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￭ Epistle of a millennial
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2012-02-06 | |
Fratricide & Idealization in Tennyson’s “Balin & Balan”
Balin was bold, and ask’d
To bear her own crown-royal upon shield,
Whereat she smiled and turned her to the King,
Who answered, ‘thou shalt put the crown to use.
The crown is but the shadow of the King,
And this a shadow’s shadow, let him have it,
So this will help him in his violences!
‘No shadow’ said Sir Balin, ‘O my Queen,
But light to me! No shadow, O my King,
But golden earnest of a gentler life!” [ 1]
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,” 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.” The epic’s critique of Arthur and the idyll, elaborated through the last seven books is like the undertone in “Dover Beach,” 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. It is to such a comprehensive appreciation that this aesthetic and literary analysis appeals, offering itself as a path for a hermeneutics of the West’s development as a culture.
In another essay I’ve examined the transfigurative urge in Greek and Western poiesis as driven by fear, eros 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 peoples in what became “Europe.” The creation of the hybrid, Christianity itself was a transfiguration of vast scale and consequence which contains and generates enormous strains. By the twelfth century these peoples 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.” In Western poiesis, nascent in classical Greece 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 in the myth and freeing human beings from idol-worship and illusions, the thrust of Heine’s dance-poems. Exploring her various significances is a main aspect of this essay.
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. The mighty or uncanny perfection of the image or idol-ideal dazzles and destroys its host as Zeus does Semele. Seemingly self-begetting images, “flame begotten of flame” overawe and displace “the fury and the mire of human veins.” What to Coleridge was “the nightmare life in death” for the Imagist Yeats became exaltation of the image, a proto-fascist “death-in-life and life-in-death,” a strained adoration of art as a machine of State. 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: the entire world must acknowledge the glory of Athens or the Emperor’s New Clothes. Thus we have 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. The State is the ultimate social form of aesthetics, a frenzy of violation and possession, as of Christabel by her demon lover, the essence of idealization.” 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.” 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. 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 disenchanted aesthetic 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 that has a continental parallel in the return of the ring of power to the depths and immolation of Valhalla and Conrad’s city-wilderness, Thames-Congo motif, the regression and “Salomania” celebrated savagely in Symbolist art and WW I.
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. The many forms of doubling in the book, as in the entire epic, focused on the eponymous brothers, perhaps twins (615-20) are a meta-figure of the process of idealization and cannibalization by the image ideal of the body or projecting self. Attempts by humans to achieve immortality or total control through images are self-defeating idylls that tend to dissolution and elegy: “human nature is bound to take her revenge and destroy the revelation,” image or “metaphysical phenomenon.” This essay is a précis of a comprehensive study of transfigurative poiesis that increasingly developed images of apocalyptic dissolution in the arts, society, politics and finance. It invites elaboration in analysis of screen-world, -- film, television and digital imagery absorb eros to work increasingly compelling forms of control and enchantment on its target audience-worshippers, increasing imagery’s regressive power as it achieves and seeks to sustain a dialectic negation, -- intensified eros in ethereality; stars of onanism. The same process informs geopolitics.
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 possesses, drains, displaces 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 mud. The idyll of “the Queen of Beauty” like Victorian pseudo-gothic is an artifice of a culture cannibalizing its past for a faux-identity and whose principals thus have no children. Camelot like Christianity is a mule. Starved for authenticity the former rationalizes (where the latter spiritualized) sensuality and war. The most erotic action in the epic is Vivien’s relentless seduction of Merlin and the sensual horror of her birth, one of Tennyson’s latest additions to the work. Her possession and displacement of Merlin, a revolt of nature against magic is a trope of the image-maker’s tendency to lose control of its charm. She is the blood knot that rises in counter-enchantment to the ideal and a type of the vampiric idol-starlets of screen-cult. It is a culture and an image without a future despite Tennyson’s elaboration of Arthur’s goodness. The “war and wantonness” he ascribes to Malory’s era fit the early Modern era whose Symbolist religion of art rummaged antiquity for topics, finding its keynote in love-death. Its main symbol is Orpheus (Merlin) beheaded by exulting Maenads (Vivien), a figure of art’s tendency to unleash the will it absorbs. Art, the ring, is a figure of woman and artists especially in the era beginning with Symbolism produce images of female power from Circean weavers to sirens to ‘rock goddesses.’ Denoting Imperial Britain as a “crowned Republic” of “crowning common-sense” exemplifies the nostalgic idealizing that suffused the era ruled by a Queen. 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 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 sought to do 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. One must attend the link of idyll to eidolon as Mephisto warns Faust re his image ideal.
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. Idylls show how desire pervades idealization and how art became the vehicle for diverse paths to demonic possession, therapy or salvation; at last, to the development-imposition of an ostensibly therapeutic State upon culture. This is the ultimate form of the drive to deify and control through an image and since the Symbolist period proceeds in spheres both esoteric and banal, theosophy, the ‘Welfare’ or ‘Security’ State, a culture of Terror in which imagery displaces life “and nothing is but what is not” within the aura of screen-world the mode of doubling.
Tennyson’s re-making of Malory’s “Knight with the Two Swords” begins with its title: the intense doubling with which he invests the tale, presenting the brothers from the start as iconic bookends, statues by a fountain playing on a shadow-self motif: “on the right of Balin Balin’s horse was fast…on the left of Balan Balan’s...” (21-8); the pattern is echo and reflection, a re-working of Malory’s destiny motif that discards the sword to focus attention on the relation between human and image: the individual human subsumed within the “noble [and doomed] death symbolism” of the Red Knight. It is a tragic one in which the image, initially conceived as redemptive, eventually destroys through the perceived inadequacy of both image and man. This pattern exemplifies my thesis on the trajectory from idyll to apocalypse to elegy of image-work as it “consumes the blood and soul of its creators” as the “spirit-pervaded stone of Gothic buildings” returns as “toy and pastime” for an age of “casual creeds,” nostalgia, sorrow and loss as in Pre-Raphaelitism or the fierce embrace of the primitive by painters like Khnopff and charactered in Mr. Hyde or Kurz whose “gorgeous rhetoric” is a scrim through which “brutal instincts” and “monstrous passions” consume Europe and “the realm reels back into the beast.” This dynamic exemplifies the flaw of Camelot, the idealized projection of Arthur as he is of men, and the inability of his Queen to conform to her ideal or social bond. The paradigm of faith and worship comes to seem flawed in its conception and the gap between idyll-ideal and reality destroys individuals (Pelleas by Ettarre, Gawain, Lancelot, Guinevere, and by his own embrace of the ideal) and the realm. This despite Tennyson’s presenting Pellam’s monastic stronghold as an extreme and covertly murderous imitation of the holiness of Arthur’s Order (91-116, 399-416). In Pellam’s ‘too Catholic,’ treacherous keep Balin “could not spy the Christ for saints”; Arthur is the mean between Balin and Pellam. By contrast, in Malory Pellam is “the truest and most worshipful knight…living” (2.10).
