The Victorian Sage

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

Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875)

Apparently, Anthony Trollope’s 200th birthday was last Friday. As it happens, I was just finishing The Way We Live Now (1875). This once-neglected novel has become now possibly Trollope’s best known: for example, it has appeared in Robert McCrum’s ongoing Guardian list of 100 Best English-Language Novels. Quoth McCrum:

The Way We Live Now is a wonderful, melodramatic tale-of-the-times, by a master of his craft. It begins in satire and finally resolves into entertaining social comedy. As a savage commentary on mid-Victorian England by a marvellously addictive writer steeped in every aspect of an extraordinary society, it could hardly be bettered. No wonder the first reviews were atrocious.

I think its status as tale-of-the-times is important. It is both a good narrative and, equally importantly, a historical document, as is clearly announced by the book’s title. However, it is not really considered a part of the Condition-of-England genre of the mid-19th century, because despite its length, scope and interest in politics and economics, the issue of class doesn’t come in strongly. Trollope was a writer of the middle and upper classes, and though there is a sub-plot about Ruby Ruggles, a working-class woman who is embroiled in a relationship with aristocratic ne’er-do-well Felix Carbury, there is no questioning of the relationship between the classes on a larger scale, no forays into industrial relations, trade unions, strikes and the like, as in Hard Times, North and South, et al.

That’s the curious thing about Trollope. He’s able to get inside his characters’ heads without regard for class or gender (especially gender, he seems to give more time to his female characters’ thoughts than the male ones), but his empathy stops at the individual. He’s able to be sympathetic to all characters, without questioning any of the social conditions that creates the inequitable relationships he describes. Thus I disagree with McCrum’s use of the adjective “savage”: Trollope is the very opposite of savage, being unerringly mild and even bland in tone, in contrast to say, Dickens.

Thus, Trollope can present all sorts of situations in a fairly frank manner, without seeming to draw attention to or critique them. Looking through my notes on reading The Way We Live Now on Kindle, I came across a reflection on suicide. Typical Trollope, he goes into detail on the aftermath and the technical details of an inquest. The question is whether the suicide is mad; this is important because if not, (s)he has committed a crime and cannot be given Christian burial. The narrator reflects:

Perhaps it would be well that all suicides should be said to have been mad, for certainly the jurymen are not generally guided in their verdicts by any accurately ascertained facts. If the poor wretch has, up to his last days, been apparently living a decent life; if he be not hated, or has not in his last moments made himself specially obnoxious to the world at large, then he is declared to have been mad. Who would be heavy on a poor clergyman who has been at last driven by horrid doubts to rid himself of a difficulty from which he saw no escape in any other way? Who would not give the benefit of the doubt to the poor woman whose lover and lord had deserted her? Who would remit to unhallowed earth the body of the once beneficent philosopher who has simply thought that he might as well go now, finding himself powerless to do further good upon earth? Such, and such like, have of course been temporarily insane, though no touch even of strangeness may have marked their conduct up to their last known dealings with their fellow-mortals.

The narrator is contemplating the absurdities of criminalizing suicide, and his suggested remedy is not any questioning of a bad law, but a suggestion that it can be quietly circumvented – implying that it is a bad law, but not directly confronting that fact. Someone like Dickens would have denounced the law, demanded its repeal, and mocked those who supported it. The impression created of Trollope here is one of overpassing, excessive mildness and inoffensiveness.

He’s similar in his dealing with such matters as anti-semitism in this novel. He documents the anti-semitism shown by the English middle and upper classes towards the Jewish Brehgart, but explicit and even implicit critique is absent, just as assent is absent. He is curiously dissociated from his subjects, sympathetic but aloof. Perhaps it the relative aloofness from social problems that gives him the unshakeable reputation as a writer favoured by conservatives (see this, for example, from Conservative journal The New Criterion). It’s not that Trollope avoids such problems; he documents them, but not as problems, just as stuff that happens in society – in a society that he evidently takes such pleasure in viewing that it almost reads at times that he enjoys even the blatant injustices of it.

And Another Thing: Ideology and the Base/ Superstructure Divide

(Further to my last post on Michele Barrett’s book.)

Barrett states that: “Foucault believed that the concept of ideology was irretrievably contaminated by the unilinear economic determinism characteristic of Marxism” (130). This is an important point, because the most common objection to the term ideology is that it is implicated in the Marxist economic determinism, aka the base/ superstructure divide. This is more a measure of Marx’s ubiquitous influence in academia than a true reflection on the term itself. Histories of the term are found in potted form in Raymond Williams’ Keywords and the more recent edition of same by other authors. But even more interesting is consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives four usages:

1: The original usage of the term was to designate the study of ideas, and this is still meaning number one in the OED.

