I know this sounds crazy, but it seems I am being pursued of late by a 254-hundred-year-old poet and mystic. Or maybe I’ve just been watching too many crime dramas, while simultaneously reading faith-infused poetry and/or psychological thrillers (presently reading Ted Dekker’s very good serial-killer novel The Bride Collector… I met Ted and hosted him as part of the team at this past summer’s Story Chicago conference for Christian creatives — a good guy, besides being a good writer).
My pursuer– English poet, painter and printmaker William Blake — was born Nov. 28, 1757. So maybe he just wants me to throw him a big birthday party next week or something. Or is there a darker, stranger, divinely-orchestrated multi-venue conversation going on, some life-changing secret William (or God) is trying to clue me in on?
Whatever the truth behind all this is, the way things have fallen out the past two weeks is pretty weird… well beyond even the unusual level of “coincidence” I’ve come to expect in being open-minded, open-spirited, and an aspiring mystic myself.
I think watching the serial-killer flick “Red Dragon“, on demand on cable about two weeks back, was the first recent situation where Blake reappeared in my consciousness. Let’s keep in mind, though: I used to teach high school and college English, so I’ve known a bit about Blake and his work for years. Red Dragon (2002) was the third film featuring Anthony Hopkins playing Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in this case with Edward Norton in the FBI investigator/profiler role.
I liked the film, but I didn’t at that point follow up on my slowly emerging curiosity about the strange William Blake painting featured prominently in the film. It’s called “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun“, one of several dragon paintings Blake did in reference to a red dragon mentioned in Revelation 12:3-4 . I am also used to treating the Book of Revelation itself very carefully, if at all, since so many have gotten lost in that maze of symbols and so-called prophecies in 2000 years that I know better than to rush in where angels fear to tread.
Then several days after that, I had a deep conversation with a friend about some real soul-searching issues, and I was left to ponder some difficult questions about sin, false perceptions of reality, choices I have made in my life, and the shape of my particular soul.
With or without being in the late stages of a divorce (which I am), I’d already been in a dark place lately. Maybe dancing with my demons, asking more fundamental and older questions about who I am– older than just the person I became in twenty years of marriage to Sue.
Furthermore, living again as an adult under the same roof as one’s mother would probably cause anyone to re-think their past, especially someone as introspective and apparently insecure as myself. Whereas others might deny those demons, or put the onus to fight them back on God, or try to drown them in booze and drugs (never works, they just LOVE that stuff, feed off of it instead of drowning), I instead have a habit of being the “boldly go” guy, taking up my own battle sword or surgeon’s knife against these dark forces. That inner analyst never seems to take a day off, and he second-guesses every little thing.
I poke my finger in my own wounds, searchingly, yet unlike Doubting Thomas I STILL remain unconvinced about certain things I should probably have mastered, accepted or put away by now. Maybe it’s the “tortured artist” effect, or maybe it’s just unhealthy narcissism, as I try to earn my worth and identity and health instead of accepting them as divine gifts.
I also can’t help but religio-fy all these questions about identity, purpose, history, good and evil, the nature of human motivations and my own essential nature. Maybe that makes the Holy Spirit my drug of choice, maybe just my salvation, probably a bit of both. Hard to say right now. I’m too close to the problem to see it clearly.
I have always thought of my faith as the lens I must look at these tough problems through. However, maybe my old eyes have changed, but I’m still not willing to wear trifocals (or put another way, I’m unwilling to admit blindness, and then to let Jesus apply that healing mud). To paraphrase the very young daughter of a different friend: I don’t like how God made me. I want to make myself.
So back to my conversation with the first friend: it left me feeling unsettled but excited, curious. I figured out a couple days ago that it reminded me of the kind of bare-knuckled directness and philosophical “stir-the-pot” challenges that some people (myself included) associate with the films of David Fincher. I had the vague sense of a “You don’t talk about Fight Club” element underneath our conversation, like I was not ready to go to some of the strange places God wants to take me in the future.
(And lest I seem unaware, I do recall that Edward Norton was also in Fight Club – which I associate with a different unresolved “mystical moment” long ago, involving something called Cleave and some religious or occult stuff in Manhattan… but that’s a tale for another day, if ever… the plot thickens though, eh?!)
Then Mr. Blake spoke up again, a few days after that, again in the context of a crime drama. This time it was a TNT rerun of an older (I think) episode of CBS’s The Mentalist. The main character’s nemesis Red John (another serial killer) had apparently quoted some Blake on a prior episode. For Red John, his fetish was with the well-known Blake poem that begins “Tyger, tyger, burning bright.” This left grieving, guilt-stricken Mentalist Thomas Jane reaching for Blake’s collection of poems entitled Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which contains the tiger poem and accompanying illustration, as well as one entitled The Divine Image . When I paused the very brief shot of a book Jane was reading, it was a non-illustrated copy of Songs, and a shot of the Divine Image page.
