The Victorian Sage

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

Carlyle and Confused Young Men

The scope of Carlyle’s influence is something I’ve touched upon before, but I’m struck again and again by just how much personal importance he attained to various individuals, how his writing was not just literature, but a practical solution to life. The following passage from a 1903 book that I’ve just come across, Living for the Best by James McClure. is a good example. The book, from a quick glance at it, also seems to show how for many Carlyle ultimately became a gateway to a renewed faith in Christianity – a repatching of the ragged old clothes of traditional religion. Arguably a dubious achievement, but I never cease to be intrigued and moved by such personal reminiscences as the one below:

Soon after the death of Carlyle two friends met: “And so Carlyle is dead,” said one. “Yes,” said the other, “he is gone; but he did me a very good turn once.” “How was that,” asked the first speaker, “did you ever see him or hear him?” “No,” came the answer, “I never saw him nor heard him. But when I was beginning life, almost through my apprenticeship, I lost all interest in everything and every one. I felt as if I had no duty of importance to discharge; that it did not matter whether I lived or not; that the world would do as well without me as with me. This condition continued more than a year. I should have been glad to die. One gloomy night, feeling that I could stand my darkness no longer, I went into a library, and lifting a book I found lying upon a table, I opened it. It was Sartor Resartus, by Thomas Carlyle. My eye fell upon one sentence, marked in italics, ‘Do the duty which lies nearest to thee, which thou knowest to be a duty! The second duty will already have become clearer.’ That sentence,” continued the speaker, “was a flash of lightning striking into my dark soul. It gave me a new glimpse of human existence. It made a changed man of me. Carlyle, under God, saved me. He put content and purpose and power into my life.” (62-63)

Perhaps it is the recent news about the  depressed and suicidal/murderous German pilot that has contributed to how I have responded to this, as well as my own travails and trials. The thought that there is a duty that lies near and that one can do it is, of course, attractive, but I’m not sure how tenable it is. Carlyle’s relevance for me does not stem from the simple injunction of that famous line, but from the depth of alienation in Sartor, and the eloquence with which it is described. It’s not that he has an answer to depression/ alienation, but that he has an understanding of it. That he didn’t really have an answer to that, or any of the things he pontificated upon for that matter. is attested to both by study of his biography and of the later course of his writings. But that, too, his degeneration into a world-class bigot and monumental self-pitier, is moving in its own way, as well as salutory.

Ideology, Psychoanalysis, Narrative

Perhaps the most fascinating of intellectual movements of the last 100-odd years is psychoanalysis. Fascinating not just in its substantive content, but also in its place in modern culture. It has by now managed to inflect so many corners of our lives that we really figure ourselves out partially through certain concepts from psychoanalysis – so if psychoanalysis is, as a hermeneutic of humanity, possibly essentially flawed, it has managed to go about making itself true. It is much truer now than it was over a century ago when Dr Freud began to publish his theories.

This has become relevant to me as I read on the theory of ideology. Ideology is – or most commentators take it for granted that it is – a Marxist concept. Thus, the central thread of Freudian psychoanalysis which sees the individual psyche as composed of instinctual drives at the bottom of all human behaviour doesn’t mesh that well with a concept believed to be implicated in the Marxist base-superstructure model of society. If economics is the base, then Freud’s pleasure principle* can’t be, and vice versa. In other words, one could see it that Freud makes a pure Marxism impossible. And Michele Barrett deals with this in a very cogent and readable book called The Politics of Truth (Polity, 1991). Though the title is oddly reticent on this, the book is basically a conceptual history of ideology, balancing it against post-modern ideas and assessing how ts relevance can be defended against the critiques of Foucault, et al. Maybe I hadn’t been reading closely enough, but the ending came as a surprise to me when Barrett suggested “new and more precise concepts”, apparently deciding ideology was irredeemable. Yet the analysis of her book had seemed to me to suggest that the term had great advantages over competing concepts like Foucault’s power, Gramsci’s hegemony, etc. I also suspect “new and more precise concepts” are only new for a while, and only precise until somebody goes to the trouble of critiquing them. No critical term will ever be immune from criticism, so part of the value of a storied term like ideology is that it provides a way in to so many thinkers of the past 200 years. One finds oneself working through Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Althusser, Williams, Hall, Eagleton, etc. – now that’s a motley bunch, some evidently more significant than others, and some who I really have no time for (Althusser, notably), but they form a wide historical spectrum, and that only scratches the surface.

On psychoanalysis, Barrett has this to say:

[T]he insights of psychoanalysis with regard to the unconscious, repression, fantasy, sexuality and so on are not merely ‘within the true’ of psychoanalytic discourse but play an important part in the way in which people in contemporary western societies now understand themselves. Giddens has referred to the “double hermeneutic” in which members of a society use sociological knowledge in their decisions and activities, and this idea can be illustrated in terms of the use that people make of psychoanalysis in their lives. To say that we live in the west in a therapeutic culture, where people interpret, reflect upon and to some extent change their behaviour in the light of psychoanalytic ideas (and, for some, therapy) is not to say that these ideas are not true; it is to understand the contextuality of their truth. (115)

Psychoanalysis has escaped being simply a discourse, and has been elevated to a part of the human condition. This condition is of course spatially and temporally specific, and the point is that here and now we think psychoanalysis is true. Not as a science but as an essential ingredient of the stories we tell about ourselves. This is where narrative comes in, or could come in. And not just narrative, but, even more so, adaptation. Why adaptation? Because it is narrative moving through time and space. Examine a narrative as it appears in different spaces/ epochs, and one can find points of interests in the way we story ourselves.

