The contrary states of the human condition

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1969

Life is rarely black and white, yet humans seem to have an irrepressible urge to see it as such. Dualistic ideas seem to infiltrate all the major religions; the idea of an absolute ‘good’ and ‘bad’, in conflict with each other. From John’s Gospel to Harry Potter, ‘bad’ is dark, ‘good’ is light, and all the rest that comes with it. In fact, we have become so used to these ideas that we’re now either oblivious to them, or actively bored by them — books or films with obvious villains are facile and deficient in character development.

Then we have the other type of dualism, of the yin-yang variety, where rather than the vic- tory of one over the other, the two are seen as complementary and even necessary to survival — the duality of day and night, for example. The whole traditional Chinese way of thought was based upon the idea that two complementary opposites add up to make something greater than the sum of the individual parts. But isn’t this also now rather overdone; an idea which has become tedious simply through its ubiq- uity in society?

There is, though, a dualistic philosophy to be found which does not simply evoke childish ‘goodies and baddies’, or tasteless caricatures of oriental wisdom. William Blake saw the world in dual terms, which were at once in conflict and yet also necessary for each other. Songs of Innocence and Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, rather makes this point by itself. The two books of poems (one written a few years after the other), go together hand in glove – almost every poem from the Songs of Innocence has a parallel in Songs of Experience, usually expressing the opposite view of humanity. And yet neither is definitive, both are merely different ways of perceiving the same thing.

If you want to see Blake expounding this explicitly, though, the answer lies in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Hint in the title? Like the Songs, Blake puts together two contraries, both of which, he says, are essential to human existence. His famous critique of Christianity rested on the idea that this faith only saw one side of life, that is, Heaven, and refused to accept that there was any place for Hell.

The opening pages of the book proclaim,“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to human existence.” From these, Blake says, spring good and evil, equated with Heaven and Hell. Good stems from reason, evil from what Blake calls “en- ergy”. This might sound slightly as if Blake saw the dual powers as completely complementary, indeed I think he probably did, but they are also very definitely in conflict a conflict which is necessary for both.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is visionary and beautiful. It consists of poems, proverbs, and what Blake entitles “Memorable Fancies”, visions of angels and demons, exploring the relationship between the two. In one such “Memorable Fancy” an angel visits Blake and warns him of his imminent destruction in the fires of hell and decides to show him what awaits him if he doesn’t change his ways. What follows is a gruesome, horrifying depiction of hell, a metamorphosing pit of anguish and terror (I definitely recommend you read it).

The angel, in fear, leaves, and suddenly the scene changes — we are on a grassy moonlit river bank, a harpist singing to his harp; a complete pastoral idyll. Blake then returns to the angel, and tells him “all that we saw was owing to your metaphysics”. He takes the angel to view his eternal lot in heaven, which in Blake’s presence turns out to be just as awful as hell. The two cordially agree to stop imposing upon each other, and that further discussion is pointless. He returns to the idea again when describing another “Fancy”, walking, delighted, in the fires of Hell, “which to Angels look like torment and insanity”. There is no sense of the two forces, good and evil, or reason and energy, in harmony with each other.

Blake was, of course, dismissed by many as a madman, and you can really see why — I’ve only recounted perhaps the most sane of his writ- ings. He developed a vast, wide ranging world of thought, filled with strange prophecies and beasts; gods and devils. His ideas become ‘gnos- tic’, seeing the Christian creator god as an evil, or ignorant entity. But at the heart, his criticism comes down to an imbalance; the Christian god is only good; Heaven; reason. It ignores the other side of hum“an nature, summed up by Blake as “Hell” in conflict with Heaven, but it is also a necessary side of humanity that should not be suppressed.

I think all his writings can be read as a critique of religion. “Energy”, “evil” is human passion — although Blake was actually very hap- pily married, he definitely approved of free love and following sensual enjoyment, to a degree. He saw the Church as suppressing this side of things and “listening only to angels”, only to the “reason” and never to the “energy” from which, he says, springs eternal delight.

Maybe it is simply the complicated nature of his message, but I am inclined to think that Blake’s dualism holds a fascination that the worn out clichés of simplistic dualistic ideas have simply ceased to do. The two halves are in genuine conflict, but they are both also genuine parts of human nature and thus, neither should be triumphed over completely 

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