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The God of the Left Hemisphere

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The God of the Left Hemisphere explores the remarkable connections between the activities and functions of the human brain that writer William Blake termed 'Urizen' and the powerful complex of rationalising and ordering processes which modern neuroscience identifies as 'left hemisphere' brain activity. The book argues that Blake's profound understanding of the human brain is finding surprising corroboration in recent neuroscientific discoveries, such as those of the influential Harvard neuro-anatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, and it explores Blake's provocative supposition that the emergence of these rationalising, law-making, and 'limiting' activities within the human brain has been recorded in the earliest Creation texts, such as the Hebrew Bible, Plato's Timaeus, and the Norse sagas. Blake's prescient insight into the nature and origins of this dominant force within the brain allows him to radically reinterpret the psychological basis of the entity usually referred to in these texts as 'God'.The book draws in particular on the work of Bolte Taylor, whose study in this area is having a profound impact on how we understand mental activity and processes. Bolte Taylor was listed as one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in 2008 and her book recounting her research into left and right brain activity spent seventeen weeks in the New York Times best-seller list. The God of the Left Hemisphere also dovetails in many exciting and provocative ways with Iain McGilchrist's recent study of the impact of brain lateralisation on human culture in The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). It is significant in this respect that McGilchrist also sees Blake's figure of Urizen as an 'instantiation of the left hemisphere take on the world'.In the second part of the book the author extends Blake's understanding of Urizenic activities and functions into a broader discussion concerning the place of both religion and rationality in contemporary culture. In particular, he examines Blake's contention that whilst religion and rationalistic science are supposed to be at loggerheads, symptomatic of a 'two cultures' divide, what they resemble more are different (or rival) versions of essentially similar systems of thoughts ('R1' and 'R2'). In order to clarify the nature of this relationship the author updates Blake's original imagery of mills and machinery to denote Urizenic processes and employs instead the more modern metaphor of rival operating systems, battling it out for supremacy of the left brain. Blake's presentation of Urizen as the 'Holy Reasoning Power' succinctly captures what he saw as the underlying rationalizing processes of orthodox religion as well as the religious and largely unconscious nature of much post-Newtonian science.

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Introduction

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Blake and the Human Brain

I give you the end of a golden string,

Only wind it into a ball:

It will lead you in at Heavens gate,

Built in Jerusalems wall.

—William Blake, Jerusalem

When asked where his inspiration came from, the poet William Blake is said to have pointed to his forehead and replied, “Here, madam” (Gilchrist, 1863, p. 342). Blake was, indeed, one of the most physically aware and grounded of all artists and poets: his poems, like his etchings and illustrations, are filled with sinews, bodies, muscles, fibres, nerves, veins, and globules. But surprisingly few literary critics have taken the hint. Many seem happy to follow and to perpetuate the dualistic confusion of the lady to whom Blake was responding, or to recycle the similarly misleading idealistic presentation of Blake as “the most spiritual of artists, a mystic poet and painter”, in the words of his early biographer, Gilchrist (ibid., p. 7, p. 86). This book attempts something different: it seeks to place Blake's visions and experiences where they actually belonged and occurred: within the structure of the human brain itself. In this I hope to do justice to Blake's own conceptions of the extraordinary energy and latent, burning intelligence of the human body, and his attempts to dismantle the whole artificial and sterile mind-body dualism which, he believed, was preventing us from understanding and perceiving this dynamism. In an extraordinary passage at the start of his poem Milton, for instance, he invokes the sources of poetic inspiration and asks for their support in his poetic endeavour. Of course, this is entirely a traditional conceit, usually addressed to ephemeral “Muses” or to rather unconvincing other-worldly deities, or sub-deities, or even sub-sub-deities. What is striking about Blake's address is that he locates the origin of his inspiration within the structure of his own brain, not from any source outside it. “Come into my hand”, he urges it, “By your mild power; descending down the Nerves of my right arm/From out the Portals of my Brain” (Mil, 2:5–7, p. 96). As I hope to show in this book, Blake consistently and emphatically locates his experiences—the figures, characters, forces and powers—within the actual physical human body.

