Category: Urizen’s Tears (10/23)


Blake’s Mythology- Is it in you?

This post responds to the first question, “Why does Blake deviate from the Biblical account in making Adam and Noah contemporaries?” In “The Song of Los,” Blake depicts several scenes of his mythological characters delivering gospel and religion to various important religious figures. This image of Blake’s characters as the root of all common religions reminds us of “All Religions are One,” in which Blake posits that all religions come from the same source, and therefore are no different at their core.

It is also important to note that “All Religions are One” claims that religion comes from the poetic genius, which resides within man. Since he depicts his mythological characters as delivering these religious principles to each of the creators of religion, Blake is saying that each of his mythological characters actually resides within these religious leaders, and it is the work of each character that influences each religious leader’s doctrine. For example, Theotormon—the representation of desire that becomes jealousy when repressed—delivers the gospel to Jesus. The decision to have Theotorman deliver Christianity was a conscious one, as Blake is making a comment on the sexual repression perpetuated by the Christian leaders of his time.

The decision to have Urizen deliver his “Laws” to both Noah and Adam together (as contemporaries) was also a conscious one (109). As Urizen delivers the laws to both men, we can assume that both men are crippled by mankind’s reason. Blake undermines the Bible by pointing out the utter uselessness of time—to Blake, Noah and Adam may as well be the same person, as they are crippled by the same thing—man’s logical reason, represented by Urizen’s laws.

Blake’s Song of Los ends which a curious, antithetical image of the grave, cursorily glossed by Johnson and Grant as “a regenerative orgasm” which transforms it into a “fruitful womb” (107):

The Grave shrieks with delight, & shakes

Her hollow womb, & clasps the solid stem;

Her bosom swells with wild desire:

And milk & blood & glandous wine.

In rivers rush & shout & dance

On mountain, dale and plain. (112)

What then to make of this? Life’s natural, teleological progression would, obviously, be toward that of the narrow house, the final and ever-abiding stasis of the grave. This grotesque image upsets and usurps such a formulation, however, making death not decaying but pregnant. There is a Dionysian degradation and delight. Though a degradation that here is more similar to a  “coming down to earth, the contact with the earth that swallows up and gives birth at the same time,” the vital loam; it is to take the idealized and make it fleshy, making lofty concepts corporeal. A discarnate existence in a contradiction in terms—whether here or in the here-after. Blake loathes what ignores the spiritual—e.g. “a Philosophy of the Five Senses” (110) alone—as well as what’s bloodless—e.g. Urizen’s fettering “mechanistic dictates” (107). Blake’s philosophy—however difficult such might be to pin down and delineate (but isn’t that his point?)—is an autochthonous one, one that “transfer[s] every high ceremonial gesture or ritual [here, specifically, death, the lapsing from one life to the next] to the material sphere” (Bakhtin).

 

Works Cited:

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. Print.  (pg.21)

Blake, William. “The Song of los.” Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print. (pg. 107-12)

Blake creates his own system of mythology in order to communicate his revolutionary message allegorically.  The characters’ meaning and symbolism constantly change through a complex web of relationships with each other and in the context of each prophecy.  While his mythology is an important tool for creating his own system, by incorporating Biblical figures into his writing, Blake breaks from his mythology to communicate through universally understood characters.  By modernizing Biblical characters, Blake mythologizes these figures to as existing outside the limits of historical time.  As mythological entities their symbolic value is more important than their specific actions as outlined in the Bible.

Returning to our earlier reading of Blake’s All Religions Are One, Blake rejects the idea of any individual religion having total authority and instead claims that there are no true differences between religions.  By making these Biblical figures contemporary with his mythological characters, he inserts his system of mythology in the religious sphere on equal footing with the most established religion in England.  Particularly, in Africa, he gives his own characters greater power than these pillars of the Christian faith as “Adam shuddered!” and “Noah faded!” in response to Urizen’s laws.  His mythology is no longer an isolated system or tool in Blake’s writing but a component of a universal religious system.

