Does academic work matter? This is a question most academics come up against at some point in their career, and in day to day life: while most of us at least started because we love our subjects, everyday work in the lab or the library can be monotonous and frustrating, sometimes seeming pointless. At the same time, academic culture often encourages us to make our identity as intellectuals into an idol, and this makes any doubt or difficulty feel like a personal failure.
Today I want to share an extract from a novel which crystallized the perils of both extremes for me: Descent into Hell, a 1937 ‘supernatural thriller’ by Charles Williams.
Descent is a very odd novel and difficult to summarise, but in brief it follows the residents (living and dead) of the fictional suburb of Battle Hill as they face supernatural interventions of various kinds. The character I am interested in here is a historian, Wentworth. He and his academic rival are introduced in the following passage:
Aston Moffatt was another military historian... and Wentworth and he were engaged in a long and complicated controversy on the problem of the least of those skirmishes of the Roses which had been fought upon the Hill. The question itself was unimportant: it would never seriously matter to anyone but the controversialists whether Edward Plantagenet's cavalry had come across the river with the dawn or over the meadows by the church at about noon. But a phrase, a doubt, a contradiction, had involved the two in argument.
Aston Moffatt, who was by now almost seventy, derived a great deal of intellectual joy from expounding his point of view. He was a pure scholar, a holy and beautiful soul who would have sacrificed reputation, income, and life, if necessary, for the discovery of one fact about the horse-boys of Edward Plantagenet. He had determined his nature.
Wentworth was younger and at a more critical point, at that moment when a man's real concern begins to separate itself from his pretended... He raged secretly as he wrote his letters and drew up his evidence; he identified the scholarship with himself, and asserted himself under the disguise of a defence of scholarship. He refused to admit that the exact detail of Edward's march was not, in fact, worth to him the cost of a single cigar.
This is a striking and chilling portrait of how attitudes to our work can shape character. The two figures are obviously somewhat exaggerated, but the different ways they relate to their research certainly ring true. Moffatt, we are told, truly en-joys his work: it gives him a deep and unselfish joy to know the truth about history. Wentworth's main motivation, on the other hand, is hatred for his rival. He lacks any respect for the content of his work, instead seeing the controversy as a personal grievance.
Rather than valuing historical research for its own sake, he ‘identifies the scholarship with himself’, seeing it only as a way to assert his own superiority. Throughout the novel, this angry selfishness eats away at Wentworth, leaving him eventually less than human: Williams is illustrating a vision of Hell as complete inversion into the self.
Williams was active in the academic and literary circles of mid-twentieth-century London and Oxford, including the Inklings, and he uses scholar characters in several of his novels to explore the value of intellectual work and its relationship to character. Wentworth, however, is perhaps his most alarming creation. He is given chance after chance to break free of his extreme narcissism, but rejects them all, and is eventually damned:
'If he had hated Sir Aston because of a passion for austere truth, he might even then have been saved... He looked at Sir Aston and thought, not “He was wrong in his facts”, but “I’ve been cheated”. It was his last consecutive thought.'
Descent presents, I think, a warning to academics about the temptations I’ve described: on the one hand, letting our work define us, and on the other discarding the real value of our subject beyond what it can do for our careers, our reputation, or just our self-image. It calls us to respect the dignity of God's world, and to cultivate humility in response.