Throughout the epic the play of eponyms sets an echoing motif until the brothers fight, slay each other and, born from one womb are buried in one pit (615-20, Malory 2.18). The exchange of the shield, mentioned in passing by Malory, Tennyson expands into a major and tragic motif in which Balin, his pained suspicion reinforced by the insinuation of Garlon and exaggeration of Vivien, a “wily” fiend “who lies like truth,” batters and curses “the goodly cognizance of Guinevere,” an ideal fronting polluted matter and curses himself, “moaning, my violences, my violences”(191, 219, 423-29). Aligned by Malory with Arthur and Galahad as a potential redeemer able to draw from its sheath and wield a sword of doom (embedded by Merlin in marble “as great as a millstone and hovering above water till it moves downstream to Winchester-Camelot), in Tennyson Balin’s brooding sense of inadequacy and temper are emblazoned in the “rough beast” on his shield replaced by Guinevere’s “own crown royal,” the contrast a meat-figure of the apocalyptic stage of image-work. A paradigm of late religiousness, the Idylls stresses the contrast between mortal passion, “earth or sunset hues” and the “stainless” purity of the chaste whose epitome is “the deathless mother maidenhood of heaven” (513) invoked mockingly by Vivien whose antithesis she, an Aphrodite trope is. The essential identity of the fiction and the lust it inverts is embedded in Western myths as diverse as the Artemis-Aphrodite dialectic that destroys Hippolytus and an early Tannhauser tale that collates Mary and Venus. Against this disembodied fiction of a fiction whose avatar Arthur mirrors are set the passions of Guinevere and many others who stand in defiant or bitter contrast to the ideal and thus are degraded. The Idylls is an epic of antitheses, an unsustainable tension befitting its twilight time and epoch when traditional belief became untenable. But Tennyson intends to celebrate the ideal and he demonizes those who doubt Arthur’s legitimacy and messianic status. Serving the core Western image, Tennyson suppresses the episode with Morgause and Arthur’s bond to Modred, sanitizing him further. But the action of the epic suggests an understanding at odds with conscious intent like the hyper-clarity of much symbolist art (John William Waterhouse) against the tangled implication of its mythic topics. The pollution in the myths expresses itself in the morphology of idealization that purifies them for Victorian tastes. Image contains will.
The relationship of the brothers emphasizes the mirroring and Narcissan element intrinsic to idealization. Introduced as bookends by a reflecting pool, their first words are spoken in unison (30-4), they rise together (41-3) and “die together by one doom” as they “were born together… either lock’d in either’s arm” (615-20). They are de facto if fraternal twins. Balin’s shame before his ideal Balan-image is like his shame before the knightly ideal of Lancelot. The ideal or shadow overawes, curses and consumes its adorants with disenchantment, bitterness or despair. The triumph of the image over the human, celebrated by imagist Yeats in “Byzantium” and “Among School Children” is akin to the displacement of Culture by Civilization, of organic growth by inorganic agglomeration, cynosure and signature of postmodernism. The social form of the ultimate image, “the supreme Inorganic” is the “Cosmopolis” whose human builders like an angry god it “uproots, draws into itself [its play of images] and exhausts” like the Moloch-machine in “Metropolis,” mocker of man’s enterprise.
Omitting the doubled ladies and swords of doom motif enables Tennyson also to cleanse Arthur of impatience with Balin, to internalize the latter’s impetuosity as shame and rage and to situate these qualities in the primal adultery and its reflection in Vivien, exponent for “that old true filth, and bottom of the well where Truth is hidden” (MV 46-8). Vivien embodies the antithesis to the image-ideals centered on Arthur. Her animus, embedded in her bloody erotic origin, focuses the implicit critique of idealization (of Camelot) threaded through the Idylls. Tennyson repeatedly stresses Arthur’s all-but godhood but “the war of Sense with Soul” centered on the Table Round and Camelot shatters the goals, some say delusions of all idylls which one can see as a meta-figure for collapse of the credibility of the Christian god the strain of which appears in Arthur’s attempts to make the son “our fair Father.” Vivien insists on her kinship through ‘filth’ to Guinevere, Arthur and everyone as Pelleas later asserts the honesty of his harlots opposed to the hypocrisy of Arthur’s court (LT 77-88). Moved by a controlled impatience and manipulative skills more potent than magic suiting the rational Symbolist-psychological era, Vivien acclaims natural passions “the fire of heaven” that “will rise again and beat the cross to earth, and break the King and all his Table” (434-54) a more cutting and ideologically sweeping version of Tristan’s hymn to free love (LT 275-81). The pragmatist loses his head for love: the ideologue conquers. Through her, the text foregrounds the key element of idealization, erotic “discharge into the dialog” and its ideal images in ecstasy that shatters the individual as happens to Balin and, in time, to the Order. Aptly, Vivien enters with her song foreseeing victory of “the old sun worship,” the true heaven opposed to the idol of Camelot. She is the earthy antithesis to Arthur (“as Arthur in the highest leavened the world, Vivien in the lowest…leavened his hall”). She is a precipitate of Arthur’s contested identity as well as the catalyst to the battle and mutual killing of the brothers who in Malory are doomed by destiny. In the Idylls destiny is re-figured as the moral of an impossible dream or ideal (or more overtly as Vivien’s malice and the power of scorn and slander to make demons of men, 119-49). Vivien’s rage and deceits serve her insistence on exposing the ideal as false: she strikes at the flaw near its core: a false relationship, a disorder and splitting contained, perhaps necessarily, within order. She and Enid are the unstable balance in Guinevere (G 27-9) and an iconic reflection of Balin and Balan. Balin is susceptible to Vivien and draws her to him like Narcissus finds his image. Similarly, the sin that torments Lancelot (LE 244-55), twining around what is good in him (HG 763-80) is a trope of his identity with Arthur, one man with two sides sharing a bride who is false to the semi-human ideal to whom law bonds her (CA 325-410 passim) if law can bind to a “cold, self-contained and colorless” demi-god, a “pure severity of perfect light.” The irony is that Arthur’s own law of “courtesy” ties her to Lancelot (G 326-7, 471-80). This self-negation figures the destiny of the West wed to its idealization, its worship of the eidolon: an ideal of de-contextualized faith torn from its Jewish roots and code and rendered “not of this world,” existentially impossible. This self-negating essence is figured in Arthur’s treading on the crown of diamonds in Lyonesse, a remnant of a primordial fratricide (LE 34-55) to which he must return just as he must cast away the sword he first must take. That necessary discovery of the doomed crown, that touchstone of self occasions the first explicit deceit of Arthur by Guinevere and Lancelot, causes Lancelot’s near death at the tourney (the false semblance and the true both carry doom) and the martyrdom of Elaine whose madness and death, like Ophelia’s epitomize and hasten that of the realm. She like Balin is the human sacrifice demanded and caused by idealization, the “breaking asunder of the individual” that climaxes in Arthur and his son as the ideal returns to pure fiction, the “fair city” that must “vanish into light.” Similarly, Tennyson defers the madness of Lancelot to his Grail story, omits Bruysen’s sorcery, Elaine’s adroit power and Lancelot’s paternal tie to Galahad, his purified image. Lancelot exemplifies the projective process of idealized doubling, or conflict, in that, beyond being Arthur’s ‘brother’ he “had been christened Galahad before the Lady of the Lake renamed him.” The most explicit demonstration of the fratricide at the core of the Idylls and of the West, originating in its relation to Israel and Judaism (the appropriated host that proscribes idols) as well as to its idylls is “Balin & Balan” the tale that introduces Vivien in whom is charactered the rage against the idol’s sweet lie. Their counter-play figures the growing antithesis of host and idol, “sense and soul,” the body sublimated to persona ficta and good life transposed from earth to ‘heaven.’ In her the alternating helps and harm of Nimue-Nynyve settles into a clarifying hate.
