The Victorian Sage

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

Joseph Conrad’s Unnameable Book

Conrad’s third novel, published in 1897, is named The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, and this fact alone may account for its relative obscurity. It is most famous, perhaps, not for any detail of the text itself, but for a peritextual element: the preface, a manifesto, as it has come to be seen, for the impressionist method:

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Conrad’s narrator

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

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

Trade unionism and Filthy Eloquence

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

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


Impure Cinema, Formalism and Relating to Other Scholars

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

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

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

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

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



Jaeggi’s Re-Thinking Ideology

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

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

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

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

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


Carlyle in Representations

Interesting piece on Carlyle from Representations by Elisa Tamarkin. Title: “Why Forgive Carlyle?” Only the first few paragraphs provided at link, and I don’t yet have access to the full essay, but it promises to investigate one of the great paradoxes of Carlyle: his popularity amongst those who most disagreed with him, and who one might have expected to be most repelled by his violent authoritarianism. It will be interesting to see if Tamarkin ventures an answer to the question raised by Whitman in these paragraphs of what that “impalpable something” in Carlyle that provoked such admiration was.

Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station

Edmund Wilson was maybe the last great humanist literary critic. He’s now “astoundingly irrelevant”, but “The loss is not Edmund Wilson’s. It’s ours.” He was also very interested in Marxism, less in the theory than in its manifestation in post-1917 Russia. Wilson’s To The Finland Station (1940) is still as good an introduction to Marxist theory and history as one can get. It is perhaps all the better for being obviously partisan – and partisan in a particularly problematic and even discredited way, in that Wilson wrote with a great and uncritical admiration for Lenin. This makes the book flawed but none the less interesting for that.

The book is divided into three sections: pre-Marxism (Michelet, Renan, etc.); Marx and Engels; Lenin and Trotsky. It is a book of theory, history and biography. Wilson is not like a modern academic theorist of Marxism in that he never reads theory in isolation from either history or the biography of its author. I am far more sympathetic to the Wilson approach than to the modern-academic: theory without history is pointless, I insist. So, for that alone, I am well disposed to this book.

To The Finland Station does not have to be read in sequence, cover to cover. Indeed, I didn’t read it like that. The one really unmissable section is that on Marx and Engels, which takes up most of Book II. This would constitute a great introduction to Marxism, better even than any of Marx or Engels’ own works. I have said that Wilson has an undue admiration for Lenin, which makes that section rather unconvincing, but he is intelligently critical of Marx. The section follows the lives of its two main actors, stopping for detailed critiques of their works and theories. I knew only vague details of Marx’s life, but  known in detail they provide a context in which his theory becomes more meaningful. The description of Marx and his family’s life in London in the 1850s (the chapter entitled “Marx and Engels Go Back to Writing History”) while he was engaged on research that resulted in Das Kapital, Vol 1 (1867) is harrowing. Marx, wife, and four children moved into two rooms in London in 1850. Another child was born to Jenny Marx just after the move, but died a few months later, and Wilson gives a long excerpt from a moving letter Jenny wrote:

[T]he poor little angel drank in from me so much secret sorrow and grief with the milk that he was constantly unwell[…] [.] He has not slept a single night since he came into the world – two or three hours at most. Now lately he has been having violent cramps, so that the poor child is always hovering between life and death. (204-205)

Further extracts from a police agent’s report and from Marx’s letter about the death of his young son a few years later underline the difficulties the Marxes faced, living in squalor and penury.

