Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

Thanks to
Himadri of the The Argumentative Old Git. This was one of his Bah  - Humbook recommendations for me.

James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a book that was amazingly ahead of its time. It is a fascinating psychological study as well as a supernatural horror story that has striking similarities to certain elements in more modern stories.

Written in several parts, it tells two versions of the same story. One account seems to be a reliable 3rd person narrative; the other account is told by the unstable and, at times, insane protagonist. Even the trustworthy narrative confirms that Hogg’s universe is populated by angels and demons, and is a place of magic and sorcery.

The story takes place during the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Scotland. The tale begins with the marriage of the laird of Dalcastle, George Colwan, to a younger noblewoman. The marriage is extremely contentious from the beginning, as George is an easygoing and relatively free soul in contrast to Lady Dalcastle, who is a religious fanatic. The pair quickly learns to despise one another. The marriage produces one son who is also named George. When Lady Dalcastle delivers a second boy, named Richard, who resembles her pastor and spiritual confident, Mr. Wringhim, the laird all but disowns both mother and child. Lady Dalcastle and Richard retreat into a separate floor of the Dalcastle manor and live an estranged life separate from George and his son. George takes as his paramour his housekeeper, Arabella Logan.

Richard grows up, under the influence of his fanatical mother and his surrogate, and likely biological father, Wringhim. Raised as a fanatical Calvinist, Richard is vindictive, hateful, jealous of others and cruel. Hogg does add complexity to Richard’s character as he is occasionally plagued by bouts of conscience.

In late adolescence, Richard meets Gil–Martin, who initially appears to be a young man who espouses a strident and radical Calvinist theology. It becomes apparent, however, that Gil – Martin is not human. Instead he is a shape shifter with demonic powers who is likely Satan himself. Based upon the observations reported by third parties in the unbiased account of the story, Gil–Martin is no figment of Richard’s imagination; both he and his mystical powers are very real.

Under Gil–Martin’s influence, Richard, under the auspices of doing God’s work, begins a life of evil and eventual murder. George the younger is harassed and hounded by the pair and eventually murdered, as is Lady Dalcastle and several others. Subsequently pursued by a few decent people led by Arabella, Richard is exposed and flees into the countryside pursued by Gil–Martin and a host of demons.

There is much ponder in this story. The portraits of both Richard and Gil–Martin are superb. Hogg’s depiction of Richard is a brilliant psychological study of a disturbed mind. Gil–Martin is complex and philosophical, but also frightening. There are a few scenes that are positively chilling in this work. Modern readers may find parts of this story familiar: an immoral person, who is obsessed by religion, is encouraged and aided by a demon–like character to become a serial killer. Variations of this tale pervade current day popular books, television and film. While reading this book, it was easy to forget that it was published in 1820! At the time, the story, structure and characters were revolutionary and groundbreaking.

Though Hogg’s worldview seems to me to be Christian, he firmly rejects certain thought systems and theologies that were at times associated with Christianity. The idea of predestination is attacked. Hogg portrays this theology as leading to the ultimate moral bankruptcy. In Hogg’s view, belief in predestination inevitably leads to the false conclusion that those chosen by God for salvation can only act with moral impunity. Gill–Martin argues several times that if one is among the “elect” and predestined as a recipient of God’s grace, then one’s actions have no relevance to one’s eventual fate. 

Basically, a person can commit horrendous acts and be immune from punishment. Later, Richard criticizes those who espouse moral behavior in favor of just being a recipient, almost randomly, of God’s grace.

“I would astonish mankind, and confound their self-wisdom and their esteemed morality—blow up the idea of any dependence on good works, and morality, forsooth!” 

Hogg ties the idea of predestination as well as religious fanaticism to Satanism. At one point Richard asks Gil–Martin, who he believes to be an Eastern European Prince, if all his followers are Christian. Gil–Martin replies,

 "All my European subjects are, or deem themselves so, and they are the most faithful and true subjects I have."   

