The Victorian Sage

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

Paper on Carlyle and Elizabeth (1998)

Maddalena Pennachia’s “Culturally British Bio(e)pics” in Adaptation, Intermediality and the British Celebrity Biopic brings in some Carlyle to explain the ideology behind Elizabeth (1998), arguing that Elizabeth’s femaleness makes her a less embarrassing subject for such heroic treatment than a male character would. If Carlyle had admitted the category of female heroes, he might have written the script for Elizabeth. An interesting paper regarding Carlyle as it posits his ideological positioning as still having some allure, while also being too embarrassing (Pennachia uses the term “embarrassment” to describe our reaction to Carlyle on page 40) to be directly appropriated.

Freud, Leonardo, Sherlock Holmes, Asexuality


Freud, biographer of Leonardo

Sigmund Freud is a fascinating writer because of the enormous influence he has had on contemporary culture. Sometimes it seems as if our whole sense of what a human being is and does underwent a revolution with Freudian theory, and I’m not just talking about intellectual and academic discourse, I’m talking the tropes of popular culture that seem to have become increasingly Freudian. This is something that particularly fascinates me in the diachronic study I have been making of adaptations of Sherlock Holmes: it is clear that modern retellings like Sherlock and Elementary have to tackle questions about the detective’s sexuality, his unconscious, and the personal psychic development that leads to his unorthodox character, whereas Doyle was perfectly comfortable with the idea that Holmes had no sexuality, no unconscious and underwent no personal development. This is something I go into in more detail in an upcoming publication.

But it comes back to Freud: the stories we tell about ourselves are different now that Freud’s works have made their way into popular culture. One of Freud’s most compelling narratives is the essay on Leonardo, the original Renaissance Man. Freud himself considered this “the only beautiful thing I have ever written”. One thing that interests a semi-Victorian such as myself is the sense in which Leonardo da Vinci: A Psychosexual Study of a Childhood Reminiscence is a throwback to Victorian “Great Man” studies of the Carlyle type. Freud actually calls Leo a “great man” as well as a “universal genius” (in Strachey’s translation), and is throughout open about his admiration for his subject. More generally, he states that he’s interested in making biography into a branch of psychoanalysis.

A further point of interest in the essay for me is that Leonardo is a historical figure who does resemble Sherlock Holmes in one notable respect: he is, as far as behaviour goes, totally asexual. I say “behaviour” because for Freud he was a non-practicing homosexual. There’s no entry for asexual in The Freud Reader (ed. Peter Gay, Vintage, 1995), but Freud essentially did not accept the category of asexuality, speaking of the “historical probability of Leonardo having behaved in his life as one who was emotionally homosexual”. Even though he believes Leonard lived a wholly celibate life, he does not translate this into an identity, but assumes he must have been homosexual.

The first point Freud makes about Leo’s chastity and apparent dedication to the pursuit of knowledge (both artistic and scientic – he was a real Renaissance Man and just because we think of him as first and foremost and artist does not mean that he dedicated himself more to art than to science) is that it was a sublimation. This is one of Freud’s key ideas, especially from the point of view of a literary scholar. It occurs when the sexual libido that Freud sees as the fundamental drive of a human (ignoring the later development of the death drive for the moment) is sidelined into any activity, and it is fundamental to Freud’s understanding of writers, artists, scientists, etc.

The methodological importance of sublimation for Freud is that it immediately leads to a question: why? Sublimation is not a natural occurrence, but only takes place in culture, and always in response to a certain circumstance. In recreating such occurrences Freud is at his most audacious, creating psychic lanscapes with a verve and a sweep of vision that impresses, even if it doesn’t always convince. For a self-declared scientist, Freud tends to go far beyond what the evidence warrants. But that is a familiar complaint – it’s important, but the simple effectiveness of Freud’s theories in the marketplace of ideas demands we don’t limit our analysis of them to the scientific truth they contain.

So, regarding Leo, why did he sublimate his sexuality into the pursuit of knowledge? Almost nothing is known of his childhood, but one of his notebooks contains an account of a childhood dream, too complicated to get into here, which Freud reads with great ingenuity to posit that Leonardo’s father was absent during his early childhood. (Leo was illegitimate, but the evidence, such as it is, suggests he lived with his father – Freud acknowledges this evidence, but nevertheless feels that his reading of the dream trumps it.) Freud further posits that Leo’s mother was sexually frustrated and developed an overly intense and eroticized bond with her young son. Because Leo came to desire his mother, he also wanted to replace or gain ascendency over his father. The rebellion against the father Freud apparently sees as central to all intellectual achievement: “His later scientific research, with all its boldness and independence, presupposed the existence of infantile sexual researches unintibited by the father, and was a prolongation of them with the sexual element excluded.” So the absence of the father is necessary for the development of an independent intellect. It is often said that Freud’s thinking is infected with misogyny. That is a point that can be convincingly made, but one should also note that his attitude to the father seems to place men in a particularly invidious position, as a dark, brooding and stultifying presence contrasted with the erotically tinged nurturance of the mother.