It is also worth noting which particular Biblical figures he co-opts into his mythological system.  The three men he alludes to in Africa, Adam, Noah, and Abram, all represent fatherhood:  Adam as the father of man, Noah as the only remaining father after the flood, and Abram as the father of the nations.  By placing each of these figures in a weak, responsive position, he emphasizes the unquestioned power of Urizen he seeks to create.  Then, this power dynamic between Urizen and man easily extends through their descendants to include every modern reader.  This allows him to present a mythological system that he discovered rather than created, as though he illuminates characters and relationships that shaped these figures of the past and continue to shape individuals in the present.

This post is a response to the previous post’s fourth question,  “Does the line ‘The Tigers couch upon the prey & suck the ruddy tide’ (Europe 18/15:7; page 106) allude to a Moravian view of Christianity or, literally, to images of fearful tigers in other Blake poems (such as ‘The Tyger’ for instance)?”

Firstly, why do we have to choose between two possible interpretations? Surely the line can allude to both Blake’s other images of fearful tigers and a Moravian view of Christianity. To suggest that interpretation is a matter of either/or is especially “Urizenic” (it has just struck me that metalworkers call compasses “dividers”). Indeed, I think that its allusion to a Moravian view of Christianity makes Europe’s image of a tiger more fearful and therefore more likely to evoke the fearful description (but not depiction) of the tiger in “The Tyger.”

I have argued before that Blake used seemingly Moravian imagery in connection with animals; Europe‘s image of a tiger seems to be an extension of that (my argument is in the third comment down). We don’t have to be aware of the image’s Moravian undertones to find it fearful, but it is easy to read as Moravian. “Couch” gives the image a sexual interpretation that it would not otherwise have had. Although “couch” functions in this sentence as a verb with a similar meaning to “crouch,” it also evokes the idea of beds and lovemaking. The tiger’s sucking of blood then can allude that specific Moravian practice in The Shifting Times. The main cause of the fearfulness of the tiger in “The Tyger” is its predatory nature, the fear it inspires in humans and other animals alike. The image of the tiger in Europe takes this further by suggesting the tiger is also a sexual predator like the primates in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

So, why does Blake make images of animals fearful by having them engage in predatory/destructive sex or sexual acts? The sexual images of the tiger and the primates contrast with the visual images of couples having apparently very enjoyable sex throughout Europe and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. One possible interpretation is that Blake is commenting on ideas of prelapsarian and postlapsarian sex, given the figures in the clouds are angelic and therefore presumably not fallen. However, the excessive and hedonistic depiction of floating couples having intercourse would probably not have matched traditional understandings of prelapsarian or ideal sex1. The naked couples’ obviousness to what is going on around them suggests they aren’t entirely earthly or fallen beings. In contrast, the animals’ sexual behavior is predatory, fatal and therefore very morally compromised. However, in the case of the primates, it is very highly exaggerated and the same is somewhat true with the tiger. It is also incongruous, even ridiculous,  to have happy couples mating amid textual and visual images of destruction. Maybe Blake is lampooning the idea of an unsurpassable distinction between ideal prelapsarian sex and less ideal postlapsarian sex. I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw the distinction as “Urizenic.”

1 I’m drawing on the distinction between prelapsarian and postlapsarian sex from Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which sex before the Fall is depicted as purely loving, whereas afterwards it is more lustful. Perhaps someone could enlighten me further on ideas of prelapsarian sexuality? Given Blake’s obsession with Milton, it does seem highly credible he could be playing with his distinction, but I wonder if it was a manifestation of a wider theological distinction.

Re-volution or the End of History?

For this Wednesday (10/23), students have the option to write a post on ONE of the four prompt questions:

1. Why does Blake deviate from the Biblical account in making Adam and Noah contemporaries? (SoL, Plate 3; 6, 7; p. 109)

 

2. What is the significance of Urizen’s weeping at the end of “Asia”? (Plate 7, line 42; p. 112).  How does this moment compare to Urizen’s earlier weeping in the “Africa” section (plate 4, line 17; page 110)?

