Shadows of Ecstasy
Charles Williams

Charles Williams

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Shadows of Ecstasy


the Inklings
Christian fiction

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Shadows of Ecstasy

Copyright © 1933, Charles Williams
Copyright © 1950, Pellegrini and Cudahy

Chapter One

Encountering Darkness
Roger had been invited from a post in a Northern University to fill the Chair, largely on the strength of his last book, which was called Persuasive Serpents: studies in English Criticism, and had been read with admiration by twenty-seven persons and with complete misunderstanding by four hundred and eighty-two. Its theme, briefly, was that most English critics had at all times been wholly and entirely wrong in their methods and aims, and that criticism was an almost undiscovered art, being a final austere harmony produced by the purification of literature from everything alien, which must still exist in the subjects of most prose and poetry.



The dinner hovered over the point at which empty chairs begin to appear, and people misjudge their moment and tiptoe out at the beginning of a speech, and others reckon the chances of catching their distant friends before they are gone. At this point every dinner contends with destiny, and if it is fortunate concludes in a rapid and ecstatic climax; if it is unfortunate it drags out a lingering death, and enters afterwards a shuddering oblivion. This dinner was fortunate. The National Anthem implored Deity on behalf of royalty, and dismissed many incredulous of both.
He was not as a rule easily impressed by those he met; he had far too good an opinion of himself.

“Roger told us how he liked poetry,” he said, “and the explorer told us how he liked himself, and Mr. Nigel Considine told us how he disliked the University.”

“Not in so many words?” Philip asked.

“Contrapuntal,” Sir Bernard said. “When you’ve heard as many speeches as I have, you’ll find that’s the only interest in them: the intermingling of the theme proposed and the theme actual.”



“Certainly unhappy,” Sir Bernard said. “He’s fanatic enough to believe passionately and not sufficiently fanatical to believe that other people ought to believe. Naturally also, being young, he thinks his own belief is the only real way of salvation, though he’d deny that if you asked him. So he’s in a continual unsuccessful emotional conflict, and therefore he’s unhappy.”

“But I don’t understand,” Philip said. “Roger never goes to church. What does he believe in?”

“Poetry,” Sir Bernard answered, and “O—poetry!” Philip exclaimed; “I thought you meant something religious. I don’t see why poetry should make him unhappy.”

“Try living in a world where everyone says to you, quite insincerely, ‘O isn’t Miss Murchison charming!’ ” his father said drily. “Or, alternatively, ‘I can’t think what you see in her.’ ”



But he took life seriously, and (as often happens) attributed his temperament to his religion. He was therefore not entirely comfortable with other people of different temperaments who did the same thing, and a lifelong friendship with Sir Bernard had probably survived because the other remained delicately posed in a philosophy outside the Church. As a Christian Sir Bernard would have probably irritated his friend intolerably; he soothed him as a—it was difficult to say what; Sir Bernard occasionally alluded to himself as a neo-Christian, “meaning,” he said, “like most neos, one who takes the advantages without the disadvantages. As Neo-Platonist, neo-Thomist, and neolithic too, for all I know.”



Philip smiled. “But where one thing’s impossible the other must be true,” he said.

“And which is impossible?”

Chapter Two

Suicide while of Unsound Mind
A noble and indignant peer—a lately returned Governor-General—asked the Archbishop whether he realized that natives understood nothing but force, and whether he meant that war and the use of force was a sin; whether in short the Archbishop were disloyal or merely stupid. The Archbishop had referred the noble peer to the theologians for discussions and determinations of the use of force. The use of force was an act which was neither good nor evil in itself; the use of force in circumstances like the present appeared to himself and his colleagues a breach of Christian principles. [...] He apologized to the House for reminding them of what might be called the first steps in a religion of which many of his hearers were distinguished professors.

“O my dear boy,” Sir Bernard protested, “don’t let’s be adjectival. Here’s a rich man shot himself because of a difficulty with life. Is it really gruesome to want to know what that difficulty is and how much like the rest of our difficulties it was? But at your age you daren’t trust your own motives, and you’re probably right. At mine one has to trust them or one couldn’t enjoy them, and there’s not much opportunity to do anything else.”

“When men are in love, when they are in the midst of creating, when they are in a religious flame, what do they need then either with the stomach or the mind?”

“Those,” Sir Bernard said, “are abnormal states from which they return.”

“More’s the pity,” Roger said suddenly. “It’s true, you know. In the real states of exaltation one doesn’t seem to need food.”

“So,” said Considine, smiling at him, “The poets have taught you something, Mr. Ingram.”

But one returns,” Sir Bernard protested plaintively, “and then one does need food. And reason,” he added, almost as an afterthought.

