more seeing

William Blake was an English poet, painter, print maker, and visionary of the Romantic period. He has influenced and inspired the work of such artists as William Butler Yeats, composers Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and counter-culture poets and songwriters of the 1960s like Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison. Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, considers Blake a major influence in his own philosophy and work. Most online bios of Blake note that though he was considered mad in his time for his unusual ideas, now he is lauded as a magnificent luminary and genius. As in, those people back then just thought he was crazy but now we, a more enlightened people, recognize and appreciate him for what he was.

I don’t stand in judgement of who is crazy and who isn’t, but I’m willing to bet that most of these Blake fans, if they had the opportunity to have lunch with him today, for example, would come away thinking the man’s got a screw loose. William Blake started seeing visions at age 8 and continued to see visions very frequently, almost daily, throughout his life. He claimed to converse on a regular basis with angels and demons. How does that sit with you?

William_Blake_002

Blake saw the above “ghost of a flea” during a seance one night. Blake claimed the flea told him, “fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men as were by nature blood thirsty to excess.” In Blake’s time, a belief in the supernatural was not considered as idiosyncratic as it is now, so I wonder if he was considered mad more for his religious and political views.

When I was fifteen or sixteen I found in our bookshelves a copy of Blake’s Poetry and Designs. I found it mesmerizing and shocking. At that time I was obsessed with feminism and social justice, so I quickly picked up on those themes in his work. But as a believing Mormon, I found his religious ideas confusing and some of his artwork extremely unsettling.

Nebuchadnezzar
Nebuchadnezzar
The Ancient of Days (Urizen surveying and measuring the world he has just created)
Ancient (Urizen surveying and measuring the world he has just created)

His artwork was so powerful and arresting I couldn’t stop looking at it, but I didn’t understand it. About ten years later I bought a copy of Blake’s Poetry and Designs and I continued looking at the images and reading the poetry, thought I don’t know that I came much closer to understanding it. I didn’t know whether I liked it or not, but I had to have it. Unfortunately I left the book back in the US when I moved to Spain.

A few days ago researching creative vision brought me back to William Blake, and I wish I had the book with me. I’ve spent the past three days with whatever I can find of him online. I could write many more posts about all things Blake, but for now, this. What he thought about seeing. He sent the following lines to a friend in a letter:

Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God uskeep
From Single vision and Newtonssleep!

Let’s start with single vision, the dreaded Newtonssleep. Blake was not an Isaac Newton fan, and single vision represented the purely rational, logical, scientific way of seeing. Blake dreaded this literal view of the world, divorced of all emotion, empathy, and intuition. Twofold vision would include both reason and emotion, and an ability to contextualize and imagine. At the threefold level you have access to poetic, creative inspiration at Beulah, a place in Blake’s mythology “where Contrarieties are equally True.” It’s the subconscious. It’s where Blake goes Jungian. (In Beulah, it seems, the sexes “blissfully converse in shameless selflessness.” Sign me up!) Fourfold vision is mystical bliss. Ecstasy. Revelation. Visions.

blake_man_illum450

 For Blake the purpose of reason is to give form to imagination. Allowing contrary truths to coexist without one repressing the other is the ideal explored in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He believed the paradoxes of human existence should be allowed and in fact it is from these paradoxes that creative energy springs. 

“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and
Repulsion, reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are
necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call
Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason.
Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”

Harvey Birenbaum wrote of Blake’s Songs of Innocence: “The tensions of the world resolve here, appropriately–not in rest, however, but in play, a fluency of energy in absolute delight,” “…thus the meaning of life itself is not a philosophical problem but the function of a process or activity–properly a dramatic or a mythic problem.”

I am fascinated by the idea that we don’t create meaning in our lives by buying into a certain belief system imposed from outside ourselves, like formal religion and science, but rather through our way of seeing, of experiencing and enjoying creative energy. I agree with Philip Pullman, who says, “Single vision is deadly. Those who exalt reason over every other faculty, who condemn those who don’t respond to life with logic but allow themselves to be swayed by emotion, or who maintain that other ways of seeing (the imaginative, the poetic, etc) are fine in their place but the scientific is the only true one, find this position ridiculous. But no symphony, no painting, no poem, no art at all was ever reasoned into existence […]”

On my to-read list are:

698081Blake, Jung & the Collective Unconscious: The Conflict Between Reason & Imagination by June Singer

Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake by Northrop Frye

self-criticism and rumination

 

I don't know why I picked this particular painting for this post. Any excuse to look at Chagall, I guess.
I don’t know why I picked this particular painting for this post. There is a cow, and cows ruminate, right? Any excuse to look at Chagall, I guess.

