please explain yourself, Nog O’Shaughnessy
Q: Nog, can you provide us with a brief Artist’s Statement?
Sure. So, in this day and age, how do you go about making a difficult point without boring or depressing people? Even if you do make it sort of entertaining, how do you keep the thought from disappearing from the consciousness immediately like a cat video? One way, we’ve decided, is to devise large-format disinformation graphics.
It needs to be, for it to work.
The best talk, though, comes out of what the piece implies about human nature, and what it says to us about our lives, how we’re leading them. And especially, where our own opportunities and responsibilities lie. And saying out loud, amongst people who may hold us to it, what we’d change in ourselves.
Q: Did you have to make it so, I don’t know, grim?
Believe me, I know. Sometimes after working on it for hours I walked away feeling Oh what’s the use. Plus, you’re all the time alert for new stations to add to the routes, new manifestations of Hell. New festations. The closer the center of the diagram you go, generally, the more horrific it becomes, and it’s bad for your head some days.
Because it’s true, things are dire. We do have a comparative few influential people building hell on earth. Certainly one job of the piece is to point these out and show them in the context of the maladies and psychoses behind them. Blake was, among other things, an incisive social satirist, and if he were here today he’d be up on his hindlegs shouting at us to see the fear and hatred and dulled indifference around us — and within us, each of us — and see it as insanity. And then he’d want us each to do something about it, something very individual.
Northrop Frye said, “Read Blake, or go to hell,” and he meant it in the sense that Blake helps us discern many of the delusions keeping us insane and miserable creatures. He thought Blake was really truly speaking to us, as moderns. And he’s right. Me, every time I see a profile of Donald Trump I think of Blake’s Ghost of a Flea. The guy clearly saw Trump coming.
William Blake by Thomas Phillips
But he didn’t just go around pointing fingers. He thought — Blake did — each of us has two parts, one that’s capable only of good, and one capable of good or evil. That’s why all the stations in Hell aren’t people, you’ll notice. They’re policies, organizations, dogmas. You’ve got to be careful not to just go damning people, even those immersed in the worst paradigms. Blake was big on the imaginative strength that manifests as empathy and forgiveness, which is the superpower we’re going to need to get out of Hell. It's not exactly sexy-spectacular, but it’s powerful. I run into plenty of people these days struggling to get better at it.
In the end most pivotal shifts come from individuals outside the power structure. These are people who’ve put all their chips down on love, vision, creation, freedom, and their own beautiful, delightful ability to play.
Q: Right. I noticed the names floating in the white space, the margins around Hell...
Around Satan’s head, right. They’re absolutely key. They’re like almost invisible data points on the outskirts of Hell.
That’s Satan’s head by the way, that big gray mass in the center, underlying all this. It's Satan as Blake drew him.
Q: Could you say a little more about them, these data points, these people drifting out there?
I tend to think that particular aspect of the piece is most valuably interpreted firsthand by you the viewer. I'd like you to make up your own mind about what those individuals imply in the context of the Hell they surround.
I will say, the map really serves more those who seek to know where heaven lies.
Q: Now you’re sounding like Dumbledore.
I do want to mention that while Blake placed great value on human collaboration —because that’s how we’ll build Jerusalem here in this world, all of us together — in answer to your question, he was clear that vision is an individual imaginative enterprise, that leaders and athletes and artists are pretty much on their lonesome before they can bring forth for the rest of us anything eternal.
Q: What about the rest of us then, who aren’t so heroic?
That's just it. Blake thought we’re each not only capable of change, but we each bring something of the golden world into this world with us, and it’s the task of a lifetime to bring it out, to make a gift of it. Most of us most of the time hang around somewhere in the middle, submitting to hell as necessity. This whole piece is an invitation to find that way, or lots of ways, and particularly for us to think and dream and act as individuals, not simply as parts of somebody else’s corporate body.
