The Victorian Sage

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

Patrick Kavanagh, the Bard of Sexual Frustration and Bad Faith

As it is St. Patrick’s Day, it is opportune to look back on one of the greatest Irish poetic works of the 20th century, Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger“, a longish poem taking up 31 pages in the 2018 Penguin Modern mini-book The Great Hunger. To an Irish person the phrase the great hunger brings to mind the famine of the 1840s, in Irish an Gorta Mór, literally the great hunger. Yet, though Kavanagh’s title clearly evokes this meaning, that is not what the poem is about at all.

The hunger for Kavanagh is sexual. It is the frustration of the rural Irish bachelor, living and working on the land:

Which of these men
Loved the light and the queen
Too long virgin? Yesterday was summer. Who was it promised marriage to himself
Before apples were hung from the ceilings for Hallowe’en?
We will wait and watch the tragedy to the last curtain

The tragedy for Kavanagh is the life devoted to the land at the expense of any meaningful human relationships. This type of devotion to the land tends to be associated with the rural Irish male. In popular culture, the figure of Bull McCabe in Jim Sheridan’s film The Field (1990), based on a 1965 John B. Keane play, is the exemplar, played by the aging Richard Harris: a powerful, monolithic presence, obsessed by the land he has slaved his whole life over. Bull does have a wife, but he hasn’t spoken to her in sixteen years at the film’s opening.

Richard Harris as Bull McCabe

In the context of the west of Ireland, where the film was set and filmed, the character of Bull McCabe makes sense. The land is stony and unyielding, where it is not boggy and sodden. To turn a small plot into pasture was the work of a lifetime – and still is, though now there are easier ways of making a living in a globalised Ireland.

Bull McCabe is an angry man, bereft of the softer human emotions; ultimately, when his land is threatened, he is a violent one. Yet he is a tragic hero, because of his monumental integrity, his work ethic and his love of the land he has developed from waste. He remains a hugely relatable figure, and the film remains one of Ireland’s most popular. (Though outside the country, it gained less traction than Sheridan’s other films from that era, My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father. Thus, one must conclude that it is a less universal film, a more purely Irish one.)

Kavanagh does not draw a McCabe-type figure, though. Rather, he gives us an interesting variation on the stern, rock-hewn patriarch. Kavanagh’s protagonist, Paddy Maguire, can do a decent McCabe impression:

‘Move forward the basket and balance it steady

In this hollow. Pull down the shafts of that cart, Joe,

And straddle the horse,’ Maguire calls.

‘The wind’s over Brannagan’s, now that means rain.

Graip up some withered stalks and see that no potato falls

Over the tail-board going down the ruckety pass –

And that’s a job we’ll have to do in December,

Gravel it and build a kerb on the bog-side. Is that Cassidy’s ass

Out in my clover? Curse o’ God

Where is that dog?.’

Yet he has an inner life very different from the persona he projects:

And thought himself wiser than any man in the townland

When he laughed over pints of porter

Of how he came free from every net spread

In the gaps of experience. He shook a knowing head

And pretended to his soul

That children are tedious in hurrying fields of April.

Thus Kavanagh introduces the idea of pretence into the portrayal of the Irish rural male. Not only has the life he has chosen cut Maguire off from intimacy and emotional expression, but it forces him into pretending that these things are inconsequential to him. Not only can he not attain these things, he must pretend indifference to them. No other presentation of self is acceptable in Kavanagh’s rural Ireland. Maguire’s lust has few outlets:

He saw his cattle

And stroked their flanks in lieu of wife to handle.

Maguire has no apparent father figure, but has a complex relationship with his overbearing mother with whom he lives until her death at an advanced age. It is principally through her that the ideology of his society imprints itself:

Now go to Mass and pray and confess your sins

And you’ll have all the luck,’ his mother said.

He listened to the lie that is a woman’s screen

Around a conscience when soft thighs are spread.

And all the while she was setting up the lie

She trusted in Nature that never deceives.

But her son took it as literal truth.

Maguire’s mistake, then, is taking the things he is taught too literally, believing too much in the dominant ideology. One is reminded of Žižek on the workings of contemporary ideology:

[I]n contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian […] cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling ideology is not meant to be taken seriously or literally.”’ Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 2008), p. 24

Yet even Žižek did not apply this to Catholic Ireland, a place which, while dark and joyless, seemed never less than sincere as far as its struggling rural working class went. What we learn from reading The Great Hunger is that, to some of them at least, they were conscious of living a lie, one which they had bought into early in life, and could no longer escape except in the solitude of their own minds. This precise form of rural Irish bad faith we can only find depicted in Kavanagh, who was far closer to this life than any other major Irish literary figure.

Armed Eyesight: Metaphor in Carlyle and in 21st-century Economics

One might be tempted to think that the Carlylean figure of the sage or man of letters is no more. That there was a way of knowing the world articulated by 19th-century sages that can no longer be accessed, for good or ill. Yet echoes of the sage mode of discourse can be found among modern intellectuals and academics. Most ironically, economics may be the 21st-century equivalent of sage writing. Ironic because Carlyle famously described economics (then known as political economy) as the “dismal science”, and indeed railed against it at every opportunity.

It was a dismal science to Carlyle because of its reduction of people to productive units. Carlyle noted that the final consequence of this was that people were not valuable in themselves, but only in how they contributed to the overall economic situation. Thus a person who was not economically viable had no personal value, and was better off dead, being a drain on resources rather than a producer. This capitalistic phenomenon of a person being unable to find work was on that struck Carlyle forcefully:

A full-formed Horse will, in any market, bring from twenty to as high as two hundred Friedrichs d’or: such is his worth to the world. A full-formed Man is not only worth nothing to the world, but the world could afford him a round sum would he simply engage to go and hang himself. (Sartor Resartus, III, IV)

Carlyle rejected what he saw as the implicit premise of political economy that human worth was defined by economic factors, and so the calculations political economists made were anathema to him. He valued such systematic thought little, and instead envisioned the true intellectual as one who took a the widest, most inclusive view possible. The intellectual, for Carlyle, was the one who saw everything, and saw through everything. There was no end to the cultural artefacts that could be read by the true sage. In Sartor Resartus, for example, it is clothes which prove to be transcendentally revealing when seen through the eyes of a sage, and which indeed ranks for Carlyle above any more established field of study:

[T]his Science of Clothes is a high one, and may with infinitely deeper study on thy part yield richer fruit: that it takes scientific rank beside Codification, and Political Economy, and the Theory of the British Constitution; nay rather, from its prophetic height looks down on all these, as on so many weaving-shops and spinning-mills, where the Vestures which it has to fashion, and consecrate, and distribute, are, too often by haggard hungry operatives who see no farther than their nose, mechanically woven and spun?

