Diction and metaphor

It is the simplicity of diction and metaphor, in fact, which most clearly signals the change in her: the biting criticisms directed towards the selfish and cowardly halfbeliever open out into the glad acquiescence of the philosophical atheist: I did not know, ten years ago, what life might be, in regard to freedom, vigour, and peace of mind…During this last ,sunny period, I have not acquired any dread or dislike of death…35 Peace of mind, victory over (fear of) death: the same elements recur time after time.


The ironies inherent in such an inverted motif as ‘conversion out of faith’ become even more apparent when the subject has already undergone, or, as it seems in retrospect, enacted, a straightforward Pauline conversion. Such ‘Turning Figures’, as Avrom Fleishman calls them, occur mainly towards the end of the century, in such ‘novelistic’ works as Mark Rutherford’s Autobiography and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907). In these works, a pattern of childhood piety, hypocrisy and premature conversion (stagemanaged by over-zealous parents), forms a parodic counterpoint to adult trial, doubts and the quest for self-discovery. (John Addington Symonds’s boyhood love of church architecture and music, and his sexual attraction towards choirboys, affords another variation of this type of writing. 36 ) The result is explosive: the autobiography becomes a battle-ground between old and new versions of the same metaphors.



Fleishman, in his study of ‘turn of the century’ autobiography, expresses the lasting vitality of the paradox: Despite their avoidance of the norms of historical narration, these works come into an exemplary status for their period, becoming more representative than the historically minute memoirs. And by a delicate irony, these writings of the iconoclasts – or, failing that, of the experimental artists and freer spirits of the time – are those which more fully utilize the traditional figures of autobiography, even in the act of ts off the weight of inherited religious and social commitments.7 While it is to be expected that autobiographers with Anglican or Calvinist backgrounds should employ scriptural motifs to describe doctrinal doubts and decisions, it is more astonishing to find John Stuart Mill, at the opposite end of the Victorian spectrum of belief, recounting similar psychological reflexes, in a similar idiom. As he points out himself, he was one of the very few who had ‘not thrown off religious belief, but never had it’.38 Mill’s Autobiography (first published posthumously in 1873), begins ‘characteristically’. Its organization is from the start methodical, – and, like its theme, Mill’s education – rational to the point of being almost mechanical. That is not to say, however, that Mill’s approach is dull. It is easy to overlook, amidst Mill’s unremitting search for cause and pursuit of effect, his often acute awareness of the shifting, complex relationship between metaphor and subject in autobiography: I conceive that the description so often given of a Benthamite, as a mere reasoning machine, though extremely inapplicable to most of those who have been designated by that title, was during two or three years of my life not altogether untrue of me.—There is nothing very extraordinary in this fact: no youth of the age I then was, can be expected to be more than one thing, and this was the thing I happened to be. 39 After chapters devoted to such subjects as education, influences and propagandism, the reader is suddenly confronted by ‘A Crisis in my Mental History.’


Phrases such as ‘important transformation’ and ‘actual revolution’ infiltrate Mill’s sober prose.


In a famous passage, Mill explodes the myth of selfhood he has been constructing so meticulously: But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream. It was in the autumn of 1826. I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent; the state, I should think, in which converts to MethNism usually are, when smitten by their first “conviction of sin.”‘ Again, traditional conversion appears, but as a point of comparison; the inverted commas might almost imply sarcasm: this is a universallyexperienced malaise, of which the Methodist response seems to Mill to be an evasion. However, whilst in the grip of depression, Mill mentally forces his own ideals to their logical conclusion – the completion of all his longed-for reforms – and finds an emotional void. Would he be happy if his objects were achieved? And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live tor. Mill does not suggest the kind of divine intervention experienced by St. Paul or St. Augustine; but, in the context of the life he has been describing, the interference of an antagonistic, uncontrollable, irrational voice, an ‘irrepressible self-consciousness,’ acquires the status and impact of a supernatural event. The word ‘charm’ with its magical overtones, is now used twice to sum up what is lacking in his life.


The same displacement or dispersal of responsibility is evident in many of the autobiographies of the period. A revolutionary decision or life-saving insight is accounted for in terms of an inexplicable, irresistible stimulus or impulse: an independent force. This has the effect, not only of sanctioning the resultant personalitychange, but also, by implication, of sanctifying the autobiographical project itself. When salvation comes, it is rescue from despair, from the death of the heart:- The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone.44 and it is brought about, in the first place, by reading of Marmontel’s ‘sudden inspiration , as a boy, and secondly, and permanently, by reading Wordsworth.


The main impression one gets of Mill’s final redemption through the mediation of poetry is of a prosaic mind struggling to express excitement, pleasure, peace. Even so, redemption it undoubtedly is, and redemption in which Mill is the passive recipient of an ineffable gift one is tempted to call ‘grace’: In [the poems of Wordsworth] I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy—.From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed.—I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation.45 Even for the unspiritual Mill, it would seem, the idea of conversion is central to the autobiographical endeavour. The autobiographies outlined above have not been discussed in chronological order (to do so would be problematic: Martineau’s Autobiography, for instance, was written before Newman’s or Mill’s, but published after both). My aim has been to demonstrate the incidence of conversion in works spanning the full scope of religious background and belief. Examples might be multiplied ad infinitum, to show further ramifications of the ‘Damascene’ conversion: the momentous acquisition of a political identity (as in Alexander Somerville’s pseudocrucifixion for mutiny in The Autobiography of a Working Man [1848]); the inspired discovery of a vocation (as in Josephine Butler’s decision to devote her life to the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts); or the climactic shaking-off of sexual tyranny (as in Annie Besant’s Autobiography).


What all these cases demonstrate, is that, in the Victorian period, the crisis-conversion structure inherited from Augustine remains influential, despite the fact that the ‘matter’ of autobiography is clearly becoming diversified, secularized and cerebral, and despite the fact that, for many writers, the dogmatic foundations of the motif have been seriously, if not totally, undermined.

May 21, 2018


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