Blake’s Proverbs

William Blakes’ Proverbs of Hell are a bit like Jenny Holzer’s Truisms – some you get some you don’t, some resonate some clang. Still thinking about some of the things which I think constitute the good life, four of his proverbs capture something:

When thou seest an Eagle thou sees a portion of Genius, lift up thy head!

What is now proved was once only imagin’d

One thought fills immensity

The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship

Why these four? First I’ve noticed that ‘noticing’ enriches life immensely. One simple trick I’ve stumbled upon is to look up. It generally lifts the spirits. Today I looked up, sat in slow traffic, and saw a beautiful Victorian clock and frontage high above an otherwise grim discount store. There is a little spray of golden flowers and thistles on top of Big Ben which glints in the sun when I cycle past in a morning. I’ve noticed most old buildings have something special adorning their top storey. Look up and there’s light, clouds, planes, Eagles – you get the picture.

Second I’m reading the Greek myths at the moment and it is staggering, as with ancient philosophy and science, how much we knew then of people and their foibles, but how little we knew of science and how the world works. We all carry today an amazing storehouse of knowledge and ideas just because of the era we live in. It would have amazed the ancients.

How lucky we are. But despite all that knowledge there is still so much to learn and discover that one thought can still fill immensity. I learned yesterday we’ve only just discovered that dogs like cats don’t ladle water when they slop it up, they form a tube with their tongues and draw it up though pressure – it takes three laps to create a column of water in the dog’s tongue which connects water to mouth. Amazing. Not sure our old dog ever mastered it given the soggy mess he always made on the kitchen floor.

Finally friends. Aristotle triages them into three types: transactional, fun and friends in contemplation. The third are the very best, but, as I once heard Desmond Tutu say, there is no human without other humans – friends and other people are our human web.

Look up, imagine, think and talk with friends – four principles which, I think, work just as well today as in Aristotle or Blake’s days.

Truisms iii) Dry stonewalling

Here are seven of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms I increasingly agree with:

Fake or real indifference is a powerful personal weapon

Expressing anger is necessary

Emotional responses are as valuable as intellectual responses

Giving free rein to your emotions is an honest way to live

Hiding your emotions is despicable

Humor is a release

Playing it safe can cause a lot of damage in the long run

For much of the last decade ‘stonewalling’ was a personal favourite of mine on the home and work front. I now see it was a form of emotional distancing I used to manage my reaction to people and situations. 

At one level it worked, but it drained my energy and at times frustrated people. Sometimes people would get cross with me. This was a quick route to me completely shutting down and quietly brooding, or more rarely reacting with excessively sharp-tongued vitriol. 

I’m learning that staying in touch with your feelings – although it feels risky sometimes – is important. Following my feelings can make me feel a bit ‘unbounded’, impulsive, eclectic, even a bit inappropriate sometimes. But often ‘in the moment’ I now do what needs doing or say what needs saying. And I have more laughs, with people I don’t know, as well as those I do. 

Constantly controlling my emotions was tiring, it drained my batteries and potentially prepared me to be hurt or hurtful. Better to be in tune and ready to speak up and speak out, flash a smile or crack up laughing. Life’s too short not to feel it.

Truisms ii) Sad but true

Three of Jenny Holzer’s truisms get under my skin. I was talking to another father on Friday, who’s just become a grandfather, and they positively annoyed him.

They are:

Fathers often use too much force

A man can’t know what it is to be a mother

Children are the most cruel of all

Sadly, I find all three of these to be true. Perhaps they are related. As a father you have strength, the loudest voice and sometimes a short temper. I never hit my kids, but I do shout at them and I know when I am imposing my will upon them. Holzer’s truism hurts because as fathers we all know we sometimes don’t explain – we just impose. And in imposing we show our impotence and lack of imagination. Force is failure.

No man can know what it is to be a mother. I was at the birth of both of my children and could but marvel at the primal forces I witnessed. The stamina, then strength was stunning as the storm of labour broke in waves over my suffering, then triumphing partner. Carrying a child, giving birth and the bond mothers have is something men can try to imagine, but can never know. That is our tragedy.

Children are the most cruel of all. We have all been one and to have them is to be constantly reminded of what we all did to each other as kids. It is their way of testing, learning and searching but it hurts all the same. Children are the proof of Aristotle’s thesis that no-one is born with a moral compass. We learn – or not – from our upbringing. That’s why fathers and mothers feel such great responsibility and are hurt and lash out when they fall short.

I find these three Truisms sad but true. Two I can’t do anything about, one I can. Holzer releasing it to burrow into my subconscious will help make sure I do.

Truisms i) A little knowledge can go a long way?

Friends of ours have Jenny Holzer’s ‘Truisms’ on the wall in their loo. Every time I read it I find myself agreeing easily with the first few I alight on – and then violently disagreeing with the next one I look at. Is this what she was trying to do? This makes me wonder if I’ve stumbled across a candidate truism of my own:

It is better to disagree violently than silently.

In my youth I might have agreed. Now I’d say not.

This is another feature of Holzer’s Truisms, a number of them I would once have agreed with – but half a lifetime’s experience now makes me disagree. This makes me inclined to go through them 1) to decide if I agree or disagree 2) to see if I’ve changed since my youth 3) to see if I change my mind in the second half of my life.

Here’s number 1:

A little knowledge can go a long way

I agree. I think I always have. Better to be a polymath than a specialist. It’s good to know a lot about some things, but mostly the things I know a lot about I’m boring and dogmatic about. A whiff of evidence combined with the strong scent trail of intuition leads to good conversations, new insights and friends in contemplation.

A little knowledge does go a long way I’m inclined to think.