Transformation Through Love.
From the moment I mastered the written word, books have been my constant companions. As a child, my reading was promiscuous, like an addiction and with little discrimination. Whether it be the adventures of David Balfour in Stevenson’s “Kidnapped”, the science fiction of Jules Verne, Tennyson’s verse tales of King Arthur or the discovery of philosophy when I came across a copy of Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, I always had a book with me, in the same way some children carry around a football. I can’t claim to have understood everything I read, but I got enough from even the most difficult books to make the reading worthwhile. Many of the writers I discovered as a child and in my early teens have remained friends who continue to nourish me, help me through difficult periods and share my good times.
There are three writers in particular I continue to re-read and refer to, writers that have helped inform my own ideas and literary efforts. Each time I return to them, I gain more insight into their work and, more importantly, into the world around me and ways I respond to that world. Their influence has been aesthetic, political, physical and spiritual. All three are from the 19th century, though the first began his literary career in the late 18th century. Over the decades, I have seen ever more similarities, as well as differences, between them. All three of them shine a light on the darkest areas of human experience and imagination, helping provide a transformative path to the salvation that love brings.
The first was a poet, mystic and artist. He is probably most famous for writing the words to the song known as “Jerusalem”, though I suspect he would be appalled at the jingoistic use to which his politically radical, if not revolutionary, words have been put. “Jerusalem”, which is the opening section of his much longer poem “Milton”, is a call for people to rise up against the oppressors and their “dark satanic mills”, using the imagery of bows, arrows, spears, chariots and swords. It is as far away from the Women’s Institute and the Last Night of the Proms as it is possible for a poem to be.
This visionary was William Blake who was thought mad in his day, had visions that inspired much of his art and poetry and was once charged with treason. He hated hypocrisy, he argued that everyone should have the means to enable them to live their lives free of unnecessary constraints whether from the state or the church. He was a Christian who despised what he saw in churches, he was a revolutionary who initially supported the French and American revolutions but opposed the excesses of both, he was a moralist who in his poem “Garden of Love” – and elsewhere – railed against the restrictive “thou shalt not” morality of church and state.
His symbolic work “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” contains the core of his belief system. The last section, “A Song of Liberty”, ends with the following:
Let the Priests of the Raven of dawn no longer, in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the sons of joy. Nor his accepted brethren – whom, tyrant, he calls free – lay the bound or build the roof. Nor pale religious letchery call that virginity that wishes but acts not!
For every thing that lives is Holy.”
Note the universality of that final sentence: every thing is holy. That means the wasp who stings us, the snake who bites us, the mosquito who drinks our blood are all holy. It means the neighbour who keeps us awake with loud music is holy. It means the queer-bashers who left me needing hospital treatment are holy. It means even the worst tyrants in history are holy.
Clearly, there is nothing holy about murder or oppression or genocide or tyranny: these are evils that have no place in this world or – assuming there is one – the next. Yet, according to Blake, those who commit these offences are holy. What on earth is going on here?
Blake is, I think, reinterpreting the traditional doctrine of Original Sin, which argues we are all born sinful. Blake is saying we are all born holy and without sin, and that it is through our interaction with the world and human-made rules that we become unholy. But he also suggests this state of holiness can be reclaimed through our transformation into free, unfettered beings who are no longer bound by the restrictive political and sexual morality of church and state.
But Blake is saying more than this. In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” he also writes:
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to human existence.
In Blake’s view, we can’t have one without the other: we can’t know love without also knowing hate and vice versa. In “Songs of Innocence and Experience”, many of the poems in one have their counterpart in the other. For example, “The Lamb” in “Songs of Innocence” with its nursery rhyme metre can be contrasted with “The Tyger” in “Songs of Experience” with its heavy, industrial and pounding rhythm. In “The Tyger”, Blake asks:
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
Blake makes even clearer the necessary co-existence of these contraries in “The Marriage of Heaven & Hell”, when he writes:
Opposition is true Friendship.
The Victorian novelist, Charles Dickens, provides us with clues regarding the way these contraries can work together and how transformation can occur.
Unlike Blake, Dickens was immensely popular in his lifetime, and has remained so ever since. But like Blake, he had a social conscience and campaigned for social change, often putting his money where his mouth was, helping to set up and finance a home for unmarried mothers, funding educational programmes for the underprivileged and speaking out against the workhouse, child labour, the treatment of factory workers and torture camouflaged as education. He did this on speaking tours, in articles and essays, but above all in his truly wonderful novels. He was often writing from personal experience: his father had been in debtors’ prison and as a child he had to work in a factory to support his parents and siblings.
One of the many seams that work their way through his novels is that of transformation, particularly that of flawed characters, such as the convict Magwitch in “Great Expectations”, the miser Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” and the dissolute Sidney Carton in “A Tale of Two Cities”.
