Is there a place for the spiritual in literature? James Hogg's long poem The Queen’s Wake and his sprawling prose narrative The Three Perils of Man appear to literalize an affirmative response by giving play to spirits and other supernatural phenomena. And yet, Hogg’s answer may actually be no, if only because “literature” as imagined by his friend and rival, Walter Scott, downgrades spiritual intensities to the status of cultural differences from everyday life. Hogg did not divide up the world in quite that way, a point with implications not only for the idea of the spiritual, but also, and especially, for literature.
Concerning the Spiritual in Hogg’s Art
Brigham Young University
1. Is there a place for the spiritual in literature? On its surface, the answer to this question would seem to be yes, whether we respond with an eye to the tradition of liberal humanism (where most comers are, if not welcome, at least tolerated, even in an era of microaggressions) or to the present era of the postsecular. Indeed, as Justine Murison and Jordan Alexander Stein remark, “the ‘religious turn’ in literary studies—taking place since the late 1990s but reimagined in more urgent terms following 9/11—has made a discipline-wide fashion” of religion and hence, by extension, of a category like spirituality (1). And yet, religion is hardly a self-evident category (are we talking about sectarian institutions? about a militant organization like ISIS? about something more broadly anthropological, like the connection between language and ritual?), and neither, perforce, is the spiritual. Rosi Braidotti, for example, appeals to “postsecular spirituality” (251) as a way of forging a materialist ethics that is “resolutely atheistic” (256). Her reason for invoking a traditionally religious category to make a patently non-religious argument is that postsecular spirituality provides a nuanced matrix for a concept of subjectivity “linked to affects, to the imagination,” and to notions of “transformative becoming” (251).
2. And yet, none of this really answers the question of whether there is a place for the spiritual in literature, or what that place might be (are we talking about a thematic subject? a principle of form? allusive atmospherics?), if only because we have not defined what we mean by the spiritual. But is an adequate definition even possible? I ask because, as the young Derrida reminded us in endless analyses of Hegel, the spiritual may not simply be one category in a sea of others.  Consider Steven Goldsmith’s recent, and cogent, observations concerning the status of the imagined dialectical opposite of the spiritual, the material, in modern literary studies:
3. So, is the spiritual also material in literature? That is to say, while the spiritual may find a place in any text or critical apparatus (like the presence of the void in any mathematical set, which is impossible to exclude since “nothing” might always be added), does it count there; does it matter? This question is becoming increasingly relevant in the humanities, during an era when tightening university budgets tend to invite new scrutiny of literary scholarship, with charges occasionally laid against it of obscurantism, political homogeneity, and the sacrifice of “big questions” to small stakes hobbyhorsery.  The spiritual is a kind of index for questions of meaning and value, and while never shorn of politics (who decides what is meaningful?), it nevertheless carries with it an aura of import for a vaguely imagined public sphere. This means that to pose the question of the spiritual in literature is to jostle the lid on Pandora’s box.
4. Or, perhaps, it just means doing history. For the question of the spiritual in literature is hardly new, and it is one chapter of that history, or one portion of one chapter, that I wish to address here. The Scottish poet, essayist, novelist, songwriter, collector, and shepherd James Hogg frequently invoked the spiritual—more specifically in Hogg’s case, the presence of spirits—in his work, and did so from under the aegis of both religion (whether fanatical or moderate) and folk culture. For Hogg, the spiritual is a fact of existence, though it is rarely, if ever, a straightforward fact for literature. This is most famously the case in his brilliant and experimental narrative The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, in which the account of a murder is rehearsed twice, the second time from within the mind of a religious zealot who has been deceived by an extended relationship with the devil incarnate. The proximity to evil functions in the Confessions, Ian Duncan argues, as “a powerful critique of the Scottish philosophical account of sympathy as the foundation of moral sentiment, the ethical system that regulates civil society” (“Fanaticism” 58). Robert Wringhim’s sympathy for the devil, his destructive attachment to ideas and narratives that distort the actual conditions of his existence, reveals fanaticism to be “the dialectical product of objective historical processes of modernization” (59), the uncanny obverse of progress that divulges, in place of a “primitive moral force” (59), a state of disenfranchisement.
