Cars drive by as I sit at a picnic table in a neighborhood park. A house across the street from the park contains among its Halloween decorations a sign stating, “Eat More Veggies.” The letters appear painted in red beside a red hand, and beside the sign stand ghosts and tombstones. Appropriate seasonal attire, I think to myself, my mind drifting off to contemplate the coming holiday. There’s work to be done; the basement of our house remains an issue. I’m reminded of the old “base-superstructure” construct, hearing in it now, after all those years reading about it in grad school, a set of moral abstractions, a marriage of contraries equal in power to Freud’s reality and pleasure principles or Blake’s heaven and hell. As societies of both matter and mind, we can arrange ourselves in a variety of ways; we needn’t always be arboreal and hierarchical. Yet we do need to deal with capitalism and climate change, and their local, existential correlates.
What would a revolution on the scale of the Copernican look like today? Sigmund Freud, whose works students and I discussed today in class, liked to pat himself on the back for his accomplishments, comparing himself to fellow paradigm-shifters Copernicus and Darwin. He believed the three of them had dealt “bitter blows” to humanity’s “craving for grandiosity.” Copernicus taught humans to de-center themselves, the earth a mere speck in a world-system of vast magnitude. Darwin robbed them of their self-regard — their sense of themselves as special, divine creations. Both figures dealt blows, in other words, to what Freud called humanity’s “Ego.” Why is the marriage of heaven and hell that Blake envisioned recast by Freud as cause for pessimism regarding humanity’s capacity for happiness? What happens when Blake’s “angels” and “devils” become Freud’s Superego and Id?
Students and I have been tracking vast allegorical systems as they’ve developed in parallel with historical transformations across centuries. The texts we read contain banners on behalf of consciousness raised by philosophers, poets, bards, prophets, visionaries. Descriptions of the macrocosm shift with great suddenness and power into descriptions of the microcosm and vice versa once we learn to read allegorically. Through it all, a sense of the Mind’s evolving sense of itself. When I return from work, I honor Robert Hunter, who died the other day, by contemplating a song of his that a student mentioned after class. The student wondered if there might be a bit of Blake’s “voice of the devil” in Hunter’s “Friend of the Devil.”
Another student inquired after the Holy Spirit, prompting me to investigate pneumatology. Mightn’t we interpret altered states of consciousness as charismata? Gifts, powers, inspired forms of being, with or without psychoactive sacrament?
Sometimes I respond to concentric circles representing the orbits of other entities and beings. What did William Blake mean by phrases like “the starry floor” and “the watry shore”? Look, too, at the Silver Surfer figure at the base of the “Introduction” engraving from Blake’s Songs of Experience, lounging on a chaise in outer space.
Blake speaks in the same poem of “the starry pole” that the “lapsed Soul” might control, “And fallen fallen light renew!” In the voice of the Bard who knows the power of words in the act of creation, Blake beckons the Earth to awaken again after years of slumber. And to the “lapsed Soul” of fallen humanity, he says, “Turn away no more.” Or so I thought at first. However, maybe he’s still speaking there to the Earth. Perhaps Earth is the “lapsed Soul,” the slumberous mass of which the humans reading the poem are but a part. This makes sense, given that the next poem in the series is titled “Earth’s Answer.” Awakened into language, Earth denounces the “Father of the ancient men” who would shame her and place her in bonds. In Blake’s estimate, the Father imagines himself as Reason, but behaves like a jealous tyrant, chaining us with “mind-forg’d manacles” to a prison-world, a false totality, a construct. Have critics read this work in relation to cousin genres: image-text parings like Tarot cards and graphic novels?
For the first time in many years, I’ve made drum practice a regular part of my day, learning along the way a new bearing, a new coordination, a new integration of body and mind. I sense there’s a whole magical metaphysics to be learned, an articulation of parts into a world party, spontaneously assembling, dancing to a plurality of beats. Align the rhythms of the microcosm with the rhythms of the planet, limb coordination an allegory for coming together to address climate change. In all cases, it’s a matter of reprogramming, creating new branches, new head-spaces, new patterns of play. Each of us becoming solar-powered, enlightened, worshipful of sun and moon. Afterwards, I go back and re-read my entry from September 20th of last year, with its description of a consciousness expanded beyond Reason’s bounds. Then, as now, I had Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell on my mind, a text I teach each fall.
Sunlight reflected off passing cars on the street below travels in a ghostly manner across the ceiling of the flat, short fleeting flashes matched with sounds of engines as I lie on a couch beside the window. Sarah and J. type at their laptops. Air releases as one of them twists the cap from a carbonated beverage. I try to open myself to these sounds. I try to welcome them as aspects of experience. Before long, conditions change: J. rinses a dish in the sink, Sarah leafs through a catalogue, the sun passes behind some clouds, and suddenly I’m up on my feet, I’m stretching, trying to release tension from my neck and shoulders. What is the source of this tension? Blocked kundalini energy — energy I’ve awakened, trapped along its journey up my spine? Perhaps it’s just pain related to the shitty mattresses on which I’ve been sleeping these past few weeks. Rather than dwell on the discomfort, I hop over to the Tate Britain, where I wander around listening to Third Ear Band’s Alchemy while viewing works by Ithell Colquhoun and William Blake. Beautiful carved objects greet me by day’s end — ornate wooden chessboards, masks, figures, and statues at a West African restaurant near the British Museum. Dining alone in close proximity to neighboring tables creates a slight sense of awkwardness, as I know not where to direct my gaze, other than at the art on the walls.
