The Victorian Sage

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

Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942): Victorianism and Knowing One’s Place

Some months ago I wrote on Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, suggesting that it was a middle-class revenge fantasy aimed against the hedonistic youth of the day, and noting that Christie’s ire seemed to be particularly directed against the figure of the attractive, party-loving young woman. On recently reading Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942), I was again struck by Christie’s use of the figure of the attractive and sexually available young woman, and, in the context of my previous reading of Christie, the particular animus the author seems to feel for this figure, so at odds with the conception of Christie as a cool and unemotional writer, one concerned with bringing the detective genre to “geometrical perfection“, as Tzvetan Todorov put it. In many ways, this conception is not inaccurate, but still Christie’s books are not without anger and hostility.

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Five Little Pigs (HarperCollins, 2207)

In Five Little Pigs, Hercule Poirot undertakes to investigate a 16-year-old case: the murder of the painter Amyas Crale, for which his wife Caroline was convicted. An open-and-shut case, it seemed at the time, for Caroline never publicly protested her innocence, and she died shortly after being sentenced to life imprisonment. Caroline’s motive was said to be Amyas’ affair with his young model Elsa Greer – now Lady Dittisham. All very satisfactory, but Poirot becomes convinced Caroline was innocent. In his conviction he turns out, of course, to be correct.

Before turning to the figure of Elsa Greer, it is worth defining the philosophical and ideological position from which Christie seems to condemn this character. This position is, in a word, Victorianism. This is articulated in the description of the governess character, Miss Williams, another potential suspect.

Nevertheless, to Poirot’s eye, there was no despondency there and no sense of failure. Miss Williams’ life had been interesting to her – she was still interested in people and events. She had the enormous mental and emotional advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing denied to us in these days – she had done her duty in that station of life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret. (HarperCollins, 2007, p. 185)

Who speaks here? That opening to Poirot’s eye indicates that the passage is a piece of interior focalization. But it doesn’t sound like Poirot. We can’t imagine him saying these pious words. It is either Poirot or the narrator themselves – in either case, there is a definite weight to this opinion. Christie’s narrator’s are rarely unreliable; Poirot even more rarely. In the context of Elsa’s character, the concept the narrator/Poirot introduces here of knowing one’s place becomes key.

In fact, we’ve already found that Elsa Greer/Lady Dittisham is linked to social mobility – of not knowing, but creating your place. She tells Poirot early on: “My father, you know, was a mill hand. He worked his way up and made a fortune” (152). This is a significant fact for Poirot, for just a few pages later: “He smiled very faintly. In her voice was the arrogance of the successful mill hand who had risen to riches” (157). This is pretty brutal. No sooner is the admission of humble birth made, than it becomes an index of Elsa’s character flaws. Later, another character writes: “All the veneer of refinement and education was stripped off. You could see her father and her father’s mother and father had been millhands” (227). Elsa did not know her place, as her father had not, but even when she seems to have escaped her lowly upbringing, she is at any moment capable of giving herself away. This not knowing your place is also a modern – that is, not Victorian – characteristic, for Elsa herself is described as a girl “who went in for being modern” (121).

What Elsa is not, is a gentlewoman. It is the anti-Elsa, Miss Williams, who articulates this most clearly when she details the struggle between Elsa and Caroline over Amyas Crale:

Miss Greer’s manner had been unbearably insolent the last few days. She was feeling sure of herself and she wanted to assert her importance. Mrs Crale behaved like a true gentlewoman. She was icily polite, but she told the other clearly what she thought of her. (264)

Here we have the essence of gentility: icy politeness to the unacceptable other, to the social interloper. Once we know this – Elsa’s social defeat by Caroline – there is perhaps an inevitability to the solution. Caroline didn’t kill Amyas; Elsa did. He was, of course, about to dump her to reclaim his marriage to the gentlewoman Caroline. For how could a man of such talent and culture, even an egotistical one like Amyas, choose the classless Elsa? To a degree unusual in Christie books, the solution here seems less a dispassionately crafted puzzle and more the inevitable result of an ideological bias. Knowing what we know of Elsa and Caroline, how could the book end but with the defeat and unmasking of the millhand’s daughter?

Poirot, like Sherlock Holmes, before him, did not always punish the guilty. And so it was here. He confronts ex-Elsa, now Lady Dittisham:

“Do you think I care in the least what my husband would feel?”

“No, I do not. I do not think you have ever in your life cared about what any other person would feel. If you had, you might be happier.”

She said sharply: “Why are you sorry for me?”

“Because, my child, you have so much to learn.”

“What have I got to learn?”

“All the grown-up emotions – pity, sympathy, understanding. The only things you know – have ever known – are love and hate.” (334-5)

And so Lady Dittisham walks free. The characterization of the working class as lawless children without the discipline or understanding to govern themselves, a feature of Victorians like Thomas Carlyle, haunts this passage. Elsa/Lady Dittisham is not a real adult, and those things she has yet to learn, she will never learn them. We have already seen that you cannot learn these things. Elsa had only one lesson to learn, and that was the same one Miss Williams learned: know your place. She did not learn it, and the consequences were tragic. That is the ideological lesson of Christie’s severe moral drama, her tribute to Victorian paternalism and protest against the modern, socially mobile young woman.


Death of Democracy and Rebirth of Aristocracy in Doyle’s The Poison Belt (1913)

In my last post on The Poison Belt (1913), I wrote as follows:

That all death including mass death should be looked on with equanimity is the thrust of the book. Indeed, had it been published a year or two later I would be sorely tempted to see it as a propaganda exercise justifying and glorifying WWI. Each time Doyle writes of the beauty of his armageddon it seems as if he is talking about the near future, about the wholesale slaughter of the trenches that was just around the corner, as if he is trying to convince the reader and himself that it is all for the best.


