Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fools of Time: Shakespeare's 124th Sonnet

This is one of Shakespeare's least known, most obscure, most powerful poems:

If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune's bastard be unfather'd,
As subject to Time's love or to Time's hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gather'd.
No, it was builded far from accident;
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled discontent,
Whereto the inviting time our fashion calls:
It fears not policy, that heretic,
Which works on leases of short number'd hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with showers.
To this I witness call the fools of time,
Which die for goodness, who have liv'd for crime.

Though obscure, difficult—just about impossible to paraphrase—Shakespeare's meaning is clear enough. Like his more well-known, 116th sonnet, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds . . . .", this is a poem about fidelity, integrity, truth, authenticity. The phrase "time's fool" in #116 becomes in #124, "the fools of time." Who are the fools of time? Time-servers, toadies, people who suck up to wealth, power, fame, celebrities: the permanent residents of Bunyan's and Thackeray's Vanity Fair.
"The sum of this sonnet," says Stephen Booth, "is so much greater than the sum of its parts that even the most scrupulously open-minded glosses on its particulars do very little to explain how it achieves its grandeur. The poem is as little influenced by the circumstances its particulars evoke as the speaker's love is said to be by the circumstances in which he loves." Booth's scrupulously open-minded glosses on this poem (Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1997) are worth reading. I like his concluding remark: "The poem present two evils, inconstancy and expediency. Any reading of the [last] couplet relates to both, but, unless one takes the practical way out by dismissing the problem, a reading of line 14 allows one neither to retain one's contempt for expediency without espousing an instance of inconstancy nor to retain contempt for inconstancy without espousing an instance of expediency." Thus the poem with sombre dignity teaches a bitter lesson: no one is innocent, we have all been unfaithful in some degree to someone or something, we all know what it means to take the easy, expedient way in preference to the right.

Monday, June 29, 2009

On The Amusements of Men

'Have you ever observed, Grace,' said Miss Dale, 'how much amusement gentlemen require, and how imperative it is that some other game should be provided when one game fails?'

'Nor particularly,' said Grace.

'Oh, but it is so. Now, with women, it is supposed that they can amuse themselves or live without amusement. Once or twice in a year, perhaps something is done for them. There is an arrow-shooting party, or a ball, or a picnic. But the catering for men's sport is never ending, and is always paramount to everything else. And yet the pet game of the day never goes off properly. In partridge time, the partridges are wild, and won't come to be killed. In hunting time the foxes won't run straight—the wretches. They show no spirit, and will take to ground to save their brushes. Then comes a nipping frost and skating is proclaimed; but the ice is always rough, and the woodcocks have deserted the country. And as for salmon,—when the summer comes round I do really believe that they suffer a great deal about the salmon. I'm sure they never catch any. So they go back to their clubs and their cards, and their billiards, and abuse their cooks and blackball their friends. That's about it, Mamma; is it not?'—from The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867), by Anthony Trollope.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Politics & The Noble Hero: Coriolanus

The three plays, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and

Coriolanus, bracket the Roman Republic from its origins in the

early fifth century BC to the second half of the first century BC, when

Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Octavius, later the Emperor

Augustus, effectively ended it. It is easy to see why Shakespeare

should have been interested in the end of the Republic. Julius Caesar

was one of those unique individuals who seem in themselves to be

agents of historical change, and his assassination set off a struggle for

power that totally transformed the Mediterranian world. And what

could be more glamorous than the story of Antony and Cleopatra and

their doomed struggle against the cold efficiency, and luck, of Octavius

Caesar? It is not so easy to see what might have drawn Shakespeare

to Plutarch’s story of an obscure Roman hero from a time when Rome

was just another aggressive little city-state.

Fifth century Rome had, however, as Shakespeare knew from reading

Livy’s history, an active political culture which was beginning to

invent the institutions that would turn Rome into a republic. That’s

a problem for both Plutarch’s and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: neither is

equipped by temperament and education to understand, much less

operate within, the politics of a Republic. The action of Coriolanus

turns on this fact.

