Hm... The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, eh? I read C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce before I read this, and I think his preface there sums up my thoughHm... The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, eh? I read C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce before I read this, and I think his preface there sums up my thoughts on the work:
Blake wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If I have written of their Divorce, this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for such a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant.
And yet... I, too, do write of their divorce.
I think that The Marriage is a very engaging and invigorating intellectual work, copiously and beautifully illustrated, and one of the better early interdisciplinary works in the Western canon (mingling, in 1790(!), poetry, prose, and proverbs, in a very Biblical style, though subversively so). And I love Blake's synthesis and acknowledgment of his influences—Swedenborg, Milton, the Bible, and so forth. But his philosophy is, I think, dangerous, just like Ayn Rand's or Aleister Crowley's, and I'll get to why in a minute. Suffice to say that whereas Rand's philosophy is a joke, debunked by Michael Shermer in one chapter of one of his books, and Crowley was clearly just trying to show Victorian society how stilted it was by taking the opposite to the extreme, Blake's is semi-plausible and very respected. The danger lies in extreme individualism, following your "energies" without restraint. In the wrong hands (those attached to simple minds), it can be taken the wrong way, and seen as permitting anything at all.
Here's where stream of consciousness starts. Goody!
As Al Franken pointed out in that little book he wrote for grads—and I'm paraphrasing here—some people shouldn't follow their passions. What if you have a passion for embezzling large sums of money?—and so it is with Blake's "Exuberance is beauty." I understand his meaning, but is a war fought exuberantly any less brutal for it? Should all people follow their passions? Steven Pinker'd be inclined to say no as well, methinks. He points out that some people are just sociopaths. Remember that guy that duped Norman Mailer?—but Judaism has a similar thing, Kaballah (that oft-misunderstood doctrine), wherein their are many truths revealed and those truths are seen as being dangerous, and restricted membership is enforced (well it was in the pre-Madonna days).—could not the idea that both light and darkness come from Hashem be taken out of context, too?—so maybe an exuberant war can be beautiful?—no, wars are ugly affairs. I stand on my own legs here. Uh...
Maybe the shitty thing is that, deep down, not believing in Hell isn't liberating, it's disappointing. Sure, you won't be burning in the afterlife, but neither will Michael Vicks... or Hitler. Shouldn't there be a Hell for the bad ones among us? There certainly is evil, and most of us have seen it. Isn't it crushingly disappointing that "All religions have made the error... that God will punish Man for following his energies"?(—paraphrased again.)
And where does he get off thinking Jesus violated any of the Ten Commandments? A child could disarm Blake's Devil here, without consulting any texts. Jesus did not mock the Sabbath, any more than King David did by eating the showbread while on the run, by healing the sick thereon. The Baal Shem Tov has a nice parable illustrating that too many restrictions choke the soul, and Jesus must've concurred:
"Listen closely," said the Besht, "I was once driving a coach with three horses—one brown, one black, and one white—and they were not able to neigh. A gentile peasant called out to me from his coach, 'Slacken the reins!' I slackened the reins, and once again the horses were able to neigh. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Blake's Devil's assertion that Jesus "murder'd those who were murder'd because of him" is just absurd—and "turning away the law from the woman taken in adultery" didn't condone her adultery, merely pointed out the hypocrisy of those who would punish her. He did not steal any labours to support himself; he did not bear false witness by omitting a witness before Pilate, he simply omitted making a witness at all. There's a better argument for him having coveted a normal life, but Blake doesn't mention this—his argument for Jesus having coveted is nonsense. Even if he were right on all six accounts, that's still only six out of ten!
At the Proverbs, though, I lose my ability to comprehend. I love some and hate some. The ones I love the most are:
The most sublime act is to set another before you. If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise. Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion. Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps. The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man. The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship. One thought fills immensity.
But others are just perplexing. We are told that "The eagle never lost so much time. as when he submitted to learn of the crow," but then that "When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius. lift up thy head!"—I can hardly disagree, but I thought the crow was the smart one here? Didn't he just teach the eagle for hours and hours?
Others are just dangerous. "Every thing possible to be believd is an image of truth" recapitulates—sorry, predicts—the foolhardy ontological argument so readily debunked by Richard Dawkins; and "Where man is not nature is barren" hurts my soul so badly; it's so antithetical to everything I believe. Man is but a cog in God's nature; we have been demoted and demoted and demoted, as Carl Sagan shows in the "The Great Demotions" chapter of his book Pale Blue Dot. Ask me, man's presence makes nature barren.
Blake's greatest strength here is pointing out Milton's Satan is an engaging and sympathetic character, whereas his God and Messiah are abstractions, boring, revolting even. (Same as Dante's Hell vs. his purgatory and Heaven, IMO.) It's so true!
