The Victorian Sage

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

The Appearance of Evil in The Dark Knight

Todd McGowan’s The Fictional Christopher Nolan (University of Texas Press, 2012) makes the bold claim that Nolan is a “thoroughly Hegelian filmmaker”, implying the perhaps still bolder one that this is somehow significant. From this thesis, McGowan has produced a stimulating volume. It is perhaps a shame that McGowan was writing before the release of The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the concluding film in Nolan’s Batman trilogy (and a film whose underlying ideology I analyzed in a previous post), as this would have spurred him to amend his argument regarding the previous film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight (2008).


In certain respects, The Dark Knight Rises inverts its predecessor. At the very least, it renders what seems a reasonably coherent politico-philosophical stance in The Dark Knight rather ambiguous. So McGowan’s thesis is already critiqued by the film Nolan made after Dark Knight. So what is McGowan’s thesis re Dark Knight, the impatient readers asks. Well, McGowan sees the film as dramatizing the Hegelian contrast between  the Heroic Age and the Era of the Legal Order (124). The film posits the need for heroic exceptionalism to exist alongside the legal order. In this way, McGowan is able to draw parallels between the universe of Dark Knight and post-9/11 America. He  notes that some commentators saw the film as a straightforward paean to Bush-era foreign policy. For McGowan, of course, it’s not so simple:

The exception is a fiction or violation of the law that threatens to overrun the law altogether, and yet the law requires it. This is the dilemma that shapes The Dark Knight. (126)

In order for the legal order to contain this threat, then, the extralegal supplement of the hero must have the appearance of evil.

McGowan then goes on to make an interesting contrast between the western and the superhero film as exemplified by Dark Knight. In the classic western, such as Shane (1954), the protagonist commits a founding act of violence to inaugurate the law, but once the law comes into effect this same act compels the protagonist to disappear from the society to which he has belonged. In the superhero film, extralegal violence persists, and for this reason Batman can remain in Gotham, a liminal figure, outside the law but necessary to it.

If the reader has seen Rises, it will be clear that McGowan’s point has become extremely problematic. Rises does indeed follow the western scheme in which the hero performs a founding act of heroism and then leaves. So all McGowan’s theorizing about the nature of the superhero genre appears to collapse. But perhaps what the tension between Rises and (McGowan’s) Dark Knight demonstrates is that the latter is a more interesting film, and the former shows Nolan swapping innovative thought for outdated cliches borrowed from the western genre. One might regret that the interesting politico-philosophical consequences of Dark Knight were not followed up in the sequel. The law in Dark Knight is corrupt and compromised, a tool in the hands of self-interested capitalists and opportunist politicians. Rises allows the trilogy to finish on a note of europhic positivity when all is cleansed by Batman’s final acts of heroism. Nolan has already showed that such purity cannot last, and that corruption underlies the relations that humans build with each other. For a few moments in a movie theater, perhaps, Rises makes us forget that, but on reflection it is a less satisfying and thought-provoking piece than Dark Knight.


University and/as Business: Critic as Ishmaelite

I have had occasion to reflect lately on the relations between university and business. These are certainly growing stronger and will continue to do so. In the EU context, this is made manifest in, for example, Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. It is this programme that decides where the EU money goes in terms of third-level research. The three pillars of this programme are:

Excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling societal problems.

This central need to provide “industrial leadership” means that universities, in order to receive EU funding, must demonstrate how their work is “aligned with the needs of the business sector”. Such alignment is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed, classically, it was key to the university mission that it avoided a narrow focus on professional development. Rather, it was expected to adhere to a capacious notion of human development:

[The University] neither confines its views to particular professions on the one hand, nor creates heroes or inspires genius on the other. Works indeed of genius fall under no art; heroic minds come under no rule; a University is not a birthplace of poets or of immortal authors, of founders of schools, leaders of colonies, or conquerors of nations. It does not promise a generation of Aristotles or Newtons, of Napoleons or Washingtons, of Raphaels or Shakespeares, though such miracles of nature it has before now contained within its precincts. Nor is it content on the other hand with forming the critic or the experimentalist, the economist or the engineer, though such too it includes within its scope. (John Henry Newman, in 1852)

The University, then, always aimed at something extra, something more. Newman resisted somewhat defining what that something more was, on the premise that it was undefinable, but he did state it in general terms:

[A] University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.