In “Balin & Balan,” as in the carnage on the shore at the last battle, the shattering of the individual has a vivid and horrific objective correlative, not just the gore but the utter confusion of purpose and identity seen at the apocalyptic self-immolation of the realm when Arthur’s son / nephew meets him at the end of things where all elements lose form and mingle amid a nightmare of Dionysian dissolution: “shrieks after the Christ” mixing with “oaths, insult and filth” and “moans of the dying” with “voices of the dead.” The sea mixes with land, darkness with past and future fire and Arthur perishes by the realm and people that he made (PA 29-135 passim). Land’s End, from which Arthur came and to which he returns also is the end of the realm, of people and the ideal that live henceforth in elegiac reminiscence and unreal hopes for renewal of the idyll, expectations Malory dismissed (21.7). In Tennyson’s portrait of Arthur it is a passage from ambiguity back to ambiguity, from life and image meshed by faith to their dissevering and ‘purification’ in an image of a heavenly city. It is not only that Arthur knows that “a king who fights his people fights himself” but that in a sense that emerges from troubled celebration of Romance he knows that they have “died for me,” a “King among the dead,” for the image world. “A world torn apart and shattered” is shown, as in “Dover Beach” to inhere within a culture of essential contradiction and loss of faith, a twilight era aghast at the horror in its idols of “love and sport and tilts and pleasure” (G 383-4). The Guinevere who craves “a touch of earth” and “sunset hues” is not the ideal Balin worships, a hope epitomizing the “fervent longing for redemption and release in semblance,” in a simplified image of complex cultural matter. Balin’s passion shows that the “terror and horror” of Vivien is within Arthur-Camelot, that “the solver of the sphinx’s riddle” must be born in incest, Modred’s role in Malory but elided by Tennyson. In the subtext, the echo of a buried past, Modred, insisting that paternity be acknowledged becomes the villain. The hybrid or ‘polluted’ matter here is Guinevere’s desire, a love that rejects the ideal for earth, the garden-rose and sunset hues, “filth” as “Truth” being “maxims of the mud” (MV 46-9). This also is the realm of Vivien who rightly sits at the Queen’s side (G 27-9): the born boundary-dissolver content only with erasure of distinctions, restraint and truth using natural abundance to rationalize her malice: “she hated all the knights” (MV 148). She incorporates the desire of Morgause and of Malory’s Arthur that conceals the simpler jealousy of Lot. Vivien is truth and fool (MV 969-72), her ferocious cynicism refracting Arthur’s excessive trust. Her mockery of Merlin reflects her bitter rejection of wonder; the disillusioning agent is an “evil spirit” (526-9) born in antithesis to impossible vows that ‘do dirt’ on human passions, driving them inexorably into the mud (LT 286-98), into apocalyptic war with the idyll that draws all into the polluting ambiguity of mist and filth in which prayers and curses mix, confounding foe with friend, Lancelot’s flower of sin and wasteland of him and Camelot for it is their core (HG 766-803 passim).
This cultural dialectic complements the dangerous goddesses of Khnopff, Waterhouse, Moreau, Delville, Rops and others who reflected a giddy savagery developing in the West as its idols lost credibility and it groped in myths for identity and found horror. This was the “strange disease of modern life,” the horror within the image and its collapse in forms of primitivism back into the traumatized cultural body that projected it. The visual artists illustrated the erotic terrors of the primal myths, recording a morbid, antiquarian and decadent fascination with an inner malaise, a looking into the mirror of art that became strained faith or cynical depravity, “brutal instincts and monstrous passions” that filled the void of “sick fatigue [and] languid doubt [of] light half-believers in casual creeds,” the disintegrating synthesis of the West charted and analyzed by Nietzsche, Spengler and writers as different as Arnold, Stevenson, Conrad and Melville. In its stead artists like Wagner and Tennyson created aesthetic versions of archaic myth in the quarter century that birthed the early Modern period. Less complex than Kundry, Vivien is the natural passions or Dionysian substrate within the image that, in dialectic conflict with its impossible ‘purity’ or gleam, destroys it. The image, the “Helen” of Paris and Faust, the grail of the West, may be, to Balin, the “golden earnest of a gentler life” (204) but “the old sun-worship” will emerge in the ruddy colors that attend Vivien’s birth and imbue her animus. The shadows in which Balin sits “embowered” also fill Lancelot’s form when Balin sees his suggestive meeting with the Queen (235-75) lead to the darkness, night and death in which he embraces his brother at last, returning in blood to the place from which Vivien emerged in blood (MV 42-51). The contrast between the “spiritual lily,” an image in a shrine and “the garden rose, deep-hued” in its “wild-wood [and] bloom of May” destroy Balin’s effort to heal his roughness by the ideal. He has come to Camelot and its image for healing but the dialectic within the ideal asserts itself and destroys him. Worshipping it as the core of what is good in him, what he sees and hears leads to “raving at himself” and the belief he is “not worthy to be knight” (305, 280 passim). He is in both ways deluded and essential to the epic for the Idylls is a text of delusion and disillusionment. His bitterness like that of Pelleas and the differently keyed cynical ‘pragmatism’ of Tristram (LT 649-98) display the masochistic aspect of idealization, the allure of the image and the reaction against its mockery of the adorant. In Balin disenchantment becomes bitter rage and leads to loss of identity held tenuously by the image and to fratricide, the end of the doubling impulse or twin-king motif that signifies both the urge to heal by semblance and its intrinsic alienation. When he “drove his mailed heel athwart the royal crown [and] stamped all into defacement” he destroys the essence of imagery and becomes an instrument of Vivien, the platelets that seek to close the wound between image and flesh. She is a demonic liebestod that image-work’s splitting begets. This rage for integrity is a demon to the idyll (531-5), the wrath of Balin and envy of Vivien and Modred her male complement are part of Tennyson’s brilliant morphological patterning. So the pure image falls back into the blood and eros that projected it and that it always contains as the classical drama contained the ecstasy of the satyr-dance and the longing for regression and truth repeatedly disgorged by Victorian fictions like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The ultimate stage in the dynamics of image-work is to reveal a fratricidal, parricidal and erotic rage, ‘the Vivien-id’ that drains all imagery back into the bloody breaking of the love knot. This and its type, her bloody birth is “the transfiguring mirror” she holds up to Camelot, this is her grail that in Chretien and Malory appear in the Castles where maiden blood is required for healing, an inverse grail healing by blood. It is the blood of an idyll whose images produce sterility and death. In both Balin tales the inhering human sacrifice is consummated in the hewn and “be-blooded” half-naked bodies of the brothers, the reflections of one act of blood, the splitting off of the image resolved in death destined by the logic of poiesis that shows in Tennyson’s psychological approach and demonization of Vivien. The Idylls’ treatment of the myth fore-shadows the social sciences that both exemplify and seek to define, control and profit by the degenerative process of their ideal (uber Ich) and its analytic grinding against the living self. The godhead of these ‘sciences’ breed the terrors of a culture that sees morbidity in its self- exaltation and “the added horror that it was not so foreign to them after all” so they “confronted it with the Medusa’s head” of death-as-art and more horror that pervades all behaviors and value’s as Culture dies.
The idol inhabits a human like a god inhabits a priest or king in ancient religions. Idols transfigure; they are liminal like the lance of Longinus and Grail dish, are figures of intercourse. Their blood is menstrual blood that wastes and natal blood that brings life. Keyed to the intrinsic self-negation of image-work, Vivien is the idol that negates ideals. Trope of its winter-summer doubleness is a Waste Land whose hypostasis briefly is Camelot, a paradise more fully seen in Malory’s Isle of Joyous Garde where lover and leman join albeit without issue for it is an idyll. The Grail is a figure of creation and intercourse figured in the white hart jumping through a window, an emblem itself a figure of the divine chariot of Ezekiel’s vision and the hart of the “living beings” (chayoth) or wheels (ofanim) surrounded by lightnings and its silence / sound (chashmal). This is the ‘primal scene’ or primal contradiction of union and splitting (conception, mitosis and meiosis) Lancelot sees and falls stricken by its power (HG 824-49), Tennyson’s version of his madness from mating Elaine in a storm of magic and begetting the perfect knight who can see the vision modeled on Ezekiel’s metaphysical generativity. Lancelot was the original Galahad and Malory, in the same section that details Merlin’s pursuit of Vivien (4.1) shows the purification of Lancelot, via Elaine and magic into his image-ideal.
