…I’m going to jump right in onto a quote from your letter: “Why would anyone believe something as strange and baroque as Platonic Forms?” Well, you see, I do. I do believe in the Platonic Forms. And maybe right there that’s why I love Williams: because he gives earth, bones, flesh, wings, feathers, feet, hands, and faces to those abstract Forms. So instead of seeing his characters as watered-down two-dimensional versions of “real” people (i.e., people we meet every day in all their complexities or rich characters we meet in traditional novels), I see them as vital textual representations to the imagination and to the senses of extra-sensory spiritual Realities.
But I’m not really answering your question. You didn’t ask “Does anyone believe in Platonic Forms?” you asked “Why would anyone believe in them?” Well, that’s a hard one to answer. Why does anyone believe in anything? I’m reading a good essay by C. S. Lewis right now entitled “On Obstinacy in Belief.” It is designed to answer the charge that Christians keep on believing things in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This isn’t the place to go into that essay in detail, but even my incomplete reading of it helps me to formulate my answer to “Why would anyone believe anything?” They believe it because of a combination of factors, such as personal experience, early education, logic, evidence, and/or authority. So from a psychological point of view, I probably believe in the Platonic Forms because they were presented to me at a young age through C. S. Lewis’s fiction and later through a college philosophy class, and presented in ways that were fascinating and compelling.
Then there’s just a hint of “Biblical evidence” in Hebrews. Hebrews 8:1-6 says:
1Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; 2A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man. 3For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer. 4For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: 5Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount. 6But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.
Hebrews 10:1 reads:
1For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.
All these seem to be saying that the earthly tabernacle is just a copy of the real one in heaven. And that thrills me!
I’ve written a bit more about my neo-Platonic beliefs in other posts on the blog; Eurydice wrote about Lewis & Plato very eloquently here. Of course, I’m a Christian, which implies that I’m not a thorough-going Greek-golden-age Platonist—-if it’s even possible to be such a thing here and now! I believe that the World of Pure Forms exists in the mind of God, and will only exist in some external sense in the New Heavens and the New Earth. But the practical consequences of this are the endless striving of human beings after perfection, the flashes of “Joy” or “Sehnsucht” that some when we catch a glimpse of a more perfect copy through a beautiful landscape or a work of art, and my feeling when I write a poem that I am trying to copy the real poem as it exists in a more perfect sphere. So even though you are right that CW’s “characters aren’t as real as the ideas they represent,” in CW’s worldview, that makes them more real. Does that make sense?
Now, you next asked (very intelligently, I might add! This was an excellent challenge for my mind): “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?” I think that the answer must be that it wasn’t the “real world” itself that led CW to his spiritual beliefs—if by the “real world” you mean this terrestrial/phenomenal/material/sublunary world that we can taste, touch, and live in at the moment. No, I don’t think he found his beliefs there. He would probably say, if asked, that he received his beliefs via revelation from the Other World—from God, from the world of the Angelic Beings and the Pure Forms. He could have received this revelation in the traditional way, as mediated by Scripture and the teaching of the Church and of other Christians, or he could have received it in a more direct, mystical way, through personal meditation or revelation. I don’t know which; perhaps after Grevel Lindop’s new biography comes out, we can find out! But anyway, he didn’t learn about Substitution and Exchange through the natural order of things, but through a Supernatural Order.
Now, this is not how Williams would have said it himself. He probably would not have understood the question if you asked him, “Did this earthly world teach you your spiritual beliefs, or did you learn them from some other realm?” You see, his faith was always an assumed or presupposed foundation beneath all his writing, teaching, and thinking. He simply lived and thought as if religion were absolutely necessary and everyday, yet with the supernatural always contingent and proximate. Religion was constantly, consistently relevant. Martin Browne said Williams “set the room aflame. I have never met any human being in whom the divisions between body and spirit, natural and supernatural, temporal and eternal were so non-existent, nor any writer who so consciously took their non-existence for granted.” He, whether intentionally or subconsciously, didn’t really see the difference between this life and the next, just as he overlooked the division between one person and another, or between people and Christ. He just thought that they flowed into one another and shared an identity, and so could share experiences in a way that seems miraculous or magical or bizarre to a materialist or even to a somewhat skeptical Christian like myself.