 

Chapter One - The Origins of Urizen

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Dark revolving in silent activity:

Unseen in tormenting passions;

An activity unknown and horrible;

A self-contemplating shadow,

In enormous labours occupied.

—William Blake, The Book of Urizen

The pre-history of the left hemisphere

One of the main themes of Blake's creative work concerns the historical emergence of a Power within the human psyche which he calls the “Reasoning Power” or, more usually, simply “Urizen”. This term was not intended to signify a “person” as such, but rather a force or function, a complex activity of the human brain: “An activity unknown and horrible;/A self-contemplating shadow,/In enormous labours occupied” (Ur 3:20–22, p. 71). Blake associated the emergence of this rationalising, self-contemplating, abstracting power with the origins of human history itself: for him, it is the power that has dominated and controlled much of human development, since it has also dominated and controlled the human psyche. As the primary force driving the psychological evolution of mankind it might in one sense be described as a sort of “God”; as Urizen himself proclaims in Blake's Jerusalem: “I am God O Sons of Men! I am your Rational Power!” (J 54:16, p. 203). The aim of the first part of this book is to argue that the qualities and functions ascribed by Blake to “Urizen” correspond remarkably closely to the activities and programs of what modern neuroscientists identify as the “left hemisphere” of the human brain. In order to explain this more clearly, an account of the evolutionary emergence of left-brain dominance within Homo sapiens is provided, followed by a brief description of the specific functions and character of the left brain and how these relate in particular to Blake's concept of Urizen.

 

Chapter Two - Urizen and the Left Hemisphere

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I am God O Sons of Men! I am your Rational Power!

Am I not Bacon & Newton & Locke who teach Humility to Man!

—William Blake, Jerusalem

In the Brain of Man we live

Urizen is repeatedly associated by Blake with the human brain, and indeed that is where he is located. Los, who shares this location with him, specifically describes Urizen's world as being within “the Brain of Man”:

I see the swords & spears of futurity

Tho in the Brain of Man we live, & in his circling Nerves.

Tho’ this bright world of all our joy is in the Human Brain.

Where Urizen & all his Hosts hang their immortal lamps

[FZ 11:14–17, p. 306]

