Monday, August 11, 2008

The Duality of Love and Strife, Innocence and Experience

In Canto XII of Inferno, Dante makes an enigmatic reference beginning in line 40:

……the steep and filthy valley
had trembled so, I thought the universe
felt love (by which, as some believe, the world
has often been converted into chaos);

These lines refer to the Greek presocratic philosopher Empedocles, whose most famous conception was that all matter was formed of four primary elements: fire, earth, air, and water. These elements existed independently of one another, and the varying degrees to which they intermixed determined the different physical natures of things. The moving powers that managed their mixture and separation were the forces of Love and Strife. Human beings, comprised of all four primary elements, saw these powers played out in their relationships with each other; all human interaction manifests degrees of love and strife, and to have too much of one or the other could prove disastrous to a harmonious life. The universe also must maintain a balance of the two, risk descent into chaos. If there were ever too much love, all elements would draw irrevocably towards each other, differentiation would cease, and chaos would ensue. If all elements drew irrevocably away from one another, through a preponderance of strife, the result would be the same. Dante’s reference is to the former situation.

Dante made Love ultimately victorious through his conception of the spiritual variety, in which ultimate Love for God opened the door to salvation. His views of the dangers of material love resemble more closely the dangers of imbalance perceived by Empedocles. For example, in Circle Seven, a lack of love felt towards oneself or others caused the Suicides and the Wrathful to land in their present predicament. On the other hand, too much love damned the Lustful. The larger significance awarded by Empedocles to Love and Strife as prime movers was seen as heretical by Dante; for him, God was the only prime mover, and his chief duality governing the universe was Good versus Evil.

Dante would define Good as that which followed God. Evil was that which turned away from God. Those who pursued evil lives without repentance would be forever separated from God and placed in Hell. Those whose repented could find salvation. Evil was essentially an act of rebellion against the ultimate good, God. Therefore, the ultimate evil was the ultimate rebellion: that of Lucifer against God. Since Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, humanity has knowledge of evil, and therefore the ability to rebel against God. The ideal life in the Christian tradition is one lived in allegiance to God, either through the denial of evil or the repentance of evil acts. Dante’s point is that humans are a manifest duality, containing both light and dark; we are left with the choice. It is interesting to note that many of the souls in Hell seem perfectly unrepentant of their choice. Also, the character Dante affords several of them a great deal of respect, if also pity for their final predicament.

The duality explored by Blake is his most famous work, Songs of Innocence and Experience, was a bit more complicated. Blake rejected the classic Christian duality of good and evil. For him, life was a composite of these things, and the Poetic Genius shied from nothing in its expression of life. Innocence and Experience were for Blake a necessary duality because the one led to the other and back again, a journey that represented a life lived fully. Put simplistically, one could say that pleasure cannot be appreciated without knowledge of pain, and that the path through pain leads to pleasure. Innocence can be equated to the halcyon days of youth, in which there is no knowledge of life’s pain. Adolescence brings it with it a first taste, and maturity can be seen as the struggle against it. The purpose of a life well lived is the return to a state of innocence, lost with the first knowledge of pain, but regained through the acceptance of it.

The poems in Innocence showcase the joyful time, those of Experience the painful; both at times present the struggle towards acceptance. The duality of the two is presented by Blake through his juxtaposition of similarly titled poems. For example, consider “The Lamb”, from Innocence, and “The Tyger”, from Experience. What Blake seems to be saying, first and foremost, is that the Poetic Genius can render equally the pacific and the ferocious, and that both are beautiful. Furthermore, while we accept wholeheartedly the nature of the lamb, we shy from that of the Tyger. We are born into the lamb, and seek to live through the example of the Lamb; yet the dread question posed in “Tyger”, “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”, reveals the reality of life’s dual nature, contained in God and given form in his creation.

The Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb I'll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?