Saturday, August 03, 2002
They have divided themselves by Wrath, They must be united by Pity—in terrors of Self-annihilation.

This is one of Blake’s Proverbs from Hell, and I wrote it down when I read a biography of Blake’s while I was living in Paris. At the time it sounded extreme, as Blake often does—but it made sense to me as I was focused on the first movement, from wrath to pity.

In the current state of our world, however, the closing phrase has been the one that resonates—first through the suicide bombers, and the intractable bloodshed in Israel, and then as a path beyond that, as the point where there is hope again. Unlike the gentle pablum we seem to be fed about how to resolve it, Blake is clear on the difficulty of dissolving wrath—that it is not a short step, nor lightly undertaken, nor painlessly resolved.

It is hard to track the moment when dynamics and scale begin to diverge: when a poor person in the United States is actually poor on a global scale, or when the psychological anguish of an unemployed middle manager matches up to the bone-grinding difficulty of a subsistence farmer in drought. I say this not to ridicule Americans, but to point in the opposite direction—that there may be more consistency in the dynamics of suffering that difference in the scale, and so with many things—with happiness also, though not with physical comfort (though its excess probably creates more unhappiness that its mild lack).

This runs counter to Blake’s thesis—annihilation is unequivocal, but I think the dynamics of the self are resilient and cyclical. Even people who have changed a tremendous amount have frequently changed within a range—on a scale—that is still bounded by their core character. That when a wrathful Self is annihilated, the new self that rises in pity is an echoed shape of the old self, and the patterns of wrath likely to emerge and emerge again. And yet this is as hopeful as it is depressing—that the patterns of joy are as likely to emerge and emerge again—and that our experience of that rebirth and that resurrection are likely to lead us to be hopeful about whatever small changes can be wrung from our limited selves.


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