It’s not about our actual material reality, but how we, in a more generalized sense, see ourselves. Narrative is for general consumption, it depends on The Reality Effect; it is thus a manner of examining how we see ourselves. And adaptation, in which the palimpsest of narrative is overwritten in two distinct styles, is a great, and rather untapped, source for speculation and analysis on this point. And the psychoanalytic story of the human self is one that has fascinated me of late. I won’t give any examples now as I’m currently working through my main example for my thesis. But think about it. Think of an adapted narrative, and how the presentation of character changes, how a 19th-century character is depicted in a 21st-century text, for example. A change is especially apparent in those adaptations which are updated in setting: the setting doesn’t change alone, but the character, too, cannot be themselves in the new setting. What changes? Things like a repressed always returning, a childhood key to present trauma, an underlying neurosis in the most capable and ostensibly together, a centrality of the sexual. in adaptation, we find all of these things demonstrating that, yes indeed, we are psychoanalytic beings, and, no, it was not always so.

*In later Freud, there’s also a mysterious and speculative Death Drive

A Non-methodological Space

Now method is all very well, but if one can’t life one’s life entirely by method, one may posit that within academia there should also be a non-methodological space. In the methodological space of most of academia one can only write in response to a previous authority, whether to agree with or dissent from, but, I repeat, one doesn’t arrange one’s thoughts as a response to a previous authority, so the need to keep an open mind with regard to methods of intellectual discovery needs to be acknowledged. What, first of all, is the point of intellectual discovery? In Against Method, Paul Feyerabend writes:

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 entails therefore, the rejection of all universal standards and of all rigid traditions.

Feyerabend calls for an anarchistic approach to scientific investigation. And he’s talking about the hard sciences. Against Method is a very bracing, well-written and engaging account of how scientific progress is made. It’s an entirely unpredictable and patternless progression, in which the material effect of an argument often has little to do with its logical force (25). Therefore, to make real progress, it may well be necessary to ignore those theories which have “material effect”, which are the reigning theories in the field. Ignore them! That sounds wonderful. Similarly, it may be necessary to renew old, discredited theories for the purpose of stimulating new thought.

In the context of a literature PhD such as though undertaken by the present author, it’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine what could be ignored under a Feyerabendian approach. Most of the suppositions of postmodern/ poststructuralist thought would be at the top of the list. These provide the bedrock assumptions of modern academia in the humanities and social sciences. I am increasingly unable to accept “the posts”‘ position on the individual, and most of the other main positions fall with that. The posts don’t talk about individuals. but subjects. The individual is so 19th century. I question to what degree my own personal intellectual history comes into play here. Is it the (il)logicality of the position I object to, or is it down to the fact that before I became a postgrad I knew little to nothing of post thought, and my intellectual formation was a product of the assumptions of liberal humanism? It’s also down to personal experience. My experience has never been adequately reflected in any systematic theory of personhood I have ever encountered, ergo I must be an individual. I don’t fully (or hardly at all) relate to the theories or the assumptions of those around me, so I’m loath to accept that I am a product of them.

If there are, in fact, individuals, then the methodological project cannot survive in anything approaching a pure form with regard to human beings. An individual, by definition, cannot be accounted for by a general methodology. And a methodology, by definition, must have general applicability. So my aversion to method is inextricable from my sense of self as an individual. To apply method in a manner satisfactory to myself, I would have to experience myself as a generic construct. Which I don’t.

But I don’t mean individual in a pure sense. Of course, we are conditioned by our environment, family, ideological state apparatusses etc. Duh. but there’s no way yet to account for the entirety of an individual’s mental processes by adding up the sum of these conditioning elements – if there was, it would be like Minority Report, we’d be able to know people’s future actions, including criminal ones, by feeding the data into a computer. But in practical terms we cannot understand people in this way – people are not wholly theorized, wholly made subject to external things, and so until that is done, we are left with the individual as a hypothesis. If we really believe that will ever be done, we should orient all our action toward that end. If we are not so sure, we need a de-theorized space, a non-methodological space, a space for intellectual engagement with products of the human imagination on a singular basis. This space is the humanities, for if not they, then what and where?

If I may conclude by quoting Carlyle, an 1830s reflection on the times:

Fantastic tricks enough man has played, in his time; has fancied himself to be most things, down even to an animated heap of Glass: but to fancy himself a dead Iron-Balance for weighing Pains and Pleasures on, was reserved for this his latter era.

A Dead Iron-Balance for weighing Pains and Pleasures on: he’s getting at the Utilitarians, but one sees, I think, how the modern critical theorists are the successors to the utilitarians, oddly enough. Utilitarianism (though not without merit) failed: there was something else that didn’t fit onto the Iron-Balance. What? Freud, a utilitarian thinker in his “economic” model of the mind, came around to calling it the Death Drive, but that hypothesis pretty much failed to. To name it misses the point, and is the flaw of all those theorists of human consciousness. Analysis of that which escapes theorization cannot be done via one single concept which contains this something else, or even a confluence of concepts adding up to a single hole. That whole, I suggest, will never be found. One can only take instances: analyze at the level of the irreducible, unrepeatable instant, without any sort of guarantee that these instances will add up to anything more than the endlessly necessary practice of self-examination on a collective level.

