The Victorian Sage

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

Month: August, 2012

On Looking into 50 Shades of Grey

It behoves the aspirant cultural critic to investigate all significant cultural phenomena, and with this in mind I have lately been looking into E.L. James’s bestselling erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey, which is the fastest selling book of all time. Suddenly, it’s taken the generally unspeakable topic of sado-masochistic sexual relationships and presented it in a way that has found huge favour in the mainstream. It has provided a new code with which to speak of things which as their uneuphemized selves cannot be spoken of. Yet whether 50 Shades is really about sex and/or sado-masochism is harder to say. Perhaps its popularity is that it is a book nominally about sex that really gives free rein to other fantasies, giving to certain old tropes a veneer of newness by the addition of sado-masochistic content. Here, having read 66% of the novel by Kindle’s calculations, I will take time to reflect on this groundbreaking work, this Sign of the Times, as our old friend Mr C. would say.

The relationship between Christian Grey and the young female narrator Anastasia Steele is about much more than sex. The sexual dominance Grey employs is only an extension of what happens in the rest of their relationship. He follows her, he’s there when she’s about to do something dumb or dangerous, he always knows what she’s thinking, he has the power to give her all the things she wants materially, if she deserves them. He is a sort of secular god, with added powers of providing sexual satisfaction. He doesn’t provide Anastasia with just a good sexual partner, but with a whole metanarrative, a design for life. He motivates her, partly through fear of losing his favour, to change her lifestyle, to eat and drink better, to sleep better, to be fitter and more productive, to exercise – which she has hitherto hated; she is no longer in danger of a standard student life of alcoholic overindulgence whose dangers are highlighted in the early part of the book. She drives more slowly after meeting him, remembering “a stern voice telling me to drive carefully” (loc 312 – Kindle citation). Grey is a convenient construction who provides a personalized motivation to do all of the things she felt she should be doing anyway. He is an all-knowing, all-seeing providence guiding her every movement, and judging it infallibly. The same drives that are behind the creation of a Christian Grey are those hitherto sublimated in the religions of mankind. Religion is, in the words of Dr Freud (in Civilization and its Discontents (1929)):

[A] system of teachings and promises that one the one hand explains to him [i.e. man], with enviable thoroughness, the riddles of this world, and on the other assures him that a careful providence will watch over his life and compensate him in a future existence for any privations he suffers in this. The common man cannot imagine this providence otherwise than as an immensely exalted father.

The good doctor goes on to find this “so patently infantile, so remote from reality, that it pains a philanthropic temperament to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above such a view of life.”

In 50 Shades, this image of the immensely exalted father is not projected onto a literal god, but onto a real person (diegetically real, that is). It is the feeling of being watched over by a perhaps stern but certainly benevolent omnipotence that provides the attraction for Anastasia Steele. Sex, I would suggest, is a small part of this, and not the most important; only important, perhaps, in that sex is the hardest element of life to reconcile with the religious drives – but, yet, they must be made to reconcile, and this is what James achieves, providing a fantasy of life that has all bases covered. 50 Shades of Grey helps to fill a God-shaped void for many of its readers (and, by God, I mean, mostly, the wish to abdicate intellectuo-moral responsibility); the danger, of course, is in applying the “lessons” of 50 Shades to real life, as this involves the imputation of god-like status to some person. Whether this turns out to be more dangerous than imputing god-like status to an illusory entity, time will tell.

One is not, of course, suggesting that 50 Shades in itself and alone will be responsible for a rerouting of the religious drives onto individuals within a romantic and sexual context, but that it is a Sign of the Times in this regard. This is all based on the supposition that the drives which have hitherto given rise to religions are still operative and as it were searching for a new object.

Carlyle’s “On History” (1830)

An early prefiguration of Carlyle’s theory of history as it was to be practiced in The French Revolution, et al. came in the essay “On History“, written when he was still an unknown and financially struggling translater and journalist. “On History” starts by noting that history is the most important form of writing, because only through studying and observing the past can we at all know the present, or indeed the future: “The coming Time already waits, unseen, yet definitely shaped, predetermined and inevitable, in the Time come”. This is very similar to the famous opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present

The similarity is perhaps worth looking into. Eliot was certainly quite familiar with Carlyle.

