Mad Villa(nelle)y

Sometimes the poem forms the thought through form, or helps hold a set of thoughts and feeling that would struggle to otherwise express themselves in words. The following arose from one such occassion a few weeks ago…

A Madness

There’s no space here for wrong or right –
the split through you and I which they call sane.
Pain becomes the wings by which we fly.

It’s only silence when you feel it’s not quite
clear, demanding stillness from the foaming rain –
there’s no space here for wrong or right.

Sense dances through the walls in noise and light – 
not counterpoint; the growth around its claim –
pain becomes the wings by which we fly.

A vision testing bounds of depth and height
disorientates like oil spilt on the pane –
there’s no space here for wrong or right.

It rainbows around the subject, clasping tight
then loosening like notes held in sustain –
pain becomes the wings by which we fly.

That subject – us – unshackled by divides
that soothe the impact of the valent strain –
there’s no space here for wrong or right –
pain becomes the wings by which we fly.

…Our selves are dictated to by our memories – A mad reading of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

…Our selves are dictated to by our memories, or if psychiatrised, by the imposition of others upon them. For many years my life(s) were sculpted primarily by the revisionist lenses of the ICD-10, refracted and turned into a specific kind of sign through lists of symptoms and characteristics. My brain flailed like a trapped animal against the cage, bound by chemical bonds, as if stopping the mental fight by containing it would provide an answer. Initially, reading it through the glass and then feeling my madness change through this lens diminished the fear and pain a mind aflame creates. However, the chemical manacles that resulted from diagnosis were even worse that those forged in the mind. They clamped the senses closed and tethered the imagination to a shrinking selfhood. The drugs cast long shadows into my future; as iatrogenic illness; as addiction; as withdrawal syndromes. But also as modified, mollified memories of existential visions, adrift in the fog. They threw shadows over the past, which they were cast back across by others wearing professional titles, captains of trawlers circling my limbic ocean. Nets of symptoms created pockets of closure which I was lured towards by leading questions hung like bait. Their winch pulled me, writhing, out of the context that made me, replacing stories with signifiers reified into facts. Bipolar. Psychosis. Hallucination. Thought Disorder…

…So it was, and is, that there is still a young man pinned to an acute ward bed, weighed down by the sense that his self can’t contain his experience and visions, and told that those visions and experiences, myths and religion and writing are aberrations of a brain diseased at the level of neurons and neuralgia. The giants and guardians of memory were whittled away – like my shrinking grey matter – by stasis and the pressure of neuroleptics[1]. The self that remained was singular; dumb; alive only when surfing the waves of sensation brought on by sleep deprivation or by turning the body over to drownings in oceans of drugs and unwanted intercourse. These things eclipsed that sorry self but brought no inspiration, and, when the self checked back in, left a residue of something like sadness through the daze…

…Before this squashing subjectification, before the veil of Olanzapine and Zopiclone and Diazepam and Lithium under the harsh yet dim light of the dirty corridors, I lived among faith and giants, guardians and gods and voices that had no clear owners, afraid of and yet embracing the waves of successive darkness and light. My self(ves) spun out into the world; the world spun out from their I/Eyes and fingertips electric with energy and sensation, compass unable to fix locations as if balanced on ore rich rocks. This place was also lonely, as my spiritual and poetic worlds were at this point closed to others, yet it was also a constant conversation or shouting of multiple perspectives and emotions at once, richer with meaning than any of my ‘sane’ moments, with more ‘insight’ than any of those could manage to contain; thoughts fractal outwards into the infinite, guardians and selves in a mental war for control of body and soul…

…What if I could send that memory of meanings a means to weather their stripping away by ‘psy’ interventions, a stripping that left them with only their frames? What if I underwrote the tale of the ICD-10 with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that saved or destroyed so positively a later version of myself? What are the rules that we set for rewriting memory according to texts of profound importance, and who determines the texts by which we have permission to do so? The doctors are free to recast our history using their manuals, often to our detriment, but also have power to declare the mind casting back the profound or prophetic manual as diseased for doing so, even if doing so saves one of us…

…I want to voice a different set of truths in parallel, to unchain that boy from the bed and the catatonic head. So I set Blake back through the limbic system like malware, to re-madden memories made stultified and stale by labels that robbed my multitudes of meaning in the name of containment and healing…

…Rintrah roars like madness re-inserted as colour into memories greyed by the chemical and linguistic bounds that contained them. Sanity is upturned with the assumptions about the ‘virtues of ease’, the ‘just man’ symbolises those in control of our mind as they walk along the ‘vale of death’, and try to shepherd us alongside them… 

…My madness before I was brought to this hospital was eating itself, the voices were screaming my evils, a black sun rose every morning over streams and becks of blood. I felt this world unfurling from my mind and feared it, some voices announced me as antichrist. I saw visions of torture in first person and screamed for them to stop, but I was the one creating them. Whatever ‘I’ was encompassed and expanded everything. No one could hear, and I couldn’t express what I felt except for in cuts and tears; the ward may have saved my body from my gradually amassed means of ending that chaos, the knives, benzos and rope that I kept on my desk – my emergency exits. Yet casting back The Marriage makes the experience no less fearful, but it imbibes the madness with meaning, and brings its cacophonous dialogue into conversation with that of the multitude of voices, proverbs and positions represented in the text. Casting the Marriage helps end the questing for endings…

… In sending back this madly read Marriage, for the first time this memory – replayed so often in flashbacks – sedated at points into submission – gains companionship and meaning. My writings that tried to make sense of it back then, taken literally as evidence of disease when shown to the staff, become the felt metaphors and metonyms that rumble through my lungs and ribs again, un-anchoring long held assumptions and selves and revivifying those long dead, propagating their ever-expanding progeny. The symphony of contraries, worn at points down to another’s singular melody, becomes polyphonic again.  A spectrum of sounds and colours and concepts ever expanding and impossible to write but as words and aphorisms that weave analogous feelings, feelings brought back by the words of The Marriage but with the addition of shared experience, solidarity stretching back and forth across the centuries… 

…what peculiar salvation this text brings to those memories so long disowned as the symptoms of illness. The ‘contraries’ of ‘racing’ or ‘disordered’ thoughts, of conflicting and arguing voices had become paralysing under directives to present some stable self, some act of integrity in meaning that eclipsed the majority of the mind. Yet here is a text suggesting ‘Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to human existence.’ This ‘and’ replacing ‘or’ repositions the expanding madness of ever increasingly complex and diffuse streams of thought as a positive force, the substrate of human existence. The idea that ‘Evil is the active, springing from energy’ recasts the feeling of being part antichrist from one of pure horror to many of more complex, part-positive meanings. The figures of the Guardian/s, explored in my creative work,  who take up position in the mind and body at the peaks of my mad experience, are now integrated with the fully human, polyphonic and prophetic mind that The Marriagedemonstrates so well. Not only does this rescue the young man previously pinned to the hospital bed, its rescues the childhoods of mythical significance, the ones which the priests of the ICD-10 reduced to psychopathology…

…The voice of the Devil enters the text, and illuminations in richly mixed colours collide traditions of angels and demons, of heavens and hells, of flames and water together. And the voice is Grandiose, like the parts of ourselves that speak and stand in challenge to assumptions we contradict and thus are locked away from. The idea that energy and desire, those engines of so much mad thinking, are productive; that a heaven can be formed from the Abyss, that Ideas are born in this maddening whorl and that the reason, so preached by the ‘psy’ people, can only be a measuring force, a “ratio of the five senses”, a “vacuum” if bereft of driving desire. All of this squeezes meaning from the boyonthebed’s despair. Though the memory is no less scary for it, it’s restored to a place within humanity, which is some salve…

… What does this passage tell us about ways of writing – about madness and about art in general? The Marriage is polyvoiced, dialogical, unnamed in terms of who is doing the narration. Blake didn’t initial any copies, perhaps as some critics have noted, due to its heretical content, whose risks in Blake’s work in general were heightened by the political landscape of the time. But perhaps Blake felt that attaching the voices of his madness to his name gave less precedence to their independence or multitude, or imposed upon the text his own authorial authority which risked the kind of imposition so much of the text goes on to try and map out ways of avoiding or lessening. For John H. Jones, who’s readings of The Marriage runs close to mine at points, this is the beginning of Blake’s experiments with ‘self annihilation’ that would become more developed in the prophetic works, especially in Milton and Jerusalem: ‘The title page of the marriage is the first of Blake’s title pages that does not list his name as “author” of the work, and it is the only one that does not list his name at all … [Blake is] annihilating his selfhood to avoid imposing his own limited perspective on his readers’[2]

…In mapping the ways in which ‘we impose upon on another’, The Marriage also unveils the way in which most ‘psy’ disciplines and theory, in myriad methods, attempts to insist, and thus impose, on authorial authority over the minds productions as a marker of sanity, even when discussing the subconscious. Even in the abstract and imaginative realms of analytic psychological practice, often which likes to see itself in opposition to the biomedical understandings of psychiatry,  the stated goal is ‘self-actualisation’ rather than ‘self-annihilation’. As the goal in a Jungian concept of self-actualisation is  to ‘substitute the self for the ego as the stabilizing center of personality’, selfhood and stabilityis recognised as the ultimate goal, even if at points, for example in The Red Book, Jung seems to communicate a loss of this stability as a creative force.  More generally though, a lack of selfhood/ authorial authority in the productions of the mad mind are seen as indicators of its disorder or disarray, and the authority to declare what is sane or insane is transferred to the therapist as a subject, still an ‘alienating figure’ as Foucault suggests,  one in which madness and mad people’s thinking is disempowered. ‘psychoanalysis has not been able, will not be able, to hear the voices of unreason, nor to decipher in themselves the signs of the madman.’[3] …

…The psychologist the boyonthebed meets calmly reflects back their understanding of his attempts to reproduce the reality of his experience at the black and shining coal face of his current vision; though he doubts himself entirely and hands authority over to the ‘psy’ world, he struggles to understand that magic by which they could possibly grasp the immensity he feels through his trickle of words into their own world, how they could sit there so calmly, so sanely, if they truly understood…

…This kind of authorial authority over thought is also something demanded in academic spaces, one way in which Mad thinking is excluded or denigrated, whether explicitly or implicitly, in the way in which value judgements are passed on such notions as ‘the strength of an argument’. Here, too, The Marriage at once provides what I feel are powerful explorations and insightful engagements with the work of others, while deploying methods that would be excluded from most academic settings. To begin with there is the ‘Argument’ which opens the text, which seems to almost mock the enlightenment idea of an argument, or the Miltonic idea of a guiding prelude to the poem that imposes clear intentions of how the proceeding work should be understood and interpreted. The text opens with an invocation of a mythic figure – Rintrah –  a son of Los who signals ‘just wrath’ and ‘revolution’ in Blake’s mythological landscape and is associated with the north point of the compass, itself the place of myth and dark imagination, of Urthona, Vala, the feminine[4]. The roar of Rintrah is an expression of raw emotion, rarely considered the correct grounds for an ‘argument’ in an academic and enlightenment sense, and often, when expressed to excess in this way, a signifier to the ‘psy’ disciplines of disorder or dysregulated emotion. Yet for Blake it is not just the opening of the text’s argument, it is also its closure by means of becoming a refrain. The usurpings of assumptions about just and villainous characters, about ease and peril, about good and evil, that are sandwiched between these refrains, form the body of an argument communicated in the feelings such upending’s create in the mind, as much as in the logic they seemingly override or exceed. It is a prelude to a text in which emotional writing styles; grandiose and polemical; sage and cryptic; narrative and dramatic; personal and abstracted; are all part juxtaposed, part integrated. The effect is dizzying, intoxicating. It might be said to be Maddening. In my encounters with Blake, this is the first text that explores more deeply an idea that Mad modes of thinking might supersede the sane ones. The excess of the Mad mind(s) workings is presented unfettered by a sense that it needs to be decoded into sensibility before it has worth presented as an object of thought and of art. The Argument in The Marriage might also be seen as a departure from the convention of Paradise Lost, in which the Argument outlines the way in which the authorial presence of Milton intends the following epic to be interpreted. Blake’s Argument is voiced by an uncertain presence, and refuses to impose an interpretation, even when the language at points is laden with a biblical, judgemental tone. This confident expression of contraries, the language speaking in ways that clearly outline viewpoints which in logical terms cannot co-exist, is another way in which I feel Blake’s text nods to a confidence in the meaningfulness of this maddening set of experiences and statements…

…The “Proverbs of Hell” are one of the most defiant illustrations of this attitude in Blake’s work, an also one of the most explicitly ‘Mad’ passages of The Marriage. Later on in Blake’s life he would repeat assertions that his “poetic Genius” was something society at large would perceive as Madness, but in The Marriage we have one of the earliest instances of this, even if not on this occasion explicitly in Blake’s voice – rather one of the unnamed voices of the poem. This voice claims to have ‘collected’ the proverbs while ‘walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius: which to Angels look like torment and insanity.’ Mad identity, as now taken up as a positive signifier in the emergent Mad movement, is very similarly rooted initially in the declamations of such experiences by those seen as the just arbiters of what constitutes sanity in our modern age, those who become the ‘thaumaturge’, as Foucault describes, of what is and isn’t correct thought[5].  By collectively and polyvocally engaging in studies and writing, creative and critical, that are ‘madly done’, Mad Studies and the modern Mad movement  ‘harbour the potential to unsettle the very way we address the subject of rationality and its alternatives, thereby “Shaking the foundations of the place of reason, academia, the sum of all disciplines”’[6]. By positioning what is decreed to be ‘insanity’ by the voices of reason and rationality as ‘genius’, I contend that the voice in this text is positioning the ‘proverbs of hell’ as explicitly Mad thought, and the wisdom as such that might be derived from them as Mad wisdom, Mad knowledge…

