The Victorian Sage

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

Review: The Seven Per Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer (1974)

Having discussed my preconceptions and early impressions of The Seven Per Cent Solution in my last post, it seems relevant to provide a review upon finishing the novel. This intriguing novel centres on a meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in Vienna, where they get together to solve a case involving a disorientated and apparently mistreated woman. The case, of course, turns out to be of international importance.


1975 Coronet Edition of The Seven Per Cent Solution

Ultimately, The Seven Per Cent Solution did not meet my expectations. Perhaps these were too high. But to get at the sort of thing I was expecting, here’s a reviewer’s quote from the back cover of the book:

What happens as one mastermind pitches wits against the other and as Freud proceeds to psychoanalyse Holmes and get to the heart of his secrets makes a marvellously entertaining treat for the most jaded palate. –Publishers Weekly

In a work featuring Holmes and Freud, one would indeed expect a large element of psychoanalysis. One would expect, as Publishers Weekly mentioned, a psychoanalysis of Holmes. As I neared the end of the book, I became increasingly surprised to find that no such content was in the book. I was wrong. In the final chapter, Freud does hypnotize and briefly psychoanalyze Holmes, and finds a secret from his past that explain his apparent disinterest in social, sexual and romantic relationships. I won’t give the details away, but it’s not original. It is taken from a well-known Holmes scholar of the time called Trevor H. Hall, which Meyers acknowledges in a footnote:

*This amazing event was actually deduced by Trevor Hall in his essay “The Early Years of Sherlock Holmes”, included in his masterly collection Sherlock Holmes: Ten Literary Studies, St. Martin’s Press, 1969. N.M.

Of course, Hall didn’t use Freudian techniques to arrive at his conclusions; rather he relied on detail from the stories, but the conclusions are the same. Which does prompt the following question: what use is psychoanalysis if it can only bring to light information that can as easily be brought to light by other channels? For this book to have successfully married Freudian thought to the Holmesian universe, it would at least have had to call forth some specifically Freudian knowledge, unavailable to the unassisted intelligence, and certainly not second hand.

And note also the timing of the psychoanalytic episode: the final chapter, when the central mystery had been solved. The word afterthought certainly springs to mind here. Again, the Freudian element should have been more integrated into the central narrative, not tacked on. But Meyer is less interested in the Freudian element than one might have expected.

Of course, there are other more Freudian characterizations of Holmes, if one wishes to find them. Sherlock most of all, as some reviewers have noted. The Seven Per Cent Solution, though, is not such a reading. Indeed, it is curiously reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), another narrative that appears to set itself up as an exploration of the Holmesian psyche, but that ends up following the tropes of the detective story, and leaving psychology and character behind. Stories in popular culture just had not become Freudian to support such an ambition at the time. Now, though, cultural tropes have changed, and Sherlock and other modern retellings are more suffused with Freudian theory than Meyer or Wilder could make their stories.

Freud meets Holmes: The Seven-per-cent Solution (1974)

The prevalence of Freudian readings of Sherlock Holmes, and the tensions they engender in the adapted narratives that make them, is a subject I have touched on before (also here). It was about time, then, that I read Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-per-cent Solution (1974), a shortish novel (221 pages in the Coronet 1975 edition which I will be referencing in this post) bringing the fictional detective and the real psychoanalyst together in an entirely fictional way.


Yoinked from here

In a sense, the novel is an adaptation of Doyle’s famous story “The Final Problem” (TFP), in which he (temporarily) killed off the detective at the Reichenbach Falls in a conflict with Moriarty. It didn’t quite happen like that, is Meyer’s contention. In fact, Moriarty was a harmless Professor of Mathematics whom had become the focus of Holmes’ paranoid fantasies, and Watson and Mycroft (Holmes’ brother) had tricked Holmes into travelling to Vienna to have him checked out by the eminent Dr. Freud. Still less than half-way through the novel, I am not yet sure how they get Holmes to Reichenbach Falls (or if he does end up there in Meyer’s version, as opposed to it being a product of his paranoid imagination. But Vienna is close-ish, the same part of the world, so I anticipate he probably does end up there.)

