Tuesday 30 July 2019

John Fitzgerald on Charles Williams

John Fitzgerald has posted a wide-ranging review of Lindop's biography of the Inkling Charles Williams (my own stab at the business is here); continuing the ongoing and fascinating project of trying to attain an overall evaluation of this most contradictory and elusive of literary figures.

Monday 29 July 2019

Tom Bombadil and Final Participation

If you don't already know them; I would highly-recommend The Letters of JRR Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter (1981) which are absolutely packed with fascinating and deep reflections.

In Letter 144 (25 April 1954) Tolkien makes a thought-provoking comment about the presence of Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings, and his importance to the story - which hits home on a matter I have been reflecting about over the past few years; the matter of the ideal form of human society, and (therefore) the nature of Heaven:

The story (of LotR) is cast in terms of a good side and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. 

But if you have, as it were, taken a 'vow of poverty', renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing; then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. 

It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. 

But the view of Rivendell [i.e. the Council of Elrond] seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.

I cannot, nowadays, shake the thought that it is the true goal of our Christian destiny to 'renounce control' in much the way that Bombadil represents; and that kingship, moderated freedom with consent; and an ideal of the control of the better over the worse - are all mortal expediencies that do not reflect the reality of Heaven.

What is more, the traditionalist ethical ideal epitomised by agrarian (pre-industrial) societies such as all those depicted in LotR (with the exception of the Ents and the Woses of the Druadan forest - since even Bombadil has a garden), seem more and more like mortal expediencies representing a phase in Man's development. The era of 'moderated control with consent' seems like an historic phase now receding.

Such ideals; which we see so inspiringly realised in the High Elves, Numenorean Men of Gondor, and even the Dwarves of Moria - are characterised by great arts and crafts, songs and poetry, courage and nobility, lore and knowledge... All of these ideals have been fading for several or many generations; and there seems waning support - and growing hostility - towards the requisite institutional basis of such a society (royals and nobles, guilds and professions, hierarchy and ritual, apprentices and canons).

In Barfield's terms, traditional society in LotR represents the evolving phase bridging between the unconscious immersive life of Original Participation (Ents and Woses) and the modern, disenchanted, materialist world termed the Consciousness Soul.

This evolution from Original Participation to the Consciousness Soul can be seen in terms of incrementally increasing control. As control increases, and in order to enable control; Man has become detached from nature, from The World; and regards living Nature as merely Things; so much material to be manipulated. Somehow, we have never been able to stop this tendency for increasing control at any intermediate or optimal level; once begun the quest for greater control seem to feed upon itself.

All moderating of the raw greed and lust for domination is, dissolved to mark the triumph of the bad side, ruthless ugliness, mere power and - inevitably - destruction. The spirit of Morgoth, Sauron and Saruman has already prevailed at the highest levels of authority, and the program is being rolled-out with accelerating velocity.

What lies beyond, and after this mortal life, is Final Participation, which is similar to what Bombadil represents. Final Participation is a renunciation of control - in contrast with Original Participation when control was neither sought nor even possible.

Voluntary renunciation of control power, domination, manipulation comes after the fullness of control has been either been grasped or else at least comprehended. My feeling is that this is what Bombadil represents; my notion is that at some point Bombadil had the possibility of power, domination and control - and chose to renounce it.

The tough aspect is that this is also a renunciation of much that we value most - such as arts, crafts, science, canonical accumulation of texts and the like. It is, in a genuine sense, a voluntary renunciation of civilisation.

In a sense this is an impossibility, just as pacifism is an impossibility in time of war (or, as pacifism is dependent upon that which it repudiates). Nonetheless, despite impossibility; what I think we have - at present, here and now - is the situation in which there is an irrevocable and cumulative loss of faith in those compromises (moderated controls) upon which civilisation depends - there is a mass withdrawal of 'consent'.

On one side this process is being encouraged, top-down, with evil motivation, by those who seek the destruction of civilisation because they believe it will lead to the self-chosen damnation of souls. This is Tolkien's bad side.

On the other side - which constitutes most of the good side; this top-down dismantling is opposed by (broadly) well motivated persons traditional religion and reactionaries of various types. However, it seems likely to me that the society they are fighting For (their positive goals, their alternative to the destructions and inversions of top-down evil) cannot happen.

'Moderated control by consent' is an earlier phase (the long transition-between Original Participation and the Consciousness Soul); a phase now gone, now not genuinely wanted, now irrecoverable. I feel that we either have been, or will be, called-upon to move beyond the incipient or actual absolute totalitarianism of the Consciousness Soul - move on to a Bombadil-like renunciation of power and the desire for control.

In Final Participation we are called-upon to take delight in things for themselves without reference to ourselves, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing; we are called upon to participate in creation directly in thinking - and not via arts and crafts and science.

This will come beyond death, because it is the nature of Heaven. The still-open question is whether it is meant also to come before death; or whether in this world it is impossible to actualise, and instead an ideal that we affirm even as we are overwhelmed by the worldly triumph of control.

