My Own Private Eden: Blake and Von Trier’s Efforts at a Personal Fall

William Blake and Lars Von Trier are two artists who’ve made some strong efforts to reshape theological structures to more accurately explain human tendencies than the original stories did. In Songs of Innocence and of Experience, William Blake used paired poems that appear first as sincere songs for children or a childlike audience, but then turn to something more serious when they reappear as songs of experience, giving a more adult, serious view of the world and God. These works do not mention it by name, but Blake is applying The Fall of Man to the songs of innocence to transform them into the songs of experience. In a roundabout way, he gives readers a look into what Original Sin means for humans, how it applies itself to us. Von Trier’s 2009 film, Antichrist, attempts something similar by creating a new “Fall” myth for a modern audience, or just for Von Trier. It is difficult to tell who this movie is made for, but it is easy to see that both of these men are exercising the same act of reimagining the myth of Adam and Eve and what it means to live after the fall, both personal and Biblical. 

Blake’s vision of innocence is rooted in a childlike understanding of the world. This follows along with ideas from thinkers like Rousseau who believed that children are inherently good before the world begins to mold them into something else. His songs of innocence are simple in their construction but profound in their spiritual implications, especially once the companion volume was released. A great example of the wide-eyed tone of these poems is his classic, “The Lamb,” in which a boy converses with a lamb about Jesus Christ.

thelamb

He asks it “Little Lamb who made thee/ Dost thou know who made thee,” then answers when it says nothing, “Little Lamb I’ll tell thee. Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee;” (Blake 179). The child’s vision of Jesus and his role as shepherd of his flock is comforting and beautiful:

He is called by thy name

For he calls himself a Lamb:

He is meek & he is mild,

He became a little child:

I a child & thou a lamb,

We are called by his name.

Little Lamb God bless thee

Little Lamb God bless thee (179-180)

This passage, as well as the other works in the Songs of Innocence, reflects the world of Eden, childhood, where humans haven’t gained knowledge of the world and where God and Man’s only roles are to live with one another in bliss. Blake’s illumination of this poem depicts long branches tangling above the boy and a small flock of sheep, where both are naked and safe. Similarly, the prologue of Antichrist depicts the two unnamed protagonists, He and She, making passionate love in their home, totally unaware of the world outside of their touch. This bliss is the same state of mind that Blake describes in his innocence poems. There is even a similar moment of comparison, where all things meld into one. While Blake has the child meditate on the physical lamb, himself a lamb as a child, and Jesus as the Lamb of God, Von Trier shows the couple’s infant son exploring in his room, gazing at his mobile and the snowflakes falling outside; the couple leans against the washing machine and the clothes inside the clear plastic door are tangled into one another, and match the rhythm of the couple (Gross 5). The mental state of all of these characters, the boy, the lamb, He, She, their son, Nick, is ecstasy and is innocence in each one of them, albeit with slight differences.

Blake’s full title of his combined work is Song of Innocence and of Experience: Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. This gives great context for understanding what exactly he means by innocence and experience; June Sturrock explains that below the title of the book, “the bowed figures of Adam and Eve, beaten down by the infernal flames, immediately associate ‘innocence’ with the Edenic and ‘experience’ with the Fall and with the knowledge of judgement and guilt as well as good and evil” (Sturrock 93). A more subtle explanation is given in Von Trier’s prologue, which is silent except for the soundtrack, which is Handel’s aria, “Lascia Ch’io Pianga.” As the couple continues having sex, their son hops out of bed and tosses his stuffed animal out of his window. When the couple is reaching their climax, their son slips and falls out of the window to his death. The lyrics prepare the audience for what the rest of the movie will concern itself:

Let me weep

my cruel fate,

and sigh

for liberty.

May sorrow break

these chains

of my sufferings,

for pity’s sake. (Wikipedia contributors)

This literal fall is what plunges the movie into its own “experienced” state. The fall is aesthetically beautiful and is immensely pleasurable: the couple are expressing deep emotions and the son is completely enamored by the descent of his toy through the floating snowflakes. They are one with the natural world, the sensual world, which fills them with life but brings them to suffering. The couple is wracked with grief, She experiencing extreme pain and physical symptoms of her psychological distress and He experiencing his grief in a quiet way, coping with it by turning his wife into his own patient (He is a therapist). What is interesting is that he refuses to let her blame herself for Nick’s death, but he is all too willing to blame her for the pain She feels in her grief, constantly trying to teach her that to overcome it through cold, rational thought.

Blake’s world of experience is “estranged from the natural world, and human beings are estranged from each other” (Sturrock 94). John Halloway describes it as “a world of disjunction and non-relation, a world of universal ‘turning away’” (94). The phrase “turning away” appears at the end of Blake’s introductory poem to Songs of Experience:

Turn away no more

Why wilt thou turn away

The starry floor

The watry shore

Is givn thee till the break of day. (Blake 189)

The Bard of experience calls to fallen Man to look head-on at his/her reality and overcome the distance from God to find unity with Him in the beauty that Earth offers, of which they have lost appreciation. This links curiously to the progression of He and She’s grief in Antichrist. After failing several times to make progress with She, He decides to use exposure therapy and make her to confront her fears. He asks what she is most afraid of and badgers her for an answer before she asks “can’t I be afraid without a definite object?” He pushes for a place instead, and the couple heads to a cabin they own in a place called Eden. It is unclear why she fears this place, although the viewer knows that she worked on her thesis there alone with her son before giving up on it. Here, the two characters reach out to nature to find some kind of stasis in their minds, hoping to regain their footing after their Fall.

