27 December 2007

Charles Williams discussion continued

A while ago, Orphan Ann & I were having a discussion about War in Heaven. Here's a continuation.

Orphan Ann wrote:

Concerning my dissatisfaction with War in Heaven, you said that “the more important question is whether the elements you mention are flaws in CW’s book and I like it even though it’s a poor work of literature, or whether it’s a great work that just doesn’t appeal to you”. This obviously isn’t a simple duality – and you, equally obviously, didn’t mean it as one – but it’s interesting that you cast our primary responses in an emotional form. We do use evidence and logic to attempt to persuade people of the rationality of our responses, but these are ultimately shaped by our feelings. Our responses can never be proven – but this has the corollary that as long as we’re sincere, we can both be right. We may be on an intellectual road to nowhere, but at least there’s plenty to see along the way; and though I don’t doubt that our opinions may change along the way, I’d like to cast our discussion in more co-operative terms. Despite the fact that dialectic is a fundamentally co-operative form, I don’t intend to persuade you of anything so much as explore your views and explain my own.
Let’s get started. You took issue with my description of the novel as “too intellectual”. For reference’ sake, this is what I said:
“I thought that it was good, but too intellectual and didn’t have enough time spent on the characters themselves (with the exception of the Archdeacon and Persimmons.) That it’s a somewhat austere novel for this reason which one wouldn’t ever expect to be popular.”
(That second sentence, by the way, means what it says. I wouldn’t ever expect WiH to be popular, but that doesn’t map to my views. Goodness knows, if all writers tried to pander to my tastes, nobody could ever afford to publish anything.)
I’m going to talk about that quotation a fair bit, I’m afraid; and I expressed myself very poorly with it. I didn’t mean that WiH is full of ideas and metaphorical big words in the same way that Moby Dick is. I’m afraid that’s the only one of the books you mention that I’ve read (nor did I finish it; I should try it again.) And the quotations from Persimmons’ book revealing the Graal to be in Fardles are just an efficient form of info-dumping, which I’m not sure I could better. (“Info-dumping” is the art of explaining to the reader what they need to know to understand the story, whether it’s saying that the Bennets have five daughters, or Gandalf’s talk to Frodo about the history of the Rings. I can waffle more about this if you’re interested.) No, my description of the book as “too intellectual” is to do with something subtler: CW’s attitude to characterisation.
We agree that, in your words, “CW’s characters are kind of flat, almost two-dimensional”. But we differ radically in our interpretation of this mutual assessment – if I may make so bold, it seems that you’re approaching it from a writer’s point of view, and I’m approaching it from a reader’s. Now, I knew that CW had a broadly “mystical” worldview – he’s written a book about the Holy Grail, after all – but no more than that. Saying he’s “some kind of Neo-Platonist” explains a lot to begin with, including why I described Persimmons as being unspiritual, and makes the strictly allegorical, rather than just philosophical, framework of the novel stand out more clearly. The characters aren’t as real as the ideas they represent.
Here’s my problem with this kind of characterisation. I’m currently inclined to regard a novel as being, on one level at least, an argument the writer is presenting to the reader, whether as simple as propaganda or as complex as King Lear. (One might define a novel’s artistic seriousness as its level of self-consciousness of its argumentative nature, but it might not be a very good definition.) And on another level, the same novel is its own proving ground: if the novel doesn’t seem to describe the reader’s world accurately, then its thesis is wrong. If one allows a novel to make unsupported assertions, one forfeits the right to pass judgements on it, because it exists in a vacuum; it can’t be compared to anything else, and any novel can be said to succeed on its own terms. This isn’t a door to infinite aesthetic merit, but I hope it closes the door to infinite error. Of course, there’s plenty of room to wiggle there, and some of the most interesting are: that a reader’s assessment of a novel’s realism in this sense is subjective, and even the same reader’s response changes on a re-reading; that a novel can (I think) possess its own psychological realism independent of the characters’; and that a novel without “material realism”, such as WiH with its Holy Grail and black magic traps, can still be realistic. I suppose literature could be compared to mathematics, in that a (probably infinite) number of sets of axioms can be created and logically combined to form mathematical systems, but only one describes the physical world. All geometrical systems are self-consistent, but if you built a house on Riemannian principles, it would have to belong in R’lyeh. I think that by abandoning realistic characterisation, CW’s essentially asking us to take his vision or leave it; we can’t engage with it, and the novel’s just seems artificial (Hermetic?) and, well, irrelevant. And he’s left himself undefended against logical complaints such as: If Adrian is a mask of the Form of Innocence, doesn’t that mean that all children are, and that there’s nothing special about Adrian himself? Or, Why would anyone believe something as strange and baroque as Platonic Forms? (I think the former is a good point myself, but there are answers to the latter.) I suppose another way of saying this might be: If the real world can lead CW to his own spiritual beliefs, why can’t a realistic world in his novel leads its readers to the same conclusion?
