Saturday, 16 June 2012

Charles Williams and the 'modern religious revival'


In what I consider to be on the whole the best book yet written about Charles William - I mean Alice Mary Hadfield's first biography: An Introduction to Charles Williams of 1959 - she makes this poignant remark on page 193:


Much depends on how the modern religious revival goes. 

...C.W's importance rests on his religious vision. If the present revival continues and men see life more and more under some relationship to a divine Creator, C.W's work will become increasingly important.

His affirmation of a positive relation of religion to human life, so that marriage, politics, neighbours, work, and art can be ways of living the life of Christ, will be found more and more necessary and welcome by the Church and by souls.

His vision was based on personal experience and the operation of the life of Christ in each person.

Among the advocates of systems, churches, organizations, r ethical activities, C.W stands out as the leading English writer who rediscovered and stated the central experience of Christianity for twentieth century minds.

...that Christ lives His incarnation in each human life, in each relationship, each human process in history...


1959. England.

Just 53 years ago.

"Much depends on how the modern religious revival goes."

The modern religious revival!


Well, we now know just how the modern religious revival went; the fact that it has been forgotten by modern England says it all...


The section continues:

...If the reading world turns again to a wholly materialistic outlook, C.W may be neglected by all but a few in each generation who live and move against the tide, and against all evidence respond to the motions of the spirit.

If C.W's work has to be read by people to whom the concepts of religion as well as the language of myth have become alien, he may hardly be read at all.

But that does not seem altogether likely. Rather, it appears that the direction of thought has altered, and men of science and of psychology are ready now to acknowledge the existence of God, and it is probable that once the change is admitted its results will grow rapidly.


Alas not...


Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Prejudice in the Harry Potter Novels


One fascinating thing about JK Rowling - which was pointed out for me by John Granger's work - is that she is superficially a mainstream politically correct leftist, yet at the deeper level where her literary genius operates, she is astute and honest.

Whatever the superficial and trendy message, the deep structure of the novels reveals reality as we experience it.


At a superficial level, the Harry Potter series is about the evil of prejudice - a characteristically modern and politically correct concern.

Yet again and again, the anti-prejudice message is qualified by the deep structure of the novels.


So, in one of the funniest plot lines, Hermione forms a Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W) based on her own notions of what House Elves really want, as contrasted with the very different ideas they express and the preferences they show by their behaviour.

Herminone seems obsessed by the unique example of Dobby - who is apparently the one and only House Elf who wants to be free; whereas it seems that every other House Elf wants to be a lifelong indentured servant/ slave, and is made utterly miserable by any other condition of life.

The humour comes from the jarring contrast between Herminone's impeccably PC ideals, and the actuality of House Elf behaviour - a contrast which Hermione interprets as being due to 'false consciousness' - the successful indoctrination of the House Elves.

Her irrefutable assumption is that if only all House Elves could be freed (against their will, of course) then eventually they would be happier.

A further element of acute observation comes from the fact that Hermione will not kiss Ron until he too embraces her delusion (or, at least, does not contradict it) - this phenomenon of 'sexually transmitted' political correctness is a very common matter in modern life.


Another example comes from the plot line about Hagrid being half-giant. This emerges in The Goblet of Fire, when Hagrid's admission that his mother was a giantess leads to a press scandal and calls for his sacking - on the basis that wizards are 'prejudiced' against giants.

This prejudice is shown by dark wizards, who presumably dislike the 'mixed blood' aspect - but also shared by good wizards such as the Weasleys who remember that the giants supported Voldemort.

Yet when real giants are encountered in The Order of the Pheoneix it is clear that they are indeed a species worthy of prejudice - stupid, clumsy and violent.

And if giants are not all evil (Hagrid's half-brother Grawp ends-up fighting on the Good side) then clearly most of them are evil, and they are very readily seduced to evil.

So, at the end of the day, it seems that a prejudice against giants is perfectly rational.


The other race against which wizards show prejudice are the goblins. We hear of past wars between wizards and goblins and also a law which prevents goblins from using wands.

Goblins (unlike House Elves and giants) are apparently about as intelligent as humans, and have considerably greater skill in crafts and the making of devices. However, goblins are also resentful, paranoid, and inflexible. They all seem to have 'a chip on their shoulders' with respect to wizards.

In Deathly Hallows, Harry is warned by Bill about dealing with Goblins, and that Griphook may not be trustworthy. This sounds like prejudice, but it turns out to be accurate - since Griphook betrays them.

So it is all-too-likely that if goblins were allowed 'equal rights' - and developed enhanced powers from the use of wands - they would become a very considerable danger to wizards. It is probable that wand-wielding goblins would feel justified in taking revenge on wizards for all the unforgotten and brooded-over humiliations of the past.


In fact, underneath the PC top-dressing, JK Rowling's attitude to prejudice is very traditional. Prejudices are useful - indeed essential - but we must always be prepared to notice and respond to exceptions.

