The Victorian Sage

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

Data on Historical Accuracy in Hollywood Films

Interesting (but also not) structuralist approach to assessing historical accuracy in recent movies from website Information is Beautiful. Selma is 100% historically accurate. I haven’t seen Selma but it sounded implausible to me that any film could be described as 100% historically accurate (even documentary footage has undergone selection of some sort), though I then noticed that IisB have a pedantry settings, and if set to maximum pedantry, Selma “only” gets 81%. Each film is divided into 50-ish scenes, and each scene gets a short commentary and comparison to documented history.

infoisbeautiful

Each scene is then scored on a simple 4-option colour-coded scale and the percentage is arrived at from this. It’s a pretty straightforward methodology (if relatively time-consuming and requiring a lot of knowledge), and is mildly diverting, though I would tend to agree with Alex von Tunzelmann in the Guardian’s piece on the data: “The results are mostly in the right ballpark, but I’d be reluctant to issue such precise percentage-point scores on historical accuracy. It’s a nice touch that you can alter the pedantry level on the site. Even so, historical truth isn’t a binary: you need fuzzy logic.”

Philip Roth: An Unadaptable Author (Voice and Argument in Adaptation)

Today’s Guardian does a hatchet job on Ewan McGregor’s (director and lead actor) adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and along the way makes some points about the “calamitous history” of Roth adaptations. One problem they point up is the tendency to use voice over, apparently because adapters are unwilling to lose the Rothian voice. I suppose it indicates that voice is a far bigger element of Roth’s success than plot, and that voice tends to be less amenable to screen adaptation than plot. But such a failure is in itself interesting in the light it casts on the author adapted, in that an experience of the work shorn of the author’s voice can give us insights into the limitations of said author.  Roth, apparently, is less a great novelist than a great voice. But maybe the power of the voice is what lies behind everything, from novelists and poets to politicians and leaders. One is reminded, perhaps, of various passages concerning Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The man presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn’t I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together? That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.

[…]

A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mould of primeval earth. But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power.

The idea of voice is one that has received attention in adaptation scholarship, although it is also one that can easily lend itself to evaluative fidelity criticism (“the film has the same plot, but, I don’t know, it just fails to capture Roth’s voice…). Can an adaptation have a voice of its own, or is it only a ventriloquist’s dummy? Andrew Davies is an interesting case study: an auteur of adaptations, an adapter whose voice is known. He is the only adapter who has been honoured with a scholarly monograph (that I can think of): Andrew Davies (Manchester UP, 2005) by Sarah Cardwell (one chapter of which is freely available on her Academia.edu page). Cardwell finds in Davies’ adaptations a particular voice of sympathetic irony (115), irrespective of who the source author is. She also considers that his best adaptations are, for the most part, those of authors who have a strong voice, not because he captures that voice in its singularity, but because he engages in a conversation with them, and, as he put it himself, “sometimes I’ll have a little quarrel with the authors” (ibid.). Thus, these works become multivocal, or, to use a word that Cardwell somewhat surprisingly doesn’t use, heteroglossic.

So, perhaps the problem with Roth adaptations is that the argument doesn’t take place. It’s easy when dealing with a reputedly great writer to take their words as holy writ. It takes confidence to approach adaptation more as a conversation or even a “little argument”. A paradigmatic example of the argumentative adaptation that I have been studying (and will be publishing on in the near future) is the 2007 BBC series of Oliver Twist, written by Sarah Phelps, which deals with issues of anti-semitism, class bias, and gender politics in Dickens’ novel. I’m not for a second suggesting that this series is a model (in fact, I’m not even sure I like it very much), but it is certainly a very different approach from the reverential one we often associate with the adaptation of works of literature.

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Against Method: Why Feyerabend insists that we read Carlyle, with asides on the US Election and the Current Politico-Ideological Climate

Perhaps my favourite book of all those I have read throughout my academic life so far is Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (first published 1975; I will refer to the Verso 2010 publication edited with an introduction by Ian Hacking and based on Feyerabend’s final edition of 1993 [he died in 1994]). Its influence on me has so far not been very advantageous in career terms: a criticism I have come up against several times is that my methodologies do not tend to be very sophisticated by academic standards. It is by invoking Feyerabend, among other things, that I try to defend this: I’m not looking for theoretical sophistication; I don’t accept that thought in the humanities is well served by an insistence on theoretical sophistication. Rather than directly defend this position at this point, I will recap a few key arguments from Feyerabend’s book, which will give some indication of the arguments I try to use on this point.

Feyerabend came from a scientific background, and he was interested in progress in science. His central contention was that this progress came about not through following tightly structured research according to well-developed methodologies, but through retaining an openness to experimentation and a general looseness of approach. Feyerabend was very historicist about this point: he less wanted to prove theoretically that it was so than to show that this was how scientists from Einstein to Galileo worked. Thus, he quotes Einstein in the opening pages, on the idea that the scientist should appear as a kind of “ruthless opportunist” (2), when it comes to epistemological method, picking up data and ideas wherever he can find them, rather than confining himself to what such data/ideas as were considered scientifically proven according to the dominant paradigm.