This is why I was so upset about the treatment of Mornington’s death and the mystery subplot. They only work if we agree to treat the characters as unreal; the unimportance of the murder is tricky, on one hand, but it’s also rather callous. And if CW doesn’t seem to care about his characters, why should he care about real people? That’s my ultimate objection to WiH’s characterisation, I suppose: it makes the novel solipsistic. (Tangentially related to this is an idea I had about novels described as preachy, or however you prefer to put it. They’re making arguments and assertions and the fictional apparatus is only really in there to sugar the pill, but it doesn’t work and just adds to the wordcount. I’m not saying that this is true about WiH; just thought you’d find it interesting.)
I wanted to talk about CW’s treatment of non-Christianity, but I don’t have much to say about it because I don’t remember the novel well enough, so I’m afraid this is going to be rather truncated. My issues here partly stem from the kind of realism I was talking about in the last paragraph, but I should admit here that the fact that I’m not a Christian is affecting my response. It’s true that Persimmons is a spiritual man (I’m not so sure about Sir Giles, but that might just be my faulty memory.) But he’s not spiritual in the right way. And Barbara may be “a profoundly solid, rooted, happy character”, but look at what happens to the poor woman! Nor would I describe her as especially spiritual (is she in the “Castra Parvulorum” scene at the end?) You said that “Williams sees something strangely salvific in Lionel’s assumption that everything will be difficult and that the universe will not be handed to him on a silver platter”; I didn’t see this, but I’m sure you know him better than I do.
I suppose it’s only fair to acknowledge the weaknesses of my arguments, which boils down to the fact that it isn’t really grounded in anything, and more than I’m accusing WiH of being. In a sense, it’s a circular argument, because I’m hoping to persuade you that my axioms are realistic, but I can’t demonstrate that they are. All I can do is hope you find me sincere, which is how I framed our discussion earlier; I must have been aware how unsteady the ground was beneath my arguments. It looks to me as if your best hope of disproving my points would be to focus on the uneasiness of my marriage of emotion and reason – if I can persuade you of some things, I can prove others – but that’s no proof. (And part of the point of my geometrical metaphor was that what seems to be right may not be.) I’ve also talked a lot about the necessity of realism in a novel, but a novel is by definition not real, and that has to be acknowledged, too. In a sense, the obviously false stage-set characterisation does put the characters in their correct relationship to the world – but it’s our world, not theirs. But I am deeply torn on these issues, and I seem always to want to have my cake and eat it.
Now for some minor points. About the Archdeacon and his replacement: I was referring to the scenes where the replacement spouts obviously drivel and the Archdeacon reflects on how foolish it is, at a couple of points earlier on. It just struck me as being straw-man stuff. And while you thought his identification with Sir Galahad was “weird and bizarre, not presumptuous”, I had the opposite opinion: it made perfect sense to me, was trivial, even, but also arrogant. So I wasn’t upset by his death, as I’d been expecting it and read it as his assumption, just as you did. (Incidentally, in the versions of Arthurian legend that I’m familiar with, Sir Galahad is the bastard of Sir Lancelot and Elaine of Carbonek, so he didn’t exactly have a household at all. Or if he did, it was his grandfather’s.)
I think I’ve worked out why the Graal was said to be in Ephesus, by the way. There are so many versions of its history that there’s no point in looking for a ‘real’ answer, and even if I’d found one, I wouldn’t know if CW knew about it. So I turned to the Letter to the Ephesians, and there I found chapter 6 verses 10-17. I’ll quote it here in the Authorised Version to stop everyone running to their bookshelves:
“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. 11Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. 13Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 14Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; 15And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. 17And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Verse 12 looks especially relevant to me in this respect – I’d been wondering why WiH was called that, for though I’m familiar with the quotation it didn’t seem that relevant, a little bombastic, rather. It’s hardly a war, is it? And it’s in the Home Counties, not Heaven. Oh, and there’s a reference to Prester John at the end of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, though it doesn’t mention him guarding the Grail.

