Savitri Complementary Reading Group [8/14] - William Blake and “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

https://vimeo.com/354896959

Date/Time: 14 Aug 2019 @ 8:00 am - 10:00 am America/Denver

We are reading diverse texts that complement Aurobindo’s Savitri , with a particular focus on Paradise Lost by John Milton; The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and other writings from William Blake; and various poems by Walt Whitman, and link these readings into the Savitri reading.

Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol is an epic poem in blank verse by Sri Aurobindo, based upon the theology from the Mahabharata. Its central theme revolves around the transcendence of man as the consummation of terrestrial evolution, and the emergence of an immortal supramental gnostic race upon earth. Unfinished at Sri Aurobindo’s death, Savitri approaches 24,000 lines.

5 Likes

Here are some of my personal notes on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Note that I have been particularly interested in how the images complement the texts.

  1. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
  • The title page shows figures on the surface and in the sky, along with a couple embracing deep underground beside the flames - the ledge at the bottom is quite phallic as imagery goes also - two couples at intermediate depths, and more platonic figures on the surface, including what looks like a sleeping child, and birds in the sky - always the overarching trees
  • The text of the Argument makes little sense until one examines the image, which gives a kind of emotional resonance to the image
  • First of all, the warm colours of the image inspire one to view the text as calming and beatific, despite its sometimes ferocious language. The image shows companionship and complicity between the two vertical figures as well as those lying down - we are in the presence of an image of life-giving energies. It is the combination of text and image that suggests vulnerability via the implicit paradox between life-giving images of complicity and a text that speaks of peril
  • Again, the images tie the second page texts, which would otherwise appear as almost disconnected snippets, together into a common emotion.
  • The decisive texts, as reinforced by the images, are « Without Contraries is no progression », followed by « Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. » Indeed, in the image, Adam is held prisoner within the flames of Hell which are portrayed as positive, energetic, in warm welcoming, almost nourishing colours. Again, this is an image of vulnerability… Here we also see a clear announcement that Blake views Evil as necessary and important. Indeed, his demon image is hermaphodite, bearing both penis and breasts, while the image on the right is dual - these reflect the cardinalities of Ulro and Generation, his first two worlds
  • In the next page, Blake describes the errors of religion and the programme for restoring the correct understanding, which involves rejecting the separation of Body and Soul and re-embodying the world, giving equal value to the works of the Devil-Energy to those of the Angel-Reason, as can be found in Milton’s Paradise Lost
  • In the next page, the image is not easy to decipher - it appears to show the Devil himself constrained and hanging upside down, confronted by a bull form with a strange intermediate form (lion?)… I am unsure how to deal with these images and the text which reaffirms the importance of Milton
  • The next page introduces the first « Memorable Fancy », of a total of five, the others to follow - here, Blake inverts the normal understand of Jehovah and declares that his is « he who dwells in flaming fire ». There is also a joke about Milton - He opens the fancy by remarking on the image of walking among the fires of hell as a source of joy
  • The next three pages present a series of « proverbs of Hell » which are more like everyday wisdom snippets, and which are not accompanied by images of any importance. However, they end with the words « Enough, or Too Much » which could be understood as the title of the image that follows, showing a woman writing, a figure not unlike the young woman in the vertical image of The Argument, and a combined angelic and devil figure between them with a whole reel of writing - more Blakesian humour!
  • The next page (page 11) presents a kind of interlude argument about the fact that deities are a kind of residue of the poetic genius of early humans who saw projections of themselves in everything, along with an image that reinforces this idea
  • Second Memorable Fancy - a discussion with the prophets Ezekial and Isaiah, about their conversations with God, not dialogues but encounters with the infinite
  • « If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite./ For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. »
  • A Memorable Fancy (3rd) - The Printing House of Hell, a many-chambered cavern - first, a Dragon Man cleaning away rubbish while others hollow out the cave ; second, a Viper encircling a cave being adorned with precious stones ; third, an Eagle causes the cavern interior to become infinite ; fourth, flaming lions melting metals into liquids ; fifth, unamed forms cast the metals out into the expanse ; sixth, the metals received become books and are stored in libraries - the image shows the viper and the eagle - Blake then discusses the situation of the « Giants who formed this world » and live enchained within it, but the illustration shows not giants but cowed figures - the world is divided into the Prolific and the Devouring, and no union between these must be sought because there lies peril - religions do seek a reconciliation, however
  • A Memorable Fancy (4th) - “Once I saw a devil in a flame of fire…” The devil argues that Jesus didn’t follow the laws og God but systematically broke them, in the spirit of God - “Note. This Angel who is now become a Devil is my particular friend : We often read the Bible together in its infernal or demoniacal sense which the world shall have if they behave well. I also have the Bible of Hell which the world shall have whether they will or no.”
  • A Song of Liberty - the fall of Lucifer into Hell is here celebrated as a gain of freedom - all of th images, tiny though they are, are light and joyful
  • Final line : “For everything that lives is Holy.”
3 Likes

