Thursday 8 December 2016

Charles Morgan: England's Forgotten Platonist

Charles Morgan (1894-1958) was an English novelist, playwright and essayist. He was born in Kent, studied at Oxford and lived most of his adult life in London. He was a household name in Britain, France and America during the 1930s, '40s and '50s, yet his work has disappeared almost without trace since, certainly in the UK.

Morgan's writing style is quintessentially English. One senses the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer and the heritage of the Romantic poets in everything he writes. Yet, paradoxically, he was honoured more in France than England, becoming an officer of the Legion d'honneur in 1936 and a member of the Institut de France in 1949. His essay France Is An Idea Necessary to Civilisation was highly influential in wartime France and feels especially relevant today as that country struggles to reforge her ancient identity and stave off a myriad of largely self-induced crises.

Morgan's finest book, at least out of those I have read, would probably be The Judge's Story (1948), a  flowing, harmonious tale of self-discovery, treating the profoundest of themes with the lightest of touches and calling The Tempest to mind in its meditative grace and distillation of the wisdom that comes with age.

The novel I keep coming back to, however - the one I'm always flicking through and brooding over - is The Fountain (1932), a 431-page epic that won the Hawthornden Prize in 1933 and was chosen as Book of the Month in the USA. The source material is primarily autobiographical. In 1914, Morgan was sent with the Naval Brigades to the defence of Antwerp. His battalion found itself lost, then trapped across the border in neutral Holland, where they were interned in Groningen. Morgan and a number of fellow-officers were then transferred to a secure fort at Wierickerschans, a fortress on an artificial island. He was there for a year, before being released on parole and sent to Roosendaal Castle, the seat of the aristocratic Van Pallandt family. Both castle and fort play central roles in The Fountain, though the Van Leyden family portrayed in the book is fictional. It was during this internment that Morgan first encountered the French language, culture and civilisation then still current in Dutch aristocratic circles and wrote the first draft of what became his first novel, The Gunroom.

Lewis Allison, the male protagonist of The Fountain, is a thirty year old British officer in exactly the same situation as his creator. A publisher by trade, and a former private-tutor, Lewis welcomes the quietness and opportunities for meditation internment will necessarily bring. He is writing a history of contemplative spirituality and is engaged on a search for stillness, inner focus, and what he calls 'singleness of mind'. The surprise appearance of an ex-pupil, Julie Harbury, now living in close proximity in Holland and married to a recuperating (though severely wounded) German officer, Rupert von Narwitz, disturbs Lewis's equanimity and sets the novel's plot in motion.

What follows is a sustained fictional meditation on the meaning of life - on the quest for holiness, authenticity and vocation; on our fallen world and the circumstances that sometimes separate us from those we feel called be with; on the social pressures that seek to silence the inner voice of truth; on the clash between individual desire and the demands of tradition; on the blessings of books and music, on a fraternity of the spirit that transcends war and national rivalry; on the fragility of human loves; on the immortality of the soul; and much, much more. 

There is, in short, a tremendous amount going on. Morgan takes his time in expressing it too. The pace is relaxed. Ideas and themes are left to marinate. Despite this, judging by one or two dust-jackets, it isn't always clear that publishers were fully in tune with the novel's premisses. It's certainly not the kind of story this cover tempts the reader with, for instance. 

Yes, there is an undeniable physical element to the love Morgan's protagonists feel for each other.  The Fountain, without doubt, is a highly erotically-charged text, but this is an eroticism transmuted by the intellectual and spiritual communion between the characters, this being the deeply Platonic context that animates and drives the narrative.

This cover, on the other hand ...

... creates far too genteel an impression. The novel is much more primal than this, reminding me, in many ways, of cities I feel particularly at home in, such as Liverpool or Rome, where one encounters both high and low culture with very little in-between. The younger members of the Van Leyden family are the closest depictions we find of the classic 'bourgeois' mindset - materialistic, staid, and unimaginative - similar, in their own way, to the Watson childrens' parents in Alan Garner's Elidor: too ensconced in newspapers and TV to be in any way aware of their offsprings' adventures on the borderland of the mythic and the everyday.