Thomas Merton teaches us, in the face of the nuclear desert as potential future, to wage war unceasingly and courageously against despair. Kikagaku Moyo fill the air with pregnant, dripping, liquid sound with the song “Silver Owl” from their third album, 2016’s House in the Tall Grass.
Listening is like flying regally over a crisp October landscape, air in one’s lungs. Think of that Walt Whitman epigram from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems as a joyous, hearty psychedelic “yea” in reply to William Blake’s line about the “doors of perception.” “Don’t just unlock the doors,” says the psychedelic evangelist. “Tear them from their frames!” Ginsberg begins his poem in much the same spirit as Blake, evoking the power of vision. By this he means “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”: the god-like imaginative power behind dream-work and kosmos-creation. Just as Blake aligned himself with the angry prophet figure Rintrah, so too with Ginsberg, who aligns himself with figures like Muhammad. It’s such a psychedelic place, this world, this book written at the tip of the mind. It was from the Angel Gabriel, remember, that Muhammad claimed to have received the revelations that became the Koran. Ginsberg speaks of Blake appearing before him in a vision hallucinated while lying in bed after an orgasm. Ginsberg’s mother Naomi was hospitalized for mental illness. As biographer Barry Miles notes, this gave Ginsberg “an enormous empathy and tolerance for madness, neurosis, and psychosis.” One of my favorite moments in “Howl” is when Ginsberg refers to “kind king light of mind.” I’ve experienced that kind of high. Also the low he describes on the next line as “the drear light of Zoo.” Ginsberg mapped the emotional antipodes represented in the heroic deeds and misdeeds of the radicals and anarchistic free spirits of his generation. “Howl” is epic poetry set to the purpose of narrating the collective subject of universal liberation collision-coursing its way through the ultimate bender.
What does it mean to conceive of the five senses as Blakean “doors” or “windows,” mediating variables capable of description as “cleansed” or “closed,” on the other sides of which lie “immense worlds of delight”? Such a conception is predicated upon some prior fracturing of the cosmos, is it not? The outer material realm on one side, the interior infinite expanse of the Heavens, i.e. “consciousness,” on the other. Is it, as Blake suggests, only by delivering ourselves more fully to our senses that we reenter the Paradise from which we imagine ourselves banished? What would the implications be in terms of life and death?
A fascinating line from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell where, through a persona he insists on calling “The voice of the devil,” Blake professes, “Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.” Contraries appear because defined by one another. Being and nonbeing co-constitute. When we draw our magic circles, we define for consciousness what lies outside it. The act conjures both figure and ground. But it requires, so Blake suggests, Soul or consciousness to recognize in its self-possession not just a house host to the Self that calls itself Logos, but a whole pantheon of emotions, desires, creative powers, “demons.” The fully human. A body that in dance becomes possessed by the energy of Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Afro-Cuban’-versioned “Night in Tunisia,” possesses in consequence a consciousness expanded beyond Reason’s bounds. Filled with delighted exuberance. Orthodoxy to Logos, meanwhile, culminates in material impoverishment and departure from physicality. We must nourish the body, but assume that the imagination extends beyond it. Then again, as Brenton Wood says, maybe I’ve got my fools mixed up. Where in this “marriage” is that groovy thing called Love? Wood frightens and intimidates on “Runnin’ Wild,” but sounds far more loving and merciful on “The Oogum Boogum Song.”
Sarah pulls up a new Netflix original series based on the Margaret Atwood novel, Alias Grace.
The series begins with an epigraph from Emily Dickinson: “One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted / One need not be a House / The brain has Corridors — surpassing / Material Place.” How are we, each of us, so many different things at once? Stories within stories — but common to all, a fiery red anger, which keeps us wide-eyed, awake, and watchful. In Atwood’s world, characters do little but advance plot, their hard lives shortly the ends of them. Character is a device for the transmission of historical circumstance. Eyes open, little time to pretend. Systems that employ persons as servants or slaves are things to despise. Stars blink down at me. An acorn falls from a tree. I am seeing as if montaged across my forehead a cloud of imagery. We are headed toward the bad future: hierarchical, inauthentic. “Where any view of Money exists, Art cannot be carried on, but War only. […]. Art Degraded, Imagination Denied, War Governed the Nations.” So reads Blake’s engraving of the Laocoon. I find in this work words uttered as if by a prophet. Light and shadow. Eyelid movies all my own. Voices, too, telling stories of things not visible. One of these days I should try to design a course on either Noble Savagery or the idea of the wild. The failure of the hippie counterculture over the course of the 1970s signaled the decline of these ideas as significant components of American identity. Wildness is no longer a major trope in the American national-political unconscious — and I regard this as a great tragedy, a decline we ought to mourn. Atwood’s character says, “God is everywhere. He can’t be caged as men can.” Yet the world is all predators and prey. When the weather is like that, one’s heart pounds in one’s ears, make of that what one may.