Tree of Life. Tree of Death.

Some months ago I wrote a post about a seminar series I began last spring which brings together researchers from humanities and sciences to talk about their research in the informal setting of a pub.

Last week it fell to me to give the humanities talk. Immediately I was faced with the difficulty of not having a projector to show images, so I had to go for the old-fashioned solution of a handout. I decided that rather than speaking in broad terms about my project I would instead speak about one image, or rather to discuss the image with the group. And I began by being somewhat provocative by quoting Blake’s late aphorism ‘Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death.’ In the spirit in which the event is intended, I hoped that we could prove Blake wrong.

The image we talked about was The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods from Blake’s illustrations to Milton’s Nativity Ode (1809). I chose this image for a number of reasons: the set of watercolours is in the University’s soon-to-reopen Whitworth Art Gallery so anyone interested enough can go and see it easily very soon (there’s also another set of watercolour illustrations to the poem in the Huntington Library in California); it contains lots of symbols to unpack; it reproduces roughly actual size when printed on A4 paper.

So I was hoping that having begun by provoking a chorus of boos and heckles my audience would be determined to put Blake in his place. I wouldn’t say that there were any ground-breaking new insights into the image, but we covered all the salient points with observations from both sides (incidentally, I haven’t written at any length about these works in my thesis as they’ve already been analysed in detail elsewhere). I did, however, have minor palpitations when the reproductions of the whole series which I passed around to illustrate the context for the image were dispered in different directions (by a scientist); whilst the Nativity Ode illustrations happily remain together in the Whitworth, many of Blake’s works in series are dispersed across the world which presents frustrations and difficulties for the researcher.

Someone asked me quietly afterwards if I agreed with Blake, to which my response was twofold. First, in the aphorism I quoted, Blake was clearly being polemical. His attitude to science was generally quite negative (as epitomised in his portrait of Newton – at least in the standard reading of this figure), but it was not a black-and-white wholesale rejection (and in any case, ‘art’ and ‘science’ would not have meant exactly the same things for Blake as in the contemporary world). Second, if I really did think that ‘Science is the Tree of Death’ (and quite aside from the fact that I am dependent on the fruits of science in many aspects of my life – not least the digital technology that aids my study of Blake!), I would not have been in that room. And if I was in any doubt before organising these seminars, the events are a monthly reminder of the creativity that exists in both the arts and the sciences – and to not always take Blake too seriously!

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