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It has been a couple of weeks since my long-awaited [used] copy of Taliessin Through Logres – The Region Of the Summer Stars – Arthurian Torso arrived from the used bookstore in Michigan  from which I ordered it.  It was a surprisingly good copy, well worth what I paid for it.  The edition is, I believe, pretty well known; Eerdman’s published it in 1974 and I could have picked it up for $7.95 at that time.  It’s odd, but I remember seeing it in a Christian bookstore forty years ago, and shuffling through t408832he pages.  I was familiar with CS Lewis and I had heard that Charles Williams was a friend of his.  Having puzzled my way through Many Mansions, I had already had a taste of Williams and wanted more.  The dense and deeply self-referential poetry of Williams’ Arthuriad completely defeated my casual perusal and I put the book back on the shelf.

Not too many copies of the Eerdman’s volume were published.  Maybe my recently acquired  book was the same one I held in my hands forty years ago.  Stranger things have been known to happen.

My eye was caught by a phrase that began an essay “The Coming Of The King” in the explanatory work by Charles Williams, The Figure of Arthur, which was included in the volume I purchased:

 By the twelfth century the outline of the new metaphysical civilization in Europe was taking shape

and I knew that my reading of Williams was going to be different from that of a Western Christian.  For me, the twelfth century marks an ending, not a beginning.  The “new metaphysical civilization” that arose after the sundering of Latin Christendom is for me already  a seminal apostasy, a long fading rather than a new quickening. The ruthless imposition of continental feudalism over the conciliar Anglo-Saxon polity, the suppression of the variegated local liturgies in favor of the Roman rite, to choose only two examples, speak to me more of

Union is breached; the imams stand in Sophia
Good Is God, the muzzein
calls, but lost is the light on the hills of Caucasia
glory of the Emperor, glory of substantial Being.

 As I begin to attempt to dovetail Williams’ mythology of Camelot-as-the City with my own dreams of the pre-schism eucharistic Commonwealth [however vaguely or however imprecisely that Commonwealth may have existed or not in history], I find three great burning ideas stand out to me.

  1. The Arthurian corpus, I believe, is Charles Williams’ great clearinghouse for all of his literary and theological output.  The themes that Williams touches upon in all of his writings; The Web of Exchange, Co-inherence, The Vision of the City, the Way of the Affirmation of Images and the Way of the Denial of Images, are all present here and elevated from concept to archetype, or at least as far as William201007_SFenech_taliesins’ poetic abilities are able to carry them.
  2. Charles Williams was not a Roman Catholic but an Anglican.  This is important.  Forged in Tudor politics during an uncertain time, Anglicanism as a faith has had a more elliptical orbit than other Christian bodies.  There have been times during its career when Anglicanism has wobbled close enough to Orthodoxy for the broad majority to thrive within something of a celestial “temperate zone”. I don’t want to go to far into this, but it appears to me that Charles Williams’ and CS Lewis’ time was just about optimal.
  3. Williams had the keen intuition to use the pre-Schism figure of Arthur [and the barely-historical figure of Taliessin] to anchor his romance of Christendom.  The period of time between Theodosius and Alfred the Great is an interesting time.  I always thought of pre-literate man as somewhat childlike, and high Roman culture was always more unstable in Britain than anywhere else in the Western Empire.  The fall, when it finally came, was almost total, and there was enough “wiggle room” for the collective mythopoetic imagination to begin to accrete material around a minor Brythonic warlord with a shallow gloss of Romanitas, much as an oyster around a grain of sand, until the pearl of legend emerged.


All of my life, and it has not been a short one, I have been interested in what is called by students of literature the matter of Britain, and its best known segment, the stories and legends of King Arthur.  I cannot remember my first exposure to the stories of the Round Table, but it was either by means of Andrew Lang’s Tales of King Arthur with the wonderful Art Nouveau illustrations by H.J. Ford,  or the Walt Disney animated movie  The Sword In The Stone.  I am leaning to the first, because The Sword In The Stone came out in 1963, when I was trembling on the brink of adolescence, and I already knew that Merlin was a darker and more powerful figure than Disney’s avuncular buffoon.  The movie version of Camelot came out about this time as well.