Feyerabend describes his epistemology in the opening lines as “anarchism”, being careful also to differentiate his position from political anarchism. Nevertheless, this designation and that implied by the famous “anything goes” statement on page 12 has led to Feyerabend being rather misunderstood. One might well think he disavows all standards of truth, and is a pure postmodernist-relativist. However, Feyerabend should be absolutely distinguished from relativism. He does not think all methods are, in the final analysis, of equal validity, but he does think the final analysis never comes. The point for Feyerabend, rather, is not to prejudge. We cannot take account of all the evidence if we stick to a single methodology, so we have to keep open at all times to other approaches, even ones that have been dismissed by authorities. Handily, the edition I consult has a “Postcript on Relativism” from Feyerabend that tackles this misconception about him. Here he clarifies that he allows for rival methodologies because “there cannot be any theory of knowledge (except as part of a special and fairly stable tradition); there can be at a most a (rather incomplete) history of the ways in which knowledge has changed in the past” (284; Feyerabend’s italics). If we can never have a full theory of knowledge – at least not until the post-apocalyptic final analysis – then we have to try and stay as open to epistemological pluralism as we can.

So what are the consequences for a researcher in the humanities of a Feyerabendian epistemology? One, I suggest, is that we become very much aware of the provisionality and historicity of our own ideologies and metanarratives. This sounds rather postmodern. In theory, perhaps it is, but in practice, it is not. Because postmodernism, though allegedly it rouses us from our certainties, in practice has given rise to a young intelligentsia who are as complacent about their own positions as any group can be.  The political consequences of having an academic/press/internet intelligentsia who manage absolutely no sympathetic engagement with opposing positions has recently manifested in England in the Shy Tory phenomenon, wherein everybody in media and most people in media-run polls express a preference for liberal politics, but then vote Conservative on the day. By denying a platform to speak for persons of a right-wing persuasion, we don’t abolish the sentiment associated with such a persuasion – rather we strengthen it by melding it with a strong sense of disgruntlement among right-wingers, who begin to conceive of themselves as a silent majority, being essentially kept down by the media and the intelligentsia. This may be about to become a whole lot more live as an issue, if the Trump campaign in the US elections does perform better than expected on polling day. Then, finally, we might start seeing some meaningful movement from academics about speaking to those who are outside the loop.

So, I’m not talking about science here – and neither was Feyerabend, a committed humanist whose favorite point of reference in Against Method was John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. I’m talking about how we make sense of our own and each other’s lives. We shouldn’t do that by developing our own theory at the expense of all others, but by practicing standing outside that theory and applying an external standard of judgement. We need to engage with the Other. And here my contention is that we need – to truly step outside contemporary academic ideology – not to engage with and identify with any group we consider victimized. This would be in itself the ideological move par excellence. Let us recall Žižek here:

[T]he key feature of the ideological constellation that characterizes our epoch of the owrldwide triumph of liberal democracy: the universalization of the notion of victim. The ultimate proof that we are dealing here with ideology at its purest is provided by the fact that this notion of victim is experienced as extra-ideological par excellence: the customary image of the victim is that of an innocent-ignorant child or woman paying the price for politico-ideological power struggles. (Metastases of Enjoyment, 213)

To truly step outside contemporary ideology we must identify with our true Other: the exploiter, the non-victim, the self-perceived alpha male, the colonizer, the racist. We must seek to identify the grain of validity that must lie within any such position, even if we we ate accustomed to demonize it. And we must use our knowledge of this position against ourselves, against our own smug certainties. It will not be a comfortable ride.

Here is where Carlyle comes in. He identifies with the racist and the colonizer, and he lauds the alpha male. He hates victims and the weak. He espouses all the positions from which we shrink, but which, had circumstances been otherwise, could have been our imbibed and internalized ideology. Engaging with Carlyle is precisely what we should be doing, rather than finessing a, say, Foucauldian theory of power, as though our object were not life in its indefinable and untheorizable wholeness, but the works of a selected canon of theorists who shape our ideology and whose work is expected to yield a coherent whole if only we continue theorizing it with all our intellectual might.

And, doubt it not, even in Carlyle we will find a redeemable core. We will find expressed some issues of continuing relevance. Maybe they are not expressed in a theoretically convincing way, maybe the methodology is paradigmatically outdated, but we should agree with Feyerabend that this is not all. We should still take on these theoretical failures and “make the weaker case the stronger” (14), because strengthening our own case, on our own terms, is worth little, except in a narrowly academic sense. Something about Carlyle worked for a 19th-century readership, and we should try and isolate and recover it; we could concentrate on his failures, but that doesn’t advance our understanding. It is by engaging with the truths of our opponents, of the Others, that we advance.

 

 

Dracula Untold (2014)

Sherlock Holmes, who I’ve written on in this blog numerous times, is not the most often depicted character in screen history. The most often depicted, by a long way, is Holmes’ near contemporary Count Dracula. Sherlock Holmes has 172 IMDb screen appearances; Dracula has 520!* Both are, essentially, products of the 1890s (Holmes first appeared in a 1887 novel, but his mass popularity began with the short stories published from 1891 onwards). It is interesting to seek common characteristics in these characters that make them so enduringly appealing. Well, they’re both tall, certainly; they’re both urbane and suave; they both wear capes; uh… that’s all I got.

