Sunday, June 13, 2004

A twice-told tale-3


Defoe (c1659-1731)

To make a long story short, Robinson Crusoe tells the tale of Robinson who, as a teenager, is infected with a boyish sense of wanderlust and appetite for adventure. Failing to receive his father’s permission, he becomes a runaway and a sailor. The only survivor of a shipwreck, he is stranded on an island for many years before finding his way back to England.

At one level, Robinson Crusoe is escapist literature. Yet it is more than a mere entertainment. For it explores the themes of providence and conversion. Completely cut off from human contact, Robinson has only the Bible for companionship, and mother wit for subsistence. Through Bible reading and gratitude to providence, Robinson undergoes a Christian conversion. When he rescues Friday from the cannibals, he proceeds to share his faith with Friday. The novel’s religiosity is rather unexpected, given that Defoe was not a man of conventional piety.

Modern readers are often critical of narrative viewpoint, with its easy-going notions of religious and racial superiority, the slave-trade, and so on. But this criticism is one-sided and anachronistic. Defoe lived and wrote at a time when royalty and aristocracy were still the rule. The culture was stratified, not by race and sex, but social class. You had white men over other white men, as well as highborn women over lowborn men.

In addition, the cannibals had their own hierarchy, and they enslave prisoners of war. So the natives have their cultural equivalent of white supremacy and imperialism. They colonized and subjugated the weaker tribes in the surrounding islands.

And there is an egalitarian element to Defoe. For he transfers his knowledge to Friday and his family, thereby raising them to the socioeconomic and scientific level of an 18C Englishmen.

Johnson (1709-84)

Rasselas is a dystopian novel. It skewers every humanistic utopia. This is something it shares in common with more celebrated works of the same age and genre—Candide and Gulliver’s Travels. The Shangri-La like happy valley, where every day and hour is exactly like another, questions the presumption of the problem of evil. What would happen if the utopian ideal were attainable? What if utopians got what they were wishing for? Is a risk-free world without the challenge posed by natural evils an interminable bore? Or does the problem lie, not without, but within? Not with the outward environment, but with the human heart? Premature perfection, where you put imperfect beings in a perfect setting, is no utopia.

After Rasselas, his sister, her handmaid, and Imac flew their gilded coop, Johnson treats the reader to debates on the difference between ancient and modern literature, and the merits of married life, to a memorable portrayal of an astronomer who had fallen under the delusion that his sympathy with nature was so intimate as to make him master of the elements, and to a trenchant defense of the immortal and immaterial soul.

The storyline is quite promising, with the popular appeal of an exotic travelogue, but Johnson was in rather too much haste to capitalize on its full potential. The adventure bogs down in long speeches too little leavened by lively incident—unlike Gulliver’s Travels. Much of it reads more like a string of essays dropped into the narrative—the narrative existing for the sole purpose of framing the essays.

Many readers may find the ending a disappointment. Johnson’s aim is to disillusion the reader, not in the sense of leaving him cynical, but in disabusing him of idle dreams and false hopes so that he can adjust his expectations to the stark asperities of his mortality and earthly fortunes. The point is not that we should be miserable; rather, unless we lower our sights, we’re bound to be miserable. So we should learn to look for happiness when and where it can be found, and content ourselves with what fleeting rays of light illumine our veil of tears.

If this still seems to be quite a comedown from, say, the bright and bounding vision of Bunyan, explanations are not wanting. For whatever reason, Johnson limits himself to the bare outlines of natural law and natural theology. That is why, in part, he situates his tale in Arabia rather than Christian Europe. So the hope of the Gospel is kept out of view. There is a penultimate discussion on the immortality of the soul, in which the choice of eternity is ranked above the choice of life, but because Johnson has left the afterlife unfurnished, the prospect has all the appeal of a whitewashed cell with a bare lightbulb. Perhaps he felt that in a partisan and polemical age, an explicitly Christian treatment would unduly limit the novel’s popular appeal, but the price of universality is a self-enforced futility; for if there is an answer to the omnia vanitas of our sublunary existence, and if that answer is not generic, but distinctive to the Gospel, then the loss of the particular is the loss of the one and only and ultimate hope to which all other utopian schemes are the ancestral memory of paradise lost without hope of paradise regained.

Although a pious high churchman in an age inconspicuous for its pious high churchman, Johnson was something of a spiritual snob who dismissed Whitefield and the Evangelical Revival as so much rant and rabble. As a consequence, he lacked that joy of assurance and heavenly frame of mind which levitates the outlook of a Bunyan or Pantycelyn. For heavenly-mindedness is inseparable from the assurance of grace.

