Armed With Madness by Mary Butts

Man Ray cover to the Penguin Classics edition

Mary Butts’s second novel (published in 1928, and so before her first novel had its UK first edition), went under a number of working titles, including “In the Wood”, “People Among Trees”, “The Egg and the Cup”, “Landscape with Birds”, “Bees Under the Roof”, and even “The Waste Land”, before settling on Armed With Madness — which comes from a quote, “Armed with madness, I go on a long voyage”, though the quote seems to be from Butts herself. Of these titles, “The Waste Land” is the most intriguing, because like Eliot’s poem (already out by the time Butts began her novel, so she probably wasn’t serious about using it), Armed With Madness combines Modernistic concerns about the spiritual wasteland of the post-First World War 20th century with a powerful symbol of redemption and healing, the Holy Grail.

The story begins in the country house (“in which they could not afford to live”) of the Taverner siblings in Cornwall. Drusilla, known to everyone as Scylla, “ash-fair and tree-tall”, “sometimes a witch, and sometimes a bitch”, is the older, and Felix (to whom, we’re told, “love and death were one”, though entirely unconvincingly) is the younger. With them is a painter called Ross (who is mostly ignored throughout the rest of the narrative), and, soon, an American, Dudley Carston, who comes for the weekend. As he arrives, Felix is out visiting a local pair of similarly artistic souls living, like the Taverners, “in a chaos of elegant poverty”, the painter and sculptor Clarence Lake, and his companion Picus Tracy. (Whose name, meaning “woodpecker”, apparently has all sorts of mythological connections, tying him to “Zeus the Woodpecker”, though they are lost on me.) While there, Picus gets Felix to help him clear out the well at his cottage property, as it has run dry and hedgehogs have a tendency to fall into it in their search for water. Hauling the dead creatures out with a fishing spear, Felix finds a jade cup with “Keltic twiddles… round the rim”. He, Picus, and Clarence come to the Taverners and everyone gathers round the dining table to look at the cup.

Their modern defences are up. This “Keltic” cup, fished out of a well with a spear — “Good old Freud”, someone says — of course can’t be the Holy Grail. They talk about Tennyson, Wagner, and the “Keltic Twilight”, of which these proto-Modernists are all highly disapproving (“those awful pre-Raphaelite pictures”, “I hate the Keltic Twilight… Responsible for the world’s worst art”). But they can’t help feeling something — or perhaps trying not to long for something.

The next day, the cup is gone. After a long search, Carston finds it in his room, where he knows it wasn’t, and accuses everyone of playing a trick on him. He leaves in a huff, and in a nearby village bumps into Picus’s father, a disapproving patriarch who’s come in search of his son for stealing an item from his collection of antiquities, a jade cup he claims to have been a “poison-cup” from India (jade having the power to reveal poison), and after that a “spitting-cup” for a tubercular lady. (Both, notably, images of unhealthiness.) Carston begins to feel that the cup turning up in his room wasn’t the only trick played on him.

But there’s no doubt this is a world desperately in need of the Holy Grail:

“There was something wrong with all of them, or with their world. A moment missed, a moment to come. Or not coming. Or either or both. Shove it off on the war; but that did not help.”

Scylla, Felix, and friends, are distinctly jaded: “We know between us pretty well all there is to know.” And Scylla at one point lays out the age’s malaise:

“If the materialists’ universe is true… we are a set of blind factors in a machine. And no passion has any validity… They are just little tricks of the machine… If you stick to the facts as we have them, life is a horror and an insult.”

They have the feeling, these no-longer-bright young things, of having run through the gamut:

“…we tried the bad to see if it might be good. But the new lot aren’t interested. Don’t give a button for the good any more.”

And Carston, tricked though he has been, feels this, at least, to be genuine:

“They strike me as people who have loved and suffered a great deal. That purifies.”