Temp link to recording (upload in progress):

Here is an interesting article on Blake’s personal background that argues against several of the common ideas about Blake, including his supposed ‘schizophrenia’, certains aspects of his religious roots, and the idea that he had no contemporary audience for his work. Admittedly, his work was hardly a ‘bestseller’, but that didn’t mean that it had no audience…

http://irep.ntu.ac.uk/id/eprint/13256/1/187087_4733%20Davies%20Publisher.pdf

Although we didn’t have much chance to talk about this, hopefully in a later session we can try to come to grips with Blake’s understanding regarding the imagination and what it means or might mean. Tbh, I’ve found Frye’s Blake, especially in the context of the imagination, to be a corrective to thinkers like Wilber and books like A Course in Miracles, both of which or whom, at least to my interpretation today, do not seem to really emphasize the imagination, to the detriment of these books/authors. That might be a “strategic thing” - I don’t know exactly if talking about the imagination resonates with most people, if people care about imagination and vision. But it does with me, and for that reason I tend to like my Gnosticism mixed with some talk about that…thing, the imagination. Good ol’ Ashbery has a quote from his poem “The Recent Past,” where he writes, “Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination,” and I’ve always loved that sense of feeling with the imagination.

I also think talking about the Blakean imagination is relevant for other discussions on IC and beyond. For example, although I have not been following too closely the conversation about quantum consciousness and entanglements, I skimmed a few entries a few days ago, and it seemed (I think this was the thread) that people were talking about, or hinting at, object-oriented ontology, or at least Graham Harman? I know virtually nothing about OOO, or for that matter Graham Harman, but the subject was sort of “hot” when I was in the PhD program for a year. Perhaps this is obvious, but fwiw Blake would think OOO is absolute nonsense, or cant. The emphasis on objects over subjectivity, the argument that there is some “mind-independent reality” (what a godawful, clunky phrase), the argument for philosophical realism as “speculative realism,” and so the desire to somehow topple anthropocentrism, all of this Blake would viciously ridicule, because all of this speculation comes from the imagination, and the imagination is what makes, for Blake, human being divine or holy. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in Frye’s reading of Blake, there is no separation of the seer and the seen - that seems to be Frye’s definition of Blake’s Eden, the highest level of the imagination. If OOO is severing the seen from the seer (is it?), then this would probably be an example of Blake’s Generation, the level of imagination where there is a subject/object split. I think I shared this already, but here is an excerpt from Fearful Symmetry where Frye describes Blake’s Ulro, Generation and beyond (Beulah and Eden):

image

Forgive me if I’m caricaturing OOO - I would love to hear what people think about this. But my instinct and intuition tell me, from my slight acquaintance with OOO from my PhD days, that this this is the type of thing, pursuit, approach, orientation, stance, outlook that Blake would find arrogant, in its attempt to usurp anthropocentrism and foreground (rather weirdly, it seems to me at least) “objects.” In other words, when Blake writes, right before the Proverbs of Hell,

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense World of Delight, clos’d by your senses five?

I think the point is that this immense World of Delight, when the senses are cleansed, opens for both the Bird and the seer, beholder, looker, watcher, etc. When the senses five are not clos’d, the argument seems to me, we also experience this World of Delight. But such a Delight would not be possible if there is a subject-object duality. If OOO is arguing for that in some manner, then Blake would satirize it endlessly as just one more hopeless academic fad or sterile intellectual exercise far removed for reality. If it is something different, however, I’d love to hear what people think.

4 Likes

If you are interested in OOO, @AndrewField81, there was a discussion of it by our (virtual) friends Phil Ford and J.F. Martel on their Weird Studies podcast : https://www.weirdstudies.com/8. There’s a thread on the forum where we engage in discussions with these two really interesting guys : The Weird Studies Podcast, and I got into a discussion with J.F. somewhere in there about just these kinds of questions. I found some of these ideas to be similar to Whitehead’s, but I personally prefer Whitehead’s version over Harman’s, although i did think there was more going on in Harman after carefully listening to the discussion than simply a return to dualistic thinking. Whitehead doesn’t believe in objects at all, and I also have doubts about the ontological reality of objects - I think they are more epistemological constructions than ontologically real per se. But I also recognize that I am a bit of a maverick, here as elsewhere…

4 Likes

Is there a temporary link to the video? Thanks.

