Wednesday 1 December 2010

Charles Williams - inept, plus wilful obscurity


I have been (again) reading Charles Williams (1886-1945) - indeed, I have been reading "C.W" off-and-on since about 1987 (stimulated by Humphrey Carpenter's biography The Inklings).

A major factor in my returning again and again to reading C.W was my failure to understand him and the conviction that I must be missing something important.

I now feel that I understand Williams better than before.

And I am prepared to share this hard-won understanding with my blog readership...

(smiles, looks quizzical, and continues...)


This essay by Barbara Newman of Northwestern University entitled "Charles Williams and the Companions of the Co-inherence" was extremely valuable - I just found it last week:

'Read the whole thing' as they say, but one interesting argument was that C.W's decade of intensive training in ritual magic may have been the key factor which enabled him, on the one hand, to attain the concentrated effort that allowed him to accomplish such a lot of writing in the face of many other duties and distractions; and on the other hand to generate a spiritual outlook, stillness and mental focus which amplified his already considerable 'charisma' to a remarkable extent.


C.W produced poetry, plays, literary criticism & reviews, novels, and theology.

At the end of the day I would regard only the novels and theology as being of interest.


The poems are bad: indeed very bad.

They are bad because they are inept - so much is seen from the early poetry. And the late poems are very bad because they try to disguise their ineptitude with pretentious technique and vocabulary.

This much may be inferred on internal evidence, but is confirmed by learning how he discussed the writing of poetry with his confidante: his main concern was a striving for originality, which is clearly not the way that a poet talks of such matters.

That people such as C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot highly-valued Williams poetry is evidence of 1. Tin ears and 2. C.W's immense charisma.


Williams poetic plays are impossible - beyond bad. They must have been utter torture for the audience.


The reviews and criticism are OK.


The novels are very interesting; but they are inept, and at a very basic level: it is very difficult to follow what is going-on, who is speaking, what is happening and even what has happened.

Indeed, among novels that I have actually finished and re-read, I would say that Williams are by far the worst written: less competent than the worst pulp fiction.


The theology is also very badly written.

At first I thought this was because C.W was dealing with profound matters, but this can't be right, since much more spiritually-advanced people (who are much less famous than Williams as writers) are considerably more lucid.

Fr Seraphim Rose for instance, or many other Orthodox Christian spiritual writers such as the anonymous author of Way of a Pilgrim, or St John of Kronstadt; or Roman Catholics such as Pascal, or Aquinas...

But, really, almost anyone is easier to understand than C.W.

The reason is is simple and twofold: firstly, Williams was an inept writer and secondly - on top of that - he was deliberately obscure.

C.W certainly has some interesting things to say, theologically. Interesting, but surely wrong!

Once you have reached the bottom, his main ideas seem not just wrong, but obviously - almost absurdly - wrong.


C.W is supposedly a Christian theologian (and is regarded as a great one by many including the present Archbishop of Canturbury - although the present +Cantaur seems so brilliant as to be able to read anything into anything...) .

Yet Williams has many bizarre ideas that are (surely?) at odds with Christianity. Sometimes C.W seems not to believe in the divinity of Jesus - which makes him non-Christian.

Apparently he did not believe in the desirability of resurrection, but would prefer death to be an end and a sleep - which means he denies Christian hope.

He believes that all time is literally simultaneous, which denies any direction to history and any meaning to human agency.

(For instance, a modern person can - in Williams' world - accept and thereby reduce the sufferings of people in the past. Including (yes, really) alleviating the sufferings of Christ on the Cross.)

I accept that C.W was much more intelligent and well-informed than I - but this is just nonsense.

And C.W writes frequently and at length of a Way of Affirmation which is supposed to be an equally valid alternative spiritual path to holiness as the ascetic Way of Negation as practiced by the Saints.

Yet Williams' prime exhibit, his only strong and successful instance of a Way of Affirmation is the fictional world depicted by Dante's poetry of love - and Williams provides not a single real life example of a single person ever attaining sanctity by the Way of Affirmation.  

Very strange.


Williams' vast productivity becomes easier to understand - as a writer he had very low standards.

I am no literary genius (as readers of this blog would willingly testify!) but I would have been ashamed to release such badly-written stuff as Williams poured-out.

