Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Power of Darkness: Charles Williams' Shadows of Ectasy

Charles Williams is one of my favorite writers (I've blogged about him before.) He was friends with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis - in fact, during his lifetime he was a more popular writer than either of them. His writings include but are not limited to novels, plays, and criticism. Visit The Charles Williams Society to learn more. So far I've only read the novels.

Williams, like Tolkien and Lewis, was a Christian. Some of his books are more Christian than others - I happened to read three of the less Christian ones first, and I had no idea he was a Christian. Unlike Lewis, Williams doesn't always hit you over the head with his ideology. Unlike Tolkien, he prefers to write about the modern world, with elements of fantasy. As I wrote previously, if you like urban fantasy you'll love Charles Williams.

His seven novels all have very similar themes: ordinary life is disrupted by some supernatural force. Sometimes this force is resident in a magical object: the Holy Grail, the Stone of Solomon, the original deck of Tarot cards. Sometimes it's more amorphous. Another common theme is a character I'll call "the evil magician." He's not always a magician (I believe he's always a "he") but he is hungry for power and ruthlessly uses other people to achieve his ends.

I enjoy some of Williams' books more than others, but I was extremely happy with him until I realized that his novel Shadows of Ecstasy is about Africa. I was immediately filled with trepidation. How is a white Englishman writing in 1933 going to deal with Africa? I've read the book twice now. The first time I was constantly asking myself "Is this racist?" But I feel comfortable saying that, although there are some flaws in Williams' handling of the Dark Continent and its dark people, it's not all bad.

First, the bad: Williams uses Africa as a symbol, not as a real place. The entire book takes place in England. Africa is a scary place that we hear about on the radio. There is only one African character in the book, a sort of Noble Savage - literally, he's a Zulu prince. (I should also mention that Williams relies on some Jewish stereotypes which might be offensive to modern readers, although the Jewish characters are minor and not "bad" in themselves.)

Second, the less bad: Williams acknowledges the existence of racism (and anti-Semitism.) His African prince is perhaps a little too good to be true, but the protagonists of the book befriend him, while the people who make racist comments are shown to be unpleasant in other ways too, and he is heroic, although he remains a minor character.

I don't believe that Williams' goal was to show the "inferiority" of non-white people. Instead I would say that he wanted to explore the notion of Darkness - and he locates Darkness primarily inside us, inside each one of us. Darkness is a place that's different from the ordinary world. Darkness is a place that you can get to, and the path travels through your own heart.

The book opens with the protagonist, literary critic Roger Ingram, giving a speech in which he quotes from Shakespeare:
I will encounter darkness as a bride
and hug it in nine arms.
Ingram is fond of poetry. He thinks of himself as one of the few people in this hectic modern world who really loves poetry, who cares more about emotional creativity than cold rational science. He thinks that he could appreciate darkness - and then he meets someone who wants to show him what Darkness really is.

Nigel Considine is the "evil magician" character in this book. He's a white man who claims to have acquired supernatural powers through embracing Darkness - or so he implies when he asks Ingram "Have you encountered darkness as a bride?" He says that if you turn away from rationality and give yourself to pure emotion, you will find power there. I'm not describing this very well. Suffice to say that Ingram is completely entranced by this idea, this vision, this possibility. He's not quite sure that he wants to become a magician himself, but he'd like to find out just how far this thing could go. He had believed that "darkness as a bride" was only a poetic metaphor. What if it could somehow be real?

It turns out that Considine has spent time in Africa, that he once learned African magic and then used it to dominate all the African tribes. Yes, this gets rather implausible. Considine wants to liberate Africa from white colonialism - in fact, he wants Africa to conquer Europe and replace the Western rational worldview with the powers of darkness. This sounds pretty racist - both the "Africa as haven of irrationality" bit, and the "poor benighted savages ruled over by a white man." Nonetheless, I would say that Williams is sympathetic to the African desire for liberty - and he claims there was a strong "Africa for the Africans" movement in England itself, which surprised me a little. Furthermore, ironically, because there are so few African characters in the book, we get to see that most of Considine's closest disciples are white - that whatever he's doing, it is a "white thing" as much as a "black thing." Finally, although we're told that Africa couldn't resist him, Europe cannot stand against him either. He is unstoppable.

Williams gives no indication that he's aware of the irony inherent in the idea of a white man who wants simultaneously to "liberate" Africa and rule over it himself. However, he does provide some hints that Considine is not as altruistic as he pretends. He claims that anyone can gain the same power he has, by using the same techniques - but none of his many disciples are anywhere near his level, and one suspects that he wouldn't take too kindly to anyone who was in fact his equal. (It's interesting to speculate as to whether Aleister Crowley was in any way a model for Nigel Considine. Some of the things he said resemble Considine's doctrine, such as "Love is the law, love under will." And by all accounts Crowley preferred his own will to be everyone else's law.) Considine is ruthless and sometimes dishonest. It's not clear to me how his message of spiritual liberation and his plans for world domination, James-Bond-villain-style, really go together.

And yet Ingram believes in him and chooses to follow him. Ingram believes there is something in it - something good and pure. Ingram wants this beautiful new world to come about. Fortunately he's mostly isolated from the violence that Considine uses in pursuit of his goals. All he knows is that Considine spoke to him about poetry in a way that no one else ever did. That's all he cares about. It is rather naive. I don't know if any of this makes sense to you. Ingram is a lover of poetry. Charles Williams, I believe, was a lover of poetry. He seems to sympathize with Ingram's point of view, while at the same time indicating that Considine is a bad person. But Ingram never sees him that way. And Ingram never has to pay a price for his naivete.

Most of Williams' novels have very clear-cut endings, in which evil is vanquished and almost everything goes back to normal. Shadows of Ecstasy is an exception. Normality is restored . . . but the dream does not die.

I kind of wonder why Williams chose to include Africa in this book. He uses it as a symbol, just as he uses other symbols in his other novels. But in Shadows of Ecstasy poetry is also a symbol. Towards the end of the book the ocean appears as another symbol of the irrational, the unconscious, the world of darkness. Why didn't he stick with those symbols? Perhaps in choosing Africa he unleashed something he couldn't entirely control. At least I like to think so. These seductive shadows of ecstasy never pass away.

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