The Victorian Sage

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

Month: February, 2016

Sherlock Holmes and Psychoanalysis

Jeremy Tambling’s Literature and Psychoanalysis (Manchester UP, 2012) is intended to show how psychoanalytic theory can be used to interpret literature. One of the case studies in the book is the Sherlock Holmes story “The Empty House” (TEH), the famous story where Holmes announces he didn’t die at Reichenbach Falls after all. That he is, in fact, still alive. Gasp! Tambling’s use of this text interests me because I use Sherlock Holmes as the paradigm of the pre-Freudian character, one who is unrepresentable according to contemporary, Freudian-influenced ideologies of subjectivity. Despite the fact that many new Holmes adaptations continue to appear, I contend that they are inscribed with the tensions between the Doylean conception of the character and our understanding of being human. This is particularly true of Sherlock, where the character is subject to trauma, repression, desire, self-doubt, ambivalence and all of these Freudian concepts that Doyle gets by without.

So, when Tambling returns to the stories themselves for psychoanalytic readings, my starting position is that Holmes is one character on whom psychoanalysis is wasted. But of course, I’m talking about the character, Tambling is talking about the story. And indeed, Tambling seems to tacitly accept that the character doesn’t respond to the psychoanalytic treatment: Tambling’s key terms in the discussion of TEH are identification and repetition, and all he really says on Holmes is that “We cannot identify with Holmes” (17). Well, it would need an empirical study to show that people have identified with Holmes, but I’m pretty sure that Tambling’s statement is a great exaggeration. It would be closer to the mark to say, “We cannot identify with Holmes, insofar as we are Freudian subjects“. This is part of the greatness of the character: the challenge he presents to dominant Freudian discourses of the subject.

So, having dismissed the character of Holmes in that manner, Tambling goes on to demonstrate the centrality of his key terms. The notion of repetition centres around the theme of “hunting and being hunted” (17), as Tambling notes – so it is rather this idea that may be seen as central, as opposed to the more general effect of repetition. Tambling in fact lists the instances of hunting in the story, and argues quite convincingly thatbasically the whole story is organized around (man)hunts. He doesn’t quite tie this in to his psychoanalytic reading, though, not in a way that was clear to me, anyway. But this was the element of his reading that most interested me, and made me think over the Holmes canon in total, as I had not really considered that enjoyment of these stories was centrally linked to such a primal pleasure as hunting. While not always to the same extent as TEH, hunting is quite central to the stories, albeit perhaps no more so than rationalism, justice, or even friendship.

Finally, then, Tambling’s point is that we enjoy because we identify, and that detective stories also satisfy our compulsion to repeat – and what could be more Freudian than that? His argument presents some difficulties, though, not least the manner in which they sideline Sherlock Holmes himself as a character. The nature of the character really must be taken into account, when we consider just how much Sherlockians focus on the character himself. But, if my suggestions are correct, the psychoanalytic approach is not the best one for that task, for the character is in himself a great challenge to psychoanalysis.

Carlyle’s Theory of Imposture

Is it going too far to say that Carlyle had a theory of imposture? Perhaps so, and making such a claim gives one a considerable responsibility to explicate said theory and even to defend it, to some extent. But the idea of imposture in Carlyle is so central that it should be theorized to some extent, to bring it forward in people’s minds when they consider Carlyle’s contribution to the thought of his time. Especially so when we consider that imposture is not a theme we  have much contemporary discussion of. Our postmodern view of truth is that it is an effect of discourse, so imposture has no essential validity – if truth doesn’t exist in itself, neither does imposture. The way we talk about such topics is summed up in the discourse around Imposter Syndrome, which I wrote about earlier. We see such a feeling as a syndrome of external pressures, never asking if we are, in fact, impostors, and, if so, what we can do about it. Such does not have the appearance of an academic question. All the more reason, then, to revisit a thinker who took imposture very seriously indeed.

Carlyle discussed imposture not only at an individual level, but at a societal level. This is the crux of his analysis of the French Revolution: Revolution as a solution to institutionalized imposture. Really? How credible is this? Is imposture unbearable? Carlyle says yes, in the long run, it is. Note here how he is opposed to the conservative Eliotean dictum “Mankind cannot bear very much reality“. Carlyle says the opposite: Mankind cannot bear too much falsity. In our present ideological climate, is this not an audacious and radical claim?