So, to read the past is to read the future. But reading the past is not really possible for Carlyle: only certain large public events are recorded, but what of “the nameless boor who first hammered out for himself an iron spade?” He, and his like, the nameless drudges, “the long-forgotten train of artists and artisans” are the real history-makers in many respects but all extant histories are, Carlyle notes, political histories, and as he notes elsewhere, ““Acts of Parliament are small, notwithstanding the noise they make” (On Heroes, Lecture III). Further, those events which are recorded are not recorded in their essential character:

It is in no case, the real historical Transaction, but only some more or less plausible scheme and theory of the Transaction, or the harmonised resut of many such schemes, each varying from the other and all varying from truth, that we can ever hope to behold.

Ultimately, Carlyle calls history an “ever-living, ever-working Chaos of Being, wherein shape after shape bodies itself forth from innumerable elements.” So far, we may say, so postmodern, yet if we know anything of Carlyle we know that he cannot allow such a state of uncertainty to stand.

Edging towards a definite reading of history, Carlyle introduces the notion of the palimpsest – again,  this is a surprisingly modern view, but at the deepest level of the palimpsest is “prophetic writing, still dimly legible there”. The mere artisan of history can not reach this faded prophecy, but the Artist can go some way towards deciphering it, and thereby getting an “Idea of the Whole”. The Artist works, it appears from Carlyle’s somewhat vague account here, by intuition, while the Artisan, though not without his uses, is a mechanical worker, who “reads the inscrutable book of Nature as though it were a Merchant’s Ledger”, and thinks all facts can be “computed and ‘accounted for'”. Carlyle’s Artist/ Historian works not by agglomerating facts, but by leaving aside, or at least de-prioritizing, political history, and concentrating on Ecclesiastical History – not the history of churches, exactly, but of man’s inward and spiritual life, his moral well-being. Of how religion first arose in man’s soul and then “embodied itself in his external life”. Such a focus is posited as an antidote to the mechanical tendencies so prevalent to Carlyle’s contemporaries, as he saw it.

This essay is unusual among Carlyle’s works because it nowhere invokes his Hero-doctrine in any form, or even implies it. Later he would see history more as a collection of biographies of great men, who he would consider as being motivated by ideas of divine duty. This allowed him to greatly simplify his own theories of history. As it is set forth in the early pages of “On History”, it is broad-minded but probably unworkably large in scope. The introduction of rather simplistic and ad hoc notions of divine duty and Eternal Laws of the Universe that can be read by the seer or Hero made Carlyle’s practical excursions into historical writing very different, filled with a moral certainty and stridency that certainly makes for committed and passionate writing, but not always for real engagement with the complexities of history. Not that Carlyle couldn’t appreciate such complexity: “On History” makes it clear he understood it very well; but he couldn’t live with it, couldn’t handle his own depth of critical perception, and as his career went on, he fled more and more towards the certainties of a divine order, and the heaven-inspired Hero, trying to forget the unsettling proto-postmodernism of his own insights.

Flinging Dead Cats: Reading Carlyle’s Pamphlet on Model Prisons

In my readings of the main works of Thomas Carlyle I have come to the notorious Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), the collection of condition-of-England reflections that did most to damage his own reputation in his lifetime. It was on reading the Pamphlets that Anthony Trollope remarked: “I look on him as a man who was always in danger of going mad in literature and who has now done so” (Simon Heffer, Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle, London: Phoenix Giant, 1995). Reading “Model Prisons”, the second of the pamphlets, one understands Trollope’s view; nevertheless, it should also be remembered that this pamphlet inspired Dickens, whose chapter on Heep and Littimer in jail in David Copperfield (1850) is clearly indebted to Carlyle.

“Model Prisons” is extraordinary for the contempt, disgust and sadistic malice with which it regards prison inmates. Carlyle paid a visit to Millbank Penitentiary, and what he saw was charity and indulgence towards…

Miserable distorted blockheads, the generality; ape-faces, imp-faces, angry dog-faces, heavy sullen ox-faces; degraded underfoot perverse creatures, sons of indocility, greedy mutinous darkness, and in one word, of STUPIDITY, which is the general mother of such.

