Disruptions of Identity: Points of Intersection between Blake's Urizen Books and Cognitive Science

by Matthew Green

September 8, 2002


One of the primary features of the prototypical self is the ability to produce and identify with a reasonably complete personal narrative. The findings of cognitive science, and particularly research into Dissociative Identity Disorder, challenge the claims to universality of this prototype. While cognitive science presents memory as the often unstable product of multiple sub-systems, DID raises the possibility of the presence of multiple biographies, and even multiple selves, within the same brain. Similar possibilities are explored, both verbally and visually, in Blake's Book of Urizen, which challenges dominant Lockean models of the self. Reading Blake alongside recent research into memory and identity yields insight into the continued influence of eighteenth-century ideas about identity, explores the wider moral dimensions of such psychological models and suggests alternate ways of interpreting a variety of psychological phenomena.


Introduction: expanding discursive fields

    Considering the wealth of comparisons between Blake and Freud within Blake scholarship, it is surprising that researchers investigating the psychological aspects of Blake’s texts have largely overlooked current developments in cognitive science. This absence is all the more pronounced in light of the insight provided by post-Freudian re-examinations of other Romantic poets such as Alan Richardson’s insightful discussion of Coleridge. As Richardson reports, the field of psychology can expand current scholarship in two directions, depending upon whether one wishes to discuss ‘pre-‘ or ‘post-Freudian’ psychology.1 In the following paper, I will concern myself primarily with this second discursive field, moving beyond psychoanalysis to consider the parallels between the models of the mind produced by cognitive science and those of the Romantic era. In particular, I will read Blake’s literary productions from the 1790s alongside recent cognitive studies that detail the manner in which trauma affects identity and memory. Such a reading promises to highlight features of both Blake’s poetry and current debates within psychology: Blake’s work can be expected to yield insight into the wider moral dimensions of models of the self, while cognitive neuroscience helps to illuminate some of the same shortcomings of Enlightenment psychology which Blake critiques in his texts.

    Since the late-seventeenth century, the prototypical self has been conceptualised as a unitary entity whose current actions and beliefs can be explained in terms of a personal narrative that is stable, sequential and unified. The findings of cognitive science, and particularly research on Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) challenge both the accuracy and universality of this prototype. While cognitive science presents memory as the often-unstable result of multiple sub-systems, DID raises the possibility of the presence of multiple biographies – and even multiple selves – within the same brain. Blake explores similar possibilities in lyrics that show the ‘Contrary States of the Human Soul’ (Songs of Innocence and of Experience 1; E7) and longer poems that are overtly concerned with ‘divided image[s]’ (Urizen 19:16; E79).

    Recent research suggests that there are at least two different types of memory: explicit or declarative memory (containing knowledge of past episodes which forms part of a coherent narrative and can be reported verbally) and implicit or nondeclarative memory (containing non-verbal procedural knowledge).2 As Laurence Kirmayer argues, ‘the dominant cultural prototype of memory is declarative’, and it is shaped by various ‘folk models’, which present memory as ‘"snapshots," laid down at the time of experience’ and assume that ‘memories are "time-stamped," and therefore offer themselves up in sequence’.3 However, developments in cognitive science suggest that the explicit memories that make up one’s biography are neither unified nor stable. Instead, the elements of our personal narratives are subject to imaginative reinterpretation and disruption over time. One’s identity in the present helps to determine which memories will be recalled and what meanings will be assigned to them. Moreover, identity itself seems to be equally influenced by information stored outside of conscious awareness, in implicit memory.

    Blake’s dynamic explorations of mental realities present the self and its identity as the products of similarly complex mental matrixes. In particular the three companion texts in Blake’s Urizen Books (The [First] Book of Urizen, The Book of Ahania, and The Book of Los) depict the disintegration of one character (Los-Urizen) into a variety of figures, each of which corresponds to a different psychic state (creativity, reason, pity, rage). Not only do these texts present the formation of identity as a process of disintegration, as the clash of violently conflicting states, but they also present biography as complex and problematic. The personal history told by one figure disrupts the narratives told by the others, interrupting them and offering alternative interpretations.

