“War In Heaven” debate part 3

Please read part one and part two before reading this installment today. Thanks!

Orphan Ann:

Concerning my dissatisfaction with War in Heaven, you said that “the more important question is whether the elements you mention are flaws in CW’s book and I like it even though it’s a poor work of literature, or whether it’s a great work that just doesn’t appeal to you”. This obviously isn’t a simple duality – and you, equally obviously, didn’t mean it as one – but it’s interesting that you cast our primary responses in an emotional form. We do use evidence and logic to attempt to persuade people of the rationality of our responses, but these are ultimately shaped by our feelings. Our responses can never be proven – but this has the corollary that as long as we’re sincere, we can both be right. We may be on an intellectual road to nowhere, but at least there’s plenty to see along the way; and though I don’t doubt that our opinions may change along the way, I’d like to cast our discussion in more co-operative terms. Despite the fact that dialectic is a fundamentally co-operative form, I don’t intend to persuade you of anything so much as explore your views and explain my own.

Let’s get started. You took issue with my description of the novel as “too intellectual”. For reference’ sake, this is what I said:

“I thought that it was good, but too intellectual and didn’t have enough time spent on the characters themselves (with the exception of the Archdeacon and Persimmons.) That it’s a somewhat austere novel for this reason which one wouldn’t ever expect to be popular.”

(That second sentence, by the way, means what it says. I wouldn’t ever expect WiH to be popular, but that doesn’t map to my views. Goodness knows, if all writers tried to pander to my tastes, nobody could ever afford to publish anything.)

I’m going to talk about that quotation a fair bit, I’m afraid; and I expressed myself very poorly with it. I didn’t mean that WiH is full of ideas and metaphorical big words in the same way that Moby Dick is. I’m afraid that’s the only one of the books you mention that I’ve read (nor did I finish it; I should try it again.) And the quotations from Persimmons’ book revealing the Graal to be in Fardles are just an efficient form of info-dumping, which I’m not sure I could better. (“Info-dumping” is the art of explaining to the reader what they need to know to understand the story, whether it’s saying that the Bennets have five daughters, or Gandalf’s talk to Frodo about the history of the Rings. I can waffle more about this if you’re interested.) No, my description of the book as “too intellectual” is to do with something subtler: CW’s attitude to characterisation.

We agree that, in your words, “CW’s characters are kind of flat, almost two-dimensional”. But we differ radically in our interpretation of this mutual assessment – if I may make so bold, it seems that you’re approaching it from a writer’s point of view, and I’m approaching it from a reader’s. Now, I knew that CW had a broadly “mystical” worldview – he’s written a book about the Holy Grail, after all – but no more than that. Saying he’s “some kind of Neo-Platonist” explains a lot to begin with, including why I described Persimmons as being unspiritual, and makes the strictly allegorical, rather than just philosophical, framework of the novel stand out more clearly. The characters aren’t as real as the ideas they represent.

Here’s my problem with this kind of characterisation. I’m currently inclined to regard a novel as being, on one level at least, an argument the writer is presenting to the reader, whether as simple as propaganda or as complex as King Lear. (One might define a novel’s artistic seriousness as its level of self-consciousness of its argumentative nature, but it might not be a very good definition.) And on another level, the same novel is its own proving ground: if the novel doesn’t seem to describe the reader’s world accurately, then its thesis is wrong. If one allows a novel to make unsupported assertions, one forfeits the right to pass judgements on it, because it exists in a vacuum; it can’t be compared to anything else, and any novel can be said to succeed on its own terms. This isn’t a door to infinite aesthetic merit, but I hope it closes the door to infinite error. Of course, there’s plenty of room to wiggle there, and some of the most interesting are: that a reader’s assessment of a novel’s realism in this sense is subjective, and even the same reader’s response changes on a re-reading; that a novel can (I think) possess its own psychological realism independent of the characters’; and that a novel without “material realism”, such as WiH with its Holy Grail and black magic traps, can still be realistic. I suppose literature could be compared to mathematics, in that a (probably infinite) number of sets of axioms can be created and logically combined to form mathematical systems, but only one describes the physical world. All geometrical systems are self-consistent, but if you built a house on Riemannian principles, it would have to belong in R’lyeh. I think that by abandoning realistic characterisation, CW’s essentially asking us to take his vision or leave it; we can’t engage with it, and the novel’s just seems artificial (Hermetic?) and, well, irrelevant. And he’s left himself undefended against logical complaints such as: If Adrian is a mask of the Form of Innocence, doesn’t that mean that all children are, and that there’s nothing special about Adrian himself? Or, Why would anyone believe something as strange and baroque as Platonic Forms? (I think the former is a good point myself, but there are answers to the latter.) I suppose another way of saying this might be: If the real world can lead CW to his own spiritual beliefs, why can’t a realistic world in his novel leads its readers to the same conclusion?

