Doubting Symbols: Williams on Vocation, Part III
Fourth in a series of articles on the Charles Williams poem "Bors To Elayne: on the King's Coins" found in Taliessin Through Logres.
Taliessin's look darkened; his hand shookThis is the heart of the poem. In council at London, King Arthur's new coinage troubles Taliessin, the king's poet. His hands shake, his look darkens (his name means "bright brow"), and he utters some amazing things.
while he touched the dragons; he said 'We had a good thought.
Sir, if you made verse you would doubt symbols.
I am afraid of the little loosed dragons.
When the means are autonomous, they are deadly; when words
escape from verse they hurry to rape souls;
when sensation slips from intellect, expect the tyrant;
the brood of carriers levels the good they carry.
We have taught our images to be free; are we glad?
are we glad to have brought convenient heresy to Logres?'
Read more... (Remember, we are hearing this speech as reported by Bors to his wife Elayne.) C.S.Lewis' comment on Taliessin's speech in Williams and the Arthuriad says it better than I could:
Coins are symbols: and being a poet he knows much more about symbols than Kay. A symbol has a life of its own. An escaped metaphor--escaped from the control of the total poem or philosophy in which it belongs--may be a poisonous thing. Has Kay considered whether these metal symbols, these metaphors in gold and silver, may not also have a life of their own? Will money be man's servant--or has it, perhaps, its own views?
Williams himself is a poet, so he knows what Taliessin knows. It would be worthwhile to examine this in his prose works too... [later--maybe]
Ryan Tinetti over at Backward Kingdom gets at this too, with his post "The Word Made Fresh"--check it out.... here's a teaser:
A poet doesn’t shoot off verbal broadsides; a poet doesn’t pen indiscriminant treatises. Realizing that language is fundamentally rooted in relationality, the poet writes in such a way which respects the mystery that is communication.
There is a lot we could do with this subject, but this essay is not really about poet-power, but about word-power, symbol-power, especially its dangers. Taliessin's vocation as the royal poet of Logres makes him skeptical, even fearful: "Sir, if you made verse you would doubt symbols." Yes, but "words escaped from verse rape souls"? Isn't that a bit extreme?
As I attempt to deal with that question, I think I will be forced to quote at length from a chapter Williams wrote in an essay "Reason And Beauty In The Poetic Mind" (1933) which you can read at the Internet Archive. This part of my answer will take a while.
And what is the "convenient heresy" that coinage brings to Logres?
Provisional answer: I don't know yet, but I suspect it will be something to do with the Incarnation. For Williams, all theology was ultimately Christology. Another poem in the cycle ("Prelude" from The Region of the Summer Stars) refers to the resistance of some to the concreteness, the physicality, of Christianity--and not just at the Areopagus in Athens:
...the ancient intellect
heard, delaying and playing with its archives, and demurred
that pain was easy, and completeness of belief costly,
and flesh too queasy to bear the main of spirit.
The converted doctors turned to the their former confessions,
the limitary heresiarchs feared the indiscretions of matter,
and the careful Nestorius, coming to befriend peace,
preached at Byzantium. Before the sermon was at end
the metaphysicians, sitting to note him, heard
from the City the roar of burning and bundled torches
rise through the fixed stars: Theotokos, Anthropotokos;
his disciples shrank from the blood-stream where the full torches
ruddily poured round the eikon of Mary-in-blessing.
Professing only a moral union, they fled
from the new-spread bounty...
Nestorianism, all forms of docetism, and pretty much everything that is other than orthodox Christology all hamstring the law of exchange. That is not why they are wrong, but that is the burden of the Prelude as it documents the growth of the Empire as the growth of the doctrine of the Twy-Natured Christ.
In Bors to Elayne: On The King's Coins, Kay tries to interpret the coinage in the terms of the Empire, as a means of exchange, although he makes the fatal and telling slip in his choice of articles ("the" means of exchange). Taliessin does not contradict him (you're wrong, it's not a means of exchange) but points out the dangers of such means, when they are no longer structurally tied to ends. "When the means become autonomous, they become deadly." I suspect there is some connection here to Williams' peculiar and fascinating concept of the Fall into sin which I am struggling to grok as I read He Came Down From Heaven. More later. Maybe.
Anyway. This tells me that the "convenient heresy" ought to be some theological analogue to escaped metaphors--and it's almost on the tip of my tongue--but I'm getting stuck.
What is the tyrant we are to expect when "sensation slips from intellect": the heart no longer restrained by the head, or the head no longer gentled by the heart,--or some third, less blatant danger, that goes beyond the trite categorization of head-vs.-heart?
First approximation: the divorce of the two, either way, leads to tyranny. Reference Williams' concept of mens sensitiva, the "feeling intellect."
What is the lesson for the theologian, the preacher, the writer, the teacher, the blogger? And how do Marshall McLuhan and Frank Herbert fit into all this?
Frank Herbert, in Children of Dune, has Leto Atreides II muse this (p. 241):
We can still remember the golden days before Heisenberg, who showed humans the walls enclosing our predestined arguments. The lives within me find this amusing. Knowledge, you see, has no uses without purpose; but purpose is what builds enclosing walls.Elsewhere he described someone as a "mindslaver." p. 198
Palimbasha taught in the sietch school. Mathematics. The man was a mathematical boor. He had attempted to explain Muad'Dib through mathematics until censured by the Priesthood. He was a mind-slaver and his enslaving process could be understood with extreme simplicity: he transferred technical knowledge without a transfer of values.and there is a snippet from one of Palimbasha's lectures at the top of the chapter that begins on p. 234.