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.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have got me wanting to reread at least He Came Down from Heaven and The Forgiveness of Sins, the more so having quickly word-searched the fadedpage version of the 1950 combined edition for the word Incarnation. One of the passages that set me looking, which had come to mind reading this post was (pp. 12-13) "If, per impossible, it could be divinely certain that the historical events upon which Christendom reposes had not yet happened, all that could be said would be that they had not yet happened. If time and place are wrong, they are at least all that can be wrong. If, by a wild fantasy, the foundations of Christendom are not yet dug, then we have only the architect’s plan. But those foundations can never be dug on any other plan. The passion—often the too-angry passion—with which the orthodox have defended a doctrine such as the Virgin Birth has (apart from mystical interpretation and vicious obstinacy) this consummation of the historical sense as its chief cause. The union of history and the individual is, like that of so many other opposites, in the coming of the kingdom of heaven, historic and contemporary at once. It was historic in order that it might always be contemporary; it is contemporary because it was certainly historic." Whatever Williams' failures and abuses, there is this radical insistence on the meaningfulness, the necessity in practice, in fact, in living, of this obviously mutable and ever-changing world. Very "mixed and messy" in practice, even agonizingly so, but looking to its perfection, to the future enjoyment of one's "holy and glorious flesh" as he elsewhere quotes Dante, the very conscious enjoyment by distinct concrete human persons of personal 'coinherence' with each other and the Fully Perfectly Human Jesus Christ our True God.

David Llewellyn Dodds