2: The second usage, both historically and in the present OED, is:

“Abstract speculation; impractical or visionary theorizing. Now rare.”

3: Third is as a synonym for idealism, also now rare.

4: This is the everyday, man-in-the-street version:

A systematic scheme of ideas, usually relating to politics, economics, or society and forming the basis of action or policy; a set of beliefs governing conduct. Also: the forming or holding of such a scheme of ideas.

Again, in four, the economic is only a secondary and optional element of ideology; as a term it is given no more weight than politics or society.

In short the OED would give no support whatever to the general academic notion that Foucault expressed and that Barrett supports. And even within academia, the economic basis for ideology is far from the only one. An avowed Marxist, Stuart Hall, defined ideology thusly:

By ideology I mean the mental frameworks – the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation – which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, figure out and render intelligible the way society works. (Qtd in John Storey, “Introduction”, in Storey, ed., Cultural Theory, p. vvii)

Again, no mention of an economic basis. The economic argument against ideology, in other words, is lazy and straw-mannish. It’s not even clear that Marx himself held an economic determinist view of ideology – that is to say, his pronouncements, as is clear from Barrett’s discussion of them in her opening chapter, are somewhat contradictory and don’t add up to a clear position. But it suits opponents of ideology to treat it as implicated in economic determinism. It suits them, because if that is ideology, then ideology is clearly a concept of limited usefulness, and space is open for a new term such as discourse, etc. But if ideology has a far wider and richer usage-history than Foucault realizes, then the debate is far from settled.

Ideology v. discourse

In Michele Barrett’s book The Politics of Truth (Polity 1991), she gives a cogently written history of the term ideology, devoting about two-thirds of the book to this topic, before moving on to Foucault and his emphasis on discourse. Foucault considered the term ideology as not useful for cultural analysis, for several reasons. Barrett agrees, and suggests that Foucault’s “discourse” provides the way forward, fundamentally because while discussion of ideology supposedly implies the possibility of non-ideological, objective truth, the use of the concept of discourse to analyze society and culture does not presuppose a non-discursive knowledge.

But surely we all consider our own reflections on a given topic to be, if not absolutely truthful, at least more valid than those of our opponents. Or does one think as one expounds a critical analysis: “I know that my own opinions are wrong, but I hold them nevertheless”? It is impossible not to have an epistemological stance of some sort, so “discourse” really just avoids the issue by pretending that it takes no position. Ideology has to actually take responsibility for its own position, as it says, “Yes, I am correct, and you, who believe otherwise, are misguided.” This, I submit, is rather a pro than a con. Responsibilty and answerability for one’s own position are key. The critic disappears entirely behind discourse analysis; there is nobody who speaks, there is just “analysis” that is performed, and that thus takes on an objective character. Ideology, because of its usage by Marx in a spirit of epistemological certainty, and because of the critical energies which have been devoted to debunking the concept, demands of the analyst a far greater degree of self-awareness and self-criticism.

The easy thing to do is to take the much vaunted Foucauldian approach, which is the official methodology of contemporary social studies and humanities. This is precisely the reason why it should not be taken. For he or she who aspires to the condition of having something worthwhile to say, it is imperative to struggle against the methodological strictures of the academy. Ideology provides a way in to the thought of earlier epochs, epochs which may yet have something to say to the contemporary individual. It is possible to close off intellectual life from all such influences by creating a new conceptual language which undercuts all previous approaches while not making the grounds of its own clear. Indeed, Barrett comes close to admitting this in discussing The Archaeology of Knowledge:

[T]here is a sense in which Foucault’s own achievements when “skimming along” and selecting some statements rather than others remain unexplained by the formal method he outlines. (127)

But she simply forgets about this critique, which is an important one that basically negates any advantage Foucauldian discourse might appear to have over ideology as a methodological tool (note 1). So, in summation, new is not necessarily better, and if we want to get a wide-angle view of humanity’s intellectual development we need to use concepts which work not just by being formally acceptable (which is basically only the newer ones, because they haven’t been debunked yet), but concepts that allow a wide-ranging exploration of the thought of the past, which we can then be in a position to criticize, but not necessarily wholly dismiss.

