I’ve just finished Charles Williams's 1937 novel Descent into Hell, which was recommended to me by a couple of Catholic friends. Williams might be called “the extra Inkling.” Everybody knows J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, but far fewer people remember the other, less aggressively punctuated members of the club, including the philosopher Owen Barfield and Tolkien's son Christopher.
Williams is the best-known of these auxiliary Inklings, and his writing is indeed what the youth of today call “extra.” It's dense, clotted with time-bending clauses, full of switchbacks. Motives are interrogated and re-interrogated. The plot of Descent into Hell concerns a mysterious play being performed in a London suburb, on a hill with a bloody history of war and martyrdom.
The genre is apologetics (albeit apologetics for an idiosyncratic idea of the faith), but the style is horror: Williams explains the communion of saints, the mechanism of prayer, and many other facets of the “sacred economy” by taking us through nightmare visions of ruined cities, doppelgängers, and succubi. The mysterious Mrs. Sammile, a kind of Prim Reaper, tries to hasten everyone to a cozy death. The girl Pauline is haunted by an evil double of herself—unless perhaps the double is the good twin, and Pauline the evil? A suicide goes on a postmortem journey to see if he can salvage some hope by being loved by someone for the first time in—well, it would be for the first time in his life, if he weren't already dead.
Descent is a complex portrait of the relationship between the living and the dead. It includes an acute depiction of a man seduced by stereotypical masculinity, whose inhuman beloved gives him “the sensation of his absolute power to satisfy her.” He wants so badly to feel powerful in the eyes of a woman—to feel that he does not need her, but she needs him; that he is not weak, but strong enough to carry her—that he chooses Hell. Descent portrays the anguish of ambivalence: how painful it is to be trapped between desire and conscience, and how we lie to ourselves to relieve this ambivalence. “He did not exactly will,” Williams writes, “but he refused to avoid.” If at times I realized that all these people have no children, so they have endless time to lie around feeling their feelings, still overall this is a lush and tender book.
And it's a book about acceptance. At a certain point I remembered that both of the friends who'd recommended Williams were gay Catholics. And that made sense: So much of the book is about receiving what God has given you to do in life, instead of the tasks you would have chosen for yourself. There's been a lot of writing in the gay, celibate Christian blogosphere lately about unchosen celibacy, and learning to accept lifelong unmarriage as a gift—however much you wish the returns policy were more generous. We've been writing a lot lately about the need to accept the life given us.
But what stood out to me, as soon as I began to read Descent through this lens, was the emphasis on self-acceptance. The self too is a fact. Pauline must learn to meet her double self: to look herself in the face without fear or loathing. Many of us know that being gay is a stubborn fact in our lives; those who have tried to change or “fix” that fact know just how devastating this unwillingness to accept the life given to us can be.
Orientation does sometimes change, obviously—in both directions, and back again!—and there are as many stories of the weird twists and turns of desire as there are humans on this earth. But these changes are rarely under our control. They, too, are given us.
Descent frequently returns to the line from Revelation: “Behold, I am making all things new.” And yet this transformation does not stem from self-rejection or self-hatred. In fact, it often accompanies a courageous, difficult self-acceptance: “[S]he was Periel; she was the least of the things that he had created new; ecce, omnia nova facio. She was a line of his verse, and beyond that—for the thought of him took that high-romantic self-annihilation and annihilated it in turn—she was herself in all freedom and courage. She was herself, for the meeting with herself.”
I'm like a romantic moth, drawn to the flame of that self-annihilation. I have been immensely lucky that my general ambient self-dislike never fastened onto my lesbianism; I think being gay may be the only thing about myself I've never been ashamed of! (I wasn't raised Christian, which helped.) But I am trying to learn self-acceptance as one of the “hard sayings” which we submit to out of faith. I have to remind myself, catechetically, that I am created and sustained only by the love of God; that He made me for some purpose, and that I must hate nothing He has made. Since we are all called to live in self-gift, the self must be inherently worth giving.
So many American churches have made it brutally hard for their gay children to learn these truths. They have viewed gay people as threats; they have rewarded gay people for dishonesty and punished us for every step we make toward self-acceptance. They have focused solely on the dangers of narcissism and lust, and utterly ignored the dangers of despair. They have made it hard for us to hear God: He doesn’t always call us to be the kind of saints our parents and our church leaders wish we were.
Every story in Descent offers a correction to some element of American Christian norms around sex and love: Wentworth's affair with his fantasy/bride/child/demon exposes a cultural fetish for “manly strength,” in spite of a religion that should force all of us to confess our need and weakness. Pauline's struggle to be able to meet herself in the street will be familiar to many gay Christians—as will her struggle to admit humbly that she needs the help of a friend. And the afterlife of the suicide, the man betrayed and abused by “the Republic” (Williams's bitter term for English society, or for humankind), suggests that rejection and isolation can come close to killing a soul.
We can have only the loves we are given, not others. But we must accept all of the duties of love we are given, including the duty to love the self God has made.
Eve Tushnet is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith and Amends: A Novel. She is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C., and blogs at Patheos.