The Victorian Sage

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

Month: March, 2019

German Metaphysics, Evolution and Dangerous Knowledge in Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” (1872)

One of the first great masters of the horror story was Dublin-born J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and especially his collection In a Glass Darkly (1872; Wordsworth, 2008). The first story in the collection is “Green Tea”, an oft-anthologized tale whose themes involve some of the classic Victorian preoccupations and anxieties.

The story is of a Reverend Jennings, who tells his own story in his own words. Around this, the account by Dr Martin Hesselius provides a framing devise. A prologue introducing Dr Hesselius provides another frame. Hesselius is a “medical philosopher” (5) author of a volume on “Metaphysical Medicine” (7), devoted to uncovering the dark and mysterious forces at work in the world and in the mind. This recalls the Biblical quote that gives the volume its title:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians, 13:12 [KJV])

This quote seems to fit “Green Tea” far more than the other stories in the collection. It also fits the Hesselius frame. Hesselius himself is involved in the pursuit of esoteric knowledge, in the making clear that which appears obscure and only half-known. Similarly, Rev. Jennings is also involved in the search for a knowledge of a hidden and perhaps forbidden type.

Hesselius is a character who strongly prefigures Sherlock Holmes (first appearance: 1887). He’s a wanderer and a generalist who knows a lot about everything, and he is in “easy circumstances” (3), so can devote his energies to his interests. His procedure with a new case is to go through the stages of “analysis, diagnosis and illustration” (4). The method is scientific, but the material is precisely that which falls outside he realms of known science.

Like Holmes, he knows people very quickly by observing them:

 I think I can tell you two or three things about him,” said I [Hesselius].

“Really!”

“Yes, to begin with, he’s unmarried.”

“Yes, that’s right—go on.”

“He has been writing, that is he was, but for two or three years perhaps, he has not gone on with his work, and the book was upon some rather abstract subject—perhaps theology.”

“Well, he was writing a book, as you say; I’m not quite sure what it was about, but only that it was nothing that I cared for; very likely you are right, and he certainly did stop—yes.”

“And although he only drank a little coffee here to-night, he likes tea, at least, did like it extravagantly.”

“Yes, that’s quite true.”

“He drank green tea, a good deal, didn’t he?” I pursued.

“Well, that’s very odd! Green tea was a subject on which we used almost to quarrel.”

“But he has quite given that up,” said I.

“So he has.”

“And, now, one more fact. His mother or his father, did you know them?”

“Yes, both; his father is only ten years dead, and their place is near Dawlbridge. We knew them very well,” she answered.

“Well, either his mother or his father—I should rather think his father, saw a ghost,” said I.

“Well, you really are a conjurer, Dr. Hesselius.” (8-9)

Except that Hesselius does not give his reasoning for arriving at this surprising knowledge, this could have come straight from a Sherlock Holmes story.

In the passage quoted above, Hesselius is discussing Rev. Jennings, who he has just met for the first time. Jennings is the protagonist of the story. Jennings mirrors Hesselius’ search for knowledge. In fact, he has read Hesselius’ Essays on Metaphysical Medicine and they have oriented his thought and reading.

Hesselius’ Essays on Metaphysical Medicine, we are told, were written in German and have not appeared in Engish. They are out of print. They are a sort of scientific Necronomicon, full of dangerous knowledge. It is no coincidence, too, that Hesselius works in German (and, presumably, is German). Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-34) provides the most rhapsodic tribute to the Victorian idea that in an age when Christianity was losing its grip, a new religion, a new form of spiritual thought to bind society together would emerge from German metaphysical and abstract thought:

[H}ere, as in so many other cases, Germany, learned, indefatigable, deep-thinking Germany comes to our aid. It is, after all, a blessing that, in these revolutionary times, there should be one country where abstract Thought can still take shelter; that while the din and frenzy of Catholic Emancipations, and Rotten Boroughs, and Revolts of Paris, deafen every French and every English ear, the German can stand peaceful on his scientific watch-tower; and, to the raging, struggling multitude here and elsewhere, solemnly, from hour to hour, with preparatory blast of cow-horn, emit his Horet ihr Herren und lasset’s Euch sagen; in other words, tell the Universe, which so often forgets that fact, what o’clock it really is. (Bk. 1, Ch. 1., “Preliminary”)

Like the German metaphysicists, Hesselius is a dangerously post-Christian thinker. But he is circumspect: his Essays, he notes, “suggest more than they actually say” (7). Jennings, on the other hand, doesn’t know where to stop, following his speculations to dangerous excesses. From a few scattered notes we get from Jennings’ papers, we find that he is preoccupied with opening the “interior sight”/”internal sight” (11), and we surmise also that his efforts to do so necessarily lead him into contact with “evil spirits” (11).

