The Victorian Sage

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

Thesis now available on DCU database: The Unspeakable Victorian

My PhD thesis, The Unspeakable Victorian: Thomas Carlyle, Ideology and Adaptation, is now available open-access on the DCU doras platform: here, one year after I submitted the final version. Here’s the abstract:

This thesis aims to provide an analysis of comparative ideologies through close reading of 19th-century fictional texts and their 20th-/21st-century film and television adaptations, isolating similarities and differences in the presentation of specific socio-political issues. The fictional texts in question have been chosen for their display of a complex and substantial dialogue with the writings of the 19th-century political and cultural commentator Thomas Carlyle, a dialogue whose existence is established through documentary evidence and close reading of the texts themselves. By extending the analysis of these texts to their later screen adaptations, Carlyle’s ideas become a background against which changing assumptions about the human condition and changing modes of narrativizing said condition come into relief. The suitability of Carlyle for such a study is demonstrated by an examination of his reception history, which establishes him both as a virtually ubiquitous influence on the Anglophone literature of his day and as a near perfect ideological Other for a 21st-century reader in Western culture, articulating stances at odds with ideological tendencies within contemporary culture and embodied in dominant generic tropes of contemporary narrative. Relevant adaptations are considered as a form of reading Carlyle, one whose elements of debate and struggle with the ideological otherness of the text is explored using Gillian Beer’s concept of ‘arguing with the past’. The importance of a re-consideration of Carlyle’s ideas within the context of 21st-century narratives and cultural assumptions is argued using Paul Feyerabend’s conception of knowledge as ‘an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives’, wherein even failed views must be retained and re-worked to add to the content of the whole.

Quite a mouthful, no? The thesis itself is a curate’s egg performance: good in parts. In one sense, I’m proud of the fact that even in the end I was having difficulty articulating my central research question. The work was decidedly in an expansive humanist tradition: less the collection and interpretation of data than the “free play of thought” over certain narrative and artistic objects. (Yes, that’s right: I’m quoting Matthew fricking Arnold. I didn’t actually quote him in my thesis, however.) The idea of play, indeed, in terms of academic study interests me greatly. I have already spoken of the importance of play to Paul Feyerabend, perhaps my favorite theorist of epistemology (whom I did quote in my thesis). The student of sociology is directed towards the classic essay “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” by C. Wright Mills, which also emphasizes the importance of a play.

In the course of the unstructured intellectual play which led to the production of my thesis, I did not learn any great new insight into the human condition, but I read widely and reflected deeply on many socio-cultural and existential matters of importance to me. In the course of this, I certainly gained many trick and tools of academic writing – even if some of the things I learned are precisely the things many contemporary academics avoid. I hope I became more of a craftsman. I say craftsman because of Mills again, and his first commandment in “On Intellectual Craftsmanship”:

( 1 ) Be a good craftsman: Avoid any rigid set of procedures. Above all, seek to develop and to use the sociological imagination. Avoid the fetishism of method and technique. Urge the rehabilitation of the unpretentious intellectual craftsman, and try to become such a craftsman yourself. Let every man be his own methodologist; let every man be his own theorist; let theory and method again become part of the practice of a craft. Stand for the primacy of the individual scholar; stand opposed to the ascendancy of research teams of technicians. Be one mind that is on its own confronting the problems of man and society.

[Note: this edition is the most readily available online at the moment. Other editions of this essay have made the language more gender-neutral. E.g. “Let everyone be his or her own methodologist”.]

This I can at least say: I was my own methodologist, my own theorist. The flip-side of this is that it is hard to contribute to any field if you are your own methodologist.  But yet, it is, for me, hard to engage intellectually in a satisfying way if one is not one’s own methodologist. I still believe that it is better to remain methodologically agnostic and opportunistic for as long as possible, only committing to the epistemological straight-jacket of methodology when external pressures demand it. In the current academic climate they will, in the end (and even in the beginning), demand it, and only too much method (epistemologically and indeed in terms of personal engagement) will be enough (professionally). If The Unspeakable Victorian: Thomas Carlyle, Ideology and Adaptation is under-theorized whilst also being too theoretically ambitious, then take it, if you will, as a sign from an epistemological future, wherein the academic as pure vessel of method has given way to the academic who allows his or her mind to play freely over all worldly phenomena, without discipline. And recall, again, the Carlylean tagline that hangs over this blog: Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.

The Cold Distance of the Master: Žižek and Gaskell

A few months ago I wrote on the concept of the master, making some comparisons to the 19th-century concept of the Great Man. The master was a term I associated with Jacques Lacan, but, primarily for me, with Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is preoccupied with this figure, and while Lacan was primarily a psychoanalyst, Žižek is very much engaged in political issues, so when he speaks of the master, he necessarily invites comparison with the Great Man theory of Carlyle and his successors.

