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Form and the Beast: the English Mystique

ISSUE:  Summer 1990

Up until very recently the vexations of a national identity crisis were reserved for those afflicted by colonial oppression or a short history; the Irish or the Australians, for example. England, along with France and Sweden, used to be cited as an exemplary case of continuity, self-confidence, and stability. To learn that the English, of all people, have begun to question the nature of Englishness and to perceive it as beleaguered and threatened comes as something of a puzzle. And yet the obsessive trope of intellectual inquiry rehearsed among colonized peoples, the question “what is my nation?”, is now posed by the former colonists themselves.

The question is asked with a greater or lesser degree of hysteria in the context of three major shifts: the postwar decline of imperial Britain, the massive influx of colored immigrants, and the prospect of European integration. With regard to the first, the marginality and estrangement the British once imposed on others has now been imposed on them. With regard to the second, a multicultural community which seeks not assimilation but the assertion of separate national identities has become a disruptive force in the eyes of the conservative elite. David Lovibond’s apocalyptic jeremiad “Will this be the death of England?” in The Sunday Telegraph (Aug. 13, 1989) is representative. Lovibond laments that foreigners and ethnic minorities have ceased being simply immigrants and become “colonists to whom England belongs as much and as undeniably as it does to the English.” Finally, the perception of foreigners as contaminating and debilitating rather than enriching finds its most forceful expression in the Thatcherite fear of European integration.

“Do we have a distinctive national culture that can survive American ascendency or our accelerating integration with Europe?” asks Bryan Appleyard in the course of a rather tedious résumé of postwar British culture (The Pleasures of Peace, 1989). There he takes, almost casually, “the ambiguity and uncertainty of the national identity” as a given. It was an old argument of left-wing intellectuals that the imperial adventure would come home to roost; but it was never envisaged that it would return in quite this fashion. Vacillations, dual allegiances, what Daniel Corkery in the Irish context called “the quaking sod of national consciousness” has become part of the English mindscape.

The emerging literature of crisis articulates a more or less subdued sense of grievance and indignation which derive from the British loss of a mission civilatrice to the world. Some 14 years ago the late Henry Fairlie stated the matter with a bluntness that few could muster today: “Britain is missionary or it is nothing. It is an exemplar or it is nothing.” The nation that Carlyle envisaged as a new Prospero “preaching his evangel to the brute primeval powers that listen and obey” has abjured the magic of command.

Nostalgia for a lost mission is linked to a crucial frustration: whom to civilize? Whom to set an example? And what example? Millions of immigrants from the Third World insist on respect for and promotion of their own cultural values. More, many of them would claim moral superiority over their one-time masters on account of the sufferings visited on their ancestors.

The redefinition of English identity is not a question of reacquiring or reanimating an Edenic past. Such myths are for the colonized who fancy, however implausibly, that they can re-create a preinvasional identity. In the case of England something essential and external, the Other over against which the English have defined their identity for centuries has been lost. Hic et nunc there is a void and an absence.

To illuminate the nature of this loss, less in social-political and more in archetypal terms, we need to inquire further into the signifiers of English identity. National literature taken as a system offers a point of entry to the study of defining national myths and self-images. In the case of English literature, Dryden has put his finger on the key fantasy: “All, all of a piece throughout / Thy chase had a beast in view.”

The motif of a quest for the “Beast” has been encoded in English writing since its beginnings. Beowulf and Grendal, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Red Cross Knight and assorted monsters, Prospero and Caliban, God and Satan, Absalom and Achitopel, Robinson Crusoe and Friday, Huyhnhnhnms and Yahoos, benefactors and malefactors in Dickens, the white man and the natives in Kipling, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Marlow and Kurtz, Piggy and Jack: all exemplify a basic conflict between a civilizing hero and the dark forces. As we move toward modern times, the opposition becomes more opaque and subtle. The solar hero begins to entertain self-doubts while the beast asserts his or her humanity (Lawrence, Forster). Finally, of course, the “Beast” becomes articulate and begins to present matters from his own perspective (Rushdie, Naipaul). The horror! The horror!

What does this set of oppositions reveal? First of all, the pursuit of the “Beast” as a formative component of identity, a fear—inextricably linked with fascination—of the Other which stands for chaos, formlessness, and unreason. Secondly, the pieties of literate fidelities and the celebration of paidea: all that keeps anarchy at bay.


