Ward Coupe was designed for the job of eminence grise. An observer, an adviser,
a commentator, an analyst (who denounced analysis) he resembled a bird of prey
- a mild vulture, with a cock of the head like a robin's. He lived alone,
permanently poor, reading everything worth reading in English, Spanish, German,
Greek and Latin, and spent a great deal of time at the .Forum and in Fredrick's
spacious, ill-furnished sitting room, perched on a hard chair, sucking at a
He would remove
the pipe from his mouth, shut his nutcracker jaw, nod his narrow skull, and his
grey-blue eyes would twinkle frostily as he spoke. He relished discussion,
detailed attention to words, ideas and motives, but he would not argue. If
asked a question he would answer, given an opening he would contribute, and his
capacity to observe while listening was formidable. His interest was in what he
regarded as truth, not in people for their own sake. Where truth was hinted at,
or could be pursued, he was a terrier after a rat, but if truth was entirely
hidden beneath opinion, he would twinkle and say nothing, he would simply
listen, for as he said, 'all conversation is equally revealing'. By this he
meant that underlying what people say are a series of perceptible assumptions
which they prefer not to recognise. That he had a strong ego and a self-image
of himself as a sage will become obvious when we look at the pamphlets called
'Coupologues' which he wrote and the Forum published.
Molly did not
like Coupe. She suspected him, I think, of secret Catholic motives, as if he
were a spy. Fredrick found his scholarship and intellectual clarity invaluable,
and enjoyed his eccentricities and ironic humour.
although without evidence, that Coupe had a vital and reckless youth. Whatever
official qualifications he had, he didn't mention them, but his mental
equipment and his knowledge were prodigious. He was, I believe, at Oxford, but
left under a cloud, and then spent time teaching school Latin.
In the early nineteen-thirties he took off for Spain,
and stayed, teaching English, until the Civil War chased him over the border.
He was deeply read in Spanish literature, particularly Calderon, and was fond
of contrasting Calderon's uncompromising saying, in one of autos sacramentales,
'Do what is right, for God is God', with Nietzsche's tortured declaration that
'God is dead.' There's little doubt in my mind that for different reasons he
was as fond of Nietzsche as of Calderon.
It did not
occur to me that Coupe was a practising Catholic until one day a rosary fell to
the floor when he pulled out a handkerchief. He was a believer who remained at
arm's length. When in the late forties Fredrick was on the edge of asking to be
received into the Church, Coupe advised against it, because, he said, it would
be bad for the health of the Forum. Fredrick took his advice for three years.
And then, from the time he entered the Church, work in the Forum grew less
When members of
the Forum decided on one occasion to entertain themselves at Christmas with
charades, they chose, with typical eccentricity, to perform Dostoevsky's
'Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.'
This appears as
a story told by Ivan in 'The Brothers Karamazov.' It supposes that Jesus
returns to earth when the Inquisition rules, is immediately arrested, and taken
before the Grand Inquisitor. The Legend would be a dialogue if Jesus spoke, but
although he is questioned and challenged by the Inquisitor he does not answer a
in a speech of great length and subtlety, explains that Jesus's wish that
people should awaken to his message freely and follow his teaching through
understanding and choice was a mistake based on a delusion. Human beings, he
insisted, are not as perceptive and well-intentioned as Jesus imagined, but
base, venal, ignorant and selfish. They require to be led and controlled by the
wise, who know that peace and prosperity are more important to their welfare
than freedom, which leads only to division, strife and eventual disaster.
Jesus, says the Inquisitor, cannot be allowed to raise again the hopes and
longings in these flocks of sheep and goats which have been ordered into
acquiescence by the benevolent rule and restriction of the wise, and so
protected from the bitter experience of responsibility.
explains that he and his elite company have undertaken the terrible and lonely
task of accepting responsibility on behalf of those who could not bear its
There was no
doubt in anyone's mind as to who should play the part of the Inquisitor. Coupe
was designed for it.
