The Victorian Sage

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

Men Lie to Women, Women Lie to Themselves: Deception and Gender in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)

With the new film adaptation of Pet Sematary (1983) due out in April this year, I have revisited this novel that I haven’t read since my early teens, a time when I devoured all of King’s earlier output. Sematary was one I enjoyed at the time. Of all King’s novels, it is for me the one with the most memorable physical setting: the pet cemetery (it’s written “Pet Sematary” on the sign, hence the novel’s title) itself, and beyond it the deadfall and the twisting path through the woods, across a swamp and onto a rocky hilltop where the Micmac Indians once buried their dead. Years after reading it, I could still picture Louis’ nighttime journeys to the Micmac burial ground.


There’s a lot of other stuff going on in this novel. The basic plot is that the protagonist, university doctor Louis Creed, and his family move to a house in rural Maine. The setting is initially idyllic, but the house is set inconveniently close to a busy road, and – even more inconveniently, as it turns out – near the pet cemetery. Creed finds out from Jud Crandall, an elderly neighbour, about the Micmac burial ground, set miles deep in the forest, in a hidden path behind said pet cemetery. Jud leads Louis to the burial ground in order to bury Louis’s daughter’s beloved cat there, after the latter is killed outside the Creed house by a passing truck. They bury the cat quickly, before Ellie (Louis’ daughter) finds out about his death. The cat soon turns up outside the house again, albeit in an unsettling, zombified and quite smelly state. Ellie doesn’t take much notice though. That takes us to a third of the way through the novel.

So this is a novel about death. About the acceptance of death, and the refusal of such acceptance. By burying the cat at the Micmac burial ground, Louis appears to align himself with the notion of refusing to accept death. In fact, though, an earlier conversation between Louis and his wife Rachel has shown that while Louis accepts the idea of a pet cemetery as a healthy way for a child to learn about death, Rachel is horrified by the idea and doesn’t want Ellie to go there. This escalates into an argument about the propriety of speaking to children about death. Louis says:

There’s nothing wrong with a child finding out something about death, Rachel. In fact, I’d called it a necessary thing. (46)

Rachel disagrees, and her response to Louis’s calm, rationalistic approach to the debate is a host of emotional actions: she “cried”, “sobbed”, “hissed”, “screamed” (46). So Louis’s later attempts to avoid death are related to the need to keep Rachel on an even emotional keel.


The cat returns in a promotional shot from the new Pet Sematary film.

When Louis goes to the Micmac burial ground with Jud and his dead cat, he keeps it a secret not only from Ellie, but from Rachel as well. As he knows, she doesn’t want to hear anything about death. Jud, as a sort of father and mentor figure, offers some homespun philosophical reflections on themes of secrecy and gender:

“[A]ny woman who knows anything at all would tell you she’s never really seen into a man’s heart. The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis – like the soil up there in the old Micmac burying ground. Bedrock’s close. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. (136)

Later, Jud writes to Louis: “I’d guess most men tell their wives a smart of lies” and Louis mentally adds “[w]ives and daughters as well” (145). Louis, after his difficult encounter with Rachel, has now embraced Jud’s philosophy of masculinity. It’s about silence, secrecy and a hidden darkness. Femininity, on the other hand, is characterized both by an upfront emotionalism and by an inability to face the darker elements of reality.

This sort of gendered characterization is not a new idea in canonical literature. Indeed, it is very reminiscent of the famous closing passage of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), wherein Marlow decides to lie to Kurtz’s fiance about the manner of his life and death, in line with a philosophy Marlow has earlier outlined:

It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

In HoD, what Marlow decides to hide, even though he purportedly “hates a lie”, is the violent and exploitative nature of colonialism, which resides behind the “great and saving illusion”. The importance of women in the HoD universe is that they really do believe in the illusion of benign colonialism – what was sometimes called the “civilizing mission“. Believing is what women do, and pretty much all that they do. Men do the work; they do everything except the believing. Feminine faith and simplicity is beautiful to Marlow. To protect that faith, men like Marlow and Kurtz brave the horror of colonial reality, and live a lie.

So, in deciding that women can’t face the truth and must be lied to while the men go about doing the dirty work needed to keep society going, Creed is trying to be a latter-day Marlow. But Marlow ends his story with the beautiful lie still in place, and the truth remains “out there” (specifically, in Africa); for Creed, living in a different age, it doesn’t end so well, and the beautiful illusions just can’t hold up against the horrible truth, which comes right into the home with unpleasant consequences.

Maybe that’s the 19th-century outlook versus the 20th century. Maybe it’s mainstream literature against the horror genre. Maybe the women of the 1980s were that bit more woke, such that a Conradian-style deception was not really feasible. Maybe the upcoming adaptation will provide a further perspective on the Creeds’ dynamics and their relationship to death. That’s one of the values of adaptations: by comparison with their originals we are given tools to think about our society and how our attitudes contrast to those of other places and times.


Becoming a Man in Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood (2012)

The tradition of the Condition-of-England novels of the mid-19th century is still with us; novels still offer “analysis and synthesis of social reality”. One of the contemporary novelists who most clearly invites comparison with the C-of-E genre is the American Tom Wolfe. Wolfe’s novels are huge sprawling affairs with large casts spanning social classes but linked by chance, like Dickens’ Bleak House moved across the Atlantic.

Wolfe published Back to Blood in 2012, and it is still his most recent novel. He is in his mid-80s, so it may be his list. In fact, it is only his fourth novel, as he didn’t start until late middle age, with 1987’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. Up until then, he had written only non-fiction, journalistic pieces collected in very successful volumes such as The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But with Bonfire, Wolfe set the template for his fiction work, and he has reused it in work since then.


Tom Wolfe in the 1980s, in typically dandyish dress.

Bonfire was a quintessentially New York novel, as tied to place as Bleak House is to London. With Blood, Wolfe set the entire 700 page opus in Miami, having apparently gone down there first to put in the research. To highlight the similarities between Bonfire and Blood the following precis, which can be applied to either novel, is offered:

The plot is set in motion when the white male professional protagonist becomes embroiled in a charged encounter with a low-status black male, one which becomes public knowledge and sets loose a storm of public condemnation on the head of said protagonist. Finally – several hundred pages – later the protagonist faces down the baying, bovine public and wins back his honour and his financial and social standing.

