Grail and Anti-Grail Quests


In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the Grail (the miraculous stone vessel which satisfies all hunger by virtue of the consecrated host) belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three-quarters paralysed by the most painful wound: “What are you going through?” The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?”

Simone Weil, Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God

Piffard, NY. This is an essay on the barren wasteland of romantic love in our time and the specific connection between the modern “scientific” obsession with the vast distances of outer space and a consequent decline in the ability to put oneself into another person’s place. Admittedly, we might not immediately see the connections, but these themes tend to overlap with themes from grail literature, which may recommend this line of inquiry. In two lines of writing by the French mystic, philosopher, and political activist Simone Weil, we see interest in another person, (“What are you going through?”) combined with reference to the Eucharist (“consecrated host”) and to the Golden Rule (“love of neighbor”), and the ambient context here, as in most all grail literature, is in reference to romantic love, the healing of a king and the restoration of a barren wasteland. Could it be, I wonder, that a certain view of outer space as a vast, barren wasteland works against the ability to put oneself into another person’s place, which is the central faculty cultivated by the power of love as well as the single most concise definition of the faculty of the imagination?

Erich Fromm analyzed pretty well one aspect of the complex of forces leading to the modern wasteland of love in “Love and Its Disintegration in Contemporary Western Society,” (Chapter III in his seminal book, The Art of Loving). Essentially, he postulates that in a capitalist society where nearly everything is apprehended as a commodity based on its exchange value, there is a corresponding loss of individuality due to the herd mindset this inculcates, and love is approached in a formulaic and mechanical fashion—an exchange bargain—and too often becomes, in the process, an “égoïsme à deux.” We, according to Fromm, for the most part, function as automatons in a vast system of exchange, and this recasts human love in the image of the self-interest which is characteristic of the marketplace. Fair enough, and we can understand that pretty well, but I think the disintegration of love can be explored in an even deeper and yet complementary way by looking at the revolution in science, (specifically astronomy) in addition to looking at the developments in economics. The institutionalization of capitalism, after all, follows Newton, (not to mention Galileo), and in this regard I’ve always thought prophetic and foundational William Blake’s attack on Newton, such that the practice of admiring the sky as a mechanism will lead us to setting up human life and relationships in mechanical patterns too. Besides, it’s relatively easier in today’s intellectual climate to beat up on the economic/industrial establishment than it is to beat up on the scientific establishment: an emblematic example of this was the elimination of the word “scientific” in Eisenhower’s planned warning of the “unwarranted influence” of a “military-industrial-scientific complex” (italics mine). But it is “science,” as even Whitehead saw, which “has practically recolored our mentality. . . . [This] new mentality is more important even than the new science and the new technology. It has altered . . . the imaginative contents of our minds.”

Imagination. It’s quite an evocative word, and it is most commonly defined as having to do with the ability to come up with new ideas or concepts not present to the senses. In an anxious age, however, we frequently tend to use the word for descriptions of new, often scientific, means of getting away from it all, or for dressing up our delusions of grandeur in tight-fitting costumes and capes. The idea of imagination then degenerates into a form of subjective, if clever, fantasy, one devoid of soul. We confuse imagination with means of escape and new forms of power: rocketships and fusion, broomsticks and magic. But in a century that has witnessed death on a scale heretofore unimaginable and generated a culture in the West that produces widespread loneliness, I’m not so sure we need to dream of more inventive methods of decampment to Mars or of additional superpowers. Instead, we need help seeing that whomever it is we’re droning or drugging, bombing or bamboozling is a person, exactly like us. We need, in short, to practice putting ourselves into another person’s place.

In the 1950 movie, The Third Man, (screenplay by Graham Greene), the decidedly modern villain Harry Lime, (played by Orson Wells), pontificates in the key of “collateral damage” when, after World War II, he manufactures and traffics in diluted penicillin. While at the top of a large Ferris wheel in Vienna, he is asked about the human deaths this racket is causing. In reply he points to some “dots” moving below him and asks: “Would you feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” Of course, the “dots” are people, but Harry Lime can’t, or chooses not to, see that. He is not good at putting himself into another person’s place. He lacks imagination and, hence, compassion. This is the vignette to keep in mind, and we need also remember that Jesus was born in the midst of a census (the perspective of the census is to view people like “dots”) as if, in addition to God’s rebuke of King David for his own census, “Jesus The Imagination” was sent by God as the ultimate rebuke to this anti-imaginative view.

