12 June 2007

Charles Williams: The Great Magician of the Bizarre

Does anyone have any thoughts on Charles Williams?? If so, please share them here! I’m in the process of reading for, then writing, a little article on Charles Williams, and thus collecting everything I can learn about him in a short time. Some of these thoughts I’ve posted over on the co-inherence list.

CW is the unjustly neglected third member of the Inklings Terrible Trio, after CSL & Tolkien. Unjustly neglected, because his writings—especially his seven shocking, glorious, convoluted, startling, unpredictable, obscure prose narratives (better called, by T. S. Eliot, “supernatural thrillers” or my himself, “metaphysical thrillers”)—are unparalleled. Not that they are the best novels in the world; it’s something else. There is nothing like them. Of course, there is not much that is really like anything else, if you know what I mean (didn’t I say there was nothing like Wangerin’s Book of the Dun Cow once?). Or perhaps everything is like everything else—maybe that’s Williams’s doctrine of co-inherence. More on that later.

Maybe it’s his sinewy syntax. Thomas Howard calls it “agile.” I think that’s a good word. “Labyrinthine” might work. Whatever it is, it’s not easy. Here’s a sample. In The Place of the Lion, Anthony Durant steps out on the landing of the stairs and finds he’s looking down into a Grand-Canyon style pit, with a swirling sky overhead passing into and becoming the cliffs in some sort of reciprocal cycle. Of course. He felt like he needed to step out to the edge and look up at something.
But as still that strength increased he would yield to such a desire; a greater thing than that was possible—it was for him to know, urgently for him to know, what that other thing might be. He was standing on the very edge, and the wind was rising into a driving might, and a dizziness caught him; he could not resist—why then, to yield, to throw himself outward on the strength that was driving though him as well as around him, to be one with that power, to be blown on it and yet to be part of it—nothing could oppose or bear up against it and him in it. Yet on the edge he pressed himself back; not so, was his passage to be achieved—it was for him to rise above that strength of wind; whether he went down or up it must be by great volition, and it was for such volition that he sought within him.
And so Anthony becomes one with the eagle and soars up above the pit in the house. And it’s all like that! Thrilling, dangerous, sinuous, and confusing as anything. But after five books or so, you get used to the style. And the rewards are many. Like this, for example, probably my favorite first sentence ever:
The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse. (War in Heaven)

So, I hope you rush out and buy all of his novels—or at least The Place of the Lion, War in Heaven, Many Dimensions, and Descent into Hell.

Here’s an excellent article by the aforementioned Thomas Howard.

I'm also trying to make a list of CW's main themes, doctrines, concerns. Here are
a few, beginning with the most common or central and moving to the more esoteric or obscure. Please add to this list!

1. Co-inherence (see below)
2. Substitution & Exchange -- the idea that one person can choose to take on another's sufferings.
3. The close interactions of the supernatural and the natural (or the noumenal and the phenomenal) to the point that the two are inextricable from one another.
4. The Platonic Forms
5. Connections with Dante’s Divine Comedy, such as the sanctifying potentialities of Romantic Love; the Beatific vision; the ascent of man through sufferings into holiness and peace; the vision of God as a point (cf. The Greater Trumps) that somehow contains, emanates, radiates, is, and is not, all things. He also did some scholarly work on Dante.
6. His superimposition of the form of the human body on Logres in his Arthurian poetry, and its theological implications.
7. My personal favorite, my homing locus in all his fiction: the sheer serenity of his saintly heroes. I have not worked out how they achieve this state of imperturbable tranquility and self-forgetfulness. I don't know if this indeed the condition recommended by Christ in the Gospels and by the writers of the NT Epistles. I wonder how it compares to the detachment expressed by mystics and saints of the past.
8. Mysticism/Ecumenicism/Universalism… I’m not sure what to call it. Sometimes I agree with Charles Wrenn, who, at one Inklings meeting, “almost seriously expressed a strong wish to burn Williams, or at least maintained that conversation with Williams enabled him to understand how inquisitors had felt it right to burn people…. Williams is eminently combustible” (letter of C. S. Lewis to his brother, 5 Nov. 1939). If not combustible, Williams is at any rate sometimes hovering at or over the edge of orthodoxy—or perhaps he merely sees more clearly than the rest of us, and so sees beyond the dogmas? But an interesting study would be to go further into specific comparisons of his language with that of mystics of all ages and creeds.

But I want the help of those of you who have already read his works, especially if you’ve delved into the poetry, theology, and literary criticism.

First, I’m trying to formulate a definition of “co-inherence.” I want to get beyond simply calling it “love” in my own mind or in my writing. Most discussions of it seem to deal with one of two perspectives: either “How do I apply substitution in my own life?” or “What Bible verses and principles correspond to co-inherence?” Both of these are helpful, but they both seem to depend on a common practice I have found in CW scholarship and discussions so far: that of simplifying CW’s weirdness down into easy, normal, quotidian language. I believe there must be a way of affirming the bizarre while comprehending the concepts.

One CW fan said “…there are connections everywhere; this is one meaning of co-inherence….Another is that they make sense; the opposite of co-inherence is incoherence.” Lovely! But I believe there is something beyond that, too: we already know there are connections everywhere, although we need people like Williams to show us the threads. We might not know everything makes sense, although we hope it will someday.

I sense another, extra-ordinary or sort of multi-dimensional mystical aspect to co-inherence. I don’t know, though, if co-inherence is the same as “substitution,” and if both are the same as “exchange.” Or is co-inherence the condition in which sanctified saints constantly live with other people, Omnipotence, and all creation, while “substitution” and “exchange” are specific acts committed on occasion?

