William James, Charles Williams and divided consciousness

A terrible good: William James, Charles Williams and divided consciousness

Catherine Madsen

In anatomizing religious experience, William James drew on an emerging body of psychological observation which had no well-defined relation to the phenomena of conversion and mysticism he was addressing. For about fifteen years before James’s Gifford Lectures, Binet, Janet, Breuer, Freud, and other psychologists had been charting the workings of the unconscious, and in speaking of “heterogeneous personality”–“a certain discordancy or heterogeneity in the native temperament of the subject, an incompletely unified moral and intellectual constitution”–James drew upon the wide range of discordancies they had examined. Under the heading of the “divided self” he classes everything from ambivalence and pronounced difference between public and private personae, to fully divided consciousness with states of amnesia and “whole systems of underground life” in which painful memories are stored. James characterizes the sudden conversion as a phenomenon long prepared for in the unconscious, with “the tension of subliminal memories reaching the bursting-point” and issuing in a profound and decisive change. The “indetermination of the margin”–the potentiality of memories to move from an unconscious to a conscious state, bringing with them “the entire mass of residual powers, impulses, and knowledges that constitute our empirical self”–is, for a person at any point along the continuum of division, the key to transformation. Whatever we are, the accumulated pressure of what we are seeks its expression.

Objectively speaking, there is no reason for a book on the varieties of religious experience to lean so heavily on psychological brokenness. The “healthy-minded” will find (and have found) such an emphasis to be skewed and bizarre, just as they find the states of soul James describes to be at best signs of weakness and at worst flaws so pathological as to lie beyond moral relevance. But James is not speaking objectively. Both his own experience of ambivalence and breakdown and his studies of people with divided consciousness kept “discordancy” at the forefront of his attention and led him to speak in defense of subjectivity. While some of the phenomena he describes are rather uncommon (though, sadly, common enough to have an established course of treatment), ambivalence and a sense of shame are extremely widespread, and are felt, as James understood, as a kind of soul-sickness. While there is some intellectual discordancy between what we mean by the psyche and what we mean by the soul, our felt experience makes no firm distinction between them.

It may be because I was immersed in the novels of Charles Williams when I first read James that I hear echoes between the two. James, of course, has always had the wider reputation and influence, but there are biographical and intellectual points of contact; in particular, both writers convey a strong sense of religion as felt experience. James lived from 1842 to 1910, Williams from 1886 to 1945; James experienced the “irremediable impotence” of a wealthy young man prevented at every turn from finding his powers, while Williams experienced the humiliation and drivenness of a brilliant young man without resources. Both men eventually arrived at the intellectual center of their worlds, James as a professor at Harvard and Williams as an editor at the Oxford University Press. Religiously speaking, James was chiefly a Swedenborgian and a Transcendentalist, whereas Williams was an orthodox Anglican; but orthodoxy in Anglican terms is elastic and permits a good deal of privacy, and in practice both men treat religion as essentially subjective and self-determining. Both had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, James through experiments with hypnosis and automatic writing and Williams through his training in the esoteric orders of fin-de-siecle London. Both found secondary outlets for their intellectual energies in physical symptoms, James through extended periods of illness and Williams through quirks of speech and movement that his acquaintances noted. Both had an implicit confidence in-James defended explicitly–temperament as a determining factor in personal philosophy; to read either one is to encounter an inimitable voice.

Williams’ appeal is selective, and exerts itself particularly on readers who feel trapped in their own subjectivity; others maybe put off by his debts to genre fiction and his immersion in Anglo-Catholic sensibility. But he was no pious oversimplifier, and his incisive intelligence and prodigious tolerance for irony considerably raise the tone of what one may encounter as religious fiction (while not attaining to the austerity of more securely literary writers like Graham Green and Flattery .0O’Connor). As a critic, Williams was interested in writers whose work arose from an intense personal experience, particularly Dante and Wordsworth; his characters similarly seem almost to produce their religion from within.

Williams’ most serious and expertly crafted novel, Descent into Hell (1937), is centered around the divided self, not from a clinical standpoint but in literal, externalized form. As in all his novels, something supernatural or unaccountable breaks into the ordinary world; less usually for his novels, there are no props (the Holy Grail, the Tarot cards, a stone from Solomon’s crown) to drive the plot. The novel centers around a circle of upper-middle-class people in a suburb of London rehearsing a play; it is quotidian and profoundly interior, and not much “happens” externally.

