Christianity and 18th Century British Literature
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"...no matter what kind of pleasure may await his senses, unless it serves exclusively the glory of God, he needs to cut it off of him, giving it up out of his love towards
Taking its time to establish a radically theological point of view, this essay aims to apply it to the body of novel literature in 18th century England, probing and inquiring it whether it is in support of Christianity as laid down in the New Testament or not. It assumes the stance of an advocate of "the narrow path", the strict and unforgiving measuring scale of those few taking the Christian way of life truly seriously. Thus, the arguments and deductions featured herein - which are the actual purpose of the piece - may well strike materialist and novel-advocate minds as unnotable and subjective. The author, on the other hand, is firmly convinced - on the grounds of faith - that the conclusions to come are as objective as it is possible, being based on the revelations of the Holy Trinity. All views and opinions featured are his own except where signified.
First of all, we may start the discussion with an analogy that sets the mood and aligns the frame of mind to the possible uncommonness of the argument system to be introduced. The images of this analogy will also come handy later and might ease the essay's overall understanding for those unaccustomed to the exclusively religious take on life.
Picture, if you will, a high wall and thousands of bricks it is comprised of; now picture one of the single bricks coming to life, finding itself as part of the wall.
This brick in the wall is unable to measure the dimensions of the structure it was built inside. In case it could come loose and jump out of the wall with the help of a supernatural force, it might be frightened at the sight of the oppressive building it used to support for long - and vow never to return to it, but serve its saviour instead.
The only means of establishing a distance between the Truth and human culture's tailormade 'truth' we indulge in does not seem to be any of the traditional manmade tools for extracting and gathering knowledge: psychology, sociology, philosophy and their clever alloys leave us running in circles when seeking the cure for all the ominous signs and phenomena in our society.
The only means seem to be the one 'science' which was initiated by Someone other than man: theology.
The liberated brick from the wall, now supported by God, might arrive at the following conclusion while gazing at the building: something is inherently wrong with this structure. Junk relationships, junk ideals and junk goals form the cornerstones of people's lives, while they are walking about with a wide plastic smile and are made to believe that they are following a flawless, unquestionably great life-scheme that will lead them to permanent happiness. Better yet, they are already following it. The brick would now feel terribly sorry for all his ex-fellows still in the wall in oblivion. He would keep on contemplating: this is not a new issue at all, tracing back to ancient Rome, and even further back in time, perhaps right down to the original sin. What can be said for sure is that by the Eighteenth Century human culture had finally become something that has nothing to do with God's original purpose for mankind. Slowly but surely, we have defined a value system that makes society appear more and more similar to a Satanic cult when compared to the authoritative systems of ancient times: those of Greece, Judaism and Christianity. Now Satanic cults - especially those masquerading as righteous organizations - utilize the methods of brainwashing, mass deception, hypocrisy and driving devotees to commit ever worse sins, while making them believe that they are on their way to personal and social fulfillment.
It is as if man's culture has become a hermetic homeostasis created by his weakness and tunnel vision based on materialism. According to God, children need to be connected to Him mentally and emotionally in order to get to know life and gather experiences with His guidance. Now young people born into this society are first of all cut off and pulled away from God and then treated with internalized skills instead, which are needed in the process of linking them with a set of sophisticated, prefabricated 'pleasure hooks', designed to bind them into this homeostasis.
The thick fabric of both 'high' and 'low' literature, education and upbringing swiftly builds up these devices in the children, and the devices start to function as pleasure hook receptors from a very early age. Those affected with them become active seekers and users of a range of 'activity packs': shopping, dating, sex, 'polite conversation', travel, newspapers, sports and so on. As exaggerated as it may sound, these packs have the power to permanently 'claim one's soul' for the fee of some pleasure. They are subject to constant propagation, glorification and accentuation from the part of this thick fabric, which is the reason why young adults quickly develop the conviction that these comprise the essence of being. They are persuaded to feel that they are 'alive' only as much as they pursue these activities. The infinite domain of life, where this fabric grows thin and finally disappears - and where the liberated brick is now happy to fade into - remains in hiding from them.
To illustrate our point even further, we may also turn to a parable by Simone Weil2, mystic mind of the early 20th century. The world is a labyrinth, she explains, and the opening of this labyrinth is none else than the beauty of the world, alluring all of us to enter. And we do enter, during the beginning of our life, enchanted by the beauty of the world. After a few steps, however, we come to realize that this beauty is frayed and quickly dissolving before our eyes. The tunnels of the labyrinth destroy its memories and the original opening is nowhere to be found. All of a sudden we feel completely alone, wandering lonely, losing the help of everyone important to us, losing even our sense of ourself. We do not know anymore if we are actually progressing or just circling around ourself. Most of our fellow wanderers give up their unsung struggle without the slightest bit of knowledge on their situation. They eventually become bricks in the wall of the tunnels. There are only a few who do not lose their bravery and continue their way towards the inside of the labyrinth. And there, in the center of it, God is awaiting them and devours them. Transfigured and digested by Him, they are now sent to the entrance to become guardians of the labyrinth. There they stand at the opening in order to gently invite those who are approaching.
