Book review., Books, Calvinism, Charles Rzepka, Faith, Fanny Vandegrift, History, Literary criticism, More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter, One Thousand and One Nights, Robert Louis Stevenson, Susan Manning, The Arabian Nights, The Double, The Puritan-Provincial Vision, Theology
“Robert Louis Stevenson,” writes the literary critic Susan Manning, “takes up the nexus of puritan-provincial terms as the very foundation of his art.” This line, which is contained in the preface to Manning’s The Puritan-Provincial Vision (1991), would make an exciting start to any treatise on Stevenson, but The Puritan-Provincial Vision is not about Stevenson and Manning never refers to him again. Her study commences with John Calvin and it concludes in 1860, albeit somewhat self-denyingly, with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun. She concedes that “1860 may be regarded as something of an arbitrary end point” and her lone remark on Stevenson hints at what she might have turned to could her book have continued indefinitely.
I propose teasing a little more out into the daylight. Manning claimed to see a puritan-provincial sensibility alive within Stevenson’s “Thrawn Janet,” his South Sea tales, and Weir of Hermiston. By contrast, the pseudo-Arabian frivolity of The Dynamiter might seem like a stretch, but I still think that The Puritan-Provincial Vision can be of surprising analytical use to readers of this work. If we smash these two books together, fortuitous, illuminating sparks are certain to appear.
The religious reformers of the sixteenth century were confronted with the problem that God no longer appeared to love us unconditionally. Catholicism had grown into an ever more transactional affair, in which we did things for God and He, in turn, dispensed His grace. It would be weird, however, if fathers loved their children purely in order to meet the conditions of some pre-agreed contract. If God genuinely loves the saved, it must logically follow that His grace is issued randomly. Therefore, an “elect” of sinners must be saved from the get-go, regardless of their actions. This ingenious, though potentially rather comic solution, is Calvinism.
It need not portend disaster. In Calvinist theology, the delightful possibility that the elect will turn out to be a motley bunch of perverts and maniacs is ultimately omitted by the perfection of the divine. It is, in other words, assuredly unlikely that God would cock everything up and let the most unsuitable applicants into heaven. But since the Calvinist church has stopped mediating between the sinner and God, in no longer overseeing the transactions of e.g. the confessional, the Calvinist can only know that they number amongst the elect through faith alone. They can never truly verify this, for reality remains inscrutable, and so all that they can continue to do is to struggle impossibly to read the world around them. The Calvinist had henceforth experienced a loneliness that was unprecedented throughout history, with their very mind being governed by a provincial perspective, in its immense distance from the unknowable centre of God.
For Manning, this loneliness has had enormous implications. Although the philosopher David Hume rejected the idea of an anthropomorphic God, if not God altogether, his sceptical empiricism influentially furthered the Calvinist mindset. The Calvinist’s analytical detachment was manifested in civilian literature with waves of spectators, spies, and detectives. The fruitless attempts of the isolated Calvinist to empathise with other people, and invade other psyches, led to “the pursuit of the double,” a motif that recurs throughout Gothic fiction. The psychology of Calvinism, increasingly loosened from its specific theological base, was thus responsible for over a century of extraordinary literary innovation.
The Puritan-Provincial Vision admittedly seems more often like a self-sustaining system of mathematics rather than an open engagement with literary texts. It is the product of over ten years’ reflection and it reads as though a good afternoon has gone into judiciously weighing up each sentence. Texts weave around each other mesmerisingly, in a glittering choreography. Charles Rzepka does justice to this when writing in the London Review of Books that Manning’s “Scottish/American pairings – Hume and Edwards, Smith and Jefferson, and so on – are strategically brilliant.”
Nonetheless, Manning needs to shepherd her argument away from several obvious difficulties. Delicately, she avers that Calvin’s writing “provides a focus… not necessarily a source” for the phenomena that she is describing. When Rzepka discerns the puritan-provincial vision in the poetry of an Englishman such as George Byron – or when he points out that Romanticism can elucidate Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction far more readily than Puritanism – Manning might reply, if a little stiffly, that she is just not writing about these topics. They can happily co-exist with her interpretation, as fellow currents washing intricately together in the analytical waters.