In Blood, this protagonist is Nestor Camacho, a cop of Cuban heritage. Camacho first comes to public attention when he arrests a Cuban attempting illegal entry into the US, an arrest carried out in a spectacular fashion. This leads to Camacho being ostracised by the Cuban community, including his own family. Then, shortly afterwards, Camacho arrests a black drug dealer in a violent manner, and a video emerges of Camacho’s partner racially abusing said drug dealer and of Camacho himself calling the guy a “filthy little bitch” (Vintage, 2013, p. 309) and so on. Cue public outrage.

Though the general public denounce Camacho and he is relieved from duty by the Police Department, another reading of the incident is provided:

No indication whatsoever of the life-or-death crisis that precipitated this vile “abuse,” not so much as a hint that this put-upon black man is in fact a powerful 250-pound young crack house thug, nothing to make it at all credible that he might have touched off the whole thing by wrapping his huge hands around the Sergeant’s neck, that he was within one second of murdering him by crushing his windpipe, that his life was saved only by the immediate reaction of Officer Camacho, who threw himself onto the brute’s back and, weighing only 160 pounds, clamped a couple of wrestling holds onto 275 pounds of crack house thug and rolled in the dirt and the dirtballs with him until the brute became utterly depleted in breath, power, willpower, heart, and manhood… and gave up… like a pussy. How could any man pretend not to realize that, faced with death, even a cop experiences an adrenal rush immensely more powerful than all chains of polite conversation and immediately seeks to smother his would-be killer with whatever vile revulsion comes surging up his brain stem from the deepest, darkest, most twisted bowels of hatred? How could any man, even the mildest and most sedentary, fail to understand?! (pp. 416-417)

Who is it who speaks here? It is a characteristic of Wolfe’s fiction, and especially this book, that there is a very blurred line between narratorial comment and the thoughts of the characters. The above is an example. The use of an exclamation mark seems to indicate the emotion that would come with Nestor’s point of view, but some of the language is rather formal and literary, which Nestor is not. There is an intertwining of the narrator’s voice with the character’s, indicating an ideological alignment.

The logic of the plot bears this out also, as Nestor undergoes a Hero’s progress, from equilibrium to crisis and finally back to equilibrium at a higher level and with gained knowledge. This happens during the rushed final chapter, when he returns to active duty, taking up again his badge and his gun, whilst also embarking on a new relationship with a beautiful and well educated young girl – leaving behind his old girlfriend, a Cubana nurse who dumped him but now wants him back. The old girlfriend’s reflections on the “new” Nestor are revealing:

“It was like he was being all manly and taking charge […]. He was kind of… I don’t know…” She laughed, trying to take the edge off the word she was about to use– “hot.” (pp. 695-696)

The Nestor she is responding to is one who has come through the fire of public opprobrium, and now he is back on the beat, and, what’s more, he’s manly and hot. His coming to true manhood is related to his ability to withstand and ignore the opinions of the public, who are characterized by a reflexive liberal outrage. The very strength of the public feeling toward Nestor’s actions allow him and Wolfe to avoid analyzing those actions in depth. The reflexiveness and hysteria of the public position makes opposition to it seem brave, rational and manly, and the troubling complexities of Nestor’s actions as a guardian of the peace giving way to violence disappear.

Meanwhile, and equally disturbingly, Nestor coming to manhood also means disowning the community from which he sprung: his girlfriend is gone, and his relations with family and other Cubans are just jettisoned and forgotten about halfway through the book. Manhood is not about such relations in Wolfe’s world. Manhood is about engaging fully and thoughtlessly with the symbolic authority one has been invested in by the state. Nestor is just a badge, a gun, and a uniform, with a doting young girlfriend on the side. Heroic masculinity is about silence, violence and power. As evidence, there is the otherwise pointless episode where Nestor faces down a “big lug” in a diner:

Nestor was in such a good mood, thanks to Cristy, he would have been glad to laugh at the big lug’s crack—which did have a valid point, after all—and let it pass… except for one word: sniffing. Especially coming from the working-stiff lips of a hulk like this one, it meant sniffing Cristy in a sexual way. Nestor ransacked his brain to find a reason why even that might be okay. He tried and he tried, but it wasn’t okay. It was an insult… an insult he had to stomp to death on the spot. It was disrespectful to Cristy, too. As every cop on patrol knew, you couldn’t wait. You had to shut big mouths now.

He stepped away from the counter and gave the americano a friendly smile, one you could easily interpret as a weak smile, and said, “We’re old friends, Cristy and me, and we haven’t seen each other for a long time.” Then he broadened the smile until his upper lip curled up and bared his front teeth… and kept stretching that grin until his long canines—i.e., eyeteeth—made him look like a grinning dog on the verge of ripping open human flesh, as he added, “You got a sniffing problem with that?”

The two men locked eyes for what seemed like an eternity… Triceratops and allosaurus confronted each other on a cliff overlooking the Halusian Gulp… until the big americano looked down at his wristwatch and said, “Yeah, and I gotta be outta here and back on the site in ten minutes. You got a problem with that?”

Nestor nearly burst out laughing. “Not at all!” he said, chuckling. “Not at all!” The contest was over the moment the americano averted his eyes, supposedly to look down at his watch. The rest of it was double-talk… trying to save face. (649)

So in “stomp[ing] to death” the perceived insult, the incipient violence of Nestor’s new manlihood is laid bare. This is one of the many troubling aspects behind Wolfe’s book and the implied ideology behind it.

Wolfe has sympathy mostly with power and money, and interest in how they are gained and wielded. The dialogism that informs a first generation Condition-of-England novel like Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) has here given way to brute force. Because of this, Wolfe needs to be read for the many challenges he presents to the liberal way of thinking. The Wolfean universe is not necessarily one we want to live in, but the questions are: How accurately does it reflect the universe we do live in? How valid is its analysis and synthesis of social reality? And how does it use of the baying liberal mob as fuel for conservative feeling resonate with current trends?

Damsels in Distress; Stern, Silent Rhodesians; and Imperial Dreamlands: Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

Once again I have been perusing the work of Agatha Christie, this time a relatively little-known, relatively early novel called The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). The title of the book is a particularly uninteresting one. A man in a brown suit is far from a noteworthy phenomenon, and, prima facie, there is little reason why one would want to read about him. Christie was not a particularly good titler of books: she often used generic titles involving Murder (…in Mesopotamia, …on the Orient Express, …is Easy, etc.) or Death (…on the Nile, …in the Clouds, …Comes as the End, etc.) and also had a fondness for using nursery rhymes (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe; Five Little Pigs; And Then There Were None; etc.). But The Man in the Brown Suit perhaps takes the prize as the most boring title she ever used.