Reading Belt, it seems that there was already something in the air, that Europe could see it coming, and was bracing itself for death on a wider scale than had ever been seen. Think of this novel as a straw in the wind, a demonstration of Raymond Williams’ concept of the structure of feeling, which is given expression in literature before becoming an acknowledged part of the general experience.


That point has since recurred to me in connection with another passage from the book, a particularly revealing one, I think, and one that has stayed with me more than any other from The Poison Belt. In this passage, Challenger, his wife, Roxton, Malone, and Summerisle are sealed into the former’s house, awaiting the death of everyone outside. Most of the people who are to die are at a great distance, but one is close by and in plain sight: Challenger’s chauffeur, Austin. Austin has already appeared in the book; he has been depicted as loyal and wholly devoted to Challenger. The discussion about him that I wish to discuss is as follows:

“By George, that poor devil of a chauffeur of yours down in the yard has made his last journey. No use makin’ a sally and bringin’ him in?”

“It would be absolute madness,” cried Summerlee.

“Well, I suppose it would,” said Lord John. “It couldn’t help him and would scatter our gas all over the house, even if we ever got back alive. My word, look at the little birds under the trees!” (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt, Hesperus, 2008, 46)

And that’s that. They don’t bring him in, and he soon dies – or seems to at least. Why, then, has Challenger made no effort to save the life of his loyal servant of ten years’ standing? It’s not that he is wholly indifferent to the death of humanity. He has tried to warn them in a letter to the Times which was, of course, ignored. If he cannot perform the heroic duty of saving the whole world, then can he not at least fulfil the Carlylean dictum: “Do the duty which lies nearest thee.” The duty that lies nearest is saving the life of Austin, and Challenger has made no effort to do this. It seems not to have even occurred to him until now, when Roxton mentions in somewhat dismissive terms, inviting the rejection of the idea that arrives. Why?

It is obvious from reading the discussion of Austin, and from reading between the lines of the situation, that for Doyle’s characters there are two grades of human, and their lives are of different values. The classifying principle is, well, class. The working class and the gentleman’s class: Challenger, Roxton and Summerisle are all titled persons. Malone is not, but is a writer, and, as such, Doyle attributes him a dignity equating to that of Professors and Lords. We must recall Carlyle, a particular favourite of the young Doyle, here. Of the Man of Letters, Carlyle had written: “he is the light of the world; the world’s Priest;—guiding it, like a sacred Pillar of Fire, in its dark pilgrimage through the waste of Time.” So Doyle’s protagonists – Professors, Lords and Men of Letters – are the true elite, the aristocracy of talent as well as, for the most part, of title, the men worthy of inaugurating that new world that Doyle longs for.

Austin, representative of the untalented herd, must die. Doyle’s apocalypse is thus revealed as a class purge, leaving behind 20th-century democracy for a return to a primitive patriarchy under Challenger. His dominance is emphasized by the fact that only he is allowed a female companion. It is like the Primal Horde of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. It is a rejection of democratic tendencies for a return to history as the vehicle of Great Men.

And to complete our analysis here, we must again remember that the book was a straw in the wind, that it anticipated the slaughter of the WWI trenches, and that Doyle himself was to welcome that conflict, enlisting Sherlock Holmes, no less, as a vehicle for propaganda. In the famous closing lines of the Holmes story “His Last Bow”, the Great Detective, having just captured a German spy, proclaims:

There’s an east wind coming […], such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared

Even before the Great War began, I maintain, Doyle was in The Poison Belt considering with a sort of joy the regeneration of the world, the sacrifice of the herd, and the birth of a new aristocracy from the ashes of democracy. This was the cleaner, better, stronger land into which Challenger and his companions were almost born.

Heroism, Conventionality and Living with Death: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt (1913)

My last post was on John Buchan’s gripping WWI propaganda thriller, Greenmantle (1916), and this review deals with that book’s near contemporary The Poison Belt (1913) by Arthur Conan Doyle. Another thing that Belt and Greenmantle have in common is the status of sequel – sequel, in both cases, to a much better known novel. While Greenmantle had The 39 Steps for a precursor, Belt, a slim novella in form, follows on from The Lost World (1912), Doyle’s famous tale of explorations in the South American jungle leading to the discovery of a dinosaur-inhabited plateau. It is a sequel in the sense of characterological continuity: Professor Challenger, Lord John Roxton, Edward Malone (the narrator) and Professor Summerlee are once again the protagonists, together again for the first time since their jungle adventures.


I placed the four protagonists in that particular order because there is an implicit hierarchy in Doyle’s character dynamics. Challenger is obviously the leader of the group, a domineering, blustering man whose intuitions and theories always turn out to be right. It is he who sets the plot in motion by calling his erstwhile companions to his dwelling with variations on the following telegraph:

Malone, 17 Hill Street, Streatham. – Bring oxygen. – Challenger. (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt, Hesperus, 2008, 9)

The peremptory and terse nature of Challenger’s communication recalls Holmes’ famous telegraph to Watson in “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” (1923):

Come at once if convenient – if inconvenient come all the same. – S.H.