Rather than philanthropy, what these wrongdoers needed was

A collar round the neck, and a cart-whip flourished over the back, these in a just and steady human hand, were what the gods would have appointed them.

The pamphlet (and others in the series) is also full of cloacal imagery that must have imspired Dickens in Our Mutual Friend:

 A whole world, for want of Reform, is drowning and sinking; threatening to swamp itself into a Stygian quagmire, uninhabitable by any noble-minded man.

“Model Prisons” is truly an extraordinary work, but what is surprising is less that this and its fellow pamphlets led many to denounce Carlyle, than that so many continued to see him as a seer and social prophet: Dickens’ period of Carlyle-influence was just beginning, and George Eliot eulogized Carlyle in 1856, admitting that many “quarrel with the exaggerations of the Latter-Day Pamphlets“, but concluding that “for any large nature these points of difference are incidental. It is not as a theorist, but as a great and beautiful human nature, that Carlyle influences us” (Eliot, Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings, Penguin, 1990).

While writings like “Model Prisons” may give rise to doubts about the beauty of his nature, and the sheer repetitiveness is ultimately tedious, what continues to impress is Carlyle’s extraordinary style, prophetico-volcanic, seething with a vibrancy that is almost purely destructive, malicious and sadistic, but that is nonetheless unignorable.

One example of Carlyle’s sheer unpredictability and oddness particularly struck me: it is in reference to the philanthropic movement, one he had attacked before in the (also notorious) Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question (1849); here he refers to it as a conglomeration of “universal sluggard-and-scoundrel protection societies”. Before true reform can begin, he says, philanthropism must be defeated, and he is certain that this will in fact happen:

One day, I do know, this, as is the doom of all nonsense, will be drummed out of the world, with due placard stuck on its back, and the populace flinging dead cats at it: but whether soon or no, is by no means certain.

The populace flinging dead cats at it. What an image this is! And this hypothetical action to be directed, not at a person, or even a thing, but an abstraction. One of the things that give Carlyle’s prose its peculiar intensity is this tendency to humanize everything, and see it in the simplest binary terms: all things to Carlyle in LDP are either of God or are of the Devil; they either conform to the Eternal Laws of the Universe, or they are an offense against such laws – in which case, their doom approaches. Carlyle’s binarism in descriptions like this is not perhaps very impressive from an intellectual point of view – in fact, as argument it’s sheer sophistry – but it gives him a solid basis from which to indulge in the most unhinged rants ever set to paper. Rants which are, however, delivered in language which attains power through(occasional) innovation, apocalypticism and the undying passion of the splenetic.

Ok, so they're not dead, but it was the closest I could get

Ok, so they’re not dead, but it was the closest I could get (The Simpsons, Crazy Cat Lady)

Yoinked from



Further Notes on Flinging Dead Cats:

Wiktionary’s Glossary of Idioms has an entry for “can’t swing a dead cat without hitting…” I had never heard this before, though it is similar to the more common “not room enough to swing a cat”. In any case, it’s close to but different from Carlyle’s term and usage, which relates to a punishment or expression of community disapproval.  Using Carlyle’s sense, one can imagine perhaps a pagan custom recorded somewhere deep in The Golden Bough in which the king after a bad harvest is chased from the community by “the populace flinging dead cats at [him].”

The Free Dictionary has lots of “cat” idioms, but nothing on this one. Apparently there’s a Polish phrase meaning “to fling the dead cat over the neighbour’s fence”, which indicates either “passing the buck” or malice. Opinions differ. This website offers a complete guide to live cat flinging, in a spirit (one hopes) of jocularity.  It’s  surprisingly detailed and elaborate.

Google Books search offers first several editions of Carlyle’s works in which the phrase “flinging dead cats” appears, then a few other works in which it’s used in a basically similar sense (close to “trenchantly hostile criticism” or something like that), but all seemingly later than Carlyle’s usage.

