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Williams’ Arthuriad, however, differs from Lewis’ Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle Earth in the same way that his novels do. Whereas Tolkien and Lewis created secondary worlds for their characters in which their adventures unfold, Williams uses this primary world, and he emphasizes this from the very first lines of the book;
Recalcitrant tribes heard ;
orthodox wisdom sprang in Caucasia and Thule ;
the glory of the Emperor stretched to the ends of the world.
Charles Williams differed from his friends and colleagues CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien in that he did not create a mythology whole-cloth as they did; Lewis with his stories of The Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien with his tales of Middle-Earth. What Williams did was to adapt a pre-existing mythos to his purposes; that of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. It is not that Lewis and Tolkien didn’t have plenty of source material from which they drew their fantasies. Lewis, according to his autobiography Surprised by Joy, wrote a number of animal-stories when he was younger under the influence of Rudyard Kipling and Beatrix Potter. Tolkien stitched together a lot of Norse and Anglo-Saxon material for his Middle-Earth, and those who know those sources better than I claim that there is little that is original in his work.The Arthuriad is going to be about Europe, or rather Britain-In-Europe, or Britain as a part of Europe. Once, while I was enjoying the 1982 Granada TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted, I made a remark about, as an American, how English the whole series struck me. Indeed, Anthony Andrews’ and Jeremy Iron’s Sebastian and Charles were kind of a baptism for me into what I have come to think of as Deep England. A very perceptive friend parsed it differently. He said that the milieu of Brideshead Revisited was England, indeed, but it was that submerged and subjugated Catholic England that Waugh depicted in his novel, the flavor of which came across so strongly in the TV adaptation. It was about the survival of ancient and life-giving folkways in a hostile and unforgiving environment.
I think that what Williams is attempting here is something even more ambitious. His cycle of poems is going to be treating England as a part of Christendom, through the language of myth. It surprises me that in the (in)famous frontpiece of Taliessin Through Logres, where the body of a naked woman is superimposed on a map of Europe, that part of Europe which eventually became Protestant does not figure prominently. Williams never treated non-conformist Protestants with contempt in his fiction; his depiction of the communion service in The Place Of The Lion is one of my favorite scenes in his whole corpus, but the flavor of the Arthurian poems is strongly that of Christendom united, certainly before the Protestant Reformation and almost as if the Chalcedonian and Orthodox-Catholic schisms had never taken place.
This is as it should be. Arthur, inasmuch as he can be fixed in history at all, is a pre-schism figure and shrouded in Druidic shadows. History is compressed. The rise of Islam, and its conquest of Constantinople are shoe-horned, for poetic purposes as yet undivined by me, into this cycle of poetry, and the Emperor is given a suzerainty in the West that he never had .
HOWEVER, for some reason, the woman’s right elbow bends at Cordoba, from whence Aristotelian thought gained purchase in the late Middle Ages, and from that Occam’s Nominalism, Protestantism, and secularism. Williams’ poetic language seems much more Neoplatonic to me;
Carbonek, Camelot, Caucasia
were gates and containers, intermediations of light ;
geography breathing geometry, the double fledged Logos
Maybe that last line is a jazz-handed reference to the Chalcedonian Definition, I don’t know, and maybe Williams will be treating the rise of Scholasticism and Aristotelianism elsewhere (The milk rises in the breasts of Gaul, trigonometrical milk of doctrine. Man sucks it ; his joints harden). I don’t know. I am not an English literature student, nor a theologian, and Williams’ poetry is heavy sledding. I don’t think his poetry is the equal of Blake’s but it seems much more certain in its referents. Maybe too certain.
Charles Williams’ Englishness is, among other things, something I would like to discuss before I tackle the daunting task of exegeting his Arthurian poetry. Like many Americans, I have something of a fantasy England tucked away somewhere in my heart. It is composed of bits and pieces of English high and popular culture that I have ingested over the years; a bit of Tolkien’s Shire, a bit of Lewis’ Oxford, landscapes from Gainsborough and Constable, screaming teenaged girls from A Hard Day’s Night, plenty of Downton Abbey, Chariots Of Fire, and Brideshead Revisted, both the Waugh novel and the Granada TV adaptation.
I was surprised at how well my American fantasy England weathered my exposure to the real article in the early 80s when I spent four months in the UK, visiting all four “nations” [Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England] in succession. What I experienced during my visit was more of a confirmation of my fantasy England, and an amplification and broadening of it, than it was a repudiation of it.
