The Victorian Sage

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

Stuart Hall’s Defininition of Ideology

The most frequent working definition of the term ideology in contemporary cultural studies and related fields is the following from Stuart Hall:

By ideology I mean the mental frameworks – the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation – which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, figure out and render intelligible the way society works.

  • Quoted in John Storey, “Introduction”, in Storey, ed., Cultural Theory, p. vvii

One interesting feature of this definition is that it avoids any approach to Marxism, notable because academically ideology is traditionally seen as a Marxist concept, and is often attacked on those grounds, such as here by Foucault. But historically the term predates Marx, and its popular usage is not usually inflected with Marxist ideas, so this approach towards the popular is to be welcomed, I think. There’s no need to subscribe to Marxist tenets like base and superstructure, etc., to use ideology.

It’s notable, as well, that Hall avoids a pejorative definition. both most popular and academic usages, including Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, see ideology as a bad thing, an element of thought involving mystification and misperception. For Hall it’s just a feature of the way groups deal with the world. Rather than, say, “make meaning”, which would have implied a certain distance between things as they are and as they are seen by the relevant groups, he goes with “make sense of”, which has more benign connotations. Ideology thus becomes less critical and more neutral.

On the other hand, Hall’s reduction of mental operations to “frameworks” is problematic. Consciousness itself can’t be reduced to frameworks, so ideology, as a feature of consciousness, should not be either. It’s more nebulous than that, and the analysis of ideology has to be prepared for the multiform paths it could take, which cannot be pre-empted but only become clear in the course of analysis of a given text and may not correspond to any “framework”.

Ideology has a complex and interesting history, and engagement with this history is as important as any formal definition one could come up with. As for definitions, I tend to differ from many academics in that I think for key critical terms, the looser the better. Let the complexity lie in the analysis, not in the general theorizing or the definition of terms. To study ideology is to study consciousness; and consciousness, as we know, is the last mystery – it can’t yet be fully defined, but it can be studied with attention and an open mind.

Revival, by Stephen King

As a teenager of the 90s, I grew up reading a lot of Stephen King. As far as my adolescent reading self went, he was the Man. My impressions of his writing are mixed up with memories of staying up into the small hours eagerly consuming  The Stand, It, et al. It seems that adolescence is the optimum time to read King. This might explain why so many critics have had pops at King (like Dwight Allen at Salon): they first encountered him as adults, and were not responsive to his merits. (It may explain also my response to stuff like J.K. Rowling: I don’t get the appeal. Maybe I was just a few years too old when I first came to it.) My really intensive reading of his books was in my early teen years in the mid-90s. Later, I cooled on him, partly because my tastes changed and partly because once I had worked through his back catalogue I found that what he was then producing was not as good as the early stuff. The mid-90s saw a few clunkers (Insomnia, Rose Madder) and while Bag of Bones and Hearts in Atlantis showed King developing in interesting ways, they were followed by an unparalleled outpouring of dross (Dreamcatcher, Black House, From a Buick 8, Cell, etc.) 2006’s Cell was where the very last vestiges of my King fixation died, and I stopped reading his new works.

Still now, as he approaches 70, King is putting out about 2 books a year. Novels mostly, of wildly varying lengths, punctuated with collections of short stories. Occasionally I check in, but with no great returns. Revival (2014) is my first King in quite a while. It’s a slim-ish volume, 372 pages of fairly large print. One thing that interested me was how allusive the book seemed. The dedication page lists 11 of “the people who built my house”; that is, the writers who have inspired him. It’s the usual suspects for King: Shelley, Stoker, Jackson, Lovecraft, Machen. The blurb from Sydney Morning Herald posits Frankenstein as the key influence on the novel; the Guardian review suggests Lovecraft. I would say it’s Machen. In King’s opening paragraphs, as the narrator introduces the key character, he writes:

I can’t bear to believe his presence in my life had anything to do with fate. It would mean that all these terrible things – these horrors – were meant to happen. If that is so, then there is no such thing as light, and our belief in it is a foolish illusion. If that is so, we live in darkness like animals in a burrow, or ants deep in their hill.

This recalls a passage from Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), a story which King refers to specifically in the aforementioned dedication. In Pan, Machen’s protagonist exclaims:

It is too incredible, too monstrous; such things can never be in this quiet world, where men and women live and die, and struggle, and conquer, or maybe fail, and fall down under sorrow, and grieve and suffer strange fortunes for many a year; but not this, Phillips, not such things as this. There must be some explanation, some way out of the terror. Why, man, if such a case were possible, our earth would be a nightmare.

Both passages start with an expression of incredulity (“I can’t bear to believe”, “It is too incredible”), though Machen’s character is more unconditional, King’s more ambiguous. This incredulity is founded, not on rationality, but on what is bearable. Machen’s register is classically of the horror genre: “monstrous […] terror […] nightmare”. These are all the things that are at stake in accepting the evidence. King, too, lays on the big abstractions of the genre (“the horrors“).

Even King’s syntax and word choice changes in this passage. “If that is so” is archaic, and rather inconsistent with the tone of King’s aging rock musician narrator. “[W]e live in Darkness” evokes the biblical “we see through a glass, darkly” and, by extension, Sheridan LeFanu’s famous collection In a Glass Darkly. Machen, like most pre-20th c. Anglophone writers was steeped in biblical language (his father was a clergyman), and it gives his prose a resonance and stark power, at times. With King, though, it’s imported, and sits unassimilated in the middle of his much more homely and colloquial prose. Machen couldn’t have written like King, and King can’t write like Machen, not for more than a paragraph or so, anyway.

