Monday, September 3, 2012

Greats Reads II: Charles Williams

Charles Williams, The Forgiveness of Sins (1942)

     Poet, theologian, novelist, dramatist, and critic Charles Williams has been an obsession of mine for some time. Although obscure to the point of being unknown even to fellow English grad students and professors, Williams can boast of an impressive catalogue of his admirers: C. S. Lewis, who became his closest friend after writing a fan-letter for his novel The Place of the Lion; T. S. Eliot, who wrote the preface to his All Hallows’ Eve; W. H. Auden, whose conversion he inspired; Dorothy Sayers, who, after hearing him lecture on Dante, learned Italian to produce what for many years would be one of the standard translations of the Divina Commedia. The list might mention his acquaintance with W. B. Yeats through the esoteric Fellowship of the Golden Dawn; J. R. R. Tolkien and other members of the Inklings, Lewis’s famed Oxford literary circle; or perhaps the bizarre, cultish following of young women he attracted.
     Williams certainly shared common interests with each of these prominent figures—be it Christian mysticism, esotericism, or medieval and modernist literature. Yet, as his critics never cease to stress, he was an anomaly. His theological ideas often ventured to the outer edges of orthodoxy, at times beyond them. His criticism endued poetry with spiritual significance, while his theology devoted entire chapters to Dante and Shakespeare.
     The Forgiveness of Sins, is a slender work of theology that totals to 123 pages. Despite its brevity, Forgiveness well encapsulates the unique way Williams went about "doing theology." As always, he is sincere, personal, idiosyncratic, diffident.. This is not the glaring conviction of a C. S. Lewis or a G. K. Chesterton, but the amateur yet learned, at times abstruse speculation a man whose repeated admissions of his lack of ability are not the platitudes of a humility topos, but the palpable qualms of someone who sincerely feels himself to be in far over his head.
    Williams and I share several favorites, many of which figure prominently in this terse study. The book opens with a chapter entitled "Forgiveness in Shakespeare," while another chapter juxtaposes the prophetic books of William Blake and "Lady" Julian of Norwich, the latter virtually unknown at the time,* and yet another poses the question of forgiving the Nazis (whose victory seemed not unlikely in England at the time).

This is not Williams's masterpiece. That, depending on whom you ask, is either Descent into Hell, his finest novel; The Figure of Beatrice, a seriously overlooked work of Dante scholarship; or his Arthurian poetry, which even Eliot admitted was damn difficult. The Forgiveness of Sins is, however a great help to anyone interested in the operation and practice of this concept that may be called the central tenet of Christianity.

*Julian of Norwich did not emerge from obscurity until Eliot’s famous borrowing of “sin is behovely but all shall be well” in order to conclude The Four Quartets. It is quite likely that Eliot’s knowledge of Julian arrived to him from Williams. If you’re interested in this, check out Barbara Newman’s “Eliot’s Affirmative Way” (Modern Philology 2011; 108(3): 427-461).

  1. Love, we have been told, is slow to anger; it is, as a result, slow to forgive, for it will not be in a hurry to assume that there is anything to forgive; and if there is, it will not be in a hurry to make a business of forgiving.

  2. Guilt is in all; it is the guilty who forgives. Entreated to forgive, by another as guilty, it is his whole duty to restore reconciliation by any and every means, for ever and ever, without condition.

  3. To forgive is indeed compassion, the suffering with another. To refuse to forgive is to refuse that other as himself or herself; it is to prefer a spectre of him, and to prefer a spectre is to be forever lost.
  4. If it is forbidden to us to demand as a condition of our forgiveness any promise that the offence shall not be much more is it forbidden us to make any other claims, to expect an extra kindness, to ask for an extra indulgence. And how all but impossible to easy to claim consideration in return; or if not to claim, at least to expect; or if not to expect, at least to feel we have a right to-- somewhere, somehow, some right! Alas, none but what our injurer, of free choice, gives us.
  5. We must forgive the evils we suffer because of the dreadful co-inherence of all mankind, even if we do not know who inflicts them; and we must be prepared to be forgiven when we discover, knowing wholly and wholly known, the results of our own sin.

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