The Victorian Sage

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

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 a frog 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.

Reflection prompted by George Saunders’ Acknowledgements in Tenth of December

My first experience of George Saunders was reading the short story collection Pastoralia some years back, the title story of which was one of the funniest reading experiences I’ve had. It’s a sharp satire on consumerism and modern business-speak as it infects the personal, and human relations in the age of the cash-neuxs, but, in typical Saunders style, it’s empathetic to all its characters. Saunders’ satire is without bitterness or rancour, two of the defining features of satire normally, one might have said. I’ve kept an eye on his stuff since, read some, usually enjoyed it, though nothing has repeated that first experience – the deep, uncontrollable laughter that is an effect books can rarely produce, on me at least. In fact, in the years since Pastoralia, I have only (being older and less inclined to laugh) encountered one more book that has had, to the best of my recollection, something like that effect on me – Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748), particularly the scene with the lady-poet writing her great soliloquy, which I blogged about before.

Saunder’s latest collection is Tenth of December (2013), which I’ve just picked up. I’ve read a couple of stories, no real reaction as yet, But what has provoked a response in me was the author’s acknowledgement, which I happened to glance at. In it, Saunders thanks his daughters, Caitlin and Alena. I know: awww, right? He does so as follows:

Caitlin and Alena: watching you all these years has taught me that goodness is not only possible, it is our natural state.

This kinda infuriates me: what kind of satirist worth his salt, or even human being of average observational and analytical skills, can come to this conclusion in this unequivocal way? Even if Caitlin and Alena are “naturally” “good”, what sort of a dumbass would use that as a basis on which to make judgements on the entire human race? It takes a lot of self-centredness to follow that train of thought. And if Saunders’ daughters are good, who’s to say that it’s because that’s a “natural state”? They’ve been brought up to be good, or more specifically, to be their parents’ idea of good, and they’ve stuck with that. But is that natural? How does this goodness work in general society? If human interaction throughout recorded history is a catalogue of not-goodness (which to a large extent it is), does that not begin to constitute the “natural state”, even if Mr. and Mrs. Saunders manage to bring up two perfect little poppets who touch moral perfection.

The possibility of the “naturally good” groups in society reminds me of the Victorian view of women, the angel in the house and so forth: reading certain Victorian texts, it can seem that the innocence of the female sex was the goal of all social and political activity – to keep that beautiful innocence alive, women had to be kept apart from everything, living a gilded and sheltered life supported by the work of the men in trade, colonialism, war, whatever. Conrad in Heart of Darkness says this – or you might say his narrator Marlow says it, but I think Conrad is basically Marlow, as I’ve explained before:

It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

There’s a degree of contempt detectable in Marlow’s tone here, but of course when it comes to his interview with Kurtz’s intended, in all her beauty and innocence, and with “the shade of truth upon her features”, he is careful to shield her from the facts of Kurtz’s life, and let her believe the beautiful lie. Yet still he associates her with truth – a totally ahistorical truth: a nebulous abstraction to justify the actual and real lies.

So was the Intended “naturally good”, or unnaturally so, or not good at all? If she was good, had she the right to be good, to be deliberately kept good, in a world of horror? It’s difficult to say, but I suggest that to use one’s own situation as proof of a goodness in human nature at the expense of much other evidence is unacceptably smug, and what is needed is much more reflection on the function of “goodness” in our discourse. So what, you might say, it’s just an acknowledgement. I guess this is where my tendency to take an auteur view of texts comes in – it might be an acknowledgement – paratextual, as it were – but it’s Saunders. It’s the author (I know, I’m living in the 50s, before Barthes wrote that one thing). If this is how he thinks about humanity, then I already think a little less of him. If his methodology is thinking about how great his daughters are, and extrapolating from that, then he’s not going to offer much insight. One of my least favourite groups are those parents who experience their children symbolically – perfect little angels, embodiments of goodness, innocence, etc. That’s just displaced narcissism – and not displaced very far, either. A good writer certainly should not fall into that trap; by all means celebrate your children’s individuality, but seeing them as a symbol of humanity as a whole – as a way of reading humanity as a whole – is just weird. And also dumb.

