I have been recently reading and making notes on Charles Williams's novel Descent Into Hell for a home schooling senior literature class.
The theme of the novel is what Williams dubs Gomorrah, which is self-love. Self-love in the book is meant to include, implicitly, auto-eroticism in the ordinary sense, though Williams treats that subject delicately and never alludes to it directly. Instead, Williams's self-damning character, a military historian named Wentworth, conjures a succubus out of his own vanity and refusal to accept his rejection by a much younger woman. Williams being Williams, he suggests that the reader think of this succubus as in some sense or other physical, though we are not supposed to inquire too closely as to what is meant by that; for example, the story implies that most people besides Wentworth cannot see her.
Having now read the book twice recently with close attention, I have decided to place it right up there with All Hallows Eve as one of Williams's best. Williams is a frustratingly erratic author, and most of his work is just too obscure, pointlessly macabre, and self-consciously literary for me to rate it very highly qua literature. (Even in Descent Into Hell, the occasional attempts to imitate T.S. Eliot's poetic style are unintentionally funny.) But these two books are well worth reading.
The sobering point of Descent Into Hell is that we all want things and, especially, people to be different from what they are, and we are all tempted--through self-isolation, rejecting friendship, shirking undesired interpersonal duties, scholarly dishonesty, and a host of other means--to try to make the facts different from what they are. Sin, then, is quintessentially a rejection of reality and an attempt to impose our own reality on the world, which is of course impossible. The soul on the way to damnation responds to this impossibility by retreating more and more from truth and from the real world into himself and a world of his own making. Damnation is imprisonment within the self, the final rejection of Fact, and a severing of the mind from contact with reality, which in the end is no longer voluntarily reversible. Lovers of C.S. Lewis's work will recognize here an oft-repeated Lewisian theme. Lewis's dwarfs, trapped in an imaginary stable in the middle of Heaven in The Last Battle, and Uncle Andrew, unable to hear the animals talking or the voice of Aslan in The Magician's Nephew, are two fairly gentle Lewisian examples of this same phenomenon.
There is nothing particularly gentle about Williams. His portrait of Wentworth's descent is frightening, and I'll let you read it.
The application of all of this to the Internet is perhaps too obvious to state, and I'm aware of the irony of writing about it in a blog post. Nor am I by a long shot the first person to write about how the Internet allows us to isolate ourselves.
But let me spin out some ways that it does so that occurred to me while thinking about Williams's book and that I think we--meaning I--do well to guard against:
The Internet, and especially the blogosphere, allows us to think of other people only in relation to ourselves and our own ideas. When someone is a commentator on your thread, you are tempted to think of him not as a person with a family and a life, with hobbies and feelings, but just in relation to your thread. That's it. What did he say about what I said? And something similar is true of someone who writes a blog post on which I comment. He has said something. I have something to say in response. That's it. If I don't like what he said, we argue about it. And that's all. The almost overwhelming temptation is to make the other person simply a foil for oneself. If he seems to have scored temporarily, one is tempted to try to think of ways to get around admitting to the fair tag--a temptation to intellectual dishonesty. If he says something that seems particularly stupid, one is tempted to think of him merely as an opportunity to exercise one's cleverness at his expense. Thus it comes about that one can move in a world full of people all of whom take on a shadowy, one-dimensional semi-existence in one's own mind as mirrors--positive or negative--of oneself.
Internet messages wait. So do e-mail messages. If someone knocks at your office door, yells "Mom!" or calls you on the phone, he's much harder to ignore. Paradoxically, this makes it tempting to take more time answering e-mail than talking to physically present people, who suddenly seem--as real people increasingly come to seem to Wentworth--annoyingly loud and importunate.
The Internet allows you to create your own persona and present yourself to others as you would like to be rather than as you really are. This point applies even to networking sites like Facebook which have the advantage over the blogosphere of giving a more human and personal face to the people involved. But I, myself, am still presenting myself at my best and through the filter of the computer. This creates the dangerous illusion that I am engaging in normal social contact and interaction but don't have to deal with those faults that I don't have to reveal on the Internet. If people think highly of me there, I get the idea that I must be just fine. The Internet (like Wentworth's flattering succubus) provides a terrible opportunity to feed one's vanity.
Having said my say, I'm going to resist the temptation to re-polish this post. It would probably be better to go spend some time with physically present people instead. And, no, I'm not going to stop blogging. But I should probably read Descent Into Hell from time to time as a warning to pull back, to look up and around, and above all, always to prefer reality and truth, including truth about myself and others, to chimeras of my own making.