So Freud’s theory of how Leonardo came to be a genius and a (theoretical) homosexual is one based entirely on nurture, not taking nature into the equation at all. In some ways it seems inadequate, given that even if Freud’s presuppositions about Leo are right, his circumstances are not that unusual. But Freud’s model of explaining how genius came to be, and particularly the childhood family circumstances, are now the norm. Thus in Sherlock, the relationship of rivalry and ambivalence with the older brother and quasi-father (Mycroft) has taken centre stage, and season 3 also saw the “Redbeard” motif introduced, wherein Sherlock’s childhood love for a pet dog that died is introduced as an implied reason for his asociality/aromanticism/asexuality. For Doyle, Sherlock’s family background was irrelevant, and is never mentioned, though Mycroft does enter into a couple of stories, mainly as a plot device. But why not go the whole hog, and use the Leonardo essay as a basis for a full Freudian explanation of Holmes’ character and his genius: absent father, over-affectionate mother, repression of sexual love for the mother, sublimation into work, remaining libido directed towards other men etc. Elements of this narrativization of the character are found in Elementary and Sherlock, as if they adapt not only Doyle, but also Freud.

Is it a Rhinoceros or an Elephant in the Room?: Reflections on Truth

A point that interests me greatly is the status of the concept of truth in contemporary intellectual thought. Insofar as postmodern and poststructuralist modes of thought remain hegemonic in intellectual culture, truth has very little currency. Similarly with our pluralistic and multicultural politics, which privilege a very relativistic approach to issues, rather than an insistence of a particular truth. Terry Eagleton writes, “No idea is more unpopular with contemporary cultural theory than that of absolute truth” (After Theory, Verso, 2004, p. 103). Rather than offer a devastating and unanswerable critique of this position in this blog post, I can only begin by noting that this idea has never been acceptable to me. I cannot do without the notion of truth.

The absurdities of a position entirely dispensing with the notion are well illustrated by the famous anecdote about Wittgenstein and the Rhinoceros in the Room. On one of Wittgenstein’s first meetings with Bertrand Russell, he challenged Russell’s empirical epistemology and the argument somehow arrived at the point where Russell was prodding Wittgenstein to admit that there was no rhinoceros in the room they were occupying, but Wittgenstein insisted that he couldn’t be sure of that on an empirical basis and would not conclusively say there was no such animal in the room. So the matter remained unresolved. Perhaps by finding where people’s opinions lie in this matter, we can find out a lot about their general philosophical stance. I am certainly a Russellian on this point. But I wonder how he approached the argument: I suppose he tried to prove that there was no rhinoceros in the room, and failed as far as Wittgenstein was concerned. But did he confront Wittgenstein: did he say, “it is not provable that there is no rhinoceros in this room, not in the absolute theoretical sense you desire, but I do not believe that there is one, nor have I any reason to. And you, do you actually believe that there is one?”  Surely Wittgenstein would not be able to say he did, would have to admit that he didn’t really think there was one, at which the Russellian might say, “Then why argue? We neither of us think there is a rhinoceros here. If we did, we would be acting very differently, and feeling considerable fear, no doubt. Therefore let us not argue over what we both consider false, and what, so far as we know, no one has ever considered true. That is proof enough.” This is perhaps naïve, but constitutes somewhat of an appeal to honesty, and an appeal to argue over genuine points of difference, not over things that are simply unprovable at a very abstract level of rhetoric – and everything is unprovable at a certain level.

So there is a simple and direct truth about certain matters that we should be able to agree about, such as the non-presence of a rhinoceros in any given room (one can imagine exceptions, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, i.e., almost certainly never). These truths will only take us so far, of course, but they should be kept in mind. Hence I am wary of Žižek’s attempts to rehabilitate truth in a new form. Žižek, unlike most contemporary thinkers, writes about truth a lot. In one of his most accessible books, How to Read Lacan from the Norton How to Read… series (New York, 2007), Žižek gives his own version of truth, related to the Lacanian dictum Les non-dupes errant, which he translates as “Those in the know are in error”. His gloss on this dictum is as follows:

What is missed by the cynic who believes only his eyes is the efficiency of the symbolic fiction, the way this fiction structures our reality. A corrupt priest who preaches about virtue may be a hypocrite, but if people endow his words with the authority of the Church, it may prompt them to do good deeds. (33-34)