Chapter Three

The Proclamation of the High Executive
She was a kind of centre, and all the others vibrated in peculiar poses on the circumference. She herself had no circumference, Philip thought, ignorant of how closely he was striving after St. Augustine’s definition: “God is a circle, whose centre is everywhere and His circumference nowhere.” She was small and dainty and she moved, as it were, in little pounces. And yet she was so strong; it was as if strength pretended to be weak. No, it wasn’t that, for after all, she did need protection—his protection; she was strong enough to need no other and weak enough to need his. Philip took that decision quite seriously; in the economy of the universe he was not perhaps finally wrong. For he was very innocent in love, and the awful paradoxes which exist in that high passion and are an outrage to rational argument were natural to him rather because of his innocence than because of his egotism.



A thing that seemed had at least the truth of its seeming. Sir Bernard’s mind refused to allow it more but it also refused to allow it less. It was for each man to determine how urgent the truth of each seeming was. Philip had not been discouraged from accepting the seemings of his own world, of school, University, and business; but he had been subtly encouraged to give free play to his own individual phenomena. A thing might not be true because it appeared so to him, but it was no less likely to be true because everyone else denied it. The eyes of Rosamond might or might not hold the secret origin of day and night, but if they apparently did then they apparently did, and it would be silly to deny it and equally silly not to relish it.



Chapter Four

The Majesty of the King

“My dear Rosamond, when you’re married you won’t want Philip’s friends to go home until he’s thoroughly tired out. Otherwise he’ll barge into your room at midnight and go on with the conversation with you. And as you’re asleep to begin with, and as you don’t know what the conversation was about, and as you don’t know whether he wants you to agree or disagree though you’d do either for peace, you’ll find it very difficult to be nice [....] Always remember, Rosamond my child, that a man needs you to get away from.”

“You mean needs to get away from me, don’t you?” Rosamond asked, looking possessively at Philip.

“No [...] I mean exactly what I said. A man [...] must have you there in order to be able to get away. If you weren’t there he wouldn’t be able to get away.”

“It’s a curious thing that people who will sneer at a man for doing nothing all his life but making words sound lovely and full of meaning will be quite happy over life so long as they can explain it in words that are almost meaningless. I sometimes think the nearest we can get to meaning is to feel as if there was meaning.”
Chapter Five

The Neophyte of Death
The worst of death was that it was the kind of experience it was very difficult to appreciate in the detached mood of the spectator, let alone the connoisseur. But he had done his best in his own case by rehearsing to himself—and occasionally to Philip—all the ironies which the approach of death often releases on a man. “I may babble obscenities or make a pious confession to Caithness,” he had said. “Or I may just lie about and cry for days. One never knows. Try and enjoy it for me, Philip, if I’m past it. I should like to feel that somebody did, and death so often undoes all one’s own hypotheses, even the hypothesis that one isn’t important.”



Chapter Six

The Mass at Lambeth

But Caithness took no notice; he stood still and silent for a minute, and Sir Bernard observed, with interest, that he was praying. Caithness, he reflected, had always been a little inclined to call up his own spiritual reserves under such a quite honest pretence of invoking direction, though he was always rather careful to keep the command in his own hands: Sir Bernard couldn’t remember that God had ever been known to disagree with Ian, anyhow in ecclesiastical affairs.

“Why is royalty so impressive?”

“It’s the concentration of political energy in a person,” Caithness said thoughtfully, “the making visible of hierarchic freedom, a presented moment of obedience and rule.”

“I think I prefer the Republic,” Sir Bernard said; “it’s the more abstract dream.”



Philip, without exactly professing and calling himself a Christian, had a general idea that he disagreed with the people who disagreed with Christianity. His father’s own disagreement slightly accentuated this, because in the usual reflux of the generations he tended to assume that his father’s mind was insufficient.
Chapter Seven

The Opening of Schism

[...] I do not think mankind can be saved without intellect and without God.”

“It must be almost the first time in the history of the world that those powers have been united,” said Sir Bernard.

It was all so muddled, and he had hitherto thought that moral divisions, though painful, were clear; such as not cheating, and not telling lies except for urgent reasons, and being on your country’s side, and being polite to your inferiors, and in short playing the game.



He was a man who had made not merely an opportunity but a political triumph out of the very loss of public belief in politics which afflicted the country. He had carried realism to its extreme, declaring publicly that the best any statesman could do was to guess at the solution of his various problems, and that his guesses had a habit of being right. In private he dropped only the last half of this statement, which left him fifty per cent of sincerity, and thus gave him an almost absurd advantage over most of his colleagues and opponents.



He saw the intellect and logical reason of man no longer as a sedate and necessary thing, but rather a narrow silver bridge passing over an immense depth, around the high guarded entrance of which thronged clouds of angry and malign presences. Often mistaking the causes and often misjudging the effects of all mortal sequences, this capacity of knowing cause and effect presented itself nevertheless to him as the last stability of man. Always approaching truth, it could never, he knew, be truth, for nothing can be truth till it has become one with its object, and such union was not given to the intellect to achieve without losing its own nature. But in its divine and abstract reflection of the world, its passionless mirror of the holy law that governed the world, not in experiments or ecstasies or guesses, the supreme perfection of mortality moved. He saluted it as its child and servant, and dedicated himself again to it, for what remained to him of life, praying it to turn the light of its awful integrity upon him, and to preserve him from self-deception and greediness and infidelity and fear. “If A is the same as B,” he said, “and B is the same as C, then A is the same as C. Other things may be true; for all I know, they may be different at the same time; but this at least is true.”
Chapter Eight

Passing through the Midst of Them

“ ‘Dainty Digestions Decently Doctored.’ You might have joined me, and we would have put stomachs and souls right together. ‘Stomachs on the right; souls on the left: Advice free: only real cures paid for.’ But I should have stipulated for no miracles.”

