Saturday 26 August 2023

Charles Williams, the City of God, and this mortal life as palimpsest of the eternal

I first came across Charles Williams in Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings (1979) which I read in 1987, while living a somewhat Inklings-like life; researching English, and a Don in Durham Castle, University College, Durham. 

Carpenter does an excellent job of portraying Williams as an interesting and unusual person; so that the reader is drawn to investigate further - which I did. 

I have been thinking lately about that way of living (or something aimed-at in living) that I associate with the work and practice of Charles Williams - by which the mundane world is understood as (what I have termed) a palimpsest - as when a new medieval text is written on a secondhand parchment, and the pre-existing manuscript can sometimes be seen shining-through. 

The idea is that we are at first aware only of the mundane 'natural' and surface level of meanings; but underneath these, there is a super-natural reality, of eternal and archetypal forms.  

Thus; for Williams the City of London (or any city) represents the City of God; and its mercantile exchanges of goods and money, represent the Christian spiritual "exchange" between "co-inherent" Men. In his novels and poems, and also apparently in his own life and that of his 'disciples', this seems to have been the daily practice of Charles Williams - anything in the passing show, might be experienced as a symbol of some-thing archetypal and eternal.  

From long before I counted myself a Christian, this had a strong initial appeal to me; as an attitude that seemed to lend depth and meaning to a mundane, everyday world that so-often, so-badly lacked depth and meaning (consisting of dull bureaucracy, transient distractions, the pursuit of low motivations and rejection of high). 

It came naturally too: I suspected, sometimes detected, much going-on beneath the surface; including good things of which people seemed often unconscious, and good influences that were unnoticed, unintended, unsuspected... 

In other words; the reality was largely negative and implicit in in its effects; and my idea was that to make it positive ought to enhance its power to enhance life. 

"Power" was indeed a part of the concept - including Will Power. I was sympathetic to the idea that there could be a collective focusing of will power for Good; and that this kind of activity might do good in ways that were again unnoticed and unconscious. 

(Indeed, such ideas were prevalent a few decades ago, and people would often organize mass activities of 'will power' - such as prayer, meditation, and many varieties of ceremonial activity; with the expressed aim of doing some-Good to the world... In a sense, the underlying idea was that Good could be done-to masses of people - "whether they liked it or not"! 

So there were ideas of a realler-reality beneath the surface; and ideas of the Good-stuff being present and operative without awareness, working-away in all kinds of positive ways, but unknown and unsuspected. And maybe "some way" of tapping into this underlying world by those (relatively  few) who recognized the nature-of-things; and thereby influencing things-in-general for the better - although they probably would never know it. 

And so I continued for many a year. 

And I gained satisfactions by it: both an immediate satisfaction of seeing beyond or below, and the motivation of doing more so. 

Yet, of course, there was no purpose to it. Ultimately, it was hedonic in its intent - a way of making life more enjoyable, but without making life qualitatively different. 

And there were disadvantages - because regarding actuality as a palimpsest devalues it relative to the deep past and the hoped-for future. Indeed, the surface seems ever-thinner, as the mind penetrates to 'eternal verities' beneath; and this life itself - mortal life, full of ephemeral objects and ideas - seems futile. It is going nowhere - but to change, corruption, death; so why do we linger in this vale of mere shadows when there is a bright and pure and flawless world awaiting us on the other side? 

Indeed, why did we ever come here at all - when there exists a world so much better; and a world which we will (apparently) experience as wholly satisfying? 

What is the point, if temporarily incarnating into such a mixed and messy world of temporary stuff; if/when there is an archetypal and timeless reality to which we might in principle have dwelt-within? 

And when we try to abolish time and sequence, and start believing that what is now is always, what was is also now, and what is to come has already-happened - then various terrible implications begin to sink-in. 

We have bought meaningfulness as a terrible cost; the cost of abolishing purpose hence choice - leading to paralysis as we contemplate an essentially tragic state of being. 

