Friday, January 14, 2022

The Breaking of St. Peter's Chains

 

'Satan's Soldiers', they called them, though Peter thought 'brownshirts' more apt. That's all they were really - hired thugs, pound-shop Hitler's. It was laughable in truth but Peter didn't feel much like laughing, not with two of them dragging him to the cells and a resistance movement in Liverpool expecting his arrival and gradually, inevitably, grasping why he hadn't come. 

The streetlights and the slanting rain combined to give the familiar buildings - Central Library and the Midland Hotel in particular - an eerie, sinister glow. Peter actually knew the men who were hauling him off - born and bred Mancs like himself - Mark Cassidy and Jason Bell. He had even worked with them a couple of times over the years - here and there, around and about - in supermarkets and building sites and what have you. He had done them a good turn once or twice. But they didn't remember. They were too drunk on power. They tried a bit of persuasion on him. "All you've got to do is renounce Christ," said Bell. "Even if you don't agree just say it with your mouth. That's what all the Christians are doing. You'll get your life back mate. All the perks as well."

"Two words'll do it," Cassidy told him. "'Fuck Christ.' Or if you don't want to swear then 'I renounce Christ.' That's it. Simps."

"It's not about the swearing," replied Peter. "You know that."

For some members of the public though, it definitely was about the swearing. Great crowds of them came surging past - spliffs in one hand, bottles and cans in the other - on their way to venerate the new statue of Satan. They curled their lips as they saw Peter being led away.

"Fuckin' knobshanks," growled one.

"Christian cunt" snapped another.

They said this because Christianity was the only crime one could be guilty of now. Everything else was permitted.

They took him to Bootle Street Police Station, threw him in the cells, chained him to the wall and left him there. Peter looked around. The room was lit - somewhat erratically - by a flickering bulb, loosely attached to the ceiling. The walls and floor were made of pock-marked stone. Lots of folk were there, bound to the wall as he was, spaced out evenly in a rectangle around the room. His neck had been chained as well as his arms, so he wasn't able to clock everyone present, but he recognised one or two from church, a few beggars, a couple of known alcoholics, and a handful others who he had seen around for years but had always presumed were rationalist, atheist types. Yet they must have been Christians all along, or had recently become Christians, otherwise they wouldn't have been here. After all, there was no other crime now.

"Covid Marshals!" shouted a wild-eyed man sat opposite. "Bloody Covid Marshals! That's when it started. First they came for the anti-vaxxers, then when that died down they came for us. It was always about us, wannit? It was the Christians they were after from the start. Now they say there'll be human sacrifices up there at Albert Square. Kids as well. Bloody awful it is."

Peter nodded and made eye-contact, acknowledging the man's presence and showing that he sympathised. But did he agree? He wasn't sure, and that was why he kept mum. He didn't want to get into the whys and wherefores of it all. It was a distraction. Not the point. So what was the point? Peter lowered his gaze. Someone, one of the 'soldiers' probably, had left a copy of the Manchester Evening News in the middle of the floor, front page up, so that everyone could see the picture and read the headline: 

THE GREAT LIBERATION - SATAN SPEAKS TONIGHT IN ALBERT SQUARE.

There was a colour photo of the hideous twenty-foot statue they had put up in the Square. Peter looked away. If his eyes rested on that picture for more than a second it would rot and corrode his soul as it had done so many others. He focused on the lightbulb and reflected on the situation. He hadn't realised that it was a speaking statue. These monstrosities had sprang up in all the countries where the Satanic Revolution had taken root - Canada most notably, parts of the US as well, and places in Europe too. The guy was right then. Human sacrifice had followed in all those places. But this was the first speaking statue, as far as Peter knew, that they had erected in Britain. What a disgrace that it should be in Manchester too! He closed his eyes and bowed his head. He felt like weeping, but the tears wouldn't come. Everything in him was hard - too hard for crying - all gnarled and twisted - a tight, constricted ball of frustration and wrath.

How had it come to this? London had fallen a fortnight ago, Manchester just yesterday. That was why he had been arrested. He had been tagged as a prominent Christian for a while, and they had started the round-up in earnest once they'd seized the Town Hall. Yes, he could have got away sooner, but he had never been a quitter. Right until the end he had believed that the city would hold. But it hadn't, and now he was banged up, cut off from the resistance in Liverpool and Dublin. He was the top man too, so they'd struggle without him, just as he faced full-spectrum insignificance without them.

The odd thing was though, that even if he had told the Satanists about his network, they probably wouldn't have been bothered. It was the Christian faith itself that bugged them, especially the practice of that faith - people saying prayers, going to church, etc. An old woman of ninety, fingering her Rosary, beads was as much, if not more, of a threat than Peter and his band, with all their political and military know-how. He had been nicked because he was a practicing Christian, not because he was suspected of plotting a counter-coup. Unlike the Nazis and Soviets of old, these weirdos didn't seem to care that capable people were agitating against them. It was as if that sort of thing didn't matter, like they didn't need to act, that the wild tide of inebriation they were riding would scoop up all the rebels and reactionaries and smash them to pieces. All they had to do was keep upping the ante and whipping up the frenzy. Satan would do the rest, and so far this strategy - if that was what it was - had been 100% successful.

From a rational point of view, none of it made sense. But maybe that was the point? Rationalism was so 'yesterday' now. It astonished Peter the scale of the volte face which had taken place in barely over twenty years. Back in the day, the enemies of the Church would often say that they wanted to believe in God but couldn't because there was no scientific proof. Now they had no trouble believing in God but were so consumed with hatred towards Him that they had chosen His opposite as their champion.

The Satanists had been shrewd in their messaging. They had upended the traditional narrative of God v. the Devil and totally captured the Zeitgeist. That was what this 'Great Liberation' trope was all about. Satan, so the story went, was the true master and shaper of the world. His energy, his ruthlessness, his amoral dynamism - these were the powers which set the stars in motion and brought growth and vitality to the Earth and everything on it. Our vocation, as human beings, is to tap into these potencies - to align ourselves with them - and thereby share in Satan's fecundity and gain dominion over our lives and circumstances, and over others too should we so wish.