But those two paragraphs both set the works in the genre of cosmic horror. The genre is predominantly associated with Lovecraft, but the real establishing text is The Great God Pan, which Lovecraft, like King, made no secret of his admiration for. So similar are the philosophies underlying Machen and Lovecraft’s stories that influence by the former is sometimes imputed to the latter, simply because he’s more widely known and read. The essence of cosmic horror is not that there is a monster who must be faced and, perhaps, defeated; it is that life is monstrous, the universe is monstrous. And the universe cannot be defeated. The visible monsters are only representatives of a greater evil at the heart of life itself. That is why life is a “nightmare” and faith a “foolish illusion”.

King plays with these ideas in Revival, but for most of the novel they’re background. Like most of King’s work, there’s a great deal of focus on characterization, of community life, and so on. King is an incorrigibly humanist writer. Machen wasn’t really a humanist; Lovecraft even less so. Maybe that’s where the difficulty lies: King is too warm, too invested in his fellow humans to be really invested in cosmic horror. It’s when you don’t think much of humanity in general that horror can come to seem cosmic. For all King’s humanity, though, when it comes to the pay-off, the big finale, we know from the hints and the build-up that it’s all going to have to centre on the idea of the great horrors. The anti-climax in Revival is, sadly, risible. How can you really construct a finale that will provide pay off when dealing with ideas of such magnitude? Machen didn’t do great in bringing Pan to a climax, either. For Lovecraft, there tended to be an overreliance on “indescribable” and its synonyms when the monsters made their appearance. King barely tries, his ending is run-of-the mill, though I don’t want to get too spoilery about it.

In short King is King, and this is a superior read in the King vein. There’s some pretty atmospheric americana scene-setting, some of King’s typically laboured humour (this has always been his weak point, for me: the guy just is not funny, but he never stops trying), and a lot of nods towards the greats of cosmic horror. Cosmic horror is just the dressing, though, it’s not really what King is about. He’s got his own thing going. It’s a shame he couldn’t integrate this particular subgenre better into his own writing, but, on this front, Revival doesn’t quite come off, though it retains interest I think both as a good read all round and King’s most considered fictional statement on religion, rendering it a notably more thematic work than most of his others, while still retaining a good narrative thrust.

Henty’s With Clive in India

Up until very recently, I had only the vaguest notion of who G.A. Henty was. Who he was, incidentally, was a late 19-century novelist of imperialism, writing dozens of formulaic novels set all over the globe involving militarism and conquest, mostly focused on English soldiers and their victories over various peoples. The books were aimed at a young readership. I was offered a copy of The Complete G.A. Henty through Amazon on condition that I review it on that site. I accepted. I haven’t gotten around to reviewing it yet, as I want to read a larger selection, but I’ve read one novel in full, With Clive in India.

This may not be Henty’s most representative novel. He notes in the preface that he has given more space than usual to historical detail, and, in fact, the vast majority of the book is historical rather than novelistic. The only more widely-read work I can compare it to in this respect is Moby Dick – that, too, starts off like a novel but soon ditches the genre almost totally to foist upon the reader endless information on a subject related to the plot. Henty’s style is nothing like Melville’s, however. Henty started out as a journalist, and his prose retains a bland journalistic tone. Whatever his aims were in the novel, they were not literary.

The information that Henty chooses to give is mostly military. Battle scenes abound, as the protagonist in Clive’s forces conquers his way across India, overcoming the French along the way. None of this is very interesting. What I thought would be worth noting, though, were the ideological techniques Henty used to justify and glorify imperialism to his young 19th-century audience. I can make a couple of points about this, some of which were a little surprising to me:

  • Religion: There is none. The Irish servant character, Tim, is overtly religious, but he’s played for laughs. The English protagonist, Charlie Marryat, only brings in religion once in the whole book, I think: when he’s talking to his love interest, Ada, and their lives are in danger he tells her to “pray God to give you strength”. He himself does not pray, though, then or ever, and religion appears to play for him no part. Nor is it introduced by the narrator at any point in relation to the imperial mission.
  • Race: Even knowing little about Henty, I knew of his reputation for racism. The racism in With Clive in India, then, was less overt than I had imagined. There is little denigration of other races, little sense that the Indians or other races present (French, Irish) are essentially inferior or less competent than the English: “Look what rough tools that man is working with, and what delicate and intricate work he is turning out. If these fellows could but fight as well as they work, and were but united among themselves, not only should we be unable to set a foot in India, but the emperor, with the enormous armies which he would be able to raise, would be able to threaten Europe. I suppose they never have been really good fighting men. Alexander, a couple of thousand years ago, defeated them; and since then the Afghans, and other northern peoples, have been always overrunning and conquering them.I can’t make it out. These Sepoys, after only a few weeks’ training, fight almost as well as our own men. I wonder how it is that, when commanded by their own countrymen, they are able to make so poor a fight of it.”

