Scottish Literature Challenge Recap

This week has been all about The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and Amateur Reader’s challenge format has been great fun. Everyone should play along! I’m certainly looking forward to more of the clishmaclaver as the year progresses. In case you’ve missed anything:

Good comments abound. Thanks very much to my gracious host for his crazy idea, and I hope you all enjoyed our havering. (Well, mine at least, and his erudite commentary.)

“It is the crownhead o’ absurdity to tak in the havers o’ auld wives for gospel.”

James Hogg was a bit of a country mouse, who barely went to school and worked as a shepherd in addition to writing in both English and Scots. He doesn’t leave his fellow country folk out of The Private Memoirs and Confessions, which includes several scenes of dialogue between the English-speaking gentry and their Scots-speaking compatriots.

When Mrs. Colwan runs away from her impious new husband, her Scots-speaking father slyly punishes her to “make the sight of the laird the blithest she ever saw in her life.” This is a good introduction to the type: the man is both cunning and straightforward; uncomplicated and sophisticated; coarse and smart.

Many of these dialogues involve the servants of the main actors of the story. After the deaths of George and the laird, Mrs. Logan is robbed, and her maid called to testify regarding the stolen goods. Bessy Gillies is wonderfully stubborn about a radical, Scottish-enlightenment-style skepticism that prevents her from saying for sure whether the items in evidence belong to her mistress. And that, in turn, gives Mrs. Logan an advantage she failed to gain through her own more genteel speeches.

Both those scenes are from the first editor’s narrative. In the memoir, Wringhim’s first encounter with a Scots-speaker is with his adoptive father’s servant John Barnet. Barnet doesn’t think of much of the snivelling young Wringhim, and eventually makes his point in wonderfully colorful terms:

‘There he goes! sickan sublime and ridiculous sophistry I never heard come out of another mouth but ane. There needs nae aiths to be sworn afore the session wha is your father, young goodman. I ne’er, for my part, saw a son sae like a dad, sin’my een first opened.’

Barnet is well aware of, and not afraid to state, the obvious, while Wringhim is living in a sanitized fantasy world where the petty, self-important Mr. Wringhim is a great and even divine man. The young Wringhim uses his upper hand in their relationship to hurt Barnet, but the servant chooses to keep his dignity rather than lie to preserve the gentry’s delicate sensibilities.

Barnet is not the only one of the common people who easily sees the young Wringhim for what he is. At one point during the harassment of his brother, Wringhim lands in jail. “[I]nsulted” by the “rude unprincipled fellow” guarding him, he “remembered of having read, in the Cloud of Witnesses, of such men formerly, having been converted by the imprisoned saints; so I set myself, with all my heart, to bring about this man’s repentance and reformation.” Wringhim’s self-esteem may be a little too high:

‘Fat the deil are ye yoolling an’ praying that gate for, man?’ said he, coming angrily in. ‘I thought the days o’ praying prisoners had been a’ ower. We had rowth o’ them aince; an’ they were the poorest an’ the blackest bargains that ever poor jailers saw. Gie up your crooning, or I’ll pit you to an in-by place, where ye sall get plenty o’t.’

The peasants always seem to have a better idea of what’s really going on. When Wringhim wakes up one day with months’ worth of memories missing, it’s his servant that fills him in on everything that’s happened. This Samuel Scrape is also one of many country people in the story to note that “they say the deil’s often seen gaun sidie for sidie w’ye, whiles in ae shape, an’ whiles in another. An’ they say that he whiles takes your ain shape, or else enters into you, and then your turn a deil yourself.” The peasants are superstitious and fantastical, but see the true state of things much more clearly than Wringhim.

They also know better than Wringhim how to spot the devil—by his cloven feet, of course—and are too canny to fall into exactly the kind of trap he did. As the weaver says to his wife, “Whan focks are sae keen of a chance o’ entertaining angels, gudewife, it wad maybe be worth their while to tak tent what kind o’ angels they are. It wadna wonder me vera muckle an ye had entertained your friend the deil the night, for aw thought aw fand a saur o’ reek an’ brimstane about him.”

I don’t want to give the impression that the novel that features romantically idealized naive peasants. Their earthiness is sharp and Scottishly rational.

