"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

1 Oct 2022

Review of 'The Vagabond in Literature' by Arthur Rickett (1906), Part 5

Return to Part 1  Introduction

Return to Part 2  Wanderlust

Return to Part 3 — Affinity with Nature

Return to part 4 — The Abject


The title of this section is borrowed from Timothy Bewes, Cynicism and Postmodernity (1997), in which Bewes describes the cynic’s alienation as “an ascent into the lone and lofty perch of world-hating introspection” This alienation and cutting oneself off from the fundamental values of the society in which one lives, is an attitude also summed up by Louis Navia when he tells us that, “those who find the world something worthy of praise, or who congratulate themselves for having been born into the world, are either intellectually blind or morally perverse.”  Bewes describes contemporary cynicism as ‘a strategic mode of thinking’ which, in Sloterdijk's words, ‘is the universally widespread way in which enlightened people see to it that they are not taken for suckers’. Rickett’s own take on this aspect of vagabondage is described as follows in his Introduction:

a passion for the Earth is not sufficient of itself to admit within the charmed circle of the Vagabond; for there is no marked restlessness about Mr. Meredith’s genius, and he lacks what it seems to me is the third note of the genuine literary Vagabond—the note of aloofness, of personal detachment.  This it is which separates the Vagabond from the generality of his fellows.  No very prolonged scrutiny of the disposition of Thoreau, Jefferies, and Borrow is needed to reveal a pronounced shyness and reserve.  Examine this trait more closely, and it will exhibit a certain emotional coldness towards the majority of men and women.  No one can overlook the chill austerity that marks Thoreau’s attitude in social converse.  Borrow, again, was inaccessible to a degree, save to one or two intimates; even when discovered among congenial company, with the gipsies or with companions of the road like Isopel Berners, exhibiting, to me, a genial bleakness that is occasionally exasperating.”

And later in the book, Rickett displays an admiration for those who reject conventional society:

The Vagabond who withdraws himself to any extent from the life of his day, who declines to conform to many of its arbitrary conventions, escapes much of the fret and tear, the heart-aching and the disillusionment that others share in.  He retains a freshness, a simplicity, a joyfulness, not vouchsafed to those who stay at home and never wander beyond the prescribed limits.  He exhibits an individuality which is more genuinely the legitimate expression of his temperament.  It is not warped, crossed, suppressed, as many are.” 

Rickett also provides several examples of the vagabond’s alienation from society. The first being Maxim Gorky whom he describes as “the Vagabond naked and unashamed” and Gorky’s novels as “fervent defences of the Vagabond”:

I was born outside society, and for that reason I cannot take in a strong dose of its culture, without soon feeling forced to get outside it again, to wipe away the infinite complications, the sickly refinements, of that kind of existence.  I like either to go about in the meanest streets of towns, because, though everything there is dirty, it is all simple and sincere; or else to wander about in the high roads and across the fields, because that is always interesting; it refreshes one morally, and needs no more than a pair of good legs to carry one.” Gorky 

In Rickett’s chapter on Walt Whitman, we are presented with another insight into the vagabond writer’s alienation from the pretensions of civilisation. Rickett describes Whitman as a modern day Diogenes, striding, “stark naked among our academies of learning.  A strange, uncouth, surprising figure, it is impossible to ignore him however much he may shock our susceptibilities.” As with the Cynics also, Whitman’s diatribe against society’s evils is not preaching or evangelical, he is not proposing an alternative society, “this is done in no doctrinaire spirit”, but rather as a way of being true to himself and what he regards as the “powerful uneducated person”:

In Thomas de Quincey, Rickett finds a man of a conservative turn of mind with an ingrained respect for the conventions of life, yet temperamentally a restless Vagabond with a total disregard for the amenities of civilisation, asking only to live out his own dream-life:  

Dealing with him as a writer, you found a shrewd, if wayward critic, with no little of “John Bull” in his composition.  Deal with him as a man, you found a bright, kindly, nervous little man in a chronic state of shabbiness, eluding the attention of friends so far as possible, and wandering about town and country as if he had nothing in common with the rest of mankind. His Vagabondage is shown best in his purely imaginative work, and in the autobiographical sketches.” 

