The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

On Looking Into War and Peace

War and Peace, many say, is the greatest novel of all time. Until now I had been classing it among the novels I had technically read, but not really. In my teenage years, I went through a period of reading as many of the classics of world literature as I could lay my hands on. Some were memorable reading experiences, others less so. War and Peace was in the latter class: I read it, but so quickly and superficially that I could remember almost exactly zero about the plot and characters of the novel. At the time, I had an always-read-to-the-end policy, and it was that, more than anything, that made me persist with War and Peace. Now I am much more likely to read a book until I get a general sense of what it’s about and then put it aside (how many books end in ways that aren’t wholly predictable and generic, anyway?). This means that whether or not I have read a book is often a difficult question, as I mentioned in an earlier post. I look into books, reading the beginning or the relevant parts (using the index, in the case of non-fiction books) and then putting them aside. And rather than reading a book cold I usually am performing a reading that is in some way academically motivated – there is at least a possibility that the book could inform my research in some way. This means that what I do read, I engage with more seriously, which precludes the tokenistic reading that the always-read-to-the-end policy sometimes produced.

And so my return to War and Peace was really like reading a new novel. And this time reading it closely. I’m reading Rosemary Edmonds 1978 revision of her 1957 translation. It runs to a colossal 1444 pages in my Penguin Classics edition. At the beginning, it includes a list of Principal Characters, which is handy, although it only gives about  25 characters out of the huge cast of the novel. But still, that’s an important help, because a problem with reading Russian novels is the naming, and how hard it is to get a handle on the names. For example, there’s a character here called Princess Anna Mihalovna Drubetskoy. Sometimes the narrator will call her Anna Mihalovna, sometimes the Princess, sometimes Princess Drubetskoy. Similarly she will be addressed differently by different characters. Further, she’s not the only Princess in the book, so the character being called the Princess in one scene may be a different character from the Princess in the next scene. Still further, she’s not the only Anna – another prominent character in the early part of the book is Anna Pavlovna. There’s a lot of multiple uses of names: more than one Anna, more than one Nikolai, more than one Natalia. And that’s just in the opening chapters! It’s sobering to see that Edmonds includes a note in which she says she has simplified the naming by removing the Russian patronymic and dispensing with feminine terminations.

Russian conventions of naming and addressing  are so alien that reading a 19th-century Russian novel is complicated. Evidently, their use of the term of address “Princess” was different to other nations. It sometimes seems that half the population (the female half, to be precise) are princesses. That is partly why a quick reading of War and Peace won’t do. I have been noting the entry page of each character and writing it down by their entry in the character list, so if confused I can refer to it, and read Tolstoy’s description of them on their first appearance. Tolstoy is careful about physical apprearance, so once one gets the name straight, one quickly builds up an image of the character. He also uses appearance as information about character, as in this description of Maria, another Princess and daughter of Nikolai Andreyevich Bolkonsky (earlier in the passage, she has been described as having a “plain, sickly face”):

[T]he princess’s eyes – large, deep and luminous (it sometimes seemed as if whole shafts of light radiated from them) – were so lovely that very often in spite of the plainness of her face they gave her a charm that  was more attractive than beauty. But the princess never saw the beautiful expression of her own eyes – the expression they had when she was not thinking of herself. Like most people’s, her face assumed an affected, unnatural expression as soon as she looked in a glass. (Bk. 1, Pt. 1, Ch. 22)

Though to the point I have read, Maria has featured little, this description will, I am sure, turn out to be indice of a nature that is beautiful, gentle and so forth. More uncharacteristically in the context of what I’ve read so far, the narrator also engages in some general theorizing on humanity, specifically on people’s faces when they are looking at themselves.

That last element is uncharacteristic because in the first 112 pages of the novel, Tolstoy’s approach is undoubtedly cinematic and objective. The narrator doesn’t editorialize (so far) and he rarely gets into characters’ heads. He always describes in great detail what is happening, and leaves the reader to interpret the characters from their behaviour. This is especially apparent in the scenes set in large gatherings of Russian high society (which is a large proportion of the scenes). If Tolstoy wants to convey what a character is thinking in these scenes he doesn’t get into their heads to do it – he doesn’t focalize through the characters, in narratological terms. His technique is quite different, as in this exchange:

“Vera”, she said to her elder and obviously not her favourite daughter, “how is it that you have no notion about anything? Can’t you see that you are not wanted? Go and join your sister, or…”

The handsome Vera smiled disdainfully, evidently not in the least mortified. (1, 1, 11)

Here we are being told how both characters feel, but not through internal focalization. Rather, because “evidently” or “obviously” they feel this way. This is very economical, as Tolstoy doesn’t have to interrupt the scene with backstory, a short clause gets it across nicely. A student of narratology might ask, evident to whom? Obvious to whom? In these scenes there is no centre of consciousness, but it is as if the heterodiegetic (i.e. doesn’t take part in the story) narrator is a sensitive observer who is reading the expressions and body language of the characters for clues to their natures. But he is not omniscient, as he is not able to get into the heads of his characters, being confined to what is readable, to what they seem (1, 1, 20) to be saying.

This approach makes for an interesting effect in an early climactic scene, the death of the old count, father of Pierre. Pierre is probably the most central character in the novel, but even his interior is not directly accessed by the narrator:

While the count was being turned over, one of his arms fell back helplessly and he in vain endeavoured to pull it after him. Perhaps he noticed the look of horror on Pierre’s face at the sight of that lifeless arm, or some other thought might have flitted across his dying brain at that moment, in any case he glanced at the refractory arm, at Pierre’s horror-stricken face and at the arm again, and on his lips a feeble piteous smile appeared, quite out of characters with his features, seeming to deride his own helplessness. Suddenly, at the sight of that smile, Pierre felt a lump in his own throat and a tickling in his nose, and tears dimmed his eyes. The sick man was turned on his side with his face to the wall. He gave a sigh.

“He is dozing”, said Anna Mihalovna, observing one of the nieces approaching to take her turn by the bedside. “Come…”

Pierre left the room. [End of Chapter] (1, 1, 20)

This is an intense scene. It comes during a portion of the novel that is focalized on Pierre, but even so Pierre’s reaction is only recorded in its physiological manifestations. He wears “a look of horror” and tears dim his eyes. The closest to an analysis of Pierre’s emotional state comes with the phrase “he felt a lump in his own throat and a tickling in his nose”, but these are strictly physiological phenomena, and even visual ones. The lump in the throat, at least, could in principle be seen by the careful observer that is Tolstoy’s narrator. As for the other main character in the scene, the dying count, the narrator – once again, not omniscient – can only speculate as to his thoughts and emotions: “Perhaps he noticed the look of horror on Pierre’s face…” The cinematicity of the scene makes it easy to see what is going on, but it also leaves a lot of ellipses. It is both unsatisfying and compelling. Ending a chapter in this way, one wants to know more. There is not only a plot in motion regarding the count’s will, but the silence around Pierre’s emotional life creates another source of interest. It remains to be seen how this is to be developed. Will the characters be filled out with greater internality as the book progresses? Is it desirable that they should, or does the surface objectivity of the style to this point present a more realized view of humanity

As of now, War and Peace is a book I can’t give up. I didn’t pick it up with the intention of reading it all, just to get a feel for Tolstoy’s style and his worldview, but the quality of his observation, and the promise of unexplored depths in all of the characters, as well as the feeling of  the author’s generalized affection for those same characters, means I will continue to read with attention. It still seems unlikely that I’ll read all 1444 pages in this reading, as I do have a life to lead (well, kind of) and other more important (research-wise) stuff to read, but already I’ve come away with a lot more than the first time I read this, and there’s so much more I could write about the novel, did not this post already exceed  my standard post lengths. There’s a great quote on the Wikipedia War and Peace page from Isaac Babel:

“If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”

That’s one hell of a compliment, but not one I’d care to argue with at this point.

