The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 33 George, George, and Fanny: How Three Nineteenth Century Women Invented 21st Century Humanism

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George, George, and Fanny: How Three Nineteenth Century Women Invented Twenty-First Century Humanism

The first half of the twentieth century was a sickly time for humanism, when each day seemed to bring new evidence of man’s irrational, violent, and self-destructive nature. Civilized nations devolved into organized barbarism with fife-driven glee, while even the good guys interned their foreigners, jailed their freethinkers, and crafted weapons to level cities. To any thinking, feeling person, even the most vaguely humanistic of thoughts must have seemed outlandishly naive, and in that gloom, all shades of humanism were treated and ridiculed as one. The subtle philosophical treatment of some of the nineteenth century’s greatest thinkers was thrown out as a matter of course along with the bravado of the less responsible positivists, buried en masse under the cackling scorn of Adorno, Heidegger, and all the other weary Moderns who would have none of any system that spoke against our longstanding, even fundamental, brokenness as a species.

GeorgeEliotIt has taken us nearly a century to get over first-wave Modernism’s frantic (if understandable) overgeneralizing to rediscover the marvelous humanism of the late nineteenth century, one which achieved a balance and elegance that we have yet to surpass in spite of all our vaunted neo-secularism. Many of the ideas that humanism is just now starting to develop were fully present in the writings of three female writers who defined a continent’s conception of what the humanity-oriented life might be, both artistically and socially: George Sand (1804-1876), George Eliot (1819-1880), and Fanny Lewald (1811-1889).

The decline of Sand’s reputation has been perhaps the most pronounced. She has gone from recognition as a prime figure in the history of the psychological novel and developer of non-factional humanism to a gross caricature, the vampiric lover of Chopin and dozens of others besides, who smoked cigars and wore pants while writing books we can’t be bothered to read anymore. Yet, if ever there was an age that could gain from her wisdom, it is this one.

She never ceased believing in God, but she redefined what God might mean. With dogma she had no patience, but she was attracted to the idea of Love (with God its symbol) being a force whereby an individual human could become something more. She gave her life over to that notion of love, and her writings investigate its various forms and consequences with a sense of diversity unmatched until our own times. Above all else, she wanted to substitute the cult of the individual, which was the reigning doctrine of early Romanticism gone amok, with a cult of humanity: “My individuality is neither significant nor important. It only takes on some sense when it becomes a part of life in general, merging with that of my fellow men, and thereby becoming part of history.”

She based her life in love and beauty, rather than disputation and rhetoric, and so found it possible to make strong friends and lovers of people from every stripe of philosophical perspective, the atheist and the abbé both equally welcome so long as their eye was on how to broaden the inclusivity of humankind rather than how to prove themselves always in the right.

As much as Sand was consulted and revered in matters of gender and politics, however, it was to George Eliot that the world turned in order to understand how to cope with a loss of faith. There were plenty of philosophers at the time who, in one way or another, demonstrated the implausibility of a divine presence, but it was the lived example of George Eliot that drew the attention of a people desperately trying to thread their way between tradition and science in a world moving too fast.

Eliot started life as a convinced Christian of the most trenchant sort. She sneered at the frivolities of her peers and consumed a steady diet of high-flung religious tracts to sustain her own sense of moral superiority. Until, that is, it all came crashing down. Her wide reading put her in contact with the fringe of biblical criticism emanating from Germany and, delving into the matter further, she had to admit grave doubts about the literal truth of the Bible and of Christianity in general. At age nineteen, she took the unprecedented step of refusing to go to church, thereby cutting herself off not only from society, but from her own family, who would never quite forgive her.

What’s curious, then, and what has confounded readers of Eliot from her day to ours, is how somebody who had so fundamentally given up on the idea of God and the afterlife could write books of such an ultimately conservative character. Again and again, her heroines and heroes only find their consummation in a return to tradition. What was George thinking?

Well, it turns out she was thinking rather more than most of us in the atheist community tend to these days. She realized that an atheism that was imposed before society had the psychological wherewithal to support it was a recipe for disaster. People need people, and so long as the structures were not in place for them to find enthusiasm in each other secularly, some amount of religious tradition would survive and even be necessary. Eliot herself, as an adult, continued to attend church from time to time even as she knew that every word being spoken was utterly false, and even though most of the religious establishment spoke out in simmering fury against her unconventional lifestyle (living with a married man). She went because it was the place where people went to bask in each other’s presence for a while, and she knew the value of that.

