In my last post, I remarked on how unsettling it is to find that the societal warnings and critiques posed in fantasy guise by George MacDonald in his 1895 novel Lilith have in our own day taken on real-life forms that might make any demon proud. Charles Williams’s metaphysical horror novel Descent Into Hell (1937) also imagines a kind of evil that today does not require fantasy to literalize it. (For more background on Williams, the “third Inkling” after his friends C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, see this earlier post.)
The Lilith of Williams’s novel conjures simulacra of a person’s desires, narcissistic and masturbatory illusions that isolate their subject from the world, first numbing and then eroding his soul. This is a sorcery that we can recognize in developed form today in internet pornography, the mock-companionship of OnlyFans, the ersatz communities inflicted on the world by Mark Zuckerberg, and what is becoming next-gen AI.
Descent Into Hell takes place in the English neighborhood of Battle Hill, whose residents are putting on a new play written by their local literary celebrity (and stand-in for Williams). While the novel’s two Christian characters (the aforementioned writer and an elderly lady) are paragons of spiritual serenity, the other, all-too-human characters are either extremely practical persons without much spiritual life at all, or people with various unhappinesses who mistake a range of often selfish attempts to salve their loneliness for attentiveness to soul.
These latter attract the solicitous interest of Mrs. Lily Sammile. Mrs. Sammile is a resident of Battle Hill who is seen everywhere yet seems to live nowhere. She quite explicitly promises an end to unhappiness. She will provide:
Everything lovely in you for a perpetual companion, so that you’d never be frightened or disappointed or ashamed any more. There are tales that can give you yourself completely and the world could never treat you so badly then that you wouldn’t neglect it.
This solipsistic fantasy she offers will
shut everything but yourself out. . . .If you will come with me, I can fill you, fill your body with any sense you choose. I can make you feel whatever you’d choose to be. I can give you certainty of joy for every moment of life. Secretly, secretly; no other soul—no other living soul. . . .You’ll never have to do anything for others any more.
Lily is of course Lilith, the first wife of Adam in Jewish legend, turned demoness and scourge of humanity. Williams naming her Mrs. Sammile is a nice touch, as Lilith is in some legends the consort of the punishing angel Samael, who in Christian lore is associated with Satan.
One of the Battle Hill residents, a bitter, middle-aged academic named Wentworth, suffers the pangs of jealousy when his former hanger-on, the pretty young Adela, begins a relationship with a suitor. Rather than accept Adele’s personhood, and so be able both to love her and to be hurt by loving her, Wentworth chooses to accept Mrs. Sammile’s “gift.”
He is given a simulacrum of Adela concocted from his own ego. This was “the Adela he kept in himself,” its uncanny falsity immediately apparent, “for even Adela had never been so like Adela as this.” Yet Wentworth is infatuated with with this supernatural sex doll:
The feminine offspring of his masculinity clung to him, pressing her shoulder against him, turning eyes of adoration on him, stroking his fingers with her own. . . .There flowed into him from the creature by his side the sensation of his absolute power to satisfy her. It was what he had vehemently and in secret desired—to have his own way under the pretext of giving her hers.
That this externalized narcissism is a onanistic delusion is explicit. Wentworth, we are told, “had no need of the devices against fertility which, wisely or unwisely, the terrible dilemmas of men drive them to use, for he consummated a marriage whose infertility was assured.” Everything, in terms of sexual fantasy, is possible here, with one exception: “He could exercise upon it all arts but one; he could not ever discover by it or practise towards it the freedom of love. A man cannot love himself; he can only idolize it, and over the idol delightfully tyrannize—without purpose.”
The result is, first, a growing deafness to the realities of social interaction, and then an increasingly addictive desire for isolation. Wentworth wants “to shut himself wholly away from the world in a sepulchre of desire and satiety and renewed desire.” Ultimately, Wentworth’s soul becomes so drugged, his personhood so attenuated, that he even loses interest in his faux-Adela which, after all, is only an image of his own shrunken self. “It was,” writes Williams of the simulacrum when we last see it, “a thing the dead man might have met under his own pallid sky, and less even than that.”
Wentworth’s masturbatory isolation is a hideous parody of Adam in Eden, his fake Adela a travesty of Eve. “He might be back again in Eden,” Wentworth thinks when first presented with his ghastly help-meet, “the only man with all that belonged to the only man.” With perverse inversion of the wisdom of Genesis, the non-woman that accompanies him agrees, urging: “Yes, yes, yes: better than Eve, dearer than Eve, closer than Eve. It’s good for man to be alone.”