The illustration at the top of this piece remains my favourite due to the stylish art-deco ambience it conjures. The dust-jacket that best reflects Morgan's themes, however, is surely this one.

The artist evokes the tower on the Van Leyden estate where Lewis works on his history in the family library. He or she also taps into a fecund, archetypal stream in the art and literature of the British Isles. One thinks, for instance, of W.B. Yeats's lines in The Phases of the Moon

Far tower where Milton's Platonist
Sat late, or Shelley's visionary prince:
The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,
An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil.

'The symbol of the tower,' writes Kathleen Raine in Yeats the Initiate, 'was passed through a noble succession, in direct descent from Plato, through Milton's Il Penseroso and Shelley's Prince Athanase to Yeats himself. Palmer too, whose last years were dedicated to his engravings of Il Penseroso, was a Platonist; and for Yeats, seeing on all sides the rise of ignorance, the most important thing was that one philosopher should still keep watch in the High Lonely Tower; as Plato, Milton, Shelley and Palmer had kept faith.'

It is this 'one philosopher' that Lewis strives to become, and it is this same Platonic worldview which animates in so many ways the oeuvre of Morgan's contemporary, C.S. Lewis, especially, one feels, in the Narnia books. 'It's all in Plato,' as Professor Kirke keeps explaining in The Last Battle. Plato, as we know, believed that the real, stable, permanent part of the universe exists in a supernatural, super-sensible 'heaven' of Ideas or Forms. The physical world, therefore, is a realm of appearances only - illusory and transitory - a shadow or 'copy' of the real world. But C.S. Lewis places his Platonic reality not in a far-removed, abstract heaven, but rather at the very heart, the centre of all that exists. The children, at the end of The Last Battle, go further up (to Aslan's country in the mountains, to the Platonic heaven) and further in (through one 'copy' of Narnia after another) then out onto a garden containing a Narnia that is better than all those that came before and at last to a Narnia seen from the mountains which is 'as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream ... Bless me, it's all in Plato.'

This is the garden, this is the 'Narnia', these are the mountains, which the characters in The Fountain seek and, in flashes at least, come close to discovering.


The Fountain sold 100,000 copies. It seems extraordinary, looking back from 2016, that a novel of such density and erudition could prove such a best seller. It is tempting, perhaps, to speculate that this could never happen now - that reading tastes have degenerated to such an extent that a book like this would be practically unreadable today. I actually feel the opposite to be true and that, given the chance and the backing, the book might sell closer to a million copies than 100,000. Morgan saw himself as an inheritor of the Platonic tradition, and Platonism, as we have seen, revolves around something real and true; something that chimes and resonates with the human condition in every time and place and gets down to the very essence of who we are - this longing, this crying out of the human soul for a beauty and depth of experience which can only be found in Eternity and which this world, for all its charms and qualities, can never fully satisfy. Morgan felt this longing all his life. So did C.S. Lewis. So do millions of men and women in Britain today, cast off and left to drift in the post-modern void, their (and our) souls crying out for a dignity and nobility; a meaning, pattern and purpose - both individual and collective - which liberal, post-Christian society seems unwilling and unable to honour and even attempt to fulfil.

This is the deep yearning articulated in The Fountain; the book's primal scream of pain and hope. Contemporary readers would be delighted to encounter such integrity, I feel. Such intensity. But this is a style of writing and choice of themes which remains, for some reason, decidedly frowned upon by the powers that be in culture, media and the arts. No creative writing course, for instance, would recommend constructing a story in the style of The Fountain. Which is a shame. Because the Platonism given such stirring voice therein points to an end greater than itself. Just as Plato preceded Christ, helping creating an intellectual climate which would prove receptive to the Christian revelation, so today a rediscovery of the Platonic imagination could play a role in sowing the seeds of a Christian renaissance. Maybe that is why the powers that be show so little interest in Charles Morgan. Who can say? But let us conclude with a passage which highlights the singular nature, astonishing beauty and dynamic power - both dramatic and philosophical - of this remarkable book ...