Shakespeare’s Caius Martius (later, Caius Martius Coriolanus) has

been trained from birth to be a professional soldier and patrician

zealot, for both of which he seems to have a natural aptitude. His

mother, Volumnia, whom he worships, has been largely responsible

for his education. His father, for all we know, died before he was born.

He despises the plebians because they are plebians, and because they,

like most people, have neither his aptitude nor his love for war. They

are easily terrified on the field of battle and given an opportunity to

loot, they loot. Besides, they don’t wash their faces or brush their

teeth. They are, however, an important force in Rome, and in recognition

of this fact have acquired a pair of Tribunes to speak for them as

their representatives in the Senate. Caius Martius is implacably hostile

to this political innovation; he is our first reactionary. The other members

of his patrician class are not any happier about it, but they, unlike

Caius Martius, know enough to keep their mouths shut.

In recognition of his prowess in taking the town of Corioles, singlehandedly,

from their neighbors and enemies, the Volscians, he is

granted the surname Coriolanus; other rewards he disdainfully rejects.

He is politically ambitious, however, and when, as the Tribunes glumly

foresee, the patricians put him forward as their candidate for

Consul, he is more than willing. The Tribunes are glum because

Coriolanus’s political views are well known and they are pretty sure

that, when elected, he will try to abolish the Tribunate; as a war hero,

Coriolanus looks like a shoo-in. So it is a surprise to everyone when

he blows the election by failing to win acceptance of his candidacy by

the plebians.

All he has to do is go into the market place, dressed in a simple

gown, show the people the scars he has acquired fighting for Rome,

and ask for their votes. This he finds impossible. The gown of humility,

so called, feels worse than a hair shirt when he puts it on and goes

into the market place. What he cannot do is speak simply and directly

to the people he meets there, nor frankly ask for their support; the only

rhetorical mode at his command is irony. As for showing his scars in

public...! Such vulgarity is out of the question. He suggests that if

anyone really wants to see them, he might be able to arrange for a private

showing. All of this is conducted in a tone of subtle arrogance and

contempt—directed perhaps as much at himself for jumping through

these hoops, as at the people for expecting these things of him. Though

the plebians are aware that something’s not quite right about the way

their votes are being solicited, they are too simple and too easygoing

to make an issue of it.

[Had Shakespeare ever seen an election or a politician working a crowd?

 Probably not. We are watching a representation on the stage of 

something that no one at that time had, in all liklihood, ever seen before.]

When the Tribunes hear about Coriolanus’ behavior, they tell the

people they’ve been duped. They ask: Why didn’t you do as you were

told? This was your chance to get something in return for your votes;

you ought to have made him promise to “translate his malice towards

you into love,/Standing your friendly lord.” (II.3.190) Well, actually

the plebians had tried to educate him a little. When he had arrogantly

claimed that he deserved to be Consul and shouldn’t have to be

begging their votes at all, they had politely informed him that politics

is a two-way street: “You must think, if we give you anything, we hope

to gain by you.” And when he had cynically asked them their “price,”

one of them had gently reminded him of his manners: “The price is, to

ask it kindly.” (II.3.71-5)

The trouble with people like Coriolanus (and Bertram, in All’s Well

That Ends Well), is that they are uneducable. What had been nurtured

by their privileged, aristocratic upbringing, has become their nature.

(As Huck Finn says, such people are just naturally ornery—they can’t

help it.) Trouble starts when, coached by the Tribunes, the people

revoke their approval of Coriolanus’s candidacy. As the Tribunes had

foreseen, for they know him better than he knows himself, Coriolanus

is enraged. Soon he is saying what he really thinks, which is that the

people are cowardly, stupid, and undependable and shouldn’t have

any voice at all in the government of Rome. Either “pluck out the 

multitudinous tongue”(the Tribunes), he declaims, or witness the decline

and fall of Rome. (III.1.141-161) Treason! cry the Tribunes and call for

the summary execution of Coriolanus who, spoiling for a fight, thereupon

draws his sword. And that might have been the end of Rome,

right then and there, had cooler heads among the patricians not prevailed.

