The Ancient of Days, William Blake, watercolour and relief etching, 1794 CE, British Museum, London. The title is one of the names of God, as mentioned, for example, in the Old Testament Book of Daniel. This is a favorite image of architects, as it shows God as the divine architect planning creation with a bronze compass. In Blake’s personal mythology, this is Urizen, who began as satanic but later partakes of God power, representing reason and law. For Blake, Urizen’s architectural tools, like the compass here, are used both to create the world and to constrain it.
Happy New Year to all my visitors !
“To see a World in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the Palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour.”
from Auguries of Innocence by William Blake
Commentary on William Blake's Illustrations to The Book of Job
— A New Year's Note by Bill Casselman —
Now that would have been a happy new year indeed! This is William Blake’s (1757-1827) vision of what God says in The Old Testament, when he speaks out of the whirlwind to the undeservedly suffering Job.
God’s first speech in chapter 38 of The Book of Job is one of the most powerful theolalias (religious writing in which God speaks) in all of world literature. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on your piety—the speech reflects perfectly what a vindictive, senile old sadist Yahweh is, branding man as a puny idiot in the face of God’s created earthly wonders. “Hey, Job,” brays the Almighty, “were you around when the morning stars sang together? I didn’t think so, loser!” Thanks, Almighty Dude, for your modesty and thrilling logic. Continues the Almighty: Maybe I’ll just smite you on one side of your head? That IS what you best understand, isn’t it, lowly anthropoid? Think I: Smiting those who worship you? Just to keep 'em crawlin’, right, Big Beard? You bastard!
Etymology of Theolalia
For a technical term still in wide use , a word not too obscure, theolalia is surprisingly absent as a headword from both the Oxford English Dictionary online and Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, Merriam-Webster, 2002. The two components of this compound Greek noun are theos ‘god’ + lalia ‘a speaking’ from the Hellenistic Greek verb lalein ‘to talk, to speak; also pejorative: to chatter on, to babble.’
The most common scientific word with the root is probably echolalia, a psychiatric disorder in which the patient repeats robotically every word that is said to her or him. The religious phenomenon of speaking in tongues has a fancy name too, glossolalia (Greek glossis ‘tongue’) no doubt to make the performance seem authentic. Once upon a time, girls could bear the given name Eulalia ‘she who speaks well.’ Lalophobia is a fear of public speaking. Dyslalia is a speech impairment due to malformation of the external speech organs. Idiolalia is speech so defectively uttered as to be unintelligible.
Blake's Job on Job
This is among William Blake’s later artistic works, one of 21 illustrations to the Book of Job, completed when Blake was almost 70 years old. If you have ever wondered what a masterpiece looks like, here is one. You can wait around dawdling on the corner for the masterpiece-man to drive up in his Lexus SUV and unload a “major work” into your trembling hands. Hey, you can wait for the boxing day sale of the eons—but you will not see the like of Blake’s vision again any time soon.
Although the biblical story of Job is an account of undeserved suffering by a righteous believer, Job suffered, according to Blake, because Job adhered too closely to the letter of religious, written-in-a-book law, instead of allowing his own imagination to guide him in understanding both his own spiritual needs and the physical plight of bad luck and boils.
Job’s suffering was a consequence of his humanity not of his paltry share of divinity.
Blake would have told Job that mystical spirituality must be explained reflexively too, that, as the ancient Greeks put it rather vatically “the way in is the way out.”
Confused? Well, that’s good!
Blake wanted people to employ fully our human capacity for wonderment.
The Credulous Ninnies of Orthodoxy
Blake particularly loathed the credulous ninnies of orthodoxy running to ask mansion-homed priests and corrupt TV-show-hosting reverends, mealy-mouthed robbers and deceivers of the poor all of them, to interpret Holy Writ, when it was, felt Blake, up to each experiencing imagination to supply its own meaning to spiritual moments and to comprehending how God and Holy Writ and even Jesus may be mere conduits, mystical pipes (!), that permit spiritual knowledge to flow into our own consciencenesses.
Analysing by oneself a moment of life mystery, of course, takes mental effort. It is far more common for the slobs of devotion to loll about the earth like stunned rebel angels, still dizzy from The Fall, too prostrate with spiritual laziness to rise up, cast off the torpor of piety, and cogitate about a specific spiritual occasion.
So troublesome a vice was this to early fathers of the Christian church that theology has its very own technical term to describe it: acedia, from ancient Greek, meaning a metaphysical listlessness, precursor to one of the seven deadly sins, Sloth.
Was your moment a divine visitation or a brain chemistry event? I can promise you this: if you try it, you may just experience a thinking New Year!
My Favourite Quotation from the Life of William Blake
It was not said by Blake but by his wife, Catherine Boucher. Catherine was once asked by an acquaintance what it was like being married to a mystic and a poet. She replied, “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company. He is usually in paradise.”
Long desert nights of spousal disparity lurk in that clever reply, even though Catherine was a true helpmeet, assisting Blake in the making of his engravings throughout their marriage.
Note from an exhibition catalogue:
“A professional engraver by trade, William Blake (1757 – 1827) was one of Britain ’s greatest printmakers. The twenty-one engraved illustrations for the Book of Job are Blake’s best-known and finest achievements. Executed in a progressive style, Blake’s prints are akin to expressionist and surreal images that were created one hundred years later. They also echo and reflect the visionary images of earlier German printmakers such as Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528).”
The introduction to Songs of Innocence (1789 CE), poem and engraving by William Blake
Thomas Phillips painted Blake in 1807.
This picture hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Thoughtful New Year to all my Readers!
Bill Casselman, December 31, 2016
some text Copyright 2016 William Gordon Casselman
Increase your vocabulary, today with a modestly philosophical comment on the mystical English poet William Blake
At the Wording Desk