Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Charles William's Romantic Theology: valid innovation or sophisticated rationalization?

I regard Charles Williams's idea of Romantic Theology/ Positive theology/ via affirmativa as true, important and fruitful: his most significant theological work.

But in the detailed working-out (post Phyllis Jones) Williams seems to become bogged-down, and fatally to confuse the idea; by trying to justify his own failure to live properly by something which is actually quite simple.

In other words, it seems clear to me that a Christian Romantic Theology can only be about aiming for monogamous, faithful, creative marriage - and Williams's hyper-complex/ obscure attempt in The Figure of Beatrice to work into it the possibility or even necessity for later extra-marital infatuation/s, was never remotely coherent intellectually speaking - while being all-too-obviously self-serving in light of biographical revelations.

I was re-reading yesterday the strange early pages of Descent of the Dove (1939) when Williams talks about an experiment or 'method' (which sound like Tantric sex) that he asserts was part of early Christianity; of 'using' (using is exactly what it sounds like) sexual stimulation - e.g. a man sleeping alongside, embracing, some attractive young woman, short of consummation - in order deliberately to arouse lustful emotional energies, which may then be redirected into religious devoutness...

This practice is described as 'dangerous with a kind of heavenly daring' and its rejection by The Church is described in terms of pandering to the 'weaker brethren'; and instead preaching the safe, implicitly dull and mediocre path of 'monogamy and meekness'.

Well, we now realize that Williams had been doing exactly this kind of thing (but with a more sado-masochistic flavour) for many years, and this continued until he died. However, Williams's usage was explicitly directed towards writing more or better poetry, rather than to activate Christian zeal - which difference, I would have thought, eliminated all historical defensibility from his actual practice.

Or was Williams conveniently deceiving himself by conflating his poetry writing with Christianity - or was this equation indeed reasonable?

Did Williams regard himself as one of the 'weaker brethren' who tried but failed to use a hazardous but powerful religious practice in his own life; someone who unfortunately succumbed to the dangers of this activity? The passages in Descent of the Dove seem far too positive about the practice for this to be the case.

Or did Williams in contrast regard himself as a successful practitioner of a valid Tantric Christian path?

It certainly seems to be the latter - since he showed no signs of repenting the Phyllis Jones affair or any of the other more causal and mechanical versions of it; but instead was publicising, advocating and justifying these practices (or, something with methodological similarities - if different purposes).

I infer Williams regarded his multiple and planned experiences of 'Tantric' sex as positive, perhaps necessary; and as something which other people ought also to be adopting...

Yet for all these tangled deceptions and self-deceptions; I believe that Williams's Christian insights cannot (or at least should not) merely be dismissed - not when so strongly endorsed by authoritative figures including the most important Anglican lay thinkers and writers of his era -  CS Lewis, TS Eliot and Dorothy L Sayers (also WH Auden) - all of whom were friends and knew Williams and his work in great depth.

Such dilemmas abound in studying Charles Williams, and when trying to achieve an overview of the man and his work!


Anonymous said...

This is excellent - this is lucid grappling with the 'issues'!

As possibly ancillary to this, if you've got access to the Bodleian or another Deposit Library, I would encourage you to find time and occasion to read D.H.S. Nicholson's The Marriage-Craft (1924) - titular puns certainly intended - which seems to be some sort of roman-à-clef with Williams, Nicholson, and Lee characters. I take it it is pre-Phyllis Jones, but do not know the latest from Grevel yet about Jones chronology nor the composition and publication dates of this novel.

Also ancillary, if even that, have you read about John Cournos's and Sayers' relationship?

I hope to respond to the substance of your post before too long...

David LLewellyn Dodds

Nathaniel said...

Williams is not alone in this idea, and I think he was right in attributing to it historical reality and weight is true - though it seems more likely to have been pagan influence than early Christianity. Certainly, sexual energy is powerful and may have been an element or primary force in heroic deeds by young men throughout history.

I think though he was in grave error in using this as an excuse to engage in extra-marital affairs. Is it wrong to simply dismiss this as trying to justify a common failing? Adultery and interest by older men in younger women is certainly a common enough failing and tragic sin. Polygamy has permitted this tendency while trying to sanctify it, while Christianity has mostly focused on self control...

George said...

If this sort of energy/friction which Williams was attempting to harness is indeed the primary motivational or creative force for (many?) men, is there a balance? It does seem that many men get "settled down" and seem to lose a lot of that early drive or motivation that was harnessed into a variety of endeavors that is available prior to getting married.

Getting older and starting to feel settled down myself, along with a lowering of energy and motivation, I think maybe I see where he was coming from even though it was admittedly very wrong.

Bruce Charlton said...

@George. Well,the technique apparently worked, so the temptation was real. Maybe nowadays he would be working out and taking hormones...

