The Book of Hell: Revisited Creative Criticism
Creative criticism allows me to blend my voice as a writer and scholar in a way that other avenues of writing do not. Writing as an act of engagement and ‘rewriting’ is something I strive to pursue through my work, most importantly poetry. “When a woman rewrites an ancient myth it is not because she yearns for a heroic past (when men were men, etc.)” (Ostriker 132), it is because she is reminded of the value and need for her voice to be heard in a multitude of ways. And, so, I took on this project of rewriting the ‘ancient myth’ of creationism, of the way god entered the mind of a writer and came out through a pen or in this context, Blake’s Illuminated Manuscripts series known as The Book of Hell. William Blake, most noted for his “Tyger, Tyger” poem across a variance of audiences, brought even more to the world through his Illuminated Manuscripts and the etchings he created. Throughout his lifetime, Blake wrote poems, created Illuminated Manuscripts, and studied a variance of ideologies both religious, historical, and spiritual in nature. Blake was willing to question the world around him and most importantly, utilized printed text and drawings to engage a multitude of audiences. Blake’s Book of Hell is made up of The Book of Urizen, The Book of Ahania, and The Book of Los. Each text offers parodies and undertakings of various creation myths, which most scholars see as a direct correlation between the Pentateuch and each installment of The Book of Hell.
In The Book of Urizen, Blake’s creative work concerns “the historical emergence of a Power within the human psyche which he calls the “Reasoning Power” or, more usually, simply ‘Urizen’ ” (Tweedy 12). Throughout this text, Urizen experiences creation through division and the realm of abstraction, where imagination does not exist. To embody Urizen, Blake replicates a very strict, unmalleable self and space, where “the gloomy, solid, silent, yet void-like location of Urizenic existence, Blake refers to  as ‘the dark globe of Urizen’, his world ‘like a black globe’, one which is repeatedly associated with shadowy rocks and stones: ‘the dim rocks of Urizen’ ” (Tweedy 13) to magnify and possess the reader with the relentlessness that reasoning possesses. This text is believed to be reflective of the Book of Genesis, which handles the creation story believed within Judeo-Christian religions of how the reason and direction of God created the world. Similarly, I had hoped to revisit The Book of Urizen through my own poem, which I have titled “The Book of Hell: Revisited” that follows a similar structure to Blake’s own work while engaging my own personal creation myths, stories, and ideologies.
While writing, “Book One: A Daughter, Signed her Father,” Of The Book of Urizen, I wanted to unpack the idea of reasoning and how it manifested within my own life. My father's stoicism could be attributed to the sense of logic and reason that Blake subscribes to. Alongside this revelation of the way logic constructs creation, as if a father could be like God, I decided to engage my own creation story, my own birth, from my father’s perspective. My family history is wrought with immigration stories of survival, with being thrust into a world where being Jewish and Russian were seen as an oxymoron. My father was brought up in Siberia when it was part of the USSR. Being part of any religion or following anything other than atheism was illegal and this created distrust within my father for authority figures and religion. He ended up turning to spirituality, particularly that of Kabbalah, to understand and handle the rough upbringing he survived. Alongside this, I was born in 1988, barely weighing a pound and eight ounces and my father prayed for the first time to a God he did not understand, so that maybe I would survive. Clearly, I survived, but it was not without great difficulty and months spent within an incubator. Also, besides being a preemie in the eighties, I strived to incorporate and weave through the Judaic aspects of my culture. In Judaism, females are not given a name until their naming ceremony, which usually occurs a week to ten days after their birth. Many of the religious practices I grew up with are archaic, however, my family stuck to certain ones to establish control. But, the essence of control is only an illusion even if logically, my parents felt their only way to create control in a desolate situation was to follow this practice. Lastly, I incorporate Blake into the poem, which is something not found in the Book of Urizen. I wanted to add my own twist and Blakean element of throwing in the unknown and having more questions than answers. As Blake may say, I wanted to make my readers think or to engage their Poetic Genius. "Book One" unpacks a creation-myth full of logic, of logic of not surviving being born and somehow drawing breath, of showing a logical father that maybe Los (or imagination) needs to be present in the mind, and that maybe, God inhabits more than even Blake realized.
