I have a page-a-day calendar that mocks me, which I keep for the perverse pleasure of it. The thing spews out positive thinking slogans commanding me to use
mind-over-matter willpower to accomplish my material goals. A friend got the offensive timekeeper through her office, and sloughed it off on me, because she knows I hate this sort of motivational device.
I deny on principal the efficacy of will or the power to impose consciousness on the physical world.
What's more, it is laughably vain to interpret features of the environment as signs of personal favor; however, since I couldn't get a free 1994 Ecclesiastes Verse-A-Day Calendar, every morning I take the earnest axioms of my self-help version with a strong dose of irony.
America has spawned any number of fawned-over prophets of self-improvement, the forefathers of my calendar, Franklins and Emersons who preach self-reliance and an unswerving adherence to a personal vision. I would sooner consume a case of Nestle's Chocolate Diet Shake than slurp their humanist muck. For my dollar, the only domestic writer previous to Melville with the least idea of man's true relation to the cosmos is your Jonathan Edwards. Hold up as a model some penny-pinching, beat-box marching, early-to-riser with a Jaguar, and I'll start screaming about the Fundamental Attribution Error. Jonathan Edwards shows you what the future really holds: a sports car slipping over the rim of a black abyss and an eternity in the fire-y furnace.
"Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God" exposes the error of relying on human faculties to gauge our safety on life's highway. Edwards is no blustering snake-handler: he has been to college and read his John Locke, but it quenches not one lick of hell's fire to accede to the well-reasoned premises of empiricism. Sure, our senses reveal the world to us consistently and predictably, and from this data we make our plans and predictions. It seems so well-ordered and law-abiding and runs regular as a clock. Yet, despite all our experience of solid ground beneath our feet, we have nothing that may be counted as evidence "that man is not on the very brink of eternity, and the next step will not be into another world" (Edwards 154). The laws we observe in the sensory world rely on crude induction. To place faith in them is to extract meaning from a marionette show without recognizing the strings. Reverend Edwards has read not only Locke but also Descartes.
The sensible world sustains Man because the arbitrary will of God commands it. Creation is indifferent to reason, especially man's notion of reason. The air would refuse to swell our lungs, Edwards writes, the rocks would not bear our weigth, and the Earth would not satisfy our hunger (157), except that God has stayed his hand against us. The only law that applies in what the foolish Romantic calls Nature is the rule of God, and by that standard, we are already condemned. If it were not God's pleasure to delay our execution, this world whose coherence we so complacently admire would vomit us out like poison.
Through chilling imagery, Edwards reveals the tenuous bonds that join us to this mortal life. Our assurance in the world of the senses is the slippery slope of Deuteronomy. On the basis of past successes and righteous deeds, we reason we are secure, but our argument offers no more protection from hell "than a spider's web would have to stop a fallen rock" (157). Cause and effect and linear experience of time are man-made constructs that do not bind Eternity. In God's eyes, our condemnation to the bottomless pit of hell coexists with our idiotic suspension above it. Edwards discerns the ever-present demons at the sides of the wicked, waiting like "greedy hungry lions that see their prey, and expect to have it, but are for the present held back" (153).
These metaphors convey the same idea: an instantaneous rupture in the perceived order of things occurring without warning. In Edwards' sky, "arrows of death fly unseen at noonday; the sharpest sight cannot discern them" (154). This is his vision of the Apocalypse, the coming judgment which will purify all matter, cleansing the very atoms of man's sin. Through imagery, Edwards enables his listeners to share his fearful vision to inwardly see it, and in so doing escape the bound complacency of our limited reason. From his argument against empiricism, it is evident Edwards regards a moment of inward experience of divine truth to be more real than a lifetime of mundane existence.
The reader does not move very far along through this piece without visualizing a new chasm or curtain of fire. Edwards invokes primal forces, fire and gravity, to jolt our attention. His mission is to convert us to his view, so first he stuns us with elemental might. Before we can be born again, we must be shocked out of our usual, self-obsessed way of seeing. If Edwards can divert our attention and get us to experience with our inner sense the incineration of our corporeal form, he can prepare us for conversion to a new life in the spirit.