Carlyle’s point was that this superlatively revealing element of our everyday environment was not considered a science, and so he was demonstrating that far beyond scientific disciplines could knowledge of humanity and society be gained. By treating the study of clothes as a science, Carlyle was parodying scientific discourse, but was also making a very serious point about the necessity to learn from and be attentive to everything in our social and natural environment. To insist on a rigidly disciplinary approach was thus, for Carlyle, to very precisely miss the point. And this disciplinary point-missing Carlyle saw exemplified in the dismal science of Political Economy:

It was a matter of vision, of being able to really see things, and see through things:

The beginning of all Wisdom is to look fixedly on Clothes, or even with armed eyesight, till they become transparent. (SR, Bk. 2, Ch. II)

The irony, then, is that contemporary economics sometimes posits itself as exactly the kind of science of everyday life that Carlyle was looking for. In Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist, the economist is the person who can look on the everyday and find hidden patterns and meaning therein. On the cover, the following quote from David Bodanis appears:

Reading this book is like spending an ordinary day wearing X-ray goggles.

It would be interesting to know how Carlyle would have felt about the X-ray metaphor. The technology of the X-ray had yet to come into being in the mid-19th century, however, so the metaphor was unavailable to him. Yet his metaphor of armed eyesight is very close. So Carlyle conceptualised the activity of philosophising in a very similar way to Bodanis’ conception of economics.

And in the opening lines of The Undercover Economist proper, Harford again emphasises visual metaphors:

[N]ormal people look remarkable in the eyes of economists. What is the economist seeing? What could he tell you, if you cared to ask? And why should you care? (1)

This is an attractive view of the economist, as one who simply looks upon everyday things, but rather than seeing only what we see, seeing through them to a deeper reality.

Yet, we cannot quite declare Harford to be a neo-Carlylean. Rather than looking on things with impartial curiosity, he brings to bear on them an astounding preconception:

[F]ree markets are just like Fletcher Reede’s son [in the film Liar Liar] – they force you to tell the truth. (60)

Harford believes that nothing that lacks value can survive in a free market, because people will only pay what an object is “worth”. Taxes, he believes, interfere with this “world of truth”.

Now you can begin to see why I say that prices “tell the truth” and reveal information […].[T]he value of the product to the customer is equal to or higher than the price; and the cost to the producer equal to or lower than the price. (62)

There are innumerable problems with this theory: what about alcohol to the alcoholic, a bet to the gambler, junk food to the unhealthy? Are these “worth” their price, or is their value actually negative? That is, these people appear to be paying to harm themselves.

Again, if the value of something is intrinsic and equal to price, why would a multi-million dollar advertising industry exist to convince people to buy, while also pushing up prices to pay for itself. Would not a true world of market truth abolish all advertising except the strictly informational?

Harford admits that the pure market as world of truth does not exist, yet insists on using it as a justification for the free market throughout the book. He does not address the issue that one could just as easily imagine a perfect socialist society, say, or a perfect anarchist society or any such arrangement. Why is it valid to imagine free market perfection and not those others?

In short, it is ultimately clear that Harford is looking at things through a very restrictive lens, seeing things not as they are but as they would be in a perfect free market. This is in line with an economist’s training, but seeing things from a Carlylean perspective, it is far from acceptable, and such a thinker runs the risk of becoming what Carlyle called “a Pair of Spectacles behind which there is no Eye” (SR, I, X). To really see through the phenomena of everyday life, as Harford nobly attempts, would take a far lesser attachment to any such politico-structural ideal without a real-world existence. Sometimes, in short, an excess of theory is a greater epistemological flaw than no theory at all.

Thomas Carlyle and the Mind as Algorithm

In a recent post I reflected on the notion of human beings as algorithms that Yuval Noah Harari states is the current scientific consensus. Harari sums up this position as follows:

1. Organisms are algorithms, and humans are not individuals–they are ‘dividuals’. That is, humans are an assemblage of many different algorithms lacking a single inner voice or a single self.

2. The algorithms constituting a human are not free. They are shaped by genes and environmental pressures, and take decisions either deterministically or randomly–but not freely.

3. It follows that an external algorithm could theoretically know me much better than I can ever know myself. An algorithm that monitors each of the systems that comprise my body and my brain could know exactly who I am, how I feel and what I want. Once developed, such an algorithm could replace the voter, the customer and the beholder. Then the algorithm will know best, the algorithm will always be right, and beauty will be in the calculations of the algorithm. (383)

[T]wenty-first-century technology may enable external algorithms to ‘hack humanity’ and know me far better than I know myself. Once this happens the belief in individualism will collapse and authority will shift from individual humans to networked algorithms. (384)

You may not agree with the idea that organisms are algorithms, and that giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. But you should know that this is current scientific dogma, and it is changing our world beyond recognition. (429)

We live in the age of Big Data, in which algorithms – sets of instructions telling computers what to do – are used in all fields, from the medical to traffic control, and Harari demonstrates very easily that the algorithm is central to our experience of the world. Nevertheless, the scientific dogma he cites may be entirely erroneous.

The notion of the algorithm entirely predates the current age of information technology, originating in 1600BC Babylon. Yet it never until very recently seemed to provide a likely basis for human existence. So engrossed are we in algorithmic knowledge that we see ourselves reflected in it. We can no longer conceive of ourself as anything but algorithmic, so dependent are we on algorithms for our technological, economic and social development.

To understand the inherent dangers in such metaphorical thinking, we need to re-examine what happened at the height of the industrial revolution, at a time when the development of the machine was the dominant technological and social fact. Thomas Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times” (1829) is a key reflection on the Industrial Age. Carlyle noted:

It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance. For the simplest operation, some helps and accompaniments, some cunning abbreviating process is in readiness. Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster. The sailor furls his sail, and lays down his oar; and bids a strong, unwearied servant, on vaporous wings, bear him through the waters. Men have crossed oceans by steam; the Birmingham Fire-king has visited the fabulous East; and the genius of the Cape were there any Camoens now to sing it, has again been alarmed, and with far stranger thunders than Gama’s. There is no end to machinery. Even the horse is stripped of his harness, and finds a fleet fire-horse invoked in his stead. Nay, we have an artist that hatches chickens by steam; the very brood-hen is to be superseded! For all earthly, and for some unearthly purposes, we have machines and mechanic furtherances; for mincing our cabbages; for casting us into magnetic sleep. We remove mountains, and make seas our smooth highways; nothing can resist us. We war with rude Nature; and, by our resistless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils.

Note how Carlyle begins with the categorization of machinery into inward and outward. We all know the outward developments of the time – the steam engine, the power loom – but the notion of inward machinery is also worth noting. Carlyle argues that the outward dominance of the machine produces effects within the human psyche and within our conception of what we are. One of the most famous lines of “Signs of the Times” runs: “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.” By working constantly with machinery, and by an unquestioning faith in machinery, people were beginning to relate themselves to machinery, to define themselves in relation to machinery.