Note 1: “The description of the events of discourse poses a quite different question: how is it that one particular statement appeared rather than another?” (Foucault, Arch. of Knowledge, quoted in Barrett, 126)

The Death of the Curate in Wells’ War of the Worlds and its 1953 Adaptation

Linda Hutcheon notes that when a narrative text is adapted, there is “almost always […] an accompanying shift in the political valence” (A Theory of Adaptation, 2006, p. 141). The story might be the same in its essentials, but, even so, in small narrative choices made, lines of dialogue , elements of character, etc.,much food for reflection on differing ideological underpinnings, assumptions, morals, values, etc. is found. Where to locate this difference, then? In the author? The writer had a different intellectual and moral make-up to the director (assuming we can name the director as auteur). Or in the Culture? Who writes a book, and an adaptation? An individual, or a culture? Considering many modern screen products, they appear to be written as much as anything by generic tropes. But are prevailing generic tropes themselves written by a culture? Surely they have a signifying purpose beyond mere cultural filler, which has enabled them to thrive in the meme pool? But perhaps the first point to be made before getting into these difficult questions is that a story doesn’t mean in the abstract. The narrative may remain the same between source and adaptation, but if the mode of narration changes, the narrative may mean, in an ideologico-political sense, something quite different from in both manifestations of the same story. If the story itself is not too saturated with evident ideological-political functions, just a few small changes can wholly shift the political valence. A few small crucial unargued assumptions may seem to convey a wholly different mode of considering the political.

An example, one that struck me recently: H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds (1898) and its 1953 Hollywood adaptation. One ideologically loaded figure: the curate. Wells’ novel doesn’t give names to the characters. There’s the narrator, who never formally introduces himself, his brother, his wife, the curate, etc. Maybe it’s Wells deliberately depersonalizing humans just to hammer home his point about how insignificant we are, or would be to a hypothetical intellectually superior race. This is the point he makes in the book’s tremendous opening paragraphs, when he imagines a great race exterminating humanity, and then adds:

[B]efore we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? (Bk. I, Ch. I)

The general reader doesn’t necessarily realize how harsh and cynical Wells is at times in his early sci-fi novels (especially The Island of Dr Moreau – the best of them in my opinion), but this passage sums up how determined he is to get people to question the notion and status of humanity. It’s a post-Darwinian, maybe post-Nietzschean outlook, and it’s not pretty.

It is predictable that given such a mood, curates are not going to be let off lightly, and Wells is unrelenting in his denigration of this character. The curate is introduced as follows:

His face was a fair weakness, his chin retreated, and his hair lay in crisp, almost flaxen curls on his low forehead; his eyes were rather large, pale blue, and blankly staring. He spoke abruptly, looking vacantly away from me.

“What does it mean?” he said. “What do these things mean?”

I stared at him and made no answer.

He extended a thin white hand and spoke in almost a complaining tone.

“Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? The morning service was over, I was walking through the roads to clear my brain for the afternoon, and then–fire, earthquake, death! As if it were Sodom and Gomorrah! All our work undone, all the work—- What are these Martians?”

“What are we?” I answered, clearing my throat. (Bk. I, Ch. 13)

Physical appearance is the first indice of character here: “His face was a fair weakness”; his eyes stared blankly. And then his tone of voice confirms it: it is, already, “almost a complaining tone”. As for the content of his speech: he can only regurgitate formulas from the Bible, with increasing hysteria as the book develops, demonstrating at every appearance an absolute inability to apply his intelligence to the situation, or even to face it in its empirical realities. Note, here, as well, that classically Wellsian response to the question “What are these Martians?” – “What are we?”. This is the question that resounds through his early science-fiction novels, less often in a tone of curiosity than in one of savage contempt.

The curate does not improve on acquaintance and, ultimately, when he begins jabbering loudly and nonsensically about the Martians’ attack being a judgement from God, doing so when the Martians are just outside and thus endangering himself and the narrator, our narrator bashes him on the head with the butt of a meat-cleaver. It is unclear whether this stuns or kills him, but he is afterwards dragged away by the Martians, to die if he has not done so already. This chapter is actually called “The Death of the Curate”, but Wells seems to deliberately leave some ambiguity as to how that death came about.

But what is clear in this chapter is the contempt with which the curate and “his vacant sham of God’s service” is viewed. In Brian Aldiss’ introduction to the book, he notes that “Wells’ curate is there to express the helplessness of organized religion when faced with the invaders” (Penguin, 2005, xviii). Not for Wells the old adage about no atheists in foxholes. Religion, he posits, is not of the least practical use in a foxhole, but rather a hindrance to clear thought.

So much for Wells. In the 1953 adaptation of the book, the figure of the curate is retained, now called Pastor Dr Matthew Collins, according to IMDb. A pastor and a doctor. A man of science and a man of God. After the early establishing shots of Mars, Earth, and falling Martian rockets, Pastor Collins is present in the very first shot, and is centrally involved in the community reaction to the rockets. First, he is shown as the lone voice of community-mindedness among all the greedy businessmen who want to turn the smoking rocket into a tourist attraction. He engages in discussion of the Martians with the scientist, and later he tries to dissuade the military from shooting on the Martians without first trying to talk to them. When the military show no interest in this approach, the intrepid Pastor Matthew goes out alone to talk to the aliens.