Satan is stronger, they claimed, than the entity we mistakenly call 'God'. It wasn't through any lack of strength that he fell from Heaven but through a piece of low-grade trickery - vague and unspecified - from the renegade angel Yahweh. This dubious figure then usurped his throne, and the maker of the universe had to descend to the lowest depths of his creation and bide his time, waiting for Yahweh's empire of lies to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Yahweh had even concocted a myth that his lieutenant, Michael, had worsted Satan in single combat and physically flung him into Hell. The reverse was actually the case. Satan had overcome Michael, but at that time he wasn't able to match Yahweh's cunning, so might and force alone were not enough for him to regain Heaven. But now the wheel had come full-circle and the long-awaited assault on the High Places was nigh. Earth was falling, Heaven was next. 'Thy will be done,' as the Satanic prayer puts it, 'in Heaven as on Earth.'

Peter opened his eyes. What a load of bollocks it was! An opportunistic power-grab that a child could see through. Yet the movement was gaining massive traction and the whole world was running after Old Nick now. It had filled a gap somehow - given people the release and ecstasy that they craved and that neither Church nor State had been able to provide.

Soon, however, they would start to fight and kill each other. Unbridled licence only goes so far. Then, mused Peter, we'll see a tyranny unparalleled in history - Yeats's 'rough beast' ruling the roost with rods of iron and fists of steel. What could stop the juggernaut? "Only prayer," said a voice. Who had spoken? Peter looked around. The voice was external. Definitely. It was a man's voice and had come from somewhere in the room. But where? None of his colleagues had spoken. He could tell that straightaway. They looked too beaten-down and tired - even the sparky fellow opposite - for either speech or prayer to make their mark.

Peter tried to obey. He wanted to pray, needed to pray - he knew the voice was right - yet no prayer would come. He was in a place beyond words now - a bitter bed of grief and mourning - and it was tears that came instead. All those lovely memories and the loss of so much that was good and true and beautiful. It was too much for him. Not so long ago, he recalled, there had been candles and incense and chasubles, and now there was nothing, with the great Manchester churches - The Holy Name, the Hidden Gem, St. Chad's - shuttered up and silent. The Faith had been crucified and was lying in its grave and he, Peter, had backed the wrong horse, lunging with his sword at the High Priest's servant and lopping off his ear. To what effect? Absolutely none. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

He sobbed like a child. He wasn't a soldier or a politico or a 'man about town' any more. He was a vulnerable little boy again - the same unheard, unseen kid he had been when he was ten years old - stymied by shame, thwarted by trauma, fighting a one-boy war against a blind, mechanistic world that walled his soul and spirit in.

His eyes misted up. It seemed brighter on his right side than his left for some reason. He turned his head and was met with an astonishing blend of colours - red, gold and purple, shot through with streaks of silver. He rubbed his eyes. The colours were still there, brighter and sharper. Hold on a minute! How did I do that? How did I lift my hand? Where are the chains? He looked down. There they were on the ground, cut into shards. "Get up," said a voice, the same voice he had heard before. He stood up. The colours began to take shape. In front of him was a giant - or an angel, maybe - a great being of light at any rate, some seven or eight feet tall. The figure glowed and throbbed with pure vitality and strength. As he gazed upon him, Peter felt those qualities pouring into him as well. Where there had been disintegration, now there was focus and resolve. Where Satan had scattered and fragmented his mind, he sensed an ancient, long-slumbering source of power and direction surging up inside. 

Then he saw the sword - blade of gold and edge of fire. The Presence before him held it point-down, from what Peter now saw was his right hand. It pointed to the chains, and right there and then Peter knew who his visitor was - St. Michael the Archangel - and saw and felt the absurdity of that Satanic fable about the Devil giving him a whipping. It couldn't be done. Wasn't possible. Only God Himself could best this being and that would never happen as Michael and God were so closely aligned that conflict between them was unthinkable. Then, at last, Peter was able to see his face. The eyes were molten brass and the hair like running flame. "Come," he said. "Follow me."

Joy abounded in Peter's heart yet he felt himself strangely reluctant to leave. "What about these?" he asked, gesturing towards his fellows, none of whom appeared to be witnessing anything out of the ordinary. "I can't just leave them."

"You're leaving them with God," replied the angel. "He will look after them. He is here now. If you had faith you would see that. But come. You must go to Liverpool."

The cell door was already open. Michael passed through and Peter followed. He turned to look back on his comrades. All of them were quiet. All of them awake. But the stress had gone from their faces and Peter discerned a certain peace and serenity there instead. A hint of triumph even. That was good. So good. He left them and caught up with the angel who had glided down the corridor ahead of him. 

Michael navigated the rabbit-warren of passages with ease. None of the guards or 'soldiers' could see them - they were invisible - yet their expressions were tense, as if they sensed that somewhere, somehow - quite near at hand - something was going wrong. Fine, thought Peter. Let the dead bury their dead.

Soon they were outside. The rain had stopped and there was a stiff breeze. Scraps of cloud scudded through the sky like tattered ribbons  A few stars peeped out. Michael led him around the side of the Library towards St. Peter's Square and the top of Oxford Street. There was the smell of smoke and a dreadful noise of roaring and bellowing from Albert Square on the other side of the civic buildings. But Oxford Street was quiet. Little groups of 'brownshirts' hung around smoking and laughing in shop doorways. They had had an easy night of it. No need to drag and compel folk to abase themselves before the statue. Punters had gone of their own volition. Normally Peter felt nothing but disdain for these types - 'Satan's Soldiers' and all that. But not now. Not with the angel beside him. He saw them with the eyes of compassion instead - a new experience for Peter - fallen men and women like himself, vulnerable and fragile, who had been taken in by a grand deception. Same for those in Albert Square. It could so easily have been himself. Should have been really. He looked back on his life as he walked and realised that he had sone absolutely nothing to deserve being sprung from prison like this. His faith had lacked substance. It had all been about aesthetics. That was what he was fighting for. If the Antichrist had come to town with a basket of fine vestments, Peter would have snapped his hand off. There but for the grace of God, etc.

"Don't let self-hate find a foothold," said Michael, reading his mind. "Remember the paralytic. Jesus first forgives him then sets him free to march forward into the future. So it is with you. God shows you your past, you see it, you repent, then He blesses you and sends you on your mission. So be of good heart. Your fight is a just one."