One of the actors, Pauline Anstruther, an intelligent, alert and rather bitter young woman, has been haunted from childhood by a doppelganger. This second self sometimes appears at a distance walking toward her, and then turns aside; it has appeared much more often in the past two years than ever before. She lives in an undertow of perpetual dread; she is terrified of the day she will meet her other self and “go mad or die.” The apparition has no discernible cause–in clinical terms, no etiology; there is no terrifying event or series of events in childhood to which its development can be linked. The doppelganger cannot be identified as the psychic fallout of trauma; it is itself the trauma.

Peter Stanhope, author of the play in rehearsal, is the only person to whom Pauline fully confides her secret. Her grandmother, with whom she lives, has tried to find out what is troubling her, but Stanhope’s friendship can presume further without damage to her privacy. On hearing her story he responds startlingly with an offer of the most apparently impossible kind of help. He suggests that someone else–he himself, if she will consent to it–“carry her fear.” With casual and self-deprecating logic he unfolds a method whereby the emotional burden of an experience can be assumed by a disinterested party, while the experience itself remains to be undergone. “The thing itself you may one day meet–never mind that now, but you’ll be free from all distress because that you can pass on to me” (98). He will imagine and fear Pauline’s double, if she will relinquish the burden of the fear.

For Stanhope, and for Williams, this “doctrine of substituted love” is based in Christianity–in the substitutionary atonement and in Paul’s injunction to “bear ye one another’s burdens”–but for the possibly skeptical reader Williams mutes the doctrinal demand:

“I know,” Stanhope said. “It means listening sympathetically, and

thinking unselfishly, and being anxious about, and so on…. But I

think when Christ or St. Paul, or whoever said bear, or whatever he

Aramaically said instead of bear, he meant something much more like

carrying a parcel instead of someone else…. And anyhow there’s no

need to introduce Christ, unless you wish. It’s a fact of

experience. If you give a weight to me, you can’t be carrying it

yourself.” (98)

Pauline responds with utter skepticism (and never in the book shows the least sign of conventional Christianity); she agrees to attempt the experiment only because she trusts Stanhope’s verse. What first arrested her in his conversation was his insistence on taking literally the gushing Myrtle Fox’s “Nature’s so terribly good. Don’t you think so, Mr. Stanhope?” “You do mean ‘terribly’?” he replies–faintly offending Myrtle, but alerting Pauline to the possible coexistence of good and terror (16-17). Artistic integrity is a greater warrant of Stanhope’s seriousness than any religious allegiance: he holds words to their meaning.

The techne of substitution, as Williams presents it, has both a similarity to and a critical difference from psychotherapy as it has come to be practiced. Pauline’s angry and ambivalent breaching of her isolation and secrecy, Stanhope’s instant offer of the most practical help he knows, and Pauline’s acceptance of the offer on trust and out of pure desperation parallel similar movements in the therapeutic relationship. So does the crucial news of the separability of the experience and one’s feelings about the experience. But Stanhope’s contract is more limited and ad hoc than the therapeutic contract; it does not pretend to excavate the origins of the fear, only to relieve its pressure. In present-day therapy we divide the functions that Stanhope serves for Pauline–the gratuitous and unpaid intellectual friendship and the methodological pact; their conversation and their agreement take place within a social relationship that would be proscribed between therapist and client. In England between the wars, where psychiatric treatment was more likely to resemble the brutal jollying dealt out to Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, the social relationship with Stanhope offers Pauline a certain safety: the dignity of being taken seriously, a shelter from the tyranny of the healthy-minded.

Stanhope has, and uses, a charisma that we may mistrust; we look with trepidation and a jaundiced eye on a passage like this one:

He mocked her and was silent; for a while she stared back, still

irresolute. He held her; presently he held her at command. A long

silence had gone by before he spoke again.

“When you are alone,” he said, “remember that I am afraid

instead of you, and that I have taken over every kind of worry.

Think merely that; say to yourself–‘he is being worried,’ and go

on. Remember it is mine. If you do not see it, well; if you do,

you will not be afraid.” (99)

That “held her at command” is a red flag for anyone alert to the power differential between an older man and a younger woman; one is aware of all that Stanhope could get away with if he chose. Biographically, the suspicion is justified; Williams’ correspondence with Lois Lang-Sims shows him capable of exploiting a young woman’s trust for his own sense of spiritual authority and reserved sexual power. (Lang-Sims takes a complex view of the relationship and refuses to declare it entirely harmful.) At the same time, the hypnotic command has been known since the days of Binet and Janet to be an effective tool in locating and healing divisions of consciousness. If Stanhope is trustworthy–and the novel is unusual in portraying a friendship between a single man and woman that remains a friendship–he is employing a method with a strong chance of success.

