As a work of art, William Blake’s famous set of engravings illustrating the Book of Job is undoubtedly one of his finest achievements. But he made it very clear that his art was never an end in itself. Its purpose was to communicate his visionary perceptions for the benefit of mankind: “To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes/Of man inwards into the Worlds of Thought”. Similarly, I shall keep throughout to a psychological rather than a theological interpretation.
Plate 1: The Letter killeth, the Spirit giveth Life
The first ten plates deal with Job’s downfall. Though they contain many hints of the underlying causes of his suffering, at this stage, since he himself is unaware [unconscious] of those causes, there is nothing he can do about it.
Job and his family are assembled under the massive Oak Tree which is in effect the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This signifies an external source of moral judgment whose values can be applied by the reason. It separates the opposites, day from night, sun from moon. The oak in particular is Blake’s symbol for the “Druid” religion, which was really his name, with overtones of human sacrifice, for the debased conventional Christianity of his day, which he saw as a cruel religion of punishment for sin.
Surrounded by the signs of their material prosperity, they are saying their prayers, in conventional attitudes of pious meekness, to “Our Father which art in Heaven”, an external, all-powerful, father-god whom they need to have on their side, and who needs to be propitiated in case they may have sinned. [i.e. the God of social control, which keeps us as in perpetual infancy].
This child-like, unquestioning, obedience to authority looks like a kind of innocence; but, in trying thus vainly to cling to the dependent innocence of childhood, Job fails to recognise and to shoulder the responsibility which is truly his as an adult. [His family, for example, are depicted as praying, or meditating, rather than actually doing anything to transform the world]. The tent-like shape in the margin may symbolise the maternal, sheltering, aspect of this rather insubstantial system of order, the Tabernacle containing the Ark of the Covenant as the prototype of Mother Church.
Job and his wife have large books open on their laps: for their prayers and for their moral guidance they depend, not on their own vision, but on the writings of other men which traditionally embody the Law of God. The two books, like the two tablets of the Law in the Ark of the Covenant, no doubt symbolise the dualistic nature of this Law of good and evil.
Plate 2: I beheld the Ancient of Days
The upper part of the picture, which represents heaven and is separated from the earthly scene by a thin veil of cloud, is taken as an image in Job’s mind rather than as an external reality. The cloudy veil is symbolically equivalent to the veil ordained in the 26th chapter of Exodus to conceal the holy of holies within the Tabernacle from the eyes of the uninitiated so that they could project the value of sanctity onto what lay behind it.
There is a marked change in Job’s bearing. With evident pride he holds up the Book of the Law to the two angels witnesses to his goodness and perfection. He imagines God asking Satan: “Hast thou considered my Servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil?” Satan is at once the Tempter, who leads him into this self-conscious pride, and the Accuser, who, through that pride, will be able to attack him with accusations of sin. This latter destructive component of the personality is called by Blake the “Spectre”.
Above, God, in the exact likeness of Job, sits on his Judgment seat with the Book open on his lap. His ten sons surround the throne (ten is the number of the heavenly spheres and of the sephiroth of the Cabbalah), and in the centre, Satan (Lucifer, of the sphere of Venus, the Morning Star), who is one of them, is replying to God, who seems to have challenged him to find Job wanting. He expresses Job’s secret doubt: is he really good in his heart – or is it only because things have gone well for him and he has so much to lose that he complacently praises the Lord, and is careful to obey the Law which he believes to be the condition of his prosperity?
Plate 3: Satan begins his work
Plate 5: ‘Was not my soul afflicted for the Poor?’
In his heaven, God’s air of self-doubt exactly matches Job’s below. His left foot is slipping down towards Satan, who looks more vigorous than ever as he dives down in flames to our his poisons into Jobs ear, leading him further into error. The ear, for Blake, is the organ of spiritual perception.
Below, Job now tries to compensate: with self-conscious charity he gives a loaf of bread to a blind beggar; but the quotations at the top of the page suggest that he does this, not out of any genuine concern for the beggar, but simply to prove how good and kind he is. This false charity is degrading both to giver and to receiver (it is both given and received with the left hand).
Plate 10: Division: Judgment and Pity, Pity and Judgment
Here is another of Blake’s recurring images, that of the three pointing accusers. The three friends continue to argue that since God is just, Job must have sinned; yet none can say what his sin may have been. This does not apparently deter them from accusing him. He knows he has not disobeyed the moral law and cannot understand why he has been so unfairly treated.
