Collect for the Second Sunday after Epiphany

Almighty and everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth: mercifully hear the supplications of thy people; and grant us thy peace all the days of our life; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Two Sinners at an American Chapel

Love, we have been told, is slow to anger; it is, as a result, slow to forgive, for it will not be in a hurry to assume that there is anything to forgive; and if there is, it will not be in a hurry to make a business of forgiving. … The good manners of the City of God are supernaturally instinctive; the instinct of the new way of life should warn us of any approaching danger of pomposity or guile, and the danger is subtle. The new way—forgiveness, humility, clarity, charity—is there; it is the old man on the new way who is the tempter, and who beguiles us away from it while we think we are walking on it. … Rejoicing in other people’s iniquity, one way or another, is a not uncommon fault.

Charles Williams, The Forgiveness of Sins, pp. 161-162

It is, no doubt, impossible to prevent his praying for his mother, but we have means of rendering the prayers innocuous. Make sure that they are always very ‘spiritual,’ that he is always concerned with the state of her soul and never with her rheumatism. Two advantages will follow. In the first place, his attention will be kept on what he regards as her sins, by which, with a little guidance from you, he can be induced to mean any of her actions which are inconvenient or irritating to himself. … I have had patients of my own so well in hand that they could be turned at a moment’s notice from impassioned prayer for a wife’s or son’s ‘soul’ to beating or insulting the real wife or son without a qualm.

—C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters III

✠     ✠     ✠

The Prayer of the Leftist

God, please, protect us from Drumpf. He’s an idiot—how could anybody vote for him! Racist, sexist, childish—rrgghhh! I am so angry with the people who voted for him! Bunch of backwoods morons and CEOs and white supremacists, overjoyed to finally have somebody who’s as evil as they are in the White House. And now we’re completely screwed. I never thought I’d live to see this kind of fear and animosity ruling America. Those stupid bastards! He’d better get impeached.

Who knows if he’d even notice, though. Guy’s got the attention span of a tossed salad. I am so scared of what he might do with our nuclear arsenal. Or his own twitter account—imagine the disasters he could manage with a few stupid, unretractable words to Xi Jinping or Salman Saud.

Just when everything was going so well, too. Obamacare was just implemented. We were all set to have our first female President. We’d ended … well, okay, we hadn’t ended the War on Terror, but we were close! We were doing better than we ever did under Bush, anyway! And now health care’s gone and education’s going, racism among the police is only going to get worse, everything the government does is going to favor big businesses at the expense of the poor. And they aren’t going to let any immigrants in no matter how badly they need refuge, just because their skin is brown! These people are disgusting! And they’re my neighbors, my relatives! How can I ever forgive them for this?

They don’t deserve to be forgiven. The only right they really seem to believe in is the right to bear arms; they deserve everything that gets taken from them by this administration. They’d better not come crying to me when the tables are turned, because I’ll look them right in the eye and say You did this.

The Prayer of the Nationalist

Lord, thank You for Donald Trump. Thank You for giving us a President who’s going to put America first, instead of constantly bashing our country and values and traditions. A President who’s pro-life, unlike that baby-killer Hillary. One who’ll defend traditional families and—well, he isn’t perfect, but he hasn’t done anything those nutjob liberals don’t expect us to praise other people for doing, and then they get mad, and even expect us to be, when he does them? Idiots.

Hardly surprising. All they can do is whine! They’ll moan about police violence against blacks, but with the way liberals are about guns, what do you expect? Nobody can defend themselves against the government without a gun. Or if you want to defend American lives overseas, or even come to the defense of countries or ethnicities that are being battered by foreign oppressors—like, say, the Coptic Christians in Egypt being screwed over by the Muslims—they instantly start screaming about imperialism! Or racism, since as far as they’re concerned everyone they don’t like is racist. Doesn’t matter if your closest friends are minorities, doesn’t matter if you married one, it doesn’t even matter when minorities flat-out tell them they’re wrong. They’ve got their religion of socialist politics, and their faith is blind. Except to Christians—oppression never matters if it’s oppression of Christians, like in Egypt or Indonesia or Pakistan.

They want a perfect world to come out of a microwave, without ever getting their hands dirty. Not any dirtier than a retweet. That’s why they all work in white collar jobs and despise anybody who’s less educated than they are. Real, hard work is embarrassing to the likes of them.