As previously noted, the vagabond’s alienation from ‘the rest of mankind’ is an irresistible force brought on by a realisation that the ‘civilised’ world is governed by a morality and sentimentality the vagabond sees as a folly and will not succumb to. That even a vagabond such as de Quincey, grounded as he was in conventional society, could not resist this feeling of alienation is a powerful testimony to the power of its force. Nietzsche, while sharing this same view of the world, uses alienation in a different sense. In his case it is the greater mass of humanity, his ‘human herd’, who alienate themselves by sacrificing their own individual personality and integrity to the anonymous, coercive whole. A process, aided by ‘education’, where individual will is ultimately given over to the collective will of the wider group. In this sense, the vagabond resists alienating him or her self from their own integrity in the face of powerful forces to conform to the common will of the society in which they live. The price is to be banished to the margins of mainstream society, the prize is to be free from shackles that bind one to it. Rickett himself acknowledges the negative side of this herding instinct when he suggests that most of us would benefit from spending time alone with ‘nature’ rather than herded together with with the rest of our species: 

We herd together so much—some unhappily by necessity, some by choice, that it would be a refreshing thing, and a wholesome thing, for most of us to be alone, more often face to face with the primal forces of Nature.” 

The vagabond spirit then is one that defies society’s pressure to conform because the vagabond cannot help but see that ‘civilisation’ is bankrupt of any moral purpose—for them at least. A moral vacuum reinforced by humans’ desperate need, and constant attempts, to make the world a better place, yet always failing and often in the most spectacular way. And one of the ways that humans have devised to trick themselves into believing their own rhetoric about their cleverness and superiority in the animal kingdom, is to replace the vacuum of ideas with idealist rhetoric. The use of ‘soundbites’ has reached epidemic proportions in the age of mass, electronic communication and this in turn has only amplified the hollowness of the human civilising project. In his collection of essays, Virginibus Puerisque, Robert Louis Stevenson was acutely aware of this aspect of human behaviour when he noted, almost a century and a half ago, how the mass of society communicate through soundbites rather than serious argument: 

There are too many of these catchwords in the world for people to rap out upon you like an oath by way of an argument.  They have a currency as intellectual counters, and many respectable persons pay their way with nothing else

But then the ancient Cynics were already making similar observations over 2000 years ago. Diogenes’ very raison d'être was to deface the false currency of human being’s rhetoric, “I was exiled for literally ‘altering the currency’; my philosophy teaches men to ‘alter the currency’ in another sense. Let us strike out of circulation false standards and values of all kinds.” I have previously used the example of Diogenes’ reported meeting with Alexander (the Great) to identify the role of the parrhesiast, those who feel compelled to speak the truth—their truth—even at risk of harm to themselves:

The parrhesiast speaks the truth because it is the truth, and, as in the case of Alexander, not always the truth that people wish to hear. It is the courage to say something which endangers the speaker that distinguishes the parrhesiast from those like the rhetorician who use discourse to seduce.” 

It is important to finish this section by noting that the vagabond’s alienation from wider society, the lone and lofty stance described by Bewes, comes at a cost. It is not a comfortable or easy position to take as Thoreau noted when he acknowledged that, “the Vagabond loses as well as gains by his deliberate withdrawal from the world.”  Indeed, Bewes’ cynical vagabond feels envy for the ‘metaphysically innocent’, those who appear unconcerned at the worlds imperfections and even appear to prosper on account of their freedom from such intellectual preoccupations. The vagabond may even feel handicapped and tortured by his or her alienation from the rest of the human herd. And so in this sense the vagabond’s alienation is not a position of superiority, certainly they do not scorn their fellow humans, but rather feel dismay that humans should and could have made a better job of their place on earth, but haven’t.  

As the modern-day vagabond philosopher, Raymond Federman, observed, “true cynics are often the kindest people, for they see the hollowness of life, and from the realization of that hollowness is generated a kind of cosmic pity”. In the vagabond, this kindness does not so much manifest itself on an individual level but, as Federman acknowledges, extends it to human kind as a whole. As Rickett notes: “A man may exhibit kindliness and tenderness towards his fellow-creatures without showing any deep personal attachment.” Rickett

     In his autobiographical, third-person narrative Jarnegan (1926), tramp writer Jim Tully reinforces that the vagabond does not claim to know better than those he alienates himself from, and certainly, like the Cynics, does not seek to persuade them to his own view of the world. His cynicism is more of a positive response to the noise of those who do offer truth and meaning, identifying himself as a “cynical realist” in the process:

A man of no isms, he was tolerant of everything that did not touch his life. He knew nothing of nations or their rulers. He had never voted. Neither had he any theories about life. A cynical realist, he fought against the sentimentality that was his Irish inheritance. At times, in his cups, he ended by being that most ironical of humans—a sentimental cynic.