    The argument seems to be that the Indians are inferior in providing leadership. Herein is implied the justification for imperialism. I was surprised at how modest the claim was, ontologically: they’re really the same as us, as long as they have the right guidance. Of course, this can be seen as monstrously patronising, but when compared to Marlow in Heart of Darkness and his horror at the idea of distant kinship, I’m tempted to say Henty’s is a more tolerant view than some that were around at the time. Henty has less of the anxiety about race that you find in Conrad. Charlie and his servants Tim (Irish) and Hossein (Indian) all get along very well, and in a spirit of mutual trust and affection. The ideological energies of the novel don’t come from dwelling on the inferiorities of other races. Late in the novel Charlie introduces Hossein as follows: “He calls himself my servant. I call him my friend.” Hossein remains a servant, though, to the end. Henty idealizes the relationship, so that being a perpetual servant seems like a pleasant and rewarding activity.

  • National myths: Another element that surprised me slightly was Henty’s willingness to chronicle the less salutary aspects of English imperialism. The novel is named after the famous imperialist Robert Clive, and I expected a heroized depiction of him. That is offered, to an extent. But, firstly, there’s very little characterization of him, rather an account of his military campaigns. And secondly, though Henty offers encomia on Clive’s bravery, efficiency, etc., he also offers overt criticism. Clive is described by the narrator at one point as “wholly unscrupulous”. An episode involving extortion, fraud and a forged signature on Clive’s part Henty recounts in detail and attempts no defense of Clive, rather concluding that “the whole transaction [was] one of the blackest in the annals of English history”, “dishonorable” and “disgraceful”.

So, though Henty’s work is widely considered to be  concerned with advocating English imperialism, it seems to accomplish this less by religion, racism or national mythifying than by presenting the military enterprise as being enormously fun, and also financially rewarding. Henty perhaps judged that it is these elements of fun and reward that would appeal to a young audience and prepare them for imperialist ideology, and his popularity seems to indicate he was right.

To Review the Literature or Not to Review the Literature

Having reached endgame in the writing of my thesis, I now have to reflect on some of the choices I made. Unorthodox choices are the hardest, the ones that will be questioned closely in the viva. And I have made some of those. Case in point: I have no explicit literature review in my thesis. General handbooks on theses always simply assume a literature review chapter will be present. There’s Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, then the Data Analysis or Case Studies chapters, depending on the subject/ discipline. This is derived from a social science model, but is presented as simply the default mode in all the guides I have consulted. The idea of not having a literature review just doesn’t come up. This may be to an extent a reflection on my university and its emphasis on the scientistic and business models to the neglect of the humanistic, with a library to match. However, it also seems to be the standard, even in guides specifically targeted at humanities, like this one.

But my thesis will have no literature review. One reason for this is that the literature review is a place where “the study is located within a specific theoretical tradition or perspective” (Paul Oliver, Writing Your Thesis, SAGE, 2008, 6). A humanistic study, I maintain, is not about adopting a specific perspective, but rather about trying to attain the widest perspective possible. This may involve making use of any available methodological tool at any specific moment. This renders the methodology section of the thesis problematic as well as the literature review. My “methodology” is partially a defense of retaining an open methodology (which comes perilously close to having no methodology).

“The new thesis should not be seen as an isolated study, but as a study which exists in an academic tradition, and the purpose of the literature review is to try to establish the nature of that tradition” (Oliver, 93). Of course, my thesis is in an academic tradition, and is written according to academic standards. But I nevertheless maintain that by engaging with the humanist tradition, it is making a claim to being somewhat sui generis, and that this is not simply a formality, but a consequential fact with regard to method and structure. It is not, evidently enough, exactly the same as any other thesis, and is a product of a particular consciousness in a particular situation; dealing with particular source materials in particular combination. To exactly define the tradition from which it springs would place all of the analysis in the body of the thesis under intolerable strain, as it would have to be justified not only in terms of an argument, but also in terms of a tradition.

In terms of writing conventions and (mostly) basic structure, it is indeed a standard academic thesis, but epistemologically, it does not aim to privilege any specific tradition over all others. Such epistemological specificity is only possible, it seems to me, in a project where the methodology itself is very specific. A quantitative study using positivistic methods: yes, that has a clear epistemology, very well defined and very limited. It has its place, obviously, and a large place under current academic conditions, but it is not all. I’m not anti- the defined and restricted epistemology of quantitative research, by any means, and believe that it can be incorporated into even humanistic study. I argue only that a space be retained for the non-methodological investigation. In my thesis, I rely at certain important points on Paul Feyerabend:

We must, therefore, keep our options open and we must not restrict ourselves in advance. Epistemological prescriptions may look splendid when compared with other epistemological prescriptions, or with general principles but who can guarantee that they are the best way to discover, not just a few isolated ‘facts’, but also some deep-lying secrets of nature? (Against Method, Verso, 2010, 4)

By keeping our options open, who knows what we might uncover? Perhaps nothing. But the point is that we don’t know exactly what knowledge is, so we can’t impose methodologies on it; not if we have any broad purposes, at any rate. We can’t limit it to a certain academic tradition which we can partition off from the rest of history, culture and nature.

The points I have been making problematize the notion of methodology just as much as that of literature review. I have dealt with the problem of methodology in my thesis by having a formal methodology, but a fairly capacious one, and by stressing the need to think and analyze openly rather than, or certainly in addition to, methodologically. My methodology chapter has also incorporated a measure of literature review, for in delineating my method, I have referred to many others in similar areas of research, This overcomes, I hope, the need for a separate literature review chapter; such a chapter would only serve to delineate too narrowly the field in which I operate. The onus would move onto my analysis to respond to and interact with the field laid out in the critical review, whereas the objects of study may demand and reward quite other methods of study. It is possible to be too narrow, I feel, to go into too much depth in one field, a field which has been created through the artificial processes of academia and which, the more it attains a sophisticated methodology peculiar to itself, the more it cuts itself off from history and forgets that academic research is not an end in itself, and an increase in theoretical sophistication is not necessarily an epistemological advance.