All they can do is talk about what’s wrong with America. No gratitude for how good they’ve got it here. No respect for the sacrifices other people made to give them such a nice life. They’re all talking about running away, moving to Canada! Good riddance is what I say. Oh, you don’t like America, you self-righteous jackasses? Well, there’s the border! See if you find anywhere better!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Poems of Charles Williams, Part Three: The Beatrician Vision

The Beatrician experience may be defined as the recovery (in respect to one human being) of that vision of reality which would have been common to all men in respect to all things if Man had never fallen. The lover sees the Lady as the Adam saw all things before they foolishly chose to experience good as evil … The great danger is lest he should mistake the vision which is really a starting point for a goal; lest he should mistake the vision of Paradise for arrival there. He must follow this road till it leads him to the Byzantine precision. … The Beatrician experience does not usually last … The glory is temporary; in that sense Beatrice nearly always dies. But a transitory vision is not necessarily a vision of the transitory. … The phenomenal Beatrice—Beatrice as she is in this fallen world—has for an instant been identical with the real Beatrice—Beatrice as she (and all things) will be seen to be, and always to have been, when we reach the throne-room at Byzantium. The precise moment at which the phenomenal Beatrice loses her identity with the real one is a repetition of the Fall …

C. S. Lewis, Arthurian Torso, “Williams and the Arthuriad,” pp. 116-117

✠     ✠     ✠

I’ve written a little already about Williams’ Arthurian cycle, contained in the two volumes Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. I’d like to continue my analysis, turning now to his doctrine of romantic love as expressed there.

Doctrine is not too strong a word. Williams was a thoroughgoing Neoplatonist, and considered every earthly good a ‘preparatory form’ of the universal Good, i.e. God. The two ways of communion with God—renouncing earthly goods, like the hermit, or embracing them, like the husband—must both acknowledge their reality and objective good-ness. The hermit may renounce them in his preference for the final reality, but he must not condemn or despise them; the husband may embrace them in legitimate delight, but must not content himself with them as though they could finally deserve his whole worship or satisfaction. And, as many works have been written on ascetic theology, so Williams wrote on romantic theology: the way of the affirmation of images, as asceticism is the way of the renunciation of images.

The Romantic Way experiences its object in a certain mode. This can be a person (like Beatrice for Dante, or in a quite different way, Frodo Baggins for Samwise Gamgee), or a thing (like nature of Wordsworth, a favorite reference point of Williams); its key quality is that all goodness is understood through it and in relation to it. It is a kind of temporary theophany.

Tristan and Isolde [or Iseult], Herbert Draper, 1900

Williams describes Sir Palomides, a Saracen knight who joined the Round Table, meeting Queen Iseult of Cornwall between her husband, King Mark, and her lover, Sir Tristram, and falling in love himself:

I saw the hand of the queen Iseult;
down her arm a ruddy bolt
fired the tinder of my brain
to measure the shape of man again;
I heard the king say: ‘Little we know
of verses here; let the stranger show
a trick of the Persian music-craft.’
Iseult smiled and Tristram laughed.
Her arm exposed on the board, between
Mark and Tristram sat the queen,
but neither Mark nor Tristram sought
the passion of substantial thought,
neither Mark nor Tristram heard
the accent of the antique word.
… Blessed (I sang) the Cornish queen;
for till to-day no eyes have seen
how curves of golden life define
the straightness of a perfect line,
till the queen’s blessed arm became
a rigid bar of golden flame
where well might Archimedes prove
the doctrine of Euclidean love,
and draw his demonstrations right
against the unmathematic night …1

In Iseult’s body, Palomides sees the logic of the universe. Her arm exhibits the Logos to him, the Word of the Father, and to that extent he is momentarily converted: God-made-flesh is a beheld and believed reality.

But neither vision nor belief lasts. The former passes, and the latter is forsaken with it. We experience the fall, the loss of the glory, with a renewal of terror:

In the summer house of the Cornish king
suddenly I ceased to sing.
Down the arm of the queen Iseult
quivered and darkened an angry bolt;
and, as it passed, away and through
and above her hand the sign withdrew.
Fiery, small, and far aloof,
a tangled star in the cedar roof,
it hung; division stretched between
the queen’s identity and the queen.