They bore right at the Java coffee house, up the concrete hill that led to Oxford Road Station. As they left the main road, Peter saw flames leaping high into the sky, about a quarter of a mile away. That's the Holy Name, he thought. That was the church he had gone to for years and where both his kids had been baptised. It surprised him that he didn't feel more angry. He wasn't even sad. In fact he almost felt glad. Why was this? What was happening was horrific, yes, but as he watched the inferno, Peter had a strong sense that everything that was going on was somehow as it should be, that God was in command, and that the Holy Name was this very night fulfilling her vocation, sharing in the passion of Christ so that one day, maybe very soon, she would rise with Him in glory.

The angel tugged his sleeve and ushered him up the hill. The touch of his hand was like a draught of cool, refreshing water. At the top, Michael stopped at the row of ticket machines, stooped down and pushed some buttons on the screen. Peter looked on, amazed at the practicality of it all. "I'll leave the receipt in the machine," said Michael. "You won't need it." 

He turned and handed Peter his ticket. There were two of them. "You've given me a return," said Peter. But the angel was gone and the tannoy was announcing his train, the 2141 to Lime Street. It was on its way from Piccadilly, almost here now. Peter punched his ticket through the barrier and dashed across to Platform 2. There it was. He hopped on, sat down, and spent the forty-five minute journey in silent prayer for the saints and heroes he had left behind at Bootle Street. "Only prayer," the angel had said. That was the best way, Peter felt - the only way even - to begin his second life.


Monday, December 27, 2021

Ulysses in Hell

 

Inferno Canto XXVI retold

*

I stood on the rocky ledge with Virgil my guide beside me. This circle was not so dark as the others. The charred and barren land was lit by countless moving man-sized flames. Restlessly and pointlessly they roamed. 'Behold the evil counsellors,' said Virgil. 'Their bad advice, while they lived, trapped and corrupted others. Now they are paid back in kind, hemmed in and circumscribed by a sheath of flame.'

'That one over there,' said I, 'has a double point, as if two spirits were lashed together inside.'

'Yes,' replied the Poet. 'Behold Ulysses and Diomede, partners in crime and bound one to the other on this burning marl as punishment. They stole the Luck of Troy and between them devised that most infernal of machines, the Wooden Horse. They strong-armed Sinon to lie to the Trojans and declare that the Greeks had left for good and that the gods required them to bring the Horse inside the city. That alone causes them untold suffering now, for as I wrote in The Aeneid it was that very night that Aeneas escaped to make his way at length to the shores of Italy. Through his seed, Rome was founded and Greece itself soon conquered by his descendants. So the machinations of Ulysses and Diomede were rendered useless in the end. They know this now and it pains them grievously.'

'Good,' I responded. 'They deserve it. Their deeds were evil and Ulysses, I feel, has been vastly overrated by the poets. He was a man of craft and low cunning, quite the reverse of a noble spirit. Still, I admit, he is a fascinating character and I would love to hear from him how his end came about for Homer and the others leave his final destiny wrapped in mystery. Look now how the twin-headed flame draws closer still. Let us not waste this chance.'

'Very well,' said Virgil. 'But let me do the talking, for you are of Trojan stock and he will note that in your voice and walk straight past.' Then he spoke a word of command in a strange tongue and the flame sped obediently towards us. We jumped off the ledge and stood before it. Dimly we discerned the physical outlines of the men inside, though we - or I at least - could not make out their faces. Then Ulysses spoke. He reeled off his tale in just one go, like he was speaking to order, with barely a pause for breath and no room given for questions.

'When I returned to Ithaca,' he began, 'it surprised me greatly how dissatisfied I felt and how bored and listless I became. Do not misunderstand me. I loved my wife and son, but being with them night and day did not give me the deep sense of meaning and fulfilment I expected. Quite the reverse. I sat by the shore and the truth came crashing down on me. Ten years of war and a decade more of voyaging had changed me utterly. There was no way, I realised, that I could go on living like this - tamed, domesticated, respectable. So I gathered my old companions about me and unfurled my sail once more. It was hard work persuading them to come. They were old and satiated and more attached to their land and homes than I was. But I was cruel and merciless, mesmerising and compelling them with my silver tongue. Do you know that it was for this, more than anything else, that I was damned? This breaking up of families and needless uprooting of settled lives. I promised them the greatest journey of all time. I told them that their names would be written in letters of gold by future generations. I gave them bravado and empty boasts - told 'em all the lies under the sun - just so I could bring some purpose and direction back to the shrivelled husk of my life.

'At the Pillars of Hercules I ordered them to switch course to the South. I let their protests bounce off me. They had expected us to turn back East but there was no way that was happening and very soon, let me tell you, the magnificence and grandeur of what we were doing began to dawn on them. A hushed silence fell upon us; a silence of mingled awe and wonder. They were glad they had come now. They knew, as I knew, that we were in uncharted waters and that we were on the verge of becoming living legends. "Who knows," I asked them, "what fresh lands we might discover and name after ourselves? Maybe we will come to the very edge of the world and glimpse what lies beyond."

'Europe was far behind us to the North now, with the coast of Africa invisible and remote a long way off to the West. The constellations in the night sky were completely different to anything we had seen before. Five nights came and went beneath their gaze and on the sixth morn we beheld a colossally tall island - a giant mountain in truth - in the middle of the sea away to the South. In terms of size and magnificence it was absolutely unparalleled and none of us had seen anything like it in all our voyagings.

'I did not know then what that mountain was, but I do now. The devil who dragged me here told me straight after my death. It is the holy mountain of Purgatory, and we were the first living men to have ever approached it. I must tell you that I am still immensely proud of that fact.

'At daybreak on the last day of my life I said to my helmsman, "We will make landfall on this isle 'ere nightfall." But alas, a gigantic tempest - a black and swirling storm cloud - rose up from behind the mountain and straight away we were engulfed by an all-encompassing torrent of wind and rain. The ship was smashed like matchwood and all our lives extinguished. My eleven colleagues were guided by good angels straight to that sacred mount. I alone was escorted by a sadistic, mocking demon here to Hell.

