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An Evening of Blake: Part One

abstract:

Writers, agents, editors, scholars, historians and collectors met at the Pacific Palisades home of Paula Shackleton, in a celebration of the visionary poet and artist William Blake. In part 1 of a special 4-part interview series, discover William Blake and his fundamental contributions to literature, art and spirituality.

 

article:

March 10, 2004

"One of the distinct joys for those of us at BookBuffet is the opportunity to meet people of diverse backgrounds whose lives and careers are dedicated to the pursuit of literature; from the writers who create it and the literary agents and editors who bring the work to the public, to the academics who study it and tell us why it’s important, and the historians and collectors, who insure that we preserve the work of genius and draw relevance from it today." said Paula Shackleton in her opening address. Just such a meeting of  committed professionals was enjoyed this past February 17th. 

 

“An Evening of Blake” was co-hosted and inspired by author Janet Warner after our interview and review of her recent publication, Other Sorrows, Other Joys: The Marriage of Catherine Sophia Boucher to William Blake (St. Martin’s Press; 2003)  

Among those attending were: Professor Amir Hussain, Department of Religious Studies, Cal State University, Northridge, California; Professor Emeritus, Gerald Bentley, Jr., English Dept. University of Toronto, Canada, author of The Stranger in Paradise: A Biography of William Blake; Professor Robert Essick, Blake collector and curator of the Huntington Blake Collection and editor of BlakeArchives.org; Executive Editor Diane Reverend of St. Martin’s Press NYC; Literary Agent Charlotte Gusay and her colleagues, as well as members of the media and film industry.   

 

This is the first part of a 4-part series: 

Professor Amir Hussain, Department of Religious Studies, Cal State University, Northridge, California. 

 

BB: Who was William Blake and what relevance does he have today? What are his fundamental contributions to spirituality, literature, and art?

 

Amir Hussain: William Blake was a visionary artist and poet who lived in England (almost entirely in London, in fact) from 1757 to 1827. At the time of his death, if he was known at all, it was as an engraver. Now, he is considered one of the most important of the Romantic poets. He has great relevance today. "William Blake was a Stranger from Paradise in an alien world, in the Realm of the Beast. His real life was in the imagination, in the realms of gold". So read two sentences from Professor G.E. Bentley, Jr.'s magisterial new biography of Blake, The Stranger from Paradise. These lines tell us much about Blake, and his relevance to the modern world. Many of us see ourselves as aliens, as not quite fitting in. Blake was almost entirely unknown in his life. Very little of his work was sold during his lifetime. Now, it is eagerly collected. But Blake did what he wanted to do, not what society told him to do.

 

He has made major contributions to art, literature and spirituality. His poems are among the most anthologized in the world. In fact, "The Tyger" is perhaps THE most anthologized English poem. His poetical works are first rate. But they cannot be separated from his art. Blake prefigured the comic books of today, and the serious attention paid to the marriage of art and literature. With regard to spirituality, he connects with people today. Blake was a deeply religious person, but he did not connect with the organized religions of his day, which he thought were corrupt. Many modern people feel the same way. But Blake articulated his thoughts in his art, unlike, say, people today who are disaffected or alienated, but don't DO anything about it.

 

BB: How has the study of Blake affected your life?

 

AH: First, it has put me in touch with some of the best scholars in the world, particularly Northrop Frye, G.E. Bentley, Jr., and Robert N. Essick. From them, I have learned how to do proper scholarship, but also how to be in the world. To be generous, to not think that any one person has a monopoly on study. In some disciplines, there is the idea that if I'm working on something, it is MY research and you can't do it. With Blake, it is more of an open table. Come and join us if you can help us to understand.

 

Second, I have appreciated the art and literature that Blake produced. He was very much into social justice. Perhaps my favourite fragment of Blake is this one, from Vala or The Four Zoas. It is long, but it says it all for me:

 

“What is the price of Experience do men buy it for a song?

Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No it is bought with the price

Of all that a man hath his house his wife his children

Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy

And in the witherd field where the farmer plows for bread in vain

It is an easy thing to triumph in the summers sun

And in the vintage & to sing on the waggon loaded with corn

It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted

To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer

To listen to the hungry ravens cry in wintry season

When the red blood is filld with wine & with the marrow of lambs

It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements

To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughter house moan

To see a god on every wind & a blessing on every blast

To hear sounds of love in the thunder storm that destroys our enemies house

To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, & the sickness that cuts off his children

While our olive & vine sing & laugh round our door & our children bring fruits & flowers

Then the groan & the dolor are quite forgotten & the slave grinding at the mill

And the captive in chains & the poor in the prison, & the soldier in the field

When the shatterd bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead

It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity

Thus could I sing & thus rejoice, but it is not so with me!”

