I’ve been very lax about blogging over the summer and it’s now definitely the season “stained with the blood of the grape” (Blake’s ode to Autumn is undeservedly much less well known than Keats’).
Summer brought with it a combination of research, holidaying, conferencing and encounters with the Number of the Beast.
First was the invention of a new rule for the card game S***head by my fellow PhD-ers Scott Midson, Rosie Edgley and Johannes Lotze relating to three sixes being played in succession (as the rule was not my invention I shall not divulge it here, but it is a pretty beastly rule). The invention came about en route from Manchester to Kent when they came to keep me company house sitting for my parents and the new incarnation of the game (known, unsurprisingly as “The Beast”) kept us amused throughout our sojourn in the Garden of England and has now become a firm favourite among our group of friends.
In other news, Blake’s watercolour The Number of the Beast is 666 (c.1805) is relevant in a tangential way to the chapter I am working on at the moment on Christ as the agent of apocalypse. A couple of weeks ago, I was adding some pictures in to some work to send to my supervisors, and as soon as I added in the aforementioned watercolour the file refused to save. After wasting half an afternoon panicking that maybe I should be superstitious after all and battling to save the file, I eventually realised that I had simply run out of space and thus solved the problem by deleting some other files. Now the good people in IT have given me some more storage so hopefully I can avoid such scares in future!
Print made by William Blake (1757-1827, British), Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Plate 43, “The Little Vagabond”, 1789-1794, Relief etching printed in dark-brown with pen and black ink and watercolor on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
One of Blake’s Songs of Experience (1794), entitled “The Little Vagabond” compares a cold, miserable church to a warm, happy alehouse. It’s a typical Blakean indictment against institutional religion.
As a researcher of Blake (I’m still resisting calling myself a Blakean) at large in a religious studies department, I identify with the spirit of the poem in that my work is about Blake’s off-beat version of Christianity. Indeed, my friend Scott (who is working on cyborg theology) and I call ourselves the “rogue theologians” of the department because we’re both working on unconventional topics.
Thus, it seems in keeping with being a Blakean (albeit one in denial and “tortures of doubt and despair”) that I have started a new seminar series which takes place in a pub (which, ironically enough, used to be the HQ of the local temperance society) opposite the university campus. It’s aimed at getting PhD students from departments across the university to learn about one another’s research; each month one sciences and one humanities speaker will give a short talk about their work.
The first two sessions have been really stimulating and in today’s meeting we even had some cross-references to the one of last month’s papers. I’m looking forward to continuing the Blakean spirit and learning about more research taking place across the university over the coming months.
On Friday I was at the John Rylands Library with two fellow PhD-er friends to see collections we’re using as part of an event called ‘Untouchable Bodies?‘ which we are organising in April.
The idea for the one-day symposium has arisen from a shared interest in bodies – Scott‘s research explores cyborg bodies, Kate is looking at how archaeologists deal with dead bodies, and I’m interested in Blake’s ideas about the body. From there we started to think about ways in which we think about and interact with bodies and particularly ideas of bodies as sacred, taboo, and ‘untouchable.’
We approached the John Rylands Library to host the event and incorporate a ‘collection encounter’ into the day. This will give us several representations of bodies from a range of cultures and time periods which we will use as a starting point for discussion of the theme, as well as thinking about the ‘(un)touchableness’ of historic collections.
Friday was a chance to look at the items we are going to be using and to identify specific plates we will look at and discuss. I’d chosen Blake’s illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, which include a number of designs I have spent a lot of time thinking about for my thesis, and have written about for the JRL exhibition “Burning Bright”, but it was exciting to start to bring new questions to them as well as looking more closely at some designs I haven’t previously given much thought to.
Next up was Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), a foundational publication for the study of the human anatomy. Its many plates present an interest in the ‘minute particulars’ of the human body, studied and ‘opened up’ in fantastic detail.
Also up for discussion will be a book about mummies which will be a starting point for discussing the ‘untouchable’ qualities of mummies (a pertinent subject in Manchester which has long and esteemed history in the study of mummies), and a print of ‘Noli me Tangere’ (Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus when he says to her ‘touch me not’) from the Macklin Bible (1797).
It was fun to look at some items I wouldn’t otherwise be thinking about and to share different perspectives with Kate and Scott. I’m looking forward to giving them further thought in the coming weeks in preparation for the symposium, and to the discussions on the day itself. Watch this space for more bodies-related musings.
More details about the event and the collections can be found on the event website.