The sight metaphor used by Jennings’ recalls Le Fanu’s title, which posits the idea of seeing clearly, and opposes it to the general human condition of seeing through a glass, darkly. The Bible quote evidently sees this clarity of seeing as a condition of paradise. La Fanu takes the opposing view through his presentation of Jennings: to see clearly is a hellish predicament.

Jennings’ horror begins when he spies a monkey on an omnibus. This monkey has burning eyes and a hypnotic gaze. It produces in Jennings a feeling of loathing and horror. The unattractive primate begins to follow Jennings around almost continually. Nobody else sees the monkey, but as Jennings is a bachelor of a retiring disposition, they don’t get much chance to.

 

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The haunting of Jennings appears in “Green Tea” to be overdetermined. There are a number of reasons suggested in the text to explain Jennings’ predicament. Jennings’s lifestyle is conducive to horror on several grounds:

1) Green Tea: The title of the story suggests this is an important element, and Jennings admits taking this beverage in great quantities.

“I believe, that every one who sets about writing in earnest does his work, as a friend of mine phrased it, on something—tea, or coffee, or tobacco. I suppose there is a material waste that must be hourly supplied in such occupations, or that we should grow too abstracted, and the mind, as it were, pass out of the body, unless it were reminded often enough of the connection by actual sensation. At all events, I felt the want, and I supplied it. Tea was my companion—at first the ordinary black tea, made in the usual way, not too strong: but I drank a good deal, and increased its strength as I went on. I never experienced an uncomfortable symptom from it. I began to take a little green tea. I found the effect pleasanter, it cleared and intensified the power of thought so, I had come to take it frequently, but not stronger than one might take it for pleasure. I wrote a great deal out here, it was so quiet, and in this room. I used to sit up very late, and it became a habit with me to sip my tea—green tea—every now and then as my work proceeded. I had a little kettle on my table, that swung over a lamp, and made tea two or three times between eleven o’clock and two or three in the morning, my hours of going to bed. I used to go into town every day. I was not a monk, and, although I spent an hour or two in a library, hunting up authorities and looking out lights upon my theme, I was in no morbid state as far as I can judge. I met my friends pretty much as usual and enjoyed their society, and, on the whole, existence had never been, I think, so pleasant before. (17-18)

2) Writing: As the above quoted indicates, writing and green tea go together for Jennings, and they lead him into keeping very odd hours. Jennings suggests that writing cannot be done without a stimulant, so it is an inherently dangerous activity.

3) Late hours: Jennings writing is done at nighttime. The monkey first arrives in darkness, too, and is most often associated with it. In “Green Tea”, it is made clear that the arrival of the monkey coincides with an extended period of writing, green tea, and later hours.

4) Metaphysical speculation: We have dealt with this above. Jennings’ insistence on opening his “interior sight” is one whose danger is recognized by Hesselius, who has seen the importance of merely hinting rather than openly discussing such matters.

5) Solitude: Jennings is a bachelor, and spends most of his time alone with his books. On reading Swedenborg, Jennings says: “I think they are rather likely to make a solitary man nervous” (13). Solitude is in itself a dangerous situation. Indeed, in late 19th-century ghost stories, horror was the province of the bachelor. Think of the entire oeuvre of M.R. James. Bachelors who live quiet and studious lives are at particular risk of being tormented by evil spirits. “Green Tea”  is perhaps the locus classicus of this trope.

So, we see that green tea; writing and late hours; the tendency towards metaphysical speculation; and a solitary lifestyle combine to create in Jennings the perfect storm for supernatural visitation.