Watson does come, of course, and so does Malone (with a canister of oxygen). So the Challenger-Malone dynamic echoes the Holmes-Watson dynamic, involving boundless admiration and unquestioning obedience on one side, an unreflective assumption of superiority on the other. On their first meeting in Belt, Malone writes:

He gave me the amused handshake and encouraging smile which the headmaster bestows upon the small boy. (17)

In our unheroic days, an adult putting himself in the position of a small boy with regard to another man is odd, but one can’t have a Hero without followers who follow unquestioningly.


Challenger in an illustration from the first publication of The Poison Belt 

Challenger isn’t exactly Holmes, though. He’s much more obnoxious. He’s overbearing and pigheaded, as well as pompous and conceited. But, on the other hand, he’s always right, so he gets away with his bad behaviour. Challenger is a much later creation than Holmes (first appearance 1912 as opposed to 1887), and the change in Doyle’s conception of heroism probably relates to his own personal progression from a young single man, struggling to make ends meet on the margins of two professions (doctor and writer) to wealthy, highly respected country squire and paterfamilias. Where once heroism came couched in the fin-de-siecle bohemianism of the detective, now it is a characteristic of the blustering and autocratic country gentleman. Holmes’ indifference to his relationships with others is replaced by Challenger’s demands for obedience. Unlike Holmes, Challenger is married, and he treats his wife like a child (into which role she slips with great enthusiasm in Doyle’s characterization). There is a certain conventionality about Challenger’s situation (also as a Professor, he’s an establishment figure, which Holmes isn’t) that makes him less attractive and less worthy, one might feel, of Hero-worship.

Once the Professor has all his friends together, he informs them that the earth has entered the eponymous poison belt, which explains the odd behaviour that everybody has been exhibiting. In fact, the “ether” has been poisoned and everybody’s going to die. That’s what’s the oxygen’s for, so Challenger, Roxton, Malone and Summerbee can counteract the effects of the poison, for a while, at least. The plan is to watch everybody else die from Challenger’s hilltop residence and then prepare themselves for a dignified exit.

Insofar as Belt is a novel of ideas, the main idea is that of the beauty of death. Death, as Challenger expostulates, and the others come to agree, is not the end:

“The physical body has rather been a source of pain and fatigue to us. It is the constant index of our limitations. Why then should we worry about its detachment from our psychical selves?” (53)

That all death including mass death should be looked on with equanimity is the thrust of the book. Indeed, had it been published a year or two later I would be sorely tempted to see it as a propaganda exercise justifying and glorifying WWI. Each time Doyle writes of the beauty of his armageddon it seems as if he is talking about the near future, about the wholesale slaughter of the trenches that was just around the corner, as if he is trying to convince the reader and himself that it is all for the best. Towards the end, he writes:

Surely we are agreed that the more sober and restrained pleasures of the present are deeper as well as wiser than the noisy, foolish hustle which passed for enjoyment in the days of old. (88)

Doyle was, it seems, more influenced by his own notoriously credulous spiritualist beliefs than anything else. With the advent of war, however, Belt became timely in a way that its author apparently did not predict. Here was the armageddon Doyle’s characters had longed for. Reading Belt, it seems that their was already something in the air, that Europe could see it coming, and was bracing itself for death on a wider scale than had ever been seen. Think of this novel as a straw in the wind, a demonstration of Raymond Williams’ concept of the structure of feeling, which is given expression in literature before becoming an acknowledged part of the general experience.

Wartime Propaganda in Buchan’s Greenmantle (1916)

John Buchan is best known today for his spy novel (in terms of length more of a novella, really) The 39 Steps (1915), or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he is remembered for authoring the source novel to Hitchcock’s famous film The 39 Steps (1939). He also wrote several other popular novels, one of the most popular being Greenmantle (1916), which was the sequel to Steps, featuring the same protagonist, Richard Hannay. Hitchcock wanted to direct Greenmantle, too, but couldn’t agree terms with the copyright holders. Thus it has become far less known and less read than its predecessor, though it is certainly a fine read in itself.

Greenmantle was published during World War I, and it is also set in said conflict. Buchan saw the writing of the book as part of his contribution to the war effort. It was, in short, intended partially as propaganda. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps. No less a work than the film Casablanca (1942), for example, was conceived as propaganda.

At the beginning of Greenmantle, Hannay has returned from a stint as an officer in the trenches, where he took his soldiers over the top on a “glorious and bloody 25th day of September” (Buchan, Greenmantle, Penguin, 2008, 1). Hannay reflects with pride and enthusiasm on the Western Front, reminding us that this book was written relatively early in the war, just before the glorification of the wartime experience became very difficult. Indeed, shortly afterwards Hannay does give some voice to the disillusionment with war that had begun to set in: “[T]his isn’t just the kind of war I would have picked myself. It’s a comfortless, bloody business” (3). In other parts of the book, too, it is clear that the old jingoistic love of war is becoming frayed at the edges.

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For both commercial and propagandistic purposes, war has to be made fun in Greenmantle. Buchan recognized that trench warfare wasn’t fun and even his narrative gifts couldn’t convincingly make it so. So at the outset, Hannay has just left the trenches and is about to engage in wartime espionage. In the James Bondian opening (the comparison is inevitable), Hannay is told that his mission is to head for the Middle East and find out what the Germans (or Boche, as they’re often known in the novel) are up to. Sir Walter Bullivant of the Foreign Office (also seen in Steps) calls Hannay in: he knows that the Germans are cooking up some secret plan involving the Middle East, but he doesn’t know what it is or where to look for information. It’s all very vague, and the detail seems very much in the tradition of what Hitchcock would call the McGuffin – the device whose content is less important than the fact that it allows the plot to move forward. In Greenmantle this means opening the way for travel in farflung and wartorn lands, for brushes with the enemy/death, and for adopting disguises.

