So far, we have spoken cautiously about Williams’s work. It is only fair that we go on to speak of his splendid vision. “Vision” is a better word here than “ideas,” since, as Eliot pointed out, what Williams had to say eluded any conceivable literary form—essay, novel, poetry, or whatever we might wish to adduce.
It is not quite possible to organize any very logical sequence when we are speaking of Williams’s ideas (permit the word once, I beg). But anyone familiar with his work will not get very far in speaking of it all before he brings up “Substitution and Exchange.” Any Christian, of course, is on home turf here. In the mystery of the Atonement, the Son of God in some sense “stood in” for the rest of us, bearing our sins in his own body on the tree (cf. Isaiah 53, and Sts. Peter, Paul, and John).
This mystery is itself an epiphany of the blissful exchanges that obtain amongst the Three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. The Son “gives” himself to the Father, and vice-versa, and the Holy Ghost is, in a mystery, the “agent” of those exchanges. My life for yours: Somehow that maxim, raised to the nth degree, may be said to touch, remotely, to be sure, on at least one aspect of the Godhead. Calvary is the epiphany in our world of that same principle. The Son gave himself for us.
And here we come into Williams country. Every one of his seven novels has this mystery for its animating energy.
In every novel, we start out with ordinary life in the England of the 1930s and 1940s. The characters are going about their business. And then some thing crops up—the Holy Grail, the Tarot pack, a cube of the primordial matter with the Tetragrammaton inscribed on it, the Platonic archetypes, death—and we are off and running.
The characters divide themselves, unbeknownst to themselves, into those who wish to make a grab for the thing in the interest of knowledge, power, or ecstasy, and those who, like Simeon and Anna, or, supremely, the Blessed Virgin in our own story, place themselves obediently and humbly at the disposal of whatever The Mercy (Williams never says “God”) might wish to ask of them in the situation. And in each case, one or more of the characters is asked by The Mercy to “stand in” for someone under attack, and, by some self-offering, to fend off the evil afoot and thereby protect (“save”) that victim.
Williams’s stories reach bizarre lengths. We find archetypal lions and butterflies and snakes appearing in English gardens and lanes. Or an ancient pack of Tarot cards conjuring up a blizzard. Or the Holy Grail in the sacristy of a country parish church, with the potentiality of being used either by wicked men or by good men. In Williams’s next-best novel, All Hallows’ Eve, the thing is death. Two women are dawdling on Westminster Bridge, and after about three pages, we say to ourselves, “But these women are dead!” They are.
Their experience through the course of the story is Purgatorial, the one opting for her own ego (Hell), and the other for substitution and exchange. She has been something of a vixen in her life with her husband, but has the chance to learn the Divine Charity, first by acknowledging her need for her husband—she needs a Kleenex—and finally by throwing herself into the breach between a girl whom she had persecuted at school years before and a magician who is trying to gain power over that girl’s life and death. Very bizarre. Which is what stumps most readers.
Williams’s best novel is entitled Descent into Hell. Here we watch a perfectly unnoticeable and respectable historian damn himself to Hell by an unremitting sequence of very small petulant choices. Nothing big. But again and again and again he will not have the Way of Exchange—My Life for Yours. At one point, it comes down to his merely having to say yes or no to some folks who are putting on a play, and who need his historical acumen to tell them whether they’ve got the costumes right. But he refuses out of sheer testiness.
Well, says Williams, if I will have it that way, then I will have it that way—forever. Naturally we all say in chorus, “George Macdonald! The Great Divorce!” And we are right, of course: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” Williams likes to call Hell Gomorrah: the place beyond the city where I seek the mirror image of myself (Sodom), where I may be altogether alone with no one to get in my hair.
God’s City or Sodom
The images that Williams invokes in this connection are several. One of his favorites is “The City” (Augustine’s City of God), where the rule is My Life for Yours. In any earthly city we must acknowledge that rule anyway: Red lights say, “You must give way so that those people can go.” I may fume, but I must obey. In the City of God, it is a form of bliss.
Filthy lucre itself is an image, whether we will or no: The coin says, “Here is the fruit of my labor in exchange for the fruit of your labor, which I need” (for groceries, or whatever). It is all adulterated with cupidity down here: but in the City of God these exchanges are modes of joy. I can give you a hand with your luggage (Heaven) or refuse to do so (Hell). It is on every corner.
Another favorite image for Williams is Romantic Love. He wrote a whole book on Dante, The Figure of Beatrice. The point is, Dante saw the young girl Beatrice Portinari in Florence when he was a boy, fell in love with her (he never really knew her), and, for the rest of his life, the image of Beatrice furnished him with an image—a dim, earthly case-in-point—of the Divine Beauty.
The rest of us are mercifully blinded to this radiance, since we would all go mad if we saw the effulgence crowning every mortal God ever made. Furthermore, for the lover, giving himself for his beloved, far from being drudgery, is a mode of joy. He cannot do enough for her. Romantic love, apparently, transubstantiates work and service, and makes them into joy.
Of course, all forms of love do this—maternal, paternal, fraternal, filial, patriotic. For Williams, it is all so obvious that he never winces over plou ghing it all into every line of his prose and poetry. The eyes of the lover, says Williams, far from having had star-dust blown into them, are the only eyes that see The Other truly, since the lover sees all the glory of Heaven radiating from his beloved.