Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

What about Charles Williams - Touchstone Archives

Expand Messages
  • Steve Hayes
    What About Charles Williams? The Secret of the Enigmatic Inkling Revealed by Thomas Howard from Touchstone archives:
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 5, 2012
      What About Charles Williams?
      The Secret of the Enigmatic Inkling Revealed

      by Thomas Howard

      from Touchstone archives:

      Charles Williams’s name always seems to flit about the edges of the
      Tolkien/Lewis world. Everyone who knows anything about these gentlemen beyond
      Middle-earth and Narnia knows that they met regularly at The Bird and Baby to
      drink beer, smoke, talk, and read their “work in progress” to each other, and
      that Charles Williams was perhaps the most animated (or agitated) one of the
      group. Others were there—Hugo Dyson, Lord David Cecil, Dr. Havard, and so
      on—but the Three were the core of the thing.

      An Insider’s Name

      Nevertheless, Williams’s name is strictly a name for insiders, so to speak.
      Lots of people vaguely know the name, and many have had a go at reading one
      or more of his novels. But the testimony here is frequently, “I couldn’t make
      head or tail of it all.” The testimony becomes a wail of despair when
      Williams’s poetry is attempted. Even W. H. Auden found himself stumped by it
      at first, although he came, like T. S. Eliot, to be a great admirer of
      Williams’s work.

      Even Williams’s essays (I was going to say “straightforward essays,” but they
      aren’t) set one to tugging one’s beard. Here, by way of illustrating the
      point—and this is typical—are the first two sentences of Williams’s short
      church history, The Descent of the Dove: “The beginning of Christendom is,
      strictly, at a point out of time. A metaphysical trigonometry finds it among
      the spiritual Secrets, at the meeting of two Heavenward lines, one drawn from
      Bethany along the Ascent of Messias, the other from Jerusalem against the
      Descent of the Paraclete.”

      Where are we with this sort of vocabulary and syntax? We are in Williams
      territory, that’s where we are. For everyone’s consolation, it may be said
      that it is not only beginning readers of Williams who find themselves
      stumped. I myself wrote a doctoral thesis on Williams 35 years ago, and to
      this day I cannot pick up a single one of his books without at some point
      muttering to myself, “Yo! Williams, old boy—how on earth do you expect anyone
      to have the faintest clue as to what you are on about here?”

      The thing is, Williams unfailingly leads us all on what George Eliot called
      “a severe mental scamper.” His mind was so packed with images, and so curious
      about every cranny of the universe, and so regaled by ideas—especially
      dogma—and so overcharged with what one can only call high-voltage
      restlessness, that it is a wonder his prose is accessible at all. Ironically,
      we find that we must give him a palm for clarity. His prose—and, it must be
      said, his poetry—says precisely what he means.

      He means nothing more, and nothing less, than what we find on the page. And,
      as endless critics, with Eliot in the van, have pointed out over and over,
      every poetic line must be just as we find it. The disjuncture between
      words—both the vocabulary and the word order—and meaning has been closed by
      the poet. And we may, with a certain justice, call Williams a poet, even
      though most of what he wrote appears on the page as “prose.” The thing is,
      everything that he writes has the density, economy, pace, and exactitude, of

      Good or Great?

      But what about Williams? Was he a good novelist (he wrote seven)? Poet (he
      wrote two slender volumes that make up an Arthurian cycle of lyrics)? Critic
      (endless articles)? Dramatist (several plays)? Theologian? Ah. It is this
      last category that interests us here. But let it be said about the other four
      categories that Williams’s work is problematical. It may be great. After 45
      years of reading his stuff, I am still turning that question over in my mind.

      Certainly he leads us all out into titanic vistas, and startles us over and
      over and over by pointing out features in that vista which to him are
      obvious, but which in a thousand years we might never have noticed. Like all
      good poets, he sees the fear in a handful of dust. Or shall we say, the glory
      in a handful of dust (Eliot meant that anyway). But what checks us, every
      time we approach the point of concluding that Williams is one of the greats,
      is his—what is the word? Quirkiness.

      The difficulty here is that that word may be applied to any number of writers
      who are firmly lodged in the canon. John Skelton, for example. What a lark
      his work is—“The Tunning of Elinour Rumming,” for example, or “Philip
      Sparrow.” But you can’t talk about Elizabethan literature without reckoning
      with Skelton. Or Donne. Now there is a truly great poet. But he positively
      capers through his metaphors, leaving us gasping: gasping, but deeply, deeply
      moved (see his “Good Friday, 1613: Riding Westward”). Pepys: what possible
      excuse can we offer for that stuff? And yet there it is, somehow immortal.