Anonymous said...

I of II

To begin with The Figure of Beatrice and Dante, Dante's apprehension and/or experience of Beatrice (at nine years' old!) was pre-marital, became extra-marital when Dante married Gemma Donati, and was presumably not one of concupiscence on his part, while I have the impression that what Dante took himself to task for with respect to the "Lady of the Window" was not concupiscence, either, but his attention to her and not solely to Beatrice. This is problematical in its own way. Dante does not (to my knowledge) address his marriage to Gemma in this context. What was his love for her? Was it unproblematical to him, in relation to his love for Beatrice (and vice versa)?

I have not yet reread The Figure of Beatrice (1943), but Williams puts the emphasis on being "asked to free ourselves from concupiscence in regard to" an apprehension as of the "Lady of the Window", of a "second image". Earlier, however, in He Came Down from Heaven (1938), he had said it cannot "very easily be maintained that Dante was a striking example of New Testament monogamy" even without concupiscence: "the extent to which his imagination concentrated itself on" the other woman (Beatrice) being what is problematical. But, is he quietly putting much more emphasis on "very easily" here than seems the case, with the implication that it can in fact "be maintained"? Is this a preparation for (an implicit case for) 'marriage plus subintroductae'?

In The New Christian Year (1941), he includes a quotation from St. John Climacus, "I know a man who, when he saw a woman of unusual beauty, praised the Creator for her. The sight of her lit within him the love of God . . . It was marvellous to see how what would have been the undoing of another became for him supernaturally a crown of victory. If such a man is always and in all cases capable of such feelings and such conduct, he has already partaken of incorruptibility even before the general resurrection."

Here, with "always and in all cases" there is no question of simply "a second image" but of a theoretically unlimited number. So far as I can see, this is nothing like anything 'tantric'. But there does not seem any suggestion of striving after this experience much less of attempting to use it, either. It happens, and with the man properly depending upon God, it is beneficial (as it lights "within him the love of God").

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

II of II

As it happens, when I was flying to England for the launch of Grevel's book, I found this to read, on the plane:

In its terms, I am not sure that what Williams seems to have be attempting with various young women is 'tantric'.

It strikes me as possible that what he was doing was to pursue that which might result in concupiscence, while trying to avoid concupiscence.

If so, I do not know whether he (ever? sometimes? often?) succeeded in avoiding concupiscence, or again, deceived himself that he so succeeded: in any case, he seems to have gone on doing it (just how long, in fact or in intention/readiness to continue, I don't know).

(I get the impression that he did not always avoid concupiscence where Phyllis Jones was concerned - which may be why he said what he did about Wentworth in Descent into Hell and himself.)

I think, adapting your sentence, that it is possible that Williams regarded his multiple and planned experiences of at least putting himself in danger of sexual concupiscence as positive, as compatible with Christianity, and as something which other people could also well be adopting, and in any case seems to have been reported to have described whatever he was doing in some such instances as "necessary for the poem".

If so, I think he was both wrong and deceiving himself (or attempting to) - especially if he was indeed focusing on the avoidance of concupiscence as the decisive element.

Whether "he showed no signs of repenting the Phyllis Jones affair or any of the other more causal [> "casual"?] and mechanical versions of it", is an important question. He certainly did not do anything analogous to what occurs in Acts 19:18-19 in public, or even, where verse 19 is concerned, in private: the private disposal of his magic sword, etc., seems to be something he arranged in advance to have done in the event of his death - he could have done that himself anytime (after, say, the publication of The Region of the Summer Stars in 1944), and did not. Years after his death, on 14 July 1960, however, his widow quotes something to their old friend, John Pellow, as what Williams said to her in hospital after his operation, a few hours before his death, about her not knowing his unkindness to her and his not having time to put things right. Now, this might well be evidence of repentance - nearly in articulo mortis.

Beyond that, I certainly agree with your last two paragraphs (the last, of one sentence).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...


Thanks very much for these reflections.

I wonder if another aspect which could be explored is the general area of Courtly Love? People who met Williams seem to describe someone whose manners were formal and ritualistic (as well as eccentric and unique), as if he were a part of that world; and of course it was Allegory of Love which attracted CW to Lewis and thereby to the other Inklings. Williams may have been trying to re-create something of that world in his own life?

Dante is a part of that world too, and CW and CSL were both devotees of Dante.

Not so Tolkien. He deplored Courtly Love (on the whole) as he makes clear in the Preface of his translation of Sir Gawain he saw it as a temptation for Christians, ranged against Christianity. Also Tolkien is quoted, in a journalistic interview of 1968, as expressing very hotile views concerning Dante - "full of spite and malice. I don't care for his petty relations with petty people in petty cities."