And again in The Four Zoas Urizen is depicted “as he stood in the Human Brain/And all its golden porches grew pale with his sickening light” (FZ 23:12–13, p. 313). Indeed, one of the most brilliant and startling aspects of Blake's presentation of Urizen is the very physicality of its location within the structures and activities of the brain. The precision with which Blake describes and presents the vegetative brain, with all of its nervous branches, its moated parameter (cerebrospinal fluid), its oxygenating blood vessels, and its rock-like orbed skull to enclose it all, is only matched by his insistence that these circuits and activities conceal a much greater wonder and power within them. In modern neuroscientific terminology Urizen therefore represents both the “software”—the network of interacting calculating processes and rationalising functions—and also the “hardware”—the material embodiment of these activities within the cavern of the skull. Blake describes Urizen's realm as being “a place in the north,/Obscure, shadowy, void, solitary.” Indeed, as Damon has noted, Urizen is consistently associated with the “north”, a region that is clearly of significance within the human body as being the locus of the brain (Ur 2:3–4, p. 70). And within the north he is also associated with the “west” or “western” parts of the psyche (“In the west the Cave of Urizen”): so that the north and west are areas significantly associated by Blake with Urizenic activity (FZ 74:15–16, p. 351).1 Positioned there, Urizen inhabits and indeed embodies a strange sort of self-enclosed, abstracted, or conceptual space that, in distinguishing itself and separating itself conceptually from the rest of existence creates for itself a sort of “non-being” being: an abstracted “inner” solitude or “void” (“unknown, abstracted/Brooding secret, the dark power hid” (Ur 3:6–7, p. 70). This conceptual “void” Blake strongly associates with the Lockean, or Cartesian, mind. Blake had earlier presented this “self-closd”, brooding, introspective “void” as being situated within the “cavern” of the cranium itself, the perfect materialisation of the cave-like reduction of perceptual existence by which this new emergent consciousness (“Reason”) believes itself to be limited. Thus, in one of the most famous passages of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake observes that “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern” (MHH Plate 14, p. 39). These epistemological caverns, chains, links, and “self-closings” return with a vengeance in The Book of Urizen, the full account of the development of this powerful new rationalistic and analytical consciousness. “Unknown” and “unprofilic”, the newly emerging Urizenic world is portrayed as being almost completely self-involved. Indeed the epithet “unprolific” perfectly sums up the huge difference between the left hemisphere and right hemisphere modes. Being unable to genuinely “create” anything (this being a function of bodily rather than logical existence), the “Reasoning Power” instead becomes a sort of immense Demiurge. It creates, but (in a key point for Blake) it creates solely by division and abstraction, and the conceptual world thus produced is both staggering in its complexity and ingenuity but also a lifeless mirror image or shadow-world reality: a world perceived not immediately and intuitively any more but merely rationally, abstractly, and conceptually. Blake magnificently evokes the sense of the immense brooding, introspective labour and sheer mental effort that this powerful evolutionary process entails: “Times on times he divided…In his desolate mountains rifted furious/By the black winds of perturbation” (Ur 3:8–12, p. 70). These perturbed, cogitative rifts and folds capture well the gradual materialisation of Urizen through the actual physical landscape of the human cranium, the abode of Urizen's “vast forests” of nervous fibres and neural networks which constitute both Urizen's modus operandi and his material formation. The result of these Herculean cognitive efforts is not only the brain itself but the way of perceiving the brain.

 

Chapter Three - The Myth of Genesis

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Many suppose that before [Adam] <the Creation> All was Solitude & Chaos This is the most pernicious Idea that can enter the Mind.