But Brown Suit is not a boring book. It is interesting in that it is uncharacteristic of Christie. It is less a detective novel than an adventure novel. It is very much in the vein, indeed, of John Buchan’s Greenmantle and such works. A dash of espionage, some foreign travel, embroilment in huge political conspiracies, a daring and reckless central figure. Christie’s protagonist and narrator (of most of the book) is an 18-year-old girl called Anne Beddingfield. Here is a notable point of difference from Buchan. Buchan’s hero in Greenmantle, The 39 Steps and others in the series is Richard Hanny, and he is a bachelor who surrounds himself with loyal and similarly adventurous male friends. Women don’t get a look in. (Note: the romantic interest introduced by Hitchcock in the famous film version of Steps does not exist in the novel.)

In feminizing the genre, Christie introduces a few notes not found in writers like Buchan. One notable motif in Brown Suit is that of the damsel in distress, that age-old and much critiqued trope. Christie is self-consciously working with this trope from the beginning and throughout, as is evidenced by the narrator’s repeated references to “The Perils of Pamela”, obviously a play on the famous silent-era serial The Perils of Pauline (1914), which is still today a byword for damsel-in-distress narrative. One could make the case that Christie is satirizing this trope:

Pamela was a magnificent young woman […]. She was not really clever, the Master Criminal of the Underworld caught her each time, but as he seemed loath to knock her on the head in a simple way […], the hero was always able to rescue her at the beginning of the following week’s episode. I used to come out with my head in a delirious whirl […]. (11)

Thus Anne recognizes a certain formulaism and unreality about the series, but at an emotional level it retains its impact. This is a central theme of Brown Suit, both interesting and irritating. Christie/Anne is constantly displaying a consciousness of the improbabilities of the plot, but such a plot is still evidently emotionally satisfying for both narrator and author.

Also differing from Buchan is the inclusion of a romantic subplot – indeed it is so central that one might consider it co-plot rather than subplot. Anne’s thirst for Perils-of-Pamela-style adventure is from the beginning indistinguishable from her desire to find romantic love. She has a very specific ideal of romantic love: “stern, silent Rhodesians” (11). This tag recurs several times in Anne’s narrative to describe the man of her dreams. Here enters the complicating factor of imperialism. Rhodesia had recently – just the preceding year, in fact – been annexed by the British, so Anne’s romantic desires are firmly focused on the figure of the imperial conqueror.

So, the excitement of the imperial project is inscribed in Brown Suit. While England is a place of “butchers and bakers and milkmen and greengrocers” (9) and of “drab utility” (11), the imperial battlegrounds of South Africa and Rhodesia are loci of adventure and excitement, of attractively inarticulate men of action and of romantic opportunity. This initial set-up dichotomizing boring, utilitarian England and the exciting, adventuresome realm of foreign affair (imperialism and war) is strongly reminiscent of Buchan (see the opening of The 39 Steps) and of Erskine Childers’ seminal spy novel The Riddle of the Sands (1903). It is here that Anne can play out the battle within her between the woman of action and the submissive damsel in need of rescue. Even in the closing pages of the book, Anne writes of her lover: “I followed him as meekly as the Barotsi woman I had observed at the falls, only I wasn’t carrying a frying-pan on my head” (189-190). Thus Anne has neither sought nor found emancipation, but she has found a true master, one such as could only exist in the dreamlands of imperialism.

This, then, is a very different Christie. The youth of her heroine gives her much scope to reflect on gender, desire and on the search for fulfilment in life. Poirot might be little more than a brain inside a utilitarian shell of a body, but Anne is a more complete human being in certain respects. Her idealization of the “stern, silent Rhodesian” type may seem immature, and even troubling in the context of the imperial struggles (and indeed the trade union struggles mentioned in the book) of the time, and they demonstrate Christie to have been at a far remove from any insight into the workings of imperialism. In Brown Suit, imperialism is a fantasmic construct. But that is not a reason to avoid the book, for the fantasy of imperialism was as important as the reality. As Conrad depicted in Heart of Darkness, the genuine belief in the imperialist mission by those removed from it was central to its perpetuation: “that great and saving illusion“, as Conrad’s Marlow called it. This illusion would appear to be a central dynamic principle behind The Man in the Brown Suit, a work which is in itself energetic and readable, though unlikely to be much remembered were it not for Christie’s more straightforward detective works.

The Post-Victorianism of Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (1959)

Wilfred Thesiger was a writer-explorer in the tradition established in the Victorian period. In his introduction to Arabian Sands (Penguin 2007; book first published 1959), Rory Stewart writes of Thesiger:

His writing, therefore, often echoed the reports of nineteenth-century British travellers on the North-west frontier: matter of fact, understated, replete with precise information, useful for Imperial projects. (ix)


Thesiger and Salim Bin Ghabaisha, one of his Bedu companions in his travels across the Empty Quarter.

Given that the travels documented in Sands took place in the late 1940s, Thesiger was too late to contribute to imperial projects. At the time, Britain did have a presence of sorts on the so-called Trucial Coast (modern-day UAE), but they had little real power, and they pulled out amicably in the late 60s. And Thesiger would not have wanted to contribute to imperialism. For all the Victorian pluck, reserve, tolerance of hardship and uncomplaining perseverance in evidence in his writing, Arabian Sands is more in the tradition of Rousseau’s Noble Savage than British imperial literature.

Thesiger admired without reservation the Bedu desert nomad tribes of Southern Arabia. His was not a “civilizing mission” in the Victorian tradition, but consciously the reverse. Thesiger was desperate to escape modern western living and find purity in the austerity of the desert. He notes with regret the imminent coming of the oil companies to Arabia, and foresees the dying out of the Bedu way of life:

I realized that the Bedu with whom I had lived and travelled, and in whose company I had found contentment, were doomed. Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have exchanged the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world. This I do not believe


I knew that for them the danger lay, not in the hardship of their lives, but in the boredom and frustration they would feel when they renounced it. The tragedy was that the choice would not be theirs: economic forces beyond their control would eventually drive them into the towns to hang about street-corners as “unskilled labour”. (329-330)

Hardship over boredom and frustration was the choice Thesiger made throughout his life, and the reader of Sands is compelled to consider the same choice. It’s not only material comfort Thesiger gave up. He was also apparently celibate throughout his life. Whether he found this a burden or not he does not say. This is not surprising, for in Sands, there is very little self-analysis or self-psychologizing. The point was not to have a rich emotional life, nor even to know thyself. In crossing the world’s largest sand desert, the Empty Quarter of Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen, there was no space for such luxuries. There was so much less self to know.

