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

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Wentworth resists “the creation of fact…the making of things other than the self,” that is, the whole idea of “otherness” (Descent 89). Consequently, he misses the opportunity to experience the Beatrician vision, “the glory of truth that broke out of the very air itself upon the agonized Florentine in the Paradise of Eden: ‘ben sem, ben sem, Beatrice’”(Descent 89). Wentworth fails to translate the “singular” of his private dream (the “I am” of the Siren), into the “plural” of a common love story (the “we are” of Beatrice).2 For him, love is a supreme fiction, not the supreme fact.

Unfortunately, Wentworth fails to understand the repeated warning about his impending doom contained in his recurring dream of a rope. His presumption shuts out the timor servilis that fears above all the loss of eternal life, or the “filial” fear that “sees sin as sin” (Pieper, 134-5):

He felt no fear; he climbed; if he climbed, securely, and all the infinite black void did not terrify him; he would not fall. Nor did he fear the end—not fear. No monstrosity awaited him. (Descent 37)

No monstrosity awaits him except, tragically, the Gorgon’s head.

In sharp contrast, Pauline Anstruther’s trepidation eventually turns, paradoxically, into “joy” (Descent 171). She initially recoils from confronting an image of her moral double she has seen in a vision. Pauline’s consternation grows on hearing an account of the martyrdom of her ancestor, John Struther, which took place in the sixteenth century. In the ensuing discussion, Margaret, her grandmother, gently insists that “salvation…is quite often a terrible thing—a frightening good” (Descent 56). The consoling truth of this saying slowly dawns on Pauline. As the playwright Peter Stanhope explains, “the substantive, of course, governs the adjective; not the other way round…Good…contains terror, not terror good” (Descent 65). The more she perceives her flight from fact, or self-knowledge, the more her fear dissipates. Peter Stanhope lifts her dread of encountering her true “other self” and bears it for her. Pauline, for her part, reaches back in time to endure vicariously the suffering of her ancestor (Descent 169-170) in accordance with the pattern laid down in Christ’s Passion; that act of “just vengeance,” as Dante puts it (Par.VII.20), carried out in atonement for humanity’s sins.

Pauline’s own act of substituted love also bears fruit. On relieving her ancestor of his mental anguish, Pauline is again brought face to face with her glorified self. This time she is not afraid, rather she marvels at it:

She opened her eyes…there, as a thousand times in her looking-glass—there! The ruffled brown hair, the long nose, the firm compressed mouth, the tall body, the long arms, her dress, her gesture. It wore no super-natural splendour of aureole, but its rich nature burned and glowed before her, bright as if mortal flesh had indeed become what all lovers know it to be. (Descent 170-171)

The epiphanic scene corresponds to the one in which Dante beholds the transfigured body of Beatrice in the Vita Nuova (Sayers, Further Papers 196). Intended by God to be “cosa nova” (“a new thing”), a miracle rooted in the very Love of the Trinity itself (Musa 35, 62), this marvelous creature who suddenly appears to her lover is someone real. She is not “realer,” as Williams says, than the actual Beatrice, who doubtless had many serious faults, but she is just as real: “Both Beatrices are aspects of one Beatrice” (The Figure 27). It can likewise be said that both Paulines are mirror images of one Pauline. The action of grace elevates her fallen nature, making it a new creation, a union of the spirit with the “holy and glorious flesh” of the risen body (Par.XIV.43). The recurring biblical phrase (Descent 151, 173), Ecce, omnia nova facio (“Behold, I will make all things new,” Rev 21:5) unfolds a “new vision of the world” (Descent 188) for Pauline as she, like Dante, delights in the miracle of newness. This is a reflection of the transcendent Beauty that is, in St. Augustine’s phrase, “at once so ancient and so new” (Confessions, 231): “tam antiqua, tam nova, vita nova, nova creatura, a new creature, no more in any sense but new, not opposed to the old, but in union with the old, new without any trick of undermeaning, new always and now new” (Descent 205).

The heroine of Till We Have Faces seems at first constitutionally incapable of experiencing a similar transformation. In a paradigmatic childhood scene, Orual also stands before a mirror but only to see reflected there a “perfect image” of her physical ugliness (Till 69-70). The negative epiphany confirms her sense that an individual’s psychosomatic makeup is determined arbitrarily at birth: “We bring our ugliness with us into the world, with it our destiny” (Till 293). This firm conviction prompts her to lodge an even greater complaint. The gods, in her view, treat men and women as mere playthings, inflicting pain upon them unjustly and indiscriminately. To satisfy their bloodlust, moreover, they demand human sacrifice, a barbaric practice that reveals what Orual calls the unspeakable “horror of divine things” (Till 57).