The Grateful Christian

Essays, opinions, and works-in-progress by a conservative Lutheran pastor.

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Location: West Michigan, United States

In order of importance, I am a: Husband, father, pastor, hobby programmer, writer. Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

--C.S.Lewis, The Apologist's Evening Prayer

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Kay The Boor: Williams on Vocation, Part II

[In Progress]
Third in a series of articles of articles on the Charles Williams poem "Bors To Elayne: on the King's Coins" found in Taliessin Through Logres.
Click here to open a new window with the whole poem (requires javascript to be enabled in your browser.)

They had the coins before the council.
Kay, the king's steward, wise in economics, said:
'Good; these cover the years and the miles
and talk one style's dialects to London and Omsk.
Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space
tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.
The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,
and events move now in a smoother control
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.
Money is the medium of exchange.'

Kay's comments sound plausible, but before we examine them, let's take a look at Sir Kay himself, and why Charles Williams might have selected him as the foil for Taliessin's speech. Please accept an assertion that time does not permit me to elaborate on just now: There was considerable cross-pollination of ideas between Williams and Lewis on the Arthurian myth.
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(When I say myth, I don't mean that Arthur and the Table Round didn't exist, but that their story grew to take on a life of its own as subsequent generations retold it and amplified it. For my money, King Arthur was a historical figure.) In particular, Lewis' That Hideous Strength owes much to Williams and unabashedly honors it. It is too bad the First Macmillan Paperbacks edition misspelled the title of the poem; Camilla tells Jane she is quoting from Taliessin "Throught" Logres. Williams himself is not named in the novel, so I wonder how many other readers were frustrated trying to find the poem in the real world.

In the first chapter of That Hideous Strength, Lewis makes Dr. Dimble speculate eloquently and enthusiastically on what British society might have been like in Arthur's day: an uneasy interface between elements of Roman aristocracy, and pre-Roman Briton warlords. Of Arthur himself, he says
One can imagine a man of the old British line, but also a Christian and a fully-trained general with Roman technique, trying to pull this whole society together and almost succeeding. There'd be jealousy from his own British family, and the Romanised section--the Launcelots and Lionels--would look down on the Britons. That'd be why Kay is always represented as a boor: he is part of the native strain.

That was Lewis sometime prior to 1943; Taliessin Through Logres had been published in 1937 (parts of it as early as 1930). Is the Dr. Dimble character really Charles Williams, as Ransom is J.R.R.Tolkien? Even if the answer is No, Dimble's comment certainly reflects Williams' mythology of Logres as being where Byzantium meets Broceliande. Thus I may be forgiven for suggesting that by casting Sir Kay as the first commenter in the London council meeting, Williams is choosing someone that represents "the native strain." A new regime has come in, and Kay has found a place in it, but he's a wannabe, not a real convert. He doesn't "get it" except in a very simplistic manner, filtered through his conceptual worldview, which is all about earthly power (formerly arms, lately economics). Not that there is anything wrong with earthly power. As we Lutherans say, it too is part of God's administrative rule, His "kingdom of the left hand." Sir Kay, "wise in economics," approves the coinage and even tries to validate their "spiritual" meaning using the jargon of the new regime. He means well when he proclaims, "Money is the medium of exchange."

Lewis comments on Kay's little speech in his Williams and the Arthuriad:
There is, in fact, danger in money. Kay, the boor, 'wise in economics' does not see the danger. He is unreservedly delighted with the idea of a common 'medium of exchange'. . . But the danger which is hidden from the economist Kay is very clear to the poet Taliessin, Coins are symbols: and being a poet he knows much more about symbols than Kay.


By the way, here's a very interesting article "Charles Williams (1886-1945) And Current Economic Thought" by John Hibbs--presented on a libertarian web site, no less! I haven't digested the whole thing yet, so I don't know how exactly it's going to fit into this essay. But here's a teaser:
Bors finds it difficult to reconcile his instinctive distrust of the coinage with Kay’s cogent argument for the benefits it will bring — and is not Kay “the king’s steward, wise in economics”? But Taliessin, too, is afraid, and CW makes no attempt in the poem to reconcile the ambiguities, beyond leaving two statements resonating in the mind. And in this he takes us, with great skill, to the very heart of the essential ambiguity of money, just as every economist has to.

Anyway, Kay is trying, in his ham-fisted way. Choices are good, right? Amazing how contemporary those sentiments sound seventy years later: The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents, and here we are in the 'My' Decade (are you listening, Tom Wolfe?), where customization is king. Choices are empowering.
Speaking of power, since money can be regulated, it is theoretically possible to achieve "smoother control" than you get by relying on the two great powers, what would come to be known centuries later as the First Estate (religious power, the orisons of nuns) and the Second Estate (the aristocracy, the swords of lords). If 'wild' exchange, the loose, slapdash compacts of barters, is good, then it can be improved through domestication by the introduction of order, of means.

I'm a techie by disposition. Having been bitten by the engineering bug, I occasionally break out in gee-whiz fever. When you can envision a process, it not only looks like it might work, but it starts to look self-evident, almost inevitable --Progress--The Wave Of The Future! (You hear a lot of gee-whiz fever in the way some people talk about stem cell research.) Maybe that's why I want to forgive Kay for asserting, just a little too optimistically, Money is the medium of exchange.

But I know this as a form of idolatry. I can envision a process, a solution. As Niklaus Wirth, the inventor of Pascal (the language I write programs in) put it in the title of his landmark work: Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs. That's just a techie description of every "creative" human endeavor, whether the project is "how do I track hymn usage on my computer?" or "how do I feed the sixteen people who are coming for Thanksgiving?". The problem with the "creative" process is that we forget that humans don't create, they just rearrange the things that the Creator has left us with. There is a godlike feeling when you envision of a solution, and the power to "realize" that vision. (This is why I get a chill down my spine when I think of how much energy is being spent on coaching pastors to be "vision casters.")

I'm having a little trouble here. Man was designed to have dominion, to shape creation, to impose order. It was part of our original wiring, before the Fall. It doesn't have to be a rape of the environment; picture an elderly Japanese gardener who spends years coaxing plants and rocks into an esthetically pleasing dance. And as I said in the introduction to this essay, order and organization do not dim the glory of Christian vocation. The people who flooded into southern Louisiana last year with RVs and chainsaws, and little else, were not doing a "greater" service of love than the people who, instead of putting shovel to rubble, labored to organize the relief efforts. I believe in intentionality, and that "work smarter" is better than "work harder." But sometimes--maybe it's just me--sometimes, in the process of engineering a solution, the process becomes more important than the problem it's supposed to solve. I find myself falling in love with the challenge, or more specifically, with the answer I am "creating." There's an old Rush song that eloquently describes the addictive nature of creative activity:

Spirits fly on dangerous missions
Imaginations on fire
Focused high on soaring ambitions
Consumed in a single desire

In the grip of
A nameless possession --
A slave to the drive of obsession --
A spirit with a vision
Is a dream with a mission...

("Mission" from Hold Your Fire)

Kay has a vision, and perhaps he is just the jackdaw parroting the King's vision, but there is a danger here. His final pronouncement falls artlessly, thud! into the midst of the council. It will be Taliessin, the king's poet, who will describe the downside.

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