As you know by now from this series on themes, Charles Williams’ imaginative theology and creative writings revolve around eight interrelated topics:
2. Romantic theology
3. The Two Ways
4. Ritual Objects
5. The Crisis of Schism
6. Mystical Tranquility
7. The City
8. Arthuriana and the Holy Grail
Today we are talking about “The Crisis of Schism.” I have a speech entitled “Creation and Desolation” that you might want to watch. In this lecture, I talk about varieties of spiritual darkness, including the particular one described by CW.
Torn by Doubt—CW’s Major Themes #5: The Crisis of Schism
As you already know from this description of his personality, Charles Williams faced many kinds of depression, hatred, and desolation throughout his life. He wrote about one particular kind of spiritual darkness that he believed all great poets had to face in their poetry. This type of spiritual darkness seems to be peculiar to Williams. He called it the “crisis of schism.”
What is it? CW says that it occurs when “Entire union and absolute division are experienced at once.” It is a sense that something cannot be, but it is. Williams claims that “It is that in which every nerve of the body, every consciousness of the mind, shrieks that something cannot be. Only it is.”
Williams gives an example from Shakespeare’s works that may be helpful in understanding this. Troilus and Cressida have exchanged vows of faithful love; then Troilus sees Cressida promising love to another man. Ulysses asks Troilus, “What hath she done, prince, that can soil our mothers?” As his heart breaks, Troilus answers: “Nothing at all—unless that this were she.” In other words, he knows that this unfaithful woman is his Cressida, but cannot believe that it is his own Cressida: therefore, he has a sense that she is at once herself and not herself. His consciousness is split in two. This is the crisis of schism.
In some of his literary criticism, Williams judges poetic success by how well each poet confronts and surmounts this impossibility. “In the poets,” he claims, “the poetic mind is the most intense and enduring thing for good or evil, and they must feel such a conflict, such a revolution and subversion, in their genius. That genius is their soul; the wound is dealt to their soul.”
There was probably a personal reason Williams came up with this theory of schism. His writings suggest that he experienced this schism when he fell in love with Phyllis Jones, and that the crisis worsened when she rejected him for someone else. Glen Cavaliero writes: “The personal crisis arose from Williams’s own discovery of divided loyalties, even of divided truth” in his relationship with Phyllis. He was divided many ways: As an Anglican Christian who had developed a Theology of Marriage, he could not be unfaithful to his wife—and yet he was, emotionally. Since his universe now centered on Phyllis, she could not love someone else—and yet she did.
This double personal tragedy, according to Cavaliero, “seems to have caused a self-questioning that was to result in the release of his full creative powers. It forced upon him the tragic awareness of a division within the good.” His love for his wife was good—but it was cut in two. His love for Phyllis was (he thought) good—but she was at most only half in love with him. Williams himself described his personal crisis in a letter later, looking back: “there is a street in South London I have walked through quicker (almost literally) than the wind because of pain; O …! the rending agony” and “It is eighteen [years] now since my own small Impossibility began…. Madness and pain and horror—and inexorable beauty still.”
The divided consciousness is all throughout Williams’ work. It is personified and dramatized in Descent into Hell. The main character, Pauline, is tormented by a doppelganger—that might be the clearest description of a divided self! When Pauline finally gets courage to face her double, it turns out that the other self is her real self, her sanctified and glorified self, and she finds spiritual healing by uniting with her true identity.
Williams works this crisis into the plot, characters, geography, and vocabulary of his two books of Arthurian poetry, Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars.
One example is enough. The crisis occurs in the very last poem: “The Prayers of the Pope.” In this poem, the Byzantine Empire is falling apart. Islamic armies are attacking it from without; Christian heresies are splitting it from within. King Arthur and Lancelot are at war against each another in France while Mordred torments the kingdom at home. In Rome, a young pope watches all of this and prays before celebrating the Christmas Eucharist: “The Pope saw himself—he sighed and prayed— / as a ruin of the Empire; he died in a foreboding.” He pictures himself split apart as the Empire is divided:
He felt within himself the themes divide, each
dreadfully autonomous in its own corporeal place,
its virtue monopolized, its grace prized, in schism,
…everywhere in mind and body
the terrible schism of identity.
The Pope experiences the personal crisis of division, and he is also at the place where a much more terrible rift is being torn. The division of the Empire represents the human separation from God—that is, damnation. The result is the most dreadful catastrophe that could possibly befall the human race: “Against the rule of the Emperor the indivisible / Empire was divided; therefore the Parousia suspended / its coming, and abode still in the land of the Trinity” (145-7). The sins of Arthur and his kingdom postpone the second coming of Christ! This is the ultimate separation: the division of the human race from its Creator.
But “The Prayers of the Pope” ends with hope. It is a hope that God will “Bestow now the double inseparable wonder, / the irrevocable union.” By the end of his prayer, “The gnosis of separation in the Pope’s soul / had become a promulgation of sacred union” and the “consuls and lords within the Empire” already “felt the Empire / revive in a live hope.” This odd word choice is in the past tense, suggesting that the hope has already come. The hope is a sense of unity with all things—pointing beyond the split existence of the here and now to an eternal, consolatory unity.