    At first glance, the historical connection between Blake’s work and that of current cognitive researchers, psychologists, and therapists may appear obscure. However, the picture becomes clearer when one considers that we still seem to be working through the implications of Enlightenment and Romantic psychologies in general, and Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding in particular.4 Paul Ricoeur attests to Locke’s importance to subsequent theories of identity:

The lesson that, without the guideline of the distinction between two models of identity and without the help of narrative mediation, the question of personal identity loses itself in labrynthine difficulties and paralyzing paradoxes was first taught to philosophers of the English language and of analytic formation by Locke and Hume.5

    If the prototypical self in our era is something passed down through Locke, it would make sense for Blake’s models of the self – which he developed in philosophical opposition to Locke and his ‘Easy of Huming Understanding’ (‘An Island in the Moon’; E456) – to demonstrate an affinity with those models emerging from the new psychology, itself providing non-traditional ways of thinking about identity. Read in this way, Blake’s critique of ‘Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known’ (No Natural Religion; E2), would take on fresh relevance as it refutes the prototypes of mind and memory which late-twentieth-century Western culture has inherited from the early Enlightenment. Similarly, Blake’s declaration that ‘The Eye sees more than the Heart knows’ (Visions ii; E45), with its implication that perception can – and often does – exceed conscious knowledge, assumes new urgency in light of research that suggests that these prototypes fail to accommodate, and indeed work to discredit, the experiences of those who have undergone intense physical and/or psychological trauma.

    A synchronic reading of Blake’s texts and the current literature emerging from cognitive psychology will help to elucidate alternative theories of identity that, in differing from the prototypical Lockean model, can create a space from which to discuss certain ideas and experiences excluded by the dominant cognitive schemata at work in Western culture. However, before mapping out some such alternatives, a brief consideration of Locke’s ideas and Blake’s responses to them will help to situate the current debates within a larger philosophical context.

Remembering Locke

    The most well known and fundamental element of Locke’s epistemology is his rejection of innate ideas. He rigorously denies the existence of any knowledge other than that which is arrived at through either sensation, the observation of external objects, or reflection, the observation of mental objects and operations.6 As Charles Taylor points out, this leads to a reification of the mind as well as to a conceptualisation of ideas as ‘quasi-objects’ (pp. 166-7). Unsurprisingly, this reification coincides with Locke’s description of memories as objects such as prints, inscriptions, and pictures (Essay, 2.10.5). The resemblance between Locke’s imagery and that of current ‘folk models’ which present memories as ‘snapshots’ is highly suggestive, as is the similarity between Locke’s depiction of memory as a ‘Store-house’ (Ibid.) and the apparently mistaken assumption that memory can be adequately ‘conceptualized as a thing’ (Freyd, p. 89, emphasis in original).

    Locke’s construction of memory has serious implications for his ideas about personal identity, which he defines as ‘the consciousness of present and past Actions’ (Essay, 2.27.16). Personal identity consists only of those memory objects which are available for conscious viewing, for ‘whatever past Actions [consciousness] cannot reconcile or appropriate [...] it can be no more concerned in, than if they had never been done’ (Essay, 2.27.26). This anchoring of personal identity in consciousness places an emphasis on the importance of declarative memory that persists in the continued privileging of declarative memory as the primary source of personal biography. As Ian Hacking notes, ‘from Locke’s exceptional point of view, the person is constituted not by a biography but by a remembered biography’.7 From these theories of knowledge, memory, and identity, Locke develops the concept of what Taylor calls the ‘punctual self’, whose highest achievement is not only ‘the disengagement both from the activities of thought and from our unreflecting desires’, but also a disengagement from inherited cultural beliefs and principles (Taylor, p. 171).

    Steve Clark asserts that Locke’s ‘analytic reduction’ of ideas to something analogous to physical particles signifies the ‘radical and thorough-going’ application of Blake’s declaration that ‘To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit’ (E641).8 However, Clark’s implied pun on ‘Particular’, ‘Particularize’ and ‘Particle’ obscures a fundamental division between Lockean and Blakean psychology. Locke’s mental particles, like Newton’s physical ones, are stable entities that originate beyond the limits of the human mind. Blake’s are not. For Locke, the building blocks of mental reality are imported – or more accurately, translated – from the outside world. What’s more, these mental particles retain the same autonomy as their external counterparts, for ‘all that Man can do is either to unite them together, or to set them by one another, or wholly separate them’ (Essay, 2.12.1). For Blake, on the other hand, creation – both mental and physical – proceeds directly from the activities of the Poetic Genius, which effaces distinctions between internal and external, mental and material, creature and creator. In his annotations to Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man,9 Blake declares that ‘everything on earth is the word of God & in its essence is God’ (E599). Blake repeatedly refers to this divine force as something that exists both inside and outside the mind of the perceiver.10 ‘The body or outward form’, Blake tells us in All Religions, ‘is derived from the Poetic Genius’, and likewise ‘the forms of all things are derived from their Genius’ (All Religions; E1). This creative force is not only internal, but also ‘universal’ and its existence, according to Blake, is demonstrated by the fact that ‘from already acquired knowledge Man could not acquire more’ (Ibid.). In the activity of this ‘Genius’, the ‘dull round’ of the Newtonian universe, that ‘mill with complicated wheels’, is transformed into a vision of, and interaction with, infinity (No Natural Religion; E2).