Paradoxically, "Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God" delivers its tirade against man's corrupt reason with the dusty manners of an Oxford Dean of Logic. Edwards employs a form that resembles a mathematical proof. He enumerates his individual observations on a line from the Pentateuch, then starts numbering again to present his evidence of God's mounting wrath. Stripped of cumbersome paragraphing, Edwards' ideas seem spatially related, not ordinate and subordinate. The numbers appear to indicate "how many," not "in what sequence." I mean, "7. It is no security in the moment, that there is no visible means of death at hand," (154) seems equal and independent from "3. They are already condemned to hell" (152). Working with his hellacious, repetitive imagery, the form conveys a totality uncorrupted by linear perspective, like a splattered apocalypse by Jackson Pollock (to drag in the name of another depressive Yankee with an irritated retina).
Ultimately, Edwards is more successful in raising consciousness of the immediacy of hellfire and doom than gaining converts to Christ. In my case, a constitutional predilection enables me to fall through the cracks of earthly convention effortlessly, but I am lost when the reverend bids us to make a covenant with Jesus. It may be that metaphor accesses the idea of destruction of reality, but it is infinitely harder to represent a historical event: a difference between suggesting a similarity and an actuality. I have read none of Edwards' other works but in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" he has plenty to say about chain-sawing the venomous Tree of Sodom and so forth and precious little to report about the personal conversion experience. It is almost as if the subject is too delicate to discuss. It's personal! Once Edwards has fascinated his audience with visions of Apocalypse, so they feel the vertigo of the abyss and the singeing heat of the furnace, perhaps the actual content of the individual dialogue with Christ is unimportant. A simple statement from the heart will do, especially beginning with the words, "O, MY GOD!"
--Drew Zimmerman, 1994
Work Cited Edwards, Jonathan.Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings Ed. Ola Elizabeth Winslow. New York: Signet, 1966.
Secrets of Blake's Marriage Revealed!
I walk past the Masonic Temple on Broad Street every day on my way to school. Smack off the town center, its spire challenges the Mayor's across the street, and in other ways it opposes urban authority. It is a mute fortress covered in Byzantine abstract, in contrast to the chatty historical tableau mounted on City Hall. Often, I recall a story about the placement of William Penn's statue atop the clock tower, how the builder despised its creator, Alexander Calder I, and to thwart him set the work facing north so the sun would never illuminate its features. Pop Pop Calder's most prominent statue stands in its own shadow perpetually, a hand raised to protect itself from the sight of the Brotherhood and their Holy of Holies across the road. Can there be any reason, a hundred years later, for the erection of the new Pennsylvania Convention Center at double the acceptable price on the most expensive site in town except to complete a diabolical northern axis with City Hall that has the Masonic Temple (Nat. Hist. Reg., 1985) as its midpoint?
In an unnervingly friendly gesture, the Society of Free and Accepted Freemasons offers a tour three times daily of their sanctuary. Anyone who wants to can see the seven fatuously decorated chapels that illustrate the Book of the Secrets of Enoch: the seven heavens within heavens. Were they always so unworkmanlike about keeping their own secrets? Fred and Barney protect the Grand Pubah with more reverence. Does some historical period govern the lapses of our local Templars; in certain times, does the revolution procede in the open?
I assume the greatest conspiracy in History was up from the underground in William Blake's day since his mystical works like The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are chock full of Gnostic and Kabbalistic "secrets." I am told a plausible explanation for Blake's contamination with these heresies is some sloppy London chapter of Freemasons (1). Another source has it that the nucleus of these ideas is in the writing of Blake's favorite authors, Boehme and Paracelsus; furthermore, he had lots of friends with an interest in the occult (2). In any case, the similarities between Marriage and the myths and metaphysics of the Jewish heterodox are easily demonstrated.
Superficially, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a counter-argument to Swedenborg's Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell (a title with its own rather curious ambiguity). Employing organizational conventions of a tract, Blake parodies Swedenborg's declamatory style. At depth, Marriage is Blake's most accessible presentation of his own personal myth. Like a book of scripture, it contains under one heading apocalyptic poetry, pseudohistory, criticism, proverbs, and parables. The marginal graphics, for barely a work by Blake exists without a visual component, recall hand-printed Bibles produced by cloistered scribes. Blake's insistence on distributing his booklet without a name, date, or place of origin (3) is consistent with the anonymous nature of prophetic books.