Pastor Matthew and the protagonist's love interest Sylvia

Pastor Matthew and Sylvia, one of the film’s romantic leads.

Martians

Oddly enough, though his rationale is that no  attempt has been made to communicate with the Martians, his attempts to speak to them on approach are limited to quoting the Bible: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”, etc, simultaneously holding up a Bible. They obliterate him, unsurprisingly.

PastorMatthewBible

Pastor Matthew comes to a similar end to Wells’ Curate, but that’s where the similarity ends. The Curate is whiny and utterly lacking in self-possession; Matthew is soft-spoken, intelligent, compassionate, and, obviously, brave. He is right at the centre of the communal effort to tackle the catastrophe. But to fully understand the religious undertones that emerge in the adaptation, one would have to take other elements beyond this character into account. Most of all, there is the climactic scene, which takes place in, of course, a church.

Wells’ story, then, proved very easily amenable to being turned to ideological purposes other than his own. Quite the reverse of his own, perhaps. This may well be because Wells’ curate is such an ideologically-loaded character – he’s not essential to the plot, only to his own small section of it. He has no other characteristics beyond those that relate to the political valence of the movie. So it’s easy to change these elements without having any knock-on effect on the story as a whole. This is the irony of such a simply political approach to character. Had the Curate been a more complex character, and/or more integrated into the plot, it would have been difficult to change him without it jarring notably with other elements of the narrative. As it is, the story in the adaptation moves along quite smoothly, and the death of the curate does not seem to be in any way out of keeping with it. A single story can, very easily with just a few simple moves, turned into an ideological opposition of itself.

Carlyle and Confused Young Men

The scope of Carlyle’s influence is something I’ve touched upon before, but I’m struck again and again by just how much personal importance he attained to various individuals, how his writing was not just literature, but a practical solution to life. The following passage from a 1903 book that I’ve just come across, Living for the Best by James McClure. is a good example. The book, from a quick glance at it, also seems to show how for many Carlyle ultimately became a gateway to a renewed faith in Christianity – a repatching of the ragged old clothes of traditional religion. Arguably a dubious achievement, but I never cease to be intrigued and moved by such personal reminiscences as the one below:

Soon after the death of Carlyle two friends met: “And so Carlyle is dead,” said one. “Yes,” said the other, “he is gone; but he did me a very good turn once.” “How was that,” asked the first speaker, “did you ever see him or hear him?” “No,” came the answer, “I never saw him nor heard him. But when I was beginning life, almost through my apprenticeship, I lost all interest in everything and every one. I felt as if I had no duty of importance to discharge; that it did not matter whether I lived or not; that the world would do as well without me as with me. This condition continued more than a year. I should have been glad to die. One gloomy night, feeling that I could stand my darkness no longer, I went into a library, and lifting a book I found lying upon a table, I opened it. It was Sartor Resartus, by Thomas Carlyle. My eye fell upon one sentence, marked in italics, ‘Do the duty which lies nearest to thee, which thou knowest to be a duty! The second duty will already have become clearer.’ That sentence,” continued the speaker, “was a flash of lightning striking into my dark soul. It gave me a new glimpse of human existence. It made a changed man of me. Carlyle, under God, saved me. He put content and purpose and power into my life.” (62-63)

Perhaps it is the recent news about the  depressed and suicidal/murderous German pilot that has contributed to how I have responded to this, as well as my own travails and trials. The thought that there is a duty that lies near and that one can do it is, of course, attractive, but I’m not sure how tenable it is. Carlyle’s relevance for me does not stem from the simple injunction of that famous line, but from the depth of alienation in Sartor, and the eloquence with which it is described. It’s not that he has an answer to depression/ alienation, but that he has an understanding of it. That he didn’t really have an answer to that, or any of the things he pontificated upon for that matter. is attested to both by study of his biography and of the later course of his writings. But that, too, his degeneration into a world-class bigot and monumental self-pitier, is moving in its own way, as well as salutory.

Ideology, Psychoanalysis, Narrative

Perhaps the most fascinating of intellectual movements of the last 100-odd years is psychoanalysis. Fascinating not just in its substantive content, but also in its place in modern culture. It has by now managed to inflect so many corners of our lives that we really figure ourselves out partially through certain concepts from psychoanalysis – so if psychoanalysis is, as a hermeneutic of humanity, possibly essentially flawed, it has managed to go about making itself true. It is much truer now than it was over a century ago when Dr Freud began to publish his theories.