In the years that followed, I devoured T.H. White’s  The Once and Future King, puzzled my way through Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Mort D’Arthur,  and discovered that even John Steinbeck had set his pick into the Arthurian trench.  The result was his last work of fiction; The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.  Since the 1970s, there have been several other works of Arthurian fiction that I have enjoyed as well; Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave and the sequels, Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon cycle, Nikolai Tolstoi’s The Coming Of The King.

What attracts me to the stories of Arthur and his knights is the matter of the Grail.  The Grail lifts the whole Matter of Britain out of the realm of Story and into the realm of myth and metaphysics.  It is interesting to me that Malory devoted most of Le Mort D’Arthur to the achievement of the Grail.  The adulterous love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot doesn’t appear to have much occupied him, although since Tennyson and the Victorians, the love story has been center stage, and the Grail forgotten.   The Grail stories, though, are where the real mythopoetic power of the Arthurian material resides.

Charles Williams dealt with the stories of Arthur in two volumes of poetry, possession which I have just recently come into  after an extended search. He deals almost exclusively with the Grail, and with the mystical aspects of the Arthurian stories.  I would like to do a read-through of his poetry, although it is famously difficult.  I am not a Williams scholar.  I can’t go to the Kilby collection and dig up old letters of his, and there is a lot of introductory material to get out of the way first.

But I have been promising myself that I would do this, and it’s high time I started to do something worthwhile with this moribund blog anyway.

To speak about Progressive Rock these days is to talk about passion, and the love of music [for it’s own sake]. The days of deep industry and commercial success during the 70s are long gone. The current progressive music movement is underground, honest, small and vibrant.  Rock Progresivo Peru – Giusseppe Risica Carella

BritanniaForty five years ago a friend loaned me an album and insisted that I listen to it.  The name of the album was The Court Of The Crimson King by King Crimson.  It ruined our friendship, because I played the record until I ground the grooves out.  The music on that album was a quantum leap over other music I was listening to at the time.  It was more complex and required stricter attention.  I sought out more music like it, and stumbled across Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and Renaissance’s self-titled debut.  Another friend recommended Time And A Word by another English band called Yes, whose singer hit higher notes than I believed possible for a man.  A guitar playing friend introduced me to the man he called the guitarist’s guitarist, John McLaughlin.  There was also a group called Genesis that turned out music that was better than it should have been, since their lead singer wore a dress, and sometimes dressed like a flower.  Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull were everywhere on the newly significant FM band.  Finally, there was an outfit called Gentle Giant whose stuff I never liked on first listen but which grew on me as I listened.  Records by these artists and many others entered my collection and defined my musical tastes, at least in popular music.  The embryonic music press called it “symphonic rock” or “art rock”, but eventually settled on the appellation “progressive rock”.

Progressive rock morphed into big business by the late seventies.  Pink Floyd in particular became one of the largest draws in the music industry, and I was able to hear Yes at one of their concerts at about this time.  However, the more complex bands like King Crimson or McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra never achieved a similar level of popularity but enjoyed a high reputation among people “who knew a lot about music”.  Bands like Styx, Journey, and Kansas took the “progressive” formula, simplified it [Kansas less so, Journey more so, Styx in the middle] for mass consumption, and made bank, filling stadiums around the world.  Then suddenly, from about 1982 on, the whole scene just disappeared.  Punk rock happened, and popular music moved back to a simpler, earlier paradigm.  People wanted to dance, and nobody could really dance to the odd rhythms and jarring time signature changes that progressive rock offered.  One of my favorite bands, Genesis, became a pop/disco band after their vocalist and guitarist left to embark on solo careers.

I appreciated a lot of the new music.  “New Wave” it was called, and it was everywhere by the mid-eighties, thanks to a concurrent fashion movement and a very risky media gamble called MTV.  It wasn’t long before New Wave was replaced by a plethora of confusing genres, “post-punk”, “dreampop”, and of course “grunge”.  I married and started having children, and could no longer afford the time to keep up with an increasingly fractious music scene.  Nevertheless, I found that nothing could get me into a nostalgic early 70s groove than putting Selling England By The Pound and reading Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard Of Earthsea.  Don’t ask me why, but fantasy literature of the Tolkienesque variety and progressive rock seem to blend very well. Before the advent of Peter Jackson’s movies, progressive musicians had a reputation for creating Tolkien soundscapes, or for using names like “Gandalf” or “Silmaril” for their band names.

