Monday, April 5, 2010

The White Goddess by Robert Graves

It would be unfair to call the heretical poets 'apostates'. They were interested in poetic values and relations rather than in prose dogma. It must have been irksome for them to be restricted in their poem-making by ecclesiastical conventions. 'Is it reasonable?' they may have exclaimed. 'The Pope, though he permits our typifying Jesus as a Fish, as the Sun, Bread, as the Vine, as a Lamb, as a Shepherd, as a Rock, as a Conquering Hero, even as a Winged Serpent, yet threatens us with Hell Fire if we ever dare to celebrate him in terms of the venerable gods whom He has superseded and from whose ritual every one of these symbols hasbeen derived... So at his prophesied Second Coming we reserve the right to call him Belin or Apollo or even King Arthur.

I blame my long absence squarely on this book, which occupied for pretty much the entirety of March. It isn't particularly long, but I could only read about twenty pages before I needed to stop and defrost my brain.

The White Goddess is subtitled "A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth"--which, unless you have read it, means either absolutely nothing or something quite different than Graves intends. The term "poetic myth" in the subtitle is particularly duplicitous; for Graves true poetry and myth are one and the same. The thesis of The White Goddess is that all true religion and poetry expressing what Graves calls the capital-T "Theme":

The Theme, briefly, is the antique story, which falls into thirteen chapters and an epilogue, of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the God of the Waxing Year; the central chapters concern the God's losing battle with the God of the Waning Year for love of the capricious an all-powerful Threefold Goddess, their mother, bride, and layer-out. The poet identifies himself with the God of the Waxing Year and his Muse with the Goddess; the rival is his blood-brother, his other self, his weird.

Graves then proceeds to spend 400-odd pages detailing the various ways the Theme shows up in world myth, skipping vicariously from culture to culture drawing parallels in their religious systems. In a single paragraph he may begin in Wales, jump to Egypt, hop over to Palestine, run back through Greece, and perhaps take a stroll into Viking myth as well. Nor does he stick solely to Western religion, though excursions into places such as Mesoamerica and Japan are rare. Much of The White Goddess is an exercise in conflation, as Graves attempts to show how various deities are variations of the same archetype. For example, here Graves identifies just some of the various forms of Apollo:

Apollo himself had reputedly been born on Ortygia ('Quail Island'), the islet off Delos; so Canopic Hercules is Apollo, too, in a sense--is Apollo, Aesculapius (alias Cronos, Saturn or Bran), Thoth, Hermes (whom the Greeks identified with Thoth), Dionysus (who in the early legends is an alias of Hermes), and Melkarth, to whom King Solomon, as son-in-law to King Hiram, was priest, and who immolated himself on a pyre, like Hercules of Oeta. Hercules Melkarth was also worshipped at Corinth under the name of Melicertes, the son of the Pelasgian White Goddess Ino of Pelion.

It's mind-boggling, but it makes sense in respect to Graves' championing of the Theme; by collapsing these religious stories like paper boxes he intends to show that there is only one story. So, put simplistically, the trio of Zeus, Cronos, and Hera become an analogue of Osiris, Horus, and Set, or Odin, Loki, and Freya, or Christ, Satan, and Mary. In turn, these myths--in which the principal male figures engage in ritual, cyclical periods of dominance and submission--map the yearly calendar.

Graves' methodology here is seductive, but not quite overwhelming. In his foreword, he notes that "this remains a very difficult book, as well as a very queer one, to be avoided by anyone with a distracted, tired, or rigidly scientific mind." If you suspect that this an avoidance technique that allows Graves to get away with dodgy scholarship, then, well, this simply wasn't written for you.

The foundation of the book is built on two Welsh minstrel poems, which Graves spends the first third of the book dissembling, reassembling, and interpreting as alphabetic codes beset in riddles, which perhaps conceal a secret name of God. Elsewhere, his methodology is based almost purely upon poetic inspiration, and to reinforce a point Graves on rare occasions offers up an original poem. One chapter takes the form of a discussion between a Greek historian and a Roman governor. While fascinating, these methods do little to allay fears that the premise of the book is absurdly far-fetched. The argument fits together neatly, but circuitously; it is difficult to tell at the end of the book if Graves has presented a proof or merely a semblance of one.

Whatever of The White Goddess is based in reason and not pure nonsense, there are certain politically distasteful conclusions to be made. One such conclusion is that women cannot be "true" poets:

However, woman is not a poet: she is either a Muse or she is nothing. This is not to say that a woman should refrain from writing poems; only, that she should write as a woman, and not as if she were an honorary man.

This is a bit of semantic trickery. Graves suggests that because women cannot be the surrogate of the God of the Waxing Year they cannot write "true" poetry about the Theme. It is kind of him to permit them to write poetry at all, but her poems are relegated to some, less true variety. Homosexuality, naturally, has no place in poetry.

Another conclusion is that many of the world's ills can be traced to a perversion or a denial of the true Theme. Catholicism, which installs Mary as the White Goddess figure, is preferable though it mistakes her character. Protestantism, which devalues Mary, is more insidious:

The Puritan Revolution was a reaction against Virgin-worship, which in many districts of Great Britain had taken on a mad-merry orgiastic character. Though committed to the mystical doctrine of the Virgin Birth, the Puritans regarded Mary as a wholly human character, whose religious importance ended at the birth-stool; and anathematized any Church ritual or doctrine that was borrowed from paganism rather than from Judaism. The iconoclastic wantonness, the sin-laden gloom and Sabbatarian misery that Puritanism brought with it shocked the Catholics beyond expression.

And Judaism, which rejects the female divinity completely, is worse:

Yet neither Frazer nor Hitler were far from the truth, which was that the early Gentile Christian borrowed from the Hebrew prophets the two religious concepts, hitherto unknown in the West, which have become the prime causes of our unrest: that of a a patriarchal God, who refuses to have any truck with Goddesses and claims to be self-sufficient and all-wise; and that of a theocratic society, disdainful of the pomps and glories of the world, in which everyone who rightly performs his civic duties is a 'son of God' and entitled to salvation, whatever his rank or fortune, by virtue of direct communion with the Father.

Those who know me even slightly will know that I think this is bunk. I find Graves lacking justification here; it escapes me what is meant to be so evil about this "theocratic society" which values God's equanimity and intimacy. But this highlights a larger flaw in Graves' thesis: He never deigns to tell us what make this Theme "true" while admitting that there are variations, impurities, and digressions. By what rationale does Graves separate the heretics from the orthodox? What value is there in the White Goddess' viciousness and capriciousness? In many of her forms she is wholly unappealing; one wonders why the Jewish God's rejection of her is such a bad thing.

I am unprepared to tell you how much of this book is brilliant and how much is pure, unadulterated horseshit. Perhaps my mind is too rigidly scientific. But I will be the first to admit that it is completely fascinating.

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