Perhaps it is this latter that is the most potentially interesting motif in Greenmantle: the joy and freedom the characters experience when in disguise may point to a certain ontological insecurity hiding behind the mask of pure identification with English manhood that Hannay exhibits. Brave, modest, self-denying, self-regulating, devotedly patriotic, it’s not an easy ideal to live up to. No wonder Hannay and his friends enjoy make-believe so much. Of course the propensity to become other people is given a somewhat crass ideological justification:

We call ourselves insular, but the truth is that we are the only race on earth that can produce men capable of getting inside the skin of remote peoples. (23)

At this early point in the book, the whole Middle Eastern operation is rather delicate, propagandistically, as the patriotic Hannay can’t be seen to be escaping the trenches in undertaking his mission. So he demurs, and has to be talked round to the idea that he can best serve his country away from the front lines. But talked round he is, and once the protagonist’s unimpeachable wartime patriotism is firmly established, the narrative can begin in earnest.

Hannay establishes his band of brothers: a Scot, a Boer, and a loquacious and slightly blustering American. This bond between British and American was particularly important at the time, as American entry into the war was still hoped for, and did eventually transpire. On the other side are, of course, the Germans, and later the Turks. Buchan’s treatment of the enemy is quite nuanced. One recalls Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903), wherein an evident admiration for the German national character exists alongside an insistence on seeing them as an intolerable threat to British security and dominance. Buchan has a similar admiration, but at the same time a commitment to locating a decisive flaw in the German character. When he first meets the villain von Stumm, Hannay confusedly notes:

 Here was the German of caricature, the real German, the fellow we were up against. (57)

Paradoxically, the caricature is equated with the real, with the implication that Germans who do not correspond to the caricature are not real Germans. Kaiser Wilhelm II appears briefly and is portrayed with overt sympathy. Along with Hannay’s semi-sympathetic stance towards the Germans is a perhaps more surprising sympathy with the Turks: “I took a fancy to the Turkish fighting man: I remembered the testimonial our fellows gave him as a clear fighter, and I felt very bitter that Germany should have lugged him into this dirty business.” (240) Hannay is not a xenophobe, though he is a racist (as shown in the quote above about “the only race who etc.”). He doesn’t hate the enemies of his country, and that element of generous mindedness is a positive in Greenmantle.

So Buchan does not aim at the easy targets in this book. Nevertheless, he does ultimately make some approaches to the standard propagandist aim of presenting an embodiment of evil in the political enemies of the protagonists. Here is where national politics and gender politics become merged, for Buchan here introduces a female character, one of only two female characters in the book, and by far the most important (none of the protagonists’ are married, it seems). It is because women are so far removed from the everyday milieu of the characters that Buchan is able to ascribe to the one who does play a significant role a metaphysical significance:

She’s a she-devil. It isn’t madness that’s wrong with her. She’s as sane as you and as cool as Bleniron. Her life is an infernal game of chess, and she plays with souls for pawns. She’s evil – evil- evil… (282)

The overheated prose here contracts with most of the rest of the book, and recalls the feminized evil of fin de siecle works like Machen’s The Great God Pan. It’s a trope that jars somewhat in the context of Buchan’s espionage thriller with its realistic detail and understated emotional landscape. On the other hand, the evil of the enemy has to be embodied to create effective propaganda, and Buchan evidently found in easier to ascribe evil to a feminine figure.

There’s much more to Greenmantle than this, though. I mentioned earlier that there is one other female figure: that is the sympathetic German woman whose house the fleeing Hannay stumbles upon and who gives him shelter and sustenance. She prompts him to reflect as follows:

That night I realized the crazy folly of war. When I saw the splintered shell of Ypres and heard hideous tales of German doings, I used to want to see the whole land of the Boche given up to fire and sword. I thought we could never end the war properly without giving the Huns some of their own medicine. But that woodcutter’s cottage cured me of such nightmare. I was for punishing the guilty but letting the innocent go free. (121)

Sure, Hannay doesn’t by any means go so far as to question the righteousness of his country’s cause, but there is still a humanity that permeates the book and that gives it a value beyond the propagandistic. Even now, Greenmantle is a good read, one whose ulterior motives are counterbalanced by a breezy and straightforward narrative style and an outlook without the insularity or dogmatism one might associate with British imperial literature.

Imagining the Detective in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and Sherlock (2010- )

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970, dir. Billy Wilder) went relatively unnoticed on its first release, but has gone on to become one of the most admired screen narratives featuring Doyle’s great detective. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, co-writers and -producers of Sherlock, have been vocal in their admiration for the film, and in acknowledging its influence on their series.


The title of the film announces the specific project it takes on: the depiction of the private life of Doyle’s character. This is a character who, in earlier versions, doesn’t have a private life, who is defined by his lack of private life. He lives only to detect:

I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix. (“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone”)

His dedication to his work is absolute. It is not just in action that he is devoted to his work, but in thought, too. It possesses his mind to the full. Only in the absence of work does he develop a sort of humanity, a human-all-too-human dependence on cocaine.

But Private Life overturns this character, and interrogates the standard depiction of Holmes. It is the Freudian conception of character, as I have discussed before. What is Holmes really like? What urges underlie his desperate compulsion for work? This question of Holmes’ private self is fundamental to Sherlock and Elementary, but it is in this film that it gets its first substantial treatment. Holmes’ drug use is alluded to several times from the beginning of the film, as well as his standard rationale for it:

[HOLMES] My dear friend — as well as my dear doctor — I only resort to narcotics when I am suffering from acute boredom — when there are no interesting cases to engage my mind.


