Archive for January, 2015


In a Monastery Garden – Ronnie Ronalde (1923-2015).

January 16, 2015


Visionary Mineralogy

January 11, 2015



Revelation in Piccadilly: William Blake and the ‘Rosicrucian Linguistics’ of Trance

January 4, 2015


Due to circumstances beyond my control – a bad back, which kept me off work – I was able to attend a lecture in Piccadilly on October 16th last year, presented under the auspices of The Blake Society. I was tempted to traipse up to London on a week-night because of the lecture’s title, ‘Blake as Shaman’, delivered by Professor David Worrall. I had expected an elaboration of a by now familiar trope, expressed by Niall McDevitt in 2004:

Blake was the first urban shaman of the first industrial city who – like Baudelaire’s polluted swan – saw the spiritual condition of the modern human as that of the chimney sweep, sold by parents, labouring in the dark satanic mills.

(McDevitt 2004, from here)

Even McDevitt’s description of Blake as ‘a cave-painter, fire-chanter, soul-retriever’ (ibid.), however, would not have prepared me for Professor Worrall’s presentation: his application to Blake’s visionary imagery of the Altered States of Consciousness (ASC) Hypothesis developed in the interpretation of the rock art of hunter-gatherer and prehistoric societies (Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988, Lewis-Williams and Pearce 2005). As Thomas Dowson was my tutor when I did the Rock Art and Archaeology MA at Southampton over ten years ago, there was an immediate, jaw-dropping, flash of recognition on my part, and it was thrilling to see those ideas used in a completely different context. As David Worrall is going to publish this material in the next year I won’t spoil any surprise by describing in detail the specific thrust of his argument or the particular examples drawn from ethnography, archaeology and Blake’s own illuminated plates used to fortify a highly original approach. Suffice it to say, it was an ingenious use of a particular set of etnnographic and archaeological data in an unexpected context, and I could kick myself for not picking up on the connections before, which seem blindingly obvious now.

Through the veil

What struck me, however, as Worrall’s talk unfolded was the relevance of other aspects of Lewis-Williams and Dowson’s interpretation to other parts of Blake’s work. I was thinking, in particular, of their paper, ‘Through the Veil: San Rock Paintings and the Rock Face’ (1990) and its discussion of the active role in the visionary experience of both the paint made to manifest the visions and the matrix of the rock upon/within/through which the painted visions appeared. The rock face was not a neutral tabula rasa to which paint was applied, but the gateway to the spirit world, interacting ‘with the ritual paint in ways we do not fully understand’ (Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1990: 15). Even unpainted rock ‘may have been as pregnant as silences in music’ (ibid.). They describe instances in which the application of paint by smearing it on the rock facilitated access to the spirit world, and cases where ‘it seems as if the veil was so diaphanous that an animal or a shaman could simply appear through it’ (ibid.). This made me think of the active agency and materiality of Blake’s copper plates, used to print his illuminated books, for there is an inescapable comparison between the permeable membrane of the hard rock’s surface in the spirit world of the San and the ‘apparent surfaces’ of Blake’s copper plates, subjected in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to his ‘infernal method’:

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite. 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.

How appropriate too, as I now realise, that Aldous Huxley should appropriate Blake’s ‘doors of perception’ to describe his own experiments with mescaline!


William Blake, fragment of a relief-etched copper plate, cancelled plate ‘a’ of America. A Prophecy, 1793, 82 x 58 mm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Signatures of Trance, Signatures of All Things

The lecture also made me hark back to a comparison I made in my PhD (Crook 2004) between the so-called entoptic (‘within vision’) imagery encountered in the early stages of trance, as described in ‘The Signs of All Times’ (Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988) and the discourse on ‘the signatures of all things’ current in the ideas of Paracelsus and the esoteric Rosicrucian movement of the seventeenth century.  Lewis-Williams’ and Dowson’s characterisation of entoptic motifs as ‘signatures of trance’ evokes the fierce intellectual debates in early modern Europe concerning language: the conflict between Linguistic Platonism, or ‘Rosicrucian Linguistics’ – characteristic of Renaissance Hermeticism and alchemystical thought – and Aristotelian Linguistics, which still resonates today. While Aristotelians use language as ‘a tool … adapted to the intrasubjective worlds of facts and of arguments’ (Ormsby-Lennon 1988: 312) then the Platonists

made man feel the inadequacy of ‘discursive speech’ for conveying the experience of a direct apprehension of truth and the ‘ineffable’ intensity of the mystic vision. It was they, also, who encouraged a search for alternatives to language in symbols of sight and sound which could at least offer a simile for that immediacy of experience which language could never offer

(Gombrich 1972: 190, in Ormsby-Lennon 1988: 312).