So the conceit of the novel is fantastic. There is a real philosophical and history-of-ideas interest in the juxtaposing of these two characters: the embodiment of late Victorian Heroism, unemotional and sexless, and the radical Austrian psychologist, upending with lasting effect all previous conceptions of humanity to place sex squarely at the centre of it all. It’s because of Freud that Holmes seems so alien to us (while remaining such an attractive figure.)

Meyer opens with the age-old “found manuscript” gambit. A late dictated text from Dr. Watson, found in an old house that had gone up for sale. This appeal to authenticity allies the book with “the game“, in which Sherlockian scholars treat Holmes and Watson as real people, and Doyle as their literary agent, and all the stories as real happenings, which just have to be put into a correct order to resolve the contradictions Watson left in them (these contradictions being explained by Watson’s need to protect the real identities of his subjects, his forgetfulness, in a couple of cases the stories are deemed to be forgeries not really by Watson, and so on). Dorothy Sayers famously wrote that:

The game of applying the methods of the “Higher Criticism” to the Sherlock Holmes canon was begun, many years ago, by Monsignor Ronald Knox, with the aim of showing that, by those methods, one could disintegrate a modern classic as speciously as a certain school of critics have endeavoured to disintegrate the Bible. Since then, the thing has become a hobby among a select set of jesters here and in America.

But the exponents of the game are many, and are by no means all jesters. Many take it very seriously indeed. Meyer is clearly very familiar with the game, and he takes part in it in Seven-per-cent. For example, Watson as narrator in this novel identifies Doyle’s stories “The Lion’s Mane”, “The Mazarin Stone”, “The Creeping Man” and “The Three Gables” as “forgeries”, and also as “drivel” (17).

The novel proper opens with Holmes arriving at Watson’s practice wanting to speak to him urgently. Holmes’ dialogue during the meeting is filled with nods to Doyle’s stories: references to Reade and Richter, complaints about the lack of high quality crime, and, most centrally, the following direct lift from TFP:

For years past, Watson, I have continually been conscious of some power behind the malefactor, some deep organizing power which for ever stands in the way of the law, and throws it shield over the wrong-doer. Again and again in cases of the most varying sorts — forgery cases, robberies, murders — I have felt the presence of this force, and I have deduced its action in many of those undiscovered crimes in which I have not been personally consulted. For years I have endeavored to break through the veil which shrouded it, and at last the time came when I seized my thread and followed it, until it led me, after a thousand cunning windings, to ex-Professor Moriarty of mathematical celebrity.

On one hand, this is a pretty dramatic and forceful speech; on the other, I have always felt it to be something of a jumping-the-shark moment in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales. While the early Holmes were all about the presence of seemingly inconsequential details in often very everyday stories, and the finding of unexpected interesting elements in mundane setups (in the early Doyle short stories, there are very few murders, and in several cases no crime to speak of.) I’m thinking here of a story like “The Red-headed League”: a curious tale whose mundanity is broken only be the comical but hardly sinister detail of the bequest for the man with the best red head! “Copper Beeches” is another classic in this regard. A mundane setting with a few curious details, hiding a very particular set of circumstances that the general reader can hardly begin to guess at.

But now in TFP Doyle gives up the great sense of specificity and eccentricity that attended these early stories by positing an antagonist, an embodiment of criminal evil for Holmes. This is standard narrative stuff obviously, but to me it’s a much less interesting approach than the earlier: from the notion all situations are uniquely interesting; we move to the notion that all crimes are one, with Moriarty at the centre. It’s almost like a move from empiricism to religious thinking; from attention to detail to reliance on symbolism.

So given my take on this, I enjoy how Meyer subverts it here. The preposterousness of Holmes’ idea here is made manifest; in seeing Moriarty everywhere, he’s not noticing a true unified pattern in crime, he’s exposing his own cocaine-fuelled paranoia. This becomes increasingly clear in the second chapter, wherein we meet the real Moriary. He gets in touch with Doyle to complain querulously about Holmes’ following him around for no apparent reason. All of this is much better than Doyle’s own conceit!