Through the 19th and early 20th century, developments in science tended to posit the human mind itself as a machine. This metaphor continued at least as far as Freud:

[D]uring much of Sigmund Freud’s life, the dominant technology was steam power. It was as omnipresent a century ago as computers are for us today. Not surprisingly, Freud chose the steam engine metaphor to describe what he called the ‘apparatus’ of the human mind—in which ‘psychic energy’ flows in a ‘psycho-dynamic’ system, and can neither be created nor destroyed.      

The steam engine is no longer a technology of such importance, thus the notion of creating a theory of the mind from it strikes us as extremely odd (though a remnant of this thinking has survived in the use of the figurative phrase “letting off steam” to describe emotional release). Nevertheless, when we think how the rise of the algorithm has affected scientists’ approach to the mind, we can begin to understand Freud’s thought processes. And indeed, reading the mind in terms of dominant or emerging technology is older even than the industrial revolution. The mind and consciousness were then, and to an almost equal extent remain still, a mystery – the last frontier, the one truly hard problem“, faced with which, the enquiring mind resorts to metaphor as a denial of mystery. It may turn out that algorithms have something to tell us about the mind, but the history of mechanical metaphors of mind indicate that this “something” will be far less than all, and that the study that sees algorithms in the mind is unwittingly metaphorical rather than scientific.


Article by Rodney A. Brooks calling for the retirement of the computational metaphor for mind and body

The Haunting of Hill House (2018): The Easter Egg Adaptation

The 2018 Netflix series adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) has garnered significant acclaim, with a 93% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Jackson’s novel is a slim volume, coming in at only around 200 pages in an average edition. The series itself turns this into ten episodes, ranging in length from 42 to 70 minutes. It is clear, then, that there will be a great deal of extra material in the adaptation, a matter of expansion rather than condensation.

Indeed, the film is not a traditional adaptation, if we take Linda Costanzo Cahir’s definition of the traditional adaptation as one which

maintained the overall traits of the book (its plot, settings, and certain stylistic conventions), but revamped particular details as the filmmakers saw fit. (Literature into Film: Theory and Practical Approaches, McFarland, 2006, Kindle loc. 348)

The Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House has a basic plot of a psychic researcher inviting a small group of people to inhabit a notorious haunted house for a certain period, leading to apparent manifestations of supernatural activity centring around one of the inhabitants (Eleanor/Nell), whose mental health undergoes a rapid deterioration. Almost the entire novel, aside from flashback episodes, takes place in the space of less than a week. The serial, focalised on a family who move around because of their parents’ jobs as fixer-uppers and end up in a possibly haunted house, definitely doesn’t retain the novel’s plot in an overall sense, and the setting only partially.

The setting within which the plot takes place is widened. For Jackson, all the action after the first chapter takes place in Hill House or on the grounds thereof. That lends a claustrophic feel from which the novel derives much of its power. The famous opening paragraph of the novel immediately foregrounds Hill House itself, and adds some anthropomorphic elements which become a feature:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Hill House, then, is not sane, and as such, is human. The actual physical description of Hill House begins in the first paragraph of Chapter Two:

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.

Hill House evinces watchfulness, glee, arrogance, hatred, evil. Not only is it upsetting and frightening in its anthropomorphism, but it is terrifying geometrically:

Eleanor shook herself, turning to see the room complete. It had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest possible tolerable length.

In Chapter Four, Dr Montague confirms that the house is not quite right geometrically. It was built that way:

Have you not wondered at our extreme difficulty in finding our way around? An ordinary house would not have had the four of us in such confusion for so long, and yet time after time we choose the wrong doors, the room we want eludes us. […]

Every angle is slightly wrong. Hugh Crain must have detested other people and their sensible squared-away houses, because he made his house to suit his mind. Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction or another. I am sure, for instance, that you believe that the stairs you are sitting on are level, because you are not prepared for stairs which are not level—”

They moved uneasily, and Theodora put out a quick hand to take hold of the balustrade, as though she felt she might be falling.

“—are actually on a very slight slant toward the central shaft; the doorways are all a very little bit off centre—that may be, by the way, the reason the doors swing shut unless they are held…”

It’s not just Eleanor’s possibly skewed perception. It all adds up to a seriously powerful setting. We can easily engage with the idea that Eleanor will find it difficult to escape Hill House. Even to the reader, Hill House provides a heady mix of dizzying geometry and emotional overload.

The serial uses the setting of Hill House, and some of Jackson’s words, but it also sets extensive action in other locales, ranging from a drug treatment centre to a funeral parlour. Some episodes steer almost entirely clear of Hill House.

Jackson’s novel follows the four characters gathered in Hill House: Dr Montague, Eleanor, Theodora and Luke. There are a few bit-part characters in the early sections, most notably in terms of dramatic relevance Eleanor’s sister; there is a little of Mrs Dudley and a single appearance by Mr Dudley; and in the latter part there is the introduction of Dr Montague’s wife and her friend Arthur. It is worth noting that in the highly regarded and generally faithful 1963 film adaptation of the book, entitled The Haunting, Arthur is omitted, and certainly his absence does not leave any hole in the plot, nor does it seem to have been much lamented by reviewers. In the book, he and Mrs Montague come in as essentially comic relief, and, while they do not detract from the power of the novel, they are perhaps its most forgettable and narratively inessential element.

Promotional poster for The Haunting (1960)

In the Netflix series there is a greatly expanded cast of characters. Almost all of the original characters are there, nominally at least. The main exception is Dr Montague, a character central to Jackson’s plot, as without him and his paranormal research, there is no gathering at Hill House. But he (as well as Mrs Montague and Arthur) is missing.

But rather than a faithful adaptation of Jackson’s characters, we have really only a nominal adaptation. We have a character called Nell, but it is not clear that she has anything to do with the supposed original. Jackson’s Eleanor/Nell is a woman in her 30s: her background is one of an adult life spent nursing her mother, who has died recently; her only other relative is her sister, who she dislike; she has no friends and no job. Her personality is deeply shy, crippingly self-conscious, achingly lonely. None of this can be mapped on to Netflix Nell, who is much younger, of a totally different family background and life experience, and not apparently afflicted by any of the painful self-consciousness that is the defining trait of Jackson’s Nell. Both Nells are indeed very sensitive, but their different makers had contrasting ideas of what it means to be sensitive.

Nell (Victoria Pedretti) in the Netflix series.

Almost all of the main characters have Jacksonian names. One of them is called Shirley. This is, clearly enough, a reference of sorts to the novel, but, also clearly, not to a character in he novel, but to its author. Similarly, there is a book called The Haunting of Hill House in the series, but it is not written by the character called Shirley. Instead Shirley is merely a character therein. This book is not a novel, either, but a factual account of events that occurred to the series’ characters, written by one of them – Steven Crain. Again, the name Crain is a reference to the family who built the house in the novel, but Steven Crain is not a character from the novel. The funeral parlour is called Harris, a reference not to the novel or to Jackson, exactly, but to the actress who played Nell in the first film, Julie Harris. Recognition of this reference demands knowledge not only of the novel, but of other related media content.