Hogg himself makes an appearance in the novel, in the last editor’s narrative. The editor reproduces a letter, which was really published in Blackwood’s and written by Hogg, recounting the story of a suicide whose body was miraculously preserved and whose legend fit the story of Robert Wringhim. The editor wants to dig the body up, and goes looking for Hogg at a sheep fair:

We soon found Hogg, standing near the foot of the market, as he called it, beside a great drove of paulies, a species of stock that I never heard of before. …Mr. L—t introduced me to him as a great wool-stapler, come to raise the price of that article; but he eyed me with distrust, and turning his back on us, answered, ‘I hae sell’d mine.’

[H]e spurned at the idea [of raising the body], saying, ‘Od bless ye, lad! I hae ither matters to mind. I hae a’ thae paulies to sell, an’ a’ yon Highland stotts down on the green every ane; an’ then I hae ten scores o’ yoews to buy after, an’ if I canna first sell my ain stock, I canna buy nae ither body’s. I hae mair ado than I can manage the day, foreby ganging to houk up hunder-year-auld banes.’

This places the author firmly among a certain set of characters with a certain set of characteristics, and it’s a good joke besides. Hogg’s got better things to do than dig up old bones—like writing layered Gothic novels about digging up old bones.

“some incoherent words about justification by faith alone, and absolute and eternal predestination having been the ruin of his house”

John Carey’s introduction to my Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner cautions against the too-easy view that Hogg is simply a man of sense, against enthusiasm, and therefore writing a tract against the sort of fanatical Calvinism displayed by Wringhim.* How wrong is that view?

We’ll start within Wringhim’s memoir. He is extremely devout, spends much time in prayer, and believes completely in a doctrine of predestination that will likely cut most current readers off from his ethics and morality. Before finding out he is one of the elect, “…I lived in a hopeless and deplorable state of mind; for I said to myself, ‘If my name is not written in the book of life from all eternity, it is in vain for me to presume that either vows or prayers of mine, or those of all mankind combined, can ever procure its insertion now.’ …I went on sinning every hour….” Wringhim is very conscious of sinning and certainly believes himself depraved, but it’s just that depravity that prevents his doing anything about it. His beliefs also make it possible for him to openly confess his sins and discuss them with an unusually clear conscience:

I was particularly prone to lying, and I cannot but admire the mercy that has freely forgiven me all these juvenile sins. Now that I know them all to be blotted out, and that I am an accepted person, I may the more freely confess them: the truth is, that one lie always paved the way for another, from hour to hour, from day to day, and from year to year; so that I found myself constantly involved in a labyrinth of deceit, from which it was impossible to extricate myself.

But the reader is constantly reminded that there is a dark side to these beliefs, and that “the grace of repentance being withheld from me, I regarded myself as in no degree accountable for the failure [to repent].” After finding out he is predestined for heaven, Wringhim takes up still more radical ideas and begins to believe that violence is better than preaching, “haranguing [sinners] from the pulpit, striving to produce an effect, which God, by his act of absolute predestination, had for ever rendered impracticable.”

Wringhim’s first adversary after his justification is a minister who disagrees with his radical doctrines. Mr. Blanchard cautions that:

Religion is a sublime and glorious thing, the bond of society on earth, and the connector of humanity with the Divine nature; but there is nothing so dangerous to man as the wresting of any of its principles, or forcing them beyond their due bounds: this is of all others the readiest way to destruction. Neither is there any thing so easily done.

He is a wise man, but his reasonableness will end up the first victim of Wringhim’s spree. Nothing upsets Gil-Martin more than questioning the ability of the elect to ignore ethical rules.

As Wringhim’s relationship with Gil-Martin continues, he sometimes “doubted if the elect were infallible, and if the Scripture promises to them were binding in all situations and relations.” But ultimately he always returns to the idea that “a justified person could do nothing wrong,” and that therefore he is effectively outside of moral law. This is all just classic antinomianism, a recurrent issue in high Calvinism and other Christian sects, and certainly the kind of idea that occasions discomfort in most non-adherents.

And there are plenty of non-adherents within Calvinism itself—Wringhim’s principles are not necessary even for those who believe in predestination. The following long passage from his memoir, however, suggests connections between predestination and his own state—whether he’s mad or possessed by the devil:

I had heart-burnings, longings, and yearnings, that would not be satisfied; and I seemed hardly to be an accountable creature; being thus in the habit of executing transactions of the utmost moment, without being sensible that I did them. I was a being incomprehensible to myself. Either I had a second self, who transacted business in my likeness, or else my body was at times possessed by a spirit over which it had no controul, and of whose actions my own soul was wholly unconscious. This was an anomaly not to be accounted for by any philosophy of mine, and I was many times, in contemplating it, excited to terrors and mental torments hardly describable. To be in a state of consciousness and unconsciousness, at the same time, in the same body and same spirit, was impossible. I was under the greatest anxiety, dreading some change would take place momently in my nature; for of dates I could make nothing: one-half, or two-thirds of my time, seemed to me to be totally lost. I often, about this time, prayed with great fervour, and lamented my hopeless condition, especially in being liable to the commission of crimes, which I was not sensible of, and could not eschew.