The futility of ‘Camelot’ inheres in Guinevere’s comment to Lancelot about the intrinsic strain in idealization, the method of Arthur – “the image of our fair Father, Christ” (G 559):
Rapt in this fancy of his Table Round,
And swearing men to vows impossible,
To make them like himself; but friend, to me
He is all fault who hath no fault at all:
For who loves me must have a touch of earth;
The low sun makes the color: I am yours,
Not Arthur’s, as ye know, save by the bond. (LE 129-35)
That a bereaved Guinevere later regrets (G 633-46) this long-settled view hardly negates its accuracy. Her response to the wintry purity of the idyll-ideal is Vivien’s, Tristan’s, an anonymous voice in the crowd (LT 224), churlish but true. “The white radiance of eternity negates life.” The sadistic mockery of Ettarre, the savagery of the disillusioned Pelleas and the envy of Pellam are kin to the attitudes of suspicion, rage and bitterness that range from Balin to Garlon whom he kills for doubting the ideal, initiating the struggle with Pellam that lays waste to three kingdoms and sets the context for the Grail quest. Eliding this aspect of Balin’s wrath is one of Tennyson’s rare structural flaws. The wasteland is the ground and result of image-work and its frailty. The strain of the ideal, especially a studiedly archaic one invites rebellion and general ‘fratricide’ that breaks the circle. The strife with Garlon and Pellam draws Balin ‘into the woods’ in the literal and figurative sense to confront his image-ideal, Balan the shadow-self or good brother, a type of the Lancelot – Arthur or Modred-Arthur figure suffusing the epic. The twins (for such they are morphologically) destroy each other when Camelot’s main illusion, Guinevere’s purity is exposed which also unleashes the ‘dark side’ of Balin’s character, the “rough beast” that served Yeats as a figure of cultural transformation, a sphinx; it is the hybrid or unsettling matter within a culture that leaves one “wailing for the golden years,” for idylls and semblances of glory including ceremonies of innocence such as Arthur sought to resurrect in “the Last Tournament.” Expressionism and Imagism carried over from Symbolism this archetype of demonic predation, the beast-god that plagues those wed to an idyll with questions of their own uncertain identity to which artists opposed clarity of line (Beardsley, Waterhouse and Rackham) that imbues the machine which embodies the precision of an image. The god’s form today is obscured in the “managerial energy,” slogans and “Satanism” of those who direct the image-machine including the film industry that made it explicit. The machine, hi-tech and ‘apps’ are the triumph of the image in all fields, a sign of civilization as petrifact and illusory allure.
Tennyson’s Arthur is the formulator and meta-figure of Camelot’s ideal. The destruction of the realm and Round Table, the shattering of fellowship that results from Guinevere’s breaking of trust is a tragedy of the culture whose icon Arthur, first worthy of Christendom, both is and represents. The necessary collapse of the ideal is sparked by Vivien and Guinevere each false to be true to life, working like complements to “spoil the purpose of [his] life” (G 450) which was to make the idyll a norm. But the god-man synthesis is untenable: Arthur is sterile as are the controlling fictions of the West. Only the impulse to idolatry remains, an “American Idol” culture, tying the realm to brutishness and digitalized obsession with dungeons, dragons and predatory icons. Writing within his culture’s nostalgia and sense of impending tragedy, Tennyson presents no alternative to its diverse revanchism than a “return of the king” in light (PA 465-9) and a vague hope that “Heaven will blow the tempest in the distance back” (Dedication 46-7). But the epic’s structure ties faith in the idyll to the cyclic context of nature, deepening the tragedy by underscoring Vivien’s perspective. In this Tennyson is true to his culture’s twilight for Arthur as a type of the West’s “slowly fading” belief in its sanitized Attis-Tammuz-Osiris. The irony is that through worship of nature and machine technology, image-weaving, magike tekne conquers, deforming and vitiating rather than sustaining a realm. This is the deep tragedy of the avatar-Arthur illusion and source of its proliferating twilight dystopias. Its erotic aspect is the core displacement of poiesis, “a male in a female hid,” and Hesiod’s Aphrodite is the ultimate queen of this displacement, a meta-figure of triumphant imagery, the beautiful appearance containing horrible deeds and desires. It is her role that is occluded, in fact absorbed by Tennyson’s Arthur through the tale of Bleys that Bellicent relates (CA 358-94). Bellicent is Morgause transposed and the Osiris-Isis incest motif disguised informs the tale with dissolution of identity and boundaries.
Also pertinent to early modern nostalgia is Tennyson’s moralizing disembodiment of his sources; the literally wounded ‘thigh’ of Pellam and the bleeding spear of Longinus are sublimated to a vision of the chalice in the heavens. A Wordsworthian gleam few are able to see, a severe radiance that distorts most lives, it becomes the Grail vision whose more demonic aspects the events and quest of “Balin and Balan” pre-figure. Though blurred in Tennyson, Balin creates a waste land. In Chretien this land is the inheritance of the Grail knight, Perceval whose mother is “the widow lady of the Waste land.” They dwell in the Waste Forest, a topos for the realm of Garlon and Vivien (594-606) that contains the ambiguous identity of the Fisher King – Pellam as Perceval’s father or uncle shadowing Arthur’s ambiguous nature and his relation to Morgause – Bellicent, to lusty adulteration and life itself. In Idylls the Waste Land is Camelot’s shadow and what it becomes. Tennyson’s Perceval sees the grail imperfectly; his retirement is a symbolic castration his mythic prototypes from Tammuz to Klingsor did literally. Nemesis is the son of incest, Modred, issue of a hybrid bed serves a function like that of Vivien who, in Tennyson is his female counterpoise (G 21-63). Modred seizes his time (PE 589-97) consequent to Vivien’s destruction of Balin-Balan, Merlin and the confused tournament that ensues, the attempted redemption in the grail quest and the arrival of the idyll-besotted Pelleas to fill up the depleted ranks (PE 1-15 passim). Banishing the “wantonness” of magic, Tennyson has Elaine die frustrated and cuts off the tormented Lancelot from his fleshy root, Galahad, the son who perfects the father. Sterile and pure, in his Symbolist and antiquarian Romance, he departs a presage of “ideal manhood” that regrets the appeal of the image he embraces in an untenable dialectic (HG 884-915).
In the Gothic period of Romance the image was Queen and Regina Theotokos was the ultimate transformative image. Spawning the Queen of Beauty – chaste worship strain, she centered the dialectic of image and adoring cultural body, the latter the realm of “the Devil” which is to be suppressed by the vision, a precursor of Schopenhauer’s theory which transfers religion wholly into art. Beside the Cathedral and sky-blue virgin is the pyre; behind the “cognizance” is Guinevere-Lancelot the truth that conducts Balin to “the mouth of hell” and Lancelot and the realm to the Wasteland. In the Idylls, the Queen rules over Lancelot and deforms the idol Arthur-Camelot. In Tennyson the ideal’s origin-veracity can’t be proved but it has utilitarian power, if believed. An image, like a “sweet lie” has power when believed (LT 640-91). So it is the ideal’s fragility that counts, that and the effect of this frailty on the social relations organized by it. Malory’s Balin creates a literal Wasteland (with his “dolorous stroke” against Pellam), Tennyson’s carries one within: the broken image of the Guinevere idol she herself considers a “vow impossible.” Her critique is like Nietzsche’s lash against “the spiritualization of passion,” the idyll of sublimation and vorstellung, “castration and extirpation” that he sees in the Church: “How the True World Became a Fable…Morality as anti-Nature.” Connecting aesthetics to religion, as years passed his views became more critical of both. The irony in Balin’s dying affirmation of the Queen’s purity hangs like doom over the action.