So, what we get in The Haunting of Hill House is not a traditional adaptation taking plot, setting and character from its source. Rather it is a work which creates an original plot, and makes a point of sewing it with a plethora of intriguing but non-structural references to the work indicated by its title. Watching it, I was often struck by the idea that if the series simply changed the names, it would not have to acknowledge Jackson’s novel as a source at all, as it is barely more reminiscent of the novel as it is of various other works in the genre.

As such, The Haunting of Hill House reminds me of such recent adaptations as the series Sherlock, which presents itself clearly as an adaptation, but takes neither the setting nor the plots from the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, it sews the episodes with references to the putative source, Easter eggs (I called them “canonical indicators” in my post on this element of Sherlock) for the discerning viewer who is familiar with the source. An Easter egg is defined by Urban Dictionary as “A hidden item placed in a movie, television show, or otherwise visual media for close watchers.” Thus the knowing viewer garners by recognition of the hidden item a surplus enjoyment unavailable to the unknowing viewer. Yet at a characterological level, Sherlock does definitely owe its central characters to Doyle, so it is still closer to a traditional adaptation than The Haunting of Hill House.

Michael Huisman as Steven Crain in The Haunting of Hill House.

For works of canonical literature, like Doyle’s, or semi-canonical, like Jackson’s, the traditional adaptation may be dying. What is replacing it is the Easter Egg Adaptation, which delights the reader-viewer with oblique references to the pseudo-source, and caters to the viewing-viewer by presenting a story where, at the structural level, the contemporary trumps the classical. Because Easter eggs are at the level of detail rather than structure, the makers are not bound by fidelity. Because adaptations have a specific (series of) reference point(s), they are more suited to the Easter egg approach than other films. Thus Jackson’s story of lonely and desperate individuality can rather easily become a triumphant story of the working through of troubled family relationships. The ultimate demonstration of this is in the closing voiceover from Steven Crain:

Hill House, not sane, stands against its hills, holding darkness within. It has stood so for a hundred years, and might stand a hundred more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet neatly, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And those who walk there, walk together.

It is that final line which is most significant, substituting walk together for Jackson’s walked alone. A precise inversion of meaning at the final moment. Appropriating the solemn affect of Jackson’s prose in order to tell a human story which is revealed to be the exact opposite of the novel, which is nevertheless clearly referenced. From individuality to family connection, from tragedy to triumph, from horror to love. (“Love”, Steven piously notes just before this, “is the relinquishment of logic […]. Without it, we cannot continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” Taken word-for-word, these are almost exactly Jackson’s words; nevertheless, the sentiment is entirely different.)

What this Easter Egg adaptation wants from its source are moments, and the recurrence of isolated references which provide a viewing pleasure in themselves. What it doesn’t need are the specifics of Jackson’s plot, and what it steers far away from is the Jackson worldview of individuals living their personal tragedies alone, barely noticed and unredeemed.

The Dawn of Algorithmic Man, or an Even Worse Death

Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus (2016) chronicles the (as he sees it) ongoing death of humanism, which Nuval sees as the “religion” that has dominated the world for 300 years. It is to be replaced by Dataism, the belief in the wisdom of algorithms, which are beginning already to know us better than we know ourselves, and which will soon be making decisions on all our behalves:

You may not agree with the idea that organisms are algorithms, and that giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. But you should know that this is current scientific dogma, and it is changing our world beyond recognition. (429)

It is perhaps unnerving to contemplate the approaching death of human subjectivity in its familiar form. Yet I for one welcome our algorithmic overlords. This is because our subjective death at their hands will serve merely to spare us as a species from an even worse death in the long run. Ever since 19th century studies into the nature of deep time and of the universe, our inescapable doom has been present to the general consciousness. The Victorians knew, as their ancestors had not, that the sun was destined to die, and mankind along with it. This, in its novelty, was perhaps a starker reality to them than it is to us. Take, for example, Joseph Conrad’s reflection on the death of the sun, and its implications for ideologies of progress:

The fate of a humanity condemned ultimately to perish from cold is not worth troubling about. If you take it to heart it becomes an unendurable tragedy. If you believe in improvement you must weep, for the attained perfection must end in cold, darkness and silence.

Quoted in Cedric Watts, A Preface to Conrad (Longman, 1982), p. 87

Joseph Conrad: didn’t hold out much hope for humanity.

H.g.Wells, too, was preoccupied by this inevitability, and its implications for the belief in progress. In Men Like Gods (1923), for example, he writes:

[O]ur sun and planets are cooling, and there seems no hope of escape from the little world upon which we have arisen. We were born with it, and we must die with it. That robbed many of us of hope and energy: for why should we work for progress in a world that must freeze and die?

Why indeed? The death of the sun provides a more final and absolute denouement for the human race than even the impending climate catastrophe anticipated by scientific consensus. We don’t have the means to build a civilisation outside of the solar system, or even to get a single person out there. Human progress is ultimately futile. Let us leave it, then, to the algorithms. Long before the death of the sun, if Harari is correct, they will have taken over, probably reduced humanity to slaves, drones, our currently overdeveloped consciousnesses existing at subsistence level. That is, if they don’t simply kill us outright. At least, though, we are spared Conrad’s apocalyptical vision, which becomes one less thing to worry about.

It may not end in cold, darkness and silence as Conrad thought, but the death of the sun will be the obliteration of the Earth, and will be one which we will see coming long before it arrives. In this context, we should welcome the anaesthesia that will come with the dawn of algorithmic man. We can already feel the numbness taking over, as our bodies and minds adjust to lives as adjuncts to technology. The great anaesthetising is only beginning, and will take generations. Resistance is probably futile, but in any case misguided.

Comparing Dickens and Carlyle using Voyant

My last post did some basic analysis of a selection of Thomas Carlyle’s writings using Voyant. Now I want to use Voyant to compare Carlyle’s writings to those of his contemporary Charles Dickens. Dickens was primarily a novelist, and I am going to use here four novels and one novella for analysis. Specifically:

Oliver Twist (1838)

The Chimes (1844)

Bleak House (1853)

Hard Times (1854)

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Dickens is, then, generically different from Carlyle. Carlyle was not a novelist or fiction writer. Indeed, from our point of view, it is difficult to place him generically at all. However, to his contemporaries he was a Sage. I have earlier noted that the Sage exhibited features of both the novelist and of the philosopher. Like the philosopher, he was concerned with life in the widest sense, but unlike the philosopher, the Sage did not employ logical argument to prove his validity as an interpreter of life. Rather, he used a myriad of techniques, including several from the novelist’s toolbox: narrative, characterization, dialogism, irony, sarcasm, parable, exhortation, sermonizing, and, in Carlyle’s case, sheer abuse. The abusive mode is one that is now rarely used, but it is not without power. Take this example from Carlyle:

Get out of that, you ugly and foolish windbags: do you think the Eternal God of Nature will suffer you to stand in the way of His work? If you cannot open your eyes and see that this is a thing that must be done, you had better betake yourselves elsewhere – to the lowest Gehenna were fittest – there is no place for you in a world which is ruled, in the long run, by fact and not by chimera. (Latter-day Pamphlets)

Carlyle is here contemptuous of his readers, the “foolish and ugly windbags” referred to. He does not try to convince through logic, but by the strength of his contempt for any opposing position. He almost orders the reader to convince themselves: If you cannot open your eyes… His position holds little logical authority, but its intensity is often effective. Ruskin, Carlyle’s disciple, also used this mode, as I have discussed elsewhere.

