Monday, 21 May 2018

Re-reading the Lindop biography of Charles Williams

I have been re-reading the biography of Charles Williams by Grevel Lindop, published in 2015, and which I reviewed at the time. I was surprised to notice that it was as much as three years since I read it; because since then I don't think I have seriously read (or re-read) any of Charles Williams's works - it seems that the biography all-but finished-off Charles Williams as a significant writer, for me...

Re-reading makes clear why. I find it an almost-literally painful experience to read this biography - except for the earliest chapters, concerning CW's childhood and youth. Once Williams has married, and had an unloved/ disliked son; and has engaged with the Rosy Cross ritual magic group, and especially when he begins his tedious and disgusting relationship with Phyllis Jones - he loses me.

The documentation of a recurrent, addictive, unresisted (indeed rationalised and celebrated) cycles of manipulative and exploitative, sadistic/ psychologically-vampiric relationships with young women - on the excuse that these energised the writing of poetry - is another seedy and sickening aspect. It is actively unpleasant to dwell in this 'world', I find.

And, in general, I find Williams to be a wholly dishonest person - in all the writings and all the reports of interactions, there is a person of total self consciousness; who never did a spontaneous action, never spoke or wrote an unguarded word...

Now, of course, this is a disease; it was (to some extent) a dispositional, inbuilt thing - but one can see that these vices were deliberately, effort-fully, developed and strengthened by Williams (especially by his use of magical rituals) - and always with the excuse of needing to do so, to write poetry...

In considering Charles Williams, everything hinges on the poetry... Yet I find the poetry, essentially, worthless - in the sense of not being poetry at all; and performing no essential function; doing nothing distinctive or indispensable...

I consider it to be contrived, pseudo-poetry; concocted from a talent for verse, and pretence. In this it is not unusual; because I consider very nearly all modern and modernist poetry to be of this kind - indeed almost everything that puts itself forward as highbrow poetry for the past century... real poetry is extremely rare (even among the output of real poets).

CW is an example of a very common post-romantic phenomenon - someone who wants to be a poet - but cannot discern poetry, therefore cannot know that they are not a poet (or else deny what they know: that they aren't) - there is a dependence on the evaluation of others.

Throughout his life, by the evidence or multiple letters, Williams never knows whether his work is any good; he cannot tell whether he has written well or not - he cannot discern poetry, which is the basis of being a poet (and a critic, for that matter).

(Astonishingly, CW seems never to have mentioned in print the best living Eng. Lang. poet of that era: Robert Frost. Since everybody knew all-about Frost at that time; this can only mean Williams was unable to discern Frost's poetic greatness.)

Most of CW's published poetry is off-the-cuff doggerel; some is deft rhyming; but his most prestigious poetry - in Taliessin Through Logres - was (Lindop reveals) an editorial collaboration with Ann Ridler... No real poetry can be an editorial collaboration, and this is not real poetry but a simulacrum in the modernist style (which is, itself, only very seldom and peripherally capable of real poetry).

As for CW's literary criticism - it is undermined by this same lack of discernment. More specifically, Williams is unable to detect the presence or absence of that special lyric quality that defines and distinguishes poetry. Probably this is linked with Williams being 'tone deaf', insensitive to and unable to hear music as music; or know when he was singing accurately - because, at root, poetry is song.

So, I am saying two things here; the first is that Charles Williams was overall not a good writer (not a poet at all); and secondly that this was related to an extremely deep and continuous pretentiousness, insincerity... dishonesty.

Lindop makes clear what was scattered throughout the previous biographical information - Charles Williams was a man who played roles all the time, with everybody, including himself - and if there was a real CW - a CW who was communicating-directly and spontaneously, a CW who dropped the pretence - then nobody ever seems to have seen it; nor does it ever appear in his writings.

It is also clear that Charles Williams was a man who suffered - all the time, hour by hour and day by day (you can see this in the photographs, back to childhood); and for that I feel very sorry. But how did he deal with it? It seems to me that in his twenties, Williams chose a path of play-acting, power-seeking, pleasure-seeking, and palliation; he tried to distract himself from himself,and from the human condition, by pathological busyness, pathological socialisation, strategies of self-indulgence... and this negated any possibility of genuine achievement as a writer, and indeed genuine friendship...

