This is the third post in a series written by guests about CW’s penultimate novel, Descent Into Hell. Check out last week’s post Some of my Favorite Fiction by John Zacharias. This series serves a double purpose: (1) We have reached 1937 in the chronological blog-through of CW’s books [although I’m missing a few] and (2) I am taking November off from social media and blogging into order to focus on NaNoWriMo and other endeavors. If YOU would like to write a guest post about DiH, do let me know.
Today’s post is by Rev. Doug Jackson.
BIO: Doug Jackson was a pastor for over twenty years and now teaches spiritual formation, New Testament Greek, and pastoral ministry for Logsdon Seminary at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in English literature from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona, a Masters of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. Doug has presented papers on various aspects of the writing of C. S. Lewis and other Inklings as well as articles on G. K. Chesterton and the Harry Potter series. In addition to his teaching, Doug writes a popular lectionary devotional blog entitled “Sermoneutics,” and has appeared in local productions of various Shakespeare plays. He and his wife Becky have two grown sons, Landry and Jay Don, as well as a rescued bullmastiff named Spurgeon. His poetry chapbook, Nothing There Is Not More: Poems of Faith Through Doubt was published by Finishing Line Press in 2014.
If it is true that That Hideous Strength is a Charles Williams novel written by C. S. Lewis, it is also true that Descent Into Hell is an extended exposition of the foregoing C. S. Lewis quote written by Charles Williams. The lurid title draws the reader in with promises of vivid special effects – flaming pits, toothy demons upholstered in snakeskin, and flame-eyed dogs with slavering fangs. Instead, Williams offers the reader the silken rustle of an upper-class suburb, the petty politics of an amateur drama club, and a man who dreams of a rope.
Even the dream doesn’t rise to the level of nightmare: Lawrence Wentworth, a military historian, periodically discovers his sleeping self clinging to a rope anchored somewhere at either end but swallowed in darkness. He descends – he feels unseen knots slip through his hands and knows he has moved downward but does not see them and does not feel any motion. He does not wake up screaming; he wakes up feeling “the very slightest distaste, as if for a dentist.”
And he goes to Hell.
He goes to Hell for sulking over a girl who jilts him. He goes to Hell for fudging just a little bit on an insignificant point of military history. He goes to Hell for refusing to tell a costume designer that she has gotten the shoulder-knots wrong on some uniforms. He goes to Hell for failing to congratulate a generous rival. One thinks of Lewis’ “ghosts” in The Great Divorce, who refuse Heaven in order to recall a grudge or attack an artistic rival.
No, he doesn’t go to Hell for any of these things, but he goes there by means of each of them. Each choice, and later, when choice recedes beyond him, each refusal to choose, forms a knotted handfast, a ganglion of clotted demands and requests and inconveniences and discourtesies that involve him without centering on him and thus present him with the chance to focus on someone, something, anything outside himself.
Even Hell, when it arrives, isn’t much fun. Wentworth does not hear the shrieks of the damned or glimpse a distant vision of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom. Williams’ Hell is an infinite senility, a self ever disintegrating but never ceasing. Again, the reader recalls Lewis’ “grey town,” a Hell full of bad bookstores and cinemas that if swallowed whole couldn’t manage to sicken a single butterfly on the outskirts of Heaven.
Other things go on: The novel contains the requisite Williams’ types – the acolyte who grows toward the beatific vision, and the adept who guides her (two of them, in this case). We have the hyper-real totem or hallow, in this case a play written in verse. Williams even gives us a genuine ghost, the shade of a suicide who haunts the hill where he hung himself. We encounter La Belle Dame Sans Merci who seduces an unwary man. The subdivision contains a cemetery with its own sidhe who guards a portal to the Underworld. The dead stir unquietly in their graves.
But none of this frightens the reader – not this reader, at any rate – as much as the image of a series of hardly-conscious choices made by a soul that slides into damnation without a single jolt along the way. To invoke Lewis again – this time Screwtape’s toast at the Tempter’s College – Wentworth’s soul won’t crunch when devoured by demons. He arrives in Hell as a morsel of pure suet, all the bone and tendon and gristle dissolved in a vinegary bath of ordinary selfishness. It’s enough to make the reader look at small choices in light of the direction they imply along a rope that at the moment seems infinite, but which most definitely is not. It isn’t exactly terrifying – but it’s damned unpleasant.