February 12, 2022

1. “Thrawn Janet”

I read a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson called “Thrawn Janet.” Henry James said that “Thrawn Janet” is the best of Stevenson’s short works, as Kidnapped is the best of his longer works. The word “thrawn” is a Scottish word meaning “twisted.” In Stevenson’s story, Janet has a twisted neck.

The story is written largely in the Scottish dialect, which makes it somewhat difficult to read. Other Scottish writers, like Walter Scott and Robert Burns, also use the Scottish dialect from time to time. So if you become somewhat familiar with Scottish, it will help you not only with “Thrawn Janet,” but with other works.

Some Scottish words are close to English; for example, the Scottish “twa” means “two,” “muckle” means “much,” “muir” means “moor,” “abune” means “above,” “craig” means “crag” (“craig” can also mean “neck”). One can usually gather the meaning from the context; for example, “the auld aik cabinet” is “the old oak cabinet.” One can also use a Scottish dictionary. Some Scottish words seem unrelated to English; for example, “bairn” means “child,” and “burn” means “stream.”

“Thrawn Janet” is a horror story, a story about the devil taking over the body of a dead witch. It was believed that the devil had a particular hatred for ministers; “Thrawn Janet” is about a minister who is harassed by the devil. “Thrawn Janet” appealed strongly to Stevenson himself; one might say that the story cast a spell on its own creator. His wife said that when Stevenson read the story to her, he “fairly frightened himself, and we crept down the stairs clinging hand in hand like two scared children.”1

The Scottish dialect had a strong attraction for Stevenson. As a child, Stevenson heard bits of dialect, and he heard stories about the devil from his nurse, that “overflowing treasury of ghost, goblin, witch, warlock, spunky, and fairy stories, which she told him with the curdling realism that comes of wholehearted belief.”

But Stevenson had mixed feelings about horror stories, and about “Thrawn Janet” in particular. He decided that “Thrawn Janet” wasn’t universal; “It is true only historically, true for a hill parish in Scotland in old days, not true for mankind and the world.” He questioned the value of dark literature: “I do not think it is a wholesome part of me that broods on the evil in the world and man; but I do not think that I get harm from it; possibly my readers may, which is more serious; but at any account, I do not purpose to write more in this vein.”2

At the start of “Thrawn Janet,” the minister is skeptical of stories about devils and witches. He’s learned, enlightened. But the events recounted in the story convert him to the old beliefs; he becomes gloomy and solitary. “His eye was wild, scared, and uncertain.” At the start of the story, the minister takes pity on Janet and tries to help her, but this approach backfires.

So what’s the moral of the story? Perhaps it’s the Biblical teaching, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Or perhaps it’s the Biblical teaching, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” One critic wrote,

Stevenson in this story turned about the normal moral balance. Soulis’ kindness toward Janet brings him horror; the persecution of witches is justified. The morality of the story troubled Stevenson: “Poor Mr. Soulis’ faults,” he later wrote, “we may eagerly recognize as virtues, and we feel that by his conversion he was merely worsened; and this, although the story carries me away every time I read it, leaves a painful impression on my mind.”3

In the last issue, we saw how Stevenson upended traditional morality in his Fables. Is he doing the same thing in “Thrawn Janet”? Perhaps Stevenson’s generation had grown tired of traditional morality, perhaps a spirit of rebellion was in the air.

The moral witch tale would start with a minister persecuting a witch, then becoming enlightened and feeling remorse. Stevenson takes the opposite course; his minister moves “from skepticism to superstitiousness.”4 As Stevenson upends morality, so he upends history; his minister is skeptical about witchcraft around 1700, when Scottish ministers weren’t skeptical, and his minister believes in witchcraft around 1750, when ministers didn’t believe.5

Walter Scott, whom Stevenson admired, devoted a volume to witchcraft. Scott also wrote a story on the subject — “Wandering Willie’s Tale,” which can be found in his novel Redgauntlet. Scott didn’t upend morality as Stevenson did; one critic spoke of “Sir Walter’s morally sound order.”6

“Thrawn Janet” is remarkable for its direct presentation of evil. Henry James, in his Turn of the Screw, leaves the reader guessing whether the ghost is real or imagined. But there’s no guessing in “Thrawn Janet,” no uncertainty, everything is described with stark directness.

Henry James had said that a horror writer should merely hint at horror, and let the reader fill in: “‘Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.’ In James’ story, the most important things are left unsaid. In ‘Thrawn Janet,’ all is specified, and not weakly.”

