In a world that is innately tragic, how does one remain cheerfully vital? There seems no end to the forces that wish to crush one’s joie de vivre. Whether it’s the deadening omnipotence of the modern technocratic mode of organisation, the overbearing coddling of our moralistic culture, or just the old-fashioned primordial fate of the great tragedians and philosophers, we cannot escape an assault of forces intent of making us submit to despair.
The world often feels like a great slimy toad, sitting on our chests and allowing its toxic ooze to envelope our nostrils and lungs until we choke. How many people give in to it I wonder? Millions? How many human beings surrender their souls to the devilish incubus that haunts them? This is the primary question of human existence and one that has become pertinent to the present moment in art. In a high culture full of worthless slush that threatens to drown us all in its mediocrity and potent purposelessness, the moment of choice is thrust upon us all as individuals: either we swim to sweet terra firma or fall beneath the murky surface.
Yet, as old King Canute once showed us, the tide is never-ending. In a deeper, spiritual sense the assault of despair will never end. We die and suffer. Our loved ones die and suffer. Religions are exhausted and nations fall to ruins. Given this, do we still have the strength to embrace life?
This is an excerpt from “Blast!”. To continue reading, visit The Mallard’s Shopify.
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By Sarah Stook — 4 months ago
Eleanor of Castile
- Life: 1241-28th November 1290
- Reigned: 20th November 1272-28th November 1290
- Spouse: Edward I (m. 1254)
- Children: Sixteen, including Edward II
- Parents: Ferdinand III of Castile and Joan, Countess of Ponthieu
- Origin: Spain
Early Life: Eleanor of Castile was born sometime in 1241 in Burgos, Castile (later Spain). Her parents were Ferdinand III of Castile and Joan, Countess of Ponthieu. Ferdinand was one of Castile’s most successful rulers, as he greatly expanded its territory and joined it with León. Joan was Ferdinand’s second wife- Elisabeth of Swabia had died in 1235. Their eldest son, Alfonso, would succeed to the throne after his father’s death.
Eleanor was her mother’s successor as Countess of Ponthieu. She had five brothers, seven half-brothers and three half-sisters, though most did not live past early childhood. Eleanor was extremely well-educated, even for the time, and enjoyed the arts and literature. This extended to Alfonso and the Castile court itself.
Marriage and Children: The only living daughter of Ferdinand III and half-sister of Alfonso X, Eleanor was a desirable candidate in the marriage market. After several betrothals were played with, Eleanor was ultimately engaged to Prince Edward, heir to the throne of England. They wed on the 1st November 1254. Eleanor was about thirteen and Edward only a couple of years older.
Edward and Eleanor had a famously loving marriage. They were close from the moment they married, no doubt helped by the fact that they were practically the same age. Edward never strayed from his wife or had any illegitimate children, an extreme rarity for the time. He loved the fact that she joined him on the Crusades. Eleanor’s death would devastate him and it was only by need that he chose to remarry. They were rarely apart.
The pair had sixteen children- eleven daughters and five sons. Only seven of their children lived past infancy- indeed, the future Edward II was their youngest son and child. Eleanor adhered to the parenting styles of the time by sending her children away to be educated and barely seeing them. She did care for their education and arranged her daughters’ marriages.
Pre-Reign and Queenship: Eleanor and Edward initially lived on the continent, but moved back to England in 1255. During the Second Barons’ War, Eleanor joined her husband as he fought in Wales. She once again was at his side when he traveled to fight during the Crusades. At this point, Eleanor had given birth to six of her children. Three more would be born during the Crusades, though only one would live to adulthood.
In 1272, they received word that Edward’s father had died. They nevertheless stayed on the continent until 1274, whereupon they returned to England. The pair were crowned together on the 19th August of that year.
Eleanor was uninvolved in politics due to her husband’s views on the matter, but was seemingly alright to it. She instead focused on culture. Her influence included arts, literature, education, decoration and clothing. Eleanor’s superior education helped her in that respect. In that way, she fulfilled the traditional role of Queen- she was not political and focused on the feminine aspects of a reign.
Whilst she enjoyed a close relationship with her husband, Eleanor was generally very unpopular with the public. Her business dealings, which made her incredibly wealthy in both land and money, were seen as unbecoming for a queen. The large foreign retinue of cousins that came with Eleanor were also disliked, though Eleanor was smart enough not to let the men marry English noblewomen. She also supported her husband’s crusade against the Jewish people.
By the mid to late 1280s, Eleanor was frequently ill. In 1290, it was clear that she was dying. Eleanor used her remaining time to arrange the marriages of her children. In November of that year she was no longer able to travel and was thus given quarters in Nottinghamshire.
On the 28th November 1290, Eleanor Castile died at the age of 48-49. Her husband was by her side. Eleanor is buried in three places- her viscera (internal organs) in Lincoln Cathedral, her heart at Blackfriars Monastery and the rest of her body in Westminster Abbey. Edward would later be buried beside her.
Personality: Eleanor was an intellectual with a passion for the arts and culture, something that is part of her legacy. She was also extremely brave and strong, as evidenced by her joining her husband on the Crusades. Several of her children were born abroad as opposed to the safety of England. Unfortunately, Eleanor had her flaws. Her ruthlessness towards the Jews may not have been the same as her husband’s, but she still seized lands from them. Her general business dealings made her unpopular.
Legacy: Eleanor’s most famous legacy is that of the Eleanor crosses. Her broken-hearted husband built twelve large, intricate crosses to mark the stops taken as her body was taken back to London. Only two remain. Eleanor’s cultural influence was also strong. She is also often remembered for the loving relationship she shared with her husband, a sharp contrast with that of other medieval marriages.