[Job is still framing God in terms of Good and Evil – and thinking therefore that God will reward “Good” (Obedience), and that to suffer must mean one has done something “Bad”, or that God doesn’t exist. In his own terms Job is of course entirely (rationally) right – which is what makes this so painful for him – he has committed no explicit disobedience. It is not therefore the issue of finding out what ‘sin’ he has committed, but realising the true nature of the oppressive ‘God program’ that lies behind his whole way of thinking about morality, justice, and divinity. It is summed up in the unanswerable quotations at the top of these illustrations: ‘What! shall we receive Good at the hand of God & shall we not also receive Evil’; ‘The Lord gave & the Lord hath taken away.’ Can it be the ‘same’ God that does both? – or, as Blake put it even more compellingly in The Tyger: ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ If you find it hard to answer this question, that’s exactly the point. It is tearing Job apart.]
Plate 11: The Turning Point
Here Blake departs from literal illustration to use Job’s terrifying dreams, the contents of which are not mentioned in the Book, as the pretext for a powerful image of the conflicting forces at work within his mind, the source of his unexplained guilt.
Job’s dream reflects the predicament of the man who tries conscientiously to be good according to the received moral law, believing it to be ordained by God. Job’s fortunes are apparently at their lowest ebb, yet this plate contains the seed of new and liberating insight. If he could bear to look, he would see that his implacable God of rational justice, the arbiter of right and wrong on whom he feels totally dependent for his security, is none other than Satan, with horns and cloven hoof. And this Satan, also in Job’s image, threatens him with damnation if he should dare to sin himself. This is the price of identifying with what he believes to be the Law of an external God.
The hidden motive of this accusing Satan-God is revealed by the large and scaly serpent which is coiled round him, showing him to be possessed by the lust for Power [i.e. possessed by the Urizenic ‘left hemisphere’ of the divided brain, whose “prime motivation is power“, as McGilchrist notes]. Though the amount of energy caught up in this conflict may vary considerably in different people, the divided will is characteristic of man as a thinking being. It stems form the very nature of the process of thinking. [Urizen].
In order to think, and to communicate through language, we divide up the continuous whole of our experience into things, beings and events, and differentiate between them by describing them in terms of pairs of opposite qualities or attributes, such as, for example, high and low, hot and cold, or good and evil, which latter are represented here by two tablets of the rational Law [i.e.the dividing and compartmentalising powers of the linguistic left hemisphere of the human brain]. These opposites are mental concepts, useful for practical purposes; but they exist only in the mind, and are meaningful only in a comparative sense relatively to each other. Yet we often deludedly seek one of such a pair as if it could exist without its opposite. We seek pleasure and avoid pain, we want to be strong and to avoid weakness, and we try to be good and not bad according to the values of those on whose approval we feel we depend. These seem to be obvious choices; but we might as well look for an object with a front but no back, a top but no bottom, and a right side but no left. [Being ’bad’, being disobedient, experiencing pain, or being weak, can often be ‘good’ things in the right context – as Job is beginning to learn].
Though we may believe in the idealised self-image which secures us acceptance and regard it as our real self, what we have to disregard in order to believe in it doesn’t just go away. If suppressed, it has ways of asserting itself indirectly [as in Job’s dreams, or through his experiences of loss and destruction. They are indeed trying to ‘tell’ him something – not that he has sinned, or that an external parent or God is angry with him – but that he is asleep, and enchained to a morally self-righteous and therefore alienating fiction. Orthodox morality alienates, isolates, and hardens us – the process which Milton in Paradise Lost termed “damnation”].
Plate 21: So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than the beginning
This wonderful picture of the life of the redeemed in the Earthly Paradise has a kind of inner music. It radiates a luminous and peaceful joy deeper than could be conveyed by any outward gestures or facial expressions, The joy is not mere happiness; it is also the willing acceptance of suffering.
The scene is the same as in the first plate of the series. Job is once more with his family under the tree [now the Tree of Life], and his flocks – the signs of his restored prosperity – are all around and now (spiritually) awake and alert.
Before, Job and his wife were piously reading standard prayers to an imaginary father-god, far off in heaven, with their children humbly kneeling around them. But now they no longer kneel. They all stand up, joyfully, yet seriously, making music together. Each is celebrating the Divine Vision in his own way, improvising the melody which is his life in counterpoint with the lives of the others, a free individual responding creatively with love and imagination to the needs of the world.
This excerpt is taken from Andrew Solomon’s wonderful exposition of Blake’s set of engravings for the Book of Job: Blake’s Job: A Message for our Time.