Pantycelyn (1717-1791)

William Williams of Pantycelyn was an itinerate evangelist, hymnodist, poet and apologist for the great awakening in Wales. He is best remembered for his hymn, "Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah."

Pantycelyn is a representative of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism, which is distinguished by an equal concern for the doctrines of grace and grace of the doctrines, faith and morals, Reformed theology and experimental religion.

Theomemphus is a narrative and allegorical poem on the pilgrimage of the soul. It is penned in the spirit and tradition of the Pilgrim’s Progress. However, Pantycelyn was dissatisfied with Bunyan’s treatment, for Bunyan had, in his view, failed—on the one hand—to present all the virtues of the NT saint, while—on the other hand—omitting all the temptations to which the NT churches were prone.

As a consequence, Pantycelyn has his protagonist (Theomemphus) encounter a series of personified temptations in the course of his conversion and post-conversion pilgrimage, viz., Seducus (spiritual complacence), Orthocephalus (head-knowledge/dead formalism), Schematicus (Johnny-one-note), Athemelion (weak-willed), Arbitrius Liber (freewill), Abasis (Groundless), Orthodoxus (dry orthodoxy), Philomela (dark/forbidden love), Jezebel (antinomianism), Iratus (persecution), Academicus (rationalism), and Anthrodicus (legalism/man-merit).

Pantycelyn also follows the Puritan recipe for conversion, wherein the subject comes under conviction of sin due to the preaching of the law (Boagernes), which, in turn, prepares his heart for the preaching of the Gospel (Evangelius). The elements are valid, but to phase them in in a fixed order of presentation and fixed order of conversion becomes mechanical and legalistic. On this view, the assurance of salvation then depends on running back through a checklist to see if the subject had passed through all the right stages in the right sequence, and—if not—go back and repeat each step—as if conversion were a pat formula or spiritual technique. Yet regeneration is not only a grace, but a font of grace, enfolding other graces within itself, just as the oak is latent in the acorn. Like a germinating seed, the renewed heart branches out in fruits of faith, contrition and holiness.

Because Pantycelyn was a poet and a man of passion, there are some flashes of beauty in Theomemphus. There is also a scene somewhat comic in its anticipation of the Screwtape Letters, in which Hell takes counsel on how best to distract Theomemphus from the straight-and-narrow.

But, in general, the format invites a dry, mechanical didacticism. Bunyan could infuse life and breath into theological virtues and vice by his lively eye for outward incident and keen ear for living speech. And in Bunyan, we are never far from the roadside.

But when you burden one character with every conceivable temptation and make him recapitulate the seven churches of Asia Minor, he ceases to be representative of anyone in particular by being representative of everyone in general. No reader can identify with such an inhuman or superhuman abstraction. The secret of art is to situate the universal in the particular, and art fails when it either loses the universal in the particular or vice versa.

Now it may somewhat unfair and anachronistic to judge Theomemphus by the canons of the 19C novel. We have come to expect a consistent illusion—whether in a historical novel or SF novel. Still, a mark of creative genius is to make what it needs if it cannot take what it needs.

Artistic flaws aside, his treatment is also open to objection on its own theological grounds. To present the walk of faith as a minefield or high-wire act is rather unbalanced and fosters a nasal-twitching piety, as if the believer were a holy hedgehog, constantly sniffing the air for any sign of the wolf. Certainly there are stones and snares along with way, but to present the Christian life as one relentless spate of hair-breadth escapes does not distinguish the Reformed conception from the Arminian or Roman Catholic conception. To be sure, the saints must persevere, but they persevere in the gracious assurance of God’s good providence. This danger was already latent in Bunyan, but Pantycelyn’s schematic treatment brings it into high relief.

In some ways, Theomemphus reads like a narrative version of Baxter’s Spiritual Directory or Sibbes’ The Bruised Reed. The Puritans spawned a large literature on cases of conscience and how to salve them. But it often seems as though they began by inducing an overly scrupulous conscience, and then medicating the fretful conscience which they had fostered in the first place.

A potential advance over Bunyan is where Pantycelyn addresses the lust of the flesh. But here he sets up a rather peculiar dilemma. Theomemphus falls in love with the lovely Philomela. But Dr. Alethius admonishes Theomemphus that he must break off this infatuation lest his love of her should crowd out his love of God.