In short, I have no idea of the provenance of the phrase. I doubt, on reflection, that Carlyle actually invented it, but in the absence of indications to the contrary, he may have. One can only lament its fall from usage, and endeavour to use it whenever practicable in future. There are many contemporary phenomena which one would like to see the populace take to flinging (metaphorical) dead cats at. Example (suggested by above image): “The Simpsons used to be great, but has long outstayed its welcome. People still watch it, but it can’t be long before it’s recognized for the travesty it’s become, and is shunted off our TV screens, the viewing audience flinging dead cats at it.”

The Other Bleak House: The BBC 1985 Serial

The BBC serial adaptation of Bleak House broadcast in 2005 came in for a great deal of praise both from critics and from the general public. Indeed, a perusal of the reviews shows that general approbation has been almost universal: 99 reviews (as of 4 August 2012), avg. 4.8 (out of 5): 87×5 star, 9×4 star and one each of 3, 2, and 1 stars. And even the one star review insists on the merits of the series, giving one star solely on the basis of the DVD release policy (deluxe edition with extras only 9 months after initial release). So this blog is somewhat in the minority in not enjoying the serial.

In technical terms Bleak House was undoubtedly something of a departure for the classic serial. Quick scenes, lots of sound effects, kinetic camerawork. Everything to give the impression of ceaseless movement, a plot rushing towards revelation and resolution. It was interesting also that the DVD cover claimed the serial was Bleak House “stripped of its sentimentality”, certainly a departure from the aesthetic of fidelity that has been presumed to be paramount in classic serials. Bleak House was not to be faithful, rather it was to distance itself from Dickens’ sentimentality. Yet ultimately, shorn of its sonic and visual innovations, Bleak House was more conventional than intended. The script, by the patron saint of adapters Andrew Davies, did not escape sentimentality, and, despite making interesting comments about his reworking of Esther Summerson’s character (in an interview in Cartmell and Whelehan, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (CUP, 2007), she remained what G.B. Shaw called Dickens’ Esther, “a maddening prig“, humourless and quietly but immovably judgemental. It’s not so easy to strip Bleak House of its sentimentality, because the whole plot revolves around Esther’s loveability: Jarndyce loves her, Woodcourt loves her, Guppy loves her, Caddy loves her, Ada loves her, everybody loves her! A perhaps impossible challenge for the adapter is to render Esther as likeable to the reader as she is to everyone in the diegetic world, or at least to make it plausible that she would generate such extreme affection; making the other characters recognize that she’s actually “a maddening prig” won’t work, because the love of these characters for Esther operates on the development of the plot – no love for Esther, very little plot.

In the 1985 BBC Bleak House, now unfairly overshadowed by its successor, the problem of Esther isn’t really solved either, but we do have a quieter Esther, who stays in the background as much as is feasible given her large role in the plot. She is silent where Dickens’ Esther is disingenuously self-denigrating and Anna Maxwell-Martin’s Esther in the 2005 version is (I think) too assertive, too secure in her judgements. Silence is, frankly, about the best that can be done with Esther.

Suzanne Burden as Esther Summerson, Bleak House (BBC 1985)

The 1985 Bleak House is very much in the mould of the classic serial: no 24-style zooming lenses here, just long scenes, static camera, and often only the dialogue and the actors’ faces to concentrate on. The obligatory orchestral score is relatively understated, often giving way to the dialogue. There are some very effective long scenes, a 10-minute scene in Lady Dedlock’s drawing room with Lady D and Guppy springs to mind. With the almost total absence of non-diegetic sound and the long, still close-ups of the two actors, it’s almost theatrical, and it works wonderfully. Diana Rigg is an excellent Lady Dedlock, all told.

Diana Rigg as Lady Dedlock

Of course, there’s difficulty with the plotting: Lady D.’s death is dealt with in episode 7 (of 8, 50 minutes each), so the final episode is given over almost totally to Richard’s experience in Chancery -a terrible scripting decision: all the other strands are already gathered together, so there’s an inessential feel to the episode; it feels more like a long afterword than a properly integrated episode, certainly not a climactic final episode. Other plot lines are just dropped: as far as I remember, George is last seen or heard of in prison in the penultimate episode, and his release is not dealt with. Overall, though, despite this serious caveat, this Bleak House copes admirably with the difficulties of the adaptation and seems to my judgement to be a better bet than its successor, with a more sympathetic and nuanced (if less well structured) script, and more understated but effective performances.

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