You drew a distinction between “novels” and “psychological thrillers” in your last letter. That looks intriguing; could you expand on it a little?

And I replied:
...I’m going to jump right in onto a quote from your letter: “Why would anyone believe something as strange and baroque as Platonic Forms?” Well, you see, I do. I do believe in the Platonic Forms. And maybe right there that’s why I love Williams: because he gives earth, bones, flesh, wings, feathers, feet, hands, and faces to those abstract Forms. So instead of seeing his characters as watered-down two-dimensional versions of “real” people (i.e., people we meet every day in all their complexities or rich characters we meet in traditional novels), I see them as vital textual representations to the imagination and to the senses of extra-sensory spiritual Realities. But I’m not really answering your question. You didn’t ask “Does anyone believe in Platonic Forms?” you asked “Why would anyone believe in them?” Well, that’s a hard one to answer. Why does anyone believe in anything? I’m reading a good essay by C. S. Lewis right now entitled “On Obstinacy in Belief.” It is designed to answer the charge that Christians keep on believing things in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This isn’t the place to go into that essay in detail, but even my incomplete reading of it helps me to formulate my answer to “Why would anyone believe anything?” They believe it because of a combination of factors, such as personal experience, early education, logic, evidence, and/or authority. So from a psychological point of view, I probably believe in the Platonic Forms because they were presented to me at a young age through C. S. Lewis’s fiction and later through a college philosophy class, and presented in ways that were fascinating and compelling. Then there’s just a hint of “Biblical evidence” in Hebrews. Hebrews 8:1-6 says:
1Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; 2A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man. 3For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer. 4For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: 5Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount. 6But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.

Hebrews 10:1 reads:
1For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.

All these seem to be saying that the earthly tabernacle is just a copy of the real one in heaven. And that thrills me!

I’ve written a bit more about my neo-Platonic beliefs here and here; Eurydice wrote about Lewis & Plato very eloquently here. Of course, I’m a Christian, which implies that I’m not a thorough-going Greek-golden-age Platonist—-if it’s even possible to be such a thing here and now! I believe that the World of Pure Forms exists in the mind of God, and will only exist in some external sense in the New Heavens and the New Earth. But the practical consequences of this are the endless striving of human beings after perfection, the flashes of “Joy” or “Sehnsucht” that some when we catch a glimpse of a more perfect copy through a beautiful landscape or a work of art, and my feeling when I write a poem that I am trying to copy the real poem as it exists in a more perfect sphere. So even though you are right that CW's “characters aren’t as real as the ideas they represent,” in CW’s worldview, that makes them more real. Does that make sense?

Now, you next asked (very intelligently, I might add! This was an excellent challenge for my mind): “If the real world can lead CW to his own spiritual beliefs, why can’t a realistic world in his novel leads its readers to the same conclusion?” I think that the answer must be that it wasn’t the “real world” itself that led CW to his spiritual beliefs—if by the “real world” you mean this terrestrial/phenomenal/material/sublunary world that we can taste, touch, and live in at the moment. No, I don’t think he found his beliefs there. He would probably say, if asked, that he received his beliefs via revelation from the Other World—from God, from the world of the Angelic Beings and the Pure Forms. He could have received this revelation in the traditional way, as mediated by Scripture and the teaching of the Church and of other Christians, or he could have received it in a more direct, mystical way, through personal meditation or revelation. I don’t know which; perhaps after Grevel Lindop’s new biography comes out, we can find out! But anyway, he didn’t learn about Substitution and Exchange through the natural order of things, but through a Supernatural Order.

Now, this is not how Williams would have said it himself. He probably would not have understood the question if you asked him, “Did this earthly world teach you your spiritual beliefs, or did you learn them from some other realm?” You see, his faith was always an assumed or presupposed foundation beneath all his writing, teaching, and thinking. He simply lived and thought as if religion were absolutely necessary and everyday, yet with the supernatural always contingent and proximate. Religion was constantly, consistently relevant. Martin Browne said Williams “set the room aflame. I have never met any human being in whom the divisions between body and spirit, natural and supernatural, temporal and eternal were so non-existent, nor any writer who so consciously took their non-existence for granted.” He, whether intentionally or subconsciously, didn’t really see the difference between this life and the next, just as he overlooked the division between one person and another, or between people and Christ. He just thought that they flowed into one another and shared an identity, and so could share experiences in a way that seems miraculous or magical or bizarre to a materialist or even to a somewhat skeptical Christian like myself.

