23 July 2007

Charles Williams: Principle Themes

This is the fifth installment in a series:
The Order of the Golden Dawn
Personality & Influence
Writing Style


We'll begin with a quote from the Charles Williams Society:
Williams was an unswerving and devoted member of the Church of England, with a refreshing tolerance of the scepticism of others, and a firm belief in the necessity of a ‘doubting Thomas’ in any apostolic body. More and more in his writings he devoted himself to the propagation and elaboration of two main doctrines—romantic love, and the coinherence of all human creatures. These themes formed the substance of all his later volumes, and found their fullest expression in the novels (which he described as ‘psychological thrillers’), in his Arthurian poems, and in many books of literary and theological exegesis. His early verse was written in traditional form, but this he later abandoned in favour of a stressed prosody built upon a framework of loosely organized internal rhymes.
From my reading, I believe that CW’s theology and imagination centered on five interrelated points: The Way of Romantic Love, the Arthurian and Grail legends, Co-Inherence, the Doctrine of Substitution, and Self-Surrender/Tranquility.

1. Throughout his life, Williams worked on developing a Theology of Romantic Love. This is most clearly expressed in a posthumously published work, Outlines of Romantic Theology. He wondered what was the nature of the relationship between loving a person and loving the Creator of that person. He believed that “falling in love” could be related to the Incarnation of the Kingdom and that the lifelong interactions of a Christian married couple was an allegory of or corresponded to the events of Christ’s earthly life. Each individual romance tends to follow more or less the same pattern: ecstasy, rejection, agony, despair, a kind of death, and a kind of resurrection. To him, romance was more than an analogy for Christ’s Passion; it was an embodying of that Passion. The events of Christ’s life are lived over in the lives of human beings.

Marital sex, Williams believed, re-creates a sense of order and meaning. Two separate individuals come together and unite their potentialities, restoring the single image of God that was disjunct in their separation. He was obsessed (almost to the point of perversion) with the union of word and flesh (poem and person, creativity and sex). Sex is an act of co-inherence in which the lovers renew their mutual vigour through the most extreme intimacy of physical relationships. Sex is an enactment of affirmation and rejection; sexual union unites human potentiality and restore the single image of God and is an image of the mystical body of Christ.

Part of the divine beauty of falling in love is that it makes the beloved appear as he or she really is (as God sees him/her) and all things are made new. The man finds the vision in the real woman and grows to love her nature more as that vision is clarified. The lovers dedicate themselves to love, which is almost just another name for God, and follow it as their vocation and as their salvation. This leads to a glorious, sacrificial, heavenly renunciation of self. Love is the cause of all action, the union with all life in earth and in heaven.

Because of this Theology of Romance, Dante was CW’s favorite author. He thought that Dante, better than any other writer, understood The Way of Romantic Love and personified it in Beatirice’s role in The Divine Comedy. He analyzed Dante in light of this theme in The Figure of Beatrice. In his own life, CW took “Celia” (Phyllis Jones) as his Beatrice. His affair with “Celia,” he claimed, expressed the words of Christ: “I am come that ye may have life, and that ye may have it more abundantly.”

2. The Arthurian and Grail legends & Human Body. The mystical body of Christ and its physical analogue—actual human bodies—fascinated Williams. He used both the Arthur/Grail legend and the human body as indexes to all his thought, and related all his experiences and inspirations to both. He studied the body as if it were geology: a microcosm of the earth. He believed that morals are incarnate in the joints of the body—although I have very little idea what that could possibly mean!

Love is embodied in the flesh of the lover and realized in the flesh of the lover; thus, each part of the body is significant to lovers. Only lovers see each other’s bodies in the perfection they ought to have, or perhaps have in a spiritual sense; only lovers see that perfect in the bodies. Therefore, each part of the body, to them, shows forth the qualities of love as it ought. This was operative in his affair with Phyllis: “Williams saw in Celia’s wrists and arms indexed entries to an understanding which he searched and found in verse” (Hadfield 205) [huh?]. Each part has meaning and each part relates to all the others; the same is true of the parts of the empire in the Arthurian cycle poems, and the same is true of every believer in the Christian vision of reality.

His Arthurian poetry was accompanied by a map of Europe superimposed with a drawing of a female body, showing how different regions corresponded to parts of her anatomy. He also related the astrological associations of each body part to his “unified field theory” of poetry, legend, and spiritual reality. The body is “an index to other creations.” In “Taliessin in the Rose-Garden,” Williams works out the centrality of this concept. Merlin’s sister, Brisen, stood and her shadow fells across Logres; presumably its outlines correspond to the true kingdom’s borders. Merlin drew the enchanted borders of Logres, and:
The weight of poetry could not then sink
Into the full depth of the weight of glory.
For all the codes his young tongue bore
Taliessin could not think in Merlin’s style,
Nor his verse grow mature with pure fact.

Taliessin’s verse was not mature because he had yet to learn the Way of Exchange. What is “The Way of Exchange?” It is related to the next two themes.

3. Co-Inherence—In the vision described above, Taliessin came to understand Divine Exchange through seeing/perceiving/understanding “the thrice co-inherent Trinity” as a single point. Co-inherence, CW’s central idea, teaches that Christ’s risen life is in each person who accepts Him; therefore, we can share in the divine interrelationship of the Trinity and live as members of one another. This is based on “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). This idea has been called, in theology, “Perichoresis,” or the mutual indwelling and relating of the Trinity. The Eucharist is one of the best moments of experiencing co-inherence; CW thought the Lord’s Supper was more than images, that the elements enter into the body of the worshiper “at the moment of the flesh-death-resurrection”—the worshipper co-inheres at that moment with Christ; the moment of the Anglican sacrament is simultaneous with the moment of Christ’s passion. This is an inherently Inclusive-Exclusive principle, which CW liked to articulate by an esoteric chiasmus: “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou” (this phrase originated in a play entitled The Rite of the Passion in 1929-30).