It is also clear from the start that Meyer feels the need to rehabilitate his narrator, i.e. Watson: “Students of my work have seen fit to remark that the man who wrote them was ‘slow’, a dullard, hopelessly gullible, totally without imagination, and worse. To these charges I plead not guilty […]. [B]eing in his company often made one feel dull whether or not one possessed a normal intelligence, which, by the by, I believe I do.” (55) Here, again, Meyer is probably showing his familiarity with Sherlockian scholarship, which has long taken exception to alleged popular misconceptions about Watson’s character. This is solidified in the famous Rathbone Holmes films of the late 1930s and the 1940s, wherein Nigel Bruce played an entertainingly imbecilic, comic-relief Watson. One can imagine the nods of satisfaction from Sherlockians on reading in Meyer an author ready to give Watson his due.


As I write, I haven’t yet read to the meetings between Holmes and Freud. This will be the meat of the book, and will decide whether it really lives up to the promise it has shown. There is room for a truly profound work in the Holmes-Freud nexus. Seven-per-cent has started well, promising to be a better solution to the problem of Holmes than Doyle himself found in TFP, a book that couldn’t have been written without Doyle, but that Doyle certainly couldn’t have written.

Hot Dogs, Hideously Large Bosoms and Neon Lighting: Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice (1864)

Žižek writes that he favours analyzing popular culture examples because it helps him “to avoid pseudo-Lacanian jargon and to achieve the greatest possible clarity not only for my readers but also for myself” (The Metastases of Enjoyment, Verso, 1994, p. 175). I’m not sure Žižek is always wholly successful in avoiding jargon and achieving maximum clarity, but it’s nice to know that he makes the effort. Raymond Williams famously noted that “Culture is ordinary“, rather than the preserve of an elite, and what could be more ordinary than popular culture – it is, by definition, the property of the many, rather than the few. Thus, popular culture is always a more fitting object of study than any high culture (“serious literature”, “arthouse cinema”, etc.)

So, if you want to know our culture, know the artefacts of popular culture in depth. And what could be more resoundingly and enduringly popular in Western societies (at least Anglophone ones) than the figure of James Bond. Most of us know him now through the continuing  film franchise, but he started off as a literary creation in a hugely popular series of books by Ian Fleming. Fleming started publishing Bond in 1953, but after the first film (Dr. No) appeared in 1962, he continued writing new books while older ones were being adapted until his death in 1965. You Only Live Twice, you novel I will write about here, belongs to this late period. Published in 1964, it was the last Bond novel to appear in Fleming’s lifetime.

You Only Live Twice takes up where the previous novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, left off. That is, Bond’s wife Tracy has been killed by Blofeld’s goons. So the Bond we meet in Twice is shattered by grief, drinking too much and failing at work. He’s very similar to the Bond we saw recently in the film Skyfall (2012), who seems to be physically past it, mentally jaded and fit for the scrapheap. But in both works, M. decides to pull Bond out of it by giving him a big mission. Here, 007 is sent to Japan on a diplomatic mission to check up on what the Russians are up to there.

In fact, the book opens with Bond already in Japan, having a meeting-confrontation with the ambiguous Tiger Tanaka. Tiger embodies the whole mystery and menace of Japan in the book. It’s not really clear if he’s friend or foe. He’s the head of the Japanese secret service. This service is never named: “‘Some unpronounceable Japanese rubbish'” (Vintage, 2012, p. 35), is  M.’s contemptuous non-effort to render it.

This opening chapter introduces a quite extensive selection of Western cultural cliches regarding Japan: geishas and sake figure prominently; sumo, kamikaze, samurai and Fu Manchu also get mentions. It’s the images of the samurai  and kamikaze that loom largest throughout the book. Tanaka himself is described as having a “formidable, cruel, Samurai face” (p. 8), and this description accurately prefigures the depiction of the Japanese and the idea of Japan by Fleming in the book.

