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Friday, September 25, 2009

the waters of life and of death




In his sad last book, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, Henry Fielding begins his account proper by sketching out the measures he took, while suffering from the ills brought on by the miasmas of London, his course of life, his workload, and his forced encounter with numerous stinking criminals, beggars, whores and the whole lot, to rid London of a gang of murderers and robbers. Having succeeded in the year 1753 in actually suppressing murder for a whole season in London (a city by this time of around 650,000 people), he then retired from his magistrates position to devote himself to restoring his health. For, as he writes, “I was now, in the opinion of all men, dying of a complication of disorders.” These included gout and dropsy.

“After having stood the terrible six weeks which succeeded last Christmas, and put a lucky end, if they had known their own interests, to such numbers of aged and infirm valetudinarians, who might have gasped through two or three mild winters more, I returned to town in February, in a condition less despaired of by myself than by any of my friends. I now became the patient of Dr. Ward, who wished I had taken his advice earlier. By his advice I was tapped, and fourteen quarts of water drawn from my belly. The sudden relaxation which this caused, added to my enervate, emaciated habit of body, so weakened me that within two days I was thought to be falling into the agonies of death.”

Fielding’s body is dragged across the pages of his journal like some hideous object, of which he – a magistrate - is the victim, much as a criminal might be the victim of some instrument of torture. When he finally does decide, for the sake of his health, to seek the warmth of Lisbon, Fielding has to be taken on a litter to the dock, and then, sitted in a sedan chair, hoisted aboard the boat. At which point, sitting in his cabin, he makes the following reflection:

This latter fatigue [of the journey] was, perhaps, somewhat heightened by an indignation which I could not prevent arising in my mind. I think, upon my entrance into the boat, I presented a spectacle of the highest horror. The total loss of limbs was apparent to all who saw me, and my face contained marks of a most diseased state, if not of death itself. Indeed, so ghastly was my countenance, that timorous women with child had abstained from my house, for fear of the ill consequences of looking at me. In this condition I ran the gauntlope (so I think I may justly call it)
through rows of sailors and watermen, few of whom failed of paying their compliments to me by all manner of insults and jests on my misery. No man who knew me will think I conceived any personal resentment at this behavior; but it was a lively picture of that cruelty and inhumanity in the nature of men which I have often contemplated with concern, and which leads the mind into a train of very uncomfortable and melancholy thoughts. It may be said that this barbarous custom is peculiar to the English, and of them only to the lowest degree; that it is an excrescence of an uncontrolled licentiousness mistaken for liberty, and never shows itself in men who are polished and refined in such manner as human nature requires to produce that perfection of which it is susceptible, and to purge away that malevolence of disposition of which, at our birth, we partake in common with the savage creation. This may be said, and this is all that can be said; and it is, I am afraid, but little satisfactory to account for the inhumanity of those who, while they boast of being made after God's own image, seem to bear in their minds a resemblance of the vilest species of brutes; or rather, indeed, of our idea of devils; for I don't know that any brutes can be taxed with such malevolence.”

This passage (which I consider extremely wonderful and frightening) could stand as a totem, as something to think with, as one reads Fielding’s Enquiry into the Late increase in Robbers. That Enquiry is all about a distemper in the constitution of England – and Fielding means, by that, something like a social body, on the lines of Hobbes’ Leviathan. Fielding, in the above passage, goes from himself, body and face, as a horror not to be gawked at (which is in contrast to the horrors that were gawked at – the hanged at Tyburn, for instance) to those who insulted him, the sailors, men of low degree, to the notion that, as with the dropsy, our original constitution needs purging, a taking off of those liquors of original sin in which we swim, to a moment of satiric ascension not unlike Swift’s in Gulliver’s travels, in which God’s own image is conjoined the vilest of brutes. The most celebrated effect of Fielding’s Enquiry, according to Jessica Warner in her book Craze: Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason, was to supply ammunition for the last Gin Reform act. The correlate for the waters of death, the anti-baptism that exchanges God’s image for that of a yahoo, was precisely gin – which, as Warner points out, was the first serious drug craze in the West.

I'll stop here for today, with a quote from the Enquiry:

"..for the intoxicating Draught itself disqualifies them from using honest Means to acquire it at the same that it removes all Sense of Fear and Shame, and emboldens them to commit wicked and desperate Enterprize Many Instances of this I see daily; Wretches often brought before me charged with Theft and Robbery, whom I am forced to confine before they are in a Condition to be examined; and when they have afterwards become sober, I have plainly perceived from the State of the Case, that the Gin alone was the Cause of the Transgression and have been sometimes sorry that I was obliged commit them to Prison.”

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