So the really Victorian thing about Thesiger is, perhaps, his commitment to the annihilation of self. This is Thomas Carlyle’s rather violent term from his extremely influential work bildungsroman Sartor Resartus (1833-34):

“Here, then, as I lay in that CENTRE OF INDIFFERENCE; cast, doubtless by benignant upper Influence, into a healing sleep, the heavy dreams rolled gradually away, and I awoke to a new Heaven and a new Earth. The first preliminary moral Act, Annihilation of Self (Selbst-todtung), had been happily accomplished; and my mind’s eyes were now unsealed, and its hands ungyved.” (Bk. 2, Ch. 9)

Sartor’s protagonist Teufelsdrockh is, like Thesiger, a ceaseless traveller, and the image of the desert is one Carlyle often invokes:

In strange countries, as in the well-known; in savage deserts, as in the press of corrupt civilization, it was ever the same: how could your Wanderer escape from—his own Shadow? Nevertheless still Forward! I felt as if in great haste; to do I saw not what. From the depths of my own heart, it called to me, Forwards! The winds and the streams, and all Nature sounded to me, Forwards! Ach Gott, I was even, once for all, a Son of Time. (2, 6)

For Carlyle, any exceptional person must pass through the desert, but it is only a passing through. The point is to emerge out the other side. This is where Carlyle’s deism comes in. The only way out of the desert is through religious faith.

Product of a later age, Thesiger’s is a godless universe. There is only desert. One doesn’t simply pass through, but returns to it again and again, experiencing hardship upon hardship without end. The journey is the goal. To a Victorian like Carlyle, this would be a nightmarish and unacceptable conclusion. But to Thesiger, there is nothing to regret and nothing to complain of. Having experienced that new modernist dawn that the Victorians anticipated with some ambivalence, Thesiger is absolutely convinced – so convinced that he rarely mentions it in Sands – that the desert itself is the answer, is as close to Carlyle’s Everlasting Yea as one is going to get. This is a certainty Thesiger seems to hold beyond the need for dogmatism, and it is the undogmatic ease of Thesiger’s philosophy that is one of the merits of this great book.

Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942): Victorianism and Knowing One’s Place

Some months ago I wrote on Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, suggesting that it was a middle-class revenge fantasy aimed against the hedonistic youth of the day, and noting that Christie’s ire seemed to be particularly directed against the figure of the attractive, party-loving young woman. On recently reading Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942), I was again struck by Christie’s use of the figure of the attractive and sexually available young woman, and, in the context of my previous reading of Christie, the particular animus the author seems to feel for this figure, so at odds with the conception of Christie as a cool and unemotional writer, one concerned with bringing the detective genre to “geometrical perfection“, as Tzvetan Todorov put it. In many ways, this conception is not inaccurate, but still Christie’s books are not without anger and hostility.

christie five little pigs

Five Little Pigs (HarperCollins, 2207)

In Five Little Pigs, Hercule Poirot undertakes to investigate a 16-year-old case: the murder of the painter Amyas Crale, for which his wife Caroline was convicted. An open-and-shut case, it seemed at the time, for Caroline never publicly protested her innocence, and she died shortly after being sentenced to life imprisonment. Caroline’s motive was said to be Amyas’ affair with his young model Elsa Greer – now Lady Dittisham. All very satisfactory, but Poirot becomes convinced Caroline was innocent. In his conviction he turns out, of course, to be correct.

Before turning to the figure of Elsa Greer, it is worth defining the philosophical and ideological position from which Christie seems to condemn this character. This position is, in a word, Victorianism. This is articulated in the description of the governess character, Miss Williams, another potential suspect.

Nevertheless, to Poirot’s eye, there was no despondency there and no sense of failure. Miss Williams’ life had been interesting to her – she was still interested in people and events. She had the enormous mental and emotional advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing denied to us in these days – she had done her duty in that station of life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret. (HarperCollins, 2007, p. 185)

Who speaks here? That opening to Poirot’s eye indicates that the passage is a piece of interior focalization. But it doesn’t sound like Poirot. We can’t imagine him saying these pious words. If not Poirot, it can only be the narrator  – in either case, there is a definite weight to this opinion. Christie’s third-person narrators are rarely if ever unreliable; Poirot even more rarely. In the context of Elsa’s character, the concept the narrator/Poirot introduces here of knowing one’s place becomes key.

In fact, we’ve already found that Elsa Greer/Lady Dittisham is linked to social mobility – of not knowing, but creating your place. She tells Poirot early on: “My father, you know, was a mill hand. He worked his way up and made a fortune” (152). This is a significant fact for Poirot, for just a few pages later: “He smiled very faintly. In her voice was the arrogance of the successful mill hand who had risen to riches” (157). This is pretty brutal. No sooner is the admission of humble birth made, than it becomes an index of Elsa’s character flaws. Later, another character writes: “All the veneer of refinement and education was stripped off. You could see her father and her father’s mother and father had been millhands” (227). Elsa did not know her place, as her father had not, but even when she seems to have escaped her lowly upbringing, she is at any moment capable of giving herself away. This not knowing your place is also presented by Christie as a modern – that is, not Victorian – characteristic, for Elsa herself is described as a girl “who went in for being modern” (121).

What Elsa is not, is a gentlewoman. It is the anti-Elsa, Miss Williams, who articulates this most clearly when she details the struggle between Elsa and Caroline over Amyas Crale:

Miss Greer’s manner had been unbearably insolent the last few days. She was feeling sure of herself and she wanted to assert her importance. Mrs Crale behaved like a true gentlewoman. She was icily polite, but she told the other clearly what she thought of her. (264)

Here we have the essence of gentility: icy politeness to the unacceptable other, to the social interloper. Once we know this – Elsa’s social defeat by Caroline – there is perhaps an inevitability to the solution. Caroline didn’t kill Amyas; Elsa did. He was, of course, about to dump her to reclaim his marriage to the gentlewoman Caroline. For how could a man of such talent and culture, even an egotistical one like Amyas, choose the classless Elsa? To a degree unusual in Christie books, the solution here seems less a dispassionately crafted puzzle and more the inevitable result of an ideological bias. Knowing what we know of Elsa and Caroline, how could the book end but with the defeat and unmasking of the millhand’s daughter?

