‘The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation’ by Roderick Tweedy (Karnac 2013)
Reviewed by Robert M Ellis
At some points in the past I have dipped into the work of William Blake, known to many as the Romantic poet, author of the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ and some wonderful short poems. I have even read ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ and realised that there was a kind of attempt at the Middle Way going on – something I should go back to and look at more closely in the future, I thought. But, until I picked up ‘The God of the Left Hemisphere’, I had no idea of the profundity with which Blake champions the imagination as the source of the Middle Way between extremes of ‘reason’, let alone the ways that he anticipates the hemispheric bilateralisation of modern neuroscience.
Roderick Tweedy’s case is constructed largely as an interpretation of Blake, also drawing heavily on Iain McGilchrist (whose great work on brain bilateralisation and its cultural consequences, ‘The Master and his Emissary’ is summarised and reviewed here) and the neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who recognised the importance of brain lateralisation after suffering a stroke that temporarily disabled her left hemisphere. The book shows how Blake’s work reflects an accurate recognition of the self-reinforcing, dogmatic, obsessive nature of the over-dominant left hemisphere, which Blake calls ‘The Spectre’. Indeed, how this is the source of evil as our more integrated experience can recognise it. It also offers a vision of the integration of the left hemisphere with the right, with its capacities for receptivity, imagination, compassion, and physical connection.
Blake did situate these tendencies of human beings in the brain: though of course he was in no position to directly investigate it. Instead he drew on his experience of the narrow left-hemisphere attributes that came to dominate in the science, religion and politics of the eighteenth century in which he lived: attributes that he tends to refer to as ‘Reason’, as opposed to the ‘Imagination’ of the right hemisphere. But the attributes he accredits to each are amazingly accurate, especially given that they cut across the main lines of other thought in his time with great originality.
Blake was by all accounts an astonishingly integrated individual, who was able to have visions yet put them in a wider perspective, and express what he had learnt from them in art as well as poetry. He was also supremely skilful in expressing his totally heterodox views with a creative ambiguity that did much to save him from persecution. His lack of formal education may well have contributed to his supreme individuality.
But once you get beyond the well-known popular stuff, the serious parts of Blake’s oeuvre, his prophetic books, are not easy to read. You are immediately plunged into a symbolic world populated by beings that represent aspects of the human psyche: Urizen (‘Your Reason’) for reason, Urthona for imagination, Luvah for love, and so on. I find it difficult to get my bearings in Blake’s inner world, but if there is anything that would encourage me to persevere it is Tweedy’s book, which communicates the urgency and importance of what Blake has to offer. Prophetic books such as the Four Zoas are dramas in a brain, showing us the dread and delusion of Urizen – the narrow left brain personified, and then the relief of Urizen’s re-integration with the other Zoas and with Albion, the whole person.
This interpretation of Blake provides the basic structure of Tweedy’s book, but it is not all there is to it. There are some very interesting side-excursions into (for example) Genesis, psychopathy, and violence. It is the Creation story in Genesis that gives the book its title. Probably Blake’s most famous picture is ‘The Ancient of Days’, of a Creator God figure leaning out of a cloud and holding a compass in a stiff right angle: a symbol of the rationalising expression of power involved in creation. The figure actually represents Urizen under the delusion that he is a creator God. This fits very well with the left-hemisphere delusion that by categorising, naming and measuring we make things how they are, regardless of the right hemisphere experience required to produce the basic conditions for our rational organisation. For Blake, the left hemisphere God, which is the normal object of organised religion, is subsidiary to the more genuine right hemisphere God, who of course lies beyond any such labelling.
The rationalising creator-Urizen brings together the symbols of religion and science, which Blake and Tweedy see as only superficially opposed, and each as different manifestations of a more basic left-hemisphere dominance. Tweedy points out the mirrored resemblances of the two opposed types of Urizenic Reason, which he calls R1 (religious reason) and R2 (scientific reason). This is the closest Tweedy gets in this book to discussing the Middle Way (rather than just brain lateralisation which often implies it), as his favoured position obviously lies between R1 and R2 and challenges the assumptions of both. However, here I felt he could have developed the implications rather more than he does, and instead he gets slightly bogged down in historical examples like that of Galileo (who is shown to be more dogmatic than his scientific canonisation would suggest). He describes R1 and R2 as ‘operating systems’, a term which is not really unpacked, and which I don’t think really gives us the tools we need to understand both the conflict and the unholy alliance between them. There is much more to explore here, to explain how the opposing beliefs of both religious and scientistic dogmatists have a psychological resemblance, to understand the role of absolutisation, and in the process to be able to make comparisons between the beliefs involved in this particular opposition and parallel ones in many other circumstances. Just as Buddhists have tended to define the Middle Way only in terms of the metaphysical beliefs that happened to be opposed to each other at the time of the Buddha, so in this study, implicitly about the Middle Way in Blake’s time, the temptation that needs to be resisted is the assumption that these particular conflicts are somehow uniquely definitive of all metaphysical oppositions.
