Even if you think this blog post is terrible and doesn’t make any sense, please do read A History of the World in Six Glasses if you haven’t already! Tom Standage makes way more sense than I do.
I know you guys probably don’t want even more reading to do, but hear me out. Allow me to introduce you (if you haven’t been acquainted already) to A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage. Standage’s main idea – his thesis, if you will – is that, in pivotal eras in world history, there are certain beverages that have proven to be highly influential in shaping the course of events. One of the eras that Standage covers in his book is none other than the Age of Reason, which spans both the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. The beverage that Standage attributes to that era is coffee. According to Standage, rational thought was emphasized in the time not only because the new scientific method demanded it, but also because people were more able to think rationally thanks to the effects of the caffeine in coffee.
The next era that Standage covers (spoiler alert?) after the Age of Reason is the rise of colonial empires – a time that was shaped by tea. Tea, which came from places further east than coffee (which originated in the Middle East) came to represent the age of expansion. This is the closest Standage gets to Romanticism.
Where does Blake fit into Standage’s timeline? Songs of Innocence and of Experience is interesting in that it straddles both the end of the Age of Reason and the birth of Romanticism. Songs of Innocence was finished in 1789, which just so happened to be the same year that the French Revolution began. Songs of Experience was finished in 1794, which marked the end of The Terror: the period in the French Revolution that saw thousands of people guillotined. The French Revolution was the crash that effectively ended the caffeine high that was known as the Age of Reason. It’s funny how these events coincide with his works.
I wonder if William Blake drank coffee, or if it was too mainstream or unnatural for him. Maybe he didn’t like the way it made him feel and instead preferred some form of alcohol to numb the pain of living in a cold and indifferent world – or maybe he just didn’t have anything else to drink because water was still unsafe. You could really argue both ways. On one hand, you could say his works were fuelled by the same caffeine that powered the Enlightenment, except that energy was redirected towards long walks in nature and writing poems that rhyme. You could say that, because Blake’s romanticism was a response to the Enlightenment, so it must be that his works were not influenced by coffee or caffeine; rather, he looked back on the “good old days” when people drank alcohol, had a little too much, and revealed their true, “natural” selves.
I was a little disappointed that we didn’t really discuss the movie more, or even had a longer discussion comparing Hildegard’s presentation of herself versus how von Trotta represented her. This is just a small discussion on what I thought of the movie and the director’s take on Arts One’s favourite nun.
I know it’s supposed to be for dramatic effect, but I can’t be the only one who thought those dramatic zoom-ins were a little funny. It really reminded me of the cinematography on mockumentary sitcoms like The Office and Parks and Rec.
I’ll admit: I hadn’t even started reading Hildegard von Bingen’s writings before I saw the movie. That was why, I suppose, I was a little disappointed when I read the book. There wasn’t enough conflict between Hildegard and the men to whom she was writing. She constantly put herself down as “a mere woman” to make her voice and her visions more palatable to the men she was addressing. However, Margarethe von Trotta painted von Bingen as this (pardon my language) badass nun who used her gift to gain a higher status not only for herself but for the women around her. She was, essentially, an activist of sorts. This was a nun who fought tooth and claw (or is it nail?) for visions to be considered valid. She was anything BUT “a mere woman”.
I guess my main problem was that the movie pitted von Bingen so fiercely against men. Almost every male character we see in the movie is there to oppose Hildegard von Bingen, to act as an obstacle on her path to success. Only one man, Volmar, was … well, nice to her. I suppose von Trotta’s main point in making almost every man an enemy of Hildegard is that this really was the world that she lived in. Since men had power over women in every way, it would make sense that the von Trotta pitted men so directly against Hildegard von Bingen. One scene that illustrated this relationship was when the nuns of the order performed one of von Bingen’s plays. The women represented the virtues, wore white and stood in the light; the one man in the play (Volmar) depicted the devil, wore black, and stayed in the shadows. You can see this sort of light-versus-dark imagery in another scene where Hildegard is appealing to the big boss priest (I don’t recall what the term is) to build her own monastery and being promptly shot down: Hildegard is standing by the window where the light can directly hit her, while the priest is sort of more in the shadows. A bit of a stretch, I know, but von Trotta makes it obvious from the very beginning, using lighting, that the nuns are the good “guys” and the priests and monks (except for Volmar) are the bad guys.
Two graduates from my high school have expressed the goal of becoming prime ministers of Canada. In order to be the best prime ministers they can be, they’re attending university to gain the knowledge and experience that will eventually help them to govern the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if those two did end up being prime ministers one day. What sets them apart, perhaps more than their determination and drive, is their curiosity: they’re curious about the problems that Canada faces, what causes them, and how to solve them. This curiosity is what audiences through time would’ve recognized not only in their political leaders but also in leaders of many intellectual fields. Curiosity is what ancient Greek audiences would’ve recognized in their own leaders – leaders like Oedipus. Like my fellow graduates, Oedipus is curious about why things are the way they are and what they could be. What sets him apart, however, is that he becomes an obsessive problem solver. Oedipus takes an excellent quality to have as a leader – curiosity – and takes it one step too far.
The play opens with a problem being presented to Oedipus. From the very beginning, we see that Oedipus takes his role far beyond that of a king: encouraged by his desperate subjects, he elevates himself almost to the level of a god. He wants to know the cause of the plague; from there, he can find a solution. As the answers he seeks seem to be further obscured by his own questions, Oedipus does not see this as a hint from fate or the gods to stop pursuing the truth; instead, he pursues knowledge with even more determination than before. Normally, in other situations, this would’ve been the appropriate course of action. In the crises that plague our world, we expect our leaders to get to the root of whatever problem we’re facing. We live in a time that upholds science as the highest authority – there are not gods or fate when in the modern world. If we cannot find an answer, we find another approach. To thrive in this world, curiosity is one of the best traits that one can possess. It’s a world that Oedipus, had he not been at the mercy of the gods or fate, would have loved.
But one cannot know everything, nor can one control every variable in a situation no matter how much information there may be. And that’s where the play’s staying power comes from. Even now, in an age where science reigns supreme and the only things that are real are the ones that are visible, there’s so much we don’t know yet and much more that we may never know. Oedipus is a lot like who we are as a culture today: we have this insatiable desire to know everything that we can, to use what we know to have as much control over our lives as possible. We hate not knowing how exactly to eliminate poverty, we hate not knowing why loved ones get cancer. It’s unacceptable to simply not know. We have to know, even if it harms us.
Oedipus had to know. Even if the knowledge destroyed him.
I don’t know if my two fellow graduates will ever become prime ministers of Canada. Maybe they’ll discover a different passion while they’re in university. Maybe they’ll drop out of school altogether to join a circus or something. What do I know?