It’s too familiar. How many couples have we known who’ve broken up, even by the violent, organic schism of divorce, because one or the other is no longer in love? How many times have we ourselves met someone who used to be enchanting, and found them suddenly vacant of that radiance? The contrast is a shock, sometimes to the point of being actively disgusting.2 And Palomides, lacking either habitual grace or the theology of romantic love to guide him through the occlusion of the glory, pursues what little he still perceives:

Relation vanished, though beauty stayed;
too long my dangerous eyes delayed
at the shape on the board, but the voice was mute;
the queen’s arm lay there destitute,
empty of glory …
Cœlius Vibenna over the dead
cast the foul Chthonian spells,
on ghost and bone and what lingers else;
… the Pope in white, like the ghost of man,
stood in the porch of Lateran;
and aloof in the roof, beyond the feast,
I heard the squeak of the questing beast,
where it scratched itself in the blank between
the queen’s substance and the queen.3

None of the knights of the Round Table have been able to capture the Questing Beast. Palomides, who being still unbaptized is not yet eligible for the Table, decides to do so—he becomes obsessed with it.

I determined, after I saw Iseult’s arm,
to be someone, to trap the questing beast
that slid into Logres out of Broceliande
through the blank between the queen’s meaning and the queen.

Having that honour I would consent to be christened,
I would come then to the Table on my own terms …
But things went wrong; Tristram knocked me sprawling
under the tender smile of Iseult; my manhood,
chivalry, and scimitar-play learned from the Prophet,
could not gain me the accurate flash of her eyes.

Once I overthrew Lancelot by cheating at a tourney,
whence, enraged, fleeing, I was taken by pirates;
Lancelot freed me—he rode on to Carbonek;
did I smile when I heard that he my saviour was mad?

For bees buzzed down Iseult’s arm in my brain;
black gnats, whirring mosquitoes …
and I thought if I caught the beast they would cease certainly.
… There would be nothing but to admire the man
who had done what neither Tristram nor Lancelot did.4

Smarting under the loss of Iseult before he has even gained her, and unable to conceive the Dantean road of love as intellectual adoration without carnal consummation, Palomides has attempted the egoïst’s compensation of proving his worth before conceding that worth to others; and, though baptism is oriented to God, in Christendom it is inevitably a concession to one’s fellow Christians as well.

So the Questing Beast is met in the blank between / the queen’s substance and the queen—i.e., in the moment when the meaning of the beloved and her person are perceived as horribly separate—because it is a symbol of ‘the conversion of the Godhead into flesh,’ the theory of the Incarnation which the Athanasian Creed specifically disclaims. It is an attempt to reclaim the Beatrician vision by force: an attempt to make love operate entirely in terms of appetite.

He tries to defeat Tristram and so win Iseult’s love, but is beaten himself; he tries to triumph over Sir Lancelot, the finest of Arthur’s knights, so salvaging his ego, yet he can do so only by cheating, and is then rescued by him—the secret and the public humiliations coïnhere. Neither erotic consummation nor knightly glory is available to him any more. And in pursuing the Questing Beast at all, Palomides rejected the possibility of erotic love as a way of the soul: renouncing carnal enjoyment of the beloved, but remembering the vision of her identity and simply rejoicing in that beauty, maintaining faith in the queen’s substance even when it is obscured by the queen.

This may sound like a fantasy, but minds like Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers all accepted it. The idea that sex is, for a lover, kind of beside the point (however licit and fun it might be) goes right back to the troubadours. They didn’t all agree, but there were those among them for whom the simple contemplation of glory in the beloved was the essential end of courtly love, and everything else was icing. A culture like ours, in which egalitarianism and sexual satisfaction are the basic standards of happiness, is almost unable to believe that somebody could feel that way.5 But the poets and their commentators tell us that it was a real phenomenon—the Divine Comedy is about that very thing—and facts don’t have to be likely or even comprehensible.

