Job’s Dark Night

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The story of Job is at first read puzzling for Christians and open-minded atheists alike. Why would God punish a man who lived an unblemished life? As is usual with Blake, things are never as simple as on first sight!

Lets dismiss all ideas of an anthropormorphic God to start with. In any case such depictions of God in Blake are always used as symbols (and personifications) of the state of mind of the interior person, in other words they are psychological and spiritual. Blake did not believe in a transcendent God, (which he called, Nobodaddy)!

Before looking at number 5 plate ( there are 21 altogether in Blake’s Job) how about thinking about contingency in present day life. How about the person – you may be that person – who suddenly gets a diagnosis of cancer? What if your husband leaves you for a younger woman? What if your son gets addicted to heroin? What if you spend a lonely Christmas day because of mental illness? I am not being over-dramatic I hope; all these scenarios happen to millions of us! This is what the Buddha calls, Dukkha. It’s life!

So, looked at in these terms Job isn’t getting punished; he is being brought up sharp against the facts of life afer living what he thought was a ‘good’ Christian life. In fact complacency and self-righteousness is his main ‘sin.’

The flying figure in the middle of the picture is Satan or Job’s corporeal self – the self who thinks being a good husband and father is all there is to life. Forget about your childhood exposure to horned devils – in Blake’s system Satan is (among other things) any thought or feeling which sparates you from  ‘Heaven’ – or in more worldly terms – peace of mind. Remember those moments in childhood when all was well with the world – don’t dismiss those moments as childish, they were a taste of reality. As Joseph Wicksteed writes in his commentary on Job, ‘. . in Blake’s system falsity of thought can turn any act however noble to his (satan’s) ends. If we think wrong we are wrong, for Mental things are alone real, and the devil can make a virtue as damning as a vice.’ How like the Buddhist system of the Eightfold path where right thought precedes appropriate action or the Dammapada where in the beginning it says; ‘ What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday. . . our life is the creation of our mind.’

In the picture Job is giving a loaf of bread to a beggar. Very altruistic you may think. But Blake is showing us that outward acts carried out self-righteously are missing the mark. None of Blake’s system is straightforward; especially in the Book of Job he is going way beyond our humanistic, materialistic understanding. All I can do here by isolating this one picture (which in itself is a disservice to Blake!) is to point to his profundity and suggest that his system is relevant to today.

The belief that in performing works of mercy in any shape whatever we are doing something meritorious poisons every act of humanity, making it a subtly selfish  attempt to save our souls in the name of love and religion; it is, after all, the worship of Satan in the belief that it is a tribute to God. Job’s thought makes him divide his meal indeed but not something of greater worth. ” (Joseph Wicksteed.)

Harsh words indeed and probably not what most people want to hear at Christmas time! And what of the gift ‘of greater worth’? Well you will have to study the Book of Job yourself (the peak experience is plate 18) if you want to find out!

Plate 5 is early on in Job’s story. To summarise what happens, he is inflicted with boils, loses his sons and daughters, his house and his reputation. Apart from the boils, does this remind you of anyone? It is a case of pride before the fall; Job loses all his material wealth and therefore has to ask, why? and ‘what is real?’ Rather like Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich he looks back on his life and reviews it. He has to face his ‘dark night’ and salvage something of a different order to his previous material existence.

In plate 11 Job is completely alone; this is surely the bleakest point of his Dark Night of the Soul. It is a magnificent image and as Kathleen Raine says in Golgonooza – City of Imagination, ‘he is alone; as we are each alone in the darkest hour.’ Remember Satan is the self-centred ego and if we allow it dominance over our lives we will eventually end up ‘burned up’ and alone. Apparently Blake used to address his satan (remember; not the biblical devil!) as, ‘my Satan, thou art but a dunce!’ How like the advice we are given nowadays not to believe our inner self-talk.

All of Blake’s work can be applied to our self-inquiry and self-knowledge in this manner.

As I have already said, to see how Job is transformed you will have to investigate (I use the word deliberately) the Book of Job yourself. I have not said much about the incredible quality of the drawings in themselves; they are masterpieces of composition. Who can forget, once seen, the image of Behemoth and Leviathan – illustration 15?

The best way into Blake’s supremely relevant and visionary Book of Job is with the detailed dissection by Joseph Wicksteed in his Blake’s Vision of the Book of Job. Also Kathleen Raine’s book has a chapter which is brilliant.