How much Williams knew of the research on divided consciousness that James described, there is no evidence. He does not seem to have read especially widely in psychology. But his occult studies exposed him to hypnotic and self-hypnotic techniques, and his novels contain various acute descriptions of characters attaining altered states or breaking through to new levels of moral potency by focusing the will. Like everyone of his generation (he was in his twenties during the First World War, but was declared unfit for service), he would have known of the phenomenon of shell-shock with its flashbacks and disorientations. His last novel, All Hallows’ Eve, suggests at least a strong intuitive understanding of the effects of ill-treatment in childhood in the contrast between Betty Wallingford’s weak and oppressed daily self and her vigorous and healthy “real” self beyond the reach of her parents’ influence. In Descent into Hell Williams’ stated referents for the doppelganger are the lines from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (“The magus Zoroaster, my dead child, / Met his own image walking in the garden”) that Pauline quotes in the first chapter; the Rossetti painting “How They Met Themselves” that Lawrence Wentworth mentions in the third; and the story of Goethe meeting himself on the road to Weimar that Stanhope alludes to in the sixth. Pauline finds all these examples insufficiently terrifying in comparison to her own experience. Her prolonged dread has left her with a paralysis of will that James would have recognized.

What the techne of substitution most closely parallels is the interior psychic movement to detach oneself from overwhelming fear. Personality, it appears, is fragile, frangible: it may splinter with the experience of terror or physical pain. The shell-shocked soldier or the victim of an accident locks the experience out of consciousness and is haunted by it. The prisoner in a concentration camp learns a state of being that permits minimal survival, and afterward can revert to that state at the slightest trigger of memory. Young children, subjected to severe or chronic abuse, may “give” the suffering to an imagined other self, dissociating not only the pain but the very memory of the event, which must often be recovered in adult life with great emotional dislocation. Pauline “gives” her terror of her inexplicable other self to a genuinely separate other self, Stanhope, who can experience it consciously and sympathetically while she puts it out of her consciousness. But she has further discoveries to make about the nature of substitution.

Two concurrent plot lines play out the theme of division. The middle-aged historian Lawrence Wentworth envies the younger Hugh Prescott his easy possessiveness of the desirable leading lady Adela Hunt, but rather than making an effort to compete for her he imagines into being a perfect double of Adela–or rather a perfected double, less abrasive and calculating and more sexually compliant than the real woman. She takes on physical form and visits him; he has only to imagine what he wants and she will enact it. His necessarily secret relationship with this succubus comes to consume his life, and his retreat from actuality undermines his integrity. His petty jealousy of another historian becomes irrational rage; he even sacrifices historical accuracy when consulted about costumes for the play, so as not to be bothered by the social contact involved in correcting them. He has created the imagined Adela out of himself in order not to be troubled by the unruly preferences of the real Adela, in an erotic solipsism that Williams names Gomorrah. (Toward the end of the book the real Adela, seeking refuge at Wentworth’s house, is rejected, and sees in his room the face of the other Adela–“her own face, infinitely perfected in sensual grace and infinitely emptied of all meaning.” She is as terrified as Pauline, but without Pauline’s moral stamina; throughout the book she has been in search of her own solipsism.)

The book’s third major character is the ghost of a workman who lost his job during the building of Wentworth’s house and hanged himself in it. Poor, ill, inept and unloved, he could not face the return to London and the contempt of his wife. After a purgatorial period in a silent and unpopulated shadow-version of the neighborhood, he is presented once more with the images of people: his former persecutors and his former selves. Fleeing them, he meets a real person, Pauline’s dying grandmother, who speaks to him kindly. His gratitude enables him to take some initiative in his own redemption, and he leaves the pursuing images behind.

The Wentworth and suicide plot lines are less complex, though equally striking, variations on the theme of the divided self. The dead man does not yet have the emotional depth to choose consciously between solipsism and mutuality, never having encountered a sympathetic Other during his life. Wentworth creates the illusory Adela out of the part of himself that does not really want an Other. Pauline’s relationship with Stanhope is a genuine intellectual kinship and a moral-emotional apprenticeship; far more is possible to them.

