The Victorian Sage

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

Defending Lost Causes and the Redemptive Moment in Carlyle

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

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

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

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


Reflecting on Žižek with Carlyle

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

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

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

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

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


Literature: Constituted or Constituting, Superstructure or Base?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Saintsbury’s Corrected Impressions and Carlyle

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

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

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

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

Canonical Referencing in Sherlock

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

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


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

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


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

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

The wonderful weirdness of a book-to-film adaptation.

Novelist’s perspective on being involved with the film adaptation of their work. Interesting that she credits the scriptwriter with improving the work in certain respects.

Vulpes Libris

This piece first appeared on Project UKYA.

WatergateBay Image of Watergate Bay taken during location scouting for Bluer Than The Sky. Copyright Lisa Glass.

I have been mostly absent from Vulpes Libris during the past year and a half. This was largely because of book contract deadlines and having another baby, but it’s also been because of my involvement in the adaptation of my YA novel Blue for the big screen. I originally wrote the following piece for Project UKYA, but we had a spare day in the Vulpes Libris schedule, so here’s to a spot of recycling.


Working as a co-producer on book-to-film project Bluer Than The Sky (adapted from my UKYA novel Blue) has been a peculiar experience. It’s been thrilling too, of course, and I know I’m very fortunate to have a great team working on bringing this Cornish beach story to the big screen…

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Dickens’ Christmas Rubbish: The Battle of Life (1846)

Charles Dickens’ first ‘Christmas Book’, A Christmas Carol (1843), is well known. But during the 40s he wrote 5 Christmas Books in total, and the others are much less well known. Least read of all, perhaps, is the fourth, The Battle of Life (1846). This book is fascinating because nobody has anything good to say about it. In Ruth F. Glancy’s introduction to her edition of Christmas Books, Christmas Stories  and Other Short Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography (1985), she announces that Battle is ‘with no argument at all, the most flawed and disliked’ of all Dickens’ works (p. xix). Not just the worst, but with no argument at all! In Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens (1990), he notes that the tale is ‘no longer widely read, and one which even at the time drew mainly unfavourable comment’ (p. 515). Even on the book’s Goodreads page, reactions are almost uniformly lukewarm. In short, it seems that nobody likes this book, despite it being written by the most adored English novelist of all. This in itself is intriguing, and, this being the Christmas season, the time was opportune for me to revisit Battle, which I had read years ago (knowing nothing of its reception; knowing only that, unlike Carol, I had never heard of this one), and had been singularly unimpressed by, immediately classing it as the worst Dickens I had read. I had forgotten virtually the whole thing, remembering only the impression, before my Yuletide re-reading of this week.

The book gains, of course, in intertextual interest for the reader who is familiar with Dickens’ works. Reading it now, my brain starts working on the connections with other Dickens works, the thematic and characterological resonances of better-known works. Battle looks both backwards and forwards. Like Carol, it has an element of personal re-awakening and transformation. The Scrooge equivalent is Dr Jeddler. Actually, though, he’s nowhere near as mean or vicious as Scrooge; his problem, rather, is that he is a philosopher:

Doctor Jeddler was, as I have said, a great philosopher, and the heart and mystery of his philosophy was, to look upon the world as a gigantic practical joke; as something too absurd to be considered seriously, by any rational man. His system of belief had been, in the beginning, part and parcel of the battle-ground on which he lived, as you shall presently understand.


The Doctor never dreamed of inquiring whether his children, or either of them, helped in any way to make the scheme a serious one. But then he was a Philosopher.

A kind and generous man by nature, he had stumbled, by chance, over that common Philosopher’s stone (much more easily discovered than the object of the alchemist’s researches), which sometimes trips up kind and generous men, and has the fatal property of turning gold to dross and every precious thing to poor account.

The degree of sarcasm Dickens injects into the word ‘philosopher’ in this work is striking. The entire book is basically a riposte to the Doctor’s attitude. Hence the title: life is a Battle; it’s not a joke. And of course I can’t help thinking of Carlyle here, and wondering if Dickens had been reading On Heroes in 1846:

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

Anyway, bearing in mind his predecessor, we know the Doctor is bound for a change of heart. But unlike Scrooge, Dr Jeddler is basically a secondary character, and this is not the emotional centre of the story. The Dr interests the Dickensian in pointing back to Scrooge and also in pointing forward to Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854) – also an essentially decent man whose mind has been warped by too much philosophy – but the essential interest of the tale is not centred on this character.