The mystic-tinted parables and trains of thought written above may seem out of place in a literary essay, but they very much have their purpose in this particular piece. Having established our standpoint, we are almost ready to face the novel genre in general and later the 18th century British novel in particular. First, though, it is felt essential to reach directly to the Bible and single out a crucial phrase voiced in three thoughts by St. Paul. The sentences3 in question are:
"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." (Colossians 2:8)
"So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world." (Galatians 4:3)
"How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?" (Galatians 4:9)
The Greek original for the highlighted phrase is "ta stoicheia tou kosmou"4 and in strict translation means "the building blocks of the world", referring to the inherently godless fundaments of secular universe in general. The blocks are really principles and values, a huge system of them unwittingly observed by mankind for millenia. In essence, these principles are all clever lies and half-truths perpetrated by none else than Satan in order to alienate man from God. Instead of presenting another list of these, we might just add that basically all materialist and mundane principles and values are stoicheia5, thus nearly everything that man stood for since the beginning of history. In fact, there is no way out for the individual of this entrapping in cultural and spiritual lies but one: through the grace of God - as we saw in our two metaphors. Man is victimized by Satan to the degree that not even the majority of his thoughts are his own - they are implants or 'devices'.
What is the purpose of novel literature? Basically it is to narrate in prose and in epic length a slice of life concerning the focal point of the text. This very broad definition of the genre already arouses an objection from our stance. Given that we live in stoicheia entrapped in an oblivious wall of lies, why would we need epic prose narration of any subject whatsoever - apart from the one enclosed in the Bible that alone may save us? The deduction is simple: any lengthy form of narration that is not the Old and New Testament is a deadly digression designed to entangle man in their subject matter that has to be absolutely irrelevant when compared to the one and only valid engagement of finding and being with the saviour, Jesus Christ. Neither the act of looking for him nor the state of being with him requires or tolerates 'prose narrations of epic length'. The establishment of the novel genre, thus, is in alignment with the conception of Satan, that is, a supporting part of stoicheia, perpetrated to digress and entangle humans in peripheral subject matters for the longest possible durations.
According to a Christian saying, the cleverest lie Satan had devised was to convince man that he can take his time. This was just the lie that resulted in the birth of the novel genre in Latin countries (Boccaccio, LeSage, Cervantes) and its refinement in England (Defoe, Richardson).
It needs to be added, though, that a number of more or less faithful Christians also tended to fall prey to this three hundred year- old vogue. The pinnacle of their output - serious, thoughtful, focused novels on strictly Biblical themes - can be classified as secondary prose narration as opposed to the primary narration of the Bible itself and the irrelevant third rate narration of entirely stoicheia-induced novel literature.
The purpose of this part is to leave the grounds of generalization for the sake of specifics. We shall examine some of the specimens of the aforementioned English refinement 'movement' of the 18th century, meaning some of the novels that are deemed evergreen classics for long, and see if at least some of them qualify for our criteria of secondary prose narration. The 'Augustan' era, the time and place is crucial in the development of the genre. We shall focus on the accomplishment, positive or negative, of Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Richardson.
First we need to take a glance at the social and cultural context in which their novels were born. The social setting of this period is an especially unflattering one when it comes to evaluation from our point of view. Although stoicheia was always predominant in the history of mankind, in 18th century England it conquered new areas when compared to earlier phases -- the religious-superstitious medieval times, the heroic Elizabethan era or the still theology-centered Restoration. The Augustan period is synonymous in the public conscience with shallowness, snobbery, 'polite conversation', and most importantly, with being the roots of modern materialism, the origins of industrialism, an 'age of prose and reason'6. This is all quite sad but what concerns us here is the state of religious life. It comes as no big surprise that in accordance with the secular phenomena of the era, the visible Church and the faith in God of English people in general both entered a phase of deterioration following the Restoration. England in the 1700's began a tragic process of turning from God to man, perfecting a host of scientific branches and cultural devices that had no relation to the Divine. The fact that this unholy process led to the birth of the middle class which in turn led to the prosperity of the British novel thanks to a growing and lazy reading base already speaks volumes on the probable moral-theological value of the novel output.
We shall now turn directly to Defoe and his train of thought in the popular Applebee's Journal (1725): "Writing, you know, Mr Applebee, is become a very considerable Branch of the English Commerce. ... The Booksellers are the Master Manufacturers or Employers. The several Writers, Authors, Copyers, Sub-writers, and all other Operators with pen and Ink are the workmen employed by the said Master Manufacturers."7 According to the father of British novel, his genre of choice is a tame product of commerce in an oppressive machinery. In the semi-autobiographical Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe he states: "This supplying a story by invention is certainly a most scandalous crime, and yet very little regarded in that part. It is a sort of lying that makes a great hole in the heart, at which by degrees a habit of lying enters in."8 This statement needs even less comment. He had taken up the godless profession of novel-writing out of pressure of his circumstances, financial and social. Our interest in him in this essay is based on the fact that he was one of Christian upbringing and his apparent aim in his first novel, Robinson Crusoe, was to take Cervantes' genre and try to apply it to sacred means; we shall examine if he managed to create an example of the secondary narration.