I used to analyze myself down to the last thread, used to compare myself with others, recalled all the smallest glances, smiles and words of those to whom I’d tried to be frank, interpreted everything in a bad light, laughed viciously at my attempts ‘to be like the rest’―and suddenly, in the midst of my laughing, I’d give way to sadness, fall into ludicrous despondency and once again start the whole process all over again―in short, I went round and round like a squirrel on a wheel.

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

This mind set that Dostoyevsky describes so accurately is indeed torturous. It’s self torture. I’ve been there, as have most people. Over-analysis of your faults, comparing yourself to others, social anxiety, self doubt, and self criticism are all symptoms of a personal identity crisis and/or feelings of low self worth. An identity crisis can come along at any point in your life and at any age. It’s when you doubt who you are, what you stand for, and where you fit in. Any life event that shakes up your status quo can trigger an identity crisis. If you are experiencing an identity crisis it means that you are growing out of your previous identity and it’s time to redefine and recreate who you are. It’s time for an upgrade! No matter what brought on the identity crisis, it’s an excellent opportunity for personal growth.

However, though ultimately a good thing, an identity crisis may initially bring on the sort of negative thought patters that Dostoyevsky so keenly describes in the above quote. Before you can proceed with the deeply rewarding work of redefining yourself and finding just where it is you fit in, you need to get off that wheel! Here’s how.

1. Eliminate or severely limit self-help books and anything else that has you focusing on your weaknesses. Avoid like the plague those articles entitled the likes of, “56 Toxic Things About You that are RUINING Your Life FOREVER.” Maybe in casting about for some way, any way, of digging yourself out of this identity crisis pit, you landed upon the idea that if you can only fix yourself you will fit in, people will like you, and everything will be ok again. But no, that’s not going to work and here’s why: This is not a good time to take on massive self-improvement projects because right now you are feeling so vulnerable, all of your weaknesses are going to seem magnified way out of proportion to what they really are.

2. Stop self-criticism and start self compassion NOW. Constant self-criticism is damaging to your self concept and even affects you physically. Attacks to yourself, even if you are the perpetrator, stimulate the body’s threat defense system causing it to release high levels of cortisol, which could eventually cause your body to shut down in a depressed state. Practicing self compassion has the opposite effect, lowering cortisol and releasing oxytocin and opiates. Self-compassion is accepting and loving yourself as the imperfect person you are. It’s treating yourself just as you would treat a good friend. You might find these guided meditations and self-compassion exercises helpful.

3. Stop ruminating. Rumination is obsessive analyzing and thinking about negative past events or current situations that you can’t change. For example, if you have just ended a relationship, it’s constantly replaying the events that led up to the break up and obsessing about what you might have done differently to save the relationship. Or fixating on what a terrible person your ex is and planning how to get revenge. The best revenge is a life beautifully lived, but you’re not going to get there with these kinds of thoughts.

What I personally found most helpful in halting rumination was learning to let go of the things I don’t control. I realized how fruitless it was to worry and stress about the past, people’s opinions of me, my health, and any myriad of things that could go wrong. I created mantras that I repeated to myself throughout the day any time I felt tempted to think about those things. In less than two weeks I saw a remarkable difference in my thought patters and after a month, I found that I didn’t need to repeat my mantras as often anymore because I was starting to believe in a deep down way that I have absolutely no business worrying about what I do not control

Other effective ways to stop rumination are:

  • Scheduling a set time to worry every day, maybe 20-30 minutes. That way every time you get a negative, worrying thought you can think to yourself, “Ok, I’ll save that to think about during my worry time.” Then it doesn’t become a permanent mind set, and yet you aren’t trying to suppress negative thoughts or feelings, which can cause other problems.
  • Write about it. I found that writing provided a more constructive and positive way to deal with my issues than keeping it all in my head. Writing helped me make more sense of everything that was happening to me. In many cases, I found that once I wrote about a problem I was experiencing, I no longer felt the need to keep thinking about it. I was ready to move on.
  • Focus on the here and now. Let me ask you something. If you had the option to either go about in the world freely or lock yourself in dank, smelly basement, which would you choose? When you are ruminating, you are not living in the moment. You are living in the equivalent of a dank, smelly basement. Get out of there! Practice mindfulness by giving your full attention to the lovely, simple pleasures of daily existence.

