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3. Introductory Lecture II: Understanding Victorianism  in Broader Cultural Terms

An explanatory and critical discussion of… ’Victorian-ism’ itself from the distant vantage point of the end of the 20th century involves adding our reasonable, later experience to both the Bloomsbury detractors’ fury in the first decades of our century and to the Victorians’ own opinionated views. The circle of leading anti-Victorian intellectuals and creators in London’s Bloomsbury circle included people like Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf who left reference documents of their hatred  of  Victorianism. Lytton Strachey’s book of 1918 was ironically titled ”Eminent Victorians” and Virginia Woolf’s essays on Victorian writers in  ”The Common Reader” series of the 1920s and 30s, respectively, are written in a dismissive tone. Their main polemical aim was to demolish the aura of respectability surrounding the edifice of Victorian culture. Reading their refutation of Victorianism we can ask why the Victorians invested so much ambition and time and money in the written entertainment, in culture or humanism, as the generic term for the above mentioned ”-isms” (medievalism, Pre-Raphaelitism, classicism/ Hellenism, Puritanism/Hebraism, romanticism, aesthteicism, liberalism) would be humanism. On a materialistic and cynical assumption, we may rhetorically ask if the fact that the Victorians got so closely involved with reading on a popular basis was not simply a fad – in Romanian, ”un moft”, cf. Caragiale’s term  - or even worse, if it was not a matter of  profit, as the printed press was a business that paid, with so many people who joined in the readership circle. Next, we may need to wonder about the dangers of associating culture to materialism in yet another sense. How damaging is it to commit literature to a polity’s shared utilitarian values, as many a Victorian writer of essays but also of fiction or poetry did? What are the effects of casting culture in the role of a public service ministering to the spiritual needs of the historical British community, as had ministered the improvement in material commodities in urban life in general during the industrialised 19th century? Among the observable effects of the Victorian sense of a useful culture is the ideological prolixity and didactic tone of Victorianism, even in the literature of pure invention, in the novel and in poerty. This is due to the fact that Victorianism ostensibly addresses a newly made gentlemanly class which it wants to educate and make commensurably important from a cultural point of view, directly proportional to its greatness in point of material wealth and progress. The Victorian public, the cultural protagonists and cultural agents could be accused of imparing the quality of art by subordinating it to seriousness in the virtuously moral sense, and to  propagandistic utilitarianism. For, instead of being in accordance with 20th century standards professionally serious or genuine in its own terms, Victorian literature spent itself in creating, defending and publically enforcing its cultural dogmas which can be quite irritating for any representatives of the 20th century, especially as was the case of the artists for art’s sake in our century’s opening decades. The missionary culturalism of the Victorians promotes a conventional and didactic rather than original version of culture, adapted and subordinated as it is to the needs of the laymen or the masses, to the utilitarian view of culture as a gain from the ”the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers” standpoint. In the guise of a devil’s advocate, however,  we may defend the late outburst of  replica humanism in the Victorian age by stating that the means employed by these  humanists in their literary periodicals raised the standard of mass education to such an extent, that while losing perhaps in originality as one component of  spiritual progress, Victorian culture managed, nevertheless to statistically increase the participation of the masses to the phenomenon of culture so that the Victorian age functions as an age of generalised quality press. The issues, eloquence and format of the Victorian quality press are almost inconceivable today, in the context of the trash informational explosion of the late 20th century media hype and consumerism. Also, in referring to the Victorian cultural makers or teachers as a whole, the means they employed for their business of cultural legitimation and transmission are exemplary too: they employed several humanistic traditions critically and liberally, i.e. progressively, as they were prompted by faith. The recipe of  their faith is eclectic and maybe no longer compatible with 20th century wisdom, but it nevertheless is faith, secular faith, which in the context of these lectures will be referred to by different names, such as medievalism, liberalism, hedonism. The same otherwise utilitarian intellectuals were careful to limit the materialistic effects of their age of progress; they were in two minds about their own excellence, which proves that  their Bloomsbury detractors were narrow-minded, they ignored the overal picture of Victorianism, when they allowed themselves to get carried away by their high-modernist targeted fury. These modernist writers disparaged the British bourgeois class, judging it by French avant-garde standards, because by the time of the First World War, the term ”middle-class” had already become charged with the full range of negative connotations put in circulation by fashionable dandies. Maybe it is no longer necessary to join in the high intellectualist revolt against the massification implicit in Victorian culture and begin to regard the high-modernist savagely disrespectful anti-Victorianism as a case of typical revolt of the sons against  their fathers. (Because, demonstrably, the high-modernist poets in Britain, W. B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot obviously built their own prophetic dark edifice of historical lucidity and decadence with the same genealogically recognisable ”bricks”; it was only that their cultural edifice opened onto a different post- war (and post-colonial) vista. With its back turned on the parental hearth and home, the modernist edifice had its tired/tiresome eyes riveted on a historical turned cultural desert or ”Waste Land” as T.S.Eliot’s thematic title ”The Waste Land” implied).