Also in the first chapter, Bond semi-jokingly tells Tanaka that in a game of paper-scissors-rock he will win and thus “display not only the superiority of Great Britain, and especially Scotland, over Japan, but also the superiority of our Queen over your Emperor” (9). This anxious national competition is central to much of the book.


After this scene-setting first chapter with the ambiguous Tanaka, we move to the aforementioned backstory of Bond’s state post-Tracy and M.’s decision to send him to Japan. Only midway through chapter 7 do we again catch up with chapter 1, and we have more debate between Bond and Tanaka about the national character and political systems of their respective countries. Tanaka is particularly exercised by the change in Japanese culture since WWII, which he blames on the American presence:

Baseball, amusement arcades, hog dogs, hideously large bosoms, neon lighting – these are the part of our payment for defeat in battle. they are the tepid tea of the way of life we know under the name of demokorasu. They are a frenzied denial of the official scapegoats for our defeat – a denial of the spirit of the samurai as expressed in the kami-kaze, a denial of our ancestors, a denial of our gods. They are a despicable way of life[.]” (80)

Bond listens politely to Tanaka’s catalogue of horrific Americanisms, and offers his sympathy. That Fleming allows a voice to such anti-Americanism is an index of the fact that the Americans themselves as seen as slightly threatening in this book, no longer such a straightforward friend to Britain as in earlier novels. This type of politically-invested dialogue is very characteristic of Twice, and it is worth noting that it is precisely this type of matter that is not reproduced in the contemporaneous film versions of Bond. Twice has a very definite political context with plenty of detail (e.g. discussion of the differences between the CIA under Alan Dulles and under his successor John McCone [34]), such that an entire ideologico-political position is sketched out, and is as important to the text as the purely narrative elements (which are admittedly particularly weak in this novel, as has been noted by others).

For Fleming and his readers, there was clearly a need to reconsider and debate various elements of Western society and of the democratic ideal. “I stand for government by an elite” (53), Bond’s Australian friend Dikko Henderson says (and he also fervently opposes votes for Aborigines). Fleming never puts such strong political opinions in Bond’s mouth, so the status of such pronouncements is unclear. By giving them to bit part (albeit overall sympathetic) characters, Fleming is bringing such ideas into play without committing to them. He subtly plays with anti-democratic ideas, forcing the reader to confront them but not to accept them. In the light of the films, it remains an interesting exercise to return to the book, and to see the anti-democratic political tendencies that are much more visible here and that underlie much of the Bond narratives.

Carlyle and Foucault?

So, how does Thomas Carlyle map onto contemporary critical theory? Not an easy question, but one abstract of an essay attempting to explore this came to my attention this week.

This paper argues in favour of the beneficial currency of Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History in three ways, each of which finds the basis of its critique in aspects of Foucault’s theories of discursive practice, as explored in Foucault’s theories of historical discourse; 1) that Carlyle’s terminology connects with his discursive practice in an ambiguous manner, as his concept of worship is more akin to study than devotion, if we take the text of his lectures as evidence of his perception; 2) the sources of enlightenment Carlyle offers us, based on these studies of heroic individuals, may provide an exemplar for interdisciplinary scholarship centred around biographies of notable individuals, and finally; 3) we challenge the notion that heroes such as those Carlyle offers us can be manifest in the present and argue that the depth of insight Carlyle demonstrates into his subjects is only possible by means of a lengthy temporal transition: the historicity of these narratives, and the narratives of social codification, cultural development and long-term impact witnessed and described over generations, is what makes them feasible at all.

Louise Campbell, “The Archaeology of Heroes: Carlyle, Foucault and the Pedagogy of Interdisciplinary Narrative DiscourseJournal of Philosophy of Education (2017) Wiley Online Library

Three interesting points here. Point 1 I am, on first glance, somewhat sceptical of, for, though there is obviously an element of the scholarly to Carlyle’s work, his rapturous and forceful tone mean reading him is very different to reading a standard “study”. The Victorians called him a “sage” and this does get across the intensity of his work better than the notion of “study”. There is an ambiguity there about Carlyle’s relation to worship, but I don’t think it’s resolved by seeing his work as a “study” or him as simply a scholar.

