Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Human Face of God


When I was nine or ten, my mother found me, sitting up in bed, one Saturday morning reading the Book of Job. I think this was spurred by sibling rivalry as my (elder) brother, at the time, was reading the whole Bible from cover to cover (though whether he finished it entire I cannot recall). I was captivated by the text, its strangeness and its poetry, but I doubt whether I understood very much and cannot now recall why it was this particular book I chose.

One of William Blake's last major works was his engraved illustrations to the Book of Job and Kathleen Raine in her 'The Human Face of God: William Blake and the Book of Job' gives a magisterial and compelling account of the meaning and poetry that Blake infused into these illustrations.

The Book of Job was a foundational text for Blake and his interpretation of it, unsurprisingly radical. In it Job is transformed through the suffering of his ignorance and the consequent divine illumination from a man secure in his self-righteousness, a follower of the letter of the law, to one who sees himself entire as carried within, and sustained by, the Divine Imagination. His is a story of a metaphysical descent to the edge of creation, where the void of matter and quantity reigns, back towards the realm of qualities that are fashioned in the Divine mind. Both journeys are intimately linked in Blake's mind because we become what we behold - our vision of the world is one both ethical and metaphysical: who we are is what we know, what we see is what we become.

It was another great interpreter of Blake's world, E.P. Thompson, who criticised Kathleen for her overly esoteric (or other worldly) interpretation of Blake's world. Thompson was concerned for how Blake's radical religion informed his politics. It is true that she does not bring this to the fore. It is not the focus of her interest but it is vividly present. At one point she notes Job (in the fifth plate) giving an elderly man a loaf of bread and uses it, highly effectively, to comment on Blake's thoughts on charity. Job's charity looks and feels like a righteous obligation, given without any abiding compassion. Blake's view of charity was that it ought to be unnecessary: why should we live in a world where any body is in need. Charity for Blake always had 'a cold connotation':

"Is this a holy thing to see
  In a rich and fruitful land
  Babes reduced to misery
  Fed with a cold and usurious hand?"

A question as apt now, sadly, as it was then.

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