This is not a particularly impressive passage, and Žižek has probably made this point more convincingly elsewhere, but taking this as representative of his position, we can note a few things: firstly, he equates empiricism with cynicism, and he essentially contrasts it with hypocrisy, preferring the latter. In the old argument, then, between conservative-Burkean “beautiful illusions” and liberal “inconvenient truths”, Žižek is a conservative. Secondly, his example doesn’t make his point. The notion of fiction structuring our reality sounds impressive, but the religious example of “good deeds” tells us nothing about the structure of our reality, but only of individual deeds. (I’m only taking into account this passage here. I’m sure I’ll come across other passages where Žižek makes the point about structure more satisfactorily.) So the example brings the rhetoric down to earth with a bump, and invites numerous questions. Or course, such a priest as Žižek describes may cause good deeds to be performed, but don’t we need to take into account all the consequences of his corruption and his whole being, rather than dismissing it all with the possibility of some good deeds.

Žižek is not wrong to suggest that good deeds as a result of social fictions need to be taken into account in any cultural analysis, he’s only wrong to introduce it not alongside, but at the expense of other criteria. Here again I put forward the approach of Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend suggested that in the evaluation of any theory, both the logical force and the material effect need to be taken into account (Against Method). The Žižek of the above passage only wants the latter – and he gives no way of knowing how the latter can even be measured. Given his anti-empiricism, it would not be easy to do!

So if Žižek’s rehabilitation of the concept of truth is really the rehabilitation only of the name, to cover a quite different concept (material effect, in Feyerabend’s term, although it doesn’t even cover that very well), then we’re worse off than when we started. We can’t even agree on basic truths, as we always have to give way before material effect. As unfortunately often with Žižek, in the guise of making a basic philosophical statement, he’s muddying the waters and redefining terms in arbitrary ways. The real truth is, that we’re in agreement about the truth of many things in our everyday life; it is only in theory that there is a massive stumbling block. We can’t wholly solve our problems by appealing to the definitively and unproblematically true, but we certainly can’t solve them by discounting this factor altogether. That is the worst possible starting-point. So, though we like to argue about truth, let’s admit that practically, we do agree what truth is in many basic situations. Let’s admit that there is, in fact, no rhinoceros in the room. That this fact is, indeed, the elephant in the room!*



*”There’s no rhinoceros in the room” = rhetorical way of saying, some really basic empirical truths are worth accepting and not arguing over. “That’s the elephant in the room!” = figure of speech meaning the truth everyone knows but no one says. So the import of my final sentences is simply that we all having working definitions of truth, so let’s admit it, and not pretend we don’t, a la Wittgenstein and various post-modernists.

Sherlock Holmes and Psychoanalysis

Jeremy Tambling’s Literature and Psychoanalysis (Manchester UP, 2012) is intended to show how psychoanalytic theory can be used to interpret literature. One of the case studies in the book is the Sherlock Holmes story “The Empty House” (TEH), the famous story where Holmes announces he didn’t die at Reichenbach Falls after all. That he is, in fact, still alive. Gasp! Tambling’s use of this text interests me because I use Sherlock Holmes as the paradigm of the pre-Freudian character, one who is unrepresentable according to contemporary, Freudian-influenced ideologies of subjectivity. Despite the fact that many new Holmes adaptations continue to appear, I contend that they are inscribed with the tensions between the Doylean conception of the character and our understanding of being human. This is particularly true of Sherlock, where the character is subject to trauma, repression, desire, self-doubt, ambivalence and all of these Freudian concepts that Doyle gets by without.

So, when Tambling returns to the stories themselves for psychoanalytic readings, my starting position is that Holmes is one character on whom psychoanalysis is wasted. But of course, I’m talking about the character, Tambling is talking about the story. And indeed, Tambling seems to tacitly accept that the character doesn’t respond to the psychoanalytic treatment: Tambling’s key terms in the discussion of TEH are identification and repetition, and all he really says on Holmes is that “We cannot identify with Holmes” (17). Well, it would need an empirical study to show that people have identified with Holmes, but I’m pretty sure that Tambling’s statement is a great exaggeration. It would be closer to the mark to say, “We cannot identify with Holmes, insofar as we are Freudian subjects“. This is part of the greatness of the character: the challenge he presents to dominant Freudian discourses of the subject.

