Near the end of Descent into Hell, Hugh Prescott and Adela discuss daydreams. Hugh only barely daydreams, whereas Adela does so often, and her defense of this calls the temptress Lily Sammile to her side.
It is worth asking what exactly Lily Sammile is, other than Lilith. Her magical remedies seem to be an exaggerated form of daydreaming, and the nature of the selfishness of Gomorrah appears to be preferring one’s own imagination—a part of oneself—to the real world (preferring the imagined lover to the real one, for instance). When Williams observes that it is impossible to love oneself (rather at odds with C.S. Lewis’s interpretation of “love your neighbor as yourself” to mean that the right kind of self-love is healthy, right, and good) he may mean mostly that false fragments of the self are not lovable, not that it is not possible to truly love the truth of oneself as, one could argue or hope, Pauline does in the end.
Williams seems to take a much sterner view toward the use of the imagination (and, perhaps, by extension, toward the use of art) than many people of whatever beliefs would consider doing today. Wentworth’s fate suggests to me that Williams might take issue with, say, the beginning of the Harry Potter series not because of the magic (though possibly that too, hard to know) but because of the simple wish-fulfillment of the first volume (potentially, at least, it says to kids, “Your mildly annoying real family that you’d otherwise be obligated to come to terms with is actually a splendidly evil fake family that deserves only mockery and you have special powers and you’re renowned the world over and you get to go to Hogwarts!!”)**
Even the man who hanged himself in Descent into Hell must relinquish fantasizing about the uncomfortable fates of his enemies, not just because of the malice involved, but because such things are not real. Pauline, conversely, discovers that she must love and take joy in the real—even in evil and its punishment—because it is real and it is the will of God.
As an agnostic, I find my own attitude more complicated. If reality is a good God, then perhaps we are under an obligation to love reality in some way, even if the bit we’re in seems to leave a lot to be desired, and we’re also under an obligation to improve what we see.. But—and this sweetens it quite a lot—we are given a promise that reality is lovable, however difficult accommodating oneself to it may be at first, and also given the suggestion that reality may be a lot more like at least some of our desires than meets the eye. The writer may write about happiness triumphant—about lovelier, larger realities than the depressing humdrum naturally determined everyday—because those things are actually believed to be true.
But here’s what I never felt CSL quite got, in his portrayals of mad atheists with no system of values who are reduced to absurdity because they are trying to be true to their materialist worldviews (I’m thinking of the Out of Space Trilogy here) and what, I think, those who scorn wish-fulfillment in fiction don’t quite get either.
If reality is more like a rock, we have no obligations toward it whatsoever. We don’t need to face it any further than is necessary to function in it in the ways we desire, we don’t need to accept it, we don’t need to glory in it. It’s not puerile or stupid to long for something else, and, in our imaginations, to enjoy something else. It’s sane. (Whether it’s easy to create or imagine something else with the richness and depth to be intellectually interesting is another question entirely—see my post “Wider Than the Sky.”)
Nor, in the case that reality is like a rock, should we have any expectations that it is good. This is what I reject about basically any defense of anything—homophobia, say, or eating nonhuman animals, or social Darwinism—that depends on the fact that “that’s how nature works.” Let’s talk about me for a moment. I am evolutionarily unfit. If it weren’t for modern medicine, I would have died of asthma at the age of three—but if I don’t in my own estimation deserve to exist, the reason has nothing to do with @#% asthma; it has to do with a bunch of values that have no relation to the ability to survive and reproduce at all, even if the ultimate origin of those values was the quest for survival and reproduction. The fact that nature caused us to have the very values that we assert against it is meaningless—in fact, our values are inevitably derived from nature—but we still have the ability, the freedom, the “right,” if you will, to assert the values we prefer over what seem to be somehow more central values of nature, like survival (not that nature actually has values; kind of my point is that it doesn’t). If you follow.
I have always daydreamed quite a lot, and proudly, and I find it hard to write fiction that I actually believe in any sense because I find a lot of what I actually believe ugly and depressing and possibly not worth spilling more ink over than has already been spilled. (I try to do so anyway because my favorite fiction is that which contains a sincerely expressed worldview—sincerity grants writing complexity and urgency and meaning and helps the reader suspend disbelief. I just badly want to express something more interesting than fine-grained, unintellectual appreciation of the apparent “real world.”)
BTW, Orthodox Christianity is something that, due in large part to C.S. Lewis, I find extremely beautiful, though his arguments never convinced me that it was even particularly likely to be true. And I don’t think liking it is contemptible in me. Evernost, my favorite fiction project, is, in large part, an effort to grapple with my love of C.S. Lewis’s oeuvre honestly (and hence agnostically)–though parts of it want to be pure beautiful untruth as well.
On another note, I would be interested to read Williams’ defense of fiction and art, which clearly he values immensely in some sense (and, as Betty and Jonathan say in All Hallows’ Eve, not at all in another), but, I think, because it points toward reality and the love of reality. Stanhope, if I remember correctly, comments in Descent that art will be obsolete in heaven (I read somewhere else that art in heaven could be a way for each person to share their unique vision of God with others, and Tolkien suggests that in writing fantasy we are “subcreating” something real in a sacred mimicry of God, so perhaps Williams’ conclusion is even on his own terms premature….).
**Harry Potter complicates this wish-fulfillment significantly as the series progresses (Rowling dislikes wish-fulfillment so much that she once said she didn’t consider Harry Potter to be fantasy at all because it doesn’t present an idealized magical world). In general, I think Harry Potter is complex and moral and also, incidentally, crypto-Christian, and, what’s more, the fairy tale motif of the abused child can be of great, justified, and real comfort to children who really are abused, and that even to those who aren’t it can be an allegory for how much better the world can get, be it through heaven or through technological advances or through smaller, more human means–but that’s all other posts for other days.