✠     ✠     ✠

1The Coming of Palomides ll. 35-48, 55-64.
2The disgust may be reasonable: romantic love is no respecter of persons, and can be felt for someone who is, in their phenomenal identity (i.e. the person we meet), ghastly. The next poem in Taliessin, ‘Lamorack and the Queen Morgause of Orkney,’ deals with just such a love—even in the throes of his devotion, Sir Lamorak doesn’t consider Morgause beautiful or good, but he is overpowered by the experience of her nonetheless. But this disgust may also be a mundane result of suddenly seeing the flaws we had formerly missed or deliberately ignored in the excitement of eros; or, it may be an expression of the horror of suddenly lacking the vision of glory that had inhered in the beloved, perhaps mere moments ago.
3The Coming of Palomides ll. 65-69, 76-78, 81-86. Cœlius Vibenna was an Etruscan noble and a friend of Romulus; the Etruscans were notorious sorcerers, and introduced divination by entrails to Rome. Chthonian is a reference to Vibenna’s magic (from the Greek χθών chthōn, ‘deep earth, under-soil’)—gods such as Hades, Persephone, Hecate, and the Furies were chthonic.
The Questing Beast, also called the Blatant Beast or Beast Glatisant in some Arthurian sources, is an interesting, difficult symbol. It is usually depicted similarly to the ancient Egyptian serpopard. The names blatant and glatisant come from archaic words meaning ‘yelping’ or ‘barking’ (glapissant in Old French, while blatant is related to the word bleat). I think the interpretation I’ve provided here is accurate, but I’m sure others are possible.
4Palomides Before his Christening ll. 9-14, 17-26, 28, 31-32.
5‘How are these gulfs between the ages to be dealt with by the student of poetry? A method often recommended may be called the method of The Unchanging Human Heart. … Just as, if we stripped the armor off of a mediæval knight or the lace off of a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical to our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honor, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate. … But how if these [“lowest common multiples”] are not really the most important elements in the actual balance of the poem we are reading? Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it …
‘Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armor you can try to put his armor on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honor, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. … To enjoy our full humanity we ought, so far as is possible, to contain within us potentially at all times, and on occasion to actualize, all the modes of feeling and thinking through which man has passed. … For the truth is that when you have stripped off what the human heart actually was in this or that culture, you are left with a miserable abstraction totally unlike the life really lived by any human being.’ From C. S. Lewis’ Preface to ‘Paradise Lost,’ pp. 62-64.

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Review: Words Filmed, Written, and Sung

And Dimble, who had been sitting with his face drawn, and rather white, between the white faces of the two women, and his eyes on the table, raised his head, and great syllables of words that sounded like castles came out of his mouth. … The voice did not sound like Dimble’s own: it was as if the words spoke themselves through him from some strong place at a distance—or as if they were not words at all but present operations of God, the planets, and the Pendragon.

C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

✠     ✠     ✠

I generally do an art-scene review as my final post of the year—so, without further ado, here are ten twenty-first century artists that I’m pretty psyched about.

10. Max Landis. I ran across Me Him Her on Netflix months ago. It’s the first film Landis has directed, and it’s wonderfully insane. The film opens with Brendan, a semi-famous actor, realizing that he’s gay and asking a friend from college to come help him process and start coming out to people; around the same time, a pair of girlfriends break up (because one of them is an unfaithful, manipulative egomaniac). The characters cross paths in the labyrinth of crazy that is downtown LA; hijinks, as the custom is, ensue. The cinematography has a delightful layer of surrealism, the acting is excellent, and Haley Joel Osment has a cameo playing a crazy-cat-lady version of himself. The film has its flaws, but it’s entertaining and clever enough to make me excited about what Landis does in the future.

9. Michael Barryte. One of my time-wasting habits is watching YouTube channels devoted to making fun of movies, which I view as a kind of pop-lit-crit; Cinema Sins, Honest Trailers, and How It Should Have Ended are perennial favorites. Somehow or other I wound up watching Belated Media’s reimagining of the Star Wars prequels, and I was floored. Barryte’s version of all three films did more than the obvious patching—get rid of Jar-Jar, settle on a protagonist, don’t kill Darth Maul yet. He recasts the whole prequel trilogy in light of what made the original trilogy work, and turns the plot and character echoes between the trilogies into actually interesting comparisons and contrasts, instead of mere rehashes. I wish he’d write films! But honestly, his imaginary versions of the prequels are so good, they’re fun to watch.

8. Kurt Sutter. Sutter created the show Sons of Anarchy, whose premise could be inadequately summarized as ‘Hamlet, but with bikers.’ The actors’ talent certainly helped make the show what it is (it features Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, and Ron Perlman, among others). But Sutter’s artistic power is incredible, and he accomplishes an arresting union of a Hell’s Angels expy with classical literary and religious themes. It may be the best television I’ve ever seen.

7. Eve Tushnet. I already knew Eve from her blog, her book Gay and Catholic, and a few charming café meetings; this Christmas I got a copy of her debut novel, Amends. Within the first ten pages I was hooked. Appropriate, I suppose, given that the premise of the book is a reality show about alcoholics in rehab. Her drawing of characters and her stylistic flourish are supported by her satirical but never merely cynical wit. I really hope she keeps writing fiction. (Please keep writing fiction, Eve.)

