Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A. N. Wilson on Charles Williams

So, thanks to the link posted on the MythSoc list (thanks Wendell), I've now had a chance to read A. N. Wilson's review of Grevel Lindop's new biography CHARLES WILLIAMS: THE THIRD INKLING. I have Lindop's book but haven't had a chance to read it yet, and Wilson's an intelligent and often insightful, if quirky and sometimes careless writer, so I was interested in what he had to say.

In the first place, even with his propensity for 'warts and all', Wilson clearly loves Williams with a mighty love, finding him a fascinating figure whose stranger aspects make him all the more endearingly weird. Thus he's indulgent towards Wms' practice of fondling young women whom he was spiritually mentoring. To his credit, Wilson is notably sympathetic to Florence Wms, whom he describes as "his long-suffering wife"; elsewhere he refers to her as the woman "who was to have the great misfortune of becoming his wife" and calls their marriage "disastrous". But then perhaps a stressful marriage wd be the inevitable outcome of things like Wms writing to his platonic lover that "I abandoned an instinct to masturbate last night so that I might offer the strength to you in God". Try unpacking the theological implications of that. Or when Wms writes about the antiChrist's penis in one of the Taliessin poems:

Phosphorescent gleams the point of the penis
rudiments or relics, disappearing, appearing,
live in the forlorn focus of the intellect,
eyes and ears, the turmoil of the mind of sensation

--which is not only weird, but has its weirdness infinitely compounded when Wilson misreads this and believes that Wms is writing about God's penis: Wilson wrongly says that these lines describe  "the emperor of Byzantium", who in the poems is a manifestation of God Himself. In fact, as the original context of the lines makes clear, they describe the Headless Emperor of P'o-lu, the Taliessin cycle's antiChrist figure.

Wilson also rates Wms surprisingly high: he calls Wms' theological books HE CAME DOWN FROM HEAVEN and THE FIGURE OF BEATRICE works of genius. In fact, much of his review is Wilson's attempt to grapple with the fact that he doesn't think Wms' work* is very good by literary standards but he finds himself deeply moved by it and so concludes it more than just 'good' in some way that's hard to define.  This is interesting because it's the same reason C. S. Lewis came up with the idea of 'mythopoeic literature': works that would on the surface seem to be second-rate (he was thinking specifically of the work of George McDonald) yet have the power to deeply move the reader and stay vividly in his or her memory long afterwards.   In fact Wilson praises Wms so much that I think he overstates the case. Thus when he says Wms' poetry "is avidly read by his admirers", I find myself incapable of believing that the number of people who read and enjoy Wms' poetry is not in the thousands or hundreds and maybe not even the tens: at any rate, some vanishingly small number. 

In the end there are three things I think Wilson got exactly wrong.

First, he's dismissive of Wms' lifelong devotion to ceremonial magic, saying that "Wms . . . always had a weakness for mumbo jumbo". Wilson finds it hard to take this seriously, denies that such things had any influence on Wms, and says Wms' involvement with the Golden Dawn only "situates him in a particular era in the history of silliness". I'd say this is precisely like arguing that Conan Doyle never had any real interest in 'all that spiritualist stuff' --which, unfortunately, is less in accordance with the facts and more what his admirers wish were the case.

Second,  Wilson says that "in the end, it is as a theologian . . . that one esteems Williams".  Here I think he's right in the sense insofar as Wilson himself is clearly deeply moved by Wms' theological ideas;  his own admiration for Wms is primarily based on Wms' religious beliefs. But contrarywise my own much lower opinion of Wms is at least in part based on my own beliefs being v. different, plus my inability to take his theological ideas seriously. I do wonder, though: how do those who take Wms seriously as a theologian deal with his heterodox and occasionally downright heretical ideas?

Third, he argues that Wms wasn't really an Inkling ("not an Inkling in spirit") but only on the fringes of the group. He even goes so far as to say that "the only unsatisfactory thing about Grevel Lindop's book is its title" (i.e., THE THIRD INKLING). He then goes even further to say "his arrival [in Oxford], far from consolidating the Inklings, actually broke them up by bewitching Lewis, and making Lewis neglect the central friendship of his life, that with Tolkien"

--This last sentence is, for me, Wilson's most interesting comment in the whole review. I don't remember him making that statement in his Lewis biography, though it's been a good many years since I read that and I might just be forgetting. Nor am I sure that I agree: I think a better case can be made for Arthur Greeves, or perhaps Warnie, filling that role.** Still, it's a memorable phrase and an effective point, one well worth exploring.

The irony with the not-an-Inkling argument is precisely that the only reason Wms is not wholly forgotten is his having been an Inkling, and thus sharing in Tolkien's and Lewis's  reflected glory.

In the end, an interesting and thought-provoking piece that makes me want to read the book being reviewed (albeit I was already looking forward to doing so prior to reading this review, reading what Wilson has to say just re-affirms my desire to read Lindop).

Here's the link

--John R.

*by which he means the novels and the theological books and perhaps the poetry: you'd never know from Wilson' piece that he was best known in his own time as a playwright.

**after all, as Janice points out, Lewis himself described Tolkien as a second-tier friend.

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