The Victorian Sage

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

Tag: Hero

Hero and Master: Carlyle and Žižek

Carlyle’s theory of the Hero no longer enjoys much in the way of scholarly repute. “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here” is not a formulation to which many modern thinkers would subscribe. Famously, of course, it enjoyed considerable currency in the 19th century, and its shadows can perhaps be seen later in Freud’s speculative account of human history in Totem and Taboo (1913), wherein primitive history is indeed controlled by an all-powerful despotic leader, albeit one who had to be overthrown and murdered to make way for a more democratic leadership. History, for Freud and other anthropologists of the era like Frazer, had been the history of Great Men, but modern history had moved away from the paradigm.

But perhaps the Hero or Great Man isn’t dead. Perhaps if we consider the more acceptably theoretical figure of the master we will discover echoes of Carlyle’s concept. The master is often associated with Jacques Lacan. As well As Lacan’s theory of the “discourse of the master”, there is also his assertion, often quoted by Slavoj Žižek, that the revolutionaries of 1968 in Paris were “hysterics who demand[ed] a new master.” It would appear, then, that even when the master disappears from history, he remains in the human unconscious, even that of the most revolutionary subjects.

And Žižek himself is very much alive to this feature of our unconscious. Trouble in Paradise (2014) has a subsection entitled “Towards a New Master” in which he argues for the historical necessity for a master. It is the role of the master to “simplify [the situation] into a point of decision” (179). Žižek is explicit that in making the necessary decision, the master is bound by neither rationality nor by democracy. His historical example is De Gaulle, who claimed in 1940 to speak “on behalf of true France” even though he had no popular mandate (and, Žižek points out, had a democratic vote been possible, the Nazi-collaborator Petain would have won it). Žižek’s point is that De Gaulle’s assumption of the master role as the one who speaks for true France was unarguably for the greater good, and that a democratic approach here would have been been a disaster.

With reference to contemporary politics, Žižek again calls for a master, a “Thatcher of the left”, as only such a figure can transform “the entire field of presuppositions” (185) and create room for radical change. It is not that ultimate power will come to rest in the hands of the master, but that in the intermediary stage the voice of the master is key. And how to produce a master? Even Carlyle didn’t think that the Hero entirely produced himself from nothing: “No man works save under conditions. The sculptor cannot set his own free Thought before us; but his Thought as he could translate it into the stone that was given, with the tools that were given.” So to help free the space in which the master may speak, Zizek insists that “we should shamelessly reassert the idea of ‘vanguard'” (185). How we do this is not clear.

But the point is that the superior individual is central both to Žižek and to Carlyle. The difference is that for the latter he is the locus of absolute power and for the former he is a sort of vanishing mediator who ushers in the revolution then fades into the background. This is a surprisingly idealistic view of the master from Žižek. Where are we to find such masters, with the wisdom to provide guidance and the humility to step away from power at the right moment? Perhaps we don’t have the embodiment, but we have kept alive a certain ideal, and a moment may yet come when it can be put into practice.

A Cultural Role of Power, Comfort and Gratification

When it comes to Thomas Carlyle, perhaps it could be argued that the form and content of his writing is in itself less interesting and less worthy of study than the reception of his writing. How did he attain to such massive influence over his time, such that George Eliot was able to write, in a quote used frequently by Carlyle scholars:

It is an idle question to ask whether his books will be read a century hence; if they were all burnt as the grandest of Suttees on his funeral pile, it would be only like cutting down an oak after its acorns have sown a forest. For there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived.

It is possible to go into infinite detail on the books that owed elements of their content or form, there philosophy of ideology, to Carlyle’s influence, and in my thesis I do go into much of this, though I primarily limit my investigations to the anglophone world. But to study the source of Carlyle’s influence, perhaps not only his works need to be studied, but also his biography, a biography well known to his contemporaries – even more so after his death with the publication of Froude’s controversial account. It is impossible to draw a line between the iconicity of Carlyle himself and the influence of his works, but with the debasement of one, partially via Froude, came the discreditation of the other.

