Torn by Doubt: CW’s “Crisis of Schism”

As you know by now from this series on themes, Charles Williams’ imaginative theology and creative writings revolve around eight interrelated topics:
1. Co-Inherence
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.”

"Troilus & Cressida" at the RSC

“Troilus & Cressida” at the RSC

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.”

Phyllis Jones

Phyllis Jones

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.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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18 Responses to Torn by Doubt: CW’s “Crisis of Schism”

  1. I’ve been fascinated by the “Crisis of Schism” since I saw it in your paper on CW and Hopkins in Inklings Forever. I’m not mature enough as a critic to know if this is the crucial point in poetry, but he identifies an important point.
    But even the idea of “Crisis” and “Schism” is intriguing. I can’t figure out if it draws two separate/opposite things together, or is elegantly redundant. If “crisis” comes from the word “judgment,” it has that redundancy–the choosing between the separate. But if “crisis” comes from that turning point (as in the breaking of a fever), then it is the connection point between unconnected things. It could be a brilliant phrase.
    I am dialectical at heart, so forgive my fascination!


  2. Sørina Higgins says:

    Right. Good thoughts. I believe that he is using “Crisis” in the second of your senses (the climax, high point, worst point of an emotional/spiritual/psychological difficulty). So it is the moment at which the schism — the sense of division in the self, or from God, or from the Beloved, or in reality — reaches its point of greatest separation. It’s the moment when the gap is widest and/or most sharply felt. So then, does that make it redundant or combinative? I don’t see it as either. It’s more of a mixed metaphor: high point or mountaintop of a canyon or chasm. But it makes perfect emotional sense to me.


  3. I think you are correct in placing this as one of the main points in CW’s thought – but I don’t find his discussions of it entirely honest, or convincing.

    “As an Anglican Christian who had developed a Theology of Marriage, he could not be unfaithful to his wife—and yet he was, emotionally. ”

    Well, the affair with PJ was not platonic, in the sense that they kissed. I can’t find the precise reference to this but I read it only a few weeks ago – probably in one of the biographies. And I think that CW would have taken things further if he had had encouragement.

    His upset at PJ’s bestowal of affection elsewhere is telling – if he was sincere about his schism, he would have welcomed this.


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thanks for these thoughts, Bruce. But I have never come across anything saying that they kissed. He specifically makes clear that he *wants* to kiss Phyllis — which is quite different. The temptation is not the sin. I am more concerned that he attempted to transmute his passion, rather than get over it. He made no attempt to remove himself from her society, or to tell his wife, or to get a spiritual mentor to help him fight the temptation. Instead, he wrote poetry, plays, and novels to and about her for years, and wrote letters to PJ nearly all his life, even after Florence found out and they somehow patched up their marriage. But I think JoAnn is right, in her comment below: It is remarkable, admirable, that he kept his marriage going at all, and that he did not have a physical affair!

      And a side note: the transmuting of the passions into poetry and into religious devotion is more truly “Platonic” (i.e., what Plato wrote about) than our modern notion of a non-physical, cold romance.


      • @Sorina – The reference to kissing is easily missed (I missed it at least four times!) at the foot of page 72 of AM Hadfield’s Charles Williams: an exploration of his life and work.

        “Probably in 1929, he wrote to Phyllis, (…) But instead I took your arm – which to me was much like a weekend at Brisghton – and we talked about almighty God… it was only the second time in my life I had taken – even so remotely as that – a woman’s arm. And certainly certainly only the second time that the idea of kissing her had crossed my mind – as it did at Victoria. And took four months to eventuate, blessed be he.”

        So, the kissing did, after four months, eventuate.

        Incidentally ‘a weekend at Brighton’ is a sort of smutty English joke for an adulterous holiday or ‘dirty weekend’


        • Sørina Higgins says:

          Ah, I see. Thank you very much for taking the time to hunt that down and share it. Yet I’m a bit confused by the syntax. Couldn’t he be saying that the thought of kissing didn’t even cross his mind for four months after he met her, or that four months passed between the two times he wanted to kiss her?

          (I feel funny discussing some dead guy’s love life in detail like this, but CW does kind of ask for it, doesn’t he?)


          • David says:

            I think the “eventuate” likely to refer to a (first) “kissing her”. Among the astonishing things is how rapidly and curiously this progressed to her “inscribed hands” (quoted by A.M. Hadfield, p. 82) and, within a few years, to the hands of other young women, as well (p. 106).

            The apparent interrelations between his life, art, and thought do, arguably, ask for a “pertinence of curiosity” where such facts are involved.


  4. JoAnn Moran says:

    Still loving this series. Thanks for taking the time. It’s wonderfully written and explained, and is meat rather than milk, as the Apostle Paul would say. I was struck by this article because you wouldn’t even here of such a schism today. He would simply leave his wife for his new love. This type of schism can only occur in somebody with a deep sense of morality and perhaps the “conviction of sin” that comes from listening to the Holy Spirit.


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thank you for these kind words, JoAnn! See the comment above for some more thoughts on the “affair.”


  5. Sørina Higgins says:

    David: You’re probably right!


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