A little research reveals that many Calvinists and others who espouse the Christian concept of predestination have responded to Hogg’s portrayal of their belief system as distorted, inaccurate and unfair. However, Hogg does portray several Calvinist characters in the book as reasonable and moral people. The author seems to be arguing that the concept of predestination is a faulty idea that, if taken to its logical conclusion, will lead to moral catastrophe, even if all its adherents are not immoral.

Again and again, Richard makes excuses and rationalizes his actions; it is justifiable to kill sinners, as one of God’s elect he cannot be doing anything immoral, Gil–Martin approves his actions, etc. As mentioned earlier, he experiences pangs of guilt. Despite Richard’s belief in a divine fate, Hogg seems to be saying that he is actively choosing an evil path. Ultimately I believe that Hogg is championing the concept of free will, as opposed to predestination. 

I see this story as Hogg laying a relaxed view of Christianity. The most sympathetic characters in the book, such as George senior and Arabella, are Christians. However, they reject predestination; they have a somewhat laidback attitude toward sexual morality, and simply identify and combat the anti–Christian and evil of Gil–Martin and Richard without undue moralizing. They do not tremble at God, but follow many Christian precepts. Hogg describes the elder George,

The laird was what his country neighbours called "a droll, careless chap", with a very limited proportion of the fear of God in his heart, and very nearly as little of the fear of man.  

I would argue that Hogg was espousing a version of Christianity based on moderation and tinged with the ideas of the enlightenment.

This is a fantastically entertaining yet frightening story. It is well written and thought provoking on several levels. Fans of psychological horror, classic literature, as well as theological musings, will find much in this very contemporary-seeming novel.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman is an extraordinary history book. A chronicle of Western Europe during the 1300’s this work successfully encompasses incredibly diverse ground. Tuchman touches on a vast array of subjects to paint a vivid picture of the era. This is a book that covers political, social, military, religious, philosophical, economic and art history. The successful telling of just the political story is a remarkable feat. Though dominated by the large powers of France, England, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, Western Europe was also comprised of a multitude smaller states and cities whose leadership formed an interconnected web of relations, marriages, alliances, conflicts and betrayals. Tuchman manages to tell a very coherent history by sticking to generalities when appropriate but providing intricate details also when appropriate. 

In addition to a general history, Tuchman livens up her narrative by a following the life of one individual; the French nobleman, knight, and diplomat, Enguerrand VII de Coucy. Like many nobles of the time, Coucy warred, negotiated and socialized over an area that encompassed England, France, Germany, Italy, the Balkans, North Africa, etc. In addition the book also details the lives of a plethora of other historical characters, theologians, writers and artists ranging from Charles V of France, Edward III of England, Pope Urban VI, William of Ockham, Jean Froissart, John Wyclif, Christine de Pizan, to name just a few.

One of the main messages here was that the 14th Century in Western Europe was a very bad time and place to have lived. Tuchman identifies several sources of the suffering. This was an era of plague, brutal warfare and religious schism.

This was the age of the Black Death. Bubonic Plague raged trough Europe killing an enormous percentage of the population. In certain regions two thirds of the populace succumbed. Entire towns disappeared as a result. In addition to chronicling the pestilence, Tuchman explains how such mortality led to an obsession with death reflected in both art and culture.

The first part of the Hundred Years War as well as countless other conflicts raged in this time period. Warfare seemed a game to the nobility in this century. The typical knight would engage in conflict after conflict, sometimes switching sides, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to join obscure wars on a whim, sometimes barely pausing to rest between conflicts.

These ceaseless wars had several damaging consequences. Oppressive and unrelenting taxation was levied upon the middle and lower classes in order to finance the endeavors. Tuchman writes,

Money was the crux. Raising money to pay the cost of war was to cause more damage to 14th century society than the physical destruction of war itself.”

In addition these conflicts were the cause of horrendous brutality that was inflicted against the populace. It was a time of extreme cruelty perpetuated both by both semi organized armies as well as bands of brigands. These lawless bands of brigands were usually composed by ex - soldiers. Armies had a habit of disbanding wherever they found themselves at the end of a campaign. Soldiers often just organized themselves into criminal bands, which set off into the countryside and terrorized the populace. At times these brigands were employed by states to assist on their unceasing warfare. These lawless and violent groups proved to be a major source of misery and instability throughout the continent.