So, having dismissed Holmes in that manner, Tambling goes on to demonstrate the centrality of his key terms. The notion of repetition centres around the theme of “hunting and being hunted” (17), as Tambling notes – so it is rather this idea that may be seen as central, as opposed to the more general effect of repetition. Tambling in fact lists the instances of hunting in the story, and it is clear that basically the whole story is organized around (man)hunts. He doesn’t quite tie this in to his psychoanalytic reading, though, not in a way that was clear to me, anyway. But this was the element of his reading that most interested me, and made me think over the Holmes canon in total, as I had not really considered that enjoyment of these stories was centrally linked to such a primal pleasure as hunting. While not always to the same extent as TEH, hunting is quite central to the stories, albeit perhaps no more so than rationalism, justice, or even friendship.

Finally, then, Tambling’s point is that we enjoy because we identify, and that detective stories also satisfy our compulsion to repeat – and what could be more Freudian than that? His argument presents some difficulties, though, not least the manner in which they sideline Sherlock Holmes himself as a character. The nature of the character really must be taken into account, when we consider just how much Sherlockians focus on the character himself. But, if my suggestions are correct, the psychoanalytic approach is not the best one for that task, for the character is in himself a great challenge to psychoanalysis.

Carlyle’s Theory of Imposture

Is it going too far to say that Carlyle had a theory of imposture? Perhaps so, and making such a claim gives one a considerable responsibility to explicate said theory and even to defend it, to some extent. But the idea of imposture in Carlyle is so central that it should be theorized to some extent, to bring it forward in people’s minds when they consider Carlyle’s contribution to the thought of his time. Especially so when we consider that imposture is not a theme we  have much contemporary discussion of. Our postmodern view of truth is that it is an effect of discourse, so imposture has no essential validity – if truth doesn’t exist in itself, neither does imposture. The way we talk about such topics is summed up in the discourse around Imposter Syndrome, which I wrote about earlier. We see such a feeling as a syndrome of external pressures, never asking if we are, in fact, impostors, and, if so, what we can do about it. Such does not have the appearance of an academic question. All the more reason, then, to revisit a thinker who took imposture very seriously indeed.

Carlyle discussed imposture not only at an individual level, but at a societal level. This is the crux of his analysis of the French Revolution: Revolution as a solution to institutionalized imposture. Really? How credible is this? Is imposture unbearable? Carlyle says yes, in the long run, it is. Note here how he is opposed to the conservative Eliotean dictum “Mankind cannot bear very much reality“. Carlyle says the opposite: Mankind cannot bear too much falsity. In our present ideological climate, is this not an audacious and radical claim?

In the context of the French Revolution, imposture had been institutionalized. The two principal ideological state apparatuses were the King and the Church. Carlyle was not opposed to either institution in theory, but felt that both were worn-out symbols that had been created in response to a genuine community need, but had failed to change in response to epistemological, technological and social advances, and had become irrelevancies – but irrelevancies whose power was still institutionalized. This, then, is the ultimate imposture, when institutions are unfit for governance, but are unwilling to jeopardize their privileged position by admitting this. When institutionalized authorities are inadequate, to uphold them can only be “an Imbecility or a Machiavellism” (FR, Modern Library 2002, p. 11). To even take part, with perhaps good intentions, is Machiavellian or Imbecilic. The more these institutions are upheld, the more the return to Nature must be violent and cataclysmic. For Carlyle insists that “a Lie cannot be believed” (FR, p. 14), and that truth will out, for we cannot bear it otherwise. We may think to choose to believe is a viable proposition, but if we don’t actually believe, the imposture will prove impossible, and will call up a rebellion from that part of us that belongs to Nature.

The difficulty is in pinpointing this process: is it at an individual level that we react against lies in this manner? Can we describe it in terms of consciousness, of actions, or what? Is there an empirical historical basis for this view? Don’t people believe lies all the time, and on a long-term basis? From my point of view, the most interesting thing about this theory is that it challenges all dominant theories in contemporary thought. It’s anti-conservative, it’s anti-Foucault, it’s anti-Nietzsche. It’s a theory I would like to able to defend, but it’s one I need to think about, and try and get my thoughts in order.

Defending Lost Causes and the Redemptive Moment in Carlyle

Žižek’s premise in In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2009) is one of my favorites. With reference to Hegel, Lacan, the French Revolution and Stalinism (!) among other things, he tries to isolate ‘the redemptive moment which gets lost in the liberal-democratic rejection’ (7). It’s not the arguments against these things are not valid, but that ‘this is not the whole truth’ (7). Žižek is careful to point out that he’s not defending Stalinism, et al., but ‘to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative’ (6). I hadn’t read this book before completing my thesis, but it would have fit Carlyle like a glove. Indeed, I used quotes from Feyerabend that make almost the same point as Žižek here. Mill makes similar points about the need to defend unpopular arguments in On Liberty, as well. Of course, I couldn’t delineate and theorize the ‘redemptive moment’ in Carlyle with the panache or theoretical acumen of Žižek, and I didn’t really try, as, in the end, I felt the need to reject any limiting of Carlyle’s work or influence to a ‘moment’ – or at least, I couldn’t come up with one moment that encapsulated enough to make it central. But, ok, one moment from Carlyle that sums up his radical potential (probably unrealized in his corpus overall), here is one that does it for me, from the great Sartor Resartus (of course):