Civil war is avoided and Coriolanus is given a chance to appear

in the market place and apologize.

In the following scene his friends and his mother try—belatedly—

to get him to understand the necessary expedients and hypocrisies of

politics; they try to teach him how to be a politician—and they fail.

Like Hamlet, he will be true to himself at whatever cost. Honor, for him

as for Hotspur, is an absolute good. Unlike Hamlet, whose self is layered

in irony, and a mystery to all including himself, everyone knows

where to find Coriolanus—and get at him, if need be. For he is a simple

soul, and perfectly authentic—the sort of man who, as Iago

remarks with contempt, wears his heart on his sleeve for daws to peck

at. And that, it seems to me, accounts in part for the incessantly iterated

word “noble” in this play which is almost part of his—Coriolanus’— name.

His is the nobility of a man who, in the words of Yeats’ sonnet, No 

Second Troy, is “as simple as a fire”— and as destructive. Shakespeare 

shows us, in Coriolanus, what it means to be absolutely true to oneself.

When his family and friends try to persuade Coriolanus to keep his real

thoughts and feelings to himself and pretend to eat humble pie, simply

as a matter of political expediency, he is indignant. Never, he says;

I can’t do that and I won’t. Why make such a fuss? his mother asks.

“You are too absolute; though therein you can never be too noble/ But

when extremities speak.” (III.2.39-41) No wonder her son is confused,

having been taught all his life that nobility is absolute; either you have

it or you don’t. Now, suddenly, he is being told that nobility admits

of gradations and modifications. To paraphrase Volumnia’s admonition:

Though you can never be too noble, for nobility consists in being

absolutely true to oneself and one’s principles, and such integrity is an

absolute good, yet extreme necessity justifies ignoble acts. Besides,

she continues, if deception is justified in war, as you will readily admit

for you have often said so, why not in politics? All of this being heartily

seconded by his fellow patricians, he has no immediate reply, and a

little later he reluctantly gives in: 

                                               Must I

With my base tongue give to my noble heart 

A lie that it must bear? Well, I will do’t..... 

You have put me now to such a part which never

I shall discharge to th’life. (III.2.99-106)

And that, as it turns out when he tries to play his part in the crucial scene,

is the simple truth: put to it, he is unable to pretend to be what he is not, 

i.e. play the hypocrite. The Tribunes have only to call him a traitor

to put him out of his part altogether. For if he cannot give his noble heart

the lie, how can he endure it from another? Once more civil war is barely

averted, this time by the Tribunes who have moderated their demand from 

death to exile, and this solution to the intractable problem posed by the 

incorrigible nobility of Coriolanus is acceptable to all—all but Coriolanus, 

who feels betrayed by his own class and exits, saying, magnificently if not 

accurately, you can’t banish me, I banish you.

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate

As reek a’ th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize

As the dead carcasses of unburied men

That do corrupt my air—I banish you! III.3.123

He can no more banish Rome than he can step outside himself or

change his own nature. Nor is there “a world elsewhere”—his parting

shot—where he might have an easier time of it: the character traits

that get him into trouble in Rome would do so in any civil society. Even

a military camp, the only society he is fit for, would probably have to

reject him, eventually, as an impossible person.

He has to go somewhere, and the only place he can go, if he is not

to live as a hermit in a cave, is to Antium, the chief city of Rome’s enemies, the

Volscians. And since he is a soldier who understands war but nothing

else, there is only one thing for him to do when they agree to take him

in: join them in their war with Rome. The Tribunes had called him a

traitor, knowing it would enrage him; it does not occur to him, as he

goes over to the Volscians, that that is what he has just become.