      And William Blake: impossible to categorize. Wildly heretical, if we are
      attempting his “theology,” and quirky in the extreme, no matter what we are
      attempting. But again, we can’t canvass English Lit without keeping Blake on
      the list. And has any of us heard of James Joyce? Try Finnegan’s Wake. Or
      Faulkner? As I recall, the first sentence of one of his novels is forty pages
      long. So when it comes to the quirkiness sweepstakes, we can scarcely fault

      Nevertheless. The mystery ingredient that stops Williams just short of the
      Greatness category may be revealed in a comment Lewis made about him.
      Williams was self-educated. His mind had never had that experience of
      sustained, given discourse that comes in the lecture room and the seminar. He
      had had to drop out of school and go to work, since his father never was able
      quite to bring in enough money to keep the family going.

      In the light of this, Williams’s sheer knowledge, and the sweep of his
      imagination, are breathtaking. He may have been self-educated, but he was
      self- educated. The great tribute to this is the fact that Lewis and Tolkien
      managed to secure a lectureship at Oxford for Williams, in some semi-official

      Williams’s Vision

      But we must turn to his work. What is the vision that flares over everything
      he wrote? It cannot be boiled down. In his preface to All Hallows’ Eve, T. S.
      Eliot remarked that what Williams had to say was beyond his grasp, and
      perhaps beyond the grasp of any known genre of literature. Williams had to
      dart at it like a hummingbird. But what is this It?

      For a start, we may say that Williams thought of himself as a wholly orthodox
      Anglican. He exulted in the dogmas and creeds of the ancient Church (although
      the fact that he never made his peace with either Rome or Constantinople,
      with both of which he was enamored, is quite typical of Williams’s
      elusiveness). Readers may notice that I said he “thought of himself” as
      wholly orthodox. I think we may say that he was: but the following paragraph
      may throw light on this seeming quibble.

      He was asked in 1943 to contribute to a symposium on “What the Cross Means to
      Me.” Here are his opening lines:

      Any personal statement on such a subject as the present is bound to be
      inaccurate. It is almost impossible to state what one in fact believes,
      because it is almost impossible to hold a belief and to define it at the same
      time, especially when that belief refers not to the objective fact but to
      subjective interpretation. A rhetorical adjective will create a false stress;
      a misplaced adverb confuse an emotion. All that can be hoped is that a not
      too incorrect approximation may eventually appear. And anything that does
      appear is, of course, to be read subject to the judgement of the Christian
      Church, by whom all individual statements must be corrected.”

      Now all of that is inexpugnable. But besides the entirely legitimate matter
      of Williams’s pointing out that he has been asked to address the question of
      what the Cross means to him, the attentive reader may descry in Williams’s
      syntax and phraseology a very agile sort of what I can only call demurral. He
      stays on the orthodox shore: but he seems to dance on it. For more light on
      this delicate business, we may go on to what he undertakes to say in the
      essay itself.

      He is speaking of God’s having created the world, and of the credibility of
      that notion. He then mentions human freedom, with its corollary that we may
      choose not to obey God. “But it is not credible that a finite choice ought to
      result in an infinite distress. . . .” Here we have the problem of eternal
      punishment for human (finite) sin. Flat orthodoxy would, of course, have to
      hold that both Sacred Scripture and the Church have always taught the
      doctrine of Hell. And, to be fair to Williams, he never actually calls this
      into question.

      The Theologian

      In fact, he goes on to treat of the Cross, not only in an orthodox way, but
      with an agility that most readers would find quite astonishing. Speaking of
      Caiaphas and Pilate, he says that they were “each of them doing his best in
      the duty presented to them. The high priest was condemning a blasphemer. The
      Roman governor was attempting to maintain the peace. . . . They chose the
      least imperfect good that they could see. And their choice crucified the

      Williams’s ruminations on the Cross take the form of his stressing that God
      subjected himself to his own law. To crucify him—“This was the best law, the
      clearest justice, man could find, and He did well to accept it. If they had
      known it was He, they could have done no less and no better. They crucified
      Him; let it be said, they did well. But then let it be said also, that the
      Sublimity itself had done well: adorable He might be by awful definition of
      His Nature, but at least He had shown Himself honourable in His choice.”

      And one more sentence: “Our justice condemned the innocent, but the innocent
      it condemned was the one who was fundamentally responsible for the existence
      of all injustice—its existence in the mere, but necessary, sense of time,
      which His will created and prolonged.”