Anyway, as you can see, I can think and have thought about this book a lot! I leave you with my favorite passage:
The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive. And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity. Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects; thus began Priesthood. Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales. And at length they pronounced that the gods had orderd such things. Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.
I think that I'll get the cover image tattooed on my arm, as every word is already tattooed on my soul. Honestly, it's hard for me to conceive of AttiI think that I'll get the cover image tattooed on my arm, as every word is already tattooed on my soul. Honestly, it's hard for me to conceive of Atticus Finch as a fictional character: it's like he's real. Seriously, he's every bit as much of a moral compass and teacher to me as, say, Jesus or the Baal Shem Tov. It's like a spiritual thing I swear.
Basically, ignore my rambling and read this book. It's a key work of Southern literature, young adult literature, and just literature in general....more
My great grandfather, William Rollins, held this poem in higher esteem than any other book, fiction or non-; it was his absolute favorite. Wherefore,My great grandfather, William Rollins, held this poem in higher esteem than any other book, fiction or non-; it was his absolute favorite. Wherefore, seeing as so much of my taste in reading came down to me from him, through the veritable library he left in the house now owned by my grandmother, I have endeavored to collect as many different editions as possible. When I have a house, I'm going to put all my books in a little room, and call it The William Rollins Memorial Library. And there will be a special little shelf housing all the Rubaiyats. Crazy? Perhaps. Awesome? I think so!—the question is, do I see why he liked it? Yes. It's not my absolute favorite. But it's hard to argue that these lines are truly something to behold:
Would but some winged Angel ere too late Arrest the yet unfolded Roll of Fate, And make the stern Recorder otherwise Enregister, or quite obliterate!
Ah Love! could you and I with Him conspire To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire, Would not we shatter it to bits—and then Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!
In other words, "To mould a new reality/Closer to the heart"? (Where's the smile emoticon when you need it.)...more
The short version of this review is, "I liked it a lot."
In order to understand the longer version, you'll need to know a bit about the subject matter.The short version of this review is, "I liked it a lot."
In order to understand the longer version, you'll need to know a bit about the subject matter. Modern biblical criticism holds that the Torah, otherwise known as the Pentateuch, Chumash, or Five Books of Moses, and constituting the first five books of the Hebrew bible, that is (listed here in their Anglicized forms) Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, weren't really composed by Moses, as Jewish tradition would have it. Rather, they were composed by four different authors or sets of authors, each with a distinct tone and focus. Those authors were J (Jahwist or Yahwist), who wrote the stories that make up the literary backbone of the Torah, and focused on Yahweh, that is, God, and his antics; E (Elohist) who focused on the Angels or Elohim of God; D (Deuteronomist) who wrote Deuteronomy; and P (Priestly), who focused on laws, and was the author most likely to have actually been more than one author. These four were combined into the modern Torah, quite seamlessly, it might be added, by a fifth editor figure, R (Redactor). As stated, it is possible to separate, to some degree, the different texts, and that is what Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg have done here, isolated the J text, translated it, and slapped on some savvy commentary.
Both were quite controversial at the time of their publication, and today read quite shockingly to those among us familiar with the King James Version or a similar translation, myself included. Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that the religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next, but what Bloom proposes here is that J's M.S., making up most of Genesis and Exodus, and some of Numbers, was never intended to have a religious significance, but was intended as literature. And literature it is. I found it very readable, the translation something akin to Stephen Mitchell's translation of The Book of Job, which I read earlier this year: a nice modern translation, truly attempting to peel off layers and layers of retroactive religious grime. What's underneath? A Moses that hardly lives up to the Patriarchal picture painted in the KJV, and an impish Yahweh, more reminiscent of Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream than of any "man in the clouds," that truly lives up to Richard Dawkins's words:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
The heroes in J's vision are Jacob and his son Joseph, but I won't summarize plots here. I should mention that the other major heresy in Bloom's vision is that he proposes that J was a woman, a sophisticated socialite writing in the reign of Rehoboam, an inept king following Solomon and David, whom to J are sacrosanct. Bloom actually makes a very persuasive case for this. Finally, Bloom helps with an understanding of Genesis' stories by honing in on the major themes in Rosenberg's translation: boundaries and the Blessing exist in a sort of dynamic tension, that is, Yahweh's Blessing is passed from generation to generation, but those that receive it are kept from fully realizing its benefits by waves of difficulty, usually in the form of an exile.
