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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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."