Reviews - What do customers think about Charles Williams: Poet of Theology?
Neither is This Thou Mar 6, 2008
Critics of Charles Williams tend to be either summarily dismissive or gushingly laudatory. Here's a book that's neither. There are much easier books on Williams; they are easier because they take Williams' unique vocabulary, use his definitions, and introduce the reader to his ideas. Two of the best are Mary McDermot Shideler's Theology of Romantic Love and a short pamphlet by John Heath Stubbs.
This book braves dangerous waters, by dragging Williams into mainstream criticism, where he's often not welcome. To do so, the author must make certain concessions, as the ideas and vocabulary of Williams and those of mainstream criticism mostly clash. What he does is almost make up his own vocabulary with which to talk about both streams, although some of it is drawn from Williams, mostly the word and his idea of "co-inherence". In a simple definition, that's a deconstructed version of "incoherence", although it also has an ancient theological meaning. Cavaliero, however, sees it as related to Williams' ideas of exchange and substitution, and uses it as a unifying theme throughout the book. Nearly all critics have seen this in a theological way in Williams' writing, but Cavaliero also applies it to Williams' style and form.
In many ways I couldn't connect to this book. I don't think anyone who was not widely read in Williams would want to read it, with certain exceptions. Since he mentions so many other authors, many also not currently popular, including John Buchan, Sax Rohmer, LeFanu, T.F. Powys, Arthur Machen, and Evelyn Underhill, one can also read the book the other way, from a familiarity with those authors. I found these parts dazzling, since I once read Lord of the World by R.H. Benson merely because a review suggested the writing was similar to Williams'. The only novels I've found, for the most part, that go on from Williams, as it were, are Chesterton's. Even though many of these authors are not currently well known, it's yet interesting for the author to compare them with Williams in various strengths and weaknesses, as well as style.
Williams, Cavaliero shows, infused his point of view into everything he wrote. So does Cavaliero, with the interesting result that he identifies connections between Williams' writing and life that are unique to his viewpoint. One he calls the Impossibility. I didn't get a very good handle on this, but it's an extremely engaging discussion, which crops up all through the book, and refers to the harmony or conflict between nature and fortune, the words again used in a specific way. More interestingly, Cavaliero traces this theme in Williams' critical writings, The English Poetic Mind, and Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind. The other dazzling idea is that of absolute relativity. This doesn't mean that everything is morally relative. What it does mean I am not equal to explaining. But the effect of it traced in the novels and plays is that one has the choice to either accept the facts of the universe or rebel against them. The first is (to put it badly) the beginning of heaven; the latter the road to hell.
Cavaliero follows a certain progress through the novels as Williams found his voice and style, and rather than simply retread the plots, he shows the working out of ideas. Both this book and Thomas Howard in The Novels of Charles Williams find a great deal to talk about in these books which other critics have dismissed. Cavaliero also has a good feel for the plays, which contain some of Williams' most quotable lines, but can be as puzzling to contemporary readers as they were to his own contemporaries. Where Cavaliero excells is in his treatment of the poems, as the early poetry is often dismissed by critics. He follows his two themes of the Impossibility and absolute relativity through to the later novels, Descent into Hell and All Hallows Eve, and the last two cycles of poems, devoted to the Arthuriad and the Matter of Britain, Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, there finding Williams confident not only in gaining adequate forms to work out his themes, but also an authoritive voice and accomplished style.
This is a book of criticism, such that the reader would benefit most from having read what is criticized, that is the novels, poems, plays, and essays. One also might want to read the conclusion first, as there the author lays out his points clearly and succinctly. Like many readers of Williams (self included) he is an enthusiastic disciple, eager to bring the ideas Williams popularized with his specialized vocabulary out to the world, and even has included three indices: one general, one of works by Williams, and one for 'special subjects', organized by his ideas and terminology. But he is nevertheless a critical reader, and his major achievement is to bring Williams' writings out of the cave of specialized reading and into the mainstream of criticism.