Monday, February 29, 2016

Charles Williams: The Lost Letter (Part three)

So, this part of my paper had two illustrations, neither of which I'm reposting here because both involve female nudity. The first is Wms' gynecomorphical map, which superimposes a nude female figure over a map of Europe; this forms the endpapers of Taliessin through Logres and has been reprinted many times since (e.g., in David Llewellyn Dodds, ed. Arthurian Poets: Charles Williams). The second illustrates Wms' bondage poem and appeared in Heroes and Kings [p. 45] and so far as I know remained in obscurity until reproduced in Mythlore to accompany my essay.


And here we come upon one of the great difficulties in reading Williams’s Arthurian poems: when he seems most firmly grounded in the real world he may well be off in what C.S. Lewis called “privatism” (Williams and the Arthuriad 188). Thus references to real-world geography and history and astronomy are usually ways in which the reader gets a grounding in the world of a story, but here taken literally they create nothing but a hopeless muddle. Hence the importance of the ‘Lost Letter’ in explaining some of Williams’s private vocabulary. Another piece that like the Lost Letter is external to the verse-cycle but crucial to understanding it can be found in what J.R.R. Tolkien dubbed Williams’s ‘gynecomorphical’ map (“Our Dear Charles Williams,” line 30). Drawn by staff artist Lynton Lamb, a colleague of Williams’s at Amen House, it formed the endpapers of Taliessin through Logres; Hadfield tells us that it was drawn carefully to Williams’s specifications (“exact direction”) and that both Williams and Lamb were “very pleased at the result” (152).
The concept underlying this map was somewhat more subtle than its crude and unintentionally comical appearance would suggest. One of the cornerstones of Williams’s belief, as important to him as Escape, Recovery, and Consolation were to Tolkien’s thought, was what he called ‘Co-inherence.’ At its root this is the idea that we are all connected, so that all of humanity makes up a larger entity, almost like the Gaia theorem. Think of Donne’s “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” (Donne, Meditation XVII), but taken literally—except that, for Williams, the dead remain part of the communion, able to act and be acted upon (e.g., in the poem “Taliessin on the Death of Virgil” [TtL 31–32] and the novel All Hallows’ Eve, one of whose main characters becomes a ghost just before the story starts).
All Christendom, as Williams conceives it, is a single entity, which he analogized as being parallel to a (female) human body. [Note 11]  And since any complex organism may have specialized cells to deal with specialized functions, he assigned to various parts of the body what he saw as appropriate roles, so that Williams can allegorically use reference to those body parts as code for the thing symbolized. Thus, when he wants to talk about sex, he inserts a reference to the Caucuses, or Caucasian girls; we hear quite a lot in the poems about the rounded bottom or curved base of empire. On those surprisingly rare occasions when he wants to evoke theology (specifically Scholasticism and the great theological colleges of the High Middle Ages), he mentions the breasts of Gaul, I think on the principle that theology is the ‘mother’s milk’ that nourishes faith (from a more puckish allegorist I’d have suspected some private joke about France being the boobs of the empire, but such seems not to be the case with Williams). The hands are crossed at Rome because for Williams the most important function of hands (evoked repeatedly in the poems as “heart-breaking manual acts”) is to perform the sacrament of transforming bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood during the mass. Some of these identifications seem arbitrary—why the right elbow of the Empire is at Cordova, in Moorish Spain (from whence come attacks against the Empire), while the left elbow is at some undifferentiated point up north of the Black Sea, I have no idea, nor why he should have placed the bung-hole of the Empire, the point of defecation, in the great Persian city of Ispahan (Williams seems to have really hated dualism).
The most apparently arbitrary of them all, P’o-lu, court of the Headless Emperor, is also the most revealing, for we have two explanations for it: one, part of Williams’s mythic geography, which he shared with Lewis in the Lost Letter, and which is clearly specious, and the other deeply private, which Williams concealed from Lewis but which is essential to understanding Williams’s mythos; a point to which we’ll return.
If the map with its allegorized human body seems strange, I suspect it’s because here Williams is being strongly influenced by his occult antecedents—and by its very definition occultism is hidden, secret, deliberately impenetrable to the non-initiate. It’s easy to forget that Williams was not just knowledgeable about the occult but an occultist, a practicing ceremonial magician who owned, and used, ritual robes, wand, and ceremonial sword (Hadfield 29, 31, 106). While it is true that he never belonged to the original Golden Dawn (which had splintered in 1903, when Williams was just a teenager, following a power struggle between W. B. Yeats and Aleister Crowley over control of the group), he was deeply involved in one of its successor groups, A.E. Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, an explicitly Christianized variant of the Golden Dawn focused more on mysticism than ceremonial magic. [Note 12]  Indeed, Roma King in his notes to Williams’s letters tells us that Williams always referred to Waite’s group as “the Golden Dawn” (To Michal from Serge 276). Williams was a dedicated and devoted long-time member of Waite’s Fellowship; there are even hints in R.A. Gilbert’s biography of Waite (Gilbert, Waite 148–150) that the latter may have had Williams in mind as his ultimate successor, to eventually ascend to become Master of the Fellowship. Instead, to Waite’s dismay Williams left Waite’s group in order to found his own Order, the Companions of the Co-inherence. [Note 13]

