The Victorian Sage

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

Earnestness or Death: The Tragedy of Richard Carstone in Bleak House (1852-53)

The idea of earnestness was a key one in Victorian times. Thomas Carlyle was perhaps the prime ideologue of earnestness:

It is a most earnest thing to be alive in this world; to die is not sport for a man; man’s life never was a sport to him; it was a stern reality, altogether a serious matter to be alive! (On Heroes, Lecture 1)

So, life is earnest. Reality is stern. If we try to conceive with this means in terms of the practice of living, we can find a good example in Dickens’ Bleak House. Dickens was, of course, a great admirer of Carlyle: “I would go at all times farther to see Carlyle than any man alive“, he said. In the 1850s, in particular, Dickens was all about Carlyle: 1854’s Hard Times was inscribed to the great Sage, and 1859’s A Tale of Two Cities used Carlyle’s French Revolution as its main historical source. Bleak House, too, is a Carlylean exercise in documenting the condition of England. We don’t have to look far in this book for the influence of Carlyle, but here we will concentrate on the concept of earnestness and its relevance to the character of Richard Carstone.

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Richard is a character whose trajectory and fate have always troubled me somewhat. He is, along with (part of) the novel’s narrator Esther Summerson and Ada Clare (who becomes Richard’s fiance early in the novel), a ward of the benevolently patriarchal John Jarndyce. Richard is first introduced by Esther thus:

He was a handsome youth with an ingenuous face and a most engaging laugh […]. [H]e stood by us, in the light of the fire, talking gaily, like a light-hearted boy. (Bleak House, Ch. 3 [Oxford, 1999, p. 39])

This is evidently intended to predispose us in Richard’s favour. Richard’s appearance announces him as ingenuous, engaging and (in the older sense of the word) gay. This announcing of character through appearance is a common device in Dickens, and to do it in such positive terms tends to imply a hero or at least helper character. Surpisingly, though, Richard – though not a villain in a conventional sense – will function as an obstacle of sorts to the protagonist, Esther, a disturber of the domestic tranquillity in the Jarndyce household. Richard is actually an antagonist, though a somewhat sympathetic one.

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Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House (2005)

The trouble for Richard starts when he moves in with his guardian, John Jarndyce. Richard is 19 at this point, and Jarndyce immediately starts casting around for a career for the young man. He does this in an odd way, not by speaking to Richard directly, but by conspiring with his other ward, Esther:

“However,” said Mr. Jarndyce, “to return to our gossip. Here’s Rick, a fine young fellow full of promise. What’s to be done with him?”

Oh, my goodness, the idea of asking my advice on such a point!

“Here he is, Esther,” said Mr. Jarndyce, comfortably putting his hands into his pockets and stretching out his legs. “He must have a profession; he must make some choice for himself […].”

“Perhaps it would be best, first of all,” said I, “to ask Mr. Richard what he inclines to himself.”

“Exactly so,” he returned. “That’s what I mean! You know, just accustom yourself to talk it over, with your tact and in your quiet way, with him and Ada, and see what you all make of it. We are sure to come at the heart of the matter by your means, little woman.” (Ch. 8 [p. 111])

This is a curious passage: Richard is now figured by Jarndyce as a man, in that the time has come for him to undertake a profession; and as a child, in that his course is in the hands of others, and he is not privy to the discussions about his own prospects. Secrecy is a pivotal theme in Bleak House, and here Jarndyce initiates a secretive manipulation of Richard’s life and prospects. It seems, perhaps, that Jarndyce is using the excuse of Richard’s prospects to get close to Esther, to establish an intimate bond of conspiracy and secrecy between them.

That is a fateful discussion between Jarndyce and Esther, for it problematizes Richard’s career before it has even begun, and thereafter Richard is a bewildered figure at the centre of various schemes for his professional advancement. It soon becomes clear that Richard has no clear preference regarding a profession – no earnest attachment to any particular field. He just hasn’t given it much thought. This is a major problem for Jarndyce and Esther, and becomes a central plot point through the novel:

We held many consultations about what Richard was to be, first without Mr. Jarndyce, as he had requested, and afterwards with him, but it was a long time before we seemed to make progress. Richard said he was ready for anything. When Mr. Jarndyce doubted whether he might not already be too old to enter the Navy, Richard said he had thought of that, and perhaps he was. When Mr. Jarndyce asked him what he thought of the Army, Richard said he had thought of that, too, and it wasn’t a bad idea. When Mr. Jarndyce advised him to try and decide within himself whether his old preference for the sea was an ordinary boyish inclination or a strong impulse, Richard answered, Well he really HAD tried very often, and he couldn’t make out.

“How much of this indecision of character,” Mr. Jarndyce said to me, “is chargeable on that incomprehensible heap of uncertainty and procrastination on which he has been thrown from his birth, I don’t pretend to say; but that Chancery, among its other sins, is responsible for some of it, I can plainly see[…].” (Ch. 13 [pp. 179-180])

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Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce in the BBC Bleak House

In the above extract, conversations with Richard about his career take place, as well as conversations between Jarndyce and Esther about Richard. These later feature complicated and searching explanations for Richard’s “indecision of character”.

What is striking in the treatment of this plot thread is how Esther immediately and unquestioningly brings herself over to Jarndyce’s side. From the first moment on, she subscribes entirely to the notion that Richard must immediately choose a career and be resolute in following it up. She accepts Jarndyce’s dramatic problematization of Richard’s lack of earnestness, and reflects all Jarndyce’s opinions and assumptions back to him, and together they come to adverse judgements on Richard’s character. Esther’s speed to reach these judgements is all the more surprising given that she is Richard’s close friend, and before Jarndyce suggests it, she has no doubts about Richard’s character, but likes him very much (or so she says). It all suggests an excessive obedience to paternalistic authority, and a wish to be on the side of power, even when it means sacrificing her own friends.

Richard chooses a career in medicine and undertakes an apprenticeship. But his master’s first report, given informally, is as follows:

He is of such a very easy disposition that probably he would never think it worth-while to mention how he really feels, but he feels languid about the profession. He has not that positive interest in it which makes it his vocation. (Ch. 17 [p. 246])

Richard is guilty of no particular act or omission, but the adjective languid is an extremely loaded one. Languidity is the opposite of earnestness, and is semantically and phonetically rather close to laziness. Shortly afterwards, Esther converses with Richard and she extracts from him the confession that his work is “monotonous” (Ch. 17 [p. 248]). She also tells him that his master has noted his lack of enthusiasm and Richard expresses surprise that he has been a source of disappointment. The upshot of it is that Richard, encouraged by Esther, gives up medicine and decides to go in for law.

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Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson in the BBC Bleak House.

It needs to be emphasized here that it is through the intervention of Esther that Richard leaves his post. Until their conversation, he has no intention of doing so, believing that “[i]t’ll do as well as anything else” (ibid). So Esther is the direct cause of Richard’s failure in medicine. Esther and Jarndyce’s worries about Richard have a self-fulfilling force, and have now created the difficulties they anticipated.

In encouraging him to change careers, Esther is motivated by the following reflection:

Consider how important it is to you both, and what a point of honour it is towards your cousin, that you, Richard, should be quite in earnest without any reservation. I think we had better talk about this, really, Ada. It will be too late very soon. (ibid).

So Richard must leave his post because he is not sufficiently in earnest about it; and his being in earnest is a point of honour with his cousin (i.e. Jarndyce). This is a high standard indeed: not only must he perform his work duties competently, he must do them earnestly, and any less dishonours his cousin. So his position as ward of Jarndyce has made Richard’s duties far more complex. The idea of honouring Jarndyce is now assumed to be central to his choices, abstract as that idea is.