But the rhetoric of humanism has given way to the rhetoric of professionalism, and Universities are now answerable to the marketplace.

Bridging the gap between university and business is a task that has proceeded apace recently. Silicon Valley, for example, is considered a product of the synthesis of university and business creating speedy technological and economic change. Yet failure of communication between the two fields seems to be still the norm. What is called for in the Science Business Innovation Board’s Making Industry-University Partnerships Work: Lessons for successful collaborations (2012) is greater strategic attention to business partnership from universities. This document recommends particularly long-term strategic partnerships between the two sectors. The Newmanian idea of the university is explicitly challenged

Today’s universities largely embrace a model of higher education developed over 100 years ago. A new vision should include producing the highly skilled workforce for a globally competitive economy. The university in the 21st century should be viewed not just as a generator of ideas but as a source of knowledge and competence that can benefit society.

Here the university’s missions to align with business and to benefit society are eventually seen as one and the same. Thus the very important question of whether and to what extent our western model of capitalistic business is per se a social good is wholly elided. Here we find, clearly enough, the limitations of the university-business partnership model. Not that one necessarily calls for a wholesale rejection of this model, but it is far from sufficient in itself to fulfil the university’s social mission. Even while elements within the university co-operate with business, others must fulfil the critical mission of the university, and continue to question the dominant economic and social practices. A critical distance from such practices is a necessity, and must be maintained a sector whose job it is precisely to take an outside view of society. But perhaps within the university is not the place to undertake this. Perhaps it is, instead, up to the individual to articulate such a criticism, unprofessional as it may be. Thus he incurs the displeasure of the business world and “wanders like a wild Ishmaelite, in a world of which he is as the spiritual light” (Carlyle, The Hero as Man of Letters). At times he or she may even wander as a wild Ishmaelite through the third-level sector, as a liminal figure therein, not aligned to the interests of business (alas), but simply tolerated, capable of interpolating the odd shaft to the heart of the university-business relation, with what ultimate result who can tell.


Adaptation, Intermediality and Narrative

Academic investigation into culture and the arts is characterized by a proliferation of terms which seem, to the untheoretical eye, to mean and do much the same thing. Yet each term has its strict adherents and schools, and often two more or less synonymous terms are studied independently. Such is generally the situation with “adaptation” and “intermediality”.

Adaptation deals for the most part with issues of intermediality. In theory, an adaptation can be of a work from the same medium, as is the position in Hutcheon’s influential book. One can see Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea as an adaptation of Jane Eyre, for example. In practice, adaptations as studied are almost always  intermedial, moving from one medium to another, most commonly novel to film.

Intermediality itself is to a large extent a continuation of the longer-established Interart Studies, as Irina Rajewsky notes in “Intermediality, Interetextuality, and Remediation: A Literary Perspective on Intermediality”. For Rajwesky, intermediality is distinguished not by having new subjects of study (digital media, etc.) but by providing “new ways of solving problems”. These “new ways” are too heterogeneous and broad for Rajewsky’s taste, and she favours a narrow definition of the term:

In literary studies as well as in such fields as art history, music, theater, and film
studies, there is a repeated focus on an entire range of phenomena qualifying
as intermedial. Examples include those phenomena which for a long time have
been designated by terms such as transposition d’art, filmic writing, ekphrasis,
musicalization of literature, as well as such phenomena as film adaptations of literary works, “novelizations,” visual poetry, illuminated manuscripts, Sound Art,
opera, comics, multimedia shows, hyperfiction, multimedial computer “texts” or
installations, etc. Without a doubt, all of these phenomena have to do in some
way with a crossing of borders between media and are in so far characterized by a
quality of intermediality in the broad sense.

Rajewsky attempts to differentiate between different kinds of intermediality, rather than accept the diffuse concept employed by others.

