Superman at Canterbury?

January 17, 2010

Was Thomas Beckett, murdered archbishop of England, a Nietzschean Superman?

Despite my raging Anglo-philia of boyhood, I never saw Beckett (1964) with Peter O’Toole as HenryII, and Burton as Thomas Beckett, his Chancellor, and then archbishop of Canterbury.  Based on Jean Anouilh’s play, it is the story of an intense friendship between two men who understand power a little differently.  King Henry, a bit of a spoiled child and also a lonely soul, rages at the stuffy imbecility of his courtiers, but he takes his royal job seriously, and he has no intention of ceding royal power to anyone.  Nay, he wishes to increase it.  Beckett, his friend, his servant, then his chancellor, seems to be happy to go along for the ride, the food, the girls, but he knows that he has a tiger by the tail, and he knows how to keep himself safe when he is so close to the live wire of absolute power.

Then Henry makes a mistake – he makes Beckett the head primate of the Church in England, thinking he will then rule heaven and earth, with his friend a pliable and cooperative bishop.  Beckett is transformed by his new position, and finds the higher vocation that has eluded him thus far – he commits himself to the defense of churchly principle against secular power, driving his former companion to his wits’ end.

This was a central conflict played out during the Middle Ages again and again:  sometimes the brute kings won, as when the French king kidnapped the pope and dragged him off to ‘Babylonian’ captivity in Avignon, bringing on the Great Schism; and sometimes the Popes won, as when Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire was reduced to waiting in the snow at the door of the papal palace in Canossa.  The State lost this round – Henry’s thuggish courtiers murdered Thomas while at services, thinking they were doing the king’s bidding.  Henry did severe penance, Beckett was quickly made a full-blown saint.

Both characters in the play are motivated by the ‘will to power,’ and their different allegiances.  Henry is left to rule the miserable earthly realm, while Thomas, standing tall while he is murdered without resistance, triumphs in true Nietzschean-Jesus fashion, over the pigs who think they can really kill him.  His person becomes venerated, and he casts his spell for centuries over England and its kings.  Good thing too, or we wouldn’t have gotten the Canterbury Tales!  He knows what he’s about:  His last words as he dies are, “Poor Henry…”

Of course, when one thinks of Richard Burton, one cannot help thinking of his on again, off again mate, Elizabeth Taylor.  As a very young boy, I asked my mother who was Elizabeth Taylor, and was told, “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”  Well, maybe so…

Finally, back to Chaucer, Beckett, and Canterbury, sort of…  I post here what I think is the most hilarious pastiche from an amazing book, The Holy Tango of Literature.  (Earlier post here and the text online here.)


In tholde dayes of the towne Seatel,
Of whos charmes Nirvana fans yet pratel,
Al that reyny land fayn slepen late.
Thus ofte a sutor failled to keepe a date;
And werkers reched offices at noon,
Noddyng of although the sunne shoon;
Husbondes were too tyred by the eve
A staf for plesyng wyves to acheve.

Now to this citie in a languor stukke,
Came a fair knyght cleped Sterrebukke,
Beryng benes from a forein land
Ygrounde to a poudre in his hand,
From which a potent brew could he deryve
That causeth wery peple to revyve.
Whan word aboute his draghte hadde sprede,
To his shoppe the custumers al spedde
Til everich veine felte a rush of blood,
With humours boyed upward by that flood.
Soone men who herd the crowyng cok
Wolde rise withoute cursyng at the clok,
The thoughte of facyng daylight not so bleke
With coffey bryngyng roses to the cheke
And helpyng them to holde their swords alofte
And shethe them before they falle softe.

Sterrebukke so bygan to thynke
Of other ways to selle the same drynke.
With stemed milk and sprenkled cynamone,
’Twas fit, he sayde, for kynges on the throne;
The capuchino joyned thus his wares,
As wel as mocas, sweter than eclares,
And lattes riche in creme, ofte fresen
And beten to a froth in sumer seson,
And tall espressos armured with cappes
To stoppen scaldyng spilles into lappes
As may hap when one is in a hurry
Upon a pilgrymage to Caunterbury.