The Dracula I have watched most recently is Dracula Untold, an origin story from 2014. The origin story, I am convinced, is the defining narrative of our time. The contemporary audience’s need for an origin story for all characters who display any oddity at all is really characteristic of this epoch. Such a story centres around a primal scene, a single happening that explains why the character is the way he/she is. This is the key difference between Arthur Conan Doyle’s conception of Sherlock Holmes and that found in Sherlock or Elementary, as I have written about before. It doesn’t occur to Doyle that he has to explain his character’s personality, whereas modern narrative needs an explanation for any eccentricity of character.

And this we get in this retelling of Dracula. But what, first, is the great difference between Dracula and Holmes? Dracula is evil, of course. The need for an origin story for an evil character is even more pressing. Bram Stoker didn’t provide an emotional background to Dracula’s  bloodlust and amorality, but that’s not how we do vampires in the 21st century. Twilight and True Blood amongst others have habituated us to empathize with vampires: sure, they’re murderous, but it’s not their fault. They are deeply sensitive and moral beings with an urge within them which they can’t control, and which is independent from the rest of their personalities. They have become the perfect subject for modern narrative, then, both psychotic and innocent. And, of course, vampires have always been sexy (well, except Nosferatu). As Darryl Jones writes in Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film: “vampirism has always been used as a vehicle for more-or-less encoded articulations of sexuality and desire (as a way of writing about sex without writing about sex)” (Hodder Arnold, 2002, p.85).

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Max Schreck as the title character in Nosferatu (dir. F.W. Murnau, 1922)

Sex, psychopathy, and innocence: these are the core elements of the recent trend in vampire narratives. Stoker’s Dracula was an evil to be stamped out. In 2014’s Dracula Untold, we can guess this will not be the case.mv5bmtkznzi1oti4n15bml5banbnxkftztgwntq2nzewmje-_v1_uy1200_cr6406301200_al_

The title already hints at hidden depths in the character. Dracula is “more” than the traditional conception both in terms of his history and in terms of his psyche. The history of Dracula in this film is given as that of 15th-century Transylvanian prince Vlad the Impaler, Stoker’s supposed model for Dracula. Vlad was a famously brutal ruler with a penchant for the type of execution after which he was eventually named. So the film has not only to redeem Dracula, but Vlad as well. And it begins this from the opening moments. The opening montage shows young boys being whipped:

In the year of Our Lord 1442, the Turkish sultan enslaved 1000 Transylvanian boys to fill the ranks of his army. These child slaves were beaten without mercy…

Vlad was one of these boys, forced into soldiery and violence, and forever after trying to atone for these acts and to rule in peace. This opening scene of child abuse is Vlad’s primal scene, what makes him the person he is and explains the things he has done. The film is just interested enough in historical accuracy to acknowledge that Vlad was responsible for some atrocities, but he has a rationale: “Men do not fear swords; they fear monsters. They run from them. By putting one village to the sword I spared ten more.” Thus Vlad’s massacres were utilitarian, securing the greatest happiness of the greatest number: killing some to save more.

Vlad’s historical record thus complicates slightly the conversion of Dracula into a tragic hero, but not unduly. To watch this Dracula in conjunction with older versions is a study in modern ontologies of the self. From outside threat, the vampire figure has come to represent something in our selves, something that we are encouraged to find in ourselves by modern culture. We are dark, disturbed, damaged, and even evil, according to theses depictions; but we have to embrace this, and find reasons for it, in our past and our relations with others. Thus the vision of humanity here is Christiano-Freudian: the original sin of Christianity has returned in the sense that we are all consumed by dark urges; but these, though inevitable, are not innate, but result from something in our past, some dark childhood happening for which we can take no responsibility, rendering us, like vampires, guilty but still innocent.

 

*And the number of screen Draculas is increasing at a ridiculous rate: over 80 since 2104! There have been 15 Holmeses in the same period.

Zizek, Carlyle and Happiness

One of the concepts that Slavoj Zizek has frequently debunked is “happiness”. In a webchat from the Guardian from 2014, for example, he is asked if happiness is still an important idea, and replies:

Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don’t know what we really want. What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists. So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. We all remember Gordon Gekko, the role played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street. What he says, breakfast is for wimps, or if you need a friend buy yourself a dog, I think we should say something similar about happiness. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.

Zizek citing Gordon Gekko from Wall Street to back up his point is deeply ironic, highlighting the tensions in Žižek’s supposed communist ideals, but his questioning of happiness is worth reflecting on. It’s not something we reflect on spontaneously: we assume that happiness is, by definition, that towards which we should and do strive. Žižek is rather Nietzschean here, however, in his prioritization of the notion of struggle and in his allusion to masters and slaves. Or perhaps we might say he is rather Carlylean here, for Carlyle pre-empted Nietzsche in this area.

Let us consider, for a moment, Carlyle on happiness. Fortunately, Past and Present (1843) has a chapter called “Happy” which provides a convenient subject of analysis. He opens the chapter with the assertion that “All work, even cotton-spinning, is noble”. Work is, of course, for Carlyle the greatest good, and it is against this that the nebulous notion of happiness has to contend.

Does not the whole wretchedness, the whole Atheism as I call it, of
man's ways, in these generations, shadow itself for us in that
unspeakable Life-philosophy of his: The pretension to be what he calls
'happy'? Every pitifulest whipster that walks within a skin has his
head filled with the notion that he is, shall be, or by all human and
divine laws ought to be 'happy.' His wishes, the pitifulest
whipster's, are to be fulfilled for him; his days, the pitifulest
whipster's, are to flow on in ever-gentle current of enjoyment,
impossible even for the gods. The prophets preach to us, Thou shalt be
happy; thou shalt love pleasant things, and find them. The people
clamour, Why have we not found pleasant things?

