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Visionary mystification: “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun” by William Blake, c.1805


There are certain words associated in the public mind with modernism in the arts and modernism in music in particular. Modern music can sound wild and even savage. Like much  else in the modern arts, contemporary music can open a door to the dark side of human nature and our thoughts, our fears and our experiences. Yet it is modern music that sparkles and bedazzles as generations of composers fell in love with new bright instrumental colours and experimental orchestrational vividness. And in spite of the retreat of faith in Western society, composers over the last century or so have never given up on their search for the sacred. From Elgar to Messiaen, from Stravinsky to Schnittke, from Schoenberg to Jonathan Harvey, one constantly hears talk of transcendence, mystery and vision.

Visionary mysticism is much in vogue in discussion about the arts these days. “Spirituality” is held to be a positive factor by many, especially among the non-religious, or those who pride themselves on their non-conventional unorthodoxy in religious matters. Music can be described as the most spiritual of the arts by those who proclaim their atheism and agnosticism. In an age of crystals, vapours and fashionable New Age chic, the word spirituality can be used by many, covering everything from yoga and meditation to dabbling in religious exotica.

For example, William Blake’s visionary mysticism has become popular in our own time. Its private mythology, its narcissistic religion and its gesture politics chime with the mishmash of sexual libertarianism and virtue-signalling at the heart of contemporary liberal culture. It presaged our New Age, and his work is greatly admired and has genuine popular appeal. Jung described him as having “compiled a lot of half or undigested knowledge in his fantasies”. In the face of his unassailable popularity in our own times it might be this very flaw which has alerted the wariness of others. It is worth exploring the scepticism that exists about him and his influence, among perhaps more clearheaded and analytical artists, going right back to G.K. Chesterton in 1910 and T.S. Eliot in 1921.

Chesterton regarded Blake as a mystic, but in his book William Blake, he gives an account of why he thinks mystics go off-base, as he would put it, especially mystics of the modern world who deliberately seek to put clear blue water between themselves and any traditional experience of visionary mysticism springing from Judeo-Christianity. Chesterton suggests that it is this rudderlessness that lacks some of the fundamental values of genuine mysticism, as he would see it. Because Blake trusted and followed no tradition he invented his own unseen world, leading in timeless gnostic fashion to obscurity and mystification. Blake’s mysteriousness, in the negative sense, prompted Chesterton to define a true hallmark of visionary mysticism — that it illuminates rather than obscures:

A verbal accident has confused the mystical with the mysterious. Mysticism is generally felt vaguely to be itself vague — a thing of clouds and curtains, of darkness or concealing vapours, of bewildering conspiracies or impenetrable symbols. Some quacks have indeed dealt in such things: but no true mystic ever loved darkness rather than light. No pure mystic ever loved mere mystery. The mystic does not bring doubts or riddles: the doubts and riddles exist already. The man whose meaning remains mysterious fails, I think, as a mystic: and Blake did . . . often fail in this way.

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Boanerges
July 8th, 2016
12:07 PM
"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five-hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo-clock." The author's paeans for the good old days of religiosity would be rather more convincing were it not for the lingering stench of burning human flesh it conjures. This argument is morally bankrupt, and all too reminiscent of Harry Lime's leering complacency. Far from a rebel against bourgeois smugness, the author positively revels in it.

Marc
July 7th, 2016
11:07 PM
Many, many thanks for visiting Eugene, and for the brilliant gift that is 'A European Requiem', a "valid sign" indeed amongst so many of the other sort.

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