Interspersed with such material are Wilson’s reflections on Marx and Engels writings and theories. Wilson is sympathetic, but sharply critical, too. Most interesting, I found, was his chapter on Das Kapital (the chapter entitled “Karl Marx: Poet of Commodities and Dictator of the Proletariat”). The argument of Das Kapital is based on the Labour Theory of Value – a theory which Wilson debunks pretty trenchantly: “The Labor Theory is thus simply, like the dialectic [which Wilson has earlier refuted at length], a creation of the metaphysician who never abdicated before the economist in Marx – an effort to show that the moral values which he wished to impress on people were, independently of our ideas about them, somehow involved in the nature of things.” (293) The thing about Marx’s Labour Theory is that it’s not justified in Das Kapital, but was to be fully elucidated and theorized in a later volume – but no follow-up to the first ever appeared. Marx simply left some notes at his death. Wilson suspects Marx deliberately omitted that element from the book because he simply had no argument to sustain it, and that he deliberately refrained from writing a defense of Labour Theory, leaving it for Engels to do after his death. Labour Theory, then, is “the central fallacy of Marxism” (295). Wilson’s argument is, to me, compelling, and I tend to think Labour Theory is a consequence of Marx’s increasing tendency to isolate himself among books when preparing to write, rather than engaging with history as he did up to the Revolutions of 1848. Thus, I would add to Wilson’s argument, he ends up committing the very same fallacy he ridiculed in his early work. That great early letter to Ruge comes to mind:

Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. (September 1843)

Sadly (in my opinion) Marx’s own involvement in the struggle gave way to a “roast pigeon of absolute knowledge” in the form of the Labour Theory of Value. He constructed a wondrous edifice from this foundation, but the foundation itself just wasn’t present. Thus, Marx becomes, in To The Finland Station, a tragic figure in more than one sense.

Finally, one must emphasize that good as Wilson is on Marx, he lets the book down by his section on Lenin. Here Wilson’s critical faculties desert him, and he fawns over his subject throughout. As Louis Menand’s Foreward makes clear, Wilson was clear that Soviet Russia had turned into a totalitarian state, but he blamed Stalin (hardly mentioned in Station, which ends at 1917, at the moment of Lenin’s great triumph), and refused to countenance the possibility that the development could have any roots in Lenin’s rule. Menand notes that Wilson’s portrait of Lenin is based entirely on Party-controlled publications. Even though more critical sources were available, Wilson ignored them. This is bad, very bad, and maybe it explains why the book has become semi-forgotten. But it still has plenty to offer, and was half way towards being a great book before Wilson let his Leninophilia take over.


Edmund Wilson, To The Finland Station, foreward by Louis Menand (Phoenix, 2004)

Interesting piece by Louis Menand on Wilson from The New Yorker here


Laurie R. King’s Dreaming Spies (2015)

Of all the paratexts of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Laurie R. King’s series of novels about Holmes and his younger sidekick and wife are perhaps the most highly regarded. 2015’s Dreaming Spies (Bantam Press) is the thirteenth in the series. Intriguingly, for me, the blurb announced that much of the action takes place on a ship called the Thomas Carlyle. This, I decided, must be my first point of call in reading King’s work.

First, the Carlyle connection. Carlyle’s position in the Doyle universe is established in the opening pages of A Study in Scarlet:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.


This is a very famous passage, or at least the reference to Holmes’ ignorance of the sun is. Discussions rarely mention the Carlyle reference, and adaptations invariably omit it. The reason is obvious: while unawareness of the sun’s movement still stands as a reliable index of Holmes’ strange selective ignorance, Carlyle is no longer famous enough for the reference to him to have any force, or even comprehensibility. Even those who are familiar with Carlyle do not associate him with such fame as is suggested by Watson’s reaction. For reasons with nothing to do with Doyle’s writing, and everything to do with changes in Carlyle’s reputation, the reference no longer “works”.

Many scholars have pointed out that later on in Scarlet Holmes does evidence a familiarity with Carlyle’s work: “’They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,’ he remarked with a smile. ‘It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.’” This well-known definition is usually attributed to Carlyle’s Frederick the Great, where the quote actually runs: “‘Genius’ […] means transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all.”

In any case, Holmes does later refer to Carlyle by name in Scarlet’s follow-up, The Sign of Four (1888), in a way that suggests considerable acquaintance. And, in general, Watson’s belief that Holmes knew nothing of literature is, time and again, proved erroneous, and has given much food for thought and tortuously ingenious speculation to Sherlockian scholars.

But to King. Though the early part of the book does indeed take place on a ship of the name mentioned, I was unable to discern any substantial significance in the name. It is significant to Sherlockians, of course, in being a canon reference, recalling the above quoted passage, but specific reference to Carlyle himself seems to be absent.

