I shall not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green & pleasant land. – William Blake
The first time I heard the anthem Jerusalem, in an Anglican church in Canada, I was struck and somewhat embarrassed by the incongruity of these words. What resonance could such imagery have in a country where the violent constructions of the colonial past were all too well known. This was Canada, not England. At the same time the resolute defiance of progress seemed to offer something else, clearly this was not a simple narrative of nationalism. What intrigued me most of all was the sense of a thrice-displaced geography. The industrial vision of England had been exported wholesale to North America, the theme of a land ravaged by the onslaught of progress, those Satanic Mills, fit us well. We could echo, too, the ancient dreams, outside the annals of history, in which the blessed feet caressed our shores. Unbound from time and place a memory beyond memory visits us in the midst of our squalour. We become aware that our geography, the places we inhabit, has an existence that vastly extends the narrow partisan and nationalist metaphors to which we subject it and ourselves.
The triple displacement is important because it means that the attachment to a particular patch of ground, say England, is imbued with dignity and yet prevented from the seat of full honour and authority. It is Jerusalem, the city of Peace, which is upheld. Jerusalem is not exactly the city in imagination; it cannot simply be constructed on the basis of our wills or the power of our dreams. Yet, in a way it is a city whose contours are open; a city made real in mind and action.
Ben Okri evokes Blake’s poem in his own poem Mental Fight to the end of a release from the powerful enchantments of destruction to which we have been subject so long. Our beginnings, our rituals, our stories are there to illuminate and guide us through the brevity of our being. Yet within these stories, these placings of ourselves, the temptation is always to territorialize. The beauty of special piece of earth, the one in which we dwell, is torn from its reality and set up against us as a metaphor for destruction. To protect these ideas we lash out in real violence. Can this violence be unlearned through the practices wherein we learn our displaced and multiform geographies? Learn to love our place in the world without fear or condescension?