If academic research is not an end, then, what is the end? Here, I haven’t gotten very far, so for the moment I just go with Feyerabend again: “The attempt to increase liberty, to lead a full and rewarding life, and the corresponding attempt to discover the secrets of nature and of man” (4).

HuffPo, Carlyle and Men’s Issues

The Huffington Post UK is dedicating a month to men’s issues. I note it here because in the post announcing and introducing the series, they start off with a reference to Carlyle’s On Heroes, noting how “that certainly wouldn’t fly today”. It goes on to say “The way we talk about men today is alarmingly different”. This is true of course. In my soon-to-be-submitted thesis, I opine that Carlyle is a near-perfect ideological other for 21st-century Western societies – everything he espouses is contrary to the the mainstream ideology of our societies. For that reason alone, he is an interesting figure, one whose re-instatement into conversations about masculinity, society etc. can only help to broaden our conceptions and our modes of discourse. That’s not to say, of course, that his writings should be taken as a source of wisdom in themselvesBut adding them to the conversation, mediated through other viewpoints, all of this is for the good, I believe, creating an encounter with otherness that will lead to a more panoramic viewpoint of this condition we call human.

Watching The Baskerville Curse (1983 animation)

Yet more Sherlock Holmes-watching in recent days. This time it’s the Australian-produced animated series from 1983, with the legendary Peter O’Toole providing the voice of the Great Detective. This series by Burbank Studios comprised adaptations of the four novels by Doyle: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear, to put them in order of original publication (IMDb reverses Four and Hound in the chronology of the adaptations). This series has not garnered much attention, and have been called “tame and somewhat insipid” by well-known Sherlockian scholar David Stuart Davies. A few reviews on IMDb have called the Hound adaptation the best of the four, so I’ll focus on that for the moment.

Firstly, it’s actually called The Baskerville Curse, the only one of the novels to have its name changed for the series, for reasons unknown. On the whole, the series stays very faithful to the novel, changing as little as possible. At 67 minutes, it’s longer than the other instalments (47-ish minutes each), and really that’s plenty long enough for adapting a short novel (under 200 pages in most editions) whose central mystery is not very mysterious and whose list of suspects is fairly limited. Not to mention that Holmes is absent for much of the action on fairly spurious grounds. Indeed, I’m not one of those who think Hound is the best of the stories, though it is clearly the most famous. Compare it to the other 3 novels: it has the least clever plot of them all. Its main USP would appear to be the Gothic element not otherwise prominent in the Holmes canon, and the Gothic has always lent itself to film.

Just as all of the Brett Holmes adaptations do, the Burbank series change the introductions to the tales. Doyle’s classic opening is a dialogue scene between Holmes and Watson, at Baker Street, usually preceding any mystery – Holmes might complain about the boredom of life; do some clever reading of Watson or somebody else around, etc. Into this cosy milieu the mystery is afterwards introduced. Many of my favourite moments and pieces of dialogue come from these introductory scenes, but adaptations have tended to eschew them, perhaps because they are not seen as being very dramatic.

Typical Doyle opening, from “The Copper Beeches“. Nice dialogue!:

“To the man who loves art for its own sake,” remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, “it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived. It is pleasant to me to observe, Watson, that you have so far grasped this truth that in these little records of our cases which you have been good enough to draw up, and, I am bound to say, occasionally to embellish, you have given prominence not so much to the many causes celebres and sensational trials in which I have figured but rather to those incidents which may have been trivial in themselves, but which have given room for those faculties of deduction and of logical synthesis which I have made my special province.”

“And yet,” said I, smiling, “I cannot quite hold myself absolved from the charge of sensationalism which has been urged against my records.”

“You have erred, perhaps,” he observed, taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs and lighting with it the long cherry-wood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood –“you have erred perhaps in attempting to put color and life into each of your statements instead of confining yourself to the task of placing upon record that severe reasoning from cause to effect which is really the only notable feature about the thing.”

“It seems to me that I have done you full justice in the matter,” I remarked with some coldness, for I was repelled by the egotism which I had more than once observed to be a strong factor in my friend’s singular character.

“No, it is not selfishness or conceit,” said he, answering, as was his wont, my thoughts rather than my words. “If I claim full justice for my art, it is because it is an impersonal thing — a thing beyond myself. Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell. You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales.”


Dartmoor in The Baskerville Curse

This adaptation starts on Dartmoor, with an episode only seen in flashback in Doyle, the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, adding some dialogue not found in Doyle, and introducing Dr Mortimer and Barrymore, as well as the Hound himself. This is similar to the famous Hound of 1939 with Rathbone, et al. The scenery evokes Dartmoor – perhaps they arrived at this through the similar scenery of the 1939 version. I’ve never been to Dartmoor, but have a concept of it through the various Hound adaptations, particularly the unmistakable rock formations.

More Dartmoor

More Dartmoor

The adapting-the-adaptation feel of Curse gets stronger when the next scene is an inquest scene – again similar to 1939, but just mentioned in flashback in Doyle.