Poirot, like Sherlock Holmes, before him, did not always punish the guilty. And so it was here. He confronts ex-Elsa, now Lady Dittisham:

“Do you think I care in the least what my husband would feel?”

“No, I do not. I do not think you have ever in your life cared about what any other person would feel. If you had, you might be happier.”

She said sharply: “Why are you sorry for me?”

“Because, my child, you have so much to learn.”

“What have I got to learn?”

“All the grown-up emotions – pity, sympathy, understanding. The only things you know – have ever known – are love and hate.” (334-5)

And so Lady Dittisham walks free. The characterization of the working class as lawless children without the discipline or understanding to govern themselves, a feature of Victorians like Thomas Carlyle, haunts this passage. Elsa/Lady Dittisham is not a real adult, and those things she has yet to learn, she will never learn them. We have already seen that you cannot learn these things. Elsa had only one lesson to learn, and that was the same one Miss Williams learned: know your place. She did not learn it, and the consequences were tragic. That is the ideological lesson of Christie’s severe moral drama, her tribute to Victorian paternalism and protest against the modern, insolent, socially mobile young woman.

Death of Democracy and Rebirth of Aristocracy in Doyle’s The Poison Belt (1913)

In my last post on The Poison Belt (1913), I wrote as follows:

That all death including mass death should be looked on with equanimity is the thrust of the book. Indeed, had it been published a year or two later I would be sorely tempted to see it as a propaganda exercise justifying and glorifying WWI. Each time Doyle writes of the beauty of his armageddon it seems as if he is talking about the near future, about the wholesale slaughter of the trenches that was just around the corner, as if he is trying to convince the reader and himself that it is all for the best.


Reading Belt, it seems that there was already something in the air, that Europe could see it coming, and was bracing itself for death on a wider scale than had ever been seen. Think of this novel as a straw in the wind, a demonstration of Raymond Williams’ concept of the structure of feeling, which is given expression in literature before becoming an acknowledged part of the general experience.


That point has since recurred to me in connection with another passage from the book, a particularly revealing one, I think, and one that has stayed with me more than any other from The Poison Belt. In this passage, Challenger, his wife, Roxton, Malone, and Summerisle are sealed into the former’s house, awaiting the death of everyone outside. Most of the people who are to die are at a great distance, but one is close by and in plain sight: Challenger’s chauffeur, Austin. Austin has already appeared in the book; he has been depicted as loyal and wholly devoted to Challenger. The discussion about him that I wish to discuss is as follows:

“By George, that poor devil of a chauffeur of yours down in the yard has made his last journey. No use makin’ a sally and bringin’ him in?”

“It would be absolute madness,” cried Summerlee.

“Well, I suppose it would,” said Lord John. “It couldn’t help him and would scatter our gas all over the house, even if we ever got back alive. My word, look at the little birds under the trees!” (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt, Hesperus, 2008, 46)

And that’s that. They don’t bring him in, and he soon dies – or seems to at least. Why, then, has Challenger made no effort to save the life of his loyal servant of ten years’ standing? It’s not that he is wholly indifferent to the death of humanity. He has tried to warn them in a letter to the Times which was, of course, ignored. If he cannot perform the heroic duty of saving the whole world, then can he not at least fulfil the Carlylean dictum: “Do the duty which lies nearest thee.” The duty that lies nearest is saving the life of Austin, and Challenger has made no effort to do this. It seems not to have even occurred to him until now, when Roxton mentions in somewhat dismissive terms, inviting the rejection of the idea that arrives. Why?

It is obvious from reading the discussion of Austin, and from reading between the lines of the situation, that for Doyle’s characters there are two grades of human, and their lives are of different values. The classifying principle is, well, class. The working class and the gentleman’s class: Challenger, Roxton and Summerisle are all titled persons. Malone is not, but is a writer, and, as such, Doyle attributes him a dignity equating to that of Professors and Lords. We must recall Carlyle, a particular favourite of the young Doyle, here. Of the Man of Letters, Carlyle had written: “he is the light of the world; the world’s Priest;—guiding it, like a sacred Pillar of Fire, in its dark pilgrimage through the waste of Time.” So Doyle’s protagonists – Professors, Lords and Men of Letters – are the true elite, the aristocracy of talent as well as, for the most part, of title, the men worthy of inaugurating that new world that Doyle longs for.

Austin, representative of the untalented herd, must die. Doyle’s apocalypse is thus revealed as a class purge, leaving behind 20th-century democracy for a return to a primitive patriarchy under Challenger. His dominance is emphasized by the fact that only he is allowed a female companion. It is like the Primal Horde of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. It is a rejection of democratic tendencies for a return to history as the vehicle of Great Men.

And to complete our analysis here, we must again remember that the book was a straw in the wind, that it anticipated the slaughter of the WWI trenches, and that Doyle himself was to welcome that conflict, enlisting Sherlock Holmes, no less, as a vehicle for propaganda. In the famous closing lines of the Holmes story “His Last Bow”, the Great Detective, having just captured a German spy, proclaims:

There’s an east wind coming […], such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared

Even before the Great War began, I maintain, Doyle was in The Poison Belt considering with a sort of joy the regeneration of the world, the sacrifice of the herd, and the birth of a new aristocracy from the ashes of democracy. This was the cleaner, better, stronger land into which Challenger and his companions were almost born.

Heroism, Conventionality and Living with Death: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt (1913)

My last post was on John Buchan’s gripping WWI propaganda thriller, Greenmantle (1916), and this review deals with that book’s near contemporary The Poison Belt (1913) by Arthur Conan Doyle. Another thing that Belt and Greenmantle have in common is the status of sequel – sequel, in both cases, to a much better known novel. While Greenmantle had The 39 Steps for a precursor, Belt, a slim novella in form, follows on from The Lost World (1912), Doyle’s famous tale of explorations in the South American jungle leading to the discovery of a dinosaur-inhabited plateau. It is a sequel in the sense of characterological continuity: Professor Challenger, Lord John Roxton, Edward Malone (the narrator) and Professor Summerlee are once again the protagonists, together again for the first time since their jungle adventures.


