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Philip Jenkins

Living as a Beast

James Hogg's enigmatic masterpiece.

In 1670, the astonishing confession of Major Thomas Weir suggested the depths of depravity that could be concealed under a cloak of holiness and respectability. Throughout his 70 years, he had been a paragon of Edinburgh's rigorously orthodox and moral Calvinist society, and had earned glory in the Lord's wars of the 1640s. Suddenly, he spontaneously confessed to a litany of crimes that included devil-worship and witchcraft. He admitted to incest with his sister, herself an exemplary model of righteousness, and she confirmed the charge. Both were executed. Weir rejected pleas that he pray for forgiveness, declaring that "I have lived as a beast, and I must die as a beast."

Historians can debate whether Major Weir truly was the sinful monster he claimed, or whether age and mental derangement had caused him to pour forth his darkest secret fantasies, so long suppressed. In either case, this unnerving scandal left its mark on Scottish culture. Not coincidentally, it was Edinburgh's famous son Robert Louis Stevenson who in 1886 created one of literature's most frightening dual personalities in the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

But long before Stevenson, the Weir affair had inspired another great Scottish writer, who specifically focused on its religious dimensions. James Hogg (1770-1835) was a self-taught writer who deployed an immense knowledge of Scottish history and literature, and whose invented ballads were commonly taken as authentic survivals from ancient times. In 1824, Hogg published The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which has enjoyed very mixed fortunes in terms of its critical reputation. Long virtually forgotten in mainstream English literature, it achieved spectacular renown in Continental Europe, where it was regarded as a Gothic classic as well as a brilliant psychological study of religious hypocrisy.

Through the advocacy of European writers like André Gide, the Anglo-American ...

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