William Blake: Songs of Innocence and of Experience – Review

Children of the future Age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time,
Love! sweet Love! was thought a crime.

A fascinating collection, and an intriguing introduction to Blake’s ‘complex mythology’. The book takes us on a journey of discovery through the contrasting concepts of the title: from Innocence to Experience.

To Blake, Innocence seems to represent a childlike mind-state unspoiled by the corrupting influences of adolescence. The majority of these poems are decorated with simplistic religious images: The Shepherd, The Lamb, and The Tree of Life being recurring symbols throughout. The innocence of childhood is directly related to the pure and untouched beauty of the natural world in many of the poems in the first half of this collection.

However it is during the Songs of Experience where Blake’s true talent as a visionary poet becomes apparent. Blake’s visions of a holy world become blighted by his increasing awareness of the pain and poverty he sees in his depiction of modern London. His Christian spirituality grows ever more conflicted and his personal ideas on religious truth become starkly contrasted with those of Church. Poems such as Holy Thursday start to show show his increasing frustration:

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

 

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

 

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns.
It is eternal winter there.

 

For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

Here we see that Blake is making a direct and powerful attack on the shameful presence of so much injustice in a supposedly ‘holy’ land with some commentators arguing that the reference to ‘Holy Thursday’ is a satire of the annual parade of charity children in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

However, the most damning critique of the Church perhaps comes in The GARDEN of LOVE:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

 

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

 

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

The imagery here is clear. The garden of Innocence in which he had once played is now occupied by a chapel surrounded by graves. The black priests may represent the death and burial of the innocent view of childish freedoms.

And yet, to Blake, Experience itself not seen as being wholly negative. With Experience comes the development of reason and the discovery of sexual desire, both of which are symbolised throughout many of the poems and are represented as dualistic in nature. To me, Blake’s Christianity has more in common with paganism and mysticism than it does with the damning, repressive institutional Christianity of the Church during Blake’s time.

Overall this was a fantastic and clearly revolutionary collection. The language is simple but the message is complex, and it seems like these poems are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the mystical mythology that Blake constructed in his other works. I’m definitely looking forward to exploring more in the future.

Edith Hamilton: Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes – Review

Frankly you couldn’t ask for more from an introduction to mythology book. Edith Hamilton writes with complete lucidity without losing any of the magic of the original stories. Her style is neither dry nor overly verbose and she manages to pack in a lot of information into a small space in sharp literary prose.

To me the most interesting accounts of myths in this collection were:

– The story of Dionysus who, although I have read a lot about Dionysian concepts through Nietzsche, I didn’t know a lot about his character. “The worship of Dionysus was centered in these two ideas so far apart—of freedom and ecstatic joy and of savage brutality.”.

– The story of Theseus which included small pieces of information about each one of his adventures that made me curious to learn more about him. He is by far the more archetypal Hero than his contemporary Hercules and his tale connects to almost every other other famous Greek legend.

– The story of Daedalus the genius inventor, creator of the Cretan Labyrinth and father of Icarus. “He [Theseus] had Daedalus, a great architect and inventor, construct a place of confinement for him from which escape was impossible”. Daedalus was a fascinating figure precisely because he as the creator of the Labyrinth was the one who suggested for Ariadne to give Theseus the string. Daedalus is the epitome of the pharmakon.

– The retelling of the Iliad (Homer’s epic tale of the Trojan war is one we are all familiar with but Hamilton provides an excellent summary of long and complicated story.)

– And the retelling of the Aenid (I for one wasn’t quite aware of the lengths Virgil and the Romans went to link themselves to the bloodline of the Trojans but it’s fascinating.)

Hamilton is clearly a scholar of both Homer and Virgil but her retellings of these classic tales bring them to life in such a concise yet entertaining way that either your children or your grandparents would find them equally informative and enjoyable. In fact, although the Iliad has been on my reading list for years I never wanted to read the Aenid until I read this book.

Those were just a couple of things that stood out to me but of course this book covers all the escapades of the gods, demi-gods, and heroes, as well as the stories of creation and the much later Roman interpretations of earlier tales.

Overall this isn’t the scholarly source book that something like Robert Graves’ Greek Mythology is but it’s an immensely readable collection of the most important myths from antiquity (it even includes a very short section at the end that covers the Norse gods!)