    All of this would seem to lead to a privileging of the mental or spiritual over the material. However, in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake states that such distinctions are themselves ‘Errors’ and that creation will ‘appear infinite’ only through ‘an improvement of sensual enjoyment’ (4, 14; E34, 39). For Blake, spiritual realities are corporeal realities and although he declares that ‘Man has no Body distinct from his Soul’, he also insists that ‘Energy is the only life and is from the Body’ (4; E34). Moreover, he suggests that the confusion generated by attempts to distinguish between the spiritual and the material arises from a failure of memory, from forgetting ‘that All deities reside in the human breast’ (11; E38). Notably, the act of redemptive remembrance does not consist of surveying or reassembling pre-existent sensual impressions, for the episodes in need of recollection exist outside of the individual’s biological life-span. Rather, it involves an act of imaginative reinterpretation that changes the ontological status of the objects under consideration and also redefines the position of the interpreter.11 Not only does a fool not see ‘the same tree that a wise man sees’ (7; E35), but also ‘Reason or the ratio of all we have already known. is not the same that it shall be when we know more’ (No Natural Religion; E2). Blake proposes to engage in this process of imaginative (and public) interpretation through the physical production of his illuminated books; that is, ‘by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid’ (Marriage 14; E39).12

    Blake’s texts recurrently challenge Locke’s theories about knowledge and problematise his conceptualisation of identity as conscious recollection. In reply to Locke’s rejection of innate ideas, Blake insists that such ideas ‘are in Every Man Born with him’, and further that ‘they are truly Himself’ (E648). This second declaration suggests not only that Blake recognises the manner in which Locke’s epistemology relates to his model of personal identity, but also that he wishes to oppose both. Moreover, in No Natural Religion Blake exposes the economic and political underpinnings of the punctual self, describing reason as a ‘possessor’ (E2). As numerous scholars have noted, the mythology Blake develops in his later texts, from Urizen onward, contains psychological as well as political and religious layers, in which figures such as Urizen and Los come to represent mental faculties like reason and imagination. These texts portray the mind as a dynamic space in which a variety of mental processes interact, creating a process by which the self is repeatedly divided and forcing a constant re-assessment of personal origins.

Interpreting origins: current cognitive research and theories of identity

    Recent cognitive theorists call for a similar re-evaluation of the origins of self. Research suggests that Lockean prototypes of memory and identity work to create, or at least to shape, both the constrictions we place on memory and our experiences of self. As Kirmayer notes, ‘folk models of memory govern what we try to remember, what we expect others to be able to remember, what we deem a memory and how we compose memories through narrative’ (Kirmayer, p. 177). The impact that these models have on our experience of self becomes evident in light of the work conducted by researchers and theorists such as Antze, Ricoeur, and Dennett.13 While Ricoeur, and following him Antze, emphasise the key function of narrative emplotment in the construction of the self, Dennett argues that the self is ‘a theorist’s fiction’ that performs a function similar to that accomplished by the centre of gravity in physics. He writes:

The physicist does an interpretation, if you like, of the [object] and its behavior, and comes up with the theoretical abstraction of a center of gravity, which is then very useful in characterizing the behaviour of [that object] [...]. The Hermeneuticist or phenomenologist – or anthropologist – [...] is faced with a similar problem of interpretation. It turns out to be theoretically perspicuous to organize the interpretation around a central abstraction: each person has a self [...]. In fact we have to posit selves for ourselves as well. The theoretical problem of self-interpretation is at least as difficult and important as the problem of other-interpretation.14

    Ricoeur pays similar attention to the narrative process of positing one’s self. He argues that one’s narrative identity mediates between two disparate poles of selfhood: character, which consists of acquired habits, values and identifications, and self-maintenance, which consists of projecting a stable point of identity through time and which asserts itself in speech acts such as promises. Within character itself, Ricoeur describes a further distinction, between sameness (idem), the identification with permanent values, and self (ipse), the innovative acquisition of new habits. He concludes that ‘it will be the task of reflection on narrative identity to balance [...] the anchoring of the history of a life in a character and [...] those traits which tend to separate the identity of the self from the sameness of character’ (Ricoeur, p. 123).