5. But spirits take multiple forms in Hogg’s work. Accordingly, spirituality meets with multiple uses. And here, in my essay, it is not the Confessions, but rather two other Hogg texts under examination, texts that take a more ecumenical approach to the problem of the spiritual. One is Hogg’s long poem The Queen’s Wake, which stages a competition between bards from across sixteenth-century Scotland. The other is the sprawling narrative The Three Perils of Man, a text initially conceived as a tale of chivalry (in subversive homage to Walter Scott), but which devolves into a story about witchcraft and, crucially, tale-telling (in which Hogg resuscitates the premise of a competition among raconteurs, the conceit of The Queen’s Wake). Similarly to Confessions, a dialectic establishes itself in these texts by way of a traffic with spirits, though here it is not civil society that Hogg places on trial as much as literature itself, specifically the modern concept of the literary as a species of imaginative writing set against a normative sphere of everyday life. Anthony Jarrells presents a variation on this point in his essay in this volume, remarking that Hogg adheres to “an idea of experience thoroughly grounded in belief, including belief in ghosts, miracles, divine intervention, and supernatural visitations, none of which”—and this is my point—“are consistent with real life as represented in novels” (par. 15). Offsetting my argument somewhat from Jarrells’s, what concerns Hogg is less the status of literature per se than its dialectic with reality and the schism that such a dialectic implies—something both The Queen’s Wake and The Three Perils of Man undercut. Each, then, exemplifies a kind of Bakhtinian heteroglossia, a condition historically associated with the novel. Neither text, however, is a novel (even Perils presents itself more as a meandering tale, an exercise in narrative bricolage), and the multitude of voices these texts unleash militate less against particular literary forms (e.g., for Bakhtin, the epic) than against “the literary” as such.  Hogg’s work thus evokes and undercuts the modern novel, at least as imagined as the modern narrative form (pace Walter Benjamin  ). Hogg thus makes a place for novelistic prose that, in one fashion, at least (with Scott as its dialectical antithesis), is irreducible to the same. Call it an engagement with the spirit of the novel.
6. The title of my essay alludes to Wassily Kandinsky’s famous treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1912, a century after Hogg composed The Queen’s Wake (which appeared in January 1813). Kandinsky’s aim was to delineate the relationship between the spirit of the age and the forms of art. “Every work of art is the child of its time,” his treatise begins. And “[i]t follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own” (23). The concept of the spiritual in Kandinsky’s long essay is part Percy Shelley, part Hegel in that it consists in a set of idealized abstractions that take shape in history. Similar elements inform The Queen’s Wake, where Hogg synthesizes something like a “spirit of Scotland” from the diverse ballads, or “songs,” that constitute it. Of particular interest here, with Kandinsky in mind, are Hogg’s references to colors and shapes, and particularly to distorted perspectives—to “silver curve[s]” in the water cut by the prows of boats (26, l. 140), or to “lurid vapours” that “deform” the appearance of land and sky (55, ll. 3, 5).
7. But such spirits are not sufficiently literal for Hogg. The Queen’s Wake is a work replete with fairies, witches, demons, ghosts, visions, and other phenomena associated with the supernatural. “That fairies were, was not disputed; / But what they were, was greatly doubted,” one ballad declares (66, ll. 423–24). Of course, few things simply are in the poem, including fairies, for that particular ballad reveals its otherworldly beings to be a group of singing maids. Nevertheless, both this particular bardic offering and the longer poem of which it is part embrace an aesthetic of enchantment, returning repeatedly to the existence of the otherworldly. The traditional Scottish ballads that serve as Hogg’s templates are themselves rife with supernatural encounters, to be sure, but The Queen’s Wake ups the ante by importing ballad sensibilities into the narrative framework of the poem, as the narrator himself speaks of spirits roaming the Scottish countryside. Such spirits, he declares, “stretch imagination’s power” (149, l. 1583) making spiritual experience one of the poem’s practical and even theoretical modes and objects.