The last paragraph of “A Tale of Two Cities”, in which the narrator imagines Carton’s final words before the guillotine, is one of the most famous endings in literature:
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.
Why does the hedonistic, self indulgent and selfish Carton give his life to save that of his doppelganger, Charles Darnay? Not only do the respectable Darnay and the degenerate Carton share the same features, they also love the same woman, Lucie Manette. Knowing that she will never choose him, Carton promises to do all he can to further the relationship between her and his lookalike. So when Darnay returns to France, is arrested as an aristocrat and sentenced to the guillotine, Carton enters the prison in disguise and takes his place.
Carton, Darnay and Lucie can be seen as examples of the contraries described by Blake. Without Carton, Darnay would have been executed and Lucie would have lost her lover. Without Lucie, Carton would not have known love and without Darnay would not have found a way to express it. They are all essential for the salvation of the others
It is love that leads Carton to his transformation from an idle reprobate who thinks only of himself to a social creature who understands there are things more important than his own pleasure, indeed more important than his own life. Love in one form or another is at the core of any such transformation.
The unloved miser Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” is transformed after being reminded of the love he had as a young man, being shown the love that makes the poverty-stricken Cratchit family happy and witnessing the joy on offer at his nephew’s Christmas party.
In “Great Expectations”, the convict Magwitch never forgets the kindness, a form of love, shown to him by the child Pip, and it is this that leads him to use his money to make Pip a gentleman. Indeed, it is the convict’s love of Pip as the son he never had that leads to Pip’s realisation of the pain he has caused to the gentle and forgiving Joe Gargery.
The word “love” covers a whole spectrum of meanings. The ancient Greeks had at least seven words for different types of love, including Eros – sexual and romantic love, Xenia – the offering of hospitality to strangers, Philia – the companionable love between friends, Storge – family love such as a parent for a child and Agape which has multiple meanings including what Thomas Aquinas describes as “to will the good of another”. The one thing all these have in common is they involve the individual putting others before themselves.
The ancient Greeks also had a word for self love: Philautia, without which I would suggest we cannot love others. To explore this I will look at the work of Oscar Wilde.
Wilde was a literary polymath who was equally at home writing fiction, poetry, plays, children’s stories and essays. His love for another man, which combined elements of Eros and Philia, led to him being imprisoned and almost certainly led to his premature death. In modern parlance, he was punished for being gay.
In his wide-ranging and still relevant essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, Wilde argues that only Socialism can provide the conditions for every individual to be able to live life to the full as a free person, and that Christianity has a role in achieving this providing it looks to the words of Christ rather than the dogma of denominations. He argues, as contemporary Liberation Theology does, that Christ was attracted to people on the edge, to the oppressed, the despised, the marginalised, and that he had little time for the wealthy, the arrogant, the hypocrite. He then writes the following:
‘Know thyself!’ was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written. And the message of Christ to man was simply ‘Be thyself.’
There is a logical progression here: before we can be ourselves we have to know who we are, as human beings capable of both love and hate, friendship and enmity, selflessness and selfishness. But above all we have to recognise ourselves as, to use Blake’s word, “holy”. In other words we have to love ourselves. Once we recognise this, we can then be ourselves by choosing to emphasise what is good in our personalities, in the process transforming ourselves by attempting to return to our original sinless form.
We can also see here the way that Blake’s contraries or opposites work together: Socialism in whatever form is a collectivist ideology in which the individual subsumes their own desires to the needs of the group, yet it is this collectivism that Wilde sees as essential for individual liberation.
Wilde is often dismissed as a dandy, as someone who is concerned only with his own selfish pleasures. Yet, despite his own protestations, he is one of our most moral writers. In his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, it is not Gray’s self-love that is the cause of his downfall, but his lack of self-awareness. Gray’s dissolute behaviour, ultimately resulting in his death, is a way of him running away from his conscience, his awareness of his own guilt. The very existence of the Picture is a way of Gray hiding from himself. What we see in Gray isn’t Philautia or self-love, but self-hate.
We also see in the starkest of ways how opposites rely on each other: while Gray remains beautiful and youthful, the Picture becomes ever older and uglier. Gray’s attempts to destroy the Picture result in not only the destruction of his own beauty, but his death.
We can contrast Dorian Gray with Lord Goring in “An Ideal Husband”, a satirical play that attacks Victorian hypocrisy, particularly sexual hypocrisy. It is from Lord Goring’s mouth that we hear Wilde’s famous aphorism “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance”. Many commentators have suggested that Lord Goring is a fictionalised version of Wilde himself and Goring, who knows and loves himself so well, believes in the importance of forgiveness.
