One day my daughter had some new kitty stickers. She stuck them all over a piece of paper and said:
“This is the Kitty Planet. Kitties live here. They all have houses with their bowls of water. The kitty planet has three moons. There is a monster there that doesn’t like kitties. He comes out at night. But the kitties have houses so it is okay.”
But… Is it okay? Really? Are the kitties going to be okay? And what about that poor monster? He is the only thing on the planet that isn’t a kitty, and he hates kitties. That’s not a life. As a friend put it, “Your daughter has excellent narrative instincts.” I used to have a lot of ideas for novels and short stories. I still do. But seriously, the kitty planet is better than anything I have ever thought of. My daughter should have a blog, not me.
William Blake believed that children’s imaginations were superior to those of adults, and that reaching adulthood was a long process of having one’s creative abilities stomped upon by a society that made children go to bed early and work as chimney sweeps and so on, when they should have been playing in the bucolic countryside and hunting for goblins. This is a gross oversimplification. I apologize to every professor of Romantic literature that I have ever had, and I have had about twelve of them. Sorry, guys! Also, Romanticism is the best and I miss you all. Let’s add this to make things a little bit better: It would be wrong, however, to say that “childlike” innocence is superior to experience. It is the dialectical interplay of the two viewpoints that is truly generative. In other words, a world with only angels would be boring as hell. Ha, get it? Heaven is hellishly boring. A world with only devils would be less boring, but pretty awful as well. The ideal isn’t a perfectly boring heaven and the tyranny of Good, but rather the productive tension of good and evil, or innocence and experience, in constant battle. There you have it, the reason there is evil in the world. Neat, eh? Have you seen The Third Man? It is a great film and you should go watch it RIGHT NOW if you have not seen it. Orson Welles has a famous speech in that movie that sums up this idea nicely:
You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
Appalling oversimplifications aside, I think William Blake was very right. About this and everything else too. If, like me, you sometimes get down about the current state of the world, maybe it will make you feel a little better to read some Blake and meditate on how at least – maybe – all the Trump-shaped badness will result in some nice art. Make sure you read an edition that includes Blake’s illustrations. Because if it isn’t enough for you that Blake was a philosophical genius of a poet, he was also one of the first and best outsider artists.
So anyhow, here are two poems that are more or less about all of that. I can’t really think of a better picture to go with them than this drawing of the Kitty Planet. I guess I could have drawn some kids playing in a field, but the Kitty Planet was a million times more fun to think about. My daughter can’t tie her shoes yet, but she has approximately twenty ideas like this per day. I have… maybe one a year? Growing up is the worst, but parenthood is kind of like a time machine that lets you go back and recapture the magic – a jaded time machine that is just a little bit sad sometimes – but it is the best one we’ve got.
If you aren’t familiar with Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, you should know that each poem in the “innocence” volume has a companion piece in the “experience” volume. One poem is innocent and the other is experienced, see how that works?
“Nurse’s Song,” Songs of Innocence
When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.
‘Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.’
‘No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
And the hills are all cover’d with sheep.’
‘Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.’
The little ones leapèd and shoutèd and laugh’d
And all the hills echoèd.
“The Nurse’s Song,” Songs of Experience
When the voices of children are heard on the green
And whisp’rings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.
Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.