4. Surround yourself with the right friends. Avoid people who are constantly critical. Even if they are not directing the criticism at you, they could be infecting you with their negativity and even provoking rumination and self-criticism. If in social situations you start to feel like the above Dostoyevsky quote is describing you, here is a sure-fire quick fix. Stop talking, stop trying to impress people, and start listening. It will require a lot of attention and it won’t be easy at first, but it’s worth it. Listen to people. Repeat back to them what you think they are trying to say to make sure you understand. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Understand. Forget about yourself for a while and listen. You may be surprised at the results. I know I was.

Mr. Turner

MR-TURNER_STILL-05I think it’s one of the best biopics I’ve seen in a long time. It was understated. I appreciated that I wasn’t hit over the head with explanations for why Turner was how he was. He was merely presented with all of his massive contradictions for us to take him or leave him, just as he presented his paintings to the Academy, to be taken or left as is.

Today I listened to the Fresh Air interview with Timothy Spall, the actor who portrays J.M.W. Turner in the movie Mr. Turner. Terry Gross asks Spall if he thinks Turner was “somewhere on the Autism spectrum” because the artist was “completely lacking in social skills,” was obsessed with his work, at times sexually exploited his housekeeper, and did not show love or affection to his adult daughters. I was amazed that Gross perceived Spall’s portrayal of Turner as someone who could possibly be on the autism spectrum! While the man obviously struggled with expressing his emotions in words, we are talking about one of the greatest Romantic artists. Romanticism was all about expressing emotion and it is impossible to look at one of Turner’s landscapes without being bowled over by it. I thought Spall’s performance portrayed a man with a great deal of powerful and deep emotion beneath the surface. Turner was implosive, as Spall said, though he pointed out various scenes in the movie where Turner’s strong feelings were obvious. Turner also had a close and loving relationship with a woman in his later life. The fact that he sexually exploited his housekeeper, who was in love with him, does not mean that he was incapable of love. Nor does it mean, as Spall pointed out, that there was not some element of love in that relationship. This is evident in a scene between them when the housekeeper remarks that she may as well not change the sheets because he so seldom sleeps at his house anymore. You can see in Turner’s reaction that does understand social cues and that he empathizes with her. He tells her nothing of Mrs. Booth because he knows it would hurt her.

So have we reached the point where we have to diagnose everyone who is obsessed with their work and doesn’t talk glibly about their feelings as being “on the spectrum?”

Spall’s performance was masterful. He never ceased to be fascinating to watch and listen to, even with all the grunting and growling. (Actually, I think we should bring grunting back.) As unpleasant as Spall made Turner at times, I think he also made him lovable. Sometimes he was downright adorable, like when he sings along with “Dido’s Lament.” I was interested to learn that Spall took fine art lessons for over two years to prepare for the roll. From his Fresh Air interview he seems amusing and smart. I smiled at his definitions of the Sublime and Romantic movements in art as not having to do with describing a piece of cheesecake or “if you’re lucky, a weekend in Paris,” respectively. I was touched by the affection he expressed for his friend, who died the day before the interview.

Every scene in the movie was gorgeous and appealing to the senses. It made my fingers ache with desire to touch things, like that lovely yellow paint the elder Mr. Turner was mixing. If I were to make a movie, I hope it would be highly tactile.

Cannes 2014: Mr Turner

While I was in London last month I went to the Tate Britain’s Late Turner–Painting Set Free exhibition, focusing on the work the painter did after age 60, when everyone thought he was going senile. It’s sad how we judge older people. Now, seventy years later, we can look back and say that Turner was not senile, he was just moving toward modernism. He was being more hip than the youngsters who dismissed him. I don’t care for some of his paintings, but I don’t blame that on the painter being old.

Some of  the paintings I really loved, like “Peace, Burial at Sea:” 

Who knows why “The Fighting Temeriare,” once voted as the painting best-loved by the British people, was not at the exhibition. Turner painted it at age 64. There is a marvelous scene in Mr. Turner based on that painting.