In my opinion this book has not dated at all and I think even modern readers would be hard pushed to find a better introduction to Greek mythology. 5*

Haruki Murakami: After the Quake – Review

No matter how far you travel, you can never get away from yourself. It’s like your shadow. It follows you everywhere.

Enjoyed this far more than I expected to. In fact I read the whole book in almost a single sitting. Although Murakami is still one of my favourite authors I’ve become slightly jaded by his writing. Anyone who’s a fan of his surely knows all the criticisms reviewers throw at him: recycling the same themes, similar characters in almost every book, and the feeling which initially strikes you as an intense dreamlike surrealism can (after 4 or 5 of his books) become dull and overly predictable.

The key I’ve found to enjoying Murakami when you’ve read so much of his work is to know the right state of mind in which to read him. You have to be willing to be swept away by his thoughts. Saying that, this usually requires long periods of delving into a particular story, and considering this was the first collection of his shorts that I’ve read I wasn’t expecting much other than a few entertaining, easy, stories to read in my breaks at work.

Instead I found a really fantastic and at times bizarre collection. And this is coming from a huge fan of Borges, Calvino and Kafka who are the absolute peak fantastical and surreal short fiction in my eyes.

The opener UFO in Kushiro was a very familiar Murakami tale that included all the classic Murakami tropes (distant women, strange hotel rooms, sensual flashbacks etc.) but it really hooked me. In fact it put me into that dreamlike state which in my opinion is necessary to get the most out of Murakami’s writing.

The other two stories that stand out were Super-Frog Saves Tokyo and Honey Pie. Honey Pie was the final story in the collection and it was actually a beautifully written modern love story. By the end of the book it really tugged on my heartstrings. I imagine it’s very similar in style and content to Norwegian Wood (which I have never got round to reading!)

But it was during Super Frog (absolutely the most bizarre thing I’ve read by Murakami since the famed Johnny Walker scene in Kafka on the Shore)that I really understood what Murakami was getting at with this collection:

“A very, very big earthquake. It is set to strike Tokyo at eight-thirty a.m. on February 18. Three days from now. […] Buildings will be transformed into piles of rubble, their inhabitants crushed to death. Fires everywhere, the road system in a state of collapse, ambulances and fire trucks useless, people just lying there, dying. A hundred and fifty thousand of them! Pure hell. People will be made to realize what a fragile condition the intensive collectivity known as ‘city’ really is.”

Japan, throughout the last hundred years, has been subject to events such as this numerous times, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to Kobe and Fukushima. The aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake is a common theme throughout the book, hence the name, but what Murakami did excellently here was to show how an unplanned natural catastrophe can echo the fragility of an individual’s personal experience. This imagery reverberates in some way or another through every story here.

In a country whose values are so routed in tradition and stability, yet whose modernisation has come through such an unsettling time of accelerating development and unplanned disaster, the Japan that Murakami writes about is a country coming to terms with this struggle.

Similarly to The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore, Murakami tries to reflect aspects of the Japanese psyche that have been affected by the turbulent times in it’s history. This is something that is arguably not talked about enough in regard to his writing. But all in depth analysis aside, I really enjoyed this. It made me remember why I love reading his books. No doubt Mr. Murakami still deserves his place on my top.5.

Zygmunt Bauman: The Art of Life – Review

[From Janaury] So in an extremely coincidental turn of events (for me) Bauman died the day after I finished this book. It was the first of his I’ve read and although this review isn’t the most positive I still feel it’s necessary to add my condolences. RIP to a great man.


Interesting in parts but on the whole fairly uneventful. The key theme of the book is that in order to come to terms with our ‘liquid modern’ world, we must view ourselves as ‘artists of life’:

So we are all artists of our lives – knowingly or not, willingly or not, like it or not. To be an artist means to give form and shape to what otherwise would be shapeless or formless. To manipulate probabilities. To impose an ‘order’ on what other would be ‘chaos’: to ‘organize’ an otherwise chaotic – random, haphazard and so unpredictable – collection of things and events by making certain events more likely to happen than all the others

The way he forms these ideas from a variety of philosophical and modern sociological sources was definitely interesting but I felt there was a little lack of focus on the whole. The idea of a ‘liquid modernity’ – a modernity that is constantly shifting; where values, relationships, and commitments are no longer fixed for more than a short period of time – is hardly a revolutionary one. Nevertheless there were definitely some gems of insight here and some extremely pretty passages. For example:

All things of the body stream away like a river, all things of the mind are dreams and delusions… What then can escort us on our way? One thing, one thing only: philosophy.

