Sunday, January 29, 2012

On the King's Coins

A conversation last week with a dear friend on the gift economy reminded me of a poem from Charles Williams' Taliessin through Logres, called "Bors to Elayne; on the King's Coins." This poem belongs to a sequence on Arthurian themes, and Williams assumes quite a bit of background knowledge on King Arthur's Court and the "Matter of Britain." This poem deals specifically with King Arthur establishing his independence from the Roman Empire by minting his own coins. The "dragon" depicted on the coins represents Arthur's house of Pendragon. Kay is (as mentioned) the king's "steward," which means something like "chief procurement officer." (Remember that wars were won or lost by supply chains, and you'll understand Kay's importance.) Taliessin is the king's poet (and a figure of the author himself, who despite his success as a theologian and career as an editor at Oxford University Press considered himself foremost a poet). Finally, Bors (the Younger) is a Knight of the Round Table and a lord in his own right, and the only one who returned from the Grail quest.

I came in; I saw you stand,
in your hand the bread of love, in your head lightness of law.
The uprightness of the multitude stood in your figure;
my fieldsmen ate and your women served,
while you watched them from the high seat.
When you saw me a southern burst of love
tossed a new smile from your eyes to your mouth,
shaping for that wind's while the corn of your face.
It was said once that your hair was the colour of corn;
he who said so was capable only to adorn
the margin of parchments drawn in schools of Gaul;
their doctrine is your hands' main.  I am come again
to live from the founts and fields of your hands;
colour is art, but my heart counts the doctrine.

On the forms of ancient saints, my heroes, your thumbs,
as on a winch the power of man is wound
to the last inch; there ground is prepared
for the eared and seeded harvest of propinquant goodwill,
drained the reeded marshes, cleared the branched jungles
where the unthumbed shapes of apes swung and hung.
Now when the thumbs are muscled with the power of goodwill
corn comes to the mill and the flour to the house,
bread of love for your women and my men;
at the turn of the day, and none only to earn;
in the day of the turn, and none only to pay;
for the hall is raised to the power of exchange of all
by the small spread organisms of your hands; O Fair,
there are the altars of Christ the City extended.
I have ridden all night from organization in London,
ration and rule, and the fault in ration and rule,
law and the flaw in law, to reach to you,
the sole figure of the organic salvation of our good.

The king has set up his mint by Thames.
He has struck coins; his dragon's loins
germinate a crowded creaturely brood
to scuttle and scurry between towns and towns,
to furnish dishes and flagons with change of food;
small crowns, small dragons, hurry to the markets
under the king's smile, or flat in houses squat.
The long file of their snouts crosses the empire,
and the other themes acknowledge our king's head.
They carry on their backs little packs of value,
caravans; but I dreamed the head of a dead king
was carried on all, that they teemed on house-roofs
where men stared and studied them as I your thumbs' epigrams,
hearing the City say Feed my lambs
to you and the king; the king can tame dragons to carriers,
but I came through the night, and saw the dragonlets' eyes
leer and peer, and the house-roofs under their weight
creak and break; shadows of great forms
halloed them on, and followed over falling towns.
I saw that this was the true end of our making;
mother of children, redeem the new law.

They laid 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.'

Taliessin's look darkened; his hand shook
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 goods they carry.
We have taught our images to be free; are we glad?
are we glad to have brought convenient heresy to Logres?'

The Archbishop answered the lords;
his words went up through a slope of calm air;
'Might may take symbols and folly make treasure,
and greed bid God, who hides himself for man's pleasure
by occasion, hide himself essentially: this abides--
that the everlasting house the soul discovers
is always another's; we must lose our own ends;
we must always live in the habitation of our lovers,
my friend's shelter for me, mine for him.
This is the way of this world in the day of that other's;
make yourselves friends by means of the riches of iniquity,
for the wealth of the self is the health of the self exchanged.
What saith Heracleitus? -- and what is the City's breath? --
dying each other's life, living each other's death.
Money is a medium of exchange.'

I have come now to kiss each magnanimous thumb,
muscles of the brain, functions of the City.
I was afraid the Council had turned you into gold,
as was told of Midas who had ass's ears.
What can be saved without order? and how order?
Compact is becoming contract; man only earns, and pays,
the house outside the City burns but the house within is enslaved.
What without coinage or with coinage can be saved?
O lady, your hand held the bread
and Christ the City spread in the extensor muscles of your thumbs.

Say -- can the law live?
can the dead king's head live?
Pray, mother of children, pray for the coins,
pray for Camelot, pray for the king, pray.


The key in the first part of the poem (before "The king has set up his mint...") is to contrast "organization" and "organic." Bors and Elayne reign feudally over "your women" and "my men"; there is no need to romanticize feudalism. Any "organization" is morally ambiguous; any abstraction of symbol from substance risks dehumanization. (Be sure to read the bit about apes by imagining yourself a pre-WWI Brit.)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Return from the East

i just returned this Monday from a three-week visit to my in-laws in China.  My mother-in-law has been having health problems, and we went to try to cheer her up and help out around the house.  i love my wife's parents and her brother (who visits at least once a week, despite his busy job and the awful Beijing traffic) and enjoy spending time with them.  Sometimes, though, this means spending a little time on my own, when they go out to see the doctor.  i've usually not been very good at handling alone time, but it helped this time to bring whatever work material i could safely bring abroad and spend a lot of time reviewing source code and papers.  To me, the silence of the gods is deafening, and so i've never been very good at using idle time to develop the spirit. 

It did help, though, to take some time to cultivate consciousness of the Higher Self.  This is about all the religious discipline i can manage these days without feeling ridiculous or ashamed.  My impression is that the Higher Self has a Name which can be used devotionally.  This use helps reminds myself that the end goal is returning to the Source and that the access mechanism is through the Higher Self, which functions as an interface.  (i realize i'm using computer science terminology; i suspect Pythagoreans would prefer it (or even category theory) to geometry as a source of metaphysical vocabulary, if they came about today.)  Daily life then aims towards that goal of returning to the One.  (Honestly, i tire of my individual personality and am really hoping that i get to give it up at the end of my days.)  i'm not sure whether this is accurate, but taking this approach during my trip seemed to help me gain perspective on being alone in a place that can sometimes feel alien (not at all due to my spouse's lovely family, though!).