Sunday, March 2, 2014

Self-Consciousness and the Victorians

Historians should have their credentials revoked if they ever quote with approval something a modern-day politician has said about the past.  Politicians are in the business of presenting their ideas and policies as at once entirely new, which they never are, and immeasurably ancient, when in fact, very little in our culture is ever as old as we think it is.  They therefore should be the last people we trust as unbiased informants about times gone by.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the guilty party I have in mind, as she quotes approvingly, in The Demoralization of Society, a line by Margaret Thatcher (or her speech writers, perhaps) as an honest account of so-called "Victorian Values".  It runs as follows:
"I was brought up by a Victorian grandmother. You were taught to work jolly hard, you were taught to improve yourself, you were taught self-reliance, you were taught to live within your income, you were taught that cleanliness was next to godliness. You were taught self-respect, you were taught always to give a hand to your neighbour, you were taught tremendous pride in your country, you were taught to be a good member of your community. All of these things are Victorian values. [...] They are also perennial values as well."
What should immediately strike the historian on reading it is that this quotation has a great deal less to do with Victorianism than it does with the 1980s.  True, it breathes a certain 19th century aroma: that, specifically, of the Work House, of Dotheboys Hall, of sniffing references to "the undeserving poor," and so on.  But to a much greater extent it informs us about the era in which it was spoken, the era of Thatcher, and of the age of "bootstraps" and being "tough on crime" and getting rid of "moochers" that was to follow in Britain and America.

There is one important sense in which Thatcher's quote is properly Victorian, however-- and that is in its complete lack of self-awareness -- its painful dearth of any saving irony.  My own limited reading on the subject has convinced me that this self-obliviousness is quite true to the spirit of the 19th century people Thatcher has in mind-- on both sides of the Atlantic.


The Victorians were not self-conscious people.  This was essential to that "sentimentalism" for which they are justly notorious.  What sets sentimentalism apart from genuine emotion is precisely its lack of reflection upon itself, which leads to an alarming discrepancy between what it thinks it's doing and what we sense it to be doing.  The historian Ann Douglas once offered the following formulation: sentimentalism, she wrote, “asserts that the values a society’s activity denies are precisely the ones it cherishes.” Thus, it “provides a way to protest a power to which one has already in part capitulated.”   (One thinks of those awful drawn-out death scenes of waifs and angelic children which fill the pages of Victorian novels.)

The lack of any critical understanding of his own motives and inner mental states makes the Victorian author oddly childlike.  This is an unnerving trait in grown-up authors, and it makes their books a strange experience to read.  Doris Lessing once put it about that there was no English novelist of the nineteenth century who managed to depict plausible human beings-- and this in the same era in which France gave us Stendhal's The Red and the Black, with its irony and all-too-human protagonist. George Eliot, Lessing writes, came closest to having some understanding of adult psychology, but even she had to force her own blindness on certain points that were too ugly. "[T]he penalty she paid for being a Victorian woman," says Lessing, "was that she had to be shown to be a good woman even when she wasn't according to the hypocrisies of the time-- there is a great deal she does not understand because she is moral."

Perhaps I am relying too much on the stereotypes that have come down to us.  Maybe my own ideas about the Victorians are merely the negative mirror-images of the same bumptious boosterism and "By Jove"-ialism of the Thatcher quote.

A specific example of Victorianism in action might allay such suspicions: this is a passage I found in a letter-- to my knowledge so far unpublished-- by the 19th century Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke, which I stumbled upon in unrelated research.  It seems useful for our purpose in that it shows us a Victorian-era author deliberately trying to be self-reflective-- to analyze his own motives and to acknowledge to himself the fact that he has, in spite of himself, a set of negative, self-centered drives the way other people do.  Yet even with this explicit intention in hand, he manages to land incredibly wide of the mark.

He is describing a trip to church he made as an adolescent with a young woman who was reputed to be an excellent singer.  When the hymn was called, Clarke handed her the hymnal-- a motion which apparently set spinning the furious wheels of his practical reason:
"I found all these motives harnessed to that one little action[, says Clarke]. (1) […] civility.  I should have done to same to anyone (2) Love for music.  I wanted to hear her sing.  (3) The pleasure I should take in seeing how pleased others would be with her fine singing. (4) A little, miserable, broken-down, donkey of vanity – the pleasure I should take in being seen with so fine a singer."
Clarke is clearly trying to be honest with himself.  Oh, he is trying, poor lad.  But even in that vein, it takes him to #4 to recognize that he has an ego like everyone else does, and he at once proceeds to both viciously repudiate it and minimize its role.  "Little, miserable, broken-down donkey" indeed!  And even by the time he gets to #4 --  the "bad" motive -- he still hasn't acknowledged what is likely to strike the reader as an obvious, perhaps the obvious, explanation as to why an adolescent boy might do something nice for a young woman sitting next to him -- that he might be rather harmlessly attracted to her, of course.  Horrors!  And in church at that!

Clarke was a middle-aged man with a family and a professional position when he wrote this.  But he was a child, emotionally.  He was one of those "good little, good little" boys, "being as good as they can," that D.H. Lawrence was always warning us against.  Be very afraid of good little boys (and girls) in adult garb who are entrusted with power over others, both domestic and professional.  But more on that later.