Point 2 is promising, looking to Carlyle as an early interdisciplinarian, and trying, it seems, essentially to rehabilitate the “Great Man” approach to history and humanities. Of course it will be under a different name, and it will cast a wider net to find its subjects, in terms of gender, geography, class, etc., but we could learn certain things from the “Great Man” writers like Carlyle. In a sense this is being done by the nascent discipline of Heroism Science, but Carlyle wasn’t a scientist. He was closer to a humanist in his sense of the importance and power of the individual, and his interest in the psychological make-up and state of his heroes. This broad humanism may also be worth recovering.

Point 3 is difficult. As I understand it, it says we can acknowledge and study heroes, but they must be in the past. This is a fairly unorthodox point to which it is different to respond here. On a political level, at any rate, it seems sensible. Elevating a dead person to godhead seems less dangerous than elevating a live one. Yet, even here, is it not our worship of dead or non-existent persons/entities that gets us into most trouble? We find it hard to unequivocally worship the living being, but the non-corporeal symbol, less so. This, indeed, was a central point in Sartor Resartus, according to the reading of it in the Dark Knight Rises Chapter of my thesis. The difficulties of thinking about worship and heroes, and their place in human history is apparent, but their importance remains, so one must welcome the debate this paper should engender, if the interesting abstract is anything to go by.

My position remains roughly that we need to encounter Carlyle in his exemplary otherness. Progressive thought in our societies has almost lost the ability to engage with the other side. We can find in Carlyle plenty of hooks that will provoke our engagement: his anger at shams and dishonesty, his dismay at the mechanization of thought and society, his proto-anti-consumerism. We can use them to understand better the roots of much contemporary anti-liberal thought, and learn to see that it does not wholly spring from simply base or stupid motives. Now is not a time for agreeing amongst ourselves, now is a time for (as Žižek recommended) defending lost causes to ourselves, so we can come up with a common solution.

A.J. Ayer in the Post-Truth Era

The fact that we are now living in the era of “post-truth” does not signify that truth no longer matters. As far as progressive political debate is concerned, in fact, it signifies the opposite: that now truth is once again a key term of discussion, a term worthy of extended theoretical reflection. As Andrew Calcutt has described, truth went out the window not with the election of Trump but with the coming to prominence of post-modern thought through the 70s and 80s. Indeed, it is the political climate which produced Trump (etc.) which has forced academics and political theorists to rehabilitate truth, and to begin to imagine again a regime of truth, to which post-truth is opposed.

So, as with any new movement in thought, that revolving around the theorization of post-truth (and, by implication, truth) will need to find its ancestors. Here, perhaps, the logical positivism of A.J. Ayer’s Logic, Truth and Language (Dover, 1952 [1936]) can come in. A masterpiece of clarity, concision and strict factiness, this is a book which will force readers to adopt a narrow and workable definition of truth. It is a book which impressed me greatly on first reading, although I haven’t yet used it in my scholarly writing.

Ayer wished to eliminate all metaphysics from philosophy – or, if not eliminate it, to at least make it clear that metaphysics was not verifiable and was “nonsense” in his sense of that word. Propositions, Ayer argues, are either sense or nonsense; if the former, they are either true or false; if the latter, they are neither true nor false, and one really needs to think long and hard about why one is engaging in arguments using these propositions, and what is the goal of such argumentation.

Essentially, everything is empirical. If we can’t come up with material, sense-based evidence of a proposition, then we must be speaking either tautology or nonsense. Of course, propositions may be a mixture of verifiable empirical substance and nonsense, but in this case the essential intellectual task at hand is to separate these out.

Ayer’s philosophy seems rather anti-philosophical in its refusal to countenance metaphysics. He specifies that the task of philosophy is “wholly critical” (48), it is a work of “clarification and analysis” (49). The philosopher “devotes himself to the purely analytical tasks of defining knowledge, and classifying propositions, and displaying the nature of material things” (52). Ayer goes on to specify the philosopher’s role further:

[T]he philosopher, as an analyst, is not concerned with the physical properties of things. He is concerned only with the way in which we speak about them (57).

