Monday, October 8, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.


            You expect a classic work of literature to be well-wrought and to be something that, at least over time, has acquired a large readership – that triumph of the “common reader” that I once talked about on this blog. [Look up “Here’s to the Common Reader!” on the index at right.] But there are some classics that endure without ever finding a mass audience. Caviar to the general, they go on being read by a small group of devotees and somehow manage never to fade away.

            I think this is the case with the book I choose as this week’s “Something Old”. James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a genuinely weird and offbeat book with a knotty and difficult texture, clumsily written in places, repetitive and far from straightforward. Yet it is a strangely powerful book and its elements of the (apparently) supernatural are genuinely unsettling.

            A little background first. James Hogg (1770-1835) was like his fellow Scotsman Robert Burns in coming from a lower-class background and making his name as a poet on peasant themes. For a time he mixed with the Scottish literary elite and was the friend of Sir Walter Scott. His work appeared in the prestigious Tory Blackwood’s magazine. He acquired the nickname “the Ettrick Shepherd”, but this seems to have been used as much in mockery as in affection. When he lost his job on Blackwood’s he fell on hard times and (with a family to support) churned out much hack-work.

            It was in this later period of Hogg’s life that his The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner was produced. Apart from being denounced as an un-Godly and immoral work, the book was no particular success. It was largely forgotten for over a century until it was “re-discovered” in the late 1940s and began to be re-printed in new editions. It has maintained its reputation as an offbeat classic ever since and is frequently taught in senior university Eng Lit classes.

            If I say it is a clumsy work, it’s because it essentially tells the same story twice over, from two different perspectives. Perhaps it could be said to anticipate the concept of the “unreliable narrator” that did not become commonplace until the early twentieth century.

            It begins with the convention that it is a true story which the author has merely “edited”, so the first part is called “The Editor’s Narrative” and tells, in the third-person, the story of  young Robert Wringhim, son of a fanatical Calvinist mother, brought up by her and by an equally fanatical Calvinist clergyman after she has deserted her lawful husband.

            Young Robert begins as a sneak and a cheat, but gradually progresses to really serious crimes, culminating in murder. But, in investigating the circumstances of the murder, two diligent women discover that Robert is always accompanied by a malignant stranger called “Gil-Martin”, who seems to have the power to change shape and to become other people; and who holds to the predestinarian view that the sins of the “elect” do not affect their eternal state. The two women, like others in the story, readily identify “Gil-Martin” as the Devil. Robert is about to be arraigned for murder when he mysteriously vanishes.

            The second part, called “The Confessions of a Sinner”, recapitulates this whole story, except now told in the first person by Robert Wringhim himself. As a boy, he says, he was assured of his own superiority and righteousness, but others seemed to excel him. He contrived to falsely accuse, and have dismissed, an old servant who had once reprimanded him. A fellow schoolboy, who excelled him in studies, became his next target. By false witness, he managed to have the boy expelled from school. His life really changed, however, when he met the mysterious and persuasive stranger. Reluctant to give his name, the stranger identified himself eventually as “Gil-Martin”. He persuaded Robert of the exact truth of the doctrine that the “saved” are free to act as they will, and that their deeds will always be righteous. The stranger contrives with Robert in all the violent sins we have already heard, including a few more murders. But the story takes an odd turn when Robert finds himself accused of things of which he had no knowledge. Has “Gil-Martin” acted in his shape, or has Robert himself acted in a sort of trance, and without any volition of his own? If we are truly predestined, then does it mean we are automata with no free will? Robert becomes more frantic, more demented, more mentally unhinged. The story ends in suicide.

            I have simplified brutally the action of this novel, because there are many more self-contained incidents in the narrative.

            Given that Confessions of a Justified Sinner was written nearly two centuries ago, much of the prose is refreshingly robust and straightforward, despite the novel’s tangled structure. The chief puzzle is why it is written with the two separate narrators, especially as so much in one version of the story is directly repeated in the other. I suppose they do give the inwardness and the outwardness of the situation, and it is only when we move to the justified sinner’s own memoirs that his perspective of being compelled by the Evil One becomes fully clear.

            The novel presents a Devil who argues by hard Calvinist theology. It is difficult, therefore, to see it as anything other than a satire upon the strict Calvinism that lingered in Scots Presbyterianism. Hard Calvinism and the concept of predestination lead to antinomianism, the view that no rules or laws need be obeyed once one is “justified” and assured of salvation.  Human actions and choices don’t matter and, in practice, concepts of good and evil cease to exist. Therefore murder is no bar to salvation (or justification) for the “elect”.

