Charles Williams: Descent Into Hell
Mixed Signals

Charles Williams: Descent Into Hell

I read this book some years ago (at least twenty-five) and it made a big impression on me. I’ve recently finished reading it for the second time, and it made an even bigger impression, but I’m a little less confident that I fully understand it. No, say rather I’m confident that I did not fully understand it.

Williams’ basic approach is to treat spiritual reality as “physical” in the sense that it can be seen and touched and inhabited. Spiritual reality is seen as being more real than the world we know, and as being very closely mingled with our world, much more closely than we are normally aware of. And then Williams proceeds to remove the barriers between them, and to set his characters moving back and forth between them, or simultaneously in both. The resultant descriptions of scenes and actions are sometimes extremely obscure. And as I didn’t have the luxury of spending hours trying to puzzle things out, I found myself giving up on some passages, and moving on. (And anyway I suspect that only Williams himself could explain some of it.)

Still, I think I got the basic idea. This passage serves well as a key to the whole book:

The approach to love was the approach to fact; to love anything but fact was not love.

Of course Williams does not mean material fact alone; his whole foundation is that there are spiritual facts.

Back when I first read Descent I had a review of it in the National Catholic Register. You can read it here. I’m happy to say that the review seems pretty well on target, with the exception of one sentence: the last one in the paragraph beginning “This book is as....” That diagnosis seems too simple now, and not really even focused on the character’s main problem. And I still think there’s something a little unhealthy about certain aspects of the book.

If you’d like to discuss it, plot spoilers are allowed, as they pretty much have to be if we’re going to say anything very specific.

One aspect of the book seems even more relevant to our culture now than it did twenty-five years ago. There is a character in the book who is rebuffed by the woman who interests him and turns away from real women altogether to live in an erotic delusion, rejecting both fact and love. With the pervasive availability of Internet pornography, I wonder how many men are falling into a very similar trap.



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