    Antze argues that ‘the tension Ricoeur describes’ finds a ‘boundary case’ in persons who identify themselves with the symptoms of DID, that is, with people who have ‘a fractured sense of identity’. However, the characteristic realities that drive this tension to a point of crisis – the fragmentation of memory, the flashbacks and the nightmares – are not confined to DID patients, but are more widely experienced by persons who have been subjected to particularly severe or repeated trauma. Since the traumatic event is not integrated into narrative memory, it creates gaps in one’s ‘life story’, while at the same time continuing to shape narrative identity in the form of unexplained phobias and compulsions, as well as sensory and emotional flashbacks – the cumulative effects of the registering of the traumatic event in nondeclarative memory (Antze, pp. 6-8; also see van der Kolk, p. 287). As van der Kolk and his colleagues suggest, ‘this fragmentation is accompanied by ego states that are distinct from normal states of consciousness’. In DID, these alternate ego states develop their own ‘complex identities with distinct cognitive, affective, and behavioral patterns’.15

    Psychologists such as Putnam and Freyd stress that less extreme forms of dissociation are a natural result of the operation of multiple memory systems within the human mind and they argue that the ability to perform habitual tasks without that information being processed on a conscious, declarative level is an adaptive technique that allows for the performance of multiple mental tasks simultaneously.16 Applying this positive interpretation of dissociative events to cases of intense trauma, van der Kolk, van der Hart and Marmar point out that forms of ‘emotion-focused coping’, such as dissociation, can be adaptive in situations such as rape and torture where more assertive problem solving strategies would be ineffective and even dangerous (p. 304).

    However, despite the prevalence and strategic importance of dissociation, there exists a strong cultural imperative to conform to existing prototypes. Margo Rivera points out:

In a culture with little tolerance for gaps in linear narrative (such as post-industrialist Western society) we are always working hard to mend the ruptures in our experience. We shift attention when we catch ourselves daydreaming. We rationalize our behaviours and decide we know the source of our actions. We need to have conscious control over our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour, and when we do not – and most of the time we do not – we create stories about ourselves that tell us that we do.

This is one reason severe posttraumatic dissociation is so often mocked and denied in scientific circles and sensationalized in popular culture. As a society we are not comfortable with just how near to each other talented and less-talented dissociators are on the self-awareness continuum.17

    Within this cultural context, persons employing dissociation as a survival strategy encounter additional difficulties in integrating dissociated information into their life-stories. On one level the initial integration of the experience is resisted because of the threat it poses to existing cognitive schemata; later recollection of it is further impeded because the manner in which traumatic memories appear to consciousness does not conform to the cultural expectations of memory internalised by the survivor. On another level, the opposition between traumatic material and cultural beliefs/social arrangements, and the opposition between dissociated memories and folk models of memory prohibit the interpersonal dialogue necessary for the conscious assimilation of traumatic memories. Kirmayer points out that ‘recollection is based on the past context in which the story is historically rooted and the current context in which the story is retold’(p. 191). He argues that traumatic experiences that can be communicated soon after the event are often assimilated more readily into narrative memory. Likewise, the assimilation of these experiences long after their occurrence depends upon a social context in which the memories can be related. He concludes:

Dissociative amnesia then arises from embodied aspects of experience: the neurological capacity to forge coherence, the psychological capacity to meliorate pain with self-soothing, and the social capacity to speak the unspeakable, to tell a story no one wants to hear. The embodied basis of dissociative pathology includes both the rigidity or stuckness of the individual and the failure of the world to bear witness. (p. 192)

    This unwillingness to witness manifests itself in the form of disbelief, in a refusal to believe in the past trauma or its present effects, and it is particularly evident in cases of DID, where the appearance of multiple ego states violates the prototype of the unified self. As Dennett suggests, the culturally encoded imperative to tell stories about unified characters is so strong that we revise our personal narratives to make them conform: ‘we are all, at times, confabulators, telling and retelling ourselves the story of our own lives, with scant attention to the question of truth’('The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity', online).18

    This process of obsessive narration finds strong parallels in the three companion texts that make up Blake’s Urizen Books. Ostensibly, these texts present Blake’s conflated myth of the creation and fall of the material world. Given the connection between the mental and the material in Blake’s texts, however, they simultaneously depict the fragmented origins of each individual self. As Nicholas M. Williams points out, ‘in Blake, the creation of Earth is the creation of man’.19 It is not surprising, therefore, that the characters in these texts are suffused with an anxiety concerning their personal origins and formative relationships.

