Friday, March 20, 2009

William Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

I first read William Blake in high school when I was about sixteen years old: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. I liked those, but I started really liking Blake when I chose to do my eleventh grade research paper on his life and works. The more I found out about him, the more weirdly familiar he seemed to me, until I eventually started flattering myself with the thought that I must have been William Blake in a previous life (something that still crosses my mind each time I read him).

I was intrigued by Blake as a mystic, his having visions of his dead brother and of angels, of staring at a knot in a piece of wood until he became scared of it, etc. I've never had strong visions or dreams about anything (unless you count my occasional sleep paralysis), but I like the concept of seeing things that aren't there--or specifically, seeing differently the things that are there. I think I do this different-seeing a little, though sometimes I simply see nothing where everyone else sees something. Lots of this world is invisible to me.

I was also intrigued by Blake as a visual artist. He was just as much a drawer, painter, engraver, etc. as he was a writer, and I loved the way he combined the two on the same page (or, in his case, engraved plate). This is how I got my start as a writer, too: writing words to tell stories about my pictures (and not the other way around). Like a lot of my favorite storytellers (C.S. Lewis and David Lynch to name two), the images came first. He also produced everything himself, rather than going to a traditional publisher, creating his books indie rock style, which is way that I've approached most of my art (especially my music), often from necessity but also because I like the freedom.

I became especially interested in Blake's prophetic books, though I didn't begin reading them properly until recently. As a teenager, I liked reading about them, but I must have felt (after glancing at the works themselves) that they were too much to undertake at that young age, so I put them off until later. Every time I read them now, that familiarity hits me again. They get me excited, and they also make me laugh.

I will probably eventually create posts for most of Blake's major works as I read (or re-read) them, but today I want to start with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Primarily I just want to get across some of the ideas he expressed in this work, even just as summary, but I will also give some commentary. You should be warned that some of the commentary will be comparisons of Blake to me more than any kind of real analysis of the work--which might suck for you if you don't know who I am… or if you do know who I am. I'm not sure which is worse.

(Special note: when I quote Blake throughout this post, I have chosen to correct his crazy spellings, capitalizations, and punctuation to more or less "smooth out" his writing for the sake of readability.)

You can and should read the entire Marriage of Heaven and Hell here first. It has both the text of the work as well as his illuminations. And, if you're interested in an analysis of the book, you can read a "run-through" I wrote for my world literature class this semester. The PDF is here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

No Intelligence Allowed

Sorry for two "origin" posts in a row (though I'm still going to write a true Darwin post one day), but I just watched that Ben Stein documentary on evolution and intelligent design called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. As a movie, it was averagely entertaining. It was like a third-rate Michael Moore (who himself is often third-rate) paired with a twentieth-rate Errol Morris. I've always liked Ben Stein: he has that dry goofiness and he seems like a guy who's full of love and warmth.

The documentary began innocently enough. It seemed to want to explain the idea of intelligent design a little more clearly (and it did), demonstrating that it was more than just "creationism," and the film initially focused on a handful of professors who were fired for (presumably) even talking about this idea in the academy. I'm sort of with the "skeptic" guy from the movie on these firings when he says "something else must have been going on," but I'm mostly willing to give these professors the benefit of the doubt.

But then the movie loses this initial point and goes horribly wrong. The worst offense in the movie is when Darwin is linked to Hitler and the Holocaust and despair itself, taking a weird dark detour that felt like a different film entirely, ominous music playing while Ben stares sadly and accusingly at a statue of Charles Darwin as if he's blaming the theory of evolution for the death of six million Jews.

The sit-down with Richard Dawkins was also just silly, since Ben Stein asks Dawkins where life originally came from and of course Dawkins says "I don't know. No one knows," and Ben (and the editing) takes this answer as an admission of defeat--the assumption being that the correct answer is "God made life." But what if Dawkins had turned around and said, "Where did God come from?" (And maybe Dawkins did; only the editor knows for sure.) Suddenly Ben would have been defeated by his own dumb question. At any rate, the arguments for intelligent design are all but lost at this point and are replaced with a simple insistence that God is real.

But the main problem with the movie is that the premise itself makes no sense: the question Ben Stein is asking doesn't make sense and neither does his central metaphor. He's basically asking "Why can't science pursue the possibility of God as creator?" and his central metaphor is that leaving God out of science is like putting up a (Berlin) wall that separates one thing (God) from the other (science), limiting freedom. What Ben is forgetting, of course, is the definition of science itself. Science is based on things that can be observed. And if God can't be observed, then by definition God has to be on the other side of that wall. Some separations are okay. The movie doesn't make sense because the movie doesn't seem to know what science actually is.

What if we flipped it? What if, in my discussion of Romeo and Juliet in my literature class, I spent the entire time talking about the chemicals that are activated in the body and brain when you are in love? What if I talked about how Romeo and Juliet had high levels of adrenaline and dopamine and low levels of serotonin and that they both released the hormone oxytocin during sex and went on to explain how those things work scientifically? What, I can't allow for the possibility that maybe Romeo and Juliet were simply controlled by chemicals? Is this not an alternative reading of Shakespeare that also needs to be addressed side by side with traditional literary criticism? No, it's not. It has nothing to do with literature. It could only be useful as a joke.

Humanity, of course, needs to examine life from every angle it can: scientifically, religiously, philosophically, psychologically, etc. But it doesn't have to do it all at once and it doesn't have to do it in the same place. Even the Bible suggests that there's a time for everything.