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Monday, October 3, 2016

Count Fathom's Tears

I have been reading an unusual amount of fiction lately, unusual at least for me. Almost all of them are 18th-century English novels, for which I have developed a taste. The latest one I finished was Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753), a picaresque novel in which the title character is more than a mere scamp; he is downright evil. He is a criminal fraud artist and “adventurer” with absolutely no morals to speak of. Indeed, he is evil enough that much of this novel reads more like horror than the comedy Smollett presumably intended it to be. It makes for a kind of instability of genre that tends to disorient readers. Indeed, as Fathom’s deeds become progressively more wicked, the laughs become fewer and are replaced by cringe and discomfort. It gets so bad that Smollett seems to have felt it necessary to remove Fathom from the novel for the last hundred pages or so and, instead, turn to the happier stories of other characters. Fathom only reappears in the last fifteen pages of the novel, and in a rather tacked-on fashion.

Now, Count Fathom is not generally regarded as Smollett’s best work. If the novel receives any praise at all, it is mainly for its use of elements that anticipate the rise of the Gothic novel. And of course, it has many of the same flaws found even in Smollett’s accepted masterpieces: abrupt and gratuitous changes of scene, characters introduced for comic effect at the expense of plot, and an overdependence on incredible coincidences to move whatever thin plot there is. Smollett had always aspired to be a playwright, and this is the source of many of his weaknesses as a novelist. In a play it is often no great sin to introduce a new minor character or scene simply for comic effect. In a novel, however, it rather detracts from the integrity of the whole.

In total, I have read three of Smollett’s novels: Count Ferdinand, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, and Sir Launcelot Greaves. Of these, only Humphrey Clinker is counted among his masterpieces. And yet, despite the flaws noted above, I rank Count Fathom first of the three in order of personal preference. This is mainly because I am fascinated by the central character. Fathom, I believe, is one of the purest examples of a clinical psychopath one is likely to find in classic fiction. In him, I was pleasantly surprised to find Smollett’s talent as a master psychologist. One other notable example of a literary psychopath might be Shakespeare’s Richard III. But of course, we already knew Shakespeare was a master psychologist.

Shakespeare’s Iago is often put forward as another example of a literary psychopath. I am not convinced. Up until the events of Othello, there is little to indicate that Iago was previously anything less than a responsible husband and dutiful soldier. He has at least one intelligible motivation for the evil he does: he was (he feels) unfairly passed over for promotion. So his motivation is straightforward vengeance, which is not typically a sociopathic motivation, at least not in any sustained way. By contrast, Fathom is not motivated by vengeance. He is quick to forget a wrong and is not, for instance, concerned with getting back at Sir Stentor Stile and Sir Giles Squirrel for fleecing him when he has the opportunity to do so in Paris. At one point, while passing himself off as a physician, he swears vengeance against a certain apothecary who betrayed him, but strangely, the vengeance never happens. As is commonly the case with psychopaths, Fathom does not seem to experience the passion of anger in a way stable enough for him to form and carry out a sustained plan of revenge. He simply does not get angry enough for long enough to wreak vengeance upon anyone, despite being cheated and betrayed by his fellow adventurers on multiple occasions. In this respect, Fathom rings true as a psychopath, while Iago does not.

One of the hallmarks of a clinical psychopath is his very limited emotional and motivational palette. He has a marked emotional deficit when it comes to certain emotions of self-assessment (remorse, shame) and certain prosocial emotions (benevolence, love, gratitude, compassion). This certainly matches Fathom’s profile as Smollett presents him: “Fathom, though an utter stranger to the sentiments of honour, pity, and remorse…. mimicked that compassion and benevolence, which his heart had never felt” (p. 142).

Not only does he not experience these emotions himself, but in many cases he finds them literally incomprehensible in others. Joshua, the Jewish moneylender, is a benevolent character who, brought to weeping by Melvile’s predicament, lends him money without interest. Observing this, and having no such deep emotions himself, saving those that touch his own self-interest, Fathom cannot imagine that others might have them. Therefore, “he scrupled not to impute all this kindness to some deep-laid interested scheme, the scope of which he could not at present comprehend” (p. 229).

Fathom does, however, understand the outward manifestations of emotion, for although he cannot understand Joshua’s motivations, he can understand his tears. Indeed, we are told that Fathom is a master of such display himself, and can turn his tears on and off as required. At one point, he is described as “shedding a flood of tears (of which he had always a magazine at command)” (p. 217). Hence, although Fathom is given to displays of emotion, Smollett always makes clear that these are either feigned, or else, though real enough, proceed from motives that are not what they seem, usually self-interested motives. An example of the latter occurs when Fathom, who is languishing in jail after being prosecuted by Mr. Trapwell for seducing his wife, catches sight of Renaldo de Melvile, his childhood acquaintance from Hungary (I avoid the word “friend” on purpose, for Fathom is incapable of real friendship): “Ferdinand… was not deficient in expressions of tenderness and joy… the tears trickled down his cheeks, and that perturbation which proceeded from conscious perfidy and fear, was mistaken by the unsuspecting Hungarian for the sheer effects of love, gratitude, and surprise” (p. 196). He is deficient in tenderness and joy; he is not deficient in expressions of tenderness and joy. And where Fathom does experience emotions of tenderness and joy, their object is always Fathom.