Even friendly armies were a danger to the populace. Often the forces of a nation, as they moved throughout their own homelands would murder, rape and pillage the lands of their own people. 

This was also the time of the Western Schism. This event found the Catholic Church splitting into two parts each led by a different Pope. A Pontiff based in Rome was generally supported by England while his counterpart, based in Avignon was generally supported by France. Various wars resulted from the rupture. This rift in the religious structure of society led to greater insecurity and increased conflict in an already troubled century. Tuchman observes, 

Whatever solace the Christian faith could give was balanced by the anxiety it generated.”

In addition to all of the above Tuchman argues that this was a particularly cruel period characterized by unusually high levels of mob rule, torture, fanaticism, religious and social persecution, as well as an overall lack of empathy. She speculates that the extreme cruelty prevalent in society, was in part caused by cold and unengaged child rearing practices prevalent in Europe at the time, 

“relative emotional blankness of a medieval infancy may account for the casual attitude toward life and suffering,".

The author effectively pulls all these points together to describe a time racked by instability and thus human suffering. Despite all the chaos however, the roots of vital historic trends can be found in this era. The beginnings the modern nation state can be found in the political and social developments that occurred in both England and France. Early stirrings of dissatisfaction with the corruption and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church first appeared during these times. Of course, later in history, this eventually led to the Protestant Reformation. 

The impressive thing about this book is how seamlessly Tuchman has woven together such an enormous amount and variety of material together. I cannot even begin to touch upon all of the people, states and incidents that are detailed and explored here. After reading this work I feel that I have a lucid picture of what once seemed like a hopelessly obscure time. 

In addition Tuchman is a really good writer who uses metaphor and incisive analysis to stimulate the reader. The way that she describes all of the political and social twists and turns make this a very entertaining book. This work is a great read for anyone interested in this period or in the story of Western Civilization in general.

I have read a couple of other good books specifically about the Bubonic Plague. The Great Mortality by John Kelly is a riveting and informative account of the Black Death and its devastating effect upon Europe. 

In the Wake of Plague by Norman F. Cantor is not really an account of the plague itself. Rather it is a scholarly account of the political, economic and legal aftereffects and consequences of the plague. Though I enjoyed Cantor’s book very much, I only recommend it for serious history geeks such as myself.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

One Year!

One year ago today I shared my first blog post!

I always wanted to do more of two things. First, express my opinions more thoroughly to those who were interested in bookish ideas. Second, to have more conversation and interaction with other people about books. To those ends, I declare that my efforts here have been a smashing success!

To be sure, the time spent on blogging and related interactions have slowed my reading a little. However, the overall experience has made me a much better reader. Though I always expended mental effort thinking about themes, characters, connections with other works and trends, etc., blogging has forced me to organize my thoughts on these matters in serious ways. In addition, my commenters provide me with new and alternative ideas, as well as insightful and intelligent disagreements. Finally, the world of book blogs has led me to experience and explore the writing and thoughts of numerous other bloggers. On the sites of my fellow bloggers, I have discovered thought provoking and entertaining commentary on various books, some that I have read and some that I have not read. In turn, I hope that I have prompted their thinking through my interactions on their sites. All in all, if only for self - improvement related reasons, the additional time spent online has been well worth it. However, it turns out that there is another enormous fringe benefit to blogging.

When I began this, I had no idea that there was such a dynamic, intelligent, supportive and warm community of book bloggers out there! I have established really wonderful connections with a host of people from all over the world who share my interest in books and important ideas. The community has been welcoming and supportive. My fellow bloggers are such a smart and nice group of people!

This experience is akin to belonging to an international book club that I have access to 24 hours a day! The Internet has its supporters and detractors and those like myself who tend to see the good and the bad, but this interconnectedness that I have discovered can only be characterized as very good. More about this will be included in an upcoming post.

So thank you to all of my readers and commenters. Also, I want to add a special thanks to my wife Catherine whose editing assistance has been key in keeping these posts readable.

Hopefully, this is the first year of many during which I will be sharing my thoughts and ramblings. It has been a blast so far!