Rather it’s in the curious contrivance by which his daughters arrange their romantic lives. Dickens is here itching at a sore that was to resonate through much of his ensuing work: the ill-matched couple and the torment a poor match can create. The daughters of Dr J are beautiful, sweet and pure – stereotypical Dickens heroines; this book is perhaps inferior to Hard Times in that it never gets round to establishing a connection between the Dr’s philosophy and his daughter’s romantic issues, leaving them as separate themes not causally linked in the plot. The relative complexity of Louisa Gradgrind elevates Hard Times over Battle. One daughter, Marion, runs away from home and remains missing and believed eloped for six years so that her long-time betrothed, Alfred, can marry her sister, Grace, because she does not love him and she believes that Grace and Alfred love each other. And she’s right, they do, and they do marry, and she returns, and marries another man who she really loves – but not one whom she was already in love with at the time of the pseudo-elopement of course: that would have rendered her scheme self-serving and devious.

This plot contrivance sees Dickens bending over backwards to legitimise and heroize the rejection of a marriage that, though not unsuitable, doesn’t feel right. Marion is effectively married: she’s known Alfred since they were children, and she likes him, but without passion. Here again, Dickens was to take this a step further in Hard Times, when it’s post-marriage that the character in question discovers his need to get away – an even more difficult situation. In Battle, Dickens’ attempt to deal with it is unimpressive: he retreats into a fantastically melodramatic plot device an uses particularly one-dimensional characters. But there is a seriousness about this book, signalled in the title and perhaps drawing its energy from this element of the plot, so close to Dickens’ own situation: gone are the youthful high spirits, humour is mostly absent. In is an increased tendency to moralize and deliver sanctimony, which one might argue to be linked to Dickens’ guilt about his urges towards divorce; as Freud argued, it is from guilt and bad conscience that the super-ego draws its power. This tension between desires/ instincts and the super-ego/moralizing was to provide many interesting works in Dickens’ later career, but in this book the complexity is not yet there, and the high spirits are already souring. Hence, I can’t argue with Battle’s place in the Dickens canon: it’s not a good or interesting work in its own right. Oh, and there’s no real Christmas element, either, only a passing mention that a key scene is taking place at Christmas – but that’s not a happy scene, so the spirit of Christmas isn’t exactly alive and well in this tale.

How to Make a Contribution to Knowledge

This is the apportioned task of all doctoral researchers. Its difficulty lies in the post-modern problematization of the concept of knowledge. We have to argue that we are contributing to knowledge, even if the argument withinour thesis involves an assertion that knowledge is merely contingent, therefore our attempts to add to it are doomed to partiality and dependent on circumstance, i.e. a postmodern argument. Another view of knowledge, which is neither the classically rational nor the postmodern, is that of Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend puts it as follows:

Knowledge […] is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges towards an ideal view; it is not a gradual approach to the truth. It is rather an ever-increasing ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives, each single theory, each fairy-tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness. (Against Method, Verso, 2010, p. 14)

Here, then, knowledge can be added to, but without the rationalist presumption that knowledge can be perfected by a singular path to truth. Rather, a new path may come into existence with any individual thesis (which is what we are talking about here), which may be incompatible with other theses, may appear outlandish and sui generis, or even plainly wrong, but yet it may be treated as a contribution to knowledge, and may have that effect.

It is the notion of right and wrong that need to be relegated in doctoral studies in the humanities. The idea that a thesis has to “prove” something. “What have you set out to prove?”, you will be asked. This, I submit, is the wrong question. It is not the proven that is of sole importance, and humanities above all need to recognise this. All world religions have been not proven, but their importance is inestimable. Marxism, itself, in so far as it was verifiable, has been debunked by the failure of a dictatorship of the proletariat to arise. The “logical force” of Marx’s argument has given way to this empirical fact, but the “material effect” of Marxism has remained massive, and its attraction to academia similarly. Feyerabend insists on the virtual inextricability of “logical force” and “material effect”, such that one should never simply talk of an argument’s logical force, but also include the material effect from the beginning – not so neat, but if we wish to understand the development of consciousness, and contribute to it, necessary (Feyerabend, p. 9). The provenness of an argument may be quite secondary. So when a humanistically inclined scholar sets out to write a thesis, they should set out, I submit, not to “prove” any one thing or the other, but to add an alternative, which then enters into play with the many other alternatives already floating round the ocean of knowledge.

The strange couplings that will ensue between this and that alternative are not wholly foreseeable, historical circumstances being as chaotic and ever-changing as they are, but the addition of a new alternative is in itself dynamic, and, even if it is an alternative we feel sure is fundamentally wrong, disagreement is in itself a stimulus – further, we do not, unfortunately, know that this alternative is wrong. The last instance in which knowledge is finally exactly defined and contributions to it specified and isolated never comes. Proof is a posture: when we analyze texts and historical moments and movements, we prove little. Only the relatively mundane is capable of being proved. To limit ourselves to the provable is wrong, and to declare those complex social, cultural and historical configurations that we study to be provable is also wrong.