This has become relevant to me as I read on the theory of ideology. Ideology is – or most commentators take it for granted that it is – a Marxist concept. Thus, the central thread of Freudian psychoanalysis which sees the individual psyche as composed of instinctual drives at the bottom of all human behaviour doesn’t mesh that well with a concept believed to be implicated in the Marxist base-superstructure model of society. If economics is the base, then Freud’s pleasure principle* can’t be, and vice versa. In other words, one could see it that Freud makes a pure Marxism impossible. And Michele Barrett deals with this in a very cogent and readable book called The Politics of Truth (Polity, 1991). Though the title is oddly reticent on this, the book is basically a conceptual history of ideology, balancing it against post-modern ideas and assessing how ts relevance can be defended against the critiques of Foucault, et al. Maybe I hadn’t been reading closely enough, but the ending came as a surprise to me when Barrett suggested “new and more precise concepts”, apparently deciding ideology was irredeemable. Yet the analysis of her book had seemed to me to suggest that the term had great advantages over competing concepts like Foucault’s power, Gramsci’s hegemony, etc. I also suspect “new and more precise concepts” are only new for a while, and only precise until somebody goes to the trouble of critiquing them. No critical term will ever be immune from criticism, so part of the value of a storied term like ideology is that it provides a way in to so many thinkers of the past 200 years. One finds oneself working through Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Althusser, Williams, Hall, Eagleton, etc. – now that’s a motley bunch, some evidently more significant than others, and some who I really have no time for (Althusser, notably), but they form a wide historical spectrum, and that only scratches the surface.

On psychoanalysis, Barrett has this to say:

[T]he insights of psychoanalysis with regard to the unconscious, repression, fantasy, sexuality and so on are not merely ‘within the true’ of psychoanalytic discourse but play an important part in the way in which people in contemporary western societies now understand themselves. Giddens has referred to the “double hermeneutic” in which members of a society use sociological knowledge in their decisions and activities, and this idea can be illustrated in terms of the use that people make of psychoanalysis in their lives. To say that we live in the west in a therapeutic culture, where people interpret, reflect upon and to some extent change their behaviour in the light of psychoanalytic ideas (and, for some, therapy) is not to say that these ideas are not true; it is to understand the contextuality of their truth. (115)

Psychoanalysis has escaped being simply a discourse, and has been elevated to a part of the human condition. This condition is of course spatially and temporally specific, and the point is that here and now we think psychoanalysis is true. Not as a science but as an essential ingredient of the stories we tell about ourselves. This is where narrative comes in, or could come in. And not just narrative, but, even more so, adaptation. Why adaptation? Because it is narrative moving through time and space. Examine a narrative as it appears in different spaces/ epochs, and one can find points of interests in the way we story ourselves.

It’s not about our actual material reality, but how we, in a more generalized sense, see ourselves. Narrative is for general consumption, it depends on The Reality Effect; it is thus a manner of examining how we see ourselves. And adaptation, in which the palimpsest of narrative is overwritten in two distinct styles, is a great, and rather untapped, source for speculation and analysis on this point. And the psychoanalytic story of the human self is one that has fascinated me of late. I won’t give any examples now as I’m currently working through my main example for my thesis. But think about it. Think of an adapted narrative, and how the presentation of character changes, how a 19th-century character is depicted in a 21st-century text, for example. A change is especially apparent in those adaptations which are updated in setting: the setting doesn’t change alone, but the character, too, cannot be themselves in the new setting. What changes? Things like a repressed always returning, a childhood key to present trauma, an underlying neurosis in the most capable and ostensibly together, a centrality of the sexual. in adaptation, we find all of these things demonstrating that, yes indeed, we are psychoanalytic beings, and, no, it was not always so.

*In later Freud, there’s also a mysterious and speculative Death Drive

A Non-methodological Space

Now method is all very well, but if one can’t life one’s life entirely by method, one may posit that within academia there should also be a non-methodological space. In the methodological space of most of academia one can only write in response to a previous authority, whether to agree with or dissent from, but, I repeat, one doesn’t arrange one’s thoughts as a response to a previous authority, so the need to keep an open mind with regard to methods of intellectual discovery needs to be acknowledged. What, first of all, is the point of intellectual discovery? In Against Method, Paul Feyerabend writes:

The attempt to increase liberty, to lead a full and rewarding life, and the corresponding attempt to discover the secrets of nature and of man entails therefore, the rejection of all universal standards and of all rigid traditions.