8. By “spiritual experience” in this context I mean something like the classical definition furnished by William James: “abnormal psychical variations” and “exalted emotional sensibilit[ies]” (9). Perhaps better, it designates what modern scholars of spiritual experience in psychology and philosophy identify as “intense experiences[:] . . . liminal, profound, numinous, extreme, transcendental, traumatic, sublime,” and so on. Such experiences entail a “cognitive and emotional potency that focuses attention” and consist of a “rich interconnection of ideas, memories, and emotions that weaves normally separated parts of life into a single field of meaning” (Wildman, 104–05). The Queen’s Wake exhibits such “weav[ing]” tendencies in its imaginative premise, the wake hosted by Mary Queen of Scots that unifies Scotland’s regional poetic traditions under a single national-literary aegis. And the individual ballads certainly qualify as explorations of “intensity,” whether narratively or in the complexity of their tone.
9. Take, as one example, the ballad “The Witch of Fife,” which tells of “Quhat good man never knew” (40, l. 626). A peasant’s wife and her companions are transported one night to the top of Ben Lomond where they dance with the devil. Then, a different night, they voyage to Lapland, where they are bathed by “warlock men and weerd wemyng” in “witch-water” (44, ll. 733, 737). The peasant’s/witch’s “gude-man” later accompanies her on a third excursion, this time to the bishop’s vault in Carlisle, where he drinks himself silly before being found by “five rough Englishmen” (47, l. 865), who “nickit the auld man, and . . . prickit the auld man, / And . . . tyit him till ane stone; / And they set ane bele-fire him about, / And they burnit him skin and bone” (48, ll. 881–4).  The convergence of the demonic with drunken revelry evokes Robert Burns’s well-known poem “Tam O’Shanter,” but Hogg’s ballad intensifies the element of the grotesque in the beating the “gude-man” receives. More pertinently, it stages a dramatic conflict between the world of spirits (whether otherworldly or simply alcoholic) and the lordship of vindictive Englishmen that introduces an interpretive crisis. Are we supposed to believe the story we have read, or was it all a drunken hallucination? The ballad does not answer this question, but it impresses as real the effect of disgust even as it underscores the uncanny narrative that conjures it.
10. Many of the ballads in The Queen’s Wake operate this way, such that what draws us to them is less the explicability of their spiritual dimensions on conventional interpretive grounds—the encounter with spirits as nationalist allegories, say, or as some kind of libidinal manifestation—than their sheer affect, the poetic faith or suspension of disbelief these visitations elicit. Hogg, in other words, is as much a literalist as Kandinsky, though in a different register. Kandinsky develops a positive—that is, a positivist—theory about spiritual intensities (with color, for example, producing “spiritual vibration[s]” as a kind of “psychological effect”: yellow “is the typical earthly color,” whereas blue “is the typical heavenly color” and so on [44, 58]).  Hence, he remarks: a “yellow triangle, a blue circle, a green square, or a green triangle, a yellow circle, a blue square: all these are differently acting entities” (47). Hogg, if anything, is more abstract than the arch-abstractionist Kandinsky because Hogg’s menagerie of spiritual intensities is real without the figures giving rise to it, the demons and witches, being quite believable. For Hogg, that is, the spiritual is real, but not necessarily these spirits, which might be mere figures, mere fictions. And the poet, therefore, is less a prophet than the vehicle for the strangeness of what is numinous or sublime, or for the illegibility of what we nevertheless experience. What is thus tangible in reading The Queen’s Wake is the juxtaposition between a quotidian experience with spirits (the everydayness of the uncanny) and the simultaneous elevation and debasement of this experience to the mere status of the literary.