…In her opening to the 2021 National Survivor User Network (NSUN) Conference, Rai Waddingham, a person with lived experience of psychiatrisation, a voice hearer, a vision seer, a leader in the battle for recognition of Mad people and their complex experiences outside a lens of disorder, gave the keynote opening[7]. She spoke movingly about how she has to move carefully in spaces, even spaces as ostensibly friendly to madness as the collective that is NSUN. She talked movingly about the multiple different selves, genders, voices and emotions that reside within her, but that she is at risk of exclusion and sanism if she expresses. She expressed them in a public forum nonetheless, and watching her as a fellow Mad person I felt a huge outpouring of gratitude. It felt as if she was talking about similar experiences to those I find within my self(ves), those simultaneously existing, logically paradoxical yet deeply felt selves, experiences and voices all vying for attention and constructing some kind of meaning. It also saddened me that it is still such a risk for someone to take such a position, to present a wider vision of what truth might exist in madness, so long after Blake attempted it, even in a space supposedly designed for people who think in such ways. I wonder if there would be room in such spaces for Blake, for self-annihilating dialogue. Or whether, in attempting to gain an important voice to fight for people’s rights, organisations such as NSUN have to mollify their madnesses in order for people to listen… 

…returning to the first “Memorable Fancy”, and this idea that the “enjoyments of Genius” are perceived by “angels” as “torment and insanity”, I think it is important to understand that “the enjoyments of Genius” as Madness are not the opposite of “torment and insanity”, but rather a different way to tell the story of the same madness. Angels are aligned in The Marriage with priesthood, rationality and reasoned argument, and the erasure of contraries in the effort to present singular truths. But in Madness this mental warfare between the contraries is ever active, the truth, if singular ‘truth’ is an admissible concept at all in madness, is a wide truth that somehow encompasses the ever-evolving productions of the prolific mind, perhaps a truth only able to be expressed to another in the form of art – as the Marriage perhaps sets out to do itself…

…I find humour, satire and sombre truth in the statement, all at once. Blake does not see ‘Genius’ or ‘Insanity’ as something sublime and rising above the conflicts of energies, desires and reasoning; he finds it in the chaos of their conflict as it develops new meaning continuously, opening up new worlds, new God’s, new truths in the minds of humankind, new selves as the old are annihilated. This doesn’t negate the angels view of these processes as ‘torment and insanity’, but means it is incomplete. For there is meaning in said insanity once you open meaning up to belief as well as reason, once the mind stops only accepting the logical world of the angels and accepts the unfolding fires of madness as burning with meaning. Powerful insights can arise from the challenge such a mind throws up to conventions of thought, as “Proverbs of Hell” will go on to demonstrate. For a mind in Madness, such conventions don’t required deconstructing via an effort of intellect, such as in the theoretical texts which have appropriated/colonised Madness – the way in which the world is experienced and felt, the way thoughts rumble in the belly and ideas are tasted on the tip of the tongue make the arguments for their truth by default. Perhaps this is why Blake was so strong in his convictions. Felt or ‘collected’ at the level of received truth and the experience of revelation, not deduced by analytic reasoning or clouded by egocentric notions of intellectual ownership by the ‘self’…

…The voice of the Memorable Fancy, which isn’t to be assumed to be Blake here, but which resonates with his own voice in other texts, “collects” the “proverbs of Hell”; it doesn’t claim to create them. This is in line with something Blake continuously expresses throughout his work – that he in some way receives the ideas that inform his visionary work in a manner more passive than creating them from the poetic ‘selfhood’. Another examples is in the opening address of Jerusalem in which Blake writes about ‘when this verse was first dictated to me’(E145). This could be a device, but given the fact that Blake’s personal history and his encounters with others seems to show a man who was very much living day to day with ‘twofold vision’ – ‘For double the vision my Eyes do see/And a double vision is always with me’ – it seems less likely to me than that he is just telling his truth when suggesting that this is how revelation comes to him[8]. This is not to denigrate Blake the writer or the artist, who puts great emphasis on the effort and craft of representing these thoughts in a communicable form and thus inviting others into the dialogues of his visionary world, but that the sense of some omnipotent ‘authorial’ selfhood asserting a masterly control over content and form is not apparent in the work. Critics, such as Frye and Bloom, who seek to establish through cryptic codification of Blake’s prophetic works some unmad genius at work, are unwittingly sanist. What does it say about our societies fear of true madness that we are so afraid to admit that work, such as Blake’s, that has gained so much cultural currency, might substantially be a product of madness itself made productive, made genius; made successful by Blake because he embraces the inherent meanings of madness, rather than work Blake succeeded in making in spite of madness. Negating the madness in Blake restrains the power of his work as a revolutionary, mad positive body of literature, keeps suppressing the potential of mad people and others oppressed by the lineation in society around what modes of thinking are valid, and which are not…

… “So the Proverbs of Hell show the nature of Infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings of garments”… Here I believe (and belief, as the proverbs show, is the engine of truth…) that the voice of the “Memorable Fancy” is placing primacy on the unfettered expression of “infernal wisdom”  (which I feel as set out earlier, is a wisdom of madness or ‘insanity’) over any “description” of its outwards appearance. The description will always be an unsatisfactory account of the lived experience of the revelation’s essence. There are parallels here with how the mad movement ascribes meaning to the unfoldings of madness itself, while descriptions that describe the experience from the outside or from a position of distance – whether psychological, pathological, prosaic or poetic – are always representing it from the stronghold of a perspective of sanity. This gives it societally sanctioned valency, but denies the receiver close access to the Madness as experienced in its own present. Contemporary challenges to the dominant mode of treating mental health/distress also emphasise the importance of engaging with madness at the point of its presence, and letting its unfolding, however labyrinthine and seemingly strange it might be, weave its own meanings, which are then set into dialogue with the community the madness unfolds within… 

…Open Dialogue is a powerful example of this approach, and seems to be having some success where mainstream services often fail. Pioneered in Western Lapland in the late 20th Century, Open Dialogue marries ideas from systemic therapeutic approaches with a practical application of Bahktin’s ideas of dialogism. Jaako Seikkula, one of the founders of Open Dialogue as a community mental health approach, states:  ‘The mind is voices speaking to each other; it is an ongoing process of dialogues instead of looking at one core self. What we name as personality and psychological being takes place in this inner conversation between voices. Voices are the speaking personality, the speaking consciousness […] Instead of speaking of unconsciousness into which those experiences and emotions that we cannot deal with are repressed, it is more accurate to speak of non-conscious experiences. When experiences are formulated into words, they are no longer unconscious’.  In Open Dialogue, Wilfred Bion’s notion of encountering people with ‘patience’ without reaching after fact and reason’, itself built on the Keatsian notion of ‘negative capability’ and avoiding ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason’ is held as a guiding principle by which the meanings of psychotic experiences affecting networks of people are explored.[9] Rather than understanding and naming repression and the unconscious, the psychological theories which focus on repressed memories are actually part of a culture of what is allowed to be spoken and what is not, a culture that leads people to not speak of mad experiences and of trauma, that further pushes them under so they then the proof of psychoanalysis become as self-fulfilling prophecy. By abolishing an individualistic notion of selfhood and instead locating identity in internal and external dialogical polyphonic relations, Open Dialogue makes a strength of experiences often seen as deficiencies due to their challenge to selfhood… …

 …Peter Otto talks about Blake inviting a new kind of relationship with difference, one different from the sometimes cynical one emerging from deconstruction which sees it as a primary ontological state, rather seeing those categories by which we perceive difference as products of a fallen imagination, which prophetic work can reorientate us towards. I will return to this in more detail in later sections as I examine the Madness and meanings for madness of the Lambeth Prophecies, which I, like Otto, see as the fullest manifestation of this maddening re-orientation of vision for both writer and readers that Blake lays the groundwork for in The Marriage

…When the voice of “A Memorable Fancy” returns home, is that home the physical presence of the body named William Blake? That voice, which walks through the fires of hell, being one of the many voices or selves that take up residence in Blake’s mind? And who is the devil “folded in Black clouds” but a vision of Blake the printer himself, become at this point a devil in the series of endless becomings and annihilations of the Mad mind led by its inspiration, and its belief in its meanings. This Devil spun into our present by the burning of representations of its “proverbs” into plates whose productions I read, we read, the cacophony of me’s within my head, the multitude of absent addressees the mind makes and shapes with the pen and the ink, with the keyboard and the code…

…So, head and selves spinning, we descend/ascend into the “Proverbs of Hell”. What can be said about reading these writings madly which the proverbs themselves don’t already say better? Perhaps that, as a Mad person, reading what Bloom describes as “unmatched in literature for their shock value” felt like a homecoming, a place of validation, a tract of Mad kinship[10]. Given the way The Marriage illustrates how to read the bible “in its infernal sense”, how it valorises those who make new meaning from artistic engagement and dialogue as mental warfare; how it criticises those who represent “priesthood” for appropriating the inspired revelations of the visionary and turning them into Dogma…given all of that, it feels like folly to create my own imposition on the proverbs in a dogmatising manner. For me they rather encapsulate the way in which Blake’s writing is felt as instinct and energy, in the gut as much as the head. They open the mind and the senses outwards, collapsing assumed truths and mocking received knowledge. I feel a recognition of my own madness within them, in an adjacent rather than an aligned manner; that is what makes the “proverbs” so powerful to me, they achieve a representation of a mad mind that others can find kinship through the reading and absorbing of…

…Each time I read through, or scan wildly around the facsimile of Blake’s plates, individual proverbs do stick out, leave the page and enter my eyes as lenses by which I recognise or modify my own histories of visions, voices and thinking. Right now “excess of sorrow laughs, excess of joy weeps” leaps at me as particularly pertinent to common experiences of madness among my peers. While the latter part of the statement has cultural currency, a legitimate reaction to weddings, winnings, achievements and more, the former is much harder to express without attracting negative assumptions. Laughing at a funeral, for example, or at footage of warfare on the rolling news, is enough to attract ire or accusations of mental illness. Yet the sound of such laughter is familiar in the ears of the mad, both for me in my ears as one of my most common non-consensus experiences (and one common it seems among peers), but also in the waiting rooms and wards of the psychiatric machine, emitting from the lungs and the lips of fellow travellers trying to survive through a desperate humour…

…This sorrowful laughter also resonates with the way I read irony in The Marriage, Blake’s most obviously satirical work. Humour is found in and even itself asks questions of profound spiritual and existential importance for Blake, and other questions or statements of assumed grand importance are humoured, such as the melodrama with which Blake undermines the puritanical pronouncements of the Angel the voice of the text speaks with in a later fancy: ‘O pitiable foolish young man, O horrible! O dreadful state! Consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity, to which thou art going in such a career.’ (E41)…

…”one thought, fills immensity” – four words that explain both catatonia and Mad enlightenment equally well (E36)…

…”improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are the roads of genius” – again, there is something about finding something more meaningful in its raw expression rather than in its refined abstraction, its neatly tied up narrative, philosophy or ideology. In disordered thinking that sits with its disorder in its sense-making (E38)…

…“Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not believed”(E38). This seems a crucial aspect of whether we give madness currency in the making of meaning. If it is judged by whether it can be understood at the level of logic, reasoning, linearity then it is always denigrated in some way. Yet if we place faith, like Blake, in madness having meaning in and of itself, then everything changes, the Mad are accepted back into the fold as the fold expands outwards to accommodate wider meanings, to the benefit of all who are open to the ensuing revelations…

* * *

…I Opened this section with ‘we are dictated to by our memory’, but who dictates our memory? Recently I searched notebooks in which I had unfolding thinking like this, but from dates a few years ago. It’s common that in doing so, I find other versions of myself ruminating or illuminating similar themes of thinking. This time, though, I shocked myself(/ves): there in the writing was a memory we hadn’t recalled, an account of a past self saved by The Marriage, encountering copy H in the psychiatric ward. I wrote recently about casting The Marriage back as a tool to re-imagine memories of trauma, to re-narrate them in a mad-positive manner, but it seemed the Mad encounter with The Marriage was already extant in the history this older writing spoke about. How to read this? Was there something that led to this memories erasure, was the casting back based on some Bailey’s Beads of a past that escaped this eclipsing shadow? Or was the casting back so successful it upended time’s continuum, not just re-narrating our recollection in the present of a memory, but imprinting itself in that moment on the ward, unfurling its own parallel timeline to the one of the pressed down boy we cast ourselves back to? I have reproduced the mentioned section below in italics…

…a few months have passed in madness, full of meaning, dialogue, self-annihilation-as-growth. It is hard in such places or states to put pen to paper, to voice the experience as a person when you feel so distant from that state. I have felt my body stretch to breaking point when almost catatonic in my bed, pancaked out from whatever constitutes my centre and receiving vision through such expansions, or perhaps just trespassing into the thoughts and worlds of others. It reminds me of the contrariness of Blake’s prophetic works, both the singing of one person in the darkness of of non-recognition, and a vast choir of characters that speak for so many different aspects of the human collective as whole, as Giant, as, perhaps, collective unconsciousness. It is by invoking Blake that I can return, and write, as a being whole enough to hammer my musings through the keys of a computer…

…I have been thinking a lot about madness as an opening into relationship with other forces, feelings and ideas that you don’t try to subsume to the self, and yet are always in danger of doing so. In some ways this is where I left off last time. Diving into Milton  or Jerusalem I feel maddened and also reassured about my own madnesses. I feel with each page turned, with each plate I am sucked into, a loosening of the mental chains. But I feel the tug of ‘mind forg’d manacles’ everytime I try to make sense of what the poems mean to me. Sitting to write criticism is like the psychiatric encounter, as you attempt to take the infinity of madness, the impossibility of making it speak in prose and yet feel a need to bind it into some form, some Urizenic impulse. This is a tendency any Mad reading must seek to avoid…

…In Peter Otto’s book Constructive Vision and Visionary Construction, I found the first critical approach to Blake that didn’t klang against my readings and feelings about his work, which didn’t either attempt to construct an overarching framework of interpretation, or to point to the lack of interpretability as a sign of Blake’s failure or madness. Otto draws on post-structuralist philosophy -especially Derrida and Ricouer – and sees in Blake’s prophetic works a violent decentring process of the reader that challenges what he calls a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ fathered by Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, wherein ‘The readers articulation of a text, or the yoking of the readers discourse to that of the text, involves the translation of the text into the constituted world of the self. To articulate what is other into the world of the same.’ This process of subsuming the other into the closeted world of the self means that our perception of freedom can rapidly become an enclosure. Otto goes on to add that ‘Our prejudices, the world that we consciously and unconsciously constitute around us, are the initial framework of any attempt to reach that which has not been constituted by us. At the same time, they are clearly also the ground that hems us in.’ This resonated with realisations I had in my late adolescence that swept the ground from beneath my feet and had me falling into some kind of hell, but one in which valuable thinking took place…