This is striking: it seems to equate with philosophy with what we think of discourse analysis, and discourse analysis is very much the province of broadly post-modern thinkers, e.g. Foucault. In this sense, Ayer’s logical positivism is very much compatible with post-modern thought.

But there is a key difference. Ayer recognizes the simple truth and falsity of wholly empirical propositions. He wouldn’t elide the difference between true and false statements by pointing out that “everything is discourse“. Rather, every proposition should be parsed for what empirical truth or falsity it contains, and only after this elementary step has been taken can we begin to take into account the emotional significance of a statement.

In reality, things get very complicated in the political arena, and each sides produces different data sets (empirical proofs) to back up their assertions. But while Ayer’s scheme is too abstractly simple to be a comprehensive guide to truth, it at least allows us to recognize simple truths when we see them, and that is something that is needed, and it also provides a model of frank and striaghforward prose. Perhaps, then, in the search to rediscover truth, Logic, Truth and Language is a book we should familiarize ourselves with.

Agatha’s Christie’s The Body in the Library (1942): Revenge on Boisterous Youth

The purest essence of genre fiction is found, perhaps, in the detective novels of Agatha Christie. Many admire her works, but few consider them to be literature. In “The Typology of Detective Fiction“, Tzvetan Todorov makes the distinction that great literature is that which transgresses the norms of a genre, an thus creates its own genre. Christie’s novels are the archetypal “whodunits” for Todorov, not concerned with transgressing norms, but with bringing them to a “geometrical perfection”. On one hand, this is an admirable quality, but on the other it is easy to see how such a technical perfection might be considered inferior to a more humanistic literature, as a triumph of the mechanical intellect over the dynamical (as Carlyle would say). Christie is therefore a perfect plotting machine, but not a great writer.

Image result for the body in the library

So, on opening The Body in the Library (1942) recently, this distinction was one I had in mind. In mind, also, was how Christie would stand up after so many years. In my early teenage years, I had read her books voraciously, transfixed by her ingenuity, methodical plotting, and clear, unobstructed style. But I had long ago moved on to other things.

The Body in the Library opens unexpectedly: with a dream scene. We are inside the consciousness of the sleeping Mrs Bantry. Even in her subconscious, however, this Christie character is evidently pretty tame. She is dreaming of winning the local flower show. On a slightly less banal note, the Vicar’s wife inhabits the dream dressed in a bathing suit, in a touch that signifies the surrealism of the dream world, or that, perhaps, hints at a submerged homoeroticism in Mrs Bantry.

Agatha Christie.png

In general, Christie spends very little time in her characters’ consciousness. There is much external focalization and very little internal focalization, in Genette’s terms. Mrs Bantry is woken by a maid with the news that there is, as the title predicted, A Body in the Library. Christie, again against the conception of her as a mechanical writer, has a bit of “meta” fun with this body (e.g. a character says, “Bodies are always being found in libraries in books. I’ve never known a case in real life.”[Harper Collins, 2011, 4]).

This is a Miss Marple book. Up to the point I have read (about half way), Miss Marple’s investigation is intercut with that of Colonel Melchett, the Chief Constable in charge of the case. He gets just as much space as her, but it is clear that Miss Marple has access to modes of investigation he cannot reach. She has, according to another character (Sir Henry Clithering) “specialized knowledge”: “Miss Marple has an interesting, though occasionally trivial, series of parallels from village life” (93). Precisely because of her sheltered and boring existence, without apparent profession and without close family, she has observed her own microcosm of life in the village with such acuity that she can apply her learning to the whole of humanity, having a convenient parallel for every occurrence. That’s the idea in this book, at least; it would be interesting to see if Christie takes it to spaces beyond the English country village. There is, thus far, no mention of the clue-based rationalism of Holmes or Poirot; this is a psychology-based insight into crime, based on a close examination of a rural slice of human nature, and a conviction that “Human nature is very much the same anywhere” (99).

