The Victorian Sage

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

Month: January, 2013

Terry Eagleton on Religion

Having earlier set down a few thoughts on historian Niall Ferguson’s advocacy of a religious society, I have moved onto the work of another well-known public intellectual of a deist persuasion, Terry Eagleton. Eagleton is known for his Marxist views, but he also published a series of lectures as Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009), which, despite the apparent balance of the title, is intended as a riposte to  the strident atheism of Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great (2007) and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006). Eagleton conflates his two nemeses into the singular “Ditchkins” in his book. In one sense, this is a legitimate device, as their position on many issues regarding ethics, religion and civilization is similar; Eagleton also differentiates between them with regard to several positions. On the other hand, the term he chooses carries highly derogatory connotations: ditch-kins, brothers of the gutter. At least that is what it suggests to me.

But that is not my interest here. Eagleton confirms something I found in Ferguson; something that seems to operate as the trump card for religionists of the western world in this era. It focusses on, and takes its validation from, Islamic fundamentalism. This is the subject of Eagleton’s last chapter, “Culture and Barbarism”. Here he states:

Advanced capitalism is inherently agnostic. This makes it look particularly flaccid and out of shape when its paucity of belief runs up against an excess of the stuff. […] With the advent of Islamist terrorism, those contradictions have been dramatically sharpened. It is now more than ever necessary that the people should believe, at just the point where the Western way of life deprives them of much incentive for doing so. (143-4)


I have already argued that reason alone can face down a barbarous irrationalism, but that to do so it must draw upon forces and sources of faith which run deeper than itself, and which can therefore bear an unsettling resemblance to the very irrationalism one is seeking to repel. (161)

Eagleton retains his Marxist stance here, equating Marxism with faith and capitalism with the lack thereof. Otherwise, though, he’s in the exact same position as capitalist religionist Ferguson: if your opponents proclaim strong belief in irrationalities, you must adapt similarly irrational beliefs to combat them. Strength through irrationality. It is possible, if you try to believe really hard, to out-irrationalize the most fundamentalist of terrorists. What is missing from this debate is any sort of commitment to truth. In the earlier chapters, Eagleton does make some hazy theological pronouncements on God, the universe and everything, but nothing clear. His getout for this is that theology is abstruse and not easily explained; Ditchkins, et al., espouse “an abysmally crude, infantile version of what theology has traditionally maintained” (50). Yet it is no accident that the climactic parts of Eagleton’s book, the real meat in his arguments, totally discard theology and issues of truth in religion to focus on its social utility and Islamist-terrorism-fighting powers.

For the reasonable person who admits the undesirability of terrorism, what is left? As far as I can gather, Eagleton would tell that person to pretend to believe in some religion. To play along. Of course, you don’t call it pretending. Instead, you follow Eagleton by noting that “[Badiou] does grasp the vital point that faith articulates a loving commitment before it counts as a description of the way things are” (119). This appears to me vague and evasive; a “loving commitment” is great, but its dependence on religious faith is simply assumed, and used to excuse the fact that faith doesn’t help with understanding “the way things are”. As Lionel Hutz said, “There’s the truth [shakes head forbiddingly] and the truth [nods head vigorously]”. If you think there’s just the truth, you won’t be much help in the war against terror. So 21st-century religionists would have you believe.

In short, it’s not the imperative of all inhabitants of the Western world to believe, at whatever cost to reason and empirical observation, and at the risk of propelling themselves into a state of chronic cognitive dissonance. Rather, it is the imperative of a public intellectual like Eagleton to point out what he believes can be believed – to do it in good faith, without obfuscation and without simply playing on common fears. A return to old forms is out of the question. Eagleton, Ferguson and the rest would be well advised to “take off their old monastic and ecclesiastical spectacles”, as Thomas Carlyle put it (“Stump Orator”, Latter-Day Pamphlets), and to begin to see once again with their eyes. If faith is so important, then let us have faith – only let it not be faith in cant and jargon (Carlyle again). That is not a dynamic and energizing force in the community, as Eagleton seems to think, but a sham obvious to all but those who will not see.

The Granada Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994)

The  late 1980s- early 1990s Granada series adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories provide a nice contrast to the more recent efforts, showing a contrary approach to the source material and to the aesthetics of the classic adaptation. They also have good central performances from Edward Hardwicke as Dr. Watson and Jeremy Brett as Holmes.