Read The Book of J, by all means. It's probably Harold Bloom's best work outside of The Anxiety of Influence, and the translation lets you see the Torah in a whole new light, whether Jewish or atheist or what have you....more
Ancient Greece was pretty emo. Whether it's lines like "There's a hole burning inside of me" (from Euripides' Medea, and source of Courtney Love's bAncient Greece was pretty emo. Whether it's lines like "There's a hole burning inside of me" (from Euripides' Medea, and source of Courtney Love's band's name), or the whole effeminate guys thing, or the quick-to-anger, quick-to-get-emotional attitude of goddesses like Artemis and Hera, the whole body of literature sits pretty nicely next to Brand New's discography. As we all know, emo kids seem to enjoy poetry involving words like "heart" and "feelings," so maybe they'd be interested in taking a time machine back to a time when this was the climate of the literary world was
...something like an ongoing poetry slam in which the archaic poets competed to describe Eros adequately and to produce the best image to depict his attack. Thus a sixth-century poet named Anacreon attempted to trounce his predecessors by delivering: "With a huge hammer Eros this time has struck me like a blacksmith and plunged me in an icy torrent."
That quirky description is from Pamela Gordon's introduction to Stanley Lombardo's translation of Sappho's coherent body of work. Of course, most of Sappho's poetry is similar, she being no exception to the emotional inclinations of her culture, but there's a discernible female subtlety to her "slams," i.e. in
Eros once more limbslackener makes me shudder Sweetbitter irresistible creeping
Eros has shaken my mind, wind sweeping down the mountains on oaks
This short book can be read in an hour or two, and mainly consists of fragmentary poems, some of which have been mangled by time, and others which are still poignant to the point of being gripping. Lombardo's job, given the limited source texts, is amazing; he is a great translator, to be sure. One can almost envision Sappho gently "pouring vinegar on the wounds" of her contemporary emo kids with her lyre, singing these lyrical ballads in such a way as to be way ahead of the whole Vagrant Records game....more
Why do people think of this as a mere adventure novel?
To be sure, it is gripping, and, as the kids are saying, "action-packed." But that's only skinWhy do people think of this as a mere adventure novel?
To be sure, it is gripping, and, as the kids are saying, "action-packed." But that's only skin deep, only one level, this being the level that made up the massively popular film version. Just below the surface is a masterpiece, multifaceted and multidisciplinary, sincerely philosophical, and breathtaking in its pacing and scope. All the different capacities in which the novel functions are essential; without the action, the doomsday science would lack appreciable consequences; without the science, the action would be essentially without meaning. The brilliance of JP is that it mixes intelligence with entertainment. It makes you think, on the one hand—on the other, well, dinosaurs are freakin' sweet. Don't pretend you don't know it.
How many questions does this book pose? To the imaginative reader, probably a functionally endless number, but here are a few of those that anyone could catch: do we have the right to create life, metaphysically and otherwise? Is it acceptable to "own," and profit from, a life form? Is mankind really the pinnacle of creation, with the rest of life subjugated to us? Furthermore, in what ways is our perception of nature dependent on this notion? Can we comprehend nature if we see ourselves as outsiders? In what ways will life escape efforts to control it? Indeed, can life be controlled? What is the nature of history? What is the importance of meaningful coincidence (contingency) to history? Is the universe chaotic at heart? Were dinosaurs more successful than man, by certain criteria?—and so on.
Some day, this will be considered to be a part of the literary canon, Harold Bloom be damned. In his day, Shakespeare was considered bawdy and unfit. The Easton Press is already offering fine leatherbound editions. My edition, however, is a ratty, highlighted, plastic-tabbed paperback, one of millions on 25¢ tables in the backs of legion halls the world over. These yellow pages seem as old as the terrible lizards they bring to life, but, I can't see them becoming old-hat anytime within the next geologic era....more
This is a volume that everyone should own, as the $25-dollars-or-so asking price is a smidgen for the quality of the seven books contained within it.This is a volume that everyone should own, as the $25-dollars-or-so asking price is a smidgen for the quality of the seven books contained within it. Anyone can appreciate the writing; despite the fact that he was the twentieth century's greatest Protestant apologist, he was also one of that century's intellectual giants, a man that the word "erudite" hardly seems to do justice to.
Aeschylus wrote over ninety plays, and of the 7 that survive complete today, Persians is one of them. This may not seem like anything particularly notAeschylus wrote over ninety plays, and of the 7 that survive complete today, Persians is one of them. This may not seem like anything particularly noteworthy, any more so than any of his plays having survived, until you take into account its historical importance. Aeschylus was Greek, and fought the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, during the second Persian invasion of Greece (you're probably familiar with the contemporary battle of Thermopile, immortalized so well in Frank Miller's book 300). This book, told from the perspective of the vanquished Xerxes, is therefore a firsthand account of that battle, in a roundabout way.—What are the chances that of ninety plays, it would be one of the 7 that survive? My wife points out that its historical importance makes it a likely candidate for preservation. True enough, but still—wow.