As for the politics of Christie, or at least of the “implied author” here. What looms large in Library is the generation gap, the near-absolute incompatibility of the ways of life involved. Representing the youth, first of all, is the murder victim herself, who appears in the opening pages as the titular body, a body that is somehow “cheap, tawdry, flamboyant” (11). Throughout, as her life is pieced together by investigators, Ruby Keene is spoken of in curiously disparaging terms by almost all characters. Even Miss Marple herself is surprisingly dismissive of Ruby’s personality. For example, here. in the context of her relationship with an older man, and what he saw in her:

“[…] She may have had some remarkable qualities.”

“Probably not”, said Miss Marple placidly.


“This girl saw her opportunity and played it for all she was worth!” [said Miss Marple.] (95-96)

Ruby is a lower-class person, a dancer by trade; she is also virgo intacta, according to the doctor who examined her body. Perhaps it is all a ruse by Christie, and the denouement will reveal that Ruby was something other than she has appeared, but Miss Marple’s dismissal of her suggests otherwise, and it is a little discomfiting to read the contempt with which she is discussed (“weaselly” and “stupid” are two epithets I recall being used by other characters about her), and to consider it in the light of the class politics of the novel.

But one must emphasize the generational conflict at the heart of the novel. This is manifest in the suspicion with which Ruby’s attachment to an older, wealthier man is discussed. It is manifest in the early pages when Miss Marple reflects that this tawdry body must have originated at one of young Basil Blake’s house parties:

It seemed to me that the only possible explanation was Basil Blake. He does have parties […]. Shouting and singing – the most terrible noise – everyone very drunk, I’m afraid – and the mess and the broken glass next morning simply unbelievable[.] (17)

When the police pay a visit to Blake, it is revealed that he lives in a “hideous shell of half timbering and sham Tudor” (20). A hideous shell! And this is the narrator, the mild, blank Christiean narrator who makes this judgement. The young in The Body in the Library are a threat, an obscene irruption, oversexed and underclothed, vulgar and tasteless. As such, the novel is reading to me at the moment almost as a middle-class and middle-aged fantasy of revenge. There, perhaps, is the significance of the dream opening: a clue to the fantasmic underpinning of the novel. But perhaps I have merely been taken in by Christie and by the end I will have been forced to changed my mind. In any case, finishing the book will be a pleasure, for the unobstructed clarity of Christie’s prose and her narrative drive have not changed.

Ideological Diversity, the University, and the Uses of Screen Adaptation

Interesting piece from Times Higher Education about the progressive political views held by almost all academics in the USA and embedded in the research they create: not just in the form, but in the actual content. The author, Musa al-Gharbi, avers that academics routinely “exaggerat[e] conclusions when convenient while finding ways to ignore, discredit, defund or suppress research that threatens their identity or perceived interests.” Generally this is to support a progressive bias, says al-Gharbi. A knock-on effect of this is that conservative-leaning persons don’t feel comfortable in academia, and find it harder to build a career, leading to the proliferation of extremely well-funded and influential “think-tanks” comprising conservative thinkers and researchers. Another knock-on effect is that academia has very little credibility among large sectors of the population.

On a narrowly political scale, one has to note that academia’s commitment to progressivist-leftist ideals has not strengthened the left in the USA. The president is very right-wing, and the two houses of parliament are now both controlled by the Republican Party. Academia’s influence on society, then, is a depressingly negative one, pushing people towards the opposite extreme.

Academia needs to come to terms with and to engage in dialogue with its right-wing other. An argument I am kind of making in an upcoming publication is that one way to do this is through the use of transtemporal adaptations – that is film/tv (or other media, in theory, though not in my practice as yet) adaptations of novels from another period. Say, the Victorian period. The fact is, almost all writers from that period have various opinions far to the right of the people who tend to watch adaptations of the novels, and of people who write these adaptations. Dickens in Oliver Twist, for example (the example I am using in said upcoming publication), subscribes to fairly hardcore anti-semitism in Oliver Twist, in the character of Fagin; makes his heroine, Rose, a pure and sexless angel-in-the-house type; signifies Oliver’s moral superiority with an otherwise inexplicable upper-class diction, and so on. All of this causes problems for adapters, because to reproduce such ideological functions could make Dickens appear to modern sensibilities shallow, old-fashioned and even obnoxious. So, consciously or unconsciously, Dickens’ less progressive opinions are toned done, left out or turned round.

