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Descent Into Hell, the Internet, and the prison of the self

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.

Comments (20)

Excellent post, Lydia. My favorite Williams book is _The Greater Trumps_, but I love _Descent_. My students responded very well to it last spring. One of the things that always strikes me in it is Williams' emphasis that *each* choice we make sets us some way on either the road to hell or the road to heaven. It's sobering, that -- but a concept that reminds me that the choices I make are not neutral; they are either for self or for others. And a consistent pattern of choices for self leads at last to the inability to choose any other way. "The Spirit will not strive with man forever."

I will probably refer my students this semester to this post, as, although we are reading a different novel, we are still centering the course on the problem of isolation caused by technology. I figure if I can get just one young person every year to see that negative potential and take it seriously, I've accomplished something far more important than helping them get their commas in the right places.

You are quite right. The fallen self is a prison, one we prefer to almost anything. But faith turns our gaze outward, and begins to free us from our fallen selves by focusing us on something Other than ourselves.

Williams is indeed obscure, and is therefore a challenge to read and to understand. But he is well worth the effort. For example, I can hardly think of any book so profound and revolutionary as his Figure of Beatrice, which does for romance what the church has done for the significance of eating by its doctrine of the the Lord's Supper. Now we understand what's really happening when boy meets girl and they fall in love. Something profoundly theological is going on in romance, even if we are utterly unaware of it. Further, his Descent of the Dove -- a history of the Holy Spirit -- is as audacious as it is profound.

Williams saw the large extent to which the natural world is charged with the supernatural, how they interpenetrate at almost every point. I take this to be at least partly the consequence of the Rosicrucianism of his pre-Christian days -- redeemed, transformed, and taken over as it was by Christ. The supernatural is never far from us, in all its beauty and all its horrendousness. Our secularized world, simply because it is secularized, cannot see it. (That said, Williams and Lewis both had a taste for the supernatural, and sometimes for the occult, that makes my blood run cold.)

I take some of this rejection-of-fact notion you mentioned to be a result of Williams' reading of Milton, whom he loved, and of Milton's depiction in Paradise Lost of Satan, who deluded himself into thinking he could make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven -- all facts to the contrary notwithstanding.

I haven't read anything by Williams, so I cannot speak to his writing.

Isn't one way of understanding sin precisely that interior, chosen, blindfolding from reality so that one is able to choose a good that is only "good" because it has an appearance of good, but is not consistent with the true good that one would see if one willingly attended to the whole reality? By definition, I think, deliberate sin involves adherence to a fiction generated by refusing to look at the truth.

Tony, yes, I think that one can say in a sense that all sin is a rebellion against reality of one sort or another. Some such rebellions lend themselves more easily to the kind of fictional portrayal Williams is giving. I note in this book as also in _The Greater Trumps_ (if I recall the latter correctly) an unfortunate tendency on his part to excuse the _dominating_ (as opposed to the retreating) form of masculine selfishness, probably because he was himself rather inclined to dominate others, especially young women. There is a character in Descent who is obviously a very unpleasant person, objectively speaking (named Hugh), whom Williams nevertheless excuses as _not_ in danger of "Gomorrah" because he is an "almost brutal realist." Hmmm.

Michael, here's the thing about Williams and Lewis on the occult: Lewis saw his own taste for it as a relic of his fallen nature and as _dangerous_. Williams thought he could flirt with it. Hence, Lewis never makes my blood run cold except in the sense that he so clearly portrays the danger of a taste for the occult. (The best example of this is the demonic temptation of Mark Studdock in the jail cell in _That Hideous Strength_: _very_ well-done.) Williams creeps me out because he always thinks he can play with it and also because he isn't always sure he wants to condemn it unequivocally and require people to repent and turn from it. The male character in _The Greater Trumps_ (again, if I've got the name and plot together correctly) tries to commit a murder by way of the tarot cards and never clearly repents (though he doesn't succeed), yet the girl is still going to marry him at the end of the novel with, apparently, Williams's approval.

I actually think Descent into Hell is Williams' best and most profound work.

But while I see the philosophical connection to technology, I'm not persuaded that in reality, technology actually isolates. Pew did some research on it, and while (of course) not conclusive, it is interesting to note: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/18--Social-Isolation-and-New-Technology.aspx

The next evolution of the internet is location based technology, which will more closely integrate it with our real lives and undermine, I think, the force of some of the criticisms here.



Great post, Lydia. We'll have you converted into a distributist soon enough. :)

To Matthew: I would find statistics interesting, but my post was intended to be chiefly autobiographical. If others don't feel the temptations I feel from the blogosphere and their connection to Williams's warning, they are free to shake their heads in bafflement. If I'm atypical, it wouldn't be the first time. My "criticisms" are perhaps better characterized as warnings. I'm not suggesting that people take out their computer and put a stake through its heart, though in a particular person's case it might indeed come to that. If your eye offend you, cut it off, and all that. And individual, personal rules about use, tailored to one's individual circumstances, would often not come amiss.

To Paul: Well, as you see, I'm a big fan of the Internet and of blogging. I recognize their dangers but am not about to start wishing for a world entirely without them, much less, God forbid, looking to some sort of regulation to help people interact more with other people face to face and not spend too much time blogging! So my approach here is entirely individualistic. It's not a different society I'm hankering for. But I'm telling people, and especially myself, to watch out carefully for the particular dangers of the world of the Internet in which we find ourselves.

