The frozen coachman

Catarina Dutilh Novaes’ item on literature and on what, thanks to her and to Helen de Cruz, I now know to call “moral self-licensing” brought to mind some sleuthing I did two months ago. This was in connection with teaching a bit of the “moral uplift through art” literature that Catarina and her commenters discuss. (The review article cited by Catarina, by the way, is available for free here. See also the abstracts at p81 of the program for 2011 meeting of the Association for Consumer Research — one area in which the theory will soon find application…)
The trail begins with William James, who in his Briefer Course on Psychology (1915) writes:
All Goods are disguised by the vulgarity of their concomitants, in this work-a-day world; but woe to him who can only recognize them when he thinks them in their pure and abstract form! The habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going will produce true monsters in this line. The weeping of the Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale (148).
For a long time — I don’t remember why — I thought that the unfortunate coachman was to be found somewhere in Tolstoy. Other people did too, including the critic Vincent Sheean, who places the coachman in St. Petersburg, and has the noble lady watching La dame aux camélias. For all I know, he may be right.
But the coachman has turned out to be an elusive character. I tracked him back to around 1700… After which I’ll return to James, and Catarina.
Source: The Idler 11 (1897) 703. Artist: John Schönberg.
The next earlier appearance I could find was not promising. We move back to 1897, to a volume of a periodical called the Idler. In a story by Fred Whishaw, a prolific author of adventure novels, Alexis Bogoliubov [i.e. Godslove], chief coachman to Baron Krilof, has seen his brother condemned to Siberia by the Baron, who is Head of Police; the Baron, moreover, had insisted on calling him twice to duty while his little daughter lay ill with a fever. The second time she died. Persuaded by some “nihilist” friends of his brother to assassinate the Baron, Alexis drives him to the theatre, planning to shoot him when he comes out. The Baron comes out, climbs into the coach, but Alexis does nothing. They ride home. Later, the Baron sends a servant to tell Alexis to take the coach and horses to the stable. But Alexis doesn’t answer: he is frozen stiff, and has been, says the doctor called to see him, for an hour. He was dead already before they left the theatre…
Next, a more light-hearted story from Blackwood’s (1867). In “The Eastern trip of two ochlophobists”, the first-person narrator writes:
When I was in Rome I remember being told that it had not been so cold for forty years, and the fact that Pss—i’s coachman had been frozen to death on the box while waiting at the opera for his mistress was adduced as a proof; on inquiries afterwards, I must own that it was satisfactorily shown that the coachman’s inability to stir proceeded mainly from drunkenness.
The coachman and his mistress (not master) have moved to Rome, and instead of being bent on assassination, the coachman has tied one on, and has gone “stiff” only in metaphor.
You will have noticed that these two tellings of the story are fictional. James’s anecdote is not. Our next stage yields a nonfictional frozen coachman, in Russia like James’s, not Rome.
On the 5th of December, during a cold spell of minus twenty [Celsius], one knew or heard — for it was expressly forbidden to speak of it — that Napoleon had stopped in the outskirts, at the gates of Vilna, had dined in his coach, chatted with the Duke of Bassano, even as his coachman died of the cold, and also that the Duke of Rocca Romana […] was so extravagant as to bring with him, in the same equipment as at Naples […] some delicate and charming horses, only to see them freeze to death at the end of the campaign (129).
This narrative has all the trappings of authenticity. It comes from the Réminiscences sur l’empereur Alexandre 1er et sur l’empereur Napoléon 1er (1862) by Sophie de Tisenhaus, countess of Choiseul-Gouffler, who was in Vilnius at the time (so I gather). The incident would have occurred in 1812.
Perhaps it did. Perhaps we have found the frozen coachman, the prototype of James’s. And yet a bit of doubt persists… In a work from 1842 — before Sophie de Tisenhaus’s, but after the incident she mentions — we find that frozen coachman were commonplace in old Russia.
It is incredible how much the poor coachmen, footmen, and postilions, are expected to endure. People will often go to the theatre or to a party, and leave their equipages in the street the whole evening, that they may be able to command their services at a moment’s notice. The coachman then finds it difficult to resist the inclination to sleep; and the little twelve-year-old postilions, not yet accustomed to watch till midnight, hang slumbering on their horses, or, winding the reins round their arms, slip down and lie cowering on the frozen snow. Many a poor coachman has thus lost his nose, or has had his hands and feet disabled, while his master was feasting his palate or his ears, or indulging a voluptuous sympathy for fictitious sorrow (Köhl, Russia, 1842 but probably published in German earlier).