Feyerabend calls for an anarchistic approach to scientific investigation. And he’s talking about the hard sciences. Against Method is a very bracing, well-written and engaging account of how scientific progress is made. It’s an entirely unpredictable and patternless progression, in which the material effect of an argument often has little to do with its logical force (25). Therefore, to make real progress, it may well be necessary to ignore those theories which have “material effect”, which are the reigning theories in the field. Ignore them! That sounds wonderful. Similarly, it may be necessary to renew old, discredited theories for the purpose of stimulating new thought.

In the context of a literature PhD such as though undertaken by the present author, it’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine what could be ignored under a Feyerabendian approach. Most of the suppositions of postmodern/ poststructuralist thought would be at the top of the list. These provide the bedrock assumptions of modern academia in the humanities and social sciences. I am increasingly unable to accept “the posts”‘ position on the individual, and most of the other main positions fall with that. The posts don’t talk about individuals. but subjects. The individual is so 19th century. I question to what degree my own personal intellectual history comes into play here. Is it the (il)logicality of the position I object to, or is it down to the fact that before I became a postgrad I knew little to nothing of post thought, and my intellectual formation was a product of the assumptions of liberal humanism? It’s also down to personal experience. My experience has never been adequately reflected in any systematic theory of personhood I have ever encountered, ergo I must be an individual. I don’t fully (or hardly at all) relate to the theories or the assumptions of those around me, so I’m loath to accept that I am a product of them.

If there are, in fact, individuals, then the methodological project cannot survive in anything approaching a pure form with regard to human beings. An individual, by definition, cannot be accounted for by a general methodology. And a methodology, by definition, must have general applicability. So my aversion to method is inextricable from my sense of self as an individual. To apply method in a manner satisfactory to myself, I would have to experience myself as a generic construct. Which I don’t.

But I don’t mean individual in a pure sense. Of course, we are conditioned by our environment, family, ideological state apparatusses etc. Duh. but there’s no way yet to account for the entirety of an individual’s mental processes by adding up the sum of these conditioning elements – if there was, it would be like Minority Report, we’d be able to know people’s future actions, including criminal ones, by feeding the data into a computer. But in practical terms we cannot understand people in this way – people are not wholly theorized, wholly made subject to external things, and so until that is done, we are left with the individual as a hypothesis. If we really believe that will ever be done, we should orient all our action toward that end. If we are not so sure, we need a de-theorized space, a non-methodological space, a space for intellectual engagement with products of the human imagination on a singular basis. This space is the humanities, for if not they, then what and where?

If I may conclude by quoting Carlyle, an 1830s reflection on the times:

Fantastic tricks enough man has played, in his time; has fancied himself to be most things, down even to an animated heap of Glass: but to fancy himself a dead Iron-Balance for weighing Pains and Pleasures on, was reserved for this his latter era.

A Dead Iron-Balance for weighing Pains and Pleasures on: he’s getting at the Utilitarians, but one sees, I think, how the modern critical theorists are the successors to the utilitarians, oddly enough. Utilitarianism (though not without merit) failed: there was something else that didn’t fit onto the Iron-Balance. What? Freud, a utilitarian thinker in his “economic” model of the mind, came around to calling it the Death Drive, but that hypothesis pretty much failed to. To name it misses the point, and is the flaw of all those theorists of human consciousness. Analysis of that which escapes theorization cannot be done via one single concept which contains this something else, or even a confluence of concepts adding up to a single hole. That whole, I suggest, will never be found. One can only take instances: analyze at the level of the irreducible, unrepeatable instant, without any sort of guarantee that these instances will add up to anything more than the endlessly necessary practice of self-examination on a collective level.

Chance (1913), by Joseph Conrad

Available for free on Kindle, Chance is not one of Conrad’s better known books now, but it was his first major commercial success on its initial release, succeeding where Nostromo, Lord Jim, et al,, had, relatively speaking, failed. In Jeffrey Meyers’ biography, he suggests reasons for Chance‘s success including: a good publicity campaing, an influential review by Sidney Colvin in the Observer, a dust jacket showing an attractive lady, an “affirmative ending”, and “a romantic and sentimental heroizine who is cruelly victimized and then rescued by love” (Cooper Square, 2001, p. 270). Women don’t usually play a large part in Conrad, not directly anyway. They can be, though, important absent symbolic presences, like Kurtz’s intended in HoD, who appears only briefly, but who can be read as a justification, in her beauty, innocence and embodiment of “that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness”, for the lies and inhumanities of colonialism. But Chance does have a female character among the leads, and it also offers a chance for its narrator Marlow (the narrator of “Youth”, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, revived here after a decade of silence) to expound his views on gender and sexuality.

