Monday, 27 February 2017

Review of The Celian Moment - selected essays by Charles Williams

Charles Williams. The Celian Moment and other essays. Edited by Stephen Barber. The Greystones Press: Carterton, Oxfordshire, 2017. pp xxvii, 127.

This is the first book-length selection of essays by Charles Williams since 1958 (The Image of the City, edited by Anne Ridler); this volume enables Inklings scholars to continue the business of evaluating Williams's stature.

The most significant works here are probably 'The Office of Criticism', which was the introduction to English Critical Essays: Twentieth Century - which Williams ghosted under the name of his Oxford University Press 'girlfriend' Phyllis Jones in 1933; 'The Celian Moment' which was Williams's introduction to the 1935 Gollancz-published volume The New Book of English Verse; 'The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins' which was CW's introduction to the 1930 OUP volume of the same title; and 'Ourselves and the Revolution' from a book called Russia and the West of 1942.  

The other essays did not make much impact on me - positive or negative; most seemed fairly routine commissioned work. And 'Religion and Love in Dante' was a presentation of the same argument as in The Figure of Beatrice (1943) - a book I do not enjoy, and which I find unconvincing and indeed tendentious.

(The review of TS Eliot's Four Quartets - in the form of a 'Platonic Dialogue' with four participants - struck me as arch and evasive to the point of obfuscation.)

The Office of Criticism and the essay on GM Hopkins are high quality literary criticism, which illuminate their subjects. These were matters which came from the heart for Williams, and subjects which he had long brooded upon - but about which he had no personal 'axe to grind'.

The Celian moment focuses on a putative idea that several of the great poets, as well as some of the very good 'minor' ones, all depicted a similarly-themed 'moment' in their work, the nature of which Williams tries to characterise.

However, Williams absolutely fails to convince the reader of the validity of his claim! My impression was that Williams merely found what he was looking for; and that he was looking for it, for the wrong reasons.
In other words, this essays lies within the reality-distortion field set-up by CW's infatuation with Phyllis Jones in particular, and various young women sex objects in general. This type of systematic extra-martial infidelity is something that Williams repeatedly attempted to justify and theologise in numerous writings (including The Figure of Beatrice). For me, the primary interest of The Celian Moment was, therefore, partly psychopathological, and partly as contributing evidence of the corrosive effects of unrepented sin.

Ourselves and the Revolution has a similarly negative, albeit interesting and illuminating, importance for the scholar of Williams; and his political Leftism. The first and most obvious feature is the extraordinary defensiveness of the essay - Williams's political perspective on the USSR  surrounded by so much obscuration and qualification as to be extremely hard to pin down.

But a careful reading indicates that Williams's stance is essentially pro-Communist in the sense that he is prepared to take the Revolution at its own valuation, and judge its intentions as sincere and - broadly - having been fulfilled. He lays great stress on the assumption that the revolution was about feeding the hungry - and that this was  successfully achieved. "The masses that are working and fighting in Russia are men and women of full stomachs, and even (in the ancient sense) of a high stomach." "The Russians of late have been (one gathers) reasonably fed but not altogether free; we [in Britain and The West] have been free, but not anything like enough fed." [High stomached means something like bold in spirit, haughty, aggressive.]

We now know (some of us know, at least) that the Soviet communists used deliberate famine as a political weapon, killing many (but uncounted and unrecorded) millions of their own citizens in the Ukraine (for example) by starvation. The allegedly 'high stomached' Red Army apparently advanced with their officers walking behind (not leading), their guns pointed at their own men and ready to shoot anyone who showed an inclination to retreat. The Russians later lost approximately ten men for every German killed, when advancing to conquer Eastern Europe.

So Williams's political views were objectively wrong - whether from ignorance (although there was plenty of real, observational evidence of the evils of Communism available to a member of the Metropolitan intellectual elite - such as CW); or wilfully (due to prejudice borne of wishful thinking); nonetheless it is important that this aspect of Williams is on record.

This collection is therefore well worthwhile for its best pieces and its general depiction of CW's level of work; although the evaluative significance is, unsurprisingly, considerably less than that of the 1958 selected essays which had 'first bite at the cherry' of William's oeuvre.


Anonymous said...

One correction, The New Book of English Verse was for Gollancz, and (as far as I remember) very deliberately complementary to the Oxford Book of English Verse, with different, though similarly important and representative, selections. My memory of the introduction is that it was interesting, sometimes obscure, and (to vary your expression) not simply convincing (even, eccentric) - and of an astonishing impudence and self-indulgence, for anyone 'in the know' about 'Celia' as naming Phyllis - including (if I recall Grevel Lindop's biography aright) Williams's wife, by this point.