What are we to make of someone who understands that certain occasions call for tears but does not understand the reason why? If everyone is, as Fathom believes, playing the same game as he is, and their tears are created in order to further self-interested objectives, then what social function could tears possibly serve? Returning to the example of Joshua the Jew, if tears of compassion are just part of lying, and if everyone knows this, why does anyone cry at all in situations calling for compassion? Crying would then simply be a signal that one is lying. The tears would defeat their purpose. There could be no social “game” called “tears of compassion” (to put it in Wittgensteinian terms) unless at least some people really felt compassion. One cannot successfully fake something, unless there is really something existent that may be faked. This never occurs to Fathom, because compassion is beyond his horizon of understanding. I imagine that to someone like him, tears are simply a game to be manipulated in order to achieve his objectives; he is uninterested in how or why the game exists at all, and that something called “compassion” is a precondition for it.

Romantic love is another of Fathom’s emotional deficiencies. At one point, shortly upon arriving in England, he meets and exchanges glances with a woman in a stage coach to London: “her attractions, though not enough to engage the affection, were yet sufficient to inflame the desire of our adventurer, who very honestly marked her chastity for prey to his voluptuous passion” (p. 139). This, in a nutshell, is the core problem with Fathom as a lover: he does not have affections as such; he has appetites ( or “voluptuous passions”), involuntary and fleeting. Indeed, he is a squirming, writhing ball of such appetites. Affections are other-regarding; appetites are always self-regarding. Hence, the closest he comes to being in love is with Mrs. Trapwell. Of course, the “love” Fathom experiences for Trapwell is really no more than an appetite that takes longer than usual to be satisfied: “so well did she [Trapwell] manage her attractions, as in some measure to fix the inconstancy of his disposition; for, at the end of the season, his passion was not sated” (p. 168). Not quite as endearing a romance as that of Elizabeth Bennett and her Mr. Darcy, to say the least.

In his book Without Conscience, Robert Hare, a renowned expert on psychopathy, tells the following story of being consulted by filmmakers who were working on a movie based on a psychopathic protagonist. The scriptwriter, it seems, was having trouble getting into the mind of the character, his feelings and motivations.

"The filmmakers had great concern for accuracy and had researched the subject as thoroughly as they were able. But the scriptwriter phoned me one day in near desperation. 'How can I make my character interesting?' he asked. 'When I try to get into his head, try to work out his motivations, desires, and hang-ups in a way that will make some sort of sense to the audience, I draw a blank. These guys … are too much alike, and there doesn’t seem to be much of interest below the surface.'
     In a sense the screenwriter had nailed it: As portrayed in film and story, psychopaths do tend to be two-dimensional characters …. The philosophy of life that these individuals espouse usually is banal, sophomoric, and devoid of the detail that enriches the lives of normal adults." (Hare 140-141)
One thing that comes out in Hare’s story is that, in part, character plays an individuating role: your character is what makes you you, and not someone else. Psychopaths do not have “character” in the way normal humans have character. Their characters are much the same, and one psychopath is largely indistinguishable from another in terms of personality and motivation (“these guys are too much alike”). It’s hard to point to any trait of character that makes Fathom stand out from the array of like-minded minor criminal characters he associates with. They’re after the same things, they run the same scams, and they cheat each other with monotonous predictability. There simply isn’t much going on in the minds of psychopaths to make them interesting. They’re too thin, too empty, too reptilian to make for interesting film or literary characters. Because they lack rich inner lives, the writer is forced to focus on their aberrant and abhorrent actions, which are the only interesting thing about them, in the absence of anything to write about their motivations or intentions. The psychopath’s actions, because of their very deviance, provide the entertainment in lieu of a true character.

Smollett indeed adopts this strategy of focusing on actions rather than passions, affections, and intentions, but he also adopts a different strategy: in many places he often demotes Fathom to the rank of a relatively minor character in his own story. For example, upon his arrival in England, he shares a stage coach ride towards London, during which he is largely silent as the other passengers converse (or rather argue) amongst themselves, in what is a fairly long scene. Now this was perhaps simply an opportunity for Smollett to introduce a gratuitous comic tableau and fill it with humorous character sketches (the Quaker, the fat Wapping landlady, for example), as he is wont to do. Indeed, as a writer generally, and as noted above, Smollett can’t seem to help inserting gratuitous scenes and characters at the expense of narrative integrity.

On the other hand, it is remarkable how large a proportion of the novel’s action does not concern Fathom at all (for example, the long digression concerning Don Diego de Zelos’ back story), or only concerns him insofar as he is a character who is occasionally discussed but is not present (most of the final third of the novel, for example). It is almost as if Smollett senses that the reader has grown weary of hearing about Fathom’s crimes and deceits and, having nothing else to offer from that quarter, he has allowed his title character to simply fade into the background. Is this intentional on Smollett’s part? In other words, is it a strategy as such? Or was it simply an involuntary or reflexive response to the very emptiness of his protagonist’s character? One wonders how far Smollett got into writing the novel before realizing his main character was not up to the job of lead role in the story.