The signatures of trance identified in the neuropsychological model offer a perspective upon a linguaggio commune, ‘living and speaking pictures’, a ‘universall sensuall tongue’ common to the senses of all, accessible at all times, but paradoxically, inexpressible in linguistic terms as ‘commonly understood’. The theme of a common language is apparent among the preparatory notes for Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), where a passage associates the messianic era with the advent of a universal language, capable of replacing the confusion of the Tower of Babel, a language that everyone would understand ‘as children on Sunday understand the language of the birds’ (Löwy 1992: 233).


‘Fiery the Angels rose…’ Plate 13 of America. A Prophecy. From here. The presence of a swan here brings to mind Hamayon’s discussion of the role of swans and geese in Siberian shamanism: ‘These migratory birds (swans, geese, cranes…) seem to play the rôle of carriers (porteurs), not of countable, individual souls, but of a ‘life force’, a soul-substance underlying all animate being. The birds’ return coincides with the thaw at the end of the scarcity of winter, materialising the idea of renewal.’ (From here).

I will be interested to see how, in his application of the ASC Hypothesis to Blake’s visionary experience, David Worrall will deal with the disjuncture between Blake’s prophetic mode oriented to the infinite, and a reductive scientific model which accounts for Blake’s experience as a neurophysiological process confined to the brain of the organism; in other words, the neuropsychological model can be seen, in its finitude, as very much an expression of what Blake decried as ‘Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep’.

While the manifestation of what has been defined as neurologically-generated imagery accords, on the philosophical plane, with Hegel’s ‘perennial symbolic forms’, those images which arise from a sensus communis (Magee: 122), nevertheless this ‘common sense’ implicates the idea of an infinite ‘field of consciousness’, in which minds are not confined to the insides of heads, even communicating ‘beyond the limitations of space and time’ (Luke 2010: 23). Applications of the ASC model which reduce the amplitude of experience to internalised neurophysiological processes ‘wired into their brains’ (Lewis-Williams and Pearce 2005: 88) are – to quote from Finnegans Wake – ‘dirt cheap at a sovereign a skull!’ (FW 374.27-28). Such applications are redolent of what Hegel deridingly refers to as ‘phrenology’ (Verene 1985: 90): a technique that presents experience ‘like a skeleton with tickets stuck all over it’ (Verene 1993: 44), a ‘table-of-contents mentality’ that leaves the life of its object untouched (ibid.).  While one can recognise the logic for a rationalist like David Lewis-Williams of advocating a biologically located (and confined) model of ASC to explain away visionary experience, I suggest that ‘non-ordinary experience’ may be approached in a way analogous to Robert Fludd’s understanding that ‘all souls have a continuous relation to the one world-soul… as has the sunlight to the sun’ (Huffman 2001: 138); a more expansive conception of consciousness than that confined in a Cartesian way to isolated bodies.

To be fair, however, David Worrall’s argument is all the more compelling for not being dependent upon the veracity of neurologically-generated entoptic phenomena as analysed by a reductionist ‘table-of-contents mentality’. While there is little evidence in Blake’s art – aside from the image of the vortex – for the presence of abstract, geometric patterns regarded as diagnostic of the early stages of trance in the ASC model, in his focus upon the motif of falling – in Blake’s art as well as in rock art and its ethnographic context – Worrall promises to create a seductive argument for the shamanic dimensions of William Blake’s visionary art, motivated by Blake’s feelings of love and grief.  I look forward to reading it.


Crook, S. 2004. The World’s End: Rock Images, Altered Realities, and the Limits of Social Theory. University of Manchester.

Huffmann, W. 2001. Robert Fludd. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Lewis-Williams, J. D. and Dowson, T. A. 1988. The Signs of All Times. Current Anthropology Vol. 29. No. 2: 201-245.

Lewis-Williams, J. D and Dowson, T. A. 1990. Through the Veil: San rock paintings and the rock face. South African Archaeological Bulletin, 45: 5-16.

Lewis-Williams, J.D. and Pearce, D. 2005. Inside the Neolithic Mind. London: Thames and Hudson.

Löwy, M. 1992. Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe. London: The Athlone Press.

Luke, D. 2010. Rock Art or Rorschach: Is there More to Entoptics than Meets the Eye? Time & Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness & Culture, 3(1), 9-28.

Magee, G.A. 2001. Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

McDevitt, N. 2004. London’s Technician of the Sacred: Blake as Urban Shaman. The Wolf, No.6, Spring 2004, pp.51-54. Online edition: Retrieved 18/10/2014.

Ormsby-Lennon, H. 1988. Rosicrucian Linguistics: Twilight of a Renaissance Tradition. In: Merkel, l. and Debus, A. G. (eds) Hermeticism and the Renaissance. Washington: Folger Books. pp 311-341.

Verene, D.P. 1985. Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Verene, D.P. 1993. ‘Two Sources of Philosophical Memory: Vico Versus Hegel’, in Patricia Cook (ed.) Philosophical Imagination and Cultural Memory. Durham, NC.: Duke University Press.