But whereas King Arthur’s knights split up to search for the Grail, it’s when this “Grail” appears that these “knights” split up. After Carston’s exit, Felix goes to Paris — and this is an interesting sequence, as we move from the tatty poverty of a run-down country house in Cornwall (dead hedgehogs and all) to the vibrancy of roaring 20s Paris, where, overwhelmed by his return to glitz and glamour, parties and young folk, Felix at first struggles to connect. Scylla goes to visit an old girlfriend in London, only to find her married and exceptionally conventional. (Butts gets playful here, presenting part of their conversation as an opera libretto.) Picus goes to weep on his mother’s grave. She, we learn, killed herself after discovering her husband, Picus’s father, was having an affair, with the “tubercular lady” to whom Picus’s father gave the jade cup, giving that “Holy Grail” even more of a Freudian significance for this young man. Clarence, meanwhile, goes back to the dry-welled cottage to try to forget about his longing for Picus, but soon descends into dangerous madness.

Mary Butts by Jean Cocteau, who illustrated a limited edition of Armed With Madness

And this, I think, is the key to the book’s title. The actual Grail knights — those who succeeded, anyway — were armed with righteousness and purity, but Butts’s “knights”, Scylla & co., have madness as their only resort. They have a self-conscious inability to relate to the Grail (real or not) as a symbol of transcendence and healing, but only as a symbol of reductive Freudian unconscious processes. They just don’t exist in a world where they can handle the Holy Grail’s holiness. So, it doesn’t matter if the cup (which is later revealed to actually be a “Keltic cup”, not the poison-cup and spitting-cup Picus’s father pretends it is) is the real Grail or not, or whether even if not real it still might offer some symbolic connection to a transcendent reality. To these jaded young things, there’s no possibility of transcendence except (perhaps) through art, (temporarily) through the disorientation of drink and drugs, or through fruitless and dangerous madness.

And so, they go through the pangs of loneliness, jealousy, longing, and so on, which ought to be the start of their healing journeys, only they have no way to go on from there, no transcendent state to aspire to.

The Grail myth becomes less important in the second half of the novel. Instead, the presiding image is of arrow-pierced Saint Sebastian, which is something Ted Hughes identified as a key figure throughout T S Eliot’s work, too (in his essay, “The Poetic Self”, in Winter Pollen).

Butts’ style, which I found driven by a sort of impatience with language in her first novel, is now clipped, dismissive, languid, broken — again, jaded — meaning the whole thing is quite laconic, exactly the sort of language her decadent, over-experienced, no-longer-bright young things use with one another. The result is that Armed With Madness really feels like it’s presenting something of the reality of its times. The heady, overwhelming glamour of Paris, and the too-sudden descents into sordid poverty and petty jealousy that run alongside it, all feel authentic. At the same time, Butts is aware of the malaise of her age:

“But notice what is happening now people have become used to the idea. Any little boy in a Paris bar, who never heard of physics knows. Everyone gets the age’s temper.”

To me, the characters are, as with her first novel, unequal to their self-dramatising pronouncements, but the novel itself feels like a far more on-the-ground and authentic document of its age than, say, Eliot’s highly intellectualised Waste Land, even though both draw from the same sources (Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, to which Butts adds A E Waite, Arthur Machen, and Jane Harrison). But both books share a theme of how the modern age doesn’t know how to deal with sacredness, and so loses out on awe, transcendence, and the deeper sort of healing it so desperately needs.

Butts’s next novel was a sequel of sorts to this one — or it features some of the same characters, anyway — though it doesn’t seem to have continued with the Grail theme. The Death of Felicity Taverner (1932) seems to be about land-developers seeking to despoil the Cornish countryside, and doesn’t tempt me quite as much as this novel did.

It’s also harder to get hold of. Armed With Madness seems to have been the only one of Butts’s novels to have had a paperback edition (in 2001 from Penguin Classics). I would like to try some of her short stories, if I can find them in a cheap enough edition. But Armed With Madness seems to be generally considered her best novel, and I suspect it might be more rewarding on a second go.

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