Margaret of France
- Life: c.1279-14th February 1318
- Reigned: 8th September 1299-7th July 1307
- Spouse: Edward I (m.1299)
- Children: Three
- Parents: Philip III of France and Maria of Brabant
- Origin: France
Early Life: Margaret of France was born around 1279 in Paris. Her parents were Philip III of France and Maria of Brabant. She was the youngest child of both parents, with Philip having been married to Isabella of Aragon until her 1271 death. Margaret has a brother, a sister, and five half-brothers, though most did not live past childhood.
Very little is known about her early life, but she was likely well-educated as a princess of France.
Marriage and Children: Margaret’s older sister Blance was initially engaged to Edward’s son, the future Edward II. Upon hearing of Blanche’s apparent beauty, Edward broke off the relationship in hopes of marrying his son’s betrothed. It turned out that Blanche had already been married off. Her half-brother Philip IV had been king since Margaret was six and offered her as Edward’s bride. An angry Edward refused and declared war on France. Eventually, an agreement was made. Margaret’s half-niece Isabella would later marry Edward II as part of the agreement.
Despite Edward’s devoted love to his late wife Eleanor, the fact he only had one living son made it essential that he remarry. In the end, Edward and Margaret would enjoy a very happy marriage. Their age gap was at least forty years, but they lived harmoniously. Margaret’s decision to join her husband on the front was reminiscent of Eleanor and thus pleased him greatly. Their relationship was so great that Margaret would refuse to remarry upon his death.
Margaret had two sons within two years of marriage, fulfilling Edward’s hopes of further sons. She would later have a daughter that she named Eleanor after her predecessor.
Queenship: Like Eleanor, Margaret was not involved in politics but was surely a close confidant of her husband. She also bravely joined her husband at the front, something that endeared her greatly to him.
Margaret fulfilled her role as Queen in more ways than just providing sons. A medieval Queen was expected to be a mediator and a calm, feminine influence on her husband. The kind Margaret would intercede on behalf of those who had displeased the king. This most notably extended to her stepson Edward, who often quarreled with his father. Edward was only two years Margaret’s junior and the pair got on extremely well.
After nearly eight years of marriage, Edward I died on the 7th July 1307 aged 68.
Post-Queenship: Margaret remained in England following Edward’s death. Despite her youth (she was 26 when she was widowed), Margaret refused to remarry, saying that ‘when Edward died, all men died for me.’
She remained on good terms with her half-niece Isabella upon the girl’s marriage to Edward II in 1308. Unfortunately, Edward’s association with Piers Gaveston soured their previously excellent relationship. Margaret’s rightful lands were confiscated but she later got them back.
Personality: Margaret was a singularly kind, warm woman who was an excellent queen. She fulfilled her duties through her interceding on behalf of others and mediating between her husband and stepson. Margaret’s kindness went beyond what was expected of the time and thus won her affection. She showed bravery by joining her husband on the front. Despite their large age gap, Margaret was a devoted spouse and remained loyal after her husband’s death. She was kind to her successor Isabella.
Legacy: Margaret is not as remembered as her predecessor Eleanor, probably helped by the fact that she was not the mother of a king. Her granddaughter Joan, however, would marry Edward II’s son and become mother of Richard II, the boy king. Her loyalty to Edward is something some will remember.
Isabella of France
- Life: c.1295-22nd August 1358
- Reigned: 25th February 1308-25th January 1327
- Spouse: Edward II (m.1308)
- Children: Four, including Edward III
- Parents: Philip IV of France and Joan I of Navarre
- Origin: France
Early Life: Isabella of France was born around 1295 in Paris. Her parents were Philip IV of France and Joan I of Navarre. Philip’s half-sister Margaret was Isabella’s predecessor as Queen, and they were both engaged to their respective husbands through the same agreement. Philip himself was a handsome man known to be a very strong and hard king. Joan was a beloved Queen who enjoyed a close relationship with her husband. She died when Isabella was about ten.
As befitting a princess of France, Isabella received a thorough education, probably similar to the one her aunt Margaret received.
Marriage and Children: The agreement that had Edward I and Margaret of France married saw Isabella engaged to Edward’s son. The king attempted to stop the marriage several times, but the issue became moot when he died.
Edward II married Isabella on the 25th January 1308 in a very elaborate ceremony. Unfortunately, it was not a good marriage. The roughly twelve year-old Isabella was immediately sidelined at her own wedding reception when Edward sat with his favourite Piers Gaveston. He went so far as to gift all of Isabella’s jewellery and presents to Gaveston, angering her and the nobles. Their poor relationship will be explored further in the Queenship section, as the repercussions were great.
As Isabella was only around twelve at the wedding, it was a while before the wedding was probably consumated. The pair’s first child, the future Edward III, was born nearly five years after the wedding. Isabella and Edward would have two sons and two daughters.
She was the typical medieval mother in her parenting style. Her machinations alienated her son Edward to the point of him imprisoning her upon reaching his majority. Isabella was close to her daughter Joan in later life.
Queenship: Isabella was immediately ignored by her new husband. This was not helped by her youth and the fact that she was too young to consummate the marriage, but Edward II was not a good husband. Her jewels and gifts had been given to Piers Gaveston. She was denied money and maintenance, forcing her to complain to her father.
Eventually, Isabella found herself allying with Gaveston. Despite her relative youth, Isabella was an intelligent young woman who was attempting to forge her own political path. Unfortunately for her, Gaveston had earned the ire of the powerful nobles and would be executed in 1308. Isabella was pregnant at the time.
Things would only get worse, despite Isabella successfully giving birth to a son. Edward became close to the Despensers, a father and son duo who would soon become his closest allies. Hugh Despenser the Younger was a great favourite of Edward and it’s believed that they had a sexual relationship. Isabella found herself still cast out of Edward’s inner circle. Despite her problems with a lot of the nobility, Isabella supported their efforts to get rid of the Despensers.
