Monday, October 15, 2018

Dante, Charles Williams, and Echoes of the City

When I first read Charles Williams’s Many Dimensions, it immediately became one of my favorite books. (It remains high on my list and has grown with each rereading.) So, like all readers discovering a new favorite author, I looked at the other titles by Williams with great hope. Now, hope usually sets one up for disappointment. (I waited fifteen years to find out that young Obi-Wan needs to negotiate with a Trade Federation?!) But when I turned to other Charles Williams books, I mostly just experienced confusion. The little bits I understood, I enjoyed. But what to make of visions of masses of hands? Women who are also local hills?

A few years ago, I got a huge assist in understanding Williams through the commentary by his friend C. S. Lewis on Williams’s Arthurian poetry. (Any of you wanting insight on the relationship of this pair, Williams’s outlook on life and the the meaning of the universe, or modern takes on Welsh Arthurian legend should read Taliesin Through Logres. But start with part III, Lewis’s part, and let him be your Virgil as he guides you through the labyrinth of parts I and II all out of order.) Two revelations that stand out in my memory are Williams’s love of Dante and his view of the City as a symbol for divinely endowed human fellowship. In fact, as I read Dorothy L. Sayers’s commentary on The Divine Comedy earlier this year, I became even more aware of the connection between these two themes, as Williams seems to have picked up his idea of City directly from Dante.

I grew up thinking of cities as, frankly, evil places. I saw them as ugly, dirty, poor, and full of crime. As a child, it didn’t occur to me that my vision was one of a corrupted city that could be redeemed. I simply thought it was obvious that when my family left our suburban home for a vacation, we would get away from people and go to beautiful wilderness locations. Dante and Williams, though, while of course recognizing God’s good presence in National Parks, would, if they could talk to me directly, warn me about my urge to get away from people. People are meant to interact, to be sociable, to trade and do business, to love and share with one another. For both, the emblem of the culmination of this purpose is the well working City. (Obviously, I could add Plato, Augustine, and Dickens to the crowd of favorite authors who have worked so hard to get me to see the importance of the City, but today my topic is Dante and Williams.)

This morning I started my third reading of Williams’s All Hallows Eve, my first after Taliesin Through Logres. And Dante’s presence couldn’t have been clearer. Lester Furnival finds herself newly dead (although she doesn’t know it for the first five pages) in a strangely empty London. The City (I’m following Williams’s habit of capitalizing the word) stands silent as a result of Lester’s pattern of life. She admits to herself that she has hated everyone but her husband, Richard. Lester, thy will be done. But the seeds of human compassion lie in the soil of her attitude toward Richard. It isn’t truly love, says the narrator, but at least needing and wanting are on the right road. I thought of Dante putting the illicit lovers in the highest circle of Inferno because, he says, at least their sin was directed toward others. But, as Sayers points out, Paolo and Francesca are blown about incessantly in the winds of Hell, unable to interact. (Traitors, who destroy the fellowship of the city altogether are put in the lowest circle.) Similarly, Lester sees the still-alive Richard briefly but can’t touch him.

The examples go on. Lester begins her spiritual journey of redemption in the place of the dead. She looks at the stars. She even references the famous sign on the gates of Inferno in her fears that she will find the città dolente if she goes to an Underground station. Dante is everywhere in the first chapter.

I don’t remember exactly where it all goes, but I think Lester has a Marleyesque mission of connecting with a few select people among the living as a way of spreading the light of love. In any case, the first chapter ends with Lester taking the hand of her friend, killed in the same accident, a sign that she recognizes her need for human interaction. I also believe I remember that the book involves a painter who creates a nightmarish view of the City. I’ll be interested to see if the artwork corresponds better with Dante’s Inferno or my childhood impression of cities.

By the way, the Bible begins in a garden but ends in a city. I should have seen that as a child. But the New Jerusalem has at least one park, an area of amazing twelve-fruited trees along the River. Perhaps all tastes in travel can be satisfied in Heaven.

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