King’s book is narrated by Holmes’ companion, Mary Russell. Unlike Watson, she has an apparently rich inner life, and likes nothing better than to divulge the workings of her mind to the reader. Indeed, her narrative verges at times on running commentary, interrupting exchanges of dialogue and periods of actions with her own passing reflections thereon. Here we have much of the reason why this book weighs in at 380 pages, much more than any of Doyle’s stories.

Another related reason for the considerable length of the book is that Mary is much given to providing extensive background information on the places she goes and thinks she sees. As much of the book is set in or closely concerning Japan, this means we get a lot of extraneous information on that country. Doyle was famously cavalier about details, sending Holmes to Japan over the course of one line, and not even able to get that one line factually correct, in that he tells us Holmes learned the martial art “baritsu” there, rather than bartitsu. Doyle’s misspelling now has a Wikipedia entry of its own. Mistake or no, Doyle wore his knowledge or lack thereof lightly, while King/Russell cannot help parade theirs at every opportunity: divagations on the Bodleian Library, Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold, and various elements of Japanese culture are included, though they are, in many cases, of questionable relevance to the plot. A passing reference to Van Gogh is accompanied by the information that his “odd perspective and lively technique had, since his death a generation ago, been of growing interest to collectors” (293), a bizarrely general comment unrelated to the subject of the book. It is a sentence, indeed, that would be more at home in a book of art history.  A good, ruthless editor was what this book needed, although perhaps it says something about the contemporary Sherlockian that mini-lectures on high-culture play so large a part.

Dreaming Spies also performs one of my least favourite moves in the Sherlockian repertoire: it introduces the plot that goes to the very top. The integrity of the Emperor of Japan is at stake, and Britain’s Prince Regent is also involved at second-hand. This is an element of some of Doyle’s stories, too, and it is one I dislike. Holmes shouldn’t have to invoke a national emergency to be interesting; he certainly shouldn’t have to appeal to the emotional pull of the monarchy. Rather, the most fascinating of the stories are generally those set around a rather ordinary but perhaps eccentric person or household: the “obese, pompous and slow” tradesman Jabez Wilson; the irascible Grimsby Roylott and his vulnerable daughter; the sinister Rucastle household of “The Copper Beeches”; the down-at-heel Henry Baker of “The Blue Carbuncle”. When Doyle is reduced to invoking some massive threat to the government, or a compromised royal or noble in need of protecting, one can tell he’s on autopilot. But the attraction of this sort of plot among latter-day Sherlockians points to the nostalgia for a vanished order.

And this focus on royalty is really symptomatic of the universe of this novel. The milieu is purely aristocratic. The unthinking alignment with aristocracy is offputting: “Servants don’t need to like their employers – in some ways, it’s easier if they don’t – but a lack of respect undermines the whole machinery” (323). This concern with maintaining the social machinery illustrates the conservatism that underpins much contemporary affection for Sherlock Holmes, against which one would like to define a more dissident detective, had one only the time, energy and skill. To the same end is the endless detail on the Bodleian library, the repeated references to its exclusiveness and to Russell’s great familiarity with it: the world evoked is not the relatively open one of Doyle’s stories, wherein all classes could find a place. It is the aristocratic Oxford of dreaming spires, where only the hereditarily rich need apply. Revealing is the following reflection by Russell:

The Bodleian Library is one of the glories of the Western world – although, if the world (and the University) was a fair place, the institution would be called the “Ball Library”, after the wealthy widow Thomas Bodley had married. It was Ann Ball’s money (inherited from a trader in pilchards) that restored the library of Dulke Humfrey, stripped bare in the Reformation. (273)

Here is the fawning love of old-time aristocratic glory and its trappings; here the presence of pointless information that drags the novel down (this passage on the Bodleian’s history is in fact much longer than is quoted here); here also an truly asinine reflection on fairness – a cheap shot in favour of feminism, yes, but does it not occur to Russell that Ann Ball’s inheritance of wealth was no more worthy of commemoration than her husband’s marriage into it? Apparently not, and it’s the smugness and blindness of lines such as this that contributed greatly to my dislike of the novel. Not only did the novel bore me with Russell’s unnecessary background histories, but it began to actively annoy me as well.