This passage admittedly solidifies some of Carlyle’s flaws. He introduces the concept of “wretchedness” and then, bewilderingly, announces that he calls it “Atheism”. Arbitrary and subjective re-definition of words is a common feature of Carlyle’s prose – one of the most annoying of its features, indeed. He appears to give no weight to received definitions: Atheism has a definition; why is he giving it another one that has nothing to do with it? He doesn’t say. He doesn’t actually defend his position. He does state it quite baldly, though, and that is useful, if only to enable disagreement and dismissal.

Then we get into Carlyle’s abusive rhetoric that can, in certain moods, be quite fun to read. The “pitifulest whipster” of this extract is the seeker after happiness. This character has a consciousness of something, but it is an idealistic notion, not one with any material foundation, conceivable but not attainable: thus consciousness of the concept is productive of the very opposite. Carlyle, as he made clear in the classic early essay “Characteristics”, hates self-consciousness, so a concept that focuses us on the pursuit of our own happiness is not likely to please him. The concept of happiness produces self-consciousness, self-consciousness produces misery. Working, on the other hand, protects against self-consciousness, and thus against misery.

It is, after all, the one unhappiness of a man, That he cannot
work; that he cannot get his destiny as a man fulfilled. Behold, the
day is passing swiftly over, our life is passing swiftly over; and the
night cometh, wherein no man can work. The night once come, our
happiness, our unhappiness,--it is all abolished; vanished, clean
gone; a thing that has been: 'not of the slightest consequence'
whether we were happy as eupeptic Curtis, as the fattest pig of
Epicurus, or unhappy as Job with potsherds, as musical Byron with
Giaours and sensibilities of the heart; as the unmusical Meat-jack
with hard labour and rust! But our work,--behold that is not
abolished, that has not vanished: our work, behold, it remains, or the
want of it remains;--for endless Times and Eternities, remains; and
that is now the sole question with us forevermore!

Happiness is only allowable, then, as a function of work. And the worker cannot recognize himself as happy, for if he becomes conscious of it, that’s where his problems begin. Still less is happiness applicable to the superior persons, the “masters” as Žižek might say. Rather than happiness, then, we have two options: to prioritize the element of struggle in our existence, to always ensure that we are struggling against ourselves and the world; or to lose ourselves in work. The first is Žižek’s remedy, and it demands self-consciousness; the second is Carlyle’s, and it forbids it. By the time one has gotten far enough to actually reading 19th-century politico-moral reformers like Carlyle, one is already mired in consciousness of the plight of this world and of oneself. Forgetting oneself is out of the question. But we can still use Carlyle to question those parts of ourselves that we can’t eradicate. Maybe, even by reading him, we are keeping open a space for the possible radical transformation of the self in a post-self-conscious age. That’s something that even Žižek could get behind.

 

Generic Progress in TV Adaptations of Classic Novels

When one thinks of television adaptations, Sarah Cardwell noted in 2007 in an essay now available on Academia.edu, one tends to think of the classic serial: “relatively faithful adaptations of classic, mostly nineteenth-century, works of literature”. There is a certain pejorative edge to the use of the term, in many cases: classic serials are “conservative, staid and unimaginative”. Cardwell suggests that part of the reason the classic novel tends to find its home in the TV serial is that the serial form is a better fit than the standalone movie. TV has thus paid greater attention to the classics of English literature than film has.

Of course, when we think of a writer like Dickens, we know that he published in serial form, in itself a strong argument in favour of a “fit” between TV serial and classic novel. And Cardwell notes that TV serial adaptations have a particular aesthetic, one which brings out the expressionistic side of his work, rather than the elements of realism. Each new adaptation that appears in this mould demonstrates that adaptations adapt not only their putative source material, but also the generic conventions moulded by previous adaptations of the relevant work/ author/genre.

Characteristics of the classic serial, as opposed to film adaptations of classic novels, are, for Cardwell, that it places a “greater emphasis on dialogue, and on the slow development of characters and their interrelations” (184). She relates this to medium-specific technologies of the earlier days of TV, such as its studio-based character, involving the use of “cumbersome, heavy, and difficult to move” cameras, leading to the development of the characteristically ponderous to non-existent camera movement and high asl (average shot length) of the classic serial. Consequent upon this was a certain staginess to the actors’ movements, as they had to perform them all within a very constrained area so as not to go off-camera. It is such features that can render the classic serial particularly tedious and stilted to the contemporary viewer. The point Cardwell makes is that what began as medium-constraints that were soon discarded by other genres as the technological possibilities improved, were retained and exalted into genre characteristics by the classic serial. Cardwell’s example here is the 1971 serial adaptation of Austen’s Persuasion, a work whose old-fashioned staginess and limited camera movements make it rather difficult to watch (or at least to enjoy) from this vantage point. At this point the classic serial had decided not to move with the times, and to retain a directorial and cinematographic style from an earlier epoch.