“You see two individuals, […] one dressed in fine Red, the other in coarse threadbare Blue: Red says to Blue, ‘Be hanged and anatomized;’ Blue hears with a shudder, and (O wonder of wonders!) marches sorrowfully to the gallows; is there noosed up, vibrates his hour, and the surgeons dissect him, and fit his bones into a skeleton for medical purposes. How is this; or what make ye of your Nothing can act but where it is? Red has no physical hold of Blue, no clutch of him, is nowise in contact with him: neither are those ministering Sheriffs and Lord-Lieutenants and Hangmen and Tipstaves so related to commanding Red, that he can tug them hither and thither; but each stands distinct within his own skin. Nevertheless, as it is spoken, so is it done: the articulated Word sets all hands in Action; and Rope and Improved-drop perform their work.

“Thinking reader, the reason seems to me twofold: First, that Man is a Spirit, and bound by invisible bonds to All Men; secondly, that he wears Clothes, which are the visible emblems of that fact. Has not your Red hanging-individual a horsehair wig, squirrel-skins, and a plush-gown; whereby all mortals know that he is a JUDGE?—Society, which the more I think of it astonishes me the more, is founded upon Cloth. (Part 1, Chapter 9)

This, presented as a pseudo-quote from Teufelsdrockh, is a powerful thought-experiment which brings to the reader’s attention the fact that the law is, as Žižek said, grounded on a lie. The life and death of one are in the hands of another who is in no way essentially other, but has merely adopted or been given certain clothes which have the magical effect of producing obedience to instructions he may give in certain forms and in certain situations. Thus Carlyle is quite openly and with shocking frankness (this was mid-19th-century England) putting forward the Žižekian point that ‘the law is grounded on a lie’, that ‘its authority is without truth’ (Sublime Object of Ideology, Ch. 1). It is simply a matter of ‘clothes’: the essence of the judge and the criminal are no different; they are ontologically equal, yet one can casually bring death to the other, and employ the whole machinery of society to do so. This is a passage calculated to foment revolution in the minds of ordinary men and women, to inspire commitment to anarchism, the levelling of all persons and symbolic denuding of all. How could respect for legal and political authorities survive if this passage were taken to the popular heart? Impossible. Here, then, we have a radical core that should be kept in mind when we consider Carlyle’s reputation in the 19th c., one which invited us to look at all constituted authorities with a critical eye – to look at the people, not the symbolic authority with which they are invested.


Reflecting on Žižek with Carlyle

Slavoj Žižek is turning into a Carlyle in his own right at this stage. He’s been getting heat for his attitude to Syrian refugees as expressed in articles like this one. The congregation are starting to wonder, is the Z. just another reactionary bore who has somehow inveigled his way to the vanguard of intellectuo-academic culture. One is reminded of Carlyle’s publication of his Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question (1849), a work that called more or less emphatically for the return of slavery to the West Indies. This did not go down well. Froude (Thomas Carlyle: His life in London, 1884) writes:

A paper on the Negro or Nigger question, properly the first of the ‘Latter-Day Pamphlets’ was Carlyle’s declaration of war against modern Radicalism. Hitherto, though his orthodoxy had been questionable, the Radicals had been glad to claim him as belonging to them[.]

That’s right, and should be rememberd, Carlyle was a Radical – with a capital R. Carlyle was expelled (figuratively speaking) from the ranks of the Radicals, and his remained very far to the right according to public opinion since. J.S. Mill wrote an angry rejoinder to Carlyle’s piece, which is worth reading. (Both pieces were published anonymously, but they both were aware who they were arguing with – Carlyle, in particular, had an unmistakeable  style.)

Žižek’s piece is far less incendiary than Carlyle’s, which used brutally sadistic and dehumanizing language (trollish language, one would have to say), but then standards have changed, and imputations of racism, etc., are more serious than they were in Carlyle’s culture. In my thesis, I argue that we now tend to read Carlyle’s oeuvre through our pre-existing knowledge of his racist offensiveness (thanks to Said and other scholars who called him out over a century later), but that Carlyle’s contemporaries did the opposite – reading the nasty, brutal stuff through his earlier, sensitive-humanist stuff. Reading his obituaries, they basically ignored all the bad stuff and spoke of him as a humane writer who cared for the underdog and hated injustice (George Eliot’s 1855 essay is also a great example of this). They didn’t explain away Negro Question – they just ignored it. Now, one sniff of that particular paper, and it colours everything we know about Carlyle. It’s so far off the scale it indicts him immediately.

