Politics & Media
May 09, 2023, 06:28AM

The Waste Land

The Mandate of Heaven and the divine right of Kings.

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There was a live screening of the coronation in the Nave in Canterbury Cathedral. I wasn’t sure whether to go or not.

I consulted the I-Ching, and got hexagram 63, After Completion, line 5. This is what it says:

Legge: The fifth line, dynamic, shows its subject as the neighbor in the east who slaughters an ox for his sacrifice; but this is not equal to the small spring sacrifice of the neighbor in the west, whose sincerity receives the blessing.

Various commentaries are added to this. These include the following:

Siu: Men are deceived by what the eyes see, but the gods are swayed by what the heart conceals.

Wing: This is an inappropriate time for ostentatious exhibitions of personal success and grandeur. Look for true happiness in the simplicity of your life. You will achieve more by small efforts than by large displays of power.

The line is a reference to one of the underlying myths of the I-Ching, the Mandate of Heaven: the Chinese equivalent of the divine right of Kings. The  “neighbor in the east” refers to the Shang dynasty. The “neighbor in the west” to the Zhou. The Shang had become corrupt and were oppressing the people, who were in distress. This was understood to mean that the Mandate was withdrawn and that a new political dynasty was about to take over.

I thought this was a particularly relevant reading given the circumstances. I decided to attend.

It was an odd affair. There was a huge TV screen at the end of the Nave and speakers attached to the columns. There were seats lined up in the middle and along the sides. There were two or three hundred people in attendance. A few were waving hand-held, plastic Union Jack flags on sticks. What struck me was the strange juxtaposition of 21st-century technology with ancient Gothic architecture. Lots of people were holding their phones up, watching the screen and filming it through another screen. There was a drunken woman in front of me. She had a red face, a purple nose and diamanté earrings shaped like hearts. She was trying to engage people in conversation, but everyone was pointedly ignoring her. When she couldn’t get a response she continued talking to herself. Once the crown had been placed on Charles’ head the crowd clapped.

Meanwhile outside everything was carrying on as normal. People were shopping, eating in restaurants and drinking in pubs, milling around the city center in the usual way as if nothing particular was going on. When I got home there was a coronation party taking place in one of my neighbor’s gardens. I declined to attend.

I watched the news. About 64 people were arrested for protesting the coronation, including the chief executive of the anti-monarchist campaign group Republic, Graham Smith. Police said they were carrying “lock-on” devices. Republic said that they were straps intended to be used to secure their signs in place.

"The reports of people being arrested for peacefully protesting the coronation are incredibly alarming," said Human Rights Watch UK director Yasmine Ahmed. "This is something you would expect to see in Moscow, not London."

Supporters of Celtic football club in Glasgow were heard to sing, “You can shove your coronation up your arse” from the terraces, while Liverpool fans booed the National anthem.

There are no official figures for the cost of the coronation, which was paid for entirely by the taxpayer. Some estimates put it in the region of £250 million. Against the backdrop of a cost of living crisis, with doctors, teachers, nurses and other public sector workers going on strike in pursuit of higher pay, this is excessive. A YouGov survey found 51 percent of those questioned believed the ceremony shouldn’t have been funded by the Government, with only 32 percent believing that it should. Charles could’ve paid for it himself. His private personal fortune is estimated to be in the region of £1.8 billion.

There’s also no official figure for the percentage of the population who are monarchists. Among my friends, very few. There are fanatical monarchists, and fanatical anti-monarchists, but the majority of people are fairly indifferent. What was notable among those in the crowd being interviewed by the BBC was how many of them were American. I’d guess monarchy is big in the United States.

The problem with the concept of the monarchy as it is practiced in the UK is that it’s allotted to a particular person by birth. Charles didn’t have to do anything to become King. All he had to do was to get born and stay alive long enough to see his mum die. It’s this concept that lies behind the theoretical notion of the divine right of Kings. Certain bloodlines are superior to others. Certain people, by dint of who their ancestors were, are considered more worthy than the rest of us. This is symbolized by the language we use to refer to them. Charles and Camilla are “Their Majesties King Charles and Queen Camilla.” When approaching them you are expected to bow or to curtsy. This is to show deference. You are lower than them.