I placed the four protagonists in that particular order because there is an implicit hierarchy in Doyle’s character dynamics. Challenger is obviously the leader of the group, a domineering, blustering man whose intuitions and theories always turn out to be right. It is he who sets the plot in motion by calling his erstwhile companions to his dwelling with variations on the following telegraph:

Malone, 17 Hill Street, Streatham. – Bring oxygen. – Challenger. (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt, Hesperus, 2008, 9)

The peremptory and terse nature of Challenger’s communication recalls Holmes’ famous telegraph to Watson in “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” (1923):

Come at once if convenient – if inconvenient come all the same. – S.H.

Watson does come, of course, and so does Malone (with a canister of oxygen). So the Challenger-Malone dynamic echoes the Holmes-Watson dynamic, involving boundless admiration and unquestioning obedience on one side, an unreflective assumption of superiority on the other. On their first meeting in Belt, Malone writes:

He gave me the amused handshake and encouraging smile which the headmaster bestows upon the small boy. (17)

In our unheroic days, an adult putting himself in the position of a small boy with regard to another man is odd, but one can’t have a Hero without followers who follow unquestioningly.


Challenger in an illustration from the first publication of The Poison Belt 

Challenger isn’t exactly Holmes, though. He’s much more obnoxious. He’s overbearing and pigheaded, as well as pompous and conceited. But, on the other hand, he’s always right, so he gets away with his bad behaviour. Challenger is a much later creation than Holmes (first appearance 1912 as opposed to 1887), and the change in Doyle’s conception of heroism probably relates to his own personal progression from a young single man, struggling to make ends meet on the margins of two professions (doctor and writer) to wealthy, highly respected country squire and paterfamilias. Where once heroism came couched in the fin-de-siecle bohemianism of the detective, now it is a characteristic of the blustering and autocratic country gentleman. Holmes’ indifference to his relationships with others is replaced by Challenger’s demands for obedience. Unlike Holmes, Challenger is married, and he treats his wife like a child (into which role she slips with great enthusiasm in Doyle’s characterization). There is a certain conventionality about Challenger’s situation (also as a Professor, he’s an establishment figure, which Holmes isn’t) that makes him less attractive and less worthy, one might feel, of Hero-worship.

Once the Professor has all his friends together, he informs them that the earth has entered the eponymous poison belt, which explains the odd behaviour that everybody has been exhibiting. In fact, the “ether” has been poisoned and everybody’s going to die. That’s what’s the oxygen’s for, so Challenger, Roxton, Malone and Summerbee can counteract the effects of the poison, for a while, at least. The plan is to watch everybody else die from Challenger’s hilltop residence and then prepare themselves for a dignified exit.

Insofar as Belt is a novel of ideas, the main idea is that of the beauty of death. Death, as Challenger expostulates, and the others come to agree, is not the end:

“The physical body has rather been a source of pain and fatigue to us. It is the constant index of our limitations. Why then should we worry about its detachment from our psychical selves?” (53)

That all death including mass death should be looked on with equanimity is the thrust of the book. Indeed, had it been published a year or two later I would be sorely tempted to see it as a propaganda exercise justifying and glorifying WWI. Each time Doyle writes of the beauty of his armageddon it seems as if he is talking about the near future, about the wholesale slaughter of the trenches that was just around the corner, as if he is trying to convince the reader and himself that it is all for the best. Towards the end, he writes:

Surely we are agreed that the more sober and restrained pleasures of the present are deeper as well as wiser than the noisy, foolish hustle which passed for enjoyment in the days of old. (88)

Doyle was, it seems, more influenced by his own notoriously credulous spiritualist beliefs than anything else. With the advent of war, however, Belt became timely in a way that its author apparently did not predict. Here was the armageddon Doyle’s characters had longed for. Reading Belt, it seems that their was already something in the air, that Europe could see it coming, and was bracing itself for death on a wider scale than had ever been seen. Think of this novel as a straw in the wind, a demonstration of Raymond Williams’ concept of the structure of feeling, which is given expression in literature before becoming an acknowledged part of the general experience.

Wartime Propaganda in Buchan’s Greenmantle (1916)

John Buchan is best known today for his spy novel (in terms of length more of a novella, really) The 39 Steps (1915), or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he is remembered for authoring the source novel to Hitchcock’s famous film The 39 Steps (1939). He also wrote several other popular novels, one of the most popular being Greenmantle (1916), which was the sequel to Steps, featuring the same protagonist, Richard Hannay. Hitchcock wanted to direct Greenmantle, too, but couldn’t agree terms with the copyright holders. Thus it has become far less known and less read than its predecessor, though it is certainly a fine read in itself.

Greenmantle was published during World War I, and it is also set in said conflict. Buchan saw the writing of the book as part of his contribution to the war effort. It was, in short, intended partially as propaganda. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps. No less a work than the film Casablanca (1942), for example, was conceived as propaganda.

At the beginning of Greenmantle, Hannay has returned from a stint as an officer in the trenches, where he took his soldiers over the top on a “glorious and bloody 25th day of September” (Buchan, Greenmantle, Penguin, 2008, 1). Hannay reflects with pride and enthusiasm on the Western Front, reminding us that this book was written relatively early in the war, just before the glorification of the wartime experience became very difficult. Indeed, shortly afterwards Hannay does give some voice to the disillusionment with war that had begun to set in: “[T]his isn’t just the kind of war I would have picked myself. It’s a comfortless, bloody business” (3). In other parts of the book, too, it is clear that the old jingoistic love of war is becoming frayed at the edges.

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For both commercial and the aforementioned propagandistic purposes, war has to be portrayed as fun in Greenmantle. Buchan recognized that WWI-style trench warfare wasn’t fun and even his narrative gifts couldn’t convincingly make it so. So at the outset, Hannay has just left the trenches and is about to engage in wartime espionage. In the James Bondian opening (the comparison is inevitable), Hannay is told that his mission is to head for the Middle East and find out what the Germans (or Boche, as they’re often known in the novel) are up to. Sir Walter Bullivant of the Foreign Office (also seen in Steps) calls Hannay in: he knows that the Germans are cooking up some secret plan involving the Middle East, but he doesn’t know what it is or where to look for information. It’s all very vague, and the detail seems very much in the tradition of what Hitchcock would call the McGuffin – the device whose content is less important than the fact that it allows the plot to move forward. In Greenmantle this means opening the way for travel in farflung and wartorn lands, for brushes with the enemy/death, and for adopting disguises.

