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The Nineteenth-Century Death of God

12:00 AM, Aug 9, 1999 • By PRESTON JONES
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Maybe you didn't know that "what we would call 'S and M' was highly popular among the Victorians." In that case, you should read A. N. Wilson, "award-winning novelist, biographer, and journalist," who in his new volume God's Funeral, devotes some twenty-five pages to musing about the life, work, and influence of Algernon Charles Swinburne. The "surviving pornography" of Swinburne "is extensive," Wilson explains, "with many a loving description of boys begging for mercy as blood spurts from the weals on their buttocks and cruel tutors or insatiable dominatrixes continue to thwack away."

You might wonder just what Swinburne's love affair with the lash has to do with atheism and the rise of unbelief in the nineteenth century -- the actual subject of God's Funeral. Wilson's answer isn't clear. Indeed, his extended quotations from Swinburne -- "Oh, hold his shirt up, Algernon," "Oh, doesn't the pain make him cry" -- stand as figures for what's the first problem with Wilson's book: rambling, unfocused, and (dare one say, in the context of Swinburne) undisciplined structure.

Just when it seems that Wilson is finally ready to make a germane comment, he notes, "incidentally," that Swinburne's tutor "was the much-loved William Johnson, perhaps one of the most inspired and inspiring of all Victorian schoolmasters" -- and thus is the reader led off on yet another of the digressions that compose perhaps 70 percent of the book.

In its British incarnation God's Funeral is subtitled The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization. The American edition bears no subtitle at all, and one suspects that is so for at least two reasons. First, the book focuses mostly on England, has little to say about the United States, and even less to say about such major European figures as Nietzsche. Second, the book isn't really about the decline of religious faith in the nineteenth century. True, Wilson pretends that this is his subject (and his reviewers have been happy to play along), and he does bring it up from time to time. He even alludes to something he calls "the central theme of this book." And, yes, Marx, Darwin, George Eliot, Carlyle, William James, Matthew Arnold, and Freud make predictable appearances, though the last is allotted less than five pages.

But so unfocused, superficially researched, and weakly argued is this book (Wilson's hollow endnotes speak for themselves), the best that can be said for it is that it's a collection of somewhat related, derivative reflections on the nineteenth century in Britain.

And yet, this isn't to say that God's Funeral is about nothing at all. In fact, it's about a lot of things. For one, it's about A. N. Wilson's contempt for ordinary religious people. He calls charismatic Christians "simple Bible ranters" and likens evangelicals to "ayatollahs." John Henry Cardinal Newman, whom Wilson thinks was homosexual and whom he calls a "bigot" at least four times, committed, in Wilson's words, "the sin against the Intellect" by holding to Christian faith.

On display as well is the arrogance of a supposedly solemn writer who talks down to his readers with stunning condescension: "The late twentieth-century reader will find . . . "; "To the ears of any reasonably sensitive twentieth-century observer . . . " Wilson also has an unenviable capacity for generalization: "The enormous commercial success in our day of 'popular science' books," he writes, "might be attributable to the profound interest and enjoyment which we all derived from the study of science in our childhood." Ah.

Finally, the book is about revealing the strongly asserted but completely unargued opinions of the critic who wrote it: "It would be a foolish person . . . who did not see that Beata Beatrix . . . was one of the greatest works of art of the entire nineteenth century." A few pages after telling us about Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "uncanny" resemblance to Luciano Pavarotti, Wilson proves himself an even worse philosopher than a critic, gravely assuring us that it is "existence itself which is surely the greatest of all mysteries."

It's unfortunate that A. N. Wilson, fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has written such a bad book. Thomas Hardy wrote the poem from which Wilson takes his title, and we have a real need for a modern, intellectually serious, well-researched, psychologically compelling account of how nineteenth century unbelievers answered Hardy's question of "who or what shall fill" the dead God's place. But seriousness -- even the seriousness of atheism -- is what Wilson seems to lack.