Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

William Blake's Book of Thel

Poet, artist, and engraver William Blake (1757-1827) is often named as an antecedent of Thelema. As a proponent of willful “energy” and sexual liberation, in addition to being a truly unorthodox Christian who implicitly deemed himself a member of the “devil’s party” – in addition to being the author of deeply symbolic poems about the human condition that he claimed were “dictated” or inspired by spiritual beings – Blake makes an obvious choice as a literary figure who anticipated some of Crowley’s ideas. Based on an essay Crowley wrote about him, the modern EGC (a religion based around Thelema) added Blake to its list of “Gnostic Saints” in 1997 e.v. In addition, a Lodge of the OTO (an organization concerned with teaching and promulgating Thelema) adopted his name. So, at the very least, it’s fair to say that Blake is relevant to quite a number of Thelemites.
A reading of Blake’s poetry from a Thelemic perspective is enlightening and interesting, and it is the purpose of this blog post to briefly read one of his shorter poems from the early 1790s from this perspective. The post will connect the reading to the ideas expounded on this blog about skepticism and its necessity for an intelligent practice of Thelema.

Read on for more.
The text under consideration will be The Book of Thel (transcription of the text found here), a brief narrative poem composed some time between 1789 and 1795 (since Blake produced, engraved, and printed his own works, dating them with precision presents some difficulty; consensus seems to be that the text was written in 1789 and engraved sometime between then and 1791. The latest surviving printed copies were produced in 1795). As the poem’s title indicates, it is concerned with the will. A well-read Christian who knew Greek, Blake would have been familiar with the word “Thelema” from the New Testament (most notably in The Lord’s Prayer). The word appears shortened in the title of the poem, and we soon learn that it is the name of the main character. And thus, its shortened form is our first clue to what this character represents: while she can be read to signify the human will, she is a truncated or restricted expression of that will. The poem illustrates how the will comes to be restricted and the effects of this restriction on the self.
In the reading to follow, I am going to claim that The Book of Thel illustrates how the will can be restricted by the mind, in exactly the manner I have described on this blog, including in the introductory post and in the post "Skeptical of the True Will?" It is, of course, not my contention that Blake himself was operating within the same precise philosophical framework of Thelema or that he intended the poem as such: this entry merely uses Thelema, as expounded by Crowley and as developed both on this blog and in other places, as a lens through which to read this poem.
Thel is a shepherdess who lives in the “vales of Har,” a mythical place that seems to reside in Blake’s world of Innocence. For Blake, “Innocence” denotes a naïve state of consciousness prior to serious engagement with the world, in which the individual overlooks crucial aspects of reality, frequently overlooking – or even perpetuating – the Innocent individual’s own oppression. Its counterpart (or “contrary”) state “Experience” denotes an engagement with the world, and it typically entails disillusionment or dissatisfaction with the way things are. Many scholars propose that for Blake, both states of consciousness are necessary for the individual (they are, in the words of the frontispiece to his Songs of Innocence and Experience, “two contrary states of the human soul”), and that the ideal progress of an individual is from Innocence to Experience and then to a new, higher kind of Innocence – overcoming the sense of disillusionment – informed with an awareness that comes from having engaged with and accepted the world.
[Compare Crowley’s accounts of initiation, wherein the individual passes through the restrictions of the mind to realize that all is perfection already. As Crowley puts it in Little Essays: “To regain Innocence is to regain Eden. We must learn to live without the murderous consciousness that every breath we draw swells the sails which bear our frail vessels to the Port of the Grave. We must cast our Fear by Love; seeing that Every Act is an Orgasm, their total issue cannot be but Birth.”]
Thel is portrayed as a young woman on the verge of sexual maturity. Her true will is driving her to enter the material, sexual world – the world outside her head – but she is hesitant to accept this will, hesitant to accept her own longing for the material world and the cycles of sexual generation, life and death. She is keenly aware that all physical things must die, that all physical things pass away and are no more. For her, acceptance of the physical world – moving from Innocence to Experience – means that she must also accept and affirm her mortality, and she is reluctant to do this.
The image on the cover -- which one can view here -- exemplifies her conflicted nature, displaying a female figure looking both longingly and hesitantly at a pair of embracing lovers.
The poem begins with her lamentation:

'O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the spring, born but to smile & fall?
Ah! Thel is like a wat'ry bow, and like a parting cloud,

Like a reflection in a glass, like shadows in the water,
Like dreams of infants, like a smile upon an infant's face,
Like the dove's voice, like transient day, like music in the air.
Ah! gentle may I lay me down and gentle rest my head,
And gentle sleep the sleep of death, and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden of the
evening time.'
Thel’s similies here link her to the natural world toward which her will is impelling her, even as she realizes that she, like those natural things, must fade away. In short, Thel is experiencing a very common trick that the conscious mind plays on the true self: her mind is plaguing her with the fear of death.

