This week I’m finishing James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself: With a detail of curious traditionary facts and other evidence by the editor (how’s that for a mouthful?).
Now, back when I was in college, I took a course in fiction writing and was taken to task by my professor for writing a story with inconsistent tone. I could be comedic or serious, he told me, but I had to pick a side. Well, Confessions doesn’t pick a side – its tone is all over the place, so much so that my professor might have called it a “big hot mess.” Yet somehow, the mess works.
Confessions is a lot of things: a trenchant religious and social satire, a bloody Gothic tale, a morality play, a compelling account of madness. It’s also a story of “doubles”, or doppelgangers. And for me, the particular way Hogg portrays this doubling says a lot about how the Devil (or demons, or Satan, or however you want to conceive evil) corrupts us, without breaking much of a sweat.
First Things First: James Hogg Was an Amazing Human Being
That header is not hyperbole. James Hogg was born in 1770 at Ettrickhall Farm in Scotland. His father was sheep-farmer and his mother was known to collect Scottish songs and folk tales. His maternal grandfather, known as Will o’ Phawhope, was said to talk to the fairies. How cool is that? I would love to have a grandpa that was on speaking terms with the supernatural.
James only completed around six months’ worth of school before he was forced to drop out at the age of seven due to his father’s bankruptcy. He was put to use as a farm servant, cow-hand, and junior shepherd throughout his childhood and adolescence. When he was around eighteen, he became a shepherd for the Laidlaw family. Somehow, when he wasn’t minding sheep, he taught himself how to read. That’s right: one of Scotland’s greatest authors was illiterate in his early life – and if you’re hearing a huge kaboom at this point, that’s just the sound of my head exploding.
Through voracious reading and self-study, Hogg went on to become a skilled writer of ballads, pastorals, poems, and stories. He was a regular contributor to Blackwood’s Magazine (remember that, it’ll figure in to Confessions). Then, in 1824, he published Confessions anonymously (remember that, too, it also figures in).
Confessions in a Nutshell: Postmodern Before It Was A “Thing”
Given the type of literary devices Hogg deploys in Confessions, it was hard to believe I was reading the work of an early 19th-Century author (let alone an early 19th-Century shepherd). I don’t want to give away too much about the plot because I hope some will be inspired to pick up the book and give it a try. So I’ll attempt to give you a brief run-down:
Part One of the novel is ostensibly written by an unnamed “Editor”, who relates the story of George Dalcastle and his brother, Robert Wringhim. This story begins with Laird Dalcastle’s disastrous marriage to Lady Dalcastle; while the Laird is a lusty, party-guy sort, the Lady is a Calvinist prude more keen on discussing the finer points of theology with her pastor, the Reverend Wringhim, than on giving the Laird her attention, carnal or otherwise. It’s very heavily implied that, of the two Dalcastle sons, George is the progeny of Laird Dalcastle while Robert is that of the Reverend.
The rift between Laird and Lady is so great that Lady Dalcastle goes to live with the Reverend Wringhim, taking Robert with her. Meanwhile, Laird Dalcastle enjoys life with his buxom, equally-lusty girlfriend and George. With the Lady’s help, the Reverend raises Robert as his adopted son, and the kid turns out as priggishly pious and insufferable as you would expect. George, in contrast, takes after his old man: he’s an affable jock who enjoys going out drinking with his buddies. For his part, Robert hates George and the Laird, considering them hopeless sinners and enemies to both himself and God.
Robert begins stalking George, even appearing to threaten his life (there’s a strange, supernaturally-tinged confrontation that occurs between the pair at the top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh). Long story short, one night George is slain, with everyone assuming the culprit was an associate of George’s by the name of Drummond. However, a witness eventually identifies Robert as the true killer, claiming he was assisted by a shape-shifting double who assumed the form of Drummond. But now Robert is nowhere to be found.
Part Two of the novel is presented as a found manuscript – an “original document of a most singular nature” which the Editor leaves readers to “judge for themselves.” The manuscript’s author is Robert Wringhim, who describes his ecstasy when his father the Reverend assures him that he is one of the elect: “An exaltation of spirit lifted me, as it were, far above the earth, and the sinful creatures crawling on its surface; and I deemed myself as an eagle among the children of men, soaring on high, and looking down with pity and contempt on the grovelling creatures below.”