In In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso 2008), Žižek once again considers the figure of the master in a brief but suggestive passage, contrasting him to the supposedly postmodern figure of the boss:

A “postmodern” boss insists that he is not a master but just a coordinator of our joint creative efforts, the first among equals; there should be no formalities among us, we should address him by his nickname, he shares a dirty joke with us… but during all this, he remains our master. […] We are not only obliged to obey our masters, we are also obliged to act as if we are free and equal, as if there was no domination – which of course, makes the situation even more humiliating. Paradoxically, in such a situation, the first act of liberation is to demand from the master that he act like one: one should reject false collegiality from the master and insist that he treat us with cold distance as a master. (202)

Back in Victorian England they had masters rather than the bosses described by Žižek. Indeed, the name given to the factory owners by their employees was “master”. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-5) this relation between masters and men is particularly central. Indeed, it is a relation that may be seen as the central problem of the age, when one thinks of Carlyle and Ruskin’s preoccupations with it. But it is Gaskell who provides the most fully-drawn model of the “master”: Mr. Thornton (he is also the love interest of the protagonist of North and South, Margaret Hale).



Richard Armitage as Thornton in North & South (2004)

Thornton, played by Richard Armitage in the popular BBC adaptation, is a hard man who, in the early part of the novel, is unwilling to compromise with his workers, or to listen to their views. Just how courageously intransigent he is is demonstrated in the climactic riot scene, which takes place about half way through the novel. Here, Thornton leaves his house to confront the mob, and faces down the whole lot of them through the power of his own presence:

Mr. Thornton quivered with rage. The blood-flowing had made Margaret conscious – dimly, vaguely conscious. He placed her gently on the door-step, her head leaning against the frame. ’Can you rest there?’ he asked. But without waiting for her answer, he went slowly down the steps right into the middle of the crowd. ’Now kill me, if it is your brutal will. There is no woman to shield me here. You may beat me to death – you will never move me from what I have determined upon – not you!’ He stood amongst them, with his arms folded, in precisely the same attitude as he had been in on the steps.

I have gone into this in more detail elsewhere (and also in my PhD thesis, soon to become publicly available [which event will, of course, be announced here when it arises]), but suffice to say that the sheer masterfulness of Thornton’s personality is key both to his behaviour here and its effect on the rioters and to the development of the social element of the plot of the novel. It is not that Thornton is by any means perfect, and he has himself plenty to learn at this point, but his availability for heroic status in a mid-19th-century industrial novel is that, whatever his misjudgements, he is a true master of men. So, later in the novel, when Thornton has won back the trust of his workers and the mill is back in productive mode, there is a fine balance to be struck between genuine engagement with and concern for the men, and the cold distance of the master. This is made abundantly clear in the scene where Thornton magnanimously offers blacklisted union firebrand Nicholas Higgins his job back.

So, measter, I’ll come; and what’s more, I thank yo’; and that’s a deal fro’ me,’ said [Higgins], more frankly, suddenly turning round and facing Mr. Thornton fully for the first time.

‘And this is a deal from me,’ said Mr. Thornton, giving Higgins’s hand a good grip. ‘Now mind you come sharp to your time,’ continued he, resuming the master. ’I’ll have no laggards at my mill. What fines we have, we keep pretty sharply. And the first time I catch you making mischief, off you go. So now you know where you are.’

So Thornton here has behaved in a noble and unselfish way, but this must be combined with a rather anxious assertion of continuing mastery, which takes the form of a warning about punctuality (Higgins has caused trouble for the mill owners, but there has been no suggestion that, of all things, his punctuality is a problem). It is at the point of true kindness that the master is at his most vulnerable, his least masterly. Thornton is, throughout the remainder of the novel true to this aloof persona, even when he is engaged in work for the benefit of his “hands”.

And what is the point of this act of anxious masterfulness by Thornton? It is so that Higgins knows where he is. Here is where the post-modernist boss differs from the Victorian master: the master is anxious that you should always know your place; the boss is anxious that you should never come to suspect it. But perhaps the moment of truth must eventually come for everybody: the moment when the boss becomes a neighbour (using this word also in its Žižekian sense), shockingly cold and indifferent to us in our full subjectivity. This is a neighbor whose truth is not in the bonhomie with which he greets us on a daily basis, or even in the dirty jokes we tell each other, but in his ability to slip immediately and seamlessly into the role of pure corporate functionary, and bring the weight of this crashing down on us. Then, finally, we remember where and what we are, for a time.