There were plenty of people who regarded themselves as good friends of CW, but nobody who CW regarded as a good friend. Everybody seems to have been hoodwinked by him, in one way or another - because he hoodwinked himself; how life was an endless process of hoodwinkings, 24/7.

Thus I return to my conclusion of the original review: the main interest of Charles Williams is the effect he had on others; and ultimately this reduces to the many ways that other people projected-onto him - saw in CW and his play-actings and writings what they wanted or needed.

Thus Charles Williams's best work is something of an ink-blot - there are potentially fertile ideas outlined, hinted-at; but never actually-actualised in the text. His characteristic ideas such as Romantic Theology, Exchange, Substituion...are interesting ideas, which he fails to develop interestingly. For example, he made romatic theology into a far-fetched system of symbolism; he made exchange and substitution into a quasi-bureaucratic system which he dictatorially imposed on his followers.

My favourite of his works, the novel The Place of the Lion is like this. It is a great idea for a novel - I've read it several times; but the reader has to make the novel out of the ideas... it isn't achieved. The novel is technically inept (at the level we find it hard to know who is speaking, and what is happening), and the climactic and key passages don't come-off. Yet, for Lewis and Tolkien this book was exactly what was needed when they came across it, and they were able to complete the novel in their own minds, in line with its aspirations, in a way that stimulated their own imaginations.

But it is no accident that Charles William's reputation essentially died with the man.


Anonymous said...

With his Experiment in Criticism, Lewis (might we say?) went interestingly beyond 'De gustibus non disputandum', and I think we can apply the experiment to Williams's work, including his poetry. Dame Helen Gardner, interestingly, told me she preferred his earlier poetry. Kenneth Sisam thought the early Arthurian poetry would sell - and his last Arthurian volume did, and sold out quickly, presumably not only to people who knew him or even much of him. Lewis, not at all uncritical of Williams's writing, seems motivated by real admiration and enjoyment of it, and not merely by pious memory, and solicitude for Florence Conway Williams, in lecturing on it, and working his lectures up into the commentary in Arthurian Torso. Hugh MacDairmid quoted some joyfully in The Kind of Poetry I Want (1961). Norman Nicholson thought it worth anthologizing. And there's Auden. Intriguingly, John Wain told me that, on rereading it years later, it was 'dead on the page' to him - which I suppose included the implication that he had enjoyed it, before (we did not get into details about this change, alas).

His later verse dramas seem to have 'worked' with all sorts of audiences. The late Dutch poet, hymn-writer, and dramatist, Willem Barnard, enjoyed his poetry as well as his fiction, and translated one of his plays for putting on.

Dorothy Sayers admired his criticism of poetry - Dante's - which to a good extent lead to her Comedy translation, where the excellent notes are larded with quotations from it. His Shakespeare criticism had a wider influence on that of Troilus and Cressida. Lewis's tribute to Williams on Milton in his Preface to Paradise Lost is, once again, not mere effusion of friendship. And what of the late Sir Geoffrey Hill's lecture as Professor of Poetry?

I don't know how thoroughly his posthumous reputation on both sides of the Atlantic was indebted to his Inklings connection and especially Lewis's, and also Eliot's, praise of his work and him, but suppose this 'complicated' matters of appreciation in one way, even as the accumulating glimpses of 'the darker side(s)' since Humphrey Carpenter's Inklings (1978) through Grevel Lindop's biography have since done in another. And so I further suppose many people are going to be confronted with the possibility, or not, of enjoying 'Williams despite Williams' from the start.

When I was back in Oxford for the launch of the biography two-and-a-half years ago (and, indeed, how the time since then has flown), I was astonished to find how many and varied works by Aleister Crowley were widely available in inexpensive editions - a strange and ominous popularity of a much creepier, nastier person, and much worse writer, than Williams. And, as a Lovecraft lover before I ever encountered an Inkling (as far as I recall), I am nonetheless surprised by his enormous popularity in recent years - someone else whose fictional prose style has been taken sharply to task, more than Williams's (to mention only that).