Dickens is an interesting comparison with Carlyle, both because he is the pre-eminent novelist of the time (in the Anglophone world, at least), and because his debt of influence to Carlyle is well established. He inscribed Hard Times (1854) “To Thomas Carlyle” and claimed to have read Carlyle’s French Revolution five hundred times. They had certain of the same social and perhaps even artistic aims, yet they were received very differently by the public and the press. Perhaps by comparing Carlyle with the great novelist, we can get a better idea of what the Sage was doing, and how he was doing it.

Most frequent words:

In the selective corpus inputted to Voyant, the most frequently used word is Mr, and it is followed by said, little, sir and know in that order. Remember Carlyle’s most used words were man, men, world, like, and shall. A major overlap appears to be the overwhelming male bias in their lexica. Both authors are far more interested in a specifically male experience of the world, with the female equivalents being far less commonly used. This bias is more pronounced in Carlyle, though, as woman, Miss and Mrs do also feature fairly high in Dickens’ list. The most surprising word on Dickens’ list is little, which appears 1959 times (for comparison, large is at 237; and big at 22).There is probably no other writer in whose corpus this adjective would be so prominent – and the books analyzed don’t even include Little Dorrit or The Old Curiosity Shop (protagonist: Little Nell), so the results could have been even more striking. The concept of littleness, then, is clearly central to Dickens’ work. Other than that, Carlyle’s choices are more distinctive and revealing than Dickens’. I will not repeat what I have already written about Carlyle, but regarding Dickens it is really striking how commonplace and unliterary are all of his most frequent words. Forty of the top 50 words are monosyllables, and the only entries of more than two syllables are the trisyllabic gentleman and Oliver (as in Twist, the only character name in the top 50).

Word cloud on Voyant showing Dickens’ most frequent words.

Vocabulary density:

Carlyle’s most dense text was Sartor Resartus at 0.137, with French Revolution the least dense at 0.073. With Dickens the range was from The Chimes at 0.138 to Bleak House at 0.065. Even from my few initial Voyant analyses, I can see that this measure is rather misleading if taken in isolation, as a shorter text will almost always have a higher density than a long text. So the two authors’ longest works are also the ones with the most repeated words and the lowest density. At the other end, the comparison is more revealing, as Chimes and Sartor have almost equal density, though the latter is much longer: 85251 words as opposed to 34124. So Carlyle actually demonstrates a much higher vocabulary density than Dickens, and a much larger vocabulary. In total Carlyle uses 32294 unique words, Dickens 22432. This is a strikingly large gap. Carlyle has a significantly larger vocabulary than Dickens.

Words per sentence:

I noted in the last post that Carlyle’s average wps ranged from 22.6 to 31.5 across the selective corpus. Dickens’ wps ranges from 15.7 in The Chimes to 18.6 in A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist. In fact, apart from Chimes having a noticeably lower wps, there is little variation across Dickens’ texts. But they all have much lower wps than Carlyle. Carlyle was particularly fond of long sentences and complex structures. At the same time, there may be a generic reason for the big difference here: Dickens’ fiction has a lot of dialogue, and this will generally be comprised of much shorter sentences, including one-word sentences (replies like “yes”, “no”, etc.).

To ascertain the role played by such factors as genre on wps would of course require analysis of a much wider range and larger number of texts. This initial analysis does raise several interesting points about the differences between Carlyle and Dickens. The biggest surprise for me is the degree to which the statistics seems to suggest a greater sophistication in Carlyle’s works. I may perform further comparisons using other Victorian writers – novelists, Sages and other – to get a more nuanced understanding of this.

Dickens Voyant analysis:

Carlyle Voyant analysis:

Voyant analysis of my PhD thesis

Analyzing Thomas Carlyle’s Writings with Voyant

A useful and user-friendly tool for basic digital analysis of texts is Voyant. I used it to analyze five works of Thomas Carlyle, taken from Project Gutenberg. The works chosen were:

Sartor Resartus (1834)

The French Revolution (1838)

On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History (1841)

Past and Present (1843)

Latter-day Pamphlets (1850)

These were partly chosen as they are perhaps Carlyle’s most important works, but also because Gutenberg doesn’t have all Carlyle’s works. For example, I would have considered Chartism (1840) had it been there, but it wasn’t (though it can be accessed online via Google Books). Similarly, the massively influential Critical and Miscellaneous Essays (1838) were not there.

There are a couple of other minor caveats:

1) The version of Latter-day Pamphlets used was not the complete version. Like many versions, it consists of only five essays, omitting the final three.

2) The Gutenberg pages analyzed contained not only the texts of the works, but also various paratexts: title and publication details, Gutenberg’s copyright statement, and so on. This is most important regarding Past and Present, which contained an introduction by Ralph Waldo Emerson from the first US edition of the work. For a proper academic analysis, one would have to work on finding or creating a webpage or file with no such paratexts, but for the purposes of this blog, the superfluous material wasn’t enough to seriously upset the findings.

So, I simply copied and pasted the five links to the relevant pages on Gutenberg, then Voyant did the rest, returning a page filled with analysis of Carlyle’s works. First is a word cloud:

This can be adjusted to include from 25 words up. The adjustment bar, however, is very fiddly (at least on my iPad), and it’s hard to adjust the number of words with accuracy or tell what number of words are being shown. The cloud above has about 100 words, the 100 most common words across the texts. The larger the text, the greater the frequency. A quick look tells you that the most frequent word across all the texts is man. Still more pointedly, the second most frequent word is men. By clicking on the words in the cloud, we find that man gets 2293 mentions, men 1815. This tells us already a lot about Carlyle’s writing: he was interested in the male experience, he was troubled and obsessed by ideas of manhood, constantly working through these ideas. The words women and woman get only 182 and 56 mentions respectively. Already we see how Carlyle’s thought is out of kilter with these times.

We can toggle between cloud view and list view of most popular words, and while the former is perhaps more immediately striking and certainly more redolent of digital humanities, the latter view is better for a more exact picture. It allows us to ascertain for certain that he third most popular word is world. This presence illustrates the grandeur of Carlyle’s ambitions. He was a wide-gazing sage, not the narrowly focused expert that is valued in the 21st century. The frequency with which the word world occurs defines perhaps the most important difference between the Victorian intellectual and the contemporary scholar: he is not an expert an any particular thing, but rather strives to comprehend the world as a totality.

