Blake, Misunderstood? Review of Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead’

Josephine A. McQuail reviews Olga Tokarczuk’s award-winning Blakean novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones. Riverhead Books, 2009; translation © 2018)

Images from Spoor, the 2017 Polish film directed by Agnieszka Holland, adapted from the novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. Above: Agnieszka Mandat and Miroslave Krobot (Photo: Palk Robert/Next Film); Below: poster for the film (Photo: (WP:NFCC#4).

Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019 (the prize was delayed, due to various scandals involving some members of the Nobel Prize Committee). Her 2007 novel Flights was translated into English finally in 2018, winning the Man Booker Prize, and paving the way for the Nobel Prize.

Tokarczuk’s novel Flights won the Man Booker Prize in 2018

Tokarczuk speculated, “Sometimes I wonder how my life would have worked out if my books had been translated into English sooner … because English is the language that’s spoken worldwide, and when a book appears in English it is made universal, it becomes a global publication” (quoted in Armitstead). 

As anyone who has read Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and remembers “The Proverbs of Hell” will recognize, the title of Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel is a quote from William Blake – or technically a paraphrase, as the actual quote is “Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead.”

Not to give anything away, but the quote has a lot of relevance to the plot of the novel, as it turns out. Tokarczuk’s protagonist Janina is an elderly woman who has a passion for horoscopes; a skill that comes into play when her neighbors turn up dead.  She lives full time in a country setting in rural Poland bordering on the Czech Republic (as Olga Tokarczuk herself does).  She lives on a plateau, with harsh weather, and pointedly, calls it “the world of Urizen” (p. 56) (Urizen in Blake, or “Your Reason” as it is sometimes pronounced, is a cold, repressive force).

Each of the seventeen chapters has an epigraph by William Blake – quotes (as vaguely indicated in the Author’s Note) taken from “the Proverbs of Hell, Auguries of Innocence, The Mental Traveller and the letters of William Blake” (p. 275). The misattribution of “The Proverbs of Hell” (and not Marriage of Heaven and Hell) is puzzling, and also the lack of mention of The Book of Urizen, which is specifically discussed and quoted in the novel (“What demon hath formed this adominable void?”, p. 71). Like the misquote of the Proverb of Hell in the title, are these subtle signals that we have not the “real” Blake alluded to here, but a “filtered” one?

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Ways of Seeing: John Berger on William Blake

Possessing and Perceiving: William Blake and the Art of Perception 

 

Introduction: In the Beginning was the Image

“Seeing comes before words.” We are rooted in imagination.

Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.

But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.

The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.

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Zodiacal Physiognomy: William Blake’s friendship with astrologer John Varley

The Zoas and the Zodiac

 

Blake and Varley

Blake and Varley: Portrait of Blake by Thomas Phillips (1807), and portrait of Varley by John Linnell (1820)

Blake’s friendship with the artist and astrologer John Varley (1778–1842) is one of the most unusual and intriguing of all Blake’s unusual and intriguing friendships. They first met in 1818, when they were living as near-neighbours in London, and it is Varley we have to thank for the remarkable series of drawings of ‘Visionary Heads’ that Blake made, in the company of Varley, over a number of late-night (or rather early morning) meetings – or ‘seances’ as some people called them – that they had, usually at Varley’s house, 10 Great Titchfield Street, off Oxford Street, which was near to Blake’s in South Molton Street. These drawings included the famous image of ‘The Ghost of The Flea’; it is a rather remarkable fact that this Ghost arose out of their discussions about astrology and the possible influence of the position of the planets on both our psychology and physiognomy. The Ghost (or Spiritual Form) of the Flea, apparently, denoted ‘Gemini’. 

Blake’s drawings (including that of the Flea) were used by Varley for his 1828 book A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy – the only time that Blake collaborated with someone else on the production of a book. And what an fascinating book it is: ‘Zodiacal Physiognomy’ is surely one of the most intriguing titles for a book ever.  But what exactly was zodiacal physiognomy?

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Christmas and William Blake by Harriet Monroe

Revolutions in Being: The Meaning of the Nativity in Blake’s Vision

 

Introduction

It is strange how the worship of the Christ-child penetrated the hard old Roman-built world. It was like the perfume of a lily, of a mass of lilies, whose roots have broken rocky soil, whose shining whiteness enchants the air. An infant conquered the nations; the human race lifted up its eyes and sang a new song.

“Slowly the perfume, the song reacted in beauty in men’s minds, and the beauty took to itself form and colour and rhythm, became incarnate in churches and statues, gorgeous in tapestries and paintings, vocal in poetry and music.” (Image: detail from Fra Angelico’s Annunciation of Cortona,1433–1434).

