9 Aug

Simplifying Malory, Tennyson’s tale of “Balin the Savage” shifts from the suggestive doubling of the aggressive damsel from Avilion and the Lady of the Lake, to the conflict with Pellam, the Guinevere-disenchantment motif linked to Vivien’s role as malicious bringer of truth-by-slander. Malory’s erotically charged material about taking a magically-implanted sword from a woman of ambiguous identity Tennyson concentrates on Balin’s feelings of shame and inadequacy relative to Guinevere and Lancelot, ideals of queenly purity and knightly grace which he perceives as cruelly beyond reach and then as rudely disproved (154-284, 342-56). “Balin and Balan’s” structure, development and vivid images suggest that idealization is a form of fratricide, an idyll of the image-ideal that tends to apocalypse and elegy as does the Idylls as a whole. BB also is central to the epic in introducing exposure of the Order as a façade, its decline and the catalyst of decline, Vivien. In the quest to Pellam’s castle of relics, a place where Vivien lurks with masters of scorn, Balin’s passion exposes the end of an order built on magic revived as artifice by a culture losing faith. It was against such doubts, “an ocean-empire…that knows not her own greatness” that Tennyson wrote but they suffuse his re-working of the materials of national identity. Despite Tennyson’s veneration of Arthur as “ideal manhood closed in real man,”[1] his motto, “man’s word is God in man” and creed of man’s “maiden passion for a maid” (G 474-80) in the joust / Queen of Beauty ethic repeatedly undoes the ideal. The nostalgic effort to build a future by revising early cultural materials, to return via aesthetics to the Gothic, exposes a cultural critique beyond conscious intention, a “sign of storm” and “loosening of faith” Tennyson like many felt hastening “that battle in the West where all of high and holy dies away.”[2] The epic’s critique of Arthur and the idyll, elaborated through the last seven books is like the undertone in “DoverBeach,” a grating roar that unmasks the rot of appetite and bitterness beneath the beautiful and serene appearance and exposes the recession of “the sea of faith.”

Though this essay may seem to criticize Tennyson by suggesting a counter-movement within his ideals and purpose it seeks rather to demonstrate the great importance of his epic to understanding late Western Culture. It is with him as with his contemporary Wagner, that “his significance cannot be grasped with the resources only of a single discipline or a single perspective, for only [a plurality of] disciplines in their totality” can grasp the centrality of this material to the essence and logic of the West.[3] It is to such a comprehensive appreciation that this aesthetic-cultural and literary analysis appeals.

In another essay[4] I’ve examined the transfigurative urge in Greek and Western poiesis as driven by fear and a desire to change form. This metamorphic, self-transforming impulse or “image-work” was intensified when a dying Rome brought a hybrid culture of late Classical and Hebraic material to primitive European peoples. By the twelfth century they developed their distinctive cultural forms among which Romance and the Queen of Heaven were prominent. The literature and new culture, that of “the Holy Ghost” Joachim of Floris termed it, shifts the ideal persona into a mediating abstract erotic force that brings divinity into form as a superhuman savior whose death transforms all things, establishing new and true identities for all. It was a version of the celebration of death inherited from Greek tragedy, its antecedent fertility cults and gods of whom Arthur becomes an idealized and, in Tennyson, a sober and earnest exponent doomed by ancient cultural-biologic patterns and the fragility of the ideal. Wagner’s unabashed celebration of liebestod was truer to the malaise of the times as was his necessarily more sensual, less literate form, “a mere occasion for many dramatic poses.”[5] In Western poiesis, nascent in classicalGreece and full-fledged since the Gothic the sacrifice of the king is not for fertility but for self-transformation, for imaginative and spiritual change. This shift in cultural purpose may help explain the counter-force of Vivien. One might say she carries an archetypal or even physiological elemental power in retrieving the sensuality of the myth and freeing human beings from idol-worship and illusions.

My thesis about the Hellenic core of Western poiesis proposes that as energy is given to an image-ideal, it displaces the cultural body of constituent individuals and relationships, taking their attention and worship. Camelot and its transfigurative meta-figure the Grail are types of such an ideal. An idealizing culture dies drained by images that displace their host or generator. Image predation, like the displacement of life by virtual reality brings an era of apocalyptic expression in all fields: art, religion, finance, social relations, and geopolitics. The longer an in image is asserted as truth, the more strained and imperial becomes its need and demand for acknowledgment: thus political correctness and the dogma of “humanitarian intervention” to impose the idols of State, the forms that serve its power and images in which this power is disguised. When the sustaining body/culture collapses, having confused its ideal for life, the increasingly artificial image and its institutional forms deprived of hope and sincere worship petrify and break like the image of Guinevere, ‘free markets’ or “the rule of law.” Elegiac forms mix with and subsume apocalypse. There is “a toying with myths and a tasting of cults” to “fill the inner void” as religion becomes “religious pastime.” Reason “fades out” to be replaced by the cult of sensibility or “feeling” and “primitive religion… returns to the foreground [of culture] in the guise of popular syncretism.”[6] Efforts like those of Shelley to balance reason and imagination, faith and doubt break down in disillusionment and the image is recognized as consuming life.[7] Wagner’s emphasizing the pagan aspects of the West in a sensual medium was more in culture’s developmental stream than Tennyson’s literate effort to subsume pagan elements to a pragmatic and idealistic Christian imperialism that ends in gloom precisely as does Heart of Darkness and in syncretism like Eliot’s “Wasteland.” A great artist attuned to the dynamics of his time and materials, Tennyson’s Idylls show that skepticism and cynicism become pervasive and there is widespread dissolution of forms, the figure of which is the indeterminacy, elemental ambiguity and fratricide of “the last dim battle of the West,” the ‘Lyonesse’ figure.[8] A full appreciation of “Balin and Balan” would show that it is an epitome of the Idylls as the latter is of the West whose primary topic and ultimate datum is the self-negating essence and ultimate failure of the magic called transfiguration. Attempts by humans to achieve immortality or total control are self-defeating idylls. This essay is a précis of that comprehensive work.

