Sartor Resartus

Reading Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, (1833-34) John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua, (1864) Francis Newman’s Phases of Faith, (1853) even the Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, (1887) one begins to suspect that there were as many tailor-made versions of Christianity as there were thinkers. John Addington Symonds is quite explicit about this salvage operation: So then, having rejected dogmatic Christianity in all its forms, Broad Church Anglicanism, the gospel of Comte, Hegel’s superb identification of human thought with essential Being, and many minor nostrums offered in our time to sickening faith – because none of these forsooth were adapted to my nature – I came to fraternize with Goethe, Cleanthes, Whitman, Bruno, Darwin, finding that in their society I could spin my own cocoon with more of congruence to my particular temperament that I discerned in other believers, misbelievers, non-believers, passionate believers, of the ancient and the modern schools.


As Symonds hints, such modifications and adaptations are pragmatic: a means of living with oneself and society, without the deterrents and incentives of Judgement and Immortality. They are defences against the pain of spiritual desertion and isolation. But while these philosophical and religious experiments, and the concurrent need to reconcile reason with conscience, may account for the complexity and scale of the inner turmoil represented in these works, they do not explain why conversion, a specific form of spiritual revolution, should seem to be the appropriate model even for ‘secular’ autobiographies (and I include here ‘fictionalized’ works such as Mark Rutherford’s Autobiography [1881] and Deliverance, [1885] and fictional narratives such as Kingsley’s Alton Locke [1850]). Morality, after all, has little to do with conversion.


One need only look to the Bible to realize that the patterns of fall and redemption, exile and return, death and rebirth – the patterns of conversion- survive changes in law, New Covenants, New Commandments. The ‘crisis and conversion’ sequence goes beyond mere struggle. It is not the spinning of a defensive cocoon. It is a dramatic process of total annihilation and regeneration: the metamorphosis into an imago. One cannot, then, argue that the obsession with spiritual upheaval was solely due to reactionary religiosity or left-over piety. I can think of no conclusive reason why moral earnestness per se should need to express itself through the figure of a radical change of heart. On the other hand, there is every reason why a convert should express him or herself earnestly. Must one then infer that the crisisconversion sequence was common ground – a recognizable, shared model of experience, uniting writers and readers of autobiography; and that for this reason it ‘gave interest’ to some autobiographers? – that the benighted soul was a fellow-sufferer, and the converted character an ideal, heroic figure, just as he or she was in hagiography, in didactic literature, in spiritual testimony, in the New Testament? Certainly, the invocation of a supposed ‘common denominator’ and the projection of oneself as role model are regular features of the autobiographical project in the nineteenth century. One of the most challenging tasks which faced the Victorian autobiographer was to distill the general from the stubbornly particular details of a life, often at the expense of proportion and even of common sense.


Annie Besant, whose route through life began with Anglicanism and ended with theosophical mysticism, traversing atheism, socialism and a string of other ‘isms’ on the way, found it necessary to derive universality from her patently unique experience thus: Since all of us, men and women of this restless and eager generation – surrounded by forces we dimly see but cannot as yet understand, discontented with old ideas and half afraid of new, greedy for the material results of the knowledge brought us by Science but looking askance at her agnosticism as regards the soul, fearful of superstition but still more fearful of atheism, turning from the husks of outgrown creeds but filled with desperate hunger for spiritual ideals – since all of us have the same anxieties, the same griefs, the same yearning hopes, the same passionate desire for knowledge, it may well be that the story of one may help all, and that the tale of one soul that went out alone into the darkness and on the other side found light, that struggled through the Storm and on the other side found Peace, may bring some ray of light and of peace into the darkness and the storm of other lives. In this passage from the Preface to her Autobiography, (1893) Besant builds up an exemplary profile of the nineteenth century pilgrim, and then slots herself into it.


She describes herself, we note, as ‘one soul’. It would seem that her only claim to interest is as just this: soul. Whatever her other experiences of life, as, for instance, mother, estranged wife, friend, campaigner or writer, these must be subordinated to the model of self as redeemed soul.


The structural usefulness of a role model such as that of pilgrim to would-be autobiographers is obvious: it sustains the necessary tension between community of interest (we are all the same), and a certain kind of individuality, (we are all alone, all unique). But conversion itself is not a role. It is an elaborate life model predicated on redemption. Avrom Fleishman, working from the starting point of St. Augustine’s Confessions, has listed the components of the model as Natural Childhood, Fall and Exile, Wandering/Journey/Pilgrimage, The Crisis, Epiphany and Conversion, Renewal and Return. 14 What is striking about the nineteenth century (and later) is that many of the autobiographers who adopt conversion as the structure of their life-histories are agnostics, or even atheists: writers who, according to the letter of the scriptures, are unregenerate. It would appear that we are dealing with a kind of conversion which can dispense with the moral and theological dogma of the Damascus Road, whilst retaining its psychological drama, its literary and mythical status.


Even an orthodox divine could discern that there might be two kinds of conversion. In the Spring Lecture of the Presbyterian Church of England for 1879, Alexander Grosart spoke of the highly-educated seventeenth-century Puritan John Howe thus: Conversion out of fleshly dominion (“publicans and harlots”) may in the first thought be more palpable and demonstrative, more convincing of preterhuman interference; but conversion from intellectual sovereignty to sanctity, and to humility when before the ‘spirit’ was haughty, vain, unsubdued, is more precious and carries profounder insignia.15 Whilst conversion is, as Grosart insists, ‘universally-needed’, there is an almost imperceptible turning-up of the nose at the conversion of ‘a man who has debased and polluted himself’ or of the ‘fanatic or (socalled) vulgar enthusiast, or raw, uneducated, untrained man’.


One detects a certain embarrassment about that ‘fleshly dominion.’ Note the philosophical jargon, the inverted commas around anything that might look ‘scriptural.’ If a Presbyterian minister can site conversion in the brain, and can, moreover, make a qualitative distinction between fleshly and intellectual salvation, a completely undogmatic even amoral – version of redemption begins to seem possible. Just as, for Grosart, the traditional Bunyanesque ‘chief of sinners’ revolution had become something against which to posit an equally complete, but intellectualized, and hence more palatable transformation, so, for many middle-class autobiographers, it was reduced to a point of comparison with their own personality crises and conversions.



Of course, one must not oversimplify. Many of the autobiographers were neither atheists nor agnostics, and for those who could still call themselves Christian, the Damascus Road was still seen as a type or direct foreshadowing of their own experience, rather than a mere comparison. The tradition of uncomplicated Pauline testimony continued unbroken alongside other developments in autobiography, particularly in the memoirs of dissenting ministers. One could read, in 1870, a newlypublished work by the Lancashire preacher John Kershaw, in which typology still meant pure re-enactment rather than literary motif: I found I was a brother and companion with Paul in this path of internal tribulation and Christian experience. I hastened home to get my Bible, in order to examine the chapter through. I read it with such light, power and comfort as I had never felt before.17 Again, in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, John Newman stands by his consciousness, at the age of fifteen, of a ‘great change,’ 18 I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma,, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.19 (But even this change, we note, is referred to intellect).He speaks of an inward conversion ‘of which I still am more certain than that I have hands and feet’, though he immediately qualifies his remark by pointing out that the Calvinist doctrine of final perseverance he absorbed at the time of his conversion has since been rejected.2° Apart from this single, emphatic declaration of certainty, the account of the experience is matter-of-fact, almost parenthetical.

May 21, 2018


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