… From a confident and religious young person – one eager to learn and construct a vision of the world from the dogmas inherited or sought out from family, friends, church and school – I experienced a collapse of the self perhaps instigated by the challenge posed to such certainties and prejudices by movement through life and an increasing awareness of flux in the world and its affairs, the people close to me and those strangers I was impelled to come to know. It was/is in one version of my past – distorted by endless replaying in memory like an over used VHS – in one version of one such state of dysphoric vision that I first encountered Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In it I found a text which, instead of fearing such states – a recurring fear which I had traced from The Odyssey through Plato to Eliot’s The Four Quartets – makes meaning of them, and uses them as a challenge to power, as contrary sites of experience from which assemblages of meaning can be made outside our binary defaults…

…the first way I encountered the poem was on the Blake Archive, and since that intense experience of adolescence I have only read the textual poem, but for the purpose of exploring its psychological impact I return to the same copy (H) as back then. Why I chose this copy over others back then now feels like a decision made while using the tarot: the first plates of each copy arranged on the screen like the fanned out cards of the pack. I chose the most vivid, the most fiery, as if doing so might help me understand the intensity of my experiences at the time. Returning now to the self-same webpage also feels a little like a séance or similar, so powerfully does it put me in touch with a self long since discarded,  burned up in the fires of my madness. Tears well up in a kind mourning as I remember the snot spattered screen I first used to fall into that vivid world of the frontispiece, and as I read the words a voice from the past narrates them in some kind of haunting, not a booming and authoritative voice which the diction seems to suggest, but a scared and fragile one, a child gradually fading into experience, becoming many; becoming lost over and over…


…Unlike with my previous spiralling into London, I haven’t yet spoken much about the illuminations of The Marriage in my whirling through Mad dialogue with the text. In part this is because I have always been so affected, so captivated and freed, by the way its words weave meaning and emotion that seem to exceed what we generally believe language is capable of. Each aphorism, each voice, each revelatory moment or fancy seems to catch and twang at the level of stomach and sinew, like a fingernail catching and leaving a guitar string shimmering with mandalas, bending time back and forth. But having encountered this past self – entranced by the colouring of copy H, and then attending a meeting of fellow Blakean’s to open up dialogue around the plates, I feel ready to approach the illuminated elements, to explore how they sing to me’s past and present, and to others both external and internal…

…I attend a meeting sporadically online, of people who live by their Blake’s as I live by mine. Many are artists, some are people affected by madness/mental illness (defined according to their own wishes) . In fact I was told some of the member’s first met at a Mad positive mental health support group called ‘Mental Fight Club’ who have created their own systems to escape enslavement by psychiatric ones. I had read extensively about Mental Fight Club before: though geographically and temporally its physical meetings were not possible for me to attend, its values and muses, set out online and in articles by its founder Sarah Wheeler, had and have been one of the things that have given me confidence in using art as a way to understand madness, and the confidence to see madness as meaningful. Explicitly acknowledging the work of William Blake as one of their ‘seven muses’[11], Mental Fight Club ‘strive to value rather than reject the experience of mental illness, viewing it as a means to deepen and define our understanding of mental well-being’.[12] Perhaps to those who mention it as part of their introducing themselves to me it was not particularly important, but it helped me to feel more comfortable in the space, to feel legitimised in weaving my versions of Blake as they shared their own and they all danced and become chimaeras together by way of discussion. This idea of Mental Fight Club – that we should value the experience of mental illness/madness, that we should ‘confront and transform inner horrors as a means to greater understanding the greater potential within human existence and the world – seems to in some way encapsulate the spirit with which the group engage with Blake’s work and with one another’s interpretations of it, celebrating the way it colours our experience and in turn is coloured by our own experiences[13]


…We got caught for an hour on the frontispiece, in copy H one of Blake’s most dramatically coloured illuminations, and the one which drew in that past self on the ward. Fires containing souls, angels, forms and fairies seem to generate all energy on the plate from the bottom left, yet also threaten to devour the whole page, as if the printed flames have become corporeal and tear across the print as if that corner was caught on a touchpaper…

…Like with ‘London’, there is a clear split on the page between a hypogeal, chaotic energy and a surface world of paler pastel colours and seeming tranquillity. The figures seems to be completely different in terms of energy depending on the side of the line they fall on. Those among the clearly delineated forms of the top sections -the clear representations of trees, birds and sky – either walk gently among the forms, as with the couple on the left, or perhaps kneel in prayer while mourning the other in the case of the couple on the right. The sky is illuminated in its ‘reasoned’ colour, and the birds are correctly positioned with relation to the trees, the sky, the ground…

…the hypogeal realm is a maelstrom of forms emerging from the fires. Some are fully formed faces, some are bodies, some are areas of colour and detail where the eye might see others, where others might not see. A Rorschach realm where the eyes of the one encountering the plate are invited to contribute to its content… 

…It feels as if this cascade of forms and colours is pulled up by, or is feeding somehow, the roots of the tree on the right-hand side of the plate, the one with the body, potentially dead and certainly somehow fallen at its base. I start to think, absorbed by this scene, about Genesis, creation myths and the tree of knowledge, and become convinced that the dead or the fallen person who the other is bowing or pr(a/e)ying over has consumed the fruit formed from all that prolific energy the roots pulled up. The piety of the worshipper on their knee before the fall seems a weak response, but then the pious might always seem so in the face of infernal knowledge. I start to feel as if the design The Marriage positions this tree as one with fruits of hell, not heaven. Is it the consumption of this fiery energy pulled up from the hypogeal hell that has felled the figure beneath the tree? Is the energy of Hell deathly to the heavenly, but generative to the throng of forms that reach and are pulled towards the trees roots. Later on The Marriage speaks of the two classes of men; the prolific and the devourer. Does this image embody their pairing, both reliant on the other, as a revised creation myth?…

* * * *

…On Plate 11, we encounter another one of The Marriage’s un-selved voices, a statement about reification which has the authoritative tone of the priesthood it attacks, and yet has no authority in terms of authorial ownership. The significance of this passage for the memory of the psychiatrized boy we send back the text to save cannot be overstated, for here is the unveiling of that which props up psychiatry and the wider knowledge systems within it is located. The development from individual, poetic, creative responses to objects and their ‘adorning’ with properties and placing ‘under its mental deity’, to the point at which a system ‘abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood’ not only serves as an attack on the use of organised religion as a system of power which distorts its origins in inspired knowledge; it also acts as a parallel critique of ‘psy’ systems which would form generalisations about symptoms, disorders, syndromes or neuroses which abstract people away from their individual experiences of the world in order to more easily classify them, and to then assert a system of knowledge which suggests that they (psychiatrists, priests…) can suggest that Gods, or science, had ‘ordered such things.’ (E38) When we re-recognise Madness, sanity or their contraries as human creations, we can re-assert our ability and right to re-imagine what they are, and what they mean, and in doing so reclaim some power for those voices and people who priesthood or psychiatry might silence or suppress…

… Hidden between the lines of this plate is a scene in miniature, in which a headless figure, with a formless chaos to its right, presents another group of people to its left with a crucifix, to which they kneel in worship. Blake’s illuminations thus present a visceral representation of the power of someone who takes up position between the raw or ‘vulgar’ potentiality and claims to have refined it to a system of understanding or worship that they use as a way to close off access of others to that ‘vulgar’, mad loam. In this way they not only ‘enslav’d’ the ‘vulgar’ itself, but all those who they prevent from accessing it. This is the sad reality past selves of mine, and multitudes of psychiatrised, institutionalised fellow mad people exist within, which Blake, or this voice of The Marriage, can help us break free from…

* * *

…Atheism and Deism are both rare things on the psychiatric ward. That boy still somewhere stuck to the thin mattressed bed is upset at the number of lights on the ceiling, four one more than the three needed, like holy music, for trinity. His closest acquaintance in the locked ward brims with the blood of Vikings, the Viking strength helps him roll away the stone from Christ’s tomb, usurping the angels place in the pantheon of his own infernal bible. Mad people engage actively with religion, are there in its making, and make of it active meanings. Blake’s (or rather the Fancy’s voices) memorable meal with Isaiah and Ezekiel seems to me to be a blueprint of just how this process unfolds. It finds mirrors in the experiences of many – whether its mystics, prophets and poets throughout history or those subjected to the contemporary reckonings and subjectifications of psychiatry and who rail against its dogma and in doing so, rail against our cultures inherent sanism. Wouter Kusters, a Dutch philosopher and psychiatric survivor, writes from these dual perspectives in his book A Philosophy of Madness. His conclusion, if it can be called such a thing, is that Madness exceeds Philosophy in its weaving through meaningfulness. It brings us into ever-evolving dialogue with itself and with other mad people. Throughout the book, he moves from outlining his musings on Madness from the perspective of an academic philosopher towards someone who might be called a mad mystic, one who aligns with Blake’s ideas in The Marriage at many points. He uses the image of a whirlpool or vortex [how does this relate to vortex in Blake?] to describe the way that madness pulls you in – ‘It’s as if you had been given infinite power to swim underwater, to dive under the ice. They are all standing above you, shouting and gesturing in order to hold you back, to pull you out, but you know you have to go deeper, underneath.’[14] And yet he describes what might be analogous to the ‘twofold vision’ in Blake when emerging from the other side – ‘After the whirlpool, you find yourself among the deep-sea divers on dry land, the king’s children without a kingdom, the illuminati by daylight. Which means you are related to those who preceded us in the night, who did not “rage against the dying of the light” but against the lighting of the darkness. And you renew contact with the “fellow sufferers”, with seers and fools and those who don’t really exist. You live in the miracle of two worlds in one.’[15] Like when I read Blake, when I read Kousters writing, which might be considered obtuse, labyrinthine or impenetrable from the perspective of sanity, I feel kinship, as if reading the words of a peer, a “fellow sufferer”. Kousters, too, speaks like Blake of a ‘Fourfold vision’ in Madness that exceeds the 3, the trinity, which organised religion obsesses over. ‘Three is the golden mean, harmony, medium or synthesis. With three we are complete, and “we” consists of a first, second and third person. But true wisdom – which is also madness – reveals itself only in the pattern of four. The fourth person is the mysterious power by which the foundation of the three is formatted. Four is implicit and concealed, and when this four is made explicit – or is exploited (and exploded!) – then Insight appears.’[16]. Can Kousters, too, be the salvation that squashed boy seeks in the ceiling lights, of which there are one too many for trinity and yet which, fourfold, reflect the emerging madness in his mind that, denied, is making him sick; that, if embraced might create a horde of joyous lunatics…

…often those experiencing and espousing prophecy in our age are labelled Mad, and specifically with the ‘symptom’ of ‘grandiose delusions’, believing they are specially connected with God or Gods’, that they or/and their thoughts have bearings on the wider world beyond their personal sphere, that they have insights that others don’t. All these experiences might be said to appear within Blake’s oeuvre at points, and my readings of Blake and his madness don’t necessarily object to calling these experiences and opinions grandiose, but rather want to open up a wider meaning of what grandiose means. For when we think that our thoughts influence the world, that we are receiving messages from God’s, when we believe we are experiencing crucial insights that have bearings of importance beyond just our personal sphere, we mean it. What we don’t mean though, and what is often assumed we that do by those professions operating to care for or control the mad, is that the external world, the external voices and influences, are the same thing as the ‘objective reality’ in which most ‘sane’ people feel they exist. Rather, the Mad mind is more honest in acknowledging every mind’s operations on our perceptions of the external, that we can’t be passive observers. This runs counter to the Enlightenment epistemology that dominated thinking in Blake’s age, including both Dualism and Newtonian models of physics, yet it sit’s closer to our contemporary understandings of physics. Arkady Plotnisky suggests that Blake’s idea of Contrariety ‘is close to [Niels Bohr’s concept of]  complementarity insofar as the latter entails the necessity of operating with conflicting modes of description – “contraries”, as Blake calls them – without synthesis’[17]. Other critics have related Blake to Quantum Physics – even suggesting he prophesied the participatory multiverse – and to the philosophy of physics and perceptionIbid. As someone who’s own Mad thinking has often been fruitfully interpreted or propped up by later encounters with contemporary physics and philosophy, I find this unsurprising. However,  rather than assuming that Blake had some prescient foresight enabling him to arrive at complex scientific conclusions in a field in which he never showed any aptitude, is it not easier to accept that in his mad states, his multiple folds of vision, such realities just made themselves known to him, were received by him in visions that he was not consciously controlling in the way someone constructing a theoretical understanding from science might. Madness by its nature deconstructs monological understandings into a heterological ones without the need for the mad person to parse data or construct experiments for meanings to emerge…

…returning to the Memorable Fancy in which a voice of The Marriage dines with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel can help us to understand how the Ur-reason (more of which Blake unfolds in The Book of Urizen which we shall encounter later) of enlightenment thinking, which Blake rails against for its ideological domination, which in his eyes is ‘dark religion’ (E407) as much as it is the science it claims holds up its laws, can also be replicated in or replicate prophecy’s domineering aspects. This Memorable Fancy also helps us understand the risks of any inspirational or poetic thought leaning towards the part of its necessary grandiosity which might become dogma – the part in which the imposition – inherent in visionary worldviews which do not exhibit doubt as a defining feature – upon the other eclipses contrarieties. The voice of the segment asks the prophets about this right at the opening with the question ‘How they dared so roundly assert that God spake to them; and whether they did not think at the time, that they would be misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition’ The misunderstanding that the voice of the fancy speaks is that similar to that which is encountered by the mad persons grandiose idea when it butts up against society/psychiatry – in which the non-consensus worldview is seen as a negation of the consensus reality, rather than another adjacent to it. Yet when socialised into human societies which across millenia have tended to reify not just science but vision into dogma, as we saw in the preceding passage of The Marriage, the prophet/poet/mad person is not immune to the tendency towards it, especially when visionary thinking is driven by ‘firm perswasion’…