The Book of Ahania is the revisiting of Urizen and the creation story from a different aspect. Throughout this text, Urizen is fighting with his son Fuzon, which results in Fuzon trying to name himself as ‘god’ above Urizen. While this is happening, Urizen splits with his emanation, Ahania. Ahania is the female aspect/binary of Urizen and considered sinful and evil. As I wrote, “Book Two: A Daughter, signed her Mother,” I decided to focus on the feminine aspects of Blake’s poem in relation to the feminine aspects of my own creation story. This myth/creation story delves into the cultural mythology behind being Roma, Jewish, and Russian, all with varying ideologies and implications of how creation began. Furthermore, since Ahania and Urizen are of the same ‘energy’ in essence they created Fuzon, which mirrors my own conception story. However, in this retelling, I push the poem forward in that I introduce the instance of twins (which my mother did conceive) as another play on dualities, which Blake believed in and utilized within his work. Lastly, Jewish mysticism, also known as Kabbalah, is something prevalent in my life as well as Blake’s. The scholar, Sheila A. Spector, in her book, Wonders Divine: The Development of Blake’s Kabbalistic Myth, unpacks the type of Kabbalah that Blake may have been aware of during his time. Spector defines Kabbalah, in the most basic sense, “as a unique combination of three distinct elements: esotericism, mysticism, and theosophy ....[t]hematically associated with occult interpretations of Creation and Ezekiel’s chariot vision” (11). Due to varying understandings of Kabballah (there was a Judaic version as well as a Christian one because of the secretive nature of the rabbis who taught Kabballah), Spector engages the text to unpack how Blake’s writing showed a shift in Kabbalistic understanding. Spector states:
[I]n the early prophecies, Blake introduced Kabbalistic archetypes to recontextualize particular aspects of Christianity. But then, as his intellect evolved, in the minor prophecies, he structured whole narratives around Kabbalistic concepts, until by the major prophecies, he had completely marginalized the Christian myth, reducing what had once been the primary structuring principle of his thought to but a small phase in the larger cycle of existence. (36)
As I wrote, “Book Two,” I did my best to weave in the Kabbalistic ideologies I had been taught through the Tree of Life as well as the idea of bodies existing first as spiritual forms, then as mental, and lastly as physical. This poem, in particular, offers a similar transition from the Book of Urizen while also offering a different look into creation and how these stories and myths tie together.
The final Illuminated Manuscript of this trio is The Book of Los. In this text, Blake is exploring the creation myth through the eyes of Los. Los is representative of imagination and the exact opposite of Urizen. Between all the texts, Blake is weaving the creation myths to intersect. This narrative, in particular, follows Los watching 'the fall' of the world and Urizen around him. Los is trapped by reasoning because imagination cannot exist when reason takes over. Engaging imagination as a being offered me the insight to unpack where I was going with my last poetic installment. In "Book Three: Of a Daughter and a Twin," after The Book of Los, made me realize that the act of creating a functional and working body was similar to Imagination being trapped through reason and given a corporeal form. Also, I decided to rewrite my personal, creation story as an act of trying to create reason when imagination stops due to the death of my twin. This section in particular, was a re-enactment of Los' image becoming defined in a fiery orb as Urizen takes on a human body. Harnessing imagination allows for dualities, contradictions, and multi-versed myths to exist.
The Pentateuch is a text full of creation stories and myths that offered instructions of how life came to be and then how to live a lifegiven by God. In particular, to these texts, I decided to engage my own creation story, my own culturally supported spiritual and mythological upbringing, and pushing the creativity of the mind to harness and produce a product engaging all of these facets. As Blake posits that all comes from the Poetic Genius and that “to Blake, if the Bible is not read out of ‘Conscience or the Word of God Universal’ it will be read out of a narrow ideology, or what he calls ‘state religion’" (McGann 315). I strived to engage the religious and spirituals texts of my youth from a universality of existence rather than the end all be all as to why it is that I exist.
Blake, William. The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake. Ed. David Erdman. New York: Anchor Books, 1988. 70-94. Print.
McGann, Jerome J. "The idea of an Indeterminate Text: Blake's Bible of Hell and Dr. Alexander Geddes." Studies in Romanticism . 25.3: 1996. 303-324. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.
Ostriker, Alicia. "I Make My Psyche from My Need." Writing Like a Woman. University of Michigan Press, 1982. 132-145. Print.
Spector, Sheila. "Wonders Divine": The Development of Blake’s Kabbalistic Myth. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2001. Print.
Tweedy, Roderick. The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor, and the Myth of Creation. London: Karnac Books Ltd. 2012. Print.