So a reading of the radical Carlyle is hard to get away with these days. Is Žižek heading in that direction? Do we read him differently from now on? There’s a lot of questionable material in Žižek- the really coarse and smutty (and often not very witty) jokes; this idea that ‘woman is a symptom of man’ (sure it can be intellectualized [and it was], but look at it baldly, unintellectually – it’s sexism at its purest); his equivocal obsession with the figure of ‘the jew’. Could we perform a Carlylean reading of his work: ‘actually he was just a boorish, racist chauvinist all along, rather than the great philosopher we thought he was – it’s all there from the beginning’. It is all there, I think, though maybe there’s lots of good stuff there, too. Žižek shows, as Carlyle did, that the line separating left from right is a thin one, and is not always where we think it is. Whatever the final message of Žižek turns out to be, it will be less important than it seemed to his acolytes. I suggest that Žižek was/is fun and charismatic, his mind moved at high speed and across vast conceptual spaces, and it was that ‘surplus enjoyment’ (as the man himself would say) that we all read him for in the first place, not the substantive content. And he gave and gives us that, more than any major contemporary thinker.


Literature: Constituted or Constituting, Superstructure or Base?

This quote from a review of a book I’d never read, or even heard of, got me thinking:

They’re doing what they’re doing with a desperate hope of improving our media, because art affects us on really deep, unconscious levels and so we need to understand the consequences of our art. We need to understand what it does to us, to all of us–what we might be doing to other people, through our art. When I was a child, I built my sense of self out of my favorite heroines: Belle, Hermione, Alanna, Eowyn. In college, I constructed a lot of my interactions with the people I was romantically interested in like they were scenes in a book–I even wrote a short story about doing so. When we joke about Disney or Tolkien or Austen giving us unrealistic expectations for romance, it’s because those stories shape how we view and interact with our relationships.

A question which has, I think, bedevilled literary criticism since its inception is how does literature effect us, and how does it affect things in a larger social context. Evidently, the writer here considers it does have a considerable conditioning effect on our consciousness and how we view our relationships with others. Is it possible to quantify or document this, though?

The classical sociological study of history has come from a Marxist perspective. According to what is now called vulgar Marxism, art and literature simply ‘reflects’ economic circumstances; it expresses the ideology that grows out of specific economics/ relations of production. But according to this theory, art doesn’t create anything; it doesn’t really change anything. As this is now called ‘vulgar Marxism’, it is evident that it is no longer a widely-held theory and is rather a pejorative term. Why this should be is also obvious: if you give your time to studying art or literature, it can’t be because you think it is limited to this entirely dependent role. You feel art has been important to you, so it must have some special quality, independent of any ideological role. ‘Reflection’ is not ambitious enough.

From within a Marxist framework, Raymond Williams came up with the term ‘structure of feeling’ to try and deal with this (see, especially, his book Marxism and Literature). According to Williams, art is both constituted by and constitutive of the characteristic consciousness of an age, and this is its importance – it begins to articulate tones, feelings, etc., that are only beginning to enter general consciousness and will not be codified until they reach the dominant stage. Art, at its best, can tell the future, and help us anticipate and adjust to it. This is a nice idea, but it’s hard to theorize, and has little currency outside Williams’ own usages – which are somewhat contradictory (but see Said’s variations on the phrase in Culture and Imperialism). If one could by any chance come to a satisfactory working methodology for usage of the term, one would be entitled to quite a pat on the back. (Edit: But here’s a very recent attempt to use the term to study George Saunder’s Tenth of December. Seems reasonably good, but haven’t read it in depth yet.)

This brings me back to the question of how we talk about the social effect of literature, or, to put it another way, how the study of literature can be justified in a wider social context. Reflection is no longer good enough, structure of feeling remains too vague. Reading on Dickens and ideology to research a paper I’m writing at the moment I came across a discussion of how older critics read Dickens as an “index to social realities” but contemporary researchers opine that “his novels can be assigned a more active role in discursive construction of the family and of gendered identity” (Catherine Waters, “Gender, Family and Domestic Ideology”, Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens, ed. Jordan [2009]), but this was given as bald fact, with no explanation as to how we know that reading Dickens has this active role, and no empirical examples of how this “active role” worked. At a very general level it just derives from postmodern theorizing of how our experience is shaped by discourse, but at a more nuanced level, there seems to be no actual methodology of showing this in literary criticism. It’s an unquestioned theoretical assumption of the time, based on abstract generalizing in Barthes, Derrida and the like.