One would expect an epic of the Symbolist era to express “the burning evening sky” of the image project, its apocalyptic sunset and elegiac twilight already in view (the opening motif of Heart of Darkness) in imperial jousting and shifting alliances; in its core as its Greek idealizing and need for “ease of metamorphosis” splits from its Hebrew roots. This aesthetic and metaphysical dialectic expressed itself in the era by growing anti-Semitism and sentiment for Jewish restoration. Above all, by a renewed focus in the West on the ‘problem’ of the Jew whose incorporated cultural materials the cult of the idol sought to contain and transform. Strikingly absent in Idylls, this intra-cultural tension emerges mainly in the work’s powerful embodiment of the trajectory of idealizing image-work from pastoral to apocalypse to elegiac modes. Its tragic rise and fall attest the metamorphic and erotic pulse within Western idealization with Arthur and his realm as the primary eidolon. The soul within the soul of idealization is the Grail; its social correlatives are the bonds that expose its fictive quality: Guinevere to Arthur and Lancelot, each false in its own way, the “quagmire” that underlies the “wandering fires” of the eidolon. The founding of Camelot, its dynamics and ethos, most notably Arthur’s attempt to build faith and trust on sublimated eros tested in “sport and tilts” is unstable: like the Grail quest per se it is “madness for…sins” embedded in the ideal. All are affected by the disjunction between image and will and the burden of the epic shows how they undermine each other for the West’s Gothic inheritance is an irrepressible Faustian will. Tennyson exposed and mourned “the play element” in culture seventy years before Germany made its great attempt to purify Western identity, to revitalize gothic idealism and its signature devil, “the wicked Jews whom we should kill like dogs” who spoil the idyll by not joining the fiction and when it fails are blamed for its collapse.
The core relations of the epic epitomize the doubling that image-work generates as well as the ultimate and mutual collapse of the image, shadow or double back into its source. Involved in the materials of Romance, the Idylls center this projective process on the coat of arms or shield, a sign of the self that, being inanimate, is an ultimate persona central to the tragedy in “Balin and Balan.” Its absorption and direction of the identity of its bearer fits the pattern of image work: inspiring, mocking and at last grieved. It is a force of displacement, a totemic object that repeatedly leads to death as in “Lancelot and Elaine.” The image or eidolon has a vampiric relation to its host and it is inevitable that vampirism become a core Symbolist motif: it is a figure for the Medusa of art as Goethe knew. As such the “cognizance” becomes a palimpsest for Tennyson’s conflicted portrayal of idealization, its quests and faith based on “woman worship” and imagery itself, the Grail, “the twelve great banners” of the “twelve great battles” marking the seasons of Arthur’s year as god-king. The Idylls implicitly critiques the all-but universal cults of the annual king of life and fertility-Queen at the basis of poeisis and the idyll whose tragic self-negations it examines and mourns. Idylls depict the aesthetic model of a civilization that drives its idols into ever more strained apologetics for expansion. The dynamic and trajectory of an idealizing culture is a “monstrous logic of terror,” a “sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin and cataclysm” figured in the idylls to which the West is wed, the mystique of democracy developing with its reduction of intellect to slogans and “freedom of the press” becoming a medium for conditioning and informing.
Balin’s assertion that the image is “no shadow but a light [and] golden earnest of a gentler life” sets forth the idyllic hope of transformation through an image, an ideal of healing shadowed in the book by the spear of Longinus, its magical properties elided by Tennyson to ease acceptance by a Victorian audience. The narrative’s descent to death via inevitable loss of faith in the image itself establishes a structural doubling echoed when Arthur treads on the crown of the fratricidal brothers at the beginning of “Lancelot and Elaine” the book which displays the trajectory from pastoral to apocalypse and elegy and connects this tragic poeisis to tournaments and the ‘Queen of Beauty’ ethic (LE 34-55). Arthur says but does not understand the extent to which “the crown is but the shadow of the King” when he sets the prompt to fratricide on his head and hears a whisper, “thou likewise shall be King,” another expression of the fertility king’s doom. Lancelot is Arthur’s de facto twin; in diverse ways each is the other’s idealized shadow and they destroy each as does the similarly tragic complement Balin and Balan. Idealization of nature sets image at war with nature and produces an epic of multi-layered fratricide.
A similar elaboration of an image, a shadow of a shadow is Elaine’s embroidering “a case of silk” for Lancelot’s shield, mocking “all the devices blazoned on the shield in their own tinct.” More than Kurtz’s “intended” for whom the wraith is a name, reputation and imposing figure, Elaine does not know the identity of Lancelot who will be “no man” to her despite the erotic hopes suggested by her crimson sheath, a double of Excalibur’s scabbard. As in “Balin and Balan,” as throughout the idyll of Romance, her enraptured image-weaving is based in erotic longing. She ascends a private tower with her prize, “stripped off the case and read its naked shield” embroidering another level of fantasies, fictions and shadows, “and made a pretty history to herself of every scratch…and so she lived in fantasy” (LE 1-27). Her work is a subdued form of Nietzsche’s comment that all idealization arises from erotic energy, a basis of Freud’s work and a variation of Schopenhauer’s dialectic of will and image. In Elaine’s idyllic and idealizing inception of her image-work, the book’s multiple refractions of identity prepare for the revelation and apocalyptic mistaking of intention that leads to death, elegy and self-questioning by the Order and Lancelot. Lancelot’s identity is heavily embroidered beginning with his raising by the Lady of the Lake or alternately, Bayans and Elaine whose name is taken by his son. The anguished misfit of image and reality, of identities and ethos have their climax here as a joust, undertaken in stealth by secret sin combines with Platonic and full blooded loves. The resulting death and “sins” prompt the penultimate madness of the apocalyptic “Holy Grail” quest, the attempt to cleanse a hybrid identity that leave Arthur gazing at a decimated order. Lancelot later describes with precision the hybrid condition and discomfort at the core of image-work whose issue is a waste land:
In me lived a sin
So strange, of such a kind, that all of pure,
Noble, and knightly in me twined and clung
Round that one sin, until the wholesome flower
And poisonous grew together, each in each,
Not to be plucked asunder… (HG 769-84 passim)
Superficially a somber re-fashioning of Malory on Lancelot’s madness, this paradox of his nature, like his relationship to Guinevere leads him and Camelot to the Wasteland where boundaries collapse, to the “waste fields [and] naked shore” of the Grail quest and eventually the multiple ambiguities of Lyonesse. The storm “blast” of “Holy Grail” looks to the “deathwhite mist” and “phantom circle of a moaning sea” when the failure of artifice confounds all perception and things. “The blind haze” of Camelot’s fading aura turns life into art, “shadows in the mist” suffused with “formless fear” (PA 80-136). A similar apocalypse of love and death, of the image and body, followed by a brief elegiac passage concludes “Balin and Balan” whose embrace is a de facto paradigm of body and ideal, image-work’s unstable doublings and eroticized collapse. This is mediated by the demonic Vivien who embodies the deceit and hunger of imagery (its quantum of Will) in its relation to the ‘host’ that generates or views it, a biologic and cultural urge to re-unite. She is the intrinsic instability of the idyll and catalyst to its resolution in collapse; the erotic and metamorphic quality within the pose of the image (its counterpoise; she is the ultimate diplomat who lies like truth) and she triggers the tragic ending of Balin-Balan. Neither Arthur nor Elaine in their diverse kinds of purity and trust can displace the hybrid or adulterate truth and its filth, Guinevere’s ruling tie to Lancelot and it is this fact upon which Vivien works; she is affixed to it by the ‘polluted’ nature of her genesis. Tennyson gives his own version of “the secret and fundamental war of the sexes” in which woman as history conquers the illusory ideal, shattering lives and using Balin, Modred, Pelleas and others, using desires as diverse weapons to unmake the forced and faux history of the idyll. In her truth-serving deceits, “she puts something on” in her lust to disclose and disenchant. She has the Faustian spirit to dis-cover nature and something of its demonic quality, a transformative dis-covering countering the Idyll’s idealizing.
