Thursday 28 April 2016

The initial appeal of Charles Williams

The first time I tackled Charles Williams was after reading Humphrey Carpenter's group biography The Inklings, which was during late 1987 when I was living in Durham Castle (part of University College) as a resident don, wearing an academic gown at all mealtimes - which were taken at High Table in the 'medieval' hall; and attending a variety of somewhat Inkling's-esque groups for eating and drinking, conversation, and discussion of our reading and writings.

What most interested me about Charles Williams was the idea of a supernatural 'real' world behind the everyday world, and The Place of the Lion was the book which most attracted me. I was also interested by his idea of romantic theology - especially the Via Positiva - which I interpreted as a path to higher consciousness via the creative life; and his mystical idea of The City as a microcosm of Heaven (I think I read some of the essays in Image of the City).

At that time, I was not a Christian, but I was very interested - in a detached way - by Christian theology, monasticism, ritual and various aspects of Christianity. I was reading and much influenced by the ultra-Liberal theologian Don Cupitt; I subscribed to the Dominican journal Blackfriars, I sporadically attended the college chapel and once read a lesson there, and choral evensong at Durham Cathedral (located only a hundred yards from the Castle). I read Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue with broad approval - with its call for a revival of Thomism.

In sum I was a serious dabbler on the edges of Christianity - but in a way that made no fundamental difference to my life or beliefs, and made no demands upon me: none at all.

Anyway - from this context I attended a couple of evening meetings of a Book Club which included some of my college friends - including a meeting in a small modern house on a housing estate where we discussed a Charles Williams novel: I think it may have been Many Dimensions. The reason I am unsure is that I had been unable to locate a copy, and indeed only a couple of the participants in the meeting had actually read the book; which was out of print and very hard to find. Indeed, it was an absurd choice for a Book Club! - but there you are.

I have a strong recollection of the flavour of that meeting, but nothing of the content. The flavour was strange to me - because we were located in this very mundane suburban setting, a group of very respectable but junior academics (or academic-related people - such as librarians, and a college chaplain as I recall); discussing very strange supernatural matters with an attitude of seriousness, and as if such things as Charles Williams described in his novels might actually happen - at any moment.

As I walked away from that meeting some thirty years ago, it was a dark late evening and I looked about me at the night sky and the lights of the city and thought how strange people were - how strange I was; that nobody could have guessed that behind the curtains inside a small, boxy, semi-detached, modern furnished house there would be a group of people discussing the breakthrough of divine and demonic forces into exactly such a world - even a sense of expectation that such thing might be just out of sight and about to change everything - if not this evening than tomorrow, or next week.

It struck me that behind the quietest, most 'conforming' and respectable of people there lurked extraordinary, wild wishes or fantasies - yearnings that were only semi-serious, and expressed with very English politeness, reserve and diffidence; yet which were so strange that they must have sprung from depths.

Ever since, Charles Williams has carried for me something of the flavour of that evening, and that group; and of a time when I learned something surprising about the nature of people.


John Fitzgerald said...

A lovely piece - engaging and evocative. You should write more in this vein.

CW was a very dynamic and fluid thinker. I've always thought of him as an 'applied Platonist', as were all the Inklings in their different ways, I suppose. Everything emanates from the Platonic Ideal - represented in The Place of The Lion by the 'Forms' - but this is a very Incarnational type of Platonism. There's no great gap between the ideal and the everyday, or rather there is - sometimes - but it's a gap that can shrink and disappear at the drop of a hat. The two modes of being aren't mutually exclusive - they interpenetrate each other in creative, unpredictable, sometimes startling ways. That's why your suburban colloquy is so quintessentially Williamsesque. The extraordinary is woven into the fabric of the everyday.

CW seemed to reveal and glory in mundane settings. The way he turned what was surely a relatively run of the mill OUP working environment at Amen House into an Imperial Court is a triumph of the imagination and an inspiration for all of us working what many artists and academics would probably dismiss as routine 'day jobs'.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ John - Thank you!

If you like this kind of stuff, you might appreciate my accumulating snapshots-memoir blog, to which the above will probably be added at some point.

I *think* Tolkien felt himself to be more of an Aristotelian than a Platonist - although he didn't seem to use this in his writings (perhaps because Thomism was very dominant in seminaries who trained the priests that taught him Catholicism during Tolkien's youth) - I think there is something about this in the Letters (which, if you haven't already got a copy, you would love: I think the book of JRRT's letters is one of his very best books).