Dystopian Novel – Found Poem

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We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is a remarkable dystopian novel published in 1921. It is a chilling narrative about control and collectivism and more subtle that Orwell’s 1984. The language (in translation) is curiously poetic and the imagery is surreal. Will Self in his Introduction to the Vintage edition talks about the ‘stuttering enjambments . . agonies of elipsis’  and ‘daring synasthesia’ of the narrative style. The protaganist does not even have a name – he is simply D503. I have tried to convey something of this nightmarish vision in this prose poem.

A MESOSTIC is like an acrostic except the vertical text runs down the middle of the main text.

=====in these hours oBserve the chastely lowered blinds in some rooms
==while others walk alOng avenues in the dark
=the infinite intersectiOn of citizens
========I’m at a desK all night

+                      +                    +
====hear squelshing fOotsteps behind me
===============I Feel as if my hands swinging by my sides don’t belong
but run between folded buildings searching for the woman I saw

yesterday             imagine the

====mocking angle of Her eyebrows raised above the windows of her eyes
=============see sOme people with their feet glued to the ceiling
========you think yoU are capable of love
==========he punctuRed me with his eyes
=====the only answer iS surgery

+                       +                         +

=============I will Be totally frank
============the absOlute solution to the mystery of happiness
=============has nOt yet fully materialised
=====one day we’ll lacK for nothing

+                        +                          +

========one day all Of these 86,400 seconds will be in the Table of Hours
============it’s difFicult to believe people used to live without precise regulation
getting up and going to bed

+                         +                          +

==whenever it occurreD to them I came
=====to a vision of mAthematical nirvana
===above a shape barelY visible clothed in ciphers of light

====descending from Skies – a new saviour

+                          +                            +

==============he Ushered me into the operation room with a smile
=========I knew reaSon & logic would triumph

+                           +                            +

I had to use the odd formating to try to get the vertical text to line up!

The drawing is my own.

Gauguin’s Soliloquy

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Gauguin’s Soliloquy – after Robert Browning

Gr-r-r – there goes my heart’s torment,
take your damn easel for a walk, do –
if hatred could kill men, Vincent,
God’s blood, would mine not kill you!
What? You’re going to pick sunflowers –
well, don’t bring them back to the sink,
I don’t want you painting here for hours.

Well, thank God, that lunatic’s gone –
he not only paints in oils but eats the stuff too!
Last night he went for me with a razor –
he slashed a canvas which I had to mend with glue.
He can only paint what’s in front of him;
I use my imagination as well as chrome yellow
while he complains of being a victim!

I expect you know he sponges off his brother?
Poor Theo has to send canvas and paints,
Vincent spends half the money on gin,
it’s enough to try the patience of saints,
I don’t think I can stand it much longer:
I’m in danger of committing a mortal sin
I don’t want to end up in the slammer.

Ah, I know what I’ll do, if you please,
I’ll pack up my things while he’s out –
I’ve always wanted to go to the South Seas;
the hot sun will be good for my gout!
Yes, I’ll paint native Tahitians – after they undress.
I’ll become famous for my Gardens of Eden
while mad, bad Vincent will die—penni-less!

The starting point for this was Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister from which you will see I’ve filtched the first two lines. Browning may be thought old fashioned and ‘Victorian’ but his trade mark dramatic monologues still feel original and alive to me.

It is well known that Van Gogh and Gauguin shared a house – the Yellow House in Arles – for a while and wondered about setting up an artists’ colony. The two artists were pretty temperamental characters and predictably they soon got on each others nerves!

Gauguin wrote a biased account of their time together which blames Vincent for everything that went wrong. As usual reality was more complicated. The stereotypical ‘crazy artist’  gets in the way of the actual complexities. I’ve always warmed more to Van Gogh’s paintings (than Gauguin’s ) and by reading his Letters, realised while he must have been hell to live with, he was  well- read, a visionary like Blake, intellectually and spiritually inquisitive and sensitive to suffering – but of course mentally unstable. There are many theories about this latter point. One of the more recent biographies is The Love of Many Things by David Sweetman which I have yet to read (apart from dipping into it). I would also like some day to visit the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The incidents in the poem are based on real events.

Caliban’s Last Stand

This is a poem and video I made for Shakespeare In Community online course. After you’ve watched my video you may be interested in a talk about Caliban given by Bruce Pattinson on Total Education – top left on the video collage.