Identities in crisis: the example of Blake’s Urizen Books

    Urizen embodies the Lockean ideal of the punctual self, attempting to disengage from, and dominate not only the other aspects of his identity, but also to remove himself from the Eternal community and create a world for himself ‘Space by space in his ninefold darkness’(Urizen 3:11; E70).20 However, Urizen’s attempts to create an introspective, philosophical text – comparable to Locke’s Essay with its ‘secrets of dark contemplation’ written in social isolation (Urizen 4:25) – lead not to a liberated individualism, but to tyranny, to the triple imposition of ‘One King, one God, one Law’ (4: 40; E72). Moreover, despite Urizen’s Lockean labours, both independence and narrative self-unity remain unattainable, suggesting that he has been striving after an illusory abstraction. Subsequent to his assertion of ‘self-closd’ identity (Urizen 3: 3; E70), Urizen receives the initial mark of human identity: his name. According to the Lockean definition of identity, this establishment of individual difference should be concurrent with the compilation of a unified personal narrative. Urizen does attempt to establish such a narrative – describing his ‘fightings and conflicts dire’ (4: 27; E72) – but he is continually interrupted by inarticulate audio and visual images, which reduce his story to fragments of dialogue within a larger narrative, itself constituted by a series of interruptions. Instead of producing a coherent life-story, Urizen’s assertions of identity give way to what Leslie Tannenbaum describes as ‘the traumatic eruption of death, destruction, and an antagonism between the human and the divine’.21

    Although the religious repercussions of Urizen’s failure to provide a stable ontological ground for himself and his children may seem far removed from cognitive science, it is in their depictions of this trauma that Blake’s texts intersect with research into implicit memory and dissociation. Recent cognitive research refutes Locke’s suggestion that any experience available for recollection will appear in the group of mental objects accessible to consciousness, with the most painful being most readily accessible because pain makes a lasting impression on the mind (Essay, 2.10.3). As we have seen, this does not appear to be the case in instances of extreme pain. On the contrary, the traumatic event is not assimilated into a personal narrative, but rather persists ‘on an implicit or perceptual level’ and returns as a disordered collection of ‘visual images; olfactory, auditory, or kinesthetic sensations; or intense waves of feelings’ (Van der Kolk, p. 287). In a similar manner, Urizen suggests that much of its protagonist’s experience of trauma – in this case self-creation, which the text presents as a trauma in its own right – exists outside of his consciousness. Instead of beginning a process of identity formation based on the conscious composition of a life-story, Urizen’s ‘incessant labour’ (5: 23; E73) produces a continual dialectic between consciousness and dissociation as his identity splits into a number of other selves, each of which has his or her own story. Not only is Urizen’s narration interrupted by the creative activities of Los, which occur while Urizen is asleep, but the heroic story in which Urizen grounds his personal identity is contradicted, in The Book of Los, by Eno, who portrays him as the one who ended the times of ‘Love & Joy’ (Los 1:8; E90). Perhaps more significantly, the characters divided from Urizen, such as Los, Enitharmon, and Ahania, are each compelled to seek their own narrative identities within Urizen’s fragmented psychic landscape. None of these new identities have access to the whole story, but rather each possess narrative fragments that cohere around the twin themes of creation and rupture. The limitations of Urizen’s perspective are clearly revealed by the fact that he remains unconscious during Los’s creative activities (10-13; E74-6), while Los’s experience of events cannot be comprehensive because he ‘no longer... [beholds] Eternity’ (20:2; E80). Even the poem’s Muses, the Eternals, are not cognisant of the entire chain of events, which for them is ‘now seen, now obscur’d’ (15:6; E78).