Another question: what are the most helpful secondary works on CW? I have Howard’s & Alice Mary Hadfield’s. I am aware of those by Brian Horne, Gene Cavalier, Charles Hutter & Peter Schkel, Roma King, Mary McDermott Schideler, and Charles Hefling, although I have not read them yet. Does anyone want to comment on the value of these works? Which others do you consider essential?

And finally: What details of Williams’s personal biography interest you the most? Formative literary influences? Self-education?

Thank you for any and all thoughts!


Rosie Perera said...

I highly recommend you get yourself a copy of Loren Wilkinson's Under the Mercy: The Literature and Theology of Charles Williams, a 10 CD set of a course taught at Regent College. Available from the Regent Bookstore through that link. I've heard Loren introduce Williams only in one lecture when we studied his book The Place of the Lion in Loren's Christianity & Literature class, but that was enough to know that Loren has a lot of insight into what makes Williams tick and how to interpret him. A whole course on Williams by him would be amazing. Loren said that Williams is one of the 5-10 people who have influenced him the most. And Loren is one of the 5-10 people who have influenced me the most, so I can't speak more highly of his teaching.

I will scan my notes and the handout from that day of class and email them to you.

Ariel said...

This is fascinating. I'm afraid my own reading of Williams happened too long ago to be of much use, but I've been intending to read him again for some time.

Most of what I know/remember has been brought to mind by his interactions with Lewis. I recall that Lewis felt that CW's thoughts on substitution/exchange had some validity, especially as Lewis watched by his wife's death bed. I also recall that CW had a reputation for dabbling in the occult..?

Clearly, a multifaceted man.

tim said...

Sent here courtesy of Arie at BittersweetLife, who was kind enough to send me an email alerting me about this post. Charles Williams is one of my favorite authors; I've even made it a point to begin a collection of his first editions.

I've read all seven of the 'metaphysical thrillers' (my favorite description) at least once and even spent a considerable amount of time writing a paper on one (The Shadows of Ecstasy; not his best, but fascinating in its own right), which perhaps I may send you part of.

To answer one of your questions; I'm somewhat familiar with William's biography, but I'm sure there are things I've missed. Any and all aspects of his biography are of interest to me.

Rosie Perera said...

Sorina, you are aware, I presume, of the Charles Williams Society? They might have some useful resources.

The CWS website pointed me to a link to a blog, Charles Williams: The New Christian Year, which is essentially a reprint of two devotionals chosen by Williams. The intro to that blog has an intriguing quote: "Williams was also cited as a major influence on W.H. Auden's conversion to Christianity." Having recently become a lover of Auden's poetry, I'd sure be interested to know more about Williams's influence on him. I wonder where that fact "was...cited" from.

Finally, there is also "Co-Inherence" (coinherence-l) on Yahoo! Groups, a "lightly moderated e-list for discussion and application of the works and ideas of Charles Williams."

Iambic Admonit said...

Finally, a wonderful weekend of theatre, movies, and music with my sisters has (regrettably) come to an end, as have (less regrettably) several days of homeschool evaluations and one of thesis-rewriting. I greatly enjoy the actual evaluating—which consists of an “interview” of the student and mother/guardian in which they (and I) get to delight in a year of work well done—but the writing up of the letter afterwards is tedious and consumes time I’d like to be spending on CSL or Williams.

So back to those dear friends! I finished CSL’s letters tonight, to my great relief and sadness. An old friend has died. And so has an almost endless task. Now to the writing!

And I’ve read Williams’ All Hallows’ Eve--one of his best, definitely one of his best.

Rosie: I’d love to get the Wilkinson lectures you recommend, but they’re a bit pricey for me right now! Thanks a boatload for your lecture notes. Yes, I know about the Charles Williams Society, Charles Williams: The New Christian Year blog, and the “Co-Inherence” list. Thanks. I’ve been involved in a discussion there about how to understand and define “co-inherence,” which might show up here sometime too.

Ariel: You’re right. CSL tried to put CW’s “substitution” into practice when Joy was (first) dying of cancer of the bones. Joy had lost a lot of her calcium in the process, which left her unable to walk. Her thigh bone had “snapped like a twig.” Lewis prayed that, if possible, he would give up his calcium for her—and lo and behold, he developed osteoporosis (very unusual for a man of 58). See his letter of 27 November 1957 to Sheldon Vanauken.

And yes, CW did either dabble personally in the occult, or at least found it a fascinating field for study. I’ll let you know after I read a bio.

Tim: Thanks for commenting! I would say that I envy your collection of his first editions, but for the fact that I’m an inveterate book-killer. I bend spines, fold pages, dog-ear, crack bindings, scribble all over margins and fly-leaves. So I’ve come to adore cheap paperback editions on which I can make my mark! I’d love to hear more of what you have to say about Shadows of Ecstasy, because that’s the one that creeped me out the most! In it, his villain got uninhibited page-space to teach his doctrines, live his blasphemies, and persuade his potential disciples—all, I felt, without any discernable check or critique from Williams. And the book even ended (bit of a spoiler folks, sorry) with an ambiguous promise that he might return, King Arthur-style. So I felt rather sick inside my orthodox soul about how CW could, in good conscience (literally), give this anti-Christ such free reign to preach his new gospel. And how he could have his serenity-character (there’s always one of unshakeable tranquility in each novel) Isabel be one who at least encouraged her husband to follow the blasphemer, if not follow him herself. I’d love your feedback. Please help!