[WATSON (VOICEOVER)] Naturally, I don’t mean to imply that my friend was always on cocaine — sometimes it was opium, sometimes it was hashish. And once he went one of these dreadful binges, there was no telling how long it would last.

As well as introducing Holmes’ drug use, the opening conversation between Holmes and Watson sets up several threads that would later be woven into Sherlock. These include:

  1. Holmes’ complaints about Watson’s “tendency to over-romanticize” his cases when writing them down. This is also found in Doyle, but Private Life takes it further, and also extends it to complaints about the illustrations in the stories, which depict Holmes wearing a “ridiculous costume” which the public now expects Holmes to wear. This latter idea is lifted wholesale into Sherlock episode “The Abominable Bride”.
  2. Mrs. Hudson’s more outspoken character. In Doyle, she meekly accepts Holmes’ eccentricities, but in Private Life, she has a somewhat sharper tongue. For example, in the opening scene, Holmes’ famous paper on 140 types of ash is mentioned, prompting Mrs H. to sarcastically interject, “I’m sure there’s a crying need for that.” Sherlock really runs with that in their Mrs Hudson character. The day of the meekly loyal serving class in narratives of pop culture is gone, alas.

Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) in Sherlock

There is also an amusing suggestion by Watson that Holmes has only moved in with him to get access to drugs. This is one suggestion that Sherlock has not used. In fact, Sherlock is merely a former cigarette smoker now using nicotine patches in the series.

A plot begins to form in the next sequence of Private Life, when Holmes and Watson go to the Russian Royal Ballet performance of Swan Lake. After the performance, Holmes is invited for an audience with its star, a lady known as The Great Petrova. She has a proposition for him: she wants to have a child, and she has chosen him as a suitable partner because he is a genius. How does Holmes respond to this? How would Holmes respond? This is a question that Private Life tries to answer, and that in different formulations would go on to be central to Sherlock.

But, on the whole, Private Life does not live up to its title. Roger Ebert’s review of the film concludes:

Before the movie is 20 minutes old, Wilder has settled for simply telling a Sherlock Holmes adventure.

I think Ebert’s line is basically accurate. Wilder in a sense plays on the word “private”. The early part of the film promises an exploration of a putative hidden side of Holmes’ psyche. The latter part locates the private nature of the story in the standard Doylean device of invoking secrets of great national importance, involves royalty and top government officials, etc. Wilder didn’t quite have the tropes available to tell the story he apparently wanted to tell. In many ways, it is this story, the one Wilder didn’t quite get a handle on, that is told over and over again in Sherlock.

Private Life found itself trapped by the Doylean tropes of the top secret diplomatic affair, and couldn’t keep its focus on Holmes as a private individual; Sherlock is trapped by the notion of individual becoming, the personal journey, the fundamental importance of one’s personal relationship and their contribution to personal growth. According to current dominant tropes visible in Sherlock, the detective can never really be a detective. He can only be a complex human(-all-too-human) who does detective work. That, in the early 21st-century western world, is what people are.

[Y]ou have to find new ways of progressing Sherlock himself. He’s a bit like Pinocchio: he is  creeping towards becoming more human. He’ll never make it, but he has to change, otherwise you just set the whole thing in aspic, and there’s no point doing that. – Steven Moffat, quoted in Steve Tribe, Sherlock Chronicles, p. 248.

Experts and Intellectuals: A Monologue on Knowledge

The pursuit of knowledge is an ancient activity. It can be carried out in more ways than one. In contemporary Western societies, knowledge is the province of the expert. The expert – that most contemporary of personages – is distinguished by his or her specificity: one is not an expert in a general sense; one is an expert in some field or on some topic. To achieve expert status, one has to concentrate one’s intellectual faculties very narrowly indeed. This form of epistemology is reflected in the structure of academia, wherein the discipline is paramount: one is expected to be an expert in a particular discipline, and disciplines are defined increasingly narrowly. The common sense of the contemporary academy is that as the world becomes more complicated the useful intelligence is that which can  specialize the most minutely.

This is increasingly apparent in the financial sector. Managing one’s own financial resources has now become such a gargantuanly complicated task that one can’t do it alone. A lifetime of training is needed to understand an average person’s financial affairs. Note this ad from Irish bank EBS, who brand themselves “the mortgage masters” and declare: “Some jobs need a master, with the perfect combination of dedication, focus and expertise … You need someone who can draw on decades of know-how… Not a jack-of-all-trades, but the master of one … For a job as important as your mortgage, that’s EBS.”


The ideology of the expert is being offered up here, with an emphasis on the impossibility of the subject being entirely beyond the ordinary individual. What is the difficulty with this? My difficulty is that we are not dealing with a pre-given complexity which needs a sophisticated intelligence to understand it; we are dealing with a constructed complexity (the financial system) whose existence provides financial benefit to the very people who create and uphold it. Certainly, an individual’s finances can be as complicated as you like. The question that the businessperson is unlikely to ask, but that the intellectual should, is: should they be? Or again, need they be? Is it not, rather, the ultimate in alienation that we cannot understand our own financial status and judge our own best interests?


