The Victorian Sage

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

Dracula Untold (2014)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Zizek, Carlyle and Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Generic Progress in TV Adaptations of Classic Novels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hero and Master: Carlyle and Žižek

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Conrad’s Unnameable Book

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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.


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