For a number of years, I was part of a team collecting, publishing, and organizing the works of mystic, poet, pastor, and theologian Howard Thurman. Thurman was deemed the “Pastoral Leader to the Civil Rights Movement” and, amongst other notable achievements, was the first African-American to meet Gandhi. He frequently spoke around the country and gave a talk several times called “Putting Yourself in Another Person’s Place.” Entering the prose several times into a computer as part of my work helped bring home the depths of this simple idea:

But the most exciting quality of the faculty of imagination is the ability it gives you to put yourself into another person’s place and to look at life through his eyes . . . all without any loss of your own sense of self.

Here in a nutshell, then, is the secret to “restoring the land”: to be able to develop the maturity, (a combination of a sense of self and of selflessness, or “consubstantiality”), such as to be able to sincerely ask someone else, “What is it that you are going through?” (Hint: It’s harder than we think.) It’s also a pretty good understanding of that which constitutes the bedrock of love, including married love. Dostoevsky, once and for all, illuminated the central confusion of love which is separated from imagination when he wrote (placing these words in the mouth of a doctor in The Brothers Karamazov): “I love humanity . . . but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.” If life is a Grail Quest of sorts, then increasing the strength of the faculty of imagination is what we’re placed on this earth to do. Would that we could posit this as the very telos of human life: imagination as the means of escape from loneliness and anxiety. That’s the superpower. The rest is puerility.

Fromm analyzed one aspect (the “industrial”) of a larger “complex” of forces which vitiate imagination and love in our world. Another aspect (the “military”) is getting its just treatment on this front from a number of writers, including Wendell Berry and Bill Kauffman, who focus on rootlessness and “hypermobility” and their deleterious effects on the imagination:

War effaces and perverts the very bases of healthy community life. It elevates impermanence and rootlessness to virtues . . . ; it spreads venereal disease, if not democracy; it separates husbands from wives and parents from children; it leads to a spike in the divorce rate among service personnel and it nationalizes their children in what the Pentagon, with its usual tone-deafness to Orwellian rings, calls “the Total Army Family.” Welcome to the Brave New World.

My own prey, however, is the scientific component of this “complex” of forces as in fact, antecedent to the other two. In particular, the problem lies in the scientific establishment’s propagandistic fervor on behalf of making us feel like tiny nothings in the universe.

To begin with, it’s completely and utterly arbitrary whether one chooses to look at big things in the universe and dwell on how small we are in comparison, or whether we look at small things and dwell instead on how big we are. Imagination can foster both ways. In fact, if one goes to websites like “Scale of the Universe” which scale up and down between the observable universe and a Plank length, it’s apparent that we are actually relatively bigger than the smallest things we know rather than we are smaller than the biggest things we know. The scientific establishment (in cooperation with other aspects of the “complex”) certainly favors the first of the two options. Jonathan Swift, (a man with imagination and, hence, a healthy dose of skepticism toward the scientific establishment), showed us, however, that Gulliver could have the experience of feeling big in Lilliput and small in Brobdingnag and it gave him the ability to put himself into another person’s place: “I reflected what a Mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this Nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us.” Unlike moderns such as Harry Lime, Gulliver had imagination and, hence, compassion.

The anti-imaginative mindset that affects a faux intelligence and humility in dwelling on the vast reaches of outer place has a history. Think Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions of stars” or Stephen Hawking’s musings to the effect that, “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit.” We take these types of ruminations for granted as true and wise, but they’re better seen as dogmatic statements from a new anti-Grail, (read anti-imaginative) knighthood. It’s worth noting, unsurprisingly, that it was often the love poets that were adept at sniffing this out.

The great French dramatist and poet of love, Paul Claudel (1868–1955), saw this new, anti-Grail mindset in its consolidation phase, and it frightened him:

The whole nineteenth century was persuaded that creation was infinite, that beyond this world lay others, innumerable others, all populated with intelligent souls and creatures perhaps superior to us. There is no conception more foolishly vertiginous, more deleterious for the imagination, and more thoroughly demeaning for our dignity.