When it became possible to download music on the Internet in the late 1990s (first on Usenet, then on Napster), I decided to renew some old acquaintances,  I found out that a band I cared very much for in the height of the progressive era, Renaissance, whose female lead singer had an operatic range, put out one of their best albums long after I stopped listening.  I was able to sample music from obscurer bands like Finch, Wally, and Gryphon whose works I had missed back in the 70s.  I discovered that just at the time progressive rock went out of style in the UK and the USA, the Italians took it over and carried it to new heights.  I learned about Banco del Mutuo SoccorsoPremiata Forneria Marconi and Le Orme.  Most importantly, I found that new music was being made in this style and finding an audience.  I became acquainted with Marillion, Spock’s Beard, IQ, Echolyn, Citizen Cain, Clepsydra and many others.  It was at this time that I first heard of the best Christian music nobody was listening to.   I don’t know if that’s fair to Iona, who has always had a small and vocal fan base in the US, to say that nobody listened to them.   They should have been much more popular than they were.  They were a Celtic/progressive/folk-rock band with astounding musicianship and deep meditative lyrics.

If the CCM community’s failure to properly appreciate Iona was disturbing, that same community’s almost complete ignorance of Spock’s Beard frontman Neal Morse is almost criminal.   Spock’s Beard was probably the best, and certainly the most commercially successful, of the new breed of progressive rock bands that arose in the 1990s.  Neal converted to Evangelical Christianity somewhere around 2002  and started kicking out albums as quickly as Prince ever did.  Starting with Testimony, he issued a series of Christian based CDs that contained the most earnest Christian message since Keith Green.  OK, maybe since Rich Mullen.  I don’t know why he never cracked the Positive Hits barrier.  His music is light years ahead of the current Coldplay and Beyonce clones that populate the K-JOY playlist.  Maybe it’s because he’s not easily digestible like Mercy Me and he isn’t ironic and faux-edgy enough for the Fair Trade and Soul Patch brigade.  Come to think of it, I’ve never heard Iona, Over The Rhine, or Dirt Poor Robins on K-JOY either.  It’s been two decades since I’ve heard Keith Green, and I haven’t heard Rich Mullins lately, either.  Well, more’s their loss.

Just last year, though, I found out that progressive rock had hit a new high water mark.  While my attention was elsewhere, English progressive rock band Big Big Train released a series of CDs that equal anything Genesis, Yes, or King Crimson was making back in the 70s.  I sampled Big Big Train in the early 2000s, on their CD Gathering Speed, but I wasn’t impressed. On a whim, though, I purchased a download for the EP they issued in 2010,  Far Skies Deep Time.  It was 99 cents.  From the very first track, all the elements were there; the Peter Gabriel-like vocals, the soaring melodies, the elegiac lyrics, and above all the overarching and interpenetrating sense of Englishness.  By the time the EP finished 44 minutes later (of course a prog EP would be 44 minutes long with only 5 songs), I was in tears.  A quick review of some music-oriented websites confirmed my suspicions, progressive rock was roaring back.    Brand new bands with names like Sihouette, Life Line Project, and Fright Pig were making unconscionably great music, and neo-progressive veterans like the Flower Kings, Shamall, The Enid, RWPL, and Glass Hammer were making the best music they had ever made.   One enthusiastic  critic  called 2012 the best year in progressive rock ever.

Yet, the resurgence seems to be primarily artistic.  I never hear it on the radio, even on the college station I listen to most often.  They have a progressive rock program but it’s mostly obscure stuff from the 70s with a lot of Frank Zappa-inspired freeform jazz-fusion.   My children’s friends aren’t listening to modern prog rock.  My son  likes Japanese noise artists like Boris or Merzbow, and my daughter is addicted to Korean pop music, which is slightly disturbing considering that K-pop is subsidized by the South Korean government and is a significant export for the South Korean economy.   Maybe all this great music is like Colin Maloy and the Decemberists, who put out the best Jethro Tull album since Heavy Horses.  My son tells me all his friends’ dads like the Decemberists too.  It’s Dad-rock for nostalgic, disaffected dads.   Still, it could be worse.  It’s nice to have the musical universe indulge you one last time.

PS – If The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife is the best Jethro Tull album since Heavy Horses, then Big Big Train’s The Underfall Yard is the best Genesis album since Wind And Wuthering, and it just gets better and better  Just sayin’.

