The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: religion

The Post-Victorianism of Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (1959)

Wilfred Thesiger was a writer-explorer in the tradition established in the Victorian period. In his introduction to Arabian Sands (Penguin 2007; book first published 1959), Rory Stewart writes of Thesiger:

His writing, therefore, often echoed the reports of nineteenth-century British travellers on the North-west frontier: matter of fact, understated, replete with precise information, useful for Imperial projects. (ix)


Thesiger and Salim Bin Ghabaisha, one of his Bedu companions in his travels across the Empty Quarter.

Given that the travels documented in Sands took place in the late 1940s, Thesiger was too late to contribute to imperial projects. At the time, Britain did have a presence of sorts on the so-called Trucial Coast (modern-day UAE), but they had little real power, and they pulled out amicably in the late 60s. And Thesiger would not have wanted to contribute to imperialism. For all the Victorian pluck, reserve, tolerance of hardship and uncomplaining perseverance in evidence in his writing, Arabian Sands is more in the tradition of Rousseau’s Noble Savage than British imperial literature.

Thesiger admired without reservation the Bedu desert nomad tribes of Southern Arabia. His was not a “civilizing mission” in the Victorian tradition, but consciously the reverse. Thesiger was desperate to escape modern western living and find purity in the austerity of the desert. He notes with regret the imminent coming of the oil companies to Arabia, and foresees the dying out of the Bedu way of life:

I realized that the Bedu with whom I had lived and travelled, and in whose company I had found contentment, were doomed. Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have exchanged the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world. This I do not believe


I knew that for them the danger lay, not in the hardship of their lives, but in the boredom and frustration they would feel when they renounced it. The tragedy was that the choice would not be theirs: economic forces beyond their control would eventually drive them into the towns to hang about street-corners as “unskilled labour”. (329-330)

Hardship over boredom and frustration was the choice Thesiger made throughout his life, and the reader of Sands is compelled to consider the same choice. It’s not only material comfort Thesiger gave up. He was also apparently celibate throughout his life. Whether he found this a burden or not he does not say. This is not surprising, for in Sands, there is very little self-analysis or self-psychologizing. The point was not to have a rich emotional life, nor even to know thyself. In crossing the world’s largest sand desert, the Empty Quarter of Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen, there was no space for such luxuries. There was so much less self to know.

So the really Victorian thing about Thesiger is, perhaps, his commitment to the annihilation of self. This is Thomas Carlyle’s rather violent term from his extremely influential work bildungsroman Sartor Resartus (1833-34):

“Here, then, as I lay in that CENTRE OF INDIFFERENCE; cast, doubtless by benignant upper Influence, into a healing sleep, the heavy dreams rolled gradually away, and I awoke to a new Heaven and a new Earth. The first preliminary moral Act, Annihilation of Self (Selbst-todtung), had been happily accomplished; and my mind’s eyes were now unsealed, and its hands ungyved.” (Bk. 2, Ch. 9)

Sartor’s protagonist Teufelsdrockh is, like Thesiger, a ceaseless traveller, and the image of the desert is one Carlyle often invokes:

In strange countries, as in the well-known; in savage deserts, as in the press of corrupt civilization, it was ever the same: how could your Wanderer escape from—his own Shadow? Nevertheless still Forward! I felt as if in great haste; to do I saw not what. From the depths of my own heart, it called to me, Forwards! The winds and the streams, and all Nature sounded to me, Forwards! Ach Gott, I was even, once for all, a Son of Time. (2, 6)

For Carlyle, any exceptional person must pass through the desert, but it is only a passing through. The point is to emerge out the other side. This is where Carlyle’s deism comes in. The only way out of the desert is through religious faith.