The ITV Holmes is, firstly, motivated by a fairly strict, but not absolute, fidelity principle. Of course, as an essential property of an adaptation, fidelity has long since been judged a “chimera” by Robert Stam and other adaptation theoreticians. Yet as an operating principle, it is very much alive. I was recently reading Adaptations (Guerilla, 2007) by Ronald Harwood, screenwriter of, among other things, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2001) and Oliver Twist (2005), for the former of which he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Harwood is in no doubt:

They [i.e. Adaptations] should always be faithful to the heart of what is being adapted […] I don’t think one should change genders for the sake of modern tastes. I don’t think one should invent relationships that would not have existed historically at the point or in that kind of novel, which people do all the time in adaptations. […] I think the author is the servant of the source material. I really do believe that, otherwise there’s no point in adapting it. (170,177)

It is a similar fidelity principle that operates in the Granada Holmes. This consists in the use of almost all of Conan Doyle’s dialogue. Non-Doyle dialogue is limited to purposes of expanding the meaning or running-time, rather than establishing new functions or indices of importance. Certainly in this very simplistic sense of using Conan Doyle’s dialogue, the Granada Holmes can be said to be faithful to the letter of the source, and thus to be operating by a principle contrasted to that of Sherlock, which updates the milieu to 21st-century London, alters plot points, and does not use Conan Doyle’s dialogue. Both are, in this sense, typical of the adaptations of their eras.

A second feature of Granada’s Holmes and of 80s-90s adaptations on English TV in general is the spectacle of privilege, as analyzed by Andrew Higson in “Re-Presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film”. This directorial style is characterized by long takes and deep focus, long shots, fluid camera movement dictated not by movement of characters but by “a desire to offer the spectator a more aesthetic angle on the period setting and the objects that fill it” (117). This is undoubtedly a prevalent mode of representation in Sherlock Holmes. The examples are numerous, but I’ve captured a couple from the feature-length film of The Sign of Four:

Athelny Jones enters Thaddeus Sholto's house

Athelney Jones enters Thaddeus Sholto’s house

"Well, well, well. Quite a nice little place you've got here."

“Well, well, well. Quite a nice little place you’ve got here.”

In this scene, Jones stops and looks around to take in the grandeur of Sholto’s possessions, his dialogue drawing the reader’s attention to the opulence. That is what is happening in this scene; there’s no narrative motivation for Jones’ admiration. This dialogue is not taken from Conan Doyle; a relative rarity, showing that the fidelity principle can be occasionally subordinated in the interests of the spectacle of privilege. Taken together, these two features characterize the classic adaptation made for English TV in the 80s and 90s.

The Granada Holmes has since its inception been highly regarded. With this estimate I wholly concur; Brett and Hardwicke (initially, David Burke played the role now more associated with Hardwicke – Burke quit for a mix of family and professional reasons after the first season. Disclosure: I’ve never seen any of the Burke episodes) make a good team. Brett in particular, with his bloodless pallor, his keen eyes and mobile mouth, and his twitchy movements which belie his age, is a great Holmes. Some interesting changes are also introduced: particularly interesting in this regard was The Master Blackmailer, the feature-length adaptation of “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”, an aside by Doyle about Holmes’s seduction of a parlourmaid for the purposes of extracting information is turned into an intriguing meditation on Holmes’ secret side: his emotions. As Holmes worms his way into this young lady’s affections, an ambiguity is well maintained as to whether this is the real Holmes coming out, or just good acting on his part. This adds interest to a rather unremarkable plot which alone could barely sustain a 100-minute treatment.

In short, points of interest are not lacking in this series, nor is general excellence. I’ve still seen only a minority of the episodes (there are 41 in all, including 5 of feature length), but I can heartily recommend this, and put it forward as the best Holmes – even, in a sense, definitive.

  • Higson, Andrew, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film”, in Fires were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (London: Wallflower, 2006), pp. 109-129

Enid Blyton’s Fatty as Hero

Enid Blyton rarely bothered to characterize her creations in any but the most generic sense. Such a formulaic approach allowed her to write some 800 books over the course of her career. But even the strictest formula features occasional deviations, and Blyton occasionally presented characters who were somewhat sui generis in her canon. Belonging to this class is young Frederick Algernon Troteville, better known as Fatty, leader of the group known as the Five Find-Outers.


Frederick “Fatty” Trotteville.
Image from

The Find-Outers books, 15 in all, were written between 1943 and 1962, roughly contemporaneously with the Famous Five – the latter group being, indeed, more famous. There are similarities between the two series – both are groups of pesky, meddling kids who happen upon an unfeasibly large number of criminal conspiracies – but the great difference between the two is in the character of Fatty.

