Charles Williams was a British polymath combining considerable skills as a poet, novelist, theologian, and literary critic. He was also a valued member of the famed Inklings writing circle and a powerful influence on Narnia creator, C. S. Lewis. Williams’ most famous biographer is Alice Mary Hadfield who, during widely spaced periods in her life, wrote two perceptive critical biographies filled with useful insights concerning his life and work. One of her most revealing penetrations has a bearing on existentialism.
You must regard your own emotionally important ideas with the respect due to proper authority. To be authentic, you must live by these defining and guiding ideas. (Photo: public domain)
In An Introduction to Charles Williams, she writes, “C. W.’s mind was deeply and naturally ‘existential’, though it had other saving and coordinating qualities as well. Existentialism in this context might be focused in the phrase ‘Not what it is but that it is.’”
In other words, Williams manifested little in the way of what Jungians would refer to as authenticity. Rather than drawing on an inner stable sense of self, he lived more in the moment, on the fly, so to speak, as a constantly changing false persona that had to deal with, adopt, or adapt to, the buffeting of ideas and values coming from “outside,” from others.
According to Hadfield, “This kind of life is produced by, and produces, a sense of crisis working on the mind and heart. Everything is on the point of change; an enormous and hardly graspable threat or ‘other’ quality rises in every detail on which the mind turns; our very existence all but slips from us at times in the pressure of crisis and becoming — becoming what, we dare not say, but either something wildly different from ourselves, or sheer loss.”
That is to say, Williams suffered, as do all people who live this way, from existential angst. Those who have vainly identified with their false personas or ideal self-images always feel this notorious form of anxiety. They face constantly the threat that undesired, but authentic, personality traits, values, and behaviour will emerge from the unconscious mind. Quite rightly, they feel anxious about the quality and stability of the publically presented personas they have cobbled together from ideas and values consciously selected from the world around them. They are constantly in danger of having their splendid arbitrarily chosen images of themselves overturned, either by the inner forces of the authentic self, or by having their precarious falsity exposed by circumstances.
Hadfield has an interesting view of the effect of being this way. She sees exposure to ideas as a kind of “pressure,” which has ramifications. In her words, “The pressure has results in the actions of each person. If the existence of God, or the passing of time, or truth, has no effect upon your living, but is one of your favourite ideas, it remains a hobby. It has no reality for you as, say, money has.” In other words, you have become divorced from reality. You are not living fully in the real world. The pressure of ideas does not adequately move you. Such a state of affairs is inevitable if your ideas are not your own.
The situation deteriorates over time. “If you continue not to let your ideas affect your living, your whole existence becomes in the end mere play.”
Things are very different if you take the pressure of ideas seriously. “If they are felt as authority or terror they issue in acts, however small and daily. The operation of that Being behind the crisis and the pressure is therefore known finally through its effect upon people and actions.”
Hadfield’s religious beliefs colour her thinking here. She sees some mystical concept of Being (or God) as the origin of “the crisis and the pressure” which you must experience as authority or terror. A secular interpretation (already outlined above) would withdraw the projection or externalization and substitute the authentic self as the source of the ideas that matter. Thus, the genuine will that originates from the self provides the ill-defined sense of crisis and pressure, which in turn yields the feeling of authority or terror.
However, it is vitally important to realize that you only experience your own authentic ideas as some kind of terror if you have wrongly identified with your false persona (ideal self-image or “favourite ideas” about yourself). The deep-seated fear arises from the destabilizing discrepancy between what you would like to believe and what you actually do believe, or from the embarrassing gap between who you would like to think you are and who you really are. As noted earlier, what you dread is the “sheer loss” of your false self. More specifically, you fear the humiliation of being exposed as a hypocrite or unmasked as a fake after saying or doing something — carelessly, without thinking, or in the heat of the moment — that reveals the troubling difference between how you present yourself and how you truly are.
Authentic people, or more specifically, people correctly identified with the authentic self, have accepted themselves as they truly are and learned to work with what traits and attitudes they actually possess. They simply recognize their ideas as aspects of their own values, morals, and innate way of looking at the world. They act upon their ideas quite naturally, without feeling unduly pressured or terrorized, because they recognize that the ideas are representative of who they truly are. The ideas come, not with terror, but with a sense of proper personal authority. Most of us recognize these rare people when we see them and say that such individuals have integrity.