Q: My own reading of Blake, as in Proverbs of Hell, was more along the line that his Hell is a necessary and positive part of his cosmological universe. His devils serve as complements to his angels, and they keep things lively and creative. His Hell wasn’t really hell-ish, not like yours here.
Blake was pretty consistent over his lifetime in his beliefs, but Hell was to him at various times two different things, which as we read him can be confusing as hell. The Hell you’re talking about, which is the one Blake mainly wrote about, and drew, was a fine place housing the necessary imaginative devils who provide the determination and energy to overturn the princes of this world. You’re right, that Hell isn’t this Hell. But additionally, sometimes to Blake Hell was just the suffering we create here in this world, the Hell-on-earth we know.
To tell you the truth, Blake never formally walked us through his Hell as a system, not like Dante did via Virgil in The Divine Comedy’s Circles of Hell. The sins Dante cites, the particular sins of the time — farting in church and things like that — haven’t aged well, and I thought this Blakean Hell of delusions would be far more useful in our situation. I took a lot of disparate bits of Blake’s poetic cosmology and jerrybuilt them into an unofficial system he never exactly posited. I don’t know what he’d make of this honestly. He’d certainly think I made his serpents look goofball.
Though I think he’d like that we’re still talking about taking on the Elect of the world, that we haven’t completely despaired of making this not just a bearable place to live, but a wonderful one. Especially now we each of us have more capability and opportunity than ever.
Q: Blake’s “mental fight” that he spoke of in Jerusalem.
Q: Anything to add?
Yes, for sure! I forgot too to add Leonard Cohen and Ady Balkan to the elements drifting around us. If you order this, please write them in somewhere as soon as it arrives. And write in everyone else you can think of. And have your friends do the same. I should probably print up blank festations on little sticky bookmark Post-its, so you can add your own to the routes.
Then come over for spaghetti Friday night, and we’ll talk.
Listen, if you’ve read this far, if you’re thinking of buying Hell, we’ll put a link to a pdf or a jpg on the other site, smallwhisky.com, the non-commerce site. Download the whole thing, print it out on the office color copier, try it on different walls. Because you should, it’s extra huge, it’s not a poster. Or, I suppose you could do that too if you can’t afford to buy it.
Q: Wait, wait, you’re not... you’re just essentially giving it away. Nog...
Not to just anybody. It’s just for the people who got down this far in the Cracker Jack box. If they’re the kind of person who’s read this far, they’re maybe the kind of person to get something out of it. Maybe they can afford to buy it, maybe they can’t. Whatever, don’t print it and resell it, that would just be nasty.
But whoever you are, do print one out. Put it up somewhere confusing. In the subway, maybe. That would make me very happy.
Q: As happy as maybe selling one? But okay, let’s move on. I meant to ask what that thing is in the lower right corner, about The Quiet Underwoods?
This print exists in part as part of a backdrop for a scene in my little brother Bern O’Shaughnessy’s novel-in-progress, The Quiet Underwoods. Our littlest brother Bry O’Shaughnessy’s Authoritative Periodic Table of the Elephants appears in that scene as well. All our pieces keep barging in and out of each others’ works.
Q: And what’s the “anagogic compass?” Sounds very Philip Pullman.
It does, but no. It merely gets at the idea that no one could, or should, possess a map showing the routes available and stations imminent in his or her life, because these are unknowable till you approach them, rightfully properly so. But a compass reminding you periodically where your own destiny might lie, and what energies you might to use to get there, that would be useful.
Q: What are you working on now? Aren’t you doing Yeats’s Vision?
Pretending to, yes. I’m ostensibly restoring a drawing William Butler Yeats, in his old age, in the 1930s, produced in collaboration with a young Ted Geisel, later known as Dr. Seuss. It illustrates Yeats’s vast complex cosmological vision. Yeats and Blake each built entire apparatuses — apparati — hippopotami — to support their poetry, and they’re wild to delve into. They’re life changing.
Shoot! Roger Waters! I can’t believe I forgot Roger Waters! Put Roger Waters on Hell too. Among the outliers.