Just minutes after this, Robert meets his doppelganger: the mysterious Gil-Martin , who professes he is in awe of Robert’s piety and wishes to become his “disciple.” It takes only a few more interactions with Gil-Martin before Robert is convinced that he is not only predestined, but obligated to punish the non-elect for their transgressions. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that Robert becomes a murderous antinomian and launches a killing spree with the help of Gil-Martin (whose talent for shape-shifting comes in very handy for offing people). Initially, Robert recollects his crimes, such as his slaying of his brother George. But eventually he becomes alienated from himself; he begins experiencing blackouts of days and weeks, with reports of his misdeeds only relayed to him after-the-fact.
Robert’s narration raises a lot of questions about his sanity, as well as the true nature of Gil-Martin. As you might guess, ultimately things do not go well for him.
Part Three of the book again purports to be the work of the Editor, who relates the story behind his discovery of the manuscript. The Editor came across a letter written by James Hogg (yes – that James Hogg) and published in Blackwell’s Magazine, regarding the exhumation of the grave of a suicide victim. According to Hogg, the locals speculated that the suicide was the work of the Devil.
Curious, the Editor tracks down Hogg to question him, but Hogg is reluctant to talk. Undeterred, the Editor locates the suicide’s grave, exhumes it once more, and retrieves from the corpse’s coat-pocket the very manuscript – Robert’s narrative – presented in Part Two.
So let’s recap. Confessions gives us:
Robert’s first-person “manuscript” narrative, book-ended between the Editor’s supposedly objective narratives, both of which internally refer to the “manuscript”;
A completely unreliable if not insane first-person narrator; and
The anonymous author, James Hogg, inserting himself as a character into the Editor’s narrative. And not just as any character, but as the man who leads the Editor directly to the discovery (and publication!) of Robert’s manuscript – yet who doesn’t want to acknowledge or talk to the Editor about it. Is this James Hogg having a bit of fun skewering his anonymous authorship? If so, I think that’s what the kids these days call “meta”.
All this, written in 1824. There is truly nothing new under the sun.
The Identical Double – or, the Devil Is A Mirror
Robert/Gil-Martin was an entirely new type of double for me. I’m used to doubles embodying suppressed aspects of the psyche, illustrated by a dramatic split between two distinct, opposing personalities. Think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Edward Norton’s Narrator and Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden – there’s a polarity to these pairs, a rift between barbaric/civilized, compliant milquetoast/charismatic anarchist. The splits play out physically, with Mr. Hyde appearing as monstrous and Tyler Durden appearing as – well, as the sublime wonder that is a shirtless Brad Pitt.
Even with the identical-looking doubles I’ve encountered – your classic doppelgangers – there’s always a marked difference in behavior to let you know who’s who. Goatee aside, the two Spocks looked exactly the same, but there was no question which one was Good and which one Bad.
But Robert and Gil-Martin? As narrated by Robert in describing their first meeting:
What was my astonishment, on perceiving that [Gil-Martin] was the same being as myself! The clothes were the same to the smallest item. The form was the same; the apparent age; the colour of the hair; the eyes; and, as far as recollection could serve me from viewing my own features in a glass, the features too were the very same. I conceived at first that I saw a vision, and that my guardian angel had appeared to me . . . but this singular being read my thoughts in my looks, anticipating the very words that I was going to utter.
‘You think I am your brother,’ said he; ‘or that I am your second self. I am indeed your brother, not according to the flesh, but in my belief of the same truths, and my assurance in the same mode of redemption . . . [I] am come to be a humble disciple of yours; to be initiated into the true way of salvation by conversing with you, and perhaps by being assisted by your prayers.’
My spiritual pride being greatly elevated by this address, I began to assume the preceptor, and questioned this extraordinary youth with regard to his religious principles, telling him plainly, if he was one who expected acceptance with God at all, on account of good works, that I would hold no communion with him. He renounced these at once, with the greatest vehemence, and declared his acquiescence in my faith . . .