And I’ll leave it at that. I can’t quite give up on King yet. I’ll have to read at least the first in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, to see how the whole thing began. Then, perhaps, I will have a better feel for the characters and more sympathy with them. As an earlier entry, too, it might be more streamlined and less indulgent. As the work of a younger writer, it might be less conservative and less in love with a mythic aristocratic past. Then, perhaps, I can begin to agree with the high praise this series has garnered.

Carlyle, Jung and Symbols

I have sometimes liked to suggest that the central idea in Carlyle is that of the symbol as engine of social progress, citing a few old reliable quotes from Sartor and French Revolution. The locus classicus being, perhaps, the chapter “Symbols” from Sartor:

Have not I myself known five hundred living soldiers sabred into crows’-meat for a piece of glazed cotton, which they called their Flag; which, had you sold it at any market-cross, would not have brought above three groschen? Did not the whole Hungarian Nation rise, like some tumultuous moon-stirred Atlantic, when Kaiser Joseph pocketed their Iron Crown; an implement, as was sagaciously observed, in size and commercial value little differing from a horse-shoe? It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being: those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best recognize symbolical worth, and prize it the highest.  (Sartor, III, 3)

Man works through symbols, Carlyle said. This is not wholly implausible, as any attempt to apply a rational basis to the description of human activity falls slightly short. The “enlightened self-interest” that Adam Smith saw as being the basis in humans on which the capitalist system was built doesn’t account for much of the behaviour of actual capitalists. So if we realize that a supra-rational symbol must always be at play we can bring in religion (source of some of Carlyle’s favorite dynamic symbols [dynamic referring here to the fact that these symbols produce an effect unpredictable, irrational and of potentially great force]) as well as culture, the arts, political movements and so on.

But Carlyle will only take us so far in his analysis of symbols. As is well known, he wasn’t always the most systematic of thinkers. In trying to work with symbols in a 21st-century context, one has to trace the evolution of the concept post-Carlyle. A major contributor here is Carl Gustav Jung. While Carlyle tended to talk of symbols in their socio-political roles, Jung’s analyses started from the point of view of the individual psyche – he was a psychologist, after all. But for Jung, the individual psyche has elements of the collective unconscious, so there isn’t an absolute divide between individual and group, in any case.

In Man and his Symbols, Jung states that “a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning” (4).  What this “more” consists of cannot be stated without reference to the particularities of the case. A symbol means something different to each individual whose psyche brings it forth in a dream or otherwise. Jung is rather different from his erstwhile mentor Freud in this: he’s a lot more ready to acknowledge the limitations of systematization or scientization in psychology. Essentially, it depends a great deal on the individual, and not only the individual patient but also the individual analyst:

[Dream analysis] is not so much a technique that can be learned and applied according to the rules as it is a dialectical exchange between two personalities. (44)

This is the type of admission Freud, insistent on seeing the analyst as a vessel of pure science, one who can hardly be contraverted, would never have made. Indeed, Jung mentions Freud in this passage, and it is clear how the more moderate theoreticism of Jung would not have been amenable to Freud’s visions of psychoanalysis. This passage is interesting as it shows Jung as a less totalizing and more flexible thinker than Freud.

But to return to symbols. To integrate Jung with Carlyle’s approach to dynamic socio-political symbols, we have to see how they work on the wider scale, not on the individual level. Here we come up against Jung’s archetypes:

The archetype is a tendency to form […] representations of a motif – representations that can vary a great deal in detail without losing their basic pattern.


[Archetypes] reproduce themselves in any time or in any part of the world – even where transmission by direct descent or “cross fertilization” through migration must be ruled out. (58)

So the archetype is very vaguely conceptualized, having no formal characteristic that crosses representations; all that is common is the tendency. Jung’s actual example illustrates this vagueness. It is, simply, the Hero. This seems inarguable: surely the Hero does cross cultural borders even where direct descent can be ruled out. Therefore a study of its place in the psyche is clearly warranted. And it is another point of accord with Carlyle, who, in his later career, was interested in the Hero, too: not as archetype, though, but as agent of social change and social cohesion. As the prime mover of history, essentially.

