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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Little Vagabonds

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.

Encountering bodies at the John Rylands Library

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.