From the perspective of Thelema, the fact that all things fade away is just that: a fact. Crowley writes in the New Comment to the Book of the Law: “We may accept (what after all it is absurd to accuse and oppose) the essential character of existence. We cannot extirpate or even alter in the minutest degree either the matter or manner of any element of the Universe, here each item is equally inherent and important, each aequipollent, independent, and interdependent.”
As this blog has frequently noted, Thelema is about seeing things as they are, seeing through the glamour cast on the universe by the mind. The proper practice of Thelema entails “piercing the veils” of the mind and perceiving reality – which includes the true will of the individual – that is concealed beneath. Thel's lament over the transient state of things is one such veil.
That things fade away is a fact, no more a cause for sorrow than the fact that things are born. The mind obstructs the ability of the self to see this clearly, insisting on labeling some facts as “problems” and obsessing over them.
For comfort, as a balm for this supposed problem, Thel wishes to “gentle hear the voice/ Of him that walketh in the garden of the evening time” – that is, she longs for God (who is described in these terms in Genesis). Her conscious mind, having invented an illusory problem, now invents an illusory solution to an illusory problem, postulating a fictitious god as a savior figure.
Note that it is the voice of this god for which Thel longs: this god is, at the end of all analysis, nothing more than the voice in Thel’s own head, the very thing preventing her from embracing the physical world and her true will.
[Incidentally, Blake elsewhere refers to the Christian concept of God as “Old Nobodaddy,” nobody’s daddy, a tyrannical sky god whom Blake later connects to his mythological figure Urizen, a poetic representation of the reasoning faculty. This tyrannical "God" figure is the "voice" of the reason that leads one away from the will. Compare The Book of the Law’s denunciation of reason in the process of manifesting the True Will. Importantly, please observe that these verses do not imply that reason is an insufficient tool for evaluating the world: they directly state that the reason is an insufficient tool for determining the True Will. One perceives the True Will – one does not reason one’s way to it, at least not according to The Book of the Law]
In order to quell her fears, Thel then engages in brief dialogues with inhabitants of the Innocent (and therefore ignorant) vale of Har: a lilly, a cloud, a clod of clay, and a worm. These dialogues are ironic, with the characters talking past each other. The inhabitants are supposed to be comforting and encouraging Thel, but as pieces of the natural world – and as Innocent, ignorant beings – they are unable to connect with a fully human perspective, a perspective that is capable of grasping the world in mature Experienced ways.
From a Thelemic point of view, this is necessarily so: natural things don’t have a conscious mind that is capable of pulling them away from their will. By the same token, they are also incapable of experience in the way that humans are. The conscious mind allows humans to “fall” from the state of Innocence into Experience, but it also allows us to rise to a higher Innocence: that is, our minds provide us with the capability for experience and understanding of reality, causing us to misperceive the universe but also offering us the opportunity to learn to perceive accurately and “enjoy all things of sense and rapture.”
These beings tell Thel, essentially, that all things are recycled in the natural cycle, but Thel cannot comprehend their perspectives and continues her lamentations.
It is the clod of clay – who, in Blake’s Songs represents an Innocent, ignorant, heaven-like, doormat perspective – who convinces Thel that God will protect her as she enters the material world. It does this by presenting an illusory image of what the world will be like:

Thou seest me the meanest thing, and so I am indeed:
My bosom of itself is cold, and of itself is dark,
But he that loves the lowly pours his oil upon my head,
And kisses me, and binds his nuptial bands around my breast,
And says: "Thou mother of my children, I have loved thee,