Perhaps it is this latter that is the most potentially interesting motif in Greenmantle: the joy and freedom the characters experience when in disguise may point to a certain ontological insecurity hiding behind the mask of pure identification with English manhood that Hannay exhibits. Brave, modest, self-denying, self-regulating, devotedly patriotic, it’s not an easy ideal to live up to. No wonder Hannay and his friends enjoy make-believe so much. Of course the propensity to become other people is given a somewhat crass ideological justification:

We call ourselves insular, but the truth is that we are the only race on earth that can produce men capable of getting inside the skin of remote peoples. (23)

At this early point in the book, the whole Middle Eastern operation is rather delicate, propagandistically, as Buchan wouldn’t want to suggest that Hanny is escaping the trenches in undertaking his mission. So Hannay first demurs. He wants to stay on the front line and has to be talked round to the idea that he can best serve his country far from the tanks and the trenches. But talked round he is, and once the protagonist’s unimpeachable wartime patriotism is firmly established, the narrative can begin in earnest.

Hannay establishes his band of brothers: a Scot, a Boer, and a loquacious and slightly blustering American. This bond between British and American was particularly important at the time, as American entry into the war was still hoped for, and did eventually transpire. On the other side are, of course, the Germans, and later the Turks. Buchan’s treatment of the enemy is quite nuanced. One recalls Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903), wherein an evident admiration for the German national character exists alongside an insistence on seeing them as an intolerable threat to British security and dominance. Buchan has a similar admiration, but at the same time a commitment to locating a decisive flaw in the German character. When he first meets the villain von Stumm, Hannay confusedly notes:

 Here was the German of caricature, the real German, the fellow we were up against. (57)

Paradoxically, the caricature is equated with the real, with the implication that Germans who do not correspond to the caricature are not real Germans. Kaiser Wilhelm II appears briefly and is portrayed with overt sympathy. Along with Hannay’s semi-sympathetic stance towards the Germans is a perhaps more surprising sympathy with the Turks: “I took a fancy to the Turkish fighting man: I remembered the testimonial our fellows gave him as a clear fighter, and I felt very bitter that Germany should have lugged him into this dirty business.” (240) Hannay is not a xenophobe, though he is a racist (as shown in the quote above about “the only race who etc.”). He doesn’t hate the enemies of his country, and that element of generous mindedness is a positive in Greenmantle.

So Buchan does not aim at the easy targets in this book. Nevertheless, he does ultimately make some approaches to the standard propagandist aim of presenting an embodiment of evil in the political enemies of the protagonists. Here is where national politics and gender politics become merged, for Buchan here introduces a female character, one of only two female characters in the book, and by far the most important (none of the protagonists’ are married, it seems). It is because women are so far removed from the everyday milieu of the characters that Buchan is able to ascribe to the one who does play a significant role a metaphysical significance:

She’s a she-devil. It isn’t madness that’s wrong with her. She’s as sane as you and as cool as Bleniron. Her life is an infernal game of chess, and she plays with souls for pawns. She’s evil – evil- evil… (282)

The overheated prose here contracts with most of the rest of the book, and recalls the feminized evil of fin de siecle works like Machen’s The Great God Pan. It’s a trope that jars somewhat in the context of Buchan’s espionage thriller with its realistic detail and understated emotional landscape. On the other hand, the evil of the enemy has to be embodied to create effective propaganda, and Buchan evidently found in easier to ascribe evil to a feminine figure.

There’s much more to Greenmantle than this, though. I mentioned earlier that there is one other female figure: that is the sympathetic German woman whose house the fleeing Hannay stumbles upon and who gives him shelter and sustenance. She prompts him to reflect as follows:

That night I realized the crazy folly of war. When I saw the splintered shell of Ypres and heard hideous tales of German doings, I used to want to see the whole land of the Boche given up to fire and sword. I thought we could never end the war properly without giving the Huns some of their own medicine. But that woodcutter’s cottage cured me of such nightmare. I was for punishing the guilty but letting the innocent go free. (121)

Sure, Hannay doesn’t by any means go so far as to question the righteousness of his country’s cause, but there is still a humanity that permeates the book and that gives it a value beyond the propagandistic. Even now, Greenmantle is a good read, one whose ulterior motives are counterbalanced by a breezy and straightforward narrative style and an outlook without the insularity or dogmatism one might associate with British imperial literature.

Imagining the Detective in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and Sherlock (2010- )

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970, dir. Billy Wilder) went relatively unnoticed on its first release, but has gone on to become one of the most admired screen narratives featuring Doyle’s great detective. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, co-writers and -producers of Sherlock, have been vocal in their admiration for the film, and in acknowledging its influence on their series.


The title of the film announces the specific project it takes on: the depiction of the private life of Doyle’s character. This is a character who, in earlier versions, doesn’t have a private life, who is defined by his lack of private life. He lives only to detect:

I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix. (“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone”)

His dedication to his work is absolute. It is not just in action that he is devoted to his work, but in thought, too. It possesses his mind to the full. Only in the absence of work does he develop a sort of humanity, a human-all-too-human dependence on cocaine.

But Private Life overturns this character, and interrogates the standard depiction of Holmes. It is the Freudian conception of character, as I have discussed before. What is Holmes really like? What urges underlie his desperate compulsion for work? This question of Holmes’ private self is fundamental to Sherlock and Elementary, but it is in this film that it gets its first substantial treatment. Holmes’ drug use is alluded to several times from the beginning of the film, as well as his standard rationale for it:

[HOLMES] My dear friend — as well as my dear doctor — I only resort to narcotics when I am suffering from acute boredom — when there are no interesting cases to engage my mind.


[WATSON (VOICEOVER)] Naturally, I don’t mean to imply that my friend was always on cocaine — sometimes it was opium, sometimes it was hashish. And once he went one of these dreadful binges, there was no telling how long it would last.

