The Case for Negative Thinking

V.S. Pritchett

  • Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in his Context by Marilyn Butler
    Routledge, 361 pp, £10.95, October 1979, ISBN 0 7100 0293 9

One of the pleasures of reading Peacock in the Thirties, when I first read him, was that he was without acrimony. He enabled us to relive the great battles of ideas in the 19th century without an aching head. His conversation was spirited and diverting and he had sceptical hopes of human nature. Born in 1785 and dying in 1866, Peacock lived through 80 years of rancorous social change. He was a contemporary of Rowlandson – Rowlandson’s country drawings evoke Peacock’s landscapes; he had listened to his gifted mother reading Gibbon when he was a boy; he preceded and survived Byron, Shelley and Keats. He outlived Enthusiasm and revolution, sat through the quarrels of Reform, went on to consider the doubts of Matthew Arnold and the euphoria of the Great Exhibition, and listened to all arguments with a satirist’s joy in dispute. A liberal who sometimes sounded Toryish – he was often attacked by the strenuously committed, who demanded that everyone should stand up and be counted, and Hazlitt called him a mere ‘warbler’ – Peacock seemed to be a gourmet of ideas who perversely remained seated at the table with his bottle of Madeira, indulging his wit. Where was his ground? Fashion called for tragedy and the didactic. Peacock replied that his ground was in the Comic Spirit.

An atheist and a pagan whose mind had been formed by his readings of Plato, Lucian and Lucretius, he found Enthusiasm ‘unpractical’. He defended his moderation and his art by saying ‘we shall nevertheless find in the first place that every successive triumph, however perverted in its immediate consequences, has been a step permanently gained in the advance of conscience and freedom of inquiry; and we shall find, in the second place ...that comic fiction has contributed largely to the result.’ He was thinking of High Comedy, the classic comedy of ideas, not the comedy of character, and seems to have said as much to Shelley when he took him to the theatre and vainly tried to persuade him of the superiority of comedy to tragedy and to the portentous gloom of the time.

Peacock’s operetta-like ‘novels’ or conversation pieces had a revival in the Twenties and Thirties of this century and an explicit influence on Aldous Huxley, who, however, fatally lacked Peacock’s tenderness for women and his poetic grace. Marilyn Butler speaks, at one point, of his Mozartian sparkle. Mozart is indeed a source, The Marriage of Figaro especially, for Peacock’s mischievous spell: but she has far more to say about the formation of Peacock’s mind in a book which is erudite, searching, and itself graceful. It is truly remarkable in its depth of inquiry, its detail, and its discriminating judgment of the works. Insofar as it is biographical, it easily refutes the charge that Peacock was a cold and self-indulgent eccentric. Elusive and strange the handsome lover of women may have been in his meditations on ‘free love’, he was passionate, too, in his family affections. His parents lived apart, and, perhaps, in such a man the affections would be more powerful than the passions. He did not go to the university, and his interminable reading in Greek, Latin and French literature was that of an autodidact, with a liability to fixed views and a tendency to stand on his own. He lacked the stamp of a circle, and he does look alone.

It is surprising to see him, after living at home with his mother, with sufficient small means to become a minor poet, suddenly becoming a top examinee and an important official at the age of 30 in the East India Office, sitting beside John Stuart Mill and Bentham. There he is, convulsing the office with his stories and talk, and yet he inaugurates the first steamboat service to India. The amateur becomes the professional. The steamboats were an important service to the Empire, though one, he said, ‘of doubtful value to the happiness of the Hindus’. He could be infected by a cause, but he had a preference for the human being. The poet and satirist with a taste for the theatre, and the manly walker in the unspoiled woodlands along the reaches of the Thames, was a man of the world, something more than the self-regarding dilettante fuddled by Greek texts whom Meredith, his son-in-law, partially portrayed in Mr Middleton of The Egoist – the most affected piece of sublimated dyspepsia in our language.

The opening point of Dr Butler’s argument is that Peacock grew up when serious literature and journalism were entirely concerned with political polemic, with the fears and hopes raised by the French Revolution, and, later, with the agitations for Reform. The great Reviews fought their ideological and party battles with personal vituperance. Every subject, great or small, became tendentious. The educated public was small, and as far as the mass of people was concerned, the wordy battle, in print at any rate, was fought in the air over their heads, though the evils attacked were present to their eyes, and in their lives, as the Industrial Revolution brutally transformed the country. Here, for the committed Peacock, people become grotesques – they were ideas walking. The satirist has found his ballet of talkers. What, for example, was this new thing called landscape-gardening but a wrong-headed distortion of Nature? Do science and machinery enrich us, or enslave us? Doesn’t commerce create greed rather than general wealth? And what about the besetting philosophical questions? Mr Crotchet, the retired City man, asks his guests to sort them out: ‘The sentimental against the rational, the intuitive against the inductive, the ornamental against the useful, the intense against the tranquil, the romantic against the classical; these are great and interesting controversies, which I should like, before I die, to see satisfactorily settled.’