Rzepka ends up flatly demanding “by what rationale should Calvinism be privileged as a ‘context’ or hermeneutic ‘focus’ for interpreting such features?” I do not think, however, that is really being privileged. In demonstrating a quintessentially postmodern tolerance towards the available interpretative diversity, Manning will not force forward the particular trend that she has discovered and isolated, at the expense of any other. It is a kind of studied passivity or restraint that sometimes comes through in my own writing, honed as it was in the university department where Manning had been (until the tragedy of her premature death in 2013) a professor and a leading administrator. Here is a rather wry example from a recent Tychy article:
Poe referred to his own horror tales as “of the… Arabesque.” Of course, the genealogy of Poe’s fiction cannot be pinned down to anything more specific than an unfathomably interwoven jumble of German Gothicism, British Romanticism, American “tall tale” humour, and the priority given to “sensation” by contributors to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.
And so to The Dynamiter, which my series of essays is sinking into an interpretive hot tub and pummelling with different jets, in comparing it to influences as diverse as the Thousand and One Nights, Self-Help, The Mysteries of Paris, and Crime and Punishment. We join Stevenson’s would-be detective Paul Somerset as he sets off into the London night. As we have seen, Somerset is foremostly following a schema that is supplied by the One Thousand and One Nights, in which an adventurer wanders the streets of Baghdad until he happens upon an awaiting mystery. Somerset deems his own prospects to be bright:
From the cigar divan he proceeded to parade the streets, still heated with the fire of his eloquence, and scouting upon every side for the offer of some fortunate adventure. In the continual stream of passers-by, on the sealed fronts of houses, on the posters that covered the hoardings, and in every lineament and throb of the great city, he saw a mysterious and hopeful hieroglyph.
This might remind us of the puritan’s own alienation from the centre of reality. As Manning has described, “the Calvinist, passing through this world, demands that it yields up its secrets and give him tidings of his Maker; the world looks blankly back.”
Somerset is repelled from the surface of the city, at times even literally: “he courted and provoked the notice of the passengers; in vain that, putting fortune to the touch, he even thrust himself into the way and came into direct collision with those of the more promising demeanour.” The city’s hieroglyphs remain unreadable and its core inaccessible. When Somerset is finally admitted into one of London’s secrets, in being bundled into a strange woman’s carriage, it is divulged to him that he does not actually number amongst an elect of cool, suave detectives. We will be naturally wary of whether this unknown lady is some manner of high-class prostitute, who has misinterpreted the childlike Somerset’s search for adventure as being a more adult solicitation. This character’s secret will turn out, though, to be disappointingly humdrum: she is a landlady who is looking for a house-sitter for her vacant property. She has duly provided the stage for the adventure but not the adventure itself.
Somerset is now obliged to concoct his own escapade in her empty house and to pen the hieroglyph for himself. Unfortunately, starting an adventure proves so impossible for Somerset that he might as well be trying to write in unknown lettering.
There are two threads to be subtly unpicked here. The question is surely not whether Somerset can discover the mystery at the heart of London but whether he should. Manning ponders “the present danger that sympathy will become empathy, that the observer will be swallowed up by the actor or the province subsumed in the centre.” Perhaps one reason why Somerset cannot pervade the city’s mystery is that he will need to compromise his own detached, rather gimcrack performance as a detective. It is just this performance that the city refuses to swallow: “To thousands he must have turned an appealing countenance, and yet not one regarded him.” When Somerset at last encounters a criminal nemesis, it takes the form of that most puritan-provincial of phenomena: the double.
The circumstances in which Somerset and Zero first properly meet highlight their potential interchangeability. Somerset is snooping in Zero’s rooms; he puts on Zero’s sealskin coat; he poses before Zero’s mirror; and he takes the wanted advert for Zero out of the coat’s pocket. He gazes down into this description of Zero at the same time that he is reflected, matching this description, in Zero’s mirror. Zero then enters the room and sees this double-reflection of himself incarnated before him.