Methodological Difficulties

When what one is doing is predominantly analysis of literature, the imposition of precise and minutely developed methodologies can be difficult. Nevertheless, it has not escaped the overall turn towards methodologisation of aademic research of recent decades. For sure, there are ore hold-outs in literature than in other fields. One of the world’s most famous literary critics at this moment, Harold Bloom of Yale University insists that “[t]he individual self is the only method”. This recalls an old dictum of T.S. Eliot’s: “There is no method but to be very intelligent”. Should this remain so when the methodological approach has taken over almost every field of knowledge?

If you don’t think, by the way, that the methodological approach has taken over, you should apply for funding for your research. A section of the application will be set aside for delineation of method, and citing Bloom won’t get you off the hook. For the lover of literature, no method is sufficient for the study of a worthwhile work because such a work is, by definition, sui generis. The will to study literature is dependent on a belief in the singularity of the great work.

Therefore, to really dedicate one’s studies to a methodological approach to literary criticism is to deny literature’s worth and remove the possibility of demonstrating such worth. Many people do deny such worth, at least in practice, by not reading literature. Which is fine, but to institutionalize such a denial of worth, a denial of singularity of a work of literature is to devalue the whole project of literature, and hence of literary criticism.

This is not to advocate an uncritical attitude towards literature, simply to contend that such criticism should be the work in itself and as a singularity, not the kind of sweeping theoretical criticism involved when one invokes, say, Foucault, and performs a Foucauldian criticism of a text.

I’m not even suggesting a Foucauldian reading might not be quite enlightening about some texts, but I am suggesting that a preconceived methodology whereby a Foucauldian or other reading is imposed on some set texts is the kind of reading that gets no one anywhere. No literary texts should be deliberately framed by any one theory, as if that somehow contains them.

The problem with theories of texts are that their sophistication is inversely proportional to their practical workability. It’s easy to construct a mechanical methodology of the structuralist variety that can be used on texts and that – so long as the method is kept quite simple, like Barthes’ division of textual units into functions and indices – can be applied uniformly. The only problem is, dividing a text into its functions and indices doesn’t get anywhere near giving us a comprehensive or definitive account of how texts are written, how they are read, how they relate to each other. The vagueness with which the terms of analysis must be defined to made them relevant to all texts prevents this. So a science of the text is partlally impossible, and partially irrelevant.

Of more sophisticated methodologies, such as those of Foucault and Derrida, one should first note one thing: they’re not supposed to be methods of reading texts. They are private and idiosyncratic views of society – patently, certainly in Foucault’s case, related to psychological quirks of the author. They weren’t intended to be generalizable methodologies, and it’s somewhat baffling how suddenly these particular authors became, not just very widely read in academia, but seen as holding the keys to viewing all texts, and off having an insight that is reproducible by the mastery and application of method. This is not the way that older authors of influence, say Nietzsche, were read, by and large. And rightly so, for this approach precludes originality and critical thinking. Ironic, given it’s called critical theory, but the “critical” element is rigidly pre-ordained: the exact type of criticism is dictated by, say, Foucauldianism as an academic construct. One can only make the same tiresome points being made within the academy as a whole.

So, my conclusion is that one should not read authors as sources of methodologies – as telling you exactly how to read. There is no author, or combination of authors (as in Zizek, whose method is that a proper mixture of Marx + Lacan = Theory of Everything) that can define one’s reading, no matter how much one tries to apply it. there is always some remnant of self left , or of that which cannot be defined within a framework or theory. If one tries to frame one’s reading as a theory of some description one will soon find that there is a self always peeking through. Even if one believes that that self is but a social construction. The point is not that there is an essential self, but that the complexities of any individual are so great as to be irreducible to formulae. In that negative sense, there is individuality, at least until science reaches such a pitch of prefection that it can predict and control everything about each person. Until then, the notion of individuality has at least as much explanatory power for me, you and everyone as notions of social construction, and while individuality remains, we read always partly as ourselves, not through method alone. It is this kind of reading that literary academics should practice and defend.

On Trash Again

In the day before yesterday’s post I spoke about the difference between trashy books and literature in terms of the Buzzfeed quiz linked: the first one likes to read but not to have read in certain social groupings; the second one likes to have read but not to read. That is not to say that I believe in an essential difference between kinds of literature. It’s simply that they operate differently as objects of discourse. The trash/ literature distinction is one that, I imagine, few academics would now subscribe to, but it was in my head recently because I had come across a particularly blunt espousal of the distinction in Eugene Eoyang’s The Promise and Premise of Creativity: Why Comparative Literature Matters (Continuum, 2012).

What is the difference between what used to be called “Pulp Fiction” and literature? I submit that “trash” – like a brief interlude – is ephemera, a passing fancy, for the moment, whereas “literature” is perdurable, a lasting memory, and forever. trash is forgettable, literature is not. For all its vagaries, its triumphs and its tragedies, trash makes you ignorant of, and blithe to, life because it offers a factitious excitement. Literature makes you attentive to, and responsive to life – even when you think life is boring. A life without literature is not to live, but to exist, “Trash” merely counterfeits experience: it affords no insight into that experience, and it provides only an alternative reality to the life that one wants to escape. But it affords the reader no understanding with which to return to “real life” and to appreciate its qualities. “Trash” differs from “literature” in that there is no point in rereading “trash”, whereas “literature” warrants more than one reading: no reader can  exhaust its implications in one sitting. Good books, like good people, are worth knowing not for just a moment, but for a lifetime. (20-21)

Eoyang is saying a few things here about the difference: literature is literature because it lasts; literature is literature because it gives insights valuable to real life; literature is literature because it can be reread. Perhaps the first and last are in fact the same point. Initially, it’s unclear if he means “lasts” in terms of “is relevant to successive generations and cultures”, but it appears that he is only talking about last in terms of  the individual reader, who returns to literature again and again, but not to trash. The test, then, is if you reread it. Simple.