The relation of ‘body’ (any given individual or culture) to its image-ideal is a process of doubling and splitting in which the body or human worships the ideal that drains and directs its source and host. In Arthur’s ambiguous birth, one could say his provenance, the supernatural and natural tensely co-exist. Building on the tension, Tennyson presents a myth that shows the ruin in attempting to transform self or society to a magical pattern of purity in which generative eros is effectively treated as dirt. The idyll of “the Queen of Beauty” like Victorian pseudo-gothic is a model for culture whose principals have no children. The most erotic action in the epic is Vivien’s destruction of Merlin and the erotic horror of her birth, one of Tennyson’s latest additions to the work, a trope of the image-maker’s tendency to lose control of its charm and of the latter’s bond to the blood knot that rises in counter-enchantment to the ideal. It is a culture and an image without a future despite Tennyson’s elaboration of Arthur’s goodness. The “war and wantonness”[9] he ascribes to Malory’s era certainly fit the early Modern era whose Symbolist religion of art rummaged antiquity for topics, finding its keynote in love-death. Denoting Imperial Britain as a “crowned Republic” of “crowning common-sense” exemplifies nostalgic idealizing. Three decades later Kipling’s “Recessional” was more honest in admonition.

So Tennyson’s idyll unfolds the strains and doom in its mode. His tale of Balin and the doomed “cognizance” or image of Guinevere epitomizes the epic and epoch. It is almost an antithesis of the Buddhist legend of Mara, Lord of Death and Illusion and his enticing daughters: not life but poiesis is the core illusion. Admonitory muses, especially Trshna or craving express the morbidity of the projected ideal, the transformative image-work suffused with eros and its terrors central to ancient Hellas and the culturally hybrid West. Wagner subsumed Christianity to its pagan substrate, Tennyson did the converse but as the mass media show, the future was not his…

Balin’s re-entry to court as a prodigal son (70-90) focuses the core ideal of Camelot, worship of a pure queen, “maiden passion to keep down the base in man” (G 476-7). Hoping to “move to music with [the] Order and the King” (73-4, 207), Balin begins with the hope of remediation through a Platonic ideal “a shadow’s shadow” that will be “a light [and] golden earnest” (199-204) of a soul tuned to the ideal; but the real within the image (“cognizance”) of faith and truth, destroys faith, truth and image. Balin’s story is a passion of an impossible dream that increasingly distances the adoring ‘body’ (first Balin, then rebels, then the entire culture, LT 455-86). On this path he destroys the shield, himself and his mirror image, the good Balan (52-3, 66-7 and 607-8). The action of the book exemplifies the complex and apocalyptic relation between the host-individual or culture and the ideal that absorbs its vision of excellence, beauty, power and strength, diminishing the host until the illusion is dispelled and image and host fragment and collapse. The fratricide of Balin and Balan and the book’s multiple spoliation of images are congruent to the disenchantments that precede complete elemental collapse in the last battle. What remains is an elegiac vision testifying to cultural origins and exhaustion.

The dynamics between image and self in “Balin and Balan” are reinforced by other doublings, in the unstable fraternal tie of Arthur to Lancelot, all but twins (G 326-34) and, more obliquely and by contrast, Arthur contra Vivien or Vivien with Guinevere, two facets of one martyred impatience. In a meta-doubling, the syntax merges Modred-Vivien and Lancelot-Guinevere (G 97-9). Tennyson’s weaving exposes the strain, danger and ultimate futility of idealization, for “release and redemption through semblance,” a Symbolist epitome and the century’s increasing investment in art as a form of saving self-transformation or alternately by deflection of the will.[10] Idylls show how desire pervades idealization and how art became the vehicle for diverse paths to therapy or salvation; at last, to the development-imposition of an ostensibly therapeutic State upon culture….

This is an excerpt from a chapter in my forthcoming Image Work & Western Identity


[1] Dedication “To the Queen” (1873), 18-33 on doubts & faith; 38 and Hallam Tennyson’s note, Gray 371, Idylls of the King

[2] Ibid 46-66

[3] Peter Wapnewski, Die Traurige Gott (1978) quoted by Dieter Borchmeyer, Drama and the World of Richard Wagner (Princeton University Press, 2003, translated by Daphne Ellis), ix

[4] Eugene Narrett, “Poison & Poiesis in the Women of Trachis, Comparative Literature & Culture, XIII #1, March 2011

[5] Nietzsche, The Gay Science V. 361, 368 (NY 1974, translation & commentary by Walter Kaufmann)

[6] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West chapter 16, section on “the Second Religiousness” (NY 1962; 2006, abridged English edition by Alan Helps translated by Charles F. Atkinson), 346-8, 24-8

[7] Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Triumph of Life” (1822); a repudiation of image-work previewed with less intensity and finality in “Alastor” (1815) and “Julian & Maddalo” (1818-19)

[8] Malory situates the last battle atSalisbury. Tennyson’s choice mixes geologic with cultural apocalypse.

[9] “To the Queen” 42-44

10. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (Cambridge University Press 1999, edited by Raymond Geuss & Ronald Spiers, translated by Spiers), 26, 44; this is the role Schopenhauer assigns to vorstellung in restraining passion and will.

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