VINDICATION OF THE MONK (1798)
From this I turn to another subject his [i.e. Mathias's] attack upon Mr. Lewis, the Author of the Romance called the Monk; and if I dwell on this a little longer than usual, it is because the Author of the Pursuits of Literature has not been more copious in his observations than profuse in the invective and misrepresentation with which he has overwhelmed that Gentleman.
There is no book perhaps of modern production that has excited a greater share of curiosity, or been more the subject of public opinion, and public conversation, than the Romance of the Monk.
The Author of the Pursuits of Literature in particular has branded this work with the charge of obscenity and impiety, and accused Mr. Lewis of neither scrupling nor blushing to depict and publish to the world the arts of lewd and systematic seduction, and to thrust upon the nation the most open and unqualified blasphemy against the very code and volume of our religion. In the accusation of indecency the public opinion, under which the author of the Pursuits of Literature has artfully endeavoured to shelter and support his own, does certainly in a great measure coincide with him; but it must be recollected, that assertion, although founded on the popular opinion, does not always amount to incontrovertible proof. . . .
I must confess, I never perused a book with so much surprise and astonishment as I did that of the Monk. Led to expect, from general report, a compound of licentious indecency, when I took it up to read, which was not till very lately, it was with all the prejudice that it was possible for my mind to entertain against it. How much was I astonished then to find the impressions it made on me so widely different from those I was taught to look for: I was ashamed to perceive that I had so long been the dupe to a prejudice which appeared to me to be without foundation; and that, without any reason to authorise my forming an opinion at all, which I certainly could have no right to do till I had read the book, I had imperceptibly given way to the popular stream.
I am well aware of the difficulties I shall have now to encounter. I hear an immediate outcry raised against me What! defend a bad book a work of licentiousness and blasphemy? Have patience a little, gentle critics, and I will answer you. I do not pretend to defend a bad book I join issue with you in your opinion. I do not believe this to be such I do not view it as a licentious or blasphemous work I do not think it will either contaminate your morals, or bring your religion into contempt.
With regard to the charge of licentiousness, the Monk exhibits, it is true, a picture of vice unequalled hitherto by the pen of description. But I would ask this short and simple question Is the picture of vice, held up in its own native deformity, a dangerous sight? I will add another Is it not attended with good effects, by acting as a beacon to mankind? Vice in itself is even disgusting to its most zealous votaries, when it entirely abandons the semblance of virtue. Would you allure mankind to the path of vice, you must not terrify them with a prospect of the rocks and precipices which intersect the way; you must strew the path over with the flowers of virtue you must make the surface smooth, to conceal the pits below. Vice must always wear a mask, or she will never gain converts to her principles: it is only when she arrays herself in the specious garb of virtue that she is to be feared. . . .
A book which boldly traces the progress of vice, accompanying her in her first deviation from the path of virtue, through all her subsequent transitions to the different stages of guilt, and at length exhibits her suffering the punishment due to her crimes, cannot be justly styled a bad book. I consider the Romance of the Monk as a work of this nature I see a good and useful moral to be drawn from it. I see that the first abandonment to vice leads on imperceptibly to an accumulation of wickedness. But I also see that such a conduct infallibly brings on the wretched victim the punishment due to his crimes. I view it as a beautiful allegory, wherein is depicted the snares and delusions by which vice accomplishes her triumph over virtue. The character of Matilda, for example, I consider as so palpably allegorical, that when I am reading it, it is with difficulty I can bring my mind to favour the deceit sufficiently enough to look upon her as a woman.
From the language made use of in the Pursuits of Literature, a person unacquainted with the Monk would be induced to suppose that it was a character recommended as a model for imitation, rather than designed as an object of abhorrence. He would be surprised to find that his example was intended to inculcate the necessity of a proper distrust of ourselves, and the danger of placing too great a confidence in our own virtues, and above all to teach us that the suppression of our passions from their right and natural course, is too frequently the means of diverting them into a much more dangerous channel.
But, granting all this to be true, still it will be objected, why the necessity to introduce such licentiousness and obscenity, according to the Author of the Pursuits of Literature, into the work? Might not the indecent passages, it will be said, have been as well omitted? In the first place then I must declare, that I do not see these licentious, these obscene, or these indecent passages, as they are called, in the same point of view that the Author of the Pursuits of Literature represents them in. I cannot deny that the description of some of the scenes between Matilda and Ambrosio are painted in very strong colours. But, in my opinion, there was no remedy for it. Without these descriptions, the work, it is true, would have been chaster; but then it would have been incomplete as a work. It is to be considered that the Monk was no common man; therefore the common temptations of the world would have been lost upon him. Not only from his habits of life were his religious principles tinctured with a shade of a deeper cast than those of other men, but also from keeping his passions under command he had acquired a self-denial unknown to men in general. With such a man, therefore, whatever ideas the attractions of the other sex might excite, they would make a much slighter impression on him than on the rest of mankind. No common blandishments would prevail over him. Had his temptations been of an inferior nature, they never would have had effect. The usual artifices of women would have been exerted in vain. He was not to be prevailed on in the first instance to debauch others, but it is necessary he should be debauched himself. This Matilda effects by a conduct adapted to such an intent She practises every refinement in the art of seduction, and allures his passions by temptations too strong for mortality to resist. If he had fallen a victim to less subtile snares, or yielded to less tempting allurements, his character had been at once ill drawn and incomplete.
Whence then the danger to be apprehended from the perusal of this work? The horror excited in the breast of the reader at the incantations and preternatural interferences by the aid of which the Monk is enabled to execute his infernal plans, is of itself a sufficient antidote to any emotions which the luscious description of some of the scenes could occasion, though I will not admit that they can produce any such. With weak minds, in particular, this cannot fail of having a very strong effect. Is it possible for any one to regard Matilda, after he has been a witness to her mysterious and unaccountable behaviour, without a suspicion bordering on disgust? Even the beauty of her person, and her blandishments, cease to affect the reader when he beholds her an agent in diabolical arts. And to the strong mind, capable of discrimination and of forming an opinion for itself, it can by no means be prejudicial. By such it will be considered as a perfect allegory, wherein is depicted the triumph of vice over virtue and will be admired as a moral work, the effect of much ability and invention. . . .
Were it possible for me to suppose for a moment that the perusal of the Monk could induce a person, by the incitement of ideas he never before experienced, to attempt the execution of any plan of seduction, or even the gratification in any manner of a sensual passion, in consequence of what he had read therein, I would cease to vindicate it from that moment. But I beg to ask whether it is rational to suppose, that, if the mind could divest itself of all the horror occasioned by the manner in which the designs of the Monk are carried into execution, and even experience those sensations of incitement which I defy the book to inspire whether, I say, the head could for a moment become so much the dupe of the passions as to attempt, from the example of Ambrosio, to do what it must perceive, without the same preternatural assistance, it never could achieve.
For, if it is impossible for any, the most ignorant and uninformed reader, to place the slightest belief in the reality of the facts that are related therein, which I apprehend must be answered in the affirmative, how can a person receive any bad impressions from the perusal of facts which he is convinced never did nor can take place? Do you say it is a bad example for him? I answer, that cannot operate as an example which he is sensible he cannot follow if he were even so inclined.
[SOURCE: Impartial Strictures on the poem called 'The Pursuits of Literature:' and particularly a Vindication of the romance of 'The Monk' (London: J. Bell, 1798), pp. 3140]
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