The Victorian Sage

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

Month: April, 2015

John Ruskin’s Traffic in Penguin Little Black Classics

In celebration of their 80th birthday, Penguin have introduced 80 short volumes (55-ish pages each) on sale for 80p in England or one Euro here in Ireland in a range called Little Black Classics. It’s somewhat of a “best that has been thought and said” (Arnold) range, not unlike the Penguin Great Ideas series of a few years back. It even has quite a few of the same authors: Dickens, Ruskin, Nietzsche. There is only one text, I think, that is included in both series: Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. According to a sales ranking I think I saw somewhere (but I can’t find it now), the Manifesto is actually the biggest selling of the new series, despite its availability in many editions.

But unlike the wholly non-fiction Great Ideas, Little Black Classics mixes fiction with non-fiction and poetry. The volumes are also smaller and much cheaper than the earlier series. One euro per volume is a fantastic price. Of course, all these Classics are well out of copyright, which makes costs of publication much lower than it would otherwise be. On a recent trip into Hodges & Figgis in town, I picked up a selection of five from the large shelf devoted to Little Black Classics. Given their sleekly stylish black-and-white cover design, they look good together on a shelf. Penguin always tends to come up trumps for simple and elegant cover design.

Ruskin's Traffin in the Little Black Classics edition

Ruskin’s Traffin in the Little Black Classics edition

Of the five I picked up, I immediately went to read Traffic by John Ruskin (#5). The volume contained the titular essay (or rather transcribed speech) and “The Roots of Honour”, the first essay in Unto This Last (1862). I had read both before, but Ruskin is always worth a re-read. Ruskin is unfashionable in some senses: his politics is resolutely paternalist, and his gender attitudes were influentially rebuked by Kate Millett in Sexual Politics (1969), wherein his work was contrasted with that of his proto-feminist contemporary John Stuart Mill, thus rendering him something of an exemplar of outdated and offensive gender politics. He also featured in the recent biographical film Effie Gray (2014), portrayed rather negatively as the husband of the titular character, an oppressive and sexually inadequate spousal presence.

He has his good points, though, and “Traffic” shows some of them. It was initially a speech given to merchants and citizens of Bradford, ostensibly to give them guidance as to how their projected exchange building should be designed (Ruskin was a noted architecture critic [The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice]). But Ruskin had other ideas, as he makes clear at the outset. I do enjoy Ruskin’s opening gambit in “Traffic”:

My good Yorkshire friends, you asked me down here among your hills that I might talk to you about this Exchange you are going to build: but earnestly and seriously asking you to pardon me, I am going to do nothing of the kind. I cannot talk, or at least can say very little, about this same Exchange. I must talk of quite other things, though not willingly; — I could not deserve your pardon, if when you invited me to speak on one subject, I wilfully spoke on another. But I cannot speak, to purpose, of anything about which I do not care; and most simply and sorrowfully I have to tell you, in the outset, that I do not care about this Exchange of yours.

If, however, when you sent me your invitation, I had answered, ‘I won’t come, I don’t care about the Exchange of Bradford,’ you would have been justly offended with me, not knowing the reasons of so blunt a carelessness. So I have come down, hoping that you will patiently let me tell you why, on this, and many other such occasions, I now remain silent, when formerly I should have caught at the opportunity of speaking to a gracious audience.

In a word, then, I do not care about this Exchange, — because you don’t; and because you know perfectly well I cannot make you.

(Available at Victorian Web)

His first move is to tell his audience bluntly that he is not going to do what he has been engaged to do. His next is to attack his audience’s motives and their ideology. His word choices are perhaps just polite enough to escape hostility from his listeners, but combative enough to call into question all of the presumptions of a capitalist enterprise. He goes on to especially attack the idea of “getting on”, which he cites as the ruling practical ideal of his countrymen. In place of Christianity is the worship of the Goddess of Getting On. But the difficulty about Her is, Ruskin notes, that “while to one family this deity is indeed the Goddess of Getting on, to a thousand families she is the Goddess of not Getting on.”

So that’s the problem with Getting On as a ruling idea: it privileges competition over co-operation; one gets on at the expense of another. What Ruskin ultimately calls for is for that the notion of Getting On and the amassing of wealth be discarded, and that commonwealth should be the ultimate notion to which all practical politics should be subordinate. Commonwealth has little to do with material wealth, and much to do with finding ways towards a simpler life. What the commercial classes of Bradford thought of it I do not know, but to my eyes it remains a mainly sensible, eloquent, and effective piece of writing.

It is important as much as anything as an example of an intellectual speaking outside of the intellectual classes, something academics need to pay attention to. Ruskin doesn’t place himself among his audience – he is decidedly oppositional, not one of them. But he does address them with great straightforwardness, not afraid to place his ideas before them unadorned by verbiage or technical language. Not afraid also, to start by annoying rather than placating them, a technique well worth studying, if one wishes to bring unpleasant subjects before the public – and what other subjects are worth bringing forward?

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 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.


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.


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.

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