…The necessity of ‘firm perswasion’ in the power of visionary states, and perhaps as an element of mad states, is made clear by Isaiah, as is the problem with not being able to cultivate one. ‘In ages of imagination this firm perswasion moved mountains; but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of any thing.’(E39-40). For Isaiah this state of ‘firm perswasion’ is discovered through the senses perceiving ‘the infinite in everything’ which leads him to a conviction that ‘the vioice of honest indignation is the voice of God’ meaning that he writes his challenging prophetic (mad?) poetry with no fear of consequences (E39). This element seems to chime with a theme we can trace across Blake, with the Poetic Genius, whether manifested in Isaiah, in the figure of Los, or in Blake himself seen as oppositional to domineering forces – the ‘Prophet Against Empire’ of Erdman or ‘Witness Against the Beast’ of E. P. Thompson. There is no doubting that this conception of the Poetic Genius is central to Blake’s vision at numerous points, from his earliest statements of it in There is No Natural Religion – ‘If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character. the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round again and again’ to its culmination in the figure of Los building Golganooza (E3). Yet that danger inherent in such strong convictions – that they themselves become a force of subjugation as we saw on Plate 11 where ‘Priesthood’ chose ‘forms of worship from poetic tales’ – is illustrated powerfully by the conversation with Ezekiel. When the principle of the ‘Poetic Genius’ is elevated to God status by Israel to the exclusion of all other gods and principles we end up with a scenario in which ‘all nations believe the jews code and worship the jews god, and what greater subjection can be.’ The way in which the visionary ‘firm perswasion’ can become a imposition is a theme which continues throughout the marriage: the angel in a subsequent memorable fancy states ‘thy phantasy has imposed on me’(E42). However, the extent to which these visions are impositions seems to be in part due to conceptions of them via analytics – ‘It is lost time to converse with those whose works are only analytics’ – which can’t hold the two opposing strong convictions in a productive union that doesn’t seek to reconcile them, in the manner of ‘opposition is true friendship’ (E42)…

…this image from the plate that follows the discussion with Isaiah and Ezekiel brings me back to the boy(s) lying prone on the hospital bed. The consuming fire of The Marriage, cast back across the gulf of memory, now starts to burn the selfhood that holds him there, unleashing elemental energies that free the analytics pinning him down, and now he, we, us are the figure rising/risen from the flames, soaring on the thermals of the unleashed madness – the madness that allows such flames to keep burning without the extinguishing force of analytics, labelling, dogma and drugs. The religion that pinned him as antichrist for his hellish visions, the science that modified similar ideological process to make him ill, the societal stigma that refused his expanding and collapsing selfhood as disorder; all are forged in the vision of flames into something more than their sum, and the mental fight that threatened to end the boy instead becomes a marriage of eternal war and love between contraries. Ideas that threaten the self are no longer repressed, dialogue between mad voices blossoms instead of threatens, or blossoms though sometimes threatening. The senses and the imagination open up to admit everything, and infinity sings as loudly as the flames weave heat into energy…

…I return to The Marriage now led by one of those revivified boys from the ward, the apotheosis of his madness now reimbued with meaning, leading my present mind through the fourth memorable fancy. He unveils the face of the angel ‘O pitiable foolish young man! O horrible! O dreadful state! consider the hot burning dungeon thoa art preparing for thyself to all eternity’ – and as the angel speaks these words I realise they are spoken from the hospital wards interview room. I realise resonances with the pronouncements placed upon the boy, recorded in Insight notes as discussions despite the absence of any conversation[18]. This is the way religion erases the dialogue – it speaks in pronouncements; it cannot pose the grandiosity of vision as a question. It cannot admit the mad voice as an equal other…

…the resonances stretch further than an angel dressed in the disarming tweed and flowery tie, the counterpoint to the law backed imposition of his will. They also emerge in the common themes that the voice of the fancy assumes have meaning. The shining black sun that rose over becks of blood is here in Blake ‘Black but shining’ over a ‘cataract of blood mixed with fire’(E41). The visions convincing the boy that he was antichrist, the ‘terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption’, the ‘black tempest’ that seems to eclipse the sight of anything else, but then births a monster are seen as the manifestations of the laws that seek to deny them, a monster of religions creation(E41) . As I sit here in the present, trying to write something to be judged by the laws of the sane, the boy makes plain that I’m risking an imposition equal to those I try to act against, an accidental reconciliation that ‘destroys existence’ (E40). The leviathan is the endgame psychiatry, like the angel, threatens us with becoming if we deviate from their religion, if we resist or refuse to comply with ‘treatment’. Yet it is also a consequence of their treatment, their lore. And its fury, its spiritual existence, also contains its opposition. As the Angel/doctor leaves the boy alone, he becomes the harper to my present I, singing his warning about ‘The man who nevers alter his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.’ (E42). A perfect proverb of Hell, or Mad proverb – spoken with grandiose authority of a pronouncement, and simultaneously running counter to its certain tone in its content. The voice of the harper, the voice of the fancy, the voice of the boy reaching forwards to us from the past. They are what extracts us from the Abyss psychiatry weaves and tells us it might save us from. The Angel – surprised – is the doctor, and the parts of us who embody the message of his discipline. What we were meant to avoid colluding with – to save the boy from madness – has saved us from sanity. He shows us via his retelling of The Marriage that the terrifying visions that he/I’s body was shut away for/from in the ward are the underbelly of a sick society, not the mind of one sick and depraved creating unspeakable horrors, but the mind of the mad person seeing as vision the horrors that sustain that society. The visions of cruelty, war and torture, the devouring machines and beings that we try to hide away but fuel and sustain our power. The voice of the fancies ‘monkeys, baboons’ which, chained in one of the Bible’s houses, rape and devour each other in accordance with strength and power are the skeleton of ‘Aristotle’s Analytics’, the mechanisms of logic which uncoupled from imagination and dialogue become the monological monsters of religion, ideology, psy-chiatry/chology. But in these visions in which they are manifested in imaginative forms, we can converse with their meanings in ways that free them and us, the mental fight enacted …

…That (un)self with freedom to think as a result of the voice of the fancy/The harper/the boy on the ward/the visionary engagement that tore apart the monological dogma and opened up meaning in madness again can also maintain a creative dialogue with the dialogues of others. One such figure who themselves promotes dialogue is the critic John H. Jones in his readings of Blake’s work in conversation with Bakhtin a century later. What is key about the flaws in the angel’s abyss, according to Jones, is that it represent a finalized version of the future extrapolated from a finalized version of the past. By building a future that itself is built on the monological passage of the church the Angel represents from the ‘Stable’ of the nativity to the ‘mill of logic’, the Angel creates an eternity that cannot accommodate discussion that might change its path, or create news paths that exist in parallel[19]. By  suggesting ‘that the issue is up for debate: ‘We will contemplate on it together”’ Jones in turn suggests that the voice of the fancy ‘turns the Angel’s monologic assertion into an unfinalizable utterance in dialogue’.[20] My present voice in turn wants to make the link here with Open Dialogue as an approach to mental health, bringing voices from that world to converse with those in Blake’s work and with John H. Jones so that they may learn from each other. They sit around a table in my mind, putting forward their ideas as parallel truths, the polyphony of their conversation creating new truths in the ways in which they harmonize and also in their dissonances. Open Dialogue as a model is warned not to become a religion, excluding the dialogue with others in its eagerness to change the world according to its vision, which in itself is based on the tolerance of uncertainty as a principle: the voice of the fancy says we need to tolerate certainty too, as a part of dialogue – we cannot not impose on each other, but we can impose without silencing and thus keep on singing as a chorus of meanings. Jones never properly acknowledges value in the ‘torments of insanity’ by keeping his concepts of self-annihilation anchored in his application of Bakhtin’s dialogism as a rational philosophy, not a call to foreground the perspectives of the mad, the ‘carnivalesque’. Jones is never himself around the table with Bakhtin and Blake, and so misses the key aspect of The Marriage’s madness; the Angel is just as much a part of the voice of the fancy as its ‘I’; the fancies model a universe of conversations arising in madness when we let it run its fanciful, sometimes terrifying course; a course that is as full of self-consuming and chained baboons as it is inspiration and insight; as full of repressive, controlling, imposing voices as it is those that doubt, challenge, inspire. To interact with Blake’s text as I feel he intends, we must allow the text not only to represent the annihilation of its own selfhood, or rather the selfhood of the artistic force behind it. Reading it madly also requires that we annihilate the selfhood with which we read, something Blake goes on to express in ever stronger invocations to the reader in Milton and Jerusalem especially. Jones tracks this development in Blake, but in applying a detached, academic style of writing to his analysis of Blake via Bakhtin, Jones uses a ‘centripetal’ force of language that, though discussing heteroglossia, limits it in language and conventions such as the ‘preface’, ‘introduction’ and ‘conclusion’. The openness to dialogue that on one level Jones seems to advocate for in his conclusion is undermined by a stylistics that seems to claim authority for his texts voice over others: ‘The dialogical Ideal for which Blake strives, then, is an inclusive one, even if some of the included voices seem to impose their truth upon others. For the dialogic ideal to exist, it must include the very elements that seek to stifle it. The resistance to exclusionary domination can only be maintained by continuous self-annihilation’[21].  This is a pull towards centralisation it feels like Blake resists in his texts, yet also an enactment of the necessary grandiosity of maintaining a worldview not governed by doubt, even when expressing a maxim governed by it. For John H. Jones, who sees the Marriage as a Mennippean Satire, this is self-annihilation as irony. Yet naming self-annihilation as primarily an ironic mode locks out its madness, and the ability of mad thinking to hold both sincerity and irony at once.  It saves Jones having to abandon societies Sanist assumptions about its (Madness’s) (lack of) meaning, both in relation Blake and our reception of his work, but also in relation to his own selfhood, which throughout his book is never annihilated as a stable voice itself…

…The Mad movement, and figures within it, provide examples of both how damaging trying to monologically reign over the heteroglossia of our madnesses, our array of voices can be, and how to use such madness to our advantage. The Marriage in its memorable fancies, in which antagonists, whether prophets, angels or devils, face of in debates within  the mind of the fancys’ voices, themselves the many voiced creation of Blake’s visionary madness, remind me of one such example. Peter Bullimore is a foundational figure in the Hearing Voices Movement in the UK, who now trains people in an approach to voice hearing which is about helping people come into dialogue with their voices and their meanings called The Maastricht interview. He states ‘It was only when he came off the medication and met people who share his experience that he was able to stop being so afraid of the voices and actually start listening to them’[22], and found meaning in his madness that directly helped him through difficult periods where he had become stuck in life. In a film he made with Rosie Yates – Away with Voices – he describes moving past deep feelings of guilt he was trapped within for years in psychiatric services in what appears to be his own ‘Memorable Fancy’ in which he put himself on trial in court and found himself not guilty[23]. Like Mary O’Hagan, he found meaning not in spite of his madness, but through it. “I wouldn’t want to get rid of my voices now, they’re part of me”.[24] I undertook Maastricht Interview training with Peter myself as part of my work within mental health services. In the process of the interview there is never any questioning of the voices reality for the person concerned, nor is there any doubt as to the fact that the voices have meaning. The interviewer and the interviewee work together to explore the voices journalistically, asking and answering questions about when they started, what they say, whether they have names…this is all undertaken alongside a person, and while they talk through their life story in relation to the voices. During the training Peter discussed a man who had heard voices telling him to kill himself over and over again while he was homeless, despairing and misusing alcohol in a harmful way. Using the interview he was able to understand the voices were telling him to end the life of a selfhood that “was going nowhere”, but that his physical body need not end with it. It struck me that he was a living and breathing example of the both the value of attentiveness to the messages in madness, and the power of self-annihilation as a way to overcome mental and societal barriers. However, this was not rooted in a romantic notion of madness as the flipside of genius; it was a story of almost intolerable pain of who’s mechanism madness was both part of and also the key to its succour. Madness is not then a force for good or bad, but a loam of voices who heteroglossia resists monological meaning making and enacts the polyphony of truth in a sustainable way, however painful that truth may be at times to exist within in the infinite flux of its lived reality, the cacophony of its presence…

…that boy seems to have annihilated himself entirely, but his body rises up from his selfhoods ashes with bright eyes and burning flames of hair to guide me through the final memorable fancy. He is the Angel consumed in fire and become an Elijah, a prophet of the saviour – Madness – that stalks behind these words and behind these thoughts. Like the Devil’s Christ, he breaks the mind forg’d manacles of the Ten Commandments and like the Devil and the Angel of the fancy, we sit now – mind in mind – to read the infernal Bible of Hell – in this case The Marriage itself. Imposing on me like a haunting, yet in turn a haunting I imposed upon to save him from the Angels of instruction on the ward. We switch and swerve between the pressure of doubts that seizes our heart into panic, and the flames of inspiration in which we joyfully, painfully, productively lay our selves like kindling. And we weep, because madness hurts…

…It is this weeping the voice of “A song of liberty” calls for, the counter to the ‘sick silent’ coast of Albion, to warm the “shadows of prophecy” from their ‘Shiver[ing]”(E44). A weeping which John H. Jones describes as ‘an anguished but healing utterance that breaks through and overwhelms the oppressive silence’.[25]The song seems to mark the arrival of Blake’s later mythology; a prelude as a conclusion which fits with the spirit of The Marriage’s topsy-turvy landscape. ‘The jealous king’ who ‘promulgates his ten commands’ seems to be a precursor to Urizen, Blake’s later amalgamation of imperial, industrial, rational, empirical and ideological thinking into a monstrous Ur-father masquerading as Godhead of his own closeted world mistaken for totality. ‘The son of fire’ could be Orc, sharing his position in the east and rising to stamp ‘the stony law to dust’. As The Marriage ends, Blake appears to be establishing a future for the ‘Unnam’d Forms’ that reside in the fifth chamber of his printing house in Hell, and receiving them in the form of figures that will populate ‘the forms’ of books that set out to explore the meaning of his visionary madness, that lay a blueprint for others to do the same without having to make the vision sane (E40). The dangers and the necessity of the elements of madness; of imposition, of grandiosity and ‘firm perswasion’(E39); of the ‘enjoyments of genius’ which are at another level ‘torments and insanity’(E35); of angels and devils and minds which can hold them both in their flights or “fancies”; of maxims which undermine the notion of maxims and are still asserted with sincerity as well as irony…all these are explored and open to dialogue with his readers and critics own imaginations, and if they let them open up, with their madnesses. And the selves that those readers carry with them are changed and revivified, rewritten out of stony certainty into active energy by the minds that hold them in the present, which in turn are influenced by the past selves they bring to bear. In turn, the selves and annihilations that seek to make themselves felt in madness find outlets in words; our hands, as Blake would have wanted, turn to the pen – our sword in the eternal mental fight, flowing out not to limit meanings but rather, as a chorus, to make them sing…

[1] Chen et al, ‘A real world observation of anti-psychotic effects of brain volumes and intrinsic brain activity in schizophrenia’ Frontiers In Neuroscience> [accessed 31/03/2022]

[2] John H Jones, Blake on Language, Power and Self-Annihilation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) p. 92

[3] Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation (London: Routledge Classics, 2001) p. 264

[4] S. Foster Damon, A Blake Dictionary (Providence: Brown University Press, 1988) p. 381.

