Thursday, June 3, 2010

Gracious Heaven! - the Brocken Specter and common sense in James Hogg

Is the Gothic novel the right place to defend common sense?  I’d hardly think so – a parody like Northanger Abbey, sure, that might work, but not the real thing.  But James Hogg does it, somehow.

Nicole wrote, today, about the various peasant characters. The rule of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is:  if the character speaks in Scotch dialect, she’s not a complete fool.  Peasants and servants are not skeptics – they’re almost all superstitious, for example – but they don’t waste their time trying to game their own religion, and, whatever their doctrine might say, they believe in the efficacy of good works.  Come to think of it, in a novel where the devil is guiding the protagonist to multiple murders, superstition is purely rational.

The pinnacle of this idea is the joke I mentioned yesterday, in which James Hogg refuses to assist with his own novel because he’s too busy selling sheep.  Nicole points out some of the other Scottish common sense highlights.

I want to glance at something else, though, a great scene in the first part of the novel, the vision of the devil on top of Arthur’s Seat.  George Colwan has been stalked through Edinburgh by his sinister, devilish brother.  Early one morning, George climbs Edinburgh’s peak.  He becomes closely attuned to natural phenomena – “a fairy web, composed of little spheres” on his hat, and a rainbow and “a bright halo in the cloud of haze” caused by the dawning sun hitting the fog a certain way.  George admires these rare natural phenomena, but, but, but:

“Here,” thought he, “I can converse with nature without disturbance, and without being intruded on by any appalling or obnoxious visitor.”  The idea of his brother’s dark and malevolent looks coming at that moment across his mind, he turned his eyes instinctively to the right, to the point where that unwelcome guest was wont to make his appearance.  Gracious Heaven!  What an apparition was there presented to his view!  He saw delineated in the cloud, the shoulders, arms and features of a human being of the most dreadful aspect.  The face was the face of his brother, but dilated to twenty times the natural size.  Its dark eyes gleamed on him through the mist, while every furrow of its hideous brow frowned deep as the ravines on the brow of the hill. (42)

To the rationalist observer, George has seen a Scottish version of the Brocken Specter, a huge reflection of – of who?  Well, it turns out that it might be a reflection of his brother, who has followed George up the mountain, possibly under the guidance of the devil, in hopes of murdering him.  So what’s a reasonable explanation here?  Is the natural explanation sufficient, even if true?

I wonder if this is the first literary appearance of the Brocken Specter.  The Brocken, in the Harz Mountains, is the traditional setting of the Witches’ Sabbath, so Faust and Mephistopheles visit it during both parts of Faust (1808/1832).  I don’t remember if the Specter is mentioned, but it seems rather unnecessary during Walpurgisnacht, when the real demons come out to dance.

Thomas De Quincey, in his opium-fueled Suspiria de Profundis (1845), includes a short chapter on “The Apparition of the Brocken,” for the purpose, I think, of introducing a vision that is not the result of opium and that clearly exists outside of the hallucinating mind.  I guess.  Dang strange book.  Maybe Dorothy W. can explain it to me.

Speaking of which, Tyrone Slothrop sees the Brocken Specter on page 330 of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) which leads, almost logically, in that book, to Brocken Specter sex.  I understand that David Foster Wallace, nodding to Pynchon, drops the Specter into Infinite Jest somewhere.  I’ll have to let someone else tell me what any of this means.  Neither De Quincey or Pynchon were writing in defense of common sense.


  1. Oh shoot. Totally an aside from your main point, but I just realized something...

    he turned his eyes instinctively to the right, to the point where that unwelcome guest was wont to make his appearance.

    So, George always finds his brother showing up on his right. While Gil-Martin always shows up on Robert's left. And later in the person of George. Now my head is all spinny.

    This week was fun!

  2. Ha, yeah! I didn't connect those two pieces, either. Excellent.

  3. Well, I wasn't expecting to find Pynchon in this post! I'm not smart enough to explain him, ever, and no one could be further from my own writing, but I do have a vague sense that what seemed a little paranoid in his vision of an evil corporate multi-national entity now seems merely prescient. I bet those oil-soaked pelicans are driving him mad.

    They are me.

  4. What seemed a little paranoid in his vision!

    For the real world to line up with Pynchon-world, the oil spill would have to have been deliberate. The President is either in on it, or holds no actual power.

    So I think we've got a ways to go before Pynchon's world overlays ours. Pynchon's paranoia is cosmic.