Cardwell also draws attention to institutional factors, specifically the BBC’s Reithian objectives: to inform, educate and entertain (perhaps in that order). Television is not, in this sense, comparable to the more purely commercial sphere of film, and the classic serial was seen as the embodiment of the Reithian ideal.

But Cardwell sees the 1980s as the era when the most recognizable tropes of the classic serial were perfected, noting especially the influence of Brideshead Revisited (1981). The tropes in question are helpfully listed: “high production values; “authentic”, detailed costumes and sets; “great British actors”; light classical music; slow pace, steady, often symmetrical framing, an interest in landscapes, buildings, and interiors as well as characters; strong , gradually developed protagonists accompanied by entertaining cameo roles; and intelligent, “faithful” dialogue. (189) There’s a slight lacuna here, in that Cardwell doesn’t say why these came to prominence at this moment. She does mention the opening out of the TV market with the advent of ITV and Channel 4, but why this should have led to the increased success of the classic serial she doesn’t say.

Pride and Prejudice (1995) was both the high-water mark and the death knell of the classic serial. It was, Cardmell notes, “saturated with the norms of the genre”. This is true, but it certainly added to its appeal by the most overt sexification of the classic serial yet attempted, as exemplified by the famous Colin-Firth-dripping-wet moment. The iconicity of this moment also illustrates that the the popularity of the classic serial at this point rested above all on its appeal to female (heterosexual) viewers. Cardwell notes that it was in the years after Pride and Prejudice that the classic serial began to adopt different tropes, different directorial, cinematographic and scripting approaches. Yet, writing in 2004, the more pronounced deviations from the age-old norm were yet to come. Bleak House (2005) took the classic serial to a new place; the 2007 BBC adaptation of Oliver Twist attempted to marry the genre with the contemporary soap (using an established soap scriptwriter, Sarah Phelps), finally taking the old conjecture that Dickens wrote the soaps of his day to its logical conclusion.

War & Peace - GenericsWar and Peace (2016), with its careful colour coding and emphasis on classical aesthetics, lavish costume and beautiful sets

Yet, from the vantage point of the present, the changes that appeared in  the classic serial genre may not have run as deep as it appeared. Look at the BBC’s biggest production in the genre of this year: War and Peace. It’s got the high production values, the attention to historical detail in sumptuous sets and costumes; the use of a classical music score; the slow development; the cast of respected and established British character actors (Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson); the interest in landscapes, buildings and interiors as characters; the slow and stately direction (high asl); and it’s even written by Andrew Davies. One can easily see it as a sign of a regression in classic serials, and one may even postulate that the form of the classic serial is fixed ahistorically: it’s very point is that it does not “develop”, does not “move with the times”. Any efforts to move it in this direction are short-lived. The classic serial is what it is, and there is a significant market for that type of narrative. The 19th-century source and setting allow for types of stories that cannot be told otherwise. We don’t live as we believe they did; a 21st-century narrative involving such characters would strike us as implausible. But understanding the appeal of these narratives is a worthy goal, and would help us understand a little about ourselves.

 

Hero and Master: Carlyle and Žižek

Carlyle’s theory of the Hero no longer enjoys much in the way of scholarly repute. “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here” is not a formulation to which many modern thinkers would subscribe. Famously, of course, it enjoyed considerable currency in the 19th century, and its shadows can perhaps be seen later in Freud’s speculative account of human history in Totem and Taboo (1913), wherein primitive history is indeed controlled by an all-powerful despotic leader, albeit one who had to be overthrown and murdered to make way for a more democratic leadership. History, for Freud and other anthropologists of the era like Frazer, had been the history of Great Men, but modern history had moved away from the paradigm.

But perhaps the Hero or Great Man isn’t dead. Perhaps if we consider the more acceptably theoretical figure of the master we will discover echoes of Carlyle’s concept. The master is often associated with Jacques Lacan. As well As Lacan’s theory of the “discourse of the master”, there is also his assertion, often quoted by Slavoj Žižek, that the revolutionaries of 1968 in Paris were “hysterics who demand[ed] a new master.” It would appear, then, that even when the master disappears from history, he remains in the human unconscious, even that of the most revolutionary subjects.

And Žižek himself is very much alive to this feature of our unconscious. Trouble in Paradise (2014) has a subsection entitled “Towards a New Master” in which he argues for the historical necessity for a master. It is the role of the master to “simplify [the situation] into a point of decision” (179). Žižek is explicit that in making the necessary decision, the master is bound by neither rationality nor by democracy. His historical example is De Gaulle, who claimed in 1940 to speak “on behalf of true France” even though he had no popular mandate (and, Žižek points out, had a democratic vote been possible, the Nazi-collaborator Petain would have won it). Žižek’s point is that De Gaulle’s assumption of the master role as the one who speaks for true France was unarguably for the greater good, and that a democratic approach here would have been been a disaster.

With reference to contemporary politics, Žižek again calls for a master, a “Thatcher of the left”, as only such a figure can transform “the entire field of presuppositions” (185) and create room for radical change. It is not that ultimate power will come to rest in the hands of the master, but that in the intermediary stage the voice of the master is key. And how to produce a master? Even Carlyle didn’t think that the Hero entirely produced himself from nothing: “No man works save under conditions. The sculptor cannot set his own free Thought before us; but his Thought as he could translate it into the stone that was given, with the tools that were given.” So to help free the space in which the master may speak, Zizek insists that “we should shamelessly reassert the idea of ‘vanguard'” (185). How we do this is not clear.

