Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Ego as Hero in Victorian Literature

Our protagonist.

Hypocrisy, we think, is where the Victorians truly excelled. Prodigious achievers in industry, in science, in the triple-decker novel and the many-gunned battleship, they were even better at having things both ways: at keeping a stiff upper lip and a respectable front while groping the maidservants on the back stairs and puffing opium discretely behind a curtain in a den where no one asks a gentleman his name or his place in the Great World beyond. There’s something in this, of course: public virtue and private vice thrived together in the first great bourgeois empire, with its un-aristocratic moralism and its many newfound opportunities for decadence. It helped, too, that this was also the first age of mass media, with its quenchless thirst for both sentimentality and scandal.

One of the more notable characteristics of the age was the disunified psyche created by such circumstances. What, after all, could be more Victorian than the thought of Prime Minister William Gladstone lusting over the prostitute Marian Summerhayes —one may turn to his private diaries for considerable salacious detail—then declaiming Tennyson’s poetry to her for hours on end before sending her off untouched and whipping himself for having sinned in his mind. There is precious little reconciliation between the forces warring in the poor man’s breast: the id bubbles and roils away, wanting what it wants, before being violently, albeit temporarily, crushed by the appalled and vengeful superego. We would do well to remember that Freud himself was something of a late Victorian, born a few years after Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson, and a few before George Gissing and Rudyard Kipling. The trio that played so much of Freud’s chamber music—the yearning id, the stern superego, and the hardworking ego that negotiates between them—was the product of the same broad cultural conditions that gave us Gladstone’s symphonies of self-flagellation.

Much of the underground literature of the Victorian era serves as a kind of testimony to the fractured identity, to the id unreconciled to the public life of its possessor. My Secret Life, for example, the million word obsessive and repetitive chronicle of sex in the age of Victoria, documents the erotic life of an anonymous gentleman with what seems like an army of prostitutes and servants—a life that had to be kept separate from the author's public and domestic lives. As the title indicates, the author led a fractured existence, indulging his urges yet keeping his erotic activities so thoroughly isolated from the rest of his life that to this day scholars remain unsure of his identity (we suspect Henry Spencer Ashbee, but I personally hope it will turn out to have been another candidate, William Haywood, since his high position in the City of London’s Commissioners of Sewers Office, with its concern for the underground and the abject, seems almost allegorical).

Pre-Raphaelite poetry positively bursts with sexual energies that chafe against its own moralizing or even scolding tones—a kind of verse equivalent of Gladstone’s idiosyncracies with hookers and whips. Consider William Morris’ “The Defence of Guenevere.” Here, we find King Arthur’s wife accused of adultery with Sir Lancelot, a crime of individual indulgence that not only violates the sacrament of marriage, but threatens to throw the kingdom into chaos. The accuser, Gawain, is known for his honesty and honor, and Guenevere addresses a silent assembly of lords, whose disapproving actions we can infer from her speech. The speech itself consists of an astounding catalog of rhetorical appeals, running the full gamut from pathos (pity me, so lonely as the bride of the distant Arthur) to ethos (I am a fearsome queen, how dare you judge me!) to bad logos (God wants us to be happy, sex with Lancelot made me happy, ergo…) to really bad logos (it wasn’t me who kissed Lancelot, it was my mouth… I was driven mad by my own beauty, and can’t be held responsible, etc.). The poem is structured such that we can see through Guenevere’s arguments: indeed, at the end, we see that she was merely playing for time, waiting for Lancelot to arrive on his white charger to carry her off to safety. Everything at the level of reason indicates Guenevere’s guilt, and urges us to disapprove of her affair with Lancelot. But everything, or almost everything, at the level of emotion urges us to kind of admire her: she is spirited, she is fierce, she is independent, clever, funny, charming, and on the side of desire—we kind of want to give her what amounts to a free pass, even as we know we shouldn’t. The poem never really reconciles these things, but leaves us with a curiously doubled reaction: it’s a poem whose id is at war with its superego, a poem without a mediating ego forging some kind of compromise or détente. It is worth noting that Morris used his notoriously unfaithful wife Jane as the model for his painting of Guenevere—the unresolved judgment and emotions of “The Defense of Guenevere” came from experiences very close to home indeed. 

A much greater poem, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” shows, if anything, an even more disunified psychological position. It sweats eroticism from every pore: from the goblin men with their animalistic faces calling out for young Lizzie and Laura to buy their fruit with locks of hair, to their disturbingly violent manhandling of Lizzie, covering her with mashed fruit and its juices, to her return to save her sister as a kind of same-sex incestuous Christ figure, crying out:

 … “Laura,” up the garden, 
“Did you miss me? 
Come and kiss me. 
Never mind my bruises, 
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices 
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you, 
Goblin pulp and goblin dew. 
Eat me, drink me, love me; 
Laura, make much of me… 

But for all this wildness, all this exploration and embracing of all that Victorian public morality forbids about sex, the poem ends with a little picture of the sisters as that most legitimated form of Victorian womanhood: they are wives and mothers. And when they speak of their past with the goblins, they offer a moralistic vision unrecognizable to those who have witnessed the events in the earlier lines: 

Afterwards, when both were wives 
With children of their own; 
Their mother-hearts beset with fears, 
Their lives bound up in tender lives; 
Laura would call the little ones 
And tell them of her early prime, 
Those pleasant days long gone 
Of not-returning time: 
Would talk about the haunted glen, 
The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men, 
Their fruits like honey to the throat 
But poison in the blood; 
(Men sell not such in any town): 
Would tell them how her sister stood 
In deadly peril to do her good, 
And win the fiery antidote: 
Then joining hands to little hands 
Would bid them cling together, 
“For there is no friend like a sister 
In calm or stormy weather; 
To cheer one on the tedious way, 
To fetch one if one goes astray, 
To lift one if one totters down, 
To strengthen whilst one stands.” 