It’s worth noting also that Richard’s reflection on the monotony of medical work is rejected by Esther:

“Then,” pursued Richard, “it’s monotonous, and to-day is too like yesterday, and to-morrow is too like to-day.”

“But I am afraid,” said I, “this is an objection to all kinds of application—to life itself, except under some very uncommon circumstances.” (ibid).

So Esther does not accept that Richard should find less monotonous work, but insists that he do his necessarily monotonous work more earnestly. There is a great deal of complacency from Esther here; and an unearned sense of her own wisdom and superiority in terms of life experience. She is Richard’s age, and has led a more sheltered existence. Yet her closeness to Jarndyce grants her an authority over him. Richard accepts her arguments meekly and without apparent rancour.  From this point on, with his own desires so roundly ignored, and the added pressure of working for the honour of his overbearing guardian Jarndyce, it is inevitable that Richard will find it impossible to settle into his work.

Upon undertaking his new career, Richard soon gets into debt, and on finding this out Jarndyce forces a break in the engagement between Richard and Ada (another ward of Jarndyce). In Inside Bleak House (Duckworth, 2005), John Sutherland questions this deviation from the “habitual good nature” of Jarndyce, noting that “[a]t this stage, Richard is by no means a lost cause (no more than Pip, for example, in Great Expectations, in the period before Magwitch’s return” (p. 145). I suggest, however, that it is less a deviation than the natural development of Jarndyce’s proprietorial and overbearingly authoritarian attitude towards Richard, and that there is no “good nature” evident in Jarndyce’s treatment of Richard at any point. He is motivated, rather, by two things: he enjoys flexing his power over Richard; and he is invested in getting close to Esther via earnest and intense discussions about Richard.

Things get no better for Richard thereafter. But why go over the whole sorry saga? The young man was ill served by those closest to him. With friends like Esther, who needs enemies? With benefactors like Jarndyce, who needs malefactors? By sticking to the Victorian party line about earnestness, they were able to destroy Richard’s prospects and peace of mind, and make him think it was all his fault. Earnestness has rarely been less attractive than when coming from these characters. Bleak House is a book that one has to admire in many respects, but sometimes it is a hard book to like. Esther’s excessive modesty has often been noted – Charlotte Bronte called her a “weak and twaddling” character – but her relations with Richard show her to be worse than that. Esther is a hypocrite whose assumptions of moral superiority disguise her cringing and self-serving adherence to the bullying dictats of Jarndyce. A pair of sanctimonious and pettily power-hungry hypocrites, perhaps their marriage would have been a good match after all!

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Poverty, Domestic Violence and Rapacious Benevolence: The Brickmaker from Bleak House (1852-53)

The English social novels of the 1840s-50s were concerned with analysing the relations between the haves and have-nots. Generally, the conclusions suggested in novels like North and South (1854-55) was that there was misunderstanding between these sectors, and if they both listened to each other, they would get along and work productively together. In North and South, the protagonist Margaret Hale befriends a household of poor factory workers, the Higginses, and at times mediates between them and mill-owner John Thornton.

Margaret is welcomed into the Higgins household. But the course of trans-class friendship does not always run smooth. The charitable instincts of a middle-class lady are not necessarily met with gratitude from the working class. There is a compelling scene quite early in Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-53) wherein a group of would-be philanthropists enter a brickmaker’s house. The house and its environs are a scene of dismal poverty. Characteristic of Bleak House, the initial description of the setting emphasizes dirt, grime and an overall sense of decay and stagnation:

[I]t was one of a cluster of wretched hovels in a brick-field, with pigsties close to the broken windows and miserable little gardens before the doors growing nothing but stagnant pools. Here and there an old tub was put to catch the droppings of rain-water from a roof, or they were banked up with mud into a little pond like a large dirt-pie. At the doors and windows some men and women lounged or prowled about, and took little notice of us except to laugh to one another or to say something as we passed about gentlefolks minding their own business and not troubling their heads and muddying their shoes with coming to look after other people’s. (Bleak House, Ch. VIII)

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Dickens’ narrator here is Esther Summerson, and she implicitly raises one of the key themes of the book when she notes the “gentlefolk” passing by “minding their own business”. Like Gaskell, Dickens is concerned with the lack of interaction between classes, and the middle-class disinterest in the problems of the working class. But Dickens’ passage here goes on to show the difficulty in initiating an inter-class exchange. In this passage, it is not Esther who initiates the exchange, but Mrs Pardiggle, a philanthropist whose efforts are characterised by “rapacious benevolence” according to Dickens/Esther. As far as the characters with whom she interacts are concerned, Mrs Pardiggle is both tireless and tiresome:

“Well, my friends,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, but her voice had not a friendly sound, I thought; it was much too business-like and systematic. “How do you do, all of you? I am here again. I told you, you couldn’t tire me, you know. I am fond of hard work, and am true to my word.”

“There an’t,” growled the man on the floor, whose head rested on his hand as he stared at us, “any more on you to come in, is there?”

“No, my friend,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, seating herself on one stool and knocking down another. “We are all here.”

“Because I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?” said the man, with his pipe between his lips as he looked round upon us.

The young man and the girl both laughed. Two friends of the young man, whom we had attracted to the doorway and who stood there with their hands in their pockets, echoed the laugh noisily.

Esther maintains a critical attitude towards Mrs Pardiggle, characterizing her as “too business-like and systematic”. It is clear that her charitable efforts are not approved of by Dickens, and he also satirizes organized charity through the characterization of Mrs Jellyby elsewhere in the book. In a manner that is somewhat typical for Dickens, the energy from the scene doesn’t really come from any of the main players. It comes, instead, from the brickmaker himself, who only appears in this scene and plays no part in the plot of the novel. He doesn’t even have a name. His role in this scene is to frustrate Mrs Pardiggle’s attempts at charity, and to express the anger and hostility that Esther also feels, but is too respectable to say.  The brickmaker’s first sally is the sarcastic observation that “I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?”. Then he is given the opportunity to launch into a powerful speech.

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Phiz’s original illustration for “A Visit to the Brickmaker’s” http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/phiz/bleakhouse/6.html 

 

“You can’t tire me, good people,” said Mrs. Pardiggle to these latter. “I enjoy hard work, and the harder you make mine, the better I like it.”

“Then make it easy for her!” growled the man upon the floor. “I wants it done, and over. I wants a end of these liberties took with my place. I wants an end of being drawed like a badger. Now you’re a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom—I know what you’re a-going to be up to. Well! You haven’t got no occasion to be up to it. I’ll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she IS a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty—it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome; and we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book fit for a babby, and I’m not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I’ve been drunk for three days; and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go to church? No, I don’t never mean for to go to church. I shouldn’t be expected there, if I did; the beadle’s too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t, she’s a lie!”

As well as powerful, this speech from the brickmaker is a rather complicated one. It indicts Mrs Pardiggle’s arrogance and insensitivity. It also refers with brutal frankness to the infant mortality rate. It characterizes the brickmaker as a violent tyrant in his domestic setting, as well as a drunk. Dickens is well known for sentimentality, and rightly so, but here there is no sentimentality, just a vision of degradation, and an unjudgemental portrait of an individual who is both a victim and a bully. All of Dickens’ condemnation seems to be directed against intrusive philanthropists. The brickmaker’s frank assumption of all the worst traits of the “undeserving poor” gives him a momentary heroism, a breaking through of all social conventions that is riveting to read. Say what you like about the brickmaker, he has no cant – an important point for such 19th-century commentators as Dickens and Carlyle, and certainly not something that one could say for Mrs Pardiggle.

The brickmaker’s black-eyed wife is also nursing a baby. As the scene goes on, there is more Dickensian drama:

Ada, whose gentle heart was moved by  [the baby’s] appearance, bent down to touch its little face. As she did so, I saw what happened and drew her back. The child died.

