Distantly familiar

Do these passages remind you of anything?

But the gross, thick and palpable fabrications of conspiracy … form a collection of falsehoods that one would have thought indigestible even by the coarse appetite of the vulgar for the marvelous and horrible; but which are, nevertheless, received as truth … and questioned by no one who is desirous to escape the odious appellation of friend … and favorer of … infernal schemes….

… in the present state of agitation, whoever disbelieves the least tittle of the enormous improbabilities which have been accumulated by these wretched informers is instantly hunted down, as one who would smother the discovery of the plot.

… when did …men, even of the highest degree, remember anything when hurried away by the violence of party feeling?  Even those who have too much sense to believe in the incredible fictions which gull the multitude, will beware how they expose them, if their own political party can gain a momentary advantage by their being accredited.

… the public mind is so harassed with new narrations of conspiracy, and fresh horrors every day, that people have little real sense of what is just or unjust as men who talk in their sleep of what is sense or nonsense.

And, finally, describing the man who was the author of these “incredible fictions” that caused “the present state of agitation”:

This singular man, who aided by the obscure intrigue of [one party] … had been able to cram down the public throat such a mass of absurdity as his evidence amounts to, had no other talent for imposture than an impudence, which set conviction and shame alike at defiance.  A man of sense or reflection, by trying to give his plot an appearance of more probability, would most likely have failed, as wise men often do, in addressing the multitude, from not daring to calculate upon the prodigious extent of their credulity, especially where the figments presented to them involve the fearful and the terrible.

In person, he was “by nature choleric, and the credit he had acquired made him insolent and conceited.”

These words were written almost two hundred years ago, concerning events that took place almost 350 years ago.  Sir Walter Scott’s novel Peveril of the Peak takes place in England during the aftermath of its civil war in the middle of the 17th century.  Partisan rancor between Anglican Royalists and radical Protestants still ran high, even though moderate Presbyterians had acquiesced in the restoration of the monarchy.  In the midst of these simmering tensions, Titus Oates had convinced the populace that the Jesuits and other Roman Catholics were plotting to kill the King and other leaders in order to bring back the rule of the Pope.

Scott’s story centers on two families who fought on opposite sides of the civil war.  Despite their intense feelings about politics and religion, which remind me so much of the divisions in this country today, there are many instances of kindness and mutual respect towards each other, even between the two warrior patriarchs.  The early parts of the novel especially convey both the fervor of partisan feeling and the pain such feeling brings among family and friends.

As might be expected in a 19th century novel, the plot is driven by the love between the son of the Cavalier family and the daughter of the Puritan Roundhead.  King Charles II himself sums up how it ends:

And I would also that all our political intrigues and feverish alarms could terminate as harmlessly as now.  Here is a plot without a drop of blood; and all the elements of a romance without its conclusion.  Here we have a wandering island princess …a dwarf, a Moorish sorceress, an impenitent rogue, and a repentant man of rank, and yet all ends without either a hanging or a marriage.

On the last point, the King is immediately contradicted with the announcement that the two lovers are to be married.

I was telling some friends recently about reading this novel, and one said that it gave her some hope about what we are going through today.  As far as the humanity that still shines through the most bitter partisan feelings in Scott’s characters, I can agree.  But about where this world is heading, I’m not so sanguine.  Just before the King gives his happy peroration, he sends the Puritan father and his conniving brother-in-law off to America.  Yes, England did not suffer another civil war, but it had the escape valve of its colonies in America and Australia to get rid of those who would rebel against the oppressions of the aristocracy and the emerging bourgeoisie.  And in coming centuries, the spoils of empire to soften the deprivations of those who remained.

As long as I encounter people of good will, as I’ve said before, in these situations I practice Gramsci’s motto: Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.






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