So what does this do to his characters? Well, let me make a digression. I talked to Rosie about this topic the other night, and she quoted Dorothy Sayers to me. Sayers said something along the lines of “An author has an obligation to his/her characters, once they’ve been created, to let them live their full lives, to let them develop and express themselves just as parents need to let their children develop” or something like that. Basically, once I’ve created a character, I need to let him live and not force him to represent something else or to function in some kind of symbolic fashion. But I submit for your inspection the proposition that this is oneway of writing fiction; that it’s not the only way, nor the most moral way. I don’t think that authors have moral obligations to their characters. Perhaps they have artistic obligations. But even then, I think that there are innumerable “correct” or “good” ways to write characters. And Williams chose to write them in the way that he read the world: as point of correspondence between the natural and the supernatural, between God and man, between the Eternal Virtues and their human copies. What do you think of that?

So let me see if I’ve addressed the essential elements of your careful and thorough argument. You said that you think “by abandoning realistic characterization, CW’s essentially asking us to take his vision or leave it; we can’t engage with it, and the novel’s just seems artificial (Hermetic?) and, well, irrelevant.” Hum. Let me take a few points here. First of all, I don’t think that CW is really abandoning realistic characterization—or, to say the same thing the other way around, isn’t every novelist? You did mention that “a novel is by definition not real.” Yes. Even Jane Austen’s emotionally and psychologically complex characters are not “real.” They are made up, obviously, but they are also much, much less complex than any real human beings. Even the most psychologically nuanced short story that purports to narrate the thoughts of one human being during a few minutes cannot capture the complexity of the workings of the human brain; even stream-of-consciousness is artificial, because it does not express the consciousness of the writer, and is itself fabricated and (honestly) much slower than the actual speed of thoughts. It’s kind of a fractalization: each writer choose a level of complexity at which his or her characters will function, and manipulates an appearance of reality consistent with that level. CW’s level, I would suggest, is just different than the majority of novel-writers’. So the psychology and character development in his books are about as realistic as, say, conjuring earth and snowstorms with a pack of cards (The Greater Trumps) or watching a house burn and burn and not burn up (The Place of the Lion) or transporting oneself through time and space by means of a stone with the letters of the name of God inscribed on it (Many Dimensions) or walking in the land of the Dead and bringing that land closer and closer to the realm of the Living (All Hallow’s Eve) or practicing substitution with one’s martyred ancestor (Descent into Hell). This is the reason for the title of War in Heaven: the point is that every spiritual battle (and the prayer over the grail by the Archdeacon, Mornington, and the Duke against the evil designs of Persimmons et al was quite an intense battle!) is simultaneously happening on earth and in Heaven. Just like you pointed out (thank you very much!) with the connection to Ephesians. It’s all gloriously absurd! It’s fantastically unrealistic; it’s super-realistic, it’s Archetypal, it’s Platonic.

But I don’t think this makes it hermetic or irrelevant. In his own life he practiced “Substitution.” “The Doctrine of Substitution & the Way of Exchange” was one of the ways that he thought “co-inherence” (sort of oneness, or unity, between people and between people & God) 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 doppelganger. 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.

I have very tentatively tried to practice some form of substitution. But the real way I have found William’s novels relevant is the beautiful tranquility, serenity. 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 CW's principle themes. In War in Heaven it’s the Archdeacon, and, to some extent, Barbara. But it’s what I most admire about his characters, and it’s how I want to live my life: in active submission, volitional submission, vital tranquility, purposeful peace.

So then I would strongly disagree with your statement “And if CW doesn’t seem to care about his characters, why should he care about real people?” I think he does. In a more intense, deep, profound way than many writers. I think he cares more about Mornington than Dickens cares about Tiny Tim. That’s a huge bold claim! The fact that Mornington’s death goes unmourned is the greatest act of celebration of his life, because his death ushered him into the peace of God’s presence in which he had tried to live at one remove. His death was not a cause for sorrow, and CW could not insult him by having any of the characters mourn his passage into glory. And I mean that seriously, and so did Williams.