We are not proving, we are simply adding, creating connections and creating the possibilities of further connections, which may or may not come to pass. Rather than trying to prove, I suggest we should try to introduce – introduce concepts, ideologies, and theories to each other. Perhaps they will hit it off, create a spark. We cannot know, can only produce the written form of our investigations. We don’t judge these investigations by their provability, but firstly, by the process as we experience it: understanding is produced by “playful activity”, Feyerabend says (p. 10), like children; secondly, by how others can work with it – can it create engagement? If we can do these things, we will be more productive, creative, and, of course, happier. If we seek to prove the improvable, we condemn ourselves to intellectual torment, we bore ourselves and others, we twist the available facts and select what we can use, we are always vulnerable – even, perhaps, to our own conscience. Only the greatest openness to the ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives can keep us engaged with knowledge, rather than ossifying in some self-validating theory that explains all the world in a certain number of pages, and closes of all of history that contradicts it. I will close with Feyerabend again, on scientific education:

It simplifies “science” by simplifying its participants: first, the domain of research is defined. The domain is separated from the rest of history (physics, for example, is separated from metaphysics and from theology) and given a “logic” of its own. A thorough training in such a “logic” then condition those working in the domiain; it makes their actions more uniform and it freezes large parts of the historical process as well. (p. 3)

Stuart Hall’s Defininition of Ideology

The most frequent working definition of the term ideology in contemporary cultural studies and related fields is the following from Stuart Hall:

By ideology I mean the mental frameworks – the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation – which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, figure out and render intelligible the way society works.

  • Quoted in John Storey, “Introduction”, in Storey, ed., Cultural Theory, p. vvii

One interesting feature of this definition is that it avoids any approach to Marxism, notable because academically ideology is traditionally seen as a Marxist concept, and is often attacked on those grounds, such as here by Foucault. But historically the term predates Marx, and its popular usage is not usually inflected with Marxist ideas, so this approach towards the popular is to be welcomed, I think. There’s no need to subscribe to Marxist tenets like base and superstructure, etc., to use ideology.

It’s notable, as well, that Hall avoids a pejorative definition. both most popular and academic usages, including Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, see ideology as a bad thing, an element of thought involving mystification and misperception. For Hall it’s just a feature of the way groups deal with the world. Rather than, say, “make meaning”, which would have implied a certain distance between things as they are and as they are seen by the relevant groups, he goes with “make sense of”, which has more benign connotations. Ideology thus becomes less critical and more neutral.

On the other hand, Hall’s reduction of mental operations to “frameworks” is problematic. Consciousness itself can’t be reduced to frameworks, so ideology, as a feature of consciousness, should not be either. It’s more nebulous than that, and the analysis of ideology has to be prepared for the multiform paths it could take, which cannot be pre-empted but only become clear in the course of analysis of a given text and may not correspond to any “framework”.

Ideology has a complex and interesting history, and engagement with this history is as important as any formal definition one could come up with. As for definitions, I tend to differ from many academics in that I think for key critical terms, the looser the better. Let the complexity lie in the analysis, not in the general theorizing or the definition of terms. To study ideology is to study consciousness; and consciousness, as we know, is the last mystery – it can’t yet be fully defined, but it can be studied with attention and an open mind.

Revival, by Stephen King

As a teenager of the 90s, I grew up reading a lot of Stephen King. As far as my adolescent reading self went, he was the Man. My impressions of his writing are mixed up with memories of staying up into the small hours eagerly consuming  The Stand, It, et al. It seems that adolescence is the optimum time to read King. This might explain why so many critics have had pops at King (like Dwight Allen at Salon): they first encountered him as adults, and were not responsive to his merits. (It may explain also my response to stuff like J.K. Rowling: I don’t get the appeal. Maybe I was just a few years too old when I first came to it.) My really intensive reading of his books was in my early teen years in the mid-90s. Later, I cooled on him, partly because my tastes changed and partly because once I had worked through his back catalogue I found that what he was then producing was not as good as the early stuff. The mid-90s saw a few clunkers (Insomnia, Rose Madder) and while Bag of Bones and Hearts in Atlantis showed King developing in interesting ways, they were followed by an unparalleled outpouring of dross (Dreamcatcher, Black House, From a Buick 8, Cell, etc.) 2006’s Cell was where the very last vestiges of my King fixation died, and I stopped reading his new works.