So academics and intellectuals more generally should be wary of the role of expert, and his/her self-serving need to increase the intellectual sophistication of his/her position. Another way is possible, and has a long history. Imagine a world wherein knowledge was gained not by a narrowing of the intellectual vision, but a widening thereof. Reading recently Paul Feyerabend’s Three Dialogues on Knowledge (1991), I was introduced to an 18th-century German philosopher and (for want of a better term to describe his all-encompassing intellectual interests) man of letters, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who Feyerabend’s dialogist holds up as the paradigm of the intellectual:

I admire Lessing for his independence, for his willingness to change his mind. I admire him even for his honesty for he is one of those very rare people who can be honest and humorous at the same time, who use their honesty as a guide for their own private lives, not as a club or beating people into submission, not as a showpiece for pleasing the galleries. […] I admire him because he was a thinker without a doctrine and a scholar without a school – every problem, every phenomenon he approached was for him a unique situation that had to be explained and illuminated in a unique way. I admire him because he was not satisfied with sham clarity but realized that understanding is often achieved through an obscuring of things, through a process in which “what seemed to be seen clearly is lost in an uncertain distance.” (123)

For Lessing to approach each phenomenon as a unique situation he had to be free of disciplinary constraints, to be a “scholar without a school”. Still more counterintuitively for a contemporary academic intelligence, he had not to clarify, but rather to show that that which appeared clear was not really so. In effect, this is closer to the defamiliarization technique seen by Shklovsky as being central to the artist’s mission.  So the intellectual had much of the artist about him, and less of the disciplinary intelligence. The task is to return the techniques of the artist and of Enlightenment thinkers like Lessing to the data-driven and micro-disciplinary intellectual landscape we inhabit.


Adorno, Fascism and Phoniness

Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) is a philosopher with whose work I have had only a casual acquaintance. He is very much part of the continental school, influenced by mainland European philosophers and having an influence among later members of the same group. But continental philosophy has become more and more the dominant philosophy in academia in humanities departments in the English-speaking world, too, so Adorno crops up everywhere.

The book I have been looking into is The Culture Industry (Routledge, 1991/2015), which I picked up for next to nothing in a charity shop. This book turns out to be a collection of more-or-less discrete essays, rather than a unified work. Among the blurb quotes are one from Alain de Botton describing this book as “very funny”. The idea of Adorno being funny is a new one to me, as I had always thought of him as being relentlessly serious and somewhat grim in his analysis of the human condition (he was half-Jewish in Nazi Germany, so such pessimism was to be expected). On reading the essay on “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” in Culture Industry, I am nowhere nearer detecting the humour in Adorno’s work.

But the essay does tackle one of Adorno’s big themes, fascism, and connect it to one of continental philosophy’s major influences, Sigmund Freud. The central point about fascism to Adorno is that it is irrational:

The overwhelming majority of all agitators’ statements are directed ad hominem. They are obviously based on psychologocial calculatiosn rather than on the intention to gain followers through the rational statement of rational gain. (132)

This is one of the keynotes of the essay. Adorno does not defend this stance in any detail. Within a contemporary context, it is still usual to see fascism and other far-right movements as being irrational. Reading Adorno and reflecting on this situation in general, I wonder if it needs some critical reflection. Nazism certainly used scientific rationalism, such as with regard to eugenics.

Of course, Adorno’s contention that fascism operates by way of creating a libidinal bond and offering “the actual or vicarious pleasure individuals obtain from surrendering to a mass” (136) also has merit, but both libidinal satisfaction and rational justification may be used together, and a political doctrine that only utilized one without the other is unlikely to have much success. Of course, to acknowledge this makes the whole thing a little messy and Adorno is instead intent on constructing a much neater theoretical position:

[O]ne cannot help feeling that propaganda material of the fascist brand forms a structural unit with a total common conception, be it conscious or preconscious, which determines every word that is said. (133)

Thus Adorno’s strict theory of the nature of fascism is based, first of all, on a feeling. Once this feeling is introduced and arbitrarily adopted as the base of his theory, Adorno goes on to assume that fascist propaganda is a structural unit with a single determining underlying conception.

Interesting as some of Adorno’s subsequent musings are, this opening maneouvre is hard to overcome, for me. It is a characteristic of continental philosophy to make a boldly theoretical statement, one which then functions to allow it to make a reductive analysis of the relevant phenomenon. Here, it is the presumption of irrationality, while allows Adorno to simply ignore any rational elements in fascism. Nor does he admit that he’s doing this: he doesn’t even say the libidinal element is the dominant one, but that it is the only one. Every phenomenon must have a single identifiable cause is the curious underlying assumption of Adorno’s position.

This is not to say that Adorno’s analysis of the psychology of fascism is irrelevant, just that it cannot be as relevant as Adorno thinks it is, because there are other factors that need to be examined.

In the final part of the essay, Adorno gets on to some general historical factors. Why have Western societies become more open to fascistic discourse? Here his reading of Marx and alienation comes in. Reflecting on the human condition in 20th-century Western societies, Adorno writes:

In a throughly reified society, in which there are virtually no direct relationships between men, and in which each person has been reduced to a social atom, to a mere function of collectivity, the psychological processes, though they still persist in each individual, have ceased to appear as the determining forces of the social process. Thus, the psychology of the individual has lost what Hegel would have called substance. (152)

The impoverished 20th-century subject, then, all too readily submits him or herself in the fascistic mass. Finally, Adorno diagnoses a certain “phoniness” in the whole set-up:

The category of “phoniness” applies to the leaders as well as to the act of identification on the part of the masses and their supposed frenzy and hysteria. Just as little as people believe in the depths of their hearts that the Jews are the devil, do they completely believe in their leader. (152)

“Phoniness” is an interesting concept in that it anticipates Žižek (who often cites Adorno) on cynical ideology, which he sees as belonging to all modern politics, left and right. Žižek goes much further with this idea than Adorno, and it provides some of his most interesting passages. As far as Adorno is concerned, the introduction of “phoniness” is unsatisfying and reads as something of an afterthought. How, one is left asking, can a “post-psychological” subject be phony, any more than he/she can be sincere?

