Charles Williams, in himself or perhaps only in his writings, embodies the futile human attempt to talk about the untalkable, to say the ineffable, to embody the bodiless.Chuck
I am fascinated by something that I consistently see: that is, people, including myself, trying to make the transcendent immanent, yet failing, even admitting that success is impossible and constant failure inevitable, yet continuing to try.

I am reading what is arguably Williams’ best narrative work, Descent into Hell, with some friends, and I am again confronted by his akward style of writing. One person well summarized it: “He loves to do simple, play-by-play narrative, and then to blindside you between the eyes, stopping suddenly at one moment to allow a mushroom cloud of the spiritual, the metaphysical, the transcendent to bloom up and out of that moment, and then to return calmly again to the simple events of the narrative.”

It is not the attempt to articulate the ineffable that interests me, nor is it the failure to do so. It is the persistence that takes the form of madness, eventually, in attempt to do so.

One senses, reading Williams’ seven novels, that not even Williams himself is satisfied with his attempts to capture in writing some of the mystical “umph” that is endemic to certain seemingly simple human events, events like making a decision to help somebody, or saying the word “damn,” or closing your eyes, and yet, despite his recurrent disatisfaction, his attempts recur and recur and keep recurring.
“In his preface to All Hallows’ Eve, T. S. Eliot remarked that what Williams had to say was beyond his grasp, and perhaps beyond the grasp of any known genre of literature.”
He is on record, so I have heard, I don’t know where, as loving his poetry better than all the novels and articles and scholarly works else that he produced… Taliessin Through Logres and Region of the Summer Stars are his favorite children. They are also his most demanding, most obscure, most apparently transcendent.

He tried and tried, and death comes so quickly, and we now have what mind and circumstance afforded him and what he made of it, and no more. It makes me wonder if anyone will ever succeed and if anyone (who has tried once) will ever stop trying.

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler


  1. To be human, then, is tragic.


  2. To have fallen, yes, is tragic.


  3. dthompson, would we have been better at articulating the ineffable if we had not sinned? I don’t see how that follows, not yet anyway. What are you seeing?


  4. Keith, maybe I spoke to quickly.

    I don’t know what consciousness was like before man sinned. I don’t know what our hopes were or what our days were filled with.

    To be sure, I don’t readily know of any doctrine that suggests man knew the mysteries of God before the fall. In fact the opposite is almost certainly true– that Man has since his first breath been subject to limits of knowledge, and thereby articulation as well (think the first temptation of the Serpent to eat from the tree of the KNOWLEDGE of good and evil so that we might be like God… no limits means no temptation).

    It’s quite possible that God’s original intention for mankind, had we not sinned, was similar to the journey that CS Lewis imagines in Perelandra– where the Perelandran (?) Male and Female are created simple and enjoy simple things, but will in God’s time grow into full responsibility for the planet as Kings and Queens. (Correct me if I remember that wrong).

    That said though, the Bible does speak about creation being “subject to frustration” as we ourselves “wait eagerly for our adoptions as sons, and the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:20-24). Since the fall whatever journey God created us to follow was derailed. I think it would be a little short sighted exclude our frustrated mental and spiritual yearnings to articulate what is Good, True, and Beautiful from the symptoms of our separation.

    If we’re talking Comedy or Tragedy here I think all this is somewhat beside the point.

    Anyone who’s read Aristotle’s Poetics (which I believe you just brushed up on this weekend, right Keith?) can tell you that the difference between comedy and tragedy is slight. Aristotle contends that one great writer writes both with equal aplomb. (Again, correct me if I’m remembering this badly…) When we boil it all down a comedy ends in a wedding, a tragedy ends in a funeral. One ends in joy, the other despair. Struggle, conflict similar to that which we now experience is essential to both.

    So the question of whether being human is tragic should be answered when we see how it all ends. If our yearnings are never to be fulfilled and Happiness never found as Ward’s post might suggest (though I hope he was looking down a more finite scope when he posted it), then for that human, yes, being human is tragic. However, if we are to be redeemed fully, and to step onto the other side of the dark glass of eternity– to “know even as also [we] are known” (1 Cor 13:12) then life and being human is joyously comedic.

    To have fallen is tragic, but for us, the living, the narrative is not yet through.


  5. Never to be satisfied is tragic.

    Anselm was as aware of his cognitive limitations as any philosopher-theologian. His theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, kept him going, as well as his conviction that the human good lay in developing one’s nature as fully as possible, and for rational animals this means striving to know as much as we can (which is both an intellectual and volitional exercise, since love moves knowledge and vice versa). Furthermore, if God is a thinker and a willer, then humans’ little thinking and willing is striving to be like God. What God likes to think about most is Himself, so that’s what we try to think about. Revelation has given us lots of clues, but knowledge by authority doesn’t give the kind of deep intellectual satisfaction that knowledge by acquaintance or intellection or insight gives. So we strive for these latter, praying for mercy, and trusting that it will all be okay even if we never get there in our lifetime. There’s a next life to look forward to, and even if there’s not, there can be some pretty exhilarating moments along life’s way.

    Old men should be explorers.
    Young men should be like old men.


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