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Olympians: Caliban and Blake

The New York Times called it ‘weird’ and ‘unabashedly British.’ Some other descriptors included ‘wild jumble, celebratory, eccentric, off-the-wall, noisy, busy, witty, dizzying, slightly insane, and zany.’ In the end, the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic games, created by director Danny Boyle, was boiled down to a tribute to the anarchic spirit of the British. After all, the winner of the motto contest for the Olympics was “No Motto Please, We’re British.” The spectacle was packed with much more than can be quickly unpacked in a short essay, but there were a couple of moments that really caught me eye.

The thing that caused a conservative member of Parliament to call the ceremony too “lefty and multicultural” was that it wasn’t an unequivocal, unqualified positive portrait of Great Britain. It’s interesting to contrast its project with the production four years ago in China. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony spectacular offered a vision of how we all really got hereā€”to this spot–where these games will be played with competitors from all over the planet. By definition the Olympics are multicultural and to some extent ‘lefty.’ But to hold that mirror up to the world is still a dangerous proposition. Best to be thought of as ‘zany’ rather than serious.

I’m reminded of something I recently heard in Paris. Some citizens there were discussing the question as to whether France should be multicultural or not. One need only walk around the streets of Paris to know that the question is moot. Rather than start from a position of purity, Boyle starts with the words of Caliban, a moon calf, a freckled monster, recited by the actor Kenneth Branagh:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

The Tempest 3.2.148-156
William Shakespeare

Caliban’s dreams far outstrip his reality and so he cries to ‘dream again.’ In essence he seems to be dreaming of pastoral Great Britain, something well beyond his grasp.

While the floor of the stadium is portraying pastoral Great Britain we hear the anthem “Jerusalem” with music by Sir Hubert Parry, written in 1916. The words are by the visionary poet William Blake. Presaged in the poem are the dark Satanic Mills that transform the green and pleasant land to an industrial machine.

(The Preface to ‘Milton, a poem)
William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant Land

John Lienhard describes what Blake meant by the phrase ‘I will not cease from Mental Fight:’

Blake, the sensible observer of the human lot, outlines our responsibility. We can’t shrink from the mental fight of building a world fit for habitation. When he asks for his bow, arrows, spear, and chariot of fire, he’s reaching for tools with which to build that world. He’s arming for mental fight. He realized that, from now on, nature would shine through the fire and mills only if we had the wits to make it do so.

It’s difficult to imagine the courage, the mental fight that Boyle had to muster to show the world this stage picture of England during the industrial age:

The information age follows the industrial age in Boyle’s telling of the story. And here all our modern stories are woven together into the multicultural fabric that we inhabit. Of particular note in the transition section is the tribute to the National Health Service.

And finally the entrance of the athletes by country in alphabetical order. The exceptions are Greece which traditionally enters first, and the host country, Great Britain which enters last. The randomness of the sequence of the letters of the alphabet presents us with strange and beautiful juxtapositions of countries and cultures. While the Olympics are contests of physical skill, they also represent a shining example of ceaseless mental fight.

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