Saturday, January 22, 2011

Blake's Sex VII

The Two Women

When Blake began to work on his epic myth, he intended to focus upon the wicked career of Vala, but as time went by, he became more interested in the Zoas, which no doubt helped to relieve the anti-feminine bent of his metaphysics. Vala temporarily sank to the level of a minor character, and Blake laid most of the guilt for man's sorry state upon Urizen. The Moment of Grace brought another significant change: Vala fumed into two females, Rahab and Jerusalem, both of whom issue from Enitharmon.

When Blake gave Rahab the alternate name of Babylon, he came into conformance with the basic symbology of the Bible. Throughout the scripture we read about these two women/cities. Jerusalem is at least potentially the city of God, while Babylon always represents the seat of the God of this World. In his last epic Blake's Vala has become virtually interchangeable with Babylon.

We may find the biblical sources of Blake's two symbolic women in the 12th and 17th chapters ot Revelation. In the first of these John sees a woman "clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet". In the second he described "the great whore that sitteth upon many waters". These two women in the Bible aptly prefigure Blake's Jerusalem and Vala, and a careful study of the two chapters will help the reader to shape in his own mind the identity of Blake's two characters.

John and Blake both drew their paired women from earlier sources. Frye calls them "royal metaphors" for the twin totalities of good and evil, of redemption and damnation that fill the pages of the Bible. The Tower of Babel, the first city of sin, led to the confusion of tongues. Following God's command Abraham, the father of the Hebrews, left Ur, a few miles from Babylon and eventually settled in the Promised Land. The first Captivity occured in Egypt, which later biblical literature often treats as synonymous with Babylon. The second Captivity took place at Babylon. A later captivity was to Rome, which John the Apocalyptist called Babylon: in Revelation he celebrated the burning of the Whore of Babylon.

Meanwhile Melchizidek, King of Salem and priest of the Most High God, had blessed Abraham. Some centuries later David established Jerusalem as his capital. The Song of Solomon is a poem and love song about a king and his bride. This theme became a primary symbol of the relation between Jerusalem, representing the Chosen People, and God. The prophets constantly referred to Jerusalem as a woman, married to God, but too often faithless, whoring after other gods. Hosea's stories about the love of the betrayed husband for his faithless wife, Gomer, poetically express the highest level of the Hebrew consciousness of God. On occasion the prophets became so enraged that they identified Jerusalem with Babylon. For example John spoke of "the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified".

This biblical background prepares us to cope with the woman found in Blake's poem, 'Jerusalem' . In the poetry of the first half of Blake's life the woman is sinister. She represents the material; the material is unworthy, reprehensible, satanic. This is the typical Gnostic position and to a lesser extent the Neo-platonic position. Blake stated it very explicitly and with his usual hyperbole in 'Visions of the Last Judgment' (See also the image): "I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance and not Action; it is as the Dirt upon my feet. No part of Me."

He wrote that as late as 1810. Nevertheless after the Moment of Grace Blake's perspective on matter (and Woman!) softened. At first there had been only the sinister woman, but now the Woman of Grace appeared as well.

In the poem, Jerusalem, we find a discourse and a conflict between these two women. Vala speaks for the kingdom of Satan, and Jerusalem speaks for the kingdom of Heaven. Their interaction dominates the poem and must fascinate anyone interested in those two subjects. The epic is a straightforward conflict between light and darkness as Blake understood those two realities. Vala wins most of the battles, but we always know who must win the war.

Blake describes reality imaginatively and dramatically in terms of ultimate value; this is basically an expression of faith. If one believes in the higher values: in spirit, in truth, in justice and love, then one imagines these things ultimately victorious. Blake did, and he concluded the passage from VLJ quoted above: "What, it will be Question'd, 'When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?' 0 no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying 'Holy, holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.'" In Blake's final epic Vala represents the guinea sun and Jerusalem the "innumerable company of the Heavenly host". Needless to say those who see only the guinea sun will not be attracted to the poem.

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