Ultimately, Antichrist’s examination of nature reveals a chaos that cannot be controlled, especially through the husband’s controlling psychological solutions. Blake does not go this far, but in the companion poem to “The Lamb,” “The Tyger,” he does voice a similar sentiment. In this poem, there are no answers, only questions. Where the boy in “The Lamb” turns to answer his inquiries for the lamb, the speaker in “The Tyger” continues questioning the beast. While the actual painting of Blake’s tiger doesn’t appear frightening at all, the description he gives of it, and what is implied of its Creator, is horrifying.

thetyger

The speaker asks, “What immortal hand or eye,/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” The poem is concerned with the creation of something so dangerous and menacing, and the fear that the same God that was thought to be all loving could also fashion this; “did he smile his work to see?/ Did he who made the lamb make thee?” (Blake 197). The experienced companion of “The Lamb” is full of fear, since the speaker has realized an understanding of God beyond simple love. Now, there is an element of power at play along with an understanding of judgement.

Antichrist’s most fearful moments come from She’s fear of herself. After the death of her child, she feels that she has failed all women as a sex. She uses sex with her husband to cover up her feelings and to try to reach backwards for a second chance at procreation, but it is no use for her. In one particularly unsettling scene, He is alone near some tall ferns. He sees a shape within them and reaches in to find a fox eating itself. The fox turns towards him and speaks, saying, “chaos reigns.” It is at this point in the film when both characters realize that they cannot fight what’s inside of them. She accepts her identity as a failed woman and takes up a belief that it is in her nature to be an evil being. She says earlier on, “Nature is Satan’s Church,” then later, that, “women do not control their own bodies; Nature does.” She is asking herself similar questions to what the speaker in the poem is asking the tiger. What made her? What made her allow her child to die? She cannot let herself off the hook for it, and her husband’s abusive attempts to force rational thought on her have only pushed her further into self-blame. Early in the film, She tells him that when she showed him her thesis, he called it “glib,” and suddenly it was glib to her as well. His understanding that She is the root cause of her own guilt has the same effect. She is Eve, trying to come to terms with her world attributing The Fall entirely to her.

Though these two pieces are radically different in some ways, the construction and intent of them are similar; both artists are attempting to rewrite or reimagine how the Fall of Man took place and how Original Sin, or Experience, affects our understandings of ourselves and the world around us. Blake is serious in his writing but ultimately optimistic, while Von Trier is more vague and gives the viewer a greater description of the emotional effects of the Fall than Bard-esque guidance to a richer relationship with the Almighty. Both use experience, or Original Sin, as a filter for their characters’ views of the world. In Blake’s poems, with experience, God’s creations are simultaneously loving, peaceful, benevolent beings, and terrifying beasts, and God’s likeness is in both of them. In Antichrist, She, in particular, demonstrates the same transformation of thought. The couple is sitting at a table, hearing acorns fall on the roof of the cabin; this is a metaphor of wasted seeds, which causes her to think of her son, and reexamine the seeds’ significance. She remembers her time at the cabin working on her thesis and recalls a day when she heard loud crying outside. She frantically searches for Nick but finds him playing happily.

antichrist 2

The crying continues, and in her retelling, She labels this crying “the voice of all those that are going to die.” In his review of the movie, Larry Gross provides a thoughtful reading of this observation that applies beautifully to both works: “The event, recounted through the prism of grief, now foretells not only the tragedy of their child but links that to the knowledge of all loss. The grief for all things that will die is to be illuminated by, but not limited to, the agony of the particular death of those we love” (Gross 9). Both men have given us thoughtful reflections on the knowledge that sin, or experience, has given to humans and what price we had and continue to pay for it.

Works Cited

Antichrist. Dir. Lars Von Trier. Perf. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Defoe. Zentropa Entertainments, 2009. Film.

Blake, William. “The Lamb.” Damrosch and Dettmar 179-180.

Blake, William. “Introduction.” Damrosch and Dettmar 189.

Blake, William. “The Tyger.” Damrosch and Dettmar 197-198.

Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar, eds. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 2A. 5th ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2012. Print.

Gross, Larry. “The Six Commandments of the Church of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.” Film Comment. September/October 2009: 1-9. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

Sturrock, June. “Eve, Eden, and the Flowers of Experience: Milton, Blake, and Botany.” Renaissance Ecology: Imagining Eden in Milton’s England. Ed. Ken Hiltner. Pittsburg, 2008. 91-105. Print.

Wikipedia contributors. “Lascia ch’io pianga.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 Sep. 2015. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Image Sources (in Order of Appearance)

Antichrist. Dir. Lars Von Trier. Perf. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Defoe. Zentropa Entertainments, 2009. Film.

http://keynes.scuole.bo.it/ipertesti/william_blake/poetry.html

http://keynes.scuole.bo.it/ipertesti/william_blake/poetry.html

Antichrist. Dir. Lars Von Trier. Perf. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Defoe. Zentropa Entertainments, 2009. Film.

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