Like the New Book of English Verse, this new book of essays is (largely) complementary to the Image of the City in its selection, is it not?

Back when, Lois Glenn's Checklist in hand, I got the chance to look up articles and essays and reviews by Williams easily and abundantly in the Bodleian and Faculty libraries, I think my initial supervisor, the late Humphrey Carpenter, was still largely of a mind that anything Williams wrote would probably be worth trying - which is yet my approach.

I certainly never caught up with 'Ourselves and the Revolution', though - and you now have me keen to do so. It sounds quite unlike what I remember about Williams on Marxism and the Russian Revolution from The Descent of the Dove, which had appeared four years earlier. It sounds interesting to compare with some of the things Chesterton and Belloc and I think Williams after them said about the French Revolution (though I'd need to do a lot of rereading to test that impression in each case!). But I can't remember ever reading anything (published or in correspondence, etc.) that gave me a sense "Williams's political views were objectively wrong" where any variety of totalitarianism was concerned - which leaves me all the keener to try this for myself!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...


Thank you for the Gollancz correction which I have inserted - my transcription error.

" this new book of essays is (largely) complementary to the Image of the City in its selection, is it not? " - Yes it is - I had intended to make this clear in the review, but seemingly failed!

The 'Ourselves and teh Revolution' essay is short - seven printed pages - and in his introduction and acknowledgements, Stephen Barber says that it was rediscovered by Grevel Lindop while writing the biography - and supplied by him to Barber. Presumably it was a late addition to this volume.

"anything Williams wrote would probably be worth trying" - I wouldn't agree; or, not from my perspective. For some authors it *is* true - Tolkien for example. Or Lewis I have read all his letters, and there were hardly any that weren't good! Or Robert Frost - even his notebooks are full of interest for me.

But I would say the opposite holds for Charles Williams writing, and only a small proportion even of the published work (and much less of the unpublished) is either well-written or well-thought; although I expect the opposite applied to his personal presence and conversation!

I am afraid that my conclusion wrt Williams is that the superficial view is the one which gets the most from him; and there is usually less than first meets the eye.

For example, the main ideas of romantic theology, exchange, co-inherence, via positiva... are most suggestive and appealing when described briefly and superficially (eg in biographies or memoirs) than when fully engaged-with.

The ideas of the novels likewise - I find the actual novels to be less interesting (in most cases - Place of the Lion and Descent into Hell being exceptions, although not by a large margin) than a good summary of plot and ideas.

The Masques are fascinating when understood in biographical context - but unreadable when actually seen on the page.

As I wrote in my review of the biography in the Journal of Inklings Studies; I therefore think William's best future is 'biographical' - with 'the work' understood in just the kind of summary and representative fashion which Carpenter pioneered and exemplified in The Inklings, enriched by the detail provided by Lindop's biography:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response! I look forward to seeing the Table of Contents (maybe it'll eventually get a 'look inside' at as I can't remember whether Stephen Barber told me more details about it, when we chatted at Grevel Lindop's book launch in October 2015. That's the context of my sort of seeking reassurance re. content complementarity...

I thoroughly enjoyed your review as now posted (need to look into the status of our JIS subs, though!), though I don't know about attempting a detailed response... ('Enjoyed' as distinct from 'agreed on all points with'!)

I would 'refine' my affirmation of H.C.'s observation - "anything Williams wrote would probably be worth trying" - I think he meant anything published by C.W., and I would agree with that - which was also, e.g., before Roma King's edition of his letters to his wife: his letters (published and unpublished), unlike Lewis's or Tolkien's, vary in interest and are a specialized taste (as well as a valuable hunting ground for details of compositional history, Inklings history, etc.). But even his lecture notes, as listed on the Wade site, when very much in the form of notes, can be interesting and rewarding, I think. (Perhaps also as sketches for possible conversation content, come to that!)

So, I would pretty diametrically disagree about his written work as opposed to the summary idea of his written work or him as 'figure' (though those are not without due interest: I'm reminded, in part - as perhaps you implicitly meant us to be - of Lewis's various interesting observations about the appeal of a story in distinction from any particular telling of that story, including the author's own of his uniquely new-invented story - with Kafka as a possible example Lewis ponders).

