Reviewing the review: Charles Williams faulted

The 'progressive' Catholic weekly magazine, 'The Tablet' has this week an unperceptive review, of which there is a depressing number, of Grevel Lindop's excellent biography of Charles Williams. It is a review only redeemed by the author, Raymond Edward's positive revaluation of Williams' poetry. 

I find baffling how reviewers have become caught up with Williams' addiction to rather mild and broadly consensual, if disruptive and sometimes manipulative, sado-masochistic fantasies to the virtual exclusion of all else, as if this invalidated the gifted dimensions of a complex man. 

This apart, however, Edward's review reveals other dimensions of concern. 

First there is the fact of getting somethings simply wrong. For example, Williams' notion of substitution, where you consciously and voluntarily take on the suffering of another, is confused with co-inherence, Williams' explanation for why substitution works. It seeks to show that we are all part of one another, uniquely ourselves yet enfolded in an abiding whole, this is what makes such substitutions possible.  

Second there is the breezy dismissal. It is true that many of Williams works were 'hack', jobbing demands to make money, and better forgotten but this disregard is then casually extended to the novels which we are assured still have some fans but are obviously of no lasting consequence. Since the 'fans' range from their publisher, T.S. Eliot, and extend to such notably and enthusiastic contemporary readers as Rowan Williams, this is, at best, an over hasty dismissal! 

Third we have been alerted to the reasoning of this dismissal, Williams was enamoured of something here labelled, 'Christian theosophy' that sounds dangerously occult and was a 'self-made' theologian who consorted with dubious, possibly heterodox High Anglican priests; and, this presumed mish mash infected the metaphysical contours of the novels to their everlasting detriment! In other words a casual assumption of a Christian orthodoxy (in league possibly with an equally casual 'materialism') is being used to repel searching explorations of the nature of good and evil, power and love, arrogance and humility, framed in a world where what is possible is stranger than any of our current, complacent conceptions (and ironically would rest easily with any doctor of the Church prior to the Enlightenment or possibly any true understander of the weird world that is the quantum)!

Fourthly we have, and this is revealing, a desire to distance Williams from being a contaminating other. Edwards is the author of a study of Tolkien and wants to stress that Williams by no way influenced Tolkien (which is probably true) and yet seeks to do this by claiming that the Inklings (to which both belonged) was not a movement (a claim none of its members would have made and indeed which none of the studies of the Inklings, that I have read, has ever claimed). What is afoot here? 
I can only imagine that Edwards is spooked (an appropriate word) by the fact that of the Inklings core only Tolkien was, by any measure, a wholly conventional Christian (and Catholic too), Williams was not, neither was Owen Barfield as an Anthroposophist nor, in spite of subsequent Christian evangelical appropriation, was C.S. Lewis. 

Does this matter? Only if you care about doctrinal boundaries and want to police them, the Inklings did not (to the possible discomfort of Tolkien) for what linked them was not a common programme but a shared sensibility - the world is a sacred reality and imagination is a core faculty for its exploration. You can differ on the details of the outcome of that exploration whilst sharing in the joys of exploration. This is a sensibility that Edwards, to his credit, might allow to poets (after all their have a certain license) but not apparently to theologians (or even novelists) who want to make claims over the world that are objective, especially not those who are 'self-made', exploring the contours of their imaginative experience, first and foremost, rather than the offerings of traditions ready made.


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