An English friend suggested to me that what I was experiencing was what the English themselves called “Deep England”. “Deep England” is part nostalgia for a simpler life more attuned to the natural rhythms of the English countryside, part fable about a vanishing face-to-face village life, part family oral history, and a large dollop of national self-deception. Nevertheless, it has a powerful pull on the national sentiment. “Deep England” could be classist, different things for different people. A retired slate miner would wax sentimental about the days when the mines were humming and one’s mates had plenty of energy for sport and plenty of money to spend in the pubs. An Anglican parish priest would sigh and remember a “time when the Church had more influence in people’s lives.” “Deep England” seemed to be something which you were always perpetually losing, something that was always just slipping away. For me, an outsider, the musical expressions of this “Deep England” will always be the austerely beautiful “Pastoral” Symphony #3 of Ralph Vaughan Williams, or a church choir performing that unsurpassably mad hymn by William Blake, “Jerusalem”.
As an American, it is hard to know what to make of this Englishness. Whatever it is, we don’t have it, although we speak a common language. Eight generations of republican life now separate us from the fountains of “Deep England”, and all that remains is the notion of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant as a kind of gold standard for white people. In a way, it is kind of a collective unconscious mythopoeia, a mythopoeia built up scrap by scrap from the raw material of language, climate, and a long tenancy on the land. From this mythopoeia, all of the particular myths forged by Englishmen down through the long years have their provenience.
Already I am thinking about what Williams’ Arthur poetry is most like. If it is idiosyncratic and difficult, it is idiosyncratic and difficult in a particularly English way. Like William Langland’s Piers Plowman, the prophetic work of William Blake, or the contemporary Gnosticism of David Lindsey’s A Voyage To Arcturus.
That’s me on the left. When did I become evil, and at just whom am I pointing that gun?
My life took a turn for the better when I stopped listening to too much AM radio. My bad habit started before 9-11-2001 actually. At first, I looked at it as a sort of a harmless hobby, entertainment. I lived in Miami at the time and Miami was kind of a hothouse for political radio, both in English and in Spanish. The Spanish side of the forum was obsessed with Fidel Castro, and who hated him the worst. If you thought Fidel Castro wasn’t entirely evil, say, maybe like Idi Amin Dada- or Joseph Stalin-level evil rather than Satan-level, the Spanish media in Miami couldn’t say enough bad about you. The English-speaking media was a little more subtle. English-speaking Miami was always heavily Jewish, and their patron saint was Neil Rogers, an old-school agnostic, openly homosexual Jew who gleefully skewered everybody, left or right, who held themselves above the common corruption that covers all of us, as Willie Loman said it, “from the stench of the di-dee to the shroud of the grave”.
Neil Rogers passed away from cancer in 2010. I am not alone in saying that I miss him. Already in his heyday in the first Clinton administration, though, strident conservative voices were vying for recognition. Rush Limbaugh was syndicated, and we in Miami had the unparalleled blessing of having G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame to listen to five days a week. My favorite broadcast of his was where he instructed his listeners on how to conduct themselves in a knife fight. I have not had to use that information yet, but you never know when it will come in handy.
What was a pastime before the attacks on the Twin Towers became an obsession afterwards. I needed an answer for the question “Why did these men do this? Why did they hate us so much?” Now, I had travelled abroad in Latin America and Spain, and had encountered the endemic anti-Americanism there. I also remembered the rhetoric that issued from the Iranian Revolution after the overthrow of the Shah and during the hostage crisis about America being the “Great Satan”. That didn’t puzzle me as much as it did many of my compatriots, though, because I remembered the role that Britain and the US played in the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and the subsequent tyranny of the Shah and his family. Don’t ask me how I learned about this, an event that took place when I was two, but I knew about it even in 1978 when Jimmy Carter decided to toss the Shah to the geopolitical Devil by refusing him military aid. “Good riddance” I thought back then, and still believe, although I am no fan of the Islamic Republic that followed him.
It may seem cruel for me to point this out, but what I remember the most about 9/11 was the great sense of relief everybody seemed to feel. After the initial shock wore off (during which the churches were full, something that hasn’t happened since), there was something of a carnival attitude. Like the Fourth of July, the American flag was everywhere. People started greeting each other on the streets again. It was like the past fifty years had been erased and we all woke up in Mayberry one morning. All of the Medician post-Cold War moral ambiguity of the Clintons vanished overnight, replaced by the resolute and vigilant Proconsul Bush, Junior. America could breath easily again.
We finally had another enemy to replace the late, lamented Communists.
Actually, we now had two enemies. The exterior, but least dangerous enemy, was “Radical” Islam. It is to the credit of whatever propaganda machine coined that phrase that the “Radical” has remained in place for over a decade, presumably to differentiate it from the tepid sort of Islam practiced by the family of the girl my son is currently dating, which is curiously like the Christianity practiced by my family where time spent in the detritus of Asian popular culture, playing video games, responding to Facebook status updates, or watching TV outweigh by a factor of ten or so attendance upon divine services [if any of my family reads this, you know me as the worst offender] .