The Sailor’s True Binnacle

November 29, 2009

Moby Dick, or The Whale tells, among many other things, the story of Captain Ahab and his monomaniacal pursuit of a great white sperm whale named Moby Dick.  The whale chewed off his leg some years past, and he is going to get even or die trying.  Who was Ahab?  As with almost everything else in the book, there are biblical overtones, usually Old Testament ones.

The Reign of Ahab
Kings 1: 16

And in the thirty and eighth year of Asa king of Judah began Ahab the son of Omri to reign over Israel: and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty and two years.

And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD above all that were before him. And it came to pass, as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jerobo’am the son of Nebat, that he took to wife Jez’ebel the daughter of Ethba’al king of the Zido’ni-ans, and went and served Ba’al, and worshipped him.

And he reared up an altar for Ba’al in the house of Ba’al, which he had built in Samaria.

Ahab married Jezebel, a foxy pagan princess from one of the neighboring non-Hebrew tribes that the Jews were always slaying and feuding with, and he was seduced into her ungodly ways.  He listened to false prophets, and imprisoned or executed the true ones, largely at the urging of Jezebel. The Lord was not pleased, and he dealt harshly with Ahab, his sons, and Jezebel, who ended up being shredded and devoured by dogs as predicted by Elijah.  Naturally, the crew of Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, regarded him a bit warily.  Is he mad?  Money talks in the end:  Ahab nails a Spanish coin to the mast and gives the men a pep talk.

Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke — look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!

Being many things, the book is a meditation on death, and life, and the relationship between the two.  The entire crew dies in the pursuit of Moby, who shatters the Pequod as the whalers pursue him at the end.  Only Ishmael survives to tell the tale, quoting the bible, in this case, Job:

… and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

In the midst of calm and peace, Melville can find chaos and terror, as in this passage about standing watch in the crow’s nest, high above the vast sea…

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!

… and amidst chaos and carnage, he can find peace and the still point at the center of the universe, as in this passage where Ishmael describes being in the midst of a enormous pod of whales which the men are busily slaughtering – the water is remarkably clear, and looking down into it, he sees whales copulating, being born, nursed…

And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yes, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.

But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm. I like that line.  Amidst the torrent of events, there is a still center.  This leads us to today’s treat for you, oh reader!  A recovered fragment from the second known text, The Sailor’s True Binnacle, in the mostly lost series, The Wine of Life, authored by the unknown thinker, Lichanos, from whom I have taken my blog nom de plume.  [N.B:  The text is not to be confused with the “sweet tract” written by Becky Sharp’s relation in Vanity Fair by Thackeray.  That one is entirely fictitious!]

A binnacle is a casing for a navigation compass which is non-magnetic, and allows the compass to move freely and to point the way.  It is mounted on gimbals so that it can remain steady and horizontal despite the tossing and rolling of the ship, and always pointed to north.  Calm center, within the storm.

Pauvre reader!  O poor lecteur!

How our Souls are all pitched and tossed about like the frailest shallop or jerry-built wherry upon the boiling waves!  What Trials we have known struggling against current and headwind, seeking only to be Sturdy Helmsmen as we pass between the Devil and the deep blue sea!

The Sailor guiding his vessel is blessed with two articles with which he may ply his rudder:  his binnacle and his compass.

[text lost]…Yet still the Gnashing, the Lamentation:  “Where is our binnacle? Where is our compass? The Answer to these soulful queries has been the quest of many great men, both Good and Evil.

[text lost]… Bewilderment, begone! … [text lost]… The mystery of the True Binnacle stands revealed.  To the compass of our minds is the Body our Binnacle, standing in its organic fleshiness impervious to the Magnetism which seeks etermally to deflect our inner Director from its true course.  Be not skeptical nor materialist, for Mind/Body are one, and through our Binnacle/Bodies are we led and do lead.  Truth once again arises from out of unity of Mind/Body, so that pleasures owing to one are not denied to the other:  they work in tandem, a mighty engine of enlightenment propelling our dynamo sense onward to that final effulgent union with the ground of all …[text lost]

Hi-ho! me buck-o’s, through our skin we will absorb the World and revel in the Universe, sailing through the placid lake of the firmament to our own Safe Haven.  Our Compass shall rock on its Gimbals of Life, and we will drink, as sailors we all are and are all wont to do, aye! we will drink the Wine of Life.