Now, this would be fine advice if Philomela were a beautiful unbeliever. But Pantycelyn presents her, not only as a woman of outward grace, but inward grace. Pantycelyn’s philosophy seems to be that unless Theomemphus can compartmentalize his feelings and love her only for being pious instead of pretty, she is a snare.

It is hard to know what to make of such an unnatural and unmanly dualism. I can only attribute this to two things. One is a form of piety which equates holiness with other-worldliness. On this view, the sensuous and sensual are always a dangerous distraction and rival affection. Second, and relatedly, is Puritan introspection. Given the perennial tug-of-war between flesh and spirit, we must daily hold our soul up to a mirror and vigilantly examine every spiritual wrinkle.

This has all the merits and demerits of a half-truth. In Scripture, the flesh/spirit antithesis is not about the body or the sensible world as over against the soul or heaven above, but between sin and the Spirit of God. There are sins of the flesh, but flesh is not sin; the world is not worldliness. Pantycelyn falls into the old monastic error—odd for a happily married man—wherein asceticism was next to godliness.

The obvious fact is that no normal man can apportion his feelings for a woman and assign fine percentages to her component parts. As long as she’s a believer, why not celebrate the whole package? If she happens to be nice on the eyes, isn’t that just one more thing to thank God for?

It is, of course, possible to love someone or something too much, but that is not something we can know in advance of the fact, and it is also possible to love God, in part, through other people—and love him all the more for the godly men and women he brings into our lives.


Dabney (1820-98)

As a blind old man, Robert Lewis Dabney dictated an epic poem—"The Christology of the Angels." It is like Milton’s PL in a couple of respects. It apes his sonorous Latinity. And it promotes another theodicy.

The setting is Holy Saturday, as angels guarding the tomb wile away the hours by reviewing the history of redemption and speculating on the divine design of the atonement. Dabney’s theodicy is of the supralapsarian variety, wherein the Lord foreordained the fall in order to shadow forth his judgment and mercy. This is more orthodox than Milton’s theodicy. Indeed, Milton never gets around to a theodicy. He poses the question, but fails to supply the answer.

One oddity of the poem is that Dabney has changed his position on the days of Genesis. At one time he had proposed a harmonization along the same lines as Philip Henry Gosse. But here he adopts the ruin/reconstruction theory.

When you consider that Dabney did not specialize in poetics, and that he must have composed the whole thing in his head, this is a remarkable achievement and tribute to his many-faceted genius. The poem also has some great moments, such as the scene of the Resurrection.

In general, though, it cannot be accounted a success. The long speeches are unrelieved by lively action. The diction appeals to the ear, but not the eye, for Dabney lacks the vivid imagination of a true poet. We hear the words, but we don’t see, smell, taste or touch.

Moreover, the style of the speeches ultimately goes back to the Iliad, and carries through the Aeneid and PL. It is a hard habit to break. The problem is not that no one talks this way. A few people do. But what makes it so artificial is that such diction is grandiloquent instead of eloquent. Art can stylize experience in either of two directions. It can refine our spontaneous impressions by giving precision of thought and expression to what we deeply believe or feel; or it can diffuse our impressions in stock metaphors and resonant polysyllables. Hyperbole and bravado may be virtues in oratory if the aim is to embolden the troops and strike fear in the enemy, but the calling of a Christian poet, artist or novelist is not to touch up nature with literary goldleaf and a marble facade, but to trace the finger of God in nature and grace.

Dostoevsky (1821-81)

Dostoyevsky was a man of many compulsions, and his storylines center on spiritual warfare. In order to understand Dostoyevsky, one must understand something about Russian Orthodox piety, a thing alien to Latin theology and Evangelical theology. And that is the figure of the holy fool.

With its apophatic strain, orthodox theology eschews the rational apologetic and theodicean programme of philosophical theology. Instead, orthodox theology is more existential and hagiographic. In Dostoyevsky, characters such as Tihon and Zossima fill this function. And a special case of its hagiographic orientation is the figure of the holy fool. In Dostoyevsky, characters such as Myshkin and Alyosha discharge this role.

Dostoyevsky has no intellectual answer to the problem of evil, but he has an existential answer in the exemplary lives of the saints—with special reference to the tradition of the holy fool. By definition, the holy fool is in some ways a moral naïf, yet his simplicity is a hidden strength, for his innocence is not owing to ignorance of evil. Both saint and sinner experience sin, but with a difference. A man who resists evil has felt the blade of temptation cut more deeply than the man who surrenders without a fight. The saint is a battle-hardened warrior.

