Thursday, December 15, 2016

The First Temptation

Review of:
The first Temptation; or, “Eritis Sicut Deus”; A Philosophical Romance (translated from the German by W. H. Wilde, 1863).

If novels are any test of national character, and if The First Temptation is a popular novel in Germany, the Germans must be in some respects a wonderful people. The fact that it has found a translator is some evidence of popularity, and a self-satisfied preface to the second edition reads as if the first edition had sold quickly and attracted some attention-at least, if it did not, the preface is an artful puff. The author sternly tells his or her “thousand critics” that the book was written on the highest of principles: —
‘‘I looked down and saw, as it were, in a crystal sea, beasts of all sorts, and I waged war with them, a war of life and death, for the sake of the living God.’
The atheists, pantheists, and other misbelievers typified by these remarkable words must have been very languid beasts indeed if this strange book could be a matter of life and death to them unless, indeed, they were choked with it as with so much spiritual batter-pudding. After conscientiously reading as much of it as human nature could endure, the present reviewer (as Mr. Carlyle would say) closed his investigations with a feeling of sincere it for the translator, not unmixed with wonder. As the narrators of Alpine ascents used to remark, before the subset became so stale, the same dogged and indomitable courage which animated the heroes of Waterloo and Inkermann must have been most severely tested before she reached the verse from the Revelation with which the book concludes. She must have joined with heartfelt sympathy in the Hallelujah, Hallelujah, which appropriately precedes that sweet word finis. The work consists of 1446 pages, each of which contains nearly half as much again as the orthodox three-volume novel page. Not only is the quantity of matter provided for the confutation of unbelievers overwhelming, but the quality is indigestible in the extreme. A beautiful young woman, who after her father’s death was disgusted by the rigid doctrines of a strict aunt and a harsh clergyman, fell in, shortly before the year 1848, with a professor of vast ability and infidel opinions of the name of Schartel.  After a short acquaintance, they were married. A rejected lover and a rude captain who made saucy remarks on the young lady, shot each other in a duel shortly before the marriage, and the rejected lover’s mother cursed Elizabeth as the cause of her son’s death. Of course the curse came home to roost. The young couple went to live at the University to which Robert belonged. Elizabeth by degrees came to understand and tried to agree with Robert’s opinions, which, as unfolded in the story, appear to have been formed by the process of shaking up in a bag and pulling out at random a number of neuter adjectives—such as the Infinite, the Personal, the Universal, and the Particular—chiefly remarkable for beginning with capital letters. The poor lady, however, found some difficulty in the task; and her husband, by way of helping her, threw her in the way of a handsome young painter, or whom he himself entertained an aesthetic admiration. He thought that his wife's spiritual development would he assisted if she shared in the feeling. Of course, Bertram and Elizabeth fall frantically in love with each other; and various other atheists and pantheists—the beasts in the crystal sea—male and female, do likewise. To English minds their love-making is dreary and long-winded. If it were given in evidence in Sir Cresswell Cresswell’s Court, even that ardent sense of public duty which impels several of our daily contemporaries to lay before the world all the proceedings of that well-worked tribunal would sink under the load. Imagine the British barrister expounding to a British the evidence of conjugal infidelity arising from a lady's journal, made up principally of a history of the effects produced on her conception of the Infinite by consorting with another woman’s husband. After a great deal of attitudinizing, Bertram and Elizabeth do not run own with each other; and a long chaotic period follows, in which Robert loses his professorship and Elizabeth has a child, who, as a providential punishment for her mental sin, is very like the painter. In a fainting fit, caused principally by her husband’s irreligious views, she contrives to smother t e child and goes mad; after which she gets well, renounces her belief in God, and takes to worshipping her husband, who despises her and falls in love with some one else. The book goes on meandering about, crowds of second characters are introduced in an unmeaning manner, and large intervals of type intervene of which we are unable to give any account whatever. Towards the end of the book there is a general crash. The revolution of 1848 breaks out. Elizabeth  poisons her husband to see whether he is a God. He makes himself sick with butter, and so recovers. She probably dies. He becomes more idiotic. A strange bedlamite confusion of the secondary characters intervenes, and the book at last concludes with Hallelujah—finis.

Unutterably dreary as The First Temptation may be considered as a novel, and especially as a novel addressed to English readers, it has an interest of its own as a small manifesto on the part of an important party in Germany which is powerfully re resented in this country. It is a prolonged and, as it were, heart- broken wail over the scepticism of the day.  Its moral is that modern philosophy is pantheistic, that pantheism is the worst form of atheism, that atheism leads to revolution, murder, the destruction of all moral ties, of all kindly feeling, and even of all the common decencies of life, and that the only protection against it is in a “childlike faith.” What is to be the object of the childlike faith does not appear, but the author’s denunciations of what he (or she) continually calls the new philosophy seem to embrace every known form of either religious or political speculation. The revolution of 1848 is denounced in a lump as a mere ebullition of all that is most hateful-a sort of explosion of sensuality and wickedness, to be treated as a mere crime on a large scale, in which the new philosophy by and its dupes showed themselves in their true colours.

