“The worst that had ever been said about Old Kyte was that, many years ago, she had led peasant dances in the woods on May Eve, which some of the Methodists and Ranters had called licentious.”
Week Fifteen (pg. 237-260 Hilaritas edition, Chapter 1&2 Part III all editions)By Gregory Arnott
Special guest blogger
While staying in my home town over the Thanksgiving holiday, I picked up my relatively old New Falcon edition of The Widow’s Son to read over this week’s material. When I came home and picked up my Hilaritas edition I was struck by how much Bobby Campbell improved his already excellent illustrations. I’m particularly referencing the illustration that kicks off Part III and incorporates Poussin.
This Part of the novel begins with a quotation from Pound’s Cantos, one of RAW’s favorite works, specifically the section written while Pound was imprisoned for his radio broadcasts against the Allies in Italy. During this part of the poem Pound identifies with Odysseus as Oytis or “no man” (You can also spell it Outis and translate it as “no one” which is one of our cats’ names.) but by this point is beginning to feel after a state of permanence. The next line continues “fire must destroy himself ere others destroy him,” which certainly fits in with the themes of transformation that we’ve been reading about in the narrative. The Canto continues and speaks of a city, Hooo Fassa, destroyed and rebuilt four times before being built in the “mind indestructible” guarded with “the four giants at the four corners” and “a terrace the colour of stars.” From the commentaries I looked at Hooo Fassa seems to be a mixture of Mencius’ philosophy that the mind responsible for its own destruction can be responsible for its rebirth and the Ghanan myth of Wagadu, a divine spirit that inhabited the city of the same same that was destroyed four times; since Wagadu existed in the minds of the people she was able to rebuild her city a fifth time under the name Fasa. (Wagadou was the proper name of the old Ghanan Empire as well.) So self-transformation and life-death-rebirth served all around. We’ll encounter a set of the four giants soon enough.
Old Kyte is a walking caricature of the shaky beliefs in a contiguous pagan tradition continuing throughout the Christian era in Europe and late twentieth century women’s mysteries- a term Maria uses to describe what Kyte has been teaching her during the initial process of her labour. She also serves as an example of the difference between the Matrist/Patrist mindsets that RAW likes to ruminate upon. She is drawn up in Sir John’s mind as the opposite of Dr. Coali who represents rationality, science, and the “man’s way” of handling childbirth. Because RAW is obviously sympathetic for the “woman’s way” of childbirth this is an inversion of the Masonic themes found in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” where the noble, masculine Sarastro triumphs over the dark, feminine Queen of Night. These ideas are especially interesting during a time in our U.S. society where midwives and doulas seem to be making a comeback and women’s bodies are seemingly heading towards the Supreme Court in the near future.
As a reminder that none of the Christian sects are innocent, RAW introduces a dissenter priest who tried, and failed, to run Old Kyte out of Lousewartshire.
The Matrist, earthy, “primitive” sides of Mistress Kyte are further illustrated as John ruminates on how she looks medieval compared to the setting of a “modern” bedroom, and by her Shakespearean use of piss and shit instead of the Norman/higher class terms for excretion. Of course she works with herbs and a dispenses an herbal drug- what else could one expect? This fascination with the use of dangerous herbs and wise women comes up repeatedly in RAW’s work- in Sex, Drugs, and Magick he recommends that the reader check out John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge for the inclusion of old witchery as part of the plot. (I read it years ago and really enjoyed it. It’s also a perfectly bizarre story in and of itself.) She also has Maria panting before contractions which is reminiscent of the tantric practice of “the breathe of fire” which RAW’s gives instructions for in Sex, Drugs, and Magick.
Kyte also calls upon four cardinal spirits to guard the room and the childbirth. These are further variations on the four archangels like the ones used by the Carbonari in The Earth Will Shake. Unlike the spirits called upon by Sigismundo’s father, which can be traced to the factitious Aradia: or, The Witch’s Gospel, the spirits called upon by Kyte seem to have been RAW’s invention. Sir John identifies Bride as Brigit in his own thoughts after Maria asks where she gets the names from. Robin is probably Robin Goodfellow, another name for Puck, but paired with Marian immediately brings Robin Hood and Maid Marian to mind as well. Marian could also be a form of the Virgin and Orfee is most likely a representation of Orpheus who has somehow ended up being part of an ancient Celtic tradition here. Side and Sidhe are the same and both are described as different places, different times, or different dimensions. Sidhe here has a lot in common with the notion of Magonia. John’s inner commentary illustrates the further themes of syncretization as he notices similarities between Kyte’s philosophy and Platonism as well as the dual use of the term “the Craft.” We can assume that Charles Putney Drake, the Worshipful Master of John’s Lodge who believed all that could access the baraka were once in one Lodge, is an ancestor of that Nietzschean ne’er-do-well Robert Putney Drake of Illuminatus! fame.
Maria, seen through the male gaze of Sir John and the narrator, is a picture perfect representation of femininity in this chapter. She accepts and even relishes the pain of childbirth and later reminisces on how the post-birth glow is better than the other times she has had transcendent experiences. Everything about the process of birth is received by her with grace and good humor. This portrait is heightened as Sir John reflects that no man deserves a woman’s love. I admit that I like this portrait of femininity but am curious how female readers would react to such a male fantasy of what femininity “should” be.
As Sir John wanders around in his own state of bliss he meets James Moon again who has brought his “fookin rock” and blesses him in the name of God, Mary, Patrick, and Brigit, a perfectly Irish formulation of the cardinal spirits.
Kyte gets the last word, promising the child that both her parents, by virtue of their involvement with “the Craft,” will come to know Side.
The next chapter requires little commentary: Signor Duccio is as concise as possible and reiterates his Malthusian belief that population growth is the main driver of societal upheaval. This serves as a fatalistic reminder that all the events we, the readers, know are coming in the narrative’s future are unavoidable even if our characters’ efforts were to play out. Change is inevitable and the future is coming at us like a bullet train. No time to dodge, not even for one who can do miraculous feats using the baraka.
The A.’.A.’. reflects on the mysteries of the vagina before imploring the reader to burn this page.
From Eric Wagner: More Handel in honor of Maria’s baby for this week. Happy Thanksgiving.