What is more, good understands evil—but evil can never grasp the good. And there is even an ironic sense in which evil lacks the necessary detachment to understand its own moral character, for evil is too inebriated by the passion of the moment to be objective; whereas the good, by retaining a wary distance, enjoys a more sober perspective. In this respect, Bernanos and Dostoyevsky share a common philosophy.

What are we to make of Dostoyevsky’s treatment? In its favor, most devout believers are holy fools. They are not intellectuals. They are quite incapable of defending their faith by reasoned argument. For many of them, their version of a theistic proof takes the form of a person, not a proposition—of the living witness and wordless testimony of a godly mother or grandmother, pious father, grandfather, pastor or priest. Their theodicy is a breathing, flesh-and-blood believer. They take heart in the great cloud of pilgrims who have gone before. To his credit, then, Dostoyevsky strikes a note which is often missing in Christian literature—a note that reverberates in many hearts.

Having said that, there are a number of weaknesses in this lopsided emphasis. Left to itself, there is a viciously circular quality to this appeal. To the question, "Why believe?" he points to the example of other believers. But that begs the question. The question is not, "Why do you believe?" but, "Why should anyone believe?" Mere belief is not self-certifying. The moon is not made of green cheese just because a majority might think so.

It must be admitted, though, that there is something about the extremes of good and evil which resist reductive explanations. For both of them exceed any outward provocation. A saint is a living sacrament—an outer sign of an inner grace, whereas a human fiend is an anti-sacrament—an outer sign of an evil incubus.

There is, however, something deeply deficient about ceding the high ground of reason to the devil’s party while reserving a citadel of faith for ourselves. To begin with, this disregards the Dionysian streak of evil. Depravity, in its advanced stages, is radically irrational.

In addition, reason is not the privileged providence of philosophers. A philosopher is a man who never outgrew the questions of a child. Dostoyevsky, himself, was a high-powered intellectual. And he must resort to reason in making a case for fideism.

Goethe (1749-1832)

In many ways, Goethe’s Faust marks a seminal turning-point in Western literature. If, in Blake phrase, Milton’s was of the Devil’s party without knowing it, Goethe was a witting a member of the infernal club. Whatever the theological pedigree of PL, Milton did not set out to write a heretical poem. But Goethe’s is deliberately and defiantly unorthodox. The prologue of Faust is a parody of the prologue of Job. (This device is revisited by H. G. Wells in The Undying Fire.)

And this will inspire all those other and later travesties of Scripture, of Byron (Cain; Heaven and Earth) and Bernard Shaw (Back to Methuselah), as well as Blake’s mantic rantings and ravings. Essentially, they rewrite the history of the Bible in the Devil-dipped pen of the losing side.

With the loss of faith comes a loosening of form. For both Bunyan and Dante, the walk of faith supplied a unifying principle. The spiritual pilgrimage had a beginning, clear landmarks along the way, and a well-defined destination.

By contrast, the storyline of Faust is a rather ramshackle affair. There is a leading idea, but it leads no where in particular. For the Faustian ethic is that man will stray as long as he strives, that the goal lies, not in arriving, but striving, and—hence—that straying is a principial and perpetual and pardonable aspect of human progress.

And this, in turn, leads to a ruthless antinomian license. Faust impregnates a girl and then murders her brother, while the girl, for her part, murders their child. Yet Faust and Gretchen are both ushered into heaven—without redemption or repentance. Faust is the archetype and prototype of Nietzsche’s Superman—a man above and beyond good and evil.

The Romantics were drawn to apostates like Lucifer, Faust and Prometheus because these figures stood for their own revolt against conventional morality. Goethe’s treatment of the Devil exhibits a systematic ambivalence that runs through Romantic literature. On the one hand, Mephistopheles is a foil to God, but he is also a foil to Faust. The Romantics were pretty clear on what they wanted to be free from—from conventional morality— grounded in Christian ethics. But they were far less clear on what they wanted to be free for. The immediate prize was sexual license. But promiscuity is like trying to quench your thirst by imbibing salt water. The effect is not to sate or slake the appetite, but further inflame it. And when they became bored or dissatisfied with mere debauchery, they graduated to stronger stimulants.

What most sinners want is a dash of evil—just enough evil to indulge in forbidden fantasies. They want the Devil in small doses, regulated at will. This impulse receives classic illustration in the parable of the prodigal son.

The appeal of evil lies in part in the element of danger. The devil of Romantic literature is a domesticated devil, like a pet leopard. He must preserve enough of a wild streak to kill of the father figure, but be tame enough never to revert and turn on his handler. That is the balance which Romantic literature tries to strike, but it constantly totters and falls off the edge, for there is no golden mean between good and evil.