With Despenser at his side, Edward became a despot over the next few years. Isabella set up her own household far away but would be punished by having her children taken away and her lands confiscated.
Luckily, Isabella was able to get herself sent to France as a peace envoy. Whilst there, she rallied anti-Edward forces with the help of Roger Mortimer, a leading nobleman. The forces arrived in England and quickly took over. Edward was captured two months later and forced to abdicate. Both Despensers were brutally executed.
Isabella had her son Edward installed and crowned in early 1327. Meanwhile, the former Edward II was shuttled around before being placed in Berkeley Castle. He died on the 21st September of that year. The circumstances of his death are murky. Historians remain divided as to whether he was murdered or died of natural causes, though murder is more likely.
Post-Queenship: With Edward III barely a teenager, he required a regent. Isabella, along with Mortimer, fulfilled that role. She ensured her son listened to her and the boy had limited power. Mortimer was a careless man and was stupid enough to treat Edward badly. Eventually, Edward had enough, especially after his father’s death. The trigger was Mortimer ordering the execution of Edward’s uncle, the Earl of Kent.
Edward took his mother and Mortimer by surprise when he captured them in late 1330. Whilst he placed Isabella in a luxurious house arrest, he had Mortimer executed without trial.
Isabella spent years living very comfortably and was often visited by family and friends. Despite her cold reputation, she was a loving mother to her daughter Joan and doting grandmother.
The ‘She-Wolf’ of France died on the 22nd August 1358 around the age of 62. She is buried at Grey Friars’ Church.
Personality: Isabella was a complicated woman. She showed great intelligence and political acumen, but was also very ruthless and sharp. Whilst many queens were forced to live through their husband’s affairs, none would be quite humiliated as Isabella was. She was called a ‘She-Wolf,’ but we must remember she was a humiliated child bride. Such actions in men would not be treated so poorly. Whilst Isabella was controlling of her son, she did prove to be a loving grandmother.
Legacy: Isabella is remembered as a cold, calculating woman as opposed to the pure and virtuous ladies of her era. She succeeded in giving birth to heirs but did not follow the tradition of ‘feminine’ queenship. The truth is more complicated- Isabella was ruthless and cold, but no more than other historical figures.
Philippa of Hainault
- Life: 24th June 1310/1315-15th August 1369
- Reigned: 24th January 1328-15th August 1369
- Spouse: Edward III (m.1328)
- Children: Thirteen, including Edward the Black Prince
- Parents: William I, Count of Hainaut and Joan of Valois
- Origin: France
Early Life: Philippa of Hainault was born on the 24th June 1310 or 1315 in Valenciennes, modern day France. Her parents were William I, Count of Hainaut and Joan of Valois. She was the third of their eight children. Whilst Philippa did not have the title of princess, Joan of Valois was the granddaughter of a French king and sister of the other.
She was likely well-educated.
Marriage and Children: A betrothal between the future Edward III and Philippa was tentatively discussed as early as 1322. Four years later, Edward’s mother Isabella had them officially engaged in return for William’s help in invading England.
The marriage was a success even before the wedding, as it is said that Philippa cried when Edward left to return home. Their proxy wedding occurred in October 1327 before their official marriage three months later.
Edward and Philippa had a strong, loving relationship that lasted throughout their marriage. This did not stop Edward from straying in his wife’s later years, as he had a young mistress named Alice Perrers, with whom he had three children. It is argued that this only occurred when Philippa’s health was poor and that it was kept from her. This was oddly progressive for the time, as kings didn’t usually hide mistresses. Whilst he did have the affair with one other woman, Edward’s true love was clearly Philippa.
The pair managed to have thirteen children- eight sons and five daughters, eight of whom would live to adulthood. Interestingly, most of their children would marry rich English nobles as opposed to foreign royals. This was most unusual for their eldest son and heir Edward, who married his widowed cousin Joan. Perhaps the happiness between Edward and Philippa allowed them to have their own children be married for love.
Queenship: Philippa may have been Queen in name, but her mother-in-law Isabella was Queen in every other way. Isabella did not like relinquishing her title and thus prevented Philippa’s coronation. It was not until Philippa was pregnant that she was crowned. Luckily for Philippa, she bore a healthy son and unrelated events saw Mortimer executed and Isabella imprisoned.
Throughout her time as Queen, Philippa proved to be enormously popular and beloved. She was not necessarily political in the way Isabella was, but she used her influence when necessary. Edward trusted her to act as regent when he was away and she proved herself more than capable.
It was Philippa’s kindness and charity that made her loved. The most famous of these cases was that of the Burghers of Calais. Angered by the holdout of the city, Edward swore he’d spare the citizens if six of the leaders (burghers) made themselves known and surrendered to him. Before he could presumably have them executed, a barefoot and pregnant Philippa fell to her knees before him. She begged him to spare them, saying that their unborn child would be punished if they did not. Edward was supposedly so moved by this that he agreed to let them live.
Her charity extended to those at home. Philippa also bravely encouraged troops fighting the Scottish invaders, something sorely needed as Edward was out of the country.
In her later years, Philippa fell ill. Those years saw Edward turn to Alice Perrers and father three children with her. Philippa finally passed on the 15th August 1369, somewhere in her mid-fifties. Edward was with her at her deathbed. She asked Edward to ensure that all of her debts and obligations were fairly paid.
Edward spent £3K on her tomb. Her death also saw a massive decline in his popularity. He was vilified for cheating on his loving wife with a younger woman- something extraordinary in a time where it was expected that kings would stray. Alice Perrers would become a huge villain in England. Perrers was accused of taking advantage of an old, grieving king by accepting extravagant gifts. Her interference in politics was not welcomed.
Upon his death, Edward was buried with his beloved Philippa.
Personality: Philippa is one of the most revered consorts in English history. Her kindness, warmth and generous nature made her beloved throughout her country. She was a very successful Queen- she completed the role of feminine mediator and provided her husband with many children. Even without that, her good heart kept her through. The fact that Edward was castigated for taking a mistress shows how loved she was.