In a long chapter called ‘Twilight of the Psychopaths’, Tweedy also relates the over-dominance of the left hemisphere to the exercise of power, the hardening of our awareness so as to exclude empathy, and the use of violence. The connection between power and the over-dominant left-hemisphere is one I would describe as the repression of our identification with others through the maintenance of an obsessive set of implicit beliefs when we exercise power over them. I think Tweedy is right, and summons fair evidence, in thinking that right hemisphere based empathy is a more basic response to others for most of us most of the time. Only a small psychopathic proportion of the population does not access this empathy and remains in the mechanistic, neutral, affect-free zone of the isolated left hemisphere, where others are simply tools or impediments. He points out research showing that only 15 to 20% of US rifleman in World War 2 combat actually fired at the enemy. However, the military training developed for later wars has increased this proportion precisely by desensitising soldiers to their normal empathetic response: i.e. ensuring a left hemisphere instrumental override. We would expect the same desensitisation mechanism to be used when anyone who isn’t a psychopath exercises power: e.g. by making people redundant or cutting welfare budgets.
Unfortunately Tweedy slightly distracts from his case about the left hemisphere and power here by mixing it with historical claims about violence which are much more debatable. One of these is that ecological changes in the Middle East around 6000 years ago (a period mentioned by Blake) produced stress that triggered a sudden move towards left-hemisphere dominance and the repression of empathy. This was accompanied by the formation of hierarchical, power-based societies which he then assumes to be much more violent, but I was unconvinced by the limited evidence he cited that an upsurge in power must be accompanied by one of violence. In this connection I would recommend a reading of Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ (reviewed on this site) for evidence that actually violence has steadily decreased throughout human history, including through the transition from hunter-gatherer society to settled agricultural societies and organised cities. Pinker uses evidence from a range of archaeological sites and from hunter-gatherer societies which suggests that rates of death from violence were actually much higher in pre-state societies. Power and left-hemisphere dominance as motives may well have increased with the first hierarchical civilisations, but such civilisations also seem to have reduced violence when compared to hunter-gatherer societies.
The key to this discrepancy, I think, is simply that suppression is necessary, and social order encourages helpful suppression as well as unhelpful repression. Practical needs do sometimes require us to use power and desensitisation (something I would have liked to see Tweedy acknowledge), but it will only be used repressively if there is no wider awareness which keeps us in contact with a right-hemisphere perspective. It is not just a question of whether the left hemisphere becomes over-dominant at one time, but for how long it does so, and how easily the brain can reconnect to a wider perspective. in other words, there is a great difference between narrowly pursued violence for an absolutised end and violence used as a last resort with a remaining imaginative connection with larger and more positive values.
The advance of civilisation has increasingly forced us to turn our outward social conflicts within, which may have often resulted in repression and conflict of a psychological instead of a social kind, but at the same time, by decreasing outward conflict, it has also steadily produced better social conditions in which the re-integration of the left hemisphere dominance that enabled early civilisation to occur becomes more possible. We do not need to Romanticise past history, or become absolute pacifists or anarchists, in order to recognise the moral force of the case against left hemisphere dominance.
I thus found Tweedy’s side-excursions from the central Blakean theme of the book, though interesting, generally less convincing and successful than the main argument. Much depends on whether you read it just as an interpretation of Blake, or also as a kind of interdisciplinary philosophy that uses Blake as a medium of presentation: often the former interpretation lets him off the hook, because it places him under no apparent obligation to improve on Blake’s understanding. If you interpret him primarily as offering a commentary on Blake, you could see Tweedy as simply doing his best to offer us Blake’s message and pass on his prophetic vision, and in these terms the book is very successful. However, I felt that the book would also have benefitted from more of a critical perspective on Blake’s view of the world and its possible limitations, even if only in a spirit of devil’s advocacy. Apart from a possible incipient anarchism, one of the other possible limitations of Blake’s understanding of the Middle Way is its apparent lack of incrementality. The reformation of Urizen at the end of the Four Zoas seems to be a rather implausibly sudden affair.
On the whole, though, I highly recommend this book, which succeeds in a variety of ways. For me, it has provided a new inspiration to try once more to engage with Blake himself. It is also a helpful refresher course in brain lateralisation for anyone who has already read McGilchrist, or perhaps an introduction that might lead on to McGilchrist (especially for those with literary interests) for someone who has not. Rather like Jung’s Red Book, which I have been discussing in a series of recent blogs, I also felt that this book adds greatly to a kind of cultural capital (if that’s not too left-brain an expression) with which Middle Way perspectives can be expressed, symbolised and understood, particularly in reinterpreting the resources of the Bible and the Western tradition to integrative ends. For a small minority, too, Blake and Jung may provide a type of intuitive grasp of the Middle Way which may even completely bypass its intellectual expressions and be directly understood in an imaginative form. I think there are some Buddhists I have met who seem to have related to Blake in this way. But I fear that, despite strong literary and other artistic interests, I will never personally be that kind of visionary, and will always to some extent lean on a crutch of intellectualisations. Nevertheless, there may be Blakes amongst us even now, or in the future again – who knows?