But the point is that the superior individual is central both to Žižek and to Carlyle. The difference is that for the latter he is the locus of absolute power and for the former he is a sort of vanishing mediator who ushers in the revolution then fades into the background. This is a surprisingly idealistic view of the master from Žižek. Where are we to find such masters, with the wisdom to provide guidance and the humility to step away from power at the right moment? Perhaps we don’t have the embodiment, but we have kept alive a certain ideal, and a moment may yet come when it can be put into practice.

Joseph Conrad’s Unnameable Book

Conrad’s third novel, published in 1897, is named The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, and this fact alone may account for its relative obscurity. Conrad himself, later in his career, looked back on Narcissus as his greatest artistic achievement:

It is the book by which, not as a novelist perhaps, but as an artist striving for the utmost sinceity of expression, I am willing to stand or fall. (Jeffrey Meyer, Joseph Conrad: A Biography)

To the modern reader it is most familiar, perhaps, not for any detail of the text itself, but for a peritextual element: the preface, a manifesto, as it has come to be seen, for the impressionist method:

All art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its highest desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions. It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music—which is the art of arts. And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.

[…]

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.

Thus though there is an element of realism on Conrad’s work – and Narcissus has a considerable biographical element – everything is heightened so that physical details are experienced symbolically. There is not a shadow cast Conrad doesn’t elevate into something cosmic, some never-to-be-defined symbol of the human condition. Recall the insistent gloom at the beginning of Heart of Darkness (1899):

The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

[…]

It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.

[…]

The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marsh was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.

That gloom may function well enough as a realistic element, but Conrad’s reiteration makes clear that it pertains also to something within the characters’ experience during the story, and creates the impression in the reader of an unvanquishable sense of impotence and sadness attaching to human endeavour.

For some tastes, Conrad is all too insistent in his use of natural and other phenomena as vague metaphors for human experience. F.R. Leavis in The Great Tradition provides the classic statement of this position, referring specifically to Heart of Darkness:

[W]e have an adjectival and worse than supererogatory insistence on ‘unspeakable rites’, ‘unspeakable secrets’, ‘monstrous passions’, ‘inconceivable mystery’, and so on. If it were only, as it largely is in Heart of Darkness, a matter of an occasional phrase it would still be regrettable as tending to cheapen the tone.

[…]

Conrad must […] stand convicted of borrowing the arts of the magazine-writer (who has borrowed his, shall we say, from Kipling and Poe) in order to impose on his readers and on himself, for thrilled response, a ‘significance* that is merely an emotional insistence on the presence of what he can’t produce. The insistence betrays the absence, the willed ‘intensity’ the nullity. He is intent on making a virtue out of not knowing what he means.

I am quite sympathetic to this reading of Conrad, who certainly likes to hint at a deeper and darker knowledge that he cannot share with his readers. It is certainly a feature that seems to me to mar Heart of Darkness.

With The Nigger of the “Narcissus” I have come to somewhat share in the sense of Conrad’s power as a writer that so many distinguished critics, from Leavis himself up to Edward Said and others, have felt so strongly. I didn’t feel it with any of the major works, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent or Nostromo (I still haven’t completed the last). But Narcissus, problematic as it is, is also memorable and compelling.

Race

The problems with Narcissus for a 21st-century reader are significant. With regard to the title, this is obvious. Some people point out that the n-word did not mean the same in the late 19th century as it means today. This is a point that I think can be overstated. Earlier in the 19th century, the n-word was already the preserve of those with racist views. This is clear to me from reading the Carlyle-Mill debate on slavery: the abolitionist Mill consistently used the term “negro” while the pro-slavery and explicitly racist Carlyle used, particularly in later works, the n-word quite profusely. So Conrad was positioning himself very clearly by his use of the word.

It doesn’t end there, though. Conrad was, as is clear from the discussion above, a very symbolic writer. He always hints at the great significance of details. And nothing in the book is more symbolically loaded than the title character, the black sailor James Wait. A full explication of what Wait symbolizes is impossible – perhaps because Conrad himself is not wholly coherent on this front – but that he is a deathly blight on life on board the good ship Narcissus is obvious. Early in the book the narrator (a member of the ship’s crew, though no detail on him is given) describes Wait as a “hateful burden”, evoking considerations of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” which appeared 2 years later. Later, Wait is associated with lying. Again, Heart of Darkness is recalled here. The narrator Marlow’s supposed hatred of lies is one of the motifs of that work, culminating in the lie to the beloved in the novella’s final scene. Here, again, lying and falsehood become central motifs in the latter part of the story:

Falsehood triumphed. It triumphed through doubt, through stupidity, through pity, through sentimentalism. We set ourselves to bolster it up from compassion, from recklessness, from a sense of fun. Jimmy’s steadfastness to his untruthful attitude in the face of the inevitable truth had the proportions of a colossal enigma—of a manifestation grand and incomprehensible that at times inspired a wondering awe; and there was also, to many, something exquisitely droll in fooling him thus to the top of his bent.

