Yet Some Men Say in Many Parts that Arthur is not Dead
by E. John Winner
This essay is composed of informal reflections on the historical impact of the recent election; therefore, I hope the reader forgives the lack of endnotes and links supporting much of what I say here, since I am not making a case but offering a personal point of view.
From Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory, The Twenty-first Book, Chapter IV:
Then the king gat his spear in both his hands, and ran toward Sir Mordred, crying, Traitor, now is thy death day come. And when Sir Mordred heard Sir Arthur, he ran until him with his sword drawn in his hand. And then king Arthur smote Sir Mordred under the shield, with a foin of his spear throughout the body more than a fathom. And when Sir Mordred felt that he had his death’s wound, he thrust himself, with the might that he had, up to the bur of king Arthur’s spear. And right so he smote his father Arthur with his sword holden in both his hands, on the side of the head, that the sword pierced the helmet and the brain-pan, and therewithal Sir Mordred fell stark dead to the earth. And the noble Arthur fell in a swoon to the earth, and there he swooned oft-times. And Sir Lucan de butlere and Sir Bedivere oft-times heaved him up, and so weakly they led him betwixt them both to a little chapel not far from the sea side. And when the king was there, he thought him well eased. Then heard they people cry in the field. Now go thou, Sir Lucan, said the king, and do me to wit what betokens that noise in the field. So Sir Lucan departed, for he was grievously wounded in many places. And so as he went, he saw and hearkened by the moon-light, how the pillers and robbers were come into the field to pill and to rob many a full noble knight of broaches and beads, of many a good ring, and of many a rich jewel; and who that were not dead all out, there they slew them for their harness and their riches. When Sir Lucan understood this work, he came to the king as soon as he might, and told him all what he had heard and seen. Therefore by mine advice, said Sir Lucan, it is best that we bring you to some town. I would it were so, said the king…
The legends of King Arthur are widely remembered and frequently taught as a narrative of Medieval nobility, of brave knights engaged in dangerous challenges and jousts in their quest for the Holy Grail, of love longing and love lost; but above all, of the wisdom and leadership of Arthur, “the once and future king.”
Unfortunately, this characterization of the Arthurian mythos is itself a myth and misleading, as well. The Arthurian legends, taken as a whole, form a collective memory of moral corruption, political decay, and failed ideals. Arthur has indeed been taught by Merlin that he is destined to bring about a golden age of morality and justice to the British Isles (actually to Wales) and forms a court of chosen knights to help him realize this. But he is doomed almost from the start. An illegitimate son, himself, he sires two more illegitimate sons. The first he kills outright, although there is no discussion in the legends of the reasons for this. The second is the spawn of an incestuous tryst with his half-sister, Morgan le Fay, who is said to be a witch. Mordred, the son, ultimately becomes the tool of Arthur’s undoing, but even before their final battle, Arthur’s world has been pulled inside out. The fabled knights of the Round Table prove hot-headed and untrustworthy, falling out among themselves while making one mistake after another. Arthur’s childless wife, Guinevere (whom he may have married against her will), commits adultery with Arthur’s noblest knight, Launcelot, which effectively dooms Launcelot’s quest for the Grail. (By the time he returns for Guinevere, she has entered a convent and died, perhaps of a broken heart.) The great Merlin himself falls under the enchantment of a witch, who imprisons him in stone while on his way to aid Arthur. As we see in the passage above, the first thing that happens among the people of his kingdom, once he is mortally wounded, is degeneration into a mob plundering the bodies of his slain knights. Camelot, indeed.
So it is considerably ironic that, in the early 1960s, the Administration of President John F. Kennedy was often referred to, by insiders, as well as the press, as “Camelot.” He had a beautiful wife; he appointed the “best and the brightest” to fill Executive Branch offices. He seemed to seal the fate of an already discredited political Right, and his election put an end to decades of anti-Catholic propaganda. He voiced support for the Civil Rights movement, yet still showed bold determination in confronting Communism. He poured government money into the economy and yet cut taxes, thus beginning a decade of the greatest affluence ever enjoyed by the citizens of a rich and powerful nation.
But “golden ages” are a function of myth. Kennedy, son of a former bootlegger, proved a womanizer in the White House. He brought the world as close to the brink of nuclear war as imaginable without actually dropping a bomb, during the Cuban missile crisis. He privately rejected any federal action on Civil Rights. The decision to cut taxes laid the foundation for all the “tax revolts” of later decades. Unable to control an intelligence community that was already effectively operating as a shadow government on certain policy matters, his major contributions to it were decisions that would sink America into the swamps of Vietnam, including the overthrow of the Diem government, which would necessitate the murder of Diem. He privately expressed some regret for that, but shortly afterwards, he himself was felled by an assassin’s bullet.