Eoyang’s second point is not apparently related to the first, and it’s one he makes in several ways in the course of a few sentences: literature makes you “responsive” to life, “attentive” to life, “affords an insight” to life, gives “understanding with which to return” to life. None of these points really elucidate each other. Are they meant to be synonyms? Or are they independent of each other? All we can really know from the discussion is that literature relates to life in a way that trash does not. So if we take from yesterday’s post that Twilight is the paradigmatic trashy novels of these times, we have to wonder if that means a) it isn’t reread by its readers b) it doesn’t relate to their lives. I don’t know about a), though I’m sure there are empirical studies somewhere, but as far as b) goes, I think it’s false. As one scholar has noted, “Bella’s struggles with self-esteem and her feeling of being an outsider prototypically depict the internal conflicts of the developing adolescent.” There’s plenty more that could be said about identity, gender and so forth in Twilight. That doesn’t mean it’s a good book. Maybe it is “trash”. But trash can’t be identified by not being related to reader’s lives, by not giving them an “understanding” of life – any book that is read closely will do that, because anyone who enjoys a book will relate to it and relate it to them. That’s a given: if it’s popular, it’s because people have related to it, and related it to their lives. Bella in Twilight isn’t just a character sealed in a book out there for the readers, but one who is intimately related to. The article linked above quotes a reader: “[T]he emotions displayed ring true for all women. There is always something we feel insecure about; there are always times we feel out of place…” Without that real-life identification, the book would not have attained its popularity in the first place. That such an identification has taken place is a given when we speak of a literary product of such wide popularity. If we seek to make a value judgement on Twilight, we have to look elsewhere.

Lying about Books, and on Trashy Literature

Interesting little quiz on Buzzfeed here asking participants if they’ve read/ not read/ not read but lied about reading certain books. The most lied about books appear to be The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, The Bible and Moby Dick. Moby Dick, with 11% lieds and 16% reads, is the only book where the amount who’ve pretended to read it comes anywhere close to those who have actually read it. Not surprising, it is one hell of a boring novel/ tract on 19th-century whaling. I don’t lie about reading books much, but in seminars I often have to talk about or lead discussions on books that I may not have read in full – just the relevant parts. If it comes to it and a part of the book I hadn’t read comes up, I would usually admit this rather than try to bluff that I had read it.

But what it means to have read a book is a difficult question. In the Buzzfeed quiz, I answered no for The Bible: I haven’t read The Bible in full, but have read excerpts, and of course I’ve also been exposed to sermons, etc., therefrom. So I do feel like I know The Bible, in some ways. On the other hand, I answered yes to some slightly ambiguous ones, namely Ulysses and Atlas Shrugged. Did I read those books? Yes, but there was a lot of skimming going on at times. They are books I couldn’t discuss with any degree of confidence and I feel that I haven’t read them in the way they should be read, according to the reading conventions that surround them. This is especially true with Ulysses: of course I know it’s the great book of the 20th century (in English, at least), and that you can’t just take it to the beach and flick through it. Reading Ulysses means something among different to the people who read Ulysses, so the status of my reading of the book is questionable.

The other interesting inclusion was Twilight: interesting because there the options were read/not read/ read but lied about NOT reading. 9% had lied about it, i.e. pretended they hadn’t read it. I’ve read Twilight (only the first book in the series). Twilight functions as anti-literature: literature apparently so bad that it has a negative cultural cachet. An even better example of this would be 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve read it (again, only the first book in the series). Sadly they didn’t include it, but I suspect the numbers who lied about NOT reading would be far higher than even Twilight. 50 Shades isn’t just notoriously bad literature, its subject matter is also rather questionable in many circles. Thus I would suggest it is the most lied-about book around at the moment – the anti-Moby Dick in that you pretend you haven’t read it. A related point is that its success was enabled by the existence of Kindle and other ereaders. You don’t have to own a physical copy, and nobody has to see you reading it in public or even find it lying around your living-room. Just as Moby Dick and some of the other books on the list are books to own but not to read, 50 Shades is a book to read, but not to own, if one can help it.

Or, recall the Mark Twain quote: “A classic is a book everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read”. A decent definition of trashy literature might be: “A book that everybody wants to read, but nobody wants to have read”.

Watching Sherlock Holmes “The Master Blackmailer” (1992): Seduction and Guilt

The classic Granada series with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes was coming to the end of its run when they decided to tackle Doyle’s story “Charles Augustus Milverton”, a work which features “the most unpleasant villain in the entire Sherlockian canon” (David Stuart Davies, “Introduction”, The Best of Sherlock Holmes, Wordsworth, 2009). Rather than the standard 50-minute episode, they apportioned it a feature-length 100 minutes. How to make a 20-page story last 100 minutes? By simply expanding the acts, in this case, and not really complicating Doyle’s story at all. The story, about how Holmes and Watson decide to burgle the house of a blackmailer too smart to be defeated by legal means, and then witness his murder by an angry victim of his blackmailing shenanigans, is a simple and linear one. It’s notable, too, that there’s no mystery, no clever clues to be unravelled – rather, it gets by on suspense and drama. The reason why it’s a relatively popular Holmes story is not because it’s clever – it decidedly isn’t – but because, as Davies pointed out, it has a nasty and memorable villain.

Given the thinness of the plot, a simple expansion like that undertaken by Granada is going to find it hard to keep the attention. One move typical of this series and apparent in this episode is the use of the spectacle of privilege to create viewer engagement – principally in long shots that subordinate narrative progression to the visual splendour of the character’s possessions, as in the shot below where Milverton himself is in the background and the foreground is crammed with ornamentation and artworks.

Milvertons' House

Milverton’s house

This is a feature too of the non-Doylean scenes that are used in the film to flesh out Milverton’s victims. Rich, beautiful young people, lounging around country house on sunny days spouting mindless, poorly-written dialogue. The film sinks into mediocrity in the episodes in which neither Holmes nor Milverton are present, and makeweight characters fill the scene.

Another spectacle of privilege scene

Another spectacle of privilege scene with Watson meeting Milverton at a society gathering. The painting they’re viewing takes centre-stage in the shot.

But there are a few nice moments that make this, overall, worth watching. One of my favourites comes 26 minutes in, when Holmes and Watson (the avuncular and likable Edward Hardwicke) are inspecting Milverton’s house from the outside, and noting the emphasis on security: locked gates, high walls. Watson notes: “He’s a man who loathes the human race.” Holmes: “What circumstances might bring him to that?” Watson: “Hmmm, boy brought up in lonely isolation, starved of affection, probably in one of London’s outer suburbs.” Cut to Holmes, who’s grimacing uncomfortably at that description of Milverton, obviously relating to those circumstances himself. Then they move on to other things. It’s a lovely moment, nicely underplayed: no actual direct information given on Holmes’ mysterious pre-Watson life, just a bare hint conveyed in a momentary expression.


Holmes reacts to Watson’s characterization of Milverton

A further element of the plot which is well explored while being nicely underplayed is the whole Sherlock-Aggie situation. This comes from a rather infamous passage in Doyle’s story, worth quoting in full:

“You’ll be interested to hear that I am engaged.”

“My dear fellow! I congrat-“

“To Milverton’s housemaid.”

“Good heavens, Holmes!”

“I wanted information, Watson.”

“Surely you have gone too far?”

“It was a most necessary step. I am a plumber with a rising business, Escott by name. I have walked out with her each evening, and I have talked with her. Good heavens, those talks! However, I have got all I wanted. I know Milverton’s house as I know the back of my hand.”