Chance (1913), by Joseph Conrad

Available for free on Kindle, Chance is not one of Conrad’s better known books now, but it was his first major commercial success on its initial release, succeeding where Nostromo, Lord Jim, et al,, had, relatively speaking, failed. In Jeffrey Meyers’ biography, he suggests reasons for Chance‘s success including: a good publicity campaing, an influential review by Sidney Colvin in the Observer, a dust jacket showing an attractive lady, an “affirmative ending”, and “a romantic and sentimental heroizine who is cruelly victimized and then rescued by love” (Cooper Square, 2001, p. 270). Women don’t usually play a large part in Conrad, not directly anyway. They can be, though, important absent symbolic presences, like Kurtz’s intended in HoD, who appears only briefly, but who can be read as a justification, in her beauty, innocence and embodiment of “that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness”, for the lies and inhumanities of colonialism. But Chance does have a female character among the leads, and it also offers a chance for its narrator Marlow (the narrator of “Youth”, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, revived here after a decade of silence) to expound his views on gender and sexuality.

And it is Marlow’s voice that will determine the reader’s response to the book. Rather than responding to the active characters, one is experiencing everything filtered through Marlow’s voice. I disliked the book, and this comes down to the fact that Marlow is a bore. He’s at his worst when expounding on gender, and as he does this a lot in Chance, one’s patience is sorely tried. The reflections in this book differ from earlier works in that they are responding to feminism – only one year before Chance‘s publication, Emily Davison had thrown herself beneath the king’s horse at the Derby, in one of the most shocking and iconic moments in feminist history. A minor female character in Chance has written a book on feminism and female suffrage:

It was a sort of hand-book for women with grievances (and all women had them), a sort of compendious theory and practice of feminine free morality.  It made you laugh at its transparent simplicity. (51)

As that quote indicates, Marlow does not take feminism at all seriously – or tries not to, though his constant reflections on gender issues indicate that it has given him food for thought. Marlow’s attitude is, in fact, frankly reactionary:

A man can struggle to get a place for himself or perish.  But a woman’s part is passive, say what you like, and shuffle the facts of the world as you may, hinting at lack of energy, of wisdom, of courage.  As a matter of fact, almost all women have all that—of their own kind.  But they are not made for attack.  Wait they must.  I am speaking here of women who are really women.  And it’s no use talking of opportunities, either.  I know that some of them do talk of it.  But not the genuine women.  Those know better.  Nothing can beat a true woman for a clear vision of reality[.] (221)

So it is clear that Marlow has little time for feminism. Those women who actively seek societal change (i.e. those who “attack”, in Marlow’s term here) are simply not “really women”. Thus Marlow is upholding the classic Angel in the House/ Ruskin’s “Of Queen’s Gardens” view of passive, domesticated womanhood, refusing to historicize or contextualize this at all, rather seeing it as the essence of the female role. Note also how arrogantly dismissive he is of any other viewpoint (“say what you like”). Perhaps this steadfast reactionism against an unsettling politico-social phenomenon accounted for some of the novel’s popularity as well.

But the stance taken is so lacking in imaginative sympathy and nuance that one has to question Conrad. To find his attitude even remotely worthy of interest, one would have to posit a considerable gap between Conrad himself and his narrator Marlow. I’ve said before that I don’t think such a gap exists in HoD, and I would apply that to Chance as well. Much is made of Conrad’s irony, and how that pervades even the portrait of Marlow (for example, C.P. Sarvan’s essay), but in that, as in much else, Marlow reflects Conrad. Marlow too is perpetually ironic, mocking, sardonic, as here in Chance:

Marlow emerged out of the shadow of the book-case to get himself a cigar from a box which stood on a little table by my side.  In the full light of the room I saw in his eyes that slightly mocking expression with which he habitually covers up his sympathetic impulses of mirth and pity before the unreasonable complications the idealism of mankind puts into the simple but poignant problem of conduct on this earth. (255)

Marlow, too, is always mocking, an embodiment of that Conradian irony, and can, with this attitude, stand in judgement of all mankind with its pitiful and childish ideals. Conrad and Marlow seem to me to be the prototypical examples of Zizek’s contemporary ideology:

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

To be complicit in ideology is not to believe in the system, it is precisely to not believe, but to let one’s actions do the believing for one. The not-believing, then, is done with an overlaying of ironic distance, and is practically indistinguishable from believing. This is Conrad: he does not believe, but he wishes to uphold the status quo, anyway, and he needs to co-opt the ironic position to do it. His irony, in so far as he is being ironic, is not a qualification to his arch conservatism, but a justification for it.

In short, then, I’ve never enjoyed a Conrad novel to any great degree, and reading Chance I’m reminded of all that’s worst about him. Indeed, so uninspiring and irritating a read is it, that it prompts one to reflect on the vagaries of circumstance (and, indeed, Chance) that make a writer into a canonical figure, part of The Great Tradition. In Chance, Conrad failed spectacularly to engage with any degree of sensitivity or balance with an element of the emerging socio-political landscape. All he could do was turn his irony on it, sneer superciliously, and resurrect the ideologies of the past, as a Ruskin without passion, a Ruskin who knew he didn’t believe in the old, but was also unable to engage with anything new.

Asking For A Friend

Mark Wallace:

Now this. This is funny.

Originally posted on You Monsters Are People.:

Does anyone know any prostitutes that look like my mom? I am asking for a friend.

Not my mom

View original

Film Adaptation of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

One of the perks of being a grad student is the possibility of wandering into a cinema in the early afternoon of a week day, when one can have almost an entire theatre to oneself. One pities the poor fools who have to crowd in like cattle to weekend showings. Nothing says freedom like cinemagoing on weekday afternoons. Popcorn in hand – or maybe a pack of sweets from the next-door newsagents if I’m not feeling too extravagant, feet maybe on seat (gasp!), I settle into the womb-like darkness and give myself over to the magic of movie narrative.

