Tuesday, January 6, 2015

All Hallows' Eve

A painter has completed two pictures - one is of a London transfigured by an inner light, the second, a commission, of Father Simon, a prophetic leader, being attended by his adoring flock (or by bowing beetle like figures, depending on your perspective). Both paintings will prove prophetic - London will be seen through the eye of the dead, the day to day city accompanied by a parallel waiting place for the newly dead, held in an encompassing light. Father Simon's gospel of love will be unveiled as a narcotic for the masses for he is a magician bent on world domination.

We are in the familiar territory of a novel by Charles Williams - 'All Hallows Eve' - where a person (or object) is manipulating (or being manipulated) to achieve power over the world (or some portion of it) and is thwarted by a thrown together group of people who have seen through the mask and the disguise and through love and sacrifice restore balance to the world.

This, I think, is his most accomplished novel - the set pieces of drawing magical power are genuinely horrifying and the counterbalancing clarities of chosen grace beautifully drawn and, what is most important, both spiritually and psychologically valid (and realistic).

There is the moment when Father Simon is admiring his self-portrait in the artist's studio and is flattering its painter with thoughts of commissions to come and Jonathan, the painter, even through he has, through his art, intuited the true nature of Simon, allows himself momentarily to be seduced. Richard, Jonathan's friend, is rescued from a similar seduction by his healthy agnosticism that skeptically assess everything and the love he bears for his (deceased) wife, Lester. Both of which Williams suggests are an anchorage in the real.

Meanwhile, in the parallel world of the city of the dead, Lester and the dreadful Evelyn, slowly learn the meaning of love and hate as they respond, across the barrier between worlds, to Father Simon's machinations. It is the drawing of this world - a vestibule to heaven and to 'hell' - that is Williams finest achievement. You feel the way the two young women respond to their being dead with the resources, the direction, with which life has equipped them. I was reminded of Swedenborg's account of how the dead are drawn inexorably towards the kind of world their deepest interest, whilst living, allowed them. Lester, passionate, intense, loving if often irritable, gravitates towards the need to seek forgiveness and to more deeply participate in love. Evelyn, argumentative and envious, falls into a gnawing fearfulness, and seeks out a comforting, autonomous, hate.  As you read these sections, you automatically fall to wondering, reflecting on what precisely is one's own 'deepest interest' and whether you have the resources to ask forgiveness of all whom you have wounded, slighted, ignored?

But what if you do not? Is there no ultimate hope for Evelyn (or for that matter for Father Simon, undone, at the end, by his own magic)? We are left wondering as we should be perhaps by a work of art.

There is, however, a hint. The reality of hell is not a punishment here, it is a self made enclosure. The helping hand extended remains. It may not be Lester's but there is here a deeper promise - the one who offered a sacrifice for all and whose hand reaches out, extended to all.

When St Silouan of Athos, the twentieth century Russian saint, was asked if, at the end of time, hell would be occupied, he replied, 'Love could not bear it'. We may, like Evelyn, continue to resist but the resistance has a shorter shelf life than the hand of love.

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