Descent Into Hell, Chapters 5-7

These are really crucial chapters in the novel, as we begin to understand the principal characters.  Most of them--with two significant exceptions--are locked into their own obsessive resentments, their failure to care for anyone but themselves.  The dead man has found a sort of peace, or rather an anti-peace, in being set free from want, not just material want but from the need to put up with his wife, his workmates, his foremen, and his family.

He seems to echo the promise that  Mrs. Sammile makes to Pauline:  "Then come and dream, till you discover so soon the ripeness of your dreams....You'll never have to do anything for others any more."

Pauline is terrified to see herself, but she does not know why she is frightened.  She is not an especially bad young lady, but she is imprisoned in herself, and only under Stanhope's prodding does she realize how her childhood sin--of spending her mother's lost shilling on candy--is symptomatic of her entire life.

Wentworth, too, goes from bad to worse.  From his petty jealousy over Adela and Hugh to the dream of bliss offered by a creature who is part succubus, part Lilith, or both at the same time.

The exceptions are of course Mrs. Anstruther, the descendant of the martyr whose death plays so important a part, and the poet Stanhope, who enunciates for Pauline Williams' philosophy of "Substituted Love."

This having been said, what do you think, first, of Williams' frequent references to "The Republic", and second, of Stanhope's philosophy?


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Michael Strenk says:

    My poor education becomes abundantly evident in reading a work by a man as erudite as Williams as so many allusions go past, for the time being, without recognition. As I progress in my reading perhaps they will become clearer in a future second reading of Descent into Hell. Having said this, I take The Republic to be a Western manifestation of the Kingdom of God and communion of the saints.

    Stanhope’s philosophy, or rather his interaction with Pauline, is a ritual of confession. In the Church the priest takes the place of Christ in receiving the burden of the sin of the one confessing, helping him to bare it and giving him no further concern in the matter so that one might start anew.

    I was struck by the chapter in which Wentworth is seduced by the creation of his own mind. As I read I kept thinking of George MacDonald and his Lilith. When the name was finally mentioned near the end of the chapter it became evident that it was a sort of homage to MacDonald. C.S. Lewis recognized MacDonald as his master and the Inklings in general had a high regard for him. The relationship between Wentworth and his creation are similar to that of MacDonald’s hero and his Lilith who feeds off of him but, unlike with Wenworth’s creation, has a life and motivating force of her own.

  2. Jacob Johnson says:

    This is a very dense book for its length. Just about every sentence can send one off on one hundred considerations, which is good. Straightaway, Stanhope’s doctrine of substituted love brings to mind Galatians chapter six, basically, though I wondered what he meant, or how it was supposed to work in this instance. He clarifies that it is not simply sympathetically listening to one who is burdened put taking the burden away from the person to carry it in his stead. But how, in this instance, is this supposed to work? How can one feel fear for somebody else’s experiences in the other person’s place? What if PS is not afraid of any sort of apparition? Is this some sort of placebo trick? It was then interesting to read of how Stanhope actively tries to feel her fear genuinely. “Forgetting every principle of law, absorbing only the strangeness and terror of that separate spiritual identity.” However, he lacks her “rage of a personal resentment” and so the burden is lighter for him. “He endured her sensitiveness, but not her sin; the substitution there, if indeed there is a substitution, is hidden in the central mystery of Christendom which Christendom itself has never understood, nor can.”

  3. Michael Strenk says:

    I think, Mr. Johnson, that the essence of it is trust combined with desperation. Pauline has, as, it seems, does a wide range of people, a high regard for PS and his work. She is at a critical point where she might descend, irreparably, into insanity. The calm and caring suggestion (Pauline seems to be truly hearing her for the first time) of her wise grandmother that she speak to PS about her problem gives her a bit more confidence in Stanhope’s abilities, but Stanhope has to make the first move, as does the Holy Spirit everywhere and always, we simply must be open to receive Him. Pauline is finally at a point where she absolutely must have help and will accept it, although reluctantly. Pauline has reached out before, to her mother, and was firmly rebuffed, even mocked. It is amazing how easy it is for a parent or other trusted adult to break a child psychically. If we need help carrying a burden we don’t go to an infant, we go to someone who is perceived to be stronger than we are. In the Church, this is often inverted as the spiritually stronger person, like MA, is often, in fact a physical invalid (the saints are often so). PS is spiritually stronger than Pauline and so, can carry her burden for her and she trusts him to do so, because she perceives his good will and because the alternative is madness. I have been told that some saints become so strong, spiritually, that they can intentionally reawaken the passions, individually, so that they might examine them dispassionately, like looking at a bug under a magnifying glass, and this so that they might better understand the manipulation of the good by the enemy, the better to advise spiritual children on how to avoid his wiles. Don’t try this at home. Sins, even when common, are deeply personal. As Mr. Johnson intuits, PS is not personally involved in Pauline’s problem, so he can examine it, empathize and thereby deprive it of its power. By understanding Pauline’s dilemma he can help her put it into the proper perspective, as the even wiser MA does in her prophetic dreaming.

    PS is a sort of spiritual superhero as is MA. In the Church our father confessors are often all too human, but, the essential thing to know is that they stand in the place of One greater than they are, who is mystically present during the confession. Even if the advice received or penance given is mundane or inappropriate, we have faith that we have been heard by the one who actually bears our sin for us. The important bit at the end of confession, at least in the Orthodox Church (I have not confessed elsewhere) is “…having no further care…”, meaning, the matter has been settled. Continuing to obsess about it is unnecessary and, indeed, is a sin itself, the sin of lacking in faith.