The Magazine

The Devil in Scotland

James Hogg's 1824 novel of sin and salvation.

Mar 31, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 28 • By ALAN JACOBS
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Private Memoirs and Confessions

of a Justified Sinner

by James Hogg

New York Review of Books, 272 pp., $12.95

THERE IS A KIND OF literary greatness that only a badly made book can possess. Badly made books are not typically great, of course; but it sometimes happens that a writer of limited skills encounters a subject that runs away with him--and when that happens, the result can achieve a narrative propulsion that makes its flaws seem insignificant. The reader notices them, surely, and perhaps smiles, but keeps on reading, caught by the heedless momentum of the tale. Such a subject came once to a man named James Hogg.

Hogg was born in the Ettrick Forest, in the Border country of Scotland, in 1770. As a boy and a young man he worked as a shepherd, but wished to become a writer, so he sent some of his poems to Sir Walter Scott, who praised them and promoted their author. In that age--so devoted to the idea that poetic genius surges up from within the sensitive breast but can be stifled by education--it was perhaps inevitable that Hogg would become famous as the "Ettrick Shepherd."

Hogg seemed to have found the role rather congenial; in his books he presents himself as a roughhewn and shrewd peasant, and he often claimed (falsely) that he avoided reading other people's books in order to preserve his artistic integrity. But at least one visitor to Hogg in Edinburgh, where the poet had moved in 1810, was stunned to find him "smooth, well-looking, and gentlemanly." Apparently this fellow had expected to find Hogg urging a flock of sheep along the Royal Mile. Perhaps sensing the incongruity between his public image and his private life, Hogg retired in 1816 to a farm and lived in the country for most of the rest of his life. He died in 1835, and Wordsworth wrote an elegy for him.

Hogg published hundreds of poems, several novels, a memoir of Walter Scott, and much else. None of it seems to be especially good--with one exception: a novel entitled "The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner," published in 1824. This extraordinary book has recently been reprinted by New York Review of Books, and it deserves renewed attention, although it may be too strange to receive it. Margot Livesey, a novelist who has written an introduction to this edition, commends the book by claiming that it "becomes only more piercingly relevant with each passing year." In her view, this is because "James Hogg offers a compelling and subtle portrait of a human condition that, alas, we ignore at our peril: fanaticism."

Though I am glad to see Livesey's praise of Hogg's masterpiece, her account of the book's importance is unhelpful, chiefly because the term "fanaticism" is incapable of meaningful definition. What is a fanatic, after all? It seems to me that a fanatic can best be defined as someone who believes something I do not and believes it more deeply than I believe anything. Fanaticism, then, by extension, is the state of experiencing intense and unimaginable assurance--unimaginable, that is, to me. Fanaticism, even more than beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

But Hogg was not pursuing anything so vague as fanaticism. It is true that Hogg himself, or rather the fictional "editor" of the story, uses Livesey's favored term to encapsulate the horrific narrative he has just presented to us: "We have heard much of the rage of fanaticism in former days [that is, the seventeenth century, in which the narrative is set], but nothing to this." It is also true that a pirated and bowdlerized version of the novel published two years after Hogg's death was called "The Confessions of a Fanatic." But fanaticism in general does not interest Hogg. A much more theologically and historically particular belief is what he is interested in limning. Its technical name is antinomianism, and more precisely still, the kind of antinomianism that can arise from the doctrine called "predestination to election."

THIS BELIEF has never been summed up more succinctly than by Anne Hutchinson, the controversial seventeenth-century New Englander: "As I do understand it, laws, commands, rules and edicts are for those who have not the light which makes plain the pathway. He who has God's grace in his heart cannot go astray." Though the extremity of Hutchinson's views led to her banishment from Massachusetts, she argued that they constituted the logical extension of the belief shared by all Puritans (and many other Protestants) that Christians live under a "covenant of grace," not a "covenant of law." That is, Christians are redeemed not by any good works but by God's free gift of salvation. This gift is accompanied by the presence of the Holy Spirit: The believer is properly guided by that "indwelling" Spirit rather than by the lifeless machinery of the Law. Those teaching this view of salvation have typically then gone on to assert that the Holy Spirit would never lead us to do anything that is contrary to the moral law as presented in Scripture, but Hutchinson was not careful on this point, and that, more than anything else, got her banished.