Essa moça sabe desenhar sim senhor.

steampunk_siblingsShe’s Brazilian, and her blog is in Portuguese, but that shouldn’t deter you from a visit.   Google Translate is kind to her site, but the real pleasure is in her drawings.   By turns whimsical, fantastic, and sensual, Cynthia França wields a pencil like Logen Ninefingers can wield a sword, and it cuts just as deeply.  I wasn’t able to determine if Miss França has ever published any of her drawings professionally, or if anyone had ever tapped her to illustrate a book.  There were several drawings on her site that seemed to come from a fictional source; Soccertown kids, all appropriately named,  a set of drawings entitled Les Reines D’Autobus, but I was frustrated by my total ignorance of Brazilian popular culture.

Since reading L. Sprague De Camp’s planetary romances of the Viagens Interplanetárias in my earliest adolescence, Brazil has always seemed like a mythical country in its own right.  I don’t mean to disparage the tremendous challenges faced by the average Brazilian in navigating the real world, but when I visited there, I felt more like I was living inside a legend than I have anywhere else.  There has to be some compensation for living in a country where there is so much poverty and injustice, and oddly, there is.  Nature is exuberant there, beyond anything we know in North America away from the redwood groves on the West Coast.  Taking the bus from Santos on the coast to São Paulo was like dreaming with my eyes open.   Music, better music than you can pay to hear in most venues, wafts out of the windows and down to the street.

Because of this I’m surprised Brazil hasn’t produced more fantasy literature.  Some of the tales of the bandeirantes, with which Brazilian schoolchildren are as familiarrachel_leah as American children used to be with the stories of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, definitely had a mythopoetic flavor to them.  Miss França has a fantastic side to her as well.  In her online portfolio there are drawings of Conan, Dejah Thoris, and Desire of the Endless, as well as numerous sketches from what Miss França refers to as her “pocket mythology”.  I learned that the phrase Portuguese would use for the Endless is os Perpétuos.  From one Gaiman fan to another Gaiman fan, I salute you.

Miss França also has produced an occasional series of sketches of Biblical women.  You should really go see these, because they are not likely to see the light of day between the pages of your Zondervan Purpose Oriented Planner Bible.  Mary and Martha are here, as are Herodias and a slightly older Salomé, three of David’s wives, Jezebel and her daughter Athalia.  Even though Miss França appears to have a soft spot for the bad girls, there are plenty of good girls; Ruth and Orpah are here, as are the three daughters of Job.  My favorite, however, is the sketch of Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob.  Miss França takes the liberty of depicting Leah not as strictly plain, but just frank and transparent as opposed to Rachel’s smoldering and mysterious glamour.

Now, I know I have maybe thirty two nanoWarhols of artistic critical influence, but I would dearly love to see Miss França exercise her considerable talents somewhere where she could be more widely appreciated.

flanneryI had no idea that one of my favorite writers was born on the feast of the Annunciation.  It makes perfect sense though.

From Orthodixie:

It’s the birthday of Flannery O’Connor [Savannah, Georgia (1925)] who wrote two novels and 32 short stories and who said: “I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both.” When she was six, she and a chicken that she taught to walk backward appeared on the news. She later said: “I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

She said, “When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic. … Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

— Stolen from The Writer’s Almanac

Someone once told the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor that it is more open-minded to think that the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar is a great, wonderful, powerful symbol. Her response was, “If it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”

Flannery O’Connor: “When I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me, it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified… The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature.”

Additional poignancy is added in that this year the Feast of the Annunciation abuts the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  I never got the appeal of Miss O’Connor’s writing for serious Protestants.  She is not at all sympathetic to them.  I hung out with a lot of neo-Calvinist, culture-engaging types who lionized her.  When I started reading her, I found her to be very dismissive of Protestantism, whether of the modernist, of the fundamentalist, or of this new-fangled presuppositionalist variety.  I think it has something to do with the radical nature of grace in Miss O’Connor’s fiction, which is indeed arresting, but which never comes about through The [classical Protestant] Word Of God Preached, but through [good ol’ dirty Catholic] matter.  I am not ashamed to admit that it was Miss O’Connor’s short story Parker’s Back that turned me into an iconodule, rather than St. John of Damascus’ cooly argued Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images.  Once I saw the image of my proud, bitter,  man-hating soul in Sarah Ruth’s fastidious iconoclasm, there was no recourse but for me to prostrate myself before the holy icon of the blessed flesh of my Lord, and ask His forgiveness for my sin and spiritual elitism.  He who did not deign to hold Himself aloof from the messiness of our incarnate lives forgave me.