I particularly liked the introduction in which we get a brief overview of different conceptions of happiness through the history of philosophy, and later the anecdote of replacing the ‘uprooting’ of identity with a ‘reanchoring’ of identity:

Indeed, unlike in the case of ‘uprooting’ and ‘disembedding’, there is nothing irrevocable, let alone ultimate, in drawing up an anchor. When they are torn out of the soul in which they drew, roots are likely desiccate, killing the plant they nourished and making its revival border on the miraculous – anchors are drawn up only to be cast out again, and they can be cast out with a similar ease at many different, near or distant ports of all.

Definitely some post-modern influence here. (I’m sure the Deleuzians would be happy to see people getting away from those pesky arborescent roots!)

Overall I would say it was a fairly enjoyable read, but it lacked that lacked that spark of profundity that any good work of philosophy hits you with. Maybe I’m being slightly harsh but I think 3* is fair. In general I don’t think I’ll be coming back to Bauman’s work any time soon.

Aldous Huxley: Ape and Essence – Review

An interesting little book. A lot of familiar Huxley tropes (conflicts between eastern and western philosophy and religion, warnings about the progression of technology, commentary on the dualistic elements of human nature, etc.) but written in a rather more experimental way. Certainly ahead of it’s time considering when it was released. I think if I had read this during my late teenage years it could have been one of my favorites along with Brave New world and Island.

And remember this,” he adds: “even without synthetic glanders, even without the atomic bomb, Belial could have achieved all His purposes. A little more slowly, perhaps, but just as surely, men would have destroyed themselves by destroying the world they lived in. They couldn’t escape. He had them skewered on both His horns. If they managed to wriggle off the horn of total war, they would find themselves impaled on starvation. And if they were starving, they would be tempted to resort to war. And just in case they should try to find a peaceful and rational way out of their dilemma, He had another subtler horn of self-destruction all ready for them. From the very beginning of the industrial revolution He foresaw that men would be made so over-weeningly bumptious by the miracles of their own technology that they would soon lose all sense of reality. And that’s precisely what happened. These wretched slaves of wheels and ledgers began to congratulate themselves on being the Conquerors of Nature. Conquerors of Nature, indeed! In actual fact, of course, they had merely upset the equilibrium of Nature and were about to suffer the consequences.

Stephen King: The Gunslinger – Review

My first experience reading King. After an interesting beginning culminating in the slaughter of a dreamlike desert town (where I could see elements of King’s horror writing that make him such a well known author) there really wasn’t too much to capture my attention. The majority of the middle was a fairly dull adventure story dotted with small glimpses of the protagonist’s backstory. There were definitely some good elements that help to build the slightly surreal, post-apocalyptic world King is trying to create, but they didn’t really do much to hold my interest. However the climax of the story and the inevitable encounter between the gunslinger and the man in black was fantastic. Suddenly we’re thrown into a metaphysical monologue with an extended dream sequence that reads like a mescaline trip and starts to show us the route King might be taking the rest of the series. Overall I think 3* is a fair rating. I’m not in a rush to read any more King books after this one but I’d quite like to come back to the Dark Tower series at some point in the future.

Alejandro Jodorowsky & Mœbius: The Incal – Review

The Incal is possibly one of the most difficult books I’ve had to rate in recent times. The problem with rating comics is that I don’t know how to distinguish between the overall reading experience, the script, and the art itself. Jodorowsky and Moebius’ work really sums up this dilemma. On the one hand we have a comic script that is funny and clever in parts but often overly sporadic to the point of sometimes being incomprehensible (this shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone remotely familiar with Jodorowsky) and on the other we have a collection of technicolour sci-fi imagery that’s as inventive as it is beautiful, but is often coloured very confusingly (characters will literally change shape and colour depending on the tone of the page). I’ve found this problem again and again with rating supposedly influential comics (Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing comes to mind) but I think I’ve settled on 4* because the book undoubtedly has some elements of visionary genius tucked away in there amongst the madness. Overall The Incal took me on a journey. It creates a bizarre futuristic sci-fi world that comes across like the monograph of someone at the end of a two day acid trip – but maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Regardless of my thoughts it’s still a must read for Sci-fi fans in any medium.