Thursday, 29 October 2015
Saturday, 24 October 2015
Charles Williams's underlying personal misery and despair as a 'reductio ad absurdum' of his theological convictions
She then goes on to describe how Williams lived in a state of underlying misery - that he said he would have declined the gift of life, if offered; that he had a death-wish, that he did not hope for eternal life but would prefer everlasting unconsciousness, that the world lived in a web of distress, that the life of young people was hell... and so on,
The question is how Charles Williams went from a core conviction that everything is good, to a life of such total distress.
I think the answer is quite simple, which is that Charles Williams really believed, really lived by, the idea that reality was outside time, that all times were simultaneous - that what applied now applied forevermore. He was a profound Platonist - in believing that time, change, decay and corruption were superficial - the reality was time-less, unchanging.
Many, many Christians have said such things throughout history - but few have really believed them: Charles Williams was one of the few - and he was intelligent enough to find the implications inescapable and deeply contradictory.
If Life is good - and this is Life - and real Life is eternally itself... then this must also be good - and it seems terrible.
In my understanding, Charles Williams was a victim of the poison of what might be termed Classical Metaphysics in Christianity: the kind which says that life IS good - always has been and always will be. Most people are too emotionally shallow or too lacking in philosophical rigour to feel what Charles Williams felt as the implications of mainstream, standard, Christian theology.
Williams could never find reassurance, or relief from this state; because he was correct - the implications flowed from the assumptions; and the implications were tragic. The life and resurrection of Christ was, by this account, tragic - as revealed in Williams's most heart-felt essay The Cross where he concludes that the thing, the only thing, which makes the underlying reality of a good universe to be bearable, is that God also and voluntarily submitted to its justice and suffered its agonies when he became Christ.
If that is not despair - it is a mere - unconvincing - whisker away.
And how often, how usual, has been this tragic interpretation of Christianity the prevailing emotion among the deepest thinkers?
And what a contrast this has been to the un-philosophical and optimistic 'Christianity' of Christ himself, of countless 'simple' Christians, and the 'good news' of the gospels.
The difference is, I think, quite simple - and it is related to time. the simple, commonsense Christian - the non-Platonist, the non-philosopher - naturally regards Christianity as being about a future state of good - not an eternal good, in which all times are and will be equal.
So 'simple' Christianity is about God as an aim, not about good as an actuality; and Christian hope has been based on faith that the state of good will happen, not that good has already happened.
Sophisticated Christian theology superficially seems to be positive and optimistic in its claims of Heaven being here-and-now-and-always because of the un-reality of time - but its philosophical implications are dark, miserable and pessimistic (and difficult/ impossible to square with the good news of Christ) - in that ultimately things can never be better than now. And if, as is the case, we cannot see this now, then there is no reason to assume things can ever become better.
This is a false distortion of the plain Christian message of hope based on the optimistic conviction that time is real. Because time is real - that is linear, sequential; things that seem bad now may really be bad (we don't need to assume that bad-seeming is 'in reality' good), but bad things really can get better than they are now, and the Christian faith is that we know by revelation that things really will get better.
In sum, Charles Williams is a better, a more rigorous, a more honest philosopher than most Christian theologians - and he lived and experienced the consequences of his theology. Since these consequences were so dark and despairing, the life of Charles Williams in relation to his theology makes a reductio ad absurdum of Classical Theology: i.e. the consequences of Classical Theology demonstrate its erroneous assumptions.
Wednesday, 21 October 2015
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!
Monday, 19 October 2015
It is always difficult to be accurate about why I don't like a novel - but the short answer is that I do not find much to like here. I find the style pretentious, sloppy and turgid (some paragraphs of purple description extend over more than two pages), the plot is unconvincing and rather dull, and I dislike each and every one of the characters!
Furthermore, I think the book's depiction of 'Good', notably in the character of Sybil, but also Nancy, is, actually, bad - Sybil is not only smug and tedious, but she is not what I would regard as a good person at all! Her 'forgiveness' is so quick and glib that it seems much more like frivolous insensibility - she seems more like a Pollyanna-robot than a Saint.