“Then you’d have wanted an unfair advantage,” Caithness said. “I should have to send quite a number of my patients to you; lots of them think it’s their conscience when actually it’s their stomachs.”

“Still on your theory the soul’s wrong anyhow,” Sir Bernard pointed out.

“Quite,” Caithness answered. “But they have to understand that, not merely moan over their pains.”



Chapter Nine

The Riot and the Raid
Power was in her and she was terrified of it. She had been self-possessed, but all herself was in the possessing and nothing in the possessed; self-controlled, but she had had only a void to control. And now that nothing and that void were moved with fire and darkness; the shadow of ecstasy lay over her life, and denying the possibility of ecstasy she fled through its shadow as far as its edge, and halted irresolute, and was drawn back by a fascination she loved and hated. She was alive and she hated life; not with a free feeling of judgement but with servile fear.
It was the everlasting reconciliation of the everlasting contradiction—to will what was fated, to choose necessity. Perfect for one moment in his heart, he knew the choice taken. He willed necessity. All the poets had done this in their own degree—the very making of their verse was this, their patience and their labour, their silence till the utterance they so long desired rose into being within them. This was the secret of royalty—the solemn anointed figure of government to whom necessary obedience was willed, and so through all orders of hierarchical life, secular or religious, vocational in every kind, trade or profession, ceremonial or actual. Love too was its image, but love and not the beloved was the necessity; to love, and only to the beloved as the sacred means, the honourable toil was given.
Chapter Ten

London after the Raid

“Why did you tell Roger to go?”

“Because I wanted him to, since he wanted to,” she said. “More; for I wanted him to even more than he did, since I hadn’t myself to think of and he had.”

Sir Bernard blinked. “I see,” he said. “But—I only ask—isn’t it a little risky . . . deciding what other people want?”

“Dear Sir Bernard, I wasn’t deciding,” she said, “I was wanting. It isn’t quite the same thing. I want it—whatever he wants. I don’t want it unselfishly, or so that he may be happy, or because I ought to, or for any reason at all. I just want it. And then, since I haven’t myself to think of, I’m not divided or disturbed in wanting, so I can save him trouble. [...] It’s the way things happen, if you love anyone.”

Chapter Twelve

The Jewels of Messias
He had heard and believed, but here belief was abolished; he was confronted with the simple fact. It had to be accepted, and its acceptance was what reduced him to a state of infancy.

“Don’t you say that a man can grow by the ecstasy which the things he possesses give him? a miser by gold, and a lover by woman?”

“If the chance of the world throws things into his hands, let him take them,” Considine answered; “if it tears them from him let him forsake them. It need make no difference to him. As for me, I use what I have for the purpose of the schools. But if it were all caught away to-morrow what change would it cause in me? The man who prefers possession to abandonment is lost.”

He defined men by morality; it was perhaps inevitable that he should define God in the same way. The most difficult texts for him to explain away had always been those which obscurely hint at the origin of evil itself in the Unnameable, “the lying spirit” of Zedekiah, the dark question of Isaiah—“Shall there be evil in the city and I the Lord have not done it?” He was always trying to avoid Dualism, and falling back on the statement that Omniscience might permit what it did not and could not originate, yet other origin (outside Omniscience) there be none. It is true he always added that it was a mystery, but a safer line was to insist that good and evil were facts, whatever the explanation was. True as this might be, it had the slight disadvantage that he saw everything in terms of his own good and evil, and so imperceptibly to resist evil rather than to follow good became the chief concern of his exhortations. So perhaps the great energies are wasted; so perhaps even evil is not sufficiently resisted.

Note (Hal’s):
The Zedekiah story is in I Kings 22:17-25. The quote attributed to Isaiah is actually from Amos 3:6; however, a line with similar shades of dualism is found in Isaiah 45:7.

— end note

Never as an ordinary rule—never but when—never but, for this once, now—never afterwards, for this couldn’t happen twice.



Chapter Fourteen

“I told him I wanted justice and proportion which is the daughter of justice, knowledge and abstraction which is the daughter of knowledge. This dreadful tendency to personify and (therefore) mythologize I attribute to you and the late Mr. Considine, who was an entire mythology about himself.”
“If I had indulged myself in irony as long as Providence, I should be a little tired of it by now, but I suppose he has infinite patience with himself as well as with us. But mightn’t he occasionally try a new note?”




text checked (see note) Jan 2005

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