The Literary Apostasy of the Nineteenth Century

Reading books like Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity and Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism and various comments of John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff on the American religious situation of that era, it seems plain to me that the nineteenth century was a terrible time theologically for Christianity. It was a time of terrible society-wide apostasy.

I speak of the “theological” apostasy, but theology isn’t just what one finds in systematic theology texts and confessions of faith and popular hymnody. Rather, theology always comes out one’s fingertips; always incarnates itself into daily living and creates a culture suitable to its eschatological vision. That theology isn’t merely an abstract propositional affair occurring between one’s ears has been cemented in my mind as I’ve read some of the nineteenth century’s most vivid literary productions. Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Balzac’s Cousin Bette. Melville’s Moby Dick. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich. The theology of these works (or at least, of some of their major characters) is a theology of despair and futility in the face of an ultimately absurd existence.

To be sure, there are some rays of hope amidst the depression that suffuses these works: Dostoevsky’s Alexei is a wonderfully redeeming character. Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich experiences a deathbed conversion amidst profound physical sufferings that have up to that point constantly led him to ask why he suffers, since he has, by his own estimation, “done everything right” in his life. Still, with the exception of Brothers Karamazov, which was written by a Christian, the overall impression of these nineteenth century works is of a world suffused with despair and futility. It very much reminds me of those mentalities in works written over 2,000 years earlier: Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides.

For the ancient pagans life under the immortal, arbitrary gods was meaningless because it was life under the immortal, arbitrary gods. For the pagans of the nineteenth century, life in the world of Euclidean rationalism was meaningless because all they had access to was Euclidean rationalism. (Note that Dostoevsky’s Ivan says this explicitly in a conversation with his brother Alexei). It seems, in fact, that for the nineteenth century’s cultural elites civilization itself is just a sophisticated but skin-deep mask covering over the ultimately irrepressible, natural brute within. Conrad’s horrifying character Kurtz in Heart of Darkness finds this out firsthand, and manages to “convert” (in a sense) even the educated and refined Marlowe to his vision of life. That is, Marlowe ends the story by trying to save the superficial appearance of rationality and civilization by means of lying to Kurtz’s fiance about the dying Kurtz’s last words. Marlowe says “He thought only of you, his beloved”, but in reality Kurtz had died amidst the cultural wreckage of his own inestimable descent into savagery wildly gasping “The horror! The horror!”

Melville’s Ahab, captaining a ship full of inveterate pagans and having his story narrated by an evidently apostate Presbyterian, Ishmael, tries to kill God and destroy heaven. This is metaphorically represented by the White Whale, as is explicitly stated by Melville in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.” But in the end, Ahab himself is destroyed by a reality greater than himself, and utterly implacable in the face of his despair. But like all the good pagan heroes of old, Ahab does not go down without a last-ditch, pridefully pyrrhic victory. The last scene of Moby Dick is a moving description of the ultimate vanity of paganism: as Moby Dick triumphantly swims off leaving the splintered, ruptured Pequod to sink, taking all hands except Ishmael with it, one of the pagans, Tashtego, literally reaches up out of the water (his head already submerged) and futilely tries to nail the ship’s flag back to its spar. In the process, he accidentally catches a part of heaven with his hammer and drags it to hell with him, as Melville describes this way:

A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Tashtego there; this bird now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that ethereal thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapses, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

Now this cultural and personal despair is all very interesting when placed in its proper context of the last gasps of a besieged, worn-out Christendom that occurred in the nineteenth century. For it was in this century as well that Matthew Arnold penned his poem Dover Beach, the last half of which reads:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Is this not the same sentiment of W.H. Auden’s Shield of Achilles, which, describing the anguish of Achilles’s mother Thetis some 2500 years before the scene of Arnold’s own poem, speaks of her desperately looking for a normal, happy life for her son, but finding only a “weed-choked field” where armies of men mechanically march off to die for causes proved to be just by mere statistics and where ragged street urchins consider it quite normal for boys to knife each other and rape girls? Is it not also the sentiment of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus, also written in this terrible century?

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

Notice the defiant cry of Invictus in the face of “whatever gods may be”, and compare it to the despairing cry of the Chorus in Euripides’ play Hecuba:

We must go
to our masters’ tents.
Nobody knows why
what will happen to us
there must happen.

From the harbor
we must voyage
to life upon the shore
of bondage. Nobody
knows why this must be.

Fate knows no mercy.
Necessity is hard.
Why must everything
happen as it must?
What is this “must,”
and why? Nobody knows.
Nobody knows. (Lines 1852-1868)

Add to this the closing cry of Euripides’ Medea. After chronicling Medea’s murder first of Jason’s bride, then of the bride’s father, and then of Medea’s own two sons–and all to revenge herself upon Jason, after which she escapes all punishment via a divine chariot that her divine grandfather, Helios, had given her–the play ends with this chilling note:

Zeus on Olympus does
with us what he will,
and what is most unthinkable
to us, is swiftly done.
What we looked for
has not come to pass,
and what we least expected,
came to be. So ends the tale.

Twenty-five hundred years between Achilles and Ahab, and paganism has done nothing but come full-circle in its despairing defiance against a world it simply cannot, for all its magical or technological spells and talismans, finally tame. By the time we reach the nineteenth century the object has shifted from the gods to God, but the sentiment is the same.

A third of the way into Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov gives an eloquent, and horrifying, rendering of the classic problem of evil as an argument against his brother Alexei’s faith. Having begun his narrative with the observation that although the devil doesn’t really exist, men have created him anyway in their own image, Ivan proceeds through a number of pages to ask with increasing poignance how one could possibly believe a good God exists when one’s mind is bound up in three-dimensional Euclidean perceptions that are full of Turks and Russians torturing babies and children just for the fun of it. Certainly in the the famed “Grand Inquisitor” scene which follows this, the face of atheism becomes only more grim and hardened in its willful rebellion against its Creator.

It seems to me that the critical point reading these things and contemplating their synthetic meaning is that there is no neutrality under the sun, and all cultures serve a god and have a religion. The question merely concerns which god and which religion a people will serve. The nineteenth century made its choice to follow the impotent, despairing religion of the Enlightenment, even then completing its conquest of the remaining vestiges of a Christendom which had been gasping for breath already for several centuries.

Today, there are many Christians in America, who, as often unknowing heirs of the great nineteenth century apostasy, simply don’t want a Christendom. Believing the Modern myth of “progress” and inclined mostly to look down on the achievements of the great Medieval age of faith by emphasizing its blights rather than its beauties, they are instead happy with the secularized, godless public square and its insipid “neutral” culture onto which any religion at all may tack its distinctives and feel quite at home.

Such Christians ought to lay aside their Systematic Theologies and their endless wranglings about the abstractions of “soteriology” and spend some time tracing out the consequences of the death of Christendom upon human society for the last several hundred years. If we all knew Melville and Conrad and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Dickens as well as we know Our Favorite Modern Preachers, we might actually begin to recover some perspective about the past and our own relationship to it. Perhaps the most important lesson we might learn from such familiarity with history is not so much the old adage that “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it”, but rather that “Apostasy can take forms that don’t even appear to be apostasy.”

This entry was posted in 19th Century, Christianity in Modernity. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>