11. In introducing a rift between spiritual and literary experience, The Queen’s Wake pre-emptively invalidates a principle that would become associated with the modern concept of literature, a principle that Walter Scott would animate the following year, 1814, with the publication of Waverley. This is the principle we understand today under the rubric of cultural materialism, which explains not only how cultures emerge but also how they inform the ways we think by differentiating, within themselves, one domain of meaning from another—scientific fact, say, from folk knowledge—along an axis of progress. As Scott famously explained at the conclusion of Waverley, “for the purpose of preserving some idea of the ancient manners of which [he has] witnessed the almost total extinction, [he has] embodied [them] in imaginary scenes . . .. Indeed, the most romantic parts of [Waverley] are precisely those which have a foundation in fact” (340). In essence, Scott brackets as (mere) culture what a group of people experiences (or once experienced) as vital. In The Queen’s Wake, one sees the rudiments of this principle articulated by the Lord of Mar, a character based on the historical Earl of Mar who was a guardian of James V and, afterwards, of Mary. At the conclusion of the poem, after the bards have all sung their songs, a skirmish irrupts when no clear victor is named. “‘Twas party all—not minstrel worth, / But honour of the south and north; / And nought was heard throughout the court, / But taunt, and sneer, and keen retort” (165, ll. 82–85). So Mar takes the floor and explains that “taste, as sapient sages tell, / Varies with climes in which we dwell” (165, ll. 106–07). So do the poems: “Fair emblems of the Border dale, / Is cadence soft and simple tale; / While stern romantic Highland clime, / Still nourishes the rude sublime” (165, ll. 108–11). Hence, so unlikely is it that the subjects of one region could enjoy those of another, that Mar likens its prospect to an outbreak of supernatural or even anti-natural incidents: “trow you may the tides adjourn, / And Nature from her path-way turn; / The wild-duck drive to mountain tree, / The capperkayle [or wood grouse] to swim the sea,” and so forth (166, ll. 120–23). So unnatural would it be for a Highlander to approve of a Border poem that, as a solution, Mar proposes that the three bards preferred by the majority of the auditors be summoned to perform again, with the queen alone declaring the victor.
12. It seems like a logical solution: inasmuch as each of us is encased, as Walter Pater might say, within a thick wall of cultural personality (see Pater 60), let the queen adjudicate poetic justice. (The situation anticipates the conclusion of Scott’s 1827 story “The Two Drovers,” when a judge acknowledges the cultural forces that motivated a Highlander to slay his English comrade before, nevertheless, sentencing the unregenerate Highlander to death.  ) Indeed, Mar’s proposal seems more nineteenth century, when The Queen’s Wake was composed, than sixteenth century, when it is set, in that it grafts a classical aesthetic principle of unity amid variety onto an Enlightenment-era world view held by stadial historians like Adam Smith and Lord Kames, and onto the arguments of proto-anthropologists like Johann Gottfried Herder, who crafted such histories into a theory of cultural relativity. In Waverley, of course, these dynamics yield diverse “worlds”—Highland Jacobite, Lowland Jacobite, English, and so on—within an encompassing modernity that operates as a reality principle differentiating the durable stuff of history from the imaginary compensations, the merely spiritual experiences, of romance.
13. But think again about Mar’s assertion that an eclectic taste defies nature—the kind of taste exhibited, incidentally, by Hogg’s imagined readers, who supposedly have enjoyed all the ballads. Are Hogg’s readers unnatural? Perhaps more to the point, do not virtually all the songs in The Queen’s Wake defy nature in some fashion, unless we call the traffic with spirits, fairies, witches, and other supernatural forms natural? But if we label such beings natural, at least in the Wake, then how do we account for the poetic charge, the aura of transport (of what is “more than mortal,” as one song puts it [13, l. 244]) that attaches itself to these episodes? If anything, the ballads articulate a conflicted relationship between the natural and spiritual worlds, personified by the bard of Fife, who recounts the song about the witches. This bard takes the stage bearing iconic hallmarks of the medium: “Bushy his beard, and wild his eye,” with a “haggard cheek” and thin, gray locks (39, l. 594). “He deemed that fays and spectres wan / Held converse with the thoughts of man” (40, ll. 603–04). But, precisely because he holds these attitudes, we do not. Or rather, we believe such “converse” possible, but not as he does—or, if we do, as exceptional rather than everyday occurrences, or as events rather than customs. It is natural, the poem implies, to believe in something other than what is superficially evident, especially to the degree that we recognize differences between the worlds in which we live and the ones in which we believe.
14. In this way, The Queen’s Wake presents spiritual experience as at once ubiquitous and romantic, as common and deeply strange. And in that respect, predicating its poetic effects on a kind of fascinated ambivalence, The Queen’s Wake seems utterly if also uncannily modern—more so than Kandinsky’s concept of modern art as a conduit of positive spiritual realities, but more so, too, than Scott’s delineation of a literature as a reservoir of epistemic, ontological, and historical difference. The Queen’s Wake at once drains this reservoir and bursts the dam, voiding the spiritual of its literal status but insisting on a constant flow of our experience with the unseen. In this way, the poem shrugs at the prospects of difference as a literary value; and, with that gesture, it renders literature in its modern guise an indifferent medium—an accessory to life, but nothing essential.
