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Monday, July 18, 2005

Burke and the appearances - the center will not hold

“… in an hundred instances, the Interest of our Empire is scarcely to be reconciled to the Interest of our Constitution.” Burke on India

In ‘The Context of Burke’s Reflections’, David Bromwich emphasizes how important to Burke’s notion of legitimate order was the metaphor and fact of theater. You could put it in Kantian terms: what is it in society that makes it possible to have dramatic interests? That question, although seemingly merely aesthetic and marginal, sinks a shaft that hits the center, insofar as that center is human nature itself. That nature is not repressed by society, but enlarges its primitive instruments in society, bending the sentiment of awe to the ritualized appearances of legitimate power, which are in turn linked to hierarchies spread throughout the social scale; and thus giving to the carrying on of the business of society its deep and fundamental dependence on inequality. This is the natural piety upon which the social has its only legitimate foundation. In Burke’s mind, there was no substitute for this piety, but there were parties within society who desired to supplant natural piety with another sentiment all together. The Jacobins, in his mind, represented one head of this many headed beast. The beast’s great instrument was money, which can operate as a sort of diminutive absolute of all appearances by dissolving them into their exchangeable value. This is the subtle common bond between capitalist and communist, both of whom operate from the basic assumption that money is the truth of appearances, and ritual merely the appearance of the appearances. Burke’s notion was that legitimate order was a system of counterpoises to the enemy of human nature. That enemy is the egalitarian spirit. And those counterpoises are explained, at different points in the history of civilization, by the different aspect that spirit takes. In the late eighteenth century, in Burke’s opinion, that spirit had divided itself into moneyed power in England, and mob power in Paris. Both were working to substitute an equalizing function for the grace that stood as the central social function that kept society from whirling apart.

Bromwich’s essay makes these points, and many others, by concentrating on a few texts around the time of the Reflections. We won’t go into the Bromwich’s densities, but they are very worth reading if you are interested in Burke. He makes the point, which I have not seen made elsewhere, that at the time of the unthroning of Louis XVI, Burke was involved in the complicated schemes to either preserve the power of Mad King George III or substitute the Regent for him. These schemes provoked rhetoric from Burke about George III quite as violent as the rhetoric from Robespierre about Louis XVI.

However, as we know, kings aren’t the emotional center of the Reflections – queens are. Bromwich quotes a very nice exchange Burke had with his co-worker on the impeachment of Hastings, the rather nasty but very sharp Philip Francis. Francis noted the famous passage on Marie Antoinette and wrote:

“If she be a perfect female character you ought to take your ground upon her virtues. If she be the reverse it is ridiculous, in any but a Lover, to place her personal charms in opposition to her crimes .... I despise and abhor, as much as you can do, all personal insult and outrage even to guilt itself, if I see it, where it ought to be, dejected and helpless; but it is in vain to expect that I or any reasonable man shall regret the sufferings of a Messalina, as I should those of a Mrs. Crewe or a Mrs. Burke, I mean of all that is beautiful or virtuous amongst women. Is it nothing but outside? Have they no moral minds?”

This, according to Bromwich, is the letter that ended their friendship. But Bromwich points out how interesting Burke’s reply is, since Burke chooses to defend himself not by reference to the character of the queen, but by reference to our dramatic taste for queens, and by implication, our social instinct for hierarchy:

“I really am perfectly astonish'd how you could dream with my paper in your hand--that I found no other Cause than the Beauty of the Queen of France (now I suppose pretty much faded) for disapproving the Conduct which has been held towards her, and for expressing my own particular feelings. I am not to order the Natural Sympathies of my own Breast, and of every honest breast to wait until the Tales and all the anecdotes of the Coffeehouses of Paris and of the dissenting meeting houses of London are scoured of all the slander of those who calumniate persons, that afterwards they may murder them with impunity. I know nothing of your Story of Messalina .... What, are not high Rank, great Splendour of descent, great personal Elegance and outward accomplishments ingredients of moment in forming the interest we take in the misfortunes of Men? The minds of those who do not feel thus are not even Dramatically right. "What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba that he should weep for her?" Why because she was Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, the Wife of Priam, and suffered in the close of Life a thousand Calamities .... You find it perfectly ridiculous, and unfit for me in particular, to take these things as my ingredients of Commiseration. Pray why so? Is it absurd in me, to think that the Chivalrous Spirit which dictated a veneration for Women of condition and of Beauty, without any consideration whatsoever of enjoying them, was the great Source of those manners which have been the Pride and ornament of Europe for so many ages? And am I not to lament that I have lived to see those manners extinguished in so shocking a manner by mean speculations of Finance and the false Science of a sordid and degenerate Philosophy? I tell you again that the recollection of the manner in which I saw the Queen of France in the year 1774 and the contrast between that brilliancy, Splendour, and beauty, with the prostrate Homage of a Nation before her, compared with the abominable Scene of 1789 which I was describing did draw Tears from me and wetted my Paper. These Tears came again into my Eyes almost as often as I looked at the description. They may again. You do not believe this fact, or that these are my real feelings, but that the whole is affected, or as you express it, "downright Foppery". My friend, I tell you it is truth.and that it is true, and will be true, when you and I are no more, and will exist as long as men--with their Natural feelings exist.”

The jeering of the queen, as much as her execution, pointed, for Burke, to the truth about the revolution – that it produced monsters. Bromwich’s best paragraph underlines this point:

“I look into myself and discover a feeling I hold to be just, or natural, and dramatically right. With what principle within which "passes show" am I then connected? The answer Burke gives is not quite an answer (it does not pretend to be), but the name of a mystery which he calls human nature. The curious suggestion of the passage on the Queen is that dramatic appearances, by recalling a belief in what is probable as well as proper, may confirm my sense of incorporation in human nature. Does Burke imply that what drama achieves eloquence also may achieve? Anyway, he offers a test of feeling. His originality consists in saying that it is a test in which I search for evidence of human nature in myself. Yet there remains a puzzle why, in 1790, his readers should stand in particular need of such a test. I surmise from other moments in the Reflections--for example, the early sentence in which the revolution is said to affect "the affairs not of France alone, but of all Europe, perhaps of more than Europe" -- that Burke supposed the Jacobin ideology was capable of exerting a unique power. It could deprive men and women of the capacity to feel, or the capacity to know as human actors their own feeling for human sufferers. It is this discovery that impels Burke to speak of those who have thus been cheated of themselves as "monsters." The usage in his own eyes is simple and literal.”

Out of this moment in Burke grew the contradiction that animated his final years: the advocacy of a war against France for ideological reasons. This war was justified, in Burke’s eyes, by its apocalyptic terms: it was a war against monsters, against those who attack human nature itself. What is ignored, however, is that war is not a mere instrument. It produces a double change – a change in the object against which it is directed, and a change in its very directors. LI will take up this point in another post.

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