So that’s what I was doing on Tuesday just past. I wandered into an almost empty theatre to watch Inherent Vice, the adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel from 2009. This film has been well received by critics: 81/100 from Metacritic, for example. General viewers have been more polarized, as can be seen from the debates on IMDb’s Message Boards. Most critics, I imagine, watch this as an adaptation. That is, they know (or know of) Pynchon’s novel. They know, also, that director Paul Thomas Anderson is a much feted auteur. So this film has a lot of prestige around it. It’s the first ever adaptation of a Pynchon novel, too, so interest has been high. I read the novel when it first came out – I recall enjoying it considerably, but little in the way of detail.


It’s set in 1970, in LA, and is pretty much entirely focalized on PI and hippie doper, Doc Sportello. It’s heavily inflected with real-life events of the time: the Manson murders and trial, Vietnam, etc. Generically, it’s somewhat of a crime noir in the Chandler, Hammett mode, but Sportello is no Sam Spade, rather a typically Pynchonian schlemihl. Mostly, at least: there’s a (now famous/ controversial, since the movie) sex scene where he mans up and gets all Sam Spade about stuff (not that there are any actual sex scenes in Hammett’s Sam Spade books, as I recall). But it’s also a very funny book. Reviewers at the time tended to stress its engaging and accessible character, by comparison with Pynchon’s other novels, famously difficult. This tends to recall a famous exchange between Truffaut and Hitchcock:

Tr.: I take it then that you’ll never do a screen version of Crime and Punishment.

Hit.: Even if I did, it probably wouldn’t be any good.

Tr.: Why not?

Hi.: Well, in Dostoyevsky’s novel there are many, many words and all of them have a function.

Tr.: That’s right. Theoretically, a masterpiece is something that has already found its perfect form, its definitive form.

Thus Inherent Vice is the first of Pynchon’s novels that is adaptable precisely because it is not a masterpiece, but a genre piece. Plot-wise, it kind of follows the rules: all the paranoia about conspiracy theories is resolved in a fairly coherent denouement, much more so than, say, V., anyway. And one shouldn’t be too picky about the denouement of the film, because of the history of the noir genre: famously, films like The Big Sleep (1946) have plots that don’t properly resolve – noir is not Agatha Christie.

One thing that’s clear from rereading parts of the book over the last few days is that Anderson really went for fidelity. Most of the dialogue is verbatim from Pynchon. The change is mostly in the area of condensation: it’s all Pynchon, but it’s not all of Pynchon. One unusual choice is in the voiceover. Pynchon’s narrator is heterodiegetic (i.e. not a character), but the language of the narrator is that of Doc, and when he get into doc’s mind it’s sometimes hard to tell where the voice of Doc’s thoughts (presented as free indirect discourse) ends and the voice of the narrator begins. Doc and the narrator seem inextricably linked. But Anderson goes with a female narrator (voiced by musician and now actor Joanna Newsom). Doc still remains at the centre of the film, though. He’s the one we know: well-meaning but ineffectual, a perennial loser in some respects, but pretty zen about it. Which is why the aggressive sex scene mentioned above has seemed pretty jarring to some (though it’s par for the course with Pynchon, who’s a very, well… pervy writer).

Joaquin Phoenix is well cast as Doc: he drawls, he mumbles, he has an off-kilter, enigmatic charm that keeps the character warm. The relatively unknown Catherine Waterston was good as Doc’s “eternal feminine draw[ing] us ever upward” (kinda) love interest Shasta. Lots of well-known faces pop up in supporting roles to keep it interesting. There’s an intriguing side-love-plot between Doc and a DA played by Reese Witherspoon. Just a couple of scenes, but a nice juxtaposition there. So my knowledge of this film is not so great as to allow me to perform a full formal analysis,  but I think I can stretch to an experiential analysis. Experientially, I would say: I enjoyed it. So, yeah. That’s about it. Its two and a half hours didn’t drag, and that sense of well-being that comes from being in a cinema theatre on a Tuesday afternoon was not dissipated by the film itself, its anti-establishment vibes chiming neatly with the sense of being an outlaw that comes with such an excursion.

An Almost Total Want of Arrangement

Disciplinarity is a concept which the current blog has long found somewhat questionable. Nor does interdisciplinarity make the thing any more appealing. For interdisciplinarity presupposes disciplinarity, and that epistemological inquiry – or in outdated humanist terms, the pursuit of knowledge – must rest on the merging of disciplines is contrary to this blog’s stance, which calls not for the merging, but the dissolving of all disciplines. Disciplinarity is a function of the modern age. A function, perhaps partly, of the fact that we know too much. it was once conceivable to know everything. The position of The Last Person to Know Everything is one that has had many pretenders. It was often, and still is sometimes, said about Goethe (d. 1832), to give perhaps the most well-known example. Now, we are all agreed, it is impossible to know everything. Hence disciplinarity. Disciplinarity, then, needs to be historicized as a condition of knowing too much and of having developed technological and scientific methods of great complexity; not naturalized as the condition in which knowledge is found

We may still have something to learn from the Condition-of-England debate of the mid-19th century, one of the last occasions, perhaps, when public discourse transcended the disciplinary. And who better to exemplify that state of affairs than Thomas Carlyle, the writer who invented the term Condition-of-England in Chartism (1839), and set the terms for the debate in many other ways. What was Carlyle?