Indeed, forgiveness is a theme found in all three writers. If it is withheld, then both parties are damaged. But forgiveness is only meaningful if we acknowledge what needs forgiving. In “A Poison Tree”, Blake writes:
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
In other words, he got rid of his anger by naming and by forgiving whatever and whoever caused it. Contrast this with the rest of the poem, where Blake treats his enemy differently by withholding forgiveness, leading to his anger being the seed from which the Poison Tree grows.
In “Jerusalem” (the long mystical poem, not the song), he makes clear just how important forgiveness is and how damaging it is to withhold it. He writes about creating:
A Tent & Tabernacle of Mutual Forgiveness
and refers to Jerusalem as:
O point of mutual forgiveness between Enemies!
To withhold such mutual forgiveness is:
…to become One Great Satan
Inslaved to the most powerful Selfhood: to murder the Divine Humanity.
Dickens too sees the importance of forgiveness and the dangers of seeking revenge. In “Great Expectations”, Miss Haversham’s refusal to forgive the man who deserted her on what was supposed to be their wedding day condemns her to a life of misery in the darkness, surrounded by rotting wedding cake and rats: a life in Hell. Not only that, but her attempt to reek revenge on the whole male gender by raising Estella to be heartless, leads to her ward experiencing her own Hell by rejecting Pip’s love and entering a loveless marriage of domestic abuse.
I know all too well how these issues can affect a person’s life. I was born into a Catholic family 16 years before male homosexual behaviour was decriminalised in England and Wales and 30 years before the same happened in Scotland. Growing up and gradually becoming aware of being gay at a time when my sexuality was considered both a crime and a mental illness and condemned by my church as a sin inevitably had an effect on my self-esteem. I lost my faith and I spent many years attempting to be straight – or, as I thought of it, “normal”. I hated myself, believing it was only my own weaknesses that were responsible for my inability to change my sexuality.
When I eventually came out and was able to live openly and honestly, life began to have meaning. Not even the horror of queer-s putting me in hospital nor the experience of being sacked for being gay, followed by a temporary period of homelessness could alter that. Yet I still could not forgive the world, and particularly the Catholic church, for what it had done to me.
Until that is I met people of faith in my voluntary work for a local lesbian and gay helpline and a local HIV/AIDS support group, and later in my paid work as an HIV/AIDS worker. I met an Anglican deacon who later became one of the first women in Britain ordained as a priest who provided non-judgemental support and care for gay men with AIDS and a Methodist preacher who, along with others, helped set up a group for Christians who wanted to change attitudes within their denominations.
But above all, I fell in love with Simon, an Anglican priest who refused to hide me away and with whom I still share my life, 32 years later. Armed with the example of these and others, I went to a Catholic Mass for the first time in 20 years.
So there I was, at Mass after so long away. I had told no-one, not even Simon: I didn’t want to commit myself to anything, just yet. As soon as the choir began singing the first hymn and the procession of priests and servers, complete with swinging thurible, made its way to the altar, I
knew I was in the right place.
In his sermon, the priest described going to the wedding of a friend, one who was divorced and getting remarried. When his friend expressed pleasant surprise at the priest’s presence, he had told him – and he now told the whole congregation – that we should not judge the lifestyles of others, that we should not condemn others just because they lived their lives differently. It was as if he were speaking directly to me, telling me: it’s okay to be gay and to be here. That was the moment this cradle Catholic knew he would be returning home permanently.
We are all flawed, we have all done and said things that we are ashamed of, and will probably continue to do so until the end of our lives on this earth. We are all a mixture of good and evil, of reason and energy, of the unholy and the holy. If we recognise this, we can avoid the fate of Dorian Grey and, like Ebenezer Scrooge and Sidney Carton, we can, through love in all its myriad meanings, transform ourselves some of the time into the holy beings Blake described.
Kevin Crowe Biography:
Kevin was born in Manchester in 1951. He has been a Dylan fan since the mid 1960s, first saw him live in 1969 at the Isle of Wight Festival and has been to numerous concerts since.
Before going to university as a mature student, he worked in various factories and bars. After getting his degree, he worked in social care for many years (including ten years working with people with HIV/AIDS), before moving to the Scottish Highlands with his husband in 1999 to open a bookshop and restaurant.
Kevin has over the years had fiction, poetry and non-fiction published in many magazines, anthologies and in recent years online. He has read his work at many locations, including the Scottish Parliament, Glasgow’s Aye Write Festival, Ullapool Book Festival and John O’ Groats Book Festival. In 2020, he had his collection of short stories “No Home In This World” published by Manchester independent publisher Fly-On-The-Wall Press, the title coming from a song written by Woody Guthrie. Also in 2020, he was appointed as editor of the award-winning Highlands LGBT+ magazine “UnDividingLines”.
I discovered Blake through a musical route, after reading how he was a major influence in the songs of singer / songwriter, Patti Smith. He is a must read for any writer / artist. Excellent post and one I will be coming back to.