Vathek (William Beckford)

Posted: May 3, 2015 in fiction
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I ran across this little book in my critical reading on Gothic fiction; otherwise, I’m not sure I would have purchased it. It’s the sort of book one can borrow from a library. I mean, far be it from me to discourage the buying of books, but really. Library.

Vathek is like a mixture of Johnson’s Rasselas and Lewis’s The Monk. From Johnson, we have a stylized version of the Middle East with a strongly allegorical feel. It’s the type of writing that makes Edward Said rub his hands together with glee as he prepares to rip a new asshole for authors who have been dead for two hundred years. It’s a weird mixture of Biblical imagery with stereotypes about Muslims and a smattering of the world familiar to northern Europeans in the late eighteenth century. From Lewis, we have the plot: a religious leader turns to the Dark Side, deceiving everyone so they believe he continues in undisturbed piety while he pursues Satanic practices right up to the bitter end, when he’s been abandoned by the devil to suffer for eternity. Since there’s a hundred pages of wickedness for five pages of punishment, you get the impression that he’s jealous of the protagonist’s downward slope, and the final hellfire is more of a sop to the religious readers than an ineluctable conclusion.

As is to be expected from a book written in the 1780s, there’s some unnecessary, vicious misogyny:

This Princess was so far from being influenced by scruples, that she was as wicked, as woman could be; which is not saying a little; for the sex pique themselves on their superiority, in every competition.

And for most of the book, that’s the most memorable passage. There’s some unnecessary, vicious racism too, but that’s kind of bound up in the misogyny, as people of darker skin are represented by fierce negresses, mutes who delight in graphic violence and torture. There are no chapter breaks, so we just rush from one ridiculously excessive evil to the next, right up to the end.

The Caliph and Nouronihar remained in the most abject affliction. Their tears were unable to flow, and scarcely could they support themselves. At length, taking each other, despondingly, by the hand, they went faltering from this fatal hall; indifferent which way they turned their steps. Every portal opened at their approach. The dives fell prostrate before them. Every reservoir of riches was disclosed to their view: but they no longer felt the incentives of curiosity, of pride, or avarice. With like apathy they heard the chorus of Genii, and saw the stately banquets prepared to regale them. They went wandering on, from chamber to chamber; hall to hall; and gallery to gallery; all without bounds or limit; all distinguishable by the same louring gloom; all adorned with the same awful grandeur; all traversed by persons in search of repose and consolation; but, who sought them in vain; for every one carried within him a heart tormented in flames. Shunned by these various sufferers, who seemed by their looks to be upbraiding the partners of their guilt, they withdrew from them to wait, in direful suspense, the moment which should render them to each other the like objects of terror.

In my opinion, this is the moment of their supreme suffering. Once they choose to separate from each other, it’s done and over with; you can move on from that. But when you can figuratively see the axe suspended over your head, waiting for it to drop . . . the anticipation of suffering makes it more poignant than the suffering itself. Which is the moral of the story:

Such was, and such should be, the punishment of unrestrained passions and atrocious deeds! Such shall be, the chastisement, of that blind curiosity, which would transgress those bounds the wisdom of the Creator has prescribed to human knowledge; and such the dreadful disappointment of that restless ambition, which, aiming at discoveries reserved for beings of a supernatural order, perceives not, through its infatuated pride, that the condition of man upon earth is to be – humble and ignorant.

I’ve never been comfortable with ignorance. Humility is fine, but ignorance is not. I’ve always wanted to know and experience everything; it’s only recently that I’ve begun to accept that some places I will never visit, some things I will never live through. Like Japan. I have no real desire to go to Japan. I have nothing against it, I’m sure you’re a lovely country with delightful people, beautiful fruit trees and sublime mountains – but there’s no strong pull. I’d like to know France and the United Kingdom a little better than I do, and my heart is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but other than that, it’s people I want to visit, not places. Besides, I’m a teacher; my life has been dedicated to ending ignorance. It’s not the preordained preferred state of humanity. It’s an evil in itself.

As you can imagine, I’m not really fond of the place of reward, either:

He admitted without fear the congratulations of his little friends, who were all assembled in the nest of the venerable genius, and vied with each other in kissing his serene forehead and beautiful eye-lids. – Remote from the inquietudes of the world; the impertinence of harems, the brutality of eunuchs, and the inconstancy of women; there he found a place truly congenial to the delights of his soul. In this peaceable society his days, months, and years glided on; nor was he less happy than the rest of his companions: for the genius, instead of burthening his pupils with perishable riches and vain sciences, conferred upon them the boon of perpetual childhood.