1. Intermediality in the more narrow sense of medial transposition (as for example
film adaptations, novelizations, and so forth): here the intermedial quality has to
do with the way in which a media product comes into being, i.e., with the transformation of a given media product (a text, a film, etc.) or of its substratum into
another medium. This category is a production-oriented, “genetic” conception of
intermediality; the “original” text, film, etc., is the “source” of the newly formed
media product, whose formation is based on a media-specific and obligatory intermedial transformation process.

2. Intermediality in the more narrow sense of media combination, which includes
phenomena such as opera, film, theater, performances, illuminated manuscripts,
computer or Sound Art installations, comics, and so on, or, to use another terminology, so-called multimedia, mixed media, and intermedia. The intermedial quality of this category is determined by the medial constellation constituting a given media product, which is to say the result or the very process of combining at least two conventionally distinct media or medial forms of articulation.

3. Intermediality in the narrow sense of intermedial references, for example references in a literary text to a film through, for instance, the evocation or imitation of certain filmic techniques such as zoom shots, fades, dissolves, and montage editing. Other examples include the so-called musicalization of literature, transposition d’art, ekphrasis, references in film to painting, or in painting to photography, and so forth.

Category one equates roughly to adaptation, while category three could be considered to be a form of allusion. Thus adaptation is contained within intermediality (in theory). Rajewsky in this article is really only interested in drawing out the third category, wherein a work in one medium evokes at a certain point another medium. This category is more or less by definition, not relevant to adaptation study, as adaptation is, according to Hutcheon again, always an “extended, deliberate, announced revisitation of a particular work”. The extended is key here, as it excludes any form of brief allusion, transmedial or no.

Reading Rajewsky, one is struck by the though that the central difference between adaptation and intermediality as fields of study has been the centrality of narrative to the former. Adaptation has a long history of engaging deeply with narrative. The irony is that many of the more recent scholars of adaptation have decried this very engagement. The centrality of narrative to adaptations studies is at once its unique selling point and  a symptom of a field that has failed to move on. The question is how to move on without losing the identity of the field and falling into an already existing field. The other question is whether theoretical advancement is really a desideratum in any case. We could develop more complex theories, or we could use old-fashioned narrative theories to reach new insights and build an identity for adaptation.

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; 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, their is no philosophy without an embodiment thereof, and the two 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; an 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.


Review: The Seven Per Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer (1974)

Having discussed my preconceptions and early impressions of The Seven Per Cent Solution in my last post, it seems relevant to provide a review upon finishing the novel. This intriguing novel centres on a meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in Vienna, where they get together to solve a case involving a disorientated and apparently mistreated woman. The case, of course, turns out to be of international importance.


1975 Coronet Edition of The Seven Per Cent Solution

Ultimately, The Seven Per Cent Solution did not meet my expectations. Perhaps these were too high. But to get at the sort of thing I was expecting, here’s a reviewer’s quote from the back cover of the book:

What happens as one mastermind pitches wits against the other and as Freud proceeds to psychoanalyse Holmes and get to the heart of his secrets makes a marvellously entertaining treat for the most jaded palate. –Publishers Weekly

In a work featuring Holmes and Freud, one would indeed expect a large element of psychoanalysis. One would expect, as Publishers Weekly mentioned, a psychoanalysis of Holmes. As I neared the end of the book, I became increasingly surprised to find that no such content was in the book. I was wrong. In the final chapter, Freud does hypnotize and briefly psychoanalyze Holmes, and finds a secret from his past that explain his apparent disinterest in social, sexual and romantic relationships. I won’t give the details away, but it’s not original. It is taken from a well-known Holmes scholar of the time called Trevor H. Hall, which Meyers acknowledges in a footnote:

*This amazing event was actually deduced by Trevor Hall in his essay “The Early Years of Sherlock Holmes”, included in his masterly collection Sherlock Holmes: Ten Literary Studies, St. Martin’s Press, 1969. N.M.