Wringhim is not “an accountable creature”—just as he’s been insisting he’s not accountable for his actions all along. And he is terrified by the idea that he is committing crimes without either the knowledge or ability to avoid them—just as the unregenerate are unable to eschew the sins that will land them in hell. Poor Wringhim finds his “life sought after with avidity, and all for doing that which I was predestined by him who fore-ordains whatever comes to pass.” Just like the poor souls of the unregenerate.

Wringhim calls this an “anomaly not to be accounted for by any philosophy of mine,” but the concept that predestination forecloses free will was hardly unheard of. He raises the same issue later when he’s attempting to escape from a peasant’s home where he seems to be pursued by demons. Gil-Martin comes to Wringhim’s rescue, leading him away under his own protection. But Wringhim “felt that I would rather have fallen into their hands, than be thus led away captive by my defender at his will and pleasure, without having the right or power to say my life, or any part of my will, was my own.” Wringhim is powerless and stripped of his will by the devil, but his beliefs entail exactly the same kind of power for God.

Taking the memoir, as I suggested yesterday, as a parable, perhaps it is its writer that is a bit concerned with the logical implications of predestination. One theme of the memoir is certainly that there is a danger in using too much reasoning or logic, which can lead from religious principles to something sinister—as Mr. Blanchard warns above.

So there is room for predestination without these problems, and if anything about the editor’s narrative is to be trusted, predestination does seem to be at work in the outside world. For example, when Mrs. Logan and her witness go in search of Robert, “it seemed as if some overruling power ordered it, that they should miss no chance of attaining the information they wanted.” However, again, that overruling power could just as easily be God or the devil. Seems like quite a dangerous confusion to be in. And one that I haven’t, you’ll notice, gotten us out of.

*I do, however, disagree with certain points in the essay. For one thing, the editor (in the novel) does supply more than just the facts, but he doesn’t seem quite so clueless or exposed to Hogg’s ridicule as Carey makes out. I could be missing this. One specific incident that struck me totally differently was Mrs. Colwan’s flight to her father, as well as the “home truths” of a peasant girl that imply the Laird of Dalcastle was indeed evil. I could be missing this as well, depending on how important a willingness to pray might have been to Hogg.

Don’t miss Amateur Reader’s post from yesterday on this subject, where we (try to) hash out some of these issues in the comments.

Who is Gil-Martin?

Gil-Martin can be most simply described as Robert Wringhim’s doppelgänger. Once he appears, he seems to show up wherever Wringhim is, or elsewhere in the form of Wringhim. Wringhim is well aware that his friend can change appearances to resemble those he is in company with, and he does so often. Wringhim himself has a very amusing idea of who Gil-Martin really is: King Peter the Great of Russia, incognito on his European tour. He conceives this idea based on the man’s apparent power and abilities and the impression that Gil-Martin rules over a realm of some kind, a realm full of Christians. Wringhim chooses to respect the King’s disguise and not mention his true identity, but several references to it make for comical errors.

Because by then we have two ideas about the real true identity of Gil-Martin: he is either Satan, or he is all in Wringhim’s head (or, of course, both).

He certainly acts just like we would expect Satan to act. One of the pair’s main activities together—other than serial killing—is arguing religious principles (also the favorite pastime of Robert’s mother and the elder Wringhim). According to the healthy Christian peasantry, this is just like Satan, who “had been often driven to the shift o’ preaching [Christanity] himsel, for the purpose o’ getting some wrang tenets introduced into it, and thereby turning it into blasphemy and ridicule.” The first time they meet, Wringhim pretends to dispute a point he really believes, “and said, that ‘indubitably there were degrees of sinning which would induce the Almighty to throw off the very elect.’ But behold my hitherto humble and modest companion took up the argument with such warmth, that he put me not only to silence, but to absolute shame.”