One should focus on man’s position in the universe during the Victorian age for understanding Victorianism more radically, though neither polemically, nor apologetically. The first important observation is that there existed a discrepancy between man’s powers and his position within the natural world. On the one hand, his powers over external nature or the natural environment had been spectacularly increased owing to the scientific and technological progress of the first industrialization age. It was first to match this sense of greater power over nature that man developed a commensurate ambition in the management of his own material, social and historical affairs, i.e., in the man-created environment or social milieu. As the optimistic component of man’s ambition, the orthodox puritanism of the average man as manager and, theoretically speaking, producer of materialistic success was an uncritical ethically religious doctrine or ideology that pragmatically invoked and used the Biblical spirituality to support the exemplary ascent of the Victorian imperial, industrial ”first and greatest and most civilised” nation. The success of this exemplary people (styling itself a nation in the 19th century) was modelled on the success of the chosen Hebrew people as chronicled in the historical books of the Old Testament who demonstrably thrived due to God’s graceful benevolence ”unto them”. The Puritans, be they the historical Hebrews, the 17th century American founding fathers and pilgrims or the 19th century Victorians during the reign of Queen Victoria, took the written word of the Old or New Testament indiscriminately (read ”analogically”) as a kind of testimony, authority or precedent for their invented ideology of social success. Victorianism added the specific stamp of its own optimism to this social archetype: utilitarianism. Invented shortly before the beginning of the 19th century, utilitarianism was based on the work of Adam Smith, the Scottish economist, who, in his 1776 treaty ”The Wealth of Nations”, had been the first to assume that progress of civilisation should be naturally associated to increasing national wealth”; utilitarianism also rested on the pragmatic philosophy principles regulating social happiness by a set of well-chosen checks and balances, as they had been stipulated in Jeremy Bentham’s ”Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation” of 1789. (An extensive critical assessment of Bentham’s role in the history of culture and utilitarianism is to be found in John Stuart Mill’s essay ”Bentham”, anthologized in the first volume of  ”Proza eseistica victoriana”, edited for the Romanian students’ use by professors Ana Cartianu and Stefan Stoenescu at the Bucharest English Department in 1969. This three-volume book will be referred to by the acronym PEV- I, II or III - in what follows) In fiction, Dickens’s ”Hard Times” works as a savage caricature of  the principles of utilitarian education as outrageously applied by Mr. Gradgrind in his own family. 

The other component of man’s ambition in his immediate plans in the 19th century was less optimistic and, (psycho)analytically speaking, more compensatory. All the more ambitious was man in his immediate plans in the 19th century as he had become rationally aware and scientifically convinced of the cruelty of time and nature in the long run, especially as measured against the geological scale. By the study of rocks and fossils, the remote past of the planet was scientifically revealed to be a scene of cyclical creation and destruction irrespective and in despite of man. Man, therefore, saw himself as a puny creature whose survival was a matter of intense, ambitious presentness. To compensate for this recently proved human because biological frailty at the planetary scale and in the long-term perspective, or to compensate for man’s newly discovered decentred position in the universe at large, a kind of present living frenzy and awareness took possession of energetic humanity, delivering it whole-sale into the hands of scientific, social or historical rationalism permeated by a high responsibility towards the whole human species which needed to be turned at all costs into a surviving species. The name given to all this is materialism, and if regarded from the opposite, puritanical fold, secularism or agnosticism (cf. Thomas Henry Huxley’s late Victorian essay ”Science and Christian Tradition”, PEV II). The fear, however, of failure in such a grandiose project was what animated the great intellectual Victorian sceptics like the poet Matthew Arnold or the novelist Thomas Hardy or Samuel Butler, the author of the Victorian dystopia ”Erewhon” and the novel ”The Way of All Flesh”. In typically post-romantic tones, Matthew Arnold’s classicist sonnet ”In Harmony with Nature” savagely deplores nature’s cruelty and warns man against its deceitful example. Similarly, Thomas Hardy’s powerful fiction seems to be written with the express purpose of exposing the implacable and, for man, merciless mechanisms of nature and society as they will clash in history).

It is customary to refer to Victorianism as, on the one hand the earlier puritanical orthodoxy, while, on the other hand,  to distinguish it from the adverse reactions of late Victorianism. By applying a formalist, rhetorical criterion rather than a purely ideological one, here we tend to look at the various manifestations of Victorianism as understandable human reactions to the environment, materialised in kinds of discourse as follows : first, an  emotion dominated/ceremonial discourse kind,  in  reaction to the environment and its changes; secondly, a rationally constructive/deliberative discourse in response to the same; thirdly, as a combination of the two previous cases, a morally responsible (ethical) discourse (that tends to be either ceremonially high-flown or, on the contrary, deprecatory) : the discourse of pure ideology. This affords a classification together of both the mentalities or attitudes and the discursive stances that underlay Victorianism as a whole.