In the context of the French Revolution, imposture had been institutionalized. The two principal ideological state apparatuses were the King and the Church. Carlyle was not opposed to either institution in theory, but felt that both were worn-out symbols that had been created in response to a genuine community need, but had failed to change in response to epistemological, technological and social advances, and had become irrelevancies – but irrelevancies whose power was still institutionalized. This, then, is the ultimate imposture, when institutions are unfit for governance, but are unwilling to jeopardize their privileged position by admitting this. When institutionalized authorities are inadequate, to uphold them can only be “an Imbecility or a Machiavellism” (FR, Modern Library 2002, p. 11). To even take part, with perhaps good intentions, is Machiavellian or Imbecilic. The more these institutions are upheld, the more the return to Nature must be violent and cataclysmic. For Carlyle insists that “a Lie cannot be believed” (FR, p. 14), and that truth will out, for we cannot bear it otherwise. We may think to choose to believe is a viable proposition, but if we don’t actually believe, the imposture will prove impossible, and will call up a rebellion from that part of us that belongs to Nature.

The difficulty is in pinpointing this process: is it at an individual level that we react against lies in this manner? Can we describe it in terms of consciousness, of actions, or what? Is there an empirical historical basis for this view? Don’t people believe lies all the time, and on a long-term basis? From my point of view, the most interesting thing about this theory is that it challenges all dominant theories in contemporary thought. It’s anti-conservative, it’s anti-Foucault, it’s anti-Nietzsche. It’s a theory I would like to able to defend, but it’s one I need to think about, and try and get my thoughts in order.

Defending Lost Causes and the Redemptive Moment in Carlyle

Žižek’s premise in In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2009) is one of my favorites. With reference to Hegel, Lacan, the French Revolution and Stalinism (!) among other things, he tries to isolate ‘the redemptive moment which gets lost in the liberal-democratic rejection’ (7). It’s not the arguments against these things are not valid, but that ‘this is not the whole truth’ (7). Žižek is careful to point out that he’s not defending Stalinism, et al., but ‘to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative’ (6). I hadn’t read this book before completing my thesis, but it would have fit Carlyle like a glove. Indeed, I used quotes from Feyerabend that make almost the same point as Žižek here. Mill makes similar points about the need to defend unpopular arguments in On Liberty, as well. Of course, I couldn’t delineate and theorize the ‘redemptive moment’ in Carlyle with the panache or theoretical acumen of Žižek, and I didn’t really try, as, in the end, I felt the need to reject any limiting of Carlyle’s work or influence to a ‘moment’ – or at least, I couldn’t come up with one moment that encapsulated enough to make it central. But, ok, one moment from Carlyle that sums up his radical potential (probably unrealized in his corpus overall), here is one that does it for me, from the great Sartor Resartus (of course):

“You see two individuals, […] one dressed in fine Red, the other in coarse threadbare Blue: Red says to Blue, ‘Be hanged and anatomized;’ Blue hears with a shudder, and (O wonder of wonders!) marches sorrowfully to the gallows; is there noosed up, vibrates his hour, and the surgeons dissect him, and fit his bones into a skeleton for medical purposes. How is this; or what make ye of your Nothing can act but where it is? Red has no physical hold of Blue, no clutch of him, is nowise in contact with him: neither are those ministering Sheriffs and Lord-Lieutenants and Hangmen and Tipstaves so related to commanding Red, that he can tug them hither and thither; but each stands distinct within his own skin. Nevertheless, as it is spoken, so is it done: the articulated Word sets all hands in Action; and Rope and Improved-drop perform their work.

“Thinking reader, the reason seems to me twofold: First, that Man is a Spirit, and bound by invisible bonds to All Men; secondly, that he wears Clothes, which are the visible emblems of that fact. Has not your Red hanging-individual a horsehair wig, squirrel-skins, and a plush-gown; whereby all mortals know that he is a JUDGE?—Society, which the more I think of it astonishes me the more, is founded upon Cloth. (Part 1, Chapter 9)

This, presented as a pseudo-quote from Teufelsdrockh, is a powerful thought-experiment which brings to the reader’s attention the fact that the law is, as Žižek said, grounded on a lie. The life and death of one are in the hands of another who is in no way essentially other, but has merely adopted or been given certain clothes which have the magical effect of producing obedience to instructions he may give in certain forms and in certain situations. Thus Carlyle is quite openly and with shocking frankness (this was mid-19th-century England) putting forward the Žižekian point that ‘the law is grounded on a lie’, that ‘its authority is without truth’ (Sublime Object of Ideology, Ch. 1). It is simply a matter of ‘clothes’: the essence of the judge and the criminal are no different; they are ontologically equal, yet one can casually bring death to the other, and employ the whole machinery of society to do so. This is a passage calculated to foment revolution in the minds of ordinary men and women, to inspire commitment to anarchism, the levelling of all persons and symbolic denuding of all. How could respect for legal and political authorities survive if this passage were taken to the popular heart? Impossible. Here, then, we have a radical core that should be kept in mind when we consider Carlyle’s reputation in the 19th c., one which invited us to look at all constituted authorities with a critical eye – to look at the people, not the symbolic authority with which they are invested.


