C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and several of their writer buddies famously had a literary club and writer’s workshop at Oxford known as the Inklings. Lewis and Tolkien are the most famous, but for the last six years of his life, another writer completed the trio at the core of the Inklings: Charles Williams. His work is notoriously bizarre, and according to hearsay, it was loved and admired by Lewis, but left Tolkien absolutely baffled–he could rarely follow Williams’ thoughts in conversation, much less in writing.
After reading one Williams novel, DESCENT INTO HELL, it’s hard to blame Tolkien. Williams writes about mystical spiritual concepts and interactions in a way that blends prose and poetry. His writing has a feverish quality, with long, rambling sentences jammed with wordplay, subtle biblical allusions, and words placed in not quite the orthodox grammatical order.
DESCENT INTO HELL is probably best described as a “spiritual novel”, a category into which I’d also place works by Shusaku Endo, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and possibly G. K. Chesterton. The drama isn’t so much in events, but in spiritual experiences, discoveries, conflicts, and losses. DESCENT INTO HELL focuses on two characters: one, a retired military officer and amateur historian named Wentworth, has a recurring dream of himself descending a silver rope down through an endless void–not a hard metaphor to grasp, in light of the title. Wentworth’s lust for a young lady in the neighborhood is so self-centered and venial that he manifests a succubus in her image: not her, but an extension of himself to satisfy his own desires. Meanwhile, a young woman named Pauline, employed as a companion for her dying grandmother, is tormented by repeated encounters with her doppelganger. It always turns aside before they meet, but she has a mortal fear for the day when she’ll come face to face with it.
The “framing story” for both of them is a production put on by the neighborhood of a play written by Peter Stanhope, a wise poet who seems to speak for Williams in the conversations of the story. Stanhope is a man who speaks of “terrible good”–where “good” is the operative word, but “terrible” an essential modifier. Stanhope is the one who introduces Pauline to the concept of the substitution of love when, hearing about her fear of her doppelganger, who offers to be afraid in her place.
This idea is at the core of the book, and seemingly Williams whole philosophy: that all people are a spiritual community, made to carry each others’ burdens–not just physical, but spiritual. Stanhope can take on Pauline’s fear, to bring peace to her and one day prepare her to encounter her mirror image. In turn, Pauline will be called upon to carry the fear of another, someone separated from her by time as well as identity. For Williams, the ultimate expression of “substituted love” is Christ’s sacrifice, although he never uses those explicit terms.
Contrasted with the community of substituted love is what Williams views as Gomorrah, summarized in a speech by Stanhope:
“The Lord’s glory fell on the cities of the plain, of Sodom and another. We know all about Sodom nowadays, but perhaps we know the other even better. Men can be in love with men, and women with women, and still be in love and make sounds and speeches, but don’t you know how quiet the streets of Gomorrah are? Haven’t you seen the pools that everlastingly reflect the faces of those who walk with their own phantasms, but the phantasms aren’t reflected, and can’t be. The lovers of Gomorrah are quite contented; they don’t have to put up with our difficulties. . . .They’re monogamous enough! and they’ve no children–no cherubim breaking into being or babies as tiresome as ours; there’s no birth there, and only the second death. There’s no distinction between lover and beloved, and they beget themselves on their adoration of themselves, and they live and feed and starve on themselves, and by themselves too, for creation, as my predecessor said, is the mercy of God, and they won’t have the facts of creation. No, we don’t talk much of Gomorrah, and perhaps it’s as well and perhaps not.”
Which is, incidentally, a pretty good slice of Williams’ writing. I can’t pretend I’m able to parse every sentence in DESCENT INTO HELL, but I’ve also read enough Gene Wolfe that I’ve learned to treasure books with opaque meanings once I’m convinced those meanings are worth the effort.
And DESCENT INTO HELL was absolutely worth the effort for me. In all vulnerability, the concept of “substituted love”–particular the simple request “let me be afraid for you”–is the kind of thing that brings tears to my eyes. It’s a book which, in all sincerity, has given me a new way to think about divine love and human love informed by it, as well as a terrifying picture of what it really means to be damned.