Concerning People Who Know They Are Going Wrong by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

Some five years ago a mere accident gave to the world one of the most gruesome and remarkable pieces of literature that has ever perhaps been seen. A convict named Fury confessed to having committed a murder of an atrocious character. He was brought from prison, put on his trial at Durham, and condemned to death. Every chance was given him to escape his doom; but he persisted in providing the authorities with the most minutely accurate chain of evidence against himself; and, in the end, there was nothing for it but to cast him for death. Even when the police blundered, he carefully set them right–and he could not have proved his own guilt more clearly had he been the ablest prosecuting counsel in Britain. He held in his hand a voluminous statement which, as it seems, he wished to read before sentence of death was passed. The Court could not permit the nation’s time to be thus expended; so the convict handed his manuscript to a reporter–and we thus have possibly the most absolutely curious of all extant thieves’ literature. Somewhere in the recesses of Fury’s wild heart there must have been good concealed; for he confessed his worst crime in the interests of justice, and he went to the scaffold with a serious and serene courage which almost made of him a dignified person. But, on his own confession, he must have been all his life long an unmitigated rascal–a predatory beast of the most dangerous kind. From his youth upward he had lived as a professional thief, and his pilferings were various and extensive. The glimpses of sordid villainy which he frankly gives are so poignantly effective that they put into the shade the most dreadful phases in the life of Villon. He was a mean sneaking wretch who supported a miserable existence on the fruits of other people’s industry, and he closed his list of crimes by brutally stabbing an unhappy woman who had never harmed him. The fellow had genuine literary skill and a good deal of culture; his confession is very different from any of those contained in the Newgate Calendar–infinitely different from the crude horror of the statement which George Borrow quotes as a masterpiece of simple and direct writing. Here is Borrow’s specimen, by-the-way–“So I went with them to a music-booth, where they made me almost drunk with gin and began to talk their flash language, which I did not understand”–and so on. But this dry simplicity is not in Fury’s line. He has studied philosophy; he has reasoned keenly; and, as one goes on through his terrible narrative, one finds that he has mental capacity of a high order. He was as mean a rascal as Noah Claypole: and yet he had a fine clear-seeing intellect. Now what does this gallows-bird tell us? Why, his whole argument is intended to prove that he was an ill-used victim of society! Such a perversion has probably never been quite equalled; but it remains there to show us how firmly my theory stands–that the real scoundrel never knows himself to be a scoundrel. Had Fury settled down in a back street and employed his genius in writing stories, he could have earned a livelihood, for people would have eagerly read his experiences; but he preferred thieving–and then he turned round and blamed other people for hounding him on to theft.

There are wrong-doers and wrong-doers; there are men who do ill in the world because they are entirely harmful by nature, and they seek to hurt their fellows–there are others who err only from weakness of will. I make no excuse for the weaklings; a man or woman who is weak may do more harm than the vilest criminal, and, when I hear any one talk about that nice man who is nobody’s enemy but his own, I am instantly forced to remember a score or thereabouts of beings whom I know to have been the deadliest foes of those whom they should have cherished. Let us help those who err; but let us have no maudlin pity.

Moralists in general have made a somewhat serious error in supposing that one has only to show a man the true aspect of any given evil in order to make sure of his avoiding it. Of late so many sad things have been witnessed in public and private life that one is tempted to doubt whether abstract morality is of any use whatever in the world. One may tell a man that a certain course is dangerous or fatal; one may show by every device of logic and illustration that he should avoid the said course, and he will fully admit the truth of one’s contentions; yet he is not deterred from his folly, and he goes on toward ruin with a sort of blind abandonment. “Blind,” I say. That is but a formal phrase; for it happens that the very men and women who wreck their lives by doing foolish things are those who are keenest in detecting folly and wisest in giving advice to others. “Educate the people, and you will find that a steady diminution of vice, debauchery, and criminality must set in.” I am not talking about criminality at present; but I am bound to say that no amount of enlightenment seems to diminish the tendency toward forms of folly which approach criminality. It is almost confounding to see how lucid of mind and how sane in theoretical judgment are the men who sometimes steep themselves in folly and even in vice. A wicked man boasted much of his own wickedness to some fellow-travellers during a brief sea-voyage. He said, “I like doing wrong for the sake of doing it. When you know you are outraging the senses of decent people there is a kind of excitement about it.” This contemptible cynic told with glee stories of his own vileness which made good men look at him with scorn; but he fancied himself the cleverest of men. With the grave nearly ready for him, he could chuckle over things which he had done–things which proved him base, although none of them brought him within measurable distance of the dock. But such instances are quite rare. The man whose vision is lucid, but who nevertheless goes wrong, is usually a prey to constant misery or to downright remorse. Look at Burns’s epitaph, composed by himself for himself. It is a dreadful thing. It is more than verse; it is a sermon, a prophecy, a word of doom; and it tells with matchless terseness the story of many men who are at this hour passing to grim ruin either of body or soul or both. Burns had such magnificent common sense that in his last two lines he sums up almost everything that is worth saying on the subject; and yet that fatal lack of will which I have so often lamented made all his theoretical good sense as naught He could give one every essential of morality and conduct–in theory–and he was one of the most convincing and wise preachers who ever lived; but that mournful epitaph summarises the results of all his mighty gifts; and I think that it should be learned by all young men, on the chance that some few might possibly be warned and convinced. Advice is of scanty use to men of keen reason who are capable of composing precepts for themselves; but to the duller sort I certainly think that the flash of a sudden revelation given in concise words is beneficial. Here is poor Burns’s saying–

