Experience & Religion : William Blake & Jane Kenyon

The Chimney Sweeper

A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath.
And smil’d among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death.
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy & dance & sing.
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.

-William Blake, from The Songs of Experience

In this short tale of abuse Blake gives us a terse bit of social and ecclesiastic criticism. The reader, drawn into the poem by the unattributed first three lines, is encountered by a “little black thing”, a child reduced to an object. The cry of “weep, weep” recounts the words of Jesus in Luke 23:28 (“Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children,”), an allusion further strengthened by the use of “woe”. His parents worship some warped Trinity, not God the Father, Son, and Spirit, but God, the Church, and the Government. But there’s defiance in this messianic child. The song they told him to sing was “sweep, sweep” to sell his services, but he cries out to the people to repent. Though he was stricken and afflicted yet he is happy and dances and sings. (Chimney Sweeper from the Songs of Innocence can be found here.)

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Staying at Grandma’s

Sometimes they left me for the day
while they went — what does it matter
where — away. I sat and watched her work
the dough, then turn the white shape
yellow in a buttered bowl.

A coleus, wrong to my eye because its leaves
were red, was rooting on the sill
in a glass filled with water and azure
marbles. I loved to see the sun
pass through the blue.

“You know,” she’d say, turning
her straight and handsome back to me,
“that the body is the temple
of the Holy Ghost.”

The Holy Ghost, the oh, oh . . . the uh
oh, I thought, studying the toe of my new shoe,
and glad she wasn’t looking at me.

Soon I’d be back in school. No more mornings
at Grandma’s side while she swept the walk
or shook the dust mop by the neck.

If she loved me why did she say that
two women would be grinding at the mill,
that God would come out of the clouds
when they were least expecting him,
choose one to be with him in heaven
and leave the other there alone?

-Jane Kenyon

In a similar vein is Jane Kenyon’s poem about a girl abandoned for the summer at her overbearing grandmother’s. There’s menace in the lines describing the grandmother, it isn’t hard to see the frightened girl as the white dough turned yellow. The grandmother seems threatening, turning her “handsome” back on the girl, shaking the “neck” of the mop. It’s clear that the way the Holy Spirit has been presented to the girl that being his temple is a scary thing, “the oh, oh, the uh-oh”. The sense of exclusion culminates in the final stanza, when God himself arrives taking one woman, leaving the other behind.

These two poems taken together present real world religion warts and all, from over-zealous believers to hypocritical leeches, but both children are remarkably insightful in their understanding of the kingdom. The chimney sweeper is joyous despite being the suffering servant and the little girl knows better about love than the adults around her. These two poems taken together serve as a reminder that unless we become as little children we shall by no means enter the kingdom of God.

What is Past or Present or to Come : a Review of No Country for Old Men

The Coen Brothers’ film No Country for Old Men, based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, is a seamless exercise in the strangulation of hope. Unlike their previous films set in the dark world of murder (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo) No Country has no glimmer of escape, no place of refuge, and no chance at mercy. Not only is this place no country for old men, it is no place for anyone at all.

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The theme of the movie is the inexorable march of violence, like its fatalistic antagonist, wryly named Anton Chigurh, whose clockwork killing punctuates the movie. In this world, where God is only noted as an absence, people are chewed up and spit out, victim and victimizer alike, with such casual determinism that only horror is at home. No film since Chinatown delineates the Christian virtue of Hope from its secular counterpart pessimism.

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The Only Hope in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men

“Where you went out the back door of that house there was a stone water trough in the weeds by the side of the house. A galvanized pipe come off the roof and the trough stayed pretty much full and I remember stopping there one time and squattin down and looking at it and I got to thinking about it. I don’t know how long it had been there. A hundred years. Two hundred. You could see the chisel marks in the stone. It was hewed out of solid rock and it was about six foot long and maybe a foot and a half wide and about that deep. Just chiseled out of the rock. And I got to thinking about the man that done that. That country had not had a time of peace much of any length at all that I knew of. I’ve read a little of the history of it since and I aint sure it ever had one. But his man had set down with a hammer and chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that? What was it that he had faith in? It wasn’t that nothing would change. Which is what you might think, I suppose. He had to know better than that. I’ve thought about it a good deal. I thought about it after I left there with that house blown to pieces. I’m goin to say that water trough is there yet. It would of took something to move it, I can tell you that. So I think about him settin there with his hammer and his chisel, maybe just a hour or two after supper, I don’t know. And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart. And I don’t have no intentions of carvin a stone water trough. But I would like to be able to make that kind of promise. I think that’s what I would like most of all.”