I should probably muster up five stars for the sucker, but my Grecian (read: Western) sympathies are so deeply ingrained that I couldn't get involved in the Persians' troubles. Still essential reading, though. This edition is the one to go for, unless you're interested in reading the original Greek, in which case, go for the Loeb Classical Library translation....more
Why do people bitch and whine about having to read greek drama? Outside of the ubiquitous Antigone, this is my first encounter with Greek drama, andWhy do people bitch and whine about having to read greek drama? Outside of the ubiquitous Antigone, this is my first encounter with Greek drama, and I loved it. Usually translating involves compromising a certain amount of poetry in lieu of clarity; see Stephen Mitchell's Book of Job for an illustration of this. In this edition of Prometheus Bound, there's nothing inaccessible; the text and the presentation and typography are straightforward. I didn't struggle with it at all. In fact, i was struck by the beauty of the myth. I wish I could find this edition on eBay or Amazon, as it's worth owning (I checked mine out of my college library). There's a lot of good commentary before and after the play, too, as a bonus.
Anyway, here's the best encapsulation of rebellion I've ever heard. Zeus's messenger, Hermes, comes to taunt the bound Prometheus, lording over his freedom. Prometheus is on the level:
Get this much straight: if I could trade all my misery for your servility I wouldn't.
Some time in the first half of the first Anno Domini millennium, English appeared on the scene as a distinct language, descended from the Germanic famSome time in the first half of the first Anno Domini millennium, English appeared on the scene as a distinct language, descended from the Germanic family of Indo-European languages, and still bearing striking resemblance to its parent (cf. words like "rice" for kingdom, traced back to the German "reich" for the same, as in "the Third Reich"). Since then it has gone through four distinct phases. Old English (O.E.), lasting from the language's inception until the Norman invasion of 1066, was the language of Beowulf. Middle English (M.E.), lasting from 1066 until some time in the 1500s, was essentially a hybrid of Norman French and Old English (more on this phase in a bit). Finally, Modern English came about. This was, in its first phase, the language of Shakespeare and Marlowe, and is still comprehensible today, aside from typographical and grammatical differences. By this point, English had lost all traces of inflection, and word order was more reliable as a guide to what might be going on in a given sentence. Our second phase of Modern English, the language of Charles Dickens and, for that matter, Stephen King, started in about 1800, and is marked by widespread standardization across large geographic areas.
I bring all this up for background on the following points: to better illustrate what Tolkien has done with the text, and to better illustrate what the text was originally like. The latter is that it was written in Middle English, the same "language" that Chaucer wrote in. Of course, Chaucer's English was London, upper-middle-class English, and it bares a much stronger resemblance to our modern English for this. Today, lines like
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
are hardly inpenetrable; we know that the gist is April has come, and that it rains in April, and that this is good for plants, because March is dry and cold, and that flowers will grow (in April)—it just sounds a lot prettier in the M.E.! However, people might not agree about the following!:
SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye, Þe bor3 brittened and brent to bronde3 and askez, Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wro3t Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erþe: Hit watz Ennias þe athel, and his highe kynde, Þat siþen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome Welne3e of al þe wele in þe west iles.
Those are the opening lines of the alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a retelling of a traditional Arthurian legend by The Pearl Poet, a technically-anonymous author lost to time but for his works. Assuming a familiarity with the character thorn (Þ), and familiarity with the word "sithen," the first line easily becomes "When the siege and the assault was ceased at Troy," again assuming the reader overcame the resemblance of the M.E. "sesed" to our "seized." After that, it breaks down: what are those things that look like threes? "brittened" and "brent"... are these, uh, past-tense verbs? and what's "askez"? asks? who's asking?—and so on. That's because there were no agreed-upon forms in the 1400s, and The Pearl Poet's dialect was more rural and more traditional than Chaucer's. Unless you're willing to take night classes, a modern translation is nigh on essential. That's where Tolkien comes in.
What Tolkien has done is provided a translation from the M.E. of The Pearl Poet to the Modern English of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Here's J.R.R.'s son, Christopher, in the preface to the translation:
On the one hand, he undoubtedly sought an audience without any knowledge of the original poems; he wrote of his translation of Pearl: "The Pearl certainly deserves to be heard by lovers of English poetry who have not heard by lovers of English poetry who have not the opportunity or the desire to master its difficult idiom. To such readers I offer this translation."
The only thing is that many today struggle with the "difficult idiom" of Shakespeare himself, this being the idiom into which Gawain has been translated. These people might check out a slightly more modern translation, but why not just work at it? Tolkien may have left in these three Medieval poems words like "barbican," "ellwand," "weasand," "popinjays," and "heathenesse," but the poem's tone, alliterative scheme, and rhyming schemes are strengthened thus—this not always being so, as my review of The Decameron will attest to when it's finished. Besides, there is an explanation of the meter of the first two poems, as well as a glossary of difficult words for all. Gawain and its ilk are excellent poems, and you owe it to yourself to check them out. ...more