In Norma Clarke’s “Strenuous Idleness: Thomas Carlyle and the man of letters as hero” (Manful Assertions, ed. Michael Roper and John Tosh, 1991), Carlyle’s early life and correspondence is mined for clues to the nature of his work, and to his own emotional and intellectual coming-of-age. Clarke notes that “less well noted and more paradoxical is the way [Carlyle] created, out of the qualities of those he elevated into great heroes, a cultural role for aspiring male writers that was redolent with possibilities of power, comfort and gratification” (40). She goes into little detail on this interesting observation, but it is perhaps a direction in which Carlyle studies needs to move. I hope to add something to this in my own work. Quantitively, I will deal with many instances of literary influence in my “Reception History” chapter, including a focus on the English bildungsroman in which the psychogenesis of the author is laid bare – in this genre in the late 19th- early 20th century, somewhat confirming Clarke’s point, Carlyle is a particularly pervasive presence. Carlylean manhood looms over all the literary men of the age, admonishing and encouraging.

The sense of the cultural role of the writer is something Carlyle could be seen to have had a hand in changing, temporarily at least. Carlyle’s essay on the Hero as Man of Letters – “our most important modern person” – offered a model of heroism to Victorian youth. From a reception point of view, one may wonder how far one can take this influence, how far the thread can be followed. Can one read it into 20th- and early 21st-century work? Not directly, as Carlyle is not widely enough read, but in a mediated form. one possible locus for reading Carlyle as an indirect influence on 20th-century culture is Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s famous Vietnam War film from 1979. And I am looking at this film at the moment. Not just the film itself, but the making of the film – a production famous in itself and inflecting how the film is watched and rated – as seen most notably in Eleanor Coppola’s documentary Hearts of Darkness.

Francis Ford Coppola’s main source for the film – apart from John Milius’ script, which provided much material for the early part of the movie, but was discarded for the latter part – was Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899). Without wanting to give much away, I am trying to suggest that certain Carlylean memes are found in HoD – and in this I am follower several prior sources – and thence found their way in mediated form into AN, and, even, into Coppola as his personality developed during the protracted production of the film. That is, Coppola was, belatedly, a member of that group for whom “possibilities of power, comfort and gratification” were derived from a Carlylean representation of manhood. Thus I’m suggesting that the Kurtz figure owes something to Carlyle, the work and the biographical figure. Kurtz, it should be remembered, is a man of words, a voice, both literary and oral. The narrator’s most intense experience of Kurtz’s power and genius is not through witnessing the vaguely described actions of the Great Man, but through his words:

It was eloquent,vibrating with eloquence, but too high-strung, I think. Seventeen pages of close writing he had found time for! But this must have been before his—let us say—nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which—as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you understand?—to Mr. Kurtz himself. But it was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,’ etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’

I have italicized all of the phrases wherein the effect of Kurtz’s words is described. Conrad tells rather than shows: the only words we are given are the final scrawl that, it is clear, is entirely out of character with the rest of the piece. The content of Kurtz’s piece is irrelevant to the narrator;only the effect is important, and that is considerable indeed. The subject of this passage and perhaps the entire novella is the power of the voice, even divorced from any substantive content. Conrad is questioning the voice, but in the formal terms of the plot, he appears to conclude that the importance of identification with a powerful voice outweighs the fact that what is said may be nonsense – if God is Dead, we need to believe in somebody, even if we know that our belief is based on illusion. Hence Marlow’s (the narrator of the above passage) final decision to lie to Kurtz’s “Intended” about Kurtz’s activity, to keep up the illusion. A melancholy lesson indeed.

But the power of the voice of the artist was a live issue in the late 19th century. As late as 1916 Yeats asked in the wake of the Easter Rising: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” The answer to that question was probably No, but the Man of Letters at the time had a power unknown to his 21st-century counterpart. But returning to Eliot’s quote, the next line after the passage quoted is: “The character of his influence is best seen in the fact that many of the men who have the least agreement with his opinions are those to whom the reading of Sartor Resartus was an epoch in the history of their minds.” This is an element of Carlyle’s reception which needs further elaboration, but his influence, the power of his words, was out of all proportion to the substantial agreement they invoked. His contemporaries credited him with great inspiration, but almost all rejected his central political stance. This is a very complex element of discourse, of theory, of politics, of inspiration, of the movement of mind of large groups of people: the great distance between the power of the voice and the substance of the content. To be wrong is no bar to being influential; to tingle with eloquence, to soar, to create enthusiasm, to set down a magic current of phrases, all of these things are what create social and political efficacy. And none better exemplified this than Carlyle – to fully go into this we would have to consider Froude’s biography and associated publications, which had established Carlyle as somewhat of a fraud, a man obsessed with masculine ideals that he made no effort to live up to, but that he never ceased to prescribe to his readers in peremptory and sometimes bullying tones. But even before going into the author’s personality, we can know from reading the copious reflection on him by other writers that few agreed with him, but they all read him very intently.