Product of a later age, Thesiger’s is a godless universe. There is only desert. One doesn’t simply pass through, but returns to it again and again, experiencing hardship upon hardship without end. The journey is the goal. To a Victorian like Carlyle, this would be a nightmarish and unacceptable conclusion. But to Thesiger, there is nothing to regret and nothing to complain of. Having experienced that new modernist dawn that the Victorians anticipated with some ambivalence, Thesiger is absolutely convinced – so convinced that he rarely mentions it in Sands – that the desert itself is the answer, is as close to Carlyle’s Everlasting Yea as one is going to get. This is a certainty Thesiger seems to hold beyond the need for dogmatism, and it is the undogmatic ease of Thesiger’s philosophy that is one of the merits of this great book.

Sherlock Holmes’ Favourite Book: The Martyrdom of Man

Diving once again into the archives of free Kindle books, I came across Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man (1872). Amazon searches indicate this book hasn’t been given a proper new edition in a long time – these 19th-century theorists of everything, predating disciplinary academicism, are out of fashion – but it’s a fascinating insight into the optimistic views of human progress that predominated in Victorian times, as well as one of the classics in the cultural prophecy mode: shades of Carlyle and Arnold, pre-empting H.G. Wells (who was indeed a fan). Furthermore, it was Sherlock Holmes’ favourite book, or one of them anyway, being strongly endorsed by that character in conversation with Dr. Watson.

Let me recommend this book,—one of the most remarkable ever penned. It is Winwood Reade’s ‘Martyrdom of Man.’ (The Sign of the Four, Chapter 2)

Holmes himself is something of an embodiment of the new type of person Reade envisaged, a harbinger of a new age. For Reade’s schema of history sees four ages: war, religion, liberty and intellect. These four concepts were successively the primary drivers of human progress. First: simple war, might is right; progress was assured through conquest. Then, the relative enlightenment of the religious age, the rise of monotheism and its instalment as the central dynamic symbol by which men and women lived and worked; then, liberty, as an ideal, took over, leading to revolutions of various sorts and a new world order; fourth, and apparently final, was to be the age of intellect, which Reade saw coming over the horizon. The days of wars and of faiths were over; Reade found that these had in earlier times served a purpose, having been the vehicles by which man raised himself from cultural animality.

War, despotism, slavery and superstition are now injurious to the progress of Europe, but they were once the agents by which progress was produced. By means of war the animated life was raised slowly upward in the scale, and quadrupeds passed into man. (loc 5859)

But by the application of the law of growth of all living things (and by extension, for Reade, the agglomeration of living things that is human society), these agents had outlived their uses. The idea that war is not a thing to be recommended is one most wouldn’t argue with, but Reade gave perhaps the most outspoken critique of established religion then in print. He could hardly have been more explicit: “I undertake to show that the destruction of Christianity is essential to the interests of civilization; and also that man will never attain his full powers as a moral being until he has ceased to believe in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul.” (loc 6112)

It is as though Reade was answering the challenge set by John Stuart Mill in his at the time still-unpublished autobiography:

On religion in particular the time appears to me to have come when it is the duty of all who, being qualified in point of knowledge, have on mature consideration satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false but hurtful, and to make their dissent known […] The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments – of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue – are complete sceptics in religion. (Autobiography [Seven Treasures Publications], loc 544)

Reade was as open a sceptic as could be imagined. He used, among others, the familiar if-there’s-a-god-then-why-do-people-suffer argument to combat Christianity. He has a nice line on this:

[W]e shall state as an incontrovertible maxim in morality that a god has no right to create men except for their own good. (loc 6042)

Now that religion had passed its sell-by date, Reade expected the “spirit of Science” to take hold of the human mind. From scientific investigations, “will proceed discoveries by which human nature will be elevated, purified and finally transformed.” (loc 5177). Unfortunately (in my opinion), Reade, having discarded religion, proceeds to reintroduce the concept of God in the latter part of the book:

[T]he God of Light, the Spirit of Knowledge, the Divine Intellect, is gradually spreading over the planet and upwards to the skies. (loc 5979)