Led by Coriolanus, the Volscian army is invincible, and soon it is in

a position to sack and destroy Rome. Emissaries from Rome, seeking

peace, are summarily rejected, but he can’t refuse to see his mother,

wife and child. For the first time in his life, he faces a tragic dilemma:

either he must break his promises to his new friends and allies, the

Volscians, who will certainly punish this betrayal with death, or he

must destroy his family by destroying Rome. Either way he loses, but

he sees at last that he can't take revenge on Rome for the dishonor it has

done him, without also destroying his family, and that this would be the

most ignoble and dishonorable thing he could possibly do. That should have

been obvious all along. Why does it take him so long to understand this basic

truth? Because he has always assumed that he is an absolute individual—

or as he puts it, the "the author of himself"—and therefore responsible to 

no one but himself. He thereupon makes peace with Rome, withdraws

the Volscian army and, as he expects, is killed as a traitor upon his return

to Antium.

[Notice that Shakespeare is quite content to ignore the religious point that 

the phrase "author of myself" raises for pious audiences. Jesus had yet

to be born; the Roman  republic was happily pagan and would remain 

so for almost 800 years; and Shakespeare was not the man to distract 

his audiences with anachronisms.]


Coriolanus is usually thought of as a tragedy, though it is quite unlike 

Shakespeare’s other tragedies—of all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes and 

heroines, Caius Martius Coriolanus, is the least reflective, least 

self-conscious, least attractive; it is also, in some sense, Shakespeare’s 

most overtly political play though it is not clear what the point is or why

such a politically innocent hero should have been chosen to make it.

 It is immediately obvious that Caius Martius is not a politician at all.

As the pure embodiment of the aristocratic principle, according to

which heroic greatness, manly worth, and moral power are looked 

upon as gifts of nature, and consequently dependent on noble birth, 

he is totally unfit for the complicated give-and-take of public affairs

in any large human community, especially a republic.  

The play is set in early fifth-century BC Rome because that’s when

the rights of the plebs as citizens of the republic were being recognized,

and a radically new institution was being created, the tribunate,

through whom they would henceforth have the power to state their

grievances and have them addressed. All the people have rights in a

republic, not just those of a particular class, which is why a man like

Coriolanus, who can’t accept this new political reality, has to be ejected.

He thinks the nobility alone should have rights. He despises and

hates the people’s tribunes, not for intellectual reasons—his opposition

to this new and vitally important institution is not theoretical—but

because they are the people’s tribunes and his contempt for the people

is visceral, beyond reason. By virtue of his passionate loyalty to his

prejudices and principles, he becomes the catalyst that very nearly

turns normal class conflict into class war, and forces the people of

Rome, including the nobility, to banish him.

The absence of inward or reflective intelligence is what makes him

so pure an embodiment of the aristocratic principle. A more rational,

thoughtful man, able to examine and control his feelings and motives,

having recognized that they are a barrier to his political career, would

not have served Shakespeare’s purposes in this play, which is a critique

of the aristocratic principle at a moment when the English polity,

like that of Rome in the early years of the republic, was becoming

more inclusive and the power of the Commons in Parliament was on

the rise.

While Caius Martius is not only the perfect warrior but the perfect snob, 

we fail to do him or the play justice if we leave it at that: as the

repetition of ‘noble’ keeps reminding us, Caius Martius has a moral quality,

which we rightly call noble, that lifts him above ordinary social distinctions

and above the opportunistic calculations and compromises

that characterize normal political life. Virtue, for him, truly is its own

reward, and the virtue that he prizes above all is what we would call

integrity—or authenticity, perhaps, which is not quite the same thing.

Unfortunately, the demands he makes of himself and others are inflexible:

come what may, he will be absolutely true to his idea of what or

who he is, as a man of honor for whom courage and honesty are

absolute goods. Nothing else matters, or so he thinks, until he is

brought face to face with his wife, child and mother outside the gates

of Rome.