Stevenson’s wife said that he was always looking for “euphonious and expressive names.” She said he was especially fond of the names in “Thrawn Janet.” “Murdoch Soulis of Balweary in the Vale of Dule he believed he could never better.”

Stevenson felt a connection to Scottish history through his mother’s family and his father’s family. He felt that, in general, Scots had a stronger tie to the past than English:

That is the mark of the Scot of all classes [Stevenson wrote]: that he stands in an attitude towards the past unthinkable to Englishmen, and remembers and cherishes the memory of his forebears, good or bad; and there burns alive in him a sense of identity with the dead even to the twentieth generation.

Though much of Stevenson’s life was spent abroad, and many of his books are set outside Scotland, he had a strong feeling for his homeland:

There is no special loveliness in that grey country, with its rainy, sea-beat archipelago; its fields of dark mountains; its unsightly places, black with coal; its treeless, sour, unfriendly-looking corn-lands; its quaint, grey castled city [i.e., Edinburgh], where the bells clash of a Sunday, and the wind squalls, and the salt showers fly and beat. I do not even know if I desire to live there; but let me hear in some far land, a kindred voice sing out, “Oh, why left I my hame?” and it seems at once as if no beauty under the kind heavens, and no society of the wise and good, can repay me for my absence from my country. And though I think I would rather die elsewhere, yet in my heart of hearts I long to be buried among good Scotch clods. I will say it fairly, it grows on me with every year: there are no stars so lively as Edinburgh street-lamps. When I forget thee, auld Reekie, may my right hand forget its cunning!

The happiest lot on earth is to be born a Scotsman. You must pay for it in many ways, as for all other advantages on earth. You have to learn the Paraphrases and the Shorter Catechism; you generally take to drink; your youth, as far as I can find out, is a time of louder war against society, of more outcry and tears and turmoil, than if you had been born, for instance, in England. But somehow life is warmer and closer.7

At the end of “Thrawn Janet,” Janet’s devil-inhabited body is destroyed, apparently by a lightning bolt. Her body “lowed up like a brunstane spunk and fell in ashes to the grund” (rose up like a brimstone spark and fell in ashes to the ground). Then “the thunder followed, peal on dirling peal, the rairing rain upon the back o’ that; and Mr. Soulis lowped through the garden hedge, and ran, wi’ skelloch upon skelloch, for the clachan” (“lowped” is related to “leapt,” “skelloch” means “scream,” “clachan” means “village”). “But it was a sair dispensation for the minister; lang, lang he lay ravin’ in his bed; and frae that hour to this, he was the man ye ken the day” (But it was a sore dispensation for the minister; long, long he lay raving in his bed; and from that hour to this, he was the man you see today).8

Did Stevenson himself ever feel the immediate presence of evil? Did he ever feel panic fear? Did he ever have an urge to run for the clachan, skelloch upon skelloch? We know that his contemporary William James did have this experience. James said that he

went one evening into a dressing room in the twilight to procure some article that was there, when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence.... Not the conception or intellectual perception of evil, but the grisly blood-freezing heart-palsying sensation of it close upon one, and no other conception or sensation able to live for a moment in its presence.... I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach.... For months I was unable to go out into the dark alone.9

One is reminded of the experience of the Reverend Murdoch Soulis, and one wonders what James would have thought of Stevenson’s story. James’ father (Henry James Sr.) had a similar experience.

One day... towards the close of May [1844], having eaten a comfortable dinner, I remained sitting at the table after the family had dispersed, idly gazing at the embers in the grate, thinking of nothing, and feeling only the exhilaration incident to a good digestion, when suddenly — in a lightning flash as it were — “fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake.” To all appearance it was a perfectly insane and abject terror, without ostensible cause, and only to be accounted for, to my perplexed imagination, by some damned shape squatting invisible to me within the precincts of the room, and raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life. The thing had not lasted ten seconds before I felt myself a wreck.

“The depression he felt in the wake of this experience took him two years to pull out of.”10 Henry Sr. referred to this experience as his “vastation.” I don’t see any evidence that Stevenson experienced such fear, but I think some horror writers, like Poe and Lovecraft, experienced the sort of fear that they wrote about.

2. Kennan and Kissinger on Ukraine

Near the end of his long life, George Kennan was distraught, he felt that all he had worked for was crumbling. He felt that expanding NATO eastward, to countries like Ukraine, was something that Russia couldn’t abide, and it would lead to conflict.

The West insists that NATO is purely defensive, and doesn’t threaten Russia. But is any force purely defensive? Isn’t force always a threat, no matter how it’s described?

