Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Economics as Poetry

Pirate Jenny -- Brecht & Weill -- as sung by Lotte Lenya

The Human Abstract

Wm. Blake

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

And mutual fear brings Peace,
Till the selfish loves increase;
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears;
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head,
And the caterpillar and fly
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat,
And the raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The gods of the earth and sea
Sought through nature to find this tree,
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the human Brain.

Pity, mercy, peace, love, cruelty, humility, mystery, deceit. For Blake, the progression from the loftiest sentiments to the depths of hypocrisy is inevitable because all stem from the same root of the same tree. Appropriately enough, the Raven, ancient harbinger not only of war and doom, but symbol also of "ravenous" greed, makes his nest "in its thickest shade."

What is this tree, which cannot be found in nature, growing only "in the Human Brain"? If we would want to attribute this conundrum to the mysterious workings of Blake's "visionary" poetry, we'd have to reckon with the poet's own deep suspicion of mystery itself, as expressed in this very poem. I believe there is a simpler explanation. For me, Blake's tree is a symbol of what later would become known as "bourgeois ideology." Existing entirely out of sight, in "the human brain," elusive, mysterious, cruel, deceitful, this repository of ostensibly noble sentiments and ideals, born in fantasies of altruism, love and enduring peace, exists only to spread its tentacle-branches as far and wide as possible, maintaining a rigid system of repression and control. Indeed, the first verse encapsulates the entire notion of ideology, as it would eventually come to be understood by Marx, with remarkable efficiency: "Pity could no be no more/ If we did not make somebody poor." In other words, our noblest ideals can be understood as rooted in a reality of pain and exploitation for which we must assume responsibility.

More on Brecht and Blake.

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