For those of you who have read my books and blog posts here over the last decade, the name ‘Titus Burckhardt’ is not unknown. I have referenced his ideas on alchemy and Perennialism from the start and remain not-so-secretly convinced that Ms. Rowling’s reading in hermeticism that set the story scaffolding for her Hogwarts Saga was founded in Burckhardt’s Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul. His Mirror of the Intellect, too, I suspect was influential, if only in drawing out the meaning for Ms. Rowling of the many mirrors in the English fantasy tradition. Harry Potter for Nerds has an important essay by Erin Sweeney on Rowling’s astrological-alchemical artistry that assumes just this Rowling-Burckhardt connection.
I’ve also mentioned another traditional writer in thoughts posted here, Martin Lings, who was both a Perennialist and Sufi like Burkhardt and a student and friend of C. S. Lewis.’ Frankly, I think the links joining the Inkling writers and the greater Coleridgean resistance to the errors of modernity with the Perennialist school to be significant and important, both for understanding the artistry and meaning of Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Rowling, et aliorum, which is to say the power of their work, but in understanding ourselves, as readers and as human beings. Lings’ Sacred Art of Shakespeare is the model of exposition in this regard that I have tried to emulate.
Imagine my intrigue, then, when I heard from a mentor and friend that the BBC had filmed an episode in its Inspector Lewis ‘Masterpiece Mystery’ called ‘Allegory of Love’ that explored the tradition of English fantasy out of Oxford, notably, Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien, in light of Perennialist teaching. I watched it last night via Hulu plus and my wife’s laptop and I review it below the jump; please watch the show yourself before reading what follows because I make no allowance in it for those not wanting to be spoiled.
‘The Allegory of Love‘ bears reviewing certainly, both in the sense of ‘watching it again’ and discussing it. I doubt I will give it a second watch because of other demands on my time just now but here are my thoughts on what the screenwriter, clearly a reader and admirer of Burckhardt and I think a Muslim of some kind (perhaps only a sympathizer?), was after.
The key image of the mirror, I’d say, is meant as an invitation to contrast the Burckhardtian/Perennialist/Islamic idea of the ‘Mirror of the Intellect’ — the Persian mirror on the wall of the Comparative Religion professor that is hung there to invite noetic reflection on one’s identity as an image/likeness of God — and the mirror of Romantic fantasy, here Liddell/Carroll’s Looking Glass, but as apt, MacDonald’s mirror in Lilith, Lewis’ wardobe with glass, Tolkien’s Galadriel mirror, and Rowling’s various mirrors, most importantly, the Mirror of Erised and the eye fragment in Hallows.
These latter mirrors in the teevee program are literate “allegories of love” but also the love of “arrested development” as Bernie/Bernice, the story wise woman/Perennialist/androgyn and Burckhardt reader observes outside the Bird and Baby, and, really of sexual perversion.
The story turns on the doppelganger of the Alice woman who is simultaneously niece, daughter, sister, bride-to-be, and sexual rival/danger to various men and women in the story. The Lewis Carroll don/scholar and secret pervert posing as celibate (a critique of Dodgson, alas, I’m afraid, hence the scene of his cleaning the photograph of the Liddell Alice) buys an Alice human copy, the Bosnian ‘sex worker,’ with whom to act out his longing for his niece. Alice’s father and son eventually also use Alice’s human reflection as surrogate sex toy and fantasy reflection.
The man who has won the real Alice, however, has his own allegory of love nightmare. His foster mother, in her grief at the departure of her husband, had sexual relations for years with Dorian — yes, the Wilde mirror/portrait reference is apt (I wonder if the Carroll don isn’t the Boxland author’s aging image of a life of sin) — for their mutual comfort. The beginning and end of his Boxlands chapter, the murderous mirror and the quotation from Oedipus, suggests that he had begun to break free from his perverse childhood by reflecting in the Persian mirror and seeing his true self. The Australian girl, who looks like his foster mother/muse (and the young Joanne Rowling!), is thrown off she says and he quotes the Oedipal confession to his Alice as a marker of what secret sin he is struggling to overcome to love her truly.
Which, given the clear Lewis references made by the Scotland Yard (?) sergeant from Boxen/Boxlands and the mother burying the box a la Lewis at his father’s death, is as close to a kindness for the Inklings as we get in the story. I think we are meant to take Bernie/Bernice’s judgment as final — Lewis was a psychological invalid and perhaps a pervert having relations with a mother substitute (Jane Moore — the Lewis in the story calls his boss ‘Mum’ in something of a shadow here), Tolkien likewise, and Carroll most of all — that fantasy writing is, at best, therapeutic projection and, more likely, a sick allegory or transparency through which we can see psychological maladjustment and grief/longing.
The scene that has to be interpreted is the close at which Alice comes to her brother’s shed, takes his hand, and leads him out of his fantasy isolation (in which we have seen his pre-occupation with his sister’s Bosnian twin). Is this her attempt to save him from the fantasy-gaming and perversion that was Dorian’s downfall, i.e. a rescue attempt that breaks the cycle? Or is she, in her grief for Dorian and her anger with her father, taking him to her bedroom to comfort herself with his incestuous fantasy and her own Elektran desires?
I think the author offers us hope for the former but believes it will be the latter.
On the Muslim point, all the characters who are believers in the story (with the possible exception of Bernie/Bernice, who, if the beer dispute scene is any measure, is something of a nutter as well as the sage!) are meant to engage our sympathy for long suffering Islam, The Alice look-alike with two names is an orphan because of the war that the Seyyed Hossein Nasr stand-in figure clearly blames on the Christian west not Muslim violence and she is brought to the UK as a sex object. She is a victim, whose life as prostitute is supported (in charity? sympathy?) by her friend the chambermaid and not judged by the Nasr don who, I assume, we’re meant to believe is the true Carroll figure that loves/adores her from afar as long-suffering Islam Alice.
Given the anger in the UK at its Islamofascist minority that have made much of the capitol into ‘Londinistan,’ I’d say it’s a fair bet that the author was making the case via Perennialism that Islam is persecuted and righteous (and the subject of perverse projection from Christian intellectuals) rather than the agent of violence and Taliban-esque fundamentalism on the streets. The Nasr cut-out figure, if anything, is the hero of the piece, who is falsely arrested for showing the only acts of sincere kindness to his co-religionist; his denial of being like the Taliban, I think, may have been the point of the production. He is, after all, the man who owned the Persian mirror, the real Mirror of the Intellect, that he let Dorian borrow for his work and which brought him to the point of Self understanding in Boxlands.
And what are we to make of the Mystique d’Noir (?) perfume that Ned buys for his niece and doppelganger — and which Inspector Lewis’ wife wore as well? And the critical place of the reference to Borges’ Uqbar? There is much more to unpack here and I look forward to reading below your thoughts and reflections on this remarkable program.
Is English fantasy an edifying medium through whose story transparencies we can have imaginative contact with spiritual realities? Or is it more the mark of arrested psychological development in the perverse longings of adolescent projection and sexuality? Certainly with Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling, all of whose family lives were marked by missing or dead mothers and fathers — and consequent odd personal histories, the case can be made for the latter (as I think this screenwriter attempts to make in story). Does that mean that fantasy cannot be serve the greater purpose — or does it necessarily lock us into the childishness of the Bird and Baby ‘New inklings’ fans portrayed in Inspector Lewis’ Allegory of Love?