Drugs, anyone?

Seamus Perry

German scholars used to worry about something they called ‘Das Adam Smith Problem’. There seemed to be two of him: one was the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, awash with warm-hearted fellow feeling; the other, the hard-nosed realist of The Wealth of Nations, a work which seemed to describe a world governed by a heedless disregard for anyone other than oneself. These days the authorities agree that, in Smith’s own terms, there wasn’t ever really a problem: it only arose from a misunderstanding of what he meant by sympathy, on the one hand, and self-love, on the other. But still, the problematists weren’t wrong that some central elements of Smith’s mind pointed in strikingly different directions, so that, say, sentimentalist and utilitarian admirers could equally find encouragement for their positions somewhere within him.

Smith is a celebrated case but the raw materials for a feeling of self-contradictoriness can probably be found in any thinker with big enough ambitions. Whether they are incoherent enough to constitute a problem is always going to be the nice question. Take George Meredith. No one can regard him as a significant thinker now – almost all of his work is long out of print – but for a few decades at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th he was the cutting edge, a highbrow’s highbrow, and he evidently entertained philosophical ambitions of serious amplitude. But with Meredith, you feel, there really is a problem of the kind misattributed to Adam Smith: it’s often quite impossible to see how he adds up. As it happens, although Smith didn’t matter to him in the slightest, the conflicting elements of the George Meredith problem are descendants of those the anxious Germans discovered in Adam Smith, except now ratcheted up several emotive notches thanks to an intervening century of Romanticism. For Meredith offers you fellow feeling in bucketloads, passionate accounts of transformative selflessness by means of which you reach a spiritual reality that will do your heart good; but he was no less keenly attuned to an innate and ineradicable self-centredness within the human species, something he could regard with scientific dispassion or grim disapproval but either way seemed to accept as a given. And these different strands express themselves in strikingly different kinds of literature. He writes a tangly, difficult poetry of self-forgetful rapture and metaphysical exuberance, but he is also the author of some of the most brilliantly withering pages of character assassination in Victorian fiction: he had a gift for loathing his characters as great as George Eliot’s for finding the good in hers. And these different Merediths can appear disconcertingly cheek by jowl: it is as though Wordsworth were to take a break from the sublimities of ‘Tintern Abbey’ to write a few sardonic pages in the manner of Vanity Fair. In ‘real life’, Meredith judiciously observes in his novel The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, ‘all hangs together,’ but that’s not obviously the way things work in the Meredithian world.

What did his admirers see in him? A good place to start is G.M. Trevelyan’s The Poetry and Philosophy of George Meredith (1906), which helpfully and devotedly neologises the great man, presenting him as ‘the prophet of the joy and beauty of Earth’ and one whose works exemplify, in Trevelyan’s phrase, ‘Agnosticism wedded to Faith’. Meredith, who had absorbed Darwin in his own way, was thoroughly au courant with all the disenchanting tendencies of the age, but yet he managed to offer something like the old-style consolations modernity had threatened to snatch away. Trevelyan’s admiration has the feel of someone finding just what he wanted: ‘the poet of common sense, the inspired prophet of sanity’. That’s the man: ‘Loud and constant was his exhortation,’ one of Meredith’s acquaintances recalled: ‘Live with the world … Play your part. Fill the day. Ponder well and loiter not. Let laughter brace you. Exist in everyday communion with Nature.’ His moral guidance was bracingly upbeat and salutary, and it won over brainy people partly thanks to its avoidance of anything resembling a truth claim; as Trevelyan said, ‘his Faith is not belief in this or that fact as to the mechanism of the Universe, this or that view of the questions of God or Immortality in the narrower sense.’ ‘Our great error has been (the error of all religion, as I fancy) to raise a spiritual system in antagonism to Nature,’ Meredith thought, who was as tough-minded about what he called ‘fables of the Above’ as any materialist could wish. He didn’t require you exactly to believe in anything, so much as to strike a positive attitude towards things in general: ‘If we would digest the Universe,’ Trevelyan says, itself a period-piece of a phrase, ‘we must trust, not to drugs, but to exercise, clean living, and cheerfulness.’ Drugs, anyone?

Nothing could seem more absolutely consigned to history than the combination of a strong pair of legs and a healthy cast of mind that so powerfully appealed to the late Victorian intelligentsia. ‘He was all wire and whipcord,’ one of Meredith’s contemporaries recorded, ‘and his endurance, as I found out in more than one long exhausting walk and vigorous playful tussles, was unwearying.’ Leslie Stephen, one of Meredith’s friends, eulogised the effects of an invigorating tramp in the country in the true spirit: ‘You can consume your modest sandwiches, light your pipe, and feel more virtuous, and thoroughly at peace with the universe, than it is easy even to conceive yourself elsewhere.’ The open air makes you whole again, a claim that Stephen must have seemed to epitomise as he strode back into Trinity Hall with a fresh Alp in his pocket; and Meredith would have warmly agreed. The climactic episode in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is a walk through the woods, a breezy aesthetic experience which marks the hero’s moral regeneration. (You are reminded of Irving Babbitt’s unforgiving remark about Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, ‘relieved of the burden of his transgression by admiring the colour of water-snakes!’) Meredith attributed momentousness to his own walks in the same sort of way. Gazing at the rushing torrent during a trek in the Tyrol, he looked forward to the lasting effects of the encounter, and cast his confidence into verse:

How often will those long links of foam
Cry to me in my English home,
To nerve me, whenever I hear them bellow,
Like the smack of the hand of a gallant fellow!

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