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Blake, Jung, and the Collective Unconscious
The Conflict between Reason and Imagination
By June Singer
NICOLAS-HAYS, INC.Copyright © 2000 June Singer
All rights reserved.
Read William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell with your uninhibited feelings as well as with your intellect, and you will know why the author tells us that at the end of life Heaven and Hell are joined. Flames of desire lick at man's heels as he hurries through his days. At the moment of death they merge with the fragile visions of the sublime which inspired him, coloring his ideas and shaping them into graceful images. In one evanescent moment the Devil, boldly with eyes afire, or subtly disguised, clasps a shining Angel in his embrace. Opposites which struggled within the spirit of man while he walked the earth are united now in one vast paroxysm. Contraries are no longer set one against the other. Differences are resolved into a cloud that dissipates upward. A small mound of dust remains upon the ground.
We have few documented facts concerning those days in Blake's troubled life when Heaven and Hell vied for dominance. His record is his strange unearthly work as poet, painter and self-styled prophet. Only the ground bears witness to the day in which he vanished into the anonymity of a pauper's grave where "within two days of his remains being lowered into the earth those of another were placed above him and on the following day yet another body was placed above that."
Most of what we know about Blake is discovered in the reading of his poetic and prophetic works, at times so obscure as to baffle the patient literary scholar, at times so brilliant as to have stirred the creative spirits of such men as Swinburne, Shelley, D. G. Rossetti and Yeats. A small band of Blake cultists was quietly gathering adherents from the time of Blake's maturity until a century later when one of their number, Herbert Jenkins, devoted several years to searching out the place where the body of Blake was buried. Jenkins located the unmarked plot in Bunham Fields which had been used on eight occasions, three times before and four times after Blake's interment, without even a headstone to mark the place.
Contemporary knowledge of Blake's personal history was scant: his name was missing from the encyclopedias of his day. Rare mentions occurred in biographical dictionaries, and those were sketchy and inaccurate. Yet between his death in 1827 and the appearance of the first biography in 1863, a body of memorabilia about Blake emerged which was to create for him a reputation as a unique genius. The material for The Life of William Blake was collected by Alexander Gilchrist out of conversations with many of the people still living who had known Blake personally.
Gilchrist had begun to cast about, in 1855, for information for his biography of Blake. An industrious researcher, he was moved (sometimes in conflicting directions) by a passion for accuracy and a love for his subject. He contacted many close friends of Blake: Linnell, Tatham, Palmer, Richmond, and Crabb Robinson. Reflecting the uncritical opinions of this tiny group of Blakean enthusiasts, he wrote of the poet's style:
One must almost be born with a sympathy for it. He neither wrote nor drew for the many, hardly for workaday men at all, rather for children and angels; himself a 'divine child,' whose playthings were sun, moon, and stars, the heavens and the earth.
Gilchrist's book abounds with anecdotes ascribing to Blake a personality that first awes people by its ingenuous reference to a world beyond the reach of the senses, then warms them with evidence of his very real contact with that world and his ability to draw from it tremendous sustenance in the form of psychic energy. Gilchrist tells of young students and artists who approached Blake for counsel and advice on how to come into contact with that "other world" in which new concepts arise and visions have their birth. Although Blake labored at his art and his handicraft every day of his adult life, he managed to find time for gentle discourse with those who would carry on his legend, to speak with them concerning the richness of immediate experience that they might enjoy "if the doors of perception were cleansed."
Recollections of Blake's conversations, notes and letters, annotations scrawled on the pages of books in his library, and selections from his major works made up the nucleus of material from which Gilchrist worked. He pieced this material together with such admiration and fascination that his writing often took on the quality of the stylistically elaborate Victorian eulogy. Were this not enough to burden the text, Gilchrist died before his work was complete. His wife Anne finished it, adding the weight of her own emotional attachments to the subject of the work as well as to the writer and assembler of the "facts." Mrs. Gilchrist is generally credited with having written at least one-third of the text of the Gilchrist biography. Thus it is a romanticized collection of memoirs and encomiums that give us the "definitive" biography of Blake, and it is upon this work that all later writings dealing with his life are based. It is no wonder, then, that those who have become seriously interested in the real Blake have cursorily passed over the narrative of his personal history and have concerned themselves primarily with the content of his work.