The primal erotic basis not least the deceits (a key quality of Aphrodite) of Vivien’s animus links her to the self-negating aspects of idealization whose splitting, on a cultural level precedes collapse as the projected image-ideal consumes its generating individuals. Her mission emphasizes the bloody nature of coition and birth, of meiosis and poeisis in which the image takes from its source to double it, retaining its energy to supersede life. Her birth is the only one described in the epic, Arthur’s ‘visitation’ and descent being its ethereal counter. Vivien hits at idealism’s root in identity confusion and doubling. Coition and birth are the “it” that is the root of identity and identical, the latter being the image or clone that displaces or negates its generating identity by the logic embedded in language: id-idem-identitas - idemptitas. In poeisis, erotic trauma is the id at the root of seeing patterns (idein) that generate the self-glorifying and ultimately negating dialectic of hero as idealized image. Vivien embodies the id (“that one”) of darkness that brings Balin and Balan together in confusion of identity and collapse of the image back into the primal unity of blood and darkness the attributes of Esau and the satyr. She is “the fire of heaven” and “old Sun-worship” untethered from marital and social bonds; she “gazes into the inner terrible depths of nature” and models Blake’s inversion of heaven and hell, of the celebration of erotic desire that collapses the image-project of “maiden worship of a maid.” Thus Balin tramples “the cognizance” of Guinevere’s crown on his shield shortly before he and his twin kill each other in a blind darkness eroticized by Vivien’s lies and mocking banter that is not simply hers but reflects the polluting play at court. It also is the squandering that the image, like a bride elicits. Within her sly use of language is the ambiguity of the ‘bride,’ the “yearning” “transitory” energy that “exhausts, consumes and annihilates” a role Nietzsche assigns to the seminal Hebraic matter, “a touchstone for what is great” transformed and suppressed by the West emerging at ‘twilight’ in contrast to the res ficta et picta states in the “burning evening sky” of the West and the persona ficta of their corporate ideals. The ruin within this consummation is a “prize” of the freedom that may follow disillusionment.
Via Vivien’s origin and role, the suggestive relation of meiosis to poiesis emerges, as more historically, does the increasing scientific ferment of the early modern and modern periods now diffused in demonic ‘information technology’ that utterly displaces life with screens. In Vivien’s countering of Arthur specifically and Camelot and idealization generally one senses that “aesthetics is nothing but a kind of applied physiology”; it also is theology and the metaphysics of an anti-aesthetic. The force she represents strives to heal and halt the splitting of sense and soul, to stop by any means the alienating, imperial and schizophrenic idealizing project comes from the level of the soul in which humans quicken; a level of the soul that “realizes that a spiritual unity pervades and unites all existence” and that “this unity” must “eventually be spelled out” or, rather, inscribed in a different approach to creativity and healing, a literate and not a visual model, one that emerges in what to our eyes is “in the shadow.” Vivien is the id as a theological impulse too driving toward recognition that “the Eternal is One,” not the semblance of a shadow of the cognizance of a Queen of Beauty. Shifting disciplines, in her animus she is also the avant garde rejection of fine art and its cult of aesthetics. Both reactive and reflexive, her counter-idyll, “the old Sun worship,” is Guinevere’s overt aspect: apostate against the ideal by the violence of conception and birth as two make one rather than one splitting into two. Similarly, the brothers die in mistaken service and two make one, the inverse of rebellion and the paradigm of ignorant armies whose delusion haunts the twilight of the idols of the West. Vivien too is the rage of the Modern and its myriad isms, “when styles are invented in place of the [cultural] style that can no longer be borne or mastered.” She is the force that emerges when “something has definitely broken down” yet, aesthetically and thematically, Tennyson’s epic masters her, giving her place in his elegiac formulation of Arthurian material.
The trajectory of the twins from splitting, to shadowing to fratricide and embrace in death, two bodies in one pit alluding to that from which they emerged undergirds the logic of image-work with biological destiny. Earth becomes aesthetics, “the phantom circle of a moaning sea”; life becomes “formless fear.” With geological cycles too: just as “a land upheaven from the abyss by fire [will] sink into the abyss again” so will a father pursue his rebel son to the end of space (the realm, land) and time (PA 92-3), dying on one spear; so Arthur and his ‘brother,’ Lancelot will die for one woman. Set apart, “holy” in death, the idyll’s pretence at last is separated from its adulterate “confusion …oaths, insults, filth” whose correlative is apocalyptic dissolution at Lyonesse (PA 99, 114), the twilight of the West and its idols. Accompanying this collapse, each of the last two books features Arthur disappearing into his image: angel, Dragon, phantom, Giant, ghostlike in his severing from a world whose idols failed (G 592-601; PA 433-69). The wound by which he passes from mortal to future savior is the obverse of Vivien’s birth, slain male countered by female archetype.
The deflection and ultimate collision of the de facto twins is in the slight elision, simply a vowel not a root consonant in the names as Arthur’s blond hair is a sign of heaven and purity while Lancelot’s black hair has an earthy duskiness. Rather than “the charm of stainless maidenhood,” the idealized image she unwillingly wears for the project Tennyson gives Arthur, Guinevere finds sweeter “the deep-hued garden rose”; still more so “the wild wood hyacinth and bloom of May,” sentiments she reiterates and shares with the disillusioned Tristram. This affirmation of earthiness destroys the dreams of transformation and redemption of Balin and, in time, of Camelot, opening a door for Vivien and her male shadow, Modred, to expose the unreality of the idyll. Similarly, “the demon of the woods [who] was once a man remains ambiguous in nature, may be a projection, or image, of Balin’s bitter rage and disappointment (120-41). In noting this convergence, Balan takes the tutelary role of Adam explaining Eve’s dream, comforting and cautioning her. For all his might and wrath, the literary and thematic echo puts him in the role of wife to his brother. At last, Balin and Balan mistake each other for the demon, kill and die together a refraction of the Arthur-Lancelot bond or even Arthur-Modred, antitheses joined by blood and rebellion, father and son merged in yielding to the ‘holy ghost’ of the phantom ship and its trinity of weird women. The brothers’ erotic return to earth is balanced by Arthur’s gathering into an artifice of eternity.
A significant part of the tragic entanglement of the twins with the court, their efforts to turn Balin’s savagery to nobility is that Arthur wins their faith by smiting them down in a test of arms. This is the typical pattern of Romance and is a curious feature of a mid-19th century English epic. Physical defeat prompts adoration of the image, the vision of Arthur, the stained glass images of the twelve queens in his castle, “the banners of twelve battles” (85). Faith in Arthur’s theurgic role, godlike face and word is underpinned in the refrain, “man’s word is God in man.” Because of passion, the word cannot be believed, no more than could the Christian myth increasingly leading to “the shadows that must soon envelop Europe,” an anticipated “darkening” of the twilight of the idols. “Our old world must daily appear more like evening” and so the conclusion of The Idylls moves by tragic inevitability to the darkness of death; the process that reflects the logic of image work as it moves from idyll to apocalypse to an elegy of petrifaction as culture becomes civilization and freedom “a collectivity of obedience.” In idealization, birth is perhaps as Blake represented it in the Book of Urizen: a fall into selfhood.