The method of substitution works an immediate change in Pauline–in fact it is revelatory; she walks home thinking of ordinary things, not scrying ahead for a glimpse of her other self. The relief of it changes her thinking; like a confirmed twelve-step member she begins to apply it wherever she sees the chance. But she is stopped by the impossibility of “giving backward” in time. Pauline and her grandmother had an ancestor, John Struther, who was burned at the stake during the Reformation; they can quote from memory his entry in Foxe’s Acres and Monuments. Thinking of his death, Pauline despairs of any present healing that leaves the agony of the past untouched. Stanhope suggests that even her ancestor’s burden might be carried, but she cannot imagine how that might be accomplished.

At the book’s climax Pauline’s and the dead man’s stories converge. The dead man sets off for London, where he can return to the scenes and people of his past without becoming their victim; Pauline, sent out by her grandmother in the middle of the night to meet whoever may be waiting, gives him directions. She calls Stanhope’s benediction after him–“Go in peace”–and at once the man stops in the road. He is transformed into her ancestor on the eve of his martyrdom, praying in agony in his prison cell. Pauline struggles to offer him her help, but the effort is a stretch of her sympathetic capacities far beyond their present development; she cannot do it. Her will falters at her desire to carry his fear. She hears her own voice say behind her: “Give it to me, John Struther.” As she turns to meet the doppelganger, the origin of her terror becomes clear in the cure of her ancestor’s. The “etiology” of Pauline’s divided self is retrospective:

This then, after so long, was their meeting and their

reconciliation: their perfect reconciliation, for this other had

done what she had desired, and yet not the other, but she, for it

was she who had all her life carried a fear which was not her fear

but another’s, until in the end it had become for her in turn not

hers but another’s…. Her debt was paid, and now only she might

know why and when she had incurred it. (170-71)

Time, in Williams’ novels, is as likely to be simultaneous as consecutive. Retrospectively speaking, the existence of the doppelganger may indeed be defined as the fallout of trauma: it is Pauline’s horror of burning that splits her self. Her fear of the fire is dissociated in the moment when she perceives that she does not have the strength for John Struther’s burden; she becomes simultaneously the ordinary young woman haunted by a “terrible good” and the uncanny second self with a purpose at once insistent and obscure. The past grows out of the present. The very doubling of the sell with its attendant horror, secrecy and shame, becomes the means by which one Pauline or the other–in the end it is both–is strengthened to carry the martyr’s fear.

The rapid integration of the two Paulines–which in one sense takes place over a period of weeks during rehearsals, and in another sense instantaneously at the moment of substitution–parallels the Jamesian conversion in its profundity, its overturning of a whole habit of life, and its giving access to new powers of decision after a long period of spiritual malaise. In the therapeutic process it is recognized that divisions of consciousness were necessary for survival at the time they occurred–are even an essentially beneficent work of imagination; they are a past good that has become terrible, as the division persists in a new set of conditions where it causes disaster. But in the experience of conversion even disaster may find a place–not as something to be endured any longer than it must be, but as part of the conglomerate rock underlying the present: “fact, the only thing that can be loved,” as Pauline thinks at one point [150]. In a time of great stress and acute attention, it may appear that all one’s experience has led up to and prepared one for the task to be accomplished; the sum of one’s effort and suffering may seem to have been the exact prerequisite for the work. Under such a demand, the distinction between curse and blessing dissolves.

We do not hear, in James, from an informant whose divided consciousness has been reunited. We do hear of the terror of good. The woman in a long footnote who saw the meaning of suffering–in “a slight operation under insufficient ether, in a bed pushed up against a window, a common city window in a common city street”–met it without recourse:

I seemed to be under the foot of God, and I thought he was

grinding his own life up out of my pain. Then I saw that what he

had been trying with all his might to do was to change his course,

to bend the line of lightning to which he was tied, in the

direction in which he wanted to go. I felt my flexibility and

helplessness, and knew that he would succeed. He bended me, turning

his corner by means of my hurt, hurting me more than I had ever

been hurt in my life, and at the acutest point of this, I saw.

I understood for a moment things that I have now forgotten,

things that no one could remember while retaining sanity. The angle

was an obtuse angle, and I remember thinking as I woke that had he

made it a right or acute angle, I should have both suffered and

“seen” still more, and should probably have died.