Legacy: Philippa is not often remembered. She did not leave a lasting legacy through arts or culture, despite leaving a mark on the textile industry. Her eldest son did not become king, but her grandson would be. Philippa’s sons Edmund and John of Gaunt would become a direct monarchical ancestor.
Anne of Bohemia
- Life: 11th May 1366-7th June 1394
- Reigned: 20th June 1382-7th June 1394
- Spouse: Richard II (m.1382)
- Children: None
- Parents: Richard IV, Holy Roman Emperor and Elizabeth of Pomerania
- Origin: Czech Republic/Czechia
Early Life: Anne of Bohemian was born on the 11th May 1366 in Prague, modern day Czechia. Her parents were Richard IV, Holy Roman Empire and Elizabeth of Pomerania. Elizabeth was Richard’s fourth and final wife. Anne had three brothers, one sister, three half-brothers and three half-sisters. Richard was the most powerful king of the age and was also extremely popular.
She was likely well-educated.
Marriage and Children: The marriage between Anne and Richard II was an odd one. Despite Anne being the daughter of an extremely powerful monarch, she did not have a large dowry or other assets. The main reason was due to a problem with the Church and two rival popes. Richard and the Holy Roman Emperor both opposed France’s choice.
Richard and Anne were both fifteen when they married on the 20th January 1382. Despite Anne’s unpopularity and lack of wealth (Richard having to pay Anne’s brother for marriage), the two became devoted to one another. Richard never strayed and always defended Anne.
No children were born of the union. Anne was blamed by society, as women were at the time, but Richard never cast doubt towards her.
Queenship: Anne was known as ‘Good Queen Anne,’ which shows that she overcame early unpopularity. She would often intercede on behalf of others, as Philippa of Hainault had. This constant kindness made her beloved by the English people, and eventually the court. It was her sweetness that won the nobles over.
After a happy twelve years of marriage, Anne died aged 28 on the 7th June 1394. Edward was bereft. He ordered the palace that she died in to be torn down. Edward also refused to enter any building besides a church where he’d been with Anne. After his own 1400 death, Edward was buried with a tomb he’d already prepared beside Anne’s.
Personality: Anne was reportedly a sweet and kind woman. She cared greatly for her subjects and was merciful to a fault. It was her good nature that pushed away early criticisms directed towards her.
Legacy: Anne is not often remembered. She, and indeed Richard himself, has no children together, so she did not see any direct descendants claim the throne. Anne did bring new fashions over, such as new shoes.
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By Jake Scott — 11 months ago
‘The idea is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off’Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
We are all Blairites now. It is a horrible thought, especially to those of us who despise the Blairite constitutional project: from gutting the Lords to the creation of the devolved assemblies, and the paradoxical tension between the move towards localism and the edictal erasure of British ways of life. The sad reality is that we live in Blairite Britain, more than we live in Thatcherite Britain.
Such a thought, as uncomfortable as it is, must be the starting point of all conservative discussions, whether they are concerned with strategy, identity, or even over what we aim to ‘conserve’, because we can only begin to know where to go by knowing where we are. David Foster Wallace once gave a talk to a graduating class in which he told the following story:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “morning boys, how’s the water?” and the two young fish swim on for a bit and eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “what the hell is water?”
The story is intended to remind us of a simple truth: that the most obvious realities are the hardest to talk about, because they are so essential and taken for granted in our daily lives. Blairism is the cultural water we swim in, and the current that drives us inexorably towards the next crisis we cannot resolve, because Blairism holds the conflictual beliefs that government should be in every part of our lives, but that it should be so completely and utterly impotent. Think about how difficult it is to do anything in modern Britain, but that you absolutely must do it whilst holding the hand of the government.
Regardless of Blairism’s inherent contradictions, we must not ignore the tide, even if only to swim against it. How do we do this? In Modern Culture, Sir Roger Scruton wrote that we cannot
return to a pre-Enlightenment world because the Enlightenment is so inherent to how we think about society, Man, government, culture and so on. Even those of us who are believers in faith must accept that the draperies were torn down; but only by realising they were torn down can you put them back up. So, rather than deny the legacies of the Enlightenment, Sir Roger says, we must accept that they are with us, and instead ‘live as if it matters eternally what we do: to obey the rites, the ceremonies and the customs that lend dignity to our actions and which lift them above the natural sphere’.
The philosophical movement that took this lesson to heart the most, in my opinion, was the Romantics. They did not pretend that the legacies of the Enlightenment were so easily eradicable nor so easily deniable; instead, they accepted that they lived in a changed world, but sought to use that change to re-suture man’s relationship with himself, to correct the deficiencies of the Enlightenment and the empty rationalism that it loved so irrationally.
The Romantic movement, by virtue of its own logic, was not universalist. The Enlightenment sought to be universal, to find laws and rules that governed Man in every circumstance and every place; but Romanticism, in reaction, favoured particularism, rootedness, and the cultural significance of place and people. In fact, so many of the nationalist movements of the nineteenth century owed more to the Romantics than they did to the Enlightenment (but again, only in the sense that the Enlightenment showed us that all humans are deserving of dignity and respect, they just choose to express that dignity in varied ways).
One such example of Romanticism that has always fascinated me emerged in Russia in the 1830s, more than anything because I believe that Russia then holds a multitude of lessons for Britain now. Early-nineteenth century Russia experienced what could only be described as an existential crisis: the Napoleonic Wars had damaged Russia’s understanding of herself as the great military power of Eastern Europe, and brought many ideas of universal brotherhood into contact with a society that did not even have the intellectual framework to accommodate such thoughts. But the crisis went deeper: as much as one hundred and fifty years before, Russian society was shaken by external ideas, more than any invasion could have hoped for, under the Reforms of Tsar Peter the Great. The Petrine Era of Russia saw cultural changes from the top – governmental reforms, military reforms, and technological innovation, much of which modernised Russia and made her into a Great Power; but these changes did not go unquestioned. In fact, many of the influential groups in Russia rebelled, sometimes violently, as in the Moscow Rising of the Streltsy in 1698.