Just to be thorough, here is the full text of The Divine Image:
THE DIVINE IMAGE
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
All pray in their distress,
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is God our Father dear;
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is man, His child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart;
Pity, a human face;
And Love, the human form divine:
And Peace the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine:
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew.
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.
Wiki’s preliminary notes on the poem remind us that “The title of the poem refers to the Book of Genesis Chapter 1 verse 26: ‘And God said: Let us make man in our image’. ” This poem, then, was the rabbit I followed down the hole, which led to further reading of and about Blake, plus the writing of a poem of my own:
Billy Blake’s Dilemma by Mark Nielsen, Nov. 16-18, 2011
I try to run from You.
Toward those who look like You.
Or follow You.
Or study You.
Or deny You (which is no great crime, for even Peter did that).
But I keep ending up back in this blind alley,
where You Yourself are the only option.
I subdue the tigers
and try to act the part of the Lion.
I seek the divine image,
and sometimes even find it.
But these are only images:
saints, symbols, avatars,
icons both lovingly painted and sloppily pixellated,
beautiful crutches, cheap imitations,
temporary highs and hiding places,
little lions looking in the big funhouse mirror.
or force of habit– yet again.
They are merely the reports of Your whereabouts,
the lovely and horrific experiences that —
even as they strengthen me,
even as small miracles fall upon me like rain —
still keep me enslaved.
In chains, I avoid searching where I know to look,
for a place and a Face I recognize
but don’t want to to fully know,
a space at my center,
These, even all these, are still not yet You.
You, Whom I am both longing to see,
and terrified to follow,
terrified enough to fight tigers and dragons instead.
God give me strength to surrender —
my sword, my will, my life.
Experience itself may be trustworthy as the work of God, but is that always and completely true? What if I’m not interpreting my experience correctly, or perceiving it clearly? What if the Blakean battle between heaven and hell means that sometimes I am an ignorant pawn, believing some lie about my actual life and then acting upon it, compounding sin and error in my childlike naivete or willfull ignorance? If sin is real — and I trust that it is — then it is always blurring my “lens”. My understanding of my subjective experience will always be tainted, it seems. I may be made in God’s image, but I am not Him (or Her, or Them… however you might cook it up theologically).
Finally, I was reading an old issue of Image journal yesterday –not even doing any Blake research– and Blake popped his whack-a-mole head back into my life again. Let me repeat, it was an old issue, from Fall 2007… given to me by one of my pastors a few weeks back, maybe around the same time I saw Red Dragon. I just happened to pick it up for the first time yesterday. Or did I even pick it up of my own free will at all? (cue spooky music) In it, a poet named B.H. Fairchild said two things that had a very powerful effect on me — one unrelated to Blake, and the second only a passing remark that served as a warning (?) about Blake.
The first item was a quote Fairchild included from one Julian Green (I confess I had not heard of either person till this week, for better or worse). Here’s the Green quote:
“A man who lives by his faith is necessarily isolated. At every hour of the day, he is in acute disagreement with his century.”
I will let that stand as is, except to wonder whether Blake’s ideas or behaviors were considered fairly radical in his own century, or well within the norm of what his society considered “orthodox” theology and practice. I suspect he was pushing the outside of envelope, perhaps more than many of them even realized.
The reference to Blake in Fairchild’s essay (about absence of “the sacred”), reads as follows:
“It was the sort of claustrophobic sense that Blake had of the eighteenth century and which forced him, with some appearance of madness, to imagine his way out of it, though of course for him the imagination was infinite and eternal–even, in his own version of gnosticism, divine.” [italics mine]
Fairchild then goes on to quote Spanish poet and novelist Miguel de Unamuno, about passion, doubt, an “element of despair even in their consolation”, and the difference between those who believe in “the God idea”, and those who believe in “God himself”.
So Blake, I was gently reminded, had a gnostic or heretical streak in him that needs to be accounted for. The same goes for my fascination with various William Blake enthusiasts and “disciples” that followed, among them William Butler Yeats and Van Morrison.
In other words, I can pay attention, but I dare not buy the whole package. For the world of serial killers and prophecy fetishists, of madness, is not so very far from the realm of the divine. It’s all fascinating, but don’t get lost in the lovely maze and lose the truth about God and myself. I need not be afraid of the dark, but I should be wary of what is hidden, and not go chasing after idols and false prophets, no matter how unique or even brilliant they may seem.
Is that your message from the grave, Mr. Blake? Don’t follow you, follow Him? Is there more? If so, speak up… I’m listening.