Descent into Hell - a review

Charles William's is the real thing. He had an influence on CS Lewis as one of the Inklings (Tolkien, Lewis and Williams are probably the three best known members of the group). Genius though he was, Williams has been overshadowed by Tolkien and Lewis, and forgotten by the general reader. Nevertheless his books are worth investigating if this offering is anything to go by, containing as it does a wealth of (at times explosive) imagery. It focuses on two characters in particular -- Pauline Anstruther and Laurence Wentworth. The story centres on the production of a play by a poet called Peter Stanhope.

One of the actors, Pauline Anstruther, an intelligent, alert and rather bitter young woman, has been haunted from childhood by a doppelganger. This second self sometimes appears at a distance walking toward her, and then turns aside; it has appeared much more often in the past two years than ever before. She lives in an undertow of perpetual dread; she is terrified of the day she will meet her other self and “go mad or die.” The apparition has no discernible cause -- there is no terrifying event or series of events in childhood to which its development can be linked. The doppelganger cannot be identified as the psychic fallout of trauma; it is itself the trauma.

Peter Stanhope is the only person to whom Pauline fully confides her secret. Her grandmother, with whom she lives, has tried to find out what is troubling her, but Stanhope's friendship can presume further without damage to her privacy. On hearing her story he responds startlingly with an offer of the most apparently impossible kind of help. He suggests that someone else -- he himself, if she will consent to it - -“carry her fear.” With casual and self-deprecating logic he unfolds a method whereby the emotional burden of an experience can be assumed by a disinterested party, while the experience itself remains to be undergone.

“The thing itself you may one day meet--never mind that now, but you'll be free from all distress because that you can pass on to me” (p98).

He will imagine and fear Pauline's double, if she will relinquish the burden of the fear. For Stanhope, and for Williams, this “doctrine of substituted love” is based in Christianity -- in the substitutionary atonement and in Paul's injunction to “bear one another's burdens”.

The character of Wentworth in the story reveals how compulsive a fantasy life can become. Choosing to take to himself an insubstantial fantasy of the woman he desires, he becomes increasingly incoherent, and enclosed in himself -- finally falling into the hell of self, an abyss of non-being.

'Descent into Hell' is a tour-de-force.

(Source unknown)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very complex book, but one of my favorites. Great review!