The range of Carlyle’s output and certain details of his life have evoked numerous attempts to categorize him as a Preacher, Teacher, Reviewer, Philosopher, Prophet, Poet, Artist, Man of Letters, Social and Political Commentator, Sage. None of these categories is fully satisfactory. At best they offer, and were often used by his nineteenth-century critics, as, a set of open-textured definitions, the merest starting points for reading particular texts. (Ralph Jessop, Carlyle and Scottish Thought, p. 17-18)

This is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be done in these disciplinary times. Is that wholly for the better? The complexity of systems built up in the social sciences and humanities for examining specific phenomena is impressive. But as humanity is always in a state of creating itself, and the complexities of society – or even the single individual therein – are so great as to defy systematization, it is necessary that we should leave a space for the undisciplinary. By that I mean not intuitionist approaches to knowledge, but the approach that takes all empirical evidence as its field, rather than setting out a methodology beforehand which prescribes what will be seen, and what will not be. If a methodology is a lens, then the undisciplinary process is an eye – less sharply focused, perhaps. but more wide ranging, more easily able to see peripherally and well as both up close and at a distance, and able to accept the input of the other senses before coming towards a composite picture of the affair. Just as the methodology is entirely open, so will the conclusion reached be far from full or exact.

Such a process is, undoubtedly, anathema to the more scientifically minded. The argument is that as we know our own thought processes to be inflected by social construction, we cannot simply trust our own judgements. This is true, but it is a double-edged sword, for our methodologies are also socially constructed, and we cannot trust them either. to consider these methods the more trustworthy of the two is an argument from authority. We must perform a constant dialectic between the two: the individual judgement versus the institutionally imposed method. On which side the balance should fall? At this moment, for this blog, on the side of the individual judgement. Ironically enough, I feel that I have found agreement to such a stance in Michel Foucault, the high-priest of methodologies in contemporary humanities/ social sciences. Foucault, we should remember, was a person. One, undoubtedly, who was and whose theories were socially constructed and whose personal interests come out quite blatantly in his social theories (not that I believe that should be held against him, but also it should not be swept under the carpet when we examine his theories, which do not arise from a personal vacuum – in other words, I believe in ad hominem). Anyway, quoth Foucault:

[A]t every moment, step by step, one must confront what one is thinking and saying with what one is doing, with what one is. (Rabinow, ed., Foucault Reader, 1991, p. 374.)

This is quite a contrary approach to adopting a methodology and applying it. And, I suggest, the humanities is just the place for such an approach to be defended. That is, indeed, how I would like to define the humanities, in practical terms: as a place where the methodological, the instrumental, the idea of the human as the wholly theorizable and predictable homo economicus, is absent. The methodological can be left with the social sciences – this is not a critique of these disciplines in themselves, but they are no longer in themselves – they have taken over humanities to an extent that leaves little room for the self-scrutiny Foucault called for. Instead, the space we need is one in which method is abjured, and progress is not mechanical, but is undertaken on a moment-by-moment basis, that accounts for the very specificity of the moment and the place. What would that produce? Would it be something like the following, a description of the work of the fictitious Professor Diogenes Teufelsdrockh:

Apart from its multifarious sections and subdivisions, the Work naturally falls into two Parts; a Historical–Descriptive, and a Philosophical–Speculative: but falls, unhappily, by no firm line of demarcation; in that labyrinthic combination, each Part overlaps, and indents, and indeed runs quite through the other. Many sections are of a debatable rubric, or even quite nondescript and unnamable; whereby the Book not only loses in accessibility, but too often distresses us like some mad banquet, wherein all courses had been confounded, and fish and flesh, soup and solid, oyster-sauce, lettuces, Rhine-wine and French mustard, were hurled into one huge tureen or trough, and the hungry Public invited to help itself. (Sartor Resartus, I, 4)

This blog says yes. History and philosophy are to be taken, not as disciplines apart, but as open-textured definitions, more or less useful in the given case for performing the fundamental task of the study of the Teufelsdrockhian Things-in-General. To be any more specific than Things-in-General would be to do the critical endeavor a disservice. It is time for knowledge to acknowledge itself as “some mad banquet”, not a set menu from which ingredients may be chosen singly or combined methodically. We will still have to choose our subjects, but we will answer for them on a moment-by-moment basis, in response to a world that knows little of disciplines, and does not arrange itself for the benefit of our categorizing endeavors.

Zizek on Hebdo

Perhaps one of the more interesting responses to the Charlie Hebdo massacre has come from Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, published in the New Statesman. Or there may be many more interesting responses, but I haven’t read them. My reading on the subject has been fairly desultory. Zizek in this piece takes an almost psychologizing angle, trying to get into the mind of a terrorist, and reaching some conclusions thereon. Hereafter, I paraphrase his argument (possibly misreading, but who’s keeping score?)

The rage of the terrorist against Western society is, says Zizek, proof in itself that he (the terrorist) does not really believe that images of Mohammed are an offence against God. The true fundamentalist, Zizek argues, would have no interest in punishing those who offended God, as he would be secure in the knowledge that God can look after himself. But the terrorist is filled with rage because he has, partially, at least,* internalized western standards to the extent of feeling his own shortcomings in relation to them. The terrorist then, is not an arch-fundamentalist, but in his consciousness occupies a mid-point between the real fundamentalist (marked by “indifference”, to use the term Zizek employs), and the cynical, jaded subject of Western culture (marked, I suppose, by another kind of indifference).

It is perhaps presumptuous to try and get into the mind of a terrorist in this manner, especially when no attempt has been made to look at the empirics of the manner. Why did not Zizek look into work that had been done on terrorist psychology with terrorists themselves? The answer is that he is a theorist, and a writer. It is the quality of Zizek’s response that we want to read; we don’t want the facts, not from him, anyway. In other words, the Author is not Dead, no matter what one hears to the contrary. To begin to agree or disagree with Zizek, one would have to have some knowledge of the empirics of the situation. This, of course, the present writer does not have.