Like the Gnostics and Kabbalists, Blake assumes the right to lay his own commentary over the work of previous prophets already in the canon. When he refers (in plate 4 of Marriage) to bibles as sacred codes, and to the errors that arise from their popular or corporate interpretation, he recalls a tradition of Kabbalah that the words of the prophet contain esoteric knowledge, accessible to just a few, signified by the interior meanings of the letters of the word and not just the words themselves. Thus, Genesis has a surface meaning and an internal meaning which only diligent scholarship and spiritual insight can reveal. The Haggadah, the oral tradition of Jewish mysticism, includes the story of how the letter Bet lobbied God to be the instrument through which He created the Universe. Bet is the sign for a house or receptacle. In the esoteric reading of Genesis, the commencement of Creation with the Bet of Berashith (in the beginning) signifies the confinement of the infinite God within the vessel of the female Earth (4). Since a visionary and scholar must reveal the true meaning of the word and prevent erroneous interpretations, Blake offers himself, to explain not only Swedenborg and Milton, but the whole Judeo-Christian myth.
Another tradition of the Kabbalah is represented by Blake with the female and male angels ascending and seeking union in the illustration on the title page of The Marriage and in plate 14, in the picture of a female angel hovering over the sleeping man. The Kabbalah says that both sexes were unified in the original spirit of God, the Elohim, but the act of creation separated them into their constituents. The male is Jehovah, the Lord of Creation of the Patriarchs. The female part is named the Shekinah, a powerful sexual presence who is the vessel of creation (Bet again) our exterior world. The Shekinah, it is said, blesses the home of every married couple and hovers over the marital bed. By devotional means (for instance devotional sex), a practitioner of Kabbalah attempts to end the exile of the Shekinah in the material plane to reunite her with her husband.
Jacob Boehme, whom Blake values at a gazillion Swedenborgs, writes that man, the microcosm of God, recapitulates the division of the sexes. In his original form, man was androgynous. The creation of Eve is the externalization of man's female nature, a consequence of the Fall (5). This compares to the Platonic and Gnostic tale about the demiurge who created the world. In the divine hierarchy, he is lower than the God of Light because he is not omniscient, he requires created man to apprehend him. Willis Barnstone writes. "The Gnostics called Yahweh Ialdabaoth, whom they characterized as a 'monstrous abortion of the darkness' who has trapped the Light spirit of man in darkness and matter (6)." The arrogance of the demiurge in fact is the true cause of the Fall. not Eve and Adam's disobedience. Plainly, Ialdabaoth is equivalent to Blake's Urizen, the "Old Nobodaddy" of his Jerusalem and The (First) Book of Urizen. (He is pictured on the frontispiece of Europe A Prophecy with a left-handed compass, infernal instrument of Masonic rule!)
The Gnostic and Kabbalistic Genesis commentaries and Boehme's Adam and Eve revelation differ in particulars but contain the same wisdom: the true God and the true man are not to be found in the material world of the senses. On this plane is strife, the eternal struggle of opposites. Opposition is impossible where there is perfection that is at the source of the unified God's boundless energy, the highest Heaven. Rationalism, Empiricism, and Deism are false paths because they procede from the fallacy that God may be deduced from the dualist arrangements of Nature. Creation is not equivalent with Truth; it is a place of perpetual exile from Truth, the Shekinah endlessly seeking her beloved.