This is why I was so upset about the treatment of Mornington’s death and the mystery subplot. They only work if we agree to treat the characters as unreal; the unimportance of the murder is tricky, on one hand, but it’s also rather callous. And if CW doesn’t seem to care about his characters, why should he care about real people? That’s my ultimate objection to WiH’s characterisation, I suppose: it makes the novel solipsistic. (Tangentially related to this is an idea I had about novels described as preachy, or however you prefer to put it. They’re making arguments and assertions and the fictional apparatus is only really in there to sugar the pill, but it doesn’t work and just adds to the wordcount. I’m not saying that this is true about WiH; just thought you’d find it interesting.)

I wanted to talk about CW’s treatment of non-Christianity, but I don’t have much to say about it because I don’t remember the novel well enough, so I’m afraid this is going to be rather truncated. My issues here partly stem from the kind of realism I was talking about in the last paragraph, but I should admit here that the fact that I’m not a Christian is affecting my response. It’s true that Persimmons is a spiritual man (I’m not so sure about Sir Giles, but that might just be my faulty memory.) But he’s not spiritual in the right way. And Barbara may be “a profoundly solid, rooted, happy character”, but look at what happens to the poor woman! Nor would I describe her as especially spiritual (is she in the “Castra Parvulorum” scene at the end?) You said that “Williams sees something strangely salvific in Lionel’s assumption that everything will be difficult and that the universe will not be handed to him on a silver platter”; I didn’t see this, but I’m sure you know him better than I do.

I suppose it’s only fair to acknowledge the weaknesses of my arguments, which boils down to the fact that it isn’t really grounded in anything, and more than I’m accusing WiH of being. In a sense, it’s a circular argument, because I’m hoping to persuade you that my axioms are realistic, but I can’t demonstrate that they are. All I can do is hope you find me sincere, which is how I framed our discussion earlier; I must have been aware how unsteady the ground was beneath my arguments. It looks to me as if your best hope of disproving my points would be to focus on the uneasiness of my marriage of emotion and reason – if I can persuade you of some things, I can prove others – but that’s no proof. (And part of the point of my geometrical metaphor was that what seems to be right may not be.) I’ve also talked a lot about the necessity of realism in a novel, but a novel is by definition not real, and that has to be acknowledged, too. In a sense, the obviously false stage-set characterisation does put the characters in their correct relationship to the world – but it’s our world, not theirs. But I am deeply torn on these issues, and I seem always to want to have my cake and eat it.

Now for some minor points. About the Archdeacon and his replacement: I was referring to the scenes where the replacement spouts obviously drivel and the Archdeacon reflects on how foolish it is, at a couple of points earlier on. It just struck me as being straw-man stuff. And while you thought his identification with Sir Galahad was “weird and bizarre, not presumptuous”, I had the opposite opinion: it made perfect sense to me, was trivial, even, but also arrogant. So I wasn’t upset by his death, as I’d been expecting it and read it as his assumption, just as you did. (Incidentally, in the versions of Arthurian legend that I’m familiar with, Sir Galahad is the bastard of Sir Lancelot and Elaine of Carbonek, so he didn’t exactly have a household at all. Or if he did, it was his grandfather’s.)

I think I’ve worked out why the Graal was said to be in Ephesus, by the way. There are so many versions of its history that there’s no point in looking for a ‘real’ answer, and even if I’d found one, I wouldn’t know if CW knew about it. So I turned to the Letter to the Ephesians, and there I found chapter 6 verses 10-17. I’ll quote it here in the Authorised Version to stop everyone running to their bookshelves:

“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. 11Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. 13Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 14Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; 15And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. 17And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Verse 12 looks especially relevant to me in this respect – I’d been wondering why WiH was called that, for though I’m familiar with the quotation it didn’t seem that relevant, a little bombastic, rather. It’s hardly a war, is it? And it’s in the Home Counties, not Heaven. Oh, and there’s a reference to Prester John at the end of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, though it doesn’t mention him guarding the Grail.

You drew a distinction between “novels” and “psychological thrillers” in your last letter. That looks intriguing; could you expand on it a little?

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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4 Responses to “War In Heaven” debate part 3

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Ephesus”: in Dmitri’s false account of the supposed provenance of the chalice, in chapter 10 (but am I forgetting further references?). On Williams’s part, might this be playing with the possibility that Prester John is in fact St. John the Divine (cf. 21:22-23, “If I will that he tarry till I come” and “Then there went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die”)? If this were also so on Dmitri’s part, should we expect more of an explicit warning about it from him to Gregory and Manasseh?

    ” Sir Galahad is the bastard of Sir Lancelot and Elaine of Carbonek”: to engage in more of my speculations about name symbolism, is it merely a coincidence that the Archdeacon shares a surname with Sir William Davenant, reputed bastard of Shakespeare (see Wikipedia for details)? (And can anyone give me the word-history of the name ‘Lavrodopoulos’ – can it have any implication of ‘bastard of a monk’?!)

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Orphan Ann writes, “This is why I was so upset about the treatment of Mornington’s death and the mystery subplot. They only work if we agree to treat the characters as unreal; the unimportance of the murder is tricky, on one hand, but it’s also rather callous. And if CW doesn’t seem to care about his characters, why should he care about real people?”