This is not the God of the monotheistic religions, rather a very vague notion not necessarily denoting anything supernatural, but used by Reade at times to indicate some sort of life force impelling mankind to better himself and assuring us that all is for the best, validating Reade’s optimistic reading of human history. Later again, Reade returns to his discussion of God:

We teach that there is a God, but not a God of the anthropoid variety [.] […] God is so great that he cannot be defined by us. God is so great that he does not deign to have personal relations with us human atoms that are called men. (loc 6265)

A God so great he cannot be defined is in itself a definition that seems to open the door for any conception, even a Christian one, of the great deity. In this ultimate back-pedalling manoeuvre, Reade is very typical of Victorian post-Christian intellects. But it is his general tendency towards elevation of the scientific principle that allies him to the Holmesian stance, as well as marking Holmes as a figure beyond religion, and opposed to the old forms of faith. Reading The Martyrdom of Man gives a good sense of how important Holmes was to his time and as a representative of a philosophically new way of being; although one must admit that the age of intellect has probably not yet quite gotten underway, nor is Religion (or War) as dead as Reade prophecied.

Terry Eagleton on Religion

Having earlier set down a few thoughts on historian Niall Ferguson’s advocacy of a religious society, I have moved onto the work of another well-known public intellectual of a deist persuasion, Terry Eagleton. Eagleton is known for his Marxist views, but he also published a series of lectures as Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009), which, despite the apparent balance of the title, is intended as a riposte to  the strident atheism of Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great (2007) and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006). Eagleton conflates his two nemeses into the singular “Ditchkins” in his book. In one sense, this is a legitimate device, as their position on many issues regarding ethics, religion and civilization is similar; Eagleton also differentiates between them with regard to several positions. On the other hand, the term he chooses carries highly derogatory connotations: ditch-kins, brothers of the gutter. At least that is what it suggests to me.

But that is not my interest here. Eagleton confirms something I found in Ferguson; something that seems to operate as the trump card for religionists of the western world in this era. It focusses on, and takes its validation from, Islamic fundamentalism. This is the subject of Eagleton’s last chapter, “Culture and Barbarism”. Here he states:

Advanced capitalism is inherently agnostic. This makes it look particularly flaccid and out of shape when its paucity of belief runs up against an excess of the stuff. […] With the advent of Islamist terrorism, those contradictions have been dramatically sharpened. It is now more than ever necessary that the people should believe, at just the point where the Western way of life deprives them of much incentive for doing so. (143-4)


I have already argued that reason alone can face down a barbarous irrationalism, but that to do so it must draw upon forces and sources of faith which run deeper than itself, and which can therefore bear an unsettling resemblance to the very irrationalism one is seeking to repel. (161)

Eagleton retains his Marxist stance here, equating Marxism with faith and capitalism with the lack thereof. Otherwise, though, he’s in the exact same position as capitalist religionist Ferguson: if your opponents proclaim strong belief in irrationalities, you must adapt similarly irrational beliefs to combat them. Strength through irrationality. It is possible, if you try to believe really hard, to out-irrationalize the most fundamentalist of terrorists. What is missing from this debate is any sort of commitment to truth. In the earlier chapters, Eagleton does make some hazy theological pronouncements on God, the universe and everything, but nothing clear. His getout for this is that theology is abstruse and not easily explained; Ditchkins, et al., espouse “an abysmally crude, infantile version of what theology has traditionally maintained” (50). Yet it is no accident that the climactic parts of Eagleton’s book, the real meat in his arguments, totally discard theology and issues of truth in religion to focus on its social utility and Islamist-terrorism-fighting powers.