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, some new security system was needed, something other than an expansion of NATO eastward. Ukraine probably felt that, if it weren’t in NATO, it would fall under Russia’s control, so some kind of alliance with the West was needed to maintain independence. But Russia perceived any alliance with the West as threatening. Would it have been possible to make Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and Finland into a neutral zone, a buffer zone, independent but un-aligned?

* * * * *

Like Kennan, Henry Kissinger argued that Ukraine shouldn’t join NATO. In a 2014 op-ed, Kissinger expressed some sympathy for Putin’s view of Ukraine.

Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus.... Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries.... Even such famed dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history and, indeed, of Russia.

But both Kissinger and Solzhenitsyn said that Russia shouldn’t forcibly annex Ukraine, Ukraine should decide its own future.

Kissinger points out that Ukraine is “polyglot,” not monolithic. “The west is largely Catholic; the east largely Russian Orthodox. The west speaks Ukrainian; the east speaks mostly Russian.” In recent years, the Ukrainian government has tried to suppress the Russian language, infuriating Putin. Likewise, Putin is angry that the Russian Orthodox Church is losing ground in Ukraine, while the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is gaining ground. Ukraine seems to be facing West, and turning its back on Russia. Putin’s Russia has no inspiring ideal; Ukraine has little appetite to become part of a Slavic autocracy.

Did Putin invade Ukraine to prevent NATO from reaching Russia’s doorstep? The Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, says that Putin isn’t really concerned about Ukraine joining NATO; there are no plans to bring Ukraine into NATO in the foreseeable future. Putin’s real concern, according to Kuleba, is that Russians will see Ukraine free and prosperous, and will become restive under Putin’s autocratic rule.

3. Darwin

When people think of Darwin, they usually think of natural selection, the struggle for survival, the survival of the fittest. We sometimes forget to ask, Where do fitness and un-fitness come from?

A longer neck might enable a giraffe to survive, and it might be passed to the next generation; on the other hand, a shorter neck might be a disadvantage, and the animal with a shorter neck would be more likely to die before reproducing. Where do short necks and long necks come from?

Traits like neck length come from genetic mutation. When we talk about natural selection, we sometimes overlook the importance of mutation/variation, which is the material on which natural selection acts.

Below is a drawing by Elliott Banfield, showing Darwin with “Natural Selection” and “Mutations.”

An analogy would be making bread. To make bread, you need dough and an oven. The oven is useless without the dough, and vice-versa. Natural selection is the oven, mutation/variation is the dough.

Darwin regarded variation as random, perhaps because he didn’t realize that you could view variation as the result of some sort of fate or urge or will. Darwin’s followers insist that mutation/variation is random, they don’t want any mystery or mysticism or metaphysics to disturb the clarity of their worldview. On the other hand, virtually all philosophers argue that you can’t explain evolution as the result of random mutation, there must be some sort of goal or drive or will. Scientists say they’ve proven their theory, philosophers say “Not so fast.”

4. A Glass of Water

Schopenhauer said that life is full of pain, the world is hell. “No rose without a thorn, but many a thorn without a rose.” Nietzsche said that Schopenhauer’s judgment on life tells us more about Schopenhauer than about life. Nietzsche felt that no general judgment about life is possible; any attempt to make such a judgment merely tells us about the judge; a negative judgment about life (such as Schopenhauer’s) indicates the decadence of the judge.

Perhaps we can compare life to a glass of water — it has no particular flavor, but we can flavor it in various ways. Perhaps our chief moral obligation is to take a positive attitude, to call the glass half-full rather than half-empty.

Art can flavor the water, art can put a positive or negative spin on life. The best artists, while depicting the full range of experience, tend to take a positive attitude. Nietzsche said that art is a stimulus to life, beauty is a promise of happiness. “Art and nothing else!” Nietzsche wrote. “Art is the great means of making life possible, the great seducer to life, the great stimulus of life.”11

There seems to be an agreement between Nietzsche and Zen. Zen doesn’t call the world good or evil, meditation doesn’t focus on happiness or unhappiness. Zen is about accepting reality, finding your center, being in the moment. Nietzsche doesn’t moralize, and Zen doesn’t moralize. Both Nietzsche and Zen emphasize the positive, they call the glass half-full.

When a Zen master was asked, “What is the Tao?” he pointed up to the sky and down to a water jug. Asked for an explanation, he said: “A cloud in the sky and water in the jug.”