—William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgment

Introduction: The myth of Genesis

The first part of this book has attempted to show the ways in which the activities, values, and functions associated by Blake with the figure of “Urizen” correspond with the properties and processes of what modern neuroscience calls the “left hemisphere” of the human brain. Or to put this more succinctly, it argues that the left brain is “Urizen”. The emergence of this extraordinary complex of processes and powers in human history, through left-brain dominance in Homo sapiens, is surely one of the most important and profound developments ever to have taken place on Earth. For it is the dominance of this “Reasoning Power” that has shaped, controlled, and defined every stage and aspect of human consciousness. This book has indicated that Blake was virtually unique in regarding “reason” not as some isolated, neutral, calculating function (as it had usually been regarded), but as a forceful complex of activities and values, all rooted in a shared interconnection, combining language, linear-sequencing, moral codes, law-making, conceptual abstraction, a powerful ego-centre, and instrumental rationality itself. It is no overstatement to say that this “Reasoning Power” has made us what we are. And according to Blake, the emergence of this dominating, rationalistic left-brain personality has also been recorded in many of the earliest “Creation” texts of human culture, such as the Hebrew Bible, Plato's Timaeus, and the Norse sagas. Drawing together all of the points and connections made in this book, he affirms that the “God” portrayed in the Book of Genesis is in fact none other than the “Holy Reasoning Power”: the “God” of the left hemisphere. For that remarkable power, captured so vividly and so remarkably honestly by the early Hebrew writers, fulfils and embodies all of the fundamental activities, properties and even personality, of left-brain circuitry. This early “God” of the Bible presents itself, as does the Demiurge of Plato's Timaeus and indeed all other rational abstract deities, as a “Creator” God, but through textual analysis it is evident that it “creates” solely by abstracting and dividing existence (an existence usually in fact acknowledged as being eternal and pre-existing in these texts, but in a state that appears to its rational programmed Deity as being relatively “chaotic”, void, and “formless”). This is most clearly apparent in Plato's Timaeus, which presents the apparently finite, rational universe (of left hemisphere programming) as a sort of imperfect “copy” of some forgotten, unknown, or eternal original: as Plato puts it, the Urizenic Demiurge “determined to make a moving image of eternity, and so when he ordered the heavens he made in that which we call time an eternal moving image of the eternity which remains for ever at one. For before the heavens came into being there were no days or nights or months or years, but he devised and brought them into being at the same time that the heavens were put together” (Plato, 1965, [38] p. 51). The key word here is “ordered”: what all these allegedly “Creator” gods do in fact is just to impose order (though to be fair, this is an extraordinary cognitive and conceptual feat in itself), through divisions, differentiations, and abstracted delineations, onto pre-existing being (rather like a child does in making sense of the universe in order to function in it and to manipulate it). According to the Urizenic Demiurge, it does this because “before” its emergence and domination, “existence” was, or appeared to be, “chaotic” and irregular—rather like the motion of subatomic particles appears to modern scientific eyes. The Demiurge's initial act of “Creation” was therefore essentially one of reduction and contraction: Plato's God, in a telling phrase, “reduced” reality “to order from disorder”. For before his rationalistic Demiurge took control and gradually imposed this rational order, the elements of the universe were, Plato says, “in the disorganized state to be expected of anything which god has not touched, and his first step when he set about reducing them to order was to give them a definite pattern of shape and number” (ibid., [53] pp. 72–73).1 This process of reducing things to “order” and giving them a “definite” (de-finite, de-fined) form, is indeed what all Rational Gods consider to be “creation”: it is their version of creation, creation made in the image of a computer program. And this is also clearly the sort of “creation” that occurs in the Book of Genesis, another version of Reason's account of the origin of its origin. “And the earth was without form, and void…And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.” Here we have all the typical Urizenic left-brain activities at work: giving definition to a pre-existing formless or fluid existence (there is no genuine “creationism” in either the Hebrew Bible or in Plato's Timaeus), using logos to delineate and separate existence (rationally enough, starting with the most fundamental conceptual categories of day/night, and hence the origins of every subsequent temporal-sequencing program), employing all the analytical, judgmental, evaluative processes of the left hemisphere in order to describe these new abstracted entities as “good” (just as Plato calls his perfect triangles “good”), before setting to work dividing the rest of eternity into equally nice neat, ordered, Urizenic bits. As Damon notes:

 

Chapter Four - The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

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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.

—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

It is through such experiences as those of Bolte Taylor that the previously inhibited and eclipsed world of the largely nonverbal right brain is becoming known and articulated. The experiences and research of such contemporary individuals as Bolte Taylor, Tolle, McGilchrist, and others, might in this sense witness a “return of the right hemisphere”. “One of the greatest blessings I received as a result of this hemorrhage,” Bolte Taylor notes, “is that I had the chance to rejuvenate and strengthen my neurocircuits of innocence and inner joy” (JBT, pp. 139–140). It is rare to have such direct, immediate accounts of a non-left hemisphere world within our culture, which is why such experiences as those of Bolte Taylor are particularly valuable. Indeed, it is a striking feature of recent discoveries and revelations into brain functioning that so many insights have come from apparent “disorders” and mental malfunctions, a coincidence that merits further research and investigation. To the insights acquired by Bolte Taylor through her debilitating experience of brain haemorrhage and stroke might be added the equally thought-provoking implications gained from the study of schizophrenia, as for example through the diverse work of Louis Sass, Julian Jaynes, Daniel Paul Schreber, and R. D. Laing. As Laing himself has commented:

 

Chapter Five - The God of Reason

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As the true method of knowledge is experiment the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences. This faculty I treat of.