I’m all for a heaven that is populated by handsome, affectionate young men, but for God’s sake, let them grow up and pass through puberty. Perpetual childhood is less a boon than a curse. But then again, I suppose not everyone has my inner drive toward maturity and responsibility. Not that I’m great at those qualities, but I value them immensely, and I tend to value myself in the same degree that I reflect them.

So. A couple of weeks ago I was feeling lonely so I went to the local branch of the church I grew up in. Last week I didn’t go, so a couple of guys came out to the house to talk with me. They tried talking me into becoming a regular church-goer again, but without much success. I don’t like being called names, and saying that it’s arrogant for anyone to think he can understand God when you think that’s what I’m doing is name-calling. I suppose there’s some arrogance in my attitude, but I don’t think that’s the biggest problem. You see, I’ve got some religious books, including the Holy books of Christianity and Islam, and I think about reading them sometimes, but I don’t think they’ll fix my problem. Religious writers tend to try one of two things: convince people that God/Jesus/Muhammad really is who/what they claim, or teach people how to respond to this belief/fact. They always, always assume that to believe in God is to love Him. As I meditate on my own feelings, I think I do believe in God – that’s not the problem. The problem is, I hate him. I try to be a good person; I love people, I love the world I find myself in. My only problem is with God. I really fucking hate him. I think this sort of hatred and anger are toxic, and I don’t want them inside me, but there they are. I think about the ways that I’ve always been taught to overcome hatred, and they don’t make sense in this context. “Let God into your heart” – not helpful when it’s God you hate. “Pray for them and try to make their lives better” – not helpful when it’s God. That’s part of the whole omnipotent gig: God doesn’t need anything, least of all the good wishes of an obscure English teacher in the Midwest. Isn’t it a greater form of arrogance to assume that the all-powerful creator of the universe needs anything I can do for him? “Just forgive and forget” – like it’s easy under normal circumstances, much less when I contemplate the suffering of someone I love. What did the ex ever do to him? She just loved and worshipped him for her whole life, and he gave her a gay husband and then a divorce just when she was finally relenting and becoming Roman Catholic. How cruel is that? I object to being made the instrument of someone else’s suffering, so I suppose this is really about me. Regardless of the precise things I’m angry about, I have this boiling rage that I keep pushed down in public, but if I think about God or praying it rises up and makes itself known. [My recent prayer life: Dear God, FUCK YOU.] I want to be rid of it, but I don’t know how. I’m open to suggestions, particularly if they come with book recommendations.

But, um, Vathek. It’s short; it’s not really substantial; it’s offensive; it’s blatantly moralistic and simplistic. If you just love the eighteenth century, go right ahead; otherwise, find something else. You’ll be happier with just about anything else.

Update on the God-hating thing: I sat down with a friend (M.Div, eastern European mission experience) to talk it over, and while I didn’t get a lot of direct benefit from what he said, it was good to say these things out loud. In talking about it, I came to a little epiphany; you see, unless there’s a clear case of injustice, anger is about what’s inside me instead of what’s around me. The problem isn’t with God, it’s with me. I am not grateful for the life I’ve been given. I love my friends and family; I love the earth, particularly in the spring; I even like myself – I’m a handsome, intelligent man, inclined to be serious and silent but still worth knowing. It’s my place in the world that I object to. I dislike my role, not my character. I don’t like the way that I’ve hurt people (not just the ex) by being honest about myself. Life, specifically my life, is a parade of unrelenting suffering, and no amount of alleviating the suffering of others has changed that. I turn an optimistically blind eye to it most of the time, but deep down there is a pain that never ends, a black bitterness unrelieved by the transient joys of social intercourse or woodland hikes. I push it down so much that it seldom surfaces directly; it comes out in these tortured, sublimated ways, like the whole I-hate-God thing. My acupuncturist friend once labeled it grief, and we did a series of emotional healing treatments to set it to rest. That was five years ago, so I guess it’s time for another go-round. He’s getting out of acupuncture, though, and he lives too far away for me to be treated there anyway, so I need to find a different solution.

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