This last week we again brought drama into our experience of literature. Drama can bring the insights of literature directly into our bodies as we work to make the lines and ideas breathe and move. And what a fabulous feasts of dramatists we have in Australian Literature (from Louis Esson through to Chi Vu). I look forward to seeing this dramatic journey through the landscape of Australian drama in our sessions in Week 12.
In the Twentieth Century we have listened again to those seminal voices that underpin nearly all of modern drama: Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. These are two dramatists who try to bring their theatre as close as possible to the questions at the heart of human existence: why do we suffer? why are we here? what purpose can we find in our lives? And both playwrights take us to the edge of what we can bear to see: our parents in a dustbin; our every move scrutinized by some alien authority figure.
Along with Beckett and Pinter we have also ventured into the world of Brien Friel and Tom Stoppard, two recent playwrights also fascinated by the way the experience of meaning in our lives is directly related to the kind of language we use. Was this not also at the centre of George Orwell’s question in “Politics and the English Language”?
But by far the most powerful moment this last week was listening again to that awe-inspiring Nobel Prize Speech by Harold Pinter, on the eve of his own death. Here is a playwright who has studied every nuance of the way language is used to exert power destructively. Pinter’s vision of Twentieth Century Politics (with special reference to the USA) is horrific and timely. We here in Australia are still tied to the coat strings of the USA. Pinter’s vision gives us a taste of the destructive hypocrisy that goes by the name of democratic freedom. I am sure that Pinter’s speech will go down as one of the most penetrating and insightful explorations of political language in the Twentieth Century. This is another powerful example of Shelley’s declaration in 1821:
It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations, for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not, the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World. “A Defence of Poetry”
This declaration also chimes in beautifully with our discovery this week at how Job – in the version of his story engraved by William Blake – is also represented, above all, as someone touched with the visionary power of poetry. Job, through this awakening to the mystery of poetry, beyond reason, becomes the one who directly challenges the moralistic, political manipulations of his so-called friends who want him to admit that he is bad, evil, deserving of punishment. Job is “saved”, by the visionary direction of young Elihu who awakens in Job the capacity to see another dimension of reality, expressed by Blake as the powerful God in the whirlwind.
Blake then went on to depict how Job’s vision extended way beyond material reality, into a dimension accessible to those who feel in their bones that life is more than just what we can quantify and measure. Blake had a famous saying in one of his letters to Doctor John Trussler (August 23rd 1799) that there are those for whom a tree is “only a Green thing that stands in the way” (as opposed to those for whom the tree moves them “to tears of joy”); similarly in his “Vision of the Last Judgement” he noted that there are those who, when the sun rises see only “a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea ( a precious gold coin current in Blake’s time); but Blake himself, in response to such a materialistic view of reality declared “I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty”. This is what is also expressed in Blake’s famous etching (turned painting) from the Job series illustrating Job’s visionary glimpse of the miracle at the heart of divine creation: “When the morning stars sang together, & all the Sons of God shouted for joy”:
See you all next week, when we get ready for our visit from prize-winning novelist David Malouf (who is also very much in this lineage!)