Sometimes, when I am working on a commentary in my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I find myself going down a rabbit-hole, frantically researching the most obscure, and apparently irrelevant, things. Whenever that happens, far from trying to discipline myself, I give myself the freest rein. I have an almost superstitious faith that I will always stumble upon something – some detail, some connection – that makes the effort worthwhile. And just so, it usually comes to pass.
I am currently working on the commentary to this meme:
The commentary will be one of the primary places in the book where I talk about shame, a major theme of the work. Well indeed might Robin be ashamed of his mockery of the elderly Wayne-family retainer, Alfred Pennyworth.
Working backwards in my mind from some incidents in my own life, through an obscure chain of connections, I begin the commentary with the story of Sir Charles James Napier (1782-1853), commander of the British forces in India. In 1843, having been ordered to enter the still-independent province of Sindh to engage in some military retribution, he vastly overreached and ended by occupying the whole province. It is told that he communicated both his disobedience and its result with the one-word dispatch to Lord Ellenborough, the Governor of India, “Peccavi” (I have sinned [Sindh]).
Like many great stories, it is not true. Although the joke may have been independently arrived at by several wits over the course of the 19th century, its first appearance was in the satirical magazine Punch, in 1844. There it is stated that Napier outdid even Caesar, whose “veni, vidi, vici” had hitherto held the record for shortest dispatch ever. There is excellent evidence (the virtual margins being too narrow, as it were, I shall not weigh down this post with its recounting) that the peccavi joke first came to Punch from a remarkable sixteen-year-old girl, Catherine Winkworth (1827-78). Apparently, she thought it up, quite spontaneously, in conversation over Napier’s much-discussed exploits with her tutor, Rev. William Gaskell (husband to the novelist Elizabeth), who encouraged her to send it to the recently created satirical magazine, which in turn cut her a check for it! (The evidence does not say for how much!)
In my commentary, you can be sure that I will give some further account of Catherine. But it is not she who chiefly interests me, but her equally remarkable elder sister Susanna Winkworth (1820-84). Both Catherine and Susanna went on to become translators of German religious material. Among Susanna’s accomplishments is an archaic-sounding translation of the Theologia Germanica, the fourteenth-century work of mysticism ‘discovered’ and made famous by Martin Luther (who held it closer to his heart than anything save the Bible and St. Augustine).
It is a moving passage from Winkworth’s German Theology that forms the epigraph to Clemence Housman’s little-read novel The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis (1905). Here is the epigraph:
When a man truly perceiveth and considereth himself who and what he is, and findeth himself utterly vile and wicked and unworthy, he falleth into such a deep abasement that it seemeth to him reasonable that all creatures in heaven and earth should rise up against him. And therefore he will not and dare not desire any consolation and release, but he is willing to be unconsoled and unreleased; and he doth not grieve over his sufferings, for they are right in his eyes, and he hath nothing to say against them. This is what is meant by true repentance for sin, and he who in this present time entereth into this hell, none may console him. Now, God hath not forsaken a man in this hell, but He is laying His hand upon him that the man may not desire nor regard anything but the Eternal Good only. And then, when the man neither careth nor desireth anything but the Eternal Good alone, and seeketh not himself nor his own things, but the honour of God only, he is made a partaker of all manner of joy, bliss, grace, rest, and consolation, and so the man is henceforth in the kingdom of heaven. This hell and this heaven are two good safe ways for a man, and happy is he who truly findeth them.
Peccavi, indeed! Housman (1861-1955), who was the sister of the poet and scholar A.E. Housman (whose work forms the basis for another meme and commentary of mine which you can read here) wrote this novel in the style of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. In the most archaic and difficult prose, it tells the story of Sir Aglovale who, in this rendition, cannot extricate himself from a perverse course of deeds of which he is deeply ashamed. He is a man whose entire life is dedicated to shame, dedicated to it, one might say, with a passion, perhaps because it is one of the “two good safe ways for a man.”
Coming to the meme, young Robin is acting in a way that he is sure to feel ashamed of as he gets older. Poor Alfred, for all his English fustian, took care of Robin, “wiped his shitty ass for him,” and deserves much better than Robin’s thoughtless mockery. This is the light in which several events of my childhood now strike me; and I feel as though I would be happy to have been struck at the time, as Robin is here by Batman.
One thing I intend to investigate in the commentary is the link between shame and the slap, each of which brings blood to the face. Krista Thomason has argued it is a desideratum for an account of shame that it explain the link between the experience of shame and the desire to commit violence. Insofar as my memes often play out intrapsychic conflicts, you can no doubt see where all this is going.
And what of that rabbit-hole I mentioned at the opening of this post? The shape of my commentary, as laid out above, was complete in my mind when, following a hunch, I started obsessively tracing ancestry on the internet. And what gold my hunch yielded! Sir Charles Napier, the subject (if not the origin) of the peccavi joke, is the second cousin, four times removed, of Alan Napier, the actor who plays Alfred Pennyworth in the 1960s Batman show!