The appeal of Carlyle lay in a few aspects, one of which was certainly that figure of the Hero as Man of Letters. To be able to take oneself and one’s doings that seriously – as seriously as Yeats thinking he had provoked a rebellion! – was pivotal in a time of God-being-Dead and rationalist melancholia. That is transcribed in Kurtz, the real Man of Letters, so much a man that he not only spoke and wrote, but also acted. And this is something I will be looking into: watching Heart of Darkness and witnessing the absurd grandiosity of Coppola; hearing him say in the commentary to Apocalypse Now that “Director is one of the few dictatorial posts left”, watching him (or reading in Eleanor’s notes) gorge on power and gratification. Here we have again the Carlylean spirit, kept alive through a handful of memes in Heart of Darkness, from which memes Coppola constructed his own authorial persona – while he adapted Heart of Darkness, it was adapting him, and giving unto the world a new Hero, a creative artist with the courage of his convictions, who courted absurdity, pretentiousness, etc., to create Art – but, after all, I’m not sure that Hearts of Darkness is not a more than Apocalypse Now itself, and that what is depicted so memorably in that documentary is any more than the Art of being a Jerk.

The Stark Munro Letters (1895)

This book, now available free on the kindle, is one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s lesser-known works – a large category including all of Doyle’s considerable output bar the Sherlock Holmes stories and dino-adventure story The Lost World. This particular one is from 1895, a time when Conan Doyle had just killed off Holmes (only to bring him back a few years later) and was consciously trying to do more “serious” work – like many very popular writers he became obsessed with being “serious”. In line with this ambition, The Stark Munro Letters is a bildungsroman, or coming of age story, which is as focused on articulation of the intellectual development of the title character as on his actions. Stark Munro is an obviously autobiographical character – he is a newly qualified small-town doctor struggling to make ends meet, just as Doyle was in the early 1880s (the time in which the book is set).

There’s a degree of plot external to Munro’s musings, mostly concerned with a fellow doctor James Cullingworth, based on Conan Doyle’s onetime friend George Budd. Cullingworth is a man of great charisma and energy, but also selfish, unreliable, and even somewhat vindictive. He does seem to be another rumination by Conan Doyle on the Carlylean Hero doctrine, though a more ambivalent one than Holmes, because though Cullingworth is a Hero in the sense of being a man of many and great talents, he turns out not to have the moral fibre integral to the Hero. Cullingworth himself expounds a theory of the “properly balanced man” that is reminiscent of Carlyle:

A properly balanced man can do anything he sets his hand to. He’s got every possible quality inside him, and all he wants is the will to develop it. (loc 1144)

Cullingworth considers himself, as well as a doctor, a novelist and an inventor, and is convinced of his own mastery of all these fields. Recall Carlyle:

The grand fundamental character is that of Great Man; that the man be great. Napoleon has words in him which are like Austerlitz Battles […]. burns, a gifted song-writer, might have made a still better Mirabeau. (On Heroes, loc 1113)

Doyle subverts this theory by putting it in the mouth of the unreliable Cullingworth, and by Munro’s judgement that Cullingworth’s novel is actually of inferior quality, and his inventions lacking in practical utility. Elsewhere in the novel, Munro reflects on Genius, and considers Carlyle’s line that genius is “transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all” (Frederick the Great, Kindle: Library of Alexandria, loc 4882):

Carlyle’s definition always seemed to me to be a very crisp and clear statement of what it is NOT. Far from its being an infinite capacity for taking pains, its leading characteristic, as far as I have ever been able to observe it, has been that it allows the possessor of it to attain results by a sort of instinct which other men could only reach by hard work. (loc 48)

The reader may recall that Holmes also deals with this definition, but without referencing Carlyle explicitly: “They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains […]. It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.” (A Study in Scarlet, Chapter 3) Holmes is evidently acting as a mouthpiece for Conan Doyle here, as is Munro later. Conan Doyle is evidently interested in greatness as an intrinsic trait, as, in truth, was Carlyle, notwithstanding his emphasis in the quote from Frederick on “taking trouble”. Considering both Holmes and some Carlylean Heroes, it appears that intrinsic talent and work tend to go together, anyway: the Hero unites natural talent with moral fibre; the said moral fibre will compel him to work at his talent, and so achieve greatness. Holmes is both gifted and industrious: he finds his gift for “observation and inference” (“The Gloria Scott”) early in life, and hones it assiduously thereafter.

