The Victorian Sage

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

Month: December, 2016

The Cold Distance of the Master: Žižek and Gaskell

A few months ago I wrote on the concept of the master, making some comparisons to the 19th-century concept of the Great Man. The master was a term associated with Jacques Lacan, but, primarily for me, with Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is preoccupied with this figure, and while Lacan was essentially a psychoanalyst, Žižek is very much engaged in political issues, so when he speaks of the master, he necessarily invites comparison with the Great Man theory of Carlyle and his successors.

In In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso 2008), Žižek once again considers the figure of the master in a brief but suggestive passage, contrasting him to the supposedly postmodern figure of the boss:

A “postmodern” boss insists that he is not a master but just a coordinator of our joint creative efforts, the first among equals; there should be no formalities among us, we should address him by his nickname, he shares a dirty joke with us… but during all this, he remains our master. […] We are not only obliged to obey our masters, we are also obliged to act as if we are free and equal, as if there was no domination – which of course, makes the situation even more humiliating. Paradoxically, in such a situation, the first act of liberation is to demand from the master that he act like one: one should reject false collegiality from the master and insist that he treat us with cold distance as a master. (202)


Jurgen Klopp. What a boss [in the Žižekian sense].


Back in Victorian England they had masters rather than the bosses described by Žižek. Indeed, the name given to the factory owners by their employees was “master”. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-5) this relation between masters and men is particularly central. Indeed, it is a relation that may be seen as the central problem of the age, when one thinks of Carlyle and Ruskin’s preoccupations with it. But it is Gaskell who provides the most fully-drawn model of the “master”: Mr. Thornton (he is also the love interest of the protagonist of North and South, Margaret Hale).



Richard Armitage as Thornton in North & South (2004)

Thornton, played by Richard Armitage in the popular BBC adaptation, is a hard man who, in the early part of the novel, is unwilling to compromise with his workers, or to listen to their views. Just how courageously intransigent he is is demonstrated in the climactic riot scene, which takes place about half way through the novel. Here, Thornton leaves his house to confront the mob, and faces down the whole lot of them through the power of his own presence:

Mr. Thornton quivered with rage. The blood-flowing had made Margaret conscious – dimly, vaguely conscious. He placed her gently on the door-step, her head leaning against the frame. ’Can you rest there?’ he asked. But without waiting for her answer, he went slowly down the steps right into the middle of the crowd. ’Now kill me, if it is your brutal will. There is no woman to shield me here. You may beat me to death – you will never move me from what I have determined upon – not you!’ He stood amongst them, with his arms folded, in precisely the same attitude as he had been in on the steps.

I have gone into this in more detail elsewhere (and also in my PhD thesis, soon to become publicly available [which event will, of course, be announced here when it arises]), but suffice to say that the sheer masterfulness of Thornton’s personality is key both to his behaviour here and its effect on the rioters and to the development of the social element of the plot of the novel. It is not that Thornton is by any means perfect, and he has himself plenty to learn at this point, but his availability for heroic status in a mid-19th-century industrial novel is that, whatever his misjudgements, he is a true master of men. So, later in the novel, when Thornton has won back the trust of his workers and the mill is back in productive mode, there is a fine balance to be struck between genuine engagement with and concern for the men, and the cold distance of the master. This is made abundantly clear in the scene where Thornton magnanimously offers blacklisted union firebrand Nicholas Higgins his job back.

So, measter, I’ll come; and what’s more, I thank yo’; and that’s a deal fro’ me,’ said [Higgins], more frankly, suddenly turning round and facing Mr. Thornton fully for the first time.

‘And this is a deal from me,’ said Mr. Thornton, giving Higgins’s hand a good grip. ‘Now mind you come sharp to your time,’ continued he, resuming the master. ’I’ll have no laggards at my mill. What fines we have, we keep pretty sharply. And the first time I catch you making mischief, off you go. So now you know where you are.’

So Thornton here has behaved in a noble and unselfish way, but this must be combined with a rather anxious assertion of continuing mastery, which takes the form of a warning about punctuality (Higgins has caused trouble for the mill owners, but there has been no suggestion that, of all things, his punctuality is a problem). It is at the point of true kindness that the master is at his most vulnerable, his least masterly. Thornton is, throughout the remainder of the novel true to this aloof persona, even when he is engaged in work for the benefit of his “hands”.

