New piece on Charles Williams

This appeared in the Christian Courier a month ago. The version that appeared there deleted my (quite modest) references to Williams’s weird magick S&M stuff: my fault for going over the word limit, as I always do. I restore those sentences not because I think the piece is some sort of deathless prose masterpiece of which not a single phrase ought to be disturbed, but because I don’t want to seem to whitewash Williams’s flaws. Why, I think whitewashing him would be very bad, a deed for which a person must be punished severely…

Ahem. As always, the Courier has been generously supportive of my weird interests as a writer, and if you like me a lot it might be time to subscribe to them. 

We talk of Gnosticism as an early Christian heresy; it is better understood as an everyday Christian temptation. Loveless knowledge, implied St. Paul, does nothing but puff you up, and as Christians can hardly help claiming to know something about God—at the very least we distinctly suspect some things, codified in the Creeds—so the mere momentary absence of love threatens to leave us with swelled heads. About the history of Gnosticism as a particular movement or tendency in the early church, I have read many contradictory accounts and fully trust none; about Gnosticism as a name for a certain intellectual and spiritual pride, I need only one supremely illuminating remark, worth libraries of commentary. It is this: “See, understand, enjoy, said the Gnostic; repent, believe, love, said the Church, and if you see anything by the way, say so.”

The man who wrote those words—Charles Williams, in Descent of the Dove—traveled both paths. Fans of the Inklings and of Christian fantasy generally have long known Williams as the great bromance of C.S. Lewis’s later life, and as the author of a series of “spiritual thrillers” (so T.S. Eliot, also a friend, called them) that readers invariably speak of in condescending tones, while continuing to devour them even as putatively worthier books lay untouched. Lewis and Auden revered him—not merely his writings, but what they considered his personal holiness. And yet Lewis’s finest biographer, Alan Jacobs, speaks for many when he calls Williams “creepy.” The scholar Sorina Higgins finds him sexist, perverse, theologically heterodox, and altogether deeply troubling—and she’s a fan. He is one of those permanent minor writers who clings to the great ship Literary Canon by the fingertips. Grevel Lindop’s Charles Williams: The Third Inkling makes a persuasive case for hoisting him aboard, while also helping to explain why this great Christian writer left, and continues to leave, such differing impressions.

The first thing to know about Williams is that he wasn’t rich. In chapter after chapter, Lindop describes a pace of work (which resists being described as a “schedule,” still less a “routine”) that would have crushed a man ten times healthier. Throughout his adult life Williams writes poems, novels, biographies, prefaces, closet and liturgical dramas, spiritual and devotional works, letters, and lectures in a chaotic profusion that resembles the atmosphere of his “shabby-genteel” childhood home, where every adult seems to have had four or five sidelines. He did all this while shepherding the first complete English edition of Tolstoy, and the first English translations of Kierkegaard, through Oxford University Press, permanently changing literary history.

It was a hard, in many ways thankless life. Williams’s mystical, allusive mind probably helped to compensate. For Williams, everything stands in for everything else, is a microcosm of some macrocosm. He could tell himself, then, that his unhappiness was perhaps merely one part in a happy design, the outlines of which he hadn’t fully seen. Born in 1886, Williams shared the general late-Victorian fascination with the occult—self-styled magicians, cultists, even Satanists were as hard to avoid in the intellectual and literary circles of that time as meditators in a Whole Foods. Lindop establishes that Williams was a member not only of A.E. Waite’s goofy Fellowship of the Rosy Cross (a mystical group with Christian leanings, probably no more spiritually dangerous than the Masons) but of a discussion group that may have had less savory ties. His poetry can read like an attempt sympathetic magic, as if he’s using names to influence the things they refer to. On the other hand, it’s equally easy to read much sympathetic magic and ritual as itself a kind of embodied allegory, an attempt to communicate a vision of wholeness or perfection through the manipulation of physical things: a kind of writing with objects. Did Williams’s occult mind influence his literary mind, or was it just that mind continuing to work in another medium? The few instances of Williams’s magical practice that Lindop actually describes sound about as dangerous (and effective) as doing “the wave” to help your team win. Less defensible was Williams’s habit, after marriage, of engaging in mildly sadomasochistic rituals with young women disciples—the frustrated sexual energy thus created helped him work. He never had sexual intercourse with any of these women, and he seems to have convinced himself that a little ritual-magic-spanking between friends wasn’t cheating. The human capacity for self-delusion is amazing, though “amazing” is not the adjective his wife used. (They later reconciled.)

I don’t think Williams’s many imperfections fully invalidate his witness. Against a fascination with the occult, a kinky turn, and a penchant for being flattered by young women, we have to set great personal kindness, a ready sympathy for the downtrodden, and most of all, the books. They embody every spiritual quality that Williams sometimes lacked—and isn’t that the most we can say of any spiritual writer? Descent Into Hell (1937) offers a depiction of spiritual pride that will drive any reader to his or her knees. War in Heaven (1930) has one of the best opening sentences of its era (“The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse”). And there’s a scene in a country church in The Greater Trumps (1932) that says more about romantic love as an opening for spiritual transformation than a hundred songs. Most of all, there’s Descent of the Dove (1939), a visionary work of church history that sits with Orthodoxy, Mere Christianity, and Unapologetic on the list of books that make Christianity interesting by simply reminding us, in forceful epigrams, what Christianity is. All his books, even the worst, make the spiritual world seem as tangibly real as a cup of coffee.

Williams wanted to know the secrets of the universe. Sometimes he wanted only to see, understand, enjoy them. More often, he knew they could only be gotten at by love. At his best, he knew that Love was precisely who they were.

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