The legacy of Peter’s reforms, however, were not felt until much later. Of course, all major cultural and social changes take time to really be felt at all, but the ‘short eighteenth century’ was a time of such rapid and dislocating change – across all of Europe, but especially in Russia – that many generations found themselves intellectually and culturally cut adrift from those who came immediately before them. Peter, pursuing a programme of Westernisation insisted, for instance, that the Russian court speak French, a language thought of as ‘intellectual’ (with good reason); dress like the Prussian court; rationalised the military along the Western European lines; built an entirely new town on a North Italian design (St. Petersburg – of course); and, in one of my favourite little quirks of history, outlawed beards in that city’s borders.
Cultural issues grow like pearls grow – a single grain of sand works its way into a mollusk, and irritates the mollusk in such a way that bacteria and calcium grows around it. Cultural changes irritate the social fabric of the community it works into; but we don’t have bacteria to grow around it, we only have each other. Yet we can understand cultural issues in the same way as a pearl – an irritant works its way in, and we grow that irritant into a recognisable tangible entity, by coalescing around it and growing it in such a way that it becomes instantly recognisable.
This is what led to the Slavophiles. Petrine Russia thought it was undefeatable – and from the Great Northern War onwards, it very much was – until Napoleon came roaring in. But the Napeolonic Wars did two things for Russia, both with the same outcome; the first was importing many ideas into Russia that challenged the existing understanding of Russian political and social structures; the second was, in the same way Soviet soldiers pushed Nazi Germany back into Europe, Petrine soldiers followed Napoleon back into Europe. In both instances, educated Russian men saw the way Europeans lived, and realised that their society was not the improved form that their reforming leaders dreamt of.
And just as with a grain of sand in a pearl, the cultural dislocation of Peter’s reforms that had long irritated the reactionary elements of eighteenth-century Russia, was seized on by many of the early-nineteenth century intelligentsia as a means of explaining the situation in which they had found themselves. This fermented a series of backlashes, intellectual and cultural, that led to an explosion of political movements, such as the terrorists, the socialists, the populists (narodniki), and – most importantly – the Slavophiles. The Slavophiles looked at the state of Russia in the 1830s and considered the Petrine reforms to be an unmitigated failure: they had not kept Russia at pace with the rest of Europe; they had dislocated the cultural and social elites from the people over whom they ruled; and worst of all, they had severed the Russian people from their own past. Peter the Great had made the mistake of proto-enlightenment liberalism, that there were universal standards of humanity against which peoples’ behaviours, cultures and laws could be judged, and in doing so, he had not attempted to “reform” Russia’s venerable history, but deny its very existence, and begin from scratch.
Instead, the Slavophiles urged a return to pre-Petrine, Muscovite-style Russianism, an embracing of folk styles, food, clothing, language, and so on – not to petrify them into a living museum of nostalgia, but to rectify the mistakes of the previous century, and offer an alternative direction into the future. This precipitated many of the following century’s movements: for instance, the emphasis on the folk of Russia encouraged the nascent populism into radicalism; the embracing of the Russian commune form of land management gave Russian socialism a concrete model from which to work; and the idea of Russia taking an entirely unique path of development to Europe created the intellectual condition for Lenin and the communists to believe Russia could “leapfrog” past the bourgeois liberalism of the continent and move straight to socialism. This is not to say the Slavophiles were socialists – to even say so is to misunderstand the subtle relativism that denies such universalist theories in itself. Indeed, many Slavophiles were ardent absolute monarchists, with the famous Memorandum to the Tsar by Alexei Aksakov in 1831 claiming that Russia’s unique place in history stems from its Orthodox Christianity, the invitation by the Kievan Rus to the Varangians to rule them, and the steppes shaping the Russian mindset to one of boundless opportunism (something that Berdayev later used as a comparison to the American prairies and Manifest Destiny).
The consequences of the Slavophile movement might not be palatable, but their inspiration is something that Anglo conservatives need to pay attention to. Their movement began by an important moment of clarity: the political reforming project of the previous age had failed. It is no secret that the emerging conservatism in Britain despises the Blairite consensus, and in many ways that means we are already doing as the Slavophiles did: only by recognising that we are in Blairite Britain can we undo its disastrous effects. But we need to go further; we cannot simply throw our hands up and accept Blairism as the present condition of Britain, but we need to see it for what it truly is. It is a complete and utter separation of Britain from our past, a denial of that past’s validity, and an attempt to create a new political identity on entirely alien lines.
Moving into the future requires acceptance of the present circumstance; one of the silliest phrases is that the clock cannot be wound back, when the truth is, if the clock is showing the wrong time, it is imperative that you wind it back. And just as taking the wrong turn and continuing down the wrong path will only get you further from where you want to go, so too must you turn back. We are all Blairites now; and just as alcoholics have to admit they’ll never recover from their alcoholism, we have to admit we will likely never recover from Blairism, but will always “be” recovering.
But I do not want to be defeatist; the first step of recovery is acceptance. We need to accept that we live in Blairite Britain, and only then can we begin tearing it apart. We need to start ripping out its core parts: the communications act (2003); the equality act (2010); the Supreme Court; the devolved assemblies; the abolition of the hereditary aristocracy; the fox hunting ban; the smoking ban; in short, all of the components of a foreign way of life that have been foisted upon the British people by our own misguided maniacal reformers. It is time to go to war; but you can only do that if you accept the war is already going on.
