Wednesday 15 June 2016

The White Goddess of (and by) Robert Graves

The author Robert Graves (1895-1985) was one of the major influences of my teens - being the first grown-up novelist I read. Graves thought of himself as a poet and was best known during his life as a historical novelist (especially for I Claudius and Claudius the God set in Rome at the time of the Caesars).

But Graves's poetry seems lacking in warmth and spontaneity and his work is not 'well loved', his poetic reputation is not very significant, and he left behind no really good anthology lyric to remember him by. And, since the highly successful BBC TV series of the Claudius novels in the mid-seventies, his novels have fallen from public view and are no longer generally known.

It would probably astonish and appal Graves to know that his major influence has been via non-fiction prose: specifically the early 'autobiography' Goodbye To All That - which contains classic descriptions of trench warfare from the 1914-18 world war, and has been adopted as a kind of founding document of pacifist radical rebellion; and a strange book called The White Goddess which is the source for the major deity of modern neo-paganism (especially Wiccan witches) - the 'Triple' Moon Goddess (maiden, mother and crone).

For many years I used to carry Graves's White Goddess around with me - I still have the same Faber paperback 1961 edition (now with the cover detached). The book partly fed, and partly was  responsible for, my basic spiritual stance - which was a kind of non-realist pagan-flavoured veneration of the moon, trees, water, landscape - and the idea of 'poetry' as the basis of Life - right through until my mid forties.

Looking again at the WG , it is clear that I barely ever looked at the middle of the book - but read and re-read the first and last chapters. Indeed, I was almost indifferent the the attempt to document and prove Graves's various theses about pre-history and history. What made an impact on me was Graves's tone of voice: the 'superb' conviction with which he stated himself.

As so often in my reading, I was more impressed by the diagnosis than the prescription; Graves's diagnosis of the alienated spiritual malaise of modern times is spot-on, in a spiritual sense; and as powerful as any I have seen. His prescription - a (supposed) 'return' to worshipping the Triple Moon Goddess (as he imagines her) was never very convincing, especially as his descriptions of this supposed ancient religion were so utterly horrific.

By Graves's own accounts, the world of the White Goddess is repellent - so much so, that for once a psychological-sexual explanation seems to be correct: Graves made the White Goddess as a rationalisation of his own sexual life and preferences as they related to his poetic work. The idea is that the most ancient, natural and satisfying human society is a matriarchy in which a cruel and capricious ruling Queen has a series of sexual relationships with infatuated poets, whom she has put to death when she is tired of them. The poets gain from this arrangement the energies and inspiration to write their poems (for a short while).

The whole 'system' has nothing to offer anybody else than the Goddess/ Queen and her series of Poets - except the profundity and power of the resulting poems.

In other words, Graves's White Goddess is partly a 'projection' of the way that Graves 'needed' to be slavishly infatuated to a beautiful woman of strong but fickle conviction and preferences who despised him... in order to find the motivation to write poems - and partly, reciprocally, Graves's own life became modelled on this myth which he had created.

What I now perceive is a very sensationalist, self-dramatising, immature and adolescent psychology at work here - an apotheosis of the ignorant, hopeless teenage 'crush'. Which is no doubt why the scheme appealed to me! - and also why it has gone on to exert such deep influence on modern New Age/ feminist-flavoured, neo-pagan spirituality (which is, typically of modern cultural products, nothing if not adolescent in its framework and aspirations).

My current evaluation is that this book is well worth looking-into for its early and late chapters and the sense of the alienation of modern life. Furthermore, in its inchoate and trivial way, I think the basic instinct in favour of a truly female balancing influence on spiritual life is correct (including the criticisms of this being lacking in Christianity) - although the usual materialist way this feminine impulse has come through into current culture is perversely opposite to what is needed; and has made things vastly and intractably worse.

In the end, The White Goddess is deceptive in that it adopts a reductive, and 'explaining away' attitude towards myth (Graves delights in explaining myths as merely encoded history, and not magical or spiritual at all); and his view of a revived Goddess worship was - ultimately - a kind of self-conscious play-acting: Graves did not really believe in the reality of a White Triple Goddess, and there was always a playful ironic quality about his assertions, in line with its all being a literary conceit or rhetorical strategy.

The spiritual vision advocated in The White Goddess is purely this-worldly (e.g. there is no life beyond death, souls are not real, there is no creator deity), and related to the getting of this-worldly power (albeit poetic power) - meaning that Graves's is essentially a modern and secular world view: it is indeed neo-pagan - a Post-Victorian revivalist personal spirituality, and not truly a pagan religion (as he imagined it was).

The middle of the book is an impenetrable morass of pseudo-scholarly, but occasionally inspired, quibbling and pedantry. But if (as GB Shaw said) the essence of style is effectiveness of assertion, then Graves was a great prose stylist - and his prose never got better (more effective) than in the framing sections of The White Goddess. That is the secret of this book's enduring, albeit occult, success.


William Wildblood said...

Best review of The White Goddess I've ever read. I was always suspicious of Graves' thesis but couldn't fully articulate why. You've done that perfectly.

John Fitzgerald said...

There's a terrific sequence in Colin Wilson's autobiography 'Dreaming to Some Purpose' about his encounter with Graves in Greece. RG, it appears, saw himself as a kind of magus - a Prospero-type figure - but CW found him a very ongenial one and he certainly comes across as a singular and striking figure in the book.

A number of my friends are quite convinced by Graves' matriarchy thesis. I've not read the book so can't really comment, though I've always had a slight leaning towards the Solar than the Lunar in these matters. But there has to be a balance, and this is something the French / Romanian novelist and esoterist Jean Parvulesco (1929 - 2010) tuned into with his vision of a 'revised', more femininely-balanced Holy Trinity, with six points of sacred reference rather than three -

God the Father / Our Lady

Jesus / Mary Magdalene

The Holy Spirit / Soohia (Divine Wisdom)

Contriversial atuff ithout a doubt, but according to JP a necessary and imminent imaginative leap for Christianity.

DanC said...

I once read an interview with the film director Peter Bogdanovich who said Orson Welles recommended The White Goddess and that Bogdanovich now considered Graves his favorite poet. That got me to check it out of the library. You're right: Graves' confidence is what makes a reader assume he knows what he is talking about. And there is a lot of interesting material in the book, even if it is scattershot. I was surprised years later, when I learned scholars rejected the triple-goddess and matriarchy hypotheses for Bronze Age cultures.

Anonymous said...

The problem of pagan goddess figures is highlighted nicely in your critique here. Graves and his successors do not point towards a Mother in Heaven, but a Mother in the earth: a deity that only serves their earthly appetites and validates their otherwise unspirital lifestyles. They never reach for something higher than this world.
- Carter Craft

Bruce Charlton said...

@DanC - Yes - Current opinion seems to reject the Bronze Age as a separate culture, at least in Britain.

The idea is that the invention of bronze was assimilated to the existing Neolithic culture (the one that built the complex of great structures such as Avebury, Silbury Hill, and towards the end Stonehenge) without qualitative change (so Neolithic and 'early bronze age' are a single unit).

Then there was a collapse and social breakdown to a much simpler, smaller scale, 'village' society closer to subsistence which included the 'late bronze age blending into the iron age (what used to be called the Ancient Britons - i.e. the 'Celts').

The new idea sounds reasonable - there seems no particular reason why the metal technologies would necessarily dominate the whole culture.