—William Blake, All Religions are One

Introduction: The hall of mirrors

The first part of this book has explored the connections between the complex of ordering, rationalising, and evaluating processes which Blake terms “Urizen” and the dominant programs and features of the left hemisphere of the human brain. Drawing on the cognitive framework provided by Blake, it has argued that the neurological basis of the entity commonly referred to as “God” is grounded in a specific network of inter-related left hemisphere programs (such as its law-making, moralistic, abstracting, dividing, and linear-sequencing activities), a network both organised and integrated by a specific left hemisphere mode of attention or personality. Blake believed that the abstract, rationalising “Gods” of human culture were powerful instantiations of this power within the human brain, which he also termed “the Holy Reasoning Power” (J 10:15, p. 153, J 54:16, p. 203). Blake's arguments suggest new ways of interpreting the dominant religious and theological texts of our culture. They also, obviously, undermine the basis of all popular religion.

 

Chapter Six - Urizenic Religion and Urizenic Reason: R1 and R2

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I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise; this they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning.

—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Introduction: The operating systems

In order to clarify Blake's critique of both orthodox religion and post-Newtonian science as sharing a common Urizenic basis, in the following chapter I will be using the metaphor of rival operating systems. This may help to explain Blake's contention that both systems of thought obey the same basic program and are expressions of the same power. For whilst religion and rationalistic science are supposed to be at loggerheads, symptomatic of a “two cultures” divide, what they resemble more, according to Blake's cognitive framework, are different versions of essentially similar systems—Mac versus PC (Apple Mac OS versus Microsoft Windows)—battling it out for supremacy of the left brain. Indeed, perhaps it is because of this competitive rivalry that the infighting between the two can be so intense.

 

Chapter Seven - The Left Hemisphere Agenda

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Man is a twofold being.

—William Blake, On Lavater

Introduction: Measuring Urizen

As we have seen, the characteristic functions and processes of Urizenic consciousness are part of an integrated operating system, a coherent mode of running which is concerned with the manipulation of the world and a compulsive drive towards dominion and power. This concern with power is central to its agenda and a clue to its character. It is manifested both in its mode of attention to the world (which, as we saw earlier, is of a particularly cold and detached kind, useful for the ruthless manipulation of other people or things) and in its underlying, often unconscious, compulsion to dominion. In seeking to understand the nature of this “agenda” I draw in particular on the recent work of McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, whose profound and far-reaching examination of hemispheric difference helps in many ways to clarify Blake's own presentation of Urizen and the hidden drives and motivations that constitute Urizen. I would like to pay tribute to the work of McGilchrist here, both because it was unavailable at the time the first part of this book was being written, and because it is a book which I believe may influence the twenty-first century as much as Niels Bohr or Jung helped to redefine the intellectual contours of the last century. McGilchrist's examination of left-brain processes dovetails in many important and resonant ways with what I understand to be Blake's analysis of “Urizen”, and it is particularly interesting in this respect that McGilchrist himself sees Blake's Urizen as an embodiment of left hemisphere processes, an instantiation of the left hemisphere take on the world.

 

Chapter Eight - Twilight of the Psychopaths

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To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life

The Beast & the Whore rule without controls

—Blake, On Watson

Introduction: Reason and insanity

The previous chapter has perhaps suggested something more “sinister” going on in human history, and inside the left hemisphere in particular. It examined hemispheric differences and focussed in particular on what McGilchrist calls the left hemisphere's “long-term agenda.” One of the characteristic features of Urizenic processes, I suggest, is an underlying and perhaps unconscious compulsion to interpret everything mechanically: to turn the experienced world into a mechanical model of itself, and thence to dehumanise the world. In a parody of right-hemispheric processes and values, it seeks to incarnate as a machine.