With Carlyle there is perhaps some confusion about the Hero. Is the Hero a Hero because of what he is, or of what he symbolizes. It would be naive to think that they were the same thing, as people can often be misguided as to others’ true natures: the difference is the difficult one between essence and perception. This is something that has to be dealt with carefully when discussing Carlyle, but I won’t go into it for now. Jung, on the other hand, doesn’t give any historical examples of Heroes at all in Man and his Symbols, just mythical ones, so his contention appears to be that we should tell stories about heroes, and try to embody their traits, but not identify actual empirical individuals with Heroes. The archetypes are “pieces of life” (87), but only pieces – as an empirical person you can’t become absolutely identified with a single archetype, and you shouldn’t identify others with one, either.

The question one might ask Jung is: can we divorce our way of thinking from our way of thinking about empirical others? If we centralize the concept of the Hero, won’t we inevitably start applying it to someone (perhaps ourselves)? Here we should recall Carlyle: in the early Sartor he’s a theorist of symbols; in On Heroes and all his work thereafter, he’s invested in reading real historical people as symbols: a few heroes, the rest either loyal drudges or expendable layabouts or scoundrels. Once the practice of thinking symbolically becomes second nature to us, we cannot help but simplify our fellow humans into symbols. The problems of that approach can be serious, and some of Carlyle’s writings illustrate them quite starkly. But by illustrating these dangers, Carlyle exemplifies the fact that symbolical thinking is central to how people see the world.


Carl G. Jung and others, Man and his Symbols, Dell [Random House], 1968.




Elementary (S1 E1) and the Freudianization of Sherlock Holmes

A while back I mentioned the CBS series Elementary in relation to the Freudianization of the character of Sherlock Holmes in contemporary retellings. Now I want to look a little more closely at this series. By Freudianization I mean the exploration of sexuality, the centrality of libido,the search for primal scenes and childhood traumas, the assumption that work is a sublimation, the imputation of an unconscious driving behaviour, and so on – all things that Conan Doyle felt no need to go into or to have to explain away. My point is that the Sherlock Holmes of Doyle’s stories is unrepresentable according to contemporary narrative tropes, and both Sherlock and Elementary demonstrate this. Sherlock is the series I have looked at most, but in the paper I am currently writing on this series, I will also mention Elementary, and how this series faces the same difficulties when it comes to depicting Holmes, particularly with regard to his sexuality.

It’s not a hard argument to make. Remember the first episode of Elementary? Remember the very first line Sherlock speaks? It is this:

Do you believe in love at first sight? I know what you’re thinking: the world is a cynical place and I must be a cynical man.

And he continues into a speech about how much he loves her (Joan Watson), who has just entered his apartment and introduced herself to him. It turns out Sherlock is rehearsing a piece of dialogue from a film or TV show. However, we don’t know that during the speech: he’s staring at Joan intently, and she’s taken aback but intrigued (going by facial expressions; she doesn’t say anything). Not only do we not know that it’s a rehearsal, but the reason he is reciting this speech is never revealed. Why would he be learning this speech? How on Earth can this square with Holmes’ famous brain-attic theory:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that this little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it, there comes a time when for any addition of knowledge, you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones. (A Study in Scarlet, Pt. 1, Ch. 2)

In episode 2 of Elementary, Sherlock gives a variation on this speech, so he too subscribes to the brain-attic theory. How, for a detective, can we envisage learning a romantic speech from a film or TV show to be a useful fact, worthy of a place in the attic? No obvious answer suggests itself, and Elementary never actually makes any effort to explain why Sherlock is doing this.


Sherlock declaring his love for Joan at their first meeting

So why is he doing this? At a plot level there is no reason. It’s a non-sequitur. But it sets up the theme of Sherlock’s sexuality that is central to Elementary. Unlike Sherlock, this series doesn’t claim that Sherlock is celibate. They get that one out of the way immediately, in this first scene. He says:

I actually find sex repellent. All those fluids and all the sounds, but my brain and my body require it to function at optimum levels, so I feed them as needed.