There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the Sun was sinking, finding at last the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud, and falling in an ominous fire towrds the yet unsullied Sea.  The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath.  The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it.  Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead.  Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot folk of Mordor used.
Suddenly, caught by the level beam, Frodo saw the old king’s head: it was lying rolled away by the road side.  ‘Look, Sam!’ he cried, startled into speech.  ‘The king has got a crown again!’
The eyes were hollow and the carven head was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold.  A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.
‘They cannot conquer forever!’ said Frodo.  And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone.  The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the stuttering of a lamp, black night fell.
JRR Tolkien, The Lord Of The Rings , II, Journey To The Crossroads


“There are only so many people capable of putting together words that stir and move and sing. When it became possible to earn a very good living in advertising by exercising this capability, lyric poetry was left to untalented screwballs who had to shriek for attention and compete by eccentricity.”
“You can’t trust reason. We threw it out of the ad profession long ago and have never missed it.”CM Kornbluth


american5Father Stephen Freeman, on his popular blog,  Glory To God For All Things, swings for the fence a lot.  He is the kind of blogger who isn’t content to hit singles and doubles consistently and get on base, but he expects to hit a bases-loaded home run each time he steps out of the batting box.   With his latest post,  A Crisis Of Beauty, he does precisely that.

Father Stephen lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, a community that received in the 1940s the sobriquet of being “the ugliest city in America”, and has recently been anointed as the “most Bible-minded city in America.”  Father Stephen meditates on the ugliness of modern American life and wonders why it has to be so,  especially in a community that is so ‘Bible minded’.  The comments that the good Father’s post engendered discuss a number of possible causes, from the baleful influence of popular Evangelical Protestantism, to the Malthusian argument that there are too many [of the wrong kind of] people, to the corruption of oligarchic market capitalism.

Ugliness was one of the marks of evil in Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord Of The Rings.  Orcs were ‘ruined elves’, and the cannon fodder of the Dark Lord.  It was a mark of their degradation that they hated beauty. The poor deformed creatures could create no beauty of their own, and the mere existence of it reminded them of their lost estate, so they hated beauty and defaced it whenever they encountered it.

I think something orc-like has entered into the soul of Late Imperial America.  Ugliness sets up a self-reinforcing feedback loop.  Working in an ugly building, living in an ugly, cookie-cutter house, eating tasteless, corn syrup-based foods in an ugly AppleChili’s Red Olive Barrel, worshiping in a gymnasium or a hangar to a cacophony of electronically distorted noises, makes you uglier, and this internal ugliness produces in turn more ugliness, and worse, a contentment with ugliness and eventually, a resentment of beauty.  But there us another force at work, something that will not prove easy to undo, because it has lodged in one of our most basic and most primal human passions.

What I have to say here is going to be controversial  The pornification of American culture has played a key role in uglifying it.  A frequent Orthodox poster on blogs pertaining to modern relationships between the sexes remarks that about the only personal characteristic that 21st century cares about is sex appeal.   Everything else is secondary, maybe even superfluous

The problem is that porn is boring.  There are just so many ways that you can rub body parts together, and eventually, the itch you are trying to scratch becomes larger than anything you can scratch it with.  Additionally, for some reason not immediately apparent to me, use of pornography sears a sector of the human soul that appreciates and evaluates beauty.  As the flesh and the sexual passions clamor more insistently, little by little, the other pleasures recede and lose their ability to charm, entice, or motivate.

I don’t think that even 20 years ago, it was apparent that our society would become as highly sexualized as it currently is.  The Sexual Revolution is, of course, very old news,  and the original impetus for it came from Scandinavia and France, were traditional attitudes towards sexuality dissolved before they did here in the US.  The message that you can have sex with whomever you want whenever you want with no adverse effects is one that is always going to find fertile soil, though.

The increasing sexualization of society has a side-effect.  We are primates, and whatever your view of human origins and our relationship to monkeys, apes, and lemurs, human females share an observable tendency that they share with other female primates – they are attracted to males who exhibit what is called conspicuous consumption.  These days, the most desirable females come with a very, very high price tag.  This is, I believe, the motive force, the engine behind the ruthless exploitation of resources and rapid monetarization of anything that provokes even a momentary interest.  A market will be found, and usually it will be ignited by the image of an appealing young woman.

