Severe Withdrawal Symptons

By Carr, Raymond | The Spectator, July 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Severe Withdrawal Symptons


Carr, Raymond, The Spectator


Severe withdrawal symptoms

Raymond Carr GOD'S FUNERAL

by A. N. Wilson

John Murray, 20, pp. 402

It is not often that a reviewer, with a book arriving at breakfast in the morning post, sits down to read it at a gallop till bedtime and then canters through it again the next day. The theme of this book is compelling: the collapse of orthodox Christianity in Victorian Britain. It was to Gladstone `an inexpressible calamity'. Wilson deals with the tortured struggles, the `sickness' of those who, brought up in the faith, found any belief in a personal God intellectually untenable and abandoned it. In the attempt to rescue something from the wreckage they invented surrogate religions. Poor Mrs Besant, separated from her clergyman husband, became a firm supporter of the atheist MP Bradlaugh, only to end up in a mishmash of theosophy. Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, became an enthusiastic advocate of spiritualism, as did the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, in spite of the consistent exposure of mediums as frauds. Beatrice Webb had a shrine in her attic devoted to the posthumous cult of Lenin. I think it was G. K. Chesterton who said that when a man stops believing in God he does not believe in nothing, he believes in anything.

Wilson's range is impressive, from the French modernist theologian Maurice Blondel, to Ivy Compton Burnett. For me to see Blondel's name on the printed page is a particular pleasure; it brought back memories of my long friendship with Alick Dru, a now unjustly forgotten Catholic intellectual who wrote on Blondel in the TLS. What will interest Wilson's readers are his long and lively biographical portraits of those engaged in the battle between faith and unbelief, in particular those of Carlyle, Swinburne, Samuel Butler and William James. Some of this is familiar enough stuff: Herbert Spencer's ear-plugs at dinner parties to avoid exciting his mind; Swinburne, once a drunken masher, reduced to a bottle of Bass a day at No. 2 The Pines, Putney; the citizens of Konigsberg setting their watches by Kant's daily walk.

Those on the wrong side of the barricades in the battle are treated with something that verges on contempt. August Comte (b. 1798), inventor of the Religion of Humanity, with its ridiculous rituals, deserves the knockabout treatment he gets at Wilson's hands. George Eliot is a different matter. As a novelist himself, Wilson recognises her greatness. But she is `horsefaced' and her live-in companion and later her husband, George Lewes, `the ugliest man in London'. She set up house with Lewes - 'a rogue, of course' - in St John's Wood. `Ever since, one feels that ugly female novelists have been setting up home in North London with pushy liberalminded journalists.' Wilson the scholar becomes Wilson the popular journalist with no holds barred. Matthew Arnold is dismissed as a mediocre poet and an elitist snob. As for `Dover Beach' with its image of the receding tide of faith, Wilson writes that Arnold might have realised that Sophocles could not have observed this receding tide on the tideless Aegean. Moreover tides return. `Arnold seems not to have noted this rather bidiurnal fact.' This is not exactly literary criticism of a high order and, in spite of Arnold's gross geographical and maritime errors, for simpler folk `Dover Beach' remains a poem stamped on the memory.

Wilson starts with Gibbon and Hume, the former ridiculing the superstitions and miracles of the early church, the latter destroying the philosophical foundations of belief. But they had no empirical evidence to question the necessity for the existence of God. This was supplied by the geologist Lyell, who destroyed the account of creation in Genesis, and Darwin, who left mankind in Thomas Hardy's bleak, godless universe.

Wilson claims he is no philosopher, but one of his virtues is that he recognises the importance of Germany as the intellectual powerhouse of 19th-century Europe. To him Kant is the greatest of modern metaphysicians. …

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