In between units of my AP English class, I spent a few days with William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake doesn’t fit nicely into any tradition of British Literature, but his work touches on some of the realities of life in London that other writers ignore. So before we charge into Jane Eyre, Blake.
Blake is a Christian mystic (well, maybe). He believes in a relationship with the divine that is not mediated by the official church. In fact, he sees the church as complicit in forging the manacles of repression that plague humankind. When talking about him, it’s helpful to have an idea of faith that is not infringed upon by doctrine, and so I mentioned the “prelapsarian state of humankind.” My students, high school seniors, did not know what “prelapsarian” meant. Perhaps that is not a surprise—I’ve been told that it is not surprising. No one has taught them about these ideas. Before.
I wonder about what we teach and what we do not teach. There are big sweeps in history and the more minute formulae of mathematics. Grammar in foreign languages. We get big personalities on the world stage—the great man curriculum now incorporates women too. We try to do a decent enough job with race—at least we focus energy there, even if we don’t solve the problem. The history of family life gets left out. The small scale, which is to say daily, costs of industrialism gets left out. We may talk about love, but not about sexual relations. A sense of the on the ground effects of historical movements in faith gets left out. We do the big and the particular, but not so much what gets eaten at dinner (unless you learn that in a foreign language class) or what gets talked about in the bedroom.
There is a history of the personal. It is all around us. I loved to show the first episode of Ken Burns’ Baseball, because it showed how sport was connected to leisure time, which was connected to work, which was connected to changes in industrial patterns and urban growth and a half dozen (more) other things. Teaching Blake, there are the chimney sweeps (nothing like Bert in Mary Poppins) and syphilis, and the Tyburn Tree. There is a hidden, or at least forgotten, history here. And Blake’s glowing mysticism.
My students are shy about the hidden—which is why it is hidden and remains hidden. They sit at the edge of the pond and hedge their bets. They are cautious up to a point. They will wander off topic bravely, and even venture half-baked opinions bravely, but they have a hard time connecting to what they have read. And so often, the hidden remains off limits.
Being a reader means charging in fearlessly, and letting the text in, being attentive in the most focused and furious way. One must be—at once—open to difference and self aware. In Blake’s words, to “[t]urn away no more,” to want to return, to renew. What Blake seeks is that untainted energy and inspiration, unbridled from easy suppositions or over-chartered paths—the crooked way that is at once as old as the ancient trees, and as new as this morning’s dew. Prelapsarian. If not free of sin, at least free of shame—either of one’s deepest feelings or one’s ignorance. Let me learn, the reader cries. Teach me something new.
Oh, to be giddily enthusiastic. To be unashamed of charging in, both sides of the brain blazing. I know there are more quotidian concerns–colleges, jobs–but to seek the full flight of inspiration and imagination, that should count for something. Yes? At a personal level, we give some of that away, and teach our students to stay reasonably in their lanes.
Or not. There must be time to blaze, to dare. Again. As if for the first time.