At the back of it all, perhaps, is the dread and anxiety created by Darwinian theory, much debated from 1860 onwards. Hence the figure of the monkey, newly discovered to be a close relative of ours: “Mr. Darwin boldly traces out the genealogy of man, the monkey is his brother, and the horse his cousin, and the oyster his remote ancestor.” Rather than godlike, man must acknowledge that he is monkeylike. He is haunted by this knowledge. The more he tries to attain enlightenment and exaltation through knowledge, the more he is brought up against the unholy and undignified truth that he is but a monkey. The traumatic enormity of this discover is brought home by reading “Green Tea”. By reading it, we gain an appreciation of the emotional force of evolutionary theory to the religious temperament of the 19th century. Jennings tries to pray, but it has become an impotent formula.

Hesselius adds in the postscript that he could have saved Jennings:

I have not, I repeat, the slightest doubt that I should have first dimmed and ultimately sealed that inner eye which Mr. Jennings had inadvertently opened. The same senses are opened in delirium tremens, and entirely shut up again when the overaction of the cerebral heart, and the prodigious nervous congestions that attend it, are terminated by a decided change in the state of the body. It is by acting steadily upon the body, by a simple process, that this result is produced—and inevitably produced—I have never yet failed. (32)

Interestingly, while the symptoms are mental, the cure is physical. Thought is the disease; action is the cure. The moral of Le Fanu’s story is: You can’t think your way out of post-Darwinian existential horror. You can only stop thinking about it.

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Is Philosophy still the Friend of Wisdom?

The Question of the Month in the current issue (March-April 2019; issue 131) of Philosophy Now is “Is Philosophy still the Friend of Wisdom?” I submitted an answer and it is among those chosen for inclusion in the issue. It is perhaps a little strongly worded, having a slight quality of rant about it in the concluding paragraph, but it expresses my essential quarrel with contemporary academic thought.  I reproduce it here:

The word ‘philosophy’ means ‘the love of wisdom’. Wisdom is the possession of knowledge, experience, and good judgement. Yet knowledge itself is only information: wisdom is the use of knowledge to pursue the good life. Philosophy developed historically as a response to life in its broadest sense, and so is a friend of wisdom only when it relates to and affects how we live.

When I look at contemporary philosophy, I am struck by a number of features. Firstly, philosophy is now not merely an activity; it is a discipline. It exists primarily within universities and there only texts which take a disciplinary approach will be deemed worthy of evaluation.

Central to disciplinary philosophy is that it does not respond primarily to any natural or social phenomena. Instead it sees everything through the lens of previous, canonical works, and seeks to move the thinking in these canonical works forward in some way. Instead of the mind and the senses ranging freely over all phenomena in search of wisdom, a very narrow concentration on the texts is demanded. These texts are for the most part very sophisticated. Developing their ideas is usually accomplished by elaborating on their arguments. After a certain point, increases in sophistication come at the cost of a ruthless narrowing of vision. It is impossible for any activity so constrained to retain a supple, open-minded approach to wisdom.

Professional philosophy has now attained such byzantine complexity as to become a sluggish and immobile behemoth that waddles clumsily through contemporary life and only with the greatest difficulty catches a glimpse of any novelty out of its small, bleary eyes. To return to the possibility of a comprehensive view of our circumstances and our world, we need to jettison the academic ideal of theoretical sophistication. Sophistication is not wisdom. On the contrary, the harsh truth is that the advances in theoretical sophistication in philosophy (and other humanities) have rendered them less fit for their purpose of exploring, articulating and promoting the good life. In order to be truly philosophical, that is, to truly love wisdom, one needs openness to experience and to the specificities of each new situation more than one needs any theory whatsoever.

A Black Spot in our Sunshine: Happiness in Mill, Carlyle and the Present Day

Happiness is a concept around which we orient much of our activity, and much of our self-reflection: ultimately, our feeling about an aspect of our lives is often determined by asking ourselves the question: does it make me happy? Sometimes, it is very difficult to answer this question. Happiness, a seemingly simple concept, is actually a complicated abstraction that is very difficult to identify and to measure.