We tend to think that all this sanctimony was a British affliction.  They gave us Victoria, after all, so surely they gave us Victorian hypocrisy.  Yet Clarke, and many of the other worst examples I've come across, come from our side of the pond, and the best thrashing of Victorian silliness I've read was composed by a British author writing about Americans: it is D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature.  The title of that book is a bit misleading.  These are not really "studies," nor do they do much to establish these books as "classics." They would be better described as impressionistic and caustic drubbings of various 19th-century American goody-two-shoes.  Of the author of The Scarlet Letter: "Old-fashioned Nathaniel, with his little-boy charm, he'll tell you what's what.  But he'll cover it with smarm."

Lawrence's Old World cynicism extends to all the tenets of the American creed, from Ben Franklin's various homilies to -- more uncomfortable from the perspective of the modern liberal-- Richard Henry Dana's moral indignation over the abuses he observed during his "Two Years Before the Mast."  Dana was a Boston Unitarian and future lawyer, who left Harvard mid-way through his student career for an adventure on the high seas.  Once there, he witnessed the flogging of a crew member and was revolted, vomiting over the side of the ship.  Admirable, we might say.  Lawrence, however, is scathing on the subject: "He smirks longest who smirks last.  The Captain wasn't wary enough.  Natural anger, natural passion has its unremitting enemy in the idealist.  And the ship was already tainted with idealism."

Ok-- and here perhaps we part ways with Lawrence and call a halt for the present to the Victorian-baiting.  There may, after all, be a serious and basically valid point to Lawrence's satire.  There is something rather smug about the well-helled Dana's distress over the whipping incident, when his former life at Harvard probably rested on similar cruelties, but at a further remove.  If nothing else, the clothes he wore as a Boston Brahmin, no doubt, were stitched of cotton from the slave South, where blood was drawn much more copiously from the lash than it ever was on shipboard.  But for all that, we still prefer that Dana vomited than that he didn't, no?  Wouldn't it reflect an even more smug and deadly privilege if he had witnessed the beating and simply wrote home about it as if it were something satisfyingly exotic-- a spectacle and curio of the high seas?

Lawrence might disagree, and it is worth dredging up here the fact that, as may have occurred to some readers already, he was one of those writers of the first half of the twentieth century who flirted in a vague way with fascism.  Surely that's rather more irresponsible than being a naive Victorian moralist!  "Good little boys" playing at adulthood are dangerous; but I would prefer them to "bad little boys" doing the same.

There is, then, a danger implicit in the focus on "hypocrisy" as the king of all vices.  After all, hypocrisy is rather difficult to avoid entirely.  We are all little Danas, in our own ways, unless we are little Lawrences, which is even worse.  We all benefit, as consumers or producers or otherwise, from a social order that is unjust and violent.  Most of us tend to think this complicity is to some degree inevitable, in the world as we find it, but that we can still do what we can in small ways to alter or withdraw from its worst features.  If hypocrisy is the only evil with which we are concerned, however, this solution will appear a cowardly one, and we must either become saints or demons.  The implication -- and Lawrence seems to draw it -- is that it would be better to be more consistently evil than to be more inconsistently good.


I've lately been reading a collection of Bernard Williams' essays and reviews.  A recurring theme in these essays, published though they were across the span of decades, concerns this tendency in modern life to grow ever more leery of "hypocrisy" and ever more focused on "self-consciousness" as the goal of all intellectual effort.  Williams attributes this tendency chiefly to the work of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud -- the "great unmaskers," as he calls them.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine Clarke or Dana or Hawthorne writing the way they did after being exposed to any of the three- and we might add Darwin, too, to the list.

In William's review of Judith Shklar's Ordinary Vices, he zeroes in on what she has to say about hypocrisy.  It is one of the titular vices for Shklar, but she deliberately downgrades it in importance in the hierarchy of sins.  Her argument is roughly that it is always better to do a good thing than a bad thing, regardless of motive, and beyond a certain point it is well to stop worrying over one's inner states if that worry prevents one from actually doing something in the meantime that might have helped someone.  Yes, we don't always act from entirely wholesome motives, Shklar implies.  But an admixture of selfishness in an otherwise moral act shouldn't prevent it from being performed.  "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," is the bromide that comes to mind.

Shklar makes a valid point.  The endless quest for "self-consciousness," she is aware, has the potential to bleed into nihilism (Williams has much to say on this point).  It is all too easy to move from the insight that virtually everything we do is tainted with some element of egotism to the cynical conviction that everything is egotism, everything is "power" or whatever else, and morality is a fiction.  To avoid this one must at some point regard hypocrisy as something less than the arch and sole evil.