In the Spectator of 1840 we find coachmen — and their passengers, in this somewhat more egalitarian society — freezing in Paris:
How the wretched coachmen manage to live at all in such weather as I have seen in Paris, is to me inconceivable; for even to the inside passengers the cold becomes to times so severe, that with all the contrivances they can think of—warm furs, hot-water bottles, great-coats, boat-cloaks, and shawls, they can scarcely go from one house to another without being frozen to death; a fate which actually befel two poor sentries, and an unfortunate donkey […] (1235).
Fifty years earlier, the grandfathers of some of those coachmen had already sat freezing at the behest of their masters.
The theatres and all places of public amusement are shut, when the cold is seventeen degrees of Reaumur. A custom of the Russian nobility and gentry makes this regulation absolutely necessary. Asiatic pomp prevails here, as much as at Isphan or Delhi, in defiance of ice and storms. They make their attendants wait with their carriages wherever they go, for one, or for ten hours, as it happens, let the cold be ever so violent. The miserable grins of those half frozen wretches, convince me that it is not their choice: the coachmen are sometimes frozen to death, upon their boxes (Sentimental and Mosaic Magazine (1792) 348).
We seem to be in the presence of a commonplace, a complex of received ideas concerning the cruelty of the nobility, the coldness of Russian (or Parisian) winters, and the love of liquor among the servant class. How nicely it fits together, and how suited to making various points. In Köhl, the topic is the endurance of the people; in the 1792 passage (excerpted from Andrew Swinton’s Travels, published, it seems, that same year), the topic is much the same; but in James the point of the anecdote shifts from the coachman to the lady, from exhibiting features of social class and climate to the indifference of people who have “indulged a voluptuous sympathy for fictitious sorrow” — to moral self-licensing, or experiences of art that enable it.
Our journey ends with a footnote on page 176 of Pierre Moricheau-Beaupré’s Effets et des propriétés du froid, avec un aperçu historique et médical sur la campagne de Russie (1817). The footnote cites (probably) the Commentaries by Gerard van Swieten on the Aphorisms of the celebrated physician Hermann Boerhaave (1668–1738). These were first published in the 1740s. Boerhaave, perhaps already by 1709, had made observations upon the brain of a “cocher mort de froid”…
My efforts to find the original passage in Boerhaave have proved fruitless. But I see no reason to doubt that Boerhaave really did dissect a frozen coachman’s brain. A death from whose telling no morals, it seems, were drawn.
Back to James: the Russian lady (a transposition back to Russia of the lady in Rome, who herself may be a calque of Napoleon or the theatre-loving nobility of Moscow or St. Petersburg) exemplifies, rather oddly, the woe that arises to those who recognize goods only in their “pure and abstract form”. The implication is that when we watch Lear holding Cordelia in his arms and lamenting her death what we behold is more abstract and pure than when we see, on screen, a man amid the wreckage of a tornado-ravaged town in Oklahoma holding his injured daughter in his arms.
I don’t think so. In fact I don’t think whatever differences do obtain between truth and fiction matter much in this context. The psychologists seem unconcerned by them. In the moral-licensing papers I looked at, the experimental setups often had people reading about fictitious or “what-if” cases and anticipating making decisions rather than actually making them. That the situations their subjects are asked to consider were not real seems not to matter.
The moral uplift — or the moral license — that the appreciation of narrative fictions is supposed to provide would not, then, be an effect they have qua fictions, but simply qua stories, and the relevant dimension would be not truth but plausibility. (A similar thought was suggested to me this spring while teaching Catherine Wilson’s “Grief and the poet”, Susan James’s “Fruitful imagining”, and Wilson’s reply, all in Brit. J. Aesthetics 53.1 (Jan 2013), esp. 118–119.) In particular the fable of the frozen coachman, even if it encloses a kernel of truth, owes its persuasive force rather to the complex of received ideas that it calls to mind and marshals on behalf of the various morals drawn from it.
Catarina writes that the “first and foremost commitment” of fiction is to “a ‘good story’, one that is engaging, where the pieces hold well together, where the characters go through interesting events […]” I would amend this by changing “fiction” to “narrative” (see also Nathan’s comment on Catarina’s post). Though the discussion began with the question whether literature is uplifting (or, as I would say, lends itself to uplifting interpretations), literature turns out to be something of a red herring.

LinkJune 4, 2013 in Æsthetics · Literature