Blake, Neo-Platonism and the Material Imagination

Early on, as a high school student, I became interested in Neo-Platonism. It seemed to connect many of the intuitive thoughts that I was having and give them form and relationship. Later in college, I formally studied Neo-Platonism as a philosophy major and I still felt it touched on many of my intuitive ideas. I recently read a book on William Blake and his relationship to Neo-Platonism titled, Blake and Antiquity by Kathleen Raine (part of the Bollingen Series, 1962). This might in fact be the very reason I am so attracted to the evocative drawings and dream like images of Blake.

Raine begins her essay,

“Neo-Platonism may be compared to an underground river that flows through European history, sending up, from time to time, springs and fountains; and wherever its fertalizing stream emerges, there imaginative thought revives, and we have a period of great art and poetry.” (Raine,p.4)

The English Platonist, Thomas Taylor had a powerful influence on Blake who, simultaneously, was reading the works of Swedenborg. Taylor called upon the,

“Young men of the new age…to enlist under the banner of Plotinus, confident that…the weapons of truth, in the hands of vigorous union, descend with irresistible force, and are fatal wherever they fall.” (Raine,p.5)

Blake begins his own personal journey discovering his Platonic leanings in the work entitled, Cave of the Nymphs. The symbolism that he longed for, that was both old and new, became evident in Neo-Platonism. It encapsulated his love of the ancients and brought them into the modern age through a symbolism that transcended time. Raine states, “… the language may at times be forgotten, yet we cannot call it dead; for the visions it describes are, as Blake says, ‘Permanent in The Imagination’; the beauty and the meaning of such symbols is unaging.” (Ibid.,p.8)

One of the Platonic ideas that Blake spent much time meditating on is the idea that souls descend into generation. Heraclitus states,”…birth into the cave is a death from eternity, the sleep of forgetfulness that overcomes those who, as in Plato’s parable, drink the waters of Lethe and are born on earth.” This concept is evident in Blake’s painting, The Sea of Time and Space (1821). In this painting, there are figures with looms and shuttles, weaving the garments, the body, that the figures will wear when they enter life. In this painting,souls take on the materiality of existence and are born into the world.

But one thing I sense in Blake is that he does not just stop at identifying with Platonic ideas. He goes one step further. He identifies, as the artist, with this material embodiment. What is the artist, but one who takes an imaginative leap by carrying his idea from thought and manifesting it into a material form. Artistic creation is the very act of materializing a thought, feeling or intuitive insight, into a vessel that reveals those thoughts and feelings. The artist needs matter to create. The artist, not only transform matter, but also invests his own soul into that creation.This, too, is a materialization of a spiritual movement that takes place within the artist. Any artistic undertaking is a conjunction between thoughts, soul and matter.

Related but conversely stated, Gaston Bachelard believed that,” We need to first imagine something before we can discover it.” Matter must first be imagined before the senses can percieve it. Matter only takes on ‘life and existence’ after the entrance of the imagination. Blake elaborates in The Songs of Innocence, that it is the imagination, not the senses, that are able,

“To see a world in a Grain of Sand

And Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.” (Ibid.,p. 88)

Blake writes, “Every Natural Effect has a Spiritual Cause.” Blake believes in the artists’ ability to be a catylst of movement between the spiritual realm(imagination) and the world of matter. The artist acts as a medium between worlds. “When man lives imaginatively, his world is determined by quality” and unity. The artist is a projection of the oneness that is possible in living the creative life. Blake states,

“Heaven above, heaven beneath,

Stars above, stars beneath,

All that is above is beneath.

Understand this and be happy.” (Ibid.,p.79)

Material imagination, the imaginative quality of soul, of ‘vision’ as Blake puts it,”… regenerates and resurrects Nature… and Paradise is regained.” (Ibid.,p.100) Blake continues this thought which reaches it’s apex, “I see Every thing I paint in This World…to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he Sees.” (Ibid.,p.100)

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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