Thursday, 4 November 2010

Was Charles Williams a bad example?

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Charles Williams (1886-1945) was a strange man.

Great friend of C.S. Lewis and the Oxford Inklings circle at the end of his life, he inspires very divergent responses.

To Lewis, and TS Eliot, he was a man of advanced spirituality, and apparent holiness. His 'theological' writings and novels have a very strong following (including, for what it is worth, the current Archbishop of Canterbury - who is President of the Charles Williams society - and a scholar of C.W's works. This at least means that C.W. really is intelligent and subtle - because the Archbish can certainly judge that kind of thing).

On the other had there are those who find C.W. creepy, pretentious, and at best a hazardous guide to spirituality - at worst an actively dangerous advocate of magic and demonic flirtations - altogether a character prone to an unhealthy degree of fascination with power and perversity.

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While on the whole I find Williams valuable and stimulating, at times I too veer towards the idea that he was not a good example.

His Letters to Lalage certainly confirm the creepy side of his nature - there is something vampiric about his hyper-charged, perverse, platonic sexual relationship with this beautiful and intense young woman (only a year before his death).

The letters to his wife are just plain dishonest: evasive, elaborately deceptive, fearful, terribly sad...

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On the whole, my impression is that Williams was someone who lived very close to the edge - very close to utter despair.

I think he kept himself distracted - he seems always to have been 'busy' or in company, to have made-himself busy and have collected company - which I take as a sign he was actively avoiding silence and solitude.

He sought extreme situations in order to generate energy, in order to feel in contact with life.

And he did this (justified this) primarily to re-direct these energies and meanings into 'poetry'.

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C.W.'s work is always slapdash, his writing is deliberately and habitually obscure, he is pretentious - for example in his verse, which is a mixture of contrivance and accidental effects. (Although apparently effective enough to fool C.S Lewis and perhaps T.S Eliot - neither of whom were what I would call poets themselves. Tolkien, who was - albeit rarely - a real poet, could never get anything for C.W's verse.)

And C.W. would not have disagreed with me, I am sure - he knew what he was doing and why.

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I do blame C.W. for his refusal to admit that he was not a real poet; because a lot of his worst behaviour was designed to get energy and inspiration for generating his fake poetry.

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His 'big ideas' about positive theology, the City, the way of affirmation of images - are good ideas badly expressed - perhaps because they are undermined by his personal need for them?

The writings on exchange, co-inherence etc are either simple, banal and wrong; or else expressed so complexly, defensively and obscurely as to be ineffective communications. Indeed, they are quasi-magical, or therapeutic, rather than Christian ideas.

His idea that romantic love is a viable alternative to the ascetic is purely speculative, and in the absence of even a single real world example of its validity or effectiveness, seems merely special pleading for his own irrational and un-admirable obsession (despite being married) with a younger (and un-admirable) woman. 

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But he did have some extraordinary insights - at least it seems to me.

Here and there, in Descent into Hell and The Place of the Lion; and quite often in his best prose like the Descent of the Dove and He came down from Heaven, he really does seem inspired, and produces wonderful momentary clarifications.

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Lewis and the Inklings knew nothing of Williams disreputable behaviours; they saw only his good side, and they loved the man.

There is indeed much to love about him - he gave of himself very freely.

In sum, he is one of those maddening people that seems just one small psychological step away from being really valuable, perhaps even a saint? - but he never did take that step. So his legacy is flawed and his character almost as much demonic as holy.

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That step was simply to acknowledge that he was not a poet, not a real poet - not that which he so much wanted to be.

It was this rather small dishonesty with himself which caused nearly all of C.W's troubles.

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