    As scholars such as Tannenbaum and McGann have pointed out, this disjointed narrative structure operates as a parody of the received Christian Bible, which many eighteenth-century exegetes regarded as a syncretic text composed of various fragments.22 As the first book in Blake’s ‘Bible of Hell’, Urizen operates as Blake’s Genesis. However, despite its narrative inconsistencies and interruptions, Genesis, unlike Urizen, maintains an expository style throughout, presenting itself as a series of historical, i.e. material, remembrances. In Urizen, on the other hand, exposition is constantly on the verge of being overwhelmed by description, by a profusion of adjectives, adverbs, and gerunds, which depict ‘hurtling bones’ (8: 2; E74), ‘fibres of blood milk and tears’ (18:4; E78), and ‘throbbings & shootings & grindings’ (25: 27; E82). With its nightmarish run of episodic fragments – with its ‘whirlwinds & cararacts of blood’ (5:13; E73), its ‘Groaning! gnashing! groaning!’ (7:2; E74), and its ‘Rage, fury, intense indignation’ (4:45; E72) – Urizen invades consciousness in a manner analogous to the intrusion of a posttraumatic flashback, presenting a collection of sensual and emotional remembrances which exceed Locke’s definition of memory. Thus, although the concept of a fragmented text was quite probably informed by eighteenth-century exegesis, this unconventional structure not only serves a parodic function, but also provides Blake with an ideal medium through which to critique Locke’s reification of memory.

    Ricoeur argues that those experiences which ‘sedimentation has contracted, narration can redeploy’. Moreover this act of redeployment is an essential component of identity construction, for ‘character must be set back within the movement of narration’ (p. 122). Van der Kolk’s findings suggest that it is possible to speak of the narrative redeployment of dissociated memories because ‘as people become aware of more and more elements of the traumatic experience’ they seem to ‘construct a narrative that "explains" what happened to them’ (p. 289). Under this view, the imagination plays an important role in the act of remembering, recreating past experiences and revising one’s personal narrative according to current mental conditions. Moreover, this sort of imaginative reconstruction appears to be a normal part of both memory and identity construction.

    Across the Urizen Books, any sort of narrative redeployment appears doomed to failure, and Urizen, Los and even the narrator appear unable to unite the multifarious textual and psychological fragments. An imaginative reconstruction of events is not possible because Los, the divine prophet and representative of poetic imagination, has himself succumbed to ‘Forgetfulness, dumbness, necessity!’ and is ‘In chains of the mind locked up’ (Urizen 10:24-5; E75). With the senses of Urizen’s descendants contracted, their memories can consist in nothing other than Lockean ‘Ideas’, which ‘if [they] be sought after by the mind, and with pain and endeavour found, and brought again in view, ’tis Recollection.’ (Essay, 2.19.1). Similarly, in view of the separation from the Eternal community, the only narrative template available for the verbalisation of these memories is that provided by Urizen, which emphasises the self-closed nature of fallen identity. Not surprisingly, Urizen’s declaration of narrative independence, ‘I alone, even I’ (Urizen 4:20; E72), is echoed in Fuzon’s assertion that ‘I am God’ (Ahania 3: 38; E86), and in Ahania’s lamentation, which repeatedly refers to an ‘I’ despite the fact that ‘no form/ Had she’ (Ahania 4:49-50; E88).

    Urizen creates the prototype of narrative identity to which each of the texts’ multiple selves must conform. As we have seen, the model of memory upon which this prototype is based confines itself to Locke’s description of memory, which bears a self-conscious similarity to his model of perception. As mental objects, memories can be searched out by the mind, which ‘turns, as it were, the Eye of the Soul upon it’, and they can ‘of their own accord [...] offer themselves to the understanding’ (Essay, 2.10.7). The process by which Locke conceives of a physical object being translated into a memory object grants the latter with an almost unquestionable veracity. The two primary defects in memory do not affect the veracity of memory-objects, as they consist either in entirely losing an idea or in failing to retrieve the ideas that ‘are laid up in store’ (Essay, 2.10.8). This notion of the factuality of conscious memory is particularly relevant to current political debates over the validity of recovered memories. If memories are taken to be factual objects, then the reconstruction – and in many cases the initial narrativisation – of memories of abuse that occur in therapy can be depicted as a fundamentally different type of memory, and consequently can be invalidated. However, if, as van der Kolk and others suggest, imaginative reconstruction and the retrospective reinterpretation of events is a fundamental aspect of declarative memory in general, ‘recovered’ memories are not qualitatively different and therefore cannot be invalidated on that basis.23 Likewise, if Blake’s portrayal of a Lockean world is even remotely accurate, the absence of such imaginative reinterpretations precludes both personal and social healing.


