Shiva’s gesture and the dance upon the carcass of Delusion and Ignorance. But what if we don’t “wake up”? That’s the problem of what we call “zombie logic”.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is also implied in Shiva’s dance, as well as in Gebser’s “double-movement” of our times. It’s the Hermetic symbolism of the hieros gamos or “sacred marriage” expressed in the Hermetic principle “as above, so below”. So the “marriage” as such is the consummation of insight or enlightenment. In Buddhism, for example, the pre-nuptial phase is expressed as “nirvana and samsara not the same”, while the post-nuptials are expressed as “nirvana and samsara are the same”. The same paradox may be said of the phrase “as above, so below”. It is not true…until it is.
Here, though, I wanted to point out something that leaped out from my browsing in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell this morning, which has always struck me as somewhat enigmatic,
The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence and now seem to live in it in chains, are in truth the causes of its life & the sources of all activity, but the chains are the cunning of weak and tame minds which have power to resist energy, according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning.
Thus one portion of being is the Prolific, the other the Devouring: to the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.
But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea, recieved the excess of his delights.
Some will say: ‘Is not God alone the Prolific?’ I answer: ‘God only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men.’
These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.
Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.
Note: Jesus Christ did not wish to unite but to seperate them, as in the Parable of sheep and goats! & he says I came not to send Peace but a Sword.
Messiah or Satan or Tempter was formerly thought to be one of the Antediluvians who are our Energies.
The “Giants” (or Titans) are quite evidently Blake’s “four Zoas” as “Antediluvians” and are, in those terms “our Energies”. But it occurred to me that the only real way to interpret this peculiar passage is in terms of Iain McGilchrist’s neurodynamic model of the divided brain in The Master and His Emissary. For it seems that the “Prolific” is McGilchrist’s “Master” and the “Devourer” is what McGilchrist calls “The Emissary”. This distinction between the “Prolific” and “the Devouring” is also reflected in Blake’s revolutionary inversion of the meaning of Hell and Heaven. In Blake, it’s the “devils” who are the Prolific, and the angels who are the Devouring. This change in relation is exactly paralleled by McGilchrist’s inversion of the actual relationship between the Emissary (or Intellect) and the Master which, by virtue of its having been suppressed by the Emissary, becomes, then, “Underworld”.
And yet, says Blake, “without contraries there is no progression”, echoing Heraclitus’s “strife is the father of all things”, and evidently the divided brain is a reflection of this very thing.
Now, I want to comment again on something that is very, very cryptic in Blake’s “Marriage”, and it runs thus,
The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell.
For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.
This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.
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.
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 thro’ narow chinks of his cavern.
Blake, here, is also speaking in the Hermetic Code, but in a very special sense which I will presume to interpret. The “tree of life” is the spinal column, and the “cherubim with the flaming sword” is that organ which inhibits the ascent of the kundalini energy up the “tree of life” which is the spinal column. The kundalini energy is, in a sense, the sap of the tree of life. In the brain, though, it becomes fourfold — the flowering which is the image of the alchemical “Golden Flower” or the Buddha’s “Lotus”. The petals of this flower or branches of the tree of life are the four Zoas, who “reside in the Human Brain” (Blake). The “cherubim with the flaming sword” is what Gurdjieff called “kundabuffer” — the mysterious inhibiting organ at the base of the spine. The “kundabuffer organ” is, in some traditions, actually called “Satan’s tail”.
It’s in this sense that the “return of the repressed” is a quite literal rising of the suppressed kundalini or serpent energy, called “ancient force” or the “archaic”, upwards along the spinal column. In the brain organ, this energy becomes refracted, prismatically, into the four directions who are the “Zoas” or “the guardians of the four directions”, traditionally represented by the Flower or the Sacred Hoop with it’s four directions, as so
The alchemical “Golden Flower” or the Sacred Hoop are the same symbol.
This is, of course, the principle of Yoga too — raising the kundalini energy through the spinal column activating the various stations or “chakras” along the way until it activates the “crown chakra”, which is the Hermetic “Golden Flower”. This unfolding of the Flower or Hoop is called, by Blake, the cleansing or opening of “the doors of perception”. Blake’s “corrosive” or “consuming fire” is the ascending kundalini energy. This is the enlivening of the senses, which are presently rather dulled — when “the scales fall from our eyes” as it were. This is the “corrosive” fire.
This is called, rightly, “The Great Work” and is also the mending or healing of the Sacred Hoop.