“Oh, Esther!” cried Ada, sinking on her knees beside it. “Look here! Oh, Esther, my love, the little thing! The suffering, quiet, pretty little thing! I am so sorry for it. I am so sorry for the mother. I never saw a sight so pitiful as this before! Oh, baby, baby!”

[…]

Presently I took the light burden from her lap, did what I could to make the baby’s rest the prettier and gentler, laid it on a shelf, and covered it with my own handkerchief. We tried to comfort the mother, and we whispered to her what Our Saviour said of children. She answered nothing, but sat weeping—weeping very much.

When I turned, I found that the young man had taken out the dog and was standing at the door looking in upon us with dry eyes, but quiet. The girl was quiet too and sat in a corner looking on the ground. The man had risen. He still smoked his pipe with an air of defiance, but he was silent.

[…]

We felt it better to withdraw and leave them uninterrupted. We stole out quietly and without notice from any one except the man. He was leaning against the wall near the door, and finding that there was scarcely room for us to pass, went out before us. He seemed to want to hide that he did this on our account, but we perceived that he did, and thanked him. He made no answer.

This is the last we see of the brickmaker, stepping quietly aside to let Esther and Ada pass outside. We presume he returned to his errant ways, but that simple final gesture of respect and decorum is subtly powerful, in the circumstances. It is Dickens at his most unsentimental and dignified. Sometimes, in Bleak House and elsewhere, he lays it on with a trowel, but there are moments where he transcends.

George Orwell famously said of Dickens: “He is all fragments, all details — rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.” The Brickmaker is a gargoyle: he doesn’t need to be there. He doesn’t return later to tie up any loose ends in the plot. But he does provide one of the most compelling, if narratively inessential, characterizations in the novel. In that, he is classic Dickens.

 

 

The Intensity of the (Quasi-)Maternal Relation in North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-55) is known both as a love story in the Pride and Prejudice lineage, and as a social novel dealing with class conflict of the quintessentially mid-Victorian type. One of its most striking passages, though, is little remarked. It comes from late in the novel, before the final reconciliation between Margaret Hale and John Thornton. Margaret is living with her sister, Edith, and her family. Margaret has a particularly intense relationship with her young nephew Sholto:

One of the great pleasures of Margaret’s life at this time, was in Edith’s boy. He was the pride and plaything of both father and mother, as long as he was good; but he had a strong will of his own, and as soon as he burst out into one of his stormy passions, Edith would throw herself back in despair and fatigue, and sigh out, ‘Oh dear, what shall I do with him! Do, Margaret, please ring the bell for Hanley.’

But Margaret almost liked him better in these manifestations of character than in his good blue-sashed moods. She would carry him off into a room, where they two alone battled it out; she with a firm power which subdued him into peace, while every sudden charm and wile she possessed, was exerted on the side of right, until he would rub his little hot and tear-smeared face all over hers, kissing and caressing till he often fell asleep in her arms or on her shoulder. Those were Margaret’s sweetest moments. They gave her a taste of the feeling that she believed would be denied to her for ever. (Oxford, 2008, ed. Angus Easson, 405)

This passage is surely worthy of more attention than it has hitherto received. Margaret takes over the role of mother from Edith, and her mode of disciplining Sholto has surprisingly erotic overtones. The battle in which the “firm power” of one party subdues the other into peace is a central dynamic of North and South. Margaret is constantly through the novel being described in terms of her personal power, as in Dr Donaldson’s reaction to her:

Who would have thought that little hand could have given such a squeeze? But the bones were well put together, and that gives immense power. What a queen she is! With her head thrown back at first, to force me into speaking the truth […].  (127)

There is also Margaret’s taming of her (initially) insubordinate servant Dixon:

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

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

From henceforth Dixon obeyed and admired Margaret […]. [T]he truth was, that Dixon, as do many others, liked to feel herself ruled by a powerful and decided nature. (48)

Throughout North and South, there is a theme of dominance in Margaret’s personal relationships: she likes dominating people, and people – such as Dr Donaldson and Dixon – like being dominated by her. In case it wasn’t made sufficiently clear in the plot, the third-person narrator states it as a general truth: “Dixon, as do many others, liked to feel herself ruled by a powerful and decided nature.” So Margaret’s relationship with Sholto, and her power to subdue him, is an extension of this. It is an emotionally intense process for both parties: Sholto’s face becomes tear stained, while to Margaret the emotional affect is even more profound:

“Those were Margaret’s sweetest moments. They gave her a taste of the feeling that she believed would be denied to her for ever.”

What exact feeling is referred to? In the context of the story, Margaret has just been separated from Thornton, and the loss informs her response to Sholto. She is to be denied both conjugal and maternal relations, and this explains why she reacts so strongly. There is a certain excess in the passage, considered in the light of a (pseudo-)mother-child encounter. Margaret is somewhat too intense about Sholto. The physicality of their encounter – tears, kisses, caresses and the final swoon into sleep by the finally subdued Sholto – along with Margeret’s use of “every sudden charm and wile she possessed” recalls the conjugal relationship more than the maternal one. In this sense, Margaret is a forerunner of Henry James’ governess in The Turn of the Screw, whose lack of appropriate outlet for affection leads her into an obsessive and emotionally destructive relation with her young charges. Gaskell doesn’t imply any emotional failing in Margaret that leads to this incident, nor does she find an inappropriacy in it as a modern reader might. Indeed, this scene is not included in the popular 2004 series adaptation, and it is difficult to see how it could have been without raising uncomfortable questions about Margaret.

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Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale in the BBC series North & South (2004).

For Gaskell here seems to have anticipated a piece of Freudian knowledge abut the parental relationship:

[T]he parents — or as a rule the mother — supplies the child with feelings which originate from her own sexual life; she pats it, kisses it, and rocks it, plainly taking it as a substitute for a full-valued sexual object.  (Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905; trans. A.A. Brill, 1920)

In a footnote, Freud acknowledges that some readers will find this contention “wicked” but cites Havelock Ellis in support. Had he read Gaskell, he might have found in North and South another reference point, a piece of Freudian psychology avant la lettre.

German Metaphysics, Evolution and Dangerous Knowledge in Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” (1872)

One of the first great masters of the horror story was Dublin-born J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and especially his collection In a Glass Darkly (1872; Wordsworth, 2008). The first story in the collection is “Green Tea”, an oft-anthologized tale whose themes involve some of the classic Victorian preoccupations and anxieties.

The story is of a Reverend Jennings, who tells his own story in his own words. Around this, the account by Dr Martin Hesselius provides a framing devise. A prologue introducing Dr Hesselius provides another frame. Hesselius is a “medical philosopher” (5) author of a volume on “Metaphysical Medicine” (7), devoted to uncovering the dark and mysterious forces at work in the world and in the mind. This recalls the Biblical quote that gives the volume its title:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians, 13:12 [KJV])

This quote seems to fit “Green Tea” far more than the other stories in the collection. It also fits the Hesselius frame. Hesselius himself is involved in the pursuit of esoteric knowledge, in the making clear that which appears obscure and only half-known. Similarly, Rev. Jennings is also involved in the search for a knowledge of a hidden and perhaps forbidden type.

Hesselius is a character who strongly prefigures Sherlock Holmes (first appearance: 1887). He’s a wanderer and a generalist who knows a lot about everything, and he is in “easy circumstances” (3), so can devote his energies to his interests. His procedure with a new case is to go through the stages of “analysis, diagnosis and illustration” (4). The method is scientific, but the material is precisely that which falls outside he realms of known science.

Like Holmes, he knows people very quickly by observing them:

 I think I can tell you two or three things about him,” said I [Hesselius].

“Really!”

“Yes, to begin with, he’s unmarried.”