Of course, maybe Adorno has developed all this more satisfactorily elsewhere. It is the nature of the great (or at least academically fashionable) thinkers that they do not yield their secrets to the casual reader. Have they not an entire discursive apparatus to sustain? And with clarity and straightforwardness such an apparatus cannot perpetuate itself. Instead, Adornian theoretical overreach, the “will to a system“, logical leaps – from these we build the material of endless debate for the academic industry to rumble endlessly on in imperfect circles.

The Appearance of Evil in The Dark Knight

Todd McGowan’s The Fictional Christopher Nolan (University of Texas Press, 2012) makes the bold claim that Nolan is a “thoroughly Hegelian filmmaker”, implying the perhaps still bolder one that this is somehow significant. From this thesis, McGowan has produced a stimulating volume. It is perhaps a shame that McGowan was writing before the release of The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the concluding film in Nolan’s Batman trilogy (and a film whose underlying ideology I analyzed in a previous post), as this would have spurred him to amend his argument regarding the previous film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight (2008).


In certain respects, The Dark Knight Rises inverts its predecessor. At the very least, it renders what seems a reasonably coherent politico-philosophical stance in The Dark Knight rather ambiguous. So McGowan’s thesis is already critiqued by the film Nolan made after Dark Knight. So what is McGowan’s thesis re Dark Knight, the impatient readers asks. Well, McGowan sees the film as dramatizing the Hegelian contrast between  the Heroic Age and the Era of the Legal Order (124). The film posits the need for heroic exceptionalism to exist alongside the legal order. In this way, McGowan is able to draw parallels between the universe of Dark Knight and post-9/11 America. He  notes that some commentators saw the film as a straightforward paean to Bush-era foreign policy. For McGowan, of course, it’s not so simple:

The exception is a fiction or violation of the law that threatens to overrun the law altogether, and yet the law requires it. This is the dilemma that shapes The Dark Knight. (126)

In order for the legal order to contain this threat, then, the extralegal supplement of the hero must have the appearance of evil.

McGowan then goes on to make an interesting contrast between the western and the superhero film as exemplified by Dark Knight. In the classic western, such as Shane (1954), the protagonist commits a founding act of violence to inaugurate the law, but once the law comes into effect this same act compels the protagonist to disappear from the society to which he has belonged. In the superhero film, extralegal violence persists, and for this reason Batman can remain in Gotham, a liminal figure, outside the law but necessary to it.

If the reader has seen Rises, it will be clear that McGowan’s point has become extremely problematic. Rises does indeed follow the western scheme in which the hero performs a founding act of heroism and then leaves. So all McGowan’s theorizing about the nature of the superhero genre appears to collapse. But perhaps what the tension between Rises and (McGowan’s) Dark Knight demonstrates is that the latter is a more interesting film, and the former shows Nolan swapping innovative thought for outdated cliches borrowed from the western genre. One might regret that the interesting politico-philosophical consequences of Dark Knight were not followed up in the sequel. The law in Dark Knight is corrupt and compromised, a tool in the hands of self-interested capitalists and opportunist politicians. Rises allows the trilogy to finish on a note of europhic positivity when all is cleansed by Batman’s final acts of heroism. Nolan has already showed that such purity cannot last, and that corruption underlies the relations that humans build with each other. For a few moments in a movie theater, perhaps, Rises makes us forget that, but on reflection it is a less satisfying and thought-provoking piece than Dark Knight.

University and/as Business: Critic as Ishmaelite

I have had occasion to reflect lately on the relations between university and business. These are certainly growing stronger and will continue to do so. In the EU context, this is made manifest in, for example, Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. It is this programme that decides where the EU money goes in terms of third-level research. The three pillars of this programme are:

Excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling societal problems.

This central need to provide “industrial leadership” means that universities, in order to receive EU funding, must demonstrate how their work is “aligned with the needs of the business sector”. Such alignment is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed, classically, it was key to the university mission that it avoided a narrow focus on professional development. Rather, it was expected to adhere to a capacious notion of human development:

[The University] neither confines its views to particular professions on the one hand, nor creates heroes or inspires genius on the other. Works indeed of genius fall under no art; heroic minds come under no rule; a University is not a birthplace of poets or of immortal authors, of founders of schools, leaders of colonies, or conquerors of nations. It does not promise a generation of Aristotles or Newtons, of Napoleons or Washingtons, of Raphaels or Shakespeares, though such miracles of nature it has before now contained within its precincts. Nor is it content on the other hand with forming the critic or the experimentalist, the economist or the engineer, though such too it includes within its scope. (John Henry Newman, in 1852)

The University, then, always aimed at something extra, something more. Newman resisted somewhat defining what that something more was, on the premise that it was undefinable, but he did state it in general terms:

[A] University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.

But the rhetoric of humanism has given way to the rhetoric of professionalism, and Universities are now answerable to the marketplace.