This is the official line throughout the series: Sherlock has sex, but he doesn’t like it, though the second part is not so clear-cut. Joan makes it clear she doesn’t believe that he doesn’t enjoy sex, and the viewers sometimes doubt it, too. So that is partly how that opening speech functions: making it clear right away that Doyle’s approach just doesn’t fit our conception of a man, and dispelling it.

It also introduces the possibility of sexual tension between Sherlock and Joan: how is she reacting when he declares his love for her? It’s not clear. She gives nothing away, but she seems intrigued by his declaration.

elementary Joan.png

Intimate over-the-shoulder shot of Sherlock and Joan in their meeting scene.

Maybe the most interesting element of the speech part of the meeting scene is its functional inutility. From a plot point of view, it never happened: the speech wasn’t real, it was a rehearsal; and the rehearsal wasn’t real, it wasn’t for anything later in the episode. So we have to conclude that its thematic meaning is very important because a) its plot meaning is nil and b) it is placed at an important point in the narrative: the very first meeting of the two lead characters.

The possibility of Sherlock having an identifiable sexuality is what is at issue here. Unlike Doyle, the makers of Elementary can’t see a pure distancing of the character from sexual and romantic concerns being acceptable, so they’re establishing right away his plausibility as a romantic lead. The formal meaning of the scene (it has none) is unimportant, as its experiential meaning (the viewer experiences, for that minute before we find out what’s going on, the scene as a standard romantic one [formal and experiential meaning are notions taken from Stanley Fish]) is what resonates, and what can’t be undone by recognition of the narrative insignificance of the scene.

There’s a very similar scene in Sherlock, albeit much later in the development of the series. I might write on it later, but both series are similar in needing a sexualized Sherlock while also being somewhat beholden to a source text that does not allow for such a figure. Over the course of their development, they work with this tension, but can never resolve it, because the source is uncompromising, and so are contemporary models of building character in narratives.


Paper on Carlyle and Elizabeth (1998)

Maddalena Pennachia’s “Culturally British Bio(e)pics” in Adaptation, Intermediality and the British Celebrity Biopic brings in some Carlyle to explain the ideology behind Elizabeth (1998), arguing that Elizabeth’s femaleness makes her a less embarrassing subject for such heroic treatment than a male character would. If Carlyle had admitted the category of female heroes, he might have written the script for Elizabeth. An interesting paper regarding Carlyle as it posits his ideological positioning as still having some allure, while also being too embarrassing (Pennachia uses the term “embarrassment” to describe our reaction to Carlyle on page 40) to be directly appropriated.

Freud, Leonardo, Sherlock Holmes, Asexuality


Freud, biographer of Leonardo

Sigmund Freud is a fascinating writer because of the enormous influence he has had on contemporary culture. Sometimes it seems as if our whole sense of what a human being is and does underwent a revolution with Freudian theory, and I’m not just talking about intellectual and academic discourse, I’m talking the tropes of popular culture that seem to have become increasingly Freudian. This is something that particularly fascinates me in the diachronic study I have been making of adaptations of Sherlock Holmes: it is clear that modern retellings like Sherlock and Elementary have to tackle questions about the detective’s sexuality, his unconscious, and the personal psychic development that leads to his unorthodox character, whereas Doyle was perfectly comfortable with the idea that Holmes had no sexuality, no unconscious and underwent no personal development. This is something I go into in more detail in an upcoming publication.

But it comes back to Freud: the stories we tell about ourselves are different now that Freud’s works have made their way into popular culture. One of Freud’s most compelling narratives is the essay on Leonardo, the original Renaissance Man. Freud himself considered this “the only beautiful thing I have ever written”. One thing that interests a semi-Victorian such as myself is the sense in which Leonardo da Vinci: A Psychosexual Study of a Childhood Reminiscence is a throwback to Victorian “Great Man” studies of the Carlyle type. Freud actually calls Leo a “great man” as well as a “universal genius” (in Strachey’s translation), and is throughout open about his admiration for his subject. More generally, he states that he’s interested in making biography into a branch of psychoanalysis.