“But the girl, Holmes?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“You can’t help it, my dear Watson. You must play your cards as best you can when such a stake is on the table. However, I rejoice to say that I have a hated rival who will certainly cut me out the instant that my back is turned.” – Arthur Conan Doyle, “Charles Augustus Milverton”, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904)

Doyle doesn’t return to this revelation at all, so we don’t know what happens to Aggie. Does she marry the “hated rival” mentioned? But this short passage in Doyle becomes a main thread of “The Master Blackmailer”. There are several scenes showing Holmes and Aggie as they hug, kiss and mess around together. There’s a complex mix of emotions visible in Brett’s Holmes in the scenes: tender, awkward, humorous, but always perhaps still with an eye on the main prize of information about Milverton and his household. In the shot below is the moment when Aggie asks Holmes for a kiss, and he responds forlornly: “I don’t know how”.

Giz a kiss

Aggie: Giz a kiss  Sherlock: I don’t know how

Sherlock’s Guilt

And in some interesting scenes in the aftermath of the seduction scenes, Holmes’ feelings of guilt about his behaviour in seducing the maid are made clear. In the scene where he reveals the scheme to Watson, the contours of Doyle’s dialogue is followed, but Brett plays Holmes as testy and irritable when Watson questions him. At the end of the conversation, Holmes looks out through the rain-spattered windowpane, and pronounces in gloomy tones: “What a splendid day it is!”

"What a splendid day it is!"

“What a splendid day it is!”

Later, a new scene is added where Holmes visits Milverton at his house. This allows him to meet Aggie without his plumber persona. Milverton doesn’t recognize his former employee, but Aggie does. He doesn’t acknowledge her – to do so would blow his cover, after all – but after she introduces him, there’s a long shot of her face as her walks away. Another great shot because of the slow and subtle build-up of emotion in Aggie (very well played in this episode by Sophie Thompson). One might also take this scene as a tacit rebuke to the Sherlock Holmes of the story, and to its author, who left this jilted housemaid as an uncharacterized plot-function.

Aggie sees her affianced lover.

Aggie sees her affianced lover.

And even then, they’re not finished. In the film’s closing scene, Holmes is once again seen in an unfamiliar light: subdued, depressed (Holmes does mention being prey to depression in Doyle, but it’s not really dramatized in the stories or in this series), and, it seems, torn by guilt.

No, Watson. there are certain aspects of which I am not proud. Bury this case deep in your pile.

Then the film ends on a couple of shots of Holmes looking tortured as he recalls something affecting, presumably the Aggie affair.

Holmes looking tortured in the film's closing scene.

Holmes looking tortured in the film’s closing scene.

Finally, then, though this is a very imperfect and sometimes boring film, it does have areas of interest that go well beyond the source text. A small hint in the source is used for an exploration of Holmes’ psyche: his tender side, and his conscience. The tacit and restrained way in which these issues are addressed is effective, and I think compares well to the more overblown explorations of character in recent episodes of BBC Sherlock (e.g. the “redbeard” explanation for Holmes’ oddities – simplistic cod-Freudianism). If not consistently entertaining, it is one of the most memorable adaptations of Sherlock Holmes that have yet been made.

At the time of writing, “The Master Blackmailer” in its entirety is available on YouTube. Embedded below:

Civilizational Apocalypse in The Dark Knight Rises

Revolution and the overthrow of all the reigning structures of power and governance is one of the great fantasies of the post-industrial individual. We all want  to do it. The ambivalence we feel for society is noted in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930):

Primitive man was actually better off, because his drives were not restricted. yet this was counterbalanced by the fact that he had little certainty of enjoying his good fortune for long. Civilized man has traded in a portion of his chances of happiness for a certain measure of  security. (65)

[C]ivilization is built up on renunciation […], it presupposes the non-satisfaction of powerful drives – by suppression, repression or some other means. (44)

It is in the nature of things that a sense of gratitude for the increase in security wears off along with the memory of the insecurity of early stages of civilization, and we begin to consider those thwarted drives of ours, and consider how much civilization weighs down upon us, and, as Freud notes, decreases our chances of happiness. This is why, perhaps, one of the great fantasies of popular culture is the breakdown of civilization, a total social apocalypse. It’s not something we would want to experience in real life, probably – remember that additional license brings additional personal insecurity, increased threat from nature and our fellow humans – but we have to have some outlet for that aggression borne of those repressed or suppressed drives. If we can express our hostility to civilization by destroying it in imagination, that will perhaps be enough.

This is where film comes up trumps. It is the great medium of violence and destruction. Societal breakdown can be done in books, but film engages the senses directly, and destruction is an experience of the senses. In literature, Dickens took on modern history’s greatest societal breakdown of the French Revolution in his A Tale of Two Cities, and made the climactic set-piece a description of the mob violence in inner-city Paris. For effect he relies heavily on the recurring metaphor of the rising sea to describe the mob:

The sea of black and threatening waters, and of destructive upheaving of wave against wave,whose depths were yet unfathomed and whose forces were yet unknown. The remorseless sea of turbulently swaying shapes, voices of vengeance, and faces hardened in the furnaces of suffering until the touch of pity could make no mark on them, (A Tale of Two Cities, Bk. II, Ch. 21.)

This is a relevant example because a recent blockbuster film, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), has taken its cue from Dickens’ book in depicting the end of civilization as we know it, as Christopher Nolan (director and screenwriter) and Jonathan Nolan (screenwriter) made clear. The influence is apparent also in the film, where there are a few nods, most notably a certain character’s graveside oration being taken from the famous closing paragraphs of the novel.

The Dark Knight Rises uses Dickens to deal with issues around total societal breakdown and civilization’s descent into anarchy leavened with kakistocracy. The film’s villain, Bane, is concerned to usher in “the next era of western civilization”, and to do so he takes over Gotham, imprisoning or killing all the politicians and fatcats of the business world and invoking “giving Gotham back to the people” rhetoric. There are some cathartic scenes of mob violence and a breaking-open-the-prison scene reminiscent of Dickens’ Bastille scene. We see all the rich and powerful being “ripped from their decadent nests”, as Bane puts it, and getting their comeuppance. We’ve already been shown their corruption in the early parts of the film, so there’s no sympathy.




But Nolan’s sympathies aren’t really with the mob at all, and the people of Gotham never rise above a faceless mass. Apparently the people’s republic is run entirely by criminals; all the decent people just hide in their homes, it is implied, and we never meet any of them. In fact, one of the big problems with this film for me, judging it as a piece of socially and politically engaged work of narrative art rather than simply a superhero film, is how narrow its character-base is: everyone’s either a criminal or a cop. (I think, by the way, it wants to be judged as more than a superhero film, and that’s why they publicized their use of Dickens: he has a certain intellectual cachet they want to appropriate.) The criminal or cop thing is a problem: eventually, the film will have to come down on one very narrowly defined side, and that side definitely isn’t going to be the criminals.

And that’s what happens. The eventual reclaiming of the city from the Bane faction is undertaken by Batman with the help of a huge cohort of policemen who have been trapped underground but now burst forth into daylight. The huge final set-piece is a street battle of cops still in their blues versus Bane’s mercenaries. While Gotham’s general population are apparently hiding in their bedrooms, the police come along and do all the work. The camera lingers on them and a tribal beat kicks in as they line up in an orderly fashion to begin battle against the usurpers.