    I want to take the second part of that first, about “the mystery subplot”. How important is it that we situate the novel (assuming what we know is close to what was originally written at the turn of 1925-26) in the context of what Julian Symons calls “The Golden Age: The Twenties” as the title of chapter 6 of Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History (1985 revised and updated ed.)? He ends chapter 5 with a discussion of “the appearance in 1920 of Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” He remarks that it “revealed a gift for writing light, agreeable and convincing dialogue”. He also says it is “original in the sense that it is a puzzle story which is solely that, which permits no emotional engagement with the characters.” And he continues “it is notable because it ushers in the era during which the detective story came to be regarded as a puzzle pure and complex, and interest in the fates of its characters was increasingly felt to be not only unnecessary but also undesirable.”

    In chapter 6 he notes, “Our approach to the crime story is so different from that of the most characteristic Golden Age writers that it is hard now to believe that all this ever happened.” At its end, he quotes a preface from 1930 by Anthony Berkeley, who expresses his conviction that “the days of the old crime-puzzle, pure and simple, relying entirely upon the plot and without any attractions of character, style, or even humour, are in the hands of the auditor; and that the detective story is in the process of developing into the novel with a detective or crime interest, holding its readers less by mathematical than by psychological ties.”

    It is conceivable that Williams was influenced, in part, by this “crime-puzzle” approach (and I think he produces a variation on the “inverted detective story” that treats the mystery fan fairly), but, if so, he is also reacting against it, fitting in, by the time he published, with this ‘new’ trend, that he would presumably have helped herald, had he found a publisher four years earlier – admittedly in his own distinctive way.

    But what of the death of Kenneth Mornington (who seems to me in many ways a vivid character, with whom I distinctly sympathize – and thereby see some of my own failings constructively criticized – potentially ‘constructively’, anyway!)? Rereading a bit, I think there is something like a ‘key’ in the conversation between Barbara and Prester John in chapter 18. (Spoiler alert!) Of Gregory’s arrest, “on his own confession, for murder”, she says, “What a dreadful thing!”, to which he immediately responds, smiling, “Do you really think so?” Her answer: “No […]. Well, at least, somehow I don’t feel surprised. Since I met you, I haven’t felt quite the same about Mr. Persimmons.” And he: “You may feel the same now”.

    Those who respond properly to John might be said, on the basis of experience, to do, in their degree, what he commends to Lionel in chapter 13: “Believe certainly that this universe also carries its salvation in its heart.” So, when he soon says to Mornington, “for you I have no message, […] except the message of the Graal – ‘Surely I come quickly. [Rev. 22:20] To-night thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.’ [Luke 23:43]”, part of the result is: “Barbara was gazing at Kenneth with rapt eyes. ‘It was he that was at the edge of the pit to-day,’ she breathed. ‘To-night! O Kenneth!’

    “Kenneth stood silent for a moment or two, then he said only: ‘Well, good night, Babs’, as she gave him both her hands.”

    When she “met him”, “just as I fell I was entirely all right. I fell into safety. I was just quite happy. I can’t tell you – it was just like being swallowed up by peace. And like – I don’t know – like recognizing someone […] I knew him at once.” And now she recognizes “it was he”. This is (part of) the state in which she hears and reacts to what he said to Kenneth. And I think, in its degree, it is a good part of the state in which Kenneth looks forward, convinced both that he will die and that he will be with ‘Him’ in Paradise. And I think Barbara is equally convinced of both. I find their intense, understated exchange powerful, effective, and full of compassion, an apt response by both to both eventualities.

    And, in chapter 17, after the vivid horror in chapter 15 of Kenneth’s being “dominated” to a thorough physical dissolution, to “nothing but a spreading heap of dust”, and the bitterness of his magical murderer’s observation that if he “had not dispised us, I do not know whether I should have won”, Prester John tells the Archdeacon he has rescued, “One of your friends [the Duke] is below, the other is with me.”

    A real-life comparison that springs to mind, is what Lewis writes on Sunday, 20 May 1945, to a former pupil about the death of Williams on 15 May: “The odd thing is that his death has made my faith stronger than it was a week ago. And I find that all that talk about ‘feeling that he is closer to us than before’ isn’t just talk. It’s just what it feels like – I can’t put it into words. One seems at moments to be living in a new world. Lots, lots of pain, but not a particle of depression or resentment…”

    I do not think it is an artistic failure on Williams part that he has not attempted to describe or depict something like “Lots, lots of pain, but not a particle of depression or resentment…” where the survivors and Mornington are concerned. And I certainly don’t think one can conclude that ” CW doesn’t seem to care about his characters” or wonder by extrapolation, “why should he care about real people?” Insofar as he depicts – rather than describing – anything, it is something like “not a particle of depression or resentment”. If he discreetly leaves us to imagine “Lots, lots of pain” as well, or even its presence with some and guiltless absence with others, I don’t think that is a problem.

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    My blushes! And I had ed. 1 before me!: “despised”!

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