And Claudel himself was influenced by Coventry Patmore who also smelled an anti-imaginative rat in this new fascination with vast distances. The Inkling Charles Williams thought Patmore was the greatest poet of love since Dante, and Gerard Manley Hopkins accused Patmore of actually going so deeply into the mysteries of love that it rose to the level of “telling secrets,” an accusation which lead to Patmore to burn his manuscript Sponsa Dei, which was great loss to posterity. In his “Two Deserts,” Patmore encouraged us to “Put by the telescope”:

Not greatly moved with awe am I
To learn that we may spy
Five thousand firmaments beyond our own.
The best that’s known
Of the heavenly bodies does them credit small.
View’d close, the Moon’s fair ball
Is of ill objects worst,
A corpse in Night’s highway, naked, fire-scarr’d, accurst;
And now they tell
That the Sun is plainly seen to boil and burst
Too horribly for hell.
So, judging from these two,
As we must do,
The Universe, outside our living Earth,
Was all conceiv’d in the Creator’s mirth,
Forecasting at the time Man’s spirit deep,
To make dirt cheap.
Put by the Telescope!

Telescopes, as a symbol of this mindset, also come in for a negative assessment in a more recent, but much neglected, gem of a work by Owen Barfield, (another Inking) on the redemptive powers of love and imagination in an age of soul-deadening materialism, The Rose on the Ash-Heap. It’s a fairy-tale epilogue (published separately) to his novel English People and, in the mouth of a Sultan questing in search of “The Lady,” Barfield tells “The Philosopher” (a character based on C. S. Lewis) “Telescopes are no cure for blindness.” Sultan, in fact, is quite perplexed by the mindset that voices such curiosities as, “Well, are you aware that if you drove a sixty horse-power engine from here to that star, it would take you five hundred and forty-five quadrillion, nine thousand million billion trillion, two billion, six hundred thousand seven hundred and thirty-three million, four hundred and forty-four thousand five hundred and one years to get there?” He thinks about it and becomes convinced that the “besetting sin” of this type of thinking was laziness:It seemed to throw a new and less favourable light on that curious love of stressing his own smallness and insignificance—for after all, if you are too small to do anything, what need is there to stir!”

Indeed, what reason to stir. I suspect this “insignificance” works in favor of the “military-industrial-scientific complex” quite well. I bet, too, that Harry Lime spent a lot of time contemplating the vast distances of outer space in his youth. Orwell has already been invoked in this essay, but it does us well to remember the serious threat that the love between Winston and Julia posed to Big Brother. Love, when it’s connected to imagination, is an antidote to that insignificance, and that stirring flame must be doused!

At the end of The Rose on the Ash-Heap, the Sultan finds “The Lady” (the equivalent of The Grail, a.k.a. “love and imagination”): “Lady suddenly pointed up to the sky. Sultan’s eyes, following her finger, rested on the crescent Moon: ‘It’s nearer!’” he exclaims. Yes. That’s the effect. George Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life, promises Mary he could “Lasso the Moon.” What Chesterton says in The Napoleon of Notting Hill about patriotism and the size of one’s country should also be said about love and imagination and the size of the universe: “The supreme psychological fact about patriotism [is] that the patriot never under any circumstances boasts of the largeness of his country, but always, and of necessity, boasts of the smallness of it.” Howard Thurman often preached “A friendly world under friendly skies.” To those who love, the heavens are brought closer. Insignificance vanishes. The longed-for restoration is completed.

“Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” (2 Cor 13:11)

This essay, on romantic love, first appeared in the 2018 issue, (Volume 2) of Jesus the Imagination:  A Journal of Spiritual Revolution, edited by Michael Martin.  We republish it as it forms a trilogy of sorts with two others published here by Michael Sauter on the issue of “bigness,” (humans seen as insignificant specs of dust in a vast cosmic space), as it plays out in terms of human maturation and war.  The next issue of Jesus the Imagination, on the theme “The Divine Feminine” will be published in early summer of this year.  

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