I had intended to write about the question brought up in the comments on last week’s journal, that is, the responsibility of the baby boomer generation—my generation—for various unhealthy social tendencies. But I think I’ll postpone that till next week, because I’ve had something else on my mind for the past day or two, and it’s more topical. Tuesday is All Hallows’ Eve, which always makes me think of Charles Williams’ novel of the same name, and I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite passages.
Next Sunday, of course, the obvious topic for discussion will be the elections coming up a couple of days later. But I find myself less and less inclined to talk about politics. It’s not that I’m not interested—there are a lot of very important things going on and I have my very definite opinions on them. It’s just that for the most part anything I might say is already being said just as well by someone else. And participation in the debate has become very unpleasant due to the level of emotion involved; calm disagreement in good faith is very difficult to manage.
Back to Williams: I’m not sure where I’d rank him from the purely literary point of view, but All Hallows’ Eve and another novel, Descent Into Hell, would probably place in the top twenty or so among books that have had a great and continuing influence on me. I doubt that a period of more than a week or so ever goes by without my thinking of one or the other of them. If you haven’t read them, you should know that they’re not entirely healthy. I recommend them, but not without hesitation. Williams seems never to have gotten his involvement with occultism entirely out of his system. But it seems to have left him a powerful sense of spiritual reality as reality—not symbol or myth or abstraction. And, his imagination being baptized (to use C.S. Lewis’s phrase), he writes fiction in which that spiritual reality—Christian in conception whether or not accurate in its details or not—is very convincingly the world inhabited by his characters. That is, the real world of the fiction, which is partly the world we know and partly the spiritual world, is rendered not as something ethereal but as a place, with people in it, a place as substantial as our own, and more significant. Well, maybe not more significant, but more directly significant, less mediated and mediating.
One of the crucial events in All Hallows’ Eve is the viewing of a painting, first by a friend of the painter, then by an acquaintance of the painting’s subject, then by the subject himself. Without going into detail which would be tiresome to one who has read the book and would give away too much to one who has not, I can say that the painting reveals something of which the painter himself was unaware while he was painting, but which is very plain to the others who see it. It is the essential nature of the painting’s subject, and since that nature is evil, most who see it are disturbed. The subject is, among many other things, a sort of cult leader, and the painting reveals something not only about the real nature of the leader but about the real condition of those who follow him. Says the painter, after his friend’s remarks have confirmed what he has begun to see in the picture:
This man looks as if he were being frightfully definite and completely indefinite at the same moment—an absolute master and a lost loony at once.
The next person to view of the painting asks “Why have you painted [him] as an imbecile?” But the subject of the painting is in fact a very powerful and intelligent man who knows exactly what he is doing. What the painter has captured is the essential emptiness of evil.
This sort of insight is one of the things that art is supposed to be good for. It isn’t necessary that the artist hold correct ideas about God and man and truth and lies and good and evil, although it’s all the better if he does. But he must be able to see the difference between good and evil, or at least be unclouded enough in both his receptive and his executive faculties to see them and render them as they are. Unfortunately, many of our artists are no longer of much use here, having joined the cult themselves.
Where in our time do we find the combination of mastery and madness that Williams’s painter sees? Not, I think, in the more or less comic and fundamentally light-hearted trappings of Halloween which bother some Christians a great deal but in which I think there is little real harm. Look for it wherever there is a great deal of lying and evasion about fundamental things—where, in other words, there is a determined attack on reality. I don’t mean the everyday lies of hypocrisy and expediency, which we have always with us, but the sort of angry denial of objective good and not-good which is at heart a guilty resentment of truth.
If you want a good scare on Tuesday night, you might try reading Maureen Mullarkey’s piece in the September issue of Crisis, “Painting Money,” about the conjunction of art-world nihilism and the very wealthy and powerful people who invest in it. There’s something unholy about the deliberate derangement on display in certain quarters of the art world. “Does their wealth absolve them from all rationality except market calculus?” asks Mullarkey of the manipulators of the art market. One would almost feel comforted to find no worse an explanation than greed.Pre-TypePad