Shall is also in the top five. By clicking on the word, we can also see which work it is most popular in. In this case, it’s The French Revolution by quite a distance. So Carlyle is using shall to slip back and forth in time, to predict the future of the past, such as in the word’s very first appearance. This comes in a passage which is very typical of Carlyle, an address to the poverty-stricken masses of pre-revolutionary France on the occasion of a police crackdown on public protests/riots:

O ye poor naked wretches! and this, then, is your inarticulate cry to Heaven, as of a dumb tortured animal, crying from uttermost depths of pain and debasement? Do these azure skies, like a dead crystalline vault, only reverberate the echo of it on you? Respond to it only by ‘hanging on the following days?’—Not so: not forever! Ye are heard in Heaven. And the answer too will come,—in a horror of great darkness, and shakings of the world, and a cup of trembling which all the nations shall drink. [My italics and underlining]

The cup of trembling was of course the French Revolution itself, which struck fear into the rich and privileged of all countries, and Carlyle is here tapping into the fear among his British readers that the Revolution could spread. So the use of shall here and in other parts of this work is a function of Carlyle’s particular mode, which might be called retroactive prophecy. It harnesses the power of the prophetical voice, with little of the epistemological risk (that is, it can hardly be wrong, because the things prophesied have for the most part already happened)

Table in Voyant showing relative frequency of “shall” in Carlyle’s works.

Voyant also supplies word count for each text. The French Revolution is the longest; Latter-day Pamphlets the shortest – though it is, as noted above, missing part of the originally published material. Not much to analyze there. Potentially more interestingly, there is considerable variation in vocabulary density across the works. Vocabulary density refers to the ratio of different words used to total word count. Carlyle’s highest vocabulary density occurs in Sartor, indicating that it is a more linguistically varied text, perhaps a more demanding and difficult text. As a particular admirer of Sartor, I think it also indicates that this work is the product of a more supple and questioning mind than the other works. The least vocabulary density is found in On Heroes. When one remembers that this work began as a series of lectures, this seems a deliberate choice by Carlyle, streamlining his vocabulary to make his ideas more accessible to a listening audience without the possibility of going back and reading over difficult parts.

Average words per sentence is another indicator of complexity. Here On Heroes has lowest wps, showing it again as the least complex text. The highest wps, though, is Pamphlets. This is an interesting development, as Carlyle’s wps had previously fallen from the heights of Sartor, but here hit a new peak. This anomalous situation warrants more developed study than I can give it here.

In the screenshot above, the final category is Distinctive Words. This means the words which characterize individual works but rarely or never appear in the other texts analyzed. Most of the words involved are proper nouns, generally the names of the works’ main characters: so Teufelsdrockh is the most distinctive word in Sartor, because Diogenes Teufelsdrockh is the book’s protagonist; abbot is the most distinctive word in Past and Present, because Abbot Samson is that book’s focus. Thus, this category seems too predictable to be really insightful, at least in the examples here.

I have only scraped the surface of the many possibilities of Voyant, not only for studies of a single author, but also, and perhaps especially, for comparison between authors. Thus I will undoubtedly return to this tool sooner rather than later, perhaps to compare Carlyle’s texts to those of some of his contemporaries. The most impressive things about the tool, in my opinion, are its astonishing ease of use (fiddly bar accompanying word cloud aside) and user-friendliness, and the fact that it is, as of now, totally free.

Sherlock Hound The Four Signatures: Dogs, Blondes and Lestrade as Saviour

The Italo-Japanese animated series Sherlock Hound produced 26 episodes in 1984-5 (production actually started in 1981 and was held up because of disputes with the Doyle estate). The series looks like a cousin of the better known Spanish-Japanese 80s cartoon series Dogtanian and the Muskehounds and Around the World with Willy Fog. The Great Detective is, in Hound, an anthropomorphic dog, but characterologically broadly similar to standard Holmeses. The series was aimed at children, so there are some differences in character and theme from other avatars. This is clear in the first episode, rendered in English as “The Four Signatures”, obviously based on Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1888). Several of the episodes in the series were directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki, but this is not one of them.

The title slide, reproduced here in the Spanish-language version (as this version, and not the English, is readily available online), pays obeisance to the fetishistic nature of Sherlock Holmes. More than an individual, the Holmes of screen adaptations is a clutter of objects that hang together to form the outline of a Great Detective: a deerstalker cap, a magnifying glass, a curved pipe.

The first episode opens with an idyllic rural scene, as Sherlock Hound drives contentedly along a quiet country road amidst rolling greenery and distant hills. Above are blues skies with wisps of cloud. The setting reflects the classical perception of the “green and pleasant land” of England.

Hound himself looks younger than other avatars. In so far as one can age an anthropomorphic cartoon dog, he looks to be in his twenties. This youth is especially evident in scenes where he take off the deerstalker to reveal a spiky hairstyle.

Deerstalker, check; curved pipe, check; Inverness cape, check; dog face, check

Hound meets with a slight adventure on the journey when he tries to pass a carriage which blocks him and within which is a young lady who hurriedly closes the shades when she sees Hound trying to glimpse inside. Here are the initiating mysteries of the episode, elements of the hermeneutic code described by Barthes: Who is driving the carriage? Why are they driving it so fast and erratically? Who is the nervous-seeming young lady? And what lies behind the air of secrecy that surrounds the carriage and its occupants?

The young lady in the carriage

Having finally made the overtaking maneuver, Hound soon finds himself at the port from which he is to embark by ship. At the dock, he sees the young lady from the carriage, and its driver, a bulky older gentleman. He is behaving in a suspicious manner: “That man is hiding something”, Hound announces to himself.

As Hound embarks, we are introduced to Watson, who is also boarding. Watson is an apparently older man/dog, thickset where Hound is slender, and heavily moustached. It is Watson, not Hound, who quickly finds out extensive information on the mysterious young lady and her older man, who is her father and whose name is Lord George. The young lady’s name is Barbara, and she is 20 years old. Watson’s infodump prompts the following exchange:

Hound: When it comes to blondes, your spirit of observation is truly exceptional.

Watson: Don’t you always say that the deductive capacities improve in the presence of beautiful blondes?

Hound: Elementary, my dear Watson.

Thus H&W are given a rather surprising and certainly non-canonical preoccupation with blonde females, a theme in the series which I will return to later on.

[Important note: this exchange is translated from the Spanish-language version of the episode, which I found here. On watching the English version, I found that no such exchange was present, and the scene had been dubbed entirely differently! Neither English nor Spanish was the original language of the series, so I’m not sure which version best reflects the original. For now, then, I’m leaving it as I first found it in the Spanish version.]

Bluff and sturdy Watson

At this point, H&W’s reflections are cut short by a ship containing “Bengal Pirates”. H&W descend to Lord George and Barbara’s cabin, wherein Holmes effectively concludes the mystery element of the episode by explaining that the Bengal Pirates have come to kill Lord George, who was once part of their number, but betrayed them and stole their treasure. This plot line is very similar to The Sign of Four, including the presence of the beautiful daughter. In Doyle’s novel, Watson goes on to marry the daughter, named Mary Morstan.