On Reading the Opening Pages of Wives and Daughters

Though one of the chapters of my thesis is to be on Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), my reading of Mrs G. has not been very extensive. I have looked into her other industrial novel, Mary Barton (1848), but have yet to finish it – not that it’s a bad novel, but that since I’ve undertaken my PhD this has become a pattern: reading, say, half a novel and then moving on. [1] This is because it’s important to sample things, to have a wide knowledge of any potentially relevant fiction and critical writing. If the relevance doesn’t become clear early on, then it’s probably not there. Maybe a dangerous notion, but necessary when there’s so much to be read. And one can talk intelligently about a half-read book. [2] When one gets used to textual analysis, a single chapter can easily be mined for instances with discursive potential, and one can find ways into one’s favoured [3] themes in most texts (always a good shortcut to having something to say, though one also hopes to be able to respond in a more open-minded fashion).

But back to Gaskell. I happened to see a good-condition second-hand copy of the Penguin edition, with introduction by Pam Morris, of Wives and Daughters (1866) in a charity shop some time back, and bought it. It’s not a must-read for my thesis, but as a connoisseur of 19th-century fiction, it’s one I should know. The novel begins thuswise:

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room—a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she wakened of herself “as sure as clockwork,” and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.

The first lines have the ring of a children’s story about them. The repetitions in the second sentence seem to recall the folk song “The Rattlin Bog”, called an Irish song by Wikipedia, but probably used elsewhere as well, as I remember a lewd variation being used in the Scottish film The Wicker Man (1973). But the “unseen power” is not a witch or wizard or any other characteristic inhabitant of fairy-land, but a domestic servant. Domestic servant as tyrant was a feature of North and South as well. In this novel, Dixon subverts Margaret Hale’s authority, and criticizes Mr Hale’s decision to move to Helstone, until there is a striking scene in which Margaret upbraids her sternly, with immediate results:

[Dixon], who would have resented such words from anyone less haughty and determined in manner, was subdued enough to say, in a half-humble, half-injured tone-

‘Mayn’t I unfasten your gown, Miss, and undo your hair?’ […]

From henceforth Dixon obeyed and admired Margaret […] Dixon, as do many others, liked to feel herself ruled by a powerful and decided nature.

In the context of the worker’s disquiet and strikes that were a feature of 1850s England, this assumption of mastery by the upper-classes, and, more importantly, the suggestion that this was exactly what the lower-classes wanted – to be ruled by a powerful and decided nature – recalls the Carlylean analysis of class-relations in Chartism (1839). The recurrence of the Bad Servant who effectively tyrannizes her employers so early in Wives and Daughters seems to point towards some serious ideological baggage that Gaskell carries regarding the serving classes.

It only takes another page or two for Gaskell’s love of feudal-style social power relations to come into focus (again, this seems to me to confirm some of the things I’ve written about North and South in the chapter draft I finished). She focuses on the area’s landlords, the Cumnors:

This was no unusual instance of the influence of the great land-owners over humbler neighbours in those days before railways, and it was well for a place where the powerful family, who thus overshadowed it, were of so respectable a character as the Cumnors. They expected to be submitted to, and obeyed; the simple worship of the townspeople was accepted by the earl and countess as a right; and they would have stood still in amazement, and with a horrid memory of the French sansculottes who were the bugbears of their youth, had any inhabitant of Hollingford ventured to set his will or opinions in opposition to those of the earl. But, yielded all that obeisance, they did a good deal for the town, and were generally condescending, and often thoughtful and kind in their treatment of their vassals.

So, there’s a dynamic of obedience or obeisance leading to proper and responsible use of power; disobedience, presumbably, leading to the opposite. Gaskell seems to exult in this dynamic in her writing, and to deplore all claims to particular consideration on the part of servants. In this regard, it will be interesting to see how Mrs Kirkpatrick is treated in the novel: from a vague knowledge of the plot, I believe she is to be somewhat of a villain. She, too, is already signalled in the early chapters as a servant who doesn’t know her place, who tries by her demeanor to place herself among the aristocrats of the novel’s society.