Cops ready for battle

Cops ready to battle to take back Gotham

So it’s a fairly blatant authoritarian fantasy at this point, one that asks: what if the police were freed up to really clean up the streets and take out the trash without holding back? Wouldn’t that be awesome? At the end of a film that has seemed to question western civilization to its very core, to announce the death of the American way, to allow Bane to call his revolution a “necessary evil” and imply (by the depiction of absolute and ineradicable corruption among Gotham’s elite) that he’s right, it’s back to square one: the same old militaristic and authoritarian fantasy. The same institutions. The same cops. It’s not consistent and it’s not smart. It just means that, ultimately, The Dark Knight Rises isn’t an interesting film, and it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s not Kubrick.

It’s dangerous, too, if we get back to Freud. The aggression felt in Gotham against society is eventually channeled into aggressive action upholding the very institutions that are responsible for the forcible repression. The way to escape being repressed is to channel it all into repressing others. That’s the one socially and legally viable expression of primal drives. It’s a very vicious cycle (“vicious” in more than one sense). This approximates to Freud’s account of the formation of the super-ego: “The aggression is introjected, internalized. actually sent back to where it came from; in other words, it is directed against the individual’s own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego that sets itself up as the super-ego” (77). So if one wanted to make a purely Freudian reading, Bane and co are the ego, because the superego (the cops and Batman) turns its aggression on them. But what the aggression that could be against society is really being turned against in the diegetic world are a group of criminals and neer-do-wells whose guilt has already been clearly established by the objective eye of the camera. The fantasy at work is of having one’s cake of security in civilization and eating it in the form of permitted aggression against a group who wholly deserve it. As long as there’s a Bad Group who can be punished with compunction, civilization’s strictures aren’t unbearable. Freud mentions this too:

One should not belittle the advantage that is enjoyed by a fairly small cultural circle, which is that it allows the aggressive drive an outlet in the form of hostility to outsiders. It is always possible to bind quite large numbers of people in love, provided that others are left out as targets for aggression. (64)

Gotham has that now. And. as far as the old guard are concerned, all is forgiven.

The Future of Gotham

So one might engage in a bit of speculation as to what happens in Gotham after Bane has been defeated. Firstly, who’s in charge? The police, one supposes. It’s now a police state. As a symbol and an icon, Batman’s in charge (we see his statue being erected in a plaza downtown, as the local dignitaries look on), but as a person, he’s out of the picture. But symbols are important, as Nolan’s trilogy has always made clear. “The idea was to be a symbol”, Bruce Wayne says in Rises; Dent was a symbol: that was how pre-Bane society kept from anarchy. Symbols are more important than actual people. Now, they’ve got a new symbol, but no new ideas or no new possibilities for structures. Father Reilly is still around, too, taking the kids into Wayne Manor, which is to be an orphanage. Maybe religion isn’t dead in the new land. The point is, though, people are feeling good. Foley represented the lazy, unmotivated cop, but even he got off his ass when he saw the Bat-symbol light up the sky and knew the fight against Bane was on. It’s a new symbol, not a new regime. The regime might be liberal-capitalism, fascist, feudalist (like the time of Thomas Wayne as depicted in the first of Nolan’s trilogy, Batman Begins). Doesn’t matter. It’s about Real Heroes/ Symbols, not structures.

But one could wish Nolan had put in some real people – as in, not just police. The citizens sat on their asses till the police who had been buried underground broke free and took back the town. And Nolan even feels no need to acknowledge the people. He doesn’t even dramatize their cowardice. They just don’t exist. They’re nothings, waiting for some real cops with proper training to get shit done. But I guess that’s the superhero genre: it’s not a democratic genre. It’s fascistic. In so far as community is invoked, it’s a community of well-drilled fighting men. In the end, commitment to genre values maybe trumped what Nolan might have wanted to say about society and history. Or maybe he really is into the idea of the police-state.

Could Nolan have learned anything from Dickens’ book here? The thing about Two Cities is that for all the stuff about revolution, it ends up being a personal drama. Why does Carton die? For his beloved, Lucie. Does his sacrifice mean anything in terms of the revolution? Nope, nobody even knows except Lucie and her family. It’s an act of private heroism that doesn’t really redeem the situation. Nothing changes. Maybe the message one can pick up from these two works is just that nobody knows what comes after a revolution. It’s hard to create an diegesis of post-revolutional society and rebuilding structures. All bets are off. A police-state is probably as good a guess as any. The French Revolution didn’t take long in giving birth to a dictatorship under a military leader. In Gotham, maybe Gordon takes over; he was in charge of the resistance to Bane, at any rate. Not much of a political innovator, Gordon. He’ll just reinstate the old regime, the old structures of power. Soon he’ll be maneuvered out of power by some ruthless young punk. Remember the exchange at the beginning of the film: the congressman says Wayne is about to be fired because he’s a war hero and “this is peace”. Some of those old Machiavellians might still be around, or if not, there are more where they came from. Give it eight months, Gordon will be gone; give it eight years, Gotham is back where it was: a steaming pile of corruption and a disenchanted populace. Something terroristic will grow. Remember Bane’s revolution was a harvest, and in this Dickens’ philosophy was key:

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. Such vapouring, combined with the extravagant plots of Monseigneur for the restoration of a state of things that had utterly exhausted itself, and worn out Heaven and earth as well as itself, was hard to be endured without some remonstrance by any sane man who knew the truth. (Two Cities, Bk. II, Ch. 7)

The theory of revolutions and of necessary evil in Rises means that things have to change to stop all this happening again. Again, Nolan is clear that it’s a harvest: there was a causal connection between the draconian Dent-Act-era politics and the Bane uprising. So my prognostication for Gotham is grim: nothing’s changed, the happy-clappy dancing around the Bat-symbol can’t last long, and soon the reign of idealism will give way to materialism, responses grounded in actual conditions of living, and the structures will fail again, because they have every time so far. The Dark Knight will have little choice but to Rise again, but in the meantime he should brush up on political theory – maybe try something socialist going next time, help the proletariat to lose their chains? Symbols will only get you so far for so long, and this is the one thing Gotham’s never tried.

Good Coffee and Ideology

Ideology is a problematic term, one that has been redefined so many times by now that it may seem utterly worn out. It’s certainly still in popular use, but it has been rejected by many scholars. Terry Eagleton asked:

Why is it that in a world racked by ideological conflict, the very notion of ideology has evaporated without trace from the writings of postmodernism and post-structuralism? Ideology (Verso, 2007 [1991]), p. xx.

Eagleton also provides the man-in-the-street definition of ideology: it relates to “judging a particular issue through some rigid framework of preconceived ideas” (3). In this sense, it remains in use. That said, even “framework” is perhaps too systematized; an ideology is is more like a web of ideas and feelings, radiating out, sometimes in unexpected directions, from a few central beliefs, and being interacted on by situational factors. Nobody is so ideological as to be entirely predictable. It has not so much that one has an ideology and always acts according to it, as in many cases that one espouses a strict ideology but imposes it in an irrational and inconsistent manner. It is brought out when appropriate and used as shorthand for argument.

But Zizek makes an important point about the functioning of ideology in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology, probably the single most enduring thing I’ve taken from Zizek’s writing:

[I]n contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, […] cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling irony is not meant to be taken seriously, or literally. Perhaps the greatest danger for totalitarianism is people who take its ideology literally […]. (Verso, 2008) p. 24.

