Countdown to Doctor Who Season 9! One day to go! Today, let’s talk about what I think is the second-most important theme in Doctor Who and probably the most distinctive element in Charles Williams’s thought. This is the idea of Co-inherence, with its related practices of Substitution and Exchange.
Have you noticed how often the Doctor sacrifices himself for others? And how often his companions sacrifice themselves for him? And how often minor characters sacrifice themselves to save the world? Sometimes these characters are saved, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they die and are somehow brought back; sometime they are just dead, and stay dead. In any case, there is a whole of Substitution and Exchange going on in this show, based on an unstated foundation of Coinherence.
I have written about Co-inherence before, in My Life For Yours: CW’s “Co-Inherence” theme. In short, Co-inherence is the idea that we are all part of one another; whatever I do affects you, whatever you do affects me, and whatever either of us does has eternal consequences for everyone else. This is true on a basic physical level: if there is one cookie left and I eat it, you have no cookie. If you are carrying a heavy box and I take it from you, you are no longer carrying it. Farmers grow food so that I can eat; I teach English so they and their children will know how to read and write, or in a less direct sense, to continue the transmission of literary culture from one generation to another. But Williams believed that Co-inherence had profound spiritual consequences, too: he thought that our souls were inter-dependent in very deep ways. So this is where Substitution and Exchange come in. They function in the material world—I could pay a bill on your behalf, substituting my money for yours, and then you wouldn’t have to pay it—but they also work in the archnatural world, as well. CW taught that we could carry one another’s emotional burdens as literally and simply as carrying physical ones. Are you suffering under a burden of guilt or grief? Let me take it, he would say—or, more likely, he would assign one of his disciples to carry it for you.
He dramatizes this reality most clearly in Descent into Hell, in which Peter Stanhope carries a burden of terror for Pauline. Stanhope tells Pauline about this principle, saying that “bear one another’s burdens” means:
something much more like carrying a parcel instead of someone else. To bear a burden is precisely to carry it instead of. If you’re still carrying yours, I’m not carrying it for you–however sympathetic I may be. … It’s a fact of experience. If you give a weight to me, you can’t be carrying it yourself; all I’m asking you to do is to notice that blazing truth.
Later Pauline in her turn (but with a shocking plot twist) carries a burden of terror for her ancestor, martyred 400 years before, and Pauline’s grandmother performs an act of exchange with a suicidal man 40 years before. All these acts of exchange result in joy and salvation.
CW takes it another step further in his Arthurian poetry, in a poem entitled “Taliessin on the Death of Virgil.” In this poem, the king’s poet tells the story of how his great poetic ancestor Virgil, author of the Aeneid, died and “fell from the edge of the world.” He fell through infinity, toward hell, and “While he was dropping” others came and “put him in a grace.” People not yet born at the time of his death (there’s the fluidity of time again) who loved his poetry came rushing, diving through the infinity, soaring up to catch him.
In that hour they came; more and faster, they sped
to their dead master; they sought him to save
from the grave and the endless falling,
who had heard, for their own instruction, the sound of his calling.
His poetry would, in some sense or other, instruct and “save” those people who loved it, and so they, regardless of millennia of intervening time, came to save him in exchange. And it worked:
Virgil was fathered of his friends.
He lived in their ends.
He was set on the marble of exchange.
They somehow exchanged the salvation they had gained through his poetry for a salvation to him at the time of his death. They lived in him, he lived in them.
This happens over and over in Doctor Who: an object, an event, or a person is exchanged for another. In “Doomsday,” when the Tenth Doctor has to say goodbye to Rose, he says: “There’s one tiny little gap in the Universe left, just about to close, and it takes a lot of power to send this projection. I’m in orbit around a super nova. I’m burning up a sun just to say goodbye.” Everything in the whole universe is connected, and a sun, a whole star, can be exchanged for a goodbye.
This idea of exchange and substitution, especially across time, becomes more and more complicated and layered throughout the River Song/Amy Pond storyline, as we learn that River and the Doctor have been saving each other, and Amy, by exchanges of one kind and another throughout their non-synchronous timelines. Sometimes they gear up for a sacrifice, such as in this conversation from “Flesh and Stone”:
RIVER: That Time Energy, what’s it going to do?
DOCTOR: Er, keep eating.
RIVER: How do we stop it?
DOCTOR: Feed it.
RIVER: Feed it what?
DOCTOR: A big, complicated space time event should shut it up for a while.
RIVER: Like what, for instance?
DOCTOR, shouts: Like me, for instance!!
But in this case, he doesn’t have to: A different exchange occurs, with poetic justice:
And in the end, the very end (almost)—and the very beginning—of River’s story, she gives her life in exchange for his, saving everyone else in the process:
This is a very Christological thing to do. But that’s tomorrow’s topic. Tune in tomorrow for CW & DW on True Myth.