      We cannot reach a fair conclusion on Charles Williams’s theological orthodoxy
      on the basis of a few fragments of a single essay. He wrote many essays, and
      two whole books (He Came Down From Heaven and The Forgiveness of Sins) on
      “theology.” I put the word in quotes since no theologian I know of, except
      Hans Urs von Balthasar, has ever registered much interest in Williams as a

      And I mention von Balthasar only because he sought me out, not because of any
      eminence of mine, but because he heard that I had studied Williams, and he
      wanted to talk about him. (He—von B., that is—in the course of the evening
      gave me a snapshot of himself with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. He said it was
      his favorite photo of himself, if that throws any light on anything.)

      Readers may just barely taste, in the quotations above, the “flavor,” if we
      will, of all of Williams’s writings. By his agile syntax, and his carefully
      chosen vocabulary, and his (mostly subtly implied) demurrals, he hops along
      just in front of the Inquisition. In Williams’s case, it would be the
      Genevan, not the Dominican, inquisition that would find itself apoplectic.
      Williams always sails very near the Catholic wind. But—typically—he never
      would submit to Rome.

      Elusive Williams

      So far, we have spoken cautiously about Williams’s work. It is only fair that
      we go on to speak of his splendid vision. “Vision” is a better word here than
      “ideas,” since, as Eliot pointed out, what Williams had to say eluded any
      conceivable literary form—essay, novel, poetry, or whatever we might wish to

      It is not quite possible to organize any very logical sequence when we are
      speaking of Williams’s ideas (permit the word once, I beg). But anyone
      familiar with his work will not get very far in speaking of it all before he
      brings up “Substitution and Exchange.” Any Christian, of course, is on home
      turf here. In the mystery of the Atonement, the Son of God in some sense
      “stood in” for the rest of us, bearing our sins in his own body on the tree
      (cf. Isaiah 53, and Sts. Peter, Paul, and John).

      This mystery is itself an epiphany of the blissful exchanges that obtain
      amongst the Three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. The Son “gives” himself
      to the Father, and vice-versa, and the Holy Ghost is, in a mystery, the
      “agent” of those exchanges. My life for yours: Somehow that maxim, raised to
      the nth degree, may be said to touch, remotely, to be sure, on at least one
      aspect of the Godhead. Calvary is the epiphany in our world of that same
      principle. The Son gave himself for us.

      And here we come into Williams country. Every one of his seven novels has
      this mystery for its animating energy.

      Standing In

      In every novel, we start out with ordinary life in the England of the 1930s
      and 1940s. The characters are going about their business. And then some thing
      crops up—the Holy Grail, the Tarot pack, a cube of the primordial matter with
      the Tetragrammaton inscribed on it, the Platonic archetypes, death—and we are
      off and running.

      The characters divide themselves, unbeknownst to themselves, into those who
      wish to make a grab for the thing in the interest of knowledge, power, or
      ecstasy, and those who, like Simeon and Anna, or, supremely, the Blessed
      Virgin in our own story, place themselves obediently and humbly at the
      disposal of whatever The Mercy (Williams never says “God”) might wish to ask
      of them in the situation. And in each case, one or more of the characters is
      asked by The Mercy to “stand in” for someone under attack, and, by some self-
      offering, to fend off the evil afoot and thereby protect (“save”) that

      Williams’s stories reach bizarre lengths. We find archetypal lions and
      butterflies and snakes appearing in English gardens and lanes. Or an ancient
      pack of Tarot cards conjuring up a blizzard. Or the Holy Grail in the
      sacristy of a country parish church, with the potentiality of being used
      either by wicked men or by good men. In Williams’s next-best novel, All
      Hallows’ Eve, the thing is death. Two women are dawdling on Westminster
      Bridge, and after about three pages, we say to ourselves, “But these women
      are dead!” They are.

      Their experience through the course of the story is Purgatorial, the one
      opting for her own ego (Hell), and the other for substitution and exchange.
      She has been something of a vixen in her life with her husband, but has the
      chance to learn the Divine Charity, first by acknowledging her need for her
      husband—she needs a Kleenex—and finally by throwing herself into the breach
      between a girl whom she had persecuted at school years before and a magician
      who is trying to gain power over that girl’s life and death. Very bizarre.
      Which is what stumps most readers.

      Williams’s best novel is entitled Descent into Hell. Here we watch a
      perfectly unnoticeable and respectable historian damn himself to Hell by an
      unremitting sequence of very small petulant choices. Nothing big. But again
      and again and again he will not have the Way of Exchange—My Life for Yours.
      At one point, it comes down to his merely having to say yes or no to some
      folks who are putting on a play, and who need his historical acumen to tell
      them whether they’ve got the costumes right. But he refuses out of sheer

      Well, says Williams, if I will have it that way, then I will have it that
      way—forever. Naturally we all say in chorus, “George Macdonald! The Great
      Divorce!” And we are right, of course: “There are only two kinds of people in
      the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God
      says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” Williams likes to call Hell Gomorrah:
      the place beyond the city where I seek the mirror image of myself (Sodom),
      where I may be altogether alone with no one to get in my hair.