    Blake’s dynamic explorations of identity challenge dominant Lockean models of the self to present a complex matrix of identity similar to those posited by researchers working in the field of cognitive neuroscience. However, despite the similarities between Blake’s poetry and current studies of trauma and its effects, it would be a mistake to assert that the Urizen Books present Blake’s development of a proto-concept of either dissociation or Posttraumatic Stress. As Rivera points out, DID and Posttraumatic Stress refer to particular constructs and ‘do not exist in some kind of reality outside of the terms we have created to consider them’ (p. 20). Nevertheless, these constructs can help to bring meaning into the life-stories of people whose experiences of self do not fit traditional definitions of identity. Moreover, because traumatic experiences are not assimilated into declarative memory when they occur, this process of narrative reconstruction must occur retroactively. As Kirmayer notes, in order for this process to succeed, the narrative structures available for remembering must be able to accommodate a wide range of experiences and the individual must have access to a social space which permits him or her to speak about the experience. However, he reports that ‘accounts of the terrible things that happen to people [...] are warded off because of their capacity to create vicarious fear and pain and because they constitute a threat to current social and political arrangements’ (p. 192). This warding-off, which occurs on both the personal and political levels, is facilitated by the ability to dismiss these accounts as the product of unstable, susceptible, or otherwise ‘disordered’ identities.

    By expanding our cultural definitions of memory and identity, current cognitive neuroscience can help create a social space in which people who have suffered unspeakable trauma are able to re-establish workable identities. Although Blake’s artistic productions appear greatly removed from this discipline, a world of laboratory experiments and case studies, his texts address many of the same underlying assumptions about identity. By re-writing inherited myths of identity, Blake’s texts, and in particular the Urizen Books, expose the weaknesses of these myths and begin to suggest alternatives. Finally, by locating the Poetic Genius within both the self and the community, his texts emphasise the personal aspect of identity construction – and indeed reality construction – while still recognising the individual’s relationship to cultural context. In Blake’s own words: ‘As all men are alike in outward form, So (and with the same infinite variety) all are alike in the Poetic Genius’ (All Religions; E1).


1 Alan Richardson, ‘Coleridge and the Dream of an Embodied Mind’, Romanticism, 5 (1999), 1-25 (pp. 21-2). Return to Main Text

2 See Bessel A. Van der Kolk, ‘Trauma and Memory’, in Traumatic Stress, ed. by Bessel A. van der Kolk, Alexander C. McFarlane, Lars Weisaeth (New York: Guildford, 1996), pp. 279-302; and Jennifer J. Freyd, Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse (Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1996), p. 94.Return to Main Text

3 ‘Landscapes of Memory: Trauma, Narrative, and Dissociation’ in Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory, ed. by Paul Antze and Michael Lambek (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 173-198 (pp. 175-6).Return to Main Text

4 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1989), pp. 174, 393.Return to Main Text

5 Oneself As Another, trans. by Kathleen Blamey (London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 125. Although a discussion of Hume’s role in the formation of modern ideas of the self is beyond the scope of this paper, Taylor provides a comprehensive survey of both thinkers (as well as their predecessors and contemporaries writing in Latin, French and German).Return to Main Text

6 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. by Peter H. Nidditch, rev. edn. (Oxford: Oxford, 1975), 2.1.3-4, hereafter Essay.Return to Main Text

7 ‘Memory Sciences, Memory Politics’, in Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory, pp. 67-88 (p. 81; emphasis added).Return to Main Text

8 ‘"Labouring at the Resolute Anvil": Blake’s Response to Locke’, in Blake in the Nineties, ed. by Steve Clark and David Worrall (London: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 133-152 (pp. 136-7).Return to Main Text

9 G.E. Bentley, Jr. reports that Blake engraved and annotated the edition translated by Fuseli and printed by Johnson in 1788 (Blake Books (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 690).Return to Main Text

10 See for example the earlier part of this annotation to Lavater, "Whoso dwelleth in love dwelleth in God & God in him" (E599) and the conclusion to No Natural Religion, "God becomes as we are,/ that we may be as he/ is" (E3). Return to Main Text

