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

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1 The Medusa not only petrifies Wentworth’s intellect but also the language in which he perverts the image of Adela. The character who triggers his abandonment of the “right speech” of heavenly discourse in favour of the “meaningless gabble” of Dante’s hell (Figure of Beatrice, 199; Descent, 207) is Lily Sammile. This demon of lies apparently speaks “true words” to Wentworth that convince him he should think more about himself. The gullible historian becomes, however, the dupe of her semantic incoherence:

He didn’t understand the first phrase…Much difficulty in finding what? in finding it? the it that could be found if he thought of himself more; that was what he had said, or she had said, whichever had said that the thing was to be found, as if Adela had said it, Adela in her real self, by no means the self that went with Hugh; no, but the true, the true Adela who was the difficulty all the while, that she was truly his, and wouldn’t be, but if he thought more of her truly being, and not of her being untruly away, on whatever way, for the way that went away was not the way she truly went, but if they did away with the way she went away, then Hugh could be untrue and she true, then he would know themselves, two, true and two, on the way he was going, and the peace in himself, and the scent of her in him, and the her, meant for him, in him; that was the she he knew, and he must think the more of himself. (83)

Like the inhabitants of Dante’s hell (Inf. III.18), Wentworth has lost the good of the intellect, the capacity to seek truth, and he hopelessly entangles himself in the convoluted logic of unending self-reflection. The “it” in the above passage has no referential locus antecedent in his self-enclosed world.

2 Williams translates what he calls “almost the greatest line in Dante and therefore in all poetry” (He Came Down 104) as follows: “Look well: we are, indeed we are, Beatrice” (Purg. XXX.73). He also points out how the appearance of the siren and the words of her opening song, “Io son…io son dolce Sirena—I am, I am the sweet Siren” (Purg.XIX.19), are a deliberate echo and contrast to the words of Beatrice when she first appears in Purgatorio XXX (The Figure of Beatrice 165).

3 Rudolf Otto notes that he based his new word “numinous” from the Latin numen by analogy with “ominous,” which we derive from omen. For the influence of Otto on Lewis, see Doris T. Myers, 168-174.

4 Orual’s statement refers unmistakably to the climax of Dante’s journey in Paradiso when he contemplates the Love that moves the sun and the other stars (XXXIII.145). Her final vision also alludes to Dante’s encounter with the Lord of terrifying aspect, “frightening to behold, yet apparently marvellously filled with joy” in the Vita Nuova (5). For a more detailed analysis of related themes, see the two articles on Till We Have Faces by Dominic Manganiello.

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