Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, in his book Dispatches From the Front, argues that Trollope’s work offers a challenge to the moral peril of modernity.
It is not hard to document the central place of constancy and forgiveness throughout Trollope’s work. That he saw these themes as central no doubt has much to do with his sense that the England he loved and cherished, the England of the genry and the honest workman, was in danger of being lost under the onslaught of the new commercial culture. Thus, in his Autobiography he says: “A certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable.” The threat of such people, vividly portrayed in Lopez (The Prime Minister) and in Melmorre (The Way We Live Now), was not that they were unambiguously evil, but that they could so easily be mistaken for gentlemen. Even though Trollope was no doubt concerned with the passing of a certain social class, he was yet more deeply concerned with the accompanying threat to moral order. It is that concern which shapes his entire literary enterprise.
As this makes clear, Hauerwas shares Trollope’s concern about the threat of capitalism and liberalism to the moral order. For Hauerwas, the Enlightenment has abstracted moral principles from community and tradition. Thus, liberalism (in its broad sense, including Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, and more) organizes politics as the pragmatic magaerial effort to balance interest groups. “Freedom” and “equality” are seen as the most important virtues, and truth, honor, and everything else is abandoned in their name. Thus, Hauerwas argues:
I have found it hard to enter the debate about abortion since I do not believe the issue for Christians can be framed in “pro-life” or “pro-choice” terms. Such descriptions are attempts to win the political battle on the most minimum set of agreements — that is, that abortion is primarily about the sanctity of life or freedom of women. As a result, abortion is abstracted from those practices through which our lives are ordered that we might as a community be in a position to welcome children. It is a political necessity to make our moral discourse, and our lives, as thin as possible in the hopes of securing political agreement. As a result, the debate is but a shouting match between two interest groups.
Again, Hauerwas sees Trollope as offering a different vision of society — one based on honor, constancy, and forgiveness rather than lowest common denominator interest group squabbles. Trollope presents a vision of a community in which people strive, not for freedom and equality, but rather to be gentleman and Christians.
I have a fair bit of sympathy for this view. Capitalism is an acid; it dissolves social relations and community. It believes in nothing but desire — the freedom to desire, the equality of all desire, and the need for infinite space in which desire can expand. We’re all autonomous wanting machines, scrabbling for oil and sex and the money to buy both as our hydrocarbons and progeny scuttle across the globe, leaving nothing but extinction and advertising slogans in their wake.
So, if Trollope is the cure, then, hey, I’ll read Trollope.
I picked up The Prime Minister; coincidentally one of the books that Hauerwas discusses. Here’s the passage where the gentlemanly, virtuous Mr. Wharton, scion of the old class and old morality, confronts Ferdinand Lopez, the reckless capitalist adventurer, who wishes to marry Mr. Wharton’s daughter. Wharton is turning over, in his own mind, why he cannot allow his daughter to do so.
this man [that is, Lopez] who was now in [Mr. Wharton's] presence and whom he continued to scan with the closest observation, was not what he called a gentleman. The foreign blood was proved, and that would suffice. As he looked at Lopez he thought that he detected Jewish signs…
As the book goes along, we learn that Lopez is, in fact, not a gentleman. His whole life is devoted to reckless speculation and the pursuit of money. Like capitalism itself, he has no sense of good and bad — and no sense of social fitness. In his egalitarian amorality, he envies those above him (rather than respecting them) and ruthlessly exploits those below (rather than protecting them.)
Lopez is, in other words, modernity incarnate. And modernity incarnate, for Trollope, is a Jew.
I’m a Jew myself, as it happens. There are Jews who see anti-Semitism everywhere in the media. I have to say, I’m not one of them. Jews are, as far as most Americans are concerned, white. Anti-semitism is pretty thoroughly despised…in part because Jews have so thoroughly assimilated, and in part because the U.S. fought a massive, successful war against anti-Semitism, and, partialy as a result (thanks Hitler!), anti-Semitism continues to be equated with absolute evil.
All of which is to say that Trollope’s anti-Semitism in itself doesn’t bother me so much. I don’t feel like I’m being oppressed. Lopez is an invidious stereotype, but it’s a stereotype that lost. I, for example, married a shiksa, and nobody in the shiksa’s family cared. Lopez hasn’t hurt me and can’t hurt me. In the book, all his plans may have failed and he may have offed himself in the interest of conveniencing the uptight Brits. But, in real life he got to keep the girl and have little baby Lopezes who no one could tell, or even wanted to tell, from the uptight baby Brits. Admittedly, Lopez had to go through the gas chambers first, which sucked…but all’s well that ends well.
What does bother me, though, is that I think there’s a real sense in which Trollope isn’t wrong about Lopez. I mean, clearly, he’s wrong that Jews are evil sneaking submen who don’t deserve to marry shiksas, because, in fact, Jews are awesome, and should marry whoever they want. But I think he’s right that the old moral order which Hauerwas defends, the anti-capitalist, cohesive morality he challenges, is, by its nature, anti-Semitic.
Hauerwas is aware that this is a problem…but he tries to get around it by suggesting in passing that Trollope has us identify with Lopez’s frustrations and by emphasizing that it is Lopez’s conduct that makes him not a gentleman, rather than the happenstance of circumcision.
None of which is very convincing. Mr. Warren identifies Lopez as not being a gentleman because Lopez is a foreigner and a Jew before he knows anything else about him. Indeed, he dislikes Lopez, as he says, precisely because “no one knows anything about him” — and no one knows anything about him because he’s a Jew without lineage or proper family.
And lo and behold, the rest of the novel goes about remorselessly demonstrating that Mr. Warren’s prejudices were correct. It’s true that Lopez does not act like a gentleman…but that conduct is not separable from his ancestry. On the contrary, the ancestry comes first, diagetically and I believe thematically.
Trollope does, as Hauerwas says, show the virtues of constancy, forgiveness, and gentlemanliness…virtues that Lopez and capitalism repudiate. But Trollope also shows that virtues of keeping to one’s own set and keeping away from the greasy foreigners. I can sneer at the Enlightenment and liberalism all I want, but the fact remains that it’s because of Enlightenment liberalism that I was able to marry my wife without a great deal of unpleasantness. Capitalism eats through moral truths and communities — but one of the communal moral truths it eats through is anti-Semitism.
Hauerwas seems to believe that we can get Trollope’s honorable cohesive, pre-capitalist community without that anti-Semitism, and, presumably, without the sexism or the homophobia. It’s an appealing vision…but if he wants to make me believe in it, he needs to do better than just pointing to Trollope. Because, lovely as Trollope is in many ways, I don’t think too many Lopezes are going to want to live in his world.