“Yes, that’s right—go on.”

“He has been writing, that is he was, but for two or three years perhaps, he has not gone on with his work, and the book was upon some rather abstract subject—perhaps theology.”

“Well, he was writing a book, as you say; I’m not quite sure what it was about, but only that it was nothing that I cared for; very likely you are right, and he certainly did stop—yes.”

“And although he only drank a little coffee here to-night, he likes tea, at least, did like it extravagantly.”

“Yes, that’s quite true.”

“He drank green tea, a good deal, didn’t he?” I pursued.

“Well, that’s very odd! Green tea was a subject on which we used almost to quarrel.”

“But he has quite given that up,” said I.

“So he has.”

“And, now, one more fact. His mother or his father, did you know them?”

“Yes, both; his father is only ten years dead, and their place is near Dawlbridge. We knew them very well,” she answered.

“Well, either his mother or his father—I should rather think his father, saw a ghost,” said I.

“Well, you really are a conjurer, Dr. Hesselius.” (8-9)

Except that Hesselius does not give his reasoning for arriving at this surprising knowledge, this could have come straight from a Sherlock Holmes story.

In the passage quoted above, Hesselius is discussing Rev. Jennings, who he has just met for the first time. Jennings is the protagonist of the story. Jennings mirrors Hesselius’ search for knowledge. In fact, he has read Hesselius’ Essays on Metaphysical Medicine and they have oriented his thought and reading.

Hesselius’ Essays on Metaphysical Medicine, we are told, were written in German and have not appeared in Engish. They are out of print. They are a sort of scientific Necronomicon, full of dangerous knowledge. It is no coincidence, too, that Hesselius works in German (and, presumably, is German). Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-34) provides the most rhapsodic tribute to the Victorian idea that in an age when Christianity was losing its grip, a new religion, a new form of spiritual thought to bind society together would emerge from German metaphysical and abstract thought:

[H}ere, as in so many other cases, Germany, learned, indefatigable, deep-thinking Germany comes to our aid. It is, after all, a blessing that, in these revolutionary times, there should be one country where abstract Thought can still take shelter; that while the din and frenzy of Catholic Emancipations, and Rotten Boroughs, and Revolts of Paris, deafen every French and every English ear, the German can stand peaceful on his scientific watch-tower; and, to the raging, struggling multitude here and elsewhere, solemnly, from hour to hour, with preparatory blast of cow-horn, emit his Horet ihr Herren und lasset’s Euch sagen; in other words, tell the Universe, which so often forgets that fact, what o’clock it really is. (Bk. 1, Ch. 1., “Preliminary”)

Like the German metaphysicists, Hesselius is a dangerously post-Christian thinker. But he is circumspect: his Essays, he notes, “suggest more than they actually say” (7). Jennings, on the other hand, doesn’t know where to stop, following his speculations to dangerous excesses. From a few scattered notes we get from Jennings’ papers, we find that he is preoccupied with opening the “interior sight”/”internal sight” (11), and we surmise also that his efforts to do so necessarily lead him into contact with “evil spirits” (11).

The sight metaphor used by Jennings’ recalls Le Fanu’s title, which posits the idea of seeing clearly, and opposes it to the general human condition of seeing through a glass, darkly. The Bible quote evidently sees this clarity of seeing as a condition of paradise. La Fanu takes the opposing view through his presentation of Jennings: to see clearly is a hellish predicament.

Jennings’ horror begins when he spies a monkey on an omnibus. This monkey has burning eyes and a hypnotic gaze. It produces in Jennings a feeling of loathing and horror. The unattractive primate begins to follow Jennings around almost continually. Nobody else sees the monkey, but as Jennings is a bachelor of a retiring disposition, they don’t get much chance to.

 

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The haunting of Jennings appears in “Green Tea” to be overdetermined. There are a number of reasons suggested in the text to explain Jennings’ predicament. Jennings’s lifestyle is conducive to horror on several grounds:

1) Green Tea: The title of the story suggests this is an important element, and Jennings admits taking this beverage in great quantities.

“I believe, that every one who sets about writing in earnest does his work, as a friend of mine phrased it, on something—tea, or coffee, or tobacco. I suppose there is a material waste that must be hourly supplied in such occupations, or that we should grow too abstracted, and the mind, as it were, pass out of the body, unless it were reminded often enough of the connection by actual sensation. At all events, I felt the want, and I supplied it. Tea was my companion—at first the ordinary black tea, made in the usual way, not too strong: but I drank a good deal, and increased its strength as I went on. I never experienced an uncomfortable symptom from it. I began to take a little green tea. I found the effect pleasanter, it cleared and intensified the power of thought so, I had come to take it frequently, but not stronger than one might take it for pleasure. I wrote a great deal out here, it was so quiet, and in this room. I used to sit up very late, and it became a habit with me to sip my tea—green tea—every now and then as my work proceeded. I had a little kettle on my table, that swung over a lamp, and made tea two or three times between eleven o’clock and two or three in the morning, my hours of going to bed. I used to go into town every day. I was not a monk, and, although I spent an hour or two in a library, hunting up authorities and looking out lights upon my theme, I was in no morbid state as far as I can judge. I met my friends pretty much as usual and enjoyed their society, and, on the whole, existence had never been, I think, so pleasant before. (17-18)

2) Writing: As the above quoted indicates, writing and green tea go together for Jennings, and they lead him into keeping very odd hours. Jennings suggests that writing cannot be done without a stimulant, so it is an inherently dangerous activity.

3) Late hours: Jennings writing is done at nighttime. The monkey first arrives in darkness, too, and is most often associated with it. In “Green Tea”, it is made clear that the arrival of the monkey coincides with an extended period of writing, green tea, and later hours.

4) Metaphysical speculation: We have dealt with this above. Jennings’ insistence on opening his “interior sight” is one whose danger is recognized by Hesselius, who has seen the importance of merely hinting rather than openly discussing such matters.

5) Solitude: Jennings is a bachelor, and spends most of his time alone with his books. On reading Swedenborg, Jennings says: “I think they are rather likely to make a solitary man nervous” (13). Solitude is in itself a dangerous situation. Indeed, in late 19th-century ghost stories, horror was the province of the bachelor. Think of the entire oeuvre of M.R. James. Bachelors who live quiet and studious lives are at particular risk of being tormented by evil spirits. “Green Tea”  is perhaps the locus classicus of this trope.

So, we see that green tea; writing and late hours; the tendency towards metaphysical speculation; and a solitary lifestyle combine to create in Jennings the perfect storm for supernatural visitation.

At the back of it all, perhaps, is the dread and anxiety created by Darwinian theory, much debated from 1860 onwards. Hence the figure of the monkey, newly discovered to be a close relative of ours: “Mr. Darwin boldly traces out the genealogy of man, the monkey is his brother, and the horse his cousin, and the oyster his remote ancestor.” Rather than godlike, man must acknowledge that he is monkeylike. He is haunted by this knowledge. The more he tries to attain enlightenment and exaltation through knowledge, the more he is brought up against the unholy and undignified truth that he is but a monkey. The traumatic enormity of this discover is brought home by reading “Green Tea”. By reading it, we gain an appreciation of the emotional force of evolutionary theory to the religious temperament of the 19th century. Jennings tries to pray, but it has become an impotent formula.

Hesselius adds in the postscript that he could have saved Jennings:

I have not, I repeat, the slightest doubt that I should have first dimmed and ultimately sealed that inner eye which Mr. Jennings had inadvertently opened. The same senses are opened in delirium tremens, and entirely shut up again when the overaction of the cerebral heart, and the prodigious nervous congestions that attend it, are terminated by a decided change in the state of the body. It is by acting steadily upon the body, by a simple process, that this result is produced—and inevitably produced—I have never yet failed. (32)

Interestingly, while the symptoms are mental, the cure is physical. Thought is the disease; action is the cure. The moral of Le Fanu’s story is: You can’t think your way out of post-Darwinian existential horror. You can only stop thinking about it.

