William Blake Class – 3 (Gnostic Background)

William Godwin 1756-1836

I want to say a little bit about the Gnostic background for these matters. Blake was a printer and engraver and a friend of William Godwin, who had a social political metaphysical circle, anarchist, more or less. The (father) of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein – William Godwin. You know about the Godwins? You’ve heard of the Godwins – William Godwin, I think – in grammar school or high school. Tom Paine was a friend of William Godwin (and) the Shelleys. So he was sort of the Kenneth Rexroth of his day around the San Francisco area, in the sense that he had a household and he had people meeting at this household and he had political discussions and Gnostic discussions and metaphysical discussions. (A) utopian household. A prefiguration of what happened in this century, actually. Blake knew Thomas Paine, strangely enough, and, in fact, warned Paine to get out of London before the fuzz came to arrest him. So Paine left on the boat to France, to get with the French Revolution, just ahead of the police, because of Blake’s warning. So Blake was actually a contemporary of his own times. He was right in on the scene, as most of us are, one way or another. He wasn’t totally an isolated hermit nut. He wasn’t the “mad Blake” that Wordsworth thought him. He was dealing with real people, like Tom Paine, and actually had quite a sharp role in warning Paine ahead of the police He also, according to a friend of mine, Harry Smith, was a manuscript collector and a collector of hermetic manuscripts. According to Kathleen Raine, in her analysis of the background of his work, in a very great book, which we may have upstairs (it’s a two-volume work by Kathleen Raine, Bollingen Series, Forbears of Blake?, I’ve forgotten the title [Editorial note –  Blake and Tradition] – but it’s Blake’s picture works analyzed to see where they came from previously..

Thomas Taylor (1758-1835

(Blake and Antiquity)… and there’s an essay (in there) on Blake in England and (another on) Blake in America. And, apparently, he collected the works of a man named Thomas Taylor, a NeoPlatonist (or Taylor’s works were just being issued then). Taylor collected all the Gnostic fragments, all the fragments of Gnostic writings, (from) Pythagoras on. And there’s a Bollingen book called Thomas Taylor the Platonist, I think, with Taylor’s translations. Like Delphic utterances, the utterances of the Delphic Sybil and the lost hermetic works. There were only a few left, quoted in Latin and Greek histories. So Thomas Taylor collected all that and Blake saw a lot of that. There’s a very good book, which is a summary of Western Gnostic traditional myths called The Gnostic Religion by Dr. Hans Jonas – J-O-N-A-S, who teaches at the New School, who is, I think, supposed to be among the greatest contemporary scholars.

Now the Gnostic religions were the Essene and other interpretations of (the) Bible, and even (of) Christ. Most (or at least) some pre-Christian and some post-Christian, rising out of Plato and Plotinus, rising out of Indo-European sources, rising out of Middle Eastern sources, with some Oriental cultural cross-fertilization. In Pythagoras, in Plato, there are elements that came from the Aryans that also spread into India. So there’s actually a funny common source between Western Gnostic and Eastern Buddhic, as far as cultural background, way, way, way, back in the Aryans, of, I guess it would be, the Persian area, or Mesopotemian sources. You’ve got to remember that both Oriental and Western (cultures) come from Middle East inspirations. This is important because otherwise you think that the Buddhist interpretations are only applicable to Oriental mind, or the Gnostic interpretations are only applicable to Western mind, but they have the same roots and the system of thinking about the material universe is somewhat related. However, the Jain religions in India, which think that the phenomenal universe is totally corrupt and bad, were founded contemporary to Buddhism, and the Jain tirthankars, some of them gave permission to their disciples to starve themselves to death in order to get out of this incarnation. Given a great deal of discipline, that was a legitimate sadhana, or practice, for Jains. And in the Occidental Gnostic religions, there were various groups like, later, Manicheans, who thought that this universe was evil, the material universe was evil, and so the best way was to get out of it. And Blake reflects some of that, particularly in a late edition of Songs of Innocence and Experience, the poem, To Tirzah”, if you ever take a look at that. It’s the last poem that he put into “..Innocence and Experience”. Tirzah, a sort of materialist nature goddess, or a materialist spirit, or the materialist spirit of nature, or material nature, vegetable nature. And Blake says, let’s see: “Thou Mother of my Mortal part/ With cruelty didst mould my Heart,/ And with false self-deceiving tears/ Didst bind my Nostrils Eyes & Ears. Did close my tongue in senseless clay/ An me to Mortal Life betray;/ The Death of Jesus set me free,/ Then what have I to do with thee” – What has Blake to do with Tirzah, his mother, nature? So, at one point, Blake went into that. (And then there’s a little note on the side of the plate, if you look at it – “It is Raised a Spiritual Body”. It’s a picture of a man being attended on his death-bed and a spiritual body rising up out of it.)