This view can be intensified and complicated by the specifically Calvinist belief in "predestination to election"--that is, God's choice, determined even before the Creation, of those who would be saved--and its corresponding doctrine, the "perseverance of the saints." Those whom God elects cannot lose their salvation; to think otherwise would be to compromise the divine sovereignty. Thus when the "justified sinner" of the title, a disturbed young man named Robert Wringhim, suggests to his mysterious friend that "indubitably there were degrees of sinning which would induce the Almighty to throw off the very elect," the friend responds promptly:

Why, sir, . . . by vending such an insinuation, you put discredit on the great atonement, in which you trust. . . . Now, when you know, as you do (and as every one of the elect may know of himself) that this Saviour died for you, namely and particularly, dare you say that there is not enough of merit in His great atonement to annihilate all your sins, let them be as heinous and atrocious as they may? And, moreover, do you not acknowledge that God hath pre-ordained and decreed whatsoever comes to pass? Then, how is it that you should deem it in your power to eschew one action of your life, whether good or evil? . . . That is, none of us knows what is pre-ordained, but whatever it is pre-ordained we must do, and none of these things will be laid to our charge.

This argument is repeated several times in the course of the story. In the portion called the "Editor's Narrative," which precedes Robert's first-person account, we hear that whenever Robert questioned "the boundlessness of the true Christian's freedom," and expressed "doubts that, chosen as he knew he was from all eternity, still it might be possible for him to commit acts that would exclude him from the limits of the covenant," his friend was quick to counter, "with mighty fluency, that the thing was utterly impossible, and altogether inconsistent with eternal predestination."

The question that drives Hogg's novel, and drives it relentlessly, is simply this: What are the psychological and moral consequences of holding these theological convictions? What happens to a young man who cannot answer the "mighty fluency" of arguments that the elect (like Nietzsche's "supermen") are above all law?

IN PURSUING THIS QUESTION, Hogg disregards almost everything that a good novelist is supposed to pay attention to. One notes again and again inconsistencies of plot and character, inexplicable changes in narrative direction, and unbelievable coincidences. One of the most notable lapses occurs in a scene, rather late in the novel, in which an old peasant relates a lengthy tale about how Satan himself was caught preaching in a village church. At first Hogg has the peasant speaking in very broad Scots, with every oddity of pronunciation represented phonetically; but soon he grows tired of this and lapses into standard (and quite eloquent) English, only to veer back into dialect as the story nears its end. But by the time I got to this point in the novel I didn't care about Hogg's craft. It was the story that mattered to me. I wanted to know more about the Devil.

And Hogg tells me quite a lot about Old Slewfoot--though the first part of the story, which contains the main part of the Editor's Narrative, presents Robert Wringhim simply as an ill-tempered and spiteful youth, deeply resentful of his sanguine, well-adjusted, hail-fellow-well-met older brother George. The "editor" does not pretend to understand Robert's behavior; but neither does he claim to be a dispassionate observer of this family's difficulties. After George's strange and violent death, followed soon by the demise of his debauched old father, Robert inherits the family estate and celebrates with his Calvinist friends the passage of the family fortune into the hands of the elect:

Then, after due thanks returned, they parted rejoicing in spirit; which thanks, by the by, consisted wholly in telling the Almighty what he was; and informing, with very particular precision, what they were who addressed him; for [the preacher's] whole system of popular declamation consisted, it seems, in this--to denounce all men and women to destruction, and then hold out hopes to his adherents that they were the chosen few, included in the promises, and who could never fall away. It would appear that this pharisaical doctrine is a very delicious one, and the most grateful of all others to the worst characters.