© L. James Hammond 2022
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1. Quoted in “Stevenson’s Use of Witchcraft in ‘Thrawn Janet,’” by Coleman O. Parsons, Studies in Philology, July, 1946, Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 551-571, jstor.org/stable/4172769

Stevenson uses the Scottish word “collieshangie” (quarrel). Collieshangie comes from collie, so it could be translated “collie-fight” or “dog-fight.” A collieshangie is an arranged fight, a staged fight, between collies. One of man’s oldest pleasures is watching animals tear each other to pieces. Man thirsts for blood. Perhaps this thirst can be controlled by modern civilization, and eventually outgrown.

Let’s look at the passage in which “collieshangie” appears. Stevenson is describing how the village women attack Janet (this kind of attacking is sometimes called “rabbling” because it’s done by a mob or rabble). Stevenson writes, “The carline skirled till ye could hear her at the Hangin’ Shaw, and she focht like ten; there was mony a guidwife bure the mark of her neist day an’ mony a lang day after; and just in the hettest o’ the collieshangie, wha suld come up... but the new minister”
(the old woman screamed till you could hear her at the Hanging Wood [i.e. the manse where Soulis lived], and she fought like ten; there was many a goodwife bore the mark of her next day and many a long day after; and just in the hottest of the quarrel, who should come up... but the new minister). back

2. But if Stevenson abandoned horror fiction, he didn’t abandon the theme of the encounter with evil. Warner says that Stevenson’s “principal concern in all his best fiction [is] man’s struggle against a palpable malevolence.” Warner writes, “‘The Merry Men,’ ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ and ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ are the best fruits of Stevenson’s long concern with extraordinary manifestations of evil.” According to Warner, “Thrawn Janet” is “the first mature evidence” of Stevenson’s preoccupation with evil.

Another critic, Thomas Reed, says that one of Stevenson’s major themes is “the way pre-existing, paradigmatic narratives shape lives and limit individual choice.” Reed says that this is “a key theme in Kidnapped and The Master of Ballantrae.” back

3. “Stevenson’s First Scottish Story,” Fred B. Warner, Jr., Nineteenth-Century Fiction, December, 1969, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 335-344, jstor.org/stable/2932862 back
4. Parsons back
5. What is true of Scotland is probably true of other places, such as New England. The Salem witch trials took place in the late 1600s. By 1750, witchcraft was probably regarded as superstition in New England.

Soulis was shattered by his encounter with evil. Other Stevenson heroes encounter evil and become wiser. “It is in his best novel, Kidnapped, that he creates the character able to respond most satisfactorily to a revelation of the world’s iniquities. David Balfour, like many a hero of Scott, goes to the Highlands a boy and returns a man.... David can do what Soulis cannot: he can accept the world as it is.” (Warner)

Warner says that “Thrawn Janet” may have influenced James’ “Turn of the Screw”:
“Mrs. Grose implies that Miss Jessel left Bly because she was pregnant with an illegitimate child; Janet also has had a child out of wedlock. In both stories the house is near water; black figures appear and disappear; Janet, Quint, and Jessel all return from the dead. In each story birds, stairways, and blown-out candles figure in the mystery.” back

6. Parsons back
7. Doubtless Stevenson is thinking of his own experience when he speaks of taking to drink and warring against society. Stevenson, an only child, fought hard to break free of his parents’ orbit. In his religious attitude and his career choice, he was a big disappointment to his parents. The young Stevenson had what might be called an “identity crisis.” In the last issue, I mentioned a book called The Proper Pirate: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Quest for Identity.

Edinburgh is called “Old Reekie” (Old Smoky) because of all the smoke from burning coal and burning peat. back

8. Notice how the weather is in sync with the events. First the weather is oppressively hot, “uncanny weather.” After Janet’s body is destroyed, there’s thunder and rain.

Stevenson says this about the night before the climax: “That was a nicht that has never been forgotten in Ba’weary, the nicht o’ the seeventeenth of August, seventeen hun’er’ an twal’. It had been het afore, as I hae said, but that nicht it was hetter than ever. The sun gaed doun amang unco-lookin’ clouds; it fell as mirk as the pit; no a star, no a breath o’ wund; ye couldnae see your han’ afore your face.”

The behavior of animals is also in sync with the events. Before he encounters the devil, Soulis sees first two, then four, then seven crows flying around the old churchyard. It was clear to Soulis that something had changed their ordinary behavior (“first twa, an syne fower, an’ syne seeven corbie craws fleein’ round an’ round abune the auld kirkyaird.... It was clear to Mr. Soulis that something had put them frae their ordinar”). back

9. See Richardson’s biography of William James, Ch. 65. This passage can also be found in James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. back
10. See Richardson’s biography, Ch. 2 back
11. Will to Power, #853 back