Who should play
the part of Jesus was the problem. It is a part that no one is capable of
playing. Actors who have attempted it have betrayed their misunderstanding of
the world. The fact that in Dostoevsky's 'Legend' Jesus remains silent
throughout requires an actor who can establish a presence that is attentive,
alert and robust while using neither words nor gestures. The fact that I cannot
remember who did in fact play the part of Jesus shows that he must have
performed either very well or very badly.
The rules of
the charade were that no known language can be employed by the Inquisitor,
either. He must express himself only by uttering the word 'Rhubarb' with every
possible variation of emphasis and meaning.
Coupe fixed his eyes on the prisoner and began to expound his thesis, we
realised that we were in the presence not merely of a Master but of the Grand
Inquisitor himself, despite the fact that he was dressed in a white sheet with
black shoes peeping out below. He had an air of magisterial authority,
appalling sincerity, and ruthless pragmatism, which for its effect of
threatening power was more alarming that all the efforts to frighten us of
Boris Karloff as the Mummy and Bela Lugosi as Dracula.
said. 'Rhubarb, rhubarb', and with each rhubarb and with each pause between
rhubarbs his lonely and ascetic dedication became more deadly. But however
forceful and logical these rhubarbs became, the prisoner uttered not a single
rhubarb in reply. The effect was to cause us to question the role of authority
in the world once and for all, and to realise that freedom is the most precious
of human possibilities, to be gained and maintained only by dedicated attention
to the world as it is, and the most subtle and determined resistance to those
who would rob us of it. This, of course, was precisely against the intentions
of the Grand Inquisitor. Was it, however, the exact intention of Wilfred Ward
Legend runs to a great many pages and if Coupe had delivered as many rhubarbs
as Dostoevsky delivered the contents of his dictionary, we would have been
there for more than an hour. Coupe engaged us for no more than ten minutes. It
At the end
Jesus performs his one overt action. He moves swiftly towards the Inquisitor
and gives him a gentle kiss. The Inquisitor in this case started back in a kind
of fear, then opened the available door and Jesus departed into the dark
streets of the city - or, in point of fact, into the kitchen.
It seemed to me
that in Coupe's performance the Inquisitor's suffering was in exact proportion
to the authority he wielded, that he knew he was working in the service of the
Great Antagonist, and did this for what he regarded as the benefit of his
flock. Jesus, the Inquisitor's rhubarbs implied, should have accepted the
Adversary's temptation in the wilderness, and taken upon himself the regulation
of the world. Freedom, he insisted, was a terrible delusion, leading only to an
increase in suffering for the ordinary, the ignorant and the innocent. But we
were all aware that the powerful invariably abuse their power, and that their
efforts at total control had over the last few years come close to destroying
We were left
with a disquieting thought. Could we any longer trust Wilfred Ward Coupe to be
the wandering scholar in whom we had believed? What was the true extent of his
ambition? Could it be that an actual Inquisitor was moving among us in
Coupe's part in
the Forum, and in its demise, will be examined under that head, but at this
point it may be helpful to summarise his own thesis, as presented with some
ironic chicanery, in the series of 'Esoteric Coupologues' which he wrote
between 1946 and '47, and which Fredrick published and sold in the Park.
Since life. Coupe claimed, is its essential nature in
a state of flux, and the intellect can only perceive by arbitrarily and
artificially arresting the flow, converting it into static concepts, the
intellectual account of the world cannot reflect reality. The intellect works
in this way because the ego - the will - seeks always to establish its own
continuity, as a single entity, out of the multiplicity of responses to events.
To Coupe the one fundamental psychological reality is the soul, which is not
susceptible to definition. The failure to understand this leads to inner
(a legacy from Brown) that the mind of man is being built for him by outside
forces, and that freedom can only be achieved from this relentless assault by
the restoration of innocence at the level of wisdom: that is, as the result of
by- passing the ego. The first necessary step along this way is to gain a clear
view of the origin and development of words.