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By Dustin Lovell — 1 month ago
Written in the 1660s, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is the type of book I imagine one could spend a lifetime mining for meaning and still be left with something to learn. Its being conceived as an English Epic that uses the poetic forms and conventions of Homeric and Ovidic antiquity to present a Christian subject, it yields as much to the student of literature as it does to students of history and politics, articulating in its retelling of the Fall many of the fundamental questions at work in the post-Civil-War body politic of the preceding decade (among many other things). Comparable with Dante’s Inferno in form, subject, and depth, Paradise Lost offers—and requires—much to and from readers, and it is one of the deepest and most complex works in the English canon. I thank God Milton did not live a half century earlier or write plays, else I might have to choose between him and Shakespeare—because I’d hesitate to simply pick Shakespeare.
One similarity between Milton and Shakespeare that has import to today’s broader discussion involves the question of whether they present their female characters fairly, believably, and admirably, or merely misogynistically. Being a Puritan Protestant from the 1600s writing an Epic verse version of Genesis 1-3, Milton must have relegated Eve to a place of silent submission, no? This was one of the questions I had when I first approached him in graduate school, and, as I had previously found when approaching Shakespeare and his heroines with the same query, I found that Milton understood deeply the gender politics of Adam and Eve, and he had a greater respect for his heroine than many current students might imagine.
I use “gender politics” intentionally, for it is through the different characterizations of Adam and Eve that Milton works out the developing conception of the citizen in an England that had recently executed its own king. As I’ve written in my discussion of Shakespeare’s history plays, justified or not, regicide has comprehensive effects. Thus, the beheading of Charles I on 30 January 1649 had implications for all 17th-century English citizens, many of which were subsequently written about by many like Margaret Cavendish and John Locke. At issue was the question of the individual’s relation to the monarch; does the citizen’s political identity inhere in the king or queen (Cavendish’s perspective), or does he or she exist as a separate entity (Locke’s)? Are they merely “subjects” in the sense of “the king’s subjects,” or are they “subjects” in the sense of being an active agent with an individual perspective that matters? Is it Divine Right, conferred on and descended from Adam, that makes a monarch, or is it the consent of the governed, of which Eve was arguably the first among mankind?
Before approaching such topics in Paradise Lost, Milton establishes the narrative framework of creation. After an initial prologue that does an homage to the classical invoking of the Muses even as it undercuts the pagan tradition and places it in an encompassing Christian theology (there are many such nuances and tensions throughout the work), Milton’s speaker introduces Satan, nee Lucifer, having just fallen with his third of heaven after rebelling against the lately announced Son. Thinking, as he does, that the Son is a contingent being like himself (rather than a non-contingent being coequal with the Father, as the Son is shown to be in Book III), Satan has failed to submit to a rulership he does not believe legitimate. He, thus, establishes one of the major themes of Paradise Lost: the tension between the individual’s will and God’s. Each character’s conflict inheres in whether or not they will choose to remain where God has placed them—which inerringly involves submitting to an authority that, from their limited perspective, they do not believe deserves their submission—or whether they will reject it and prefer their own apparently more rational interests. Before every major character—Satan, Adam, and Eve—is a choice between believing the superior good of God’s ordered plan and pursuing the seemingly superior option of their individual desires.
Before discussing Eve, it is worth looking at her unheavenly counterpart, Sin. In a prefiguration of the way Eve was formed out of Adam before the book’s events, Sin describes to Satan how she was formed Athena-style out of his head when he chose to rebel against God and the Son, simultaneously being impregnated by him and producing their son, Death. As such she and Satan stand as a parody not only of the parent-progeny-partner relationship of Adam-Eve but also of God and the Son. Describing her illicit role in Lucifer’s rebellion, Sin says that almost immediately after birth,
I pleased and with attractive graces won
The most averse (thee chiefly) who full oft
Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing
Becam’st enamoured and such joy thou took’st
With me in secret that my womb conceived
A growing burden.—Paradise Lost II.761-767
In here and other places, Sin shows that her whole identity is wrapped up in Satan, her father-mate. In fact, there is rarely any instance where she refers to herself without also referring to him for context or as a counterpoint. Lacking her own, private selfhood from which she is able to volitionally choose the source of her identity and meaning, Sin lives in a state of perpetual torment, constantly being impregnated and devoured by the serpents and hellhounds that grow out of her womb.
Sin’s existence provides a Dantean concretization of Satan’s rebellion, which is elsewhere presented as necessarily one of narcissistic solipsism—a greatness derived from ignoring knowledge that might contradict his supposed greatness. A victim of her father-mate’s “narcissincest” (a term I coined for her state in grad school), Sin is not only an example of the worst state possible for the later Eve, but also, according to many critics, of women in 17th-century England, both in relation to their fathers and husbands, privately, as well as to the monarch (considered by many the “father of the realm”), publically. Through this reading, we can see Milton investigating, through Sin, not only the theology of Lucifer’s fall, but also of an extreme brand of royalism assumed by many at the time. And yet, it is not merely a simple criticism of royalism, per se: though Milton, himself, wrote other works defending the execution of Charles I and eventually became a part of Cromwell’s government, it is with the vehicle of Lucifer’s rebellion and Sin—whose presumptions are necessarily suspect—that he investigates such things (not the last instance of his work being as complex as the issues it investigates).
After encountering the narcissincest of the Satan-Sin relationship in Book II we are treated to its opposite in the next: the reciprocative respect between the Father and the Son. In what is, unsurprisingly, one of the most theologically-packed passages in Western literature, Book III seeks to articulate the throneroom of God, and it stands as the fruit of Milton’s study of scripture, soteriology, and the mysteries of the Incarnation, offering, perhaps wisely, as many questions as answers for such a scene. Front and center is, of course, the relationship between the Son and Father, Whose thrones are surrounded by the remaining two thirds of the angels awaiting what They will say. The Son and Father proceed to narrate to Each Other the presence of Adam and Eve in Eden and Satan’s approach thereunto; They then discuss what will be Their course—how They will respond to what They, omniscient, already know will happen.