We do have, of course, reception study, but the classic model of reception study based on Iser with his theory of “gaps”, etc., is again wholly abstract and ahistorical, and only deals with the moment of reading, anyway. On the other hand, there are a growing number of studies dealing with actual responses, with documented readings. One I have used is Jonathan Rose’s Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, an excellent book using library records, biographical documents and other material to find out what the working class was reading in the later-19th/early-20th century. This book tells us what they read and what they liked (Carlyle was a big favourite; Ruskin, Dickens; later on, Wells; the Bible throughout). It does not tell us, though, what difference specific readings made – and how could it? Occasionally, a person may attest to the importance of a certain reading, attributing to it an actual substantial lasting life effect, but even this is suspect – how can we know if things would have turned out otherwise had not this reading of this book taken place? My point is, we don’t, and this is still the great lacuna in literary criticism, academic and otherwise. We don’t know just how much books, or culture in general, matter in society as a whole. Does culture make us better, morally? Hmm, probably not, as the Nazis were pretty culturally sophisticated. But some sort of metric or method needs to be developed to judge effect, at a personal and at a societal level, at the moment of reading and over the long time, in small matters of daily conduct, in large matters of public policy, and in matters of consciousness – does what we read create wholesale shifts in consciousness?

A Marxist way of asking the last question is: is literature base or superstructure? Vulgar Marxism, says the latter; most contemporary Marxism would say it has relative independence, and that it can impact back on the base. It was so much easier when literature was purely superstructural, though, purely a reflection. If we allow that the influence goes the other way, we have to try and see how that works. Does the existence of certain works, certain genres, create or help create new forms of consciousness, new political and economic realities?! If another work or genre had been available instead, would society have developed differently? It’s really hard to argue this, to impose a method for this, but we (or some of us) argue as if it were true. Maybe the difference is minuscule, maybe what they really do is, like for the blogger quoted at the beginning, they provide a setting around which we can crystallize our thoughts on a certain difficult social or moral topic. We use them to argue with. It’s the ensuing dialogue, not the works in themselves, that make the difference. Perhaps we would have the arguments anyway, but in slightly altered forms. It still doesn’t prove that literature makes difference, though. Our social consciousnesses are formed by our surroundings, and we choose what literature we respond to according to that. If a piece of literature changes our mind about something, maybe we should be thinking that our mind was already changing, it just awaited a concretization of where it needed to go. Maybe we need to take all of this into account before we talk of how the discursive formations in Dickens had in active role in defining how we think about and how we do family and gender.



Saintsbury’s Corrected Impressions and Carlyle

George Saintsbury’s essays on Carlyle in Corrected Impressions (1895) are interesting to me for several reasons. Firstly, he gives a picture of Carlyle’s reputation at the time, placing it at a very low ebb, saying that the general opinion was that ardent admiration for C. was evidence of entering into a ‘fossil stage of intellectual existence’. This, on first glance, goes against what I said in the ‘Reception History’ chapter of my thesis, where I noted several examples of literary works and figures of the time whose intellectual development had been heavily influenced by C. I knew of such attitudes as delineated by Saintsbury, but felt they had been over-emphasized. Carlyle’s real reputation death came later, when those whom he had influenced died out. In the 1890s, his reputation had declined, but it didn’t know it yet – i.e., the people who had read him earnestly in the 1860s and 1870s were till writing and still, expressly or implicitly, paying homage to Carlyle. The very year Impressions came out also say the publication of Doyle’s Stark Munro Letters, on whose relation to Carlyle I posted earlier. So the fruits of the anti-Carlyle spirit of the 1890s was more apparent in later work, where Carlyle simply ceased to exist as a direct influence.

Saintsbury declares himself an unregenerate Carlylean. One of his reasons is that, whatever his failings, it must be remembered that ‘like Henry the Eighth, he “loved a man.”‘ Saintsbury impressed me with his summing up of the two most important lessons of Carlyle:

Never mistake the amount, infinitesimal if not “minus, of your own personal worth and importance in this world,” on the one hand, and “Never care for any majority of other infinitesimals who happen to be against you,” on the other.

