We are to a great sum, products of our environments. But we also have choice, if given knowledge of choice. That is the role of art.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
Why look back to old works? History is important perhaps so that we may avoid repeating any past mistakes. But what of old works of art and literature? Why are they important? And they are not important, so long as we have no questions.
Yet all we have had since the start of human existence are questions. Art is humanity's way of asking herself a question, then answering it for others to see and look to throughout time. Then preserving art is essential, so long as they are studied.
In "The Tyger," William Blake asks us to consider: Who are we? What do we reflect? Where do we go from here?
On the surface, "The Tyger" is a descriptive poem about a tiger, a song for children. Yet look closer.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
In Blake's "Tyger," the tiger represents nature in both physical and moral terms. Nature itself can be considered a work of art, and works of art, in some way, always reflect truths of the creator.
The tiger is beautiful, mysterious, and powerful, yet at the same time, the tiger is violent and destructive. Rather than a holistic view of existence, it is easy to fall into dualism, where the nature of something is either good or evil. Blake illustrates the nature of existence as one encompassing both good and evil.
In this, not only does Blake use the imagery of the tiger, which is both majestic and terrifying, but also of fire, which is both creator and destroyer.
In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, books have been banned, and the job of the fireman is to burn books.
In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury presents life as both constructive and destructive. The thing that creates is also the thing that destroys. However, this is of our choosing. The protagonist, Montag, is captivated by the moon. Yet the moon only reflects the sun. The sun creates and destroys to create again. The sun will never stop, so Montag, a fireman, concludes that he must stop. Stop destroying, stop burning books. It is time to create. Tyranny exists when we are absolute; when we resist Blake's nature of existence. Humans are not only destroyers, we must never forget we are also creators.
In Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, a collection of short stories, Asimov explores the question of creation. Is what we create a reflection of us? Then what do our creations say of us?
Part of the reason we resist looking at the past, at old works, is because we believe we are better than them. The next installment is always the best installment. If that were the case, then every subsequent generation will shun the previous generation.
We are never the finished product, there will always be another that is arrogant and bold. Because they will reflect their creators.
Blake asks, "What immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry?" Who could create something so terrible unless the creator, too, was on some level terrible? By the same token, Blake asks, "Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" The lamb is the metaphorical opposite of the tiger, innocent and pure. However, the lamb is also ignorant and cowardly.
Asimov cautions us of our folly. We must always make attempts to better ourselves and to put virtue out to the world, then the world will reflect back what we put out. (Like the moon does with the sun, as Bradbury points out.)
And what we create will reflect back, what we put out. As creators, this is our responsibility.
From Blake, Bradbury, to Asimov
Who are we? We are complex and fluid.
What do we reflect? We are to a great sum, products of our environments. But we also have choice, if given knowledge of choice. That is the role of art.
Where do we go from here? That is wholly up to us.