Is Philosophy still the Friend of Wisdom?

The Question of the Month in the current issue (March-April 2019; issue 131) of Philosophy Now is “Is Philosophy still the Friend of Wisdom?” I submitted an answer and it is among those chosen for inclusion in the issue. It is perhaps a little strongly worded, having a slight quality of rant about it in the concluding paragraph, but it expresses my essential quarrel with contemporary academic thought.  I reproduce it here:

The word ‘philosophy’ means ‘the love of wisdom’. Wisdom is the possession of knowledge, experience, and good judgement. Yet knowledge itself is only information: wisdom is the use of knowledge to pursue the good life. Philosophy developed historically as a response to life in its broadest sense, and so is a friend of wisdom only when it relates to and affects how we live.

When I look at contemporary philosophy, I am struck by a number of features. Firstly, philosophy is now not merely an activity; it is a discipline. It exists primarily within universities and there only texts which take a disciplinary approach will be deemed worthy of evaluation.

Central to disciplinary philosophy is that it does not respond primarily to any natural or social phenomena. Instead it sees everything through the lens of previous, canonical works, and seeks to move the thinking in these canonical works forward in some way. Instead of the mind and the senses ranging freely over all phenomena in search of wisdom, a very narrow concentration on the texts is demanded. These texts are for the most part very sophisticated. Developing their ideas is usually accomplished by elaborating on their arguments. After a certain point, increases in sophistication come at the cost of a ruthless narrowing of vision. It is impossible for any activity so constrained to retain a supple, open-minded approach to wisdom.

Professional philosophy has now attained such byzantine complexity as to become a sluggish and immobile behemoth that waddles clumsily through contemporary life and only with the greatest difficulty catches a glimpse of any novelty out of its small, bleary eyes. To return to the possibility of a comprehensive view of our circumstances and our world, we need to jettison the academic ideal of theoretical sophistication. Sophistication is not wisdom. On the contrary, the harsh truth is that the advances in theoretical sophistication in philosophy (and other humanities) have rendered them less fit for their purpose of exploring, articulating and promoting the good life. In order to be truly philosophical, that is, to truly love wisdom, one needs openness to experience and to the specificities of each new situation more than one needs any theory whatsoever.

A Black Spot in our Sunshine: Happiness in Mill, Carlyle and the Present Day

Happiness is a concept around which we orient much of our activity, and much of our self-reflection: ultimately, our feeling about an aspect of our lives is often determined by asking ourselves the question: does it make me happy? Sometimes, it is very difficult to answer this question. Happiness, a seemingly simple concept, is actually a complicated abstraction that is very difficult to identify and to measure.

Many 19th-century thinkers left accounts of their formative years, and these tended to be years of turmoil, confusion and unruly emotions. One of the concepts individuals were increasingly using to analyse and evaluate their experience was that of happiness. A famous example comes from John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, (published posthumously in 1873) in a passage where he is talking about himself at the age of 20 (in 1826), a time at which he devoted most of his energy to crusading journalism and political activism:

I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent […]. In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

This was the start of what Mill called a “mental crisis”. It is striking the central role that happiness played in Mill’s thinking. The worthiness of his aims – which he did not doubt – was of no worth when his own personal happiness did not result therefrom. So, for Mill, ultimately much of his intellectual life’s work became about developing ideas about increasing happiness individually and collectively.

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John Stuart Mill in 1870.

At around the same time, a famous contemporary of Mill, Thomas Carlyle, was undergoing a mental crisis of his own, one described with powerful intensity in the semi-autobiographical Sartor Resartus (1833-34). Carlyle called his time of distress, confusion and alienation the “everlasting no”. A realization of his own unhappiness is central to the crisis:

“Reasonably might the Wanderer exclaim to himself: Are not the gates of this world’s happiness inexorably shut against thee; hast thou a hope that is not mad? Nevertheless, one may still murmur audibly, or in the original Greek if that suit thee better: ‘Whoso can look on Death will start at no shadows.'” (SR, II, 6, “Sorrows of Teufelsdrockh”)

Carlyle recognised in himself an inability to experience anything similar to the happiness he had been introduced to as a concept. He concludes that happiness is definitively denied to him – its gates inexorably shut against him. His response, though, is very different to Mill’s – diametrically opposed, even. He rejects the concept of happiness and the pursuit of happiness completely:

What then? Is the heroic inspiration we name Virtue but some Passion; some bubble of the blood, bubbling in the direction others profit by? I know not: only this I know, If what thou namest Happiness be our true aim, then are we all astray. (SR, II, 7, “The Everlasting No”)

[…]

Man’s Unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his Greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite. Will the whole Finance Ministers and Upholsterers and Confectioners of modern Europe undertake, in joint-stock company, to make one Shoeblack HAPPY? They cannot accomplish it, above an hour or two: for the Shoeblack also has a Soul quite other than his Stomach; and would require, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more, and no less: God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rose. Oceans of Hochheimer, a Throat like that of Ophiuchus: speak not of them; to the infinite Shoeblack they are as nothing. No sooner is your ocean filled, than he grumbles that it might have been of better vintage. Try him with half of a Universe, of an Omnipotence, he sets to quarrelling with the proprietor of the other half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men.—Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even, as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.  (SR, II, 9, “The Everlasting Yea”)

Carlyle considers that man is incapable of happiness, because the concept of happiness, as he understands it, is based on sensual satisfactions. Man is not primarily sensual for Carlyle: rather he is filled with a void of longing that is more than sensual, something Infinite that Carlyle doesn’t quite have a name for here. Once an individual begins to think in terms of what can make him happy and satisfy him, the only real answer is God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself. And that is not very practical! So Carlyle turned away from the concept of happiness and insisted in Sartor (and thereafter) that the summum bonum was to Know what thou canst work at (SR, II, 7, “The Everlasting No”), and to work on with a minimum of self-consciousness, and a minimum of considering of one happiness.

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Thomas Carlyle: What are you looking at? Get back to work!

 

This contrasting attitude to happiness was one of the key differences between Mill and Carlyle. It would appear that Mill was on the right side of history here (and in most of their other areas of dispute). Happiness is both a crucial concept in our everyday analysis of our lives, and is used on a larger scale as a scientific term. We have, for example, the World Happiness Report, commissioned by the UN, wherein happiness levels in each country are prepared. These are completed simply by asking people how happy they are, with details of GDP, freedom, life expectancy, etc. of each country provided in the Report to allow correlations to be drawn. The UN also established “Happiness and Well-Being” as “A New Economic Paradigm” in 2012. Academically, we now have a Journal of Happiness Studies. There is no escaping the pursuit of happiness. We must pursue it if we wish to align our ideals with those of the academic and economic establishment.

Our consciousness of happiness is thus being perpetually reinforced. As we ponder the concept, then, we cannot fail to consider its lack or opposite. What if you don’t have happiness? What if you are not happy? Then you are unhappy, sad, or perhaps depressed. The latest World Happiness Report finds that depression is one of the three greatest threats to happiness. Insofar as depression is synonymous with sadness – or at least deep sadness – and sadness is an antonym of happiness, this is a tautology. The biggest threat to happiness in today’s world is the absence of happiness!

Therein lies the dialectical bind of happiness: the more conscious one becomes of it, the more conscious one must also become of its absence. The more one must ask oneself if one is happy and, if not, why not. This activity of ceaseless questioning is in itself not a pleasant one, and conducive to anxiety. Happiness is an essentially abstract concept centralized by utilitarian philosophy and economics. We can no longer unthink it, or remember that not all societies have prized it. Aristotle’s eudaimonia, remember, was an activity, not a state. As such, it was as close to Carlyle’s ideal of work as to Mill’s happiness.

