to the level above the magnanimous stair, and saw
the Empire dark with the incoherence of the houses.
Nay, there, as I looked on the stretched Empire
I heard, as in a throb of stretched verse,
the women everywhere throughout it sob with the curse
and the altars of Christ everywhere offer the grails.
Well are women warned from serving the altar
who, by the nature of their creature, from Caucasia to Carbonek,
share with the Sacrifice the victimization of blood.
Flesh knows what spirit knows
but spirit knows it knows—categories of identity …
—Charles Williams, Taliessin in the Rose Garden1
Lynton Lamb's map of the Empire as depicted poetically by Williams
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Having found a copy of the magnificent and tragically neglected Arthurian Torso in August, I was inspired at last to spring for a copy of Williams’ Arthurian poems (contained in the two books Taliessin Through Logres2 and The Region of the Summer Stars). They’re not all of equal value by any means, and our brother Charles writes some things which are hard to be understood, but I’m loving them. Truly good poetry can be surprisingly difficult to come by, and Lewis’ exposition in Torso makes for an incredibly rich, clear experience. So much poetry evokes emotion without explaining it, but his goes further: it not only evokes, but seems to illuminate the emotions, by showing how they are related to, or even participations in, transcendent metaphysical realities. ‘The glory is apt to dazzle the beholder,’ he says somewhere I cannot now find, ‘unless he already has a mind disposed to examine the pattern of the glory’; and examining the pattern of the glory is a very fair description of his whole corpus. Williams’ mythical map of Logres and the Byzantine Empire become a theological map of man—soul and body—and of the realms and journey of the spirit.
The line above, Flesh knows what spirit knows but spirit knows it knows, has really stuck with me. I think it expresses perfectly the challenging, delightful, frequently tense relationship between the soul and the body. The body has, if anything, fallen less than the soul, for of course the body has no deliberateness of itself and can’t carry guilt, and yet the soul still has to preside over the body.
For me, naturally enough, the place I notice this dynamic most is when I notice an attractive man.
You knew he'd be back eventually
My body responds, spontaneously: my heart beats a little more quickly, I feel warmer, perhaps my breath catches for a moment, perhaps I stare (though hopefully not, since that can be embarrassing and weird for all concerned). And my body is responding to a real good. It’s good that men should be handsome, or in more philosophical language, beautiful. My body’s response is a recognition of the fact. Even lust—which may, or may not, come on the heels of this recognition of beauty—is at least as much an affair of the mind as an affair of the body: partly because lust (unlike attraction) is an act of the will, but also because it involves the imagination.
The movement of the will that follows that moment of attraction, of seeing beauty and delighting in it, can go a few different ways. I can venerate: having received an experience of beauty as a gift, I can rejoice in the giver—both the celestial Giver who made it, and the created giver who bears it, i.e. the handsome dude. In so doing, I worship Christ-as-Beauty, and honor the man who displays it as an operative icon3 of the Mother of God.
Icon of Christ Pantokrator, 6th century
Alternatively I can lust, deciding to try and possess that beauty. Or, if that is too hard or daunting, to imagine possessing that beauty. We tend to think of lust as just doing something we’re not supposed to, although why we’re not supposed to never seemed very clear to me when I was growing up; God had forbidden it, but why he’d done so remained opaque. I think the key to it lies here: it treats the beauty of the body like property, and not as a gift, which is what it is.4 The body is the icon—more, the sacrament of the self, and every self is a gift, first to its self and its parents, and secondly to those to whom it gives itself. Lust is a kind of theft.
Flesh knows what spirit knows but spirit knows it knows. It may seem as if, of the two—veneration and lust—the latter suggests that flesh doesn’t know beauty very well. I don’t think that’s accurate. Both are movements of the will, not of the body; it’s true that the intensity of the body’s yearning may make sexual desire tough to discipline, but that’s because the body can’t articulate its knowledge, and issues only sensations, impulses, and pleasures (and their opposites). It requires an act of the mind to turn either to God or to oneself; beauty, perceived in the body, is only a prompting to turn.
Writing about Lancelot sleeping with a woman he believed to be Queen Guinevere,5 Williams described the fornication as the red carnivorous violation of intellectual love. That’s exactly what it is. Intellectual love—the capacity to see accurately and work for the real good of the beloved—doesn’t seek to appropriate beauty, partly because it isn’t selfish, but mostly because you can’t appropriate beauty. Not only is it a gift, but the beauty of others is a quality of those others, and the only way to obtain it is by total personal union, such that ‘Love you? I am you’6 is not a paradox but an observation. And that can be obtained only through total, reciprocal self-gift, which hell has no patience for, and is too proud for, and is too scared for. But ‘Hell is inaccurate’6: it’s the only way it can preserve its hellishness.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, 1874
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1This quotation isn’t meant to focus on the doctrine of gender and Holy Orders. It is, however, a recurring idea in Williams’ thought that the blood of menstruation is the share women have in the Eucharistic sacrifice (so far from being unclean, as it ritually was in the Torah; though perhaps even that uncleanness admits of more than one interpretation). E.g., in The Forgiveness of Sins: ‘The Rite of the shedding of blood for atonement or for achievement is accomplished. No other shedding of that kind is allowed, unless God permits and enforces [it] by physical states or spiritual or both. Women’s periods present the one; the death of martyrs the other; the Eucharist both.’ I’ve never come across another theologian who even tried to explain menstruation spiritually; but, if we’re going to admit that the divine image in man has any bearing on the body at all—and I think we must—then we must be prepared for some rather startling doctrines.
Caucasia and Carbonek are allusions to the geography of Williams’ Arthurian cycle. Caucasia is the easternmost province of the Byzantine Empire, and is associated with the zodiacal house of Libra and, anatomically, with the buttocks. Williams sees the buttocks as a symbol of balance and repose, and, considering their role in maintaining dignified posture whether seated or standing, there’s admittedly something to be said for the symbolism. Carbonek, or Corbenic, is often one of the names of the Grail Castle. However, in Williams it is rather the place from which the quest of the Grail is made: Carbonek is, in a way, at the limits of terrestrial geography.
2Taliessin or Taliesin (pronounced tal-ee-ESS-in) was a Welsh poet of the sixth century, and came to be associated with King Arthur in legend; Tennyson, I think, first depicted him as Arthur’s court poet, and Williams followed suit. The name Logres (LOG-ress) comes from an old Welsh word for England, and has been used as one of the names of Arthur’s kingdom since at least the twelfth century.
3Icon here is used in the Eastern sense: not mere depictions of God and the saints, but concrete instances of the redemption of matter, and thus vehicles of the Spirit. Even in the West (where the doctrine of icons has long been neglected), their status as sacramentals is admitted; and, while there’s doubtless some exaggeration in some accounts, there’s an extensive Eastern tradition of miraculous icons.
4This of course corresponds closely with the teaching of St John Paul II in Love and Responsibility and The Theology of the Body. I find Williams’ style (both literary and philosophical) more illuminating, but the doctrines they are examining are often the same, so a certain amount of overlap is to be expected.
5Lancelot was under a spell; long story. On the plus side, this ensured that Galahad was conceived, and so the quest of the Grail was not a failure even though it was not a success.6Guess who said this! Who could it be!