And what is the point of this act of anxious masterfulness by Thornton? It is so that Higgins knows where he is. Here is where the post-modernist boss differs from the Victorian master: the master is anxious that you should always know your place; the boss is anxious that you should never come to suspect it. But perhaps the moment of truth must eventually come for everybody: the moment when the boss reveals himself ascold and indifferent to us in our full subjectivity. This is a neighbor whose truth is not in the bonhomie with which he greets us on a daily basis, or even in the dirty jokes we tell each other, but in his ability to slip immediately and seamlessly into the role of pure corporate functionary, and with the symbolic authority bring the weight of this crashing down on us. Then, finally, we remember where and what we are, for a time.

Sarah Phelps’ BBC Adaptations

The Guardian published a couple of days ago an interview with Sarah Phelps, who has over the last few years become effectively the BBC’s resident adapter of literary works. She’s tackled, among other things, a couple of Dickens novels (Oliver Twist and Great Expectations), J.K. Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy (Rowling’s work was effectively an attempt at a 21st-century Condition-of-England novel), and, for last year’s BBC Christmas schedule, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The latter’s reception was, on the whole, enthusiastic, so Phelps has been tasked with adapting Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution for this Christmas.

Like Britain’s first adaptation auteur, Andrew Davies (see Sarah Cardwell’s Andrew Davies), Phelps likes to sex up her material, as noted in the headline to the Guardian‘s article. Nevertheless, her tone is a long way from the urbanity of a classic Davies work like Pride and Prejudice. Instead, Phelps often seems to be attempting an assault on the adapted authors, never more so than in Oliver Twist. In this 2007 series, Phelps writes in a stinging critique of Dickens: a critique written, it must be said, from a distinctly 21st-century point of view, concentrating on the identity politics of the novel. The novel certainly presents problems here: principally, Fagin is referred to throughout mostly as “the Jew”, and is a diabolic thief and willing accomplice to murder. Even on Dickens’ first introduction and physical description of Fagin, before we know anything of his character, we are made aware that he is somehow “repulsive” and that there is a moral element to this repulsiveness. Add to this to the identifiably stereotypical elements to Fagin’s appearance and clothes, and the spectre of anti-semitism rises before the contemporary reader.

The introduction of Fagin:

[S]tanding over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare; and seemed to be dividing his attention between the frying-pan and the clothes-horse, over which a great number of silk handkerchiefs were hanging. Several rough beds made of old sacks, were huddled side by side on the floor. Seated round the table were four or five boys, none older than the Dodger, smoking long clay pipes, and drinking spirits with the air of middle-aged men. These all crowded about their associate as he whispered a few words to the Jew; and then turned round and grinned at Oliver. So did the Jew himself, toasting-fork in hand. (Oliver Twist, Chapter 8)

Phelps is not the first adapter who has had to contend with this (see Juliet John’s Dickens and Mass Culture and Christine Geraghty’s Now a Major Motion Picture on this). But seldom have adapters dealt with it as explicitly as she does. There is, in Phelps’ adaptation, a “calling out” of Dickens on his anti-semitism, rather than a sanitizing of it, as in, say, Oliver! Phelps talks about this in the “Behind the Scenes” featurette on the 2008 DVD release:

The anti-Semitism bothered me hugely, but rather than sweep it under the carpet, rather than make it comedy, I wanted to look at it in its squinty, nasty, horrible little eye.

This rather strong language is typical of Phelps, both in interview and in her scripts. In line with this attitude, Phelps foregrounds in Oliver Twist the anti-semitism that Fagin (Timothy Spall in this version) faces, and exposes the corruption and sadistic underbelly of the 19th-century justice system in the figure of Fang. Fang is the crazed judge who tries Oliver in Dickens. Phelps’ innovation is to reintroduce Fang to try Fagin as well (thus following through on Dickens’ satire on law in Oliver Twist, rather than reverting in the standard Dickens manner to bourgeois morality in the denouement). So, rather than <spoiler alert> Fagin’s death being justice for the villain, it is clearly coded in this adaptation as a deliberate persecution of a victimized and marginalized figure.


Oliver Twist (2007): Timothy Spall as Fagin is on the left. Sophie Okonedo as Nancy is second right.

Similarly, she introduces a black Nancy, arguing in “Behind the Scenes” that this is a form of fidelity to history, as well as a correction to Dickens’ whitewashed casts of characters. Central to this adaptation then, I would argue, is the notion of arguing with the source text, and for this reason it is an interesting text for me. All of these canonical 19th-century texts have been done with fidelity, done with reverence. A new approach is needed. If we can’t ignore these canonical texts, we can argue with them, and Oliver Twist is emblematic of an adaptation that does this. That is not to say that it is by any means a great adaptation, but it is to say that it is a sign from the future (as Zizek would say) of classic adaptations.