15. Hogg’s dialogue with Scott reaches an even higher pitch in The Three Perils of Man, published in 1822. In Perils, the existential status of romance and the modern cultural status of the literary are on particularly acute display. As Graham Tulloch reveals, Hogg initially had a different title in mind—The Perilous Castle: A Tale of Chivalry—because he planned to write a different kind of narrative, one directly responding to Scott. This “perilous castle” and its corresponding “tale” referred to the Roxburgh fortress and to the battle over it between lords of competing English and Scottish kingdoms, the winner earning the hand of the princess of his realm. Scott had twice dealt with this story, “once in a note to The Lord of the Isles in 1815 and again in his essay ‘Chivalry,’ which appeared in February 1818” (Tulloch 158). In visiting this territory himself, Hogg sought not only to draft off Scott’s success, but also to reflect critically on “Scott’s first long poetic romance, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, [which] was explicitly a tale of ‘Border chivalry’” (161). However, in the version of the novel he eventually published, Hogg devoted a greater share of attention to a new castle, Aikwood, and to a story that deals not with chivalry, but rather with witchcraft and the supernatural. This was, Tulloch remarks, “a much more familiar ground” for Hogg (166), and the lengthy portion of the novel devoted to it—despite Scott’s critique of it, and despite Hogg’s own lament, later, that he had “retarded the main story” by indulging it—is much more assured than the Roxburgh narrative. In this Aikwood section, references to the supernatural, spirits, demons, and fairies abound, with Hogg “interpos[ing] no . . . sceptical voice” to undercut the narrative (169).
16. We are then, in this Aikwood section, once again squarely in the realm of spirits. At its center, however, is an enigmatic and protracted tale-telling contest that reproduces the conceit of the poetic competition in The Queen’s Wake. A motley assemblage of characters—among them Charlie Scott, a member of the Douglas clan seeking to recapture the castle of Roxburgh; a friar; a homely laird; a gluttonous laborer; a fair damsel; and a poet—makes its way to Aikwood to seek the prophetic wisdom of the wizard, Michael Scott. Scott has no interest in granting the company’s wish, instead imprisoning the group within the castle. After extended experiences with “diablerie” of various kinds (like metamorphoses of humans into animals, enchanted feasts in which degraded elements—“the joint of a frog’s leg, or that of a rat” [Perils 200]—take the form of sumptuous meats, and so on), a skirmish breaks out between Scott’s demonic servants and the castle’s human inhabitants, and Scott finds himself fighting alongside the company he has imprisoned. He does not entirely become a comrade in arms, however, and after staving off the supernatural turncoats he threatens to starve the group by refusing to grant its release. However, Scott agrees to preserve the life of Delany, the beautiful maid, by giving her to the member of the group who can tell him the best tale. Thus resumes, in effect, the conceit of the competition from The Queen’s Wake.
17. And, provocatively, thus concludes our consort with spirits, at least temporarily. For the tales mostly involve human circumstances. The friar, the first raconteur, rehearses (in the Biblical language of chapter and verse) the story of his love for a woman who falls, herself, for a soldier and then has a child by him. This child, the party immediately discovers, is Delany. The laird then tells a story about a meat-loving shepherd—a member of their party, Tam Craik, it turns out—who, in a moment of weakness, slaughters a “fat ewe lamb” (Perils 258). Charlie Scott, the loyal clansman, then takes a turn and tells a story about a battle with English forces, and about his action in sparing the life of a small child—who proves to be the poet, as the latter reveals to the others upon hearing Charlie’s story. At this disclosure, “Charlie’s visage altered into lengthened amazement. . .. ‘Gude faith but we are a queer set that are prickit up on top o’ this tower thegither’” (292–93), he exclaims. “Od,” echoes Tam, “we seem to ken mair about ane anither than ony ane o’ us kens about ourselves” (293). More than merging life and art, the tales bind the group to each other, interweaving a community from the aleatory associations that initially brought the group together. In this respect, the enchanted circumstances the party had witnessed in Aikwood castle evolve from the encounter with demons to the bewitching effects of narrative itself, and this despite the relative absence of supernatural events within the individual tales.