Bridging the gap between university and business is a task that has proceeded apace recently. Silicon Valley, for example, is considered a product of the synthesis of university and business creating speedy technological and economic change. Yet failure of communication between the two fields seems to be still the norm. What is called for in the Science Business Innovation Board’s Making Industry-University Partnerships Work: Lessons for successful collaborations (2012) is greater strategic attention to business partnership from universities. This document recommends particularly long-term strategic partnerships between the two sectors. The Newmanian idea of the university is explicitly challenged

Today’s universities largely embrace a model of higher education developed over 100 years ago. A new vision should include producing the highly skilled workforce for a globally competitive economy. The university in the 21st century should be viewed not just as a generator of ideas but as a source of knowledge and competence that can benefit society.

Here the university’s missions to align with business and to benefit society are eventually seen as one and the same. Thus the very important question of whether and to what extent our western model of capitalistic business is per se a social good is wholly elided. Here we find, clearly enough, the limitations of the university-business partnership model. Not that one necessarily calls for a wholesale rejection of this model, but it is far from sufficient in itself to fulfil the university’s social mission. Even while elements within the university co-operate with business, others must fulfil the critical mission of the university, and continue to question the dominant economic and social practices. A critical distance from such practices is a necessity, and must be maintained a sector whose job it is precisely to take an outside view of society. But perhaps within the university is not the place to undertake this. Perhaps it is, instead, up to the individual to articulate such a criticism, unprofessional as it may be. Thus he incurs the displeasure of the business world and “wanders like a wild Ishmaelite, in a world of which he is as the spiritual light” (Carlyle, The Hero as Man of Letters). At times he or she may even wander as a wild Ishmaelite through the third-level sector, as a liminal figure therein, not aligned to the interests of business (alas), but simply tolerated, capable of interpolating the odd shaft to the heart of the university-business relation, with what ultimate result who can tell.


Adaptation, Intermediality and Narrative

Academic investigation into culture and the arts is characterized by a proliferation of terms which seem, to the untheoretical eye, to mean and do much the same thing. Yet each term has its strict adherents and schools, and often two more or less synonymous terms are studied independently. Such is generally the situation with “adaptation” and “intermediality”.

Adaptation deals for the most part with issues of intermediality. In theory, an adaptation can be of a work from the same medium, as is the position in Hutcheon’s influential book. One can see Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea as an adaptation of Jane Eyre, for example. In practice, adaptations as studied are almost always  intermedial, moving from one medium to another, most commonly novel to film.

Intermediality itself is to a large extent a continuation of the longer-established Interart Studies, as Irina Rajewsky notes in “Intermediality, Interetextuality, and Remediation: A Literary Perspective on Intermediality”. For Rajwesky, intermediality is distinguished not by having new subjects of study (digital media, etc.) but by providing “new ways of solving problems”. These “new ways” are too heterogeneous and broad for Rajewsky’s taste, and she favours a narrow definition of the term:

In literary studies as well as in such fields as art history, music, theater, and film
studies, there is a repeated focus on an entire range of phenomena qualifying
as intermedial. Examples include those phenomena which for a long time have
been designated by terms such as transposition d’art, filmic writing, ekphrasis,
musicalization of literature, as well as such phenomena as film adaptations of literary works, “novelizations,” visual poetry, illuminated manuscripts, Sound Art,
opera, comics, multimedia shows, hyperfiction, multimedial computer “texts” or
installations, etc. Without a doubt, all of these phenomena have to do in some
way with a crossing of borders between media and are in so far characterized by a
quality of intermediality in the broad sense.

Rajewsky attempts to differentiate between different kinds of intermediality, rather than accept the diffuse concept employed by others.

1. Intermediality in the more narrow sense of medial transposition (as for example
film adaptations, novelizations, and so forth): here the intermedial quality has to
do with the way in which a media product comes into being, i.e., with the transformation of a given media product (a text, a film, etc.) or of its substratum into
another medium. This category is a production-oriented, “genetic” conception of
intermediality; the “original” text, film, etc., is the “source” of the newly formed
media product, whose formation is based on a media-specific and obligatory intermedial transformation process.

2. Intermediality in the more narrow sense of media combination, which includes
phenomena such as opera, film, theater, performances, illuminated manuscripts,
computer or Sound Art installations, comics, and so on, or, to use another terminology, so-called multimedia, mixed media, and intermedia. The intermedial quality of this category is determined by the medial constellation constituting a given media product, which is to say the result or the very process of combining at least two conventionally distinct media or medial forms of articulation.

3. Intermediality in the narrow sense of intermedial references, for example references in a literary text to a film through, for instance, the evocation or imitation of certain filmic techniques such as zoom shots, fades, dissolves, and montage editing. Other examples include the so-called musicalization of literature, transposition d’art, ekphrasis, references in film to painting, or in painting to photography, and so forth.

Category one equates roughly to adaptation, while category three could be considered to be a form of allusion. Thus adaptation is contained within intermediality (in theory). Rajewsky in this article is really only interested in drawing out the third category, wherein a work in one medium evokes at a certain point another medium. This category is more or less by definition, not relevant to adaptation study, as adaptation is, according to Hutcheon again, always an “extended, deliberate, announced revisitation of a particular work”. The extended is key here, as it excludes any form of brief allusion, transmedial or no.

Reading Rajewsky, one is struck by the though that the central difference between adaptation and intermediality as fields of study has been the centrality of narrative to the former. Adaptation has a long history of engaging deeply with narrative. The irony is that many of the more recent scholars of adaptation have decried this very engagement. The centrality of narrative to adaptations studies is at once its unique selling point and  a symptom of a field that has failed to move on. The question is how to move on without losing the identity of the field and falling into an already existing field. The other question is whether theoretical advancement is really a desideratum in any case. We could develop more complex theories, or we could use old-fashioned narrative theories to reach new insights and build an identity for adaptation.

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