Which is a shame.  Americans are not an ugly people, more that any other other people who dwell on the face of the earth, and we were, as recently as the early forties, exploring our own way of creating beauty.  There are English ways of being beautiful, French ways, Russian ways, Chinese ways, and if you have ever heard the Cherubic hymn sung by a Kenyan choir, African ways as well.  Indeed, a lot of what it means to be beautiful is what it means to be beautiful right here, right now.  There is an Beauty  of This Moment and This Place which is not transferable to There and Then.  It is the increasing homogenization, the franchising of America [as Father Stephen calls it] that is a key element to its uglification.   

American Beauty, which is essentially a regional beauty, even a local beauty,  was strangled in the crib by a rising advertising/promotional industry, an industry whose goal was to decouple the purchasing will from the higher brain functions and make it as reliable as breathing and circulation by attaching it to our most basic passions.   Once the link to sex was discovered and ruthlessly exploited, there was no more room for American Beauty.

Not too many years ago a young monastic aspirant went to Mount Athos.  In talking with the venerable abbot of the monastery where he wished to stay, he told him, “Holy Father! My heart burns for the spiritual life, for asceticism, for unceasing communion with God, for obedience to an Elder. Instruct me, please, holy Father, that I may attain to spiritual advancement.”

Going to the bookshelf, the Abbot pulled down a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. “Read this, son,” he said.

“But Father!” objected the disturbed aspirant. “This is heterodox Victorian sentimentality, a product of the Western captivity! This isn’t spiritual; it’s not even Orthodox! I need writings which will teach me spirituality!” 

The Abbot smiled, saying, “Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did – with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness – then all the Orthodox ‘spirituality’ and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you-they will turn you into a ‘spiritual’ monster and destroy your soul.”


A while back, blogger with similar interests to mine posted that Christians ought not, and Orthodox Christians most definitely should not, read fantasy literature:

Fantasy… is a pure expression of the passions. Basically it’s whatever the mind imagines ends up on paper. So then we end up with werewolves and vampires and a celebration of evil that in the modern genre completely lacks what the original characters were intended to portray. In this way, a genre that was meant to lead someone toward Christ now pulls them in the opposite direction by tantalizing every wicked fantasy and passion imaginable, and infusing it with a lustful voyeurism so that people constantly want more and more perverse and graphic fantasies.

On the surface, I have to say that I agree with her.   “Man’s imaginations are wicked from his youth”, Genesis says.  I made an offhand comment about fifteen years ago to a friend on the ‘darkening’ of the fantasy genre; most of the material that was coming out at that time seemed to be concerned with the demonic, and with the infernal side of occultic powers.   There didn’t seem to be any celestial counterweight and a lot of fantasy material seemed to be moving from the Tolkienesque to the “gritty”, “realistic” outlook. The best of it was pagan/stoic and the worst of it was flatly demonic.  Once the pornification of Western society got underway in earnest, wrought in great part by the Internet, fantasy literature followed suit, and now you can’t turn a page without some sexual practice that would have shocked a jury forty years ago described in painstaking detail between orcs and elves.

73660.pIt is not fantasy material exclusively that as fallen prey to this; romances are saucier and kinkier; simple murder no longer suffices to carry a detective novel, you need cannibalism or torture.   The problem is that there is no longer any intermediary between the head, the eyes, and the loins.  Lewis’ Men Without Chests have arrived, and they are worse than any glittering vampire or werewolf out of the latest potboiler.  There is in Tibetan Buddhism the concept of the Hungry Ghost (ཡི་དྭགས), an entity with overdeveloped mouth and stomach, but with a neck and chest too thin to allow for the passage of food.  This parcel of decayed human energy lives in constant torment as its enormous stomach demands input from its hypertrophied mouth, but there is nothing in between that can mediate the transfer.   We have starved the sentiments for so long that we may be said to exist in a state of spiritual diabetes.  We devour and devour all manner of stories; fantasies, romances, novels, but we seem incapable to extract even the minutest nutrition from any on them, We are like those who lack a vital digestive enzyme.