 

3. What is the symbolic significance of creepy, crawly insects, worms, and serpents in Blake’s Europe, a Prophecy and A Song of Los?

 

4.   Does the line “The Tigers couch upon the prey & suck the ruddy tide” (Europe 18/15:7; page 106) allude to a Moravian view of Christianity or, literally, to images of fearful tigers in other Blake poems (such as “The Tyger” for instance)?

 

Or, students can formulate their own question prompt about a specific line, image, theme, or motif from The Song of Los, and then provide their own answer in a post.  Please categorize under “Urizen’s Tears” and don’t forget to create specific tags.

Here’s a brief explanation of the Arab Spring, which we discussed briefly in class:

When a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire to protest government corruption, he started a widespread series of uprisings.
http://www.WatchMojo.com tracks the inception and rise of the Arab Spring movement from Tunisia, to Libya, Egypt and beyond.

This video introduction to the Arab Spring helps contextualize the prophetic revolution Blake calls for in Asia in The Song of Los. Blake’s use of polysemic language allows his prophecy to be read for the future, our 21st Century. In the case of the Arab Spring, Orc’s revolution begins in an act of self-annihilation: the Tunisian street vender who burns himself alive as an act of protest against political oppression and capitalist exploitation. Orc’s fires are raging today in North Africa and the Middle East…Blake’s prophetic vision is now here, we are now entering the Last Judgment. Creepy? Strange? Absurd? What do you think?

The Perpetual Fall

In locating his allegorical universe (at least temporarily) in Africa for The Song of Los, Blake’s goal is to emphasize beginnings: the beginning of humanity, the beginning of slavery, the beginning of religion, and the beginning of the empty moral systems and laws that he abhors. He not only makes Adam and Noah contemporaries but also adds Moses, Abram (Abraham), and figures of Eastern religion to the cast of characters. The first four, of course, are Biblical characters whose individual histories are told in the book of Genesis, which means “beginnings.” Adam’s story is that of the Fall, but Blake reminds us that simply because Noah lived many years after Adam does not mean that the two figures’ tales are unrelated.

For the Flood is the symbol of another quasi-Fall, in which nearly the entire world is destroyed because of its sinfulness. Given this event’s proximity to original Creation in the Bible, we should be struck by how quickly humanity incurred the wrath of God. There is salvation for the righteous Noah and his family, but the emergence of the curse of Ham quickly associates sin even with Noah and his descendants – and thus the entire human race. If we consider that, according to Genesis, we are all descended from Noah, then we can conclude that all sin stems not from Adam, but from Noah.

Certainly this line of thinking would have been exploited by supporters of slavery, who twisted Biblical accounts of Ham and Noah to justify the exploitation of Africans but conveniently neglected their faith’s declaration that all men are sinners, perhaps insisting that Noah’s other lines maintained righteousness. Blake’s point is to direct his readers to the discrepancies in this point of view and to remind us that, according to both Adams’s and Noah’s stories, every man is fallen and must rely on God for salvation.

For Blake is working on a both a micro- and a macro- level in this poem. He zooms in to Africa to demonstrate how misinterpretation of the Bible or of God has led to horrors and corruption there, but connects the events on that continent to those in other locations – in the “garden of Eden,” “the mountains of Ararat,” “in the East,” and so on (101). In other words, he argues, the Fall is universal: it has occurred and is occurring everywhere, regardless of one’s religion or race. Time is not relevant in the context of sin and its consequent exploitation, and thus time cannot be a factor for those of us, like Blake, who seek to bring about the revolution that will ultimately end those actions and systems that constitute such corruption.

In response to the question: 1. Why does Blake deviate from the Biblical account in making Adam and Noah contemporaries? (SoL, Plate 3; 6, 7; p. 109)

I recently looked at Milton’s Paradise Lost in another class this semester. It seems that a divine viewpoint–from Los the Poetic Genius–has been applied to the poem, meaning that past, present, and future can be viewed at the same time. The fact that Adam and Noah along with so many other events across time have been placed on a similar ‘plane’ is the ability of Los to see time and retell a vast history, but to also foresee a prophetic future.

