Friday, December 5, 2014

The Shadows of Ecstasy

"The Shadows of Ecstasy" was the first novel Charles Williams wrote (and it shows, I fear) but not the first published.

It has a familiar conceit - a magical object of power that can be exploited ambiguously - will it be for good or ill? The Grail cup, for example, or a pack of Tarot cards. Except in this case, the ambiguous object of power is a human person, Nigel Considine, who claims to be over two hundred years old, and may be either the world's savior or the Antichrist!

Considine's power is attributed to magic - in this case a process by which a person, rather than dissipating the energy of love and beauty outwards, takes it within, stored as it were, with transformative effects. It is a form of self over-coming. For generations Considine and his followers have been consolidating their grip on Africa and now seek to liberate it from colonial control, so that it becomes a vast laboratory for their experimental ambitions. The principal ambition being the conquest of death, rather than the achievement of mere longevity.

The drama unfolds in England, as Considine executes his plans, he comes into contact with a 'family' group - Sir Bernard, a doctor, phlegmatic and ironic, his friend, Caithness, an Anglican priest decent but infected with self-importance, Sir Bernard's son, Philip, Philip's intended, Rosamund and two young married friends, Roger, a literary scholar and his wife, Isabel. Finally there are two sets of 'outriders' - a kingly Zulu released from his enchantment to Considine by Caithness and two elderly Jews, inheritors of a fortune, with which they plan to rebuild the Temple and await the Messiah's coming in Jerusalem. (And, yes, the novel's fabric does become too baroque for its own good)!

This group proves to be schismatic - Sir Bernard, deeply impressed as he is by Considine, refuses to imagine that any vision as grandiose, and unhindered by humour and irony, could be anything other than ultimately catastrophic whilst Roger falls under the spell of discipleship.

It is William's (developing) brilliance to allow the supernatural events to feel utterly natural and allow them not to simply throw out a melodrama but to sound deep questions of metaphysics and morals.

Roger is attracted because Considine treasures the reality of the imagination, a reality Roger finds at the heart of the poetry he loves. A poetry that is emphatically not at the heart, in the pulse, of modern civilisation. He sees in Considine, Shelley's boast that poets might be the (unacknowledged) legislators of the world. Sir Bernard is repelled not because such a vision is not inspiring (and the Prime Minister, with whom he deals to allay the crisis, is anything but inspiring) but because it is too self-enclosing. It is an imagination that feeds on experience rather than liberates it into a shared communion. Considine's way of life is subsumed under the rubric of power and control (to apparent noble purpose) not under that of love.

Williams allows you to feel the difference - mostly notably in Isabel's response to Roger's pursuit - she wholly loves the impulse in him but refuses to follow him, knowing that in genuine love there is vulnerability and a self-giving, shared. Considine for all his passionate intensity and noble ambition is a closed being.

The irony is that Considine is felled not by his just opponents but by a disgruntled disciple whose desire is driven by the Jew's wealth (in jewels). Irony has the last word - unless, of course, having conquered death, Considine returns?

All Williams work, amongst much else, is an extended commentary on Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor - what if the world, broken, sorrow filled, might yield to beneficent control? Would this not be a better, improving option? It is Williams' genius to always allow that question to be both answered by the free invitation of love and yet left wide open.





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