Speaking about hell, I think my own case is rather interesting: On the one hand, I seem to be more susceptible to self-delusion than other people. On the other, I also have a cynical streak, which allows me to despise my deluded self from time to time .

On other words, it would appear that I have a split personality and that I am in need of professional help.

Oh shut up! Quit talking about yourself.

Don’t tell me to shut up, you heartless bastard!

There is a recent article that covers some of the same areas you allude to:

George R.
There's an app for that. :)

George R, I'm inclined to think that the ability to find oneself humorous _gently_ is one of the most important abilities to develop and helps to keep one sane. The alternatives are having _no_ sense of humor about oneself or feeling bitterly and cynically amused about oneself, neither of which is good.

Excellent post, especially your remarks about the presentation of the self on the internet. I think you found a way, that I never did, to express a great reason to avoid sites like facebook, myspace, etc.

One thing that helps me a bit is that a number of my Facebook friends are also in-person friends. Some are old college and high school friends and knew me at that time when I was hardly at my best, which is a good, humbling thing. Some live near me here in town. But many are Internet friends only. I know that I must avoid the temptation to think, "My Facebook friends seem to find me charming and amusing, so I _must really_ be charming and amusing."

Facebook. . . descent into Hell. Now I get it.

Michael, I like Facebook, as you know. The "hell" (as in Williams, too) that threatens is imprisonment in oneself, not some particular outside activity. I'm simply warning of a way in which an on-line activity that _appears_ to involve interaction with other people and even humanizing interaction can contribute, if one lets it, to that self-imprisonment.

I like Facebook too.

I probably like it too much.

Zach, I too have avoided Facebook and Myspace, as I have disliked the artificiality of the environment. And the degree to which a lot of people live there instead of where their bodies are. If some people can use the venues without falling into problems, good for them, I wish there were more like them.

As one example of potential problems: This recent situation in my home came up. A friend visiting our family found that some personal information of hers was posted by a "friend" on their facebook site, without bothering to ask whether my friend wanted that information public. I think that the venue, as it currently exists, urges people to be less careful than they ought to be with information in general.

Tony, you are right, certainly. I learned ON FACEBOOK that my son had been involved in what could have been a tragic accident . . . had no idea where they were so had a rather difficult half-hour till he called to tell me that he was okay. He had no idea, of course, that I'd already heard something and was going nuts.

That said, it does have excellent uses and has often been a boon to my relationships with students. I never ask to "friend" them but I accept their requests (I teach college, by the way). And some of the more shy ones, when I have responded to something they share on FB by congratulating them or telling them I'll pray, or sending a private email with encouragement and advice, have then started coming to me in person and letting me be not just a classroom teacher but a mentor. And I know that when good discussions get going lots of people read them -- many of my students are concerned about art and literature and film and are very serious in their pursuits; and they often call each other out for foolish comments. (I ignore most of the silly stuff like quizzes that seems to attract some people, but it's not a temptation for me; it bores me.) That and family pictures/keeping up between phone calls are the main ways I use FB, and it works well for me. (Well, and then there's Scrabble, which is where I have to make myself not waste time . . .) Just got a great recipe for chicken enchiladas from my gourmet-cook daughter-in-law that I'd never have thought to ask for if she hadn't commented on FB that she was making them for dinner tonight.

As Lydia says, it's a matter of perspective and discipline. And it's good to have most of your "friends" be folks you actually know face-to-face. Those I don't are ones I've "met" at places like this. Of course, I'm constantly reminded to use caution in what I post because so many of my students can read it . . . so the none-of-your-business stuff never gets posted in the first place.

How good to see that people are reading Charles Williams!

I also find him hard work, and I strongly suspect that he was wilfully difficult in style in order to hide his meaning from any but the most dedicated (and to increase the scope for deniability). I infer this from the fact that his personal letters were just as complexly diffucult as his novels and essays - it was both an affectation and a habit.

I would never _recommend_ reading CW, because he is just too whimiscal and obscure - but anyone inclined to have a go should be assured there is a lot of meat there.

But I too found Descent into Hell to be a very worthwhile novel (also Place of the Lion) - Descent of the Dove is superb, also He came down from heaven.

I read Williams for the aphoristic flashes of distinctive brilliance - not for the narrative or the overall argument - and I agree that there was a dark and seedy side to his personality (see Letters to Lalage which is just creepy, especially when you put the letters into the context of time and place).

But CW kept this in check, mostly, and didn't actually _do_ much harm and did do a great deal of good in inspiring people.

Further to the above - I am not sure whether the internet really is more hazardous than personal interactions. Both are hazardous.

In my own experience, so far as I can judge, I have been most deluded, furthest from common sense (natural law), and most 'solipsistic' when most integrated with a context of lively real world social interactions - precisely because the world of mainstream academics and intellectuals (which I inhabit) is probably the most corruptly deluded of any world (e.g. I agree with - http://jewishworldreview.com/cols/sowell010510.php3 - )

By contrast, the internet allows one to keep better company, at least potentially.

"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."

I recall, in my youth, that there was something called "books" that used to allow this as well.

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