Still now, as he approaches 70, King is putting out about 2 books a year. Novels mostly, of wildly varying lengths, punctuated with collections of short stories. Occasionally I check in, but with no great returns. Revival (2014) is my first King in quite a while. It’s a slim-ish volume, 372 pages of fairly large print. One thing that interested me was how allusive the book seemed. The dedication page lists 11 of “the people who built my house”; that is, the writers who have inspired him. It’s the usual suspects for King: Shelley, Stoker, Jackson, Lovecraft, Machen. The blurb from Sydney Morning Herald posits Frankenstein as the key influence on the novel; the Guardian review suggests Lovecraft. I would say it’s Machen. In King’s opening paragraphs, as the narrator introduces the key character, he writes:

I can’t bear to believe his presence in my life had anything to do with fate. It would mean that all these terrible things – these horrors – were meant to happen. If that is so, then there is no such thing as light, and our belief in it is a foolish illusion. If that is so, we live in darkness like animals in a burrow, or ants deep in their hill.

This recalls a passage from Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), a story which King refers to specifically in the aforementioned dedication. In Pan, Machen’s protagonist exclaims:

It is too incredible, too monstrous; such things can never be in this quiet world, where men and women live and die, and struggle, and conquer, or maybe fail, and fall down under sorrow, and grieve and suffer strange fortunes for many a year; but not this, Phillips, not such things as this. There must be some explanation, some way out of the terror. Why, man, if such a case were possible, our earth would be a nightmare.

Both passages start with an expression of incredulity (“I can’t bear to believe”, “It is too incredible”), though Machen’s character is more unconditional, King’s more ambiguous. This incredulity is founded, not on rationality, but on what is bearable. Machen’s register is classically of the horror genre: “monstrous […] terror […] nightmare”. These are all the things that are at stake in accepting the evidence. King, too, lays on the big abstractions of the genre (“the horrors“).

Even King’s syntax and word choice changes in this passage. “If that is so” is archaic, and rather inconsistent with the tone of King’s aging rock musician narrator. “[W]e live in Darkness” evokes the biblical “we see through a glass, darkly” and, by extension, Sheridan LeFanu’s famous collection In a Glass Darkly. Machen, like most pre-20th c. Anglophone writers was steeped in biblical language (his father was a clergyman), and it gives his prose a resonance and stark power, at times. With King, though, it’s imported, and sits unassimilated in the middle of his much more homely and colloquial prose. Machen couldn’t have written like King, and King can’t write like Machen, not for more than a paragraph or so, anyway.

But those two paragraphs both set the works in the genre of cosmic horror. The genre is predominantly associated with Lovecraft, but the real establishing text is The Great God Pan, which Lovecraft, like King, made no secret of his admiration for. So similar are the philosophies underlying Machen and Lovecraft’s stories that influence by the former is sometimes imputed to the latter, simply because he’s more widely known and read. The essence of cosmic horror is not that there is a monster who must be faced and, perhaps, defeated; it is that life is monstrous, the universe is monstrous. And the universe cannot be defeated. The visible monsters are only representatives of a greater evil at the heart of life itself. That is why life is a “nightmare” and faith a “foolish illusion”.

King plays with these ideas in Revival, but for most of the novel they’re background. Like most of King’s work, there’s a great deal of focus on characterization, of community life, and so on. King is an incorrigibly humanist writer. Machen wasn’t really a humanist; Lovecraft even less so. Maybe that’s where the difficulty lies: King is too warm, too invested in his fellow humans to be really invested in cosmic horror. It’s when you don’t think much of humanity in general that horror can come to seem cosmic. For all King’s humanity, though, when it comes to the pay-off, the big finale, we know from the hints and the build-up that it’s all going to have to centre on the idea of the great horrors. The anti-climax in Revival is, sadly, risible. How can you really construct a finale that will provide pay off when dealing with ideas of such magnitude? Machen didn’t do great in bringing Pan to a climax, either. For Lovecraft, there tended to be an overreliance on “indescribable” and its synonyms when the monsters made their appearance. King barely tries, his ending is run-of-the mill, though I don’t want to get too spoilery about it.

In short King is King, and this is a superior read in the King vein. There’s some pretty atmospheric americana scene-setting, some of King’s typically laboured humour (this has always been his weak point, for me: the guy just is not funny, but he never stops trying), and a lot of nods towards the greats of cosmic horror. Cosmic horror is just the dressing, though, it’s not really what King is about. He’s got his own thing going. It’s a shame he couldn’t integrate this particular subgenre better into his own writing, but, on this front, Revival doesn’t quite come off, though it retains interest I think both as a good read all round and King’s most considered fictional statement on religion, rendering it a notably more thematic work than most of his others, while still retaining a good narrative thrust.

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