In 1939, CW (hesitantly) founded an “order” called the Companions of Co-inherence and laid down seven sort of by-laws for them to follow. These statements included: no constitution, formal unity, practicing co-inherence as both natural and supernatural, Christian, contemplation of the Trinity/Madonna/Eucharist/Catholic church, Christ’s sacrifice as the model, and observing church festivals.

4. The Doctrine of Substitution & the Way of Exchange—This is one of the ways that co-inherence can be actively practiced. Everyone participates in physical exchange (I am dependant on the farmers who produce my food; those who go to war die in the place of those who stay home and for whom peace is purchased, etc); we can choose to see these personal/social/political contacts as blessings and practice co-inherence in the strength of Christ’s resurrections. We can make compacts to bear one another’s burdens. These principles can work among the living in any space and time, and also with the dead and the unborn. The clearest explication of “The Doctrine of Substituted Love” comes in the chapter of that title in Descent into Hell, in which Stanhope carries Pauline’s fear for her, so she is no longer afraid to meet her doppleganger. Also, in chapter V of He Came Down from Heaven, Williams gives a non-fiction account of this principle. Williams claims that the mockery hurled at Christ on the cross, “He saved others, but he cannot save himself” was actually the rudimentary expression of a universal principle: nobody can save himself, but we can voluntarily substitute ourselves for others and “carry their burdens” quite literally, even though those burdens may be spiritual, emotional, or medical. Martyrs and the Eucharist are examples of Christ in us and us in Him. Evil was consumed by good when Christ suffered on the Cross, and now our lives can be united to good in Christ’s earthly life.

In the Arthurian poems, this is also called the “doctrine of largesse.” Mordred enacts the opposite: he refused to depend on anyone and turned away from co-inherence to make sure everything worked for himself. The beginnings of substitution are expounded in “The Advent of Galahad.” In the “Founding of the Company” poem in The Region of the Summer Stars, Taliessin and his friends practice the way of exchange.

5. Tranquility, serenity. 7. This is my personal favorite, my homing locus in all his fiction: the sheer serenity of his saintly heroes. In each of CW’s novels, there is at least one character who lives in a great serenity, whose soul has a center of calm. See my previous entry on writing style for a further explanation of these still, peaceful saints. 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? In Descent into Hell, this calm is manifested as the silence out of which poetry grows (Descent p. 180).

Those are CW’s main themes, the theological or philosophical or poetic ideas that, I believe, make him himself and set him apart from all other writers. One other feature of his writing (not sure if it’s really a theme is his 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.

There are other, smaller, threads that I ought just to mention in a list here.

· 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.
· The Platonic Forms
· Damnation in the details (Descent p. 145)
· Delight, universal joy; Pauline’s doppelganger = manifested joy.
· The City—a web of exchange-offers; John’s Revelation; Augustine’s City of God. According to CSL, The City = right internal/spiritual arrangement.
· The Ways of Affirmation & of Negation/rejection/negativa—of images, of descriptions of God. God as Love. Practiced the way of affirmation. He eventually sided with the Way of Affirmation; believed that “man could find God in human activities, emotions, and thoughts” (Hadfield 136). He also understood & appreciated the way that said God could not be found in images, because He is behind or above them.
· Good has its own, independent, positive existence, not just as contrasted with evil. But good can be “terrible”; God and Love and Virtue are dangerous. “Christ is not attractive.”
· Oppositions—loved the clash of dogma; tried to be the voice of skepticism; loved those who questioned & debated. “Our experience of good need not, must not, be separated from our experience of evil” However, remember, good has its own, independent, positive existence, not just as contrasted with evil. Inherence of opposites (developed early, in The Silver Stair). Poets need to feel a conflict of sensations, some revolution or subversion, in order to be geniuses.
· Time—simultaneity (Descent p. 132); God & love involved in the events of human lives; Past selves congruent with present experience.
· Magic—From Grevel Lindop’s site: “Charles Williams (1886-1945), a devout Anglican as well as a former member of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross and a specialist in Tarot and Kabbala.” Uses it in his books; rejects it in All Hallow’s Eve. Shows that magic leads to the dissolution of the self.
· Choice—”One way or the other we all go.”
· Christianity as true myth; Lilith (Descent p. 197, 207).
· The “feeling intellect” draws from the Forms to create the phenomenal world and connect us to the Neumenal (?)
· Naming and ordering of the virtues: Clarity, Speed, Humility, and Courage in Descent; strength, subtlety, speed, innocence, balance, and beauty in Lion. Orders of angelic powers.

Am I missing any essential themes? Let me know if I am!

1 comment:

Rosie Perera said...

These articles are wonderful, Sorina. You ought to pitch CW to Christian History & Biography magazine. They're due for an issue focusing on him. They've done Lewis, Tolkien, George MacDonald, etc. Too bad there isn't a major CW anniversary coming up until 2011 (125th of his birth). But maybe they'd consider him anyway, since there seems to be a revival of interest in him lately.

Thanks for having the links to each one in the series in all of your posts. That's great forward thinking!