In a way that is slightly obscure, Jimmy/James Wait becomes responsible for an epidemic of falsehood among the crew. What exactly Wait’s falsehood lies in is not that clear. He is sick, and has been throughout the voyage. But is he pretending? Or is he in fact dying? Is it his actual ill health that provokes such a malaise among the crew, or his shamming (he is later described as having a “sham existence”). None of this is wholly clear.

The disturbing thing is that Wait is not just an inferior being, but one whose inferiority is somehow dangerous and even contagious, such that his death at the novel’s end is like the release from a spell. Read through a racial prism, this seems very dark indeed. Was Conrad just tapping into the symbolic resonances of blackness as established by poetry and literature over centuries, or is there a real political content to the book? This is the difficult question a 21st-century reader of the book must face, and, as always with Conrad, there is no clear answer. Similar questions arise with Heart of Darkness, of course, and maybe if that work had such a title as the present one, it would not have such a large readership.

Conrad’s narrator

There’s a curious anomaly regarding Conrad’s narrator. Conrad’s narrator’s do tend to be shadowy characters, observers rather than protagonists. But the narrator of Narcissus takes this to extremes. He has no name, his position in the ship is unknown, he never speaks to the other crew members, he is never acknowledged by them (this is from memory; maybe he does somewhere in the early part, but if so it’s very limited). In fact, were it not for the narratorial use of “we” to describe the crew, one would imagine a heterodiegetic narrator, not a homodiegetic one. And, indeed, some scenes are logically inconsistent with a homodiegetic narrator, notably the climactic scene between Wait and Donkin, culminating in the former’s death. Clearly, the players in the scene felt themselves unobserved, so how can any but an omniscient heterodiegetic narrator have recorded their encounter? Was he hiding in the cupboard?

Such anomalies are common enough in Conrad. As was long ago pointed out, much of Lord Jim was apparently told by Marlow at one sitting, yet the length of the work renders this a practical impossibility. It is an interesting question why Conrad insisted on using first-person narration when it was so unsuitable for the stories he had to tell, which is certainly the case in Narcissus. My hunch is that it relates to the implied Englishness of his narrators. A heterodiegetic narrator would be identified with Conrad himself, and have rendered his books more identifiably foreign, but by establishing the character of Marlow or the other narrators, Conrad is impersonating the English gentleman as he liked to do in real life as well. So the reason is less narrative than personal-psychological, I suggest.

Trade unionism and Filthy Eloquence

If one can’t help thinking of the politics of race in Conrad’s portrayal of Wait, his portrayal of Donkin is even more starkly ideological. Donkin’s dialogue is rendered phonetically, his cockney accent and dropped h’s contrasting with the rest of the crew. He also spins the rhetoric of workers’ rights and trade unionism. You don’t have to work hard to show that Conrad disapproves of such rhetoric. Very late in the book (the penultimate paragraph), the narrator says, with out-of-character brutality, “Donkin, who never did a decent day’s work in his life, no doubt earns his living by discoursing with filthy eloquence upon the right of labour to live.” As quoted, it loses something, but that filthy is striking in context. Conrad was an admirer of strong leadership, such as that demonstrated in time of crisis by Captain Allistoun in Narcissus; he was not at all a believe in democratic or socialist movements.

In short, one can’t count Conrad among the political progressives. But recent readings of Conrad do tend to count him in that group. As far as Heart of Darkness goes, this works by seeing as  all of Marlow’s racist and pro-imperialist comments as Conradian irony, while taking the anti-imperialist ones at face value. This is more difficult with Narcissus, as there is no clear irony in the narrator’s stance, so this book brings us even more starkly up against the challenging politics of Conrad, even while it beguiles with its often beautiful, though sometimes, one feels, slightly overheated, prose.

 

Impure Cinema, Formalism and Relating to Other Scholars

One of my weaknesses as a supposed academic researcher – my most important weakness, I would say – is that I don’t sufficiently engage with academic research in my field, mainly because I don’t see my research as being oriented by a field inhabited by a select number of interconnected academics. I dutifully acknowledge the field, but it doesn’t interest me to engage strongly with the internecine disputes of academics, and I strongly believe that research in the humanities is incommensurably more valuable when it engages on a more general level. Such an attitude, however, does somewhat create a rod for my own back, as it were, because it means that I am never at the level of methodological sophistication that more committed disciplinarians are. My work, therefore, interesting and insightful as it may or may not be, is always problematic. A great problem for me would be if it wasn’t problematic, because this would mean that I had been subsumed by the field, losing any pretence to individuality. Aaargh!

Nevertheless, I am making a concerted effort to engage in a more sustained way with respected figures in the fields I flit around in. To this end, I have been looking into Cartmell and Whelehan’s Screen Adaptation: Impure Cinema (2010) [I always think of this book with title and subtitle reversed. The official title is too generic to be remembered. Hence the title of this post referring to the subtitle]. I read parts of this before, but only retained the Venn diagram of methods of adaptation studies, and referred to it in my thesis, approvingly, as a move towards pluralistic methodologies, of which I, following (as I claimed) Paul Feyerabend, approved. But, of course, there’s more to the book than this. Cartmell and Whelehan centralize the notion of “process”, following Thomas Leitch. This is announced pretty explicitly as an anti-formalist move (p. 1) – so much, then, for some of my more formalist efforts, such as my post on narrative functions in Doyle’s “Charles Augustus Milverton”. Of course, I knew this already: formalism is not “in” in adaptation studies. But a truly pluralistic methodology would not a priori subordinate formalism to analysis of process. If we abstract the process from the empirical form that results, are we not being too, well, abstract; too theoretical, and Cartmell and Whelehan’s own point is that adaptation study and teaching need to be brought into closer communion. Teaching adaptations will require formal adaptations, not just abstract processes. So theoretical advance, not for the first time in the history of human thought, is at the cost of wider engagement.