Of course, none of this applies very much to Phelps’ recent And Then There Were None; nor will it apply, probably, to the upcoming Witness for the Prosecution. But it is an important element of my approach to adaptations, and will be further developed in an upcoming publication on Phelps’ adaptation of OT, of which more anon.


Model Prisons: Thomas Carlyle and Rod Liddle

A call to rehabilitate the writings of Thomas Carlyle came in last week’s Spectator, in an article written by Rod Liddle. Liddle focuses on a little-known late essay of Carlyle’s, “Model Prisons“, from the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). I wrote about this essay in an earlier post. It’s an attack on the “model prison” system which had been introduced in Victorian England, and which aimed at rehabilitation rather than punishment. As such, the regime was not as harsh as the norm. This system was also famously attacked by Dickens in a chapter of David Copperfield, in which Dickens implicitly argued that the system bred hypocrisy among prisoners, who feigned penitence to get the benefits of model prison treatment. This chapter appeared in late 1850, so it is highly probable that Dickens had read Carlyle’s “Model Prisons”, and that it had fed his own anger at the system. Carlyle’s deep influence on Dickens is well known.

So “Model Prisons”. If Dickens liked it, and Liddle likes it, it must be good, right? Well, it has its moments. Carlyle is angry: sometimes tediously so; sometimes spectacularly so. In fact, the piece that Liddle quotes is the same one I quote in the aforementioned earlier post, a rather strikingly bad-tempered description of the physical appearance of the inmates he saw on a visit to the prison:

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. Stupidity intellectual and stupidity moral (for the one always means the other, as you will, with surprise or not, discover if you look) had borne this progeny.

So the prisoners looked like animals; worse than that, they actually looked positively demonic (” imps”). All of them! They were also STUPID – in block capitals. You can’t talk about people like this anymore, even criminals. Or maybe you can – Liddle did, after all, quote this very passage in the context of his piece on why prisons need to be made harsher environments.

It’s tempting to see this in the context of a post-Trump world: all bets are off, and violently authoritarian rhetoric that would have been unthinkable in Western democracies in recent times has become part of the discussion again. In such a context, it’s not incredible that the Latter-Day Pamphlets could finally attain the popularity and esteem that has eluded them throughout their publication history thus far.

Nevertheless, I suggest that Carlyle does not lend himself to an uncomplicatedly authoritarian ideology, even if he espouses it. The reason is similar to the reason given by Zizek for his contention that David Lynch’s Dune (1984) is not a totalitarian film. Perhaps Dune does, Zizek concedes, eroticize power. But in doing so it also “displays the underlying phantasmic support of ‘totalitarianism’ in all its inconsistency” (The Plague of Fantasies, Verso, 1997, p. 92). This, I submit, is what Carlyle does for all forms of authoritarian power, and is the reason why he has been historically read with more appreciation roughly leftist figures (from Walt Whitman to Keir Hardie to Mahatma Gandhi). Carlyle is uneasy reading for any respectable authoritarian, and never more so than when he’s vociferously agreeing with everything they hold dear.

The reason is that the quasi-sexual lust for power and control that a critic might contend underlies the politics of the authoritarian is laid embarrassingly bare in Carlyle’s writings. Following the above description of the prisoners, Carlyle enters into a passage whose fantasmic underpinnings are clearer to a 21st-century reader than they were, perhaps, to a 19th-century reader (or Carlyle himself). He’s considering whether the philanthropic notion of guiding erring sinners “by love” is a viable method. Unsurprisingly, he’s not wholly amenable to the idea:

These abject, ape, wolf, ox, imp and other diabolic-animal specimens of humanity, who of the very gods could ever have commanded them by love? 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; and now when, by long misconduct and neglect, they had sworn themselves into the Devil’s regiments of the line, and got the seal of Chaos impressed on their visage, it was very doubtful whether even these would be of avail for the unfortunate commander of twelve hundred men!

Carlyle’s imagery of the collar and the whip evoked for his Victorian readers a long-vanished (or, alternatively, spatially distant) world of slavery and conquest. For us, though, such images are more redolent of elaborate erotic scenarios. Thus, Carlyle’s images are not only politically reprehensible, but also embarrassingly intimate. In the guise of espousing a strict authoritarian politics, Carlyle is actually performing a completely unbridled freedom of discourse, laying bare those very aspects of his psyche that are most unacceptable to persons anywhere on the conservative spectrum. That is one of the reasons why Carlyle strikes me as essentially a leftist figure, even if he wouldn’t have consciously wanted to think so. At some level, he was sabotaging all of his explicit politics with the very extreme form in which he irrationally insisted on espousing them, providing the very weapons with which such positions could be easily critiqued and dismissed.


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