Thursday, December 1, 2011

Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams

I think everyone must know about CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, the two great Christian fantasists, who also happened to be both Oxford dons, firm friends, and members of the famous Inklings—the writing group in which early drafts of The Lord of the Rings and the Space Trilogy were read and discussed. There were many members—Hugh Dyson, Owen Barfield, Warnie Lewis, Christopher Tolkien, and Roger Lancelyn Green all attended over different periods—but none of these achieved the same level of fame as Lewis and Tolkien. However, there was one member who arguably achieved the same level of greatness, though his work has never been so well-known. This was Charles Williams, a man who, like Tolkien (who never really got on with him), appeared to have been born in the wrong time-period. At first glance one might say that he lived his life as a mystic poet of the courtly-love period. As far as scholarship goes, his great contribution to English letters was his book on Dante, The Figure of Beatrice. His magnumopus is his unfinished cycle of Arthurian verse, contained in Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. But probably it is his novels which are most widely-read today.
They have been called supernatural thrillers. That is somewhat misleading; it suggests a book full of plot and sensation. Williams’s novels are more meditative than otherwise, and while the plot usually involves a desperate struggle with unspeakable evil, it is the kind of struggle where souls and symbols are at stake, not earthly lives or kingdoms. The result is somewhat unlike anything else you’ve ever read, but immensely rewarding.
Descent Into Hell is one of the most famous of these. Broadly speaking, it chronicles the spiritual journeys of three people in a quiet new suburb called Battle Hill. An unnamed suicide, trapped in the pocket of time when he killed himself, awaits grace or damnation. Pauline Anstruther, who has been haunted her whole life by a doppelganger which comes a little closer each time it appears, lives in blind terror of the day it will actually meet her. And finally, Lawrence Wentworth, watching the girl he wants being competently wooed away from him, marinates in self-pity until his desires take physical form as a succubus.
All this against the backdrop of a play written by Stanhope, the local poet, whose doctrine of substituted love prompts him toward a somewhat literal interpretation of the command to “bear one another’s burdens”. Other characters include Pauline’s dying grandmother, who deals out love and grace indiscriminately; Adela, the woman who Wentworth believes he loves; and Lilith, guardian demon of the city of Gomorrah, whose citizens are consumed by love of themselves.
I cannot pretend to have grasped all the meanings and allusions of this book, and I could not even begin to fully discuss all the rich themes that I did grasp. As far as I could see, there are two main themes intermingled in the book. There is the theme of “the doctrine of substituted love”, as previously mentioned. Bearing one another’s burdens, in this sense, means taking on the fears or troubles of another. Christ’s substitution, Williams says, is a law of the universe for all. As He took our sins, so we must take each other’s burdens. This does not, of course, extend to carrying each other’s sins; only Christ can do that:
Pauline said: “But let’s try at least. Look, let me go and learn your part.” She was not quite sure, as she said it, whether this came under the head of permissible interchanges. She had meant it but for the part in the play, but this new fashion of identities was too strong for her; the words were a definition of a substitution beyond her. Adela’s past, Adela’s identity, was Adela’s own. A god rather than she, unless she were inhabited by a god, must carry Adela herself; the god to whom baptism for the dead was made, the lord of substitution…
This doctrine of substituted love is the thing that will save the souls of the book from Hell and Gomorrah. Self-love is the second theme. It is self-love that Lilith emptily promises; it is Wentworth’s self-love that takes form as the succubus, so that in some incredibly creepy way he becomes the object of his own love. “Greater love hath no man than this,” said Christ, “that he lay down his life for his friends.” “Learning to love yourself,” says the old power ballad, “that’s the greatest love of all.” These are the two intertwined themes of Descent Into Hell.
There is a third, which grows out of these. In the book it is named as Joy and Fact, or Joy in Fact. The word, I fancy, should be “contentment”. To love outside yourself includes loving God first and God’s will as it is revealed, even before loving your neighbour. This is a deep, rich, far from passive contentment:
She looked out of the window. There would be few more evenings during which she could watch the departure of day, and the promise of rarity gave a greater happiness to the experience. So did the knowledge of familiarity. Rarity was one form of delight and frequency another. A thing could even be beautiful because it did not happen, or rather the not-happening could be beautiful. So long always as joy was not rashly pinned to the happening; so long as you accepted what joys the universe offered and did not seek to compel the universe to offer you joys of your own definition.
This is something that, unlike Wentworth, Pauline is able to learn, so that at the end when she confronts Lilith, who offers her “anything, everything; every--“
“But I don’t want anything,” Pauline cried out; and as she heard her own vain emphasis, added with a little despairing laugh: “How can I tell you? I only want everything to be as it is—for myself, I mean.”
“Change,” said the shape. “I don’t change.”
Pauline cried out: “And if it changes, it shall change as it must, and I shall want it as it is then.” She laughed again at the useless attempt to explain.
When I reviewed Elizabeth Goudge’s book The Rosemary Tree on this blog, my friend Kate (who has always encouraged me to read Charles Williams, and even went to the trouble of sending me a copy of the Arthurian poetry, which was perfectly marvellous of her) responded by saying she thought Charles Williams was better. That puzzled me at the time; I was not sure how the two could be compared. After Descent Into Hell, it became clearer. The thing I loved about The Rosemary Tree was Mrs Goudge’s ability to depict the spiritual undercurrents of everyday life, so that a somewhat everyday story became the mask for a deep fantasy, the kind of fantasy that is actually true. Descent Into Hell also depicts the spiritual undercurrents of everyday life, but with this book the fantasy breaks out; Lilith, the succubus, the doppelganger, all intrude into the world of the senses. I am not familiar enough with either author to say that one is better than the other. Williams is more challenging, more profound; Goudge is more accessible, with simpler imagery. Both are worth reading.
Like all Williams’s books, Descent Into Hell is profound and challenging; perhaps more challenging than either War in Heaven or The Place of the Lion, the two others of his novels which I have read. I would not necessarily recommend it to the first-time reader of Williams, but it’s well worth the challenge.


Christina Baehr said...

I got to know my husband because on first meeting me he lent me a copy of "Descent into Hell". It was the strangest book I had ever read, but I thought to myself, "Well, he thinks I'm intelligent!" ;)

Christina Baehr said...

Oh, and there's a scene in "Inception" which reminded both my husband and I very strongly of Williams' twin themes in "Descent into Hell". I wonder - can you guess which it was?

Suzannah said...

Oh, wow. Not this one, at the end?

Cobb: I can't stay with her anymore because she doesn't exist.
Mal: I'm the only thing you do believe in anymore.
Cobb: I wish. I wish more than anything. But I can't imagine you with all your complexity, all you perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You're the best I can do; but I'm sorry, you are just not good enough.

Vicki said...

Google gave me your page when I asked for critique of this novel, as I just finished rereading it last night. I had read all Williams's novels back in the '80s and found this one very deep. I've read and reread *All Hallows' Eve* more often for its beautiful rendering of co-inherence. *Descent* is much harder to read as prose, or at least I found it so; but it's very rewarding, if not also somewhat frightening -- it's all too easy to see how, in my own life, I have wanted things the way I want them. If you see what I mean! It's good to find others reading and thinking about Williams and his work.

Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoyed the review! I certainly do know what you mean about being insistent upon having one's own way. Another excellent story on that subject is GK Chesterton's "The Crime of Gabriel Gale"--from a collection I reviewed here:


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