How to read 'Williams despite Williams' seems a real challenge, not least because he strikes various of us as much more than a 'case study' or curious (etc.) 'object'.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - When it comes to poetry, I have very definite and very selective ideas which are far from mainstream. If I am quite honest, I don't regard modernist verse as poetry - but as something-else... and that embraces Eliot and Auden who both lack 'it'. CSL was someone who could not discern poetry, by my judgment - and never wrote any.

Verse has its place, and I enjoy quite a lot of it - but it is quite different from (and much commoner than) real poetry. Real poetry can be found in some quite crude writings, for example Border Ballads - and in one or two poems by otherwise undistinguished writers, such as WH Davies.

My favourite poet is Robert Frost - but most of what he wrote was verse.

PLays are an interesting thing - I've often commented, on my Notions blog, that plays are the rarest form of literature - in that, once Shakespeare and Shaw are set aside, there are less than a dozen canonical plays in English Literature. e.g. From more than a hundred years between Shakespear and Shaw we have only three comedies by Goldsmith and Sheridan... Wilde wrote only one play to set beside Shaw, and the rest of Victorian drama (Gilbert, Pinero etc) is gone...

Drama is essentially an ephemeral form. e.g. I think it quote possible that none of the work of Beckett, Pinter or Stoppard will survive (outside of 'subsidised theatre'). CW certainly is not at that level.

IMHO William's best work is found among his novels - which are various very intersting/ stimulating but nonetheless very flawed qua novels (hasty, first draft stuff); and his criticism - but criticism as a form *very* seldom rises to the level of literature; and none of CW's does...

His other big contribution was theology - with 'came down from' and 'descent' (and 'what the cross means...' - But again, not much theology lasts, and these have not lasted, not really. They are *very* difficult, but I think they are more sincere and heartfelt than anything else by Williams; and have been valuable to me, although I ended by rejecting them decisively. Indeed, I would trace much of CW's misery to his philosophical assumptions, to his theology to in particular to his (common enough) assumptions about Time: this comes out in 'what the cross...':

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to compare what you briefly say about 'poetry' and 'verse' with the (to me, memorable) first chapter of Williams's Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind (1933): "The Ostentation of Verse". And he devotes a chapter to W.H. Davies in Poetry at Present (1930). Both of these are scanned for our convenience in the Internet Archive, as is his English Poetic Mind (1932) - and, I see, He Came Down from Heaven (1938), now, too (as of a couple weeks ago!). His novels, which have probably been his most widely successful works (I agree, deservedly), are transcribed at the Australian Project Gutenberg. And (though I have yet to read all the other entries) Fr. Aidan Kimel has done us the service of bringing to our attention that the whole of the What the Cross Means to Me (1943) volume is scanned online:

Differently rewarding is his New Christian Year (1941), which Dame Helen Gardner told me Williams was very dismissive about - 'scissors and paste', he remarked, but she firmly told him it was much more than that - and, I got the impression, she reread it ever year (!) - I've certainly been glad to have read it round more than one year:

There are a couple aspects of his 'What the Cross Means to Me' which I think could be 'tackled' in distinction from each other, where he does not so distinguish them. And it would be good to 'tackle' him, here, in comparison and contrast with George MacDonald. (It's an interesting question how much MacDonald he may have known - I can't recall him referring to Frost, or, Frost's friend, Edward Thomas, but I would not be surprised if he had read them, so wide his reading of poets, including living ones, seems.)

I'd add Murder in the Cathedral to plays since Shaw, and at least some of Christopher Fry's (like, The Lady's Not for Burning), and I think Williams's Cranmer deserves to be there, too, though I know to my sorrow how difficult it is to (attempt to) put on! I've acted in more Shakespeare than Stoppard, but none of the Stoppards was 'subsidised theatre', and I saw an enjoyable student production of one recently including non-native English speakers, and suspect some at least of his will last.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I found 'What the cross' very interesting, and perhaps the most honest thing CW ever did - therefore a key to his character. It really ought to be made available online.

To me, it serves as a reduction ad absurdum for classic, traditional theology - because I find CW follws through the implications of the assumptions with greater rigour than almost anyone. Therefore, this essay (also He Came Down From, and Descent) was a 'negative' factor in my adopting Mormon theology, which has an entirely different set of assumptions.

But for me there is no doubt that CW's best work is in theology - specifically in teh three works mentioned above - despite that the result was to make me reject that theology.