Tag: Jerusalem

Chariot of Fire, Cloud of Data

Wednesday, 24 February, 2016 0 Comments

Now that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is underway, one wonders how/if contemporary artists will rise to the challenge of depicting the great changes that are coming. These changes might lead to the ending of drudgery or to the ending of privacy; they might lead to the printing of human organs or to mass production of sexbots… The threats and opportunities are bewildering and what makes the concept of Industry 4.0 so exciting is that where we’re going doesn’t have roads yet.

The First Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century saw the development of new manufacturing techniques, including steam power, and this had a huge impact on employment, output and living standards. But it was hugely disruptive and the English artist William Blake portrayed the downside in his poem Jerusalem:

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

As smoke and ash belched across hill and dale, the Romantic poets railed against what they say as the ruin of Eden, but the same William Blake, who memorably pictured the “dark Satanic mills”, also said: “Nature without man is barren.” In other words, we are responsible for this world and we must embrace change:

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire!

Blake ended his poem on a defiant note. Let’s see if our modern poets can craft anything as inspiring as Jerusalem while the Cloud unfolds:

I will not cease from mental fight;
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Two hundred years ago, William Blake urged people to join the fight to build a better world. To arm himself and his readers for the spiritual revolution within the Industrial Revolution, he called for bow, arrow, spear, chariot of fire, passion and imagination. These were the tools for the task. Despite the smoke and flames from the mills, nature could be preserved, he said, but only if people had the will and the wit to save it. Today’s Fourth Industrial Revolution promises great benefits, but its agents, robotics and artificial intelligence, could trigger mass unemployment and social chaos. Do we have the will and wit to cope with that?


Mary McCarthy’s Macbeth

Friday, 30 October, 2015 0 Comments

“The idea of Macbeth as a conscience-tormented man is a platitude as false as Macbeth himself. Macbeth has no conscience. His main concern throughout the play is that most selfish of all concerns: to get a good night’s sleep.” With those three sentences written in 1961, Mary McCarthy challenged the traditional reading of Macbeth, the man, the murderer, the monarch. He was your everyday bureaucrat, just doing his job, she declared in “General Macbeth” (PDF 108KB).

Two years after McCarthy’s essay was published, Hannah Arendt questioned the common belief that anti-Semitism was what motivated the key Nazi pen pushers. “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” proposed that conformism was at the heart of top-level Hitlerian wickedness. Maybe evil is simply a function of thoughtlessness, Arendt suggested. Mary McCarthy didn’t use the “banal” word in her meditation on evil, but we know Arendt admired the essay and her interpretation of the efficient SS-Obersturmbannführer is in keeping with McCarthy’s interpretation of the man who would be King of Scotland. Mary McCarthy is brilliant here:

“Macbeth has no feeling for others, except envy, a common middle-class trait. He envies the murdered Duncan his rest, which is a strange way of looking at your victim. What he suffers on his own account after the crimes is simple panic. He is never contrite or remorseful; it is not the deed but a shadow of it, Banquo’s spook, that appears to him. The ‘scruples’ that agitate him before Duncan’s murder are mere echoes of conventional opinion, of what might be said about his deed: that Duncan was his king, his cousin, and a guest under his roof. ‘I have bought golden opinions,’ he says to himself (note the verb), ‘from all sorts of people’; now these people may ask for their opinions back — a refund — if they suspect him of the murder. It is like a business firm’s being reluctant to part with its ‘good will.’ The fact that Duncan was such a good king bothers him, and why? Because there will be universal grief at his death.”

As Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are a perfect team in Justin Kurzel’s new filming of Shakespeare’s noir masterpiece. His big screen Macbeth is a physical, atmospheric work made all the more chilling by a Scotland of snow, sleet, biting wind, bitter frost and badness and madness.

Macbeth


When old news was news

Friday, 6 March, 2015 0 Comments

Life was hard and diversions were few around Peebles on the Scottish Borders in the early days of the 19th-century. News of the outside world was infrequent and often arrived long after events had taken place. The “headlines” of the time were conveyed by travellers and welcomed by a largely illiterate public. Robert Chambers, the famous publisher, recalled an eccentric character called Tam Fleck who wandered the area carrying a translation of The Jewish War by the Roman historian Josephus, which he read out as if it were the “current” news and which was relished by his audience:

“Weel, Tam, what’s the news the nicht?” someone would ask.
“Bad news, bad news…Titus has begun to besiege Jerusalem; it’s gaun to be a terrible business.”