'It is the consequence that matters,' Julie said, 'the consequence - not the intention. I didn't intend what I have done to Rupert or to you. I loved you.' She looked around the hut,  picked up a handful of pine-needles and let them stream over her palm. Outside it was raining still. 'The pardonable,' she continued, 'becomes unpardonable independently of us. The sin, though it seemed not to be a sin, grows to the stature of what we sin against. Its spiritual consequence leaps up and grows and burns like a forest fire. I see that now. There's no escape from it. None for ourselves; none for those we sin against,'

'Unless we pass through the fire.'

'Through it?'


'That is for the gods,' she said. 'Even Rupert is failing. It was to have been the miracle of his life that he should pass unscorched through every fire. He has passed through so much. But his love for me has trapped him ... Now, at any rate,' she added in a voice of anguish and relief, 'we need not be silent. We can go to him and say - '

'Not now,' Lewis answered. 'Give him time not to fail, Julie. He has transcended every other loss. He is beyond any help we can give or any reparation we can make.'

He said this so quietly and with so profound a passion that Julie, hearing again in his voice that ring of devotion and exultation which had first set him apart from other men in her eyes, turned to him in sharp wonder, in the delight of rediscovery. 'You love him,' she exclaimed. 'You could not speak like that if you did not love him.'

'As a pupil loves his master,' Lewis replied, and, going out of the hut, he looked up through the branches to the sky, seeing that the storm had passed. The branches, even the highest moved little. The wind had dropped and between the western beeches a reddened sun was slanting into the wood. Julie also came out, and stood beside him.

Through showering sprays they went on to the moor. As the gloom of the copse fell back and the heat expanse of the evening sky shone upon their faces, they were touched by the blissful awe of those who, in the instant of beauty or love, are bound in  a common wonder and look deeply into one another and speak silently as they cannot at other times. For the spirit of man is blind and dumb except God touch him, and awake, in the winter of his flesh, the spring of immortality.

The air, cooled and polished by rain, had that transparency with which at sundown on wet evenings it is sometimes invested, as though the substance of it had been drawn away and there remained between earth's floor and dome only a lucent emptiness edged with crystalline fires. Soon the crystal would be stained by dusk, the forms of earth thicken and night flow on; but for a little while the trees dreamed above their shadows and time slept. Lewis and Julie waited. At last, when the heather had begun to darken, they set out towards Enkendaal.


TheDoctorofOdoIsland said...

As a committed anti-Platonist, I suppose I should make it a priority to read this book, so I can perhaps go about refuting it.

Plato was the cause, rather than the cure, of the modern West's materialism and spiritual decay. For the fallen, crass, corrupt material world really is The World, the one and only world. The philosopher's heaven does not exist, and no one can reach it- this is where the quest for that Ideal led, this society we live in now. Platonism and Christianity were wed at the very beginning, and today we see the fruits of that union.

It may very well be the return of Platonism that revives Christianity in the West, as it did in the past, poisoning it yet again. Then crumbling as the quest fails and society turns back to materialism, yet again.

- Carter Craft

Bruce Charlton said...

@Carter - I don't agree that Plato was of this kind - he was a greatly net-Good influence on the Pagan world, and remains so; and should be regarded as an incomplete or imperfect Good, not as an evil.

However, Socrates was a much greater man (if not philosopher) than Plato.

In the later Dioalogues Plato portrayed Socrates as himself, more or less, and we should not attribute the wrongness of these late dialogues to the actual historical Socrates; Socrates was as portrayed in the ealy work - as confirmed by Xenophon and other contemporaries.

Socrates was deeply religious and principled, a proto-monotheist - even perhaps a Proto-Christian.

But I agree that forcing Christianity into a pre-existing mould of Plato/ Neo-Platonism, then later Aristotelianism, did severely damage Christian theology and made necessary the Reformation (which failed to solve the problem) and then the Restoration (which solved it - although awareness of this fact seems vestigial, even among Mormons).

Even so, there have been great achievments among Platonist Christians such as the Eastern Orthodox - who endured centuries of harsh persecuation while keeping alive the flame of faith - and very recently 70 years of the harshest persecution of any Christian group, or indeed of any group of any kind in history, in the Soviet Union; yet survived somehow to blossom forth remarkably after the Communist repression was (mostly) removed.

In sum, I would be more than happy with a mass Platonist spiritual revival in The West as the first step toward something better and more sustainable - although I think it extremely unlikely!