Pam Morris’ introduction communicates a certain unease about Gaskell’s ideological position. Like most favourable commentators on 19th-century fiction, she wishes to perform a liberal and progressive reading. She admits that “[a]t first glance it might seem that Wives and Daughters is staunchly behind the dominant domestic narrative of Victorian society”, but ends by claiming that “no nineteenth-century novel contains a more devastating rejection that this of the Victorian male assumption of moral authority.” I haven’t read far enough to know if this is accurate, but the liberal reading of canonical novels is always the one performed for the purpose of modern popular(ish) culture . Morris is, in any case, more concerned with the gender politics of the novel than with the class politics I have mentioned here, perhaps because most of Gaskell’s readership is assumed to be female, and perhaps also because the progressive class reading is more difficult to sustain, though that’s not to say that because Gaskell doesn’t strike me as a progressive writer her analysis isn’t interesting. North and South has probably the most articulate and sympathetic voice of trade unionism in Victorian fiction in Nicholas Higgins. The Thornton-Higgins power-struggle at the mill is certainly dealt with with more consideration and seriousness of purpose than the Margaret-Dixon struggle, which does strike me as rather polarized.

As for myself, I don’t know whether Wives and Daughters is destined to be another barely-read book on my list or will come to be finished. It’s a long one, 650 pages in this edition. I may just let it languish in the pile for a while, and await a specific motivation, academic or otherwise, which will allow me to make a really engaged reading.  For the days of open readings, of really committing to a book for love of the activity, with no thought for practicalities, are probably gone for me. I often find it hard to concentrate on such readings, as if I should be doing something more, something that goes somewhere, aims towards something. It is only when reading can be definable as somehow related to Work that I can settle into it give it my full concentration.


[1] In fact, I may make this the subject of my next post: a list of the half-read or barely read books on my Kindle at the moment.

[2] On the subject of which I must have a look at Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which sounds more interesting than the Literature-for-dummies style title implies.

[3] WordPress’s spell check tries to insist on “favored” here, but the OED disagrees

On Arguing about Politics

I generally avoid internet arguments, indeed arguments of any kind. The thing about a debate on a political/ moral/ sociological/ other big topic is that it immediately takes an adversarial colouring. One participant is defending one side, the other is defending the other side. Face-saving comes into play: the importance of not being wrong. Especially not being publicly wrong. This generally means that no quarter will be given. For the purpose of arguing, one cannot allow oneself to say, Maybe I could have thought this through more. Imagine an argument that ends with a Yeah, you’re right from one of the participants. It just doesn’t happen. One defines one’s position before the argument, and does everything to uphold it during the argument. Arguing, then, I consider to be an inherently polarizing process, and the reason that people argue is not in a search for truth, but  generally to define themselves in relation to a group which believes in a certain thing or behaves in a certain way. It’s about identification, arguing for something, and with somebody or some group. Together, a social grouping can develop a set of tools which allow them to answer any criticism, and do so in such a way that, while it may be unconvincing to those outside the group, will always convince insiders.

Buzzwords help towards this. In political discourse today (and I’m thinking specifically of leftist discourse at the moment), there are lots of buzzwords to which certain groups react in a predictable way. There are ways of defining people which make them enemies, and open them up to any sort of abuse that can be conceived. To own these buzzwords is to always win the support of one community (there’s an element of xenophobia at play); but, crucially, to always win the emnity of another. It’s safe, but non-progressive. Preaching to the choir, but never going beyond them, never even wanting to. Something similar has recently been articulated by Fredrik de Boer:

Online liberalism, as I’ve said many times, is not actually a series of political beliefs and alliances but instead a set of social cues that are adopted to demonstrate one’s class background– economic class, certainly, but more cultural class, the various linguistic and consumptive signals that assure those around you that you’re the right kind of person and which appear to be the only thing that America’s 20-something progressives really care about anymore.

Political discourse as a set of social cues is something I feel comes close to the mark in today’s internet culture. These cues are, as I said, polarizing: if you belong to that/ this group, then you definitely don’t belong to this/that group. The cue is put forward early (the site on which an article appears is often a very specific cue in itself), and everyone knows where they stand and where it’s going. A task that might be worthwhile, then, for anyone wishing to write on these things, is to try and scramble the signal: to avoid these cues (maybe impossible), to keep them weakish, to alternate the direction of cues – to keep the politically minded reader asking, Where is he/she coming from? What’s his/ her angle? Not making it easy to be owned. Creating an active reading in which the reader is forced to confront this apparently shifting position and can’t rest on easy cues. Political discussion is characterized by easily arrived at and trenchantly defended opinions – the more these opinions are flatly opposed, the more they are flatly asserted, the deeper they sink, and the less capable the holder becomes of moving beyond formulaic and ideological thinking.