Anytime the two disagree or Wringhim tries to loosen his grasp, Gil-Martin will always have a quick and snappy comeback, will always be able to convince Wringhim of his rightness and assuage his doubts. When Wringhim has a crisis of conscience before an attempt on the life of his brother, he has a vision of an angel telling him not to do it. When he tries to explain to Gil-Martin, the latter “answered that I had been in a state of sinful doubting at the time, and it was to these doubtings she had adverted.” Typically, Wringhim does not actually remember the details, only that Gil-Martin has seemingly supernatural powers of reasoning and persuasion:

I was obliged to admit the force of his reasoning; for though I cannot from memory repeat his words, his eloquence was of that overpowering nature, that the subtility of other men sunk before it; and there is also little doubt that the assurance I had that these words were spoken by a great potentate, who could raise me to the highest eminence, (provided that I entered into his extensive and decisive measure,) assisted mightily in dispelling my youthful scruples and qualms of conscience….

Of course, wouldn’t a successful delusion act just the same way—be always one step ahead of the conscious Wringhim, and be able to persuade him of things that would seem natural and logical though they might appear insane or wrong to an outsider? The question of whether Gil-Martin is corporeal seems to be answered in the affirmative, but the evidence is hardly decisive. There are plenty of instances within the memoir where Gil-Martin appears to interact with others and others appear to see and hear him, but again, we would expect a successful delusion to instigate just those sorts of false memories. There is also evidence from within the first editor’s narrative that Mrs. Logan and a witness to the killing of George Colwan later saw Gil-Martin in company with Wringhim, and in the form of George no less. But that story recounts events a hundred years previous based on tradition and folktales, which the editor later admits could have been influenced by printers who knew about the memoir.

There is also more ambiguous evidence from the memoir that Gil-Martin is not so tangible. He mysteriously doesn’t like to accompany Wringhim indoors, and he doesn’t meet Wringhim’s parents. When Gil-Martin is in combat with George, Wringhim sees him “flitt[ing] about like a shadow, or rather like a spirit.” Wringhim can’t vouch so well for the existence of his friend—or, sometimes, of himself:

I generally conceived myself to be two people. When I lay in bed, I deemed there were two of us in it; when I sat up, I always beheld another person, and always in the same position from the place where I sat or stood, which was about three paces off me towards my left side. …The most perverse part of it was, that I rarely conceived myself to be any of the two persons. I thought for the most part that my companion was one of them, and my brother the other….

Gil-Martin likewise seems to see the two of them as connected. He tells Wringhim that he could “sooner cause the shadow to relinquish the substance, than separate me from your side. Our beings are amalgamated, as it were, and consociated in one, and never shall I depart from this country until I can carry you in triumph with me.” Later, Gil-Martin similarly tells a despairing Wringhim, desperate to be left alone, that “I am wedded to you so closely, that I feel as if I were the same person. Our essences are one, our bodies and spirits being united, so, that I am drawn towards you as by magnetism, and wherever you are, there must my presence be with you.”

I said yesterday that I wouldn’t be able to answer the question of who Gil-Martin really is, and I can’t, but there may be a way around all these false starts, and which explains them. The final portion of the editor’s narrative suggests that the memoir is not in fact a memoir, but “a religious parable…to illustrate something scarcely tangible.” The narrator considers it a failure in this regard, because no one in his day would believe a story about “a man…daily tempted by the devil, in the semblance of a fellow-creature”—something plenty of peasants in Wringhim’s time (according to Wringhim) were prepared to believe. We probably shouldn’t pay too much heed to the editor, who admits that he doesn’t know what to make of the document he’s found (or the grisly scene where he believes he’s found Wringhim’s corpse). But this does explain a few things.

One problem with Wringhim’s dealings with Gil-Martin is that he records conversations and incidents that would be odd or confusing to someone who didn’t have any idea that Gil-Martin was, or might be, the devil. Wringhim’s assumption that his friend is Peter the Great furnishes many of these points. For example, when Wringhim asks whether his friend’s “subjects” are Christians, “‘All my European subjects are, or deem themselves so,’ returned he; ‘and they are the most faithful and true subjects I have.'” Nothing explicit there, to be sure, but it’s spooky for the suspecting reader. Why did Wringhim remember this specific conversation, and write it down word-for-word in such spooky form?

Later, an even better speech made, according to Wringhim, by Gil-Martin:

‘Believe me, my dear friend, for such a prize I account no effort too high. For a man who is not only dedicated to the King of Heaven, in the most solemn manner, soul, body, and spirit, but also chosen of him from the beginning, justified, sanctified, and received into a communion that never shall be broken, and from which no act of his shall ever remove him,—the possession of such a man, I tell you, is worth kingdoms; because every deed that he performs, he does it with perfect safety to himself and honour to me.’