Reflecting on Žižek with Carlyle

Slavoj Žižek is turning into a Carlyle in his own right at this stage. He’s been getting heat for his attitude to Syrian refugees as expressed in articles like this one. The congregation are starting to wonder, is the Z. just another reactionary bore who has somehow inveigled his way to the vanguard of intellectuo-academic culture. One is reminded of Carlyle’s publication of his Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question (1849), a work that called more or less emphatically for the return of slavery to the West Indies. This did not go down well. Froude (Thomas Carlyle: His life in London, 1884) writes:

A paper on the Negro or Nigger question, properly the first of the ‘Latter-Day Pamphlets’ was Carlyle’s declaration of war against modern Radicalism. Hitherto, though his orthodoxy had been questionable, the Radicals had been glad to claim him as belonging to them[.]

That’s right, and should be rememberd, Carlyle was a Radical – with a capital R. Carlyle was expelled (figuratively speaking) from the ranks of the Radicals, and his remained very far to the right according to public opinion since. J.S. Mill wrote an angry rejoinder to Carlyle’s piece, which is worth reading. (Both pieces were published anonymously, but they both were aware who they were arguing with – Carlyle, in particular, had an unmistakeable  style.)

Žižek’s piece is far less incendiary than Carlyle’s, which used brutally sadistic and dehumanizing language (trollish language, one would have to say), but then standards have changed, and imputations of racism, etc., are more serious than they were in Carlyle’s culture. In my thesis, I argue that we now tend to read Carlyle’s oeuvre through our pre-existing knowledge of his racist offensiveness (thanks to Said and other scholars who called him out over a century later), but that Carlyle’s contemporaries did the opposite – reading the nasty, brutal stuff through his earlier, sensitive-humanist stuff. Reading his obituaries, they basically ignored all the bad stuff and spoke of him as a humane writer who cared for the underdog and hated injustice (George Eliot’s 1855 essay is also a great example of this). They didn’t explain away Negro Question – they just ignored it. Now, one sniff of that particular paper, and it colours everything we know about Carlyle. It’s so far off the scale it indicts him immediately.

So a reading of the radical Carlyle is hard to get away with these days. Is Žižek heading in that direction? Do we read him differently from now on? There’s a lot of questionable material in Žižek- the really coarse and smutty (and often not very witty) jokes; this idea that ‘woman is a symptom of man’ (sure it can be intellectualized [and it was], but look at it baldly, unintellectually – it’s sexism at its purest); his equivocal obsession with the figure of ‘the jew’. Could we perform a Carlylean reading of his work: ‘actually he was just a boorish, racist chauvinist all along, rather than the great philosopher we thought he was – it’s all there from the beginning’. It is all there, I think, though maybe there’s lots of good stuff there, too. Žižek shows, as Carlyle did, that the line separating left from right is a thin one, and is not always where we think it is. Whatever the final message of Žižek turns out to be, it will be less important than it seemed to his acolytes. I suggest that Žižek was/is fun and charismatic, his mind moved at high speed and across vast conceptual spaces, and it was that ‘surplus enjoyment’ (as the man himself would say) that we all read him for in the first place, not the substantive content. And he gave and gives us that, more than any major contemporary thinker.


Literature: Constituted or Constituting, Superstructure or Base?

This quote from a review of a book I’d never read, or even heard of, got me thinking:

They’re doing what they’re doing with a desperate hope of improving our media, because art affects us on really deep, unconscious levels and so we need to understand the consequences of our art. We need to understand what it does to us, to all of us–what we might be doing to other people, through our art. When I was a child, I built my sense of self out of my favorite heroines: Belle, Hermione, Alanna, Eowyn. In college, I constructed a lot of my interactions with the people I was romantically interested in like they were scenes in a book–I even wrote a short story about doing so. When we joke about Disney or Tolkien or Austen giving us unrealistic expectations for romance, it’s because those stories shape how we view and interact with our relationships.

A question which has, I think, bedevilled literary criticism since its inception is how does literature effect us, and how does it affect things in a larger social context. Evidently, the writer here considers it does have a considerable conditioning effect on our consciousness and how we view our relationships with others. Is it possible to quantify or document this, though?