Yet the present writer is of course reminded of the Carlylean Imagination, totalitarian in its implications, as many have said, filled with rage against society as then constituted. Whence Carlyle’s rage, as expressed, not in acts of terror, but in brutal diatribes against Blacks, the Irish, the Poor, the Idle, and so forth. Certainly it did not come from a true and absolute fundamentalism. Carlyle’s personal correspondence and his posthumously published Reminscences make this clear: he was a tortured soul, always lacking the comfort of true fundamentalism. Nietzsche, another philosopher with a penchant for psychologizing, put it perhaps most incisively: “Carlyle is an English atheist who makes it a point of honour not to be one.” Hence, perhaps, Carlyle’s sadistic and brutal rage, and it is just possible that this is something he shares with those drawn to acts of terror.

*The “partially” is mine. Zizek just says the terrorist has internalized said standards, but had he wholly internalized them (if it’s even possible to wholly internalize any ideology), then surely he would simply be a normal, Western citizen. The terrorist mentality is, surely, better thought of as product of a war within the consciousness between  the standards of the parent-culture (which, Zizek seems to be saying, the terrorists secretly believe – or at least suspect – is inferior: I say “seems” because Zizek in the passage quoted only specifically says the terrorists believe themselves inferior, but it is in the context of their “cultural-religious identity”) and those of the target culture. It is the inability to arrive at an acceptable ideological reconciliation that produces a defensive rage (perhaps).

From Zizek’s essay in the New Statesman:

[He’s riffing on Yeats’ line “The best lack all conviction while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”] It is here that Yeats’ diagnosis falls short of the present predicament: the passionate intensity of the terrorists bears witness to a lack of true conviction. How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a weekly satirical newspaper? The fundamentalist Islamic terror is not grounded in the terrorists’ conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilization. The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior. This is why our condescending politically correct assurances that we feel no superiority towards them only makes them more furious and feeds their resentment. The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that the fundamentalists are already like us, that, secretly, they have already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them. Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists really lack is precisely a dose of that true ‘racist’ conviction of their own superiority.

History, Fiction and So Forth.

In preparation for a presentation at a symposium in a few weeks, I have been reading for the first time Hayden White. White is the go-to theorist as far as the confluence of literature and history goes, and this is a direction I would like to take. We make sense of history through narrative, and we often use fictional narratives as a way into understanding historical events. To use a familiar example from my reading, in his 1859 preface to A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens says:

Whenever any reference (whenever slight) is made here to the condition of the French people before or during the revolution, it is truly made, on the faith of the most trustworthy witnesses. It has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time, though no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr Carlyle’s wonderful book.

So Dickens was motivated by, among other things, the wish to enhance public understanding of the French Revolution, though he is perhaps somewhat naive in believing that the philosophy underlying that event is entirely set down in Carlyle’s “wonderful book”. He wasn’t adding anything to Carlyle’s philosophy, just reproducing it, and doing so in a more accessible manner. Two Cities has gone on to be the most popular novel ever, according to Wikipedia (albeit no proper citation for this stat is provided – but it’s one of the most popular, at any rate). Taking his Carlylean source, Dickens managed to create for popular consumption a vision of a great historical event that communicated certain ideas about that event, that posited a certain meaning of that event. There are a few ways you could formulate Dickens’ “message” in the book: perhaps the most important element was that of retribution or nemesis – the rich kind of deserved it, or at least brought it on themselves:

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

So it was a harvest: it didn’t come from nowhere. This is, in a way, quite a benign and optimistic reading of the French Revolution. If you don’t want a bloody harvest, then don’t sow one! It was a matter of injustice, cruelty, selfishness on the part of the nobles. Be less selfish and more open to change, and revolution won’t happen. This was not a meaning for the past or about the past, it was a meaning derived from a narrative of the past that was applicable to Dickens’ own contemporaries (or so he thought). He doesn’t really make this explicit, but coming on the back of the several explicit Condition-of-England novels he had just written, such a reading is hard to avoid. He does say in the famous opening that the time in question was very like “the present period”. History is not just history, it also has lessons for the present and the future. The present is the past, give or take a variable number of elements. What the past  means, then, is very important for reading the future and for future conduct. Therein lies its interest.

Hayden White, as a theorist of history, says that, “ideology is the central problem of intellectual history because intellectual history has to do with meaning, its production, distribution, and consumption, so to speak, in different historical epochs” (190). Each epoch, then, has to produce meaning anew (though never wholly anew, either, always inflected by the past), and the task of the intellectual historian is to analyze the means by which meaning is produced within different social and cultural milieus. White’s approach to this is purely semiological, based on an apparent belief in the possibility of outlining a sophisticated sign system at play in any given work, and citing Barthes’ S/Z as a model (196). The faith in semiology dates White a bit, though even at the time the book was published (1987), semiology was already passed its heyday in the humanities. White uses it here for an interesting reading of The Education of Henry Adams, a book I haven’t read. The Education is an autobiographical text, therefore factual, therefore a historical document. Biography is by definition on one end of the scale in terms of truth; fiction is at the other.

Biography 1. the process of recording the events and circumstances of another person’s life, esp. for publication (latterly in any of various written, recorded, or visual media); the documenting of individual life histories (and, later, other forms of thematic historical narrative), considered as a genre of writing or social history.

 Fiction 4.a. The species of literature which is concerned with the narration of imaginary events and the portraiture of imaginary characters; fictitious composition. Now usually, prose novels and stories collectively; the composition of works of this class.

Biography documents; fiction invents. But really what biography can ever be wholly documentary, and not at all subjective? And what fiction can wholly escape the world? Do we not always read to find something out about the world we live in? Even fantasy obeys rules of realism in the realms such as that of character motivation, if not in that of setting (but, again, how many fantasy setting are recognizably of this world – Game of Thrones is basically set in the European middle ages, for example [with dragons]). So, invention and documentation are on a continuum: fiction cannot be wholly fictional; documentary cannot be wholly documentary – but in relative terms, a text may be more or less fictional, and by implication less or more documentary, without approaching the absolute in terms of either concept.