Which is all to say that the best way to think about politics is sometimes not to think about politics. The best way to talk about politics is not to talk about politics – not explicitly anyway. This is where the critical thinking involved in humanities studies comes in. This is to a great extent what I want to do in my thesis (which is not explicitly political anyway, though it’s inflected with politics): it’s a matter of remembering that politics is a term of analysis more than of substance – it denotes certain structures and institutions, but also certain abstraction that can’t be separated out from the whole of the mental and social processes we go through. It is an element in relation with other elements in a whole way of life, in Raymond Williams’ formulation (Long Revolution, Kindle: Parthian, loc 1315). If one has to be theoretically vague about it, that seems to be better than the alternative – to be excessively definite about it, excessively sure about it. Being sure about something politically is so often down to a refusal to confront the psychological and psycho-social roots of one’s own beliefs, the ideological and community-derived sources of political opinion, that it’s a stance more often harmful than helpful. And to begin to argue from a sense of certainty cheaply bought is the end of any possibility for critical thinking.

Reading Heart of Darkness and Conrad’s Biography

I’ve read all of Joseph Conrad’s major works - Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Nostromo (still haven’t gotten around to finishing the last one, though) – plus several of the not-so-major ones, and have yet to really “get” what it is about him that has inspired such tributes from experts and literary critics. The Guardian are currently running a series of the 100 best novels of all time, and the recently published entry for Heart of Darkness shows how that book remains a central text of 20th-century literature, and a uniquely provocative piece of work. The short and rather insubstantial synopsis of HoD by Robert McCrumb has attracted no less than 332 comments – far more than any other in the series (David Copperfield, for example, only gets 38). The general consensus in these comments is interesting, in that it’s anti-Achebean; that is, it doesn’t accept the view famously put forward by Chinua Achebe that Conrad shows himself in this work to be a “bloody racist”. Rather it takes the searing-indictment-of-colonialism line, or else the ahistorical allegory-for-human-condition line. Both, obviously, are likely to produce reactions more favourable to the novel than the bloody-racist view. These were the views critiqued by Achebe, but they have evidently recovered and remain the dominant readings.

The searing-indictment-of-colonialism line is one that I have always found it difficult to get behind. That wasn’t how it struck me on my first reading of the novel many years ago, and it still doesn’t strike me that way. One key passage is often quoted:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . .

This passage is quoted by a poster calling himself “lurgee” on the Guardian page linked above; for the poster, it shows how Marlowe “understands the hollowness of the idea [of colonialism]“. To me, it shows the exact opposite – finishing on the idea of redemption for colonialism, even though it’s admitted to be very unpleasant in practice. I think that HoD, in short, can be seen as more or less an indictment of the practice of colonialism (or a specific practice, even), while remaining a defence of the idea. What I find objectionable in this is that it reads to me like Conrad’s message is that the idea always trumps the practice/ reality. That’s what the closing scene with the Intended is about: the practice/ reality of colonialism in the Congo is painted as horrendous, but even so, Marlow insists that the idea must be protected by the lie to the intended. Here I think Conrad is very Carlylean indeed. Carlyle’s central idea was of the importance of faith, as opposed to material reality:

Faith is properly the one thing needful; how, with it, Martyrs, otherwise weak, can cheefully endure the shame and the cross; and without it, Worldlings puke up their sick existence, by suicide, in the midst of luxury. (Sartor Resartus)

One can also draw a line here to Slavoj Žižek’s definition of ideology, as being related to the as if. The ideologist doesn’t really believe, but acts as if he/ she does. In a cynical, post-theological world, it is through the as-if ideologists that ideology is saved (The Sublime Object of Ideology). And this is Marlow: he doesn’t believe – in fact, he knows he’s speaking untruthfully – but he feels that the beautiful illusion should be perpetuated, even though it’s a mask for exploitation. The pretence of belief is still better than the admission that it’s all a sham. It’s the ideology of the cynic – the dominant form of ideology in contemporary society, according to Žižek. In this, the book really does reveal a “modernist” consciousness.