I don't want to diminish the value of this insight.  To Shklar's point, one can say this much for the Victorians and for all peoples of less self-conscious ages: they did things.  And as much as I have been mocking them in this post, I am not immune to a certain nostalgia for the pieties and earnestness which enabled them to act in this way, where modern people have so often been paralyzed by self-doubt.  Moreover, I probably wouldn't be studying for the Unitarian Universalist ministry if I had no streak of Victorian sentimentalism in me.  We are the people who inflicted on you most of those oh-so-earnest moral crusades of the 19th century, after all.  And for all that the Boston abolitionists, say, were childishly naive at times, and blind to the influence over their behavior of subconscious drives and class interests and what-not, I think we can all agree the world is better for their having existed.

However, I do want to make one final pitch for making self-awareness a significant value, and hypocrisy as a grave vice, though not a supreme one.  But first I should make clear that self-awareness does not mean self-loathing -- even though it does force us to look squarely at our negative emotions and destructive inclinations.  This may sound self-contradictory, but then, the human personality is an ornery and perplexing animal.  One of the its more striking paradoxes is that it can only achieve a real acceptance of itself when it is honest about its imperfections.  There is a line in Erik Erikson on this that I've probably quoted on this blog before, but here it is again: "relative peace of conscience," he writes, is only finally achieved in life "by submitting to, and even incorporating into [oneself], some harsh self-judgments."  One route to this is humor.

Humor is anathema to the Victorian sentimentalist and the moral crusader; yet I have always found it to be a redemptive feature of existence, because it allows us to achieve what Erikson is talking about.  When we are making fun, we are often able to acknowledge those uncomfortable features of ourselves that, in our earnest and serious poses, we would find too shameful to drag into the open.  Humor is therefore a vehicle for self-criticism, but not of a sort that destroys the ego -- quite different from Clarke's unkind flogging of that poor "donkey of vanity," one might say.  When we laugh about our humanity and its inevitable egotism and flaws -- we are also giving ourselves a momentary privacy from the superego's gaze.  "[H]umor," writes Erikson, "marks the moment when our ego regains some territory from oppressive conscience."

Being self-aware is not a path to cynicism or moral nihilism.  Rather, it is good for us.  It is part of what it means to achieve an integrated adult personality which can genuinely accept, even love, itself, instead of oscillating between a narcissism founded on insecurity and a wild self-abasement (flogging our inner donkey, to coin a phrase).

But our own self-awareness is also good for other people.  Adult humans are dangerous enough already; they become all the more so when they don't understand why they do things.  An honest appraisal of one's own motives is essential-- mostly because the worse angels of our nature always come to us in disguise, never dressed as what we are.  I have found in my own life that the times when I've behaved most selfishly and cruelly toward others are the times at which I have been most firmly convinced of my own justice and rectitude.  I suspect this is true of most people, and the suspicion is widely confirmed.

I recently attended a mandatory session for ministry students, for instance, which dealt among other things with clerical sexual misconduct (ministers sleeping with congregants, e.g.).  The presenter guessed what we were all thinking: each of us has an inner voice whispering: "I would never do that, because I'm not that sort of person."  "I would never set out to hurt or abuse a congregant," "I wouldn't lose control just because I was attracted to a parishioner," etc.

But no one ever does.  The presenter was at pains to emphasize that the vast majority of clerical sexual misconduct occurs not because ministers are especially attracted to members of their congregation, or because they set out to prey on people.  Most of us can recognize the emotion of sexual attraction easily for what it is, and therefore are able to disregard its dictates when they conflict with conscience.  What happens, rather, in most cases of misconduct, is that clergy become convinced that a particular congregant "needs" them.  Perhaps that congregant has told them that "no one else understands."  That "you are the only one who can help."  Then what is in fact abuse begins to present itself to the minister's mind as something very different -- as an "obligation,"even-- and conscience is confused.

This is the sort of quagmire that naive sentimentalists are especially likely to wade into.  It is how "good little boys" in adult clothes end up doing the most abhorrent things.  It is how our Victorian penal reformers convinced themselves that locking people in penitentiaries for decades in conditions of solitary confinement and forced silence was "for their own good" (the dears).  It is how clergy came to believe that the nightmares of hellfire they concocted were going to scare people into upright behavior.  And it is how clergy allow themselves in good conscience to take sexual advantage of their congregants.  The people who do these things don't view themselves as acting on evil impulses -- they view themselves as do-gooders and helpers and moral exemplars.

Some intimation of this, perhaps, is what has made modern thought so hyper-allergic to hypocrisy, and so desperately in love with self-awareness.

Being allergic to hypocrisy doesn't mean we have to be allergic to good behavior, though it may force us to abandon a certain moral style, which for many people is the only sort of morality there is.  A great deal of the appeal of TV blowhards like Bill O'Reilly, for instance, is their apparent moral earnestness-- their conviction that they know what's right and are sticking to it, by gum.  The more snide and sarcastic commentators seem less "moral," I suppose, especially to my right-wing fellow citizens, because they poke holes in such certainties, and mock such earnestness.

I am trying to suggest by all this, however, that we shouldn't be quick to take the self-appointed "moral" blowhard at his own estimation.  Human nature is a many-feathered bird.  It delights in paradoxes, and one of them is as follows: it may well be that the "immoral" person -- the snarky one -- the "bad" one-- is the one with goodness on her side.

No comments:

Post a Comment