Historical fiction is thus the paradigmatic text. It is avowedly both documentary and fictional, both of the real world and of the world of the imagination. It explicitly is what other texts effectively are. Avrom Fleischmann sets out some criteria for a historical novel in The English Historical Novel:

1 The plot must include a number of historical events, particularly those in the public sphere, mingled with and affecting the personal lives of the characters.

2 At least one historical figure must appear in the novel.

and, more abstractly

3 The novel must convey, by imaginative sympathy, the feeling of how it was to be alive in another age.

Time-wise, Fleischmann suggests that the historical novel has to take place at least 40-60 years in the past, which he admits is somewhat arbitrary.

Apropos of the last point, I would suggest another reasonable way of gauging it would be that the novel must be set in a time before the target readership were born; or,alternatively, before the author was born [this would probably have a significant overlap with Fleischmann’s criterion, as – guessing – I’d say the majority of books may well be written by persons aged between 40 and 60.]

Apropos of 2, I don’t think there is any historical figure in Two Cities, but it would seem odd to suggest that it is not, therefore, a historical novel. Indeed, it is one of Fleischmann’s primary discussion texts, and he doesn’t mention its failure to comply with his rule at all. Still, I would prefer to see it as an exception to a decent rule, rather than a proof of the invalidity of said rule. Classically, in novels like War and Peace. one will find real historical figures mingling with the fictional characters.

There are also novels of contemporary history; and narratives of contemporary history in other media. One thinks of a series like The Newsroom, in which the plots revolve around actual news stories, be they the Trayvon Martin case, the Petraeus affair, or whatever. But what is the purpose of such narratives? Do we as receivers use narratives to help us think through important public issues? Or do authors use such events to foist their ideas on us, and to tell us how to think about such matters? Some do, certainly. But there is no choice. We cannot use narrative for pure escapism; we are shaped by reality, and it is always with us. We can only begin to analyze the ways in which reality inflects our imaginative works, and the place to start is those works which are both imagination and factual; from here we can begin to understand how imagination works with and works on reality. Narrative cannot shape physical reality, but it can shape our ways of perceiving it, and we, in turn, shape in more or less important ways the physical reality that surrounds us. The way we shape it may well be in line with the narratives we hear and internalize. W.B. Yeats once asked, “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” The answer: I don’t know about that case specifically, but in general the stories we tell ourselves and each other do seem to empower us to act in certain ways. The great religions of history are built on stories; more recently we have tried to remove the narrative from our understanding of the world; science deals with the physical, laws and charters with the moral. Narrative is relegated to the subsidiary role of entertainment and escapism – and rightly so! I don’t want to suggest that we should live according to some story to which we ascribe divine significance. If we could take stories for what they are, as being always completely sui generis, and not as representations of deep and unalterable general truths, we would perhaps be better off. But can we? And by “we” I don’t mean me. I mean, arrogantly, all of those persons for whom a story has an extractable lesson, a nutshell, a content inside and outside the form, for whom it attains the grandeur of a moral lesson, even a foundational myth, even The Word of God. All of those people who experience events and stories symbolically, and who seemingly have to do so to find this world livable.

A story is only itself, just as a fact is only itself. A story about a fact is many things, a dialectic of event and reaction, and a shadow of many other events and reactions. There is no end to the things it can be. But it can never be one exact thing, except, tautologically, its ungraspable, indefinable, practically inexistent self.

Avrom Fleischmann, The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1971)

Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1990)

Structure in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Charles Augustus Milverton” (1903)

Charles Augustus Milverton” is among the Sherlock Holmes stories that have gained most attention from adapters, despite being a story almost without the elements of deduction for which the great detective is known. It does have a memorable villain – one who is recognizably and expressly the villain from the beginning of the story, which is relatively unusual in Holmes stories (even in ones like “The Speckled Band” where Dr Grimsby Roylott is pretty obviously the villain from the beginning, he’s not expressly so). But Milverton, before we meet him, we know we hate him, and that Holmes considers him “the worst man in London”. This explicit and direct association of evil with a human embodiment throughout the story is the best reason I can come up with for the prominence of this rather undistinguished narrative in Holmes adaptation history: a 100-minute feature in the Brett-Hardwicke series; the “His Last Vow” episode of Sherlock; “Dead Man’s Switch” in Elementary; to name a few (Wikipedia has more).

Milverton from the original illustrations. As Watson notes, he looks rather like Mr Pickwick.

Milverton from the original illustrations. Watson notes that he looks rather like Mr Pickwick.

In the cheap Wordsworth edition of The Best of Sherlock Holmes (comprising 20 short stories) which is one of the volumes I use for my general reading of the series, “Milverton” takes up 18 pages: 367-384. This is around the median length for the series. If one was to divide the story up into its cardinal functions, a la Barthes in “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative”, it would go something like this:

Milverton secures some of Lady Eva Bracknell’s youthful love letters [implied]

M. threatens Lady E. with disclosure of the letters if she does not pay him two thousand pounds. [implied]

Lady E. approaches Holmes with the problem. [summarily recounted] (368)

Holmes invites M. to discuss the matter. [implied]

M. arrives at Holmes’ apartment for said discussion. [presented] (369)

M. and Holmes discuss the matter, but fail to reach agreement. [presented] (370-372)

Holmes attempts to forcibly take the letters from M., but fails. [presented] (372)

Holmes gains entry to M.’s household as a plumber. [summarily recounted] (373)