'I had left Ithaca to find pattern and meaning - something to live for, something to fight and die for - but there is no meaning at all to be found in this place. No purpose, no direction, no triumph, no joy. If I had my time again I would do things differently. My quests were so misguided. I was chasing after the wrong things, or rather the right things but in the wrong ways. Now it is too late. But even now I will not back down. Though I am beyond hope, I will never give up - never stop fighting, never stop seeking - even in my current state, imprisoned with my sorry colleague and tied up in a sheet of flame. I will not go gently into that good night, will not become a bland, semi-retired gentleman. No! I would have to give up the name of Ulysses if I did, and that, let me assure you, will never happen.'

At that, the flame began to drift away. Virgil and I bowed our heads and stood together in silence.

'He was indeed a noble spirit,' I remarked at length. 'More princely than I was prepared to admit. Like you, my master, he did not live to see the true God, but he sought for Him all his life in the only ways he knew - through war and adventure and endless, restless questing. There is much to commend him for here but, as he says, the time for redemption has passed and deep in his heart, though he rails against it, he knows that hope has gone.'

Virgil took hold of my hand and we scrambled back up on top of the ledge. 'There is always hope,' he replied once we had caught our breath. 'You must not think that it was a one-off event when the Logos broke the gates to these infernal regions and released the spirits in bondage. No. All His deeds take place in eternity and the Harrowing of Hell is going on even now. The light of Christ shines unto the darkest places and our friend yonder might not be so far from those life-giving rays as either of you fear. Let us pray for him, you and I, as we set out again on our way. That is the best and most potent thing we can do.'

'Ulysses, I salute you,' I shouted into the void, but I had lost sight of him on that glittering field and my voice faded like a valediction in the dead and clammy air.

'Bring him back, O Lord,' I prayed as we climbed down the stair towards the next level. Somewhere a horn blew, a sound like nothing I had heard down here in Hell. I looked at Virgil and he looked at me. 'Our Father ...' he began quietly, and I joined him in his prayer as we continued on our journey.

*

This seems a good place to reprint Louis MacNeice's wonderful poem, Thalassa, which (I think) was the last poem he wrote, in 1963 not long before he set out on his own great and final voyage. Here is is -


Run out the boat, my broken comrades;

Let the old seaweed crack, the surge

Burgeon oblivious of the last

Embarkation of feckless men,

Let every adverse force converge -

Here we must needs embark again.


Run up the sail, my heartsick comrades;

Let each horizon tilt and lurch -

You know the worst; your wills are fickle,

Your values blurred, your hearts impure

And your past life a ruined church -

But let your poison be your cure.


Put out to sea, ignoble comrades,

Whose record shall be noble yet;

Butting through scarps of moving marble

The narwhal dares us to be free;

By a high star our course is set,

Our end is Life. Put out to sea.


Thursday, December 16, 2021

Sages Standing in God's Holy Fire - Jean Parvulesco and Charles Williams


‘A policeman’s hand stopped the traffic. Henry gestured towards it. “Behold the Emperor!” he said to Nancy. “You’re making fun of me,” she half-protested. “Never less,” he said seriously. “Look at him” … She saw in that heavy official barring their way the Emperor of the Trumps, helmed, in a white cloak, stretching out one sceptred arm, as if Charlemagne or one like him stretched out his controlling sword over the tribes of Europe pouring from the forest … The noise of all the passing street came upon her as the roar of many peoples; the white cloak held them by a gesture: law and order were there.’

Charles Williams, The Greater Trumps


*


In this essay, I want to explore the Arthurian poems of the novelist, poet, playwright, and theologian Charles Williams (1886-1945) in the light of the visionary oeuvre of Jean Parvulesco (1929-2010), a Romanian ‘romancier’, essayist and esotericist who wrote primarily in French. Nothing, as far as I know, has been written about how these two intense and prophetic Christian authors relate, feed into, and complement each other. None of Parvulesco’s works have been translated into English and very little has been written about him in this language. The late Philip Coppens published two penetrating essays in the Australian magazine New Dawn here and here in 2008, and the Eurasianist philosopher and political scientist Alexander Dugin also wrote this reflection on Parvulesco’s novel, L’étoile de l’Empire invisible in 1994. Much of what little commentary there is about Parvulesco tends to focus on the influence he has had on Dugin’s thought and the geopolitical aspects of his work, particularly concerning Russia and Vladimir Putin. This is relevant and true, but not enough has been said, in my view, about Parvulesco as an imaginative writer and as a specifically Christian imaginative writer – a herald of the New Jerusalem, in short. It is here, I feel, that his work ties in with that of Charles Williams in a revealing, exciting, and even startling fashion.



Williams (above) is altogether better known in the English-speaking world, but not nearly so much as his friends C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien formed the centre of a circle of Christian writers known as the Inklings, who were particularly active in Oxford during the Second World War. In the decades of secularisation and disenchantment which followed, their works have played a pivotal role in keeping the sacred alive at a time when the general thrust of culture and academia has been to minimise and undercut any meaningful sense of the holy. Where would we be without Tolkien’s masterworks 
The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion? How much more impoverished and spiritually benighted would the lives of generations of children have been without Lewis’s Narnia stories? The imaginative impact of his adult fiction, especially his ‘Space Trilogy’ (Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandra and That Hideous Strength) plus his reworking of the Cupid and Psyche myth Till We Have Faces should also not be understated.

Williams did not write in such a clear style as Lewis and Tolkien, however, and his works have not made the same impact on popular culture as theirs have. But he was a deep and original thinker, who had a profound influence on practically everyone he encountered. He had, one might say, an aura about him, a spiritual presence and intensity, which, though he hailed from a humble, lower middle-class background, gave him a real air of distinction and made meeting him a memorable, sometimes life-changing, experience. As W.H. Auden recalled:

‘For the first time in my life, I felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity … I had met many good people before who made me feel ashamed of my own shortcomings but in the presence of this man I did not feel ashamed. I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving.’ (1)



I was in my early-twenties (c.1992), a History student at The University of Leeds, when I discovered Williams. I started with the only two novels of his they had in the University bookshop, All Hallows’ Eve (1945) and The Greater Trumps (1932). His novels – seven in all – have been called ‘supernatural shockers’ and ‘spiritual thrillers’. They are not literary masterworks in terms of quality of writing or felicity of expression but their impact is deeper and far more penetrating than many so-called masterpieces. Where does this power come from? I can only reply in the words of Christ Himself – ‘Come and see.’ Once you read these books you will not forget them. They are packed with meaning – fictional meditations on what reality is like at a more central level than we habitually perceive, yet rooted firmly at the same time in the everyday world.