For the reasonable person who admits the undesirability of terrorism, what is left? As far as I can gather, Eagleton would tell that person to pretend to believe in some religion. To play along. Of course, you don’t call it pretending. Instead, you follow Eagleton by noting that “[Badiou] does grasp the vital point that faith articulates a loving commitment before it counts as a description of the way things are” (119). This appears to me vague and evasive; a “loving commitment” is great, but its dependence on religious faith is simply assumed, and used to excuse the fact that faith doesn’t help with understanding “the way things are”. As Lionel Hutz said, “There’s the truth [shakes head forbiddingly] and the truth [nods head vigorously]”. If you think there’s just the truth, you won’t be much help in the war against terror. So 21st-century religionists would have you believe.

In short, it’s not the imperative of all inhabitants of the Western world to believe, at whatever cost to reason and empirical observation, and at the risk of propelling themselves into a state of chronic cognitive dissonance. Rather, it is the imperative of a public intellectual like Eagleton to point out what he believes can be believed – to do it in good faith, without obfuscation and without simply playing on common fears. A return to old forms is out of the question. Eagleton, Ferguson and the rest would be well advised to “take off their old monastic and ecclesiastical spectacles”, as Thomas Carlyle put it (“Stump Orator”, Latter-Day Pamphlets), and to begin to see once again with their eyes. If faith is so important, then let us have faith – only let it not be faith in cant and jargon (Carlyle again). That is not a dynamic and energizing force in the community, as Eagleton seems to think, but a sham obvious to all but those who will not see.

The Work-worship Nexus: Niall Ferguson’s Civilization (2011)

I have been reading historian Niall Ferguson’s latest book Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), an exploration into the reasons western Europe began to dominate the world from 1500AD, and later America continued the western heritage and hegemony, and the reasons why this domination appears to be coming to an end, threatened economically by China, and physically by Islamic Jihadism. The first threat isn’t really so bad, as Ferguson considers China to be reasonably westernized, more western than the current crop of westerners themselves, in some respects. With their emphasis on hard work and thrift, the Chinese are a sort of neo-protestant people. And Ferguson reports with glee on the growing number of actual Protestants, and to a lesser extent Catholics, in China. He has a case study, one Hanping Zhang, a big deal in the pen-manufacturing industry. Zhang is a Christian, and likes to employ Christians: “he knows he can trust his fellow Christians, because he knows they are both hard working and honest” (285). Meanwhile, the nominal “west” is becoming godless and consequently lazy – “Europeans not only work less; they pray less” (266). Ferguson is very insistent on the work-worship nexus.

Niall Ferguson

At the book’s close, Ferguson writes: “maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam, or CO2 omissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors” (325). At this point, Ferguson has linked civilization so closely with Protestant Christianity as to create the impression that “this loss of faith” (and that particular phraseology reinforces it) is explicitly religious, and that until we rediscover religion, we cannot hope to fend off the Yellow and Brown Perils. Now, it does not appear that Ferguson himself is religious. Religion to him is a social convenience. It is not quite an opium of the people, as that drug causes physical lethargy – religion prescribes moral and political quietism but dutiful industriousness. This attitude has been hanging on for centuries now. It is a long time since intellectuals like Ferguson actually believed in religion, but there have always been those who wished to prescribe it for the masses. John Stuart Mill took this up in 1873:

On religion in particular the time appears to me to have come when it is the duty of all who, being qualified in point of knowledge, have on mature consideration satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false but hurtful, and to make their dissent known […] The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments – of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue – are complete sceptics in religion. (Autobiography)

Yet the issue drags on. There are always a few ready to speak for religion, and there is always a public to hear them. As long as Ferguson and the like are content with the sham of religion, the sham will perpetuate itself among certain sectors of the public, with considerable politico-moral consequences for western society at large. Synonomizing “western” and “protestant”, Ferguson is able to give the protestant ethic credit for everything that occurs in the western world, just as he now attempts to give it credit for China’s progress. Religion has hitched onto too many trains already, though, and we would do well to remember all those great ornaments who have gone on without religion or in spite of religion, but who haven’t had the stomach to expressly and openly fight it. Much less praiseworthy are those like Ferguson who wish to carry on with the old forms, now far past their sell-by date, when their greatest effect is to alienate the more intelligent and thoughtful members of society from those in whom discrimation or sincerity is secondary to convenience, conformism, complacency and moral self-indulgence, while pandering to and encouraging the latter.

Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (Allen Lane [Penguin]: London, 2011).

On Looking into 50 Shades of Grey

It behoves the aspirant cultural critic to investigate all significant cultural phenomena, and with this in mind I have lately been looking into E.L. James’s bestselling erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey, which is the fastest selling book of all time. Suddenly, it’s taken the generally unspeakable topic of sado-masochistic sexual relationships and presented it in a way that has found huge favour in the mainstream. It has provided a new code with which to speak of things which as their uneuphemized selves cannot be spoken of. Yet whether 50 Shades is really about sex and/or sado-masochism is harder to say. Perhaps its popularity is that it is a book nominally about sex that really gives free rein to other fantasies, giving to certain old tropes a veneer of newness by the addition of sado-masochistic content. Here, having read 66% of the novel by Kindle’s calculations, I will take time to reflect on this groundbreaking work, this Sign of the Times, as our old friend Mr C. would say.

The relationship between Christian Grey and the young female narrator Anastasia Steele is about much more than sex. The sexual dominance Grey employs is only an extension of what happens in the rest of their relationship. He follows her, he’s there when she’s about to do something dumb or dangerous, he always knows what she’s thinking, he has the power to give her all the things she wants materially, if she deserves them. He is a sort of secular god, with added powers of providing sexual satisfaction. He doesn’t provide Anastasia with just a good sexual partner, but with a whole metanarrative, a design for life. He motivates her, partly through fear of losing his favour, to change her lifestyle, to eat and drink better, to sleep better, to be fitter and more productive, to exercise – which she has hitherto hated; she is no longer in danger of a standard student life of alcoholic overindulgence whose dangers are highlighted in the early part of the book. She drives more slowly after meeting him, remembering “a stern voice telling me to drive carefully” (loc 312 – Kindle citation). Grey is a convenient construction who provides a personalized motivation to do all of the things she felt she should be doing anyway. He is an all-knowing, all-seeing providence guiding her every movement, and judging it infallibly. The same drives that are behind the creation of a Christian Grey are those hitherto sublimated in the religions of mankind. Religion is, in the words of Dr Freud (in Civilization and its Discontents (1929)):

[A] system of teachings and promises that one the one hand explains to him [i.e. man], with enviable thoroughness, the riddles of this world, and on the other assures him that a careful providence will watch over his life and compensate him in a future existence for any privations he suffers in this. The common man cannot imagine this providence otherwise than as an immensely exalted father.

The good doctor goes on to find this “so patently infantile, so remote from reality, that it pains a philanthropic temperament to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above such a view of life.”

In 50 Shades, this image of the immensely exalted father is not projected onto a literal god, but onto a real person (diegetically real, that is). It is the feeling of being watched over by a perhaps stern but certainly benevolent omnipotence that provides the attraction for Anastasia Steele. Sex, I would suggest, is a small part of this, and not the most important; only important, perhaps, in that sex is the hardest element of life to reconcile with the religious drives – but, yet, they must be made to reconcile, and this is what James achieves, providing a fantasy of life that has all bases covered. 50 Shades of Grey helps to fill a God-shaped void for many of its readers (and, by God, I mean, mostly, the wish to abdicate intellectuo-moral responsibility); the danger, of course, is in applying the “lessons” of 50 Shades to real life, as this involves the imputation of god-like status to some person. Whether this turns out to be more dangerous than imputing god-like status to an illusory entity, time will tell.

One is not, of course, suggesting that 50 Shades in itself and alone will be responsible for a rerouting of the religious drives onto individuals within a romantic and sexual context, but that it is a Sign of the Times in this regard. This is all based on the supposition that the drives which have hitherto given rise to religions are still operative and as it were searching for a new object.

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