I particularly dislike the insistent and recurrent symbolism of 'hands' which comes out on almost every page (or so it seems).
It was an effort to finish the book, and even more of an effort to keep track of what was going-on.
My rating? Two stars, from a maximum of five.
Friday, 16 October 2015
Friday, 9 October 2015
Wednesday, 7 October 2015
The not-so-reactionary political views of the Inklings - Robert Havard ('Humphrey') was somewhat left wing
But, I realized that although we know that Tolkien and the Lewis brothers were right wing, and indeed very reactionary - I knew nothing of the political views of the other 'core Inkling' of the Charles Williams (1939-45) era - Robert Havard, often nicknamed 'Humphrey'.
Since I am fortunate enough to have e-mail contact with two of Robert Havard's sons - John and Mark (aka Colin), I decided to investigate this - and discovered that while Havard would certainly be regarded as 'right wing' by modern standards - which have moved a long way leftwards; Havard did have some left wing views, and voted for the Labour Party in the 1945 General Election.
[Editorial correction - 1947 should be 1945. This was the most radical left wing government in British history - nationalizing all the major industries and services, as well as introducing the National Health Service, expanding state education, and creating a wide range of state social security and pensions schemes.]
He did not often talk about party politics and I do not remember ever hearing how he voted in subsequent elections.
My question: "Did your Father adhere to the traditional Roman Catholic values in relation to sexuality? e.g. about abortion, divorce, extra-marital sex, homosexuality?"
John Havard: I would have said “yes” to all your questions, as was typical in the 50s and later. Mark explained [see below] that his support for Lewis’s civil marriage to a divorcee was originally a convenience to enable Joy Davidman to stay in the
My general impression is that both as a scientist and a human being, he was somewhat left of centre and never had the same animus against the modern world, unions, technology, etc. that Tolkien and Lewis did. I have no idea how he voted in any elections after 1945, but I am fairly certain he was never an across the board Tory. I suspect he took the issues of the day election-by-election and voted accordingly.
I believe that this new information on both Charles Williams and Robert Havard's political views puts a different perspective on the Inklings than has previously been the case.
But this is probably an error. If the core Inklings of the heyday of 1939-45 were Jack and Warnie Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and Robert Havard - then two out of the five were broadly 'liberal' left wing in their politics.
There was indeed a 3:2 right wing/ conservative majority, but it was hardly overwhelming. Indeed, the range of political views among the Inklings seems to be about as broad as the range of Christian views.
If we want to regard the Inklings as the last great reactionary writing group in England - as I have sometimes suggested - then we now need to be clearer that we are only really talking about Jack Lewis and Tolkien - probably supported by Warnie; which is not really much of a 'group', when you think about it!
Saturday, 3 October 2015
I should say upfront that this is an excellent biography, taking its place as the premier resource on Williams and providing a great deal of new material - including everything I personally most wanted to know about Williams but had previously been unable to discover.
It is well-written, clear, memorable and consistently gripping - such that I read the whole thing, cover to cover, in about thirty hours of nearly solid attention (of course I needed to eat and sleep!)
I have been reading Charles Williams (known as CW), off and on, since 1987 - including everything of a biographical nature that I could lay my hands on. He is one of the most difficult personalities I have ever encountered - and I am still not sure what I think about him.
But this new biography has, at last, answered all my significant questions - I feel that now, for the first time, I have been given everything I need to form a judgement both on the man and his work. But this will probably take a while - because there is a great deal to absorb, assimilate and evaluate.
One of the first problems about Williams is - why should we be interested in him at all?
I, like most people, came to him via my interest in JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis- specifically Humphrey Carpenter's group biography The Inklings (1979). The problem is that none of CW's work is really a masterpiece - or, at least, not generally regarded as such; and all of the best work is difficult (for modern readers).
Lindop states that his reason for being interested in CW is that he regards Williams as a great poet on the basis of his last two collections Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. But I do not: I find TtL to be over-edited and artificially-contrived, and while I find TRotSS to be more fluent and effective, I don't much like it.