Thus, in the prose of ideas, when, taking himself very seriously, Victorian man reacted emotionally first, he asserted his own spiritual, (super)natural worth very powerfully in the face of cynical materialism. This was the plea and pledge of Thomas Carlyle’s vitalism or transcendentalism, which regarded man as the repository of a higher-quality, because more energetic, order than the order of the observable one. (The very word ”order” presupposes a qualitatively superior, spiritualised level of existence rather than the one intimately or externally dominated by Brownian movement). When, in the first lecture on the essay, Carlyle’s work will be studied in detail, we shall refer to his complementary dismissively emotional reactions to the man-created industrialized, urbanized environment as his medievalist anarchism paired with his ethical praise of  industrious work as a means of salvation, which is termed activism. After noting that medievalism is the generic cultural term embracing all the forms of early Victorian criticism of the materialistic present , just as individualistic hedonism (with its variants Pre-Raphaelitism, Renaissance revivalism, pan-aestheticism or Utopian socialism) correspond to the later Victorian criticism of the pervading materialism ingrained in the first  industrialised age (of which the second, post-industrial age is the 20th century), it is necessary to stress the overall emotional tone of the medievalist discourse that is called by Northrop Frye, in the last part of his fourth essay of the ”Anatomy of Criticism”, ”tantrum prose”. The pervading emotional overtone of the ceremonial discourse may be either celebratory or vituperative, as the case may be, but it is nevertheless firstly impassioned and only secondly or secondarily rational/deliberative or moral/ethical. Yet another necessary remark has to do with the underlying puritanical idealism of medievalism which can be more precisely defined as a kind of alternative faith militating against the materialistic, secular limitations of the present. Another rectification of the materialistic faith came from a chronologically different quarter in Matthew Arnold’s long essay of 1869 ”Culture and Anarchy” which advocates a neo-classicist cult of Hellenism as an obviously ethical cure through culture of utilitarian materialism; Arnold labels the puritanical materialism of the middle-classes ”Hebraism” and considers it synonymous with ”narrow-mindedness”. Thus, in the middle of the Victorian age, Arnold’s culturalism aims at saving  utilitarianism  from its ignominious present by endowing it with the ethical virtues of an enlightened, utopian  future that he considers to be made effective by poetry as a criticism (i.e., an enhanced understanding) of life. Arnold will repeatedly declare that ”the future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on will find an ever surer and surer stay.” (”Essays in Criticism - Second Series: The Study of Poetry”, 1888). Arnold has in view the decay of every other form of creed or tradition when he declares that poetry will never be shaken but increase, since ”it attaches its emotion (our underlying) to the idea”, ”which is the fact”, ditto, quoted in PEV II, p. 547). As a typically ideological discourse that marries the ceremonially emotional strategy with the rationally deliberative one, Matthew Arnold’s tone strikes a happy, didactic balance between emotion, reason and ethics.

With Arnold’s criticism (of life) we arrive at the dominant component of Victorianism as mirrored at the cultural level of the discourse, namely liberalism. Liberalism will be proved in the second lecture on the essay to pervade the debates on (public, general or higher) education, civic existence and public communication, reaching into the more spiritually self-sufficient departments or institutions of religion or the discussion of artistic and literary  creation. The liberal discourse in either science, politics, (cultural) sociology or religion, as wielded by John Stuart Mill, Cardinal John Henry Newman or John Henry Huxley, the popularizer of Darwin’s thinking, or as typified by the aesthetic critic Walter Pater or even by the not-too-well beloved in (post-)communist Romania materialistic thinker Karl Marx, who wrote his ”Manifesto” and capital ”Das Kapital” in London, in the British Museum library -  the liberal discourse, therefore, in each and every one of these cases is a typically deliberative, logical and rational discourse, the discourse of enlightened pragmatism or practical philosophy in its highest theoretical sense, devoid of any ideological ulterior uses or even mystifications. Liberalism starts from the demonstration and construction of knowledge. Knowledge is the basic notion of all deliberative activities as the only logical source of theoretical or practical justice. Starting from justice and knowledge any liberally constructed social intention or project or enterprise, any important decision is arrived at in anybody’s sight and never dogmatically ”given”. Liberalism is, like democracy, a transparent public deed (a res publica) that can be understood and verified by any reasonable human being. Cultural liberalism is probably the greatest contribution of an age of individualistic initiative and progress, as the Victorian age was, to the edifice of human history, debatable though it may be in many material or spiritual respects. It is as a result of the accumulation and correct management of knowledge as information in an age of active mass communication that the 19th century liberal thinking can be credited with having set up new disciplines, each functioning owing to its own legitimate corpus, laws and  discourse: social analysis and criticism amounting to either the theoretical discipline of sociology or the applicative one of political economy; modern hermeneutics as comparatist humanism or culturalism,  as aesthetics,  as literary criticism;  historical comparatism branching into specialised domains such as  historiography, and with Sir James Frazer, at the end of the Victorian age, anthropology. And no mention has been made as yet of the less directly humanistic disciplines of geology or biology as branches of natural science with whose spectacular development it is again the 19th century that must be credited. (One major source of 19th century materialism or positivism is precisely the application of the natural science models to every department of knowledge and to any social project; it was against this levelling of human understanding that the majority of the humanists such as Carlyle, Ruskin and Arnold, then the socialists and the other brands of modern(ist) thinkers protested in the latter half of the 19th century and afterwards) .

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