So, as our notions of happiness get more and more sophisticated, and our economic structures become more and more entwined with this utilitarian abstraction, we will experience more and more depression, more anxiety, more and more the absence of this concept of happiness, which has moved from a mere abstraction to a materialized abstraction, build into the economic and ideological framework of our society. The felt absence of happiness is now one of the central facts of our experience. This is why we should go back to Carlyle and get a new perspective on this, because to us the idea that you don’t need to think about happiness is an alien one. Carlyle’s style is antiquated. The message, too, seems at first antiquated, but, if we wish to escape the clutches of happiness, it must be renewed:

[M]an is actually Here; not to ask questions, but to do work: in this time, as in all times, it must be the heaviest evil for him, if his faculty of Action lie dormant, and only that of sceptical Inquiry exert itself. Accordingly whoever looks abroad upon the world, comparing the Past with the Present, may find that the practical condition of man in these days is one of the saddest; burdened with miseries which are in a considerable degree peculiar. In no time was man’s life what he calls a happy one; in no time can it be so. (Characteristics, 1831)

 

On Žižek, Adaptation and Fragments of the Whole

[T]he goal of the translation is not to achieve fidelity to the original but to supplement it, to treat it as a fragment of the broken vessel and produce another fragment that, rather than imitating the original, will fit it as one fragment of a broken Whole may fit with another. A good translation will thus destroy the myth of the original’s organic Wholeness, rendering this Wholeness visible as a fake. One can even say that, far from being an attempt to restore the broken vessel, translation is the very act of breaking. (Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil, Verso, 2014, p. 143-144)

Žižek’s view of translation as a fragment to fit together with the equally fragmented original is one he owes to Walter Benjamin (as he acknowledges in the passage quoted above), and is also one he applies to adaptations. Indeed, the one substantial piece of analysis he give apropos this passage is of an adaptation, not a translation, focusing on different versions of the play Antigone. Žižek leaves aside the possibility that adaptation and translation may be theoretically distinct concepts, but certainly there is a school of thought that sees them as analogous. So, provisionally admitting this point, how productive is Zizek’s approach? Can we conceive of an adaptation which operates by destroying the myth of the original’s organic Wholeness? An adaptation which is a fragment and which exposes the fragmentary nature of the source?

These (imagined) variations should not be read as distortions  some lost primordial original, but as fragments of a totality which would have consisted of the matrix of all possible permutations (in the sense in which Levi-Strauss claimed that all interpretations of the Oedipus myth, inclusive of Freud’s, are part of the myth). Should we then endeavour to reconstruct the full matrix? What we should rather do is locate the traumatic point, the antagonism, that remains untold and around which all the variations and fragments circulate. (p. 146)

It is an idealistic view of adaptation, one that posits a unity behind each avatar, a unity that cannot be found in any individual work, but only uncovered by the scholar. It is the scholar who communicates the traumatic point untold in the fragments.

My own approach is in some ways the opposite to Žižek’s. When you track versions of the same story across time, what you find is not one single traumatic kernel underpinning the narrative, but a predominantly unchanging narrative line that is used as support for reflection on themes that do not predominantly come from the source, but from cultural influences. Adaptations prove that the ideology of a text is not dependent on the story being told. The source provides a narrative framework more than a philosophical or ideological framework.

It may perhaps seem counter-intuitive to think that the same storyline can be used for substantially different ideological purposes. One clear example can be seen in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel, and the 2007 BBC series Oliver Twist (adapted by Sarah Phelps, latterly better known for her Agatha Christie adaptations, And Then There Were None (2015), etc.). In my essay “Adaptation, Transtemporality, and Ideology: The BBC Series Oliver Twist (2007)” (available in (Re)Writing Without Borders: Contemporary Intermedial Perspectives on Literature and the Visual Arts, eds. Brigitte Le Juez, Nina Shiel, Mark Wallace, Common Ground, 2018), I discuss the ideological shift in the story between the two versions in question, even though at the level of narrative structure there are only minor differences.

By going through the main characters in the narrative (Fagin, Sikes, Nancy, Rose, Monks – I don’t go into Oliver himself in detail, as there was only space to study the most relevant characters to my argument), I demonstrate (at least to my own satisfaction) that through changes in presentation of characters rather than in narrative functions, Phelps manages to invert much of Dickens’ embedded worldview in Oliver Twist.  To take a brief excerpt from my essay, I discuss the character of Fagin, who emerges in Phelps’ version as a victim in ways Dickens never envisaged:

This is most striking with regard to the character of Fagin. John notes in a brief overview of the series that Fagin is placed as a “victim of discriminatory social circumstances” throughout.* This climaxes in the trial scene, in which Fagin (played by Timothy Spall) is sentenced to death by Judge Fang, who further makes him the offer of a reprieve if he will convert to Christianity: “Fall to your knees before this assembly and take Christ as your saviour” (5; 22:15). Fagin refuses and becomes a martyr for the Jewish religion. The exchange is not found in Dickens, and Fagin’s principled refusal to forsake his religion contrasts with the greedy opportunism of Dickens’ villainous character. The offer made by Fang cannot be explained with reference to nineteenth-century legal practices, either.

Rather, Fagin’s trial scene constitutes an argument directed against the ideology of the source text from a presentist perspective, from which perspective ideologies of religious tolerance and idealization of the socially or politically marginalized or oppressed provides a basis from which the narrative is re-constructed, said re-construction incorporating a dialectic between source and adaptation.

* The quoted phrase is from Juliet John, Dickens and Mass Culture, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 223.

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Timothy Spall as Fagin in Oliver Twist (2007)

So there’s a whole different problematic about the character of Fagin. Fagin is the most obviously troublesome character in the novel, as the anti-semitic element of the depiction has long been noted (I go into the history of the character in the essay), but other characters like Sikes, Nancy and Monks are also altered in revealing ways. Sikes is still brutal, but tortured and sensitive; Nancy is much more kindly and maternal towards Oliver; Monks is fleshed out: he wants to marry Rose, but goes about securing this match in a particularly evil way.  They all still behave in ways that move the plot along the same lines as Dickens, but we feel very differently about them. Each character has inscribed into them not only the source material, but also other features which are often in tension with the source, and which in analysis often prove to be traceable to ideological issues of wider significance. It’s in the spaces between Dickens’ Nancy and Phelps’ Nancy that we can find out something significant about how we constructs narratives of human life. We don’t write stories or understand people as Dickens did: even if an adaptor tried to, there would be tension there. With Phelps, the tension is upfront: she wants to challenge Dickens, particularly with regard to Fagin:

The anti-Semitism bothered me hugely, but rather than sweep it under the carpet, rather than make it comedy, I wanted to look at it in its squinty, nasty, horrible little eye. [“Behind the Scenes” feature on Oliver Twist, BBCDVD2572, 2008]

Thus, I’m unconvinced by Žižek’s emphasis on a traumatic core common to source and adaptation. Trauma is evidently personal and contextual. The trauma in Phelps’ retelling is precisely the absence of trauma in Dickens. It is Dickens’ perceived callousness which provokes Phelps into attributing trauma to Fagin.  And if one was to follow Oliver Twist around the world and find other adaptations, you would find other sources of trauma. Many would engage in arguments with other elements of Dickens’ text, aside from the anti-Semitism. Or, if not engage in arguments, instead maintain silence over the elements which provide an ideological jolt. So in difference we can find those elements which demand analysis. It does not necessarily follow that these differences point to a commonality at a deeper level, a shared trauma. Analysis does not have to lead to a higher-level synthesis. The idea that it does is the Hegelian coming out in Žižek .