My reason for interest in CW is his status as a Christian - he was, indeed, one of the four main Christians of the mid-twentieth century Anglican revival; which was the most recent significant Christian revival in England (the others were CS Lewis, TS Eliot and Dorothy L Sayers, who were all friends and very strong admirers of Williams). So, specifically I have the highest regard for some of the novels and his theology.
Williams was also quite a successful playwright on Christian themes - however, he is never performed nowadays (What never? Well... hardly ever), and I personally cannot get much from reading his plays. He was a critic of good repute - did a great mass of hack work as a biographer, anthologist, writer of introductions and journalistic reviews... Much of this is very good, but not enough to make him stand-out.
So, I think Williams will survive either as a Christian writer, or as a poet. This biography is essentially of Williams the poet - since Lindop is neither a Christian nor especially interested by Christian theology.
And whether Williams is regarded as primarily a poet or a Christian turns-out to make a very big difference - because Lindop reveals clearly and unambiguously, for the first time, the extent to which Christianity and poetry were at war in Williams's life - and in particular, the extent to which Christianity was sacrificed to poetry.
I may as well get to the point straight away. While I knew that Williams was in love with Phyllis Jones, and that he had a warped kind of interaction with Lois Lang-Sims, and that there were other rather vague rumours about ritual magical-sadism with others - the sheer extent of Williams's activities along these lines was never before clear to me. I did not realize - for example - that CW had had intense love relationships with both his main biographers Anne Ridler and Alice Mary Hadfield.
Lindop quotes extensively from the correspondence between CW and Phyllis Jones, and I never before realized how sexual was the relationship. Indeed, in my interpretation, it was primarily sexual - albeit the sex was not consummated. The relationship indeed seems deeply maladaptive - in that it was a case of mutual dependency of a very common sort: both were mostly unhappy and frequently wretched in the relationship, but neither could find the willpower to break away.
It was essentially addictive - Williams was addicted to the sexual frisson and seductive teasings of the young women - she gave him energy; Phyllis was addicted to the attention and worship of the older, clever, creative man - he made her feel special.
In other words, despite the hundreds of thousands of words of soaring rhetoric, philosophy and theology which Williams associated-with and attributed-to his relationship with Phyllis - the relationship seems to be fundamentally pathological, a delusion, a self-deception, a fake.
(Phyllis comes across as very much the histrionic kind of woman; who is easily bored, has rapid and wide moods swings from ecstasy to abject misery and back, craves attention from men, and uses flirtation and display to get it; who enjoys psychodrama, and especially being competed-for and 'fought over' by multiple men, whom she takes-up and drops, but never lets-go-of - she strings them along for years with promises and hopes.)
To summarize the problem for those of us who most value Charles Williams the Christian: it seems that he strategically used the role of confidante and spiritual adviser for young women to 'groom' them into gratifying his desire for ritualistic petty sadism - he did this in order to become sexually excited, and then he used this excitement to write poetry. This was done, or attempted, time and again with multiple women.
In general, it seems the sadism was, as I said, petty - involving stuff like slapping with pencils and rulers on the palms, back, or buttocks; or some pinching. There was quite a bit of master-slave type play acting, including by letter and telephone; and an authoritarian/ bullying element in his advising and teaching.
In general, it seems that the young women did not much object, and most remained on good terms with him, often very good terms. Of course they may be others we don't know of - indeed I would expect that there would have been many young women who must have been appalled, frightened or disgusted at the turn of conversation from this previously kind and charming and spiritual man; who immediately fled, and left no trace on the records.
Nonetheless, whatever the young women felt personally about being sexually used as poetry-stimulants; there is no doubt that this kind of behaviour was dishonest, manipulative and categorically un-Christian.
The evidence presented by Lindop is consistent with Williams's assertion that he engaged in this ritual sadism with attractive young women mainly in order to write poetry.
And for whatever reason, it worked - it achieved its goal. (Williams thought of it as a magical process, to do with the generation and transformation of sexual into creative energies).
So this was the poetry-Christianity trade-off to which I referred. In order to write poetry, or better poetry; Williams deliberately, strategically, repeatedly behaved in an un-Christian manner.
Lindop also provides new evidence about Williams's Christianity - and I see links between Williams theology and his long-term affair with Phyllis Jones and also the felt-need for ritual sadism.