Assuming that English identity and its transmission is indeed founded on these oppositions, a comprehensive term, some “objective correlative” is called for to articulate the values associated with Englishness. Such a term, we suggest, is offered by Witold Gombrowicz, a modern Polish émigré writer, in his theory of Form. Gombrowicz, a great worshipper of the higher egoism (“Monday Me. Tuesday Me. Wednesday Me, etc.) struggled all his life with his own provinciality and was obsessed with the idea of maturity. Maturity, synonymous with “dignity, independence and ripe judgement” and based on “order and the hierarchy of proper values,” is the guarantee of Form. In one of his numerous elaborations on the latter, Gombrowicz declares:

A human being does not externalize himself directly and immediately in conformity with his own nature; he invariably does so by way of some definite form; and that form, style, way of speaking and responding, do not derive solely from him, but are imposed on him from without. . .according to the form, the style presented to him by the outside world, the pressure put upon him by other men.

Gombrowicz’s Form is close to the Freudian notion of Superego in that it refers to an intrapsychic structure of personality which represents societal and cultural standards and ideals. For Gombrowicz, however, the idea of Form expressed in adulthood is less a product of neuroses and more a personal or communal achievement. Maturity vs. adolescence, order vs. chaos, independence vs. parasitism are all manifestations of the central opposition of Form vs. Formlessness.

The criterion of Form allows Gombrowicz to develop a typology of individuals, races and nations. “Oh! living on the threshold of the lofty, adult world and not being able to go in!”, he mourns over Poles, adolescents, and second-rate poets. “Being but one step distant from wisdom, dignity, distinction, ripe judgement, mutual respect, a hierarchy of proper values, and being able to savour these things only through the window, having no access to what is inside, being second rate! Living among grown-ups and still having the feeling, as at the age of sixteen, of only pretending to be one of them! . . . Fighting . . .a grim public battle for one’s own “ego,” but at the same time secretly sympathizing with one’s own mortal enemies!”

In spite of its repressiveness, Form is the object of desire and emulation. In spite of its fabricated, contrived character, it passes itself off as something natural. What is most painful for Gombrowicz, both as Pole and as artist, is that contents not encompassed by Form remain immature, rebellious, and subjective; they never become objectivized as social norms or canons.

To claim that a preoccupation with Form lies at the root of English identity doubtlessly requires extensive substantiation. Here we can only suggest some of its central manifestations and generative sources.

Unlike other European countries which either remain the “slaves of greenness” or yield to bouts of adolescent excesses, the English very early on succeeded in firmly establishing a cultural ideal of adulthood. They stuck by it, honed it, and brought it to something like perfection.

Generations of English thinkers and philosophers, irrespective of whether they held to an optimistic or pessimistic view of human nature, have consistently advocated the ideal of Form as the basis of social life and mores. Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Burke, Hume, Bentham, and Mill have all created a tradition whose principal features are escape from the volatility of transcendence and a reliance on the humane and tangible. The emphasis on empirical investigation rather than metaphysical speculation, the elevation of reason and common sense, the mistrust of emotional excess, support for hierarchy and the rejection of revolution are all central to the tradition. These, combined with the establishment of the Anglican Church as a via media between the extremes of dissenting enthusiasm and the passivity of submission to a non-English authority, led to the canonization of Form. And Form in turn created and canonized the English. It moderated all their enterprises, from the establishment of democratic institutions that left the monarchy in place to an imperial conquest that took the guise of a benefaction. The latter played a crucial role in the consolidation of English identity. It is hardly necessary to say that, by comparison with the conquered races, the English could not but arrive at a perception of themselves as “the greatest and most highly civilized people that ever the world saw” (Macaulay). The beastly and the immature, in the shape of the native, became the indispensible Other against which to test and glorify the achievements of Form. The ripening of the English into adulthood (“ripeness is all”) was a dialectical process whereby both sides reinforced the perception and creation of the other.

By the 19th century the heritage of Form could seem a biological endowment rather than a cultural artifact. There is enough evidence to suggest that the English actually believed that such acquired Anglo-Saxon characteristics as self-control and respect for law, reason, restraint, and distrust of enthusiasm were heritable from one generation of Anglo-Saxons to the next. The cultural hero—and the human incarnation of Form—became the Gentleman. The idea of the gentleman codified all the central values of the English tradition to such an extent that Hopkins could claim that “. . . if the English race had done nothing else, yet if they left the world the notion of a gentleman, they would have done a great service to mankind.”

The gentleman was Form made flesh; he embodied the national ethos, he was marketable at home (where he served to mute class conflicts) and abroad (where he promulgated the mystique of Englishness). In a world of go-getters and cads he stood for duty, responsibility, discipline, decorum, and the famous English restraint. (According to Newman, a gentleman is not a man who does, but who refrains from doing).