It’s not that there is some sophisticated irony here, some version of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner preaching a line about community that he fails to embody: the poem doesn’t work with that kind of irony. Rather, it is a poem imperfectly at one with itself. It embraces public morality about motherhood and sisterhood and about a wife’s duty, and does so explicitly in a moralizing conclusion. But the poem that comes before ripples with a very different kind of energy, with a sexuality forbidden not only by Victorian society but by the poem’s own conclusion. Like Morris’ “Defense of Guenevere,” it is a poem with a strong and prudish superego, an even stronger id, and little or no ego seeking to mediate between and reconcile the two. 

Poems like these express the condition lived out by the author of My Secret Life: desires segregated from principles.  It's the same condition that, in more acute form, tormented poor Mr. Gladstone. With such a vast gulf between id and superego to be bridged, is it any wonder many Victorian writers came to portray the ego itself as a kind of hero? 

We see this ego-heroism in some of the most enduring fiction of the Victorian period. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for example, our heroine is constantly pulled between the world of the passions—lust, anger, anything adhesive that would link her to other people, positively or destructively—and the world of cold self-possession. From the moment we first see her—with a red curtain separating her from a domestic world of blood violence, rage, and passion, and a window facing a white, cold, foggy world of solitude and exile—she is trapped between two poles, a world of id and a world of self-disciplining, self-respecting superego. The novel is filled with doubles and foils: the too-passionate Mr. Rochester and the too-cold St. John Rivers, say, or the too disciplined Helen Burns and the overly passionate Bertha Mason (whose passions are embodied in the fire she sets that destroys Rochester’s home, maim him, and kill her). Jane’s journey and self-invention, the bildung in this bildungsroman, is a journey toward the reconciliation of desire and self-control. The elaborate fire and water symbolism of the novel culminates in a deceptively simple image near the end, when Jane bears a tray in to the the wounded Rochester. On the tray burns a candle, next to a glass of water, some small amount of which spills. Here we have Jane balancing (albeit unsteadily) the passions of the id and the strictures of the superego—but just as important as the presence of fire and water is the fact of the tray. Jane holds the two, controls them, and in some sense masters them. She is a force that works out and managing the proper relation of id and superego. She is the figure absent from “The Defense of Guenevere” and “Goblin Market,” and too weak to keep poor Gladstone from wounding himself. She is the ego itself. 

The ego balances desire and conscience—it is the “inner gyroscope” David Reisman described as the necessary equipment of the self-governing subject that grew out of the long drama of renaissance, reformation, and the bourgeois-capitalist transformation of society. And it isn’t just in Brontë that it emerges as a Victorian hero. It’s everywhere, especially in the works consumed by the common middle-class reader of the time. Consider Robert Louis Stevenson’s perpetually popular novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The dilemma of the titular character, or characters, is a dilemma of disunified psyche. Jekyll wishes to be purely good, and approved of by society (the string of honorific letters after his name is significant in this regard). And he wishes, at the same time, to let loose his basest inner urges—violent ones, in this strangely chaste book, rather than sexual ones. There is a primitive and childlike self-assertion to Mr. Hyde, something devoid of empathy or morality, something like a pure assertion of self and will, the desire to put others out of the way—and this childlike urge accounts for the curious smallness of Hyde, a smallness emphasized when he is forced to drape himself in Jekyll’s clothes, like a little boy in his father’s suit. Jekyll, in creating Hyde, wants to have it both ways: to be purely good, in society’s conventional sense, and to act on his will and desire, like an unsocialized child. He wants all of this, and he wants to surrender the wearisome work of the ego in continuously working out a compromise between the two. In this, he is unlike Mr. Utterson, the lawyer we meet at the beginning of the book, who enjoys expensive wines but will only allow himself a little cheap gin, who loves the theater but almost never lets himself attend. Utterson is the ego figure, the mediator of desire and restraint, and his are the virtues celebrated in the book, the virtues whose absence bring about Jekyll’s tragic fate. 

The ego—as fact, as idea, as ideal—has been battered pretty hard by the twentieth century and its aftermath. Variously accused, dissolved, pilloried, declared dead, dismissed as fictitious, and otherwise expunged by Surrealism, structuralism, poststructuralism, feminism, late Marxism, postmodernism and the infernal machines of neoliberal capitalist desire, it remains, at best, as a chipped and smog-besmirched monument from a prior age, under which sit hipsters dropping references to Rimbaud’s “je est un autre” as they stub out their cigarettes on the base moulding. But like most monuments, it was built by people who really believed in it, and for whom it celebrated something that seemed like a solution to their genuine pains and troubles.