There is no contradiction here in being a sentimental cynic. This is to misunderstand the true nature of cynicism which, in spite of its acerbic and forthright nature, is often misinterpreted as contemptuous and sneering, even nihilistic. To the contrary, it can often be positive, idealistic, even sentimental. As noted above, the true soul of the vagabond or cynic is simply to mourn the fact that human beings have made a mess of the world they inhabit and act so foully towards one and other. 

Neither is there a contradiction when Tully says he hasn’t “any theories about life.” He is not referring here to his personal philosophy, but to the grand narratives that feed the march of progress yet always fall short of delivering human happiness. Our cynical vagabond knows that the human project is fundamentally flawed and so any theories are confined to maintaining one’s integrity against what he or she views as a hostile world. Both the vagabond and cynic’s mission, if they have one at all, is to maximise their own life here on earth rather than seek to change or control the world around them—which in any case they know to be capricious, chaotic, and beyond human control. In order to achieve contentment, as well as minimising our dependence on material possessions, we are urged to rely on our own natural instincts rather than listening to the daily babble of egotistical buffoons.

It is important to emphasise again that, as with the ancient Cynics, the vagabond and tramp writers discussed in this text did not seek to persuade others to their point of view. These are not evangelical movements and the individuals concerned, while sharing many views and attitudes about the world, do not identify with each other as a tribe. As Rickett notes:

The Vagabond has his philosophy of life no less than the moralist, though as a rule he is content to let it lie implicit in his writings, and is not anxious to turn it into a gospel.  But he did not always realize the difference between moral characteristics and temperamental peculiarities, and many of his admirers have done him ill service by trying to make of his very Vagabondage (admirable enough in its way) a rule of faith for all and sundry.” 

A Digression on Cosmopolitanism

To an identifiable tribe they may not belong, but when necessity presents itself the vagabond will be open to and readily borrow from any other other ethnic, religious or cultural group that suits their needs. They are first and foremost ‘individuals’ who do not recognise political borders or man made regulations and customs. As Nietzsche observed, “It is so provincial to bind oneself to views which are no longer binding a couple of hundred miles away.” There is an understanding among most vagabonds that the world was not created for the benefit of humans alone and hence man made constructs are rejected in favour of an alliance to the entire natural world. I first described this theme in my book on Cynicism when I note that the Cynics’ ideal republic was one without boundaries or social distinctions. It was not restricted to a geographical place, nor to a racial or ethnic group, nor to historical or cultural traditions. For Diogenes, allegiance to a city or nation was a manifestation of sheer stupidity. Hence the description of Cynics in the Foreword above as, “citizens of the world, or cosmos: the first cosmopolitans”. The epithet cosmopolite is equally applicable to the modern vagabond and for the same reason. End of digression on Cosmopolitanism. 

Rickett further warns us that we must beware of sentimentalising the vagabond and presenting him as an ideal figure. “It is well”, he says, “for the Vagabond to be in the minority”, and acknowledges that, for the most part, they have managed to remain under the radar in terms of their personal philosophies when he says, “Thoreau is one of the few Vagabonds whom his admirers have tried to canonize.” And, as though to reinforce the vagabond as an individual rather than a representative of a wider movement and credit them with virtues they never had, he notes the following:

Not content with the striking qualities which the Vagabond naturally exhibits, some of his admirers cannot rest without dragging in other qualities to which he has no claim.  Why try to prove that Thoreau was really a most sociable character, that Whitman was the profoundest philosopher of his day, that Jefferies was—deep down—a conventionally religious man?  Why, oh why, may we not leave them in their pleasant wildness without trying to make out that they were the best company in the world for five-o’clock teas and chapel meetings?” 

But, as already acknowledged, an underlying philosophy clearly does exist within the wild and unconventional lives of the vagabond, even if a simple and existential one:

Approve it or reject it, however, as we may, ’tis a philosophy that can claim many and diverse adherents, for it is no dusty formula of academic thought, but a message of the sunshine and the winds. Talk of suffering and death to the Vagabond, and he will reply as did Petulengro, ‘Life is sweet, brother.’ Not that he ignores other matters, but it is sufficient for him that “life is sweet.”  And after all he speaks as to what he has known.” Rickett p. 114

Part 6 will discuss the Peter Pan Syndrome


No comments:

Post a Comment