Shakespeare in this play seems to been asking himself some such question 

as the following: if the aristocratic code of honor cannot provide a morally

sufficient or even coherent ethics, what is the future, if any, of the aristocratic 

principle in modern republics or commonwealths?

Caius Marius Coriolanus is a difficult person but Coriolanus is not a

difficult play. He would have been hard to like at any time, especially

now that the aristocratic principles he so intransigently stands for are

long defunct, but his thinking and his motives, like those of the

 plebians, patricians and tribunes are not hard to understand. The

plebians want to be treated as citizens, with rights, which Coriolanus

and the other members of his class would like to deny; the tribunes are

doing their job, which is to protect the newly acquired rights of the

people against the obvious desire of the nobility to take them away.

Why otherwise would the nobility be so eager to have Caius Martius

chosen Consul? Since the tribunes themselves embody those rights,

they are necessarily protecting their own jobs (it could hardly be otherwise

since the one entails the other) when they are coaching the

plebians on how to deal with their enemy when he solicits their votes

in the market-place and, later, when the tribunes outmaneuver

Coriolanus and force him into exile. So the tribunes are schemers, so

what? Everyone in this play is looking out for his or her own interests,

or those of his or her class, with the possible exceptions of Virgilia,

Caius Martius’s wife, and he himself, whose patriotism is not hypocritical,

just confused. He truly believes that the nobility is Rome and

that the plebians are useless appendages to the body politic. To the

extent that they play a part in the politics of Rome, Rome will be weakened

and eventually destroyed. That is what he says at the beginning

and he never changes his mind.

As a man who is absolutely incapable of being false to himself,

Caius Martius Coriolanus shows us what it means to be unambiguously

noble: a person who can’t pretend to be what he or she is not,

and cannot therefore go back on his or her beliefs, values, principles.

Such a person—or idealized person—presents an insoluble problem for

the politics of a commonwealth, which is what England thought of

itself as, and was in fact in the process of (slowly) becoming, i.e. a

society in which everyone has rights and everyone has a stake in its

economic prosperity. The commonwealth or common good requires

that all classes, all stakeholders, make compromises. But when compromise

becomes the golden rule of politics, and the art of hypocrisy

becomes necessary for political survival and social stability, what happens

to the virtues of an aristocratic society: honor, integrity, courage,


Coriolanus is a critique of aristocratic values but also something

more. What should we make, it seems to ask, of a polity and a political

language that no longer has any use for the word ‘noble’ except as

a metaphor? What will become of us when authenticity has become a

virtue that can only be excercised in private life? The play is ambivalent

about its hero because, I suppose, Shakespeare was ambivalent

about what these changes would mean. And so, I think, are we all,

even now as the politics of the modern, liberal republic hinted at in this

play—the politics of more or less democratic, utilitarian, free-market

states—is being established as the only game in the world.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

On Politics: some semi-eternal truths

1. Politics is the business of deciding who gets what and who pays.

2. Politics is the art of the possible.

3. Things take longer and cost more than one might have supposed.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Adam Smith on teachers & teaching:

If the teacher happens to be a man of sense, it must be an unpleasant thing to him to be conscious, while he is lecturing his students, that he is either speaking or reading nonsense, or what is very little better than nonsense. It must, too, be unpleasant to him to observe that the greater part of his students desert his lectures, or perhaps attend upon them with plain enough marks of neglect, contempt, and derision. If he is obliged, therefore, to give a certain number of lectures, these motives alone, without any other interest, might dispose him to take some pains to give tolerably good ones. Several different expedients, however, may be fallen upon which will effectually blunt the edge of all those incitement to diligence. The teacher, instead of explaining to his pupils himself the science in which he proposes to instruct them, may read some book upon it; and if this book is written in foreign and dead language, by interpreting it to them into their own; or, what would give him less trouble, by making them interpret it to him, and by now and then making an occasional remark upon it, he may flatter himself that he is giving a lecture. The slightest degree of knowledge and application will enable him to do this without exposing himself to contempt or derision, or saying anything that is really foolish, absurd or ridiculous. The discipline of the college, at the same time, may enable him to force all his students to the most regular attendance upon this sham lecture and to maintain the most decent and respectful behavior during the whole time of the performance. 