In the shop’s poetry section was a one-volume edition of Williams’s Arthurian verse – his two published collections Taliessin Through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944) plus fragments from an uncompleted third sequence, tentatively titled Jupiter Over Carbonek. I bought it at once and began reading enthusiastically. But the style was denser and more complex than that of the novels and I found it off-putting and quite bewildering. I put the book down, yet there was something there – some indefinable quality or essence – that kept drawing me back as the 1990s and 2000s unfolded. There was something compelling, essential even, about the Byzantine and Arthurian ambience evoked by Williams that chimed on a deep level with my own gut instincts, known and felt since childhood, of what Christian Europe was, and is (despite current appearances), and one day will openly become again. As Lewis puts it:

‘There is a youthfulness in all Williams’s work which has nothing to do with immaturity. Nor is this the only respect in which his world offers the very qualities for which our age is starved. Another such quality is splendour: his world is one of pomp and ritual, of strong, roaring, and resonant music … His colours are opaque: not like stained glass but like enamel. Hence his admirable hardness; by which I do not here mean difficulty, but hardness as of metals, jewels, logic, duty, vocation …. We meet celibacy, fasts, vigils, contrition, tragedy, and all but despair.’ (2)

Here are some lines, as an example of this ‘resonant music’, from The Last Voyage, the penultimate poem in Taliessin Through Logres:


Fierce in the prow the alchemical Infant burned,

red by celerity now conceiving the white;

behind him the folded silver column of Percivale,

hands on the royal shoulders, closed wings of flight,

inhaled the fine air of philosophical amazement;

Bors, mailed in black, completing the trine,

their action in Logres, kneeling on the deck to their right,

the flesh of fatherhood, unique as they in the Will,

prayed still for the need and bliss of the household.

By three ways of exchange the City sped to the City;

against the off-shore wind that blew from Sarras

the ship and the song flew.


Over the course of three decades and after much reading, reflection, and discussion, I began to feel the reality and truth of these poems from the inside, as it were. Lines and phrases continually popped up in my mind. I turned their themes – spiritual, intellectual, political, romantic, artistic – over and over in my head. The images conjured up by Williams came alive in full and glorious colour. His poetic milieu – his vision of the Empire and Britain’s place in it – became for me a living, breathing topography and started to drive and propel my own creative writing. While I continue to read and enjoy his novels it is his poetry which, over time, has risen above surface issues of complexity and has shown itself imbued with an incantatory and, I believe, an authentically magical power.

This has only become clear though since I began to map the singular spiritual and political vision of Jean Parvulesco onto Williams’s Arthurian world. It has taken a long time – all things of value do – but I can see now that the Kingdom of Logres posited by Williams and the Byzantine Roman Empire of which it forms a part is more than a skilful reworking of history or one recasting among many of the Arthurian Mythos. It is an invocation and an exposition of what Empire is in its essence and a prefiguration of a Europe to come, with its Western and Eastern poles acting in concert again, a foreshadowing of what Parvulesco called the Great Eurasian Empire of the End, ‘the final re-integration of Catholicism and Orthodoxy into a single Imperial religion’, as he wrote in his novel Dans la forêt de Fontainebleau. (3)



It was precisely this trans-continental, pan-European quality that drew me, in 2002, to Jean Parvulesco (above). It seemed obvious to me, in the wake of 9/11, that the West should forge an alliance with Russia to counter the threat of radical Sunni Islam. President Putin appeared keen on this for a while, but the US and Britain gave him little encouragement and chose instead the ruinous road of invading and occupying Iraq. A different path had been taken, but Parvulesco’s vision of a renewed and re-united Europe gave me hope and a sense of long-term possibility. Something to pray for; something to work towards.

Parvulesco was born in Romania in 1929. He escaped from a Communist prison in the former Yugoslavia in 1948 and made his way to Paris, where he became involved with the cutting-edge political and artistic currents active in the city. He had a keen interest in the cinema and maintained life-long friendships with many of the leading lights of the French Nouvelle Vague, such as Eric Rohmer and Jean-Pierre Melville. Parvulesco was a Traditionalist Roman Catholic and an enemy of both liberalism and democracy. But he did not support the totalitarian far-right and his condemnations of both National Socialism and Italian Fascism were quite severe. He saw them as products and consequences of modernism – atavistic and anti-traditional betrayals of Europe’s Christian and Imperial destiny. The vacuum they created led to the post-war subjugation of Europe by the USA and the USSR, two seemingly opposed, but in reality complementary and mutually reinforcing materialist superpowers. Here, for example, Parvulesco outlines the ‘four terrible errors’ made by the Nazis, which destroyed both themselves and much of Europe: 


‘(1) The inconceivable criminal imbecility of the Shoah …

(2) The paranoid contempt they held all the Slavic peoples in, the Russians in particular …

(3) Needless and self-defeating hostility towards the Catholic Church …

 4) The inability to recognise, and still less utilise, thinkers of the calibre of Martin Heidegger   and Karl Haushofer … and a preference for third-rate cretins such as Alfred Rosenberg …‘(4)


Strong words. Passages like this remind me very much of Dante and his fulminations in the Commedia against the corrupt clerics and petty sovereigns of his day, who through their small-mindedness and lack of vision undermined both Church and Empire. Like the Italian, Parvulesco was keenly aware of the evils of his time and the civilisational rot corroding our society and culture. ‘Black vomit’, as Tony d’Entremont, narrator and hero of the novel L’étoile de l’Empire invisible, vividly describes it in a top-class rant against the New Age movement and its ‘One World’ agenda, ‘where the shadow of the Beast of the Apocalypse makes itself both visible and transparent.’(5)

There is a grand battle unfolding in Parvulesco’s world between ‘agents of Being’ and ‘agents of non-Being.’ The latter are wedded to a progressivist, globalist, secularist worldview. Their goal – which some of them are conscious of, and some are not – is to abolish all traces of Divinity and sever humanity from knowledge and remembrance of true religious tradition. They work, as d’Entremont claims, for the ‘anti-world, the “mystery of iniquity”, which St. Paul speaks of in his Second Letter to the Thessalonians.’ (6) Set against this nefarious conspiracy are Parvuelsco’s counter-revolutionaries, the ‘agents of Being’, men and women of faith, prayer and tradition, who work in the shadows, alone or in small groups, to prepare for the inevitable systemic collapse and also – crucially – the new golden age or ‘age of being’ to follow.