[5] Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation (Oxford: Routledge, 2001) p. 262

[6] Robert Menzies, Brenda A. Le François, Geoffrey Reaume, ‘Introducing Mad Studies’ in Mad Matters ed. Brenda A. Le François, Robert Menzies, Geoffrey Reaume (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2012)

[7] Rai Waddingham, Opening Keynote – NSUN Members’ Event and AGM 2021 – Youtube <> [accessed 5/2/2022]

[8] William Blake, Letter to Thomas Butts, 22 November 1802 in The Complete Poetry and Prose Of William Blake ed. David V. Erdman (New York: Anchor Books, 1988) p. 721

[9] Nick Putman, “What is Open Dialogue” in Open Dialogue for Psychosis ed. Nick Putman and Brian Martindale (Oxford: Routledge, 2021) p. 23

[10] Harold Bloom, ‘Introduction’ in Modern Critical Interpretations: William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (New York: Chelsea House, 1987) p. 3

[11] <> [accessed 31/3/2022]

[12] Sarah Wheeler, ‘Fighting the good mental fight’, Journal of Public Health, Vol. 4 Iss. 2 (Brighton, June 2005) p. 8

[13] Ibid p. 8

[14] Wouter Kousters, A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2020) p. 656

[15] Ibid p. 658

[16] Ibid p. 650

[17] Mark Lussier, “Blake and Science Studies” in William Blake Studies ed. Nicholas M. Williams (New York: Palgrave, 2006) p. 190

Ibid p. 192

[18] Insight is the electronic record keeping system used by the health trust who I was a client/patient of. Ironically these notes, in the language in which they kept and their focus on symptomology and risk management, contained little insight to the reader as to who the I in the hospital ward was, as I later discovered when I requested to read them.

[19] John H Jones, Blake on Language, Power and Self-Annihilation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) p. 77

[20] Ibid p 76

[21] John H Jones, Blake on Language, Power and Self-Annihilation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) p. 216

[22] Peter Bullimore and Anna Sexton <> [accessed 19/3/2022]

[23] Find reference here

[24] Peter Bullimore and Anna Sexton <> [accessed 19/3/2022]

[25] John H Jones, Blake on Language, Power and Self-Annihilation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) p. 80

Some Recent Activity

After a long period where it felt like very little was happening in my poetry life, last week I was lucky enough to be involved in two great events. Firstly my good friend (and excellent poet) Genevieve Carver invited me to take part in a reading and panel discussion with Caroline Bird and Sarah Wardle as part of Sheaf Poetry Festival. The event was entitled Making Meaning From Madness and I loved sharing our experiences of mental health and what poetry means for us in that context, it felt like a really powerful happening and I learned a lot from Sarah and Caroline, as well as being blown away by their readings. The video recording of our event is here:

Later in the week I submitted a short presentation combining words, music and images from my unpublished The Shadow’s Dance project to the Landscapes colloquium hosted by University of Sheffield’s School of English. You can see the film embedded below.

There are loads of other interesting videos – both academic and creative responses to the theme of Landscapes – on the website here:

I was particularly impressed with some of the contributions to the Queer Landscapes panel, and Bijal Vachharajani’s creative work. I’m still making my way through the wealth of material on there.

I hope everyone is holding up as best they can, and look forwards to a time we can meet to hear each other read and discuss ideas in person.

Mad Reflections In The Time Of Covid 19 …

I’ve recently been preoccupied with some images and experiences from my past and from culture in general, and how they relate to my own and some other Mad people’s response to the Covid 19 crisis. Below is an attempt to put words to these thoughts. I initially describe some very personal experiences that have stuck with me, then go on to describe a story of Mad strength I see in some of the networks around me as they find ways to navigate the international situation, offering what insights, help and support they can. I want to explore the importance of society entering into proper dialogue with Madness and Mad people, and encourage anyone who wants to start a dialogue in response to do so.


… Often when I try and think of images that match my experiences of Madness, I am drawn to ones that sprung into my consciousness in the times where I was most Mad. One such enduring image is that of a single leaf on a tree that caught the wind just so. Unlike its companions which whispered gently as the breeze shook them – swaying with the bigger limbs and finally the trunk in a orchestra of unifying movements – this single leaf rasped so fast it become a resonant tone for a split second, before alighting from the tree and being whisked far above the farthest stretch of its birthplace. Caught by this on my daily walk from the ward to the cornershop to buy cheap sweets and cans of Coke – the only available, if sickly, consumables to punctuate the days – I felt time paused for an age, and the reflections stretched from then to this now, a decade later…


… So much of Madness, at least for me, involves the blinkers coming off, this leap from homeliness and comfort into a dizzying heightened perspective, not one more right or more wrong, more enlightened or more disordered, but one inexorably detached from the status quo. To suddenly be carried across planes of thinking and seeing and hearing – like that leaf suddenly pitched into the wind – unanchored by the physical attachment to the body that previously contained you, carries a sense of sickening vertigo but also a thrill. It can open you up to new intimations on subjects as banal as the flight of a crisp packet alongside you, or as profound as the meaning of community, society, morality, attachment. Dulled back then by stacks of benzos and neuroleptics, my head still grasped some significance in these flows of thought traversing my brain, though my self seemed strangely diminished …


… this diminishment of self, and the strange contents of this thinking, were abhorrent aberrations to my psychiatrist, their very presence the evidence of my diseased mind. Yet from my new perspective so many things seemed redundant or without value, things which society valued so highly. And nothing more highly valued than the clear bounded sense of self and others that seemed to be dissolving as my leaf reached ever further skywards in heliotropic spirals. Doubts formed about so many things we’ve reified into reality: the workings of money, the independent self, the nation, the nature of sanity/insanity, the reflective and constructive power of the Word, of the image, the conception of nature as natural …


… Yet the further I spun away from the tree, the harder it was to have any meaningful dialogue with my fellow leaves. No others would meet the meaning I was making of the world from these new strands of life, which included now voices and visions I knew they couldn’t see or hear as yet, with any proper response. The response was to deny my reality. If others were to meet me in my worlds, they would most likely also be those outcast as unwell by the rest of society, companions in the smoking rooms of psychiatric wards or groups set up for service users, others robbed of the power to be properly heard. The sky which had come to represent a kind of freedom became an endless prison, a no mans land where no equal dialogue could be established. The branches from which my mind had sprung became walls denying me and my thoughts entry to consensus reality. It was a devastatingly lonely experience, though thanks to the solidarity of the Mad community, friends, allies and my wonderful partner, it’s one that feels less so these days…


… So why think of this now? It’s hard to put a precise finger on it, but a gut feeling, one shared with other Mad friends I’ve  spoken with or seen doing great stuff in the online world, is that, with the arrival of an unavoidable change of perspective in the form of Covid -19, the rest of society feels cast adrift from its branches, unsure of where its anchored, what it values (or what its values are), where it is going. We’re surrounded by people feeling, some for the first time, the erosion of the constructs that until crisis seem so certain It’s terrifying for many, sometimes including us Mad folk. But something positive is also occurring, not due to but in spite of the horrors of the current world situation. There are people who have spent years developing the skills to deal with isolation, loneliness, sadness or anxiety who now have the skills to weather this and to share these strengths with others. There are people already used to having to rely on the support of peers to get them through when wider society lets them down. There are people who have felt the worlds imminent undoing once or several times before but had to sit alone with that feeling, or risk expressing it to derision, diagnosis or even confinement, but now sense that society as a whole is experiencing a glimpse into their mental worlds. These friends and fellow Mad people are helping others to understand how to live with such feelings. There is a general closing of the gap between the stable or sane and the chaotic or mad, or spiritual, or artistic, or autistic that makes clear that these distinctions are not as concrete as society would have you believe. It’s becoming clearer that society and its refusal to meet or make room for Mad thought is sometimes what makes those living in Mad worlds disempowered, not the existence of Mad thinking in itself …


… Society hasn’t suddenly got fair, and there are many whose struggles with mental health, and societies lack of proper response to them, will have put them at such disadvantage, before this even started, that they need our compassion and support more than ever right now. But even many of those people seem to be coming out of shells that social isolation due to stigma and sanism has constructed around them, often offering up what help they can, even as society becomes physically isolating in the extreme. Other people in need of support suddenly become less fussy about who it is who supports them, and the way that person thinks about the world. Those Mad neighbours might now be your lifeline, or just a empathic set of ears who can offer support. I hope those who these Mad friends support don’t return to seeing them as ‘disordered’ or ‘loony’ when this passes.  Something other than a virus is in the air; the strength of the Mad and their ability to sometimes cope with extreme pressures,  and to construct alternative realities that, properly discussed can help them and us through traumas; a sense that sanity is only as strong as the systems its built upon, systems that we see shivering like underpowered holograms or mirages fading as the day to day heat dies away, shifting into something quite different…


…Much emotional, physical, economical and spiritual suffering is happening all around the world and we should not shy away from the horror of it. Some of us are not coping, and that is completely understandable. Everyone’s narratives that lead them to the point we are at now are different, as are their ability to draw on social, financial or embodied capital to ease some of the difficulties.  But the fact that some are struggling doesn’t mean that we should shy away from the Madnesses that rise in the human spirit to meet these struggles, and the ability of many of those well acquainted with these states to hold our hands and help us through, if we let them back onto our branches when they need a helping hand themselves. If we let the Mad (of which I count myself as one…) re-enter our dialogical worlds instead of holding them outside, keeping the meanings of their Madness at a comfortable distance, refusing to engage with their pain, their worries, their realities…we will all be stronger for it …


*          *          *


… Another image that has recurred often in the past few weeks has been from Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia. The lead character, Justine, is seen as weak, broken and neurotic by her family, friends and the high society they represent. Her failure to cope with, align with or tolerate the societal customs and conventions that those surrounding her abide by is seen as sickness. She almost comically embodies so many of the tropes of the Mad neurotic woman that are embedded in western literature and culture, and she is evidently paired to Ophelia, the archetypal Mad woman in the literary canon, through images of her drowning in her wedding dress. None of the characters around her engage with the reality of her sadness, or at least with its meaning, though some try their best to support her through its consequences. Yet as the film progresses, two worlds threaten to crash together, and it turns out that Justine, who already knows of the existence of other mental worlds, of the fear they bring, and perhaps the potential for understanding our existential situation, is the strongest and best placed to cope. She is prescient – the first one to notice a new star in the sky, the star which will become the apocalyptic planet that collides with earth. In the final scene she builds a shelter, a symbol, something imaginative and protective to calm those whose world is breaking down around her. It looks like a tent, or a tree. And she gains a calmness and dignity, while not shying away from the magnitude of the unfolding situation, as if this is an event her often painful life has been a rehearsal for, holding the others hands and carrying their fears as the world where they’ve been comfortable comes to an abrupt end …


*          *          *


… Romanticising Madness is something we are told not to do as it is dangerous, and I agree that much romanticising of the conditions of existing – which we label Madness or illness – denies the huge impact on people’s lives that living in states of total hopelessness or terror or despair can cause, for both the person and those close to them. But this idea that being sensitive to the damage Mad episodes can cause means not talking about the learning that comes from them in a positive light also impedes societies ability to gain from Mad thinking. It paints a negative picture of madness that leads to stigma and sanism, which add to the often already heavy burdens carried by those struggling with these experiences. Breakdowns are often also breakthroughs, and people who’ve been through them, the pain and stuggle of the experiences themselves and also their sometimes demeaning and sometimes cruel treatment at the hands of systems that are supposedly there to help them, do often have resources and insights to draw upon which are not just helpful for them but for the wider social body. But that’s only if we are willing to allow them in, listen with empathy, let them play their part in the conversations that construct who we are, let madness be a part of what it is to be human…

Litteral Drift (On Eigg)

Litteral Drift (On Eigg)

Far from their source
imperial waves
break later, rip slow.

The sands sing as your feet leave.

 Ancient flocks graze
empty croft gardens –
war graves flower.

The squeak as your toes curl free.

A Celtic cross of eerie
eroded scales ties knots
in almost lost reverence

its echo, digitally rendered,
will pull time back
in cities choked on now.

Your comfort: unprecedented
mocked by glinting eyes among the kelp.


In low light we seize the quiet
with lazered lenses, the explosive
cease of a cosmic neighbours life –

stars named the first time
long after their passing
into echoes of light

exceed the speed of endings.


Some awe, or similar,
at that voice preceding you
speaking present as hunger or waves
rolling into your ear

That presence, sifting you back
and forth along the shore,
speaking precious secrets
out of silt.


Mad Meanings and Meaningful Madness


…Madness. A word so loosely descriptive that society, science and their lovechild, psychiatry, have spent the best part of the past 150 years attempting to divide/deride it into a manageable nomenclature. A state of mind that is often denied by those supposedly experiencing it, yet more recently one which has been embraced for its very vagueness; that quality proving emancipatory for those of us wounded by the knife of psychiatric terminology. A terminology which cuts people adrift from an unstated yet implied ‘normal’; which provides society with justification to other us and discriminate against us; to lock us up against our will having committed no crime other than difference; to inflict with legal ‘justification’ medications which turn out the lights, cut us off from our stories and cause iatrogenic effects that, on average, steal ten years of life from us[1]. All this under the guise of compassion and medicine, a corrective mechanics for malfunctioning cyborgs who’ve tuned in too far to the echoes of memory and history….