This wasn’t always the case. In Anglo-Saxon times Kings were elected by a council of wise men, known as a Witan. It was the Normans who instituted the practice of handing it to the first-born son of the descendants of the Norman invaders. The notion of the divine right of Kings came by conquest.

In pre-Roman times the Rex Nemorensis took up his position by assassinating his predecessor, a practice that’s echoed in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Modern heads of state tend to be elected, a more civilized approach. The problem with this is that it removes the magical association of the King with the land. This is a near universal concept practiced by cultures, both ancient and modern, around the world. It’s this notion of Kingship that lies behind the story of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail in the Arthurian cycle.

The tale makes its first appearance in Perceval, the Story of the Grail, written sometime between 1180 and 1191 by Chretien de Troyes. It may be based upon earlier myths, and Chretien said that he took it from a book given to him by his patron, Philip I, Count of Flanders. The knight, Perceval, goes on a quest to find the Grail, said to be the cup that caught Christ’s blood on the cross, or the transubstantiation vessel used by Christ and the Apostles at the Last Supper. The Fisher King resides in a land blighted by infertility, and is seen idly fishing. Percival’s invited to the Grail Castle, where, at supper, he witnesses a strange procession. Various objects are paraded before him between courses, including a grail—a bowl, or a deep dish—containing a single communion wafer. Perceval remains silent throughout the meal and the following day, when he wakes up, the castle is deserted. He later finds out that he should’ve asked a particular question at the sight of the Grail, which would’ve healed his wounded host and restored fertility to the land. The question that he was supposed to have asked is: “Whom does the Grail serve?”

British Kings since Norman times have been obsessed by the Arthurian legends. This may be because they refer back to a pre-Saxon era, thus legitimizing their own takeover of the land. By identifying with a legendary Welsh monarch they were bypassing the previous Anglo-Saxon Kings and claiming an authority that preceded theirs. Most medieval Kings modeled their court of how they imagined Camelot to be.

The Fisher King is said to be wounded. In some versions of the tale, the wound is in his thigh, inflicted by God in retribution for assaults on women in the King’s court. There’s a powerful sexual element in this. It is because of the wound that the land has been laid to waste. Is it stretching the point too far to draw parallels with our new King: an aged, incapacitated adulterer who cheated on his wife? The taint of his betrayal lies heavy on his reign. Meanwhile “the other woman” in the affair is now our Queen.

Take a look at the state of the country over which King Charles III now reigns. One in five people are living in poverty. Around 2.99 million are using foodbanks. This includes working people, such as nurses, shop workers and teaching assistants. These are the people who, during the pandemic, we were encouraged to clap for on our doorsteps every Thursday evening. Some families are reduced to eating only once a day. Children go hungry in school. The cost of housing is rising exponentially, with large parts of London being owned by foreign billionaires. Young people are forced to live in over-priced, private rented accommodation, which decimates their savings, precluding them from ever owning a house. Our NHS is being privatized, driven from crisis to crisis by successive governments.

Our one hope of actual systemic change, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, has been subjected to a purge which has seen socialists driven out in their tens of thousands. That includes me. The current Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, has reneged on every one of the 10 pledges which got him elected. Millions of us have been effectively disenfranchised. Democracy is a sham, both main parties sharing almost indistinguishable policies. Relative incomes are going down while the cost of living rises. Austerity is back. The Bank of England’s chief economist, Huw Pill, says that British households “need to accept” they are poorer. Our roads are full of potholes, our seas are full of shit, our air is full of particulates, our land is paved over by roads, our supermarket shelves are empty, our political life is corrupted, mental illness and suicide are on the rise, the greed of the few has overridden the need of the many, people are desperate, angry, confused. The Waste Land is not some mythic realm in an ancient story book: it is here, now, in the UK.

—Read more of CJ Stone’s work here.


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