As the previous chapter also argued, in this the left hemisphere seems to operate as a sort of rationalised “version” of the right brain. It turns its metaphors into literalism, its bodies into machinery, and its right-hemispheric experience of eternity into an endless stretch of linear time. And the more it does this, the more it dominates as a mode, the more it mechanises and literalises. The hemispheres are not static: as the left brain becomes increasingly dominant and dissociated it also becomes increasingly dysfunctional and free-wheeling (M&E, pp. 392–393; as McGilchrist observes, “there is a range of evidence suggesting that just such an imbalance in favour of the left hemisphere occurs in schizophrenia”, ibid., p. 393). Blake charted and analysed the trajectory of this progress or “fall into Division” as he called it, in his longer, prophetic poems. In them he shows that the more Urizen, the “Rational Power”, is divided from its imaginative and humanist source, the more it degenerates and becomes increasingly out of control and destructive. It is caught in a sort of mad circle, in which the more it tries to impose and maintain order (through its complex of interrelated drives and programs: moral self-righteousness, the superiority complex, a consuming and ravenous “ego”, and an abstracting, instrumental, and manipulative propensity), the more it becomes degraded and—to use Blake's specific and precise word to describe this form of extreme, severed rationalism—“insane” (FZ vii:36, p. 360). In an astonishing passage in The Four Zoas this Spectre, the compulsive, free-wheeling, left-hemispheric “Reasoning Power”, now running out of control, itself realises this and declares:

 

Chapter Nine - More than Man: The Dragon Urizen

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…thou wast so pure & bright

That heaven was Impure in thy sight

—William Blake, The Everlasting Gospel

An impersonal God

Lavater once wrote: “He, who adores an impersonal God, has none”. Blake noted this passage in his copy of Lavater's Aphorisms and commented, “Most superlatively beautiful” (On Lavater, p. 596). Lavater's phrase certainly has a Blakean ring to it. For an abstract and impersonal God, Blake maintained, is the invention of the rationalising Spectre, and is the sort of God invoked and adored by all Urizenic religions and philosophies, from the “Abstract Philosophy” of “Brama in the East” to Hermes Trismegistus and the Rational Logos of “Pythagoras Socrates & Plato” in the West (SoL, 3 11–19, p. 67). In many ways, the history of all hitherto existing philosophy has therefore been a history of “Abstract Philosophy warring in enmity against Imagination” (J 5:58, p. 148). McGilchrist characterises the rather abstract and abstracting stance of “an excessively detached, hyper-rational, reflexively self-aware, disembodied and alienated condition” as being common to both schizophrenia and post-Enlightenment philosophy. As he observes, the “conscious effort to distance oneself from one's surroundings, refrain from normal action and interaction with them, suspend one's normal assumptions and feelings about them and subject them to a detached scrutiny” is “an exercise which in the non-mentally ill is normally confined to philosophers” (M&E, pp. 332–333). Blake would probably have agreed:

 

Chapter Ten - The Selfhood & the Fires of Los

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The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true. as I have heard from Hell.

For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite. and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.

This will come to pass by an improvement in sensual enjoyment.

—Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Introduction: The fall into division

This book has examined Blake's analysis of the emergence of a dominant rationalising, moralising, and abstracting power within the human brain, a power which he terms “Urizen”. When this “Holy Reasoning Power” stopped being a useful emissary and actually began to control the individual (i.e., took control of the psyche), all of the other powers and functions of the human brain and body were necessarily affected and altered. It transformed reason itself, from being one of the most luminous and brilliant tools that man has at his disposal, into a compulsive and calculating automaton, one obsessed with laws, moral codes, systems, control, and obedience, and with preserving its own usurped position. But it also upset and perverted every other program and activity within the human body: it repressed desires and sexuality (turning them into obsessive lusts and destructive rages), it trivialised and mocked and marginalised the human imagination (representing it as either escapist entertainment or as unreliably subjective), and it mechanised and alienated itself from its own body. In Blake's terms, Urizen's bid for control of the human psyche profoundly affected and disturbed Luvah, Urthona, and Tharmas, the three other “Zoas” which constitute the complete individual (corresponding to the emotional, imaginative, and physical systems within man). Before the “Rational Power” can be reintegrated into the psyche and into the whole individual, therefore, the pathological nature of its contemporary form needs to be recognised and, according to Blake, “cast off” or let go.

 

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