There are strong resonances here with Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength and the demonic forces who secretly set the tone at the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (NICE). Masquerading as a force for positive change in post-war Britain the Institute is in fact a focal point and node of power for a long-planned Satanic takeover of England, Europe, and the world. It is faced down by a small Company of good-hearted folk (plus a bear), whose Director, Elwin Ransom, was modelled to a large extent on Charles Williams. We think too of The Fellowship of the Ring and the little band that sets out from Rivendell – the last homely house – on the long and perilous journey south to destroy the ruling Ring and break the power of the Dark Lord. Good triumphs over evil in both works, and Parvulesco  a man of deep Christian conviction – was certain that the outcome would be the same in the non-fictional world we live and struggle in today.

There is a gap, however – a chasm even – between where we are now and where we will one day be. We live in an age of ‘liquid modernity’, where nothing is fixed or stable and all values have become relative and fluid. We often feel lost and disorientated, and contact with the Real can seem sometimes all but impossible. There is a dearth of meaning and positive direction. Parvulesco experienced this sense of alienation – bordering often on desolation – very sharply, both in his personal life and in the spiritual, political, and cultural marginalisation of Europe. But he had great faith in the latent redemptive power hidden like the pearl of great price in the souls of the ancient European peoples. He believed that when everything would appear lost a Great Monarch-type figure (as prophecied by Nostradamus and dramatised in Dans la foret de Fontainebleau) would rise up and inaugurate a new Divinely-appointed realm  the ‘Grand Eurasian Empire of the End’, stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostock – ‘Regnum Sanctum’ – the incarnation and establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth: Imperium Magnum or Roma Unltima, a world-wide work of the Holy Spirit, announcing and setting in motion the advent in history of Christ the King …’ (7)

This is where we turn full-circle back to Charles Williams. When we look at this drawing from the end-leaf of Taliessin Through Logres 



… we see the Empire envisioned by Williams, a united Christian Imperium, where the Emperor in Byzantium and the Pope in Rome have equal and complementary functions and the Empire’s various provinces play their unique, distinctive roles in the unfolding Theo-drama. The Empire, for Williams, is first and foremost a person – specifically a woman – not a political bloc or a militarised zone but a Marian, Sophiological space of relationship and connection, where the lines of communication the human and the Divine are open and alive. 

The woman in the drawing – the female personification of Empire – is Merlin’s sister, Brisen. The great centres of the Empire, as marked on the map, play their parts analogously with their positions on her body. Byzantium, for instance, is situated at the navel – the physical centre. Rome is placed at the level of the hands, reflecting the daily Mass offered by the Pope and the work of his hands (‘manual acts’, Williams calls them) in the consecration of bread and wine and the elevation of the Host. The breasts relate to Gaul. Williams is thinking here of the milk of learning which the University of Paris brought to Christendom in the High Middle Ages. His Arthuriad, as this shows us, is highly elastic in its conception of time. Though set ostensibly in the decades following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the poems are not a catalogue of empirical events – ‘this happened then and that happened after that,’ etc. They are rooted in eternity, not time. Parvulesco’s ‘archaeo-futurist’ hope for European Christendom – simultaneously brand-new and ancient – shared this timeless, trans-historical perspective. A return to the principle of Being after centuries of non-Being would, he believed, bring an end to the dominance of materialist, empiricist modes of thought, with the sacred once again taking precedence over the secular. As the Personalist philospher Emmanuel Mounier expressed it in the 1930s, ‘the spiritual first, and the economic and the political at its service.’ (8)



We see the head of Brisen superimposed onto the British Isles, and this, in my view, is less about the intellect – that honour, as we have seen, belongs to Gaul – and more to do with the capacity for spiritual vision which Britannia was renowned for in the Roman world. The great stone circles of Avebury (above) and Stonehenge represent this inner dimension. So too, in a different key, does the legend of Joseph of Arimathea bringing the Holy Grail to Glastonbury. There are many other examples. ‘Albion’ was what William Blake called this hidden, mystical aspect. Williams and Lewis called it ‘Logres.’ It comes to the same thing. 

Logres, in Williams’s poems, has been chosen by God to act as a bridgehead between two holy cities – Byzantium, the seat of government, in the East, and Sarras, city of the Grail, in the West. Heaven and Earth are thereby balanced, and Arthur’s Kingdom is established as an earthly embodiment of Jacob’s ladder, with an easy and natural interchange and communion between lower and higher worlds, ‘ascending and descending’ like the angels in Jacob’s vision. The stage is set and the platform built not just for the Grail to return but also Our Lord Himself in His second coming. Sadly, due to a series of human failings, Logres only partially fulfils its potential and the Parousia has to be postponed. A frightening thought. Will Logres get another chance, or will the sacred torch be passed elsewhere?