Belief and Capitalism in Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857)

The primary insight of Herman Melville’s last novel The Confidence-Man (1857) is one which was more recently articulated by financial historian Niall Ferguson:

“[M]oney is a matter of belief, even of faith: belief in the person paying us, belief in the person issuing the money he uses or the institution that honours his cheques or transfers. Money is not metal. It is trust inscribed. (The Ascent of Money, Penguin, 2009, pp. 30-31)

Money works, that is, because people believe in it. The people it’s working for may or may not be the ones doing the believing, but someone is doing the believing, and of course acting accordingly.

So look at Melville’s title again. The Confidence-Man. This was a collocation more familiar to 19th-century readers than to us. Later, it was shortened to conman. We perhaps use the word “con” now to mean a trick or fraud without remembering that it comes from the word “confidence”. This is because we don’t use “confidence” in the way Melville used it. Indeed, Google Books Ngram Viewer records that use of the word “confidence” has been declining quite steadily since the 1850s. And when we do use it, it’s mostly with regard to self-confidence and related concepts. To take one of the most recent coinages: body-confidence is a form of self-confidence.

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Cover of the Signet 1964 edition. From PDFBooksWorld.

So we don’t immediately get the import of Melville’s title and his book. He spends the book circling round the idea of confidence in the 19th-century sense: the sense of trust. Confidence is a synonym for trust. A confidence man is a man who operates by gaining the trust of the other. Implied without being explicit in the title is that to give our trust is a mistake. Trust, or confidence, is a tool of predation and exploitation.

So, on a philosophical level, this book can be seen as a dialogical investigation into the theme of trust, and its place in human society. On occasion, however, Melville gets more specific than this. He’s not speaking in universalist terms – not always, at any rate. He is referring specifically to a capitalist society, and putting the idea of trust under capitalist conditions at the centre of his text. One of Melville’s characters claims:

“Confidence is the indispensable basis of all sorts of business transactions. Without it, commerce between man and man, as between country and country, would, like a watch, run down and stop.” (Signet, 1964, p. 136)

Thus, Melville’s man of business is inveterately opposed to any sort of cynical or mistrustful thinking. This is given expression throughout the novel. One character speaks of the need to “strangl[e] the least symptom of distrust, of any sort, which hereafter, upon whatever provocation, may arise in you” (p. 40). Melville is deliberately using jarringly violent language here, to call into question the view being expressed, and to hint at the dark motives behind an emphasis on trust or confidence.

Melville’s book has a specific and realistic setting, on a Mississippi steamer. Through delineating the behaviour of the societal cross-section on the steamer, he instils in the reader a severe distrust of the idea of trust. Melville suggests that the exploitation of trust is both an age-old human trait, and one that is particularly characteristic of his own society. This last is particularly related to the financial and commercial structures within which his characters are enmeshed.

Thus the most direct statement of Melville’s actual position is found late in the book in the interpolated story of China Aster. Typically for this contrary book, this structurally unnecessary episode is thematically central. Aster is an honest, hard-working man whose personal destruction has a financial basis. Initially, Aster wants no part of the credit system. But a purported friend goads him into taking a loan:

“Why don’t you, China Aster, take a bright view of life? You will never get on in your business or anything else, if you don’t take the bright view of life. It’s the ruination of a man to take the dismal one […]. Why don’t you, then? Why don’t you be bright and hopeful, like me? Why don’t you have confidence, China Aster?” (p. 217)

Eventually, the friend instils the necessary trust and optimism in Aster to take a friendly loan. But he also gets Aster to sign a contract on unfavourable terms. Of course, Aster is ruined by his attempts to repay. Melville’s concise moral of the story, chiselled on a stone by a listening character, is: “The root of all was a friendly loan” (p. 228). Aster was exploited by a friend he trusted, and the means of exploitation was the credit system.

Melville’s book is a sobering read in the light of our current financial circumstances, wherein, as Maurizio Lazzarato has argued, indebtedness is central to economic and indeed social progress. If you’re not in debt, you’re doing it wrong. We have to believe in our credit-based financial system individually and act accordingly, or we are frozen out; and, as Ferguson knows, they only work because we do believe in them. But who do they work for? Melville has an answer: they work not for the true believer, who is a dupe, but for the confidence man, the instigator of and predator on trust. After reading Melville, we trust just a little bit less, but whether this helps with our socio-financial adjustment in a capitalist society is a difficult question.

Humphry Clinker (1771), by Tobias Smollett

Having enjoyed Tobias Smollett’s early novel Roderick Random (1748) a few years ago, I finally got around to reading my second Smollett: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771).  In Scotland’s Books, Robert Crawford calls it “Smollett’s last, greatest novel” (Penguin, 2007, p. 316). The Wikipedia entry for the novel cites the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in saying Clinker is considered by many to be Smollett’s best and funniest book. Whatever about “best”, I am strongly of the opinion that Clinker is much less funny than Random. As the literary product of an older gentleman, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is a more sedate work, with less of the frantic energy and grossly scatalogical humour (but still quite a bit of the latter) of the earlier novel. This probably savours of maturity to the critical eye, but for me boisterous energy and scatology is where Smollett excelled, and much is lost between Random and Clinker.

Clinker is an epistolary novel, told entirely in the form of letters: mostly those of Matthew Bramble and his nephew Jeremy Melford, and to a lesser extent various other members of Bramble’s entourage, as they all travel around Britain together, a journey undertaken for Bramble’s health. Bramble is essentially the protagonist, the patriarch of the party, a bachelor who is somewhat misanthropic and unsociable but is, we soon learn, benevolent and generous, with a keen sense of justice, a commitment to reason, and a strong interest in social progress. He is a forerunner of those philanthropic bachelors who populate the novels of Dickens, spreading goodwill but remaining aloof from intimate human relations. At the same time, he is more intellectual than Brownlow, the Cheerybles, etc. Through the course of his letters, he discourses on any number of subjects, demonstrating both Smollett’s “effortless range of learning” (Crawford, p. 314) and that Bramble is sort of a stand-in for Smollett himself.

Among the epistolarians of Clinker, women are coded as linguistically inept. The two primary female letter writers are Matthew’s sister Tabitha Bramble and her maid Winifred Jenkins. Both are distinguished by very poor spelling and comical malapropisms. In her first letter in the book, Tabitha orders her housekeeper “don’t forget to have the gate shit every evening before dark” (London: Heron, year not given [1960s?], p. 20). An example, obviously, of Smollett’s scatological humour, albeit not a particularly good one.

While Matthew Bramble’s bachelorhood gives him an opportunity to practice universal benevolence, Tabitha Bramble constitutes a rather spiteful depiction of the middle-aged spinster. She tries to marry every unattached man she meets. She is, as Jeremy puts it, “declining into the most desperate state of celibacy” (45). Matthew analyses her character as follows:

In her temper, she is proud, stiff, vain, imperious, prying, malicious, greedy and uncharitable. In all likelihood, her natural austerity has been soured by her disappointment in love; for her long celibacy is by no means owing to her dislike of matrimony: on the contrary, she has left no stone unturned to avoid the reproachful epithet of old maid. (72)

18th-century literature had a tendency to paint the position of old maid in the harshest light, and this novel is a particularly potent example.