…As Foucault, Laing, Cooper and Szasz all highlighted, the label ‘mad’ served the enlightenment project perfectly. The loss of reason (in the most narrowly defined sense of the word) was at various points put down to primitivism, race and ethnicity, gender or culture. But as society supposedly rid itself of the shackles of racism and sexism and the law sluggishly moved to follow this trend, the mad found themselves enshrined in law as the sick, society (un)coincidentally managing to find a nomenclature where sexism and racism thrived under an illusion of medical objectivity…

… I live among a largely educated generation, who are now rightly outraged by examples of racial or gendered insult. Yet my friends often still use ‘nutter’ or ‘mental’ to describe people or opinions they disagree with at home, in work and in public, and use a cultivated learnedness around ‘mental illness’– pushed at us from internet adverts, billboards, celebrity endorsed anti-stigma campaigns and documentaries – to analyse or judge their friends unwell, whispering behind their backs that they should take medication or be locked up, that they lack insight; ultimately implying that their all too real struggles and distress are merely the meaningless symptoms of their psychopathology, and that the ill deserve their sympathy, perhaps, but not their attentive ears as equal makers of meaning about what it is to be human. ..

… The problem with the leading anti-psychiatric figures is that they too were really of the ‘sane’, looking with fascination at the ‘insane’, at least when not dabbling with mind altering substances. Ultimately, they still treated the ‘mad’ as ‘broken’, just broken by other means than pathology. For Szasz, ultimately, the Mad were just Bad; for Laing they were broken by their home or society; for Cooper, by language and its politics. While I agree with many of their ideas, these figures set the tone of anti-psychiatry for too long without foregrounding the voices of those labelled mad themselves. Laing, especially, makes elegant statements in his writing about how the mad are abnormally alienated and thus free of the normal alienation that is cultivated by society and serves as the status quo, positioning madness as a potentially radical mode of being[2]. His notion of schizophrenia as ‘one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break in the cracks of our all-too-closed minds’[3] has been taken up by sections of the Mad community, such as Mad Pride and The Icarus Project, as a part of a foregrounding of the prophetic and visionary potential residing in Mad experience[4]. More recent writers about spiritual dimensions of Mad experience hark back to Laing as a counter to what they see as the secularization and normalizing approach of some within Mad activism, who, drawing on the social dimensions approach of disability studies, try to position Mad people as survivors of systems that disable them but in doing so diminish the radically altered perspectives that Mad experience can give. Seth Farber is one such contemporary advocate for Laingian ways of thinking, and draws heavily on his ideas in his book The Spiritual Gift of Madness, but Farber too is a professional positioning himself as an ally of the Mad and despite going further than Laing in giving space to uninterpreted Mad voices via interviews and testimonials in his books, he still often projects his own strongly held beliefs and meanings onto their experiences[5]. He is obviously taking Laing’s lead in doing this, yet my central difficulty with reading Laing as a Mad person is that when talking about actual people he encounters in his psychiatric practice, he often builds his meanings onto their experiences rather than letting their own voice be heard. When we hear what madness means in Laing, we are often hearing what madness means for Laing, not for his patients. Is he thus simply replacing one voice speaking for the person’s experience with another? Frustratingly, to me it often seems so, and by avoiding the challenge this poses, Farber and others who develop Laingian ideas uncritically perpetuate this sympathetic silencing…

…Society is captivated by the notion of ‘the fine line between madness and genius’, and yet who judges what side of this metaphorical divide a piece of thinking lies on? Ultimately, society still evaluates this from a ‘sane’ perspective; if we can’t understand something, it is non-sense, mad, worthless. Karl Jaspers famously stated a true delusion was one that’s characteristic was ‘un-understandability’, but who gets to decide on whether the belief has meaning or not? Very often it is not the person deemed mad or identifying their experience as mad. An exception seems to be made if its attributable to some theory of madness or ‘mad play’ coined by a thinker who has perhaps dipped their toes into madness, but has ultimately been judged – through judicious explanation of their thinking process, by their distancing of their own experience along prescribed and academic lines until its acceptable, or just through the privilege invested in them by society – to be sane. I find much of interest in writers such as Derrida, and especially in Deleuze and Guattari, but again, when they talk of ‘schizo-analysis’ and of ‘the schizophrenic’, it is of some state of mind or person who is fascinating for their distance from humanity, as an organ-machine, a conduit through which history and politics are expressed, and the experience of the people they speak for is never received unfettered by their interpretation – and that of other academic and medical professionals – in their work[6]. Though they are sympathetic to the ‘schizophrenic experience’ – and suggest ways in which it is a meaningful one – as a Mad person I find the anthropological slant of their writing troubling and at points quite hurtful. Who are the sane, however sympathetic, to decide whether our Mad experience is the ultimate expression of ‘transcendental empiricism?’ Would we allow someone male to be the ultimate authority on how meaningful a female authors representation of her experience is? Would we support the white American professor who judged the work of Nigerian novelist Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie ‘not authentically African’?[7] In most fields of academic study it is no longer acceptable to position your subject as a passive object of study, but when discussing Madness we are still scared to give the Mad themselves a voice, or when we do, we treat it with medically ratified suspicion, a form of sanctioned stigmatization that people working in the field of Mad Studies have argued should be labelled ‘Sanism’[8]

… There is increasingly an acknowledgment even within medical circles that we need a move towards a hermeneutic understanding of madness, but the prosaic way in which psychological narrative is captured often fails to capture the reality of mad experience due to the fact it is preoccupied with sense making, with writing madness for the sane[9]. Mad Studies demands that Mad people be involved in shaping societies laws, attitudes and philosophy on madness, and, in a similar vein, I believe a Mad Criticism is required in literary studies, adopting the general perspective of Mad Studies that – instead of ‘psychiatry’, which has ‘always seemed to narrow understanding’– ‘excites through the breadth and focus of its discussion’ as an alternative to the ‘psychiatric reductionism’[10]. It should align itself with objectives set out by Mad people working in academia, such as to ‘recognize the lived experience of madness as a fundamental form of human knowledge’[11]. Mad critics should respond to texts with their own lived experience of madness itself, to seek out and celebrate expressions of states which are recognised as similar– though not the same – as those experienced by a huge and silent Mad minority, who for good reason are often fearful of expressing and communicating their madness externally due to the stigma and state apparatus that suppress or humour it…

… Literary Criticism often seeks to find reason of some level in difficult texts in order to rescue the author from the charge of madness, or acknowledge that madness plays a part but speak as if the meaning was made despite the madness, rather than because of it, a charge often reversed in the testimony of Mad people themselves, such as Mary O’Hagan in her powerful short Madness Made Me[12]. This has occurred particularly prevalently in the field of Blake Studies, in which figures such as Yeats, Northrop Frye and Leo Damrosch have gone to great lengths of spectacular mental gymnastics to ‘un-mad’ Blake, and others from Swinburne to Youngquist, among many others, have dismissed the parts of the work they struggle with as mad – or in the latter’s case – pathological, and thus as signifying failures in the work. This implicit ‘sanism’ in criticism also makes us feel like certain writers are difficult because we are fearful of accepting madness as it is and feel the need to decode it by a process of theoretical codification, naming it or breaking it down according to psychological or psychiatric dogma. The Madder the writing, the more complex the diagnosis or formulation we need, until, to me as a Mad reader, the criticism along these lines is often only transferring its fear about its method’s limitations onto its failures to adequately explain what’s going on in the text, or in its writer. You can understand more about the insecurities of these modes of enquiry through reading such responses to Mad writing than you can derive any understanding of madness…

… I want to investigate whether such texts are actually are difficult or whether it’s more the case that they are difficult to interpret using the tautological frameworks of interpretation we adopt from the ‘psy’ disciplines and from theory – frameworks which they evade. Why is it that poets such as Blake have such a large following among Mad communities? Perhaps it’s because he very effectively and accurately speaks to madness, that to properly understand Blake is either to be mad or to be driven so by the work, and that to be sane is to never experience the texts as Blake intended them to be received. Their purpose was to reorganise our consciousness away from ‘the sleep of reason’ and towards something ebullient and excessive, in an ever-evolving state of contrary turmoil; something which psychiatry would fearfully label as pathological. David Fuller is the contemporary Blake critic who perhaps gets nearest to understanding this in his 2005 essay ‘Madness as a Refuge From Unbelief: Blake and the Sanity of Dissidence’, in which he writes ‘what is true for the writer is also true for the reader: it is impossible to hear a great or noble thing unless the spirit is moved. The reader as well as the poet needs to be in some sense “mad”’[13]

…This new Mad criticism must break some of the conventions of the academy by necessity… those effects valued by the academy – the strong argument, the confident conclusion – are all tools that enshrine reason, reductionism and capture of a moment isolated from its infinite context  the ‘wellspring of sense’ Derrida describes – as the bedrock of critical writing[14]. A Mad critique must also by necessity critique the way critical writing style serves a certain way of conceiving of knowledge, must make bare its emotionality, its subjectivity and its transience. As Audrey Lorde puts it, ‘the masters tools will never dismantle the masters house’[15]. Mad criticism must discard divisive terms which literary criticism has adopted too unquestioningly from the ‘psy’ disciplines, and thus reclaim the right of people’s Madness to express itself unfettered, as I suggest Blake’s did in his work. Madness’s inability to be pinned down, it’s evasion even of its own definitions as they come into being, is characterized in Blake’s work, and makes even the systems it necessarily creates for itself transient and un-transferable, perhaps making of the fallen world, which Blake suggests we can’t escape, a Diagrammatic Assemblage – as Guattari might put it in one of his more useful formulations on the radical potential in such thinking – that forces new modes of thought, new lines of flight, makes breakthroughs of our breakdowns and always challenges accepted modalities of thinking about politics, art, theology, sexuality…life in all its fullness. If we can celebrate the Madness of those whose writing speaks to our own, and share their terror, joy and pain – share their vision – then so many of us will feel less alone and may learn, in time, to speak and write ourselves freer of psychiatry’s, society’s and, because we are of them, our own ‘mind forg’d manacles’. And society, if its embedded ‘sanism’ diminishes, may come, via attentiveness to the messages in people’s madness, to break some of its chains too …




[1] Schizophrenia, neuroleptic medication and mortality.  Joukamaa, M. British Journal of Psychiatry 188 (2006):122-127


[2] R. D Laing, The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise (London: Penguin Books, 1967) p. 25

[3] Ibid. p. 107

[4] <> [accessed 20th November 2018]

[5] Farber, Seth. The Spiritual Gift Of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement. (Toronto: Inner Traditions, 2012) pp.50-52


[6] Gilles Deleuze, ‘Schizophrenia and Society’ in Two Regimes of Madness (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007) pp. 17-28

[7] Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, The Danger of A Single Story <> [accessed 13th Novemember 2018]

[8] Mad Matters ed. Brenda LeFrancois, Robert Menzies and Geoffrey Reaume (Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2013) p. 339

[9] Bracken, Pat. ‘Towards a Hermeneutic Shift In Psychiatry’ World Psychiatry, October 2014, Vol.13(3), pp.241-243


[10] Mad Matters ed. Brenda LeFrancois, Robert Menzies and Geoffrey Reaume (Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2013) pp. xi-xii


[11] Mad Matters ed. Brenda LeFrancois, Robert Menzies and Geoffrey Reaume (Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2013) p. 188


[12] Mary O’Hagan, Madness Made Me <> [accessed 20th Novemember 2018]

[13] David Fuller. ‘Mad as a refuge from unbelief : Blake and the sanity of dissidence.’, in Madness and creativity in literature and culture. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan,2005) pp. 121-143.


[14] Jacques Derrida. Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) p. 62

[15] Audrey Lorde. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House [accessed 15th November 2018)


The Market Decides

The Market Decides

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand – Auden.

a returning ache
cold rain
and a film of damp on the mantle

feels like autumn
though the calendar and clock
show the equinox is months off

a thirst for order
normally not noticed
parches the throat

traps you in five parts to order thoughts
which had no such thought behind them
when closest to conception


shrink wrapped
all first fears coalesce
in a christmas market memory

the town     chattering
congregates in duffel coats and shellsuits
hot-rocked by sparklers and soapbar

coal dust sparks from the hearth
and petrol thrown
on funeral pyres of livestock

that ignite the barren fells
around the market square
drawing stares years into the future

now then     first of five emerges in image searches
hiding from extinctions
in a reconstructed daydream

shielding his eyes as through his own
he hunts himself by scent and sounds
these stills and scanning lasers lead us back to

fast motion over Ravenglass sands
no footprints left among beached crabs
and the silica sculptures an absent ocean
carved in Sellafield’s shadow

a mechanised gaze now
clicks between colour and
the monochrome of childhood documentary,
dazzling ions as yet
undeveloped in darkness

your own voice calling your own name
phases as it’s doubled tracked     making it
metallic when re-received

other too cold and close to be other
than you        we called it Guardian
then we forgot


the sun of sunday school genesis
irradiates with knowledge
and small feet run for shade and shelter

but end up back at the market square
built of a hundred recurring
conversations carols and coughs

the dry of december air
freezes vowels hard selling
chops and legs on beds of ice

o small world bound by cut stone and bricks
limestone scars and repetition
this and there is too much for you


the first kid hides in a subterranean stairwell
head peeping at toe height as ears tune out
the voices and marching tracks of boots on snow

tune in to the hummingbird thrum
of a heart tacchycardic for a first time
which always feels like the last

no matter how many times we others
brush this moment
from our futures


the chattering recedes
pushed aside by something preceding
and following him          and all of us

fast forwarding from the tide line
along train tracks taken
grey ribbons of road from the booster seat

past white scars of lime and fingers
stroking the ammonite imprints
that insignificance

even as this conjoining rush past
viaducts and pay phones hones
these myriad spheres to a monad

all sound reduced to the tinnitus charge
of a flash bulb reddening his scanning eyes
as darkness explodes for a fractioned second
leaving us gasping on dry light


then ghosts begin their slow and neon dance
with each blink of the eyelids, becoming
like forms we know and yet evading us

the movements we lose between strobe lights
and stressors    the kick drums    footsteps    downloads
the fixtures of cadence



A close-ish look at London…and a subsequent spiraling outwards and inwards.

