Tag Archives: William Blake

Get Real

I’ll turn this thought over to a couple fellows brighter than I’ll ever be.

SØren Kierkegaard wrote, “A person with originality comes along, and consequently does not say: one must take the world as it is, but: whatever the world may be, I remain true to my own originality, which I do not intend to change according to the good pleasure of the world. The moment that word is heard, there is as it were a transformation in the whole of existence, as in the fairy story–when the word is said the magic castle, which has been under a spell for a hundred years, opens again, and everything comes to life. In the same way existence becomes all eyes. The Angels grow busy, look about with curiosity to see what is going to happen, for that is what interests them. On the other side, dark and sinister demons, who have sat idle for a long while gnawing their fingers, jump up, stretch their limbs: ‘This is something for us,’ they say.

“This is what the apostle means when he says that the Christian’s fight is not merely against flesh and blood but with principalities and powers.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, whom I consider the most influential philosopher of the modern age, contends that while peoples’ most common and dominant quality is laziness their second most common and dominant quality is a kind of nervous fear. He argues that what they fear most is the trouble refusing to conform and exposing who they truly are would cause them. So, he admonishes, become who you are. And, he warns us, creators must be hard and courageous, because the artist’s task is to show how unique people really are, what a wonder each of us is. To encourage the hesitant, Nietzsche offers, “The secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously.

In his work on myth, Joseph Campbell advises us to follow our bliss and promises that if we do so without fear, doors will open where we didn’t even know doors existed. He reminds us that in the story of Sir Galahad, “the knights agree to go on a quest, but thinking it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group, each ‘entered into the forest, at one point or another, where they saw it to be thickest, all in those places where they found no way or path.’”

Where we see a path, it’s someone else’s path. So: “Each knight enters the forest at the most mysterious point and follows his own intuitions. What each brings forth is what never before was on land or sea: the fulfillment of unique potentialities, which are different from anybody else’s.”

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In church, Olga Savitsky reads poems of hers she feels God wants us to hear. She believes God gave her the poems, as did William Blake and no doubt vast numbers of us writers too afraid of appearing ridiculous to admit that belief.

Olga’s poems are rough. She hasn’t studied poetry writing or even read much poetry beyond what she got in school, and she didn’t major in literature or writing. Yet inspired lines leap out of her poetry and grab us. I suspect the spirit enters her poems because above all, she means them to be honest expressions of her heart.

When I was 13, my dad told me, “If you want a girl to fall for you, don’t try to impress her, just be yourself.”

Each of us is more unique than we have ever suspected. But we’ve been taught to conform, in actions, language, ideas, and even daydreams. If there exists on earth a culture that isn’t structured toward creating conformity I’d like to know about it.

Now and then, someone breaks through the programming, discovers who she is and lives as her real self, and we either view her with amazement, or with suspicion, or we send the police or the church ushers to restrain her.

A few writers impress me as being so original we have reason to wonder if they came from another planet or another reality. Franz Kafka, SØren Kierkegaard, Flannery O’Connor, and Olga come to mind as such masters at being themselves.

Though I may never find my original self to the degree they did, or even dare to expose what parts of me I do find, I’m convinced that to the extent I can be real, honest and true to myself, at least while writing, people will read and value my stories.

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By the way, an ebook copy of Writing and the Spirit makes a swell (and mighty inexpensive) Christmas gift?

 

Angels?

An anecdote about the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke tells of his being invited by his friend the psychologist Karl Jung to undertake psychotherapy. Rilke declines the offer, saying “I’m afraid if my demons go, my angels will go with them.”

In legend and literature are a host of characters who have bartered with the devil and traded their souls for creative powers.

William Blake, especially in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” portrays the angelic and the demonic as equally powerful and necessary. A Christian reading Blake may wish he could ask the poet, “Hey, which side are you on?”

Blake might explain that he roamed like a foreign correspondent through the spirit world, in the midst of a heavenly battleground, surrounded by firefights and war cries, reporting on what he saw and heard. He may have simply felt called to write what he witnessed and leave judgment to his readers.

Suppose a spirit gives us strange words, wild combinations of words, lines rich with meanings we have never consciously meant, and suppose they make us feel wicked, cruel or severely deranged, in a fearful way.

Just because inspiration strikes doesn’t mean we’re obliged to accept it. Perhaps Hitler was inspired to massacre people, Eric Rudolph to bomb abortion clinics.

Artists are called to partner with the spirit, not to be any spirit’s pawns.

Inspiration or Imagination

William Blake believed every word he wrote came from God. I’m not so blessed as that. Most of my words come from my imagination.

I’m not convinced distinguishing between imagination and inspiration is critical to our stories or our lives, but it could be, so let’s pursue the question.

In a lecture entitled “Imagination vs. Inspiration,” poet Garcia Lorca maintained that the imagination was a form of logic which could do many things but couldn’t “touch the darker forces of nature or the most incandescent light, or the realm of the unknown.” Imagination, he explained, always works with facts borrowed from the “most clear and precise form of reality.”

In my experience, imagination usually begins with connections. I build Juan out of character traits I’ve witnessed. Then I lock Juan in a broken elevator with Lucy, who may have red hair, and I watch what happens. If it charms or excites me, I write it down.

Or a taste reminds me of a hamburger stand named Jub’s my friend Eric Curtis and I used to frequent. Soon I’m writing a scene that happens in Mission Beach, where Jub’s was located.

That’s imagination.

But inspiration appears out of nowhere. Or from somewhere we can’t locate. It could be some as of yet unidentified part of our brains. Or it could come direct from God. Whatever the source or path, it manifests itself in moments that can make us gasp in awe of a truth we hadn’t noticed before.