It is perhaps through such a conception of ideology that the whole notion can be academically rehabilitated. The reigning ideology is cynicism; we don’t believe in the politico-economic systems within which we operate. But we do our not-believing while sitting in Starbucks. I know I do. Well, I don’t visit Starbucks that often, but I was in there yesterday for a coffee, and sat down and picked up my book. It was The German Ideology by Marx and Engels which I had just bought secondhand in Chapters. I was embarrassed to be there reading that. What sort of a poser, hipster type sits in Starbucks reading Marx? What sort of fraud? What sort of Zizekian theoretical cynic/ practical conformist? Given my knowledge of Zizek’s analysis, I couldn’t even drink the coffee ironically. That would be even worse!

What is to be done? Irony/ cynical distance is not the answer, but the fanaticism Zizek proposes is a questionable benefit, also. With deadlines to be met, and a busy day in front of the computer screen, who can resist a nice refreshing cup of coffee. Not the current author. Yet there stands the matter. In the absence of a coherent theory of Politics/ Things in General, I go along in the way of cynical distance and practical conformity, letting the ideology perpetuate itself as it acts through me. Within, I continue to debate all of these things compulsively, and it may yet all issue in some original and useful insight, an insight which will bring the ideological pillars of our society down around us, meaning that things standing on their heads will be back on their feet, and all things will be seen as they are, finally.

In short, I retain a belief in the possibility of epistemological security, an ability to really know things, and to see things as they are. Thus, contemporary theory is not wholly to my tastes. Deeply implicated as I am in academic practice, I yet aim to see things simply as they are, without a theoretical lens. So ideology remains a term I can use, because the presumption built into it that a non-ideological thought is possible is one I remain comfortable with – such knowledge is, indeed, my goal. Alas, this is somewhat naive, and I have yet to come up with a defense for it. Even in the absence of a defense, it remains my operating principle, which I think proves my point that practice and operating principles trump painstakingly devised theory every time. That is, one can construct a theory, but how does one know that “theory” is what one is “doing” when one writes? Knowledge being as contingent as it is, your knowledge of your own mode of applying theory is by no means guaranteed. You may be doing something quite other than theory.


Re-reading A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities may be the best-selling novel of all time. Wikipedia’s list of best-selling novels gives it top spot, but the citation for its sales is a Telegraph article by novelist David Mitchell in which he makes a passing comment to that effect. Other sources agree, but I’ve come up with nothing authoritative. Still others say Don Quijote or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. But the Tale is definitely up there. For the Dickensian, it’s an odd one. It is not very Dickensian, in some respects. It has little in the way of comedy, with only the grave-robber Jerry Cruncher playing a comic role, with his constant suspicions that his wife is “floppin'” against him. Even that has an uncomfortable edge of darkness in the suggestions of domestic abuse. Reading the book, I was reminded of George Orwell’s comment on Dickens:

He is all fragments, all details – rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.

The Tale is pretty short and streamlined, so it has very few gargoyles. If Orwell is right, it’s lacking the very thing that makes Dickens special. Ironic, then, that it’s apparently his most read book.

But the great advantage the book has had is its historical setting. The French Revolution remains fascinating as an example of things falling apart, humanity going way out there, a civilized society giving way to wholesale butchery of its own citizens. It is, and certainly was in the 19th-century, something that needs to be made sense of. Even very recently, Jonathan Nolan, co-scriptwriter of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) cited this as the reason he tried to draw on the Tale for his script:

A Tale of Two Cities was, to me, one of the most harrowing portraits of a relatable, recognizable civilization that completely folded to pieces with the terrors in Paris in France in that period. It’s hard to imagine that things can go that badly wrong.

So the book can appeal to the many people to whom the idea of literature in its purest form is uninteresting. This isn’t just literature; it’s an interpretation of a great and cataclysmic historical event. It’s both dramatic and instructive. There’s a way into the story for the non-literary. Dickens and his contemporaries would have been more aware of this element than many academic readers of today. They had read their Carlyle, for starters:

[L]et any one bethink him how impressive the smallest historical fact may become, as contrasted with the grandest fictitious event; what an incalculable force lies for us in this Consideration: The Thing which I hold here imaged in my mind did actually occur; was, in very truth, an element of the All, whereof I too form part; had, therefore, and has, through all time, an authentic being; is not a dream, but a reality! (“Biography”, 1832)

What Carlyle wanted, and what he got, was novelists using the raw materials of society and of history to construct their works upon. Fiction is not a realm apart, but is, to a great extent, a way of making sense of the world and of humanity.

And Dickens certainly had a message about the French Revolution and how his readers were to make sense of it, albeit a fairly obvious one: it was a result of aristocratic greed, selfishness and negligence. It was payback. If the peasants had been better treated, it wouldn’t have happened.

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. (Bk. II, Ch. 24)

This philosophy provides part of the architecture of the book: show the evils of the ancien regime, and then show the “harvest”. In the many reflections of such themes throughout the book, Dickens adopts a sternly portentous tone, contributing to the impression of humourlessness the book creates. It’s Dickens playing the role of the sage, incorporating his reading of Carlyle into his writing style. But it’s probably the seriousness of tone of this book that recommends it to latter-day readers like Jonathan Nolan. Indeed, the time may be ripe for a new adaptation of the Tale – incredibly, there doesn’t seem to have been a cinematic adaptation since the Dirk Bogarde one of 1958, according to an IMDb search. Maybe 2011-2012 would have been the time, with the Arab Spring, the European financial meltdown, and a generalized anger against political structures and politicians, for a Tale for our times.

Any new approach to the book would have to change a lot. Though Dickens’ humour is mostly absent, his other prominent characteristic of sentimentality is very much present. This centres mostly on the egregious Lucie Manette, one of the Dickensian dolls modern-day readers (me included) find insufferable. Despite the subject, there’s also a surprising smugness to Dickens’ portrayal of the English national character as it  is demonstrated by Jarvis Lorry and Mrs Pross. Lorry is the English man of business, associated with dullness, solidity and honesty. Pross represents the born servant, fit for little else but happy with her lot:

[Miss Pross was] one of those unselfish creatures—found only among women—who will, for pure love and admiration, bind themselves willing slaves, to youth when they have lost it, to beauty that they never had, to accomplishments that they were never fortunate enough to gain, to bright hopes that never shone upon their own sombre lives.

Her final struggle with Madame Defarge is a sort of stereotype death match, in which English self-denial, practicality, and honesty defeats French excitability and passion. Here again, Dickens reminds me of Carlyle, who had praised stupidity in Past and Present (Bk. III, Ch. 5) as being a predominantly English characteristic, and one allied with practicality and good sense. Dickens, like Carlyle, seems to be positing that for such people, national glory can and should be a substitute for any sort of commitment to oneself. For Dickens, Prossian self-denial is also dubiously linked with gender. She’s a little like the heroine of Flaubert’s “Un Coeur Simple” as a character, but the authorial ideology surrounding them is totally different, and Flaubert’s treatment of his protagonist is much more searching and less complacent.