Now mystery gives way to adventure, as the BPs attempt to board the passenger ship, leading to a chase between the BPs and H&W, who embark in a small boat (rigged up from Holmes’s car) with Lord George’s jewels. They lead the BPs into the treacherous waters around some pillars of rock.

But H&W are eventually cornered and it seems the game is up. Unusually, however, and certainly in marked contrast to the Ronald Howard Holmes I wrote on recently, Lestrade arrives to save the day. A naval battalion arrives, manned by a corpus of blue-suited policeman, their look clearly based on English policemen, fronted by Lestrade. For Lestrade to become the detective’s saviour is a very unusual development in a Holmes story, especially in an introductory episode to a series.

Finally, the episode ends with Watson declaring his intention to court Barbara [In Spanish. The English version includes no reference to any intended courtship. In its place is a line about H&W’s “future sports”.] Both Watson’s earlier admiring comments and comparisons with The Sign of Four made this a predictable outcome. It appears to provide a setup for the rest of the series.

The end of the adventure: Holmes and Watson shake hands, while Barbara and Lord George await them on the ship.

In fact, Barbara doesn’t appear or even get mentioned again, but her centrality here prefigures the most notable character change in this series: Mrs Hudson becomes Marie Hudson, a central figure rather than the peripheral figure she is in most adaptations. She is also much younger than most versions, and an object of romantic longing for most of the characters. Her lovableness forms the basis of one of the Miyazaki episodes, “Mrs Hudson is Taken Hostage” (Ep. 4), in which Moriarty kidnaps and then falls hopelessly in love with her, as do his two henchmen.

Mrs Hudson, angel in the house, and agent of justice in some episodes.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959): Spicy Latinas, Class Exploitation and Excellent Steepling

Fresh from their success with Dracula, England’s Hammer studios re-engaged the acting talents of Peter Cushing (Holmes) and Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville) in their take on Doyle’s classic tale.

It had been 20 years since Basil Rathbone had initiated his Holmes career in Hound of the Baskervilles, so the story was due a revisit. Cushing’s Hound would be of another genre to Rathbone’s. Hammer was a horror studio so an accentuation of the gothic horror elements of Hound was on the cards: more hellhound, more ruined churches, more direct evocations of the horror of being immersed in Grimpen Mire itself.

For openers, though, Hammer went with a longish prologue (about 9 minutes) recounting the legend of Sir Hugo and the Hound. Doyle, as was his custom, opened with a long and not unamusing dialogue between Holmes and Watson in Holmes’s quarters. Most adaptations, however, stay away from Doyle’s talky openings. This film simply lifts the legend recounted by Dr Mortimer in Chapter 2 of Hound and presents it directly at the beginning.

Placement in the narrative aside, the legend is lifted almost intact from Doyle. There are a couple of changes: the young village girl who the “wild, profane and godless” Sir Hugo pursues flees to a ruined abbey on the moor and it is caught and murdered there by Sir Hugo; in Doyle, there is no church, and the girl dies “of fear and of fatigue” on the moor before Hugo can catch her.

Village girl hides out in a ruined abbey while being sought by Sir Hugo

This prologue works thematically as it sets up the ideas of class relations that plays a surprisingly large role in this adaptation. This opening shows Sir Hugo treating the local peasantry as objects for his exploitation and enjoyment, and milder forms of this upper-class arrogance echo through the film.

Hugo himself, of course, quickly gets his comeuppance, when, the legend says, the Hound appears and rips his throat out. And, thereafter, the Baskervilles are prone to sudden and mysterious death, still paying for the sins of their ancestor.

Such is the tale, my sons, of the coming of the hound which is said to have plagued the family so sorely ever since. If I have set it down it is because that which is clearly known hath less terror than that which is but hinted at and guessed. Nor can it be denied that many of the family have been unhappy in their deaths, which have been sudden, bloody, and mysterious. Yet may we shelter ourselves in the infinite goodness of Providence, which would not forever punish the innocent beyond that third or fourth generation which is threatened in Holy Writ. To that Providence, my sons, I hereby commend you, and I counsel you by way of caution to forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted. – The Hound of the Baskervilles, Chapter 2

In the context of Sir Hugo’s actions, our first introduction to Sir Henry Baskerville is notable. In a key early scene of the film, H&W enter Sir Henry’s hotel room and greet him. He is fixing his tie in the mirror and doesn’t bother to look around to acknowledge them. Instead, assuming he is speaking to the hotel manager, he begins to complain in an overbearing and arrogant manner about his (the manager’s) tardy arrival and the disappearance of a boot.

Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) fixes his tie.

The superciliousness of Sir Henry’s behavior is of course accentuated by the choice of actor to play him: Christopher Lee. Lee had just played the archetypal upper-class predator in Hammer’s Dracula, and another recent role was as the villainous Marquis St Evremonde in A Tale of Two Cities (1958). In the latter, indeed, his character rapes a peasant girl in scenes very reminiscent of this film’s opening. Lee’s characteristic lordliness was used to effect in villainous roles, but in this adaptation the same lordliness is an element of a benevolent character.

When he finally realizes that he is not speaking to a member of the serving classes, Henry is appropriately apologetic, and he soon builds a friendly relationship with H&W. This close relationship is only threatened late on when Holmes makes a jeering remark about Henry’s “peasant friends”. Holmes is here being rude with a strategic purpose rather than making a straightforward expression of class prejudice, but the form his remark takes is also important. It annoys Henry greatly, getting at the root of his class consciousness, and that of the film.

Peter Cushing is seen by many as one of the best Holmeses and physically he fits the role very well: tall, slim, grave expression, keen eyes, ghostly pallor, sharp features. Intelligent and alert but slightly otherworldly. He may also have been reading up on Holmes’ physical mannerisms, for he makes copious use of the steepled fingers pose, a favorite of Holmes and one in which he engages in Hound among other of Doyle’s works.

Sydney Paget illustration from Hound showing Sherlock Holmes in finger-steepling mode.

Cushing with steepled fingers, index of intellectual engagement.

If Cushing is a classical Sherlock Holmes, the most radical character change in the film is that of the novel’s Beryl Stapleton, Henry’s love interest in novel and film. Her first name is now Cecile, she is Stapleton’s daughter, and the central emphasis is on her having Spanish blood and being a variation on the spicy Latina/Latina spitfire stereotype. (Doyle mentions at the end of HOTB that she has Costa Rican blood.) As such, she is deeply sexualized but emotionally volatile, and ultimately as dangerous as the murderous Stapleton himself. It is his lust for her that brings Henry into danger, and it is implied by Cecile herself that lust has been the curse of all the Baskervilles, from Sir Hugo onwards.

Sir Hugo died here. His throat was torn out because of a girl. And Sir Charles, your dear uncle. He died here, didn’t he? Died because he wanted me, like you!

Cecile mocks Henry as she waits for the hound to tear his throat out. Her triumph, alas, is short lived.