Just over five minutes in, we get to London and Baker Street. Our first view of Holmes is almost a facial close-up. He’s a young Holmes with a full head of brown hair and a rather characterless face. A slight disappointment. Watson on the other hand is a clearly older man, stout and bulldog-ish: once again, evoking Rathbone and Bruce in the earlier film?

O'Toole's sherlock

The Rathbone film goes out of its way to throw suspicion on Dr Mortimer in the early scenes – so much so as to create a slight narrative incoherence, in my opinion, given that no reason for Mortimer’s odd and defensive behaviour in these scenes is ever forthcoming. This film, meanwhile, focalizes on Mortimer at the time of Sir Charles’ death, making it fairly clear that he didn’t do it.

When Stapleton enters at around 21 minutes, he is immediately signalled as the culprit (spoiler: Stapleton did it) by his surly demeanour, perpetually sour expression and the eerie music that accompanies his presence. meanwhile, Sir Henry has the same squared-jawed and characterless appearance as Holmes.

Stapleton with typical Dartmoor rock formations in the background.

Stapleton with typical Dartmoor rock formations in the background.

Maybe the real hero of the story is the Great Grimpen Mire, introduced in this adaptation concurrently with Stapleton. Some nice long shots bring atmosphere to the setting, and the spiral motif to suggest the treacherous terrain is evocative. Even the relative roughness of the animation rather adds to the atmosphere in the moor scenes.

Watson and Stapleton on the moor.

Watson and Stapleton on the moor.

After disappearing before the 20 minute mark, Holmes finally re-appears after around 49 minutes, and then the endgame can begin. Lestrade enters as well, and has an unusually big role. He also escapes being mocked by Holmes as he often is in Doyle – indeed, this adaptation is almost wholly humourless.

Finally, Holmes bows out by telling his sidekick “As always, it was elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.” Holmes’ famous line, never used in Doyle, tacked on, a nod to the myriad of sources invoked by an adaptation of the character at this point. It’s hard to approach Hound with originality, and this doesn’t really manage it. For me, I’m reminded that the novel itself doesn’t really reward repeated encounters. The Barrymore/ Selden subplot is an uninteresting irrelevance, and the denouement is predictable. The best thing about this adaptation, I would suggest, are some of the moor scenes, where visuals, music, and a fairly miminalist script are used in conjunction to create a good atmosphere, though, over 67 minutes, it’s stretched a bit thin.

Sherlock Holmes – The William Gillette Play (1899)

Aside from the canonical 56 short stories and 4 (short) novels, the most important early vehicle for the success of Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective was the play Sherlock Holmes, first performed in 1899, and credited as written by William Gillette (the famous actor who played Holmes in the play) and Arthur Conan Doyle. In effect, Gillette wrote the play, using various elements from Doyle’s stories, but also adding in much unrelated material.

An index of the play’s influence is that Gillette’s utterance “Elementary, my dear Watson” went on to become Holmes’ most famous line, though it never appears in quite that form in Doyle. Similarly, the now standard curved pipe was introduced by Gillette, and his introduction of a pageboy named Billy was used by Doyle himself in later stories. It has often been revived, among the more notable efforts being the 1981 production with Frank Langella as Holmes. This is now available in reasonable quality on Youtube.

The play opens with a reminiscence from Watson, setting the story in the distant past, as if Holmes (referred to by Watson in the past tense) is already a figure of nostalgic longing – not surprising, as the play was written and produced during Doyle’s hiatus, when Holmes was apparently dead. But Watson’s fairly lenghty introduction is less about Holmes than about introducing the plot, which is unfortunately melodramatic, cliched and convoluted, involving jilted lovers, high society, compromising letters, middle-class swindlers, somebody who “died of grief”, Moriarty, and “a most interesting young lady” who will need Holmes’ help. This last is Alice Faulkner, who will be recognizable as an avatar of the Damsel-in-Distress archetype. The plot bears some resemblance at this point to “A Scandal in Bohemia”, but is, as I said, very convoluted. Hence the need for an expository introduction, one whose status I am not sure of, as it does not appear to be in the original 1899 script.

The first scene proper is set among the Larrabees, the middle-class swindlers who want to get their hands on Alice Faulkner’s valuable letters. They menace Alice in a pulpishly violent manner but hide her away before Sherlock Holmes appears (to loud applause), to engage in some verbal repartee with the villainous couple. Eventually, Holmes force them into letting him meet Alice, and tries to convince her to hand over the letters, but she refuses. Here, again, “A Scandal in Bohemia” is evoked. The difference lies in the character: the brave and resourceful Irene Adler becomes the passive and girlish Alice, very much an Angel in the House type.

Another difference comes in with Holmes’s relation to the character: he considered Irene, of course, “the woman”, but in that famous first paragraph of “Scandal”, Watson goes on to make clear that “[i]t was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler”. In the play, however, Holmes’s feelings for Alice are of a more conventionally romantic sort. So to make a perhaps obvious and predictable point in the context of discussing adaptations, the play renders the ideology of the source more conventional, more bourgeois, most noticeably in the approach towards presenting the female lead and the relations between male and female lead. It is in his attitude towards and distance from the romantic an sexual realms that Holmes is most challenging, where he subverts tropes of most popular genre, and it is here that the adapted Holmes tends to go in different directions, and more recent adaptations also show the tensions inherent in trying to represent an apparently asexual character.

