For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Friday, 24 January 2014

Charles Williams on Dante and Malory

On a recent re-reading of Charles Williams' The Descent of the Dove: a short history of the Holy Spirit in the Church, a highly unconventional treatment of Church history, what most caught my attention was Williams' comments about two authors, Dante Alighieri and Sir Thomas Malory. In case you haven't heard of Charles Williams, check up on his supernatural thrillers, The Place of the Lion, All Hallows' Eve etc. There is nothing else to compare to these books in the sense that they occupy their own genre, and they are well worth reading despite Williams' occasional obscurity.

(1) On Dante

I was struck by something that on my first reading, more than ten years ago, I had barely noticed. His passage on Dante is among the beauties of the book, and his interpretation of Beatrice gets right to the heart of the Comedy. The last time I read the book, I think I hadn't read Dante, so I probably skimmed this bit: but now I see what he is getting at.

Only after I had read La Vita Nuova and the Comedy did I become aware that some critics viewed - and perhaps most critics viewed - Beatrice, in the Comedy at least, as a mere allegorical or abstract vehicle for the theology that Dante wanted to get across. Now, this came as a surprise to me, and at the age of twenty-one I instinctively found it mistaken. How could anyone with a certain kind of human experience that answers to Dante's beatitude in La Vita Nuova imagine that he would then turn this into a metaphysical abstraction for La Divina Commedia? Moreover, what about Dante's metaphysic of love which hangs so much on Beatrice herself in La Vita Nuova? Williams, I find, is on my side, and expresses his ideas superbly.

He points out that Dante's fusion of the image of Beatrice and the Gryphon (sola una persona in due nature) in the Earthly Paradise atop Mount Purgatory is uniting the highest dogmas about the nature of Christ's person with the "common human experience of sex". The Gryphon, possessing two natures in one person is Christ, the Deivirilis or God-Man; but it is also Beatrice. Williams comments: "Christ was anthropos and theos; so, after its kind, is human and romantic love". It is the whole point of Dante's beatitude in Beatrice that he is taking the profane and anti- (in the sense of "in place of") religious notions of courtly love and making them part of Christian dogma. But if so, then the figure of Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise cannot be an abstraction: she must be the soul of the real flesh and blood Beatrice of Florence, otherwise Dante's theology - God united to human flesh - loses its edge. The united image is (1) of a real Man being God of Very God, and (2) Dante's love for Beatrice uniting his attraction for her very human flesh to his desire for the divine. Unless it is love for the real Beatrice that Dante is expressing here, this isn't really a poetic image of the Incarnation. This might seem like a daring and dangerous doctrine, and so it is. But then so is the Nicene Creed.

At their meeting in the Commedia Beatrice denounces Dante for not being faithful to mia carne sepulta: but Williams points out that Beatrice isn't angry because he had a leer at the "Lady at the Window". The Church has never taught the need for faithfulness of that kind after death of even a spouse for one thing; and further, a Beatrice getting jealous about a lustful glance would be simply ridiculous in the context at this point in the poem. Dante, says Williams, has abandoned something greater. He has gone per via non vera, he has lost the vision of faith, love and power that Beatrice's beauty originally gave to him in La Vita Nuova, and which the death of Beatrice (with the withdrawal of sight) had given him the opportunity to do in a deeper way, a way more full of faith. He has apostatized from his purpose, and in the last resort he has ceased to live to know God.

Williams reinforces his interpretation by pointing out that it is the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, who prompts Lucy, who prompts Beatrice, who passes through Hell to prompt Virgil to come to Dante's aid in the Dark Wood. (The New Life is about Dante's love for Beatrice; the Comedy is about Beatrice's love for Dante.) The Virgin Mary, who sends Beatrice on her mission of love, is a type of Beatrice also: "individual, but also the universal image of a universal fact". We are thus brought to face, by Williams, the extraordinary fertility and daring Christianity of Dante's thought. A person - in this case Beatrice - can be both an individual who "walked and chattered and laughed in Florence" and the "universal image of a universal fact". It is a travesty that the central idea in Dante, if Williams is right, has been so misunderstood as to be completely missed by the critics.

I cannot resist reproducing part of Williams' passage on Dante, "It is the passionate and directed love of Beatrice which begins and sustains the Comedy, she of whom we know nothing except that she could be believed to do so, nothing but that she is the great archetype in poetry of all the shes, and yet they are themselves and not she, nothing but that there was a girl who was that as she walked and chattered and laughed in Florence - the chief of those few girls who out of all the millions have been caught up by holy Luck into the fame of verse and the everlasting glory of spirit. It is so that she laughs and teases and chatters and explains in heaven, only with a greatness about her, the greatness of heavenly fate, and the customs and metaphysics of the redeemed City."

(2) On Malory

I reproduce Williams' piece on the begetting of Galahad by Lancelot upon Elaine. Lancelot is deceived from his adulterous love for Queen Guinevere by the enchantment worked by Elaine's father, King Pelles, who has foreknowledge that the greatest of all knights will arise from their union. King Pelles obtains a ring of power that makes (out of daylight, at least) Elaine appear to be Queen Guinevere, and thus is Galahad conceived in a dark chamber of his castle. The birth of Galahad, like the appearance of the Grail, is the beginning of the exposure of the sinfulness of the court and of Lancelot, in their inability to achieve the Holy Quest, for all their worldly and chivalric prowess. The Kingdom has a different measure. For Williams, this story illuminates mainly the Two Ways of seeking God, the Negative Way associated with Dionysius and the mystics, and the Positive Way of the affirmation of all images as types of their creator.

"By what has been one of the greatest moments of imagination ever permitted to man, [Launcelot] was allowed and compelled, in an enchantment and supposing himself true to the Queen, to beget on the predestined mother the shape of the High Prince. [Galahad, the High Prince] is the child and climax of the greatest of mortal affirmations, of a passionate, devout and tragic double love.... no doubt at that time Galahad presented, as it were, the Way of Rejection of Images as against the mistaken or sinful affirmations in the court of Camelot."

However, Galahad is conceived in "that chamber where, as in the Dark Night of the Soul, "all the windows and holes were stopped that no manner of day might be seen"; and where the princess of the Grail abandoned her virginity and Lancelot was defrauded of his fidelity, so that the two great Ways might exchange themselves for the begetting of Galahad. The High Prince has remained an intense symbol of the Two Ways; he is not on them, but they are in him. He is flesh and blood in the union with the Flesh and the Blood."

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