Of course, Hall didn’t use Freudian techniques to arrive at his conclusions; rather he relied on detail from the stories, but the conclusions are the same. Which does prompt the following question: what use is psychoanalysis if it can only bring to light information that can as easily be brought to light by other channels? For this book to have successfully married Freudian thought to the Holmesian universe, it would at least have had to call forth some specifically Freudian knowledge, unavailable to the unassisted intelligence, and certainly not second hand.

And note also the timing of the psychoanalytic episode: the final chapter, when the central mystery had been solved. The word afterthought certainly springs to mind here. Again, the Freudian element should have been more integrated into the central narrative, not tacked on. But Meyer is less interested in the Freudian element than one might have expected.

Of course, there are other more Freudian characterizations of Holmes, if one wishes to find them. Sherlock most of all, as some reviewers have noted. The Seven Per Cent Solution, though, is not such a reading. Indeed, it is curiously reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), another narrative that appears to set itself up as an exploration of the Holmesian psyche, but that ends up following the tropes of the detective story, and leaving psychology and character behind. Stories in popular culture just had not become Freudian enough to support such an ambition at the time. Now, though, cultural tropes have changed, and Sherlock and other modern retellings are more suffused with Freudian theory than Meyer or Wilder could make their stories.


Variations on this theme:

Elementary (S1 E1) and the Freudianization of Sherlock Holmes

Freud, Leonardo, Sherlock Holmes, Asexuality

Freud meets Holmes: The Seven-per-cent Solution (1974)

The prevalence of Freudian readings of Sherlock Holmes, and the tensions they engender in the adapted narratives that make them, is a subject I have touched on before (also here). It was about time, then, that I read Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-per-cent Solution (1974), a shortish novel (221 pages in the Coronet 1975 edition which I will be referencing in this post) bringing the fictional detective and the real psychoanalyst together in an entirely fictional way.


Yoinked from here

In a sense, the novel is an adaptation of Doyle’s famous story “The Final Problem” (TFP), in which he (temporarily) killed off the detective at the Reichenbach Falls in a conflict with Moriarty. It didn’t quite happen like that, is Meyer’s contention. In fact, Moriarty was a harmless Professor of Mathematics whom had become the focus of Holmes’ paranoid fantasies, and Watson and Mycroft (Holmes’ brother) had tricked Holmes into travelling to Vienna to have him checked out by the eminent Dr. Freud. Still less than half-way through the novel, I am not yet sure how they get Holmes to Reichenbach Falls (or if he does end up there in Meyer’s version, as opposed to it being a product of his paranoid imagination. But Vienna is close-ish, the same part of the world, so I anticipate he probably does end up there.)

So the conceit of the novel is fantastic. There is a real philosophical and history-of-ideas interest in the juxtaposing of these two characters: the embodiment of late Victorian Heroism, unemotional and sexless, and the radical Austrian psychologist, upending with lasting effect all previous conceptions of humanity to place sex squarely at the centre of it all. It’s because of Freud that Holmes seems so alien to us (while remaining such an attractive figure.)

Meyer opens with the age-old “found manuscript” gambit. A late dictated text from Dr. Watson, found in an old house that had gone up for sale. This appeal to authenticity allies the book with “the game“, in which Sherlockian scholars treat Holmes and Watson as real people, and Doyle as their literary agent, and all the stories as real happenings, which just have to be put into a correct order to resolve the contradictions Watson left in them (these contradictions being explained by Watson’s need to protect the real identities of his subjects, his forgetfulness, in a couple of cases the stories are deemed to be forgeries not really by Watson, and so on). Dorothy Sayers famously wrote that:

The game of applying the methods of the “Higher Criticism” to the Sherlock Holmes canon was begun, many years ago, by Monsignor Ronald Knox, with the aim of showing that, by those methods, one could disintegrate a modern classic as speciously as a certain school of critics have endeavoured to disintegrate the Bible. Since then, the thing has become a hobby among a select set of jesters here and in America.

But the exponents of the game are many, and are by no means all jesters. Many take it very seriously indeed. Meyer is clearly very familiar with the game, and he takes part in it in Seven-per-cent. For example, Watson as narrator in this novel identifies Doyle’s stories “The Lion’s Mane”, “The Mazarin Stone”, “The Creeping Man” and “The Three Gables” as “forgeries”, and also as “drivel” (17).

