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“If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face”: Ritualism and the Autobiographical Perverse in Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua

Julia Dorothy Yost, Yale University

“If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face”: Ritualism and the Autobiographical Perverse in Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua
John Henry Newman died a sage in 1890, eulogized in mainstream obituaries—having come a long way since mid-century, when he had been a punching-bag for Protestant controversialists. Who could forget Charles Kingsley’s immortal yoking of Newman’s Catholicism to dishonesty and sexual inversion? The key event in establishing Newman’s acceptability was of course his response to Kingsley in 1864, with the publication of his Apologia. But reconsideration may complicate our memory of the Apologia as the ultimate in personal apologetics. Read closely, the Apologia will appear a perverse document, in two senses. First, it is religiously and culturally perverse, or perverted. Here I am using “perversion” in its old sense (still current in 1864) of religious conversion, specifically to a stigmatized minority faith. Even while advancing an apologetic account of Newman’s career, the Apologia unapologetically displays Newman’s Jesuitical subtlety and related aspects of his recusancy, the same “perverted” qualities for which he was under indictment. Given this performance of religious and cultural perversion, we may say also that the Apologia is rhetorically perverse—that it does and says things that run counter to its apologetic purpose. That it nevertheless served this purpose smashingly is owing to the fact that, generally speaking, only sympathetic readers cottoned to Newman’s perverse performance of a perverted persona. This paper will discuss what exactly Newman was up to in writing perversion into the Apologia, how he got away with this perversity, and what may be the historical background and significance of his doing so.
Newman wrote the Apologia to defend himself against the charge of unmanly, un-English dishonesty—or, what was the same thing to Charles Kingsley and to John Bull, of subtlety. We know the original charge, that “[t]ruth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with [Newman and] the Roman clergy,” and that these “cunning” priests exerted their wiles against the bluff “male force of the wicked world that marries and is given in marriage” (Kingsley and Newman 358). More detailed is this passage from one of Kingsley’s pamphlets, emerging from the back-and-forth that preceded the Apologia:
If [Dr. Newman] will indulge in subtle paradoxes, in rhetorical exaggerations; if, whenever he touches on the question of truth and honesty, he will take a perverse pleasure in saying something shocking to plain English notions, he must take the consequences of his own eccentricities. (“Appendix B” 395)
Kingsley was dealing in “truth and honesty” as John Bull defined them—as hermeneutic simplicity, imbricated tendentiously with national and gender identity. These “plain English notions” were what Newman, so at home in “subtle paradoxes,” had to contend with. So he spoke of “that English common sense which is so famous for its good as for its evil consequences” (qtd. Ward xxvi). Being a self-consciously English trait, “common sense” stigmatized what was foreign, Newman’s religion above all. As John Shelton Reed says, “More cultural than strictly religious, anti-Romanism was bound up with feelings toward the nation, toward honesty, … decency—toward ‘common sense’ itself” (236). Newman’s subtlety was a case in point. His infamous Tract 90, which James Eli Adams aptly calls “a virtuoso close reading of the Thirty-Nine Articles” quite against their plain Protestant meaning, only served to confirm that Newman really belonged in the un-English Church to which his Jesuitical hermeneutics were leading him (100).
In the Apologia, Newman addresses the common-sense bias against his Romish subtlety by performing his Englishness—both his national allegiance and his participation in the hermeneutic simplicity indigenous to the Isle. Common sense, he has said, has good as well as evil consequences. His hope in the good comes through in this passage from the Apologia’s Preface:
[I am confident of my] acquittal, seeing that my judges are my own countrymen. I consider … Englishmen the most suspicious and touchy of mankind; I think them … unjust in their seasons of excitement; but I had rather be an Englishman, (as in fact I am,) than belong to any other race under heaven. They are as generous, as they are hasty … and their repentance for their injustice is greater than their sin. (Newman, Apologia 11)
This passage blandishes but does not cloy, as it mixes praise with a claim against and upon its audience. Patently, Newman has been injured by the English suspicion of everything not common-sensical. The prevalent sentiment, however, is one of belonging: “in fact I am” an Englishman. If the English have common-sense biases, they also have common-sense fairness, to which Newman, being an Englishman, may appeal.
To which end, he masters a rhetoric of common sense, of “plain English notions,” in which it may be said that he outdoes even Kingsley. Addressing his accuser, Newman demands to see the text in which he allegedly said that “lying is never any harm”: “I either said it or I didn’t. You have made a monstrous charge against me; direct, distinct, public. You are bound to prove it … or to own you can’t” (Kingsley and Newman 373). This demand, appearing in a pamphlet that preceded the Apologia, is the overture to a powerful methodology. The Apologia will be predicated largely upon documentary evidence, upon Newman’s writings, personal and public, old and new, excerpted and commented upon in 1864, forming a “lucid mirror of his mind and life” (Newman, Idea 220). A sermon, a letter, a Tract: the pattern will be, “Here is what I said, here is what I meant, and I meant what I said when I said it.” Thus will Newman counter the crucial charge that he had been a disingenuous Anglican, an undercover papal operative until his conversion in 1845. I want to stress that Newman’s documentary method was at least as important as the content he presented. “I either said it or I didn’t”: these words perform a simple faith in the transparency of “plain English” writing. The Apologia does not, as one might have expected from Newman, plead its case by insisting upon language as a medium of valid nuance. Much of its apologetic power derives from the pains it takes with the facts of Newman’s writing, from its grandly enacted participation in the “plain English” hermeneutic allegedly foreign to him.
But good as he is at participating in this hermeneutic, does he believe in it? It is worth noting that the evidentiary methodology of the Apologia grew directly out of Newman’s native habit of hoarding, collating, and glossing his papers—but then it is worth asking what Newman understood to be the purpose and limits of interrogating his own paper trail in this way. Take the Apologia’s account of his ill-fated trip to Sicily in 1833. On a Mediterranean tour, just before the outbreak of the Oxford Movement, Newman parted from his friends and ventured into the hills of Sicily, where he contracted an epidemic fever that almost killed him. Two years later he chronicled the experience, for his personal reference. Five years after that, he expanded the account over several weeks, adding commentary on its biographical and theological significance—and once breaking in on himself: “The thought keeps pressing on me, while I write this, what am I writing it for? … Who will care to be told such details as I have put down above?” (Newman, Autobiographical Writings 137-38). (Still he went on tinkering until 1874.) At any rate, the record was there for him to refer to when he wrote the Apologia in 1864. The Apologia quotes his delirious speech, as he stumbled around the town of Leonforte: “I repeated, ‘I shall not die, for I have not sinned against light, I have not sinned against light’” (50). It is a striking remark, presented as prefatory to the theological agitation of the Oxford Movement. How does the Newman of the Apologia, inveterate self-writer and self-reader, gloss this utterance? “I never have been able quite to make out what I meant” (Newman, Apologia 50). Indeed! Leonard Deen writes that “Newman is unable to explain the significance of [his delirious remark], but he sets it down … and the Apologia continues to recall it. Partly because it is accorded an unexplained importance,” it takes on capacious metaphoric qualities (236). I believe it has another effect, too, as a warning to readers about the limits of the Apologia’s method of “plain English” quotation. Newman’s paper trail may not be plainly legible, even to Newman himself.
For Newman, the truth is more complex than “plain English notions” will allow or plain English writing can capture. Such, surely, is one implication of the famous “mirror” passage in Chapter V:
If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. … Were it not for [my primary conviction of the existence of God] … I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. (Newman, Apologia 216)
Plain facts and common sense tell Newman that there is no God; hence his resort to a contrafactual mode of belief. This eerie passage, subjunctively withdrawing the ontological predicate of all creation, brilliantly imparts a baffling impasse, a deeply felt abandonment, an affinity with skepticism, such that George Eliot came away saying, “the Apology now mainly affects me as the revelation of a life—how different in form from one’s own, yet with how close a fellowship in its … spiritual needs and burthens” (159). Newman is flirting with the anti-Catholic stereotype whereby the priest is really a doubter taking refuge in dogma—displaying, as Kingsley put it, the “simple credulity [that is] the child of scepticism” (“Appendix B” 404). Then he recuperates his abandonment by a serpentine maneuver, a Jesuitical knack for entertaining prospects without committing to them. He gives us theistic affirmation via the subjunctive mood and an implicit double negative (“I am not not here”)—and this is his central statement of religious belief. Newman is well aware that John Bull enunciates his credo positively, in the declarative mood.
It is a perverse moment. To evaluate its consonance with Newman’s general outlook and rhetoric, we must refer to his early days as a public figure. In those days, recorded in the second chapter of the Apologia, the young radicals of the Oxford Movement developed a deliberate rhetoric of perversity, befitting their “perversion” from the Protestant heritage of England. In its polemical mode, the early Oxford Movement deployed ironies and paradoxes, of which Newman’s Tract 1 supplies a fine example: “[B]lack event though it would be for the country, yet …we could not wish [the Anglican Bishops] a more blessed termination of their course, than the spoiling of their goods, and martyrdom” (qtd. Newman, Apologia 59). Similarly, in a sermon: “I do not shrink from uttering my firm conviction that it would be a gain to the country were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion than at present it shows itself to be” (qtd. Newman, Apologia 59). Reproduced in the Apologia, these expressions are the same “subtle paradoxes” and “rhetorical exaggerations” of which Kingsley complained; they exhibit Newman’s “perverse pleasure in saying something shocking to plain English notions.” They are “perverse” in the sense of being disobliging and contrary; they are also logically perverse, or paradoxical. They arise from one of the distinctive insights of the early Oxford Movement, namely that people are simple, whereas the truth—contrary to Kingsley’s “plain English” account—is subtle. Hence the notorious subtlety of the theological works of the Movement, culminating in the scandalous Tract 90. Experientially, Newman and his cohorts wished to emphasize with their paradoxes that spiritual truth is otherworldly, counter to mundane appearances. The resulting “épater les bourgeois” program was enunciated by Newman’s friend Hurrell Froude: “[A]ny thing that sets people agog is on our side; I deprecate a calm” (326). This old rhetoric of perversity may still obtain in the Apologia. As if in warning, Newman writes, “My behaviour had a mixture in it both of fierceness and of sport; and on this account, I dare say, it gave offence to many; nor am I here defending it” (Apologia 57). Nor is he apologizing for it.
He will never need to apologize, thanks to one corollary of the old Oxonian perversity: if people are simple, then subtle truths may be sneaked past them. Confessing the “fierceness and sport” of his early years, Newman writes, “Also I used irony in conversation, when matter-of-fact men would not see what I meant” (Apologia 58). Here he states baldly that his meanings often have been lost on “matter-of-fact” Englishmen—and in saying so, he sneaks in a message that will be lost on matter-of-fact Englishmen. Note how strangely poised between apology and non-apology this confession is. Is that “when” ethically charged? (Does it signal intentionality, “so that matter-of-fact men would not see what I meant”?) And that “Also”: should we read an ethical calculus in this cumulative logic? (Would a confessor prod him, “How many times did you use irony, my son?”) The kids today might paraphrase him: “Sorry I’m not sorry.” But we must read closely to see the intransigence, which lies in the manipulation of a “when” and an “also.” Newman continues with the perversity, the “sport,” of his younger days, but his intention, it seems, is no longer to be fierce and to “set[] people agog.” He now prefers a rhetorical positioning that will allow him to perform recusancy without soliciting hostile attention—relying on the fact that “matter-of-fact men [may] not see what [he] mean[s].”
In other words, Newman now finds ways of being unapologetic without disrupting his apologetic. There are many passages in the Apologia in which he, perversely, lives down to English stereotypes of Catholicism, particularly its alleged corruption of reason in the name of superstition. Since I lack the space to instance many of these textual moments, which depend strongly on context, I will offer just the one that I find most delightful. Steven Helmling points to a passage in which Newman responds to Kingsley’s mockery of the medicinal oils distilled from the miraculous relics of the medieval saint Walburga. After a long, brainy defense of the proposition that miracles may or may not have ceased, Newman affirms crisply, “[T]he oil still flows; I have had some of it in my possession; it is medicinal; some think it so by a natural quality, others by a divine gift” (“Appendix C” 465). Helmling paraphrases, “[T]he oils of Walburga? Delighted you asked, Mr. Kingsley” (129). Read in context, the coolness and dryness of Newman’s prose disarm the reader and delay or submerge the humbug. The perverse recusant Newman will be read closely or not at all—and it is understood for Newman that John Bull never reads closely.
Newman’s bet on the hermeneutic simplicity of the English public seems significant, because while Newman was recalibrating his rhetoric, the Ritualist Movement—the liturgically preoccupied offshoot of the Oxford Movement that developed after Newman’s defection to Rome—was enacting a combative version of his early style. In John Shelton Reed’s formulation, the Ritualist Movement positioned itself counterculturally, twitting John Bull with Romish improvements to the Anglican liturgy, to the point of courting legal action and prison time. Common-sense Englishmen, says Reed, “were right to be offended [by Ritualism]—sometimes they were supposed to be offended” (xxii). The Ritualists, with their “deliberate solicitation of public hostility,” took up the pattern Newman had set with his “fierce” early leadership (Adams 87). As Reed observes, they reproduced his rhetoric and temperament, being not afraid of controversy nor overly concerned with prudence. It seems important to add, however, that the Ritualists of mid-century were reviving Newman’s recusant style of the 1830s. By the 1860s, Newman had trimmed his sails.
Newman’s post-conversion rhetoric accords with a specific attitude toward the making of Catholic converts. Jarlath Killeen aligns two nineteenth-century cultural strategies when he writes, “The Dandy is the perfect vehicle of recusancy: he seems to be respectable though a bit outré and so can continue to exist while surreptitiously converting others to his way of life” (158). Perhaps Newman’s persona in the Apologia served as a similarly surreptitious “vehicle of recusancy.” It occupies a rhetorical sweet spot. Newman enacts his perversity cannily, so that it will not offend “matter-of-fact men.” Aspects of it may be noted and appreciated by the like-minded—by a George Eliot who feels an affinity with a subtle and skeptical temperament. At the other end of the spectrum, a Gerard Manley Hopkins will go to Newman, two years after the Apologia, to be baptized and then to teach at his school in Birmingham, where he will absorb Newman’s subtle philosophy of religious assent, which later will inflect Hopkins’s poetics. Newman’s recusancy is unapologetic, but it leverages the old hermeneutic elitism in order to coexist with apologetic, while at the same time eliciting a sympathetic mimesis from those who are subtle enough to see what he means.
This rhetoric is consistent with Newman’s doctrine of “personal influence”—his idea that the most efficacious mode of influence requires social proximity predicated on a preexisting attunement or affinity. Often noted is the circle of intimates that readily formed around Newman; he writes of “blessings of friends, which to my door, unasked, unhoped, have come” (Apologia 34). Unlike such promiscuous evangelists as Henry Edward Manning, Newman did not exert himself to make converts. He staked his Catholic evangelization on the implicit, and inevitably narrow, appeal of his own subtle performance of a particular style of recusancy. This performance was a quieter version of the “perverse” insight of the early Oxford Movement. There was no point in trying to compel sympathy or mimesis from people who were too “matter-of-fact” to be reached by un-English truths.
Newman’s goal of a circle of converts (or perverts) established by the insinuation of subtle cues reminds one of the legendary green carnation of Oscar Wilde. Between Wilde’s avant-garde and “the circles of advanced Anglo- [and Roman] Catholicism” there was, of course, “a good deal of overlap and … exchange” (Reed 218), and as Oliver Buckton observes, it was the Kingsley-Newman controversy that crystallized the term “perversion” in its late-Victorian sense of sexual “inversion” (362). By the time Wilde requested the Apologia as reading material in prison, it was clear that he had not ultimately sustained, as Newman had, a dandiacal appeal to the like-minded that avoids provoking “matter-of-fact men.” But one can imagine, from the depths of Reading Gaol, a paraphrase of Eliot’s response: the Apologia “affects me as the revelation of a life—how different in form from one’s own, yet with how close a fellowship in its … [rhetorical] needs and burthens.”
Julia Dorothy Yost is a Ph.D. candidate and Part-Time Lecturer in English at Yale University, where she received a Beinecke Research Fellowship for her work on Tractarian Poetry. Her dissertation traces the literary implications of ascetical discipline and elitist hermeneutics in the poetry of John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and other writers of the Oxford Movement. An essay on Newman and Hopkins is forthcoming in Religion and the Arts.<o:p></o:p>
Works Cited
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