The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students in all cases to behave to him as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability. It seems to presume perfect wisdom in the one order, and the greatest weakness and folly in the other. [From The Wealth of Nations (1776), Bk. 5]

Monday, June 15, 2009

A definition of 'liberty' from THE SPIRIT OF THE LAWS (1748) by Montesquieu

"As in democracies the people seem to act almost as they please, this sort of government has been deemed the most free, and the power of the people has been confounded with their liberty. . . But political liberty does not consist in an unlimited freedom. In governments, that is, in societies directed by laws, liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will, and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will.

"We must have continually present to our minds the difference between independence and liberty. Liberty is a right of doing whatever the laws permit, and if a citizen could do what they forbid he would be no longer possessed of liberty, because all his fellow citizens would have the same power."

In other words, don't make laws for others that you would not accept for yourself. That has always been a hard lesson. It's getting harder all the time.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Idea of A Gentleman: Vanity Fair II

Towards the end of his novel, Vanity Fair (1847-48), Thackeray says something that to all appearances he well and truly believes; it may be the only thing he believes. He  tells us what it means to be a gentleman: "Perhaps these are rarer personages than some of us think for. Which of us can point out many such in his circle—men whose aims are generous, whose truth is constant, and not only constant in its kind but elevated in its degree; whose want of meanness makes them simple; who look the world honestly in the face with an equal manly sympathy for the great and small." (p. 740 of the Signet edition)  Such personages are rare indeed in Vanity Fair; in fact, as you might expect in a novel with such a title, there is only one, just as there is only one Christian in Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress: the good soldier (or horse?) William Dobbin. But Dobbin is not a hero like Bunyan's Christian, fighting the enemies of the Christian way of life.

Thackeray says his novel has no hero and that is true, if by the word 'hero' we mean a single person whose point of view the reader more or less shares and whose moral consciousness through good fortunes or bad is central to what the book is 'about'. Dobbin is not a hero in that way for the simple reason that he is not subject to the temptations of Vanity Fair and, in any case, is off-stage and conveniently out of the way, in India, for most of the novel. He is reference point, a still point in a corrupt and chaotic world.

The woman, Becky Sharp, who could have been the hero or heroine of the novel, as Emma, say is the heroine of Jane Austen's novel of that name, is Dobbin's enemy—and Thackeray's, who hates her, with her green eyes, her sharp intelligence and her beauty, and never gives her a chance. He calls her a "siren," a "delilah," and even at one point describes her, extravagantly, as a witch in terms reminiscent of Spenser's description of Duessa. I quote at length here so that you can hear and judge for yourself the disingenuous sound of  Thackeray's voice as he with self-righteous 'irony' and mock-modesty completes his demolition of Becky's character:

"We must pass over a part of Mrs. Rebecca Crawley's biography with that lightness and delicacy which world demands—the moral world, that has, perhaps, no particular objection to vice, but an insuperable repugnance to hearing vice called by its proper name. . . . I defy any one to say that our Becky, who has certainly some vices, has not been presented in a perfectly genteel and inoffensive manner. In describing this Siren, singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster's tail above water? No! Those who like may peep down under waves that are pretty transparent and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, or curling round corpses; but above the waterline, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish immoralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie? When, however, the Siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labor lost to look into it ever so curiously. They look pretty enough  when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and sing, and beckon to you come and hold the looking-glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it, these mermaids are about no good,  and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling and feasting on their wretched pickled victims. And so, when Becky is out of sight, be sure she is not particularly well-employed, and the less said about her doings is in fact the better." (p.759f)

But in fact, Thackery has more to say and continues to say it. 