Apart from the expository introduction (which is not, as I noted above, in the original play), Watson doesn’t make an appearance until over half an hour in, where he arrives at Holmes’ residence and Holmes provides one of his virtuosic readings of Watson’s personal circumstances from his appearance, many of the details of which are taken from Doyle’s stories. This is a structural change from the stories, which almost invariably open in Holmes’ lodgings, and with conversation between the two. Watson is curiously absent from much of the play (perhaps another reason to give him some space in the introduction), and the narrative is not focalized through him. On the other hand, Moriarty becomes a primary antagonist, perhaps the beginning of the culture-text of Sherlock Holmes in which Moriarty plays a large role, as opposed to Doyle’s stories where he is present only in “The Final Problem” and gets a mention in one or two other places (The Valley of Fear).

Some of the repartee between Holmes and Moriarty and the other villains is entertaining. But perhaps my favourite exchange was in Act 2, Scene 2. This follows the first introduction of Billy, the page boy (played by a very young Christian Slater), who comes into Holmes’s chambers and addresses him thusly:

BILLY: Mrs. ‘Udson’s compliments, sir, an’ she wants to know if she can see you?

HOLMES (without moving, looking into fire thoughtfully): Where is Mrs. Hudson?

BILLY:  Downstairs in the back kitchen, sir.

HOLMES:  My compliments and I don’t think she can — from where she is.

Possibly it doesn’t read as comedy genius but the line is well delivered by Langella in the 1981 version, and it got a laugh. Comedy is fairly prevalent throughout the work, accentuated by the performances. Langella’s Holmes is witty in a very deadpan manner. On the whole, Langella is a good Holmes, and it’s perhaps a shame that he never got to play him in a more cinematic setting, when he could have staked his claimed to be considered by Sherlockians alongside Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and, latterly, Benedict Cumberbatch. As it is, this is his only Holmesian legacy, and seems to be the best film version of this oft-performed play – a play that, in its initial Gillette-starring production, may have done almost as much to create the Holmes myth as the stories themselves.

On Barthes’ “Death of the Author”

I will be leading a discussion on Barthes’ “Death of the Author” in a seminar in a few weeks time, so now is a good time to re-read it and try to gather my thoughts on it. It’s a very short essay, 7 pages, and this may go some way to explaining its ubiquity. Not very far, but some way – for when you are introducing students to critical theory, a short, difficult essay is easier than a long, difficult essay, and most options fall into one of those two categories. But Barthes’ massive logical leaps into ex cathedra pronouncements on the nature of language, writing and reading are missing a whole lot of supporting evidence and development.

Barthes starts with a quote from Balzac, one that isn’t familiar in an Anglophone context, a fact which perhaps makes a difference as to how forcefully his point comes across. Then he asks, pertinently enough, who is it who speaks in this piece of narration, and answers: “We shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, or every point or origin” (Word Image Text, Fontana, 1977, p. 142). In the history of literary criticism, this is perhaps the moment where philosophy begins to take over, exorcising the strict formalism of New Criticism. New Criticism often appears in histories of literary theory as the pre-existing paradigm overturned by theory. It is in this context that Barthes’ pronouncement gains in force, for, taken in itself, it reads to me like a huge hyperbole that is almost wholly unsupported in the essay. The rest of the essay doesn’t add any readings of pieces of literature to this one, it rather concentrates on very general philosophical points. This is a very important feature of this essay, one which was part of a huge shift in the study of literature – formal analysis and attentive reading of literature has given way to philosophizing. Jonathan Culler has written a book on this, though I haven’t read it.

So Barthes’ definition of a text is that it is “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of meanings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (146). Is that all it is? Does anyone really believe that? If a text is just a tissue of quotations without an author or organizing consciousness behind them then why would we have favourite authors? Did Barthes never read a book on the strength of another book by the same author? I bet he did. I find it hard to see his stance as anything other than a deliberate overstatement. It can’t be proved or proved wrong, and I’m tempting to take an Ayer/ logical positivist view and class it as nonsense. But it was paradigm-shifting nonsense, that much we have to admit.

Is literature the work of an author? Does it arise from cultural codes? A little of column A and a little of column B is the common-sense answer, and one I’d subscribe to, but when Barthes’ essay appeared in 1967 obviously the zeitgeist was ready to answer: it’s all B; A does not exist! B was the position that academics were disposed to theorize. Maybe a reaction against New Criticism, a turning of the critical wheel, or maybe other historical factors (student riots, etc.) added to the enthusiasm with which the essay was read. But the theorization of B (cultural codes) was considered to involve the absolute denial of A (author), and that’s unnecessary and unsustainable. It would have been just as easy to outline the ways in which B operated historically, and sidelined A; but what happened was rather the theorization of B, and this entailed a theorization of the falseness of B. History is  mixed up, but theory proves often pure and absolutist.

It’s a work like “Death of the Author” that makes me suspect that the qualities required to be a celebrated thinker are the taking up of a ridiculous or blatantly exaggerated view and creating terms within which it can be defended, a view that corresponds to the zeitgeist, but amplifies it. This is not a conclusion that I want to reach, because it removes all of thought from any engagement with reality, or truth – it actually puts it on the opposite path, because defending an evident absurdity requires greater ingenuity and affords greater scope for intellectual pyrotechnics than defending a common-sense position, thus an absurdity is philosophically superior to any other character of theory or observation. It’s no wonder that Stanley Fish’s theories about all “knowledge” being related to conventions specific to a group or moment came out a few years after this essay. But Fish should have historicized his theory (but that’s one convention that went out of fashion), because while truth loses out in Barthes’ approach, it has made some slight returns since, and if Carlyle’s theory of the “bankruptcy of imposture” (on which, stay tuned) has any validity at all, it’s going to be coming back a lot more in the near future.

