Monday, May 15, 2017

Memento mori: Charles Williams, 1945

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Charles Walter Stansby Williams (1886-1945)
Author, editor, critic, dramatist, poet

Charles Williams’s life and work is one of those wistful tales of What Might Have Been. He has come in and out of vogue over the seventy years since he died, usually as a tagalong to new accounts of the friends of his last decade: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

But because his was a reflected glory, and his theological views so heterodox, he is usually ushered on, and off, the stage as quickly as possible by the evangelicals who have, in recent decades, increasingly controlled the myth and message of C.S. Lewis: where Lewis’ is another soul reclaimed from Godlessness and restored to the academic wing of the modern American Republican Party, Williams is an Oxford oddball, a bit of local color.

Williams was born to a London art supply dealer and sometime writer whose health and business prospects were on the downslide. He lost most of his sight, and his finances kept the family in, at best, a state of genteel poverty. Charles was a bright lad, and won a scholarship to University College, London. His family couldn’t help with the associated costs, and Williams dropped out in 1903, after two year's study, without a degree.

He worked for a while in a Methodist bookstore. In 1908 he got a job as a proofreader’s assistant in the London office of the Oxford University Press and spent the rest of his life working for the publishing house.

OUP paid its non-University men pittances, and it was 1917 before he could afford to marry. One son was born, in 1920. To supplement his income, Williams built a sideline career as a lecturer in adult education institutes, and as a writer. His quarter-century's bibliography includes forty books and hundreds of articles and reviews. He was not so bright as A.E. Housman, the government clerk whose work on the ancient Romans at the British Library reading tables all but commanded his appointment to university chairs despite his lack of a degree, but Williams' work paid the bills.

An autodidact is, in many ways, the ideal publisher's employee. He has a natural desire to hoover up all the knowledge he can to fill in the chasms of hs limited formal education, and the ability to master new topics with speed and enthusiasm.

Williams was such a man, and moved up through the ranks and was an editor by the late 1920s. In the mid-Thirties he whipped an Oxford academic’s clunkily titled manuscript into C.S. Lewis’ acclaimed The Allegory of Love: A Medieval Tradition (1936). Discovering each other were venturers into popular fiction, Williams’ and Lewis’ fan letters crossed in the mail shortly thereafter and a fast friendship was born.

Among Williams’ other OUP success was the first English edition of the collected works of Kierkegaard. His study of Dante remains in use and inspired Dorothy L. Sayers to undertake her translation of The Divine Comedy.

His style was crisp and incisive, even if it failed to fully explain the concepts he was trying to develop. At his best, he is a model of concision. Take this summary of Adam and Eve:

They had what they wanted. That they did not like it when they got it does not alter the fact that they certainly got it.
The downside of the autodidact’s life is, often, the inability to sort the wheat from the chaff in the immense quantities of material one absorbs, and an isolation from the give and take of academic life that hones the critical faculties. Thus Williams’ core interests- theology and legend- dissolved into a white hot mass of loosely coalesced notions.

He was, at once, a staunch Church of England man; a religious skeptic (a modern doubting Thomas, he thought himself); a dabbler in cults along the Rosicrucian spectrum; an expert on mysticism and the occult; and an obsessive about Arthurian/Disciple-like religious fellowships. As once account explains,

His signature doctrine, co-inherence, is also an odd blend of the natural and the supernatural. Co-inherence is the idea that Christ’s risen life inhabits believers so that they share the divine interrelationship of the Trinity and live as members of one another. This is based in the Trinitarian theology of perichoresis, the mutual indwelling and love of the three members of the Godhead, from which all human love and co-operation are made possible. Williams’ own order, the Companions of the Co-inherence, voluntarily carried spiritual, emotional, or medical burdens for each other and anyone else—living, dead, or unborn—by Substitution or Exchange. He was fascinated by the mystical body of Christ: he believed that sex is an act of co-inherence and that every romance corresponds to Jesus’ earthly life. In his Arthurian poetry, he carried the simple doctrine of Christian unity into a multi-layered symbolism infused with occult significance.

Williams held a kind of skepticism about his own faith that also made him the odd man out in the Inklings, compared to the staunch “Mere Christian” Lewis and the solid Roman Catholic Tolkien. He may have had more common theological ground with the Anthroposophist Owen Barfield, the fourth important writer in the group. But Williams’ brand of mysticism made for some hot debates among the group: a minor Inkling, Charles Wrenn, at one Inklings meeting “almost seriously expressed a strong wish to burn Williams, or at least maintained that conversation with Williams enabled him to understand how inquisitors had felt it right to burn people…. Williams is eminently combustible” (letter of C.S. Lewis to his brother, 5 Nov. 1939). If even his best friends occasionally wanted to burn him at the stake, it is no stretch to say that his ideas were the oddest among them.

Though happily married, Williams carried on a long, mystical- and, to scholars, rather mystifying- relationship with the OUP librarian. He was also an unprepossessing man who was absolute catnip to women, many of whom were eager to be his disciples, take part in his rites, and fight each other to pride of place as his intellectual heirs.

Notwithstanding his eccentricities, Williams was an insightful biographer of several Elizabethan figures; the author of ten plays, six books on theology, seven collections of poetry, and eight anthologies of his literary criticism. Working for the OUP was a blessing and a curse: it made publication easy, but the governors of the Press considered that a form of compensation, and paid their employee-authors no royalties.