How should we account for such foolishness in a  novel that has a reputation at least as an important work of art in the modern tradition of literary realism? The material that I have just quoted may be over-the-top, as we say, but its moral and intellectual incoherence like its tonal inconsistency, is typical of the novel as a whole. So, for example, Thackeray can't make up his mind how seriously to take the fact, which was undeniable, that the allegorical place that Bunyan had called Vanity, with its eternal fair, had become a real city named London—or Europe, the modern world: he persists in trying to treat this fact comically, though he doesn't have the comic genius of Dickens, or satirically though he can't even begin to write like Swift. Tragedy too is out of his range, though he knows that life in this modern vanity fair is hell for just about everyone but the very rich, and especially for children.

The only bright spot is the faithful and stoic horse (or Houyhnhnm), William Dobbin.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Vanity Fair I

When I had finished rereading Thackeray’s novel, it occurred to me that I ought to take a look at the book that he was alluding to when he decided to call it “Vanity Fair”: John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress. 

Part One, written in 1678, is an allegorical account of the life of a good Christian, or at any rate the life of a man who wants to be a good Christian and eventually, after various encounters that test his spirit, succeeds: having reached the river of death that separates the Heavenly City from the world, he and his friend Hopeful drown as they are crossing it, whereupon they (minus their mortal graments) are taken up by a welcoming committee on the other side and brought in triumph into the City (which is everything you’d expect it to be: gold streets, harps, the lot.)


Any such life--the life of a wayfaring Christian--must, according to Bunyan and Christian tradition generally, be a lonely and heroic pilgrimage, surrounded by people, (like Christian’s wife in the first instance) who don’t see the point or, if they do, don’t want you to succeed and despise you for trying; or, in the extrreme case, try to kill you.

The first thing Christian has to do is leave his wife (spiritually, at least). Then he has to deal with various people who are so stupid or casually immoral that they get in his way--people like Obstinate or Pliable or Talkative or Mr. Worldly-Wiseman. And then there are such permanent features of the human condition, like depression (The Slough of Despond), despair, doubt, or the fear of death, or the sinful temptations that any moral person encounters, all of which have well-known names. For all of these Christian is more or less prepared, with a little help from his friend and advisor, Evangelist. What he is not prepared for--though Evangelist tries--is outright persecution by an enraged mob in the city of Vanity (where the Fair never stops) who rightly see him and Faithful as subversives who threaten the foundations of their whole (immoral) way of life. 

The city of Vanity goes back to the very beginnings of human history (as Bunyan understood it). Here is what he has to say:

“This fair is no new erected business, but a thing of ancient standing; I will show you the original of it. Almost five thousand years agone, there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these two honest persons are:  and Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the pilgrims made, that their way to the city lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a fair; a fair wherein should be sold all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all year long; therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures and delights of all sorts, as harlots, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not. [I like that “what not.”] And, moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be seen juggling, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind. Here are to be seen, too, and that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false-swearers, and that of a blood-red colour. . . .Now, as I have said, the way to the Celestial City lies just through this town where this lusty fair is kept; and he that will go to the City, and yet not go through this town, must needs ‘go out of the world.’”

Faithful is judicially murdered--brutally lynched, essentially--but Christian escapes, when Higher Powers intervene, and continues on his way accompanied by Hopeful, one of the few decent citizens of Vanity.

The town of Vanity, with its eternal fair and its loathesome inhabitants, is at the center of what Pilgrims Progress is all about: a timeless depiction of the Christian way of life as one of unrelenting struggle with an enemy that is both within us and without: not only sinful, unregenerate human nature in the mass, as in the city of Vanity, but within us as well. Vanity Fair is eternal; it preceded the coming of Christ, which it ignored, and it will still exist, unchanged, when the Christian message has been forgotten. That, at least, is the plain meaning of Part One; Part Two softens that hard truth.