I am assuming that this adoption of a divine vision is Blake’s attempt to give authority to his character, Los, as he reveals his prophecy of the course of humanity and revolution. I am curious to see, though, how much power Blake actually gives to Los, if he believes that he is more powerful than Urizen. Blake structures his Song of Los with Africa (the beginning of humanity) and Asia (the end of humanity). This structure seems to echo God’s quote in Revelations–“I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending.”

Taking this biblical echo into consideration, it makes more sense why Adam and Noah are placed together, although, in actuality, they are temporally separated. Blake seems to make Los the closest thing to a scriptural conception of God, that he is at  all places all the time. This is a subtle foreshadowing of Los’s ultimate triumph over Urizen and the resurrection of humanity signifying a victory in the formation, of what appears to be, the New Jerusalem–ultimately confirmed by the final line: “Urizen Wept” (112).Do you agree with this? Is Los truly the all-powerful and does he actually overthrow Urizen through revolution?

Tears and Resurrections

The final line of “Asia” simply states, “Urizen Wept” (42). The associated footnote asserts the wording is ironic because of its parallelism to the biblical line, “Jesus wept,” from John 11:35 but fails to explain the reasoning behind this. Immediately preceding the end of “Asia,” Blake portrays the earth in revolution, a state combining the calling forth of the deceased with the liberation of passionate female sexuality. Whether Blake means for this image to be understood as the apocalypse is unclear, but he definitely pinpoints it as a moment in which there is a definite change–what the footnote calls “the resurrection of humanity.”

This word resurrection ties into Blake’s biblical allusion because the verse, “Jesus wept,” occurs before Jesus performs the miracle of raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. After hearing the deceased’s sisters Mary and Martha recount the story of his death, Jesus was emotionally troubled and moved to weep, and he subsequently gave life back to Lazarus. The details of this story provide an interesting comparison to that of Urizen in several ways. First, Jesus literally resurrects Lazarus, much like the end of “Asia” proclaims the bones of the dead will rise (“the shivring clay breathes” (32)), so these images question the uniqueness of earthly life. Second, both highlight the importance of women: Jesus is swayed by the pleadings of Mary and Martha, and Blake concludes “Asia” with a vivid image of a female orgasm, stating, “Her bosom swells with desire” (37). Finally, I feel the editors chose the word “ironic” to describe this allusion because whereas Jesus weeps from empathy with humanity and acts from this emotion, Urizen weeps because humanity and all its imaginary pleasures–the antithesis of his reason–is being resurrected, rendering him powerless to control the direction of the earth any longer.

Blake seems to deviate from a truly anti-reason standpoint in this piece, incorporating contraries that posit doubt as to whether he holds reason strictly in a negative light. In “Asia,” Blake writes: “the darkness was startled/ At the thick-flaming, thought-creating fires of Orc” (6:5-6:6). The adjective “thought-creating” calls to mind an almost Urizenic image–of course, this reading is one in which “thought” is translated to “logic/reason” as opposed to “imagination.” However, I find that my first definition seems to hold some water due to the paradoxical content Blake strings together. While he seems to negate generational boundaries of time and existence through his conflation of Adam and Noah (two biblical characters who were not, in fact, contemporaries), his “Song of Los” follows a cyclical pattern. Yes, his model of revelation is not Euro-centric, but it follows a cadence: Africa to America to Europe to Asia. This pattern is a clockwise navigation of the world from right to left and back to the right again. This lends a systematic aspect to his tale, which may indicate the intrusion, presumably an unconscious inclusion,  of Urizenic thought and martial law. Considering this interpretation, the conclusion to “Asia” fosters even greater significance. When “The Song of Los” is ended, Urizen’s deceptive intrusion is combatted–his influence ceases. Urizen’s act of weeping suggests his ultimate failure to continue coercion on a subconscious, if not first-person, level. Urizen’s weeping signals hope for humanity, or at least the form of humanity that Blake approves of.