Of course this was just journalism and the 'quotes' seem unconvincing representations of Tolkien's speech patterns, and Tolkien's views are always complex - but I think it fair to say he did not share CW's and CSL's degree of admiration for Dante - and probably on 'moral' grounds.

I think it is obvious enough why CW should love Dante - but CSL is rather different. CSL's his apparent fascination for Courtly Love is indeed rather strange - and reflects an aspect of his personality which did not come out in 'real life'. At any rate, I would suppose that what CSL most liked about Dante, and what CW most liked, were very different aspects. Perhaps Lewis liked the High Medieval metaphysical world picture/ philosophy (as described in The Discarded Image lectures), while CW focused on interpersonal factors...

[PS You were going to send me a mini biography of you?]

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Also, there is a discussion to be had about whether CW interpreted his own behaviour wrt Romantic Theology as aiming high and sometimes succeeding - and sometimes failing; but that the failures did not invalidate the sucesses (success being defined, presumably, in terms of poetic creativity).

It could be argued that for fallen Man this type of partial and imperfect success is the only one attainable...

My point is that CW may have seen the situation as somewhat like the above.

Anonymous said...

As to Tolkien and his complexities and Dante, his comments in Letter 294 (the only indexed ref. in the Letters to Dante) invite brooding over (including, "a supreme poet").

Somebody I don't know enough about in this picture is Colin Hardie - and, for that matter, his brother and father!

A Lewis letter to his father, probably from late November 1927, refers to "a fortnightly philosophical supper with Hardie and some others." Which "Hardie" is this? Walter Hooper footnotes this ref as to W.F.R. Hardie, then Fellow of Philosophy at Magdalen - which would seem more plausible, but how do we know? - in any case, the most striking fact is, that W.F.R. is Colin's four-year-older brother (Colin is still an undergraduate in 1927)! So, it is not merely one but two Hardies that I don't know enough about - or, indeed, three. Their dad was at Oxford before going to Edinburgh and is author of an interesting-looking dialogue (to which I bet Lewis's Greek was, but mine is probably not, up: I wonder if it is anachronistically Dantesque, and/or is a forerunner of The Great Divorce?) and some interestingly-titled essays:

The 3-vol. Lewis letters are one of my great lacunae: I simply have not done more than slightly acquaint myself with them, yet (the Greeves letters and the 1966 and 1988 eds., etc., are what I'm acquainted with). Therefore, I was glad to have Grevel's fuller context to the epistolary meeting of C.W. & Lewis - which seems very relevant to this topic, and their differences.

Also relevant is Williams's attention to Galahad, and the place of Lancelot's single-minded adulterous devotion to Guinevere in it (also that of magic and the willingness of the future mother and grandfather to play a strictly fornicational bed-trick on Lancelot, who I suspect was intended to be future husband as well as father, but for his adulterous courtly-love devotion) - an attention going back to before Williams's marriage (see my ed. of the Commonplace Book, when I finally get it out!).

My blushes, I'd forgotten I'd promised a bio and so puzzled over the choice of the word 'resume' - I'll try to get onto it, soon!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I checked out Tolkien and Dante in the Tolkien Companion and Guide - and his position was complex - he was for a decade (45-55) a member of the Oxford Dante Society - and even gave a paper - although the excerpt quoted consists entirely of apologies that he is unable by temparament and ignorance to give a paper!

Also Tolkien afterwards 'retracted' the comment I mentioned above in the interview - he did not deny making the comment, but apologized for its unreasonableness.

In sum, Tolkien was ambivalent about Dante, but keen enough to attend a society devoted to his work.

Anonymous said...

Thank you - 10 years, wow!

And it sounds like we could do with some more hitherto unpublished Tolkien papers (there might well be more, I can't help thinking...).

I haven't seen much attempting to look at possible Tolkien debts or allusions to Dante (though some). But, as I start to think about it (and correct me if I'm wrong - which may too easily be!), Beren and Luthien, Aragorn and Arwen, Faramir and Eowyn, Sam and Rose, Thingol and Melian, Tuor and Idril, Hurin and Morwen, Earendil and Elwing, Elrond and Celebrian, Turgon and Elenwe, and Galadriel and Celeborn all probably exemplify romantic love of the monogamous sort - not strictly Dantesque, but, say, the 'modified Dantesque' where one gets to marry one's 'Beatrice' (and vice versa).

On closer inspection, I see I have attributed William Hardie, the son's book, to William Hardie, the father, as well as his own. The son's, “A Lucianic Dialogue, between Socrates in Hades and certain men of the present day, who are conducted thither by Pollux on one of his annual excursions” (1922), when I see those men of the present day are Lloyd George, De Valera, Trotsky, Inge, and Chesterton, makes me wish my Greek were in much better shape!

David Llewellyn Dodds