In a recently published annotated bibliography on Blake, editors Bentley and Nurmi insist that Gilchrist's is still, in many respects, the best biography, though one reason for its indispensibility is a defect. As Anne Gilchrist said, "Unfortunately it was a tradition in the Gilchrist family to avoid notes, to recast the text rather than to use them." Alexander and Anne Gilchrist, and William Michael and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are known to have had close contacts with a large number of people who had known Blake more or less intimately. The information which these people supplied was oral, not specified as to origin by Gilchrist, and is often now not traceable. As a consequence we are forced to depend entirely upon Gilchrist for many facts which cannot be verified elsewhere, and we do not even know who his oral authorities were. But Nurmi and Bently are able to cite many examples which illustrate how very careful and responsible Gilchrist and his collaborators were. The editors feel that the sources were treated with great respect and accuracy, and we must add that it was not altogether Gilchrist's fault if the friends of Blake were inordinately affected by the captivating quality of the poet's personality. Blake has that effect on people.
What we do not know about the interaction between Blake and his environment is more than compensated for by what we are told in his writings concerning his relationship with a subjective world which held for him the dazzle of an imagery against which his everyday experiences showed so dim in comparison that he found them scarcely worth committing to paper.*
The doctrine of William Blake is concerned with a confused assemblage of sexual desires and creative impulses arising within the depths of the individual and their encounters with the limitations and restraints which seemed to the author to be imposed by reason, logic and law. Blake preaches a vast gospel of liberty of the spirit to man, whom he sees as a victim of tyranny in an eternal struggle against his chains.
It is no accident that Blake has become a hero of today's radical student. Deeply impressed by the tempo of unrestrained activity in the American and French Revolutions, with all of their social consequences, Blake applied Revolutionary principles to his reflection upon the dynamic development of the individual. He was willing to upset all "establishments," both religious and political; his writing exhorted each man to search out his own moral and spiritual values. He adopted an anarchical position vis-à-vis the orthodox positions of contemporary Christianity and the traditional notions of good and evil. Rational and scientific beliefs which were being enunciated in the Age of Enlightenment were reversed by Blake in his concentration upon inner images which derived from man's deep and essential emotions rather than from his acquired intellectual or technical skills. In this respect Blake anticipated the work of the contemporary depth psychologist who recognizes that every outer event is affected by the person who experiences it and that his emotional as well as his cognitive responses are elemental parts of the phenomenon being observed. Furthermore, the images in many of Blake's books, particularly his later works, shed identity with their time or place and acquire the universal quality of fairy tale motifs and mythologems which recur over and over in widely separated places. Paradoxically, it is just this universality of theme and style that sets Blake apart as the prophet of the individual, for with his emancipation from the stated attitudes of the contemporary English tradition he was thrown upon his own resources to create an independent personal philosophy which would support him in his lonely search for patterns of meaning.
The prodigious quantity of work produced by Blake may be roughly separated into an early period and a later period, with the division between being marked by the composition of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, when Blake was in his middle thirties. Several of the early works were lyrical in nature. A collection, Poetical Sketches, was written while Blake was still in his teens. Only two of the early books of poetry, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, were printed during his lifetime. The Songs of Innocence were mostly simple in form with a delicate quality and a deliberate, although not always regular, rhythm. In many of them a charming naiveté veiled a depth of feeling and a sensitivity to symbolism which exalted such homely themes as "The Little Boy Lost," "The Chimney Sweeper." or "The Lamb." But Blake's entire work might have been forgotten in the years after his death were it not for one poem in Songs of Experience in which the striking image achieved immediate popularity. Almost every English schoolchild knows it by heart, yet its implications stir the most sophisticated to ponder the mystery of the ultimate creative power.
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 seize 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 water'd 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?
The lasting and overwhelming response to this poem acknowledges the recognition of a central concept in Blake's work. This is the need to become aware of the other side of God, the side not accepted either by social agreement or by orthodox religious practice. Blake says that while he who made the Lamb is worshipped and praised in all the churches, he who fashioned the Tyger to pierce the darkness of the tangled forest with his perceptive eye, he is also God. God of the Lamb is worshipped at prescribed intervals, but God of the Tyger is held in fear by day and night, for none may escape him when he pursues. Blake wrote as though he felt that enough had been said about that symbol of gentleness which is traditionally associated with Jesus. He was more concerned with the fierce and the frightful which threatens innocence and light. And it follows that such a man would address himself boldly also to the darker area of man's life, which is hidden in shadow and must be invaded and explored if man is to approach any degree of self- awareness.