            By setting the story in the early 18th. century, so soon after the age of the Covenanters, Hogg is clearly looking back with some detachment to a Scotland of violent religious conviction that was fading (the story takes place between 1687 and 1712). Though Presbyterianism still ruled the land in 1824, its intellectual power was evaporating and elements of its more fanatical sectaries could be mocked.

            But in the novel there is the added dimension that we are not always persuaded of the literal existence of “Gil-Martin”. He could merely be the mental projection of a self-justifying and self-righteous young man. Young Robert is, after all, already a sneak, liar and cheat before he meets “Gil-Martin”. He has already borne false witness and ruined other people’s lives simply because of his own sense of election and superiority. He has what would now be called a belief in his own “entitlement”. “Gil-Martin” simply “justifies” him in the more colloquial sense of the word. Read in this way, the novel is about the further corruption of an already flawed young man’s moral sense by fanatical Calvinism. It could well be called Confessions of a Self-Justified Sinner.

            Rather confounding this reading, though, are some incidents that insist on the literal existence of “Gil-Martin”, as testified, for example, by the two women in “The Editor’s Narrative” when  they overhear Robert and “Gil-Martin” talking. It is interesting, incidentally, that the two women are a prostitute and a married man’s mistress. James Hogg does not make sexual sins part of Robert’s corruption, perhaps implying that sins of the flesh are not necessarily the most demoralising. I think he is also thumbing his nose at a strict Puritanism which could not recognise that sometimes whores and kept women can be more moral than their apparent betters.

            There are some good patches of raucous humour, such as the self-contained tale of a preacher being exposed as the Devil; and a spot of “mistakes of the night” farce when Robert Wringhim briefly lodges with a weaver. But one thing that strikes me about this novel is the sheer Scottishness of it all. Those extremes of feeling! That extreme theology, pulling people between an impossibly high sense of “election” and a demoralising sense of utter depravity! I can’t help seeing it as part of a Scottish tradition of “doubleness”, where a man who is apparently a good and upright God-fearing member of society one moment is a depraved murderer the next.  Call it the spirit of whisky.  Does it have something to do with the meeting of wild, clannish whisky-drinking Highlander and prudent, thrifty, kirk-going Lowlander? For me, parts of the story of Robert Wringhim and “Gil-Martin” are like a foretaste of the work of James Hogg’s fellow-countryman Robert Louis Stevenson, who structured all his major stories around this “doubleness” – prim Lowlander David Balfour and buccaneering Highlander Alan Breck Stewart in Kidnapped; good stay-at-home brother and bad roving brother in The Master of Ballantrae; and the most extreme cases of all in Deacon Brodie and  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

            What kept me busy, however, was copying into my notebook pungent satirical passages on religion.

            I like the way a level-headed laird responds to a fanatical Calvinist clergyman:- “You are one, Sir, whose righteousness consists in splitting the doctrines of Calvin into thousands of undistinguishable films, and in setting up a system of justifying-grace against all breaches of all laws, moral or divine. In short, Sir, you are mildew – a canker worm in the bosom of the Reformed Church, generating a disease of which she will never be purged, but by the shedding of blood….

            There’s the editor’s sly comment on the way the clergyman preaches:- “Then, after due thanks returned, they parted rejoicing in spirit; which thanks, by the by, consisted wholly in telling the Almighty what he was; and informing him, with very particular precision, what they were who addressed him; for Wringhim’s whole system of popular declamation consisted, it seems, in this, - to denounce all men and women to destruction, and then hold out hopes to his adherents that they were the chosen few, included in the promise, and who could never fall away. It would appear that this Pharisaical doctrine is a very delicious one, and the most grateful of all others to the worst characters.

            The sinner damns himself when he declares:- “I had more sense than to regard either my good works, or my evil deeds, as in the smallest degree influencing the eternal decrees of God concerning me, either with regard to my acceptance or reprobation. I depended entirely on the bounty of free grace, holding all the righteousness of man as filthy rags, and believing in the momentous and magnificent truth, that the more heavily laden with transgressions, the more welcome was the believer at the throne of grace.”

            And there is the sinner’s explanation of the appeal of gloomy religions:-  “Nothing in the world delights a truly religious people so much as consigning them to eternal damnation.”
            It is a challenging novel still.

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