Yes, here it is: https://zoom.us/recording/share/C5CCXnWGtvsdy7GNXHUoHK4zqqCeM355NX78cNe6YgiwIumekTziMw

2 Likes

So I watched the video tonight and John’s comments about Kant’s denunciation of Swedenborg had me sort of snickering happily about Kant. Then I remembered this great poem that Ann Carson wrote about Kant in her book Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera. Have you guys heard of/read Carson? She is probably my favorite living English-speaking poet writing today, and maybe one of the most (if not the most!) original poets in the generation after Ashbery, I would argue at least. She’s also (Geoffrey, you will like this) originally from Canada, from Toronto, though I think she lives and teaches in Ann Arbor, MI, now, at the university there.

Here is a poem Carson wrote about Kant, (the last two lines are gold):

I think Kant actually said once that masturbation is worse than suicide. In lieu of our discussion of Whitman, who is essentially one big yawping onanist, and whose poems have actually been read, quite convincingly, as masturbatory, this raises all kinds of great questions about the ancient quarrel between poetry (Walt) and philosophy (Immanuel), started so long ago with Plato’s ridiculous banning of the poets from the republic, and arguably seen down to today in the various “paranoid” (Eve Kosofky Sedgewicks term) and “political” readers of poetry, who want morals (i.e. Plato) and not actual poems (i.e. Homer, Whitman).

Two last things: for anyone interested, there is a deeply powerful, moving and original longer poem by Ann Carson online in its entirety, on Poetry Foundation, called “The Glass Essay.” Marco, you mentioned the experience of reading Bidart as visceral - this poem is kind of like that, too. It’s about, among many things, Carson’s visit to her older mother, as well as her (Carson’s) obsession with Emily Bronte, who at one point near the beginning of the poem Carson says she fears she is turning into. Also, one of my favorite contemporary books of all time, as well as of poetry, is Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which is actually a novel in verse. It is so, so good - about a gay teen, who is also a figure from myth, Geryon, and his doomed love affair with Herakles, though it all takes place in modern times and is just heartbreaking and shockingly smart, funny, everything you want in a book. When I read it, I felt like my own angsty inner teen from years ago was completely understood in a weird way. And the language is just jaw-droppingly…idk what to call it, creative I guess, visionary somehow. Her own idiosyncratic vision, and yet it also reads like a good novel. A hybrid work of genius. If anyone is looking for something to read, the librarian in me really recommends Autobiography. Carson is sui generis, in a class all her own, and deeply informed by tradition (she trained as a classicist, hence the use of Greek myth in Autobiography).

2 Likes

Actually, I do not think OOO is arguing for that at all. The world, the planet, the human and the animal are radically open to one another and there is not separated self, outside of, or transcendent to, that needs to be accounted for. And the dreams and visions are just as real as doors and hardwood floors and bridges and trees. Sizes and shapes are relevant. The Body is not a box that is embedded in a restricted area, the body is rather like a package of water, that is fillled with little packets of water, and they are transparent and permeable, and pass along a current. We are not just verbs, we are also nouns, which recede, and then reappear. Our identities come and go but are not fixed in an unalterable, pregiven, groove. And our art comes out of stretched cat gut and wood, configured into a violin, manipulated by human hands. Matter and mind is lively and relational. The wind come through the trees or the door way or the human gut…but is never alone. The voice is a human reed, through which the air passes. Dogs and cats can do this, too. A bark or hiss or a chirp is an emphatic statement. I AM HERE!

About schizophrenia. This is a very hot topic and far from clear what I meant in the video. The use of the term has changed dramatically over the years. I had several meanings of that term in my mind and have yet to resolve. Little William was punished for saying that he saw angels in trees.

And in our day, the same prejudice applies. Neuro-atypical persons are shunned. And we are coming to realize that we have no adequate theory of the Imagination, in Blake’s day or in our own.

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders cites," belief in clairvoyance, telepathy, or ‘sixth sense’," as a symptom of schizoid personalty disorder. ( American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

This is not to say that those who have lost the sense of an inner and an outer are not suffering from a mental disorder. They definitely are. But the imaginative exploration of the sensorium can produced synesthetic occasions, experiences of the uncanny, and these are not pathological. Indeed, vision and prophecy play at the edges of the articulatable. If we had good words for such uncanny experience, we would not need poets or painters. Shifting categories and different logics are in operation as we move between the potential and the actual. Adequate translations are required.

Hence, the value of studying poetry, in a group, and reading out loud such exalted practitioners of the art. I imagine that with continued studied, the bodymind registers new kinds of intensifies and mutations in consciousness would be the new norm.

2 Likes