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06 July 2007

Descent into Hell



As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm writing a little piece about the life, work, themes, and significance of Charles Williams. I have just finished reading (and in some cases re-reading) his seven novels. I'm studying at Middlebury College's BreadLoaf School of English for the summer, finishing my Master's Degree, so my non-class-related reading has been slim. However, this Charles Williams project is due at the end of July, so I'll have to fit him in & you'll probably be reading a bit about him here until then. For now....

Review of Descent into Hell by Charles Williams

William Blake once wrote: "For every thing that lives is Holy" (in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell); and yet, Christ made division between subjects of the kingdom vs. slaves to the darkness when He said: "He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left" (Matthew 25:33). In Descent into Hell, Charles Williams sees beyond that fundamental opposition, which is a byproduct of temporal reality, into the deeper truth where those contradictory ends of a rope join and are one. That juncture might be expressed thus: "'Everything is permissible'—but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is permissible'—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others" (1 Cor. 10:23-24). Or it might be put into a narrative in which one character carries another's fear for her, introduces her to life under the Mercy of the Omnipotence, and teaches her how to carry others' burdens. Then when she tries to reach out and save a man who has chosen despair and death, the mentor can say:
'I think he has seen the Gorgon's head that was hidden from Dante in Dis,' he said. 'Well. . . Pray for him.'
...'But, Peter, ought I to do anything?'
'You can't do anything unless he choose,' he answer. 'If he doesn't choose. . . . Pray. Good-bye. Go in peace.' (Descent into Hell p. 214)


But let me go back a bit and recount something of the story of this spiritual thriller first, then explain this quote in context.

As he usually does, Williams creates several threads and traces them throughout this story, weaving the most shockingly incongruent narratives together into something so true it must be beautiful. The first thread is that of "The Play." A great poet (the best since Shakespeare, and maybe as good as The Bard), Peter Stanhope, has just finished his latest play, and his little uppity home community ("Battle Hill") is about to begin its first rehearsals. Stanhope and his profound, visionary, masque-like art stand in colorful, quiet contrast to his neighbors -- efficient sinners -- and their various brands of hubris. Towards the end of the book, this thread draws with it an astonishing aesthetic: art comes from silence. Speech is born out of and in silence. Every word, line, gesture, and action works with and in an undiminished silence. That silence is the stillness of the peace that passes understanding, the peace of death into life.
The second thread is that of a doppleganger. Yup. A ghostly or spiritual double. This is the double of a young lady named Pauline, and it scares the Hell out of her, literally. Or, more accurately, it scares her out of the way to Hell in which all self-directed people walk in their active or passive refusal of Mercy. This copy of herself has haunted her since childhood. It is her secret terror, the unbearable sickening agony that drives her into houses, into company, out of solitude, for fear she will meet it and have to look it in the face. But, Mercifully, her fear is taken from her so that she can face it -- face herself -- look straight into the eyes of her own shining and glorious joy. How? By means of Williams's signature theme: a startling exposition and application of redemption he calls The Doctrine of Substitution or The Way of Exchange. As easily and tranquilly as if her were offering her a ride home, Stanhope offers to take her fear and carry it for her. And does. But read the book to find out how and to read the language in which Williams frames and signifies this profound working-out of Atonement between human beings.

Yet even before her glorious salvation from the terror of her double, Pauline is a thoughtful person. A "real" person, unlike the other chattering superficialities who people the book. One of those chatterers, our third thread, is a pretentious little actress named Adela. Adela is unremarkable. She is a rotten actor, but aspires to the directorship. She is a pretty, plumb, nice little devourer; all her existence is directed inward, to feed her petty desires and pettish pleasures.
But that doesn't seem so bad, does it? She sounds like just an average person. Exactly. So it takes another character, Lawrence Wentworth, to show just how damnable -- literally -- average selfishness can be. Wentworth has a crush on Adela, but she is "going steady" with a brawny and handsome realist named Hugh. Wentworth fantasizes about her, and gradually trains his spirit to feed itself on its fantasies to the exclusion of reality. In a parallel, but antithetical, move to the assimilation of Pauline's doppleganger, Wentworth creates a succubus out of his own imagination and establishes an erotic relationship with that being of nothingness. He retreats more and more into his own lurid, sordid realm of bodily and mental perversion, climbing down down down a rope towards a Hell of his own making. Damnation is in the details neglected or the others selves rejected in favour of a bloated and worshipped self.
Similarly, an unnamed workman, worn out with a life of ill treatment, commits suicide by hanging himself with a rope very like the one down which Wentworth is climbing in his mind. It just so happens that the man hangs himself from Wentworth's house -- before it is built. The dead man, in the past, and Wentworth, in his sullied mind, stand elbow to elbow unaware of each other. What? you say. Yup again. Here is one of Williams' hallmarks: Simultaneity -- the simultaneity of disjunct times in a single location. There is another character from the past occupying the same Hill. He is Pauline's ancestor, and he was burnt to death at the stake by Bloody Mary some 400 years earlier. Pauline hears about his martyrdom, and so the threads are drawn together. Stanhope suggests that she can carry her ancestor's fear for him, notwithstanding the intervening centuries.