The worse enemy was the internal one. Almost overnight after 9/11, on AM radio, the Real Enemy became the Donkeys who, depending on who you were listening to, were traitors worse than Benedict Arnold or Vikdun Quisling. Now, this was puzzling to me. I came to consciousness in the highly politicized atmosphere of the late 60s, and there were a lot of Democrats around then. They drew a lot of criticism, then as now, but there was never any sense that they were actually traitors. That kind of rhetoric has been left for our day, although it is hard to get a bead on just who is the target of this treason. It always seems to be “people like me”, you know, Christians if you are a Christian, small business people (“the backbone of our nation”, as both sides delight in calling them, although given the way they have been treated another body part would be more accurate) if you are a small business person. White if you are white, although this is usually couched in high sounding phrases about “European Christian civilization” standing against the onslaught of “illegal immigration” and “multiculturalism” .
And that, Dear Constant reader, is how your humble Mule ended up on a book cover as the symbol of evil, with a pistol pointed at the head of dear old Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam, whoever he represents, appears to be returning the love. I used to wear a jacket that looked exactly like that in 1971 with the peace sign, the Have A Nice Day face, the Yang-Yin symbol. It was as if the artist had been rummaging through my attic.
I don’t wonder that there isn’t a good amount of paranoia and hate on the other side. Half an hour spent at places like the Daily Kos (http://www.dailykos.com/) or Democratic Underground (http://www.democraticunderground.com) should convince you that there is little love showered there upon the knuckle-dragging “racist” “Dominionist” troglodytes who vote Republican. The same spirit is at work there; the Re”thug”licans are subhumans whose agenda is to ‘get’ “people like me”; agnostic if you are agnostic, gay if you are gay, sexually permissive if you are…, well, you get my drift. You are hated. They hate you. To be fair, this kind of Manichaean hatred may be an outgrowth of our two party system, but I don’t know whether the Canadian system that seems to require thirty five contending parties on the Left to ensure the election of Stephen Harper is any improvement.
Now we come to what I really want to say. There is nothing that can result from this sort of polarization except violence. Marshall McLuhan stated that all violence was an attempt to establish an identity, which dovetailed precisely with some of things Fr. Stephen Freeman discussed recently on his blog concerning the distinction between the True and the False Self (this post would be a great place to start). The True Self is who were are in Christ, and the Church defines this a being a person in communion with other persons and ultimately, in communion with the Persons of the Trinity in the community of the Church. Over against this is the False Self, the Individual, who stands in opposition to other individuals who, in the jostling of everyday life, are generally experienced as being obstacles, as being In My Way.
The False Self, since it has Nothing at its core, needs an Enemy. Only against the Enemy can the false Self begin to coalesce and direct its energies and experience something akin to life. This is Who I Am, says this poor ragged construct of ten thousand conflicting thoughts, impulses, lusts, and passions. They hate me: the preps, the hipsters, those goddamned sophisticated arugula-eating atheists, the smug religious hypocrites, the bullies, the hucksters, those self-congratulatory heteronormative cisgendered privileged bastards, the multiculturalists, the academics, the favored, the envious. Oderunt ergo sum. “I am hated, therefore I am” And as the pressure drops at the core, the winds around this non-existent center pick up speed until a perfect storm of violence erupts.
Worse than that, this rootlessness this centerlessness seems to come with the territory as an American. Someday, when the story of humanity on this continent is fully told, something accurate may be said about my country, the Country With No Real Name, with an algorithm where its heart should be. When we arrived on the shores here from Europe, we experienced the Other as Heathen and Savage, and this predilection has never departed from us. From this corelessness and the inevitable fury that surrounds it proceeded the genocide of the Native Americans, the dismemberment of Mexico, Sherman’s March Through Georgia, the Sacco-Vanzetti Trials, the Red Scare, the McCarthy Hearings, Vietnam and I don’t see it ending soon. Will my son and daughter have to live in a landscape of Bed Bath and Beyonds and Applebees deteriorating into a moonscape of Title Loan shops, Pawn shops, liquor stores and Buy Here/Pay Here used car lots as our common life and wealth is siphoned off to pursue another interminable war in some other unpronounceable place?
We need Jesus. Not the American Jeezus who saves the false Self, but the real Jesus who kills it. I am capable of Newton, of the Boston bombing, even of 9/11. How many times have idly daydreamed about these or worse events in which I can get rid of all those bad people who do all those evil deeds so that the good people, like me, can get on with their good lives? Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison. I am no longer capable of discerning between good and evil, I want to put the fruit back on the branch.
February 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.
Another 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.