Apologies

When thinking about the London theatre scene, it must be borne in mind that Newman’s Apologia as a whole is polemical: structure and content are controlled by its retaliatory role. Charles Kingsley had published a thinly-disguised attack upon Newman’s character and integrity, to which the Apologia was a response. Though it is a spiritual rather than a secular work, the main issue under scrutiny is Newman’s Catholicity rather than his Christianity. Nevertheless, it is surprising to find what must be the most significant experience of a Christian’s life reduced to so subordinate a factor in his spiritual history. The real focal point of the Apologia is not Newman’s conversion into faith, but his secession, thirty-nine years later, from the Anglican Church, and adoption of Roman Catholicism. But interestingly, despite the different ideological framework of the event, this second change of heart manifests all the psychological symptoms, and employs the literary motifs, that are missing from the youthful episode. Newman himself calls it ‘my conversion’ and ‘that great revolution of mind, which led me to leave my own home, to which I was bound by so many strong and tender ties

 

The Damascene imagery of blindness and light, absent from the earlier episode, now forces itself into play almost in spite of the author himself, as he tells of a time of perplexity and dismay ‘when, in spite of the light given to him according to his need amid his darkness, yet a darkness it emphatically was

 

In contrast with the factual tone we have observed, now Newman’s prose becomes rhythmic, his language metaphoric, as he ventures upon ‘a cruel operation, the ripping up of old griefs’:23 It is both to head and hg. rt an extreme trial, thus to analyse what has so long gone by.`4 For Newman, withdrawal from the Anglican church involves a period of crisis which can only be likened to a death-bed scene. Identity fades, and chronology becomes meaningless, as Newman reaches his theological Gethsemane: A death-bed has scarcely a history; it is a tedious decline, with seasons of rallying and seasons of falling back; and since the end is foreseen, or what is called a matter of time, it has little interest for the reader, especially if he has a kind heart. Moreover, it is a season when doors are closed and curtains drawn, and when the sick man neither cares nor is able to record the stages of his malady. After such years of torment, the acceptance of Romanism represents, Newman claims, not a new set of opinions or a new creed, but the slotting into place of beliefs long held: it is his homecoming, his discovery of oneness, stillness, continuity, serenity: I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any change, Intellectual or moral, wrought by my mind. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of Revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my, ,happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.

 

Thus, by means of such recognizably Judaeo-Christian metaphors as death and rebirth, exile and return, Newman’s arduous, closely-followed and minutely-argued theological progress is granted mythic status: doctrinal debate becomes spiri,tual testimony. In Newman’s case, assurance of catholicity and of personal salvation go hand in hand, and the resultant conviction is identified as Christian. There is, however, another kind of conversion, which comes more and more to the forefront in autobiography as the century progresses: the ‘inverted’ conversion, or dramatic loss of faith. This usually occurs against a background of rigid parental restraint and religious snobbery – a combination bound to produce some degree of social inadequacy. Harriet Martineau’s depiction in her Autobiography (1877) of ‘Theological Perplexities’ (beginning, by her account, at the age of eight), is a typical story. Martineau came from a family whose orthodox Calvinism had degenerated over the centuries into Unitarianism, a form of dissent remarkable for its wholesale and seemingly arbitrary dismissal of many of the chief tenets of the Christian faith (including the existence of Hell, the divinity of Christ, and hence the necessity of personal salvation through the blood of Christ), whilst it stressed the loathsomeness of sin, and contrived to remain beneath the moral umbrella of Christianity. Martineau portrays herself as a Fanny Price-like child, anxious to please, but gauche, over-serious and inclined to priggishness.

 

She is nudged by circumstances and by a habit of introspection into premature religious fanaticism, only to find it aggravate her morbid sensitivity and self-hatred. The illogicality of her sect leaves her intellectually unsatisfied from an early age, and worse still, the absence of conversion in Unitarian doctrine means that her creed affords her no relief from constant self-accusation, no sense of long-term redemption, so that she; desired punishment or anything else that would give me the one good that I pined for in vain, – ease of conscience.27 The spectacle of an eight-year-old child whose most fervent wish is to be punished out of sinfulness is faintly comic, though containing, one might expect, the seeds of tragedy. At the end of the section on childhood, she sketches the ‘gradations’ through which she had to pass before ‘my chain snapped, – a free rover on the broad, bright breezy common of the universe’ but the reader must wait about six hundred pages, and over thirty years of autobiographic time to witness this denouement.

 

Martineau’s Fifth Period finds her, by a relentless logic, reaping the fruits of a mismanaged childhood spent ‘expecting early death till it was too late to die early: After a few brief years of literary fame and prosperity, she is in Tynemouth, in almost complete isolation; a victim of overwork and anxiety; suffering what she is convinced is a fatal illness; haunted by the death of friends and by guilt-ridden nightmares in which her mother dies of neglect; and still deprived of the consolations, the emotional relief, which her Christianity should have granted her. The scene, one of ‘latent fear and blazoned pain’, is set, not for a death-bed repentance, but for a conversion of a different kind:


May 21, 2018

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