But, as I have noted, Hogg does not allow the "editor" simply to have his way with the story; we hear Robert's own account as well: "My sorrows have all been for a slighted gospel," he begins, and the reader gets to hear that gospel expounded by one who has staked his life and soul on it. In the end this religion may gain little credit from its defender; but still, the young man's story--which recapitulates much of what we have heard from the editor in very different terms--is often moving. This is so especially in his description of a period of spiritual hopelessness, which, not incidentally, closely resembles the account John Bunyan (of "Pilgrim's Progress" fame) gave of his own life in "Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners," a book written at almost exactly the same time that the events of this narrative are said to have taken place. But if Bunyan's story is one of fear and despair overcome, Robert tells a very different tale--a story of theological error spiraling out of control, generating violence and depravity beyond measure, bringing destruction to almost everyone in Robert's path and most of all to himself.

All this misery is presided over by Robert's strange friend, who continually professes his admiration for Robert, and his determination to follow and learn from Robert, but who seems increasingly though subtly to control Robert's life. He professes Christian belief in a strictly Calvinist form, but he will not pray with Robert, and only with reluctance even gives a name: "Very well, you may call me Gil-Martin. It is not my Christian name, but it is a name which may serve your turn." When Robert wonders whether this reluctance to give his "real" name indicates embarrassment about his parentage, Gil-Martin curtly replies, "I have no parents save one, whom I do not acknowledge." Gil-Martin has the curious ability to alter his appearance so that he resembles those he comes in contact with, although in the latter stages of Robert's sad narration the friend seems to settle into a fixed form: that of Robert's murdered brother. He repeatedly calls Robert to remember his divine vocation, which (he says) is that of a warrior for the Lord, a deadly enemy of the enemies of the Gospel.

CONSIDERING Gil-Martin's many and remarkable gifts, including his evident powers of command, Robert comes to the conclusion that his friend is Czar Peter of Russia ("having heard that he had been traveling through Europe in disguise"). Gil-Martin's only reply to this speculation is that he is indeed a prince, and one with many subjects in his thrall. As Robert's moral and physical condition deteriorates, as he loses memory of whole weeks and months of his life, as he is cast out of his house and his world, Gil-Martin never deserts him--even though Robert passionately wishes he would. Instead he remains almost always by Robert's side, looking ever more haggard and blasted himself, but always ready to remind Robert that he is indeed one of God's elect, whose every deed, however wicked it might appear to the reprobate eye, is ordained, effected, and accounted gracious by God Himself.

In her introduction Margot Livesey is at pains to insist upon the "relevance" of Hogg's story: "It is a book that will stay with you for many years and to which, until the world changes dramatically, you will have many opportunities to refer." It is not clear precisely what she means, except that she believes that the fanatical, like the poor, will always be with us. Still, whom would she designate as fanatics? She doesn't say. If Hogg's book does have some contemporary relevance, it would scarcely be to any Calvinists in our midst; they tend to be peaceable folk who regularly belie Hogg's presentation of the dangers of their faith.

Perhaps, though, we may fairly recognize in Hogg's sordid tale a particular class of fanatic: those who believe that that the righteousness of their cause not only excuses but positively commends them for the commission of any deed done to further it. It is a phenomenon we may recognize in many spheres of culture and on many levels of seriousness, from the "heavenly deception" practiced by evangelists of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, to the sanctimonious manifestoes that accompanied the exploding packages of the Unabomber, to the terrorism of Islamic militants with their claims to divine sanction and reward.

All exemplify the fanaticism decried by Hogg: an antinomianism that declares that laws are made for others and mean nothing to us. By daring what others dare not, we prove both the power of our cause and the unflinching constancy of our faith in it. For this belief we hazard all, and we call our daring holiness.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois. His most recent book is "A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love."