Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Blake's job on Job

It was Job beyond words in "Performing the Problem of Suffering" today - which didn't stop me from talking, of course! (Often, though, the words were "listen!" and "what do you see?") The main focus was William Blake's "Illustrations of the Book of Job" (more Job than problem of suffering, but nobody noticed), but our way in was Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Job: A Masque for Dancing," a musical adaptation for ballet of Blakes' "Illustrations" which was first performed in 1931. It's not been much performed since, though, so I wasn't able to show the class dance... Instead, I played some of the music - Scenes IV and V - while following the orchestral score and reading aloud the stage directions

as we came to them. "Imagine a dance!" It worked pretty well. There was an attentive stillness in the room. At least some of the class were seeing a stage bare but for a prone Job slowly filled by groups of wild dancers representing calamities eventually forming a circle around him before vanishing (IV), or Job coming to only to notice three messengers approaching as a somber procession along the back of the stage turns out to be the funeral cortège for Job's sons and their wives (V).

I segued to Blake by way of an anecdote mentioned in a discussion prefacing a performance of the Vaughan Williams at the BBC Proms in 2014. Apparently Vaughan Williams had sent the Blake Illustrations and his imagined scenario to Diaghilev several years earlier. Diaghilev returned them with enthusiasm for the images but rejecting the story as too old-fashioned. "So imagine you're Diaghilev," I said, "if that helps, and let's look at the Blake images." Forget the Job story. What do the images themselves say?

I started us off with the image at the top of this post, flipping back and forth with the watercolor original (now at the Morgan Library).

The image is known usually as "Job's Evil Dream" (It's the main inspiration for Scene IV in Vaughan Williams' ballet) but when I asked the class what they thought it represented, they of course concluded it must be Satan. Serpent, cloven hoof?! I played along, just nudging "if you didn't know this were the story of the Book of Job, what would you think was going on?" Next came this image, commonly associated with "Job's Evil Dream," preceding it by several years and confirming that Blake's telling a broader story of which the Job Illustrations are but one of several variants. "What do you see? What's happening here?"
Students noticed that the serpent here was coiled around the man, that the being above had wings... One eventually figured it out. "Is it Adam?" Bingo! Has the creation ever looked less happy? Adam's being forced into the distortive world represented by inhuman religion. True Christianity is about the Divine Infinite in humanity, and most of religion is an oppressive projection of failure and negation of human imagination. Blake's work uses lots of Biblical motifs but it's telling a story quite different from orthodox Christianity. I put up three Blake snibbets
to confirm this and we were off!!

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