Brocken spectre with a glory.
Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Justified Sinner

That’s a Brocken spectre with a glory in the picture above. The spectre is the shadowy, manlike figure, and the glory is the halo of rainbow colored light that appears about the head. This phenomenon appears in our next book, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

The lady who is about to meet her unpleasant end is Ruth Snyder. She was a NYC murderess executed in Sing Sing’s electric chair on January 12, 1928. The photo shows her as she receives a jolt of current. I’ll get to her and what she has to do with a Scottish novel from a century before in a little bit.

Hogg’s novel concerns a man who may or may not be the legitimate second son of a Scottish laird. The man, Robert Wringhim, may also be the son of a Calvinist divine. The divine is described as a heretic within Calvinism. His core belief is that you can attain certainty of salvation in this life, and that the elect, because they are certain of salvation, are free from the constraints of the moral law.

The novel is broken into three parts. The first part is by a putative editor who gives what is supposed to be an objective account of events in the previous (18th) century. This is followed by the Confessions themselves, which are a first person account of the events as told through the eyes of Robert Wringhim, the sinner. The third part is by the editor again, but is set in the contemporary (1824) period. This recounts a journey to verify a letter about the case. The editor, in the first part, accepts as valid and attested appearances, and doubling that we would be inclined to doubt in the second part, the actual confessions.

Introductory English classes sometimes have difficulty with the concept of the unreliable narrator. Our usual tendency is to regard what the author, or the narrator, says as true. Poe introduced, or at least made memorable use of the unreliable narrator. In The Tell-tale Heart, we are initially inclined to regard the narrator as truthful. As the story progresses we learn that the narrator has committed a murder, and at the climax we discover that he is quite insane. His insanity throws into question the reliability of everything we have just learned about him.

The first part, by the editor, should be an objective, journalistic recounting of facts. The editor has accepted traditions of the area into his text, and that raises the question of the reliability of the reports, the traditions themselves. The reports contain observations of the a mysterious double who appears with Wringham.

If both parts are unreliable, the one because the traditions are unreliable, based on mistaken or even duplicitous testimony, and the second part because the narrator is insane, then the novel becomes much more complex.

If you’re like most Americans, you give at least partial credence to the doctrines of Christianity. (Demographically 70-75% of Americans are nominal Christians, other religions have smaller percentages.) That means that in dealing with a novel that presents supernatural elements you have to do a little discernment of spirits. The possibilities for Wringhim’s friend are:

When someone makes a supernatural claim, you’re natural reaction, even if you’re a believer, is to be a bit suspicious. When I worked near L’enfant Plaza in DC, I would go to noon Mass at St. Dominic’s. One day a guy stopped me on my way back to work, and told me that he’d been given the gifts of astral projection and bi-location. (The latter is being two places at the same time. Padre Pio is said to have had that gift.) I didn’t know the man, and I just nodded in pleasant agreement.

If you’re a modern secular type, there is no real choice, the person reporting supernatural experiences is either lying, or he is delusional. However, any novel asks that we enter into its world, and within that world of the Confessions, we have to allow for the possibility of an evil supernatural being.

Wringhim’s adoptive father explains to him “how he had wrestled with God, as the patriarch of old had done, not for a night, but for days and years, and that in bitterness and anguish of spirit, on my account; but, that he had at last prevailed, and had now gained the long and earnestly desired assurance of my acceptance with the Almighty, in and through the merits and sufferings of his Son.” The image of wrestling with God comes from Genesis 34:23-34. Unlike Wringhim’s mentor Jacob lost his contest with the Lord, and was injured on the hip as a result.

There are two sins against the virtue of hope. Presumption, the belief that one can be certain of one’s salvation, or that one can make a last minute repentance, and squeak into heaven, is one. Despair, the feeling of irreparable damnation, which is the final sin of Faust in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is the other. I was once trapped in a van during a snowstorm with a man who asked me “Tom, where will you spend eternity?” I was sick with a bad cold, and knew that my eternity was to be with him in that van, but I told him I didn’t know. He then launched into a sermon on being born again, and being certain of your salvation. I gently explained that I was taught that that was the sin of presumption. As I recall the discussion eventually petered out.