As well as introducing Holmes’ drug use, the opening conversation between Holmes and Watson sets up several threads that would later be woven into Sherlock. These include:

  1. Holmes’ complaints about Watson’s “tendency to over-romanticize” his cases when writing them down. This is also found in Doyle, but Private Life takes it further, and also extends it to complaints about the illustrations in the stories, which depict Holmes wearing a “ridiculous costume” which the public now expects Holmes to wear. This latter idea is lifted wholesale into Sherlock episode “The Abominable Bride”.
  2. Mrs. Hudson’s more outspoken character. In Doyle, she meekly accepts Holmes’ eccentricities, but in Private Life, she has a somewhat sharper tongue. For example, in the opening scene, Holmes’ famous paper on 140 types of ash is mentioned, prompting Mrs H. to sarcastically interject, “I’m sure there’s a crying need for that.” Sherlock really runs with that in their Mrs Hudson character. The day of the meekly loyal serving class in narratives of pop culture is gone, alas.

Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) in Sherlock

There is also an amusing suggestion by Watson that Holmes has only moved in with him to get access to drugs. This is one suggestion that Sherlock has not used. In fact, Sherlock is merely a former cigarette smoker now using nicotine patches in the series.

A plot begins to form in the next sequence of Private Life, when Holmes and Watson go to the Russian Royal Ballet performance of Swan Lake. After the performance, Holmes is invited for an audience with its star, a lady known as The Great Petrova. She has a proposition for him: she wants to have a child, and she has chosen him as a suitable partner because he is a genius. How does Holmes respond to this? How would Holmes respond? This is a question that Private Life tries to answer, and that in different formulations would go on to be central to Sherlock.

But, on the whole, Private Life does not live up to its title. Roger Ebert’s review of the film concludes:

Before the movie is 20 minutes old, Wilder has settled for simply telling a Sherlock Holmes adventure.

I think Ebert’s line is basically accurate. Wilder in a sense plays on the word “private”. The early part of the film promises an exploration of a putative hidden side of Holmes’ psyche. The latter part locates the private nature of the story in the standard Doylean device of invoking secrets of great national importance, involves royalty and top government officials, etc. Wilder didn’t quite have the tropes available to tell the story he apparently wanted to tell. In many ways, it is this story, the one Wilder didn’t quite get a handle on, that is told over and over again in Sherlock.

Private Life found itself trapped by the Doylean tropes of the top secret diplomatic affair, and couldn’t keep its focus on Holmes as a private individual; Sherlock is trapped by the notion of individual becoming, the personal journey, the fundamental importance of one’s personal relationship and their contribution to personal growth. According to current dominant tropes visible in Sherlock, the detective can never really be a detective. He can only be a complex human(-all-too-human) who does detective work. That, in the early 21st-century western world, is what people are.

[Y]ou have to find new ways of progressing Sherlock himself. He’s a bit like Pinocchio: he is  creeping towards becoming more human. He’ll never make it, but he has to change, otherwise you just set the whole thing in aspic, and there’s no point doing that. – Steven Moffat, quoted in Steve Tribe, Sherlock Chronicles, p. 248.

Experts and Intellectuals: A Monologue on Knowledge

The pursuit of knowledge is an ancient activity. It can be carried out in more ways than one. In contemporary Western societies, knowledge is the province of the expert. The expert – that most contemporary of personages – is distinguished by his or her specificity: one is not an expert in a general sense; one is an expert in some field or on some topic. To achieve expert status, one has to concentrate one’s intellectual faculties very narrowly indeed. This form of epistemology is reflected in the structure of academia, wherein the discipline is paramount: one is expected to be an expert in a particular discipline, and disciplines are defined increasingly narrowly. The common sense of the contemporary academy is that as the world becomes more complicated the useful intelligence is that which can  specialize the most minutely.

This is increasingly apparent in the financial sector. Managing one’s own financial resources has now become such a gargantuanly complicated task that one can’t do it alone. A lifetime of training is needed to understand an average person’s financial affairs. Note this ad from Irish bank EBS, who brand themselves “the mortgage masters” and declare: “Some jobs need a master, with the perfect combination of dedication, focus and expertise … You need someone who can draw on decades of know-how… Not a jack-of-all-trades, but the master of one … For a job as important as your mortgage, that’s EBS.”


The ideology of the expert is being offered up here, with an emphasis on the impossibility of the subject being entirely beyond the ordinary individual. What is the difficulty with this? My difficulty is that we are not dealing with a pre-given complexity which needs a sophisticated intelligence to understand it; we are dealing with a constructed complexity (the financial system) whose existence provides financial benefit to the very people who create and uphold it. Certainly, an individual’s finances can be as complicated as you like. The question that the businessperson is unlikely to ask, but that the intellectual should, is: should they be? Or again, need they be? Is it not, rather, the ultimate in alienation that we cannot understand our own financial status and judge our own best interests?


So academics and intellectuals more generally should be wary of the role of expert, and his/her self-serving need to increase the intellectual sophistication of his/her position. Another way is possible, and has a long history. Imagine a world wherein knowledge was gained not by a narrowing of the intellectual vision, but a widening thereof. Reading recently Paul Feyerabend’s Three Dialogues on Knowledge (1991), I was introduced to an 18th-century German philosopher and (for want of a better term to describe his all-encompassing intellectual interests) man of letters, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who Feyerabend’s dialogist holds up as the paradigm of the intellectual:

I admire Lessing for his independence, for his willingness to change his mind. I admire him even for his honesty for he is one of those very rare people who can be honest and humorous at the same time, who use their honesty as a guide for their own private lives, not as a club or beating people into submission, not as a showpiece for pleasing the galleries. […] I admire him because he was a thinker without a doctrine and a scholar without a school – every problem, every phenomenon he approached was for him a unique situation that had to be explained and illuminated in a unique way. I admire him because he was not satisfied with sham clarity but realized that understanding is often achieved through an obscuring of things, through a process in which “what seemed to be seen clearly is lost in an uncertain distance.” (123)

For Lessing to approach each phenomenon as a unique situation he had to be free of disciplinary constraints, to be a “scholar without a school”. Still more counterintuitively for a contemporary academic intelligence, he had not to clarify, but rather to show that that which appeared clear was not really so. In effect, this is closer to the defamiliarization technique seen by Shklovsky as being central to the artist’s mission.  So the intellectual had much of the artist about him, and less of the disciplinary intelligence. The task is to return the techniques of the artist and of Enlightenment thinkers like Lessing to the data-driven and micro-disciplinary intellectual landscape we inhabit.


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