The classical sociological study of history has come from a Marxist perspective. According to what is now called vulgar Marxism, art and literature simply ‘reflects’ economic circumstances; it expresses the ideology that grows out of specific economics/ relations of production. But according to this theory, art doesn’t create anything; it doesn’t really change anything. As this is now called ‘vulgar Marxism’, it is evident that it is no longer a widely-held theory and is rather a pejorative term. Why this should be is also obvious: if you give your time to studying art or literature, it can’t be because you think it is limited to this entirely dependent role. You feel art has been important to you, so it must have some special quality, independent of any ideological role. ‘Reflection’ is not ambitious enough.

From within a Marxist framework, Raymond Williams came up with the term ‘structure of feeling’ to try and deal with this (see, especially, his book Marxism and Literature). According to Williams, art is both constituted by and constitutive of the characteristic consciousness of an age, and this is its importance – it begins to articulate tones, feelings, etc., that are only beginning to enter general consciousness and will not be codified until they reach the dominant stage. Art, at its best, can tell the future, and help us anticipate and adjust to it. This is a nice idea, but it’s hard to theorize, and has little currency outside Williams’ own usages – which are somewhat contradictory (but see Said’s variations on the phrase in Culture and Imperialism). If one could by any chance come to a satisfactory working methodology for usage of the term, one would be entitled to quite a pat on the back. (Edit: But here’s a very recent attempt to use the term to study George Saunder’s Tenth of December. Seems reasonably good, but haven’t read it in depth yet.)

This brings me back to the question of how we talk about the social effect of literature, or, to put it another way, how the study of literature can be justified in a wider social context. Reflection is no longer good enough, structure of feeling remains too vague. Reading on Dickens and ideology to research a paper I’m writing at the moment I came across a discussion of how older critics read Dickens as an “index to social realities” but contemporary researchers opine that “his novels can be assigned a more active role in discursive construction of the family and of gendered identity” (Catherine Waters, “Gender, Family and Domestic Ideology”, Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens, ed. Jordan [2009]), but this was given as bald fact, with no explanation as to how we know that reading Dickens has this active role, and no empirical examples of how this “active role” worked. At a very general level it just derives from postmodern theorizing of how our experience is shaped by discourse, but at a more nuanced level, there seems to be no actual methodology of showing this in literary criticism. It’s an unquestioned theoretical assumption of the time, based on abstract generalizing in Barthes, Derrida and the like.

We do have, of course, reception study, but the classic model of reception study based on Iser with his theory of “gaps”, etc., is again wholly abstract and ahistorical, and only deals with the moment of reading, anyway. On the other hand, there are a growing number of studies dealing with actual responses, with documented readings. One I have used is Jonathan Rose’s Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, an excellent book using library records, biographical documents and other material to find out what the working class was reading in the later-19th/early-20th century. This book tells us what they read and what they liked (Carlyle was a big favourite; Ruskin, Dickens; later on, Wells; the Bible throughout). It does not tell us, though, what difference specific readings made – and how could it? Occasionally, a person may attest to the importance of a certain reading, attributing to it an actual substantial lasting life effect, but even this is suspect – how can we know if things would have turned out otherwise had not this reading of this book taken place? My point is, we don’t, and this is still the great lacuna in literary criticism, academic and otherwise. We don’t know just how much books, or culture in general, matter in society as a whole. Does culture make us better, morally? Hmm, probably not, as the Nazis were pretty culturally sophisticated. But some sort of metric or method needs to be developed to judge effect, at a personal and at a societal level, at the moment of reading and over the long time, in small matters of daily conduct, in large matters of public policy, and in matters of consciousness – does what we read create wholesale shifts in consciousness?

A Marxist way of asking the last question is: is literature base or superstructure? Vulgar Marxism, says the latter; most contemporary Marxism would say it has relative independence, and that it can impact back on the base. It was so much easier when literature was purely superstructural, though, purely a reflection. If we allow that the influence goes the other way, we have to try and see how that works. Does the existence of certain works, certain genres, create or help create new forms of consciousness, new political and economic realities?! If another work or genre had been available instead, would society have developed differently? It’s really hard to argue this, to impose a method for this, but we (or some of us) argue as if it were true. Maybe the difference is minuscule, maybe what they really do is, like for the blogger quoted at the beginning, they provide a setting around which we can crystallize our thoughts on a certain difficult social or moral topic. We use them to argue with. It’s the ensuing dialogue, not the works in themselves, that make the difference. Perhaps we would have the arguments anyway, but in slightly altered forms. It still doesn’t prove that literature makes difference, though. Our social consciousnesses are formed by our surroundings, and we choose what literature we respond to according to that. If a piece of literature changes our mind about something, maybe we should be thinking that our mind was already changing, it just awaited a concretization of where it needed to go. Maybe we need to take all of this into account before we talk of how the discursive formations in Dickens had in active role in defining how we think about and how we do family and gender.



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