The Famous Five have no Fatty. Julian is their leader, because he’s a boy and the eldest, so it’s a simple validation of the masculinist norm. Julian has no outstanding qualities of his own, and his speech is often indistinguishable from that of the other characters: if he’s giving an order, it must be Julian, because he’s the leader, and this is an indice of status rather than individual character. His dialogue contains few if any indices of character to differentiate him from his brother Dick or myriad other Blyton characters.

Fatty, though, is very different, and is a recognizable Hero in many respects. He is an outsider: where the other 4 Find-Outers have been friends all their lives, he turns up out of the blue, fully formed, but of unknown provenance. This unknown, possibly divine origin, is common to many mythological Heroes, and also reminds this blog of Thomas Carlyle’s great Hero, Diogenes Teufelsdrockh of Sartor Resartus, left as a  baby to a childless peasant couple in a basket by a stranger “close-muffled in a wide mantle”, who leaves as suddenly as he came and  of whom nothing more can be found (Bk. 2, Ch. 1). Similarly, in the first Find-Outer book, The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage, Fatty comes without warning, an object of interest and suspicion both, and of parents unknown and unseen. After one expidition undertaken by Fatty and Larry (at this point the nominal leader of the group) in the book, Blyton notes as follows:

The children all felt excited as they went to bed that night. At least, Fatty didn’t go to bed, though Larry did. But then Larry’s mother usually came to tuck him up and say good night and Fatty’s didn’t.

This intriguing aside is the only clue to Fatty’s family life we get in the book, but it suggests both that Fatty is a neglected child, starved for attention, and that he is a Hero – one who has fulfilled every child’s great wish, to be father to himself, as Freud says somewhere (doesn’t he?). It’s quite a subtle characterization for Blyton, as Fatty’s arrogant boastfulness is placed in a different perspective by the insight, but the connection is never made explicit.

Fatty’s mother does come into the series in later books, though. While the other parent’s are strict if benign authority figures, Fatty has his mother “wrapped around his finger”. His father, I think, doesn’t come in at all, so he really is father to himself, and his relationship with his mother takes on an Oedipal complexion.

Fatty is also a Hero because he is preternaturally gifted. For Thomas Carlyle, the Hero was always so gifted: never at one thing, but at all things, because that’s what a Hero was.  In On Heroes he starts by noting:

I suppose the right good fighter was oftenest also the right good forest-feller – the right good improver, discerner, doer and worker in every kind; for true valor, different enough from ferocity, is the basis of all. (kindle edition, p 19)

Later, he finds:

I have no notion of a truly great man that could not be all sorts of men […] The grand fundamental character if that of the Great Man; that the man be great. Napoleon has words in him which are like Austerlitz battles. (p. 46)

Accordingly, Fatty can be all sorts of men, because he is a master of disguise, constantly fooling his fellow Find-Outers, Mr. Goon the policeman, and whoever else he needs or wants to fool. When being himself, he is quicker, smarter and more inventive than everyone else. As Bets, the youngest Find-Outer and Fatty’s worshipper-in-chief often says: “Fatty can do anything” (The Mystery of the Strange Bundle, ch. 1). Even his very fatness is an indice of his excess, his being more than everyone else, or muchness, as Lewis Carroll called it. When he asks for two helpings of pudding, his mother laughingly replies: “Oh, Frederick, you do go to extremes” (Strange Bundle, Ch. 2).

Fatty is so called for two reasons, both sufficiently obvious: he’s quite fat, and his initials are F.A.T. It’s also a mark of his otherness. It’s not a real, human name, and Fatty isn’t really human, but something more. It initially comes about as a mark of disrespect, because initially the others don’t like him, boastful interloper that he is. Yet he is of the Natural Aristocracy, as Carlyle would say, and once he is allowed within the circle, he quickly shoots up to a leadership position, ousting the everyboy character Larry. His betterness cannot help but be acknowledged. It is notable, too, that Fatty’s given name has a strongly upper-class ring to it, almost parodically so. So he is an aristocrat in every sense of the word, and his nominal aristocracy is given validation by his conduct. All the others can do is sit back and let him take over, let him be the Hero that he really  is. The world of the Find-Outers is now no longer the Valet-World of  the undistinguished everyday conduct of Larry et al., but a world of Heroism and excitement. Hurrah!

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