At the heart of much recent debate is the established centrality to the field of the literature-to-film adaptation. Cartmell and Whelehan write that “the further one moves from locating the heart of adaptation as residing on the literary/screen nexus, the more boundless and indefinable the area becomes” (12). This distances them from the more radical progressivism of some other scholars. It is a common sense approach, certainly: the field has been built on the literature/film nexus, and there is no guarantee that divorced from this nexus the field will have any coherent existence. But does it not argue also for the centrality of narrative (i.e. formalism) in that the centrality of sophisticated and sequential narrative is the thing that separates film and literature from almost any other art and links them to each other?

Cartmell and Whelehan also claim that “studying adaptations produces something new that neither belongs to film nor literature” (14). I have said similar things but – silly me – I have henceforth not cited these more established scholars as ballast for my opinions. I have tended to rely on Gillian Beer’s Arguing with the Past (1989) for these arguments, a rather left-field choice as she’s not an adaptation scholar and has not, I think, ever been used in the field. But she says some good things about how reading literature of the past challenges our preconceptions, and I add that this tension between past and presents mindsets is embodied in adaptation, where authorship belongs to both past and present, and to neither. So here I am on the same page as Cartmell and Whelehan, albeit unwittingly.

Finally, Cartmell and Whelehan note the possibility of adaptation as an act of criticism. Andrew Davies’ screenplay for the 2005 BBC series Bleak House served for them (being openly anecdotal here) as an effective criticism of Dickens’ novel, such that on rereading the novel, they found the narrative voice of Esther unbearable. I found Esther unbearable from first reading, I must say, before Davies wrote his adaptation. But in any case the idea of the critical adaptation is one I have paid attention to – again, without noting the proximity of my view to that of Cartmell and Whelehan. I am currently engaged in rewriting an article on the BBC Oliver Twist (2007), which is I think a much starker example of a critical adaptation than Davies’. This Twist convicts Dickens of anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, class, bias; it redeems Sikes, heroizes Fagin, displaces all the evil onto the upper-class Monks, gives us a black Nancy to atone for Dickens’ lack of black representation (to which I would make the point – what about Irish representation? There were many more Irish than blacks in Dickens’ London, but there is no serious Irish representation in his novels). So here, too, I think there are parallels between my approach and that of Cartmell and Whelehan. But, again,  I would question how such a reading as mine of Twist could be made without formalism. I would hope to demonstrate that to lose formalism in the shake-up in adaptations studies would represent a retrograde step, or a step into on-man’s-land. It is on the issue of formalism that I am at the greatest distance from contemporary scholars in adaptation.

 

 

Jaeggi’s Re-Thinking Ideology

Interesting chapter available on Academia.edu about the possibility of re-instating the critique of ideology in academic thinking. Rahel Jaeggi defines ideologies as “systems of beliefs [with] practical consequences. They have a practical effect and are themselves effects of a certain social practice.” She then writes, “To come at it from a different angle: ideologies constitute our relation to the world and thus determine the horizons of our interpretations of the world. Or the framework in which we understand both ourselves and the social conditions, and also the way we operate within these conditions” (64). But this second definition doesn’t seem to me to come at it from a different angle so much as to provide a far more rigid and totalizing conception of the term. We don’t necessarily have to insist that a “system of ideas”, as per definition one, serves to “determine the horizons of our interpretations of the world” – the difficulty with going this far, theoretically more impressive as it sounds, is that it won’t stand up to any empirical study whatsoever – any system of ideas we adopt or believe in won’t account for everything we think or do; it won’t determine our conceptions in any strict sense. Therefore I much prefer the more modest and straightforward first definition to the more intellectual and theoretically daring second definition, which, by virtue of its very theoretical ambitiousness, is bound to fail, its exponents expending their energies in defending what cannot be defended.

Jaeggi goes on to focus on the critique of ideology as a “critique of domination” (65). Here, again, I think she’s entering problematic territory. Conceptually, it is certainly feasible to see domination and ideology as closely linked, but contextually I think it’s the wrong move, as it will tend to place ideology in subservience to the Foucauldian language of power/domination. Foucauldian theory effectively has hegemony over this language at this point, so genuine ideological theory will collapse into Foucauldianism, rather than offer a alternative to this rather narrow (and politically questionable) paradigm. A Marxist critique can never aspire to any great position within a Foucauldian framework, because the emphasis on class relations is constantly being shifted towards questions of sexuality, discipline, etc. The task, then, is to overturn this paradigm, at least as a paradigm, retaining, undoubtedly, some of its insights.

There’s more and I will perhaps give more time to reading in detail this interesting and cogently written chapter, even if I don’t agree with some of its central premises.

The academia source (a scan of a photocopy) gives no publication details (that I could find), but I believe the original publication from which the chapter comes is:

Boudewijn Paul de Bruin & Christopher F. Zurn (eds.), New Waves in Political Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan (2009)

 

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