Image result for oliver twist 2007

Oliver Twist 2007 BBC series. An adaptation that consciously problematized Dickens’ text. Image from

These operations of toning down, etc., become important at the moment of comparative narrative analysis. Being acquainted with what appears in the novel in a different form to the adaptation, we become aware of the ideological otherness of Dickens. This provides a mild shock, as we are regularly assured that Dickens was a progressive writer, a great champion of the poor, a “seeker after gentle justice” etc. – which is, indeed, approximately half true. By being forced to juxtapose this genial image with the problematic reality of Dickensian ideology, we gain insight into the complexities of the formation of ideological consciousness. We also problematize the more presentist stance presented by the adaptation, in its toning down, etc. What seemed natural in the context of the adaptation alone, “how things really are”, is seen now as a deliberate choice, one informed if not dictated by the ideological presumptions of our time and place. And this problematization is absolutely a worthy goal in our climate. This was Žižek’s aim in In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2009),  ‘to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative’ (6), and it is something that is still a long way from being done with sufficient rigour in academia.


Jane Welsh Carlyle

New biography of Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of the original Victorian Sage Thomas Carlyle, is about to hit the shelves. Positive early review of Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World: A Story of Love, Work, Friendship and Marriage by Kathy Chamberlain from The Spectator here. Welsh’s letters were published after her death in 1866, and were immediately lauded for their wit, acumen and descriptive powers. They are now freely available on The Carlyle Letters Online, as is the more voluminous correspondence of her husband.


Jane Welsh Carlyle, from a portrait by Samuel Lawrence, circa 1852.

The classic account of JWC is probably still James Anthony Froude’s 4-volume Life of Carlyle (available in a scholarly 1-volume abridgement here). In a later text, Froude offered a much-quoted reflection on the Carlyles’ relationship: “The story, as I often said to myself, was as sternly tragic, as profoundly pathetic as the great Theban drama.”

For Froude’s audience, the greatest interest was in the private life of the great Sage; for a 21st-century audience, his overlooked spouse, whose talents never found a field in her lifetime, may be a more compelling figure.



“What is the meaning of it, Watson?”: A Reflection on Meaninglessness, Despondency and Freedom

One of the great moments in the Sherlock Holmes canon comes at the very end of “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box“, and features the great detective in an unusually pensive and apparently depressed mood. It is at the end of a particularly trying and tragic case:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

Sidney Paget. Sherlock Holmes illustration

Illustration by Sidney Paget from the original publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories

In this case, even the chance to exercise his deductive powers in the interests of justice doesn’t serve to shield Holmes from the bleaker truths of human existence and human relations.

Such bleakness, while not charactersitic of Doyle, is somewhat of a feature of the literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. A classic example that has remained with me from first reading the book in my youth comes from W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915):

the sage gave [the king]the history of man in a single line; it was this: he was born, he suffered, and he died. There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence.

Also worth noting is the protagonist’s response to this “history of man”:

Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty.

This is an interesting philosophico-psychological twist: meaninglessness can bring, not just despair as it did (albeit not on a permanent basis) to Holmes, rather it gives one a sense of freedom and power.

Holmes tortured

Jeremy Brett playing Holmes in despondent mood at the end of the film The Master Blackmailer (1992)

Perhaps the reader disturbed by Holmes’ despondent reaction in “The Cardboard Box” should imagine him reading Of Human Bondage, and thereby coming to terms with the meaninglessness of his endeavours. By 1915, Holmes had already retired to keep bees on the Sussex Downs. He could have done worse things with his free time than reading Maugham’s long, semi-autobiographical novel, and so could the contemporary reader, who perhaps does not pay enough attention to the rather unfashionable Maugham, a writer who has for a long time now been “eclipsed” in the public attention.


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