OK, now a few of the smaller issues you raised. I’m fascinated by your proposition that I’m approaching War in Heaven from a writer’s point of view, and you’re approaching it from a reader’s. This really interests me, and perhaps explains a lot about the variance of our approach, but I haven’t figure out how yet. I’m also not sure how to respond to your analysis of my duality: whether “whether the elements you mention are flaws in CW’s book and I like it even though it’s a poor work of literature, or whether it’s a great work that just doesn’t appeal to you.” I guess I just don’t see any way out of that polarity—although I recently decided that my old schematic of “Great Literature” and “Good Literature” was sort of baloney. I mean, I can’t really discuss Walter Wangerin, for example, on the same plane as Dante, but does that make Wangerin of lesser value? He’s just different. So I suppose you want to suggest that we should throw out the question of whether or not War in Heaven is a great work? That’s OK. And as far as the emotional nature of our responses; well, yes, there’s certainly a strong emotional component contributing to which works of art we “like” and don’t like, but I would say that there are many other components which contribute at least as much—education, family tastes, early exposure, peer pressure, reason, logic, one’s own development of skill and of aesthetic evaluation—so that the final reason for an aesthetic reaction is nearly impossibly to identify.

You said “Our responses can never be proven – but this has the corollary that as long as we’re sincere, we can both be right.” I’m not sure if you intended that statement sarcastically, because I can’t help but take it that way. I do believe that one of us is “right” and one is “wrong,” or that we each have elements of accuracy and inaccuracy in our evaluations. I do believe that on some level a book “is” or “isn’t” what any given reader may say it is. And that, of course, comes back to my fundamental belief in abstract absolutes. Similarly, if I thought we were “on an intellectual road to nowhere” I’d get off that road as soon as ever I could, not matter how much there was too see along the way! My life is set on getting somewhere, somewhere very particular.

Oh, one last comment. You asked me to expand on my distinction between “novels” and “psychological thrillers.” Oops! I meant to make a distinction between novels and metaphysical thrillers! That was a big mistake. CW called his seven works of prose fiction “metaphysical thrillers,” and T. S. Eliot called them “Spiritual thrillers.” And this is because, although these books fit the standard denotation of novels (“fictitious prose narratives of book length,” OED), they violate many of its accepted connotations. We expect novels to be realistic, to some degree, unless they’re shelved with fantasy. We expect them to have significant character development. So perhaps the whole problem about characterization could be solved by simply changing the genre-label. We don’t expect the same treatment of people and events in epics or odes as we do in novels; let’s not expect it of metaphysical thrillers, either. That’s my suggestion! What do you think?

I recommend reading The Place of the Lion if we’re going to continue this conversation, especially if we want to pursue the Platonic discussion. I’m basing most of my opinion of CW’s skill and worldview on that book as well as on Descent into Hell. They’re my favorites!

1 comment:

Rosie Perera said...

Admonit wrote:

"I’m also not sure how to respond to your analysis of my duality: whether 'whether the elements you mention are flaws in CW’s book and I like it even though it’s a poor work of literature, or whether it’s a great work that just doesn’t appeal to you.' I guess I just don’t see any way out of that polarity..."

Why does it have to be an either-or? Greatness in literature is not binary. As you yourself suggested with Wangerin and Dante, it is more of a continuum. I don't think there is any fixed cut-off where you can say certain books or authors above this point are the truly great and others are not great literature. There are "many dimensions" to judging the greatness of a work. The quality of metaphors, the broadness of appeal, the enduring relevance, the way it touches on universal truths, the originality of ideas, the characterization, the elevation of the language, the emotional intensity, the intertextuality with more ancient classics, and dozens of other criteria. One author might nail it on several dimensions but be lacking in one and you could still call it great literature. Personal taste also can cause one person to say something is "great" while another disagrees. It doesn't make one of them wrong and the other right, because "greatness" isn't a quality that is factual like "length" is. It is, to some extent, a matter of opinion. We don't need to say that someone else is wrong simply because they prefer a different kind of literature to us. It might be hard to find anyone who would question whether Dante belongs in the category of greats, but CW is definitely debatable. He hasn't earned the status of Dante for several reasons: he doesn't have as wide appeal, hasn't been dead long enough, hasn't been studied by enough people (you're contributing to that lack), and there are traits in his writing that turn some educated people off. (If there are traits in Dante that bother some people, it's more likely that they are unstudied in poetry and literature than that it's Dante's fault.)