Caliban Alone

My keeper left me on this Isle, free of chains; now
I’ll be steward to this Eden, free to govern golden
earth; to cultivate and grow figs and dates, and feast on fish
and crabs from the shore. I’ll drink from the best springs,
pluck the ripest berries and filch the blue bird’s nest.
Thus will I live unto my last expiring breath.
All I lack is a prosperous maid, but hark, I’ll prosper
on Fortune’s winds. I have Ariel’s rainbow music
to soothe my lonely soul. Farewell, be sorrow’s maid
and think of all this fleeting world as a star at dawn,
a bubble in a stream, a child’s laugh, a phantasm, a dream.
We are such stuff – Farewell – I’ve wood to fetch, meanwhile.

To Be Or Not To Be

slingers hamlet

Jonathon Slinger as Hamlet
To be or not to be is not just about the contemplation of suicide; it is also about procrastination and the disjunction between thought and action.
Hamlet’s inability to act quickly is mirrored in the Pyrrhus play in Act 2,2 – ‘Pyrrhus stood/And like a neutral to his will and matter/Did nothing.’ When the Ghost first appears to Hamlet and reveals the King has been murdered by Claudius there is deep irony in Hamlet’s response: ‘Haste me to know’t with wings as swift/As meditation or the thoughts of love/May sweep to my revenge.’ (Act 1, 5) Surely the first audiences would have been puzzled by Hamlet’s delay for the rest of the play? (Although Dover Wilson, in What Happens in Hamlet, is among those who think Hamlet was modelled on the Earl of Essex who plotted against Queen Elizabeth and was executed. That still leaves the question: Would the audiences have accepted his delay as simply a characteristic of the melancholic?)
Laertes also mirrors Hamlet in many ways; he too wishes to avenge his father. However, he is more like the conventional hero of the Revenge Tragedy. He doesn’t allow ‘the native hue of resolution’ to be thwarted by too much thinking! When Claudius asks him how ‘to show yourself in deed your father’s son.’ Laertes replies, ‘To cut his throat in th’ church.’ (Act 4,7)
Fortinbras too mirrors Hamlet in that he is avenging his father. But, like Laertes, is hot tempered – of ‘choleric humour.’ (‘Of unimproved mettle, hot and full..’) He is contrasted with the indecisiveness of Hamlet as he ‘Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there/Sharked up a list of lawless resolutes.’ (Act 1,1)
These duplicities underline Shakespeare’s aim of exploring the relationships between thought, intention and action in the context of an increasingly humanistic influence.
The play is peppered with variations on Shakespeare’s ‘all the world’s a stage’ conceit. In the Player’s Play the 1st Player sheds tears for a fictitious Hecuba. Hamlet observes, ‘ Tears in his eyes… A broken voice… And all for nothing!’ (Act 2,2) There is that incredible moment in the film The Truman Show where the eponymous hero sails up against a painted sky and realises for the first time that his whole life has been one long ‘performance’ carefully stage-managed. It is a truly chilling moment and owes something, I think, to the concept of Theatrum Mundi and George Gurdjieff’s idea that we are all automata wound up like clockwork; a kind of psychological determinism. The more subtle differences between appearance and reality are explored in modernism and post-modernism but were already centre stage in Shakespeare. We are all familiar with hypocrisy. Hamlet comments on Claudius thus, ‘That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. . .’ (Act 1, 5) This is an unambiguous example of the disparity between body and mind. Some cynics have said that the distinguishing fact differentiating us from other animals is that we are experts in lying!
W.H. Auden in his Lectures on Shakespeare points out that many of the soliloquies are ‘detachable’ from the play – they can be understood as stand -alone ‘philosophy’ addressed to humanity.
When Hamlet says, ‘Give me that man/That is not passion’s slave,’ he is again speaking for us all.
The scene where Hamlet goads Guildenstern with: ‘You would play upon me, you would seem to/know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from the lowest note…’ (Act 3, 2) brings to mind Eric Berne’s Games People Play. Here is a summary of one of these ‘games’ called, See What You Have Made Me Do:
First-Degree SWYMD: White, feeling unsociable, becomes engrossed in some activity which tends to insulate him against people. Perhaps all he wants at the moment is to be left alone. An intruder, such as his wife or one of his children, comes either for [affection] or to ask him something like, “Where can I find the long-nosed pliers?” This interruption “causes” his chisel, paintbrush, typewriter or soldering iron to slip, whereupon he turns on the intruder in a rage and cries, “See what you made me do.” As this is repeated through the years, his family tends more and more to leave him alone when he is engrossed. Of course it is not the intruder but his own irritation which “causes” the slip, and he is only too happy when it occurs, since it gives him a lever for ejecting the visitor. Unfortunately, this is a game which is only too easily learned by young children, so that it is easily passed on from generation to generation.
What could be more relevant to us today than the relationship between will, thought, emotion, intention, authenticity and moral choice. We overestimate free will in our personal lives and in society. Think, for example, of violence in young men triggered by a surge of testosterone. Think of political figures who are galvanised into action by vested interests such as financial gain or those who act upon the unconscious nudge towards increased status. With the character of Hamlet, Shakespeare was anticipating the latest discoveries in neurology. Books such as Steven Pinker’s, How the Mind Works suggest that we are all – to some extent – puppets, dancing to a synaptic symphony conducted deep within our squishy brains! Now, instead of humours and providence being our masters we have chemical messengers, genes, defence mechanisms and societal conditioning.
The only way to live authentically is by constant vigilance towards the workings of our own minds. The Ancient Greek’s, Know Thyself has come full circle with the various mindfulness practices which are becoming more widespread today. If Hamlet had practised something of this sort he would not have descended into chaos; but then we wouldn’t have the play with its high tragedy, complex psychology and deeply pessimistic message.