I’ve been ill recently and thus invoking Blake, as I often do, to get through the drudgery of bodily enforced rest (what ‘invoking’ Blake means will become clearer as you read on…).  Here are some of the wanderings/wonderings that ensued from me staring at the image below…



…One way in which the baggage of a history of interpretations can – at least in part – be lost, seems to be in cultivating an attitude towards close reading a text in which the personal reflections and resonances springing from the process are given primacy. Putting something like auto-ethnography at the heart of the process of reading Blake’s madness madly. As an experiment, I decided to spend a period soaking up the plate 46 of Songs of Innocence and Experience – London, seeing what links would flow forth from my previous encounters of the poem, my memories of ‘innocence and experience’ and the presence of the (facsimile) plate as object sat in front of me…

…The first thing that strikes me about the plate is the illustration at the top. In comparison to some of the other plates in the series, there is a firm division between sections – marked by the strong line that seems to be the floor beneath the elderly man and the child, and the pale blues and straws of the section below on which the title is written. I feel – perhaps because of the colours, perhaps the cloud like patterning on the right of the page – that this area around the title is almost like a sky beneath the feet of the two figures, suggesting to me a hypogeal or at least ulterior world existing simultaneously with that one in which they walk…

…What is happening in this section with the figures feels profoundly to do with light: the child is leading the elderly figure (by the beard?) from the dim left hand of the image into the beam of light that strafes the otherwise dark wall behind them. A simple interpretation would centre upon classical/biblical tropes of light and darkness as good and evil, of the child leading the figure of the adult into the light, and those notions, I think, are undoubtedly something Blake is drawing upon in the image. Yet I notice there is something terrifying happening in this light beam. The older man, turned away from whatever the source of the light beam is, has a degree of detail in his expression, brows and cheekbone evident by the shadows they cast, a hint of what I take to be a kind smile (but why?) on the part of his lips visible above his beard. He is defined in the interplay of the darkness and light across his expression. Yet the child’s face, flooded by the light source, is nothing but a spectral outline and a dark blob of an eye…

..What does this say about innocence or light? Maybe that it is a state where self is weak, or non -existent, where the scoring of persona into the person by forces of experience has not taken place. Or perhaps, since this child is, seemingly, leading the older man forwards through but away from the source of the light, this self-erasure comes from his turning back, like Lot’s wife looking back towards Sodom. It’s while looking closely at this child figure that I notice its right hand. At first I thought it was reached out as it is simply because of an aesthetic neatness, mirroring, when taken in with the other arm reaching up into the older man’s beard, the diagonal made by the beam of light itself. But that in itself sparks another look at that light beam, and I realise it ends with what looks like a door frame. Why doesn’t it pass this point? It defies the way that light as a physical property should work. It also makes me realise that this door is something more than embellishment or background setting, and that, far from simply being held out in an elegant pose, the child’s left hand is reaching to touch or open this door, this door which stops or swallows all the light…

…Or, having had a break for coffee and looking more closely again, the image seems to suggest that this door leads into the ulterior world in which the poem is printed. Having initially noticed the strong division between the upper and lower sections of the plate, I am now struck by how powerfully the beam of light ties the two together, as the line that is the left side of the beam in the top section becomes the boundary between the cold blues and the yellows that crosses the bottom section, a sunbeam through what I earlier described as the sky of the ulterior world. I start to see other (fearful) symmetry’s between the two sections and as I do, also notice that the child, but not the older figure, casts a long shadow. This troubles me deeply, I feel it in my belly, but I can’t fathom exactly why…

…I return to the plate after collecting a parcel (a printer cartridge, which seemed also a lens by which the poem interfered with my day..). I walked the mile there and back on foot, bumping into two people as the shadow the child cast obscured my vision and I stumbled along the pavement. Queuing in the sorting office, I couldn’t get rid of the gut ache it caused, and the image also of that face melting away under the radiance of the light source, leaving only its eyes (or their sockets)…

…I notice that now I am looking at that shadow from the eyes of the older figure, seeing that face as an aporia in an otherwise three dimensional image, a face shaped framing of a flaming light – like film burn at the end of a roll of stills. I start to think this pair of figures are also one, like in memories when two selves co-exist uneasily with one another. I contemplate this idea of the child as innocent and childhood as the state of innocence, and inevitably try to remember that state in myself. Yet as I scan back through my memories, flooded by scents of pollens and farms as I leave the city for the Yorkshire Dales, the images of before I first _________ burn until unrecognisable. I can’t work out whether this is a loss or a protective mechanism. I feel 80 years old, like the grandfather figure in the painting (I have decided now that he must be a grandfather) and feel my memories pulling me back with the stomach churn of vertigo, the tug at the chin. But the face I look to to lead me towards them is always burning away…

…London has no corresponding poem in The Songs of Innocence, one of only a few poems in the two collections where this is the case. What relevance, I wonder, does this have to the child’s erased face? Are children born experienced or robbed of innocence so early in the world of London that a constitution of innocence is impossible? Is that why the child’s face is undefinable? I think of the infant’s tear in the last stanza of the poem, blasted by whatever the harlot’s curse is, is there something here about intergenerational trauma in industrialised society? Are the manacles hereditary (like the postulated psychotic ‘disorders’ which have become so set in the concrete of language)? I am starting, I realise, to look at the words, so I should really turn to the poem, albeit with that molten non-face inevitably hanging over the encounter…

…So to the text, and I can’t help at this point reflect on my first encounters with this poem. It was also, after The Tyger in a book of children’s verse my parents read to me from, the first encounter I’d had with Blake, at least as a (at the time nascent) critical reader. I was at school studying for GCSE’s, not particularly hard working, and more interested in a strange pursuit of religion or perhaps spirituality. I would sit staring long into the screen of a candle flame’s flickers on my bedroom wall, trying to suss out some kind of meaning, or just dying temporarily inside the dancing light, drifting away into other things. And yet something about this poem, first heard as another pupil read it out to the class from an anthology, made my mind stand to attention. I realise now this had a lot to do with mishearing and thus my very first encounter was already somehow askew…

…as someone who lived largely and willingly in a dreamlike state (not much has changed perhaps), I instantly took the first ‘wander’d’ to be ‘wondered’. Therefore I begun by thinking of someone purposefully thinking about something, and thinking through the medium of something else I got wrong (this might be the fault of the boy reading the poem out…)- I took ‘charter’d’ to be ‘charted’ and thus something to do with maps. This had no doubt got something to do with the fact that I had (and still have) a bit of an obsession with maps, using them as prompts to plot and take imaginary journeys through the landscapes cartography suggested. As well, it may have been because my knowledge of the Thames at the time was more topographical that experiential, having poured over maps more than I had visited London, and the idea of the Thames being charted thus made sense. Yet I also thought of something being charted as in understood, or well explored, and took the practice wondering by means of these charts as a way of making them new, as I was used to doing in my own mental life at the time. I was always reinventing the world and my spiritual beliefs in order to escape difficult encounters, bullying, fears, ideas and, perhaps, what I took to be the impending assuredness of adulthood…

…so these first understandings of the first stanza were all informed by misreadings, and yet such readings still inevitable bear on my readings of the poem in the present day; I explore the relationships between these misreadings and the way I look at the poem now. Let’s start with the wander/wonder. To wonder is to purposefully contemplate what something might mean born from ‘the desire to know something’ but also in some sense to doubt. To wander is to amble aimlessly and without direction, or perhaps, if its applied to the operations of the mind, to think without structure or path. Perhaps Blake/the voice of the poem was in some sense taking what would later be defined as a ‘derive’. Perhaps wandering is a form of liminal madness from which other ‘truths’ can emerge to topple the industrialised and dark London the poem portrays. Perhaps purposefully (and the tone of the poem is purposeful…the rhythm forceful, the form tight…) being directionless is a state the poem is drawing value from, an exoneration of a state of aimlessness as the antidote to industrialisation. I realise that actually my sideways look at the world, even as a 15 year old, was perhaps constituted of wondering as wandering or wandering as wondering. Similarly, though my notion of charted was again misheard charter’d, the activities now seem to converge and resonate together within my mind. Are charters in some way a mapping procedures of industry and law, defining what is and isn’t legitimate, and therefore what is legitimately real in the industrialised society…

…on the idea of ‘marking’ my younger self had no such penetrating insights. I think I just read ‘mark’ as ‘saw’ or ‘see’. I probably even embarrassingly used it wrongly based on this misunderstanding in essays, something I was was in the habit of doing with new vocabulary I (thought) I’d picked up at the time. It was only later on in life that I saw the ‘marks’ in the faces the poem encounters as being something that the voice of the poem is active in making – it is a projection of weakness and woe onto the faces as much as it is a recognition of something innate. This is laden with significance in relation to madness, for to be declared mad itself is often the work of some other projecting the quality of madness onto you at least as much as them recognising something within you. Many readings of Blake, which I’ll look at later on, note his perceptiveness around areas of psychic relations that had not yet been defined or named- areas such as what Freud coined ‘projection’…

…Moving onto the second stanza, and the mental chains – the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ -have always been an image that has stuck with me since that first encounter. I was taught what to think of them almost immediately by my teacher, he saw them as to do with class or almost a caste style acceptance of place by members of society, and the unchanging role those people played in society. Although contained within the mind, this always suggested a somewhat visual image of peoples mind being bound somehow. And yet what the teacher, and indeed me myself, never paid attention to was the fact that the voice of the poem doesn’t see these manacles: it hears them. How do you hear a manacle? How does the aural bind you, being you? Maybe it has something to do with the naming or utterance that closes off other worlds of possibilities, bans difference, forces one into position. This, for someone with experiences like my own, will always lead to thoughts of psychiatric labels, those tools of the ‘shrink’ which do just that to human experience in order to subjectify and quantify, to bind our emotional response to suffering within a static framework, divorced from time…

…yet the voice of the poem is the one who is hearing the mind forg’d manacles, not those who’s cries and bans he hears them in. Again, like the marking earlier in the poem, it is something to do with the forces that guide the perception of the poems voice, rather than something innate. Is this poetic voice, I wander/wonder, playing the role of the shrink, flitting up to some panoptical viewpoint to look down cast the lives of others into his poem and vision? Or is this recognition of the manacles the first step to liberation from the system that binds minds with them? Is this a position of hopelessness or hope, or can it be both – sometime it feels like it – is the poetic voice a diagnostician? And is this what threatened my former diagnostician about poetry?…

…or is the colon where we should be laying our attention? ‘in every voice: in every ban’ – does this colon make a clearer causal link between voice and ban than we understand? Is is that, just by voicing a statement, we restrict the potential for other statements or modes or thought? Is every time we speak itself an injury to freedom on a micro level? Maybe I am reading too much into this, but I think that Blake would want this to be the way we read him…at least the Blake I make would. Thinking about the illuminations again briefly, I think about how important to Blake the method of his production was, the infidelity and differences in every version. The one I use above, the 1826 Library of Congress Copy Z, sparks these interpretations. Others are coloured differently, and take our journeys in conflicting directions, or perhaps contrary is the better word. What I mean is that Blake wants us to be doing this, this wormhole of thinking, reflecting, living. Otherwise he is the one with the keys to the mental chains; he wants the keys to be ours, or at least to share them with us or teach us how to make our own; he is not a jailor, though thinking this way always carries a risk of jailing yourself.

…there is a firm line drawn beneath the second and third stanzas on the plate, and with no clear purpose in relation to the images and illuminations I think it must be seen as part of the poem, despite the lack of indication in most typeset versions of the text. I wonder what the significance of it is, this cleaving flourish that chops the poem in two after the manacles are heard. Is it a limit of said manacles, a bounding line? Does it correspond in someway to the other clear divisive feature of the plate, the line beneath the floor of the child and the old man’s street in the sky? Or is there rather a link between its trembling nature, the firmness of the line under the title, and the sine wave of the line beneath the poems end? Not serving any real illustrative purpose, I wonder/wander whether the lines represent some kind of metamorphosis of the mental state of the poem. From one of the firm certainties of place and its naming (something that Blake comes back to often, most notably in the lists of places names mapping out the London of Jerusalem), from the stability of selfhood or self/other divisions, via this middle line, starting to flex, a threshold where solidity wavers, through to the pulsating vibration and interchange between contraries that the bottom line now suggests to me…

…Or, looking again later, it it just that the sine wave is a root structure for what could be a tree down the left hand margin, its waviness organic by comparison to the confident underline underpinning the city like the bounding wall in the illustration above?