Balan himself is an ideal reflection of his twin, “Balin the savage.” Balan is “ten times worthier to be thine [knight] than twenty Balins,” Balin tells Arthur (66-7). His shame and desperate efforts to redeem himself (“release and redemption through semblance”) by bearing the image of Guinevere’s crown and adoring her as an ideal is the quest that will break, like so many others against a sight of the ambiguous relation between the Queen and Lancelot as he strives to “move to music with [his] Order and the King.” As Vivien will, Garlon, who has dallied with her “at the mouth of Hell,” undermines the impossible “symbolic dream image.” “Best, purest? Thou from Arthur’s hall, and yet so simple… this fair wife-worship cloaks a secret shame” (352-5). King Pellam, whose rigid celibacy is partly a reaction against the pollution in the court, may mistake the exact locus of the shame but he is right about its essentials. His hard-bitten remarks prod the disillusionment that Balin suffers and that rots the meta-fiction: a culture that relies upon adherence to unnatural, self-confounding ideals. Tennyson shows that in its relation to Balin the cognizance reflects “the eternal contradiction.” Both authors play on Plato’s critique of the image and its self-perpetuating claims to truth treated also in Spengler’s critique of “the Press”: “no tamer has animals more under his power” than the managers of the media or the idol, the star, at least at when Culture ossifies into Civilization. Vivien may be un-tamed but she too is part of the dynamic apocalyptic process to which image-work weds itself. Not only a counter-truth, in her malice she represents the predatory aspect of the ideal, its absorption and re-direction of the will of its host.
Extending this tradition, “Balin & Balan” proliferates forms of image-creation or doubling. In Malory, Garlon is simply “a knight who rides invisibly,” the magic is matter of fact. But the Idylls rationalizes and moralizes the “demon of the woods” as the phantom of a dead man driven to “black magic,” solitude and hatred by the slander of “evil tongues.” This rational morality has an aesthetic quality: Slander is fiction that abstracts and colonizes an identity, thus creating ‘facts’; its destructive effects are a leitmotif pervading the Idylls where the lies or fictions contain truth not least when Vivien slanders Lancelot and Guinevere. It is an inverted idealization and tribute to the power of the word. Evil tongues create “fiends” or men and women who behave like fiends; so does rebellion, slander in action, that produces the spectacularly polluted birth of Vivien upon the bloody corpse of her rebel father on a battle field. The doubling is so pervasive that her parents ‘die’ twice to produce her. “Scorn,” cynicism and “filth” are true; hatred is as perfect as love and death and life two sides of one blade: “take me up and cast me away.” Vivien exults in her adulterate nature while Lancelot is tormented by his and by his adulterous desires and behavior. Like Pellam she mocks the purity of Arthur as Ettarre mocks true faith and devotion generally as does Tristram who sounds like a pragmatist (LT 201 passim) but ends badly, slain by a “shadow” man (LT 746-8). Bedivere, too, ends as a shadow, “no more than voice” and the whole epic, like Heart of Darkness is told from the shadows, an uncertain quest for true voice in gathering dark that has more than morphologic tie. Kurz, too, keenly fears slander and the ruin of his image which Marlow intently protects; Marlow who asserts the importance, in dark times, of an idol, “an unselfish belief in an idea you can set up and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice too…”
In Idylls, slander and loss of faith create phantoms, half truths that blur reality to ambiguity and collapse ideals. Balin and Balan’s undertaking of the quest to kill this “Fiend” is a counter idyll enmeshed in Balin’s attempt to heal him by identifying with “worship of the Queen” which Lancelot does too well. “Her likewise would I worship” he says not knowing that such realization would unmask and destroy the fiction chosen as his balm: Garlon, murderous and cruel pinpoints the court’s “secret shame.” This pattern of discomfiture pervades the Idylls with the tenor of Macbeth, uncanny enticements that “lie like truth” and reflect the Order’s shame. In wearing a “goodly cognizance of Guinevere…her own royal crown upon [my] shield” (191-205) Balin does not banish the “rough beast” that was his image but drives it inward until Pellam and Vivien spur him to “deface” the illusion and then bring it to its lethal triumph as the twins misperceive each other as fiends. The phantoms of slander and idealizing illusion together cloak and destroy the brothers who embrace it in a paradigmatic possession and displacement of life by image ending in a symbol of the morbidity of image-work. To put it yet another way, the slander aims to break the gap between fiction and fact, to unify reality. In this way it is necessary, science that makes ugly social forms recall and expose the fiction’s shame. Having stolen its “charm” and drained its charmer, Vivien focuses the Idylls embedded critique of image-work.
Beyond the slander, in embroidering truth Vivien also partakes of magike tekne, image-weaving. As her seduction of Merlin shows, she commands Circean powers represented in the Lady of Shallot. Her slander is not simple envy but her lust for collapse of illusion into the reality it veils that then will die with it as erotic idyll becomes an apocalypse of erotic ambiguity and then eroticized elegy as the “three queens” cradle and escort the dead but immortal Arthur: as the black-robed and hooded figures on the “dusky barge” raise “an agony of lamentation…the tallest and fairest of them all lays his head upon her lap”(PA 362-97 passim). Chief among them, Tennyson knew were Arthur’s enchantress sister and “the Queen of the Waste Land” whose king Arthur was. She is his true queen. Bedivere then begins a long lament that leads to a vision of glory, of the idyll renewed that is part of the self-enclosing, self-referential mirroring of image-work: there is no escape from the idyll, says the mythic material.
While the quest is the main field in which possession, disillusionment and, ultimately, re-enchantment occur, Balin’s vision and hopes are pierced, are made susceptible to bitter savagery before he leaves Camelot. “As he strove to learn the graces of their Table,” fighting “hard within himself” one morning he chances to see Lancelot and Guinevere encounter each other in the bower where a lane of lilies and lane of roses cross in perfect thematic echoing of the West’s core idyll. The contrasts, “the morning” on the Queen’s face and Lancelot “all in shadow from the counter door” are a chiasmic doubling that emphasizes light, image, reflection or rebound. For Balin, the idyll, riding uneasily on his hybrid nature (a “rough beast” with “a crown”) begins to dissolve in this countering of images and erotically charged, “deep–tranced” conversation (235-75). This disclosure of what is concealed hints to Balin of the “super-sensual, sensual bond” within chivalric adoration: its embedded eros is like “flax with flame – a glance will serve – the liars! That glance of theirs but for the street had been a clinging kiss” comments Vivien who, after Balin’s death sees a similar rendezvous (MV 96-186 passim). Just as Vivien commits herself to being “the little rat that borest in the dike,” so the revelation of the half-hidden trespass bores into Balin, spreading “poison on the living waters” of his hope: “Queen? Subject? But I see not what I see. Damsel and lover? Hear not what I hear” (276-85). The small, prefatory apocalypse of his “cognizance” throws him into upheaval; “mad for strange adventure” he dashes to Pellam’s counter realm of fictions, -- relics, martyrdom and the fiend that may, or may not be a man destroyed by slander. In his flight, Balin “took the selfsame track as Balan” reinforcing their role as tormented beast and idealized image that will re-unite in a war-embrace, a love death pre-figured in Balin’s conception in wrath. If he was, so then was his twin (“we two were born together”) and the original unity before the splitting of the zygote will return in bloody embrace, the “it” or “that one” that is the core of poetic and cellular doubling. So too the self-referencing metaphor of Vivien is ambivalent: eliciting disgust or hate, the rat yet will free living waters that have been dammed, letting them, tumultuously unleashed as by a war, find their level. The metaphor reticulates with the cleansing effects of the nightmare confusion of Lyonesse, the ablution of the illusion in its meta-figures: “death-white mist” and “the phantom circle of a moaning sea.” Unlike Malory’s fiction of divine virginity, the realm is both broken and perished, the “Waste Land” of a “Maimed King” and site of the “dolorous stroke” that breaks the image.
