Thursday, October 01, 2009

A brief note on The King

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.
--Theodor Adorno

Here's my question: did Barthelme actually know that he had only months to live when he was writing this great little novel? This is a question to which there is certainly an answer; I just don't have it. Probably that recent biography would get you it. I only ask because if he did, the thematic resonance of the book would definitely be intensified; regardless, however, the theme is what it is.

It's no accident that we (only somewhat arbitrarily) use World War II as the general point of the birth of postmodernity. It's no lie--the idea that the world has any kind of comprehensible teleology does seem kind of naive after the Holocaust. Not that there hadn't already been plenty of large-scale atrocities that would have clued us in much earlier had we been looking for them, but this one you couldn't really overlook.

The King, if you were unaware, depicts the King Arthur and His Knights in World War II. Not just his knights--a whole chivalric tradition. The book doesn't actually get too far into the doings of the actual Nazis, but we do frequently hear the voices of Ezra Pound and Lord Haw-Haw on English-language propaganda radio, sharply reminding us of the situation.

The question is almost too obvious to even ask, but: how exactly can you have this here chivalric tradition in a world where the Holocaust is going on? What possible meaning does it have? Arthur's rejection of the atomic bomb may be noble, but it just accentuates the fact that this kind of nobility is obsolete--it's still developed and it's still used, regardless of what any knightly code says.

The character of Roger de Ibadan, the black knight (not an actual character from Arthurian legend, alas!), represents the future here. Arthur makes several racist remarks about him, out of obliviousness rather than any malice: the idea of a black knight is hard for him to process. But Roger is representative of a new, globalized world without the Eurocentrism of Arthur & Co--and while the other knights disappear, he has no need to, being well-equipped for it.

"I have another string or two to my lute," said Roger. "My degrees are in engineering, biochemistry, canon law, archaeology, and marine architecture."

Further, the fact that his ladylove is a thief and that he's willing to more or less countenance this shows a somewhat more flexible moral code that is probably necessary in the here and now.

Any comprehensive reading of the novel would have to feature a more in-depth portrait of Arthur, as well as Launcelot, Guinevere, and Lyonesse, at least. But the "grappling with a brave new world" business is certainly where one would want to start.


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