6. Lauren Faust. Although I’m woefully behind on My Little Pony1, I am a brony. The animation is very taking—though the music is excessively over-sugared for my taste—and the characters display surprising depth and subtlety. The spin-off films Equestria Girls and Rainbow Rocks are pretty good too: they’ve got character arcs and logical plots and everything (the latter even has a clever decoy protagonist thing going on). But one of the things I like most about Faust’s work is that she, like Pendleton Ward of Adventure Time, understands the artistic power of innocence. Innocence, not naïveté: a deeply grounded wholesomeness that refuses and opposes evil without losing its own tenderness, good cheer, and simplicity in the process. Gritty goodness certainly has its place, and it’s what I’m most apt to write, but clean goodness reminds us of why we love the good in the first place.

5. Karyn Kusama. I must admit I was a little torn over Kusama, not because I don’t enjoy her work, but because I wasn’t sure whether to give her this place or assign it to writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. The film that garnered this spot is The Invitation, a psychological horror-thriller that came out last year, and on consideration it’s the directing that makes the movie so chillingly convincing, so Kusama it is. The Invitation horrified me more than any film except The Babadook, and it does so with a surprisingly simple, traditional premise: the weird dinner party that turns creepily bad. Kusama’s directing takes the conventional trope and makes it work, without falling back on stupid jump scares or stereotypical characters, and the symbolism of the film is articulated without being rubbed into your eyes. Outstanding stuff.

4. Dan Harmon. Harmon is a co-creator of Community and of Rick and Morty, the third season of which is supposed to come out in 2017, and I’m about ready to physically explode from anticipation. Rick and Morty has made me laugh, and brought me to the edge of tears, such as I hadn’t thought a cartoon for grown-ups would ever do: The Simpsons opened the door to the idea of a genuinely moving animated series, but the emotional depth of Rick and Morty—even in the midst of its crudest, most irreverent jokes—is a whole new level of craftsmanship.

3. Kit Williamson. I discovered Williamson by accident, rather like Landis, by idly looking through Netflix and trying things not-quite-at-random. Williamson created Eastsiders, which is like if Queer as Folk were stunning instead of merely pretty good. The characters are flawlessly drawn and outstandingly acted, the directing is perfect, the dialogue is sharp and quick without being merely flashy, it’s all great! Go watch it, like, now.

2. Jennifer Kent. Jennifer Kent is the director of The Babadook (another directorial debut), which may well be among the best horror films of all time. The movie centers on a single mother, whose husband died the day their son was born, and a mysterious children’s book about a strange monster that seems to begin haunting her and her son. Kent knows her background material—the film is full of allusions and homages to older horror works—but she created a story all her own, and, best of all, handled the nightmare children’s-book aspect of the story exactly right: never showing too much, never archly winking at the audience, and never just recycling prior parts of the film. The pacing is as exact as a ballet leap, and the mother’s alarming arc is conveyed magnificently.

1. Yoann Lemoine. I have no memory of how I came across Woodkid, of which Lemoine is the vocalist. I guess it was probably an iTunes or YouTube suggestion. Anyhow, I took a listen to a track, and Lemoine’s voice, and the orchestral magnificence of the ensemble, enchanted me. The recent trend of popular music being articulated in classical ways (Postmodern Jukebox and The Irrepressibles spring to mind) is rather a favorite of mine, but Woodkid is head and shoulders above the rest of the subgenre. The subtle warmth of his voice, and the precision of the compositions, whether with classical or modern instruments—I can’t do it justice. Just listen.

And last but not least, a very happy New Year to my readers around the world! This year I’ve tried for Russian, French, Ukrainian, German, Polish, Malay, Chinese (but not in the traditional script, because I cannot search through that many unfamiliar symbols and hope to recognize the right one), Spanish, and Maltese. Apologies and/or laugh as much as you like if I butcher the local tongue, but in case I manage not to:

Happy New Year
С Новым Годом
Bonne Année
Щасливого Нового Року
Frohes Neues Jahr
Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku
Selamat Tahun Baru
Xīnnián Kuàilè
Feliz Año Nuevo
Is-Sena It-Tajba

✠     ✠     ✠

1The Friendship Is Magic version, not the old ‘80s one. I haven’t seen that one but it looks insufferable.