Sarah Phelps’ BBC Adaptations

The Guardian published a couple of days ago an interview with Sarah Phelps, who has over the last few years become effectively the BBC’s resident adapter of literary works. She’s tackled, among other things, a couple of Dickens novels (Oliver Twist and Great Expectations), J.K. Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy (Rowling’s work was effectively an attempt at a 21st-century Condition-of-England novel), and, for last year’s BBC Christmas schedule, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The latter’s reception was, on the whole, enthusiastic, so Phelps has been tasked with adapting Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution for this Christmas.

Like Britain’s first adaptation auteur, Andrew Davies (see Sarah Cardwell’s Andrew Davies), Phelps likes to sex up her material, as noted in the headline to the Guardian‘s article. Nevertheless, her tone is a long way from the urbanity of a classic Davies work like Pride and Prejudice. Instead, Phelps often seems to be attempting an assault on the adapted authors, never more so than in Oliver Twist. In this 2007 series, Phelps writes in a stinging critique of Dickens: a critique written, it must be said, from a distinctly 21st-century point of view, concentrating on the identity politics of the novel. The novel certainly presents problems here: principally, Fagin is referred to throughout mostly as “the Jew”, and is a diabolic thief and willing accomplice to murder. Even on Dickens’ first introduction and physical description of Fagin, before we know anything of his character, we are made aware that he is somehow “repulsive” and that there is a moral element to this repulsiveness. Add to this to the identifiably stereotypical elements to Fagin’s appearance and clothes, and the spectre of anti-semitism rises before the contemporary reader.

The introduction of Fagin:

[S]tanding over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare; and seemed to be dividing his attention between the frying-pan and the clothes-horse, over which a great number of silk handkerchiefs were hanging. Several rough beds made of old sacks, were huddled side by side on the floor. Seated round the table were four or five boys, none older than the Dodger, smoking long clay pipes, and drinking spirits with the air of middle-aged men. These all crowded about their associate as he whispered a few words to the Jew; and then turned round and grinned at Oliver. So did the Jew himself, toasting-fork in hand. (Oliver Twist, Chapter 8)

Phelps is not the first adapter who has had to contend with this (see Juliet John’s Dickens and Mass Culture and Christine Geraghty’s Now a Major Motion Picture on this). But seldom have adapters dealt with it as explicitly as she does. There is, in Phelps’ adaptation, a “calling out” of Dickens on his anti-semitism, rather than a sanitizing of it, as in, say, Oliver! Phelps talks about this in the “Behind the Scenes” featurette on the 2008 DVD release:

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.

This rather strong language is typical of Phelps, both in interview and in her scripts. In line with this attitude, Phelps foregrounds in Oliver Twist the anti-semitism that Fagin (Timothy Spall in this version) faces, and exposes the corruption and sadistic underbelly of the 19th-century justice system in the figure of Fang. Fang is the crazed judge who tries Oliver in Dickens. Phelps’ innovation is to reintroduce Fang to try Fagin as well (thus following through on Dickens’ satire on law in Oliver Twist, rather than reverting in the standard Dickens manner to bourgeois morality in the denouement). So, rather than <spoiler alert> Fagin’s death being justice for the villain, it is clearly coded in this adaptation as a deliberate persecution of a victimized and marginalized figure.


Oliver Twist (2007): Timothy Spall as Fagin is on the left. Sophie Okonedo as Nancy is second right.

Similarly, she introduces a black Nancy, arguing in “Behind the Scenes” that this is a form of fidelity to history, as well as a correction to Dickens’ whitewashed casts of characters. Central to this adaptation then, I would argue, is the notion of arguing with the source text, and for this reason it is an interesting text for me. All of these canonical 19th-century texts have been done with fidelity, done with reverence. A new approach is needed. If we can’t ignore these canonical texts, we can argue with them, and Oliver Twist is emblematic of an adaptation that does this. That is not to say that it is by any means a great adaptation, but it is to say that it is a sign from the future (as Zizek would say) of classic adaptations.

Of course, none of this applies very much to Phelps’ recent And Then There Were None; nor will it apply, probably, to the upcoming Witness for the Prosecution. But it is an important element of my approach to adaptations, and will be further developed in an upcoming publication on Phelps’ adaptation of OT, of which more anon.


