Monday, 5 November 2018

William Blake's Visions and The Bicameral Mind

Blake in a portrait
William Blake’s artistic life was full of visions; he has made several claims of hearing the voices of angels and dead people. But did he really see visions? It is difficult to accept literally. Is it possible that he was lying to impress his guests? Perhaps he wanted to establish himself as an antirational Romanticist thinker.

Julian Jaynes, in his article, “The Ghost of a Flea: Visions of William Blake,” (Chapter 2; Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, by Marcel Kuijsten), uses his theory of bicameral mind to explain the visions or hallucinations that Blake used to experience. Here’s an excerpt:
I would like to suggest that with the notion of the bicameral mind, the realization that all of us to a greater or less extent, have locked away within us an ancient mentality based on hallucinations of the speech and visions of gods, that with this new understanding of the origins of mind, we can for the first time be comfortable with genuine Blake who ‘heard’ his poetry and ‘saw’ his paintings.  
Blake was not insane. Schizophrenic insanity, being a partial relapse to the bicameral mind, is indeed usually accompanied by ‘voices’ and ‘visions’ of religious nature. But it is also accompanied by panic, distress, and inability to be coherent in conversation, to know who and where one is, to manage one’s own affairs, to sustain ordinary human relationships. And Blake was the opposite of these.  
He was indeed what one of his friends called him, “a new kind of man,” one who had both consciousness and a bicameral mind, and probably unique in modern art history. 
The visions that Blake had were the sustaining force of his artistic life; many of his poems are inspired by his visions. According to Jaynes, Blake used to be fully conscious when he was not having any kind of a vision, but at the time when he had his visions, his mind operated like a bicameral mind, and the left hemisphere of his brain talked to the right hemisphere.

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