Many 19th-century thinkers left accounts of their formative years, and these tended to be years of turmoil, confusion and unruly emotions. One of the concepts individuals were increasingly using to analyse and evaluate their experience was that of happiness. A famous example comes from John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, (published posthumously in 1873) in a passage where he is talking about himself at the age of 20 (in 1826), a time at which he devoted most of his energy to crusading journalism and political activism:

I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent […]. In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

This was the start of what Mill called a “mental crisis”. It is striking the central role that happiness played in Mill’s thinking. The worthiness of his aims – which he did not doubt – was of no worth when his own personal happiness did not result therefrom. So, for Mill, ultimately much of his intellectual life’s work became about developing ideas about increasing happiness individually and collectively.

John_Stuart_Mill_by_London_Stereoscopic_Company,_c1870

John Stuart Mill in 1870.

At around the same time, a famous contemporary of Mill, Thomas Carlyle, was undergoing a mental crisis of his own, one described with powerful intensity in the semi-autobiographical Sartor Resartus (1833-34). Carlyle called his time of distress, confusion and alienation the “everlasting no”. A realization of his own unhappiness is central to the crisis:

“Reasonably might the Wanderer exclaim to himself: Are not the gates of this world’s happiness inexorably shut against thee; hast thou a hope that is not mad? Nevertheless, one may still murmur audibly, or in the original Greek if that suit thee better: ‘Whoso can look on Death will start at no shadows.'” (SR, II, 6, “Sorrows of Teufelsdrockh”)

Carlyle recognised in himself an inability to experience anything similar to the happiness he had been introduced to as a concept. He concludes that happiness is definitively denied to him – its gates inexorably shut against him. His response, though, is very different to Mill’s – diametrically opposed, even. He rejects the concept of happiness and the pursuit of happiness completely:

What then? Is the heroic inspiration we name Virtue but some Passion; some bubble of the blood, bubbling in the direction others profit by? I know not: only this I know, If what thou namest Happiness be our true aim, then are we all astray. (SR, II, 7, “The Everlasting No”)

[…]

Man’s Unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his Greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite. Will the whole Finance Ministers and Upholsterers and Confectioners of modern Europe undertake, in joint-stock company, to make one Shoeblack HAPPY? They cannot accomplish it, above an hour or two: for the Shoeblack also has a Soul quite other than his Stomach; and would require, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more, and no less: God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rose. Oceans of Hochheimer, a Throat like that of Ophiuchus: speak not of them; to the infinite Shoeblack they are as nothing. No sooner is your ocean filled, than he grumbles that it might have been of better vintage. Try him with half of a Universe, of an Omnipotence, he sets to quarrelling with the proprietor of the other half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men.—Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even, as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.  (SR, II, 9, “The Everlasting Yea”)

Carlyle considers that man is incapable of happiness, because the concept of happiness, as he understands it, is based on sensual satisfactions. Man is not primarily sensual for Carlyle: rather he is filled with a void of longing that is more than sensual, something Infinite that Carlyle doesn’t quite have a name for here. Once an individual begins to think in terms of what can make him happy and satisfy him, the only real answer is God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself. And that is not very practical! So Carlyle turned away from the concept of happiness and insisted in Sartor (and thereafter) that the summum bonum was to Know what thou canst work at (SR, II, 7, “The Everlasting No”), and to work on with a minimum of self-consciousness, and a minimum of considering of one happiness.

240px-thomas_carlyle_lm

Thomas Carlyle: What are you looking at? Get back to work!

 

This contrasting attitude to happiness was one of the key differences between Mill and Carlyle. It would appear that Mill was on the right side of history here (and in most of their other areas of dispute). Happiness is both a crucial concept in our everyday analysis of our lives, and is used on a larger scale as a scientific term. We have, for example, the World Happiness Report, commissioned by the UN, wherein happiness levels in each country are prepared. These are completed simply by asking people how happy they are, with details of GDP, freedom, life expectancy, etc. of each country provided in the Report to allow correlations to be drawn. The UN also established “Happiness and Well-Being” as “A New Economic Paradigm” in 2012. Academically, we now have a Journal of Happiness Studies. There is no escaping the pursuit of happiness. We must pursue it if we wish to align our ideals with those of the academic and economic establishment.