The English more than any other nation succeeded in turning Form into a totemic possession. The culture of the adult (and the male adult at that) may be feared, hated, or rebelled against, but it will generally be respected as representing the fullness of Man (except for those who have read their Lacan, Derrida, and Kristeva). This is, surely, the source of the amazing success and prestige of British culture globally. And this in spite of brutal repressions at home, famines and massacres abroad, and ruthless exploitation everywhere. Form cancels the offence, indeed, often turns it into virtue. Even Orwell, shrewd analyst of injustice and oppression as he showed himself to be, was a functionary of Form when he declared that the “gentleness of the English nation is its most marked characteristic.” (Tell that to the Irish, the Indians, the blacks, they might very well agree.) The fact that the English convinced, not only themselves but also the world, of their undeniable superiority was a political, social, and psychological coup of Form. The Germans, the French, the Dutch, and the Spaniards never quite managed it. Somehow, somewhere, their adulthood gave way to dangerous immaturity which unleashed chaos and unreason. Their excesses remained excesses unredeemed by flamboyance or industriousness. And symptomatically, the Americans, who took over the role of world power from the British, are culturally slighted by European elites precisely because of a supposed “eternal” adolescence.


In England Form has been a buffer against extravagance. Per definitionem it guaranteed the maintenance of order and democratic institutions as well as moral supremacy. The myth and the institutions which embodied it were so compelling that Joseph Conrad, a Pole from a revolutionary background and a witness to the rapaciousness of European colonialism, could still claim that “liberty could only be found under the English flag all over the world.” That flag, as we know, has now more or less retreated to its island home. What is left?

Quite a lot, in fact. Form may well be crumbling, but its imperative may still be discerned in the working of a whole variety of institutions, in prevailing attitudes and social rituals. In spite of increasing social mobility and class differentiation, hierarchy remains central to the social structure. Public schools, Oxford and Cambridge, retain their hard-necked superiority over other centers of learning. The Royal Family and its rituals continue to be elaborated as an emblem of Englishness. Evolution rather than revolution is prized as the means of social change. Last but not least, there is language, one of the most sophisticated manifestations of Form. In no other Western country has one’s accent such power to elevate or degrade socially; nowhere else does it function as an open sesame to status and recognition.

More specifically, the pivotal cult of adulthood in English culture invites consideration of the English attitude to childhood. Form, as we recall, has immense difficulty in parleying with anybody or anything outside its pale: the weak, the dependent, the rebellious. It is, above all, impatient with childhood which it urges toward maturity at all costs (“Grow up!”). In this sense, boarding schools may be seen as the pressure cookers of English society; what a middle-class English child endures is not a culture shock but a Form shock, an expulsion into a cruel parody of the adult world with its rules of discipline, obedience, and notions of the survival of the fittest. The isolation of children from their parents, while emphasizing the divide between the world of children and the world of adults, takes place in institutions whose internal management reflects the hierarchic structure of society at large.

The problematic nature of childhood in the culture of Form requires a great deal of further clarification from the sociological and psychological perspectives. Meanwhile, it provokes one to reconsider the true cultural significance of, for example, the infamous scene in Edward Bond’s Saved, where a baby in a pram is stoned by a crowd of layabouts. Or, more strikingly, the meaning of the childish games into which Jimmy Porter, that symbol of a lost generation, lapses in Look Back in Anger.

More accessible evidence of the English preoccupation with Form can be found in the weekly press. Immaturity as a shameful condition continues to haunt the discourse of public debate. The immaturity of the opposition is frequently invoked, while the ideal of a gentleman, however derelict, still has some life in it. To cite but two recent examples: while speaking of “Gorbi-mania” in West Germany, Daniel Johnson raises a warning finger: “Hero worship is an immature sentiment and it is dangerous for a country to allow any foreign statesman to obtain such a powerful hold over its domestic politics” (The Sunday Telegraph, June 18, 1989). The schoolmasterly voice of Form may be heard in the following reprimand delivered to Mr. Kinnock by reason of “how poorly the Labour leader compares with his more sensitive predecessors.” We are told that “the point about his gaffes and blunders is not so much that no fastidious gentleman would have made them but that no former Labour leader would possibly have done so.” (Geoffrey Wheatcroft, “Bad manners makyth Neil Kinnock,” The Sunday Telegraph, June 18, 1989).

If Mr. Kinnock is, in this passage, a parody of adulthood (“the atmosphere of the Cardiff Student Union which is still Mr. Kinnock’s mental habitat”), Margaret Thatcher is not only his political but mythical opponent.

Mrs. Thatcher presents an extraordinary incarnation of Form. Jonathan Raban, in God, Man and Mrs. Thatcher (1989), has isolated certain tricks of style and rhetorical tropes which illustrate her Form-idability. It is characteristic, for example, that she habitually replaces the phrase “in my childhood” with “in my early life.” Raban reads this as a piece of auto-hagiography, but there may be something more at stake: the mortification of Form in the face of childhood. As Gombrowicz writes, “nothing horrifies and disgusts the mature so much as immaturity. They have no difficulty in tolerating the most destructive intelligence so long as its field of activity is within the framework of maturity.”