. . . We then went on to commune about all our points of belief; and in every thing that I suggested, he acquiesced, and, as I thought that day, often carried them to extremes, so that I had a secret dread he was advancing blasphemies. Yet he had such a way with him, and paid such a deference to all my opinions, that I was quite captivated and, at the same time, I stood in a sort of awe of him, which I could not account for, and several times was seized with an involuntary inclination to escape from his presence, by making a sudden retreat.” (emphasis added).
Gil-Martin is not just the mirror image of Robert. He is the mirror Self. He looks and sounds identical to Robert. But what’s more, he reflects back Robert’s opinions, echoing his complete agreement, validating him with the very praise and admiration Robert believes he deserves, but somehow never receives from others.
Now, there’s a lot of different ways to interpret Gil-Martin, including as a brilliant vehicle for satirizing religious fanaticism. But Hogg wrote a very modern novel, so let me throw my more modern take out there:
Gil-Martin is the Devil, who is going to wind up controlling, then destroying Robert with his own self-regard. Gil-Martin may be the consummate Yes-Man, but his deference to Robert is a trap. You can tell already that, basking in Gil-Martin’s hero worship, Robert is only going to become more and more of himself, that he’ll soon carry his Calvinist mania “to extremes.” In the Greek myth, Narcissus is so taken with his own reflection that he becomes literally rooted to the river bank as a flower. He loses all ability to move, speak, or act. Hogg’s genius, I think, is to turn that idea on its head. He sees that narcissism doesn’t stunt but rather enhances the sense of agency, spurring Robert on to commit unspeakable crimes out of belief in his own righteousness.
What’s more, Hogg understands that vanity makes the Devil’s work quick and easy. Robert may think he’s gained a “disciple” in Gil-Martin. But strangely enough, despite Gil-Martin’s fawning, Robert is already “in awe” of him; immediately, the admiration he receives from another exerts power over him. It’s heady, it’s addictive, and it won’t be long before Robert will do anything for Gil-Martin’s attention and approval – even acts he never thought himself capable of – which is why, deep in his heart of hearts, he has the urge to run.
Again, Hogg expressed all this in 1824, and yet it’s hard to think of a more trenchant metaphor for the internet age. When my daughter was in high school, for instance, I found out that a friend of hers was posting some pretty blatantly sexual photos of herself on her Instagram. According to my daughter, other friends cautioned this girl against getting too provocative, but she had already garnered over 40,000 followers and was gaining by the day (God, how I hate the cult-like connotations of that term “followers”).
I was, and remain, appalled by the story, and yet I understand how such things happen since I’ve experienced something remotely similar, and on a much smaller scale, myself (and please don’t panic, I can assure you I’m far too old and grizzled to be posting hot selfies online). I started a Twitter account this year, and I am ashamed to cop to the satisfaction I felt when I gained my first follower who wasn’t a porn bot. Yet there it was: a sweet little dopamine rush. Same story whenever one of my tweets gets “hearted”, especially by a Big Shot: swoosh goes the dopamine, straight to the pleasure centers. And then I’m filled with self-loathing that I not only care, but in such a toady, juvenile way. I’m a grown woman yet basically a seven-year-old, thrilled that Teacher picked me for a star sticker.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be an internet “personality” or “brand” with thousands of followers pouring their hearts out to you in a deluge of clicks. There has to be a weird tension to it – you’re worshipped, but at the same time beholden to your worshippers. Are you Yourself, or a performative Self? And if the latter, how much creative control do you really have over the show?
The Hall of Mirrors
One of my favorite writers, Jonathan Franzen, had this to say back in 2012:
“Since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.”
He's right: social media is a hall of mirrors. But once those mirrors multiply they become kaleidoscopic, fracturing and distorting the person at the center. If there’s a lesson to be taken from Confessions, I think it’s that, when confronted with a mirror, sometimes it’s best to take a good, hard, unflinching look at your reflection . . . and sometimes it’s best just to turn away.
I’m not sure I trust my own judgment on that. And so I’m simply going to have to ask for God’s guidance as to where I should direct my gaze.