Throughout the novel Williams meditates intricately on Christian concepts of Eden, linked with the Fall of Man and the sacrifice of Jesus. Battle Hill is both Golgotha, the place of the crucifixion, and the scene of Eve’s fashioning from Adam’s side and her introduction of life and death into the world. The quiet English suburb affords access to both heaven and hell, depending on the choices of the characters.
Continuing with the Genesis theme, Williams also presents the sterile virtual reality offered by Lilith as Gomorrah. Gomorrah, not Sodom, is the true city of death, writes Williams, for “Men can be in love with men, and women with women, and still be in love and make sounds and speeches,”
but don’t you know how quiet the streets of Gomorrah are? haven’t you seen the pools that everlastingly reflect the faces of those who walk with their own phantasms, but the phantasms aren’t reflected, and can’t be. . . . and they’ve no children—no cherubim breaking into being or babies as tiresome as ours; there’s no birth there, and only the second death.
Williams’s Gomorrah owes something to the stony, childless city of Bulika in George MacDonald’s Lilith, but Williams goes even further in the portrayal of death-in-life as a black hole of phantasmic self. In Gomorrah,
There’s no distinction between lover and beloved; they beget themselves on their adoration of themselves, and they live and feed and starve on themselves, and by themselves too, for creation, as my predecessor said, is the mercy of God, and they won’t have the facts of creation.
In the end, says Williams, “there’s only Zion or Gomorrah,” only the God- and other-directed city that lives by “the facts of creation”—in Williams’s Zion I hear the Jewish wedding blessing that describes the streets of Judah teeming with brides and grooms who will restore the city’s children—and, on the other hand, the silent city of the ego’s glowing screens.
Mrs. Sammile, who appears in most of the novel as a nervous busybody (“she suggested by her whole bearing that time was in a hurry”), an ordinary bourgeois if with something faintly macabre about her face, is revealed at the end as a grotesque and withered crone who would suckle the dead souls she has trapped, but has no maternal milk with which to do so. She lives, it turns out, in a disused shed in the Battle Hill cemetery. This is a doorway to hell, harrowed by the character of Pauline, a thoughtful young woman who rejects Lilith’s importunings and whom we recognize as an Eve (the Edenic name of her character in the community play is Periel: God’s fruit) to Mrs. Sammile’s Lilith.
Apart from Lilith and all she represents, a major aspect of the novel is Williams’s “Doctrine of Substituted Love,” which his alter-ego in the novel teaches to Pauline. This belief of Williams’s is a somewhat heterodox Christian idea that the New Testament call to “carry each other’s burdens” is literal, an actual practice and metaphysical reality. We can take on the fear and distress of another person so that they do not have to carry such burdens themselves. Moreover, Williams believes that we can retroactively take on the anguish of the dead. Pauline, in the novel, accepts the fear of a martyred ancestor so that he, four hundred years previously, may face his burning at the stake in joy.
This is an intriguing, also troubling concept. One can recognize a likely therapeutic effect in taking on another person’s emotional discomfort and telling them to be at peace. In the novel, we are told that this aspect of the practice does not even depend on religious belief. More unsettling is the conviction that, as God is not bound by time, one can do the same for the dead and, presumably, have our own fears lifted by generations to come. It may be asked whether this counts as one of the magical practices that engaged Williams. Certainly, the nature of this doctrine must depend on its truth, for if Williams is mistaken then this kind of posthumous charity is only a solipsistic delusion, not altogether dissimilar from the blandishments of Lilith, as Williams was surely aware.
I have no trouble accepting that the relationship between God and His people is not restricted by ordinary concepts of time, that, as the sages say of Torah, “there is no early or late.” Indeed, I have always taken the daily liturgical enactment of deliverance from Egypt, the recitation of the Song at the Sea, as the expression of an ancient gratitude so intense that it radiates endlessly into the future, binding us today in thankfulness and celebration. But this is a different directionality than the idea that our praise today might assuage the fears of our forebears, whether at the Red Sea or in Auschwitz.
In any case, it’s neither my competence nor my place as a Jew to comment on the mystery of another faith, even as it provokes in me thought and reflection on my own. Williams’s novel, by turns lofty and creepy, smug and self-rending, is finally a horrifically prescient warning about the Liliths of our own day.
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