… I did not see God’s purpose, I only saw his intentness and

his entire relentlessness toward his means. He thought no more of

me than a man thinks of hurting a cork when he is opening wine, or

hurting a cartridge when he is firing. And yet, on waking, my

first feeling was, and it came with tears, “Domine non sum digna,”

for I had been lifted into a position for which I was too small….

[I]n that half hour under ether I had served God more distinctly

and purely than I had ever done in my life before, or than I am

capable of desiring to do. I was the means of his achieving and

revealing something, I know not what or to whom, and that, to the

exact extent of my capacity for suffering. (383-84)

Trying to bring her perceptions to full consciousness, James’s informant found among them the dark sense that most of one’s suffering is a sort of tax paid to heaven. She spoke of “the excess of what the suffering ‘seer’ or genius pays over what his generation gains”:

He seems like one who sweats his life out to earn enough to save

a district from famine, and just as he staggers back, dying and

satisfied, bringing a lac of rupees to buy grain with, God lifts

the lac away, dropping one rupee, and says, “That you may give

them. That you have earned for them. The rest is for ME.” (384)

The economy of Descent into Hell is more generous than that, but Williams’ temperament had its own dark side; his character Lionel Rackstraw in War in Heaven is so confirmed a pessimist that the nihilistic hints of his employer, who drives people mad for the fun of it, strike him as trivial and obvious. In his theological writings Williams would not let his readers forget the God who said to Isaiah I make peace and create evil; he would have recognized the God who steals from the hungry.

The integrated Pauline’s memory of her divided condition, as Williams represents it, is disconcertingly vague: she seems more amnesiac after the integration than before. The haunted Pauline’s sharp sense of her terror is eclipsed by the doppelganger’s misty impressions of searching a town of people filled with hatred for a shadow-self who fled from her into a hall of mirrors.

It was from that end that she sought to save the miserable

fugitive. When in her memory she reached that point, when the

shadow was fleeing deeper into Gomorrah, and she fled after it on

feet that were so much swifter than its own and yet in those

infinite halls and corridors could never overtake it while it

fled–when the moment of approach down the last long corridor to

the last utter manifestation of [i]llusion drew near, she heard

far off a trumpet, and she could remember nothing more but that

she woke. She remembered that she woke swiftly, as if a voice

called her, but however hard she tried she could not well

recollect whose voice it was. (190-91)

After the extreme clarity of Pauline’s meeting with the doppelganger, the passage is disappointing; it recalls those children’s books in which the characters’ memory of their adventures is “mercifully” erased as they cross from fairyland back into the world. The reader in search of a coherent narrative feels somewhat cheated, as if the writer had simply discarded a set of conditions he could not sustain. On the other hand-however Williams knew it-the vagueness is apparently fairly typical of therapeutic integrations: recollections may be smeared and skills lost as a dissociated piece of the self is reattached. Full consciousness, like the rupees, is heavily taxed on the way to realization.

What Williams certainly knows, but James does not seem to arrive at, is the central importance of reciprocity to the experience of transformation. Our subjectivity is answerable to the Other’s; it must not be allowed to solidify into impervious self. The sufferer must take the risk of speaking, and the listener must become a fellow-sufferer–roles which are never static, and maybe reversed at need. The actual and unbridgeable divisions between people are the cure for divisions within the self: it is Stanhope’s distinctness from Pauline, and Pauline’s from John Struther, that allows a real transfer (or transference?) of emotion. The sufferer gains a profound sense of deliverance; the fellow-sufferer has the knowledge of having assisted at a miracle.

Both in James and in Williams, the miracle is a simple and domestic thing: being able to meet the minimum conditions for living without profound dismay. But in Williams the responsive attention of the human Other is an explicit condition of the miracle; in James it is not even implied. James is not wrong when he says “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity,” or “Let one do all in one’s power, and one’s nervous system will do the rest.” But it is the added synaptic spark, the catalyst, of human reciprocity that makes John Struther cry from the midst of the fire, “I have seen the salvation of my God.”


James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Modern Library, [1936].

Lang-Sims, Lois. Letters to Lalage: The Letters of Charles Williams to Lois Lang-Sims. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1989.

Williams, Charles. Descent into Hell. London: Faber & Faber, 1937

Catherine Madsen is a contributing editor to CrossCurrents.

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