Note added: The special sin of elves, notably the high elves, and especially the Noldor; is a clinging possessiveness, the desire to attain a perfection in creation and then hold it, static and unchanging. Feanor fell into this when he made the Silmarils; and it was for this that the Three Rings were made; and it was this that Elrond and - more extremely - Galadriel used the elven rings. This is the elves version of the desire for 'total control' that is more obviously seen in the evil tyrants such as Sauron. However, the elves were also driven by this desire to create some of the most beautiful 'things' - such as the Silmarils and Lothlorien - although, in a deep sense, the beauty derived from the One and the Valar, who made the original light, the Two Trees, the natural beauties of Middle Earth etc. My point is that there is always a double-edged quality even about the greatest 'material' creation.

Monday 22 July 2019

Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings - 1978

 The paperback version I owned until it fell to pieces from frequent use

I first read Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings more than thirty years ago, and have re-read it and consulted it many times since. It was a very important book in establishing the identity of the Inklings in the public mind - and it has many virtues.

In most chapters, Carpenter is able to weave a tremendous amount of information into a fascinating (mostly) triple-threaded narrative; principally of CS Lewis and Charles Williams with a fair bit of Tolkien - but less emphasis on JRRT because Carpenter had published the authorised biography just a year earlier.

My favourite chapter is a really wonderful recreation of an Inklings evening during the 1940-44 period attended by Jack and Warnie Lewis, JRR Tolkien, 'Humphrey' Havard and Charles Williams. Carpenter achieves this by using a framework mostly derived from Warnie Lewis's diaries and adapting passages from then-published writings and other projects that were being worked-on by the participants during this period.

Aside from this chapter; it is Charles Williams who brings out the best of Carpenter - with a very sympathetic and inspiring depiction of Williams - of a kind which can never again be possible since the sordid revelations of Grevel Lindop's full and detailed biography. Carpenter reveals Williams as - above all - a really interesting person and writer; and that is perhaps the biggest favour he could have done for him.

I well remember that the first thing I did after reading The Inklings (while I was living as a don in Durham Castle and living a very 'Inklings' life while studying for a Masters research degree in English) was to read through everything by Charles Williams I could get my hands-on. Or, at least, attempt to read through them, which I found to be rather more difficult than I expected. Nonetheless, it was the start of a very long and detailed engagement with Williams, which continues.

And there are sketches and details about a wide range of others more or less closely associated with the Inklings; to make up a delightful tapestry or cross section of middle twentieth century intellectual and literary life in England. 

Forty years down the line, however - with all that has been published on the Inklings since, and with my now perspective of being an elderly Christian - I can see that there are many and fundamental faults in the book. These only partly derive from Carpenter's relative lack of material - this shows itself especially in the many (albeit mostly small, but cumulatively distorting) factual errors relating to CS Lewis's biography.

The main problem is that Carpenter was a young man; atheist, left-wing and very 'mainstream',  'trendy' and debunking in his perspectives and evaluations - in sum, just about the worst possible angle from-which to evaluate the Inklings! Consequently, when Carpenter steps-back from the narrative to reflect on the group or the individuals, there are some insidiously dreadful passages, especially in reference to CS Lewis!

Most importantly is the chapter entitled 'A fox that isn't there' in which he attempts to prove - by increasingly elaborate, tendentious and self-contradicting reasoning - that the Inklings was nothing more than a group of Jack Lewis's friends enjoying convivial evenings.

This assertion has since been conclusively refuted by several people since - notably Diana Pavlac Glyer, in The Company they Keep (2007); which establishes by detailed and specific documentation the large extent of mutual interaction of the Inklings considered as writers. And this blog has been, for the past decade, accumulating evidence that the Inklings also had an extremely important, indeed growing, role of a spiritual and social nature.

Throughout, Carpenter is an exponent of Bulverism in simply assuming the wrongness of views that were not then fashionable in Carpenter's circle, and trying to explain them in terms of disordered psychology.

For example, on pages 206-7, Carpenter lists several of CS Lewis's conservative views concerning taxation, private education, the badness of egalitarianism, and his Christian ultimate-indifference to the threat of nuclear destruction from The Bomb. Carpenter then implicitly assumes we share his belief that these are obviously wrong and proceeds (in terms dripping with the unearned condescension of an upper class, privately-educated, narrowly-experienced, pseudo-rebellious son of a bishop): 'These views are perhaps more understandable when one remembers that [Lewis] was brought up in middle-class Belfast society, where constant vituperation was poured upon the then equivalent of the Left... and when one realises that such things did not interest him very much'.

In sum, it seems obvious now that in evaluating the nature and importance of the Inklings, Carpenter discovered only what he wanted to find - and overlooked that of which he disapproved. Indeed, the book as a whole seems like an attempt to establish that the Inklings are of significant interest only to those with a gossipy fascination with the internal sociology of Oxford University: apparently hoping to put the Inklings into a box marked 'Trivial'.

All of which may seem a fairly extraordinary negative motivation for a biographer, but it is one that has been common since Lytton Strachey - and which perhaps reached its peak with Lawrance Thompson's attempted assassination of Robert Frost's reputation. Carpenter went on to do similar hatchet-jobs in, for example, Secret Gardens (about children's literature authors) and The Angry Young Men (about Colin Wilson and his circle).

Yet, in the end, Humphrey Carpenter failed in his attempt to throw the Inklings into the dustbin of irrelevance; because overall the book had the opposite effect of its intent - awakening for many, such as myself, a long-term and intense fascination with a 'group of friends' who were also, in reality, so much more than merely that.