The novel proper opens with Holmes arriving at Watson’s practice wanting to speak to him urgently. Holmes’ dialogue during the meeting is filled with nods to Doyle’s stories: references to Reade and Richter, complaints about the lack of high quality crime, and, most centrally, the following direct lift from TFP:

For years past, Watson, I have continually been conscious of some power behind the malefactor, some deep organizing power which for ever stands in the way of the law, and throws it shield over the wrong-doer. Again and again in cases of the most varying sorts — forgery cases, robberies, murders — I have felt the presence of this force, and I have deduced its action in many of those undiscovered crimes in which I have not been personally consulted. For years I have endeavored to break through the veil which shrouded it, and at last the time came when I seized my thread and followed it, until it led me, after a thousand cunning windings, to ex-Professor Moriarty of mathematical celebrity.

On one hand, this is a pretty dramatic and forceful speech; on the other, I have always felt it to be something of a jumping-the-shark moment in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales. While the early Holmes were all about the presence of seemingly inconsequential details in often very everyday stories, and the finding of unexpected interesting elements in mundane setups (in the early Doyle short stories, there are very few murders, and in several cases no crime to speak of.) I’m thinking here of a story like “The Red-headed League”: a curious tale whose mundanity is broken only be the comical but hardly sinister detail of the bequest for the man with the best red head! “Copper Beeches” is another classic in this regard. A mundane setting with a few curious details, hiding a very particular set of circumstances that the general reader can hardly begin to guess at.

But now in TFP Doyle gives up the great sense of specificity and eccentricity that attended these early stories by positing an antagonist, an embodiment of criminal evil for Holmes. This is standard narrative stuff obviously, but to me it’s a much less interesting approach than the earlier: from the notion all situations are uniquely interesting; we move to the notion that all crimes are one, with Moriarty at the centre. It’s almost like a move from empiricism to religious thinking; from attention to detail to reliance on symbolism.

So given my take on this, I enjoy how Meyer subverts it here. The preposterousness of Holmes’ idea here is made manifest; in seeing Moriarty everywhere, he’s not noticing a true unified pattern in crime, he’s exposing his own cocaine-fuelled paranoia. This becomes increasingly clear in the second chapter, wherein we meet the real Moriary. He gets in touch with Doyle to complain querulously about Holmes’ following him around for no apparent reason. All of this is much better than Doyle’s own conceit!

It is also clear from the start that Meyer feels the need to rehabilitate his narrator, i.e. Watson: “Students of my work have seen fit to remark that the man who wrote them was ‘slow’, a dullard, hopelessly gullible, totally without imagination, and worse. To these charges I plead not guilty […]. [B]eing in his company often made one feel dull whether or not one possessed a normal intelligence, which, by the by, I believe I do.” (55) Here, again, Meyer is probably showing his familiarity with Sherlockian scholarship, which has long taken exception to alleged popular misconceptions about Watson’s character. This is solidified in the famous Rathbone Holmes films of the late 1930s and the 1940s, wherein Nigel Bruce played an entertainingly imbecilic, comic-relief Watson. One can imagine the nods of satisfaction from Sherlockians on reading in Meyer an author ready to give Watson his due.


As I write, I haven’t yet read to the meetings between Holmes and Freud. This will be the meat of the book, and will decide whether it really lives up to the promise it has shown. There is room for a truly profound work in the Holmes-Freud nexus. Seven-per-cent has started well, promising to be a better solution to the problem of Holmes than Doyle himself found in TFP, a book that couldn’t have been written without Doyle, but that Doyle certainly couldn’t have written.

Hot Dogs, Hideously Large Bosoms and Neon Lighting: Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice (1864)

Žižek writes that he favours analyzing popular culture examples because it helps him “to avoid pseudo-Lacanian jargon and to achieve the greatest possible clarity not only for my readers but also for myself” (The Metastases of Enjoyment, Verso, 1994, p. 175). I’m not sure Žižek is always wholly successful in avoiding jargon and achieving maximum clarity, but it’s nice to know that he makes the effort. Raymond Williams famously noted that “Culture is ordinary“, rather than the preserve of an elite, and what could be more ordinary than popular culture – it is, by definition, the property of the many, rather than the few. Thus, popular culture is always a more fitting object of study than any high culture (“serious literature”, “arthouse cinema”, etc.)