With Williams it is not just haste, but I can only presume he had no ability objectively to evaluate his own writing and recognize whether it 'worked' or not.

Or maybe he could see that it did not work, and strove to disguise this obvious fact with deliberate obscurity.

If so, he succeeded with many people, including this writer: it took me a long time to be sure that something like this was going-on.


What is indeed remarkable about Charles Williams is now how he managed to write so much but how he managed to publish so much!

A second minor miracle is that so much of his ouvre remains in print: indeed that any of it remains in print is fairly remarkable.

At any rate - and despite my many and serious reservations about Williams writing ability and motivations - I am pleased that so much of what he wrote (and was written about him) is still available.


I remain fascinated by Williams as a personality, his effect on other people.

In particular, C.W exemplified in a strong and pure form the horror so many people feel at the shallowness, the banality of mundane worldly existence and the countervailing craving so many people feel for a life in contact with a higher and more real order of things.

Williams' novels depict this in a way which is exciting, inspiring and appealing .

And this was how C.W made other people feel - his friends like Lewis and Tolkien, and his circle of disciples and devotees.

From Williams people got a sense of being in touch with occult reality, a deeper or higher reality; and a stronger sense of being alive and aware.

It seems to me that this was much more a matter of the power of magic than the holiness and love of Christianity - still, for many people and up to a point (beyond which point it became demonic and exploitative), Williams' spiritual charisma could be a step in the right direction: away from materialist nihilism and towards meaning and purpose.



HofJude said...

Excellent judgment of CW - most people either love him (like my late father-in-law, an RC theologian and poet)or find him boring. Although no Catholic, CW appealed to the mid-century Teilhardian-gaseous epiphanic-literary sort of RC piety that was current then among highbrows both RC and non-RC, at least in the States. In Hyde Park, Chicago, where I grew up, there was a joke in the 60s: "Where can you find all the [U of Chicago] Jews in one place?" Ans: "At Christmas Midnight Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle." But as a demonstration of what it might feel like to be Dante or another visionary, he has served a purpose to generations of secular literary types - perhaps a baleful one. And to people like CSLewis, he seemed to radiate a kind of authenticity to them - which Lewis obviously couldn't feel from the person of Tolkien, whom he neglected and (if I remember) seemed to be hurt by the fuss Lewis made over CW.
I think you are right about his power, which was better able to evoke occult than religious experience, but then again for most of us that is as close as we get.
Two points: one is that you miss his creepily asexual sexual power over women, which is on display a bit in one of the biographies I've read, and in at least one collection of letters between him and some unfortunate creature. He was just as well able to commit adultery and bring a woman to ecstasy without ever touching her as he was able to compress all time into an instant, or write novels about dead people in a perfectly deadpan way. And this power over the weaker sex while being by all accounts physically rather repulsive in a fascinating way (not that there's anything wrong with that).
In general, contemplating CW (and many others), it strikes me that William Blake has a lot to answer for.
Also: you ask how he got published so much. You might just as well ask how physicians find it so easy to get medical attention for themselves.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Sam - thanks very much for this!

I hadn't really dared hope for such a well-informed response to this posting.

Sounds like you have read Letters to Lalage - I found Williams to be really creepy in that relationship. Vampiric.

Make sure you read that essay I linked, I think you will find it very good.

Well, I didn't *really* find it a mystery that CW published so much - although working for the Oxford University Press can only have been one element in it. The personal charisma probably accounts for the rest.

Not sure about Blake. He was a first rate poet in a few of his lyrics, but I agree that he was probably pernicious overall.

xlbrl said...

After laughing my way through your tortuous experience re-examining Williams, I declare you should no longer lay claim to being without literary genius. I was even inspired to read the link, but it was unnecessary after the review.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks xlbrl - but now I am feeling guilty at such a one-sided view of C.W.

The problem is that this post was written immediately after reading some chunks of Charles Williams' late poetry - which is enough to drive any man to extreme and incautious acts of expression.

I will need to balance the picture in another post or two.

xlbrl said...

One-sided views have a value all their own, like a complete lack of PC. They doesn't feel the need to tell the whole story, but the story that is not being heard. Like your old journal.

There is nothing like humor to cut through a thing, and sometimes it takes wicked humor. That goes to your other thread--"what's the point?".