Slowly, through those centuries of a crumbling empire and a resilient faith, the perfume, the song reacted in beauty in men’s minds, and the beauty took to itself form and colour and rhythm, became incarnate in churches and statues, gorgeous in tapestries and paintings, vocal in poetry and music. The human spirit passed from Caesar to Saint Francis, from the Colosseum to Chartres Cathedral, from pagan frescoes to Fra Angelico, from Greek choruses to Palestrina, from Virgil and the cynical later poets of a disillusioned autocracy to Dante and the epics and lyrics of new languages seeded and nourished by the old.

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The Gnostic Eve: William Blake and The Secret Doctrine, by H. P. Blavatsky

The Worship of the Serpent: The Awakening of Eve and the Generation of Nature

 

The Symbol of the Serpent: Introduction to Blavatsky’s work

Blake’s art speaks in symbols. But what exactly are symbols? And why are all of the deepest ancient esoteric truths always communicated through symbol and image?  Pike suggests that symbols are the most powerful way to mediate and convey a “truth” that lies beyond ordinary conscious, “rational” thought programmes and parameters: “The first learning in the world consisted chiefly in symbols. The wisdom of the Chaldæans, Phœnicians, Egyptians, Jews; of Zoroaster, Sanchoniathon, Pherecydes, Syrus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, of all the ancients, that is come to our hand, is symbolic. It was the mode, says Serranus on Plato’s Symposium, of the Ancient Philosophers, to represent truth by certain symbols and hidden images.”  

And one of the most powerful, and recurrent, of all these ancient symbols, he notes, is that of the serpent or dragon. “This will be found to be confirmed by an examination of some of the Symbols used in the Mysteries. One of the most famous of these was THE SERPENT. The Cosmogony of the Hebrews and that of the Gnostics designated this reptile as the author of the fate of Souls. It was consecrated in the Mysteries of Bacchus and in those of Eleusis. Pluto overcame the virtue of Proserpine under the form of a serpent; and, like the Egyptian God Serapis, was always pictured seated on a serpent, or with that reptile entwined about him.”

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Blake’s Snakes: The Image of the Serpent in Blake’s Vision

The Symbol of Symbolism: Unravelling the form and nature of the underlying Energy

 

Introduction: Entering the Serpent

Sometimes it’s good just to look at Blake’s images, and let them approach you, without any verbal text, theory, or explanation.  An encounter with their other-ness. Over the next few weeks this site will be posting a number of articles exploring the meaning and importance of the symbol of the serpent in Blake’s work, which weaves throughout his vision, and twists and turns throughout his images. 

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John Milton’s Devil-Deities in William Blake’s Illustrations to the Nativity Ode, by David McIrvine

Milton’s Dark Materials: the Dissociations of the Human Brain

One of the aims of Blake’s work is to encourage integration of the various disconnected aspects of the human brain and body. Under Urizenic (left brain dominant) systems, these often become split off and psychotic – a form of dissociative identity disorder, presented in the Bible, Dante, and Milton as separate-headed ‘demons’ – the compulsive and obsessive nature of processes that are not properly integrated. The cause of this is usually a form of hyper-rationalisation, which McGilchrist and Louis Sass associate both with schizo-phrenia and modern forms of madness.

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The Social Hell of William Blake: Industrialisation and Dante’s Hell, by Myat Aung 

Exploring the Impact of the Industrial Revolution on Blake’s Illustrations of Dante’s Inferno 

Dark Satanic Mills … Images: (top) Blake’s illustration to Dante’s Inferno, Canto X; (middle): the burning of the Albion Flour Mill on Blackfriars Road, London in 1791. Interestingly, Blake lived very nearby at the time, and the east wind that night would have blown smoke towards his house in Lambeth. The Albion Mill was unpopular and ran several of the local wind-driven mills in Lambeth out of business; (bottom): Coalbrookdale by Night, by Philip James Loutherbourg (1801).

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The Eighth Eye: Prophetic Vision in Blake’s Poetry and Design, by Rachel V. Billigheimer

Apocalypse and Perception: Moving beyond Natural Perception

‘The Man Who Taught Blake Painting in his Dreams’ (c. 1825). This is a replica of one of Blake’s drawings of figures that appeared to him in visions. It has also been proposed that Blake’s image might be a ‘visionary self-portrait’, showing the artist himself at the moment of the inspiration. The strange form on the forehead may represent flames.

“Through the eighth Eye man is able to cast off the error of tradition and dogma and achieve individual inspiration”. Picture: ‘The Sun At His Eastern Gate’. Many people see the sun as a natural object in the sky, i.e., see it in terms of the dogmas of natural science, literality, and tradition, without the reality-based eight eye.

 

Prophetic Vision in Blake’s Poetry

In a previous study, Blake’s Eyes of God Cycles to Apocalypse and Redemption, the seven Eyes of God in Blake’s prophetic books were correlated with biblical and historical periods. Directed by the spirit of imagination, these cycles were seen as intrinsic to apocalypse. Here we examine the poetic inspiration of Blake’s eighth Eye and relate it to the prophetic vision in some of Blake’s designs.

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