18. The magical quality of storytelling in this competition becomes more significant in light of the critique in The Queen’s Wake of literature’s bifurcation from life. There, in that earlier work, Romantic artifice effectively divides literary from quotidian experience, a space of ontological difference from a more expansive existence in which actuality and possibility commingle (instead of being relegated to different positions on the grid of history). In The Three Perils of Man, Romantic artifice is again brought under scrutiny, though here it reconciles the binary between the literary and the everyday as the tales presented in the competition in Aikwood castle mediate the actual (and revealed) relationships subsisting between the characters. In this respect, Perils “explores not just what stories are, but whom or what they are for in a particular culture” (Fielding 70)—or rather, and more ambitiously, I would say, what they are for generally, and not only for a particular, Romanticized body of individuals or readers. Perils, that is, does not encase narrative within a particular cultural context. It thus revises “the Enlightenment allegory of cultural progress as a disenchantment of the world” (Duncan, Scott’s Shadow 194–95) wherein the transporting effects of narrative are a priori contained as mere literature, or as “real” only for the benighted sensibilities of older societies echoing from out of the dustbin of history.
19. In Perils, as in The Queen’s Wake, the domain in which this revision occurs is that of (what I am calling) the spiritual. I make this claim with an eye to the specific nature of Hogg’s evocation in these texts of supernatural agents—fairies, ghosts, demons, stories—and a correlative set of intense experiences as the media of a unified relation between literature and life. In Hogg’s work, as in the landscape outside Aikwood castle, “the heavens and the earth seem mingled together” (199), as do diverse elements of society (from the Edinburgh elite to the Border peasants whose traditional and bewitching literary forms attracted wide attention). Such eclectic inclusivity is part of the history of the modern novel, explained perhaps most memorably by Bakhtin as “a phenomenon multiform in style and variform in speech and voice” (261). In early nineteenth-century Scotland, however, the reputed heteroglossia of the novel form was at least partly contained within a historicist framework that relegated peasant tales and the Völkisch beliefs on which they were predicated to an evocative, romantic past. This makes Perils the emblem of a different kind of literary history, one that scrambles the idea of progress. More evocatively for us, it casts Hogg’s fiction as an important case study for a post-secular age in which belief in the unseen seems at once impossible and necessary. Amy Hungerford, for example, argues that literary studies in the postmodern age is defined by a belief in meaninglessness, which is to say, by a faith in fictive world-making as the vehicle “of crucial cultural work in the age of literature’s waning social prestige and its eclipse by other media” (xiv–xv). We believe, in other words, in the power and importance of texts and narratives we know to be false, or at least fictive. And yet, if literature is still to mean anything, Hogg might tell us, it is by marshaling the kind of faith that converts belief into something more empowering: it must oppose, that is, the logic of mere belief, of a strictly literary authority or purely poetic faith. Instead, literature must derive its power from its continuity with life, from its concourse with the kind of meaning that transcends the university, let alone genres, fields, and disciplines. Conceived as a kind of spiritual experience, literary narratives may not be “fiction,” after all. Copping to anything else just recapitulates the history of the novel, of Waverley.
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 For matter to be, for it to have something like an essence, it must also be spiritual. Hence, “to be opposed to its own tendency, to itself, to matter, it must be spirit. And it if yields to this tendency, it is still spirit. It is spirit in any case; its essence is nothing but spiritual. There is no essence but spiritual” (Derrida 22). BACK
 Miranda Burgess makes a similar point relative to Sydney Owensen in her essay in this volume. She treats Owensen’s incongruities of style “as symptoms of a historical conflict that refuses to be symbolically resolved” (par. 2). BACK
 Other ballads recount similarly intense situations. In one, a bride sings about how her murdered father harrows the bride’s “parricide lover” (36, l. 460); in another, a bard, we are told, during “a night of dread [had] held convention with the dead” (75, ll. 747–48); and across the countryside, the narrator informs us, “spirits talk along the hill[s]” (106, l. 49). BACK
 Kandinsky appeals to the analogy of music: “Generally speaking, color directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays” (45). BACK