This doubling might reflect a puritan-provincial sensibility, but, in keeping with the noncommittal tenor of Manning’s analysis, it is also seamlessly overlaid over a familiar device from the One Thousand and One Nights: the embarking of indistinguishable heroes upon thickly interchangable adventures.
Somerset and Zero are brother bunglers. Zero regards himself and Somerset as equals, whereas Somerset is desperate to navigate himself out of this sympathy. Maybe Zero was once like Somerset and Somerset could be one day reduced to a Zero. These doubles could have branched off from the same original personality; they are both, for example, prone to burst into tears of frustration. The hero and Zero have been nevertheless placed in separate narrative containers: the first is indeed formally accorded a heroic role, though he is in fact passive to the point of uselessness; the second is the villain and his lack of active immorality is only due to the chemicals not working. For Somerset to sympathise with, understand, and finally empathise with Zero would necessitate the obliteration of his own personhood. He can never attain a proper knowledge of Zero without losing his original innocence.
The puritan, as Manning has it, “desires… to gain knowledge without losing innocence, which in a Fallen world is impossible.” Note the choice of verb when Somerset eventually reaches the inevitable epiphany that he can never become a detective: “Must I fall, at my time of life, into the Common Banker?” Somerset can never learn the secrets of London and keep his innocence. For the secret at the heart of this story is essentially that adventures are silly and that the best that Somerset can aspire to is the godliness of bourgeois boredom.
On the other hand, falling into bankerdom might signify the possible preservation of Somerset’s innocence. A detective roaming around central London in the late nineteenth century would have been bound observe all sorts of horrors. They might have met Jack the Ripper. They might have encountered child prostitutes or savage incest or evils that would shake their faith in God and humanity to the roots. The universe in The Dynamiter is, however, queered against this seriousness. Somerset receives back the answer from the cosmos that he inhabits a farce. He is unable to heroise himself out of a world that remains fundamentally incomplete and second-rate.
When Andrew Pringle, the minister in John Galt’s The Ayrshire Legatees (1820), visits London, he is overwhelmed by its scale: “after all we can say of any man, the effect of the greatest influence of any individual on society at large, is but that of a pebble thrown into the sea.” Manning answers this with an earlier text, Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian (1818), which portrays another trip from the provinces to London and potentially equips us with a solution to the tension between centre and periphery:
She [Jeanie Deans] is quite uninterested in seeing the sights and learning the ways of the metropolis, and secludes herself in her lodgings to await the call which will accomplish her quest. London is to her only a Vanity Fair, and she is proof against all its allurements… Throughout the story, Jeanie’s centre is not without – somewhere she might travel to – but within, in the faith which allows her to ‘possess her soul in quiet’… at moments of crisis.”
Although Somerset remains permanently peripheral from the secrets of London and the terrorism of Zero, he believes in them, he orbits them, and he is far from regarding them as frivolous “allurements.” We might duly wonder why Stevenson had chosen to plant this puritan-provincial sensibility into the mind of an Englishman. Somerset is supposedly an English barrister, or at least, with the surname that he is given, he can be hardly Scottish. It is surely that this character is just not puritan or provincial enough. Somerset is a soft-headed, weak-willed English innocent who has come unaligned from the flintiness of the imperceptible literary tradition that Stevenson is writing in. When commenting on the puritan-provincial vision, Manning explained that, “even when its individual terms can no longer compel, the framework survives to structure the thought of those born in its shadow.” Stevenson was unquestionably born in its shadow but his character Somerset is conspicuously not. No doubt this is why The Dynamiter can have no seriousness as a story. Somerset is a plastic puritan or an inauthentic, un-provincial quester who is more reconciled to the centre than he ever lets on.
Whilst Manning’s Calvinist is “set adrift on a terrifying world of meaningless clues,” Somerset is given the consolation that he is personally contained within a kindlier world. It is a world in which evildoers such as Zero can do no harm and even their mishaps merely burn children’s fingers. Somerset’s discomfort is thus of being too near to the centre – of having his wellbeing guaranteed by a discreetly paternalistic God – and of not being plunged fully into the loneliness and self-sufficiency of the puritan-provincial vision.