Novelists have everything their own way. As the prompter moves, the puppet squeaks, and the author of The First Temptation certainly succeeds in making the hero and all his friends talk as great nonsense as is to be found in Mr. Emerson’s rhapsodies, and nonsense of much the same sort. It is also easy to throw over the whole of their daily life a network of immoral intrigues, and to infer from this that the new philosophy, he that what it may, is fit to be held only by beasts in the crystal sea, whatever that may typify—obviously something very wicked. Easy, however, as the process is, it is contemptible. It is like all novels of the sort—a owardly slander. It is a slander because it is not and cannot be true. No great movement, s reading over the most cultivated part of the world, and affecting the most cultivated classes in it, is a mere mass of pride and sensuality. No doubt, at any exciting crisis in history, such as 1793 or 1848, the ordinary restraints on human conduct are relaxed, with deplorable consequences; but nothing can be more narrow or petty than to view this as the substance of such events. They are accidents, of which it is the part of reasonable people to make the best. To howl and shriek over the events themselves is like howling and shrieking over the features of nature. Totally to condemn an event like the French Revolution, or the growth of modern science is like objecting to the existence of the Alps or the Rhine. There the thing is, and there it will remain; and all that can be done is to make the best of it.

Such books are cowardly as well as slanderous, because they begin and end with lamentation. They are mere wailings, not only proving nothing, but not suggesting anything as capable of being proved. What may lie hid in some of the remote and unexplored parts of The First Temptation we cannot undertake to say; at a more attentive examination of four-fifths of the book than any part of it deserved, disclosed nothing like an attempt to supply any sort of antidote to the poisonous creed of the unhappy hero. A single gleam of light, presented itself for a moment. The wretched victim who is persecuted to death by her husband’s atheism retires for a short time to the house of a pious friend who has married a devoted clergyman. Here we ought surely to have a glimpse at any rate of the promised land, and to find something approaching to rest for the sole of our feet, but nothing appears. All that the admirable clergyman has to say is, that he thinks the arguments of the friends of religion rather weak, and, for his part, he is of opinion that religion has nothing to do with argument. His visitor returns to her atheistical husband very moderately consoled, and goes through an emotional crisis, very dismal to read about, for the fifth or sixth time since the beginning of the book. There is, indeed, one person who does her good in a very characteristic way. Amongst her husband’s heretical friends is a certain Everhard, who is, probably, intended to be the humorist of the piece. For some reason he is nicknamed “The Substance "—a name which appears to afford a strange satisfaction to the author, who has probably grounds for so posing it to be a joke, or something in the nature of one. Everhard secretly disapproves of and sees through the sophisms of his friends. When they scoff, he laughs, nods his head, on makes rudimentary little attempts at fun. On great occasions he lifts up his eyes to heaven, and plays the piano. So wonderful is his skill, and so sublime are the truths which he conveys through this medium, that for the time he is to Elizabeth what David was to Saul. The device of a wise humorist, who trumps the self-satisfied sceptic, is getting to be stale amongst religious novelists. It is a way of laughing down opinions which the author cannot answer, by assuming the air of a person who could answer them if he thought proper. It is wonderful to see how effective this contrivance is for a certain time, and with particular classes of readers—especially with young people who are anxious to be orthodox as well as enlightened. A great proportion of the charm of Mr. Carlyle’s writings is due to the skill with which he employs this device. He pours, or rather used to pour, on unbelievers and misbelievers such floods of scorn that it required a considerable degree of coolness to doubt that he must have some unassailable standing-ground of his own from which he can launch his arrows at the rest of the world. Humour often stands in the relation to thought in which good clothes and a handsome gold chain stand to a swindler. You suppose that a man who despises others so much must have something to go upon. There must be a balance at the banker's, where the coat is so redolent of quiet, well-established respectability. In The First Temptation the chain is obviously mosaic, and the coat is out at elbows; but the principle is the same.

It is curious to compare the atheist of romance with the man who sits for the portrait. Generally speaking, the original is not an atheist at all, but merely a shrewd, ready man, whose chief theological conviction is that his neighbours—especially his clerical neighbours—are great fools in respect of their religious convictions. To represent such a man as a flaming enthusiast, ready to drown the world in blood for the sake of abstract adjectives with capital letters, is to do him a great injustice. He is generally quite content to take the world as he finds it; and instead of wishing to upset the established order of things, is (in this country at least) ready, willing, and almost eager to break the head of any one who lays a finger upon it. Absence of religious belief has a strong tendency to make men conservative (so long as they are moderately comfortable), because it leads them to think ill of mankind and to care nothing about their improvement.

Saturday Review, May 9, 1863.

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