In “Balin and Balan” Tennyson’s overt theme is the interplay of wrath, slander and disenchantment. Like Pelleas after his disillusionment by Ettarre and Gawain, Balin rides “raving at himself” into the dark until he is in the enchanted woods where the fiend, if fiend it is, attacks him; an ambiguous entry to the realm of Pellam. His hoard of relics, the spear, the “thorns of the crown and shivers of the cross,” fictions of the immaculate avatar and his “sacred maiden motherhood of heaven” reflect, vie with and critique the governing idols and faith of Camelot. This countering – reflection itself prefigures the kinship and final battle of Balin and Balan which, in turn prepares in microcosm the apocalyptic battle of Arthur and Modred which covertly echoes the hidden incestuous and adulterous origin of Arthur’s antagonist and son.
The role of the “lichen-bearded…home of bats” as an antitype of Camelot shows in Pellam’s sarcastic remarks on the “secret shame” within the “wife worship” by which Camelot is shakily organized. Its secret rite (orgon) is a mystery (orgion) that cannot be sustained but ends in an orgy of confusion. Stung by Garlon’s repetition of the scorn, Balin slays him, flees into Pellam’s chapel and seizes the spear, “reputed to be red with sinless blood” (547-620), a redeemer whose sign, that of his queen, failed. The ironies here may be layered beyond Tennyson’s intention. The spear of Longinus, a prototype for the bleeding tip of the Grail lance does not heal but destroys; or paradoxically ‘heals’ by liberating life from illusions: beast and crown, representation of Guinevere’s ideal, die together like Balin and Balan. It wounds and later heals Pellam; it saves and then slays Balin for the turbulence of image work is a hurly burly “where the battle’s lost and won,” the cycle of a vegetation king. The questers pledged to a nominally pure Queen highlight the doubleness and ambiguity in the essential myth of Christianity the idylls so often invoke. For all these references, if “man’s word is God in man” then human integrity and trust are the divine content of life and God is a social construct. But this too is undercut in the idyll of culture-formation based on faith in a god-man, “a moral child” and his mortal wife, a sterile and disillusioning bond that cannot nurture even an adopted child (LT 10-32).
Seeing Balin flee, Vivien, appearing for the first time and quickly labeled as an antithesis to Arthur’s music as a “damsel errant” whose “warbling” dumb’d “the wholesome music of the wood” begins slowly to declare her opposition both to the celibate, relic-filled ruin of Pellam and to the Sun-King court of Arthur that seeks to exhaust erotic desire by sport in late-Victorian fashion. “The fire of heaven” that Vivien invokes is not that of Arthur but the “old sun-worship” that “will rise again and beat the cross to earth, and break the King and all his Table” (430-53). Events prove her right; she fertilizes the adulterate matter within Camelot to generate the truth she attests and the pollution she embodies. Wrong from birth, she exposes the flaw in Camelot’s conception and mythos, the demonic back lash within the instability and intrinsic falseness of the eidolon. Looking to her image as “a rat” she at last breaks the dam and “the blood dimmed tide is loosed,” drowning “the ceremony of innocence” which was a fictive, a negation of life seeking to serve life. This returns us to the sphinx, Khnopff and Nietzsche’s comments on incest and wisdom and makes avenging Modred “a wise magician”; in Malory he is a Moses trope. Merlin, in Tennyson is unwise, garrulous, even a “fool,” grandfather of Prufrock.
Vivien plays on the erotic and fiction-generating quality of identity transformation as she beseeches Balin to shield her “from shame, a lustful King” and “get me shelter for my maidenhood” itself an implausible fiction. But her tale provokes Balin into further expressions of self-contempt and makes him wish he may die and be eaten by wolves, a fate the gloating Vivien will soon cast on him and his brother as a curse (577). As Balin howls in a fury of bitter disappointment and self-disgust, Balan mistakes his brother’s discomfort for the fiend. Balan’s “quest was unaccomplished” to this point because as the ideal image meant to displace his brother he cannot kill the ‘fiend’ except by destroying, in his own collapse, the yearning that idealizes him. Defiling “heavenly things with earthly uses” Balin brings heaven and earth together in horror, the upshot of image-work. The flood and the blood knot, innocence and filth, god and man in the myth of the West whose avatar-aesthetics make synthesis a negation, a mutual annihilation. The way of heaven on earth in a code sanctifying the quotidian is the reality effaced in this quintessential Western apocalypse that began with the implausible idyll of revitalizing Hellenism by synthesizing it with Hebraic material colonized and incorporated by Rome. The image conquered, for a while, increasingly dynamic as it generated images of the horror it had done, the monster its Faustian transgression had forged and now displays the limitless refractions of screen world, the ultimate petrifaction of an inorganic idyll.
Whether or not Vivien’s gloating curse comes true is as ambiguous as Tennyson makes the identity of the “wood-devil” they came to quell; as the endless refractions of an image. Here Tennyson complicates what is simple, and absurd in Malory, following 19th century interest in balancing supernatural and natural, science and terror. The brothers succeed in the tragic irony of image-work, killing each other, savage and ideal dying together, but the house of Pellam, the pollution of Camelot and the faux-damsel, Vivien continue as the epic darkens with the shadows inherent in its glory, shadows that at last enwrap and bear it away.
The erotic content in the doublings of image-play permeates the Idylls and it is worth quoting from the extended love-death elegy of the twins who embody the double-edged content and fate of Camelot:
Balin…on his dying brother cast himself,
Dying; and he lifted his faint eyes…
O Balin, Balin, I that fain had died
To save thy life have brought thee to thy death.
Why had ye not the shield I knew? And why
Trampled ye thus on that which bare the Crown? (579-91)
The foregoing discussion answers these questions that point to the unstable ethics of Camelot which itself is a meta-figure of poeisis: the glorified image that possesses and displaces life in a dream of self-transformation. Projection of self into the image weakens both and leads to disillusionment and despair, as for Balin. The magnificence of the image-ideal and its apocalyptic collapse generate further illusions that color the ensuing elegy: for better or worse, the Queen is not pure (606) and Camelot remains an idyll, “a shadow idle of unreal good.” Balin’s re-enchantment portends the desperate and protracted destruction of the realm as events, not least the Grail quest will show. The epic’s poeisis unleashes figures of eros, like Vivien whose ‘sweet deceptions,’ rooted in the archetype Aphrodite’s ambiguous nature and charms mediate and hasten the collapse of the idealizing project. She is the demonic unleashed by the mirrored ideals of Arthur and Lancelot and the instability embodied in their relations to Guinevere, Camelot and its people, especially the knights charged to uphold the ideal and embody it in their blood work. Thus, Balan believes that Vivien and Garlon’s slanders were lies but his affirmation of faith in the image-illusion is itself mistaken. Balin’s self-reproaches also are partly false: “O brother…woe is me! My madness all thy life has been thy doom, thy curse…” In the darkness of their dying eyes, those who were “born together” like a flawed or hybrid culture “die together by one doom” and “sleep, locked in each other’s arms” (594-620). Only Malory’s allusion, buried in Tennyson, to the pit into which they are cast being like the womb from which they emerged hints at the cultural material the idyll of the West seeks to suppress and that finally undoes it, history and life supplying the matter and forming the engine of an art of apocalyptic disclosure.
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