I have written before about how much I love the strange, dream-like, mystical novels of Charles Williams, but they are hard to come by now. They can be purchased new, of course, though they are never in stock and are often “unavailable to order a this time,” and I do not often buy books new in any case. My local library is even less helpful, as it usually is, so I am reduced to looking in used bookstores and thrift shops, which has so far met with only very limited success.
Last semester, however, I found one of Williams’ novel’s in the EBC library discard sale, so I thought I might check to see if there were any more of his books in the school’s collection. I had low expectations. The EBC library, serving a Bible College as it does, is adequate in areas like theology and biblical studies, but its English Literature section is literally a few shelves in the furthest corner of the stacks. I did not even bother to check the computer catalogue. I just went to the section and scanned the shelves, and there, against all my expectations, were every one of Williams’ novels and a book of his theology besides.
In retrospect, I should have expected that a Bible College library would be likely to include the fiction of a writer who was also a Christian theologian and a who was, perhaps more importantly, a close friend of C. S. Lewis, for several decades now the closest thing that Protestants have to a patron saint. None of this analysis after the fact was able to spoil my mood, however, and I have just finished the first of these books, entitled Descent into Hell.
The novel is superficially about a group of actors who are putting on a play at the residence of its famous playwright, Peter Stanhope. More deeply, it is concerned with the way that some of these actors relate to themselves as selves. For example, the heroine, Pauline Anstruther, sometimes sees a copy of herself approaching along the street, and another of the actors, Laurence Wentworth, creates for himself a succubus that is never really distinct from his own substance, and he falls into a kind of demonic narcissism. Others of the characters are also self-obsessed in the more usual ways, and much of the book’s philosophizing has to do with this question of self.
In this context, Williams has Stanhope muse to Pauline about the shift that occurs from the Greek philosophical tradition’s “know thyself” to the Christian tradition’s “love thy neighbour”. The shift, he implies, is not just from knowing to loving, but also, perhaps primarily, from the self to the neighbour. Though Stanhope does not articulate this distinction at any great length, some of his other comments make it unlikely that he is opposing knowing the self and loving the neighbour absolutely. Rather, he seems to be arguing that it is only possible to know the self through loving the neighbour, that loving the neighbour is precisely what produces true knowledge of the self, and the conclusion of the plot goes so far as to suggest that knowing the self apart from loving the neighbour is productive only of a kind of hell on earth, where the human imagination creates succubi for itself and the dead cannot rest in their graves.
Of course, Stanhope’s observation makes most of Christian history an irony, since Christianity, especially in its Protestant guises, has been intimately bound up with all the various individualisms of personal salvation, democratic politics, capitalist economics, individual rights, and private property. The self trumps the neighbour here, again and again, resoundingly, even if this self remains largely unknown. What is more, this triumph of the self produces, at least according to the logic of the novel, a descent into hell on earth, and it implies that the Christian tradition, far from bringing about the heaven of the neighbour, has been far more concerned with bringing about the hell of the self.
I am not certain whether Williams would actually have levelled this criticism against Christianity, but I think that his logic is worth following. If Christianity, or any other faith for that matter, has anything worth saying in this age where the hell of the self has become our greatest ambition, surely it is that we can only come to know ourselves by loving our neighbours. This is surely the only thing that it has ever had to say, the thing that it has always been saying, without end, though it is all too seldom heard, so I will quote:
“This is the first and greatest commandment: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”