And it usually gives the kind of truth we can’t express in any other terms than the one we’ve just encountered. If we try to analyze, we may sense that this truth comes from beneath, beyond or above our reality.

It’s the kind of truth we find so often in the Bible. The kind that comes clear yet remains a mystery.

Beauty

A problem with language is, words can be defined in so many ways. A table can be a tiny and fragile thing upon which we can barely fit a tea setting, or a massive wooden slab surrounded by a dozen of Arthur’s knights.

Abstract words–such as honor, love, courage, truth, dignity, or beauty–each of us may understand differently. And those of us intrigued or perplexed by a certain word might spend a lifetime considering the options and still not feel quite convinced by our definition.

Perhaps more than any other English word, we wrestle with the meaning of “love,” as did poet William Blake when he expressed two perfectly opposite views in “The Clod and the Pebble”.

“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”

“Beauty” is another word to which we give a host of different meanings. Some dresses are beautiful, as are some of the people who wear them. Sometimes my daughter throws a beautiful change up. A day can be beautiful just because the sun is shining, even if we wish it would rain.

So when we read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and find John Keats contending that “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’– that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” we might applaud in agreement, recoil with skepticism, or choose to shelve the premise for later contemplation.

I find those lines not only valid and profound; I believe they are words to live by; largely because they require us to reconsider our definition or definitions of “truth” and “beauty.” They demand that if we hope to understand, we need to act, to go deeper than surface impressions and consider what moves us to a resonant and heartfelt appreciation, to feel we have somehow transcended our common condition. They demand that I see my daughter’s changeup as an expression of who she is, the time and effort she has devoted and all she has learned in order to master the pitch, what that says about her and–going deeper still–about the miracle of life. If I choose and am able to go even deeper, I might glimpse a clue about eternity or the meaning of life.  On the way I will discover that true beauty includes a downbeat, an element of sorrow or pain as well as a joyful upbeat. Because evil is true and weakness is true, because truth contains pain and sorrow, beauty must contain them also.

Not every experience of something truly beautiful will send us on a deep inward and transcendent journey. But everything beautiful in the sense Keats uses the word holds the  potential to lead us all the way, were we brave, dedicated and wise enough to take the journey.

Now I’ll quit trying to explain in prose a truth better expressed in poetry. Here’s a link to “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.

Love

Some time ago, during one of those periods when I have been obsessed with the goal of learning more about love, I came across M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled, in which he gave a definition I found plenty enlightening. He argued that love is not a feeling but is rather a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of another’s spiritual growth. More simply: love is willingness to sacrifice for the sake of another.

From Peck’s angle, love is an act of will that may or may not connect to a particular emotion.

C.S. Lewis wrote about “the four loves”: eros or romantic love; storge or affection such as family members may exhibit for each other; philia or a strong friendship bond; and agape or unconditional love, as God exemplifies and would have us apply toward others.

As Lewis points out, all the loves except agape can readily be abused, poisoned by the desire for self-aggrandizement. What appears to be one of those loves may actually be no more than pure self-love in disguise. We pick our friends for how they can serve us, our lovers for the lust they may satisfy. Love for our parents or kids might depend upon what their accomplishments and status do for our image.

William Blake’s “The Clod and the Pebble” exposes the authentic and the counterfeit (for those who read this poem in my earlier post, it’s well worth rereading):

“Love seeketh not itself to please,

Nor for itself hath any care,

But for another gives its ease,

And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay,

Trodden with the cattle’s feet,

But a Pebble of the brook

Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only Self to please,

To bind another to its delight,

Joys in another’s loss of ease,

And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”

Though I deeply respect and admire the insights of Mr. Peck and Mr. Lewis, I can’t accept as a complete answer either “love” as willingness to sacrifice regardless of feeling or “love” as a catch phrase for a number of different emotions.

What Soren Kierkegaard refers to as “the subjective” tells me that love is a unity though it may express itself in different variations, and that the willingness to sacrifice based upon motive not partnered with emotion can’t be counted as love.

In First Corintians, St. Paul asserts that: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Simply, whatever I do without love is meaningless. I could sacrifice in order to bring about the salvation of the whole world, but the action wouldn’t be worth doing.

I won’t speculate whether St. Paul meant that actions taken without love will backfire or that, even though they might help others, they won’t draw us any closer to God or heaven. His meaning may be far beyond my comprehension.

But I will speculate about the application of love, whatever it is, wherever it comes from, to our work as artists.

Suppose we get blessed with the opportunity to see an exhibit of Van Gogh originals, or to hear fine musicians play “Ode to Joy”. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will notice that the creator of the painting or symphony has applied something more than great skill, that the artist’s love has entered into the creation and remains there as long as the work exists.

When I read Dostoyevski or Dickens I often glimpse through the words the love that inspired the author to write those particular words. And we encounter love not only in the greatest masters. I recently finished the Harry Potter books and found in them an abundance of love.

So, my advice is, if we intend to create anything beautiful, by which I also mean anything true, we had best apply ourselves to the acquisition and practice of love.

Otherwise, if I attend the best writing programs and learn all the poetic skills, I will offer only noise. If I devote myself to craft and produce dozens of novels that entertain millions of readers, I have given nothing of value in exchange for the fortune I may have acquired.

I had a remarkable friend, Sylvia Curtis, the mother of Eric Curtis, whom you could meet in Reading Brother Lawrence. One day I as I entered Sylvia’s apartment she met me with a scowl and demanded, “What’s the purpose of life?”

I said, “Uh . . .”

She said, “To know love and to serve God.”

Later she admitted that definition came from a Catholic priest in an orphanage where she had done time.

Please note that “to know love” comes first.