This is good, perhaps especially as it points to the great tensions and contradictions in Carlyle. These two maxims are not quite mutually contradictory, but they are close. You are of no importance, but, by the same token, neither is anybody else, or even large groups of anybody elses. Is this an injunction to humility or arrogance? Carlyle would have said the former: ‘People should be more modest’, he said somewhere (Can’t find the ref. In Allingham’s Diary?) Modesty is called for in the cosmic context, but in the inter-personal context quite the reverse is sanctioned. But a certain disrespect for reigning ideologies and ideals in one’s interpersonal context is not always a bad thing, and if admixed with a cosmic humility, then the balance might be the right one.

Canonical Referencing in Sherlock

Sherlock is becoming an increasingly divisive series, as discussed in this recent post on PopMatters. The special, ‘The Abominable Bride’, shown over Christmas, garnered plentiful criticism, for its patronising approach to feminism, its convoluted plot and its incessant self-referentiality. It’s viewing numbers, though, were huge: 11.6 million in the UK, the most watched program over the holiday period.

‘The Abominable Bride’ brings the self-referentiality in the series to a whole new level. There’s nothing post-modern about the kind of self-referentiality herein: it’s at least as old as Don Quijote. Doyle has it in his stories, too, of course: in the amusing opening dialogue of ‘The Copper Beeches’, Holmes chides Watson with the judgement that ‘You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales’. But Holmes’ awareness of the impression Watson’s stories are making on the outside world is referred to very sparingly by Doyle. Not so in Sherlock, especially ‘The Abominable Bride’:


MRS HUDSON: And I notice you’ve published another of your stories, Doctor Watson.
WATSON: Yes. Did you enjoy it?
MRS HUDSON (after only a second’s thought): No.
(She turns and goes inside. Watson follows her.)
MRS HUDSON: I never enjoy them.
WATSON (pushing the door closed behind him): Why not?
(In the hallway Holmes has taken off his coat and hat and hangs them on a hook near the front door, then walks further into the hall.)
MRS HUDSON: Well, I never say anything, do I? According to you, I just show people up the stairs and serve you breakfasts.
WATSON (hanging up his own coat and hat): Well, within the narrative, that is – broadly speaking – your function.
MRS HUDSON: My what?!
HOLMES: Don’t feel singled out, Mrs Hudson. I’m hardly in the dog one.
WATSON (indignantly): “The dog one”?!
MRS HUDSON: I’m your landlady, not a plot device.
WATSON (to Holmes, who is heading up the stairs): Do you mean ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’?!  (From transcription by Arianna DeVere here. DeVere has painstakingly and sometimes wittily transcribed all of Sherlock.)

So even Mrs Hudson is getting in on the act. This is the sort of material that Doyle couldn’t have written. It wouldn’t have made sense in Doyle’s time. The ghost of contemporary feminist discourse haunts the exchange, and this is confirmed with the use of feminism as an explicit theme later on. There follows a clever reference to The Hound of the Baskervilles (should have been italicized rather than bracketed in the transcription), though perhaps it would have been cleverer and more satisfying not to have spelled it out, so only the cognoscenti would have worked out the reference is to the long section of Hound where Holmes is hiding on the moor, and the reader is following Watson and his investigations at Baskerville Hall.


This passing Hound reference brings me tangentially on to my point here, such as it is. In my thesis, I coined (I think) the term ‘canonical indicators’ to describe those passing mentions of random Holmes stories in this series. I don’t know of any other adaptation of anything that has done this to the same extent. They work by their randomness, and their subtlety. It’s not about adapting chunks of story, but more about passing mentions, blink and you’ll miss them. What they ‘indicate’ is that the writers have a deep familiarity with the canon, even though they don’t try to produce sustained adaptations of individual stories, diverging very far from ‘faithful’ adaptations. They buy the makers of Sherlock good will from the Sherlockian (not to mention Holmesian), effectively saying: ‘Yes, we’re making odd choices, nothing like Doyle, but you can trust us. See how well we know the stories!’ Or, in other words, their infidelity is not arrived at through ignorance, but is the considered choice of experts in the original stories. If these indicators fade into the background of the story without drawing attention to themselves (as the Hound reference above failed to do) and reveal themselves only to the eagle-eyed, or on second viewing, even better.

I haven’t theorized the term in any great depth, it was more an ad hoc coinage that seems to have particular reference to this series. I guess it’s a form of fanservice, ultimately. I was reminded of this by a quote I came across from Julie Sanders’ Adaptation and Appropriation (Routledge, 2007), as follows: ‘the political aspect of re-visionary writing should never occlude the simultaneously pleasurable aspects of reading into [adaptations] their intertextual and allusive relationships with other texts’ (7). This element of pleasure seems to me important, but I make this as an experiential rather than theoretical point. I enjoy these references. Is it an elitist pleasure? Is it because I know not everyone gets them? Possibly. But with so much silliness in Sherlock, these little pockets of enjoyment are important.

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