Hers was a tolerant and wise humanism, then, intellectually rigorous (she was the translator of both Strauss’s and Feuerbach’s foundational critiques of Christianity) but psychologically astute, recognizing fully what a life without God could be but understanding what it had yet to fully replace. It’s a position we’re finally able to understand, as the initial bolt of long-repressed anger is dissipating in the humanist community and we at long last are looking towards the next, constructive, steps.

Fanny Lewald was known alternately as “The German George Sand” or “The German George Eliot” but, to those who read and love her, she is a thinker entirely her own. In her, we find the best of both writers—she has Sand’s fierce and provocative sense of right married to Eliot’s staid consideration for the needs and motivations of humanity. A good deal of this is explained by her unique background. She grew up in the rich intellectual tradition of Prussia’s early nineteenth century Jewish community. Her father encouraged her learning, and also discouraged any but a strictly pragmatic view or religion. As an educated woman of a persecuted minority, she thus had a double insight into the foibles and short-sightedness of which man was capable when guided by a too-strict adherence to tradition.

She converted to Christianity, motivated by the same attraction to a love-based (at least in theory) religion that sustained Sand, but had trouble writing her confession of faith when she realized that she didn’t believe a word of the actual content of Christianity. The miracles, the immaculate birth, the rising from the dead, all of these struck her disciplined mind as rankly improbable exercises in legend-crafting. She muddled through by stitching together a deliciously vague confession, and went on to a writing career that investigated issues of marriage, faith, and society that were as uncompromising as her confession was dodgy.

Her novels argue for a feminism as practical as Sand’s was artistic, while in her memoirs she lays out in full the possibilities of a life devoted to learning and creation, free from the prejudice of both traditional societal thinking and religious devotion. When a proselytizer accosted her, asking, “Where do you find comfort and support or a refuge in the hours of suffering, distress, and temptation?” she calmly replied, “I bear what life gives me to bear, I reassure myself with the view of the conditions of human existence and the view of what cannot be changed. When I feel tempted to do something wrong, I would have no restraint, to be sure, other than the feeling of what is right in my heart and the conviction, gained by experience, that every wrong committed carries within it the seed of its own punishment.” For all of our decades of agonizing over the theoretical possibility of goodness outside of godliness, we really haven’t come out much better than this improvised response of Lewald’s, a testament to how much further we have to go to match the level-headed and broad-minded concept of faithlessness from two centuries ago.

Similar times breed similar creatures. The Victorians, and their continental counterparts, faced a world where each day brought new challenges to cherished assumptions, and had to use the best of their experience to keep a sane sense of purpose amongst the progress and pseudo-progress. They had to figure out how to craft a radically new life that still carried with it the essence of their learned humanity. And so do we, after a century of working our confidence back up as to our basic potential for good. We could continue pridefully taking years upon years to work out what our ancestors knew as a matter of informed instinct, but why not take a few moments to wade back into that vast body of knowledge and communicate with the kindred spirits there, giving them due reverence and credit even if it comes at the cost of our own self-touted originality?

Further Reading

One of the most dog-eared books I own is George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes. It is not only a great book about Eliot’s intellectual growth, but an exciting account of the blossoming of disbelief at the very heart of what we usually take to be hyper-conservative Victorianism. If you want a compelling and human glance at the heterodoxy of mid-nineteenth century England, it’s your book. (Or you could pop on over to the Victorian Atheists tribute I did over at JT Eberhard’s blog a while back—it’s even got another Eliot comic strip!) The Education of Fanny Lewald is Lewald’s autobiography, which has been translated by Hanna Ballin Lewis and is pretty findable. It’s a unique account of a person forsaking the chains of marriage and tradition to craft her own intellectual world in a space she earns with the work of her pen, and it’s also fantastic. I’m also hoping to translate and publish Lewald’s satirical novella Diogena one of these here days, if for no other reason than to basically double the number of comedic German novellas available in English that are actually funny, so keep your eyes peeled for that!