A common plot of the science fiction genre first put forward by the fertile imagination of H.G. Wells supposes a world facing a calamitous and certain end, but escape is possible. Time travel – which our scientists tell us will always be the product of fantasy, not of science – will enable the escape. Modern earthlings need only pick the period into which they will disappear.
By the end of the thirties, England faced the menace of fascism, the dark shadow of the Brown, and then the Red menace – the certain prospect that whatever refuge England presented in the past, this was coming to an end. A grayness was settling in; indeed, that was about the best case. Is it so surprising that in the face of this, so many brilliant minds sought refuge in history, in fantasy, in a curious combination of the two?
I cite three examples, each the authors of works too easily dismissed as children’s literature. What they crafted was great and important, though carefully constructed to be appreciated simultaneously on many different levels. And for their popularity they paid a price: being consigned to the waiting room, never fully accepted into the literary canon. I am thinking of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and T.H. White. I devoured their works in my adolescence, and then came back later and realized quickly – there was much more in them than I first understood. A great deal more. (Incidentally, if there was a fourth member of this group, I’d name Eric Arthur Blair – known to the world as George Orwell. His wife Eileen was one of Tolkien’s favorite students. And in both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Blair is playing their game in a sense – a very downbeat, dark and brooding version of it). The trio are bound by a number of things – the importance of the magical, of allegory, of a high Christian tradition, and also of a pre-Christian past. But they are also fixed on the preservation of a great cultural legacy. Will it be passed on? Will it be lost to the monotonous industrial age that is slowly securing dominance over humankind? They present a hopeful vision. They want to inspire us to face the grim world and do battle for the old virtues. In a world filled with evil, they remind us: don’t loose courage; don’t loose hope – for good will triumph in the end.
Of this trio, T.H. White was the one who spoke most effectively to me. His retelling of Le Morte d’Arthur is inspiring and curiously modern. This Arthur and his spiritual advisor Merlyn seem clearly to be creatures of the twentieth century. They speak to the bruised souls of the generation that weathered World War II. But White’s genius was not limited to transporting figures from the mists of Albion into the modern world; he was also a backwards time-traveler. And he had a great affection for the same period that has long captivated me: England in the period between the last years of Alexander Pope and the publication of the first major works of Wordsworth – say 1740 to 1798. I call it the Augustan Age; White prefers the “Age of Scandal,” and indeed he consciously degrades the epoch – a “minor period,” he says. (Not to be taken seriously, though – this is precisely the sort of mocking that would have delighted the period’s great figures).
The Age of Scandal is a stylistic tour de force. It’s not by any stretch an intellectual history. It makes no pretense of history writing whatsoever. In fact it describes the period using the tools peculiar to it: letter-writing, journal entries, wit, ridicule, gossip, agrémens, the domestic comforts of the buskins and orange peelings, the Portugal water, the stimulus of a good pot of tea. And for good balance and the inescapable end-note of the prurient, White concludes his account with the sordid life history of the Marquis de Sade, that perpetual ink-blot upon the chronology of the Enlightenment.
White’s attitude about all of this is rapturous nostalgia. And here’s his credo:
I believe that the peak of British culture was reached in the latter years of George III: that the rot began to set in with the ‘Romantics’: that the apparent prosperity of Victoria’s reign was autumnal, not vernal: and that now we are done for. I have been consoling my old age by running away from the Bondfields and the Shinwells and the Bevans, and by going back to the grand old days of Horace Walpole, and I have written this book in the effort to give one last, loving and living picture of an aristocratic civilisation which we shall never see again.
This affection for the last hosannas of the aristocracy is where I part company with White, a man who always felt the inner yearning to be what our British friends call a “toff,” a term which happily has no equal in American usage. In fact the Augustan age marks the arrival of the self-made and self-educated man – Isaac Newton, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, George Frederic Handel – and even Dean Swift – none of these figures is by any stretch an aristocrat. They rose by the force of their intellect and use it to make a mark on the world. This period marked the rise of a new type of aristocracy perhaps, a nobility of the spirit. But White is still not wholly off the mark.
Calling it an “age of scandal” is not in the least to be understood as a term of opprobrium. Much the contrary. Scandal reflected a spirit of engagement on the level of intellect, but importantly also of wit. The greats of the period were required to ascend into the æthereal, and never to take themselves too seriously, either. The vilest insults and attacks were matters of entertainment. Heaven forbid the weighty, self-important man. As Boswell recounts in the Life of Johnson:
“It is well known that there was formerly a rude custom for those who were sailing upon the Thames, to accost each other as they passed, in the most abusive language they could invent, generally, however, with as much satirical humour as they were capable of producing… [Samuel] Johnson was once eminently successful in this species of contest; a fellow having attacked him with some coarse raillery, Johnson answered him thus, ‘Sir, your wife, under pretence of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods.'”
Joseph Addison, writing in No. 385 of The Spectator (May 22, 1712), the famous essay on friendship, gives a very similar account, reminding us that “the most difficult province in friendship is letting a man see his own faults and errors.” Reading documents of the era, such explosions of light-hearted vulgarity and reproach are commonplace, and very confusing to the student unschooled in the period’s cryptography. Today, of course, we have emoticons.
But these Olympians are such rascals in the end. Think of Alexander Pope, the towering scribbler of the period, taking a bribe of £1,000 (the equivalent today of perhaps a quarter million sterling, or a half-million dollars) not to publish his send-up of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough – and then publishing it anyway. From the perspective of posterity, it was the right thing (she’s the Atossa of Epistle II, “Last night, her Lord was all that’s good and great;/A knave this morning, and his will a cheat.”)
The Age of Scandal is also the crucible of modern partisan politics in the English speaking world; the rise and definition of the Whig and Tory parties, the development of something akin to party programs. The parties became the focus of political discussion, and scandal evolved as a tool of partisan warfare. Swift lampooned it in Gulliver’s Travels, but then few matched Swift as a practitioner of the scandalmonger’s art (The Draper’s Letters, for instance, which he published anonymously and for which he feared arrest). And for the Augustans, the scandal was raised to a form of art, and became art. It flourished as song, poetry, opera, novel and essay. From it arose the art of political satire (at the high end, John Arbuthnot’s Treatise of the Art of Political Lying), probably the greatest cultural contribution of the Augustan cohort.
So here we sit in America in the age of Bush, and indeed it is an age of scandal. As Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann remind us, the country has never known such a level of corruption and scandal in its history. The Teapot Dome scandal is a pittance by comparison. But the greatest offense of this age of scandal is its dullness – its lack of culture and art; its indifference to legacy. It is an age of charlatans and men of straw. In the end it’s about the incompetence – even the incompetence of their scandals.
The wizard Merlyn, White relates, lives his life backwards through time – so he knows the tragedies that the future holds. He knows they cannot be avoided. And against this he offers some simple advice: to learn – we must learn with all our heart and soul. This is the best possible protection against life’s heartaches and setbacks; the only thing that works. But this wisdom makes no appearance in the writing of Sir Thomas Malory; it is the thinking of the Augustan Age.