Forty years ago, Father Seraphim Rose also noticed this strange deficiency in young pilgrims coming to his California monastery for spiritual guidance:

 [There is a]  problem [which] lies in the poverty of our modern soul, which has not been prepared or trained to receive the depths of true Christian experience. There is a cultural as well as a psychological aspect to this poverty of ours: The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this–but most of all because of the absence on the part of parents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it–the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable

Father Seraphim went on to say that what was needed in this situation was a “Dushevni diet”, one that would nourish the middle soul, the Chest, in Lewis’ vocabulary.  The idea of the “Dushevni diet” is to allow the soul to learn those responses to an object which those objects ought naturally to invoke, or which a well-trained soul should naturally feel.  Lewis himself, in The Abolition Of Man, uses the example of Samuel Johnson’s observation that

That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force
upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the
ruins of Iona.

with the caveat that the man whose patriotism does not swell at Marathon or whose piety is not warmed at Iona will inevitably complain that because his [lack of] patriotism and his [lack of] piety are neither strengthened nor  fortified at either Marathon or Iona, it must follow the idea of these places doing either is a subjective fantasy, and that his feelings of tedium and his desire to find an inn where he can grab a beer and watch the soccer matches are just as valid as all that sentimental nonsense about brave ancient Athenian citizen-warriors or Celtic monks standing waist deep in freezing water chanting the Psalms.  I’m sorry, but  those thoughts are the grandfathers to the complaints of overweight women that they are equally as desirable to as wide an array of men as their slender sisters.   That just is not so.   Value is as objective as anything measured by the positive sciences.  It is just that the instrument used to measure it is not a scale, or a measuring stick, or a pipette, but rather the human soul itself.  If that soul is faulty or unbalanced, it will perforce register a different value for the object than will the purer soul.

Until this point, I have said nothing that Fr. Seraphim and Dr. Lewis have not said before me, and much more eloquently. However, as far as an Orthodox Christian who enjoys and appreciates the fantasy genre as I do, I would like to make the following observations:

First of all, salvation is offered to us through What Is, not through what we would like it to be.  The very first time I saw an Orthodox icon of Christ, I was struck by the Greek legend Ὁ ὮΝ, “That Which IS”, in thethe city and the city nimbus of his halo.  In itself, this would appear to be reason enough to exclude anything of a fantastic nature from Fr. Seraphim’s “dushevni diet”, and with the vast majority of modern fantasy, I would be in complete agreement with myself.   There is a lot of brutality, a lot of anxiety, a lot of lasciviousness, and a complete lack of transcendence in most fantasy material these days, both Western and Eastern.  I include Eastern fantastic literature because Japanese and Korean manga (comics) and anime (cartoons) are occupy the same literary niche for young people of my son’s generation that The Lord Of The Rings and the Narnia books occupied for me when I was younger.

But there is an important point I would like to make:  For all the popularity of the ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’ fantasies of Joe Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin, and China Mieville, we would do well to remember that they are considered ‘realistic’ because of one important point; their narratives unwind in created worlds that resemble our own in one essential way; they are closed worlds where even magic is technological in nature.  It obeys ‘rules’ that cannot be broken, which can be observed and mastered, and using techniques which can be perfected through experimentation and practice.  There is no help coming from beyond the circle of the invented world.  Self-interest rules all things, and the struggle of omnes contra omnes continues apace.  In the hands of the aforementioned authors, this “realistic” approach to fantasy has produced some engaging yarns.  They are gifted writers, and, interestingly, Mr. Mieville has produced a story which points beyond itself in a way I’m not certain the author didn’t intend.

In The City And The City, Mr. Mieville has created two separate cities, Beszel and Ul Quoma.  The two cities occupy the same physical space, and may even share buildings and streets.  Each ‘city’ has its own airport and port district.  Citizens of each city can dimly glimpse, at times, residents of the other city or the outlines of buildings.  However, to admit to this is to commit Breach, risking arrest and incarceration. Citizens of both cities have been strictly trained since earliest childhood to disregard all evidence of the other city.   The narrative of Mr. Mieville’s book unwinds as a policeman in the less wealthy city, Beszel, is investigating a murder of a young woman which implicates  a well-connected functionary in the corresponding, wealthier city of Ul Quoma.  His distress increases as he realizes that the world in which he grew up believing does not correspond to the world as it actually is.