Wringham’s belief in the certainty that he is predestined to eternal salvation leads him to believe that he can commit murder in the name of the Lord and not suffer eternal damnation. This leads him, or his doppleganger, to murder his brother, his father, his mother, and a young woman. He claims to have no memory of some of these events, and is convinced that his double has done them. A modern psychiatrist would probably come up with a diagnosis of dissociative disorder, or fugue, or multiple personality disorder, or some other nomenclature. The general, non-specialist diagnosis would be mad as a hatter, or looney tunes.

I suppose that the Classical counterpart to presumption is hubris. The chief difference, for this discussion, is that while presumption is the belief in one’s salvation, that hubris is pride in one’s accomplishments, virtues, or abilities. There is a touch of hubris as well in Wringhim’s belief that his predestined salvation elevates him above the moral law.

Whether it is simple presumption, hubris, or a mixture of both, Wringhim’s defect leads him to a tragic end.

The third part recounts the editor’s journey to procure evidence, including the memoirs that we have just read. Unlike the first two parts, which I think we have to regard as having doubtful reliability, we’re to regard this part as being factual. The problem is that it does not contain anything directly relevant to the facts of the preceding narration. The editor obtains the manuscript of the memoir that we have just read, but does not understand it.

Is the sinner, Wringhim, mad, or is he actually dealing with a being of incarnate evil? I’ll leave that for the gentle reader to decide.

What’s the connection, and I said there was one, with poor Ruth Snyder? The connection is to be found through Presbyterianism. After his execution a book by Henry Judd Gray, Snyder’s partner in the murder, was published, and H. L. Mencken wrote a comment on Gray’s reflections. This little essay, A Good Man Gone Wrong, appears in The Vintage Mencken. Now Mencken was not religious. He was in fact a cynic, at least an agnostic, and probably an atheist. His observations on religion are not necessarily to be taken at face value, even by those who belong to no particular religion. However, his observation on the Gray-Snyder case is interesting, and should be considered as saying something of value.

Mencken starts out by postulating that it was Gray’s sense of sin that drove him to murder: “What finished the man was not his banal adultery with his suburban sweetie, but his swift and overwhelming conviction that it was mortal sin.” Adultery is a mortal sin, but I think the point that Mencken is making here is that Gray was aware of something dying in his soul. Grace, certainly, but also that sense of his own rectitude, possibly his sense that his salvation was certain.

Mencken describes Gray, a corset salesman, as having an idealistic view of that business: “to Gray, with his Presbyterian upbringing and his idealistic view of the corset business, the slip was a catastrophe, a calamity. He left his tawdry partner in a daze, marveling that there could be so much wickedness in the world, and no belch of fire from Hell to stop it. Thereafter his demoralization proceeded from step to step as inexorably and as beautifully as a case of Bright’s disease.” This loss of the certainty of his salvation led inevitably, in Mencken’s view, to his crime: “His crime, in fact, was a sort of public ratification of his damnation. It was his way of confessing. If he had any logical motive, it was his yearning to get into Hell as soon as possible.”

Gray is in the same situation that Marlowe’s Faustus is in. He has sinned, and is aware of the gravity of his sin, however, he despairs of God’s mercy, and this leads him to even graver sin, that of murder.

Traditional teaching, at least within the Catholic church, is that virtue is a mean between an excess and a defect. Presumption would be the excessive version of hope, while despair is it’s defect. The two cases illuminate the way in which striving to attain that certainty of salvation or its loss can lead to greater sin.

Next up is Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations. I should do Kant’s moral writings, but I found The Critique of Pure Reason utterly incomprehensible. I should also do Pride and Prejudice, but I think I’ve read that before, so I’m going to skip it. What I’d like to do is one play per weekend, so I think I’ll start off with the plays in Four Jacobean Sex Tragedies.