Holmes undertakes a romance with M.’s housemaid in order to get information on the layout of M’.s house. [summarily recounted] (373)

Holmes decides to raid M.’s study for the letters. [summarily recounted] (373)

Holmes convinces Watson to help him. [presented] (373-374)

Sequence: Holmes and W. go to M’s house, enter his study and steal the letters. [presented]. (375-378)

They hear someone approaching. [presented] (378)

They hide behind the curtain. [presented] (378)

Milverton enters the study. [presented] (379)

{Here follow various catalysers, all of which signal a waiting on M.’s part; consequently Holmes and W. must wait in hiding: suspense}

A woman enters the study. [presented] (379)

She raises her veil. [presented] (381)

{Catalysing talk between M. and woman. She is clearly a past victim of his blackmailing. She is successively recriminative and threatening. He is successively unrepentant and alarmed}

She takes out a revolver. [presented] (381)

She shoots M. several times. [presented] (381)

W. makes as if to stop her. [presented] (381)

Holmes grabs his arm to prevent him. [presented] (381)

Woman grinds her heels into M.’s upturned face. [presented] (381)

Woman leaves. [implied] (381)

Holmes and W. come out of concealment. [presented] (382)

Holmes locks the door from the inside. [presented] (382)

Holmes and W. hear voices and hurried footsteps approaching. [presented] (382)

Holmes takes all of M.’s letters. [presented] (382)

Holmes and W. hear a banging on the door. [presented] (382)

They exit swiftly. [presented] (382)

{Various catalysers which signal a chase between Holmes and W. and the inhabitants of M.’s house, ending in escape to safety for Holmes and W.}

{Here follows the first section break in the story. Signified is an ellipsis. The night of the story’s main action gives way to the morning after. Suspense mode gives way to epilogue.}

Lestrade of Scotland Yard is ushered into Holmes’ apartment. [presented] (383)

Asks for Holmes’ assistance in M.’s murder. [presented] (383)

{Catalysing dialogue in which one of the presumed murderers is described. Holmes notes that it sounds very like Watson. Mode: humorous]

Holmes refuses to help L.  [presented] (384)

{Another section break, after which a short summary of Holmes and W. going into Oxford St. and stopping outside a shop displaying portraits of celebrities and beauties. W. notes one with certain features; features which recall to the reader the woman of the night before. He notes the great and distinguished name of this person. Holmes and W.’s eyes meet, and Holmes puts his finger to his lips. Implied: they have identified M.’s murderer. Implied also: this is the end of the sequence. Justice is done. The story ends on that gesture of Holmes’}

As a set of cardinal functions, most of the material of “Charles Augustus Milverton” is concentrated between pages 378 and 383. This is the lesson of the structural analysis. What, then, is the purpose of all of this mysterious extraneous matter between 367 and 377? Is this mere padding, or is it, in fact, the real matter that makes the Holmes stories what they are. The rather humdrum and unremarkable nature of the plot suggests the latter.

The story is not that functional in the narrow sense – just a few simplte moves. What, then, makes up these tracts of unfunctional material. To which of the four Genettian narrative movements to they belong? Summary, Scene, ellipsis, descriptive pause? Or some quite other movement to be established? This will fall to be dealt with in a later post. For now, to return to the issue of the many adaptations this story has engendered. As I went into in a previous post, the Brett-Hardwicke series takes as one of its main points of departure a scene that is not even a scene: not presented by Watson as our homodiegetic narrator, but summarily recounted by Holmes to the narrator. It is a matter of small cues, almost immaterial functionally and in terms of volume of the narrative vanishingly small, but that nevertheless have that kernel of suggestiveness which adaptors can make use of.

But the other notable feature of the story is the working out of justice. Where this differs from other stories, is that justice is done through what is legally murder. Further, the absolute outlier as a scenario among Holmes stories is that Holmes and Watson could have tried to do something.

No interference upon our part could have saved the man from his fate; but as the woman poured bullet after bullet into Milverton’s shrinking body I was about to spring out, when I felt Holmes’s cold, strong grasp upon my wrist. I understood the whole argument of that firm, restraining grip—that it was no affair of ours; that justice had overtaken a villain; that we had our own duties and our own objects which were not to be lost sight of. (381-382)

These lines are the hub of the story, suggesting a moral dilemma adaptors have been quick to seize on, certainly the makers of Sherlock and “His Last Vow”. Watson insists as post facto narrator that they could not have saved Milverton, but, I repeat, they could have tried, and that is where this story has its interest. Note, also, that the quoted passage is given after the murderess has left. The moment of Watson’s almost-intervention is actually just a flashback, a sentence or two later than strict diegetic chronology would dictate. If we had put it in its place, we would note that not only did he not intervene during the shooting, but he also didn’t intervene during the time after, when she ground her heel into M.’s face (and shouldn’t Lestrade have mentioned the detail of the woman’s shoe? Did it not suggest another actor on the scene?). The cathartic power of sadistic violence against a very bad person is fully harnessed here by the use of this deus ex machina of the woman who has been  victim to M at some past time. She does what Holmes would like to do, and what, the author implies, all right-thinking, justice-loving persons would also like. The connection between Holmes and justice is never more strained, more troubled, than in this story, so the scope for ethico-moral readings or for ideological shifts in adaptation is great. All of this is in the context of our cultural love for Sherlock Holmes. The power of “Charles Augustus Milverton” is not of this story alone, but is strongly intertextual: it is its place within the Holmesian canon that makes it of interest, and what it says about this great character. Otherwise, it would simply be a lazily plotted potboiler; which, in a sense, it still is, but once the character of Holmes, with all of his pre-established indices and connotations, is added, it becomes a lot more interesting.

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