-Sheriff Bell, from “No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy

Hell to the Thief : Radiohead

Thom Yorke, caving to pressure from fans that it was too long, trimmed their sixth album, Hail to the Thief, and reordered the songs. What follows is the revised album that I call Hell to the Thief.

  1. There There (The Boney King of Nowhere)
  2. The Gloaming (Softly Open Our Mouths in the Cold)
  3. Sail To The Moon (Brush the Cobwebs Out of the Sky)
  4. Sit Down, Stand Up (Snakes and Ladders)
  5. Go To Sleep (Little Man Being Erased)
  6. Where I End And You Begin (The Sky is Falling In)
  7. Scatterbrain (As Dead As Leaves)
  8. 2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm)
  9. Myxomatosis (Judge, Jury & Executioner)
  10. A Wolf At The Door  (It Girl. Rag Doll.)

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Oneida Community : Bring Life to the Table

The Oneida Community was a religious commune founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York. The community believed that Jesus had already returned in AD 70, making it possible for them to bring about Jesus’s millennial kingdom themselves, and be free of sin and perfect in this world, not just Heaven (a belief called Perfectionism). The Oneida Community practiced Communalism (in the sense of communal property and possessions), Complex Marriage (a polyamorous group marriage wherein all partners live together, share finances, children, and household responsibilities)Male Continence (or coitus reservatus, wherein the penetrative partner does not attempt to ejaculate),and Ascending Fellowship (whereby community elders, considered especially godly, led younger believers heavenward by introducing them to what they saw as the holy pleasures of sex. Shortly after puberty, boys and girls were assigned a succession of older love partners). The community also experimented with eugenics, a deliberate mating strategy in order to produce ideal human specimens. The founder John Humphrey Noyes, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, thought that his “superior” genes should be heavily represented in this effort.

The Oneida Community dissolved in 1881, and eventually became the giant silverware company Oneida Limited.   

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How Superman Movies Should Be

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Superman is the greatest American mythological character and it isn’t even close. After six films, all but one can be considered a blockbuster, but none have topped the original 1978 film starring Christopher Reeves. Yet while it is indisputably the best it is nonetheless flawed.

Superman has a nice three part story arc if any hotshot Hollywood writer wants to use it.

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The first movie would not deal with his origin. This is one of the flaws of the recent Man of Steel, overburdening a movie with a bunch of hastily scribbled nonsense does nothing to advance the character. The first movie is about a super man, emphasis on the man. It is his humanity that should be the focus.

Begin with Kal-El crawling out of a strange looking meteor (swaddled in a unique material that in certain angles reveals the S Shield). Jonathan and Martha Kent find him and eventually adopt him, raising them as his own. He comes into his powers slowly and Pa Kent imbues him with a sense of honor, sacrifice and other such noble sentiments. Paired with Superman’s childhood is the upbringing of Lex Luthor, whose hard life motivates him to gain riches and domination. At the brink of adulthood they both experience an enormous personal loss Luther loses someone/something (Hey, I can’t do all the work here, I’m not getting paid) and Superman loses his father. Keep in mind that Clark, as he is known, just knows that he is “special” and his entrance into the lives of the Kents was “miraculous”. Continue reading

A Brave New World

Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World gets its title from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The line is uttered by the sheltered Miranda. She is astonished to see other men, the coarse and drunken sailors that crashlanded on the island cause her to cry out:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.

The irony is carried over in Brave New World when John the Savage remarks: “O brave new world that has such people in it.”

The civilized Bernard Marx responds: “You have a most peculiar way of talking sometimes,” said Bernard, staring at the young man in perplexed astonishment. “And, anyhow, hadn’t you better wait till you actually see the new world?”

The French edition was titled Le Meilleur des mondes (The Best of all Worlds) an allusion to the phrase coined by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in his theodicy.

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“About 99.5 per cent of the entire population of the planet are as stupid and philistine as the great masses of the English . . . The important thing, it seems to me, is not to attack the 99.5 per cent – except for exercise – but to try to see that the 0.5 per cent survives, keeps its quality up to the highest possible level and, if possible, dominates the rest.”
-Aldous Huxley