And here I am, having fallen into the trap of simply retelling the book rather than reviewing it. Descent into Hell really is CW's best book. Place of the Lion remains my favorite, due to a personal fondness for the eternal frolicking of Platonic archetypes, but Descent is, I believe, the best crafted. In it are all of his pet doctrines, his distinctive themes: Substitution, Simultaneity, Silence, Serenity, timeless Christian truths retold in complete freshness without the diction of dogma, The Unity of Body & Soul in tension with the Dualism of Self (which St. Paul described as Old Man & New Man), and the power of poetry. The pacing of the book is admirable, with cycles of intensity alternating with passages of vague visionary stasis and tranquil revelations unfolding. The characters, at least the main ones (Stanhope, Pauline, Pauline's grandmother Margaret, and -- to a lesser extent -- Wentworth) are better drawn than most. His characters tend to be, not exactly caricatures or 2-dimensional, but a little too drawn to type. The minor ones in this book are, too: Adela, Lily Sammile, Hugh, and Williams does tend to introduce extraneous characters rather without preparation and sometimes with follow-up. If I were to make one complaint, it would be a strange one: The book goes on too long. Not in number of pages, not in interest, but the structure feels a little impaired to me. I felt the same in All Hallow's Eve, as if there were another half of a book tacked on after a natural stopping-point. But I understand what Williams is doing here. One stopping-point would be right after Pauline faces her doppleganger and offers her joy to the martyr in exchange for his fear. That would be like ending a Jane Austen novel at the wedding. But Williams needs to show what happens after the wedding. Does the couple get along? What happens after the honeymoon glow fades? Do they have children? Likewise, we need to know if Pauline's new marriage to the Omnipotence will be faithful and fruitful. We need to watch her little dips and doubts and then her victories. We need to know that an author can create, describe, and follow a truly good characters on past her change of heart.
And, sadly, we need to watch Wentworth's descent. That, after all, is the title of the book. And as much as we -- and Williams -- would like all human beings to be saved, exclusion and choice are worked, for whatever reason, into the fabric of this creation. The Devil is in the details. Each little choice, of whether to go out or stay in, of how to spend your time, of what books to read, is a step Further Up and Further In or another hand-over-hand on the rope into Hell. And that's just the way it is. Why it is that way would be another book. Or would it?

7 comments:

Cabs said...

Hi! Wow...so you are in Middlebury? I may be coming up that way in July to visit a friend at her Lake Dunmore cabin. If so, I'll let you know. Would be great to connect up for tea or something. Hope you are having a pleasant summer in rural Vt! It is beautiful up there.

Steve Hayes said...

Yours is one of three blog posts with similar themes in the last couple of days. You can find mine (with a link to yours) at That hideous strength, and it also has a link to the other one.

Steve Hayes said...

In many ways Charles Williams has been the forgotten Inkling, but suddenly lots of people are bloggin g about him. I've drawn some of them together at Notes from underground: Descent into hell -- Coinherence and substitution, and added your blog to my blogroll there.

Apollo said...

One of my evil students just plagiarized your review for a paper on Descent Into Hell. I guess your blog must come up when someone searches for quick summaries of Charles Williams novels. :(

Iambic Admonit said...

Dear Apollo:
I am flattered that a student would find my posting worth plagiarizing, but chagrined that I have inadvertently contributed to the growing plague of plagiarism! I hope you hanged that student in a public ceremony--after making him rewrite the paper. :) But at least this error led me to your blog, which I admire and hope to read more in coming days.

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