Whatever aesthetic limitations a given published work has, it is of interest in its details as a work (as far as I can see) - whether, for examples, the novels or The Figure of Beatrice, or the Cranmer play.

Adverting to your review, I think, however, we here variously confront the need to disentangle true, and, not least, explicitly, orthodoxly Christian aspects of his work, and possible contrary authorial applications or 'esoteric' dimensions (such as, perhaps, implicit apologetic and propaganda for a sort of imagined 'Christian sex-magic' in the Arthurian poetry - or The Descent of the Dove!).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

Speaking of the late poetry and The Descent of the Dove, materials relative to a study session I led about them the other year can be found here:

Speaking of the letters, one of the things that led to Alice Mary Hadfield's second book about Williams was her lack of success in finding a publisher for a selection of his letters which she had prepared.

After her death, Charles Hadfield (now also some years deceased) sent me copy of a typescript of this selective edition, to do with as I liked. I suggested to Anne Ridler that two of the selections might profitably be published together in the Williams Society Newsletter: which was done, with a very interesting introduction by her hand, in the Autumn 1994 issue 75, pages 11-15, available here:

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Many thanks for these - which I will read. I have read the newsletter extracts before, because I read-through all the back issues for the Newsletter a while back - but they did rather blur i my memory and it will be good to give them sepecific attention.

BTW - while both are good; I prefer AM Hadfield's first Williams biography - it gave a clearer picture of the man, I thought - indeed it is probably the best thing I have seen at showing the best of the man.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your evaluation of A.M. Hadfield's earlier Williams Introduction in relation to her later Exploration - and it is worth noting how Grevel Lindop speaks of its now unique value and what good use he makes of it in his biography - though I would not be without that second one, which is of more than limited 'historical' interest. I would be inclined to say that Anne Ridler's book(let)-length Introduction to The Image of the City and Other Essays has a similar, if distinct claim to being one of the very "best thing[s...] at showing the best of the man".

With respect to C.W. and the Soviet Union, I've just had a thought that seems worth pondering - Williams's first published Arthurian poem after Taliessin through Logres, 'Divites Dimisit' (later revised and expanded to the last poem in The Region of the Summer Stars, 'The Prayers of the Pope') appeared after the beginning of the war during the time in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were avidly cooperating under the terms of the 'Russo-German Treaty of Non-Aggression' signed by Molotov and Ribbentrop, presumably with the effect that its applicability to current events by way of its account of barbarian invasion of the Empire aided by evil magicians is applicable to both Germany and the Soviet Union together.

Interestingly, something similar could be said about what I take to be the earlier implied critical 'reappropriation' or ' liberation' of the imagery of hammer and sickle in 'The Calling of Arthur' after their Twentieth-century totalitarian hijacking by both Communists and Nazis (a use which Edvīns Šnore's The Soviet Story (2008) vividly depicts) - with the proviso that I do not know how widely known the Nazi use of hammer and sickle in the 1930s was.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

Glad to have your endorsement David!

I have always been struck by how little British Communists (and the more numerous 'fellow travellers') were affected by the Nazi-Soviet pact - they barely blinked at it; despite two decades of apparently bitter fighting between Communists and Fascists!

Anonymous said...

I'm now reading this new collection preparatory to guest-reviewing it, myself, for Fr. Aidan Kimel's blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy, and indulged in jumping ahead to that last essay in the book, 'Ourselves and the Revolution'. It certainly gives a lot to think about, and makes me wish I could see the whole collection in which it appeared (as Fr. Aidan has lately pointed out how we can read the whole of the collection in which Williams's 'What the Cross Means to Me' online, in his 24 March post!).

And now I have just run into something which my first impression suggests is interesting to compare - and, I hope, especially, contrast - with Williams post- Operation Barbarossa-launch essay, an article by Daren Jonescu from nearly four years ago, about a book from 1929:

More to follow, after (I'm not sure how protracted) rumination, I hope...

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

I have at long length joined you as a reviewer of this:

You will see how much latitude and room Fr. Aidan permitted me to make a pretty bibliographical review essay of it.

I'd really like to know more about that period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the early days of the Anglo-Soviet alliance (before Pearl Harbor) - there must be good essays and indeed books about it, but where and by whom?

My attention has just been drawn to another, intriguing, (emigre) American aspect of the Nazi-Soviet pact era and antitotalitarian satirical comedy drama by reflecting on Professor Hardy's post:

David Llewellyn Dodds