Friday, June 17, 2016

The Fellowship of the Inklings

"The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings" by Philip & Carol Zaleski is an accomplished book: well-written, informative and balances a sound accounting of the lives of its protagonists and of their literary production.

But it does remind you never to judge a book by its cover. The cover offers you the names of the four key Inklings -Tolkien, Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams - in equal quadrants; however, their account is dominated by Lewis and Tolkien.

This is partly a reflection of the prominence of the former over the latter in terms of recognition and 'cultural weight' (as of writing) but partly too because the authors have a pronounced difficulty with the 'esoteric' with Williams practice of ritual magic and Barfield's Anthroposophy.

They rightly indicate Charles Williams' engagement with ritual magic (within the context of a Christian esotericism) and how it runs through his worldview (often played down by Williams' more mainstream Christian admirers) but the authors, sadly, fail to engage with its meaning to Williams.

For Williams it was a critical recognition of the three fold structure of reality - spiritual, psychic and material - and the importance of taking the 'middle' dimension seriously, recognising its real effectiveness in our lives and its ambiguity given its potential for good or evil; and, its need to be seen framed and held within a wider and deeper, spiritual vision. Without seeing this context, you cannot appreciate Williams' novels where the imaginal or psychic is continually erupting into the apparently ordinary lives of people and must be met both on its own terms and within a more transcendental frame of reference. It was something radically other than the escapism (rooted in an immaturity) that the Zaleskis' imagine.

In passing, they also decide (without showing) the failure of Williams as a poet - though this is neither the assessment of Rowan Williams (whose appreciation of their book is quoted on the back) nor of Charles Williams recent magisterial biographer, Grevel Lindop. http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2015/11/the-third-inkling.html

This discomfort with the 'esoteric' however becomes especially marked when dealing with Owen Barfield and his conversion to Anthroposophy and the work of Rudolf Steiner. Nowhere do you really see the Zaleskis grapple with this - neither a consideration of what brought it about nor what sustained it. This sits uncomfortably with wholly compelling and intelligent accounts of Tolkien's abiding commitment to Catholicism and Lewis' own conversion (ironically in which Barfield played an important role). They do a good job of explaining how this came to be reflected in Barfield's work and what it in itself might mean but always leave you with the sense of a barely suppressed incredulity; and, this profoundly obstructs their accounting of the man and his works. It, also, leads to  periodically jarring condescension and not a little silliness.

Barfield rightly recognised that his championing of the 'evolution of consciousness' had resonance with emergent patterns of scientific thinking - in quantum mechanics for example - which leads the authors to remark that 'quantum mechanics' has not, however, impacted how we see day to day reality. To which one can only respond that as with Descartes or Galileo, these things take time! It is, also, apparently not the done thing to be 'taken up' by the 'counter-culture' (that ipso facto appears to be in all regards shallow). And so on and so forth...

This leads them too, I think, to underplay Lewis own interest in the esoteric. They quite rightly observe that he kept it 'at bay' (rather like Jung disowning it in his public life) but it is there nonetheless - not the least in his admiration of Williams' work. When the poet and Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, found that her doctoral supervisor at Cambridge was to be Lewis her heart sank, imagining the 'beer and beef' Christian apologist only to find in Lewis a sympathetic and engaging ally in tracing the 'hidden wellsprings' of Blake's vision!

So a good book - especially on Tolkien and the Lewis' brothers (and they make Warnie, Lewis' elder brother, feel like a real person rather than a cypher or a merely a retired soldier) - but flawed because out of imaginative sympathy with key dimensions of some of their subjects' lives. 

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