This probably begs the key point that separates searing-indictment readers from bloody-racist readers: Marlow. How do we read Marlow? Searing-indictmenters will see Marlow as your prototypically modernist unreliable narrator; bloody-racisters will see him as an avatar for Conrad himself. I tend to the latter view.  The term “unreliable narrator” originates with Wayne Booth, who wrote:

For lack of better terms, I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not. (The Rhetoric of Fiction)

Are the norms of HoD different from those espoused by Marlow? The provisional and blog post-ish nature of this analysis (so-called) will be clear when I say that I don’t remember any point in the narrative where this is apparent. There is no narrative outside Marlow bar the framing narrative, which is only a tiny proportion of the word count, and which provides little direct reflection on Marlow. But, then again, what description it does provide of Marlow is patently admiring, not to say worshipful. Think of the visual description:

Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.

There’s a definite sense in the descriptions of Marlow that’s he’s being presented as some sort of sage, a holder of mysterious knowledge beyond the ken of the frame narrator. So if Marlow doesn’t overtly reveal any unreliability, and the frame narrator paints Marlow in rather heroic colours, the only possible way to see Marlow as unreliable is by using the concept of irony.

Irony, quoth the OED, is: “[t]he expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect”. If one sees Conrad as being very ironic indeed throughout HoD, one can say that Marlow is unreliable. But is HoD as ironic as all that? There are moments of irony, certainly, perhaps even a persistent strain of irony, but to see Marlow as unreliable, one would have to posit HoD as being almost totally and wholly ironic because a) almost the whole book is seen through Marlow and b) Marlow is overtly reliable: he’s knowledgeable, articulate, evidently competent at his job, respected by the only other consciousness we’re given access to (the frame narrator).  I’m not inclined to read HoD as being that weighted with irony, and I would suggest that a knowledge of Conrad’s life and politics very much supports the Marlow-is-reliable position (which in turn tends to, I would suggest, undermine or at least complicate the searing-indictment reading).


Biographical readings of literature aren’t really fashionable in academia. One could blame the whole postmodernist author-is-dead-Barthes-Foucault thing for this, but in any case, using the author’s life or personality to explain his work is more associated with biography these days than with literary criticism. But I think it can’t be ignored. As a reader (as opposed to a student of literature), I have always tended to look to the biographies of writers I’m interested in to complement and clarify my reading of their work. And knowledge of Conrad makes it clear that Marlow served for him as a kind of idealized self. Idealized above all in the fact of his being English, for Conrad was above all things an Anglophile. This should be remembered when assessing the attitude to colonialism in HoD. In the text of the story itslelf, Conrad differentiates sharply between British imperialist practice and all the other kinds:

 [A] large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red [the colour denoting colonies of Britain]—good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer.

Real work is equated with British colonialism, and British colonialism alone. So for the first readers of HoD, on its serialization in Blackwood’s, there is an indication that their own feelings of patriotism are not being challenged – indeed, they’re being in this passage strengthened by the force of the contrast with all of the Bad Imperialism that’s going on among the continental powers. And this was pretty much exactly Conrad’s own view. Speaking of the Boers of South Africa, he wrote:  “They have no idea of liberty, which can only be found under the British flag all over the world”  (Meyer , Joseph Conrad [Kindle], p. 81). In terms of Anglophilia, its hard to disentangle Conrad’s politics from his personal ambitions and his attempts to fit in. His friend and sometime colloborator Ford Madox Ford noted that “[his] ambition was to be taken for – to be! – an English country gentleman of the time of Lord Palmerston” (Meyer, p. 128). Conrad never fully played the role in real life: his accent always gave him away; his pronunciation was frequently way off. But in fiction he managed it through Marlow, who Meyer sees as the author’s “alter-ego” (p. 190). Marlow was urbane and wise, restrained and understated in a gentlemanly fashion, and above all English.

So, at least, I have always seen the character, and reading Conrad’s biography has, for me, confirmed it. Biography always forms a part of my methodology for interpreting literary works. The work is not a freestanding entity, but was always created by a particular individual with particular experiences, ideals, prejudices, circumstances and what not. And when you bear that in mind for HoD, the savage-indictment line doesn’t really hold up, or is at best half the story.


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