So there’s quite a bit to cavil at in this book, as in most of Dickens. It has that wonderfully dramatic and iconic last scene, which can probably be pictured even by those who have never read the book, so deeply is it entrenched in cultural memory. As much as anything, it’s the iconography of the guillotine, awesome and terrible, that we think of when we think of the Tale, and that gives such resonance to the work. The intrinsic merits of the book, when divorced from its status as the pre-eminent fictional approach to a milestone in history, are not that great. But because that historical context is there, the Tale is still relevant to modern approaches to fictionalizing history, like The Dark Knight Rises. The book is a way in to all sorts of speculations about history and civilizational development. Like animals for certain Amazonian tribes, A Tale of Two Cities is “good to think”.

Elementary, Season 2

This is being written like a live blog, in a way, as I’m writing in my observations while watching season 2 of Elementary. Not watching them live, admittedly, but a much belated viewing of a complete series link. Not publishing them as I write them ,either, but as a single post when I get to the end of the current binge, which will take me past the half-way point of the series. So not much like a live blog, really. I like Elementary, maybe more than BBC Sherlock, which is kind of a minority position. Part of the reason Elementary got, particularly initially, a less enthusiastic press is because it is seen as a corporate cash-in on the success of its immediate precursor – reasonably enough, because CBS initially approached the BBC to ask if they could remake Sherlock for a US audience. They were refused, and so went ahead with an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes characters and genre, anyway.

But it was never notably like Sherlock. Both were updated to contemporary times, admittedly (the first [and second] time that’s been done in a major SH adaptation in a long while). Obvious novelties to Elementary were the female (and Asian) Watson played by Lucy Liu, and the setting in New York – though Holmes is still English, just expatriated. 

Episode 1

But the first episode of season 2 sees it moving towards Sherlock territory. Literally, for one: Sherlock and Watson go to London. Figuratively, also. Mycroft makes an appearance, and the constant sniping between him and Sherlock recalls the dynamic in the BBC series. There are even a couple of quotes lifted from Sherlock: Mycroft’s first reaction on meeting Watson is “Sherlock doesn’t have friends”; and Lestrade shushes Watson at one point on the grounds that “he [Sherlock} is doing that thing”. The “doing that thing” verbal phrase is used repeatedly in Sherlock to draw attention to Sherlock’s cleverness and his otherness.

At the end of the episode, there’s a nice nod to canon, when Sherlock says that art in the blood takes the strangest forms, recalling the line from “The Greek Interpreter”, the story in which Mycroft is introduced. These nods are always appreciated by readers of the stories, and it’s something that Sherlock is master at, interspersing episodes with diverse lines and references from different stories, illustrating that they really know the stories, even though they never adapt the plots directly and fully, and use the source dialogue only in small portions. 

Episode 2

Elementary is back in NYC, which is good. Watson is getting good  at detection in her new position as apprentice. So the solving of cases is carried on by conversations between Holmes and Watson, which is maybe more TV-friendly than Holmes doing it alone, but it’s a jarring change from the Holmes of other versions: the superman with the mind others can’t understand, never mind replicate. The notion of the apprentice is, in such a case, difficult to integrate. And it can’t progress: Watson can never begin to be as smart as Holmes, so even though Elementary seems to be going this way, it can’t. It is another point of difference with Sherlock, though, because the latter really relies on the befuddled Watson trope.

Episode 3

Sherlock pontificates on love: he thought it was a delusion, then he met Irene Adler, then he recovered from his infatuation with her and is now “post-love”. This is another thing it has in common with Sherlock, and out of common with Conan Doyle’s writing. In Conan Doyle, Holmes just isn’t into romantic love, and that’s it! There’s no mystery, no need to analyze his choice, no search for a pathology of which this is the symptom. The contemporary adaptations just can’t see it like this, though, and there’s an endless circling round Sherlock Holmes and love – fidelity to source keeps them from quite going there, but contemporary mores keep them from ignoring it.

Episode 6

Attention turns to Captain Gregson’s home life, when his wife, from whom he is undergoing a “temporary separation”, is accosted by a masked man in their house. Again, this turn towards fleshing out recurring characters, giving them a past and a life of their own, is very different from Conan Doyle’s approach. When CD was stuck for a plot, he recycled his old stories (“The Three Garribeds”) or used various of his recurring tropes, but he never went in for mining his characters’ depths. It intrigues me that this approach proves impossible for contemporary versions. It may, indeed, point to a whole different way of viewing personhood in these times. Is this all Freud’s influence? – that the persona/ego is now wholly distinct from the real self. This rather takes away from the original appeal of Holmes, which is that he is wholly and always himself – that is what makes him so admirable, such a role model and aspirational figure. Unattainable, perhaps, but a valuable presence in the cultural canon.

Episode 8

This one is interesting, doing something neither CD nor most adapters have really done: confronted the economics of being Holmes. In this case, Sherlock is a trust fund kid, still living in the old man’s block of apartments in his late 30s. This is probably the most realistic approach, and chimes in with the original idea of the detective in literature, predating CD:

‘Do you then propose, dear boy, that we should turn detectives?’ inquired Challoner.

‘Do I propose it?  No, sir,’ cried Somerset.  ‘It is reason, destiny, the plain face of the world, that commands and imposes it.  Here all our merits tell; our manners, habit of the world, powers of conversation, vast stores of unconnected knowledge, all that we are and have builds up the character of the complete detective.  It is, in short, the only profession for a gentleman. (R.L. Stevenson, The Dynamiter)

The detective is above all things a man of leisure, a man of means, who doesn’t need to earn a living, so can demand of life the type of work which is the most intrinsically engaging. He has escaped the cash nexus, as Carlyle says, the irony being that to do so one must have plenty of funds.

Also being brought up again in episode 8 is the pull of London. This isn’t something I’ve thought about much, geocriticism being not really my area, but it’s definitely an issue in Elementary. In this episode, Sherlock says New York is “American London”, so he doesn’t need the original London, but it’s interesting that such a justification is even needed, and the possibility of a return to London is mooted and remains at episode end. Some of CD’s most famous Holmes stories take place outside of London: Hound, obviously, “The Speckled Band”, “The Copper Beeches” and many others. But Elementary seems to very rarely leave the urban, and is haunted by London as the one truly canonical setting for a Holmes story.

 Episode 9

Watson is growing increasingly competent, and not just that, but increasingly assertive. She dictates the terms of the investigation to Holmes in this episode, and he accepts it. I’m finding it hard to wholly endorse this egalitarian dynamic. On another note, there are echoes of Sherlock again (“His Last Vow”), in that Holmes comes across a criminal so devious and so elusive that he has to go over to the dark side: in this case, he decides to frame him. But he doesn’t have to in the end.

More blarney about whether Sherlock has “changed” since meeting Watson: she says yes, he says no. Things get a bit tense.

Episode 12

Well, well, well, if it isn’t Moriarty. Back again. It’s odd to think that Moriarty was only in one Holmes story in the original canon. One, out of 56 stories and 4 novels. And as a blatant contrivance to suit Doyle’s purpose of killing off Holmes, at that. All the stuff about Moriarty being a spider at the centre of the web of London criminality was just invented for this story, and doesn’t appear in any of the others. (Though he is reintroduced for the late novel The Valley of Fear, where he is only talked about and never appears). Despite his marginality to the canon, adaptations always make him central, expanding on the spider-in-the-web claims and building them into overarching plots. I find Moriarty an unnecessary addition to Holmes stories. The idea that the evil Holmes fights is embodied in one single person is the sort of non-analytical reductionism that detracts from the purely rational conception of the character – everything can be read by Holmes, but needs to be read on its own account, as a unique set of circumstances. Bringing in Moriarty is too easy, and fundamentally melodramatic.

