Comments on The Process of Creation in
Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now
The process by which the Divine creates the universe as revealed in The Life Divine is the same process by which man creates in his own life. The essence of that process is summarised as self-conception, self-limitation and self-absorption; consciousness involving as force, force creating form, etc. For any educated and informed individual, there is no reason or excuse for failure in life unless the individual chooses failure. Trollope’s book depicts a variety of types of failure through which the process of creation can be observed and understood.
Roger is a wealthy country squire, a cultured, good man of intense emotions whose sole proclaimed ambition is to marry his cousin Hetta. He exhibits all the basic characteristics that are needed for accomplishment: he has a clear self-conception of what he wants (i.e. he envisions his future life with Hetta and feels that without her he has no need even of his estate and possessions). His emotions fully endorse and energise his ideal. He has the patience and perseverance and strength of personality to persist in his quest. He offers Hetta the wealth, status and security her impoverished family situation cannot provide for her. Yet in the end he fails to win Hetta. Why?
We can argue socially that because he is an older man in his 40s and because he lacks Paul’s good looks and adventurous spirit, he is less appealing and acceptable to Hetta, though she deeply admires his character and loves him as a cousin. But viewed from Roger’s perspective, the question is why he is unable to utilise the process of creation to obtain the object of his aspiration.
In passing, we can note some interesting sidelights that do not directly address the main issue. Paul is an orphan who was raised by Roger as his guardian and his best friend. Though Paul has his own inherited wealth and has since gone off to America on his own, still Roger was his one true and abiding human relationship. Yet, Paul is the one who “steals” from Roger the one thing he passionately seeks. This is true to the universal principle that the benefactor is betrayed by the one he has helped.
Paul can rightly claim that he was unaware of Roger’s attachment to Hetta when Roger introduced them to each other, which is true. Therefore, Paul cannot be faulted for consciously seeking to undermine Roger’s position. In fact, when Roger explains to him and asks him to renounce his claim on Hetta, Paul generously agrees to stay away from her for three months and later agrees to leave the choice entirely to Hetta. It is not Paul who has intruded on their relationship, but Roger who has introduced them! Why? This fact points to a subconscious will in Roger not to marry Hetta.
How can we understand this apparent contradiction in Roger? We must recognise that what Roger really seeks is not Hetta, but the intensity of his romantic emotions for her. Hetta is an ordinary girl of only average energy. There is no way that she could sustain his emotional intensity after marriage. The consummation of their marriage would mark the end of Roger’s seeking, the end of his growth. His subconscious aspiration is for romantic emotional intensity (the vital’s quest for the imaginary) which cannot be fulfilled in marriage. Hetta’s marriage to Paul enables him to preserve and sustain that emotional intensity, so life fulfils his deeper vital aspiration, not the surface aspiration of his mind (rather Roger fulfils it by the process of creation through the exercise of human choice).
There is evidence in the text to show that the outcome is the result of Roger’s own choices with regard to the relationship between Paul and Mrs. Hurtle. The intensity of his interest and emotions in them enables him to stumble upon them during their excursion to the seaside resort. (Why does Paul risk taking her to a resort so near to Carbury?) His discovery that Paul continues his relationship with Mrs. Hurtle is all the evidence he needs to dissuade Hetta from marrying Paul, yet he cannot bring himself to reveal this to Hetta because it is so obviously in his own self-interest. Later he again refuses to reveal what he knows about them to Hetta, except in the measure she forces the information from him. Roger chooses highly cultured, gentlemanly behaviour over his own vital self-interest. The choice is his to rise above his attachment to Hetta and be true to his ideals as a gentleman. Therefore, it is his ideal of being a cultured, good man that gets fortified, rather than his relationship with Hetta. In another sense, Roger’s culture can be seen as a bar to his psychological progress. Evolution breaks old forms and releases fresh energy for adventure. His emotional adventure is curtailed and hemmed in by his insistence on high standards of social behaviour. His refusal to break the standards is his refusal to descend from mental generosity to vital selfishness, which is the essence of his emotional attachment. He has already progressed beyond the level of vital possessiveness to mental culture and the progress he seeks is at a level of emotional idealism that cannot be fulfilled in life through marriage to Hetta.
Mrs. Hurtle is another character with a clear, well-formed intention and strong determined aspiration. She has come to England from America in pursuit of Paul, who she had met during his previous visit to the States and been engaged to for some time before he broke it off. She is the epitome of the emerging type of liberated American woman – intelligent, attractive, strong, energetic, bold, independent and self-sufficient. She is passionate and emotional, and unhampered by cultural restraints. She has left and perhaps shot her former husband. She is genuinely attracted to Paul and insists that she wants to marry him. She is able to play on his social conscience to insist that he keep his pledge to her. By wile and feminine graces, she is able to renew the relationship and revive some of his former feeling for her. Paul likes her, is attracted to her, is cowed by her threats and his conscience is moved by her claims, yet he refuses to marry her. He chooses Hetta instead, a woman of lesser energy, strength, beauty and intellect, but far greater cultural affinity. Why and how did Mrs. Hurtle fail in her quest for Paul?