Is there a man whose judgment clear
Can others teach the course to steer,
Yet runs himself life’s mad career
Wild as the wave?
Here pause, and through the starting tear
Survey this grave.

The poor inhabitant below
Was quick to learn and wise to know,
And keenly felt the kindly glow
And softer flame;
But thoughtless follies laid him low
And stained his name.

Reader, attend! Whether thy soul
Soars fancy’s flights beyond the pole;
Or, darkling, grubs this earthly hole
In low pursuit,
Know–prudent cautious self-control
Is wisdom’s root.

When I ponder that forlorn masterpiece, I cannot help a tendency to despair; for I know, by multifarious experience of men, that the curt lines hint at profundities so vast as to baffle the best powers of comprehension. As I think of the hundreds of men who are minor copies of Burns, I have a passionate wish to call on the Power that sways us all and pray for pity and guidance. A most wise–should I say “wise”?–and brilliant man had brought himself very low through drink, and was dying solely through the effects of a debauch which had lasted for years with scarcely an interval of pure sanity. He was beloved by all; he had a most sweet nature; he was so shrewd and witty that it seemed impossible for him to be wrong about anything. On his deathbed he talked with lovely serenity, and he seemed rather like some thrice-noble disciple of Socrates than like one who had cast away all that the world has worth holding. He knew every folly that he had committed, and he knew its exact proportions; he was consulted during his last days by young and old, who recognized the well-nigh superhuman character of his wisdom; and yet he had abundantly proved himself to be one of the most unwise men living. How strange! How infinitely pathetic! Few men of clearer vision ever came on this earth; but, with his flashing eyes open, he walked into snare after snare, and the last of the devil’s traps caught him fatally. Even when he was too weak to stir, he said that, if he could move, he would be sure to take the old path again. Well may the warning devotees cry, “Have mercy upon us!” Well may they bow themselves and wail for the weakness of man! Well may they cast themselves humbly on the bosom of the Infinite Pity! For, of a truth, we are a feeble folk, and, if we depended only on ourselves, it would be well that George Eliot’s ghastly thought of simultaneous universal suicide should be put into practice speedily.

Hark to the appalling words of wisdom uttered by the good man whose name I never miss mentioning because I wish all gentle souls to refresh themselves with his ineffable sweetness and tender fun! “Could the youth to whom the flavour of his first wine is delicious as the opening scenes of life or the entering upon some newly-discovered paradise look upon my desolation, and be made to understand what a dreary thing it is when a man shall feel himself going down a precipice with open eyes and a passive will–to see his destruction and have no power to stop it, and yet to feel it all the way emanating from himself–to perceive all goodness emptied out of him, and yet not be able to forget a time when it was otherwise–to hear about the piteous spectacle of his own self-ruin–could he see my fevered eye, feverish with last night’s drinking and feverishly looking for this night’s repetition of the folly–could he feel the body of the death out of which I cry hourly, with feebler and feebler outcry, to be delivered–it were enough to make him dash the sparkling beverage to the earth in all the pride of its mantling temptation, to make him clasp his teeth,

And not undo ’em
To suffer wet damnation to run thro’ ’em.”

Can that be beaten for utter lucidity and directness? Not by any master of prose known to us–not by any man who ever wrote in prose or in verse. The vision is so completely convincing, the sense of actuality given by the words is so haunting, that, not even Dickens could have equalled it. The man who wrote those searing words is to this day remembered and spoken of with caressing gentleness by all men of intellect, refinement, quick fancy, genial humour; the editing of his works has occupied a great part of the lifetime of a most distinguished ecclesiastic. Could he avoid the fell horror against which he warned others? No. With all his dread knowledge, he went on his sorrowful way–and he remained the victim of his vice until the bitter end. It was Charles Lamb.

A gambler is usually the most prodigal of men in the matter of promises. If he is clever, he is nearly always quite ready to smile mournfully at his own infatuation, and he will warn inexperienced youngsters–unless he wants to rob them.

In sum, intellect, wit, keenness, lucidity of vision, perfect reasoning power, are all useless in restraining a man from proceeding to ruin unless some steadying agency is allied with them. After much sad brooding, I cannot but conclude that a fervent religious faith is the only thing that will give complete security; and it will be a bitter day for England and the world if ever flippancy and irreligion become general.

June, 1889.

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