A Terrible Beauty: True and False Visions of the Good in Descent into Hell and Till We Have Faces

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In a memorable passage from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, beauty is described as being an “awful thing…mysterious as well as terrible” (97). This strikingly paradoxical view of the beautiful, especially as it relates to the numinous, resonates in the writings of the Inklings. Charles Williams, for instance, points out that while caritas is often likened to “our immediate emotional indulgence,” it should be properly understood in the sense of the “otherness and terror of God.” Encountering the ultimate Other means, in effect, that “Christ exists in the soul, in joy, in terror, in a miracle of newness. Ecce, omnia facio [Behold I make all things new]” (He Came Down, 9-11). C.S. Lewis concurs that divine goodness implies “something more stern and splendid than mere kindness,” since “even the love between the sexes is, as in Dante, ‘a lord of terrible aspect’” (The Problem of Pain, 27-9). This majestic Dante-esque figure, at once frightening and attractive, appears under various guises in Descent into Hell and Till We Have Faces. In their respective novels, Williams and Lewis depict the changing faces of beauty in order to highlight the great difference between true and false visions of the good.

Through the infernal descent of his protagonist, Williams shows how the lure of deceptive beauty can become a fatal attraction. Hell awaits Lawrence Wentworth because he dares to “look, in [the] Dantean phrase, on the head of the Gorgon in Dis” (Descent, 216); that is, on the sensual yet terrifying face of the Medusa whose gaze petrifies the beholder and fills him with despair. In Inferno IX, Dante interprets the myth about “the beauty of the lady changed to ugliness, fascination turned to horror” as a moral allegory of the inability of the hardened heart to repent (Freccero, 127). To avert this fate, Virgil shields Dante’s eyes from direct contact with the female monster. Wentworth, on the other hand, refuses the aid of any such guide, and chooses, instead, to see the Medusa unveiled. Why is this the case?

Wentworth’s downward spiral begins when he registers his inveterate hatred of facts. Williams identified the temptation to heresy, or “intellectual obstinacy,” as the veritable “Medusa’s head.” Wentworth is accordingly portrayed as the quintessential heretic whose “integrity of mind ha[s] disintegrated,” and who “justifie[s] error and evil to himself” (The Figure of Beatrice 126). His flight from truth is especially evident in the professional sphere. Gripped by envy, Williams’s academically concupiscent historian distorts evidence in a vain effort to discredit the research of his colleague, Aston Moffatt, who is “a pure scholar…who would have sacrificed reputation, income, and life, if necessary, for the discovery of one fact” (Descent 38). Wentworth’s rejection of one “insignificant” fact concerning a negligible military skirmish leads to another rejection (lying about the historical accuracy of uniforms being used for a play rehearsal), and then to another; until, at last, he professes, “then and for ever, for ever, for ever, that he would hate the fact, and therefore facts” (81). This new historicist, who follows Nietzsche’s claim that “truths are illusions,” seals his fate (84). For, as Williams formulates it, “hell is always inaccurate” while “heaven is always exact” (The Image of the City 30, Collected Plays 298). In the end, Wentworth damns himself through the “small, steady falsifying” of his expert knowledge when, as Dorothy L. Sayers observes, “one touch of the scholar’s truth would have saved him” (Letters 277, 143).

In a parallel move, Wentworth also fails to acknowledge that human love exists. Hell for him is other people since “he had never had a friend or a lover, he had never, in any possible sense of the word, been ‘in love’” (Descent 36). The loner never entertains the possibility, as Plato does in the Symposium, that falling in love with someone can be one way to affirm a person’s beauty as an attractive good. When Williams defines romantic love plainly as “a state of facts” (cited in Ridler, xliii), he not only invokes the Platonic triad of the true, the good, and the beautiful, he also recalls how the beloved flourished in Dante’s imagination:

The image of Beatrice existed in his thought; it remained there and was deliberately renewed…the subjective recollection within him was of something objectively outside him; it was an image of an exterior fact and not of an interior desire. (The Figure, 7)

The reference here is to a key point in Virgil’s famous discourse on love in the Purgatorio:

Your apprehension draws from some real fact
An inward image, which it shows to you,
And by that image doth the soul attract:
And if the soul attracted, yearns thereto,
That yearning’s love. (XVIII.22-26)

The true lover beholds an actual person, not a phantasm generated by his perception and libido. But Dante succumbs precisely to this temptation in the next canto during his dream of the siren. Initially ugly in appearance, she becomes increasingly beautiful as Dante gazes on her (Purg.XIX.7-15). Williams interprets the siren as a false image of Beatrice (The Figure 165-6), and expands Dante’s theme in Descent into Hell. (cf. Sayers, Further Papers 141).

Like the medieval pilgrim, Wentworth strays from the true path when he pursues “false phantoms of the good” (Purg.XXX.131). These idols—imagini false—that bring “false delight” to the worshipper (Purg.XXXI.34), are not only human artefacts such as the golden calf, but can also be images of feminine beauty formed in the mind (cf. Robertson 99). These “image[s] without incarnation,” as Williams calls them, lead to “idolatry of self” (Descent 127). A particularly brilliant dramatization of this process occurs in the pivotal chapter where Wentworth “return[s] to Eden.” While inside this archetypal “garden of satisfied dreams” (Descent 126), he re-enacts the fall of Adam in symbolic terms as an abuse of beauty. John Scotus’s allegorical analysis of the biblical scene provides an illuminating gloss on Wentworth’s predicament. The medieval philosopher interpreted the earthly paradise as a figure of human nature consisting of two regions, one spiritual and the other bodily. In the first, or interior, region dwells truth, and all good as recognized by reason. When one sees a fair sight or object, Scotus maintains, it enters as a fantasy into the exterior region. If this beautiful image is not referred immediately to the intellect for judgement, then the serpent of concupiscence beguiles the senses into accepting the forbidden fruit as an appealing good (267). “All error thus begins in the exterior or aesthetic region of the garden,” D.W. Robertson, Jr. explains, “and through its delight in the phantasy of a beauty which it falsifies, it may corrupt and pervert the inner region of the garden, just as Eve successfully tempted Adam” (71). The “marriage” contracted between the spirit and the flesh, or man and woman, is thereby adulterated since, as St. Augustine adds, a “hidden and secret kind of wedlock” in the inner man takes place (On the Holy Trinity 161). Wentworth meets the same subtle snares when he runs down “the path that coiled round the edge of Eden” (Descent 89), the objective correlative to his own circular reasoning about Adela, the woman he is infatuated with. Resentful of the fact that she is dating a man named Hugh instead of him, Wentworth compensates for the snub by manufacturing a simulacrum of Adela to gratify his lust. He heeds the seductive voice that tells him “It’s good for man to be alone” (Descent 86), and celebrates his “betrothal” to an imaginary Eve (Descent 127). He accordingly expels the “actual Adela” from his “closed garden” and replaces her with an erotic “phantasm of Adela” (Descent 132, 144).1