      God’s City or Sodom

      The images that Williams invokes in this connection are several. One of his
      favorites is “The City” (Augustine’s City of God), where the rule is My Life
      for Yours. In any earthly city we must acknowledge that rule anyway: Red
      lights say, “You must give way so that those people can go.” I may fume, but
      I must obey. In the City of God, it is a form of bliss.

      Filthy lucre itself is an image, whether we will or no: The coin says, “Here
      is the fruit of my labor in exchange for the fruit of your labor, which I
      need” (for groceries, or whatever). It is all adulterated with cupidity down
      here: but in the City of God these exchanges are modes of joy. I can give you
      a hand with your luggage (Heaven) or refuse to do so (Hell). It is on every

      Another favorite image for Williams is Romantic Love. He wrote a whole book
      on Dante, The Figure of Beatrice. The point is, Dante saw the young girl
      Beatrice Portinari in Florence when he was a boy, fell in love with her (he
      never really knew her), and, for the rest of his life, the image of Beatrice
      furnished him with an image—a dim, earthly case-in-point—of the Divine

      The rest of us are mercifully blinded to this radiance, since we would all go
      mad if we saw the effulgence crowning every mortal God ever made.
      Furthermore, for the lover, giving himself for his beloved, far from being
      drudgery, is a mode of joy. He cannot do enough for her. Romantic love,
      apparently, transubstantiates work and service, and makes them into joy.

      Of course, all forms of love do this—maternal, paternal, fraternal, filial,
      patriotic. For Williams, it is all so obvious that he never winces over plou
      ghing it all into every line of his prose and poetry. The eyes of the lover,
      says Williams, far from having had star-dust blown into them, are the only
      eyes that see The Other truly, since the lover sees all the glory of Heaven
      radiating from his beloved.
      Life & Legacy

      What about Williams’s own life? He was a very odd man, from all that one can
      gather. Tolkien claimed he never knew what Williams was talking about. Eliot
      said that when Williams lectured, he hopped all over the place, crossing and
      uncrossing his legs as he perched on the desk, jingling coins in his pocket,
      and so forth. Eliot also said that Williams looked like a monkey.

      But by far the most perplexing thing about Williams to people who did not
      know him personally (and maybe to them too) was his excessively odd
      relationships with women. They seemed to fall all over themselves over him,
      although there was nothing of glamour about his person. And, if we read
      Letters to Lalage, we might conclude that Williams had all sorts of
      “behaviors,” as they say now, that Freud would have loved to get at.

      But—and I say this after many decades of studying everything I can about
      Williams—I firmly believe that he went to his grave absolutely faithful to
      his wife Florence, even though they lived apart for the whole of World War
      II, when the Oxford University Press, for which Williams worked, moved its
      offices from London, where the Williamses lived, to Oxford.

      There are some ironies about Williams’s legacy. His followers—they might
      almost be called worshipers, both men and women, and I have met some of
      them—fell into the most vicious fighting over his manuscripts after his
      death. But these were the people who were supposed to have been tutored in
      the Way of Substitution and Exchange, in the Law of The City. What went
      wrong? I do not know.

      I found myself caught in the middle of some of the fighting and had to make
      my escape (literally) on an airplane back to the United States, holding a
      huge canvas zipper-bag full of manuscripts that one Raymond Hunt had received
      from Williams, and that he (Hunt) wanted to give to Wheaton College. For all
      I know, I might have had my throat cut by some of Williams’s other votaries
      who detested Hunt, and who felt that he had made off with the material. But
      all of the personae in that drama are dead now, and de mortuis nil nisi

      —Thomas Howard

      Williams’s “What the Cross Means to Me” can be found in Charles Williams:
      Selected Writings, edited by Anne Ridler.

      Thomas Howard taught for many years at St. John's Seminary College, the Roman
      Catholic seminary of the archdiocese of Boston. Among his many works are the
      books Christ the tiger, Evangelical Is Not Enough, Lead Kindly Light, On
      Being Catholic, and The Secret of New York Revealed, and a videotape series
      of 13 lectures on "The Treasures of Catholicism" (all from Ignatius Press).

      “What About Charles Williams?” first appeared in the December 2004 issue of

      Steve Hayes
      E-mail: shayes@...
      Web: http://hayesstw.tumblr.com/ (follow me on Tumblr)
      Blog: http://khanya.wordpress.com
      Phone: 083-342-3563 or 012-333-6727
      Fax: 086-548-2525
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.