We returned from our trip via the Mars Cheese Castle (of course). I took a glorious shower, the first in many days, and Matt's van died. ): He was saddened, because it's not worth fixing and now he has no transport. On the other hand, as he pointed out, at least it died in my driveway and not in Wisconsin. After driving other folks home (thanks for lending us your car for the summer, Libby!) I went to join Susanne Sklar and her Visionary Christianity class for a reading of Blake's Jerusalem.
This is such a huge event that I can't really do it justice here, which is very sad. Katya and I were at the very first Reading, and I notice that there's no blog entry for that one at all--it was just too important and too big to write about. The blog entry would have taken days. Maybe I started one and gave up. Anyway, the way Readings work is thus:
Everyone get a copy of the text. Jerusalem is Blake's epic work, incorporating his mythos into a single poem about the death and resurrection of England, about the salvation of humanity, and... well, it's about everything. In short, it's one of the Major Unified Works*, along with Hamlet. Blake engraved 99 plates with his mystic visionary artwork and his mystic visionary poetry, then printed some copies which he colored by hand. The end result? One of the greatest amalgams of Truth and Beauty in the world today. Also, a ridiculously dense text. I'm told that in order to understand what the hell's happening in Jerusalem, so must first read all of Blake's other work featuring the same characters (Zoas, Emanations). Of course, if you haven't read Jerusalem yet, those other works are neigh incomprehensible.
Fortunately we had a guide, in the form of my friend Susanne Sklar. Susanne recently completed her Doctorate of Divinity† from Oxford University. Her thesis was a guide to Blake's Jerusalem, and it was selected (from the twelve Oxford Divinity doctoral theses this year) to be sent on for review to Oxford University Press. This doesn't mean that they will publish it necessarily, but about half of the time these recommendations are followed.
Susanne is a very impressive person, even aside from her newly acquired credentials: she was lost in the Gobi Desert, and rescued by monks n a jeep; she won a boat in a poker game, (it's still languishing on the coast of Australia); she was an espionage agent for Greenpeace; she glows with her own mystic visionary light; and she can--and does--quote long stretches of Blake at the drop of a hat.
Anyway, we were well led. And we had our text. Next we were assigned parts to read. I read the part of the Giant Albion, who is England and Humanity... a sort of exalted Everyman demi-god. Then we read chapters one through three, with Appropriate Music played in between. If it's narration, it's read by whomever feels like reading it, and we usually switch with each paragraph. If it's a character speaking (and it's is inordinately difficult to tell, often, who is speaking or even whether someone is speaking... fortunately Susanne has spent a little time studying this text...) the appropriate person takes over. The cast of characters include Albion, Los (which is a Last Name candidate for me, more on this later) Jesus Christ, Ireland, Bath, and a bunch of others.
The next step is where we take a nap. On Monday this occurred around one in the morning.
The next step is where Susanne plays Appropriate Music to wake us up in time for
The last step, which is to walk down to the lake and read the final chapter such that (thanks to Susanne's exquisite timing) Albion Awakens just as the sun first appears over the water, and by the time he's bent his horn fourfold bow and restored the world (and england, and himself) to life, the sun is shining down with full force and beauty. I've done a lot of sublimely amazing things in my almost-thirty-years-of-life, and this is one of the amazingly sublimest. Not a lot of sleep is involved, however.
Also, I think the first Reading was a little better, mostly because it didn't immediately follow a twelve mile hike. An argument could be made that, since William first read it to Catherine, Jerusalem has only been read out loud three times. It's never been a popular favorite, so few people have even read it to themselves all the way through. And when Susanne explained to the Blake scholars at Oxford that she'd held a reading (with a bunch of non-Blake-scholars, more than a few of whom weren't even scholars at all) they found it exceedingly hard to believe. I'm proud to have been a part of that first reading--and perhaps I read Albion that time, as well? The Second Reading was in England, and Phillip Pullman (still no tea for him, though, grr) was Albion. This was the Third Reading. It was phenomenal.
Dedre, if you're reading this, my work that day was not at all affected by hiking twelve miles and then reading poetry all night. I did leave a few hours early, however. I figured that was far, since I arrived at work a little after dawn... (:
The rest of the week involved recovering, until Wednesday...
*I say "Unified" to differentiate it from works such as the Christian Bible, the Koran, the Journey to the West, &c. These are certainly Major Works, but they are collections of stories by different hands, with varying levels of quality.
There is a lot of good poetry in the Bible (although I'm not sure that they're quite as good as Harold Bloom believes) but it's been over 1500 years since anyone editted them. Hamlet, on the other hand, was written by a single author over less than a generation, and was refined after it was finished. So was Jersulam.
Comparing this sort of literature to works like the Buddhist Sutras is like comparing Mapplethorpe's work to the entire contents of flickr.com--there are a lot of absolutely incredible photographers that use flickr, maybe even a few who approach Mapplethorpe... but there are also a thousand thousand "Here's my new rug"s to contend with. Hmm, perhaps that's not a great analogy.
†And whenever I mention that degree, I am now compelled to footnote this amusing poem I found in Wikipedia:
A young theologian named Fiddle
refused to accept his degree
"It's bad enough being named Fiddle,
Without being Fiddle, D.D."