A Cultural Role of Power, Comfort and Gratification

When it comes to Thomas Carlyle, perhaps it could be argued that the form and content of his writing is in itself less interesting and less worthy of study than the reception of his writing. How did he attain to such massive influence over his time, such that George Eliot was able to write, in a quote used frequently by Carlyle scholars:

It is an idle question to ask whether his books will be read a century hence; if they were all burnt as the grandest of Suttees on his funeral pile, it would be only like cutting down an oak after its acorns have sown a forest. For there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived.

It is possible to go into infinite detail on the books that owed elements of their content or form, there philosophy of ideology, to Carlyle’s influence, and in my thesis I do go into much of this, though I primarily limit my investigations to the anglophone world. But to study the source of Carlyle’s influence, perhaps not only his works need to be studied, but also his biography, a biography well known to his contemporaries – even more so after his death with the publication of Froude’s controversial account. It is impossible to draw a line between the iconicity of Carlyle himself and the influence of his works, but with the debasement of one, partially via Froude, came the discreditation of the other.

In Norma Clarke’s “Strenuous Idleness: Thomas Carlyle and the man of letters as hero” (Manful Assertions, ed. Michael Roper and John Tosh, 1991), Carlyle’s early life and correspondence is mined for clues to the nature of his work, and to his own emotional and intellectual coming-of-age. Clarke notes that “less well noted and more paradoxical is the way [Carlyle] created, out of the qualities of those he elevated into great heroes, a cultural role for aspiring male writers that was redolent with possibilities of power, comfort and gratification” (40). She goes into little detail on this interesting observation, but it is perhaps a direction in which Carlyle studies needs to move. I hope to add something to this in my own work. Quantitively, I will deal with many instances of literary influence in my “Reception History” chapter, including a focus on the English bildungsroman in which the psychogenesis of the author is laid bare – in this genre in the late 19th- early 20th century, somewhat confirming Clarke’s point, Carlyle is a particularly pervasive presence. Carlylean manhood looms over all the literary men of the age, admonishing and encouraging.

The sense of the cultural role of the writer is something Carlyle could be seen to have had a hand in changing, temporarily at least. Carlyle’s essay on the Hero as Man of Letters – “our most important modern person” – offered a model of heroism to Victorian youth. From a reception point of view, one may wonder how far one can take this influence, how far the thread can be followed. Can one read it into 20th- and early 21st-century work? Not directly, as Carlyle is not widely enough read, but in a mediated form. one possible locus for reading Carlyle as an indirect influence on 20th-century culture is Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s famous Vietnam War film from 1979. And I am looking at this film at the moment. Not just the film itself, but the making of the film – a production famous in itself and inflecting how the film is watched and rated – as seen most notably in Eleanor Coppola’s documentary Hearts of Darkness.

Francis Ford Coppola’s main source for the film – apart from John Milius’ script, which provided much material for the early part of the movie, but was discarded for the latter part – was Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899). Without wanting to give much away, I am trying to suggest that certain Carlylean memes are found in HoD – and in this I am follower several prior sources – and thence found their way in mediated form into AN, and, even, into Coppola as his personality developed during the protracted production of the film. That is, Coppola was, belatedly, a member of that group for whom “possibilities of power, comfort and gratification” were derived from a Carlylean representation of manhood. Thus I’m suggesting that the Kurtz figure owes something to Carlyle, the work and the biographical figure. Kurtz, it should be remembered, is a man of words, a voice, both literary and oral. The narrator’s most intense experience of Kurtz’s power and genius is not through witnessing the vaguely described actions of the Great Man, but through his words:

It was eloquent,vibrating with eloquence, but too high-strung, I think. Seventeen pages of close writing he had found time for! But this must have been before his—let us say—nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which—as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you understand?—to Mr. Kurtz himself. But it was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,’ etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’

I have italicized all of the phrases wherein the effect of Kurtz’s words is described. Conrad tells rather than shows: the only words we are given are the final scrawl that, it is clear, is entirely out of character with the rest of the piece. The content of Kurtz’s piece is irrelevant to the narrator;only the effect is important, and that is considerable indeed. The subject of this passage and perhaps the entire novella is the power of the voice, even divorced from any substantive content. Conrad is questioning the voice, but in the formal terms of the plot, he appears to conclude that the importance of identification with a powerful voice outweighs the fact that what is said may be nonsense – if God is Dead, we need to believe in somebody, even if we know that our belief is based on illusion. Hence Marlow’s (the narrator of the above passage) final decision to lie to Kurtz’s “Intended” about Kurtz’s activity, to keep up the illusion. A melancholy lesson indeed.