One major issue Milton faced in representing such a discussion is the fact that it is not really a discussion—at least, not dialectically. Because of the triune nature of Their relationship, the Son already knows what the Father is thinking; indeed, how can He do anything but share His Father’s thoughts? And yet, the distance between the justice and foresight of the Father (in no ways lacking in the Son) and the mercy and love of the Son (no less shown in the words of the Father) is managed by the frequent use of the rhetorical question. Seeing Satan leave Hell and the chaos that separates it from the earth, the Father asks:
Only begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our Adversary whom no bounds
Prescribed, no bars…can hold, so bent he seems
On desperate revenge that shall redound
Upon his own rebellious head?—Paradise Lost III.80-86
The Father does not ask the question to mediate the Son’s apparent lack of knowledge, since, divine like the Father, the Son can presumably see what He sees. Spoken in part for the sake of those angels (and readers) who do not share Their omniscience, the rhetorical questions between the Father and Son assume knowledge even while they posit different ideas. Contrary to the solipsism and lack of sympathy between Sin and Satan (who at first does not even recognize his daughter-mate), Book III shows the mutual respect and knowledge of the rhetorical questions between the Father and Son—who spend much of the scene describing Each Other and Their motives (which, again, are shared).
The two scenes between father figures and their offspring in Books II and III provide a backdrop for the main father-offspring-partner relationship of Paradise Lost: that of Adam and Eve—with the focus, in my opinion, on Eve. Eve’s origin story is unique in Paradise Lost: while she was made out of Adam and derives much of her joy from him, she was not initially aware of him at her nativity, and she is, thus, the only character who has experienced and can remember (even imagine) existence independent of a source.
Book IV opens on Satan reaching Eden, where he observes Adam and Eve and plans how to best ruin them. Listening to their conversation, he hears them describe their relationship and their respective origins. Similar to the way the Father and Son foreground their thoughts in adulatory terms, Eve addresses Adam as, “thou for whom | And from whom I was formed flesh of thy flesh | and without whom am to no end, my guide | And head” (IV.440-443). While those intent on finding sexism in the poem will, no doubt, jump at such lines, Eve’s words are significantly different from Sin’s. Unlike Sin’s assertion of her being a secondary “perfect image” of Satan (wherein she lacks positive subjectivity), Eve establishes her identity as being reciprocative of Adam’s in her being “formed flesh,” though still originating in “thy flesh.” She is not a mere picture of Adam, but a co-equal part of his substance. Also, Eve diverges from Sin’s origin-focused account by relating her need of Adam for her future, being “to no end” without Adam; Eve’s is a chosen reliance of practicality, not an unchosen one of identity.
Almost immediately after describing their relationship, Eve recounts her choice of being with Adam—which necessarily involves remembering his absence at her nativity. Hinting that were they to be separated Adam would be just as lost, if not more, than she (an idea inconceivable between Sin and Satan, and foreshadowing Eve’s justification in Book IX for sharing the fruit with Adam, who finds himself in an Eve-less state), she continues her earlier allusion to being separated from Adam, stating that, though she has been made “for” Adam, he a “Like consort to [himself] canst nowhere find” (IV.447-48). Eve then remembers her awakening to consciousness:
That day I oft remember when from sleep
I first awaked and found myself reposed
Under a shade on flow’rs, much wond’ring where
And what I was, whence thither brought and how.—Paradise Lost IV.449-452
Notably seeing her origin as one not of flesh but of consciousness, she highlights that she was alone. That is, her subjective awareness preexisted her understanding of objective context. She was born, to use a phrase by another writer of Milton’s time, tabula rasa, without either previous knowledge or a mediator to grant her an identity. Indeed, perhaps undercutting her initial praise of Adam, she remembers it “oft”; were this not an image of the pre-Fall marriage, one might imagine the first wife wishing she could take a break from her beau—the subject of many critical interpretations! Furthermore, Milton’s enjambment allows a dual reading of “from sleep,” as if Eve remembers that day as often as she is kept from slumber—very different from Sin’s inability to forget her origin due to the perpetual generation and gnashing of the hellhounds and serpents below her waist. The privacy of Eve’s nativity so differs from Sin’s public birth before all the angels in heaven that Adam—her own father-mate—is not even present; thus, Eve is able to consider herself without reference to any other. Of the interrogative words with which she describes her post-natal thoughts— “where…what…whence”—she does not question “who,” further showing her initial isolation, which is so defined that she initially cannot conceive of another separate entity.
Eve describes how, hearing a stream, she discovered a pool “Pure as th’ expanse of heav’n” (IV.456), which she subsequently approached and, Narcissus-like, looked down into.
As I bent down to look, just opposite
A shape within the wat’ry gleam appeared
Bending to look on me. I started back,
It started back, but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love.—Paradise Lost IV.460-465
When she discovers the possibility that another person might exist, it is, ironically, her own image in the pool. In Eve, rather than in Sin or Adam, we are given an image of self-awareness, without reference to any preceding structural identity. Notably, she is still the only person described in the experience—as she consistently refers to the “shape” as “it.” Eve’s description of the scene contains the actions of two personalities with only one actor; that is, despite there being correspondence in the bending, starting, and returning, and in the conveyance of pleasure, sympathy, and love, there is only one identity present. Thus, rather than referring to herself as an image of another, as does Sin, it is Eve who is here the original, with the reflection being the image, inseparable from herself though it be. Indeed, Eve’s nativity thematically resembles the interaction between the Father and the Son, who, though sharing the same omniscient divinity, converse from seemingly different perspectives. Like the Father Who instigates interaction with His Son, His “radiant image” (III.63), in her first experience Eve has all the agency.
