Monday, 4 December 2017

Charles Williams the (conversational and moral) chameleon

Charles Williams was clearly many things to many people, and the recent biography by Grevel Lindop has made clearer and more explicit the nasty and exploitative side of his charecter.

Yet the same man was regarded as an extraordinary, inspiring, sustaining spiritual leader and teacher, an almost saintly figure for his spiritual knowledge and wisdom, by CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, TS Eliot, Dorothy L Sayers and others of similar depth and substance - who knew Williams well over a long period.

How can we make sense of this?

I think there are two assumptions necessary. The first is that Charles Williams was essentially a conversationalist; that he was at his best and gave his best in person and in conversation.

The second is that - precisely because he lived so deeply in human interaction -  Williams had chameleon attributes, taking on the 'colour' of his social context to an extreme degree.

The chameleon aspect came-about because his conversations were mutual not monologues: they were profoundly interactive (at an intuitive level); therefore necessarily very different when Williams was in conversation between different persons.

When Williams was in (deep) conversation with good Men such as Lewis and Tolkien, this brought-out the best in him. In the presence of good Men, therefore, Williams became himself an exemplar of goodness - this capacity in him was brought to the front. Lewis and Tolkien spoke with Williams many times, at length, deeply and over a span of six (intense, war) years - they knew him very well, and they knew that he was of great goodness.

But when Williams interacted with less-good people; and/ or people who sought him out for what they could get from him; and people whom Williams sought out for sexual or magical-power reasons - then the fact that Williams lived so deeply and interactively in his conversations brought-out his bad qualities with similar power that Lewis and Tolkien, Eliot and Sayers, brought-out the good.

This is not to exonerate Williams from his (seemingly unrepented) exploitativeness, but to explain its possibility as a consequence of both his strength, and his limitation.

And it is to clarify that the Inkings and others were not mistaken when they judged Williams to be a great Christian thinker and teacher: Williams was this - but he was not only this.   


NLR said...

Interesting post.
It is interesting to speculate, would Charles Williams still be considered a charismatic conversationalist now?

Many of the people he interacted with most frequently were interested in literature and spiritual matters, and his ability to quote and converse about these subjects seems like it accounts for a substantial portion of Williams's charisma.

Yet in the present day, many people would dismiss anyone who talks earnestly about such subjects as ridiculous and old-fashioned.

I think Charles Williams would be charismatic in a different way. He would be interested in literature and religion (as opposed to mass media culture) if he was alive now and since only people would genuine interest in those subjects would interact with him deeply, his deepest relationships would probably be more positive on the whole.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR - Well, everyone is unique, and placed where they need to be born; but a person of CW's general *type* would nowadays be forced to choose between sociable conversation and integrity - there simnply are not enough people of the calibre of the Inklings/ TS Eliot/ Dorothy L Sayers for there ever to be possibility of group conversation of the kind possible 70-80 years ago.

If CW could find a single person of integrity and similar core interests he would be very fortunate.

This is an era of individuality in the public space, in public discourse, because the alternative is corruption.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting indeed (though I wish I knew a more incisive gerundive or adjective to apply)!

I shall have to chew this over, but Brenton Dickieson's recent post about Lewis's coinage of the term 'rebunker' (in contrast to 'debunker') with respect to Williams springs to mind, and makes me think I should read yet again Lewis's preface to the memorial volume of essays for C.W.

David Llewellyn Dodds