So what does this do to his characters? Well, let me make a digression. I talked to Rosie about this topic the other night, and she quoted Dorothy Sayers to me. Sayers said something along the lines of “An author has an obligation to his/her characters, once they’ve been created, to let them live their full lives, to let them develop and express themselves just as parents need to let their children develop” or something like that. Basically, once I’ve created a character, I need to let him live and not force him to represent something else or to function in some kind of symbolic fashion. But I submit for your inspection the proposition that this is one way of writing fiction; that it’s not the only way, nor the most moral way. I don’t think that authors have moral obligations to their characters. Perhaps they have artistic obligations. But even then, I think that there are innumerable “correct” or “good” ways to write characters. And Williams chose to write them in the way that he read the world: as point of correspondence between the natural and the supernatural, between God and man, between the Eternal Virtues and their human copies. What do you think of that?
So let me see if I’ve addressed the essential elements of your careful and thorough argument. You said that you think “by abandoning realistic characterization, 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.” Hum. Let me take a few points here. First of all, I don’t think that CW is really abandoning realistic characterization—or, to say the same thing the other way around, isn’t every novelist? You did mention that “a novel is by definition not real.” Yes. Even Jane Austen’s emotionally and psychologically complex characters are not “real.” They are made up, obviously, but they are also much, much less complex than any real human beings. Even the most psychologically nuanced short story that purports to narrate the thoughts of one human being during a few minutes cannot capture the complexity of the workings of the human brain; even stream-of-consciousness is artificial, because it does not express the consciousness of the writer, and is itself fabricated and (honestly) much slower than the actual speed of thoughts. It’s kind of a fractalization: each writer choose a level of complexity at which his or her characters will function, and manipulates an appearance of reality consistent with that level. CW’s level, I would suggest, is just different than the majority of novel-writers’. So the psychology and character development in his books are about as realistic as, say, conjuring earth and snowstorms with a pack of cards (The Greater Trumps) or watching a house burn and burn and not burn up (The Place of the Lion) or transporting oneself through time and space by means of a stone with the letters of the name of God inscribed on it (Many Dimensions) or walking in the land of the Dead and bringing that land closer and closer to the realm of the Living (All Hallow’s Eve) or practicing substitution with one’s martyred ancestor (Descent into Hell). This is the reason for the title of War in Heaven: the point is that every spiritual battle (and the prayer over the grail by the Archdeacon, Mornington, and the Duke against the evil designs of Persimmons et al was quite an intense battle!) is simultaneously happening on earth and in Heaven. Just like you pointed out (thank you very much!) with the connection to Ephesians. It’s all gloriously absurd! It’s fantastically unrealistic; it’s super-realistic, it’s Archetypal, it’s Platonic.
But I don’t think this makes it hermetic or irrelevant. In his own life he practiced “Substitution.” “The Doctrine of Substitution & the Way of Exchange” was one of the ways that he thought “co-inherence” (sort of oneness, or unity, between people and between people & God) can be actively practiced. Everyone participates in physical exchange (I am dependant on the farmers who produce my food; those who go to war die in the place of those who stay home and for whom peace is purchased, etc); we can choose to see these personal/social/political contacts as blessings and practice co-inherence in the strength of Christ’s resurrections. We can make compacts to bear one another’s burdens. These principles can work among the living in any space and time, and also with the dead and the unborn. The clearest explication of “The Doctrine of Substituted Love” comes in the chapter of that title in Descent into Hell, in which Stanhope carries Pauline’s fear for her, so she is no longer afraid to meet her doppelganger. Also, in chapter V of He Came Down from Heaven, Williams gives a non-fiction account of this principle. Williams claims that the mockery hurled at Christ on the cross, “He saved others, but he cannot save himself” was actually the rudimentary expression of a universal principle: nobody can save himself, but we can voluntarily substitute ourselves for others and “carry their burdens” quite literally, even though those burdens may be spiritual, emotional, or medical. Martyrs and the Eucharist are examples of Christ in us and us in Him. Evil was consumed by good when Christ suffered on the Cross, and now our lives can be united to good in Christ’s earthly life.