And it is Marlow’s voice that will determine the reader’s response to the book. Rather than responding to the active characters, one is experiencing everything filtered through Marlow’s voice. I disliked the book, and this comes down to the fact that Marlow is a bore. He’s at his worst when expounding on gender, and as he does this a lot in Chance, one’s patience is sorely tried. The reflections in this book differ from earlier works in that they are responding to feminism – only one year before Chance‘s publication, Emily Davison had thrown herself beneath the king’s horse at the Derby, in one of the most shocking and iconic moments in feminist history. A minor female character in Chance has written a book on feminism and female suffrage:

It was a sort of hand-book for women with grievances (and all women had them), a sort of compendious theory and practice of feminine free morality.  It made you laugh at its transparent simplicity. (51)

As that quote indicates, Marlow does not take feminism at all seriously – or tries not to, though his constant reflections on gender issues indicate that it has given him food for thought. Marlow’s attitude is, in fact, frankly reactionary:

A man can struggle to get a place for himself or perish.  But a woman’s part is passive, say what you like, and shuffle the facts of the world as you may, hinting at lack of energy, of wisdom, of courage.  As a matter of fact, almost all women have all that—of their own kind.  But they are not made for attack.  Wait they must.  I am speaking here of women who are really women.  And it’s no use talking of opportunities, either.  I know that some of them do talk of it.  But not the genuine women.  Those know better.  Nothing can beat a true woman for a clear vision of reality[.] (221)

So it is clear that Marlow has little time for feminism. Those women who actively seek societal change (i.e. those who “attack”, in Marlow’s term here) are simply not “really women”. Thus Marlow is upholding the classic Angel in the House/ Ruskin’s “Of Queen’s Gardens” view of passive, domesticated womanhood, refusing to historicize or contextualize this at all, rather seeing it as the essence of the female role. Note also how arrogantly dismissive he is of any other viewpoint (“say what you like”). Perhaps this steadfast reactionism against an unsettling politico-social phenomenon accounted for some of the novel’s popularity as well.

But the stance taken is so lacking in imaginative sympathy and nuance that one has to question Conrad. To find his attitude even remotely worthy of interest, one would have to posit a considerable gap between Conrad himself and his narrator Marlow. I’ve said before that I don’t think such a gap exists in HoD, and I would apply that to Chance as well. Much is made of Conrad’s irony, and how that pervades even the portrait of Marlow (for example, C.P. Sarvan’s essay), but in that, as in much else, Marlow reflects Conrad. Marlow too is perpetually ironic, mocking, sardonic, as here in Chance:

Marlow emerged out of the shadow of the book-case to get himself a cigar from a box which stood on a little table by my side.  In the full light of the room I saw in his eyes that slightly mocking expression with which he habitually covers up his sympathetic impulses of mirth and pity before the unreasonable complications the idealism of mankind puts into the simple but poignant problem of conduct on this earth. (255)

Marlow, too, is always mocking, an embodiment of that Conradian irony, and can, with this attitude, stand in judgement of all mankind with its pitiful and childish ideals. Conrad and Marlow seem to me to be the prototypical examples of Zizek’s contemporary ideology:

[I]n contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, […] cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling irony is not meant to be taken seriously, or literally. Perhaps the greatest danger for totalitarianism is people who take its ideology literally […]. (The Sublime Subject of Ideology, Verso, 2008) p. 24.

To be complicit in ideology is not to believe in the system, it is precisely to not believe, but to let one’s actions do the believing for one. The not-believing, then, is done with an overlaying of ironic distance, and is practically indistinguishable from believing. This is Conrad: he does not believe, but he wishes to uphold the status quo, anyway, and he needs to co-opt the ironic position to do it. His irony, in so far as he is being ironic, is not a qualification to his arch conservatism, but a justification for it.

In short, then, I’ve never enjoyed a Conrad novel to any great degree, and reading Chance I’m reminded of all that’s worst about him. Indeed, so uninspiring and irritating a read is it, that it prompts one to reflect on the vagaries of circumstance (and, indeed, Chance) that make a writer into a canonical figure, part of The Great Tradition. In Chance, Conrad failed spectacularly to engage with any degree of sensitivity or balance with an element of the emerging socio-political landscape. All he could do was turn his irony on it, sneer superciliously, and resurrect the ideologies of the past, as a Ruskin without passion, a Ruskin who knew he didn’t believe in the old, but was also unable to engage with anything new.

Asking For A Friend

Mark Wallace:

Now this. This is funny.

Originally posted on You Monsters Are People.:

Does anyone know any prostitutes that look like my mom? I am asking for a friend.