His use of the
word 'esoteric' to describe his Coupologues reveals his delight in what is
hidden. He would love to have been Grand Mast of Something or Other,
influential but invisible.
makes a point of denying this in the opening of the first Coupologue, 'On
Innocence.' These odd works took the form of dialogues between an imaginary
'Honest Enquirer' and 'London Forum Member', who, of course, is Coupe himself
at his most tricky and authoritative, always well supplied with the last
understand that you are an initiate of the London Forum. I should be most
grateful if you could spare the time to make my mind clear on a few points.
L.F.M. I will
do all I can to help, but allow me to say that you start off under a
misapprehension. I am not an initiate of the Forum. In fact the Forum has no
initiates. The term would imply that the Forum is in possession of some sort of
secret doctrine, some occult wisdom, hidden from the generality. That is not
so; the London Forum makes no such claim. The esoteric it expounds is simply
H.E. Then, if
the esoteric is so obvious, why do I not see it?
best way to hide a thing is to put it in the most obvious
Forum had no initiates, but it contained those who had some idea of what was
going on and many who didn't. Why, in any case, did Coupe choose the word
'esoteric' in his title.
I'd better say
here that I don't know if I was an actual member of the Forum or not. I can't
remember attending its meetings more than two or three times, but being so
closely acquainted with those who did regard themselves as regulars might
constitute some sort of membership.
the process of explanation, typically, by confounding the Honest Enquirer with
the aphorism 'All use of the intellect is a misuse.' Nothing is needed, he
insists, except the ability to stop the intellect from showing you what is not
At the end of
the pamphlet he summarises the argument. The mind is being built by those who
pursue knowledge (which of course is power). For understanding to be possible
knowledge has to be repudiated in favour of innocence, which at that point
becomes wisdom. Innocence allows the intellect simply to perceive what is
already given in the nature of things.
H.E. I take
it then that knowledge exists for the sake of freedom, which is fundamentally
consciousness, and that the outcome of this work of the builders is that
innocence passes from unawareness to wisdom.
L.F.M. It as
you say, but it is not done with the intention of the builders, who reject
innocence, which none the less becomes the cornerstone.
That vision of
the builders is the message originally conveyed by Brown, and must be
considered the basis of the Forum's work.
the Coupologues is a sly joke in which Coupe himself is seen by the
not-always-honest-enquirer as a sinister presence, twisting the work of the
group for his own secret purposes.
Innocence' we are told of 'a Jesuit in disguise', with Coupe referred to as
'being numbered among your innocent ones, I suppose?' To this 'Forum Member'
replies 'Well, not exactly. That is not how I should describe him.'
In the pamphlet
'On Casuistry' the Honest Enquirer tells us that 'Casuistry is verbal trickery
. . .' used by regular twisters 'like that fellow Coupe in your Forum.'
don't seem to like Mr Coupe.
H.E. Oh, I
have nothing against him personally. Besides, he might be quite nice to know.
Jesuits generally are. . .'
assures Honest Enquirer that Coupe is not a Jesuit, and that the word casuistry
has specific reference to cases of conscience.
Coupe in these
pamphlets enjoyed a sense of his significance in the Forum, which brought with
it some power, even if only exercised over a phantom enquirer. That, of course,
confirms his view that the ego must of its nature insist on asserting its own
Indeed, this is
the very point he makes at the end of 'On Casuistry'.
then is Mr Coupe? Is he a casuist in the good or bad sense of the word?
Insofar as he endeavours to decipher the meaning of words in order to know what
they really have to reveal, and differentiates one from another without
confusing them with the implied reality, he works for clarity of vision, and is
thus a casuist in the good sense.
H.E. Well, I
think he is not only a casuist, he is an egoist.
Possibly - especially if he makes his own ego one of his cases. Every attempt
at limitation is, with more or less subtlety, turned into a defence. I should
not be surprised, indeed, if Mr Coupe is not striving to make - or shall we
rather say to make out - a case for his own ego and, like the rest of us, can't
quite manage it.'
I can only