A further point of interest in the essay for me is that Leonardo is a historical figure who does resemble Sherlock Holmes in one notable respect: he is, as far as behaviour goes, totally asexual. I say “behaviour” because for Freud he was a non-practicing homosexual. There’s no entry for asexual in The Freud Reader (ed. Peter Gay, Vintage, 1995), but Freud essentially did not accept the category of asexuality, speaking of the “historical probability of Leonardo having behaved in his life as one who was emotionally homosexual”. Even though he believes Leonard lived a wholly celibate life, he does not translate this into an identity, but assumes he must have been homosexual.

The first point Freud makes about Leo’s chastity and apparent dedication to the pursuit of knowledge (both artistic and scientic – he was a real Renaissance Man and just because we think of him as first and foremost and artist does not mean that he dedicated himself more to art than to science) is that it was a sublimation. This is one of Freud’s key ideas, especially from the point of view of a literary scholar. It occurs when the sexual libido that Freud sees as the fundamental drive of a human (ignoring the later development of the death drive for the moment) is sidelined into any activity, and it is fundamental to Freud’s understanding of writers, artists, scientists, etc.

The methodological importance of sublimation for Freud is that it immediately leads to a question: why? Sublimation is not a natural occurrence, but only takes place in culture, and always in response to a certain circumstance. In recreating such occurrences Freud is at his most audacious, creating psychic lanscapes with a verve and a sweep of vision that impresses, even if it doesn’t always convince. For a self-declared scientist, Freud tends to go far beyond what the evidence warrants. But that is a familiar complaint – it’s important, but the simple effectiveness of Freud’s theories in the marketplace of ideas demands we don’t limit our analysis of them to the scientific truth they contain.

So, regarding Leo, why did he sublimate his sexuality into the pursuit of knowledge? Almost nothing is known of his childhood, but one of his notebooks contains an account of a childhood dream, too complicated to get into here, which Freud reads with great ingenuity to posit that Leonardo’s father was absent during his early childhood. (Leo was illegitimate, but the evidence, such as it is, suggests he lived with his father – Freud acknowledges this evidence, but nevertheless feels that his reading of the dream trumps it.) Freud further posits that Leo’s mother was sexually frustrated and developed an overly intense and eroticized bond with her young son. Because Leo came to desire his mother, he also wanted to replace or gain ascendency over his father. The rebellion against the father Freud apparently sees as central to all intellectual achievement: “His later scientific research, with all its boldness and independence, presupposed the existence of infantile sexual researches unintibited by the father, and was a prolongation of them with the sexual element excluded.” So the absence of the father is necessary for the development of an independent intellect. It is often said that Freud’s thinking is infected with misogyny. That is a point that can be convincingly made, but one should also note that his attitude to the father seems to place men in a particularly invidious position, as a dark, brooding and stultifying presence contrasted with the erotically tinged nurturance of the mother.

So Freud’s theory of how Leonardo came to be a genius and a (theoretical) homosexual is one based entirely on nurture, not taking nature into the equation at all. In some ways it seems inadequate, given that even if Freud’s presuppositions about Leo are right, his circumstances are not that unusual. But Freud’s model of explaining how genius came to be, and particularly the childhood family circumstances, are now the norm. Thus in Sherlock, the relationship of rivalry and ambivalence with the older brother and quasi-father (Mycroft) has taken centre stage, and season 3 also saw the “Redbeard” motif introduced, wherein Sherlock’s childhood love for a pet dog that died is introduced as an implied reason for his asociality/aromanticism/asexuality. For Doyle, Sherlock’s family background was irrelevant, and is never mentioned, though Mycroft does enter into a couple of stories, mainly as a plot device. But why not go the whole hog, and use the Leonardo essay as a basis for a full Freudian explanation of Holmes’ character and his genius: absent father, over-affectionate mother, repression of sexual love for the mother, sublimation into work, remaining libido directed towards other men etc. Elements of this narrativization of the character are found in Elementary and Sherlock, as if they adapt not only Doyle, but also Freud.

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