This is a literary replay of the distinction between freedom in Reformed and Arminian theology. Calvinism has a clear-cut view of freedom from and freedom for. To be free from the law of God is to be enslaved to sin and the bondage of a diabolical despot; to be free from sin is to find fulfillment in your God-given role within the natural order of things.

For the Calvinist, freedom is like a fishbowl. A fish only enjoys life and breath and freedom of movement within the limits of his natural element and the confines of the glass wall. For the Arminian, the fish is only free if it can jump out of the bowl or be eaten by other fish. For the radical Romantic, who takes the Arminian premise to its logical extreme, it is better to smash the bowl and let the fish flop about and gasp for one last dying breath than be forever imprisoned behind the glassy bars of his jail cell.

As I say, Goethe was a transitional figure, helping both to midwife and model the Romantic movement. The Romantic impulse seeks to peel back convention and tradition for the raw experience that once gave rise to convention and experience, but now lies buried and mummified by convention and experience. This urge is repeated in many revival movements; in art history, in romanticism and impressionism and surrealism; in church history, in the Reformation and Great Awakening.

And, up to a point, there can be great value in returning to the wellsprings. But only on condition. In the case of the Reformation and Great Awakening, these were not libertine movements, but only broke with dead formalism and usurpatory authority.

But in the case of Romanticism and its tributaries, this is more akin to teenage rebellion. It is an effort to reenter Eden through the back door. And the problem with every back-to-nature movement is that nature is now fallen. So such a move only exchanges a fallen social order for a fallen natural order.

Romanticism has a certain sweet, adolescent idealism. It is easy to be optimistic within the gravity-free bubble of youth. But over time, Romanticism loses the spring in its step. And with the weight of history behind us, we see how often the most humanitarian creeds crank out the most inhumane regimes.

It is striking that those who dismiss the Bible as mythology counter the Bible by creating their own mythology. Men like Goethe, Boehme, Blake, Shelly and Swedenborg forge these vast oracular, sacerdotal systems—in a grand parody of revealed religion. Boehme, Blake and Swedenborg all had pretensions to being seers. Whether we regard Swedenborg and Boehme's mantic ravings as delusional or diabolical, in the case of Blake, Kenneth Clark has attributed Blake's facility to his experience as a printer's apprentice, where he acquired a richly stocked storehouse of subliminal images. Cf. The Romantic Rebellion (Harper & Row, 1973), 151.

And this is not surprising, for the Bible says that apostate man is a mythmaking machine—a veritable factory of false gods. The alternative to true belief is not neutral unbelief, but false belief. The logical opposite of piety is idolatry.

Along with the devil, Cain was another figure favored by Romantics (Byron, Blake, Coleridge), as an emblem of religious revolt. The figure of Cain had a long literary heritage. In Langland, the Antichrist is descended from Cain. In Beowulf, Grendel is descended from Cain. In Dante, Cain is the man in the moon—having been banished from the face of the earth to endure a lunar exile.

Yet there is an inherent tension is using Biblical figures to warrant one’s own apostasy, for how can one resort to the Bible without assuming the viewpoint of Scripture and thereby inheriting the curse? For this reason, writers like Shelly turned to Prometheus. But that is a very loose analogy, for Zeus was never the god of Prometheus. And Zeus hardly exemplifies the surpassing attributes of Yahweh.

If preexisting types fail to suffice, another move is to contrive a brand-new antihero. Such was the character of Dracula—popularized by Bram Stoker. The name itself seems to trade on the draconian aspect of the Devil (Rev 12). The vampire is an Antichrist figure because he offers eternal life to his victims and disciples. Vampiric bloodletting is an upended parody of the Cross. Christ saved his people by shedding his blood, whereas the vampire saves his people by shedding their blood.

Although the historic Dracula was a member of the Rumanian Orthodox Church, the literary Dracula is combated by Catholic measures—owing, perhaps, to Stoker's Irish Catholic background. It would be hard to best the Count in the Scottish Highlands, where access to holy water, a crucifix, and the Rituale Romanum are in decidedly short supply! For a Dutch Calvinist, Van Helsing is distressingly ecumenical in his methods!

In some ways, the horror genre is a better fit for the Christian worldview than the SF genre. The SF genre generally embraces a reductionist outlook—monism, materialism, secularism, whereas the horror genre embraces a theological outlook—dualism, supernaturalism, occultism. Of course, everything hinges on the narrative viewpoint.

(Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) (Part 5) (Part 6) (Part 7)

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