Those who have written on Williams have, with the notable exception
of Gavin Ashenden, been reluctant to acknowledge his deep and abiding
interest in the occult. Yet it is self-evident that Williams drew directly on this
knowledge in his Arthurian cycle. For example, he uses astrology, lightly in
“The Coming of Galahad” (cf. TtL 74), “The Ascent of the Spear” (TtL 49), and
“The Calling of Taliessin” (RSS 17), but much more deeply in “Taliessin in the
Rose-Garden” (RSS, esp. 25-28). Kabalism (the Sephirotic tree) informs “The
Death of Palomides” (TtL 78 & 96), while some kind of palm-magic employing
geometric symbology underlies the fifth section of “The Vision of Empire” (TtL 9). [Note 14]

The most prevalent form of magic appearing in the Taliessin poems is a kind of tantric magic. Williams seems particularly drawn to scenes which describe a female initiate stripping naked and being stroked with a hazel rod by the (male) magician, who remains fully clothed. We have two such descriptions of spells being cast in this manner, the first in “The Calling of Taliessin,” in which it is Brisen, Merlin’s sister, who becomes nude while both Merlin and Taliessin remain fully clothed (RSS 17). The scene is echoed by another in “The Queen’s Servant,” in which it is one of the slave girls discussed above who disrobes to provide the nude body and Taliessin, who again remains fully clothed, who performs the spell (RSS 40–41).
What are we to make of this? It’s probably best to admit it up front that there’s every reason to think Williams liked women’s naked bodies (he would not be the first English poet of whom this could be said). They appear not just on the gynecomorphical map (which, it must be pointed out, would have worked just as well, for purposes of symbology, if the human figure there had been fully clothed) but also in “The Queen’s Servant” (RSS 40–41), “The Calling of Taliessin” (RSS 17ff), and “Lamoracke’s Song to Morgause” (Heroes and Kings [H&K] [43]–[49]), the latter of which is illustrated. In particular, Williams shows a disconcerting interest in women’s bottoms. This appears not just in his poetry but carries over into real life: Hadfield tells the story of one disciple, a faithful attendee of Williams’s London night school lectures, whom he persuaded to come to his office before lectures, where he ordered her to bend over so that he could stroke her bottom with a ceremonial sword he kept in the office. [Note 15]  When she objected, he replied “This is necessary for the poem.” This activity continued for several years, even after Williams had shifted his base of operations to Oxford—Hadfield quotes from an unpublished Williams letter in which he orders the same disciple to come to Oxford, specifying the cause: “I am stuck in the poem, come on Friday, tell me the train” (Hadfield 106).
All this might be dismissed as an unreliable narrative if it were the only such account, but the anonymous disciple’s story is not the only such testimony, being echoed by Lois Lang-Sims’ account in Letters to Lalage of her own similar experiences (Lang-Sims 68). Both Lang-Sims and the other woman describe these encounters as “a ritual,” and Lang-Sims explains their purpose: Williams found that he could sublimate sexual stimulation into poetry (69). Thus by summoning young women to his office he could fondle them in private, become aroused, send them away without consummating that arousal, and write.
This pattern is followed closely in “Lamoracke’s Song to Morgause,” perhaps Williams’s most surprising poem, found in the first book in his Arthurian cycle, Heroes and Kings [1930]. This little-known piece describes the bondage play between Arthur’s sister and Percivale’s brother; here is a representative excerpt:
I Lamoracke have bound to-day
the queen my mistress in our play.
   Though she contended, with white hands,
I have driven her courage into flight
  and made her body fast with bands,
doing her arrogance despite,
till the queen, till the queen was fain
to pray to be released again [...]
Heroes and Kings [43]
I would say ‘and so forth’, but the most significant thing about the poem is that at this point, having stripped the queen naked and tied her down on the bed, helpless, her lover (still fully clothed, as we see from the woodcut) sits down, picks up his harp, and sings a song to his captive audience—a song inspired by her naked body and the foreplay they had just shared, whose consummation is deferred while the knight transforms that energy into composition. In short, here we are seeing in poetic form a ritual we know Williams frequently resorted to himself, albeit in more muted form in real life.
And, lest we think this is all metaphoric, like the naked woman’s body on the gynecomorphic map, Williams chose to have this piece illustrated by a woodcut that shows the fully clad knight bending over the naked bound figure of the queen sprawled upon the bed.
There’s a lot I could say about this poem, and what it says about Williams, but I think the essential point is simply this: I would say that a man may either lay claim to being the great Christian theological poet of his time, writing an epic cycle about the failure of the Second Coming, when Arthur and his court missed their chance to transform the world via the Grail. Or he can write, and publish, illustrated bondage poetry. But not both.