Model Prisons: Thomas Carlyle and Rod Liddle

A call to rehabilitate the writings of Thomas Carlyle came in last week’s Spectator, in an article written by Rod Liddle. Liddle focuses on a little-known late essay of Carlyle’s, “Model Prisons“, from the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). I wrote about this essay in an earlier post. It’s an attack on the “model prison” system which had been introduced in Victorian England, and which aimed at rehabilitation rather than punishment. As such, the regime was not as harsh as the norm. This system was also famously attacked by Dickens in a chapter of David Copperfield, in which Dickens implicitly argued that the system bred hypocrisy among prisoners, who feigned penitence to get the benefits of model prison treatment. This chapter appeared in late 1850, so it is highly probable that Dickens had read Carlyle’s “Model Prisons”, and that it had fed his own anger at the system. Carlyle’s deep influence on Dickens is well known.

So “Model Prisons”. If Dickens liked it, and Liddle likes it, it must be good, right? Well, it has its moments. Carlyle is angry: sometimes tediously so; sometimes spectacularly so. In fact, the piece that Liddle quotes is the same one I quote in the aforementioned earlier post, a rather strikingly bad-tempered description of the physical appearance of the inmates he saw on a visit to the prison:

Miserable distorted blockheads, the generality; ape-faces, imp-faces, angry dog-faces, heavy sullen ox-faces; degraded underfoot perverse creatures, sons of indocility, greedy mutinous darkness, and in one word, of STUPIDITY, which is the general mother of such. Stupidity intellectual and stupidity moral (for the one always means the other, as you will, with surprise or not, discover if you look) had borne this progeny.

So the prisoners looked like animals; worse than that, they actually looked positively demonic (” imps”). All of them! They were also STUPID – in block capitals. You can’t talk about people like this anymore, even criminals. Or maybe you can – Liddle did, after all, quote this very passage in the context of his piece on why prisons need to be made harsher environments.

It’s tempting to see this in the context of a post-Trump world: all bets are off, and violently authoritarian rhetoric that would have been unthinkable in Western democracies in recent times has become part of the discussion again. In such a context, it’s not incredible that the Latter-Day Pamphlets could finally attain the popularity and esteem that has eluded them throughout their publication history thus far.

Nevertheless, I suggest that Carlyle does not lend himself to an uncomplicatedly authoritarian ideology, even if he espouses it. The reason is similar to the reason given by Zizek for his contention that David Lynch’s Dune (1984) is not a totalitarian film. Perhaps Dune does, Zizek concedes, eroticize power. But in doing so it also “displays the underlying phantasmic support of ‘totalitarianism’ in all its inconsistency” (The Plague of Fantasies, Verso, 1997, p. 92). This, I submit, is what Carlyle does for all forms of authoritarian power, and is the reason why he has been historically read with more appreciation roughly leftist figures (from Walt Whitman to Keir Hardie to Mahatma Gandhi). Carlyle is uneasy reading for any respectable authoritarian, and never more so than when he’s vociferously agreeing with everything they hold dear.

The reason is that the quasi-sexual lust for power and control that a critic might contend underlies the politics of the authoritarian is laid embarrassingly bare in Carlyle’s writings. Following the above description of the prisoners, Carlyle enters into a passage whose fantasmic underpinnings are clearer to a 21st-century reader than they were, perhaps, to a 19th-century reader (or Carlyle himself). He’s considering whether the philanthropic notion of guiding erring sinners “by love” is a viable method. Unsurprisingly, he’s not wholly amenable to the idea:

These abject, ape, wolf, ox, imp and other diabolic-animal specimens of humanity, who of the very gods could ever have commanded them by love? A collar round the neck, and a cart-whip flourished over the back; these, in a just and steady human hand, were what the gods would have appointed them; and now when, by long misconduct and neglect, they had sworn themselves into the Devil’s regiments of the line, and got the seal of Chaos impressed on their visage, it was very doubtful whether even these would be of avail for the unfortunate commander of twelve hundred men!

Carlyle’s imagery of the collar and the whip evoked for his Victorian readers a long-vanished (or, alternatively, spatially distant) world of slavery and conquest. For us, though, such images are more redolent of elaborate erotic scenarios. Thus, Carlyle’s images are not only politically reprehensible, but also embarrassingly intimate. In the guise of espousing a strict authoritarian politics, Carlyle is actually performing a completely unbridled freedom of discourse, laying bare those very aspects of his psyche that are most unacceptable to persons anywhere on the conservative spectrum. That is one of the reasons why Carlyle strikes me as essentially a leftist figure, even if he wouldn’t have consciously wanted to think so. At some level, he was sabotaging all of his explicit politics with the very extreme form in which he irrationally insisted on espousing them, providing the very weapons with which such positions could be easily critiqued and dismissed.


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.


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 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.


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 and empirical truth that must lie within any such position, even if we we are 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).


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, 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 &amp; 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.


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