 

 

BB: If Blake were alive today what person, or combination of persons embody his soul?

 

AH: That's a tough question. Some combination of the oratory of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the fiery preaching of Malcolm X. Like Malcom, Blake was a man who would not fit in. But he was also a brilliant artist. I think of Picasso painting Guernica, about the horrors of war...And of course George Orwell, who like Blake, was a critic of English imperialism and colonialization. And the fire of James Baldwin. And the music of Miles Davis. Funny, but I guess I connect Blake with the major forces for social change in my lifetime, the civil rights movement.

 

BB: What do you think Blake would say about the current state of religion and politics in the world?

 

AH: Oh, he'd be angry, about the use of religion for political ends, about the close relationship between religion and empire. That's one of the many things I admired about Blake, what David Erdman, a Blake scholar, called "Prophet Against Empire". Blake also had no use for much of the organized religion in his day; a sentiment that I think would have increased in our day.

 

BB: Professor Hussain, I know you have offered a course on religion and film at the University and since we are speaking about the intertwining of religion with art in Blake, I wonder whether I might ask you what your thoughts are on Mel Gibson's movie The Passion, and the public phenomenon surrounding it?

 

AH: I have not seen The Passion of Christ, so I can't make any direct comments on the film.  Of course, I can certainly talk about the issues related to the film.  The two best reviews of the film that I have read are by Jack Miles (at beliefnet.com), and by David Denby (at The New Yorker).  As an academic who teaches religion and film, I'm excited about the movie.  It gives us a chance to talk about the religious themes in the film.  How was the screenplay composed?  What elements are Biblical, and from what sources?  What elements come from other sources?  Why was Latin used (Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, perhpas Greek, certainly not Latin)? Why the emphasis on the visuals of suffering, etc.  The film also raises questions about theology.  For some Christians, the death of Jesus is what is important.  His death saves us from sin, they say.   In this regard, the movie fits well.  For other Christians, it is the life of Jesus that is important, and his resurrecion.  He comes back to life, so that we might come back to life, they say.  The film has nothing to say about this.  The marketing of the film (pre-release to certain Christian groups, but no Jewish groups, the interest in what is a very conservative Catholic film by Evangelical and Protestant Christians, etc.)  is also quite interesting. And of course the appeal.  To this writing, the film has done some 200 milliom dollars in business.  Quite a success, meaning that there is, still, a great interest in religion in North America.

 

 

BB: Had Blake achieved more commercial success in his life, do you think his impact or philosophy would have been different?

 

AH: No, I don't think so. Blake was very definitely his own person, doing things because HE wanted to do them.

 

BB:  A.S. Byatt's Possession has left people with a certain view of 'academia'.  How close or far-off is that perspective?

 

AH: I can't answer that, as that's a book I haven't read.

 

BB: What do you think of the historical fiction genre?

 

AH: I think it can be quite good, if it is done well. For example, one of my favourite pieces about the Civil War is the historical novel, The Killer Angels [by Michael Shaara].

 

BB:  What do you think of the social phenomenon of Book Groups—what recommendations for examining books/literature might you have for them?

 

AH: I think people coming together to discuss books is a great idea. I wish we did more of it. My only caveat would be to pick things because people want to read them. Don't read a book only because everyone else is reading it. That said, in any true group, one will read things that one wouldn't normally read. But let each person pick one book, and let others read it, knowing that to the person that selected it, it is just as important as the book that they chose. Often, this is a good way to introduce a book or a genre that one would not otherwise read.

 

BB: Are you available to [book] groups to speak on topics of interest?

 

AH: Sure, depending on the situation. I could speak about Islam in particular, or religion in general. My own areas of interest are in religion and film, religion and music, religion and popular music, etc.

 

BB: As a professor of religious studies during these times, what message would you like to leave?

 

AH: Learn about different religious traditions. In our world, which is increasingly cosmopolitan, we need to learn about and from each other.

BookBuffet would like to thank Prof. Hussain for his time and thoughtful comments. Click here for further sampling of Blake's poetry.

 

 

Next week, BookBuffet will post our interview with Professor Robert N. Essick, Blake scholar and collector, curator of "Visions and Verse: William Blake at the Huntington" Museum, and editor of  BlakeArchive.org.

by Paula Shackleton

 

 

 

 

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