Giants are generally bad news, but Hagrid is good; House Elves are mostly happy slaves who live to serve, but Dobby needs to be free; Goblins have been subject to discrimination from wizards, yet are often unfaithful or hostile to wizards.

This is, indeed, common sense. Stereotypes are usually accurate - on average, and under normal conditions.


Indeed, the whole business about muggle-born versus pure-blood wizards is not quite as outrageous as it superficially seems: because being a witch or wizard is indeed hereditary.

Although there seems little or no correlation between 'purity' of blood and magical ability (Voldemort, the second most magical wizard after Dumbledore, is a half-blood; and Hermione is the best of the younger generation) - yet even a muggle-born witch like Harry's mother or Herminone has actually inherited their magical abilities from a more remote ancestor.

(JKR confirms this aspect of the back-story in an interview I read somewhere.)

This happens because magical parents can have non-magical children - called Squibs. Presumably muggle-born witches and wizards come from Squibs, perhaps after several generations of Squibs when the magical trait has been long-forgotten.

So magic is indeed a matter of 'blood'; but the trait is either non-genetic, non-Mendelian, or in some way complexly-inherited.


Thus the world of Harry Potter avoids - in its deep structure - the current insanity of extreme Leftism which regards all prejudicial stereotypes as evil merely because there are exceptions.

We should not, therefore, behave like Hermione, and reject all prejudice (in a way that condescends-to and disregards the expressed desires and revealed preferences of the mass of House Elves) on the basis that the stereotype of happy service is not wholly and always accurate in every conceivable circumstance. And any wizard would be foolish in the extreme to blunder-into a giants colony unarmed, on the assumption that they might be like Hagrid.

Common sense tells us that prejudices and stereotypes are necessary, useful, indeed inevitable - but that to avoid injustice and cruelty we need to be aware of any exceptions - the likes of Dobby and Hagrid - and treat them differently.


Saturday, 2 June 2012

Charles Williams was NOT "self-educated"


The idea that Charles Williams was 'self-educated' (or uneducated) seems to be one that has penetrated the criticism of the man at the highest levels - yet it is just plain wrong!

Here is an example of the red herring, from one of Charles Williams foremost critics:

The mystery ingredient that stops Williams just short of the Greatness category may be revealed in a comment Lewis made about him. Williams was self-educated.

His mind had never had that experience of sustained, given discourse that comes in the lecture room and the seminar. He had had to drop out of school and go to work, since his father never was able quite to bring in enough money to keep the family going.

In the light of this, Williams’s sheer knowledge, and the sweep of his imagination, are breathtaking. He may have been self-educated, but he was self- educated.


I think I understand how this error was made by US scholars, but it is a falsehood!

English upper middle class (professional) people sometimes used 'self-educated' as a euphemism for those with a lower middle class background.

This boundary within the middle class was important because it was the division between the lowest rank of 'gentlemen' and the highest rank of the artisan class. (C.W. had begun life as the son of a lower middle class tradesman - a clockmaker ^).

So by suggesting that Williams (or anyone else) was 'self-educated', the English meant that he was 'not a gentleman' and the most obvious evidence for this was his 'Cockney' accent - but the phrase has next-to nothing to do with Williams scholarly attainment.


American critics, presumably, take self-educated at face value - misled by their misunderstanding of the English educational system.

At any rate Charles Williams was very highly educated - by the standards of his place and time (and indeed by almost any standards).


As son of a skilled craftsman, Charles Williams began life at the top of the lower middle class; but since he was privately educated at the school now called St Alban's Grammar School, he became a member of the upper middle class - albeit at the very bottom.

The fact that C.W. went through St Alban's school is also evidence that he could not remotely be described as un-educated.

Americans often do not realize the selectivity and advanced education which went on at schools like St Albans - the leaver reached an academic level pretty much equivalent to that of a college graduate in the USA.


Take a look at the alumni of St Albans:

There are only few schools (some, but not many) who could boast such a roster of famous ex-pupils: including the most famous living scientist: Stephen Hawking.

To have completed one's education at a major English grammar school like St Alban's was to be among the intellectual elite.


From St Alban's, C.W. went to University College, London - which has always been highly ranked among English universities - in the rank below Oxford and Cambridge.

Williams left UCL after two years (due to financial problems) without taking a degree - but to complete two-thirds of a degree at an English university in the early twentieth century was, again, to reach a very advanced level of education - just a few percent of the population would ever get that far.

And the level would be considerably beyond that of a US college graduate - perhaps about equivalent to a US Masters degree of that era?


It is also worth noting that the English did not have PhDs until 1917, and they did not become normal until several decades later - especially in the Arts and especially at Oxford.

At Oxford, the elite would have a brilliant first class MA and nothing more - further degrees were evidence of a second-rate mind.

(I am old enough to have talked with many people from Oxford who used 'Doctor' as an insult - for example in referring to the literary critic FR Leavis as Doctor Leavis.)


