Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Spirit Behind the Curtain

Near the beginning of Charles Williams's War in Heaven, I've just read a scene emblematic of the theme of all his novels. It begins, "Adrian Rackstraw opened the oven, put the chicken carefully inside, and shut the door." Adrian then realizes he has forgotten to buy potatoes and goes to the vegetable shop frequented by Mrs. Rackstraw. But after buying the potatoes, he becomes distracted by the sight of a railway station, and rides away to Brighton on a train. Then comes the key sentence: "But, before it [the train] reached its destination, his mother, entering the room with her usual swiftness, caught the station with her foot and sent it flying across the kitchen floor."

Now, the scene was already weird before that sentence. I knew Williams was up to his tricks. Why would Adrian leave a chicken in the oven? Why would he buy potatoes and then board the Brighton train? So I was ready for a uncanny surprise. But I had to read that last sentence three times before I realized that the surprise was not supernatural but mundane. Adrian is a child, and the whole scene -- oven, potato monger, railway station and all -- played out in his child's mind, assisted of course by various toys strewn around his mother's kitchen.

Charles Williams wants to tell us that our worlds are like Adrian's. Each of us constructs a habit of interpreting the earthly toys around us, a routine that continually presses things and their meanings out of consciousness as the routine becomes ever more automatic. And yet the curtain that we draw around our private fantasy is a thin veil, ready in an instant to be torn in two from top to bottom. Every commonplace object we interact with exudes the aroma of its Maker, and He will intrude upon our playworld like a blinding flash of lightning if we do not stop and smell the humdrum.

In Many Dimensions, two ordinary people who haven't thought about God enough to decide what they think about Him find his power in a small amber stone. In The Greater Trumps, characters watch as chess pieces rise into the air and begin to dance. And in another Williams novel (I won't spoil anything), a character spends quite a while trying to understand the dullness of the world she walks in before she realizes she has died and must find a spiritual grounding for her new form of life. Of course she must find it in this dull world, but it's ready to be seen in every stone and lamppost and shop window everywhere she turns, and if she only gains the right understanding, its holy colors will become brilliantly apparent to her. For Williams and his protagonists, every object is both a lump of matter destined for dust and a beacon ready to shine the light of a more fundamental spiritual reality for those with eyes to see.

What could be more material, more secular than the steel and glass doors of a London business office in the 1930s? Yet in a Charles Williams novel, even doors such as these can serve as mystical portals to a spiritual world. Williams first describes such doors in War in Heaven as being so arranged as to reflect each other in infinite regression, and tells the reader that the kaleidoscopic effect regularly disoriented visitors so that they didn't know which door led where. And perhaps it's just as well; those who find the offices of Persimmons Publishing enter a realm of robbery, murder, and devil worship.

Devil worship? Yes, conflicts of many types occur in these novels. Each book finds some character viewing one particular lump of matter as especially endowed with spiritual power -- some character who sees the spirituality of the thing only as a means to personal power or knowledge, and missing its significance as a bearer of the Craftsman's hallmark. The talisman he uses in his quest for self-realization could be a rock, a painting, a ladder, some skin cream, the Holy Grail, or another human being, but some character always tries to overcome the world through his own strength, to pull back the veil himself and find the barely hiding spirit. The problem is, Williams points out, people who love only themselves and use things and other people as mere tools always end up looking for the wrong spirit behind the curtain.

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