Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Poems of Charles Williams, Part One: Substantial Instruments of Being

And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it … For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.

Revelation XXI.xxiii-xxiv, XXII.xv

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I’d like to return to Charles Williams and his poetry: specifically, his version of the Arthurian cycle, expressed in the collections Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. His thought is eclectically Platonic, charged with a brightness that dazzles the mind at first—especially since he knew a good deal more about magic1 than most people, and explains Christ and the faith and the world in magical terms quite as freely as St Thomas explained them in Aristotelian terms. His poems about Arthur’s realm of Logres2 are just that, poems about the kingdom and the people in it; but, precisely because of that, their meaning also ranges throughout creation, like the multiple levels on which Dante wrote the Divine Comedy.

First, in Williams’ conception, Logres is a province of the Roman Empire seated at Byzantium, and the Empire is an image of human nature both physical and spiritual. Man, in his thought, is a microcosm of the universe’s macrocosm, and the Empire itself is the medial world, the mesocosm. The Empire is drawn in the shape of a woman, half-reclining on the Mediterranean: her womb is in Jerusalem, her buttocks in Caucasia, her hands in Rome, her breasts in Gaul, and her brain in Logres; and the Emperor himself, residing in Byzantium, symbolizes God, expressing in his office the union of divinity and humanity in Christ.

Lynton Lamb's map of Williams' version of the Empire

The organic body sang together;
dialects of the world sprang in Byzantium;
back they rang to sing in Byzantium;
the streets repeat the sound of the Throne.

The Acts issue from the Throne.
Under it, translating the Greek minuscula
to minds of the tribes, the identities of creation
phenomenally abating to kinds and kindreds,
the household inscribes the Acts of the Emperor;
the logothetes run down the porphyry stair
bearing the missives through the area of empire. …

The morn rose on the Golden Horn.
I saw the identities imaged in a sapphire sea:
beyond Sinai Ararat, beyond Ararat Elburz—
light-sprinkling, flaked-snow-sparkling,
chastities of ranged peaks of Caucasus,
snow’s glow on the world’s brows
changed with deep vales of verdure.
… The Empire’s sun shone on each round mound,
double fortalices defending dales of fertility.
The bright blades shone in the craft of the dancing war;
the stripped maids laughed for joy of the province,
bearing in themselves the shape of the province
founded in the base of space,
in the rounded bottom of the Emperor’s glory.
… the lost name, the fool’s shame,
fame and frame of lovers in lowlands of Caucasia,
rang round snowy Elburz.
The organic body sang together.4

Each of these parts of the body is significant to Williams—that is, not just important, but signifying a reality. The buttocks, which he frequently refers to as the mounds or rondures of Caucasia, symbolize the body as a whole: their work seems merely grotesque to the airy spiritualizer, but (as Williams pointed out in an essay) the balance of any upright figure reposes on nothing else. Macrocosmically, the buttocks and Caucasia are reflected in Libra, the zodiacal sign of balance. The hands, which for Williams symbolize prayer and the sacraments, naturally rest in Rome, and the two hands correspond to the sign of Gemini3; the brain is in Britain, protected by the rocky Hebrides as a skull, and it is in the brain, the mind, that the quest of the Graal must take place, which is the quest of integrating the corporeal with the spiritual and the temporal with the celestial. That quest must pass through the watery wood of Broceliande in the southwest of Britain, which represents the unconscious mind; and in the macrocosm, the eyes in Logres are associated with Aquarius, whose waters (both murky and clear) metaphorically run all around the British Isles.

The word ‘sacramental’ has perhaps here served us a little less than well; it has, in popular usage, suggested rather the spiritual using the physical than a common—say, a single—operation. Eyes then are compacted power; they are an index of vision; they see and refer us to greater seeing. … So even with those poor despised things, the buttocks. There is no seated figure … which does not rely on them for its strength and balance. They are at the bottom of the sober dignity of judges; the grace of a throned woman; the hierarchical session of the Pope himself reposes on them … The Sacred Body is the plan upon which physical human creation was built, for it is the center of physical human creation. The great dreams of the human form containing the whole universe are in this less than the truth.5

But there are other powers in the world. Anachronistically, Williams makes the Islamic caliphate a contemporary force,6 using Islam as a stand-in for all the noble and restrained religion that draws back from the glorious vulgarity of the Incarnation—if you will, all that calls upon God but refuses the Mother of God. But this, though formally opposed to God-in-Byzantium, is not the primary evil of the world. There is an anti-Emperor: headless, muttering, a mockery of all human dignity and the divine image that that dignity is; he walks ceaselessly backward in undefined waters ‘beyond P’o-lu,’8 referred to as ‘antipodean Byzantium.’ And the waters of P’o-lu run right around the earth, mingling with the aquarian waters of Britain in the sea-forest of Broceliande, as darkness and the possibility of darkness mingle with the possibilities of light in the unconscious mind.

All this is a poetic expression of the doctrine (drawn from Patristic sources I think, though I don’t know which ones) that the Fall—the eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—was a specific kind of intellectual corruption. God knows all things, and all being, which Williams loved to call substance,7 is good; evil is not only parasitic on good, it is literally nothing more than the dissolution of goodness into incoherence, and finally, if the evil is not corrected, into nonbeing. Evil, having no substantial existence, therefore cannot be known by the human mind; and so for us, the only way of being ‘like God, knowing good and evil,’ was to know substantial good as if it were evil—to try and imagine what the good would be like if a contradiction were introduced into it, what being would be like if it were mixed with nonbeing.