As the only instance in the poem when Eve has the preeminence of being another’s source (if only a reflection), this scene invests her interactions with Adam with special meaning. Having experienced this private moment of positive identity before following the Voice that leads her to her husband, Eve is unique in having the capacity to agree or disagree with her seemingly new status in relation to Adam, having remembered a time when it was not—a volition unavailable to Sin and impossible (and unnecessary) to the Son.
And yet, this is the crux of Eve’s conflict: will she continue to heed the direction of the Voice that interrupted her Narcissus-like fixation at the pool and submit herself to Adam? The ambivalence of her description of how she would have “fixed | Mine eyes till now and pined with vain desire,” over her image had the Voice not come is nearly as telling as is her confession that, though she first recognized Adam as “fair indeed, and tall!” she thought him “less fair, | Less winning soft, less amiably mild | Than that smooth wat’ry image” (IV.465-480). After turning away from Adam to return to the pool and being subsequently chased and caught by Adam, who explained the nature of their relation—how “To give thee being I lent | Out of my side to thee, nearest my heart, | Substantial life to have thee by my side”—she “yielded, and from that time see | How beauty is excelled by manly grace | And wisdom which alone is truly fair” (IV. 483-491). One can read these lines at face value, hearing no undertones in her words, which are, after all, generally accurate, Biblically speaking. However, despite the nuptial language that follows her recounting of her nativity, it is hard for me not to read a subtle irony in the words, whether verbal or dramatic. That may be the point—that she is not an automaton without a will, but a woman choosing to submit, whatever be her personal opinion of her husband.
Of course, the whole work must be read in reference to the Fall—not merely as the climax which is foreshadowed throughout, but also as a condition necessarily affecting the writing and reading of the work, it being, from Milton’s Puritan Protestant perspective, impossible to correctly interpret pre-Fall events from a post-Fall state due to the noetic effects of sin. Nonetheless, in keeping with the generally Arminian tenor of the book—that every character must have a choice between submission and rebellion for their submission to be valid, and that the grace promised in Book III is “Freely vouchsafed” and not based on election (III.175)—I find it necessary to keep in mind, as Eve seems to, the Adam-less space that accompanied her nativity. Though one need not read all of her interaction with Adam as sarcastic, in most of her speech one can read a subtextual pull back to the pool, where she might look at herself, alone.
In Eve we see the fullest picture of what is, essentially, every key character’s (indeed, from Milton’s view, every human’s) conflict: to choose to submit to an assigned subordinacy or abstinence against the draw of a seemingly more attractive alternative, often concretized in what Northrop Frye calls a “provoking object”—the Son being Satan’s, the Tree Adam’s, and the reflection (and private self it symbolizes, along with an implicit alternative hierarchy with her in prime place) Eve’s. In this way, the very private consciousness that gives Eve agency is that which threatens to destroy it; though Sin lacks the private selfhood possessed by Eve, the perpetual self-consumption of her and Satan’s incestuous family allegorizes the impotent and illusory self-returning that would characterize Eve’s existence if she were to return to the pool. Though she might not think so, anyone who knows the myth that hers parallels knows that, far from limiting her freedom, the Voice that called Eve from her first sight of herself rescued her from certain death (though not for long).
The way Eve’s subjectivity affords her a special volition connects with the biggest questions of Milton’s time. Eve’s possessing a private consciousness from which she can consensually submit to Adam parallels John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Civil Government” of the same century, wherein he articulates how the consent of the governed precedes all claims of authority. Not in Adam but in Eve does Milton show that monarchy—even one as divine, legitimate, and absolute as God’s—relies on the volition of the governed, at least as far as the governed’s subjective perception is concerned. Though she cannot reject God’s authority without consequence, Eve is nonetheless able to agree or disagree with it, and through her Milton presents the reality that outward submission does not eliminate inward subjectivity and personhood (applicable as much to marriages as to monarchs, the two being considered parallel both in the poem and at the time of its writing); indeed, the inalienable presence of the latter is what gives value to the former and separates it from the agency-less state pitifully experienced by Sin.
And yet, Eve’s story (to say nothing of Satan’s) also stands as a caution against simply taking on the power of self-government without circumspection. Unrepentant revolutionary though he was, Milton was no stranger to the dangers of a quickly and simply thrown-off government, nor of an authority misused, and his nuancing of the archetype of all subsequent rebellions shows that he did not advocate rebellion as such. While Paradise Lost has influenced many revolutions (political in the 18th-century revolutions, artistic in the 19th-century Romantics, cultural in the 20th-century New Left), it nonetheless has an anti-revolutionary current. Satan’s presumptions and their later effects on Eve shows the self-blinding that is possible to those who, simply trusting their own limited perception, push for an autonomy they believe will liberate them to an unfettered reason but which will, in reality, condemn them to a solipsistic ignorance.
By treating Eve, not Adam, as the everyman character who, like the character of a morality play, represents the psychological state of the tempted individual—that is, as the character with whom the audience is most intended to sympathize—Milton elevates her to the highest status in the poem. Moreover—and of special import to Americans like myself—as an articulation of an individual citizen who does not derive the relation to an authority without consent, Eve stands as a prototype of the post-17th-century conception of the citizen that would lead not only to further changes between the British Crown and Parliament but also a war for independence in the colonies. Far from relegating Eve to a secondary place of slavish submission, Milton arguably makes her the most human character in humanity’s first story; wouldn’t that make her its protagonist? As always, let this stimulate you to read it for yourself and decide. Because it integrates so many elements—many of which might defy new readers’ expectations in their complexity and nuance—Paradise Lost belongs as much on the bookshelf and the syllabus as Shakespeare’s Complete Works, and it presents a trove for those seeking to study the intersection not only of art, history, and theology, but also of politics and gender roles in a culture experiencing a fundamental change.
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