So what I was originally pursuing was that Blake saw a lot of Gnostic and hermetic and cabalistic manuscripts. In fact, according to Harry Smith (who is in the lineage of Aleister Crowley and Gnostic hermetic scholars), Blake dealt as a dealer in hermetic and cabalistic manuscripts. So we might assume that he was pretty sophisticated. And (S.) Foster Damon, in his studies of Blake, actually collected an immense amount of Hebraic, cabalistic, Biblical criticism, because he found Blake was quite familiar with that. Foster Damon displays all this in his commentary on the Book of Job [Blake’s Job: William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job]. Blake apparently was familiar enough with the manipulation of Hebrew letters and theories of right and left to have formulated The Book of Job according to (and) with reference to classic cabalistic symbolism. In other words, Blake was pretty learned.

One of the things that he might have known about was the Orphitic interpretation of The Garden of Eden, which you can find an account of in Jonas’ book, The Gnostic Religion. And that Orphitic interpretation – orphitic/snake – snake-interpretation, the interpretation from the point of view of the snake in the Garden of Eden – is parallel, somewhat, to Blake’s conception of Jahweh-Urizen. In the Orphitic interpretation (which is, I think, third century A.D – maybe even earlier, you can look it up in a book if the right dates are necessary), (it) is that there was an Abyss of Light originally. What exists actually is just an Abyss of Light (I suppose that would be Ein Sof, maybe in Hebrew), But, anyway, an Abyss of Light (which is a classical term among the Gnostics, which Blake would have known – a very poetic conception – An Abyss of Light). The Abyss shuddered or something, or moved, or wrinkled, or reflected. There was a little reflection in this Abyss reflecting on itself , and that reflection was Sophia (Wisdom), feminine, knowledge, self-knowledge, self-consciousness, or, “In the beginning was the Word”. Sophia, wisdom, word, conception, language – however way you want to take it. Anyway, Sophia… Sophia reflected herself, and, as Blake says, “One thought fills immensity” (I think that’s probably in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, or somewhere). .

Student: (What was that?)

AG: “One thought fills immensity”. Pretty sharp. It’s like another phrase of his, “The eye altering, alters all”. The eye altering, alters all. In other words, the perceiving (and) or the perceiver. When the perceiver changes, the construction of the outer universe would change, naturally. “The eye altering alters all” and “One thought fills immensity”. Well, here we’re on “One thought fills immensity”, and Sophia’s thought filled immensity and.. created an Aeon” – A-E-O-N. You’ve heard of the word “aeon”? – “aeons and aeons”? Well, those were the Aeons. It was one thought of Sophia. And her Aeon – and I haven’t looked at the Jonas for a while. so I’ll have to improvise on what I recollect, but I believe – her Aeon was called Io – I-O. So check it out in the book. I’ll give you an outline of the idea(s) – And Io is the “Archon”, or guardian, of that Aeon, which is like a Mind-Universe. And Io had a thought and that was Ialdabaoth, another Aeon, or another Archon with his Aeon. And Ialdabaoth, his thought was Elohim, and so was the Aeon of Elohim, or the Archon, Elohim at the head. All of them very jealously guarded their territory. And Elohim had a thought, and his thought was Jahweh, and Jahweh had his Aeon, and his Aeon seemed to include whatever we read about in the Bible, including the Garden (of Eden), and he had a thought, and that was Adam and Eve and the Garden and whatever happened with Satan and the rebellious angels. And he established his authority, but he had a little trouble establishing this authority, being a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a shudder in an Abyss of Light. Sophia was quite upset, realizing her thoughts had given birth to this chain, or cause-and-effect, or karmic exfoliation, that reached down through many Aeons into this Universe. But the one thing she realizes (is) that all that thought was a reflection, or a glimmer (merely) of the light of the Abyss, that whatever the odd form, or whatever the hallucinatory situation, there was still some reflection of the Abyss of Light running through all these Archons and their Aeons, down to Adam and Eve. And she didn’t know how to resolve the situation, except to somehow communicate through all these Aeons with Adam and Eve and the(ir) human progeny. And the only way she could figure (doing this) was, because the Archons were so jealous of their territory and their Aeons, their whole being depended on their thinking they were real, rather than thinking they were a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of the thought of the Abyss of Light, which had no form – dharmakaya, so to speak, or some dharmakaya.. (so) that she figured a way to send a message to Adam and Eve. Now, the only one that nobody would notice was the Serpent, so she sent a serpent. Now, the name of the messenger is various – “The Messenger”, “The Caller of the Great Call” (which is a great phrase, actually!), “The Caller of the Great Call to the Material World”. [tape ends here]

