In the last post, I observed that in a Williams-ian afterlife I might well find myself with “some large messy mess of myself to get through.” Descent into Hell centers around love and reality’s conflict with self-infatuation and illusion. If Sodom is a city of disordered love for others, Williams calls “Gomorrah” as the city of those who are infatuated with themselves (not who love themselves too much–Williams suggests at one point that it is impossible to love oneself–love, it seems, is in his philosophy directed outward).
Wentworth, a middle-aged scholar, is passively, unintelligently infatuated with himself–his scholarly activities exist for the sake of his ego. Vexed by the relationship of Adela, the young woman he lusts after, with one Hugh Prescott, he allows the peculiar wandering neighbor Lily Sammile (Lilith, it is suggested!) to split off a fragment of himself to embody and replace Adela. The false Adela caters to his every whim, sexual and otherwise, without his even having to take the initiative to ask, and he sinks deeper into a daze. The real Adela becomes obnoxious and repulsive to him. All humans other than this reflection of his desire become so, and eventually even the false Adela becomes so because she is the image of someone other than him. Eventually, he loses his ability to understand language or vision–all outside stimuli are meaningless to him.
But it is worth keeping in mind that this is a perversion of something good. C.S. Lewis writes, “the very first step towards getting a real self is to forget about the self”–and “getting a real self” is most certainly desirable, though not an end itself. Pauline shows us that. Pauline, despite temptation, rejects herself, is terrified of a true image of herself (perhaps of herself, saved, in her glory). When she finally meets it (with supernatural help) she merges with it happily.
I find it interesting that the one guilty of excessive self-infatuation is haunted by the image of someone else, while the one who rejects herself and achieves beatitude is haunted by an image of herself.
The symbolic paradox by which Wentworth is in love with himself in the form of the image of another is borne out in his psychology, though. As far as I can tell, his self-infatuation is not a matter of excessive conscious focus on his own qualities or admiration of himself (not that Williams would approve of that either)–it is if anything a complete lack of self-awareness combined with a rejection of what the world has to offer in favor of his own desires. He is selfish but not vain or self-absorbed. (If you’re familiar with the novel and I am forgetting passages in which he meditates upon his own virtues and glories…do let me know! But it doesn’t seem to me that he does, much. He merely envies and resents anyone who trumps or interferes with him.)
Pauline, on the other hand, despite her foolish fear, may find some real love for the vision of herself, who is–or may be–the vision of the beloved that the lover sees in Williams’ doctrine of romantic theology, which is the vision, or some fragment of the vision, that God sees when looking at that person’s redeemed self.
I suspect that Wentworth’s feelings for Adela (and the succubus, who is in many ways more perfect than Adela, though more perfectly an image of Wentworth’s desires rather than more perfectly Adela) are meant as a perversion, an inversion of romantic theology, or a caution about how it can go wrong. The lover must strive to recognize what of what they see in the first blush of romantic love is of God and what is of the self–and also strive to accept and love the beloved, saved but also as the beloved inconveniently is now–imperfect and possibly completely uninterested in the lover.
Wentworth’s selfishness itself is also portrayed as a perversion of something right–Pauline near the end is of the impression that she will achieve the complete satisfaction of all her desires–the thing that Lily Sammile promises falsely–lawfully, freely, and by right.
This may be followed–later today or next week–by a post on the other major moral conflict in Descent into Hell, the conflict between illusion and reality, and where I come out on that. After that I will most likely move on to Dr. Ima Sirius-Kriddek’s first guest post, in which she will begin her project of completely revising the literary canon.