Hamlet: Existential Man

I lost my ‘Dashboard’ from my blog so am just posting a new blog to see if the thing is still working!

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I am presently doing a free online course about Hamlet with ‘FutureLearn’. This is a charcoal drawing I did over ten years ago. You can click on the drawing and it will enlarge. Perhaps Hamlet, with his introspection and procrastination, can be thought of as one of the first existential heroes in fiction.

Hamlet at The Globe – 1605

hamlet skull
At the Globe Theatre last Wednesday afternoon I had the good fortune to witness the rendering of devilish deeds in the Court of Elsinore. A Prince Hamlet thereto was most energetically acted by the esteemed member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Mr Richard Burbage. Forsooth Mr Burbage was the very Prince. But, methinks Prince Hamlet, in Mr Shakespeare’s rendering, a lily-livered un-prince-like prince. He doth protest too much with his to be upon this globe or to die speech, and wishing his too too too solid flesh to resolve itself into a mist. ( Your pun will not be punning if you take this play out of the Globe Theatre!) I thinkest well about the sweet delights of melancholy but the Prince herein doth wear his liver (an excess of bile!), pancreas and heart upon his sleeve. In short he is not a man; he is a snivelling brat; a slave of unkempt passion. In Mr Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy we see a real man; a hero who avenges his son. Revenge, as private revenge, is indeed a noble deed legitimised by our Holy Old Testament. Methinks Prince Hamlet is not a Christian. ( Are’t thou a Pagan?)
In this theatrical presentation there is a metaphysical comedic interlude whereupon two grave-diggers unearth a festering human skull. There was much laughter among the groundlings at the clownish antics of these gravediggers. Me-thought that it was a device of theatrical proportions that Prince Hamlet knew the once- living owner of this skull. (Much skullduggery afoot!) A piece of luck devoutly not to be wished. Mr Shakespeare here inserted some lines of verse to play on the feelings of his audience like a viol player upon his viol. “Alas poor friend – my Yorrick, I knew him.” (Alas that is not an iambic pentameter.) Moreover Hamlet talks of the dust from Alexander’s bones stopping up an ale-barrel. He talks of kissing lips that have perished; Mr Kyd would not elaborate such versified sentiment, methinks, without a beauteous display of rhymes.
The King Claudius in this performance is a manipulative self-seeking character. Most convincingly played by the rotund Mr William Slye. Look you readers upon his ‘Oh my offense is sour; it reeks to heavenly heights,” speech. It is a moving moment whereupon his guilt shivers upon the bare stage. Mr Nicholas Tooley plays the Queen Gertrude, another doomed character, uttering her last breath in the last scenes of this tableau of terror. I should, alas, also add that there is a most brassy bloodbath in this finale, not for the faint hearted.
The Prince doth act most ungallantly toward the poor Ophelia in this Revenge Tragedy, berating her virginal womanhood with false and distraught accusations. I am loath to understand the ratiocinations of his disordered soul. It is, forsooth, the very epitome of ecstasy, resolving this and acting not; deferring, deferring, procrastinating, rooted to the ground like a statue. Man is indeed distinguished from the animal by the powers of Reason not Unreason.
Mr Shakespeare: if I may be so bold to address you. I can furnish you with the address of my esteemed friend Mr Webster, who has among his effects a manuscript of Mr Kyd’s titled, The Householders Philosophie. I urge you to study this folio for your edification. I know you will not plagiarize but invite you to merely learn from the master.