So, if you want to know our culture, know the artefacts of popular culture in depth. And what could be more resoundingly and enduringly popular in Western societies (at least Anglophone ones) than the figure of James Bond. Most of us know him now through the continuing  film franchise, but he started off as a literary creation in a hugely popular series of books by Ian Fleming. Fleming started publishing Bond in 1953, but after the first film (Dr. No) appeared in 1962, he continued writing new books while older ones were being adapted until his death in 1965. You Only Live Twice, you novel I will write about here, belongs to this late period. Published in 1964, it was the last Bond novel to appear in Fleming’s lifetime.

You Only Live Twice takes up where the previous novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, left off. That is, Bond’s wife Tracy has been killed by Blofeld’s goons. So the Bond we meet in Twice is shattered by grief, drinking too much and failing at work. He’s very similar to the Bond we saw recently in the film Skyfall (2012), who seems to be physically past it, mentally jaded and fit for the scrapheap. But in both works, M. decides to pull Bond out of it by giving him a big mission. Here, 007 is sent to Japan on a diplomatic mission to check up on what the Russians are up to there.

In fact, the book opens with Bond already in Japan, having a meeting-confrontation with the ambiguous Tiger Tanaka. Tiger embodies the whole mystery and menace of Japan in the book. It’s not really clear if he’s friend or foe. He’s the head of the Japanese secret service. This service is never named: “‘Some unpronounceable Japanese rubbish'” (Vintage, 2012, p. 35), is  M.’s contemptuous non-effort to render it.

This opening chapter introduces a quite extensive selection of Western cultural cliches regarding Japan: geishas and sake figure prominently; sumo, kamikaze, samurai and Fu Manchu also get mentions. It’s the images of the samurai  and kamikaze that loom largest throughout the book. Tanaka himself is described as having a “formidable, cruel, Samurai face” (p. 8), and this description accurately prefigures the depiction of the Japanese and the idea of Japan by Fleming in the book.

Also in the first chapter, Bond semi-jokingly tells Tanaka that in a game of paper-scissors-rock he will win and thus “display not only the superiority of Great Britain, and especially Scotland, over Japan, but also the superiority of our Queen over your Emperor” (9). This anxious national competition is central to much of the book.


After this scene-setting first chapter with the ambiguous Tanaka, we move to the aforementioned backstory of Bond’s state post-Tracy and M.’s decision to send him to Japan. Only midway through chapter 7 do we again catch up with chapter 1, and we have more debate between Bond and Tanaka about the national character and political systems of their respective countries. Tanaka is particularly exercised by the change in Japanese culture since WWII, which he blames on the American presence:

Baseball, amusement arcades, hog dogs, hideously large bosoms, neon lighting – these are the part of our payment for defeat in battle. they are the tepid tea of the way of life we know under the name of demokorasu. They are a frenzied denial of the official scapegoats for our defeat – a denial of the spirit of the samurai as expressed in the kami-kaze, a denial of our ancestors, a denial of our gods. They are a despicable way of life[.]” (80)

Bond listens politely to Tanaka’s catalogue of horrific Americanisms, and offers his sympathy. That Fleming allows a voice to such anti-Americanism is an index of the fact that the Americans themselves as seen as slightly threatening in this book, no longer such a straightforward friend to Britain as in earlier novels. This type of politically-invested dialogue is very characteristic of Twice, and it is worth noting that it is precisely this type of matter that is not reproduced in the contemporaneous film versions of Bond. Twice has a very definite political context with plenty of detail (e.g. discussion of the differences between the CIA under Alan Dulles and under his successor John McCone [34]), such that an entire ideologico-political position is sketched out, and is as important to the text as the purely narrative elements (which are admittedly particularly weak in this novel, as has been noted by others).

