On our second foray into Carpenter’s The Inklings we were reading chapter 4 part 1, and both chapters in part 2, which are devoted to Charles Williams.
Laura began the discussion with her heavily emphasised observation that part 2 is ‘Interesting!’ She had obtained and brought along a copy of CW’s book War in Heaven.
Pat and Kathleen remarked that they have never heard of Charles Williams until they read The Inklings, and Pat noted that although he wrote a good deal of poetry, he does not seem to be anthologised.
Pat went on to remark that the three writers, Lewis, Williams and Tolkien seemed to need each other.
Laura remarked that CW was clearly charismatic, as well as being self-educated, and that it was remarkable that man without a degree should end up lecturing not just at evening classes but at Oxford University.
Julie thought his novels as described by Carpenter came across as very 1930. – somewhat comic in places but suddenly turning to black magic. I added that much of what Carpenter described in terms of CW and the occult reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s description of Madam Sosostris and her Tarot cards in The Waste Land.
Anne considered CW to have a more positive outlook than Lewis or Tolkien and the possibility that this was due to a close relationship with his father was discussed. Laura added that this close intellectual relationship was similar to that between Lewis and his tutor. Laura also went on to observe that CW is another writer with a wife in the background, although it was generally agreed that she was badly named by him as ‘Michal’ has negative connotations.
Angela noted CW’s various and diverse relationships with women, reminding us of Lewis’s description of his unpleasantly ‘simian’ looks which were overwhelmed by a kind of ‘angelic’ charisma.
Pat thought CW’s thinking was heavily influenced by Freud, and also heavily Freudian.
Julie picked up the connection CW had with Aleister Crowley the infamous occultist, which brought us back again to consider the popularity of all forms of the occult in the inter-war period, as distinct from the pre-World War 1 fascination with fairies.
Laura observed that Tolkien was never doubtful about his religious commitment, and Julie remarked that Tolkien’s religion was based on faith, but Lewis reasoned himself into religion belief. Anne observed that CW embraced doubt.
Julie returned us to university contexts when she noted that Lewis seemed to delight in bullying his students. Chris observed, on the other hand, that students liked his handouts.
Angela remarked that Lewis was known to throw away papers he no longer wanted, including some of Tolkien’s work he was reading, much to Tolkien’s displeasure. Chris noted that the way Lewis threw away drafts of his own work suggested perhaps that he was paranoid about other people knowing about him and his working practices. This was compared with Tolkien’s habit of keeping everything.
While considering CW’s affair with Celia, Angela observed that he was disappointed with this girl’s responses to his letters and sublimated that disappointment into his enormous output of writing. Pat cited his strange attitude as a lover who also felt a delight in inflicting pain, and Angela noted his tendency to express his sadistic leanings in threats of punishment and penance. Though Carpenter avoids any direct reference to this attitude having manifested itself in overt violence, as Julie commented, it suggests he could have been a dangerous influence on the many young women who fell under his Svengali-like spell (my description).
This brought us on to a discussion of CW’s assertion that sexual energy could and should be sublimated into personal empowerment. I thought there was a hint of a secular version of Roman catholic celibacy about this view, but I was disquieted by carpenter’s choice of vocabulary at this point when he describes a character in one of CW’s books as a ‘superman’ because the character has used this kind of sublimation to extend his life to 200 years.
After some debate over the implications of Carpenter’s choice of word in this context, Anne went on to note that CW was impressed by Shakespeare, picking up a single line from Troilus and Cressida as the total theme of Shakespeare’s drama. Pat picked up his idea that poetry ‘was a storehouse of emotional or even supernatural power’. His poem about Shakespeare on the Underground was also noted.
Laura then remarked that Tolkien didn’t like CW, and Julie observed that by the 50s CW’s reputation was beginning to fade, perhaps because it was built on his ‘performance’ as a charismatic lecturer and work colleague and not on his increasingly obscure writing. It was noted that Graham Greene called some of his writing ‘pretentious’, and even Lewis found CW’s poems in Taliessin through Logres too obscure.
Laura contrasted this obscurity with Tolkien’s uncharacteristically wry poem on CW, and his anthropomorphising of the landscape in Taliessin, citing as particularly unTolkien-like: ‘O, Buttocks to Caucasia!’ In CW’s anthropomorphising, Pat and I were both reminded of John Donne’s poem ‘O My America!’, at which point Laura questioned Donne’s status as a metaphysical poet!
Pat went on to remark on the apparent dissimilarity between Lewis’s scholarly reputation as the analyst of the courtly love genre, and his participation in bawdy exchanges during Inklings meetings.
Chris then returned us to CW with his observation of Williams’s extraordinary output given that he worked, lectured to evening classes, commuted to and from St Alban’s every day, and had a wife and child. It was remarked that all 3 writers were capable of prodigious output given their domestic and work situations.
For our next meeting we will read Part 3 chapters 1, 2, 3.
Apropos Blog 168, and your comments, I’d please like to add the following:
1. I do agree that at many times, Carpenter’s work is hard reading, and at times his ‘psychological’ ideas are rather abstruse.
2. He certainly seems to be ‘pro Tolkien’ and ‘anti Lewis’ (although this seems like a bit of a simplification yet that’s what I felt on reading the work) and seems to make a great mystery out of Lewis’s private life; and
3. In the overall analysis, although quite positive on Tolkien, I didn’t myself much really enjoy reading ”The Inklings”. Somehow, the work comes across as too simplistic and dull.
I dont know if you feel the same way or not –the few people here who have read the book seemed to find it good, or at least a better read than I found it! I guess that’s the ‘subjectivity’ of our tastes at work…