There are always one or two cranks at Peacock’s dinner parties, whose ideas lead to farcical ‘experiments’ when they go for the delightful walks that relieve the debate. The interesting thing is that even minor debates about such things as the water supply or the introduction of saccharine as a substitute for sugar are fantasies well-rooted in topical preoccupations. The proposal to substitute saccharine for West Indian sugar leads to the serious debate on slavery in the plantations. The ominous doctrines of Malthus raise alarms about food; the Rotten Boroughs give us the intoxicated figure of the bought elector. All this is delightful. But what, in an indignant age, is the satirist’s ground? What is the position of a writer who had his generation’s belief in reform, in the just society, and the dream of an undamaged wholeness and of a life worth living? Dr Butler’s case against thinking of Peacock as a mocking spectator takes shape. Certainly he is that minority figure, the ‘learned wit’. Had he lived in the 18th century, his Classical tastes would have been fixed by the confidence, the organising gifts, of the Roman Empire: in the revolutionary century, he turned to the Athens of Socrates, Plato and Aristophanes – ‘the long Greek twilight’ – whose times called upon them to be critics. But there was a difficulty:

Without faith in Man, the Apollo Belvedere is no longer a fit model. Instead of proclaiming a common ideology for an upper-class world in various phases of radicalism, the progressive artist now finds himself in a minority. His target is not the effete, exploded cultural habit of the previous age, but the dominant orthodoxy of his own. Hence the paradox, that Peacock preaches activism, but is obliged to accept the stance of a wry onlooker; the popular cause, through a terminology that becomes increasingly esoteric. It is not a personal eccentricity, but a representative experience for the English intellectual of his age-group and the next.

Our own difficulties in the Thirties, and indeed all the difficulties of writers since, come before us here. Dr Butler goes on:

The tendency of good art to be difficult was, of course, an intractable problem for the radical side. Severely though they criticised Coleridge for advocating élitism, earnestly though they censured one another for not appealing to the masses, cultural and social conditions were in reality driving both writers into a subtlety which relatively few of the population could be expected to penetrate.

As Dr Butler argues, he comes out strongly for the cause of ‘the people’. His sympathies are for Cobbett (though he does not like Cobbett’s indifference to the slavery question).

As far as English literature is concerned, the country poured out its unrest and its satisfactions into the comedy of character in the novel, as Dr Butler says. It looks as though Peacock felt the attraction in Melincourt, and that this accounts for the one generally agreed failure of his art. Except for the marvellous invention of Sir Orang Utan – taken directly from Buffon – and its charming heroine, it is ponderous and too long. His gift was for brevity, for the short play-like form, and not for character.

If Dr Butler’s grasp of the historical situation in which Peacock found himself deepens and enriches her study, she never loses sight of his gifts and originality as an artist. Many scholars have amused themselves with identifying the public figures whom the satirist translated into allegory, where they acquire a more spacious life (what relevance is there now in the originals of Gulliver’s Travels?). If, as is sometimes said, Peacock is grossly unfair, he is really celebrating. He is singularly free from hatred. A more important example of Dr Butler’s understanding of the nature of the artist appears in the passage in which she distinguishes between the comic dialogue and characterisation in Dickens and in Peacock:

analysis of speech uttered by one of Peacock’s figures tends to reveal a rich texture: sentence by sentence, allusion to a specific text a pre-existent locus; while the speech in its entirety, and still more the attitude of the speaker, call to mind in the most literal sense opinion – that is, a familiar contemporary controversy. Here, of course, is the centre of the problem concerning Peacock, the real reason why he became, and has remained, so profound a puzzle. While he is offering ideas, he appears to deal with character, and for this his modern readers have elaborate training, and expectations. Like the Victorians, we have a set of assumptions derived from novel-reading and, supported by the professional expertise of the psychiatrist, we have what is in a sense an even more developed interest in personality. By the standards of either the novelist or the psychiatrist, Peacock’s characters are disappointing. In fact, his dislike of his period’s taste for personality is maintained in his work, and he does not deal in character at all.

‘A pre-existent locus’ is the key phrase: Peacock’s methods were a good deal those of the anthologist of cultural echoes. But in agreeing that some of Dickens’s portraits and speech are rich in caricature, I would add that what often passes as such is really the expression of the inborn dramatising of our self-imagination. We feel an ambition to generate myth. The texture of Peacock’s dialogue is concentrated because that is indispensable to his operetta-like form.

Dr Butler’s happy evocations of the books as they come out are sure in taste and judgment and in Gryll Grange, the most serene of all his works – and written in his tragic years – she shows him completing his ingenious vision. The affections of the sensuous pagan sparkle; if, as I think, comedy is inverted poetry, the poet now emerges, and is obliged to recognise that the good life is not to be found by retreating and luxuriating in decorous chastity, in the company of seven vestal virgins – incidentally, excellent cooks – in some solitary tower. The tower is no longer a Nightmare Abbey, designed for melodramatic Gothic farce, and if, as Dr Butler has made clear throughout this book, Peacock’s mind is indissolutely associated with the Shelley – the Scythrop – type, here he seems to be thinking of another classicist, the meditative Matthew Arnold. It is a pleasant conceit that the seven Vestals are symbols of the Pleiades who, although they are devoted to dancing and singing, will end up adding to the festivity by getting married. In the superb skating scene, the allure of sensual love, in which Peacock believed, ceases to be an idea and becomes a revelation, taking the parties by surprise. The landscape and romance relieve the comedy of debate with a Mozartian heightening of our senses. Dr Butler has lavishly shown that he addresses himself to ‘a world still identifiable with our own’. ‘We are stunned,’ she concludes, ‘by reiteration into believing that what the world wants is positive thinking. Peacock makes out a case, illustrated by Voltaire, for negative thinking, and its attendant virtues of challenge, self-doubt, mutual acceptance and toleration.’ It is surprising that such a bookish man should have found a totally original form for his case, and interesting that it outflanks the novel by being laconic, artificial and staged.