Not my mom

View original

Film Adaptation of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

One of the perks of being a grad student is the possibility of wandering into a cinema in the early afternoon of a week day, when one can have almost an entire theatre to oneself. One pities the poor fools who have to crowd in like cattle to weekend showings. Nothing says freedom like cinemagoing on weekday afternoons. Popcorn in hand – or maybe a pack of sweets from the next-door newsagents if I’m not feeling too extravagant, feet maybe on seat (gasp!), I settle into the womb-like darkness and give myself over to the magic of movie narrative.

So that’s what I was doing on Tuesday just past. I wandered into an almost empty theatre to watch Inherent Vice, the adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel from 2009. This film has been well received by critics: 81/100 from Metacritic, for example. General viewers have been more polarized, as can be seen from the debates on IMDb’s Message Boards. Most critics, I imagine, watch this as an adaptation. That is, they know (or know of) Pynchon’s novel. They know, also, that director Paul Thomas Anderson is a much feted auteur. So this film has a lot of prestige around it. It’s the first ever adaptation of a Pynchon novel, too, so interest has been high. I read the novel when it first came out – I recall enjoying it considerably, but little in the way of detail.

Inherent_Vice_film_poster

It’s set in 1970, in LA, and is pretty much entirely focalized on PI and hippie doper, Doc Sportello. It’s heavily inflected with real-life events of the time: the Manson murders and trial, Vietnam, etc. Generically, it’s somewhat of a crime noir in the Chandler, Hammett mode, but Sportello is no Sam Spade, rather a typically Pynchonian schlemihl. Mostly, at least: there’s a (now famous/ controversial, since the movie) sex scene where he mans up and gets all Sam Spade about stuff (not that there are any actual sex scenes in Hammett’s Sam Spade books, as I recall). But it’s also a very funny book. Reviewers at the time tended to stress its engaging and accessible character, by comparison with Pynchon’s other novels, famously difficult. This tends to recall a famous exchange between Truffaut and Hitchcock:

Tr.: I take it then that you’ll never do a screen version of Crime and Punishment.

Hit.: Even if I did, it probably wouldn’t be any good.

Tr.: Why not?

Hi.: Well, in Dostoyevsky’s novel there are many, many words and all of them have a function.

Tr.: That’s right. Theoretically, a masterpiece is something that has already found its perfect form, its definitive form.

Thus Inherent Vice is the first of Pynchon’s novels that is adaptable precisely because it is not a masterpiece, but a genre piece. Plot-wise, it kind of follows the rules: all the paranoia about conspiracy theories is resolved in a fairly coherent denouement, much more so than, say, V., anyway. And one shouldn’t be too picky about the denouement of the film, because of the history of the noir genre: famously, films like The Big Sleep (1946) have plots that don’t properly resolve – noir is not Agatha Christie.

One thing that’s clear from rereading parts of the book over the last few days is that Anderson really went for fidelity. Most of the dialogue is verbatim from Pynchon. The change is mostly in the area of condensation: it’s all Pynchon, but it’s not all of Pynchon. One unusual choice is in the voiceover. Pynchon’s narrator is heterodiegetic (i.e. not a character), but the language of the narrator is that of Doc, and when he get into doc’s mind it’s sometimes hard to tell where the voice of Doc’s thoughts (presented as free indirect discourse) ends and the voice of the narrator begins. Doc and the narrator seem inextricably linked. But Anderson goes with a female narrator (voiced by musician and now actor Joanna Newsom). Doc still remains at the centre of the film, though. He’s the one we know: well-meaning but ineffectual, a perennial loser in some respects, but pretty zen about it. Which is why the aggressive sex scene mentioned above has seemed pretty jarring to some (though it’s par for the course with Pynchon, who’s a very, well… pervy writer).

Joaquin Phoenix is well cast as Doc: he drawls, he mumbles, he has an off-kilter, enigmatic charm that keeps the character warm. The relatively unknown Catherine Waterston was good as Doc’s “eternal feminine draw[ing] us ever upward” (kinda) love interest Shasta. Lots of well-known faces pop up in supporting roles to keep it interesting. There’s an intriguing side-love-plot between Doc and a DA played by Reese Witherspoon. Just a couple of scenes, but a nice juxtaposition there. So my knowledge of this film is not so great as to allow me to perform a full formal analysis,  but I think I can stretch to an experiential analysis. Experientially, I would say: I enjoyed it. So, yeah. That’s about it. Its two and a half hours didn’t drag, and that sense of well-being that comes from being in a cinema theatre on a Tuesday afternoon was not dissipated by the film itself, its anti-establishment vibes chiming neatly with the sense of being an outlaw that comes with such an excursion.

3lww

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