…beneath this dividing line, the poem takes a turn away from a situation where the voice of the poem is overtly constructing the reality of the poem, to one in which the vision has taken full control and I, for a stanza, fades into the background. A chimney sweepers cry appalls the blackening walls of the church. A soldiers sigh is transfigured into blood flowing down the wall of a palace. The poem here moved me so deeply because it makes the cost of industrialised society clear with metaphors that also have a physical truth. The church’s walls blackening reminds me of the churches of my Sheffield childhood, many of which had not yet been sandblasted clean of the residue of industries sooty blanket: the sootiness of industry also being the physical environment of work that made sick and ulitmately killed the chimney sweeps of London, often before they reached adulthood. But the fact that the church was impotent or actively ignored or collaborated with industrialists in the development of a society in which such poverty could exist alongside its own wealth and power, and serving its growth, also appalled and blackened the institution metaphorically too. Similarly, the cost of the imperialism and expansionism of the country at the time was very much blood, of soldiers let alone their adversaries or victims at home and abroad. Yet there is also a potent metaphorical aspect to the image of the sigh being transfigured into blood, part of this potency deriving perhaps born from the reality of the human cost of the city, of nationhood and identity; self, state and religious…

…in the last stanza the “I” returns to stress the voice of the poems most damning impressions of the city it marks out. The way the “hear” at the end of the line is intersected by the dividing line between blue and yellow in the background in an almost identical way to the “hear” at the end of the “mind forged manacles” line makes me think the hearing here is meant to be a continuation of that mental binding. I remember not thinking much of this stanza when a young man, trained in the misogynistic and judgemental environment of the schoolyard, classroom and church, the very institutions Blake is railing against – albeit two hundred years later. I saw “harlot” as simply a deserving insult, almost a true statement about a person in the sex trade, who had to be morally corrupt or evil in some way. It shames me to say so, but I thought of her as nothing but a vile being, shouting swearwords at her poor child for crying at the cruelty of the situation that life is. And maybe the poem’s voice feels similar, but, without wanting to defend Blake against quite legitimate accusations of misogyny in his overall canon, I feel like something different is going on here. You see, as a Mad person, defined as insane or deviant by the diagnosticians and society as a result, I often felt cursed – cursed by my position in society and cursed internally by seeing myself through societies lens. Now when I read the curse here in the poem I see both a curse-as-swearword and curse as something a person carries with them – burdensome – inflicted on them by their situation and by the labelling of their response to it. And, having seen how society neglects to help those subject to abuse, I know too well – to my shame because I have done it – how being hurt leads to you being more likely to inflict hurt on others. This cycle of abuse and poverty which industrial societies almost cultivate as a by product and can’t seem to exist without, is the curse blighting both the infant and the harlot, and the institution of marriage, with the way it propogates misogyny and the strange fascism of the family (see terre thaemlitz’s Deconstruction project on this) is a hearse…trapping people by bonds mental and legal into systems that enslave them into the service of the state and capital just as the family, to protect itself from falling, must submit to such systems to survive, perform the rituals. At the same time, then (and now) infidelity was accepted and tolerated (for men). As Damrosch puts it, the sex trade, “officially condemned but in practice condoned, grew up for dissatisfied men; women’s need were not considered”. For Blake any system in which you became ensnared was a form of death. The hearse of marriage was perhaps all too real, especially in a time when many such arrangements were still loveless and focused on retention of status and possessions, though the Blakes’ doesn’t seem to have been that way…


…I’ve often got to a point where I am perhaps as much talking about my own experiences and views than I am the poem, letting the close reading morph into some kind of essentialising analysis of today’s society. But then Blake often leads me towards this kind of thinking. It is as if he gives license through his writing to let madness run away with you, to see things from multiple viewpoints, from panoptical and introverted and dialogical and social angles all at once. This excess, this overwhelming sensation and expansion of thought, is homely to me these days, as a Mad person, though not easy. And yet it used to terrify me. Something about finding the same or similar sensation communicated so well in Blake’s writings de-stigmatised my self(ves) to myself and my relation to others. I realise this version of Blake as belonging to me, and to the mad, is down to the way in which I read Blake. But then isn’t the way we read experience a large part of Blake’s writing itself. How the poet ‘marks in every face’ according to his own state of mind, how the voices of his poetry map out different ways of seeing that make clear that such ways are polyphonus, and yet each voice still speaks with authority even when doubting. These contradictions become contraries and the spaces Blake defines poetically envelop them and are enveloped by them, subversive lenses to perceive injustices, authoritarian lenses which replace like with like and show the danger of convictions, much like Nietszche’s statement “Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies”. These are lenses of myth that control, lenses of creation which limit themselves in wounding ways. Illustrations with lines so confident they erase doubt and so lead you to doubting the authority of the lines (which themselves become wobbly, like the aforementioned point in London)…

…I think of Blake’s complete works, the Erdman version staring at me from the shelf, spine buckled and tatty from the weight of its impact on the last few years of my life. I think of how many pencilled remarks of my own marginalia contradict each other; so many moments of contrary insight to be comfortingly derived from such sacred yet all too human words. I have contributed mine to Blake’s own marginalia which is also published therein. I think of Iain Sinclair’s lecture on “Blake’s London: The Topographic Sublime” and how he refers to his copy of the complete works as “a personal I Ching, an almanac of divination.” and of (his) Blake as someone/thing he invokes – “I invoke Blake and step out into the world.”  For Sinclair, too, Blake’s Madness is an essential feature of his writing and something which too confident an analysis negates. As he writes, “A lot of the more cultured, socially succesful people of the era, the university poets, would have looked on Blake, if they were interested in him at all, as being one of the tribe of the mad”. The “necklace” of asylums which Sinclair traced around London demonstrated exactly what people did to the mad at the time: they pushed them to the edges. Perhaps they were far too eloquent as critics of society, as I see Blake, and as Laing sees the psychotic, to be permitted a place at the heart of it. “Malignancies” to be removed to the fringes, as Sinclair puts it. But perhaps just because society places no value on Mad (non)sense making. When it causes a disturbance they might be shipped off, like Blake down to Felpham, or myself on various occasions to a mental health respite centre, or worse, an acute ward. They may even end up in prison, or worse, as almost happened to Blake. But for the most part we focus on legitimatising their methods of communication or attempts to convey their experience, so as not to “corroborate” such delusions, so as to avoid the reality of their metaphors, or to resist their “reconfiguring of the topography”, as Sinclair would put it, of London, which for Blake symbolises the project of industrial society. For me this version of Blake is immensely attractive, this firebrand visionary revolutionary that Sinclair delineates in his lecture…but this vision of Blake doesn’t seem to accommodate sufficiently the suffering and confusion that exist alongside the prophetic insight in my Blake, in the way I read and empathise with his orchestra of poetic voices, as a Mad person. And I feel that Sinclair, for all his distaste for regulations and revolutionary fervour which he attributes to Blake as a spiritual guide, neglects or romanticises the Mad Blake I know and invoke…

…If we are to discuss Blake’s being mad or otherwise, aren’t we just joining a history of people entertaining such judgements one way or another from his own era up to the present day? Yes and no. The challenge a Mad perspective brings to previous versions of Blake is one born of the experience both of what constitutes madness (which can surely only be defined by those who’ve experienced it), and of what it feels like to read Blake in relation to those experiences. Mad studies challenges the notion that there can be empirical method to defining madness – but this is something many critics of Blake have attempted to do in their work. One such writer is Paul Youngquist in his book Madness and Blake’s Myth. His reintegration of Madness into a version of Blake is important, when the Blake the man who experienced and wrote from it had almost been faded into the background by Northrop Frye, Yeats and other critics’ explications of the entire work as some kind of bold and contiguous system of meaning. But his methodology for deducing Blake’s madness, though he tries to distance himself from the charge, is essentialising, based on what he calls “empirical observation of experience” which is exactly the kind of attitude by which psychiatry proceeds. He is anxious to avoid the language of psychoanalysis as he believes it becomes as much about the interpreter as the analysand, that its approach is “too literary to yield conclusive results”…but then proceeds with a system of interpretation which hides its biases behind a false objectivity, much the same as the one which Mad studies continuously challenges, as it challenges any approach that seeks to essentialise or generalise about human experience. It is exceedingly personal, to someone like myself, to see the biographical, poetic and personal set of writings and art which constitute today’s Blake being pathologised in such a way. And ultimately, Youngquist, though acknowledging the part madness has to play in Blake’s work, feels that it succeeds despite its madness rather than because of it: “Could it be that an artistic achievement as great as William Blake’s was born in the collision between a sound mind and its pathology?”…

…Youngquist creates a false choice in the opening of his book, saying that the choice of how we define madness that we are faced with is one between “historical relativism” and “clinical determinism”. Reducing such a diverse and broad set of experiences and interpretations of said experiences to this is faintly ridiculous, and also still falls short of an interpretation where the voices of those labelled or identifying as mad are given any attention. Youngquist realises that the division is too neat, but his third way, “a phenemology of mental life” is restricted by his notion of a ‘sane’ common humanity which madness poses a challenge to. That madness changes the status quo can not be doubted, but the way in which madness arises is seen as an “aberattion” to Youngquist, rather than something related to the idea of a sane reaction to insane circumstance, or trauma and oppression. Youngquist introduces biography of Blake, but never draws the link between the way in which Blake’s visions interact with trauma – bullying as Basire’s apprentice and subsequent isolation, the loss of his brother and the related visions, the poverty, exile politically and mentally and other factors that made up his life experience and often seem to shape the visionary experience of the world. More importantly, he takes the seemingly popular view that Blake became ‘madder’ in the period after the Songs of Innocence and Experience, especially in the later phase in which he produced his longest prophetic works. There’s a whole lot of unraveling for me to do to explain why I think this position doesn’t match up with the themes Blake’s texts engage with, but for now lets just say that to the modern person, someone seemingly holding unshakeable belief in the power of their insight, someone like the voice of Blake in London, is judged far madder than someone who doubts these powers or feels cut adrift from society for expressing them. To me the later writings of Blake don’t reflect a descent into madness, but rather mark one of the most harrowing and yet beautiful accounts of what it feels like to be cut adrift because society labels you mad. The self doubts and stigma that arise internally as you are taught by powerful processes to doubt your experience and insights due to the way they digress from the social norm. Mad studies relates the experience of oppression, trauma and the mad experience explicitly, relating through narratives of personal experience and academic study the way in which pathology is a way of hiding the trauma and meaning making of distress, but it also marks the wounds inflicted by isolation, invalidation, and internalised self doubt which become inevitable for those who express their madness publicly, at least initially…as I continue to explore Blake’s work, I want this to be something we hold onto: how it might be the external relations that Blake has with society that leads the powerful voice of London to fragment into the myriad warring entities Blake uses to outline his worlds and his mental life in later texts. The distress and suffering that results from this isolation is all too familiar to many who have had and expressed Mad experiences and thoughts; it is not a question of our psychopathology but of societies refusal to engage with our thought unless its converted/perverted into a Sane-itised version.








A Nuclear Winter In An Artists’ House


This is an old poem, but one I remembered this weekend because the 5th November was when I wrote it a few years ago. I’m still quite fond of it.


Nuclear Winter in An Artists’ House

We’ve barely the money
for teabags and fags
so the broken bulb stays
in its bayonet stays,
jolting in bursts
of light dictating
our jumpy search
for sugar.

The Cat’s progress to
the water bowl is
stroboscopic, captured
snapshots of silver
and black leaping
on his Rorschach
back. His

glasspaper tongue
scratches surface tension,
sending ripples bouncing
into halos of blue light
across the rhythmic ribs
of a radiator spluttering in-
to life.

When we had more moments
of incandescence the
air was opaque with
smoke and conversation,
but now vapour breath
wreaths empty heads
quivering in rare
flickers of brightness.

Silent but for sniveling
at Fairy scented ghosts
rising from the sink,
we hear darkness descend
the stairs by teatime
and draw close,
glowing embers defying
ashtray grey as we
hunch- backs to boiler-
hugging ourselves
until our inky blood thaws,
rushing towards
hissing touch papers
in the distance.


Hallam Towers

Hallam Towers is a series of poems with photographs that I wrote while obsessing over and occupying an abandoned building in Sheffield, both mentally and physically exploring the spaces it created. The interplay of text and image is not supposed to be illustrative, but sometimes it is.

As the building has been demolished over the past fortnight, this has become an elegy of sorts, but its various signs continue to signify and interact with Sheffield, its society and its collective memory in ever evolving ways.These disused institutions keep creating stories and adventures long beyond their demise as public or even physical spaces.

Here is the opening sequence:

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1) Point Of Entry

Gunmetal    blue wood fence    leaps
into straw with a slip of the sunlight.

The abandoned garden wrapped
in razor wire or slicked with ink left
to tattoo each point of trespass.

Hands remember being   eight years old
efficiently feeling out    the knotted contours
of ascending branch biceps-

clothes tear on steel barbs    green finger
-tips from the nervous    lichen clasping    traverse
that ends hung above
our destination.

Take moments to breathe.
Feel the stomach churn of vertigo, the rising
lactic burning in   calcifying tendons, then
let go-


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Construction/demolition site – enter at your own risk.
Head, I and ear
protection required.




3) Target

Squared steeple of a brutalist wet dream.
Pillar propping thick quilts of fog up,
reaching space-wards.


When I was six I was taught the trick of aligning little ink stained fingers- just so- to forge a link to heaven.

What rushing as pastel light stretched from scratched nails to meet the sunbeams!


At 2:58 a cloud break illuminates
the tower- pale white at its base
but shit-shaded up high by the strafing of chattering starlings.

The sundial shadow intersects tree roots
of childhood               frogspawn halt their blinking
in the ponds.

Gaze stretches up to the sudden dusk;
treasure digging stops to admire the shredding
of the skies lacuna by this square eclipse,
by some shadow
I wish to flood.


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4) Look Up

On haunches     legs still sprung with
sinews full of the fall.

Scrape dirt from pebble-punctured palm heel.
Check ankle: turned after mis-reading terra
firma: sore but useable: clunky hinge.
No spare parts anyhow.

Slowly stand    exhaling    coiled tension    or

my heart rate races the drone of small flies
swarms over cakes of decaying
pine needles brushed off grey denim knees,
leaving forest scent-spectres
which later haunt laundry with memories.

But now
still hums with tiny life and sunlight
the pine cones are still     wide open     I’m too early.
The thought rattles me     out of the stasis of evergreens
planted to make this hotel ever-young

now red lights and a lens
mark a moving image glanced by multiplying other

I decide to walk calmly through the shot
in the tradition of unnoticed film extras
– it pays –
but how do you consciously walk

At school I never played an attendant lord,
never mind Hamlet.


[Control Room: captures focus on the wonky walk of a kid trying to be invisible as his limbs move- klunky, dyskinetic – between duct tape crosses on the school stage, between the gunmetal blue and the straw light. Laughter rings for a while, then fingers hit buttons and binary departs down the wires…]



A squirrel sifting rubble for acorns     senses     twitches
bolts away with my kinetic energy, leaving me in a rigor –

a cacophony of polyphonic sirens razing- panic racing
to a speed heart rate anticipated                   chest pains
dart down arms to frozen finger tips                all action
condensed to the head
and eyes wincing in security lights.

TANNOY: Warning, you are trespassing, the police have been informed.
Warning, you are trespassing, the police have been informed.
Warning, you are trespassing, the police have been informed.

Mute metamorphosis: beam trapped rabbit in The Grapes Of Wrath-
squeal,                                                                                       imagine that
your final thought.


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