You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate Bunyan’s intellectual and moral--and literary-- power: the human nature dramatized in this allegory is what it is regardless of one’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, which is why Pilgrims Progress is one of the greatest books of practical ethics and morality ever written for ordinary people. Bunyan is one of the great masters of plain, eloquent, unadorned English prose; anyone who could read and possessed any books at all during the next 200 years, and more, owned this book and the bible.

Part Two, published in 1684 is a very different book: where Part One is timeless, independent of history, Part Two is all about time and change and, believe it or not, progress in the modern sense of the word. First of all, Christian’s wife has a change of heart and decides to follow him, with her four sons, who grow up along the way, marry, and have children of their own. When they come to Vanity, they find that it too has had a change of heart and changed: shocked by their extaordinarily brutal persecution of Christian and Faithful, this sinful city has become just another ordinary town. Where Christian and Faithful (later, Hopeful) had had to fight their way, these prilgrims have a champion, Great Heart, who accompanies them every step of the way and fights their battles for them. Theirs  is a virtually triumphal ‘progress.’ 

The death of Christian, crossing the great divide, or river, is desperate and agonizing (Hopeful seems to have no trouble at all); when Christiana and her numerous progeny finally arrive at the river, those whose time has come go accross “by appointment” (as the Wikipedia article says); the others settle down by the banks of the great river and live out their days in peace.

What follows is a foot-note to Bunyan's description of the town of Vanity with its eternal fair. He was, as I have indicated, of two minds about its timelessness; and so am I. For the idea of an amoral place where everything and anything has a price and is for sale is modern and therefore historical. People have always known that money is power and that power corrupts but have held on to the idea that there are some things that money can't buy--in addition to life itself. So everyone knows, for instance, the famous (feel-good) definition of a cynic, as one who knows the price of everything and value of nothing, but not everyone understands that the size of the world economy is measured by illegal or immoral transactions as well legal ones: any transaction in which money changes hands. That is to say, there are very few things in the modern world that have value but no price. Such things as integrity, honor (not the boughten kind), courage, kindness, wisdom come to mind as possibly priceless goods, but that's about it. A cynic, like Shakespeare's Iago, is inclined to disbelieve in the disinterested practise of these or any other virtues; everyone, he thinks, has an angle, a price, and can be bought; it just depends on how much you are willing to pay. 

The world is now one huge market, or fair, and this is a modern phenomenon. That market, or fair, was beginning to take shape when Bunyan was writing Pilgrims Progress, in the late 17th century. Hobbes' definition of happiness or 'felicity' in Leviathan (1651) lays the intellectual and moral foundations of the modern world-wide market-place. (See my posting of 2/2/08, "Happiness According Hobbes"). I've no idea if Bunyan read Hobbes. He wouldn't have had to.

Having gone this far out on my lonely limb, I might as well go little further. So far the corrosive power of big money  and the world market in whatever the heart desires has been held at bay by the power of the state to maintain law and order. When the power of the state collapses, states fail. States are now failing faster than at any time since the collapse of the Roman Empire. Why? Religious extremism is one reason but the biggest reason of all is our insatiable appetite for illegal drugs. I have no idea how large the U.S. market for drugs is right now but it is huge and growing--especially now in hard times. With that money comes power. The power of money (and guns) is irresistable in new states, or states with democratic institutions including the rule of law which have only recently and with difficulty been established, or states where the struggle for scarce resources in a time of rapid climate-change has already begun. The states just to the south of the U.S., and in Africa are failing fast. The southern half of Italy seems well on its way. Afghanistan is a failed state; will Pakistan and the other Stans soon follow? And what of Russia, where the state has never been anything but tyrannous and the rule of law weak or non-existent?