The Adam in the hollow of Jerusalem respired:
softly their thought twined to its end,
crying: O parent, O forkèd friend,
am I not too long meanly retired
in the poor space of joy’s single dimension?
Does not God vision the principles at war?
Let us grow to the height of God and the Emperor:
Let us gaze, son of man, on the Acts in contention.

The Adam climbed the tree; the boughs
rustled, withered, behind them; they saw
the secluded vision of battle in the law;
they found the terror in the Emperor’s house.

The tree about them died undying,
the good lusted against the good,
the Acts in conflict envenomed the blood,
on the twisted tree hung their body wrying.

Joints cramped: a double entity
spewed and struggled, good against good;
they saw the mind of the Emperor as they could,
his imagination of the wars of identity. …

Phosphorescent on the stagnant level
a headless figure walks in a crimson cope,
volcanic dust blown under the moon.

A brainless form, as of the Emperor,
walks, indecent hands hidden under the cope,
dishallowing in that crimson the flush on the mounds of Caucasia.

His guard heaves round him; heaven-sweeping tentacles
stretch, dragging octopus bodies over the level;
his cope is lifted by two from his body,
where it walks on the sinking floor of antipodean Byzantium.
Let us gaze, son of man, on the Acts in contention.

Phosphorescent gleams the point of the penis:
rudiments or relics, disappearing, appearing,
live in the forlorn focus of the intellect,
eyes and and ears, turmoil of the mind of sensation.

Inarticulate always on an inarticulate sea
beyond P’o-lu the headless Emperor moves,
the octopuses round him; lost are the Roman hands;
lost are the substantial instruments of being.9

And by summoning the lie, we lent it as much insubstantial existence as it could possess. They had their will; they saw; they were torn in the terror. The significance of the Headless Emperor is not merely moral corruption. It is there that headlessness begins: but in him, evil has reached the last perfection of corruption, the final stage before dissolution—the only thing that is still there to decay further is the plain fact of being. That is why his body is so disgustingly distorted, with the acuity of the brain, the fertility of the sexual organs, the purposive activity of the hands, and the foundational dignity of the buttocks, all destroyed.

Hands Up by Stephane Benedett

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1When I say magic here, I mean the term quite seriously and simply: I’m not paying his verse a flowery compliment. Magic, i.e. the belief that the human will—either directly, or by commanding or entreating spiritual entities—can effect paranormal results, has existed since antiquity and continues to exist, in both noble and debased forms. Note that nobility and baseness here have nothing to do with virtue; the crudest cunning woman may at least mean well, while the gracious and sophisticated lady may be a murderess. Nor have either vulgarity or virtue anything to do with whether magic works, which is again irrelevant to its usefulness as a language by which to express truth; e.g., you could say that somebody’s ‘a textbook Virgo’ to describe their personality without assenting to, or even understanding, astrology as a discipline.
I believe there are innocent forms of the acceptance of magic (perhaps this was what let the Magi interpret the star correctly?), and that Williams was an exponent of that tradition; nonetheless, power corrupts, spiritual power corrupts more terribly than any other, and nearly every technique associated with the history of magic is perilous at best—often profoundly evil. The temptation to spiritual pride, the worst of all possible vices, is more aggressively present in the study of magic, I think, than in any other study except mystical theology.
2Logres (pronounced log-ress), related to the Welsh Lloegyr for England, is the name used by Williams, among others, for Arthurian Britain.
3The Twins evoke Romulus and Remus of imperial Rome and Peter and Paul of pontifical Rome. Sometimes Williams’ cosmos seems to exploit itself, as if eager to shower meaning on any attending mind.
4The Vision of the Empire α.1-11, β.1-7, 11-17, 20-23.
5From The Index of the Body, originally published in the Dublin Review and later anthologized in The Image of the City.
6If there was a historical Arthur, he probably lived in the late fifth or early sixth century, and it is certainly in this period that the tradition places him. The Prophet did not arise until the early seventh.
7I believe he drew this habit from Lady Julian, who, in her famous Revelation of Divine Love, frequently speaks of sensuality and substance, terms which partly correspond to the corporeal and the spiritual elements of human nature (though her usage is more complicated, and often obscure). It’s also likely he had the Scholastic use of substance in mind. Lady Julian herself may well have drawn her own wording, directly or indirectly, from the Schoolmen.
8The name P’o-lu (which Williams spelled several different ways) seems to be taken from a historical city in China, Po-lu-pao; that the Headless Emperor lives beyond P’o-lu is almost certainly significant, since Williams was very exact in his imagery. The description of the antipodes, in this poem and elsewhere, is also reminiscent of Chesterton’s words in The Everlasting Man about ‘Where Asia trails away into the southern archipelagoes of the savages … it is all the same story; sometimes perhaps later chapters of the same story. It is men entangled in the forest of their own mythology; it is men drowned in the sea of their own metaphysics.’
9The Vision of the Empire η.1-20, θ.17-35.

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