Here too, we must ask whether Paul was really what Mrs. Hurtle was seeking. She has been raised in a country without cultural roots, where energy, boldness and self-sufficiency are paramount for survival. Far more than even the average American woman, she is a formed personality that has acquired the strength and self-respect to fend for herself. She can be moved by emotions, but she cows down before no man. She appears to enjoy the challenge and romantic play of winning back Paul from Hetta. She enjoys confronting and taunting him, abusing Sir Felix and embarrassing Roger. She is proud of her independence. Her emotions for Paul are selfish and seek only self-fulfilment. There is no thought of his happiness.
What Mrs. Hurtle really seeks is her own growth. Certainly her life has been an adventure through which she has developed her capacities, tested her mettle and grown. She has enjoyed both the conquests and the failures. It is not really Paul she seeks, but a field for adventure and conquest. Paul is a complement to her, in that he values culture and self-restraint as much as romantic attraction, therefore he constantly pulls back from her alluring temptations and is a difficult object to capture. She realises that Paul was passionate toward her, but not really a fitting partner. Had she succeeded in winning him, she knows it would have been by coercion and conquest, making him one she could never fully respect. Mrs. Hurtle was seeking a field for growth and expression of her capacities. Paul became that field. She refused to stoop to deceit in order to win him. She recognised as he did that she was too strong, too passionate for marriage.
Life presents her with ample opportunity to destroy the relationship between Paul and Hette. In the film, she lies to Hette about sleeping with Paul then confesses it as a lie and advises Hette to marry him. Why does she reverse and even take Hette’s side? Mrs. Hurtle is American vitality striving to grow into mentality. She is moved by the mental culture she finds in Paul, Roger and Hette. (Even when she confesses her lie to Hette, Hette is unwilling to accept Paul because it is so “messy, so complicated”. Hette applies mental standards to her emotional relationship. Roger does the same when he refuses to reveal to Hette what he knows about Paul and Mrs. Hurtle.) This cultured behaviour surprises Mrs. Hurtle who makes fun of it, but secretly admires the higher principle. She exhibits it herself when she intervenes to protect Ruby from eloping with Sir Felix.
Mrs. Hurtle seeks growth, not romance, and that growth is through development of her own capacities, not through dependence and submission to a man. In the story, she evolves from sole reliance on her vital powers to acting from a higher principle of propriety and generosity.
“The physical mind seeks agnosticism, the vital mind seeks illusion, the thinking mind seeks the Absolute.” The story takes place at a time when England is in the midst of rapid transition from the traditional (physical) phase of aristocratic dominance to the dynamic (vital) phase in which traditional social barriers are torn down, money and personal capacity becomes more powerful than blood and social status. It is a time when men abandon traditional conceptions, conservatism and restraint and their minds soar in pursuit of illusory goals.
Melmotte is the epitome of the “modern man”. After many years of struggle and failure, he has recently risen by enterprise (and lack of scruple) from the lowest rungs of European society into its highest echelons. After years of bitter poverty, followed by the failure of his bank in Vienna and, perhaps, imprisonment, he acquired considerable wealth in Paris and has now moved on to take London by storm. He becomes a self-appointed spokesman for the “new economics” of liberal trade and speculative investment. In this sense he is a true instrument of social evolution, though his methods are false and his intentions entirely dishonourable.
Having come to London seeking greater commercial adventure and greater wealth, life (in fulfilment of his own aspiration) presents him with the perfect opportunity—the Mexican-American railways. What he needs is a grand idea to turn men’s heads and make them abandon their conventional conservatism. Paul and Fiskers present that idea to him and request him to become their leader.
Melmotte’s success is instantaneous and phenomenal. The railway stock soars in value, he is elected to Parliament, he entertains the Emperor of China and the elite of London, he acquires a country estate without paying for it, and becomes the centre of countless schemes for commercial development on a global scale.
Melmotte has a clear vision, immense energy and drive, determination and courage. Then why does he fail? Had he been satisfied with the enormous elevation in status and wealth that the railway would bring him, he could easily have achieved them. The very fact that the railway project was revived in America after its collapse in London shows that the idea was capable of realisation. But Melmotte had no aspiration to actually create a real railroad or anything else of real value. His aspiration was for endless expansion of power and prestige. When his assistant Croll warns him it is time to take the money and move on, he refuses saying he wants to make England his home. He wants to become a member of parliament, a baronet, an accepted member of the elite. He abandons the quest for money in favour of social respectability and permanency. He failed for having abandoned his original goal. In fact, he sought the adventure of endless vital expansion, unrooted in practical reality and he enjoyed the intensity of the ride until the inflated bubble finally burst. He wanted to be known, recognised, listened to, obeyed, and he succeeded.
Spiritual evolution is the spirit’s quest for adventure and self-discovery. Normally man seeks that adventure at most once in a lifetime and then settles down to routine survival-based existence. For many, that quest for the progress of adventure comes through romance. Man progresses through attraction to and interaction with his complement, so man and woman are romantically attracted to people of complementary nature. The goal of the romantic quest is marriage and as soon as marriage takes place, the adventure of the spirit’s quest for the unattainable is fulfilled. The complementarity of two lovers generates romance. Marriage presents a different context in which the romantic complementarity has no meaning. Man levels off. If he is to continue to progress after marriage, it must be with another type or level of complement, which the spouse does not represent. Many men seek it through relationships with other women. That is only to repeat the past adventure over again, after the essential progress has already been made. If adventure is to come again in a man’s life, it should come through some other field of activity such as career. If it is to come again through relationship with woman, it must normally be with another woman and at another level, not at the previous level of physical attraction and vital romance.