The Victorian Sage

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

Month: June, 2017

The Victorian Sage: When Philosophy meets Literature

Still the fullest analysis of the Victorian Sage comes from John Holloway’s 1953 book The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument (London: Macmillan), and this book, though dated in some respects, is worth revisiting for its approach to the sage.

Holloway’s subtitle is worthy of note: Studies in Argument. Sage writing, then, is predominantly a form of arguing. Holloway’s opening chapter (“The Victorian Sage: His Message and Methods”), about which I will write in this post, starts with a rather vague description of the activity of his chosen sages (Carlyle, Newman, Arnold, Disraeli, George Eliot, Hardy):

[A]ll of them sought (among other things) to express notions about the world, man’s situation in it, and how he should live. (1)

The interest of the sage is of a “general or speculative kind in what the world is like” (1). The sage then is clearly somewhat akin to a philosopher, but he or she (Holloway neglects the “she” but one of his own examples is George Eliot) is a particularly general or speculative one; another way of saying this is that he or she is not a disciplinary philosopher.

But as well as offering a philosophico-moral outlook on life, the sage does something else. Holloway stresses that reading sage-writing “constitutes an experience for the reader” (11). The sage cannot be judged by the success of his or her doctrines, but by what work he or she does for the individual reader. This is difficult to quantify and communicate, obviously, and Holloway doesn’t get much further than the Victorian Sages themselves in this, using the Carlylean trope of vision: “acquiring wisdom is somehow an opening of the eyes” (9). The sages want the reader to experience an opening of the eyes, a quickening of perceptiveness (10). How do they go about this: by any means possible. “The sage has no standard bag of tools” (11). Thus the sage remains a slippery and elusive figure, moving us without us knowing how.

This brings the sage closer to the novelist: disciplinary philosophy is built on logical systems but novelists work by moving us. And Holloway follows this up: initial sages, Carlyle and Arnold notably, were essayists; but Holloway introduces Eliot, Disraeli and Hardy to illustrate how sage-writing and the work of the novelist were highly compatible. The sages were always attached to the notion of expounding their outlook through character (think of Teufelsdrockh in Sartor Resartus, or the many characters – Dryasdust et al. – in Carlyle’s more narrowly sage-like books). For the sage, there is no philosophy without a specific character to expound it. And character and doctrine are never separate, not even for expositional purposes:

Characters, because they can talk, can be authorities, more or less good or bad, for the points of view adopted or rejected by their creator; and more than this, they are not ventriloquist’s mouthpieces only, but people whom we get to know well and whose whole situation we are likely to live through sympathetically. (14)

So, the sage can be seen as half-philosopher, half-novelist. One has the focus on finding out about “man’s place in [the world], and how he should live” alongside the use of character, figurative language/tropes and other literary features. A philosopher without logic, a novelist without plot, the sage is both less and more than either of these more established intellectual figures.

The Last Monarchist and Elementary

I still like to check in with Elementary from time to time, as it continues on its relatively unheralded way. It’s just finished screening season 5 (and season 6 is on the way), but I’ve just started watching season 4 on DVD. They certainly know how to churn them out: 120×40(-ish) minute episodes since it first aired in 2012; Sherlock only managed 13×90 minute episodes between its 2010 inception and its 2017 finale. That equates to about 960 minutes of airtime per year for Elementary; 167 minutes for Sherlock. That’s quite a contrast.

So the fever of speculation that surrounded Sherlock hasn’t had time to develop around Elementary, as they churn out episode after episode. There is little chance of a mystique developing around the show. Indeed, just keeping up with watching each episode can come to seem like a Sisyphean chore in itself.

One thing these two adaptations of the Holmes mythos have in common is their interest in Holmes’ family backstory, one which manifests itself in the invention of family members unknown to Doyle’s tales. Doyle’s had a mostly absent brother, Mycroft, but he had no other siblings, nor did he have any parents, in so far as Doyle’s writing gives any clue. Sherlock centralizes Mycroft from the start, creating a complex dynamic between him and Sherlock; later Sherlock brings in the detective’s parents, and later still a certain hitherto unsuspected family member who plays a large part in season 4. Elementary also works Mycroft hard in season 2, and in the season 4 that I am now watching, the detective’s father Morland enters, and some predictably complex interfamilial dynamics are explored.

The 21st-century detective cannot escape complex relationships, and much of his energy and that of the scriptwriters go into the exploring of said relationships, invariably culminating with revelations of the deep love between Sherlock and Mycroft, Sherlock and Watson (whether John [Sherlock] or Joan [Elementary]), Sherlock and Morland, etc. There is an ultimate idealization of all such relationships in the two contemporary series. A truly subversive Holmes would at this stage be one who genuinely subordinated his personal relationships to other factors, whether that be the work of detection or simple self-interest.


Morland Holmes (John Noble) in “Evidence of things not seen”

But this hypothetical subversive Holmes is not the one we get in Elementary. In episode 2 of season 4, “Evidence of things not seen”, he is preoccupied and troubled by his relationship with his father, even while the standard detection plot progresses. This detection plot takes Sherlock and Joan into some unexpected corners, the most interesting of which to the current blog is the visit they pay to a “neo-reactionary monarchist” (as Sherlock calls him), or a “kook” (as Joan calls him).

Maurice Antonov is a blogger calling for the return of a Tudor-style monarchy. He admits that his political orientation is “not very socially acceptable at the moment”. He quotes Plato to the effect that the king and the philosopher should be one. Sherlock then declares his own orientation: democrat (citing Churchill’s dictum that democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all of the other ones). As the conversation progresses and Sherlock and Joan ask Mr Antonov about the crime in question, he reveals that he was giving a seminar at the time. A seminar on Thomas Carlyle. “There are over a dozen witnesses who will vouch for me”, he says. (This number itself a sly joke at the expense of Carlylean monarchism and its popularity or lack thereof.)

What is striking is the lightly mocking tone with which our Carlylean friend is treated. He’s a bookish individual, bespectacled (thick black frames), bearded and bald. We meet him in a wood-furnished, dimly lit library, where he wanders among the shelves picking up hard back books of obviously antique vintage. Though he’s an ex-partner of the murder victim being investigated, once he has appeared, his possible guilt is never discussed. He is not a threat.


The first shot of Maurice Antonov (Geoffrey Cantor), clutching his dusty hardback tomes and peering over his thick glasses.

So the Carlylean philosophico-political beliefs of Mr Antonov are a signifier of his redundancy in the detective plot. His ideas are not presented as in any way objectionable, but rather as being humorously erroneous and anachronistic. The indulgent way in which they are treated is a measure of Carlyle’s current reputational standing in our culture: simply an irrelevance rather than a thinker of note.

Of course, it’s fitting that Elementary should be the show to register this. This is because Doyle’s very first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, references Carlyle:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

The point Doyle/Watson is making here is that Carlyle is so famous, so relevant, that for an intelligent person not to have heard of him is preposterous. Of course, adaptations invariably retain the Copernican reference and dump the Carlyle one, because Copernican remains a touchstone of our intellectual progress and Carlyle, well, less so. Elementary goes a step further and reintroduces Carlyle, but now as a signifier of irrelevance.

That Holmes himself is a character whose popularity now is the same as it was in a substantially different ideologico-cultural climate, one wherein Carlylean monarchism was a serious political position, is a noteworthy fact in itself, even if he has had to trade in his steadfast individualism for a more symbiotic relationship with his family and associates in recent adaptations.



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