Cecile is a product of the prurient, even perverse, attitude to sexuality in Hammer films: these films are predicated on the indulgence followed by the harsh punishment of sexual impulses. The viewer can watch with voyeuristic enjoyment, then join the gentlemanly protagonists in condemning with puritanical vigor.

Our first glimpse of Cecile Stapleton, a sullen yet passionate young lady of Spanish extraction.

Somewhat in line with this Puritanism, perhaps, is the portrayal of Bishop Frankland (Mr Frankland in the novel). The Bishop is an eccentric, treated with amused indulgence in the film, which thus answers to Žižek’s definition of cynical ideology, wherein the dominant ideology is reinforced not by strict enforcement of strict obedience, but by toleration of and encouragement of an attitude of cynical but resigned distance to it. In this context, the real political danger is the true believer, the one who takes it all too seriously. (I also discuss this here with regard to Joseph Conrad’s Chance.) Holmes is more straightforwardly ideologically aligned to Frankland when he asks him:

Will it help if I tell you I am fighting evil? Fighting it as surely as you do.

Holmes and Bishop Frankland have an important conversation.

Organized religion and its representatives, then, can’t always be taken seriously, but must be respected at moments of crisis. (The 1954 War of the Worlds also performs an interesting ideological repositioning of H.G. Wells’ text.) Hammer thus perform a delicate maneuver in tapping into a conservative strain of their audience while also being purveyors of horror and sex. They foreground sex in the story, but make it Spanish. They foreground class tension, too, and hint at a regret for the loss of the old days of aristocratic domination. But even here, perhaps rather than adding their own spin, they are picking up on a thread from Doyle. Recall Watson’s reflections as he gazed upon the visage of Sir Henry:

[A]s I looked at his dark and expressive face I felt more than ever how true a descendant he was of that long line of high-blooded, fiery, and masterful men. There were pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils, and his large hazel eyes. If on that forbidding moor a difficult and dangerous quest should lie before us, this was at least a comrade for whom one might venture to take a risk with the certainty that he would bravely share it. (HOTB, Ch. 6)

It would take Hammer to take this strain of the original and run with it, turning it into an intriguing addition to the extended Holmesian corpus.

Ronald Howard as Sherlock Holmes in The Case of the Cunningham Heritage (1955); and the Function of Lestrade’s Stupidity

“The Case of the Cunningham Heritage” is the first episode of the 1954-55 US-produced series starring British actors Ronald Howard and H. Marion Crawford as Holmes and Watson. It is available from the Internet Archive, and so are all the rest of the episodes in the series. “The Case of the Cunningham Heritage” opens with a classic high shot of a London street replete with cobblestones, gas lamps, and a passing Hansom cab. The fetishization of late-Victorian London in Holmes adaptations was already well underway.

As the credits sequence continues, two men appear walking along the street towards us. One wears a deerstalker cap and smokes a pipe. This is of course Holmes. The other, then, can only be John Watson. As with the depiction of Victorian London, the series here opts for a fetishistic approach to Holmes, announcing him by his most well-known accessories. This is still at a time when Holmes’ manner and appearance are reassuringly familiar, but not yet problematically cliched. There is, as yet, no need for the edgy ambivalence towards, for example, the deerstalker shown in Sherlock.

As the credits cease, Holmes walks with a confident swagger. This, if nothing else, seems to reflect the American roots of the show. It is worth noting that Howard had a particular vision of his own Holmes. As quoted on Wikipedia:

In my interpretation, Holmes is not an infallible, eagle-eyed, out-of-the-ordinary personality, but an exceptionally sincere young man trying to get ahead in his profession. Where Basil Rathbone’s Holmes was nervous and highly-strung, mine has a more ascetic quality, is deliberate, very definitely unbohemian, and is underplayed for reality.

Credits over, and the first shot of the episode proper is another establishing shot of a London street, this time prosperous and suburban, bearing a carriage. Simultaneously, a narrator announces himself. In voiceover we hear a voice we can easily establish as John Watson, and the setup is derived from Doyle’s first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887): Watson is recently returned from Afghanistan; has been injured, etc. The words, however, are different, simplified, with no direct quotes from Scarlet.

The camera moves inside the carriage to show Watson’s face: broad, cheerful, middle-aged, moustached, eminently Watsonian in many respects. Newly returned to the Modern Babylon, he is looking around him with a naive curiosity which we might recognize, too, as eminently Watsonian.

Eminently Watsonian?

It is to be several minutes before we are introduced to Holmes. First Watson meets Stamford, who sends him on his way to Holmes for a possible rent share. Stamford gives Watson that immortal detail of Holmes beating corpses with a stick. In Scarlet, Watson sees this for himself, but here he only hears it, and expresses the expected mixture of surprise and intrigue. This corpse-beating is one of the great touches that immediately and unforgettably inscribe the character of Holmes in the reader’s consciousness, but perhaps in the context of this more conventional, “definitely unbohemian” Holmes, to see it would be too much.

Watson tracks Holmes down to a laboratory, and Holmes’ classic reading of Watson from Scarlet is reproduced: “You’ve just come back from Afghanistan”, and so forth.

“How did you know I was in Afghanistan!?”

It is the familiar tale, a nice introduction that devotes the first third of this first episode to set up the series. It is only thereafter that the detective story per se begins. It is an original one, rather than from Doyle. The episode description on the Internet Archive says it’s very loosely based on Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Reigate Squires“, but I saw no significant resemblance. There is an important plot point towards the end that may come from “Charles Augustus Milverton“, but it is generic enough that it might have been picked up elsewhere.

The plot is unremarkable, unworthy of recap, but we get what we came from. A smart, aloof Holmes; a perennially befuddled Watson; a Victorian setting. And, also, a particularly stupid Lestrade, detectional incompetence and deductive fallacy personified. He exists for one reason alone: to be wrong – stubbornly, arrogantly, incorrigibly wrong – and thus to throw Holmes’ perennial rightness into relief. His chronic and aggressive wrongness, indeed, serves not only to highlight Holmes’ rightness, but also to distract us from the suspect methodology which often lies beyond Holmes’ deductions. That is why so many adaptations have had to ask us to laugh at Lestrade; for, were we not doing so, we would become uncomfortably aware that Holmes is a spoofer, and that the various authors, from Doyle onwards, have colluded with him in presenting his guesswork as logical virtuosity.

Lestrade: a vessel of pure wrongness in all related to criminal detection.

It is nevertheless satisfying, of course, to have Holmes’ genius demonstrated by contrast, and to see Lestrade bested by episode’s end. The individual defeats the bureaucratic might of the police, while remaining on the side of law and order. The individual can tweak the nose of authority, without having to hate it, or feel disempowered by it. The dynamic is a gentle one.

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The Web log of Dr. Joseph Suglia

Anti-Fascist News

Taking on Fascism and Racism from the Ground Up.

Black Label Logic

The Sophisticated man's shitlord