Today, Williams is best recalled as the author of seven novels between 1931 and 1945.  T.S. Eliot called them “supernatural thrillers” and wrote an enthusiastic preface to one (Williams, rather less gracefully, included Eliot in a survey of modern English poets and confessed he did not understand him at all). Lewis praised them as “Christian fantasy”- a field in which he was developing his own interest. W.H. Auden was a fan and Williams promoter for decades.

Writing in Touchstone, Thomas Howard, a Williams scholar, wrote in 2004,

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 victim.

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 testiness.

World War II made Williams’ reputation. The OUP relocated its entire London office and staff to Oxford; Williams- alone, his wife still in the city- was sought out by Lewis and brought into the fold of his literary circle, The Inklings. War demands stripped the University of most of its students and redirected most who were left, and the faculty, into war work.

To help fill the gaps, Lewis and Tolkien lobbied the University to engage Williams as a lecturer. He was an experienced and compelling speaker, and his classes won critical acclaim and massive attendance. Oxford granted him its MA in 1943 for services rendered.

As Lewis’ friend and past editor, Williams exercised considerable influence over the former’s work. Tolkien, a rather spiky character who resented that, after years trying to bring Lewis back to Christianity, he’d taken the train for Canterbury rather than Rome, thought Williams ruined Lewis’s scifi novel, That Hideous Strength, with so many suggestions that it came out second-rate Williams rather than first-class Lewis.

Plagued by bouts of ill-health, Williams entered an Oxford hospital shortly after the war ended. A simple surgery led to unexpected complications, and he died, aged only fifty-eight.

In a 1982 memoir, Warnie Lewis, C.S. Lewis’ brother and close companion, recalled learning of Williams’ death:

Tuesday 15th May, 1945.

At 12.50 this morning… the telephone rang, and a woman's voice asked if I would take a message for J — "Mr. Charles Williams died in the Acland this morning". One often reads of people being "stunned" by bad news, and reflects idly on the absurdity of the expression; but there is more than a little truth in it. I felt just as if I had slipped and come down on my head on the pavement. J had told me when I came into College that Charles was ill, and it would mean a serious operation: and then went off to see him: I haven't seen him since. I felt dazed and restless, and went out to get a drink: choosing unfortunately the King's Arms, where during the winter Charles and I more than once drank a pint after leaving Tollers at the Mitre, with much glee at "clearing one throats of varnish with good honest beer": as Charles used to say.

There will be no more pints with Charles: no more "Bird and Baby": the blackout has fallen, and the Inklings can never be the same again. I knew him better than any of the others, by virtue of his being the most constant attendant. I hear his voice as I write, and can see his thin form in his blue suit, opening his cigarette box with trembling hands. These rooms will always hold his ghost for me. There is something horrible, something unfair about death, which no religious conviction can overcome. "Well, goodbye, see you on Tuesday Charles" one says — and you have in fact though you don't know it, said goodbye for ever. He passes up the lamplit street, and passes out of your life for ever.

There is a good deal of stuff talked about the horrors of a lonely old age; I'm not sure that the wise man — the wise materialist at any rate — isn't the man who has no friends. And so vanishes one of the best and nicest men it has ever been my good fortune to meet.

May God receive him into His everlasting happiness.

For his part, C.S. Lewis was almost inconsolable at the loss of ““my friend of friends, the comforter of all our little set, the most angelic.” By August, 1945, he was able to put his feelings down in verse, a poem called “On the Death of Charles Williams”:

Your death blows a strange bugle call, friend, and all is hard
To see plainly or record truly. The new light imposes change,
Re-adjusts all a life-landscape as it thrusts down its probe from the sky,
To create shadows, to reveal waters, to erect hills and deepen glens.
The slant alters. I can’t see the old contours. It’s a larger world
Than I once thought it. I wince, caught in the bleak air that blows on the ridge.
Is it the first sting of a great winter, the world-waning? Or the cold air of spring?

A hard question and worth talking a whole night on. But with whom?
Of whom now can I ask guidance? With what friend concerning your death
Is it worth while to exchange thoughts unless–oh, unless it were you?

A college professor introduced me to Williams in the mid-1970s; from 1978 to 1980 I belonged to a group of Oxford students who gathered in The Inklings’ pub, The Eagle & Child, for a pint and chat from time to time. The experience was diluted somewhat by it’s being usually full of American Lewis fans intent on living the experience and finding actual students not at all Masterpiece Theater in their look or views. But I still have my beat-up Zondervan trade paperbacks of the Williams’ novels, and they challenge- and puzzle- me to this day. He strove to reach the untouchable and describe things for which words cannot exist: the smartest mind in all of time would, probably, have had more success in the journey, but failed of the goals.

Anniversaries seem to bring reappraisals. The seventieth of Williams’ death last year spawned articles, a new OUP biography, and one of the last episodes of PBS’ Inspector Lewis- in which some Oxonians’ attempt to revive the Fellowship of Coinherence goes disastrously- and rather luridly-wrong.

Like Beethoven, Williams veered between the sublime and almost pure junk in his output. At their peaks, both make one see things differently. Williams seemed comfortable with ambiguity: “Hell,” he wrote, “is indefinite.”

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