11 For a detailed portrayal of Blake’s visionary imagination as a dialogue with the other see Peter Otto, Constructive vision and visionary deconstruction: Los, eternity and the productions of time in the later poetry of William Blake (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).Return to Main Text

12 For a comprehensive discussion of the importance of the body in Blake’s early texts, and for a discussion of the way in which this relates to his book production, see Joseph Viscomi, ‘In the Caves of Heaven and Hell: Swedenborg and Printmaking in Blake’s Marriage’ in Blake in the Nineties, pp. 27-60.Return to Main Text

13 Paul Antze, ‘Telling Stories, Making Selves: Memory and Identity in Multiple Personality Disorder’, in Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory, p. 3-24; Dennett, Daniel C., ‘The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity’, Tufts Cognitive Sciences Center. Online (2 November 1999) <http://www.ace.tufts.edu/cogstud/pubpage.htm>.Return to Main Text

14 ‘The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity’, Tufts Cognitive Sciences Center. Online (2 November 1999) <http://www.ace.tufts.edu/cogstud/pubpage.htm>.Return to Main Text

15 Bessel A. van der Kolk, Onno van der Hart and Charles R. Marmar, ‘Dissociation and Information Processing in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder’, in Traumatic Stress, pp. 303-327 (p. 307, 308).Return to Main Text

16 Frank Putnam, Diagnosis and Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder (New York: Guilford, 1989), p. 6; Freyd, pp. 88-96.Return to Main Text

17 More Alike than Different: Treating Severely Dissociative Trauma Survivors (Toronto: Toronto UP, 1996), p. 32.Return to Main Text

18 Rivera makes a similar point, arguing that:

Postmodern thinking challenges the notion of a stable coherent identity [...] acknowledging that all of the identities that constitute an individual in her complex, multiple, and ever-evolving identity are imbricated in one another [...]. In this way, it points to the important similarities between the contradictory personalities and positionings within the individual who uses her dissociative capacities to create an array of clearly distinguishable personalities, and the rest of us, who are capable of pretending to a unified, non-contradictory identity and of denying our complex locations amid different discourses of power and desire. (p. 31; emphasis added)Return to Main Text

Rivera diverges from Dennett in suggesting that economics and politics, rather than evolution and practicality, provide the motivation behind the preservation of the illusion of a unified self. She argues that ‘forms of subjectivity are produced historically in a field of power relations’ and further, that ‘the notion of an individual has no meaning outside the socially and historically specific practices that constitute her’ (p. 23).Return to Main Text

19 Ideology and Utopia in the poetry of William Blake (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), p. 16.Return to Main Text

20 Clark seizes upon Urizen’s creative activities and, defying years of conventional critical wisdom, presents Urizen as the (Lockean) hero of Blake’s text. He argues that Urizen’s estrangement is unexplained and that "if [he] simply begins in the void, his actions are unequivocally admirable (p. 146). A similarly Lockean reading of The Four Zoas, leads Clark to conclude that ‘Blake’s mythology is most compelling where it incorporates its apparent adversary [i.e. Locke] most directly’, and further that ‘Blake, as a "true poet", may be said to be of Urizen’s "party without knowing it"’ (p. 149).Return to Main Text

21 ‘Blake’s Art of Crypsis: The Book of Urizen and Genesis’, Blake Studies 5 (1972), 141-64 (p. 159).Return to Main Text

22 For Tannenbaum see above; Jerome J. McGann, ‘The Idea of an Indeterminate Text: Blake’s Bible of Hell and Dr. Alexander Geddes’, SIR 25 (1986), 303-324.Return to Main Text

23 This is not to say that all recovered memories are necessarily accurate. The role of interpretation and social context in recollection admits of the possibility that memories can be influenced in therapy and emphasises the importance of caution on the part of the therapist. However, as Freyd points out,

It is [...] important to recognize that fabricated memories and recovered memories both exist. The popular media tend to tangle them into a snarl, so that evidence in support of the existense [sic] of memory distortion and error is used to invalidate a particular recovered memory. This is like saying that because we know some accusations of rape are false, a particular accusation of rape must be false. Individual contested memories deserve individual scrutiny. (p. 30) Return to Main Text

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Matthew Green "Disruptions of Identity: Points of Intersection between Blake's Urizen Books and Cognitive Science". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/green-disruptions_of_identity_points_of_inters. March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: May 14, 2002, Published: September 8, 2002. Copyright © 2002 Matthew Green