As one brought up in this country, stories of King Arthur awakening from sleep and prophecies of Britain playing a role in future eschatological events have always struck a chord. I have long felt that what Parvulesco calls ‘le retour des grand temps’ will begin here. Parvulesco himself thought that it would start in France. A resident of another country might opt for his own land. Obviously, we cannot all be right. But there is a sense, I think, where if every country is true to its own essence – its own deep abiding archetype – then everyone will be doing God’s work and heading in the right direction in their own unique and irreplaceable way. Lewis makes this clear at the end of That Hideous Strength:

When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China — why, then it will be spring.’ (9)

The Emperor is the ultimate source of authority who underwrites all this. He brings a principle of unity to the separate, individual nations and also a wider sense of civilisational shape and direction. This is exactly the kind of ruler Dante wished to see in his own fractured and fragmented age. The pages of the Commedia and of De Monarchia, his treatise on government, are filled with this longing. If the poet felt such a need in his day how much more do we now? Parvuleso and Williams were both attuned to this missing element in our collective life, what the Catholic esotericist Valentin Tomberg called ‘the shadow of the Emperor.’ (10) What Dante wanted was what Parvulesco and Williams wanted – a civilisation permeated from top to bottom by a single ruling principle 100% rooted in and focused on the Divine. What W.B. Yeats says in A Vision about Byzantium applies with equal felicity to the renewed, regenerated Christian Empire which constantly sought to manifest itself through the imaginations of both men:

‘I think that if I could be given a month of antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since, in recorded history, religious, aesthetic, and practical life were one, that architects and artificers … spoke to the multitude in gold and silver. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter of a whole people.’ (11)

In Williams’s poem The Calling of Taliessin Merlin tells the young Taliessin – who goes on to become the King’s Poet and Captain of Horse – that if Heaven’s design for Logres goes awry then Taliessin will be charged with keeping its spirit alive:


If in the end if anything should fail of all

purposed by our mother and the Emperor, …

it may be that this gathering of souls, that the King’s poet’s 

household

shall follow in Logres and Britain the spiritual roads …


Williams treated the Arthurian legend with high seriousness. He identified, to a very large extent, with the figure of Taliessin and saw himself, his friends, and his students as constituting a similar – maybe even identical – ‘household’. 'Something like the Company probably came into existence wherever Williams had lived and worked', as Lewis noted. (12) 

In his poetry, Williams drilled down to some very deep imaginative and spiritual places. The Mythos left its mark on him, but he left his stamp on it too, especially in his unique, idiosyncratic conception of the Empire. It is here, I feel, that perhaps without knowing it, Williams tuned in to what the future will one day look like. There is a unity, simplicity, and one-pointedness to his Byzantine Empire that, in my view, will give us precisely what we will need after any coming cataclysm – clarity and a sense of vertical momentum looking up instead of down. So in some ways it’s very much a case of ‘back to basics' but this is no stripped-down, scorched-earth reaction to the excesses of our era. Williams’s world is coloured by two thousand years of Christian thought and art, the cultural and intellectual patrimony that has shaped and moulded our continent. It is, as Lewis noted (amongst other things), a place of 'splendour' and 'pomp and ritual', the opposite of a puritanical or survivalist wasteland.

It is almost as if, in his unification of Eastern and Western Christianity, Williams has called a new form of religion into being, one which relates to and expresses the essence of European spirituality while also building on and, one might say, baptising Europe’s pre-Christian heritage. We see this clearly in The Calling of Taliessin, where Merlin sends Taliessin – a young Druidic bard – to sit at the Emperor’s feet in Byzantium and learn from him the true Faith, what Merlin calls ‘the doctrine of largesse’, not to sever him from his pagan roots but rather to complete and fulfil them.

Jean Parvulesco would have been delighted by such a notion. His vision of the Empire was a much more conscious affair than it was for Williams. The Empire, for Parvulesco, was a symbol of reality – more than that, it was reality. It is the global, geo-political set-up we know now that is an illusion. The Empire is a fact. It is truth – a Platonic idea or Form – which was, and is, and is to be, and is right now waiting for its moment to burst through onto the material, visible level of existence. When it does, it will be here to stay. ‘Apollo will come again,’ Parvulesco often remarked, ‘and next time it will be forever.’ He was also fond of quoting this line from John Buchan’s novel The Dancing Floor, ‘Tomorrow night nothing will go out from this place, unless it be the Gods.’ Or as Heidegger, a key philosophical influence on Parvulesco, famously had it, ‘Only a god can save us now.’

For Parvulesco, this return to Being, this ‘retour des grands temps’, is first and foremost a return of the gods, with the barriers between the human and the Divine becoming porous, then dissolving, allowing us to experience the world as a re-enchanted, re-sacralised theatre of Being. The Divine principle will be re-established and every shrub will be seen for what it truly is – a burning bush. As he wrote in L’étoile de l’Empire invisible: ‘It is imperative that the gods return, that the Divine renews itself in history, appearing anew in the process of history, a Heavenly intervention bringing both salvation and a new foundation.’ (13) 


In my mind’s eye, I see Parvulesco and Williams as figures in a Byzantine mosaic standing either side of the Emperor, though they seem such kindred spirits that maybe they should be standing together on the same side. Whether that is the right or left is harder to say. They were orthodox believers but radically unconventional. They were forerunners and prophets, heralds of the Emperor, and by extension God Himself. Neither was a priest, yet for some reason I can imagine both men celebrating Holy Mass in Heaven. They are the ‘sages’ that Yeats’s pilgrim appeals to in Sailing to Byzantium:


O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.’


They lead us to the high places, those zones of transformation and renewal that Yeats in his sequel to this poem, Byzantium, calls up from the depths of the Platonic night:


At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit

Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,

Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,

Where blood-begotten spirits come

And all complexities of fury leave,

Dying into a dance,

An agony of trance,

An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

 

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,

Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,

The golden smithies of the Emperor!

Marbles of the dancing floor

Break bitter furies of complexity

Those images that yet

Fresh images beget,

That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.


I pray to them both. I make no secret of it. I pray for their aid and assistance. I hope and trust that they pray for me too, and not just for me – not even mainly for me – but for European Christendom, that living symbol which Dante, Williams, Yeats and Parvulesco felt so much at home in, and for its slow and secret, but necessary and inevitable return.


*


(1) Grevel Lindop, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling (Oxford University Press, 2015), p.276.

(2) C.S. Lewis, Arthurian Torso (Oxford University Press, 1948), p.199.

(3) Jean Parvulesco, Dans la forêt de Fontainebleau (Alexiphamarque, 2007), p.320.

(4) Jean Parvulesco, Un retour en Colchide (Guy Trédaniel, 2010), p.218)

(5) Jean Parvulesco, L'étoile de l'Empire Invisible (Guy Trédaniel, 1993), p. 368.