Raban draws attention to the word proper as one of Mrs. Thatcher’s key words which she employs with the implication that “we, as a society, already know what is proper without needing to be taught it.” Enthusiasm, on the other hand, “is not a term of praise . . .it suggests excess and delusion.” In short, Margaret Thatcher practices and preaches the virtues of Law, Order, and Restraint which are the main constituents of Form. She is definite in her ideas, categorical in her statements, unambiguous in her ideology, rigid in her taste, responsible in speech and action, crystallized and precise in her way of being. Such a woman can send the General Belgrade with all hands on board to the bottom of the ocean pour encourager les autres without the slightest twinge of conscience.

Raban argues that part of Mrs. Thatcher’s triumph as a national leader has come from “the way she has restored the language of Government to the language of the family breakfast table.” We would argue, further, that her triumph has, in fact, come from the way she has attempted to restore Form to the nation. As a votary of Form she stands for all the values secretly cherished by Englishmen. The fact that a great number of intellectuals have come to detest her confirms that they hate in her what they hate in themselves. Mme. Thatcher, c’est moi. She embodies Form with all its limitations—lack of imagination, disregard for the transcendent (religion and art), and emotional atrophy.

It may well be that Mrs. Thatcher is the last of the dynasty of Form. Her increasing unpopularity and the imminent cultural crisis in England point to the breakdown of the Form tradition. Reason, Restraint, Common Sense, and Discipline degenerate into dogmatism, insensitivity, obscurantism, and automatism. The senéx has begun to reveal his senility; Alzheimer’s disease is the metaphor for the age.

The dream which haunts the conservative sensibility is that of the Victorian Golden Age. It constitutes in the English consciousness what George Steiner terms “the great garden of civility” now ravished. What the dream conveniently elides is that the Victorian triumph of Form had as a consequence the defeat of its opposite: the child, the native, woman. Schoolmasters looming grotesquely over shivering, frail schoolboys in the novels of Dickens are an image for this suppression. There is a striking puerophobic and misogynic strain throughout Victorian literature and culture which is difficult to pin down as it so often comes in the guise of moral concern. The fixation on the weak, the constant testing of their resistance to torment and adversity (all those Oliver Twists and Little Dorritts and Pips) together with the urge to admonish and punish (Kipling, Haggart, Buchan) is a very ambivalent feature of the age. While there can be no doubt about the reality of oppression, some psychosocial mechanism amplifies it to morbid proportions. Does the obsessive reprise of child abuse signify the evolution of social conscience or is it rather the ugly side of Form which feeds on its victims? In order to assert his authority the Dragon-slayer needs the Dragon, the Gentleman needs the thug, the civilian needs the barbarian, senex needs the puer. The psychology and symbolism of English identity necessarily includes the dream of the “Beast.”

The contemporary implosion of Form on itself is accelerated by two forces which have been unwittingly joined together in the diatribe against Neil Kinnock cited above:

Mr. Kinnock sometimes cultivates an aggressive manner as Mr. Rushdie used to with his fulminations against Fascist England, but in a curious sense they both don’t know what they are saying. They are so out of touch with the roots of society that they are unconscious of the effect they make. It is an old joke to reverse Newman’s phrase and say that an English gentleman is one who never unintentionally causes pain. But the quote has a point.

Kinnock and Rushdie figure here as the avatars of anti-Form. The accusation that both are out of touch with the roots of society may seem ludicrous at first glance, but it certainly makes sense in the light of our proposition.

The unrestrained, overimpulsive Kinnock from the Celtic Fringe and the dark, Mephistophelic Rushdie being, in their different ways, assassins of Form, constitute a threat to English identity. If we consider further that one is an advocate of European integration and the other stands for a successful foreign cultural intrusion, then indeed they signal a major cultural transition. The attempt to dismiss either as delinquent/savage/ beast is no longer really viable.

It must be said that the rebellion against Form is a difficult one. By its very nature Form proves its superiority when under attack and has an extraordinary power to degrade and denigrate its opponents. To the very end it does the right thing at the right time, thereby morally embarrassing the rebel (as in the Rushdie affair). One point, however, is clear. If elsewhere liberation from the constraints of Form signals a mere breach of decorum and bad manners, in England it implies a crisis of identity. Thomas Hardy saw it coming more than half a century ago:

We have lost somewhat, afar and near,
The thinning of our ranks each year
Affords a hint we are nigh undone,
That we shall not be ever again
The marked of many, loved of one,


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