I have very tentatively tried to practice some form of substitution.* But the real way I have found William’s novels relevant is the beautiful tranquility, serenity. This is my personal favorite, my homing locus in all his fiction: the sheer serenity of his saintly heroes. In each of CW’s novels, there is at least one character who lives in a great serenity, whose soul has a center of calm. See my previous entry on CW’s principle themes. In War in Heaven it’s the Archdeacon, and, to some extent, Barbara. But it’s what I most admire about his characters, and it’s how I want to live my life: in active submission, volitional submission, vital tranquility, purposeful peace.
So then I would strongly disagree with your statement “And if CW doesn’t seem to care about his characters, why should he care about real people?” I think he does. In a more intense, deep, profound way than many writers. I think he cares more about Mornington than Dickens cares about Tiny Tim. That’s a huge bold claim! The fact that Mornington’s death goes unmourned is the greatest act of celebration of his life, because his death ushered him into the peace of God’s presence in which he had tried to live at one remove. His death was not a cause for sorrow, and CW could not insult him by having any of the characters mourn his passage into glory. And I mean that seriously, and so did Williams.
OK, now a few of the smaller issues you raised. I’m fascinated by your proposition that I’m approaching War in Heaven from a writer’s point of view, and you’re approaching it from a reader’s. This really interests me, and perhaps explains a lot about the variance of our approach, but I haven’t figure out how yet. I’m also not sure how to respond to your analysis of my duality: whether “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.” I guess I just don’t see any way out of that polarity—although I recently decided that my old schematic of “Great Literature” and “Good Literature” was sort of baloney. I mean, I can’t really discuss Walter Wangerin, for example, on the same plane as Dante, but does that make Wangerin of lesser value? He’s just different. So I suppose you want to suggest that we should throw out the question of whether or not War in Heaven is a great work? That’s OK. And as far as the emotional nature of our responses; well, yes, there’s certainly a strong emotional component contributing to which works of art we “like” and don’t like, but I would say that there are many other components which contribute at least as much—education, family tastes, early exposure, peer pressure, reason, logic, one’s own development of skill and of aesthetic evaluation—so that the final reason for an aesthetic reaction is nearly impossibly to identify.
You said “Our responses can never be proven – but this has the corollary that as long as we’re sincere, we can both be right.” I’m not sure if you intended that statement sarcastically, because I can’t help but take it that way. I do believe that one of us is “right” and one is “wrong,” or that we each have elements of accuracy and inaccuracy in our evaluations. I do believe that on some level a book “is” or “isn’t” what any given reader may say it is. And that, of course, comes back to my fundamental belief in abstract absolutes. Similarly, if I thought we were “on an intellectual road to nowhere” I’d get off that road as soon as ever I could, not matter how much there was too see along the way! My life is set on getting somewhere, somewhere very particular.
Oh, one last comment. You asked me to expand on my distinction between “novels” and “psychological thrillers.” Oops! I meant to make a distinction between novels and metaphysical thrillers! That was a big mistake. CW called his seven works of prose fiction “metaphysical thrillers,” and T. S. Eliot called them “Spiritual thrillers.” And this is because, although these books fit the standard denotation of novels (“fictitious prose narratives of book length,” OED), they violate many of its accepted connotations. We expect novels to be realistic, to some degree, unless they’re shelved with fantasy. We expect them to have significant character development. So perhaps the whole problem about characterization could be solved by simply changing the genre-label. We don’t expect the same treatment of people and events in epics or odes as we do in novels; let’s not expect it of metaphysical thrillers, either. That’s my suggestion! What do you think?
I recommend reading The Place of the Lion if we’re going to continue this conversation, especially if we want to pursue the Platonic discussion. I’m basing most of my opinion of CW’s skill and worldview on that book as well as on Descent into Hell. They’re my favorites!
* really? I don’t remember that. –SH