(6) Ibid, p.374.

(7) Dans la forêt ... p.391.

(8) Jean-Marie Dommenach, Emmanuel Mounier, (Editions du Seuil, 1972), p.43.

(9) C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (The Bodley Head, 1945), p.345.

(10) Anonymous, Meditations on The Tarot (Element, 1985), Letter IV - The Emperor.

(11) W.B. Yeats, A Vision (Palgrave MacMillan, 1959), p.247.

(12) Arthurian Torso, p.143.

(13) L'étoile ... p.280.

Also - Arthurian PoetsCharles Williams, edited and introduced by David Llewellyn Dodds (The Boydell Press, 1991) and The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (Wordsworth Poetry Library, 2000).

All translations from Parvulesco's French are mine - JF

 

 

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Taliessin's Return to Logres


Into the camp by the hazels I Taliessin came.

*

The wind was fierce but the December night was clear and crisp, the moon and stars a gallery of glory in the ink-blue sky. I led my chestnut mare up the winding cliff-side path, mounted her at the top, and looked down at the Roman ship turning slowly in the harbour. The golden Chi-Ro on the mainsail stood out so distinctly that it felt for a moment more like midday than midnight. 

The ship sailed purposefully away. She had one more man to deposit on these far-flung coasts - Brendan the Prophet - returning after a host of adventures to his native Hibernia, 'Maybe,' I mused, 'maybe one day we will meet again.' I had liked Brendan and had learned a lot from him. But the Emperor had given him a task to fulfil in his own land now and I had a mission to accomplish in mine. In Byzantium we had drunk so deeply together - long deep draughts - from innumerable wellsprings of wisdom and grace. There, the Trinity is embedded and imprinted on all things made by hand, from church and palace to tavern and shop, in stone and wood, metalwork and paint - everything. The Paraclete is in the very air. You can sense him, feel him, catch him in your hand, as it were. 

Side by side we stood - Brendan and I - in the Emperor's throne room on the marble floor while the great gong of Hagia Sophia resounded across the bay. But he was wise and experienced, ahead of me in every respect - a seaman and a monk; a saint some say - while I was just a raw teenager, sent by Merlin and his sister in a roadside vision to learn the holy truths - the timeless, sacred mysteries - which my druid youth and childhood, for all its grit and wisdom, glamour and flourish, had been unable to give me.

Hard and fast I rode along the Roman road towards the mount of Yr Widdfa. A caravan of sapphire stars accompanied me. Their shape was different every time I looked - now a cross, now a dolphin, now a bell - but whatever the pattern, the message was the same, and it brought me confidence and hope. The Emperor had kept the promise he made on the Byzantine quay, to protect and watch over me until I arrived at the camp by the hazels.

I needed his help for I was hedged in by enemies, physical and mental, the latter to my left, the former to my right. I wanted to avoid Londinium and Verulanium and the other big settlements to the East. Civil strife was ripping them apart as old King Cradlemas, that Germanic puppet, strained every nerve and sinew to maintain the illusion of power. I saw the flames and smoke and it filled me with sorrow to see such destruction and waste. Sadness overpowered me and I felt my purpose falter. Then I looked up and the stars were in the form of a clenched fist and gloom and despair dissolved in an instant in the face of such raw and unanswerable Imperial vitality.

To my left was the enchanted forest and there I dared not look at all. Out of the corner of my eye I saw them though - those signalling hands; those seductive, beckoning eyes. From there they crept through into the crevices of my mind until a trickle became a flood and the whole thought of Artorius and his Romano-Celtic brotherhood became dim and unreal. The oil the Emperor had recently anointed me with now appeared fantastical in my mind. Had the ceremony even happened? If it had, it was meant for someone else, surely. Even Emperors make mistakes, don't they? It was a man of purpose and direction that he wanted, not a dreamy fop like me. Theirs the kingdom, the power, the glory - mine the webs, the phantasms, the projections of the mind, the self-serving, never-ending loops of Plato's cave. 

My pace slowed, my head drooped low and sleep had almost mastered me when a shooting silver comet flashed from East to West like lightning across the firmament. The spell was broken. Just like that. Once more, I looked above and the fist was now a hand, open and expansive, and the Emperor's strength poured down upon me and I tugged at the reins and propelled the mare forward, faster and faster, into the heart of the night.

*

Day was at hand when the country around me started to rise. The forest thinned and I was in a land of rocky hills and gleaming streams. The stars which had followed me came flaming down to the horizon - six in all - two to the West, two to the East, and two to the South. One alone remained, and that stayed ahead of me always, shifting sometimes left, sometimes right, guiding me to my destiny.

I heard the camp before I saw it - the bells of the Dawn Mass, the jingle of harness and bit - and then, through the hazels, the horsemen swooping by, gathering me into their company and escorting me into the presence of Artorius. Face to face we stood in a tent of red and golden hangings. He was young and beardless - a Divine Child - but the light in his eyes was ancient and primordial. I thought for a moment of Melchizedek and the stories the Emperor had told us as we walked up and down his pavement at night, watch fires burning bright in the dark.

'I am Taliessin,' I declared, 'and I have been sent to write and sing and tell the tale of your coming reign. I am here to serve and to follow but also to bring hope and sustenance to the men and women of the future. For even if your Kingdom fails, the Grail disappears and the Parousia is postponed, even then, and even if you are to blame, your example, your witness and your legacy will be so great that in ages to come when darkness covers the land the Britons of those times will remember your deeds, lift up their hearts, tear off their chains and pull down the Cradlemas of that age.'

There was no need for Artorius to speak. Merlin, Brisen, Brendan and the Emperor had told me everything already. I knew, and Artorius knew that I knew. So he embraced me in silence and we clasped each other tight like comrades and brothers. And a great shift occurred in that moment. I don't know how or why but something electric took place. That's all I know. What can I say? The inner became the outer. History gave way to myth. Britain became Logres. 'Le retour des grands temps,' the Gauls call it. 'The Great Return', say the men of the Wye valley. Both sound right to me.

*

Adapted from Taliessin's Return to Logres, the second poem in Charles Williams' collection, Taliessin Through Logres (1938).