For the fact is that Williams did not repent these activities - indeed he specifically states at one point that he did not repent the extra-marital affair with Phyllis - that he indeed regarded repentance of this sin as a temptation; one that he had been strong enough to resist.
I had not noticed before, but Williams's theology is one which really has little or no role for repentance, because he is always trying to discern the unity of all experience; and the ways in which apparent evil is actually good.
He did not find this a consoling doctrine, however, because he had very little sense of the reality of an afterlife or Heaven. He often said that all times were simultaneous - but this seemed to mean that suffering (as well as joy) was permanent and inescapable, and there was no realistic hope of things ever being better than they are now.
In sum - there is very little 'good news' about Williams's Christianity - it is bleak, it is a whisker away from utter despair. This, I think, is because he had painted himself into a corner with some of his theological axioms and assumptions which were not necessary.
In a sense, I am surprised that Williams did not suspect that this might mean he had misunderstood Christianity, in some fundamental way - but then, there have been innumerable Christians who have lost sight of the fact that it was a joyful message.
Aside, I tend to think that repentance is almost the essence of Christianity, and this means that there really are things that need to be repented - in other words, sins. For any traditional Christian there was a great deal about Williams's sexual life that was very obviously sinful and needed to be repented - and his refusal to repent it amounts to a denial of its sinfulness, and an implicit assertion of its virtuousness - which amounts to a far worse sin than the original transgression.
I now need to go back and re-read the theology in light of this possibility; the possibility, I mean, that Williams may have been denying the necessity, and perhaps even the value, of repentance.
So, the revelations of this biography are, I think, potentially very significant for an evaluation of Charles Williams as both a public Christian teacher and as a theologian.
I had not previously properly noticed that Christianity only came to prominence late in Williams's work - from 1936 and the highly successful production of his play Cranmer at the Canterbury festival.
However, back in 1924, Williams had written but not published a book called Romantic Theology in which he first put forward an idea he had been discussing for years - that in some way marriage, or sexual relationships, might be a path to God - a Christian 'way'.
This eventually reached a mature expression in his later work as the Via Affirmativa, Positive theology, or the way of affirmation of images. I regard this as an important and valuable insight - but not as original as Williams thought (or as Lindop believes), since it was a major doctrine of Joseph Smith and had already been put into practice in the Mormon nation-then-state of Deseret/ Utah for many decades.
Also, the working-out of this idea in the draft of Romantic Theology (posthumously published) - in terms of the supposed analogy between the stages of marriage and the events of Christ's life - is (at least to me) massively un-convincing!
But - whatever its imperfections, this has certainly been, for many people - myself included, one of Williams's valuable contributions to Christian theory.
Williams's other distinctive theories included the doctrines of exchange and substitution - and these were formalized in the organization he founded called the Order (or Company) of the Co-Inherence.
Lindop provides us with rich new detail about this, including that Williams was not reluctant to found this group (as had been previously stated), but on the contrary very keen; and he took an active role in organizing the network of substitutions by which one person would take on the burdens of another.
Indeed, this is another rather disillusioning story. The original idea of substitution was one of voluntary and mutual decision - in which person A would offer to take on a worry or fear from person B, and person B would need to agree.
But after a while Williams was telling, or indeed literally ordering, people to take on burdens of others whom they had not met, and knew nothing about; and often the person getting the assistance would not even know about it.
Williams became like a puppet master arranging an intricate web of (claimed) supernatural assistance, with the participants often unaware of what was going-on.
In sum, I found that this biography challenged my view of Williams in multiple ways.
Williams had remarkable qualities as a man. Many regarded him as something like a saint - or if not, then someone of exceptional spiritual insight, and capable of providing great help to many people. All this was what I first heard about Williams, and it remains true.
But most of what I have learned in this detailed biography was negative about Williams. So the more I know about him, the worse Williams seems! How to put this all together, and come to some coherent and also comprehensive overview is not going to be easy - and I am far from accomplishing it!
So, although it was somewhat dismaying to hear of so many horrible new things about CW in such a concentrated burst; I am very grateful to Grevel Lindop for providing the materials which I will need in my task of discernment and synthesis.