So it is nonsense to imply that Charles Williams had an inadequate or deficient education.

Of course Williams was at a lower level than CS Lewis (Oxford triple first class degree in Classics - both parts - and English) or Tolkien (first class degree in English, one of the youngest Oxford Professors of recent times).

But the main difference was in Williams's class origin - Tolkien's father was a bank manager and Lewis's was a solicitor - both upper (not lower) middle class, although at a lowish level within that class.

As lasting evidence of this origin on the 'wrong' side of the great class divide, Williams retained a South East English regional accent throughout his life (which some people refer to as 'cockney').


So Williams was someone who was highly-educated, but of a lower class origin - although having been to a great grammar school and studied at university, before becoming a clerk then editor in the immensely respectable firm of the Oxford University Press.

By middle age, Williams was very firmly a member of the upper middle class; and part of the same social circle as the other Inklings.

Nonetheless, it was his relatively lowly class origins (and not his level of education) that account for the unmistakable tone of condescension observable when Lewis and others talked or wrote about Williams.

However, Thomas Howard is quite wrong to suggest that self-education is the 'mystery ingredient' that explains the peculiarities and difficulties of Charles Williams writings. +


^ I think I may be wrong here when I say that CW's father was a clockmaker - from the later Hadfiled biography it seems he may have been a junior clerk, which would place CW at the very bottom of the upper class, rather than the top of the working class.
+I will need to write in more detail on this - but I think the basic reason for C.Ws obscurity is that his experience of life was so strange that he could not be any clearer than he was. I used to believe he was being wilfully obscure and pretentious, now I do not think so. The pressure and intensity of Williams mind was such that - for all its weird and disconnected qualities - the prose represents a major toning-down and radical simplification of what was going-on in his head. He simply could not make himself any more comprehensible than he is - which is 'not very'. In a culture where Christian public discourse was at a higher level, Williams would not have had this problem - in such an environment he would surely have been a Saint: and like all Saints unique, not like anyone else.


Charles Williams - "phenomenally religious"


From An Introduction to Charles Williams, by Alice Mary Hadfield page 38-9:

Adolescence fell away and the man emerged. His mind was phenomenally religious... There was no trace of reaction against the religious atmosphere of his youth either now or later on.

His concern with the sense of God and God's impact everywhere was too pervading to allow any reaction, even any relief.

...he was driven to be about one business only. He pursued it in all the guises of work, poetry, marriage and relationships, and also in the more recognized medium of church life.

The sense of God's presence was by no means always helpful, and could become an oppression. If, as he said to me, every time one broke any part of matter - a match, an envelope, food - one was breaking Christ's body, the whole thing became unbearable.

He found a solution in his strong sense of ceremonial. which at one moment was concerned with adoration and the next was thoroughly enjoying the details of its own behaviour. He loved, indeed, to play and to adore, and he maintained the need of both.

The old prankishness and burlesque of his schooldays found a way in this to give relief to the burden of his sense of the extreme, almost the desperate, seriousness of every detail of the ordinary person's daily struggle with life.


Hence, Williams idea of Byzantium - which he (accurately) intuited had been the most complete earthly realization of his own attempt to sustain the constant sense of God and God's impact everywhere.

It was Williams tragedy that he himself had to create (by his personal force, charisma) the public reality of ceremony and play which he subjectively required to function - and this was never more than temporarily or partially successful; and also continually subverted by pride, self-will, limitations of ability and energy, and the sense of its own self-refuting circularity.


But, in dealing with Charles Williams, I think we need to accept the judgement of authoritative witnesses that he was a man to whom what might be, in others, merely inklings, notions and philosophical theories, were instead matters of daily, hourly experience.

As C.S Lewis said in The Novels of Charles WIlliams (published in the essay collection Of this and other worlds):

...illumination of the ordinary world is only one half of a Williams story. The other half is what he tells us about a different world...

What have we then? At the lowest, one man's guess about unknowable things. But all who do not from the outset rule out the very possibility of these things will perhaps admit that one man may guess better than another.

And if we think a man is guessing very well indeed, we begin to doubt whether 'guessing' is the right word...

I am convinced that both the content and the quality of his experience differed from mine and differed in ways which oblige me to say that he saw further, that he knew what I do not know.


This is CS Lewis speaking about someone he knew intimately, and of course Lewis is generally considered the greatest Christian teacher of the past century.

Listen again to what Lewis said:

Charles Williams saw further... he knew what I do not know.


From this, I would argue that the many (millions of?) serious admirers of Lewis are all-but obliged to (at least attempt to) engage with Charles Williams and his work - difficult and hazardous as that task will be for most of us.


NOTE: I presume that the phrase of AM Hadfield's phenomenally religious is a pun: intended to imply not only the extreme degree of his religiousness, but also that it was focused on phenomena - on the minute particulars of everyday experience and action.