Robinson Crusoe was supposed to be a parable on the way a once loyal believer becomes entangled in mundane affairs - he becomes a wealthy merchant - that eventually entrap him (he wrecks his ship) but is finally saved by the grace of the Lord - the end of the novel. Since the subject is entirely secular to begin with, the conditions for our criteria are not given a chance. Furthermore, Defoe himself becomes mundanely entangled during the course of writing: his complicating of things with circumstantial physical details is far from good Christian writing. An even more serious objection is that an undercurrent of non-religious values pervades every page: we see Crusoe rewarded by life for his sins; it is told that he was born into "the middle station of low life"9 only to emerge later as a rich slave trader by untold suspicious means. Also, Crusoe's acts manifested in the novel are less than Christan-like: he decides to sell the Moorish boy who saved his life for sixty silvers; later, he seems to treat Friday in a condescending, unequal manner that Defoe does not condemn. We may now argue that Robinson turned out to be Defoe's sub-conscious celebration of stoicheia that found a new ally in England's Augustan tendencies. The novel, then, is to be written off as third rate and harmful.
We now promptly turn to Moll Flanders which is regarded as the author's best novel.
Sadly, the moral bankruptcy of this prototype of the British social novel is even less debatable. Centering on a basically amoral woman, it tells the long-winded story of how almost all the characters in her life adored and admired her while she kept treating them with dishonesty and abandon. The neglectment of Moll's bloodchildren by both her and the author is beyond words and gives reason enough in itself to classify the book as base literature. In the end, Moll's stolen goods formed the basis of her wealth and harmony.
Jonathan Swift was picked also based on his well-documented affiliation with Christianity and his attempt to create a decidedly sublime theological satire in Gulliver's Travels. Deemed by critics as one of the key Augustan novels, the first books are regarded as less controversial and less serious than the last one on which we are focusing. The first books, in fact, are peripheral in their lengthy examination and caricature of human affairs, and are not fit to Christian consideration. The last book presents the land of the Houyhnhms and the caveman-like Yahoos, and - isolated from the rest of the novel - almost makes it as secondary narration. The problem, again, is the substitution of Biblical imagery with complete fiction. As a blameless Irish clergyman, Swift is less suspect of being a covert advocate of stoicheia than Defoe; he fought his daily battles with his pre-industrial environment, a war reflected most notably in this last book of his novel. His faith seems to be strong, which is one thing. His Gulliver, even at its best, does not relate directly to the Scripture, which is another thing, equally as important. He made up an imaginary world instead which has much to say to the unwitting secular individual, but still comes off as a misapplication of his faith. It is the final deduction that makes this last book slightly noteworthy: Swift argues that man has the likeness of Yahoos due to the original sin and he needs the Christian miracle to escape his beast-like identity. In the process, he must avoid becoming the likeness of the Houyhnhms who represent the lifeless, logic- and reason-based reality of the Augustan era.
Samuel Richardson easily surpasses the previous two in psychological depth and character forming, but also reaches new lows in hypocrisy and exploitation. As D.H. Lawrence remarks, "Boccaccio at his hottest seems to me less pornographical than Pamela or Clarissa Harlowe."10 We include Richardson because it is inevitable in any discussion of the 18th century novel. His Pamela is a prime example of the lengthy third rate narration type. It sets up the theme of 'virtue rewarded', then lingers endlessly on episodes of thin-veiled pornography as a landlord goes on and on in his attempts to seduce a young maiden "whose dreams are filled with ideas of rape, but whose waking moments resound to prate about her honour"11. Pamela is hailed to this day as the first truly complex psychological novel, which is a praise irrelevant to our system of values, as being complex and analytical makes no sense in case of the exclusion of the Divine.
In Clarissa Harlowe, this kind of hurtful secular complexity is taken even further, to the point of sickly obsession, with the whole tumult ending with the death of the protagonist.
The examination could go on for several pages, from Fielding's Joseph Andrews to Smollett's Humphrey Clinker, but the point is made clear: the novel genre in general, including its 17th century South-European forefathers and its 18th century British pioneers, is of secondary value at best when it comes to the all-essential questions of life. These questions are fully covered in the one book that embodies the category of 'primary narration'. Any subsequent specimens of epic prose narration are potentially damaging or at least irrelevant (which, in this context, also qualifies as harmful).
Unfortunately, the masses advocating and fervently reading the ocean of secular novels - which are in no case second, but third rate material - are the equivalents of the lost wanderers in Simone Weil's labyrinth, or the oblivious bricks in the wall in our other analogy. The thick fabric of hexing stoicheia might never grow thin for them.
Ford, Boris, ed.: The Pelican Guide to English Literature, Vol.4 (Penguin, London, 1973)
New International Version Bible (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1990)
Ruiz, Federico: Bevezetes Keresztes Szent Janos tanitasaba (Prugg, Eisenstadt, 1987)
Weil, Simone: Ami szemelyes, es ami szent (Vigilia, Budapest, 1983)