Some great good came out of the 1960’s, but a lot of ugliness as well. It should be well known, so I won’t recount it all (although I admit that one person’s good will appear ugly to others and vice versa). But the fact is that enjoying, as they did, the greatest wealth and power of any nation in history, the people of the United States needed to consider their real opportunities, as well as the real dangers that awaited them. Instead, they partied. “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll” does not sufficiently express the casual abandonment to the quest for new experiences and greater pleasures realized at the time.
Even Vietnam was a kind of party. As Ozzy Osbourne sang in “War Pigs,” “Generals gathered in their masses/ just like witches at black masses (…) Making war just for fun,” the Military Industrial Complex saw the war as playground for new inventions of mass destruction. From Agent Orange to massive air-strikes, from strategies of population displacement to tactics of coercion, Vietnam was a kind of clinic for experiments in new weaponry, new military theory and practice, and new means of dominating an occupied population.
And let’s admit that it delivered at least some amusement back in the United States as well. It provided television journalism a moment to shine, from whence it took off to become the media monster it is today. It supplied fodder for a host of artists, musicians, academic theorists, and hopeful political activists, who would later take the lessons they learned from their uncompromising positions to political causes in the 1980’s and beyond, both on the Left and on the Right.
The only thing golden about the “golden age” of the ’60s was the gold itself. And America went off the gold standard in 1973.
When I was researching the rhetoric of Mein Kampf, I felt chills as I read the first line of Hitler’s posthumously available Second Book: “Politics is history in the making.” What disturbed me about this line was that it spoke to every romantic notion we’ve inherited from Modernity; about the decisive nature of every political moment and every act we take, and about the grandeur of the narrative of history to which we are contributing. But after a series of political and social disappointments over the past few decades, I realize that history is never in the making, except in the writings of historians. What is being made in our decisions are the consequences we will have to live with, for good or ill; and responses to other consequences not even of our own making; the results of decisions by nameless others long before we were born.
When Ronals Reagan was elected in 1980, I was terrified; my response was best summed up by Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, in “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now”: “Welcome to 1984/ Are you ready for the Third World War?” Well, WWIII hasn’t happened yet, and the surveillance state took much longer to put in place (with bi-partisan agreement) than either Biafra or I feared back then. Nonetheless, there really was a Reagan Revolution, and we are still living with it – as are our children. Most Reagan Republicans would eschew Trump, but Reagan’s manipulation of the media, the changes he made in the executive branch, the pressures he put on Congress, the Rightist memes his people circulated, his de-industrialization of the economy, and its shift to the demands of the “supply-side” – all of this made Donald Trump possible. And who knows what lasting effect Trump’s election will have?
I can guarantee this: Democrats and progressives have suffered an enormous disappointment in the election itself. But the disappointment doesn’t end there. No one will be happy with this administration. Trump’s core fans will be expecting fulfillment of wild promises he cannot keep (many of which he has no interest in keeping), and the Republicans in Congress will suffer trying to rein in the beast. The budget will not produce jobs, and the economy will remain fragile, at best. His foreign policy will unravel into a shambles of disregarded treaties, miscommunications, and an overall lack of direction. There may indeed be a war down the line –our precarious relationship with North Korea, for instance, has just gotten so much more deadly. Eventually, most of Trump’s voters will realize that all they won in this election was a few months to gloat over those who lost. What goes around comes around, and most will feel the sting of defeat in their own good time.
Of course, a Clinton administration would also have led to disappointments, albeit different ones. But even if the worse doesn’t come to worst, it isn’t going to get better. Because it never does, at least never in the ways we wish or are promised. That’s because “golden ages” do not exist, and in the past lie the seeds that eventually grow into our own misjudgments.
Politics is not history in the making. Politics is merely the collective effort to deal with people we don’t like, in order to increase our enjoyment of the time spent with people we do like and in the process, persuade some of those whom we don’t like to behave more likeably. Looking at it any other way may produce beautiful monuments – and hideous wars; fine words – and ruined lives. But mostly, it just leads to disappointment.
The best we can accomplish is, in fact, an insecure peace, a stagnant bureaucracy, an untrustworthy but negotiable economy, and a tolerable coexistence with our neighbors (most of whom we will never know nor understand).
Of course there is always hope, and Barack Obama made a strong case in 2008 that hope is the motivator we must rely on, if we are to engage in politics at all. But he himself disappointed many of us, and though his rhetoric soothed that disappointment, it would not go away. Ultimately we discover that the world we wish we could live in is not the world we do live in, and the men and women we trust to bring us there are, after all, but fallible human beings.
“Yet some men yet say in many parts of England that king Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu in another place. And men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say, here in this world he changed his life. But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse, Hic iacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rex que futurus.”
– Le Morte D’Arthur, The Twenty-first Book, Chapter VII
Categories: Election Roundup