Wilfred Ward Coupe
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A Nest of Anarchists. By JBP.

Part 3. The Wandering Scholar


      Wilfred 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 pipe.

     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.

     I imagine, 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 authentic.

     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 word.

     The Inquisitor, 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.

     The Inquisitor 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 weight.

     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.

     The moment 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.

     'Rhubarb'm he 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 Coupe?

     Dostoevsky's 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 was enough.

     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 the world.

     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 disguise?

     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 crisis.

     He maintained (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.

     Ironically, he 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 word.

     H.E. I 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 the obvious.

     H.E. Then, if the esoteric is so obvious, why do I not see it?     

     L.F.M. The best way to hide a thing is to put it in the most obvious place.

     Certainly the 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.

     Coupe starts 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 there.

     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.

     Running through 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.

     In 'On 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.'

     L.F.M. You 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. . .'

     Forum Member 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 identity.

     Indeed, this is the very point he makes at the end of 'On Casuistry'.

     H.E. What then is Mr Coupe? Is he a casuist in the good or bad sense of the word?

     L.F.M. 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.

     L.F.M. 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 applaud.     


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