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The Marriage of Southern Comfort and Hell, Essay Example

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Essay

William Blake’s series of engravings “The Marriage of heaven and Hell” are an extended and complex vision of Blake’s peculiar metaphysical ideals. Plate 21 from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (1790) depicts a single figure bathed in shadow and light who is looking toward the sky as if suddenly gripped in a  moment of spiritual revelation.   The figure seems to be sitting on a pyramid shaped mountain of hilltop. There is an immediate sense of illumination combined with a dark and foreboding quality that gives the image an immediate emotional resonance. Beneath the image of the figure and landscape a stylized commentary in words is shown. The words are a refutation of certain religious ideas forwarded by the philosopher and theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg. The words are intended to provide an ironic context to the image because the image shows a moment of epiphany while the words relate to Swedenborg’s belief that his own ideas occupied a special, esoteric truth.

The engraved image is supposed to show a release from such dogmatic convictions. The figure is nude and it appears as though his hands are bound behind him. The light that showers over the figure is obviously intended to represent Divine power and the darkness that coils through the depiction of light probably stands for ignorance. Therefore, the overt meaning of the image along with the stylized “editorial” beneath it is to suggest a release from the bondage of ignorance and a passing into the light of understanding. This interpretation of Plate 21 is obviously merely a simplistic take on the work, but it provides a functional starting-point for discussion. The idea that the painting is intended to show a release from the bondage of ignorance is conveyed largely through the use of three artistic components: line, color, and proportion. The gesture or positioning of the figure is also highly important in regard to the theme of the plate.

Another very important aspect of the image is Blake’s use of contrast. There are many contrasts present in the image, foremost, obviously, is the contrast between light and shade. The darkest region of the image is to the left side of the figure as though “behind” the figure, while the lightest side is above the figure and to the right, in precisely the direction that the man is looking. The facial expression of the man shows wonder and surprise but remains strangely passive. This is another contrast that is important in the image – the contrast between motion and stillness. The man seems to be frozen still as though he is a part of the mountaintop, and yet the entire heavens that are shown in the image seem to be rushing with power and light.

Blake’s use of line is very interesting. The figure of the man is very carefully detailed in terms of anatomy and – due to the fact that the image shows a seated nude – there is an implied eroticism. This sexual energy is more in keeping with spiritual revelation than with physical sex, but it is obvious that Blake meant to convey a sense of human sexuality as being a part of ecstatic revelation. The shadowy part of the image is created through the use of dense line. The darkest part appears heavy and impenetrable.  The way that the lines “fan out” on the opposite side of the figure, into the light, brings to mind and image of a wing. On closer examination, the dark side also depicts a ghostly pattern that could be viewed as a wing. This indicates that there is an angelic and demonic aspect to the figure.

The conjunction of dark and light; angelic and demonic; stillness and motion, ignorance and epiphany are all brought into an harmonious balance, mostly due to Blake’s careful use of proportion and geometrical design. The main feeling that comes from the image is one of hope and affirmation. However, to someone who was deeply familiar with Swedenborg’s philosophy and Blake’s personal take on Swedenborg, it is possible that the image would appear primarily as a satiric or even sarcastic rebuttal of Swedenborg. What Blake is saying with this image is that humanity, in order to find spiritual light, must be released from the bondage of ignorance and tradition. Part of this liberation involves futurism, but it is a futurism that is part of the eternal present as symbolized by the nude male and the mountaintop.

Not many people would connect Blake’s etching of Plate 21 from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” with Ry Cooder’s      “Theme from Southern Comfort” (1981).  This piece of music was composed by Cooder to provide a soundtrack for a Walter Hill film that portrayed the fate of a National Guard squad that became lost in the Louisiana swamps and was methodically hunted down by Cajun swamp-people. However, Cooder’s musical motifs in the piece are, to my kind, not only a good match for Blake’s engraving, but an eloquent compliment to it.

To begin with, the opening notes of the theme are haunting and powerful – recalling the sound of a pan-flute – and bringing to mind the idea of sudden epiphany. This musical motif is like a signal, almost speaking words, which seems to say “Wake up! Wake up!” The ensuing melody that begins to play after the signal-opening is slow, ghostly, and plodding. The melody weaves in and out of repetition and sounds as fluid as the play of light and shadow on a summer afternoon. Throughout the piece there is a contrast between the urgency of the melody and the slow almost lazy tempo that propels it.

Just as the Blake etching expressed a feeling of mystery and revelation, the weaving melody of the “Southern Comfort” theme expresses light and shade, hope and despair and a contrast between motion and stillness. The feeling of mystery pervades the entire musical composition simply because it is asymmetrical in construction. There is no verse / chorus transition or a repeated refrain. Instead, the song seems to find its own unique course like a stream or river. There are important “rest” measures in the song that heighten the sense of mystery as though each one of the notes is heard and then just as suddenly dissipates into a background of silence.

If the silent aspects of the musical theme are considered as being analogous to Blake’s use of darkness in Plate 21 the comparison between the two works appears immediately less unsupportable. This is because the musical phrases that come and go throughout the work are analogous to the sweeping light in the Blake etching. The melody of the theme “illuminates” the silence behind the notes. The same contrast between ignorance and epiphany is shown because silence is “not knowing” while the melody progresses in a non-linear but completely logical way. The melody of the piece is a mirror of the way that a person’s ‘wandering”: thoughts make a circular route toward logical understanding.

The tonal colors of the music are alternately sad and hopeful as though there is a wash of dark and light over the entire composition. Near the middle of the piece, and then again, near the finale measures, the opening motif is repeated. This repetition is obviously meant to indicate some kind of “revelation” and the feeling of the revelation is very similar to the way that the figure in Blake’s etching is gripped in a moment of epiphany. Similarly, just as Blake’s figure is frozen on the top of a mountain in the grip of spiritual revelation, the tempo of the song seems “stuck” while the revelation of the melody washes around it with excitement and complex association. The meandering feeling that comes through the music is very similar to the feeling one has when viewing Blake’s figure on the pyramid mountain washed in shadow and light. While such general terms as “good” and “evil” seem to be somewhat beside the point in both the etching and the song, the overall sensation when experiencing either work is a of a dramatic struggle between dark and light.

Theme from Southern Comfort

Time is precious

Time is precious

don’t waste it!

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