So, halfway through the series, I cease my binge, to be picked up at a later date. Elementary remains above the norm, in my opinion. The plots stretch credulity a bit, but they don’t have the really thoughtless dumbness of some Sherlock episodes; it also keeps the mystery element foregrounded a lot better than Sherlock – sure, it’s far more conscious of character exposition than Doyle, but it does it least keep a strong detecting framework to every episode, thus retaining the centrality of work to SH’s being, which to me is important in all good Holmes adaptations. Holmes needs to be about the work, that’s what marks him out. I like Lucy Liu’s Watson, too, though I would like to see a bit more differentiation in her methodology/competence as a detective compared to Sherlock’s. I like the imbalance in their relationship, the opposites-attract element, and don’t want to see it turning into a run-of-the-mill working partnership.

Gillian Beer’s Arguing with the Past

One of my favourite pieces of literary criticism/ theory is Gillian Beer’s “Introductory” in her Arguing With the Past (Routledge, 1989). Beer’s chapter is about unfinished and failed readings, and about reading as a debate, a struggle, an argument between the writer and the reader. It’s rather a reader-response theory type analysis she makes, though she’s not that indebted to the Isers, Jausses, Fishes of this world; instead, her style marks her out as an aficionado of the older humanist tradition, as indeed do many of her subject-choices. She also brings a certain eccentricity to the work, as seen in titling her opening “Introductory” rather than Introduction.

Her thesis, too, is by its nature (and its title) past-directed, concerned with “the encounter with otherness” (Arguing, 1) that is reading literature of a bygone time. Apparently, “the problem of how to think outside the accrued meanings of our time is one Professor Beer has pursued throughout her career“. This project intrigues me, partly because it provides a rationale for studying 19th-century literature at the expense of that of the 20th-century. It is because it is “an encounter with otherness”. A second point she makes in the opening paragraphs that resonates with me concerns reading as a solitary activity and, though it can be rendered communal, that is not its normal state. She goes further than this, finding that the self who reads is another self than the self who otherwise is:

We never read only ‘in our own person’. The writing is there before us; its words, its syntax, its narrative sequences organize our entry into the text and order our roles within it. (1-2)

I need to go back and read the chapter a few more times, as my reading is still unfinished, but what immediately attracts me about Beer’s position is that it includes both text and reader: neither exists independently, but neither can dominate the other, either. So, Barthesian as the abovequoted sentence sounds, she’s no Death of the Author-ist She develops this in the course of the book by looking at writers engaging with past reading as they are writing. It’s the unfinished reading, she says, that loom largest in the psyche of the writer. The approach makes sense in that the reader we can analyze in greatest detail is the reader who has gone on to write, who left a record of his/her reading in their own words.

All reading, Beer avers, is arguing with the past: the writing is already past, done, completed, when the reading takes place. Some readers are taken account of and anticipated in a work: the first readers; to know the first readers is to know the work in a more resonant way. It is also to guard against the narrow reading, the ideological reading, and here I think Beer may be warning against the Identity Politics so central to contemporary academic reading:

But reading only along the grain of our pressing cultural and personal needs […], may too easily become a matter of subjugating the text and evading the awkward questions it poses. the reader claims sovereignty. The text becomes the subject, and subjected. It falls silent or speaks only what the sovereign wishes to hear. (6)

There are, indeed, those who can only read in one way, who read a book only for one thing, and continue to read and use it only insofar as it can be read with the preconceived end in mind, and academics can fall into that category. But Beer wants a more capacious reading. The word she wants to centralize is a good one: complexity.

The privileging of complexity in literary works, objected to by some interpreters, is a privileging of contestation. Complexity challenges the reader by refusing single resolution, by offering questions we had not thought of, and suggestions not on our terms. It persuades the reader into experience not chosen. (6)

With such contestation comes, obviously, conflict, and here is where Beer brings in the nice idea of the “unfinished reading”, and its “return”. It’s easy to put a book down, cast it across the room or whatever, but that is not necessarily the end: “Reading does not stop when we close the book.” (8) What happens once you have dismissed or cast aside the book? That is what Beer goes into in the rest of the book.

I came across Arguing with the Past because it deals with Carlyle, and his unfinished reading of Kant. He couldn’t get through Kant, but he agonized over whether he was missing out or not; also discussed is reading Carlyle himself, and its dynamic, energizing qualities: “Carlyle’s style demands the reader’s resistance, and draws energy from that resistance.” (77) As good a summation of how Carlyle works, and how he worked on his contemporaries, as any.

I like Beer’s thinking in Arguing with the Past because it’s all about the messy and conclusionless way we as individuals and as communities deal with ideas and situations. There’s no end, no firm conclusions or lessons to be drawn. You just have to keep dealing with things as they come up, and let them sink into the brain attic (as Holmes would say) to come out again when and if needed. You don’t know at the point of initial reading what this means – at least, not what it means to you – and you may never know, all one can do is remain attentive to the shifts in thinking and perception that take place within.

And I like her attitude to the literature of the past, too. Such literature is by its nature challenging. They don’t think as we do – and yet, they kind of do. Most importantly, they don’t take for granted the same things we do; to really register this fact is to be able to take far fewer things for granted at all, both a challenge and a move, one hopes, towards intellectual independence.

To be challenged by a work is perhaps the most important feature it can have. This is important in thinking of Carlyle. We peg him as authoritarian, but his readers often were inspired in far other ways by him. The authoritarianism scarcely seemed to register with many of his 19th-century readers. In Jonathan Rose’s fascinating The Intellectual Life of the Britiish Working Classes (Yale UP, 2010), he includes a section on many working class socialist activists who were deeply moved and inspired by reading Carlyle. Even as he was idolizing the Great Man, Carlyle was denuding the establishment of its moral authority for his lower-class readers. Here’s one of his quotes, from an early 20th-century socialist named Helen Crawford:

He stripped naked the Law, the Church and many of the fraudulent shams of his day. I was deeply impressed by his denunciation of quackery masquering as Truth, his honour of honest work, his exposure of war, his gift of stripping people of all the vestures designed to overawe the simple – the bombazine gown, the horsehair wig of the judge, the Crown and Scepter of the Kings and Queens, the cheap snobbery of “Gigmanism”. (44)

So the end of Carlylean theory might indeed be blunt power-worship, but for such readers as Helen Crawford, that end barely appears; it’s about what happens first: the demystification of the symbols of imposture and oppression; the empowerment of the poor, downtrodden intellectual who was enabled to inwardly stand up to the ideology of power and its symbols that surrounded them. Carlyle truly was helping his readers to “think outside the accrued meanings of the time”, and if Rose’s research is an indication, he did it more successfully than almost any of his contemporaries, though Ruskin and Dickens also had many readers among working-class socialists. And, still now, reading Carlyle will force you to think outside the accrued meanings of the time, and that is still a gift. But the only way to read Carlyle is the unfinished reading, is to argue with him; it’s impossible to read him with total agreement, but the forced disagreement, even the necessary ultimate rejection, may itself be the beginning of a journey towards knowledge and open-mindedness.

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