And I have given thee a crown that none can take away."
But how this is, sweet maid, I know not, and I cannot know;
I ponder, and I cannot ponder, yet I live and love.'
This is, of course, a manifestation of Thel’s fantasy image of her relationship to God and, probably, her fantasy of her relationship to a man. The illustration on the plate in which Thel first encounters the worm (found here) is revealing: Thel holds her arms out, in a sign of Christlike self-sacrifice – before the worm, which is depicted like an infant child. [The clod of clay and the worm appear as children on the next plate, here)
Thel’s mind is presenting her with an image of what engagement with reality – with sexuality – will be like: the rewards of motherhood, the ideal relationship with a partner, the comfort of a God. She prepares to enter Experience not with an accurate image of reality, but with an image of the world seen through the lens of a fantasy.
When at last the gates open that permit her entrance into the world of Experience, the restricted will encounters a world of harsh elements, all the harsher for not matching up to her mental image. The discrepancy is so stark that the illusion cannot be maintained, and a new illusion appears – that of extreme disappointment:

She wander'd in the land of clouds thro' valleys dark, list'ning
Dolours and lamentations; waiting oft beside a dewy grave
She stood in silence, list'ning to the voices of the ground,
Till to her own grave plot she came, & there she sat down,
And heard this
voice of sorrow breathed from the hollow pit:

'Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?
Or the glist'ning Eye to the poison of a smile?
Why are Eyelids stor'd with arrows ready drawn,

Where a thousand fighting men in ambush lie?
Or an Eye of gifts & graces, show'ring fruits and coined gold?
Why a Tongue impress'd with honey from every wind?
Why an Ear a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in?
Why a Nostril wide inhaling terror, trembling & affright?
Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy?
Why a little curtain of flesh on the
bed of our desire?'
Thel has encountered her own grave in the world of Experience – the outcome she imagines for her Experiential life – and the “voice of sorrow” that emerges from that pit is, again, the voice of her own mind. Earlier, she longed to hear the voice of God, but in the end she hears her mind speaking a different fantasy: the shock of the physical world on the senses is too much for her, and she imagines that she has gone to her death still a virgin (as the last two lines above indicate).
This “voice” – active before in inventing a problem and a fictional solution – is now confronted with facts that contradict its fantasies. However, rather than discarding fantasy altogether, it invents a new fantasy, that of extreme disappointment: not only will Thel die, she will be restricted in her ability to engage with her sexuality after all. Experience is imagined as bringing not only physical death, but a spiritual death, in which Thel will be robbed of the opportunities to find a partner, become a mother, and experience the comforting love of a God/father/lover.
As often is the case in Blake, the illustration on this final plate -- found here -- suggests an irony: these frightful words are illustrated with the image of naked, joyful children riding a serpent-like creature. In other words, the world isn’t nearly as dreadful as Thel’s mind is making it. The defect is in Thel’s perception, not in the world itself, which continues on joyfully as ever (and naturally, the illustration calls up associations with sperm and children, the very things that Thel could have, if only she were strong enough to see reality as it is and seize it).
But Thel is not Thelema: she is not a full, complete will. She is a restricted, constricted will, cut off from the fullness of manifestation by the motion of her mind. She cannot accept reality as joyous. Instead, she retreats back to Innocence, back to the world of fantasy:

The Virgin started from her seat, & with a shriek
Fled back unhinder'd till she came into the vales of Har.

The “unhinder’d” reinforces the idea that there is nothing “hindering” her at all in the world: the hindrances are entirely in her head. Her shriek here, her final vocal act in the poem, is not the shriek of sexual ecstacy: it is the shriek of fear, of one who will remain a perpetual virgin, locked away from reality by the icy hand of her own reason.

There is, of course, much, much more to say about this poem: completed in its final printing (1795) after the failure of the French Revolution, Thel’s failure may well reflect Blake’s disappointment at the inability of the human will to achieve lasting liberty in the material world. Further, as the associations with motherhood suggest, the poem may also be engaging in the question of women’s rights (raised by other contemporaries of Blake, perhaps most famously by Mary Wollstonecraft) and the patriarchal forces that constrain the will of women and force them into positions whereby they must remain perpetually “innocent,” ignorant, and oppressed.
It is not the purpose of this post to reductively suggest that this poem must have one and only one interpretation: instead its purpose has been to show how it is possible to read the work of one antecedent of Thelema as indeed anticipating and illustrating the functioning of this philosophy in detail.
Such a reading offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of giving credence to the stories that the mind invents about reality and paying attention to the “voice” of the mind instead of attending to the simple and joyful reality dancing right in front of our eyes.

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