11 Williams may have been inspired here by Thomas Hardy, who in a passage Williams quotes approvingly† from The Dynasts compares the map of Europe to a human body:
. . . Europe is disclosed as a prone and emaciated figure, the Alps shaping like a backbone, and the branching mountain-chains like ribs, the peninsular plateau of Spain forming a head. (Poetry at Present 15)
†Williams says of the passage in which these lines occur that it “contains some of the greatest sentences that Hardy has written” (ibid.)
12 Waite is best remembered today, not as the founder of an occult order nor as the best friend of writer Arthur Machen, but for having created the modern tarot deck, best known as the ‘Rider-Waite’ Tarot.
13 Hadfield describes the founding of this Order in 1939, prints its Credo (173–174), and even names several members: Margaret Douglas, Ursula Grundy, Phyllis Potter, Charles Hadfield, Thelma Shuttleworth, and herself (217). Joan Walsh and Anne Renwick may also have been later-day members (Hadfield is vague on this point), while Lois Lang- Sims joined towards the end of Williams’s life and was expelled a few months later (in 1943–44). Note however that this is only the group’s formal (re)organization: it had existed in less formalized form for perhaps a decade and more by this point, very likely from the time he left Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross in 1928.
Although this is only speculation on my part, I suspect Williams’s reluctance to formalize the group (described by Hadfield, 173), derived from his wish to maintain absolute power and the greatest possible degree of secrecy. He had learned the lesson of MacGregor Mathers and Westcott, founders of the Golden Dawn, that to create a structure and organization was to risk losing control over said organization. So long as meetings between members were a one-on-one affair arranged entirely by Williams himself, he had absolute power; putting members in touch with one another risked their taking action on their own initiative.
14 Williams writes
the planes of palms, the mid-points of hid cones,
opened in Lombardy, the cone’s point in Rome [...]
Finger-nails, weaklings of seedtime, scratched the soil
till by iron nails the toil was finished in the time of our need,
the sublime circle of the cone’s bottom . . .
the heart-breaking manual acts of the Pope.
If this is difficult, then Williams’s gloss of this passage finds him at his most incoherent:
The cones are more difficult to explain. The delicate and sensitive palms are conceived as full of points from which cones flow down—into? into the substance of our being. The mass of the points makes up the activities and passivities of the hands, for which Rome stands; which is an image of Byzantium as the hands of the whole being. The nails are (i) evolutionary and agricultural (ii) amorous (iii) architectural. The ‘circle’ at the bottom of our substance is Christ; ‘seed-springing surrender’ the Fructiferous Passion. The nails then are the actual nails. (Answers for C.S. Lewis, CW MS-2; rpt Gnomon 41 and in part in Various Hands 15)
15 At first glance, the incredible claim that Williams kept a ceremonial sword in his office would seem to cast doubt on this account. However, R.A. Gilbert’s history of the Golden Dawn explains that while each initiate in that Order was required to consecrate his or her robe, wand, and sword, the ‘sword’ was typically the size of a knife (Gilbert 63). If we assume Waite carried this practice over into his Rectified Order and later Fellowship, then it’s quite possible that Williams’s ‘sword’ was no larger than a letter opener and might easily have been kept in a desk drawer.

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