Less notable works of Blake's early period include various poems, some of which incorporate narratives based on the legendary history of England. Others are hymns to Nature in an idealized form. There are some meditative essays which reflect moods more than thoughts, and there is a ribald satire on contemporary philosophy and the arts titled "An Island in the Moon," which was a euphemism for England in the Romantic era. He annotated Lavater's popular Aphorisms on Man and Swedenborg's Divine Love. He wrote two iconoclastic tracts against Deism, There is no Natural Religion and All Religions are One; the latter begins with a typically Blakean subtitle: "The voice of one crying in the Wilderness."
The first two of his many long narrative poems belong to this period also. They are allegories and were written around 1789 and named for their leading characters: Tiriel, and The Song of Thel. Next came The French Revolution, the one work of Blake which appears, superficially, to be most related to the problems of his contemporary world. But this work, too, when we begin to examine it, will be seen as less pertinent to its age than to its author.
It was during the period between 1790 and 1793 that Blake's concern with inner development began to take precedence over everything else and compelled him to compose the extremely personal volume which holds the key to his creative life: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Around 1793 Blake entered the most prolific period of his career which continued unabatedly for almost thirty years until his death. During this time he managed to earn a meager living mostly by making engravings on commission for book illustrations. His real devotion and energy, however, was lavished on the literary works that constituted, in effect, an entire mythology having as its subject the Fall and Generation of Man. There were three major manuscripts: Vaia, or the Four Zoas; Milton; and Jerusalem. They are voluminous, elaborate and abstruse. Images topple over upon each other as in Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" — the effect is one of splendid tumult, but it has been planned and executed with passionate painstaking. There is a mysterious surging energy in these three works, but the dynamism is not apparent to everyone who reads them. The sensitive reader who is attracted to the grandeur of the epic form can put aside logic and permit the sensuous words to flow over him like an exhilarating surf. The literary scholar tries to understand the meaning by deciphering the language of symbolism that Blake has constructed. The analytical psychologist sees it primarily as a projection of unconscious factors in Blake upon mythological characters which arise from transpersonal or archetypal foundations.
The question may well be asked: Why, if the three major works are so important, do we propose to emphasize this obscure and little known volume before going on to the later works? The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a small book consisting of twenty-four plates of text and illustration, both engraved by Blake's own hand. Relatively little attention has been paid to this book until now, possibly because it has been so difficult to classify. It is the one book which is undeniably subjective, and in which Blake writes of mystical experiences of so private a nature that in approaching them one is often seized by an acute sense of embarrassment. Yet appearing as it did, between the youthful period when Blake was primarily concerned with his impressions of the world of nature and with social and political problems and the time of maturity when he was occupied with the underlying forms that determine the lives of men and nations, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell challenges us to find out whether its pages may contain hidden clues to the discovery of the ingenerate factors in the spiritual transformation and creative development of its author.
The very circumstance that the work is so personal predisposes it to psychological analysis. Even more important than the fact that Blake is here relating his personal philosophy is his willingness to expose his most improbable fantasies and visions which, like dreams, illuminate the dark and murky regions of the unconscious.
Not that Blake was himself necessarily aware of what he was doing, in the sense of the modern depth psychologist who concerns himself with the relationship between what is conscious and what is unconscious in man. The hypothesis of the unconscious as a real entity which complements the conscious life of man and which can be scientifically investigated and systematically integrated into the conscious ego was first enunciated by Freud. He admitted that the concept of the unconscious was not new to him, that throughout history many persons had been aware of forces which were not and could not be known in their entirety by man. In his lecture on "The Meaning of Symptoms," Freud refers to Pierre Janet who, in the 1880's regarded neurotic symptoms as expressions of idées inconscientes. Freud felt that to Janet the unconscious had been nothing more than a manner of speaking, une façon de parler, that he had nothing "real" in mind, and that it was his own task to establish beyond doubt the reality of the unconscious through the study of its manifestations in everyday life and in dreams. Thus, before Freud it cannot be said that the unconscious was conceived as a functioning entity.
Excerpted from Blake, Jung, and the Collective Unconscious by June Singer. Copyright © 2000 June Singer. Excerpted by permission of NICOLAS-HAYS, INC..
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