For Fleming and his readers, there was clearly a need to reconsider and debate various elements of Western society and of the democratic ideal. “I stand for government by an elite” (53), Bond’s Australian friend Dikko Henderson says (and he also fervently opposes votes for Aborigines). Fleming never puts such strong political opinions in Bond’s mouth, so the status of such pronouncements is unclear. By giving them to bit part (albeit overall sympathetic) characters, Fleming is bringing such ideas into play without committing to them. He subtly plays with anti-democratic ideas, forcing the reader to confront them but not to accept them. In the light of the films, it remains an interesting exercise to return to the book, and to see the anti-democratic political tendencies that are much more visible here and that underlie much of the Bond narratives.

Carlyle and Foucault?

So, how does Thomas Carlyle map onto contemporary critical theory? Not an easy question, but one abstract of an essay attempting to explore this came to my attention this week.

This paper argues in favour of the beneficial currency of Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History in three ways, each of which finds the basis of its critique in aspects of Foucault’s theories of discursive practice, as explored in Foucault’s theories of historical discourse; 1) that Carlyle’s terminology connects with his discursive practice in an ambiguous manner, as his concept of worship is more akin to study than devotion, if we take the text of his lectures as evidence of his perception; 2) the sources of enlightenment Carlyle offers us, based on these studies of heroic individuals, may provide an exemplar for interdisciplinary scholarship centred around biographies of notable individuals, and finally; 3) we challenge the notion that heroes such as those Carlyle offers us can be manifest in the present and argue that the depth of insight Carlyle demonstrates into his subjects is only possible by means of a lengthy temporal transition: the historicity of these narratives, and the narratives of social codification, cultural development and long-term impact witnessed and described over generations, is what makes them feasible at all.

Louise Campbell, “The Archaeology of Heroes: Carlyle, Foucault and the Pedagogy of Interdisciplinary Narrative DiscourseJournal of Philosophy of Education (2017) Wiley Online Library

Three interesting points here. Point 1 I am, on first glance, somewhat sceptical of, for, though there is obviously an element of the scholarly to Carlyle’s work, his rapturous and forceful tone mean reading him is very different to reading a standard “study”. The Victorians called him a “sage” and this does get across the intensity of his work better than the notion of “study”. There is an ambiguity there about Carlyle’s relation to worship, but I don’t think it’s resolved by seeing his work as a “study” or him as simply a scholar.

Point 2 is promising, looking to Carlyle as an early interdisciplinarian, and trying, it seems, essentially to rehabilitate the “Great Man” approach to history and humanities. Of course it will be under a different name, and it will cast a wider net to find its subjects, in terms of gender, geography, class, etc., but we could learn certain things from the “Great Man” writers like Carlyle. In a sense this is being done by the nascent discipline of Heroism Science, but Carlyle wasn’t a scientist. He was closer to a humanist in his sense of the importance and power of the individual, and his interest in the psychological make-up and state of his heroes. This broad humanism may also be worth recovering.

Point 3 is difficult. As I understand it, it says we can acknowledge and study heroes, but they must be in the past. This is a fairly unorthodox point to which it is different to respond here. On a political level, at any rate, it seems sensible. Elevating a dead person to godhead seems less dangerous than elevating a live one. Yet, even here, is it not our worship of dead or non-existent persons/entities that gets us into most trouble? We find it hard to unequivocally worship the living being, but the non-corporeal symbol, less so. This, indeed, was a central point in Sartor Resartus, according to the reading of it in the Dark Knight Rises Chapter of my thesis, from which I quote:

In the moment of attaching the nuclear core to the Batmobile and carrying it away from the city, Batman becomes a realized ideal, emblematic of true heroism and sacrifice for the citizens he has undertaken to protect. His physical absence lends itself to a more manageable symbolic presence, now finally incorporated into the structures of power of Gotham – indeed providing the iconographic base around which they can rebuild themselves, and finally regain credibility. It is his almost total emptiness as a political symbol, aided by his physical absence, that renders him so suitable for the role.

The point is, it is an absence that the people of Gotham worship, rather than a presence. That is the Batman paradox; it is only when he leaves that he is appreciated. Were he to return, they ambivalence towards him would likewise reappear. It is a complicated dynamic, and the difficulties of thinking about worship and heroes, and their place in human history is apparent. Nevertheless, their importance remains, so one must welcome the debate this paper should engender, if the interesting abstract is anything to go by.

My position remains roughly that we need to encounter Carlyle in his exemplary otherness. Progressive thought in our societies has almost lost the ability to engage with the other side. We can find in Carlyle plenty of hooks that will provoke our engagement: his anger at shams and dishonesty, his dismay at the mechanization of thought and society, his proto-anti-consumerism. We can use them to understand better the roots of much contemporary anti-liberal thought, and learn to see that it does not wholly spring from simply base or stupid motives. Now is not a time for agreeing amongst ourselves, now is a time for (as Žižek recommended) defending lost causes to ourselves, so we can come up with a common solution.

A.J. Ayer in the Post-Truth Era

The fact that we are now living in the era of “post-truth” does not signify that truth no longer matters. As far as progressive political debate is concerned, in fact, it signifies the opposite: that now truth is once again a key term of discussion, a term worthy of extended theoretical reflection. As Andrew Calcutt has described, truth went out the window not with the election of Trump but with the coming to prominence of post-modern thought through the 70s and 80s. Indeed, it is the political climate which produced Trump (etc.) which has forced academics and political theorists to rehabilitate truth, and to begin to imagine again a regime of truth, to which post-truth is opposed.

So, as with any new movement in thought, that revolving around the theorization of post-truth (and, by implication, truth) will need to find its ancestors. Here, perhaps, the logical positivism of A.J. Ayer’s Logic, Truth and Language (Dover, 1952 [1936]) can come in. A masterpiece of clarity, concision and strict factiness, this is a book which will force readers to adopt a narrow and workable definition of truth. It is a book which impressed me greatly on first reading, although I haven’t yet used it in my scholarly writing.

Ayer wished to eliminate all metaphysics from philosophy – or, if not eliminate it, to at least make it clear that metaphysics was not verifiable and was “nonsense” in his sense of that word. Propositions, Ayer argues, are either sense or nonsense; if the former, they are either true or false; if the latter, they are neither true nor false, and one really needs to think long and hard about why one is engaging in arguments using these propositions, and what is the goal of such argumentation.

Essentially, everything is empirical. If we can’t come up with material, sense-based evidence of a proposition, then we must be speaking either tautology or nonsense. Of course, propositions may be a mixture of verifiable empirical substance and nonsense, but in this case the essential intellectual task at hand is to separate these out.

Ayer’s philosophy seems rather anti-philosophical in its refusal to countenance metaphysics. He specifies that the task of philosophy is “wholly critical” (48), it is a work of “clarification and analysis” (49). The philosopher “devotes himself to the purely analytical tasks of defining knowledge, and classifying propositions, and displaying the nature of material things” (52). Ayer goes on to specify the philosopher’s role further:

[T]he philosopher, as an analyst, is not concerned with the physical properties of things. He is concerned only with the way in which we speak about them (57).

This is striking: it seems to equate with philosophy with what we think of discourse analysis, and discourse analysis is very much the province of broadly post-modern thinkers, e.g. Foucault. In this sense, Ayer’s logical positivism is very much compatible with post-modern thought.

But there is a key difference. Ayer recognizes the simple truth and falsity of wholly empirical propositions. He wouldn’t elide the difference between true and false statements by pointing out that “everything is discourse“. Rather, every proposition should be parsed for what empirical truth or falsity it contains, and only after this elementary step has been taken can we begin to take into account the emotional significance of a statement.

In reality, things get very complicated in the political arena, and each sides produces different data sets (empirical proofs) to back up their assertions. But while Ayer’s scheme is too abstractly simple to be a comprehensive guide to truth, it at least allows us to recognize simple truths when we see them, and that is something that is needed, and it also provides a model of frank and striaghforward prose. Perhaps, then, in the search to rediscover truth, Logic, Truth and Language is a book we should familiarize ourselves with.

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