Monday, February 21, 2011

Charles Williams: Descent into Hell

[A wordy offering]
In Charles Williams’ novel Descent into Hell, one of the characters, an old man and a wise poet, Peter Stanhope, helps a young woman, Pauline, who is tormented by fear. She fears meeting her double. One might argue that she is psychotic, believing that her double exists and that she has several times seen her double walking toward her. Psychotic or not, Pauline’s fear is real. She is like everyone else. We all (and often) experience very real fear, worry, anxiety, doubt or any number of distressing feeling-thoughts over matters that are not real, over matters that we imagine may be real, or may become real, but are in fact not real. Few of us have hallucinations as Pauline seems to have, but all of us create mental scenarios that are no more real than hallucinations, but which produce in us very real emotional responses and even mental confusion.
I am intrigued by the way Stanhope helps Pauline. He does not question the logical possibility of meeting one’s double, nor does he attempt to assure Pauline that such a thing can’t “really” happen. He accepts her version of reality as hers, and offers to bear part of her suffering--the real suffering that she is experiencing because of what seems to be her fantasy. If she will allow him, Stanhope says to Pauline, he will carry her fear for her so that she will not have to bear it. Pauline doubts this is possible, but Stanhope persists and encourages her to accept that he will bear it. He refers to St. Paul’s words, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ,” but he does not dwell there. He focuses on encouraging Pauline, when she feels fear coming on her to remember that she does not need to carry it, because he is carrying it for her. Stanhope will be afraid for her, so she doesn’t have to be.
When they part company, Stanhope allows himself to imagine and then feel the fear Pauline must experience seeing her double walking toward her, and the increasing dread that something terrible will happen if they ever meet. Of course for Stanhope, the fear is easier to bear than it is for Pauline. He feels it, but he feels it as one who is not trapped by it, as one strong, as one who willingly carries the load of someone weaker, someone he cares for. For her part, Pauline forgets about the matter and enjoys her walk home distracted by pleasant sights and smells and thoughts. She forgets until she realizes that she has not been afraid. In realizing that she is not afraid, fear seems to knock at her door. She knows that Stanhope must have done something--she doesn’t know what it is nor how it has worked--but she chooses to believe it, to accept that Stanhope is carrying her fear so she doesn’t have to: she said that she would let Stanhope handle the “trouble,” and to keep her word, that is what she would do.
On one level, we can say that Pauline’s deliverance from fear is a mere psychological trick. We see right through it. However, as most of us know from experience, psychological tricks seldom really work, or seldom work very well. Just on a psychological level, the trust necessary for one to believe fully the words of another--especially about a matter that as been deeply hidden and tormenting since childhood--is so rare that I am tempted to say its occurrence is miraculous. People whom we can trust are very rare. People whose wisdom is manifest, whose genuine care for us is not questioned, and whose love is not possessive, grabbing nor contingent, such people are very, very rare.
Understanding how a psychological trick might work is one thing, finding someone whose character is such that he or she can pull it off, that’s another matter altogether.

But if we probe deeper than the mere psychology, we might see something that Williams says is “hidden in the central mystery of Christendom.” This is something Williams calls “The Doctrine of Substituted Love.” What he seems to mean--I guess I’ll understand it more as I finish the novel--is that, so long as both parties are willing, it is indeed possible to “bear one another’s burdens.” Central to Christianity is Christ’s bearing the burden of sin for the whole world. Those who would be free from the driving passions of sin may experience the lifting, the freedom, from the sinful passions--if they really want it. Similarly, each of us are able to bear the burdens of those we love and have our burdens born in turn. In fact, Williams goes so far as to say this is a universal law, and “not to give up your parcel is as much to rebel as not to carry another’s.”
I think Williams is onto something. I have experienced something like this phenomenon myself in relationships with those I have come to trust. I have experienced, on the one hand, the lessening of anxiety, worry or any number of unnamed mental torments by obeying (trusting) the advice, counsel or just accepting the support of a friend. On the other hand, I have also taken the suffering of others into my heart. Whether or not it has done them any good, I cannot say. I’m sure correlations are not linear. One bears the pain of another out of love, not utility.
I don’t think “the doctrine of substituted love” is a good name for this principle. Nevertheless, I know that something like this principle functions in the universe. Love compels us to bear one another’s burdens. And just as compelling, love teaches us to let others bear our burdens, for so we fulfill the law of Christ.

No comments: