283. Peace (III)
As I sorted through my grandmother’s books, I came across a copy of Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey. I had a flick through and at once recognised Strachey’s sensibility as almost identical to contemporary American intellectual life today. Strachey was snarky; and this should come as no surprise, Strachey was pretty much the fag hag’s favourite as depicted in Sex and the City—although perhaps with a slightly better handle on Latin. Stracheyites emerge when a society is in crisis and decline; it is not that American intellectuals have read Strachey, it is just that this type of man—we can only use “man” loosely in Strachey’s case—emerges to intellectual prominence in a decadent period.
Eminent Victorians was what we would recognise today as a book pitched to debunk. Its basic thrust was to lance four heroes of the Victorian Age: Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Gordon of Khartoum, and Thomas Arnold. The book’s publication date, 1918, was significant: the First World War shattered the British Empire and destroyed the country’s spiritual core. From then on, Britain was bankrupt; further, the war’s brutality—supported by the Church of England and all the country’s major institutions—terminated the nation’s residual faith in Christianity and heroism. Victorian homilies about patriotism and Jesus started to ring hollow; indeed, they had been long undermined from within—all it took was a weak man, Strachey, to shatter the brittle chitin.
From then on, everything would be a long sneer—a sneer that emerged from the rat-nibbled corpses in the trenches and the faces smeared with mud and blood. Today, it is usual for British people to sneer at the Empire, they sneer—in part—because Strachey debunked the Victorian mythos. My grandmother’s edition of Eminent Victorians, a 1970s edition, probably purchased for a scrupulously democratic Open University course, notes—approvingly—that Strachey introduced a sceptical sensibility towards Victorianism and Empire to the bourgeoisie. Men like Strachey, doyen of the Bloomsbury Group, taught the British middle class to hate themselves.
Strachey has one stylistic trick; and it is a trick that American progressives use today. It goes as follows: “Cardinal Manning found a small chapel off the Via Corso for Mass. As his head reeled from the incense he was overawed by a mystical vision that encompassed the universe’s entire structure. All this from a wafer.” There is doubtless a Greek name for this rhetorical device, but it is Strachey’s only trick; just like American progressives Strachey has nothing to say. His entire technique—lauded as a brilliant debunking by the cognoscenti—amounts to a snarky sneer after he describes a better man’s profound heroism and vision.
Strachey was not considered a brilliant intellect at university; it took the Bloomsbury Group to artificially boost him as a great mind. As with contemporary progressives, Strachey strikes a sceptical pose; but he clearly has some very definite views that he assumes his readers share—all good and rational people share, he thinks—and his job is simply to invite the reader to titter at stupid religious people and soldiers. He assumes a smug superiority over his subjects—better men than he, since he dodged WWI—with no justification, aside from his narcissistic assessment that he is more sophisticated than them. I suspect, in fact, that his implicit worldview goes unadumbrated because to do so would require courage and, further, if people actually saw what men like Strachey and contemporary progressives positively believe they would be disgusted.
At root, Strachey’s work is an attempt to kill his father. His father was a Victorian soldier—just like one of Strachey’s subjects, General Gordon—and Eminent Victorians reeks, frankly, of a hysterical queer who could never live up to his father’s storied and manly life and so revenged himself with a bitchy book. Men like Strachey have always existed, but it is only in times of decline that they become popular and highly regarded; and the rise of the Stracheyites in America today signals a terminal period.