What was Smollett’s original motivation in inventing a character like Ferdinand Count Fathom and constructing a novel around him? In his role as narrator, Smollett insists that he has presented Fathom as a warning to us to be on our guard: “Perfidious wretch! Thy crimes turn out so atrocious, that I half repent me of having undertaken to record thy memoirs: yet such monsters ought to be exhibited to public view, that mankind may be upon their guard against imposture” (p. 242). In other words, these people (what we would call psychopaths) are out there, and their special art is deceit. Reader be warned.

Not only does the reader need to be alerted for her own good that such people exist, but Smollett shows an astute understanding of the greater social danger they pose. They do not just deceive and hurt individuals, they also undermine social trust, a very valuable, but also a very fragile, commodity. Upon learning the true depth of Fathom’s wickedness,

"Melvile, glowing with rage, replied, that he was a venomous serpent, which it was incumbent on every foot to crush; that it was the duty of every man to contribute his whole power in freeing society from such a pernicious hypocrite; and that if such instances of perfidy and ingratitude were suffered to pass with impunity, virtue and plain-dealing would soon be expelled from the habitations of men." (p. 321).
Note two things about that passage: First, that by likening Fathom to a serpent deserving to be crushed underfoot, Melvile is drawing an implicit comparison of the psychopath to Satan, whose punishment in the Bible was to be turned into a serpent, to be forever trodden under foot by the sons of men (Genesis 3:14-15). Second, Melvile’s imprecation is expressed not in terms of the harm that he has himself suffered from Fathom on his own account, but rather in terms of the potential harm such people pose to the common good. As always, the pure and benevolent Melvile is thinking of the good of others, a way of thinking that Fathom would literally find unfathomable (pardon the pun).

I believe that part of Smollett’s motivation in inventing the character of Fathom, besides providing a vehicle for entertaining adventures, was to offer a plausible literary counter-example to the moral sense philosophers like Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, whom he construes as peddling the mistaken notion that man is inherently virtuous by nature. For instance, he takes the tendency of virtuous actions to flow from self-interested or downright vicious motives — Bernard Mandeville’s thesis that public benefits spring from private vices — as a refutation of “Plato, and some modern moralists,” who impute to man an “innate virtue” and a “generosity of the human heart” (p. 263). The narrator (Smollett) disagrees: “But I, whose notions of human excellence are not quite so sublime, am apt to believe it [virtuous conduct] is owing to that spirit of self-conceit and contradiction, which is, at least, as universal, if not as natural, as the moral sense so warmly contended for by those ideal philosophers” (ibid.). No doubt the philosophers to which he alludes are Shaftesbury and, probably, Francis Hutcheson.

However, despite what he says, Smollett clearly does not believe that human nature is entirely vicious and depraved. For example, I contend that we are meant to take the innately virtuous Melvile’s seemingly misanthropic reflections on human nature in an ironic sense: “He could not help moralizing upon this rencounter, which inspired great contempt for human nature: and next day he proceeded on his journey with a heavy heart, ruminating on the perfidy of mankind” (p. 309). Indeed, if Smollett really meant to demonstrate that man’s moral nature was Mandevillian rather than Shaftesburean, he wouldn’t have introduced into the novel such disinterestedly benevolent characters as Major Farrel, Madam Clement, Joshua the Jew, and Melvile himself. He simply wanted to show that the opposite character-type was also a possibility — thereby providing a single counterexample to void the Shaftesburean hypothesis in its strongest form.

In Count Fathom, Smollett presents us with what I take to be one of the purest examples of a clinical psychopath in classic literature. However, the generally poor critical reception the novel has received may, I believe, be partly be attributable to the decision to make his title character what we today would call a psychopath. It is inherently a character without character. Fathom’s wickedness becomes tedious, his personality is purposely — necessarily — superficial, and his lack of any traits upon which the reader’s sympathy can lay hold are all qualities which eventually conspire to force Smollett to withdraw him from the stage for almost the final third of the novel. As if realizing that his title character has unaccountably gone missing, he brings Fathom back in the final fifteen or so pages, where he has suddenly become a true penitent. Presumably it was thought that this would make Fathom more personable and re-ignite the audience’s interest in him and his fate. How exactly he has managed to acquired the capacity to experience such emotions of self-assessment as remorse and shame during his hundred-page sabbatical is mostly left undeveloped. One supposes such a radical reformation is not impossible. But in order to be believable, it must be developed in more than fifteen pages. Indeed, it would realistically take an entire novel. The lack of a clearly developed path from shamelessness to repentance renders Fathom’s reformation impossible to credit. The unseemly haste with which the scene is brought before us and then thankfully removed indicates that Smollett didn’t really believe it either.

In The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, Smollett has drawn his title character with masterly deftness. It is precisely this success that leads to the novel’s ultimate failure.

Works Cited

SMOLLETT, Tobias. The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom. Damian Grant (ed.). London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

HARE, Robert D. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. New York: Guilford Press, 1999.

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