In the same way, there is something fantastic about the life we live in our sanitized, corporatized, modern world.  We fly across the landscape like Djinn in metal boxes.  We know the thoughts of others at multiplied hundreds of leagues. We hear no animals bawl out their agonies when their time comes to keep us nourished.  In addition, a constant barrage of intellectual static that attempts to convince us that This Truncated World Is The Real World, that  nothing exists outside of what can be measured, monetarized, and manipulated.  If you want to maintain little fantasy religious worlds or little counter-cultural worlds within strict boundaries of a “religious” or “intentional” community, you are by all means free to do so  (We are not tyrants, after all, is another song that is sung constantly).  If you try to smuggle anything out from behind those well-guarded frontiers, though, you will find yourself committing Breach and arousing the ire of the Gatekeepers.  In this way, something like The Lord Of The Rings, or even Spirited Away,  can serve to cast doubt on the Official Narrative.  Spiritual forces and proper human sentiment can be experienced as liberating and empowering, and in this way, the Real World, The Only One That Truly Is, that which is signalled by the Greek letters in the halo, can be made more real than this dreary official fantasy in which we find ourselves.

stgaudensFebruary 15, 2013 is an important date in our household because it is my wife’s sixtieth birthday.  I have already blown past sixty and I find sixty-one to be far more amenable than sixty, which for some reason bothered me far worse than fifty, forty, or thirty.

February 15 is also the 100th anniversary of the New York Armory Show, the first exposure Americans were given to the artistic innovations and blasphemies that had been percolating in Europe for some time.  Apart from displaying American artists such as James Whistler and Edward Hopper, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors also subjected sensitive American sensibilities to the Cubist visions of Marcel Duchamps, Pablo Picasso, and Jacques Villon, as well as undecipherably non-representational abstractions such as those of Wassily Kandinsky.

Now, I learned about the New York armory show from Francis Schaeffer’s book How Should We Then Live?  Now, I know it isn’t cool for the cool Christian intellectuals to acknowledge any sort of debt to Francis Schaeffer and his reactionary cultural analysis, especially after the hatchet job done on him by his son, but I find his evaluation of the 1913 Armory Show spot-on.   The world was different after 1913 than it was before.  Sometimes time turns a corner and you can’t go back to the way things were.  The Armory Show marked the moment when the Marginal became the Mainstream, the Transgressor became the Canon-setter, and Western art embarked on its self-evidently futile quest of finding one yet more convention to violate.  That awful harridan Madonna said something similar when she stated that she couldn’t perform properly without visualizing some sexually uptight [like me] person disapproving of her show.

It is easy to fall in with Dr. Schaeffer’s analysis of the Armory Show and its exhibitors until you look at some of the actual art exhibited there.  It is breathtakingly beautiful.  This beauty makes it hard for me to dismiss modern art in the way a conservative Calvinist friend did after viewing an exhibition of 20th Century art: “It’s all autonomous man all in your face like THIS!! [sticking his hairy presuppositionalist face with its luxuriant Warfieldian beard within inches of mine]”   Well, duh.  You say that like that’s a bad thing.

A little later in the year [May 29] will arrive the Centenary of the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring.  This had an impact on its viewers even more marked than that of the Armory Show on its patrons. They rioted and tore up the theatre.  Can you imagine people these days rioting about art?   Well, I can easily see why.

  On YouTube I found and watched  the Joffrey Ballet’s performance of the ballet, with the restored choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky and the disturbing costumes designed by Nicholas Roerich.  It made me wish I were 30 years younger and could rut like a reindeer.  100 years later and this is still as sexually charged a work of art as I have ever seen.

OSCARS-BEST PICTUREAnother centenary last year passed me by.  April 15, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.  Despite what you think of James Cameron’s blockbuster romance based on this disaster, one scene in it struck me as particularly iconic.  It is, of course, the shot of Rose and Jack at the prow of the ship, with Rose’s arms extended cruciform and Jack embracing her waist, flying into the setting sun with the wind in their hair.  ‘Yeah, there’s 20th century man for you, I thought,   ‘Beautiful as an angel, dumb as a stump, trusting blindly in your machines and heading straight for an iceberg.’

The rooster always crows three times.  The survivors of the Titanic, the viewers of the Armory Show, and the rioters at the Ballet Russe had one final outrage awaiting for them the next year, a Centenary which is bearing down on us and demanding our contemplation; the Cotillion of Mars, the self-mastication of Europe, the outbreak of the Great War.

It cost the Great War to begin the breakdown of the epistemological hubris of Europe, which price we are still paying, with interest.