This novel is epistolary, and it is episodic. There are threads that are introduced in the beginning and returned to at the end, but the novel is not by any means tightly plotted, and the resolutions to all the plot points are so obvious as to preclude tension. Because the book is structured around a tour, it is essentially a travelogue as much as it is a novel. An 18th-century travelogue is a volume of doubtful interest to the modern reader, and the detours (mostly in Matthew’s letters) over sociology, economics, agriculture, etc. are not always compelling. Some, of course, do resonate quite strongly with present concerns. Given the quite recent vote on Scottish independence (and the possibility of another), Bramble’s reflections on the Act of Union are interesting:

The only solid commercial advantage reaped from that measure, was the privilege of trading to the English plantations; yet, excepting Glasgow and Dumfries, I don’t know any other Scotch towns concerned in that traffick. In other respects, I conceive the Scots were losers by the union.—They lost the independency of their state, the greatest prop of national spirit; they lost their parliament, and their courts of justice were subjected to the revision and supremacy of an English tribunal.’ (277)

Or, how about this, on the subject or rural depopulation/urban overpopulation, a subject very relevant in terms of Ireland’s current demographics:

But, notwithstanding these improvements, the capital is become an overgrown monster; which, like a dropsical head, will in time leave the body and extremities without nourishment and support. The absurdity will appear in its full force, when we consider that one sixth part of the natives of this whole extensive kingdom is crowded within the bills of mortality. What wonder that our villages are depopulated, and our farms in want of day-labourers? The abolition of small farms is but one cause of the decrease of population. Indeed, the incredible increase of horses and black cattle, to answer the purposes of luxury, requires a prodigious quantity of hay and grass, which are raised and managed without much labour; but a number of hands will always be wanted for the different branches of agriculture, whether the farms be large or small. The tide of luxury has swept all the inhabitants from the open country—The poorest squire, as well as the richest peer, must have his house in town, and make a figure with an extraordinary number of domestics.  (97)

There is much such debate on issues topical and arcane. These passages lacked Smollett’s characteristic humour, and for the most part were probably more interesting to the 18th-century reader than he of the 21st-century.

The plotting, too, is lacking in interest or originality. You know the drill: everybody turns out to be everybody’s else long-lost something; some people get married; some people get a chunk of money. There are no real villains in the novel to be punished, humiliated, or sent to the colonies – although one slightly repentant highwayman in the early part of the novel is recommended to make the journey:

It would be no difficult matter to provide you with an asylum in the country (replied my uncle); but a life of indolence and obscurity would not suit with your active and enterprizing disposition—I would therefore advise you to try your fortune in the East Indies. (192)

The book draws to a slow close with a plethora of predictable marriages and re-unitings (through outrageous coincidences) of long-lost families. But Clinker does have its moments. One nice humorous touch is the following anecdote about a man addressing a bust of Jupiter. This anecdote has an authentic ring to it, so I imagine Smollett is recording it rather than inventing it:

Some years ago, being in the Campidoglio at Rome, he made up to the bust of Jupiter, and, bowing very low, exclaimed in the Italian language, ‘I hope, sir, if ever you get your head above water again, you will remember that I paid my respects to you in your adversity.’ (187)

On the whole, though, I don’t agree with the consensus that Clinker is Smollett’s best. His real gifts are better exhibited in Random. 

Men Lie to Women, Women Lie to Themselves: Deception and Gender in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)

With the new film adaptation of Pet Sematary (1983) due out in April this year, I have revisited this novel that I haven’t read since my early teens, a time when I devoured all of King’s earlier output. Sematary was one I enjoyed at the time. Of all King’s novels, it is for me the one with the most memorable physical setting: the pet cemetery (it’s written “Pet Sematary” on the sign, hence the novel’s title) itself, and beyond it the deadfall and the twisting path through the woods, across a swamp and onto a rocky hilltop where the Micmac Indians once buried their dead. Years after reading it, I could still picture Louis’ nighttime journeys to the Micmac burial ground.

s-l1600

There’s a lot of other stuff going on in this novel. The basic plot is that the protagonist, university doctor Louis Creed, and his family move to a house in rural Maine. The setting is initially idyllic, but the house is set inconveniently close to a busy road, and – even more inconveniently, as it turns out – near the pet cemetery. Creed finds out from Jud Crandall, an elderly neighbour, about the Micmac burial ground, set miles deep in the forest, in a hidden path behind said pet cemetery. Jud leads Louis to the burial ground in order to bury Louis’s daughter’s beloved cat there, after the latter is killed outside the Creed house by a passing truck. They bury the cat quickly, before Ellie (Louis’ daughter) finds out about his death. The cat soon turns up outside the house again, albeit in an unsettling, zombified and quite smelly state. Ellie doesn’t take much notice though. That takes us to a third of the way through the novel.

So this is a novel about death. About the acceptance of death, and the refusal of such acceptance. By burying the cat at the Micmac burial ground, Louis appears to align himself with the notion of refusing to accept death. In fact, though, an earlier conversation between Louis and his wife Rachel has shown that while Louis accepts the idea of a pet cemetery as a healthy way for a child to learn about death, Rachel is horrified by the idea and doesn’t want Ellie to go there. This escalates into an argument about the propriety of speaking to children about death. Louis says:

There’s nothing wrong with a child finding out something about death, Rachel. In fact, I’d called it a necessary thing. (46)

Rachel disagrees, and her response to Louis’s calm, rationalistic approach to the debate is a host of emotional actions: she “cried”, “sobbed”, “hissed”, “screamed” (46). So Louis’s later attempts to avoid death are related to the need to keep Rachel on an even emotional keel.

pet-sematary-remake

The cat returns in a promotional shot from the new Pet Sematary film.

When Louis goes to the Micmac burial ground with Jud and his dead cat, he keeps it a secret not only from Ellie, but from Rachel as well. As he knows, she doesn’t want to hear anything about death. Jud, as a sort of father and mentor figure, offers some homespun philosophical reflections on themes of secrecy and gender:

“[A]ny woman who knows anything at all would tell you she’s never really seen into a man’s heart. The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis – like the soil up there in the old Micmac burying ground. Bedrock’s close. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. (136)

Later, Jud writes to Louis: “I’d guess most men tell their wives a smart of lies” and Louis mentally adds “[w]ives and daughters as well” (145). Louis, after his difficult encounter with Rachel, has now embraced Jud’s philosophy of masculinity. It’s about silence, secrecy and a hidden darkness. Femininity, on the other hand, is characterized both by an upfront emotionalism and by an inability to face the darker elements of reality.

This sort of gendered characterization is not a new idea in canonical literature. Indeed, it is very reminiscent of the famous closing passage of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), wherein Marlow decides to lie to Kurtz’s fiance about the manner of his life and death, in line with a philosophy Marlow has earlier outlined:

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

In HoD, what Marlow decides to hide, even though he purportedly “hates a lie”, is the violent and exploitative nature of colonialism, which resides behind the “great and saving illusion”. The importance of women in the HoD universe is that they really do believe in the illusion of benign colonialism – what was sometimes called the “civilizing mission“. Believing is what women do, and pretty much all that they do. Men do the work; they do everything except the believing. Feminine faith and simplicity is beautiful to Marlow. To protect that faith, men like Marlow and Kurtz brave the horror of colonial reality, and live a lie.

So, in deciding that women can’t face the truth and must be lied to while the men go about doing the dirty work needed to keep society going, Creed is trying to be a latter-day Marlow. But Marlow ends his story with the beautiful lie still in place, and the truth remains “out there” (specifically, in Africa); for Creed, living in a different age, it doesn’t end so well, and the beautiful illusions just can’t hold up against the horrible truth, which comes right into the home with unpleasant consequences.

Maybe that’s the 19th-century outlook versus the 20th century. Maybe it’s mainstream literature against the horror genre. Maybe the women of the 1980s were that bit more woke, such that a Conradian-style deception was not really feasible. Maybe the upcoming adaptation will provide a further perspective on the Creeds’ dynamics and their relationship to death. That’s one of the values of adaptations: by comparison with their originals we are given tools to think about our society and how our attitudes contrast to those of other places and times.

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