Here he is talking about “the possession of such a man”—how could such a phrase not be suspicious to Wringhim? His friend is talking about him as “a prize” that “is worth kingdoms.” In scenes like this (and above, where Gil-Martin is notably on Wringhim’s “left side”), the reader often wonders how Wringhim could have been so blind and failed to realize he was being seduced by Satan. But on second thought a better question might be how Wringhim managed to record such scenes months and years after the fact in the writing of his memoir, in such specific, suspicion-rousing phrasing.

He also manages to use imagery, at least when he’s starting to feel suffocated and persecuted by Gil-Martin’s presence, that would be immediately recognizable to any Christian: “I felt as one round whose body a deadly snake is twisted, which continues to hold him in its fangs, without injuring him, farther than in moving its scaly infernal folds with exulting delight, to let its victim feel to whose power he has subjected himself….”

Of course, these details could be added after the fact, as Wringhim does seem to believe there is something infernal about his friend by the end of their adventures. And surely the devil works in mysterious ways, and could compel the creation of just such a well-constructed parable. Not to mention the layer upon layer of madness that might need to be deciphered with such an unreliable narrator. So still, no answer—that’s a good thing, of course.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

This week begins with my contribution to the Wuthering Expectations Scottish Literature Reading Challenge and Clishmaclaver, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Amateur Reader is kindly reading along with me, so visit Wuthering Expectations for his posts as I spend the next three days with this delicious Scottish Gothic novel.

For lack of knowing better where to begin, I’ll start with the title. That “justified” is very important, but its meaning here is specialized and probably opaque to many. It’s the door to so much that is Scottish about the book. Robert Wringhim, the eponymous sinner, “was now a justified person, adopted among the number of God’s children—[his] name written in the Lamb’s book of life, and…no bypast transgression, nor any future act of [his] own, or of other men, could be instrumental in altering the decree.” Predestined to be saved through God’s grace and the atonement of Christ, Robert believes his sins will be forgiven no matter what. His memoirs and confessions form the middle of the novel, bookended by two “editor’s narratives” introducing and concluding his story.

Briefly, that story begins with the wedding of Robert’s parents, and ill-matched pair. His mother, a pious adherent of the strictest Calvinist doctrine, effects a separation from his father, a religiously casual laird, after just six months of marriage. She first delivers George, likely the product of the unhappy couple, who will be raised by his father. Later, she gives birth to Robert, suspected of being her minister’s son and largely raised by that man. Robert is a cunning and deceitful child, and after the minister’s pronouncement that Robert is one of the elect he begins to be visited by a mysterious personage who calls himself Gil-Martin. Persuaded by Gil-Martin of the antinomian doctrine that the elect can commit no sin which will not be forgiven, Robert becomes a sort of avenger of the lord, helping the unregenerate along to a quicker end than they might naturally have reached. He is supposed to have killed his brother, his mother, and a girl he seduced, but after George’s murder Robert finds himself with no memory of large spans of time and increasingly confused and persecuted by Gil-Martin. Hounded by the public and his own friend, eventually Robert reaches a tragic end, anonymous in the Scottish countryside.

Robert is impressively despicable. In the initial editor’s narrative we are set against him: his mother is a fanatic and a shrew, and he is his mother’s son. His first encounter with his brother occurs when they are teenagers in Edinburgh, and the former objects to the latter’s playing tennis. This kicks off an extended period where Robert shadows his older brother, sullenly appearing whenever he is at leisure with his friends, and spoiling everyone’s fun. Robert portrays himself in an equally bad light when we reach the memoir, though admittedly not on purpose. His confessions include more detail of his early life, and he recounts incidents that reflect very badly on his character. There is a boy who does better in school, so Robert steals his notebook and draws in it caricatures of their teacher. A servant of Robert’s adoptive father, the minister, gives Robert a piece of his mind and Robert contrives to have him fired. And through it all he maintains his own rightness in the most supercilious way imaginable. He’s just the sort of person who would end up thinking himself not bound by moral law and therefore licensed to kill.

But in spite of his arrogance, avarice, envy, obsession, and self-centeredness, Robert is not entirely unsympathetic. As his confusion and despair build, his audience is able to pity him, and while we may initially have sentenced him to worse, by the end his torments seem sufficient. He still believes his motives have been correct, but he is lost and knows that he is very much a sinner.

This is only the beginning. Who is Gil-Martin? What is the verdict on predestination? This week, I will fail to answer either of those questions.