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.


Caroline said...

Himadri seesm to have chosen very well. It sounds entirely fascinating, I've never heard of the book but the way you describe it, it really seems ahead of its time.

Unknown said...

That book looks fascinating! I'd heard of it before, but never thought much about it.

I'm currently working my way through Why Evil Exists, from The Great Courses. Hogg's book isn't in the curriculum, but it looks like I ought to try sneaking it in once I get through the Calvinist lecture.

Thanks for the interesting summary!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline. Indeed this was a good pick for me from Himadri.

One thing that struck me about this story was how common variations on it abound these days. For instance, I am a fan of the old X - Files TV show. There were multiple episodes of that show that contained major elements of this story.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - Why Evil Exists really sounds like a great "Great Course" to take.

It would really be interesting to read or listen to something that had a more positive take on the idea of predestination in conjunction with this book.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

bibliographing and I had a lot of fun with this book during the Scotch Literature Challenge. It is a slippery devil. I do not think the "objective" narrator is any more reliable than the psychopath. The return of that narrator at the end of the book in effect destroys the non-fictiveness of the fiction, so to speak.

I am not so sure that the book was particularly ahead of its time. There was a lot of meta-fictive goofing around going on then, and E. T. A. Hoffmann was Hogg's contemporary.

Harvee said...

I find the idea of predesthnation pretty scary. I'm all for free will and self determination.

Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed this book. Andre Gide once described this book as "European literature's best kept secret", and I have always wondered why it isn't better known. Among the various tricks Hogg plays with narrative, I particularly like his introducing himself as a character towards the end of the novel: it s certainly not a flattering picture!

But playful though the writing is, it s, as you say, a horror novel. The Scottish reformation was rather different from its English counterpart: the underlying theology was Calvinist in Scotland. Robert Burns had a few things to say about Calvinism as well: "Holy Willie's Prayer" is among the greatest of satirical poems, and still hits the mark. But there is something particularly demonic about this book: there seems to me definitely a whiff of hellfire and brimstone about it.

seraillon said...

I look forward to this very much. By sheer coincidence, I picked it up a couple weeks ago on a whim (and because it was cheap!).

Sharon Wilfong said...

Wow! What a fascinating book and what a great review!!

I've been studying the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgiac and Westminster Confessions-all Calvinist doctrine.

People who adhere to predestination would argue that someone chosen by God wouldn't abuse his grace.

I'm also studying Martin Luther and just finished his catechism. One thing I can tell you is they didn't worry about offending each other back then. When they believed something, such as eternal salvation (Calvinist) or losing salvation (Lutheran) there was no half ways about it with them. In some ways I find it rather refreshing.

I need to add this book to my TBR.
Take care, Brian!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - It is avery interesting idea that the reliable narrator might not be so reliable. However, based upon the feel of the book, as well as the fact that there are certain consistencies between the accounts, I do believe that Hogg intended to portray a universe where supernatural events were indeed occurring.

As I am not all that familiar with the literary trends involved I was not aware that Hogg was influenced by his contemporaries.Is it just the meta — fiction aspects that you are referring to? I did find this story uncannily similar to modern "Serial Killer influenced by a demon" tales.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - One interesting point is that some modern physicists and science philosophers have taken up the debate. Some of these folks argue that it is actually a false choice and that both views could have truth to them.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himadri - Indeed this was one of the best obscure books that I have ever read. There are some neat narrative tricks including Hogg himself as part of the narrative.

I was not familiar with "Holy Willie's Prayer" before. I just Googled it. Perhaps after a careful reading and some thought I will blog about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Seraillon - That it is odd coincidence that you picked this up so recently. Perhaps it is predestined for you read it :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Early in the narrative Richard does have the view that a person who was chosen as God's elect would not follow a life of evil As time goes by his view devolves, however.

Interesting about the theological debates of the time! I would argue that if one follows a some of the folks on Twitter who are interested in religion, religion and politics, secularism, etc, that one would conclude that folks today are not afraid of offending each other:)

Thanks for the great comment. Take care!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

For more demon-crazed killers of one sort or another, please see Hoffmann's The Devil's Elixir (1815) and Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), both of which are completely nuts. Hoffmann's "Mademoisells de Scuderi" (1819) is the oldest serial killer story I know, but I believe it is demon-free.

And I guess it is not about a killer, but Jacques Cazotte's The Devil in Love (1772) has to be read to be believed.

I am sure there are a lot more, mostly German, that I am forgetting or have not read, and I do not know Gothic novels well at all. Oh, Goethe, of course, Faust (1808 / 1832), that's close enough.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the recommendations Tom! I had no idea that there was such a strong literary tradition of this sort of stuff going back so far!

I did also forget about Faust.

Guy Savage said...

I was lucky enough to have read this a few years ago, and I enjoyed it very much. I should probably re-read it one of these days. Sounds like Himadri made a good choice for you.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I think that this is a story that bears rereading. The odd and cryptic changes in points of view and the unreliability of the narration will likely lead to additional insights the second time around.

LMR said...

I think it's a nice idea to use Blake's drawing for the cover.

I read this novel a few years ago and I was astonished! It's so well-written, intelligent, creepy. Gil-Martin is one of my favourite devils in literature, that never-ceasing dark consciousness whispering evil into his victim's ears, drawing him closer and closer to the precipice.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - Indeed that is really a great cover.

I also agree that Gil _ martin is such a well developed but at the same time horrifying character.

@parridhlantern said...

From your post, this reminds me of Voltaire's Candide - where the writer takes a theological idea then takes it for a walk off a cliff ;-)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Parish - I have not read Candide. But indeed taking the idea of Predestination off a cliff is exactly what Hogg does here.

Tom Cunliffe said...

Very good review Brian. I read this some years ago and you have reminded me what it was all about (and also found more in it than I did). I would think it was well worth-while reading this one despite its difficulty

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - Thanks!

This was indeed a worthy read. In terms of difficulty I found Hogg's style in some ways to be similar to Dickens's. Sometimes his sentence style was a longer and seemingly more awkward then what the twenty-first century reader is used to.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

What an intriguing book! I will add it to my TBR and look for it next time I go to the bookstore. The fanatical religious who turns evil reminds me of a classic Gothic novel that I've read a few years ago. It's called "The Monk: A Romance", by Matthew Gregory Lewis. It was published in 1796.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - Based on your comments as well as others it seems like this kind of story was somewhat popular over the last several hundred years.

I had never heard of Lewis's book but I will check it out. That one seems to be very early.

Ryan said...

I also have never heard of this title. I often (and erroneously) think that English horror begins with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I think this because I've never read anything that came before it. I'd like to smash that belief to bits and this seems like the perfect book in which to do so.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - Indeed as the comments to this post show, there were indeed many horror predating Frankenstein

. I would say that this work is also very different from Shellye's creation.