But the power of the voice of the artist was a live issue in the late 19th century. As late as 1916 Yeats asked in the wake of the Easter Rising: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” The answer to that question was probably No, but the Man of Letters at the time had a power unknown to his 21st-century counterpart. But returning to Eliot’s quote, the next line after the passage quoted is: “The character of his influence is best seen in the fact that many of the men who have the least agreement with his opinions are those to whom the reading of Sartor Resartus was an epoch in the history of their minds.” This is an element of Carlyle’s reception which needs further elaboration, but his influence, the power of his words, was out of all proportion to the substantial agreement they invoked. His contemporaries credited him with great inspiration, but almost all rejected his central political stance. This is a very complex element of discourse, of theory, of politics, of inspiration, of the movement of mind of large groups of people: the great distance between the power of the voice and the substance of the content. To be wrong is no bar to being influential; to tingle with eloquence, to soar, to create enthusiasm, to set down a magic current of phrases, all of these things are what create social and political efficacy. And none better exemplified this than Carlyle – to fully go into this we would have to consider Froude’s biography and associated publications, which had established Carlyle as somewhat of a fraud, a man obsessed with masculine ideals that he made no effort to live up to, but that he never ceased to prescribe to his readers in peremptory and sometimes bullying tones. But even before going into the author’s personality, we can know from reading the copious reflection on him by other writers that few agreed with him, but they all read him very intently.

The appeal of Carlyle lay in a few aspects, one of which was certainly that figure of the Hero as Man of Letters. To be able to take oneself and one’s doings that seriously – as seriously as Yeats thinking he had provoked a rebellion! – was pivotal in a time of God-being-Dead and rationalist melancholia. That is transcribed in Kurtz, the real Man of Letters, so much a man that he not only spoke and wrote, but also acted. And this is something I will be looking into: watching Heart of Darkness and witnessing the absurd grandiosity of Coppola; hearing him say in the commentary to Apocalypse Now that “Director is one of the few dictatorial posts left”, watching him (or reading in Eleanor’s notes) gorge on power and gratification. Here we have again the Carlylean spirit, kept alive through a handful of memes in Heart of Darkness, from which memes Coppola constructed his own authorial persona – while he adapted Heart of Darkness, it was adapting him, and giving unto the world a new Hero, a creative artist with the courage of his convictions, who courted absurdity, pretentiousness, etc., to create Art – but, after all, I’m not sure that Hearts of Darkness is not a more than Apocalypse Now itself, and that what is depicted so memorably in that documentary is any more than the Art of being a Jerk.

Unfinished Masterpieces: Books on the Guardian Best Novels in English List that I Gave Up On.

The Guardian have just finished their long-running series of the 100 Greatest Novels written in English, and they give the full list here. It’s a fairly bog-standard list, giving rise to some characteristic Guardianist mutterings in the comments section (and a reply article on the website) about the preponderance of Dead White Males on the list. I’ve read about two-thirds of the list. But there I’m including a number that I started, but never finished. Unfinished readings perhaps haven’t gotten enough critical attention: when one considers it, it’s quite possible that we find out more about a person by the books they’ve failed to finish than the books they love: love for a book can be too easily influenced by extraneous factors – the prestige attaching to certain titles and so on – but if you failed to finish a book you’ve gone to the trouble of picking up, that implies a strength of feeling, a real reaction to the material of the book, a complete volte face from wishing-to-read to not-wishing-to-read. This, undoubtedly, is worth a moment’s consideration.

So, for the benefit of my future biographers, the books in Robert McCrum’s list I’ve started but not (yet) finished, are:

2. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

6. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

11. Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil

23. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

28. George Gissing, New Grub Street

34. Rudyard Kipling, Kim

36. Henry James, The Golden Bowl

Defoe – I only read this for the first time quite recently, downloading to Kindle for a long journey. I haven’t picked it up since (the novel [metaphorically], not the Kindle), but I do plan to finish it.

Disraeli – I should have read this in full for purposes of my thesis, perhaps, but as yet I haven’t. Though it has some interesting elements and worthwhile socio-political reflections, it is also frequently banal and very melodramatic. An interesting book, but I wouldn’t say a great one.

Gissing – This is another recent one, and is actually rather good. Nevertheless, it fell by the wayside after only 80 or so pages, to be picked up and finished when I can link its reading to some research, and thus create that extra motivation.

Kipling – I just can’t get into Kipling at all. His style somehow repels and confuses me. I’ve made a couple of efforts at Kim, in theory an interesting work, much discussed by Edward Said, et al., but haven’t finished it yet.

James – I enjoy much of early James, but really late James like The Golden Bowl is tough on the old coconut. Pages of internal focalization on some minutiae of conscience or social interaction. Possibly a great novel, but one you really need to be in the mood for, and to devote plenty of attention to. I can’t help recalling H.G. Wells’ famous (or perhaps infamous) statement on James from Boon, a few years later: ““It [any novel by James] is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string” [Quoted from here]. I can’t read late James without thinking of that passage now, possibly a testament to my own philistinism.

Sterne – I read this years ago, and hated it. Being an admirer of much postmodernist-type humour (e.g. Flann O’Brien), I had heard of this as a precursor thereto and expected to like it, but everything I could glean about Sterne as implied author from the book made me dislike him and it.

Twain – another reading from years ago, about which I can remember little, except the experience of boredom. Perhaps I should give it another try, and almost certainly will, some day.

Of the other 60 or so I’ve read, there are quite a few that I barely remember, that I skimmed in my bibliovorous and undiscriminating teenage years. Sometimes, in those days, I read just to finish, and took in few enough details (if it was a book I didn’t like). Still, reading canonically, “the best which has been thought and said“, is not without rewards, and there are a lot of books on McCrum’s list that I remember quite vividly. And yet, it is sometimes those books one doesn’t finish – where one wonders if there was something there one didn’t “get”; something that was there, but you missed it – that are the most haunting.

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