So, in the end I found - as, I believe, did Charles Williams - that despite the immediate allure and benefits of regarding this mortal life as a palimpsest written over an eternal and ideal world that can be accessed by the determined adept; when taken seriously and over the long term, such an attitude detracts-from and devalues (rather than enhances and validates) the mundane life.  

Saturday 5 August 2023

The Shire was not an anarchy nor did it have a government; but had a clan- (family-) based system of authority

Some people have badly misunderstood The Shire as some kind of an 'anarchy'; with the implication that a lack of much in the way of formal government mistakenly-equated with a condition of unconstrained individual 'freedom'. 

But this idea of the unconstrained individual, free to do whatever he wanted, is very modern; and anarchy did not exist in traditional societies - although the delusion that it did, and that ancient tribal hunter gatherer societies were some kind of anarchy dates back at least to Engels, and Rousseau before him. 

On the contrary; it seems clearly implied that The Shire was - like many ancient and small scale societies - based upon extended families - that it was a kind of clan-based society.

In clan societies, individuals 'identity' is as part of their family; and it is families who regulate individual behaviour - using the relatively fluid and informal, but nonetheless authoritative, means by which families spontaneously operate. 

Thus we are told that hobbits are deeply interested by genealogy - that is family ancestry; and individual hobbits are nearly always discussed in terms of their familial descent and membership. 

Furthermore; there is also an implicit Shire class system; with some hobbit families identified as 'gentry' (such as Baggins, Bolger, Boffin) - and a few of these (such as the Tooks primarily, and Brandybucks secondarily) as something-like an aristocracy in that they have an hereditary and patriarchal (primogeniture) authority over others. 

This dominance by certain clans appears to be rooted in the hereditary competence for rulership of Fallohide hobbits; who seem to be both bolder and more intelligent than the other Stoor and Harfoot types.  

(Although formally patriarchal; it is also clear that  - just as in real life Men's families - exceptional female-hobbits may establish substantial - but non-hereditary - authority, or even dominance: examples are, buy implication, Bilbo's 'remarkable' mother Belladonna Took, and Lobelia Sackville Baggins, who we hear described apparently dominating first her wealthy husband, and later her son.)     

In such a clan society; there is almost nothing corresponding to the individuality of anarchism; since personal identity is - spontaneously - immersed in the family; which is indeed regarded by other hobbits as definitive. 

Bilbo and Frodo, as wealthy (hence independent) bachelors, who care little for the opinion of other hobbits, are, of course, notable exceptions, since they - apparently - do whatever they like! 

But there will have been extremely few Shire hobbits who could afford to lose their 'respectability' (i.e. their guaranteed place in Shore society) by steeping outside of family expectations.  

An important factor is that The Shire does not much resemble any actual historical society of Men; and this is mainly because hobbit-nature is different from Man-nature - especially in that hobbits have very little desire to dominate and control others; so that Big Man societies or monarchies do not develop. 

Again, there is an exception with Lotho Sackville-Baggins, who is power-driven and briefly becomes a Big Man (the "Chief"). Lotho is widely disliked, yet meets with very little significant resistance to his monopolizing of power from other hobbits, confirming their innate lack of dominance instinct. 

The exception is the Thain - who is head of the Tooks, the most powerful clan; and with the strongest Fallohide inheritance which fits them for ruling both intellectually and temperamentally. Thus, the Tooks refuse to acknowledge Lotho's authority, and indeed defend their territory with lethal force when Lotho send 'ruffians' to intimidate them.

In conclusion, The Shire is very far from an anarchy; and instead seems to be a society with a clan-family structure that is similar to those of many historical Men, plus a small degree of national government (e.g. the mayor, shirrifs and postal service). But the end result is significantly modified compared with Men to become something unique; by the different and less dominating and power-driven nature of hobbits*. 


*Note: This resistance to the temptations of power is exactly what makes hobbits the best of all races to bear The One Ring; and indeed suggests that this is precisely the reason that Illuvitar enabled hobbits to 'evolve' from Men, probably during the Third Age.