Our consciousness of happiness is thus being perpetually reinforced. As we ponder the concept, then, we cannot fail to consider its lack or opposite. What if you don’t have happiness? What if you are not happy? Then you are unhappy, sad, or perhaps depressed. The latest World Happiness Report finds that depression is one of the three greatest threats to happiness. Insofar as depression is synonymous with sadness – or at least deep sadness – and sadness is an antonym of happiness, this is a tautology. The biggest threat to happiness in today’s world is the absence of happiness!

Therein lies the dialectical bind of happiness: the more conscious one becomes of it, the more conscious one must also become of its absence. The more one must ask oneself if one is happy and, if not, why not. This activity of ceaseless questioning is in itself not a pleasant one, and conducive to anxiety. Happiness is an essentially abstract concept centralized by utilitarian philosophy and economics. We can no longer unthink it, or remember that not all societies have prized it. Aristotle’s eudaimonia, remember, was an activity, not a state. As such, it was as close to Carlyle’s ideal of work as to Mill’s happiness.

So, as our notions of happiness get more and more sophisticated, and our economic structures become more and more entwined with this utilitarian abstraction, we will experience more and more depression, more anxiety, more and more the absence of this concept of happiness, which has moved from a mere abstraction to a materialized abstraction, build into the economic and ideological framework of our society. The felt absence of happiness is now one of the central facts of our experience. This is why we should go back to Carlyle and get a new perspective on this, because to us the idea that you don’t need to think about happiness is an alien one. Carlyle’s style is antiquated. The message, too, seems at first antiquated, but, if we wish to escape the clutches of happiness, it must be renewed:

[M]an is actually Here; not to ask questions, but to do work: in this time, as in all times, it must be the heaviest evil for him, if his faculty of Action lie dormant, and only that of sceptical Inquiry exert itself. Accordingly whoever looks abroad upon the world, comparing the Past with the Present, may find that the practical condition of man in these days is one of the saddest; burdened with miseries which are in a considerable degree peculiar. In no time was man’s life what he calls a happy one; in no time can it be so. (Characteristics, 1831)

 

On Žižek, Adaptation and Fragments of the Whole

[T]he goal of the translation is not to achieve fidelity to the original but to supplement it, to treat it as a fragment of the broken vessel and produce another fragment that, rather than imitating the original, will fit it as one fragment of a broken Whole may fit with another. A good translation will thus destroy the myth of the original’s organic Wholeness, rendering this Wholeness visible as a fake. One can even say that, far from being an attempt to restore the broken vessel, translation is the very act of breaking. (Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil, Verso, 2014, p. 143-144)

Žižek’s view of translation as a fragment to fit together with the equally fragmented original is one he owes to Walter Benjamin (as he acknowledges in the passage quoted above), and is also one he applies to adaptations. Indeed, the one substantial piece of analysis he give apropos this passage is of an adaptation, not a translation, focusing on different versions of the play Antigone. Žižek leaves aside the possibility that adaptation and translation may be theoretically distinct concepts, but certainly there is a school of thought that sees them as analogous. So, provisionally admitting this point, how productive is Zizek’s approach? Can we conceive of an adaptation which operates by destroying the myth of the original’s organic Wholeness? An adaptation which is a fragment and which exposes the fragmentary nature of the source?

These (imagined) variations should not be read as distortions  some lost primordial original, but as fragments of a totality which would have consisted of the matrix of all possible permutations (in the sense in which Levi-Strauss claimed that all interpretations of the Oedipus myth, inclusive of Freud’s, are part of the myth). Should we then endeavour to reconstruct the full matrix? What we should rather do is locate the traumatic point, the antagonism, that remains untold and around which all the variations and fragments circulate. (p. 146)

It is an idealistic view of adaptation, one that posits a unity behind each avatar, a unity that cannot be found in any individual work, but only uncovered by the scholar. It is the scholar who communicates the traumatic point untold in the fragments.

My own approach is in some ways the opposite to Žižek’s. When you track versions of the same story across time, what you find is not one single traumatic kernel underpinning the narrative, but a predominantly unchanging narrative line that is used as support for reflection on themes that do not predominantly come from the source, but from cultural influences. Adaptations prove that the ideology of a text is not dependent on the story being told. The source provides a narrative framework more than a philosophical or ideological framework.