[tape continues]..surreptitiously, surreptitioning, like a serpent into the Garden of Eden to tell Adam and Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. That was the one tree (and) the one fruit that was forbidden Adam and Eve – The Tree of Knowledge. They had immortality. Who couldn’t have immortality if you existed in a daydream forever? But Knowledge is another matter, waking from the daydream. That’s why Jehovah didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat (of) the Tree of Knowledge, because he wanted to retain this spectral Universe with him as the head, dictating laws, revenges, codicils, agreements, running the show, some vast Central Intelligence Agency dominating the phenomenal Universe. But from the deepest recesses of Central Intelligence came Sophia’s wisdom. So the Serpent told Adam and Eve to eat the apple. That, naturally, threatened Jehovah’s self-limiting, Urizonic, architecturally-constructed, kingdom.

This is one of many Gnostic stories. This is called the Ophitic interpretation of The Garden of Eden (from “Ophite” – I think the root is “snake” – I don’t know the date and I don’t know the precise geography where that (interpretation) arose. I think that was somewhere in (the) Middle East). So you might check Hans Jonas’ book for some other stories of this kind, because they do relate to the background that Blake is dealing with, a background that is very important in America also, because, strangely enough, the secret history of English poetry contains all this Gnostic material. Shelley and Coleridge had read Thomas Taylors texts, and Bronson Alcott, the American from the Utopian commune, Brook Farm, went to England to collect all of Thomas Taylor’s works and brought them back and showed them to all the American Transcendentalists, so that Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau (and, likely, Whitman and Melville) were all acquainted with some element of Western Gnostic philosophy. In other words, the whole 19th century American Transcendentalist tradition was not just reading the Vedas in poor translation and getting transcendental ideas from the Orient without having teachers or without being there. They also had Western versions, Western resources, to draw on. And so Shelley, Coleridge, and the Americans – Emerson, all the Brook Farm people, Hawthorne – (were all..) you’ll find them secretly informed with this diabolic interpretation of the good old Bible. And, actually, that affected American Literature quite strongly, and there is a long essay in the Thomas Taylor Bollingen volume, by a recent scholar, tracing the influence of Thomas Taylor in America. And Kathleen Raine, in the same volume, has an essay tracing the influence of Thomas Taylor on the Romantics – Coleridge and Shelley, maybe Wordsworth, certainly Blake.

So this is some background to where Blake is getting off on who Urizen is and what Urizen’s role is. So if you see Urizen there, trying to scribble his own book, with the Jehovah Mosaic laws, (the) tablets of the Law behind him, on the opening page, you know where Blake is coming from. It’s a secret understanding, which is not the official Church understanding of what those Mosaic tablets are supposed to be.

So this would fit that Ophitic interpretation of the creation of an Aeon – “ Times on times he divided, & measured/ Space by space in his ninefold darkness/ Unseen, unknown. Changes appeared/ In his desolate mountains rifted furious/ By the black winds of peturbation.”

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