For Blake the world is a bondage and the five senses are the chains. Empirical reasoning produces a mere husk, "the outward circumference of energy" (Marriage plate 4). A 12th(?) century Kabbalistic treatise which Milton Klonsky claims was accessible to Blake first-hand (7), the Zohar or Book of Radiance, expresses this idea cosmically. When the Infinite, or syn sof, engages in creation, emanations are formed that may be conceived as ten worlds, each possessing a different attribute of the Divine. Like the musical spheres of Pythagoras, these sephiroth form a descending scale. an ordering from highest to lowest degree of brilliance. Blake's "Memorable Fancy" of plate 15, in which he follows the word from Hell's printing house to the libraries of Man, is but one of a hundred prophetic works that employ this chamber-within-a-chamber motif. Of the ten spheres, Malkuth, the domain of mankind, has the lowest vibrational energy, the light of God in its most corrupt form. The folly of man is that he believes the defiled shell of Malkuth to be real, and he bases his understanding on it. As the body, Blake says, is the outer shell of the soul, so Reason is a mere description of external "darkness and matter," Nobododdy tracing the circumference of Ruin with his compass. It is more likely the sun will illuminate the face of Calder's Penn than Reason will reveal the true face of God.
In Malkuth are body and soul, male and female, love and hate, heaven and hell, and all the contraries Blake says are requisite to mortal existence; however, we know that the Infinite by necessity is undivided: only in the ten spheres does it express its separate attributes. The Zohar warns, "Hence, it is forbidden to one apprehending him as before Creation to imagine him under any form or shape...nothing which you could embody into a finite conception." And, "Woe to the man who should make bold to identify the Lord with any single attribute," even the image of Man (8). So, for Blake, "If the doors of perception are cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite (plate 14), infinity in a grain of sand, or an immense world of delight in the flight of a bird (plate 7)."
We may dismiss as irrelevant to the concept of the unlimited God Swedenborg's Doctrine of Corespondences, which Blake accepted (9). The god whose image man resembles is Urizen the demiurge, not the Infinite. Blake maintained a continuous dialogue with angels who are more human than divine. Supernatural they may be, but they do not excede Nature: they're just like man but with wings and incredible good health. Not only do they have flaws of character--pride, vanity, arrogance--but physically they are like man in their "minutest particulars." Presumably, they do not resemble Barbie and Ken in their controversial regions. All too human is the angel whose logic fails him in a debate with one of Hell's denizens. He is transformed into a demon and becomes Blake's favorite Bible-study partner. While Swedenborg's Doctrine of Correspondence is a mere repetition of the oldest occult axiom, "As above, so below," more pertinent for Blake is the reverse: Man projects his rarified qualities on the angels. "All deities reside in the human breast (plate 11)."
The inversion of the angelic and the diabolic in Marriage is revolutionary, casting off the chains that bind original, spiritual Man to the material world. Chief among these are Reason, which forges manacles that fasten us to the rock of flawed Creation and the limited God of every orthodoxy in whose name our drudgery is justified. Since reason and religion do not win our liberty, what resources does man possess to reclaim his spiritual birthright? Blake's answer is that imagination, or inner vision, and the courage to let it guide, are the means to transcend our worldly prison. The only sin Blake acknowledges is restraint of our boundless vision, for the "Proverbs of Hell" say, "No bird flies too high if he soars with his own wings."
Blake enriched his strong personal myth with ideas from the Gnostic and Kaballistic traditions. His affinity for these secret systems is that of a man who desires to learn the interior of the mundane. Blake wants to transcend the ugly corruptions of matter. His quest is absurd since it requires turning back Creation; leastways, it is not an occupation with results that may be measured in a finite lifetime. For those who would have as an examplar a man of more substance, may I suggest that William Blake without transcendance, without London, is Benjamin Franklin. A ridiculous bronze statue of him, pressing copies of the "Proverbs of Material Acquisition" busies itself on North Penn Square, across the road from the Masonic Temple and City Hall.
1. Dr. Peter Tasch, a conversation, Temple University, Oct 23, 1992.
2. Milton Klonsky, William Blake, the Seer and His Visions (New York:
Harmony Books, 1977), p. 11.
3. Klonsky, Blake, p. 54.
4. Willis Barnstone, ed., The Other Bible (San Francisco: Harper & Row,
1984), p. 16.
5. J. G. Davies, The Theology of William Blake (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1948), p. 105.
6. Barnstone, Other Bible, p. 51.
7. Klonsky, Blake, p. 11.
8. Barnstone, Other Bible, p. 712.
9. Davies Theology, p. 41.