It may perhaps seem counter-intuitive to think that the same storyline can be used for substantially different ideological purposes. One clear example can be seen in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel, and the 2007 BBC series Oliver Twist (adapted by Sarah Phelps, latterly better known for her Agatha Christie adaptations, And Then There Were None (2015), etc.). In my essay “Adaptation, Transtemporality, and Ideology: The BBC Series Oliver Twist (2007)” (available in (Re)Writing Without Borders: Contemporary Intermedial Perspectives on Literature and the Visual Arts, eds. Brigitte Le Juez, Nina Shiel, Mark Wallace, Common Ground, 2018), I discuss the ideological shift in the story between the two versions in question, even though at the level of narrative structure there are only minor differences.

By going through the main characters in the narrative (Fagin, Sikes, Nancy, Rose, Monks – I don’t go into Oliver himself in detail, as there was only space to study the most relevant characters to my argument), I demonstrate (at least to my own satisfaction) that through changes in presentation of characters rather than in narrative functions, Phelps manages to invert much of Dickens’ embedded worldview in Oliver Twist.  To take a brief excerpt from my essay, I discuss the character of Fagin, who emerges in Phelps’ version as a victim in ways Dickens never envisaged:

This is most striking with regard to the character of Fagin. John notes in a brief overview of the series that Fagin is placed as a “victim of discriminatory social circumstances” throughout.* This climaxes in the trial scene, in which Fagin (played by Timothy Spall) is sentenced to death by Judge Fang, who further makes him the offer of a reprieve if he will convert to Christianity: “Fall to your knees before this assembly and take Christ as your saviour” (5; 22:15). Fagin refuses and becomes a martyr for the Jewish religion. The exchange is not found in Dickens, and Fagin’s principled refusal to forsake his religion contrasts with the greedy opportunism of Dickens’ villainous character. The offer made by Fang cannot be explained with reference to nineteenth-century legal practices, either.

Rather, Fagin’s trial scene constitutes an argument directed against the ideology of the source text from a presentist perspective, from which perspective ideologies of religious tolerance and idealization of the socially or politically marginalized or oppressed provides a basis from which the narrative is re-constructed, said re-construction incorporating a dialectic between source and adaptation.

* The quoted phrase is from Juliet John, Dickens and Mass Culture, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 223.

Tim Spall

Timothy Spall as Fagin in Oliver Twist (2007)

So there’s a whole different problematic about the character of Fagin. Fagin is the most obviously troublesome character in the novel, as the anti-semitic element of the depiction has long been noted (I go into the history of the character in the essay), but other characters like Sikes, Nancy and Monks are also altered in revealing ways. Sikes is still brutal, but tortured and sensitive; Nancy is much more kindly and maternal towards Oliver; Monks is fleshed out: he wants to marry Rose, but goes about securing this match in a particularly evil way.  They all still behave in ways that move the plot along the same lines as Dickens, but we feel very differently about them. Each character has inscribed into them not only the source material, but also other features which are often in tension with the source, and which in analysis often prove to be traceable to ideological issues of wider significance. It’s in the spaces between Dickens’ Nancy and Phelps’ Nancy that we can find out something significant about how we constructs narratives of human life. We don’t write stories or understand people as Dickens did: even if an adaptor tried to, there would be tension there. With Phelps, the tension is upfront: she wants to challenge Dickens, particularly with regard to Fagin:

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. [“Behind the Scenes” feature on Oliver Twist, BBCDVD2572, 2008]

Thus, I’m unconvinced by Žižek’s emphasis on a traumatic core common to source and adaptation. Trauma is evidently personal and contextual. The trauma in Phelps’ retelling is precisely the absence of trauma in Dickens. It is Dickens’ perceived callousness which provokes Phelps into attributing trauma to Fagin.  And if one was to follow Oliver Twist around the world and find other adaptations, you would find other sources of trauma. Many would engage in arguments with other elements of Dickens’ text, aside from the anti-Semitism. Or, if not engage in arguments, instead maintain silence over the elements which provide an ideological jolt. So in difference we can find those elements which demand analysis. It does not necessarily follow that these differences point to a commonality at a deeper level, a shared trauma. Analysis does not have to lead to a higher-level synthesis. The idea that it does is the Hegelian coming out in Žižek .

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