Saturday, March 07, 2015

Blake's Bible

. By the time Blake got around to his recreation of Job he had less interest in commenting on God than in retelling the old, old story. Job, the most indirect book of the Bible, proved an ideal vehicle for this, Blake's last and plainest statement of the truth of his life.
The biblical Job is presented as a good man whom God allows the devil to torment. Blake presents him as a moral but self-centered and self-righteous man. He prays for his children, but what about other people's children? Is he praying for God to favor his children over others? In no uncertain terms, writing in another work, Blake let us know what he thought of that kind of goodness:
    It this thy soft Family-Love, Thy cruel Patriarchal pride, Planting thy Family alone, Destroying all the World beside?
          (Jerusalem, 27.79; 173)
       The point is that it's okay to pray for your children, but be careful how you pray for them. If your prayer for them to be first amounts to a curse on their fellows--to be second or last--that curse will fall upon your children's heads, just as it did upon Job's. Job's self-centered prayers and his left handed charity (See Plate 5 of the Job series) won him no reward but in fact delivered him into the hands of his Selfhood (Satan).

       Good Christians take warning: Blake's Job is the same rich man Jesus spoke about, and he fills the pews (and too often the pulpit) of our churches. Here once again, in the twilight of his life, we find Blake dissenting from conventional religion, but now, unlike some of his youthful protests, his dissent completely agrees with the earlier dissent of the Prophet of Galilee: "Many that are first shall be last."

       So much of our goodness is rotten; let's face it. The image of the boil ridden man haunted Blake and appears frequently in his prophecies. In his hands it became a vivid symbol of the general fallenness of man. Job's boils represent the physical misery of the fallen state of nature. Blake's Job, like the O.T. Job, represents Man. His adventures are a paradigm of the destiny of Man: he falls, but he is redeemed.

       The importance of Job for the biblical writer as well as for our poet is to make us poignantly aware once again that we're not okay until we have experienced grace. Job's goodness got him nowhere, but his faith opened him to redemption.

       Now look at Job's God; he resembles Job. Once again Blake reminds us that man's God is an image, a construct of his mind. In the begining Job saw God as a solid moralist like himself. In the dark night his God turned bad ( See Plate 11), but in the end gave way to a new and better image. The whole thing foreshadows Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

       If we could learn that our experience of God comes only through our image of him, then we would be less prone to attempt (wickedly) to impose our God on others. Then we might experience a loving rather than a coercive God, and the others, not feeling compelled, might be attracted, like Job's friends are in the end. Blake's Job is a beautiful series of pictures, a perfect wedding of exquisite art and lofty faith, Blake at his plainest and best.

       In 'Jerusalem', his most mature poem, Blake's basic technique is to superimpose bodily the biblical scene, the biblical story, the biblical truth upon the history and geography of England, and of the rest of the world as well. Understood in its literal sense 'Jerusalem', like the book of Revelation, is grotesque in the extreme. The reader will turn away in despair or derision unless he succeeds in going beyond the literal meaning and learns to see through rather than with the eye.

       In reality the biblical truth is just as relevant to 18th Century England as it is to first century (or any century) Palestine. The same spiritual events continue to unfold today that Ezekiel, John and the others saw and described in their day. The same choices are to be made by 18th Century Britons (or 20th Century Americans!) as were made by first (or any) century Palestinians, and these choices have the same consequences. Truth is spiritual and timeless; the passing scene is only a shadow of the eternal reality.

       Blake's grotesque juxtaposition oimmeasurablef Canaan with England may conceivably shock the reader into an understanding of these profound truths. When this happens, the Bible suddenly takes on new and gripping significance. It's no longer about all those events way back in the past; it's about the stories unfolded in this morning's newspaper. Blake's ability to live in the eternal, his visionary capability enabled him to see with vivid clarity the immediate relevance of scripture--personally, socially, and politically.

       His young friends called him Interpreter because he taught them to see it also. If we read his work with aroused and concentrated attention, we, too, may see how scripture relates to us--with  immeasurable enrichment to our spirits.

       How can we summarize Blake's relationship to the Bible? First we recall that he didn't read it literally but symbolically, not historically, but poetically. Then we remember that he read it often enough and intensively enough to see it as a whole. That's a rare view nowadays. The Book has been almost universally blackened by simple ignorance (the failure to read it) and by preconceived theological notions that color and predetermine all of its meanings.

       Few people have the happy faculty of looking at what's there without preconceptions of one kind or another. Blake's freedom from the conditioning of formal education gave him a most singular ability to do this. His powerful and energetic reading of the Bible therefore offers us the priceless gift of a new beginning, of getting behind our preconceptions and seeing the bedrock of western life in a new way.

       This new way is not really a new way, but a very old way; it's a way that was lost when two things happened inaugurating the modern age. First, Bacon, Newton and Locke convinced the intellectual world that spirit doesn't really matter; all that matters is matter. Second, knowledge exploded in such an expansion that it became inconceivable to encompass it.

       Blake's new way is a medieval way, but it's a lost way that we desperately need today, for failing an organized unity of spiritual direction, we all sink together into the abyss. The Bible according to Blake provides that direction. If you can make a commitment to the Bible like his, intensive enough to read it thoroughly, if you can put away the black book, if you can learn to read it imaginatively instead of binding it down to literal-historical categories of time and space (which Blake called "single vision"), if you can do all of these things, what emerges is a myth of meaning, a way of understanding life-- the Hebrews' life and your life.

       You find this myth of meaning most explicitly stated in the earliest adventures of the children of Israel: they fall into Egypt, at the Exodus are delivered, wander in the wilderness and eventually occupy the Promised Land--but faithlessly. You see this story recreated by every writer of the Bible and applied one by one to a series of local scenes occuring over a period of about a thousand years. You see a man named Jesus who deliberately sets out to live this myth, and to live it in full, to do completely what the successive preceding generations had always failed to do. You see his death and resurrection and promise to come again to achieve for us all what he had achieved as an individual (he in us and we in him).

       Finally you see John on Patmos still waiting for the Return and recreating the whole thing one more time in terms of the struggle between the Beast of Rome and the New Jerusalem. But is that the end of the story? For Blake it went on. In the City of God Augustine recreated it for the fourth century. There was Dante's recreation in the 13th, Milton's in the 17th, Blake's in the 18th--and yours and mine today! It's our myth of meaning; it's the way we get from time to eternity. Otherwise we stick with Locke, we decide there is no eternity, and we rot.

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