There’s another passage of reflection from Stark Munro closely recalling the great detective:

Most things on this earth, from a woman’s beauty to the taste of a nectarine, seem to be the various baits with which Nature lures her silly gudgeons. They shall eat, they shall propagate, and for the sake of pleasing themselves they shall hurry down the road which has been laid out for them. But there lurks no bribe in the smell and beauty of the flower. Its charm has no ulterior motive. (loc 1667)

Holmes makes similar remarks in “The Novel Treaty”, but goes so far as to conclude that “[o]ur highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.” This has always struck me as an odd comment for the character to make, though it’s interesting that he makes it before several other characters involved in the case; it’s definitely unusual for Holmes to become distracted before clients/suspects in this way and start musing on irrelevancies – several scholars have written about this passage, and been puzzled by it, but none that I’ve read have haven’t mentioned the speaking-before-clients/suspects aspect. I’ll have to return to the story to see if something else is going on with Holmes here, beyond a genuine expression of his worldview. As I wrote earlier, Holmes’ advocacy for Winwood Reade in The Sign of Four indicates a sceptical viewpoint.

It’s in The Stark Munro Letters that Conan Doyle goes most substantially into religious questions. He has two basic convictions that he’s trying to work with and develop:

1 Religion in its then current state is inadequate and a tissue of half-truths and outmoded superstitions: “Is religion the only domain of thought which is non-progressive, and to be referred for ever to a standard set two thousand years ago?” (loc 206) “There was a time when it took a brave man to be a Christian. Now it takes a brave man not to be.” (loc 539)

2 Atheism is unthinkable: “The very existence of a world carries with it the proof of a world-maker, as the table guarantees the pre-existence of the carpenter. Granting this, one may form what conception one will of that Maker, but one cannot be an atheist.” (loc 414)

The second point is rather problematic, as Munro simply chooses an object for which we know there to be a creator (a table; creator: a carpenter), rather than one of the myriad objects which are not made by any identifiable entity (e.g. a rock) and gives this as proof that all things have a Maker. It doesn’t take a philosopher to identify this as very sloppy thinking; to which, in truth, Conan Doyle was quite prone. In any case, this is only the beginning for Munro. If Christianity is definitely misguided, but there definitely is a God, then how to comprehend and describe this deity? This is, undoubtedly, the difficult part. Where is the intellectual scheme that will make such a move possible? Here again we see the importance of Carlyle:

I had so identified religion with the Bible that I could not conceive them apart. When the foundation proved false, the whole structure came rattling about my ears. And then good old Carlyle came to the rescue; and partly from him, and partly from my own broodings, I made a little hut of my own, which has kept me snug ever since, and has even served to shelter a friend or two besides. (loc 402)

Munro’s religion is based on Nature: “Nature is the true revelation of the deity to man.” (loc 410) By attention to Nature, one can observe that “[w]isdom and power and means directed to an end” (loc 415) are everywhere apparent. One further  notes that “ALL is good, if understood” (loc 886). Munro reflects that “it is fine to think that sin may have an object and work towards good” (loc 923). Munro accepted that evolution explained development of biological organisms, but evolution was effect before it was cause (loc 421). There was something before and behind even this:

The survival of the truest is the constant law, I fancy, though it must be acknowledged that it is very slow in action. (loc 1515)

No; let me be frank, and say that I can’t make cruelty fit into my scheme. But when you find that other evils, which seem at first sight black enough, really tend in the long run to the good of mankind, it may be hoped that those which continue to puzzle us may at last be found to serve the same end in some fashion which is now inexplicable. (loc 857)

Munro’s philosophy is resolutely positive, it’s all about the “survival of the truest” and so forth. There’s no empirical evidence for this, though, as Munro implicitly admits when he notes that it’s “very slow in action”, and again in his discussion of cruelty. It’s very much a “leap of faith” doctrine, rather than one rooted in observation of the workings of the world and of Nature, as is claimed. The will to faith was strong in Conan Doyle, and the foreshadowing of his later spiritualist leanings are already very clear in Stark Munro, with its insistence on the divinity and moral purpose of all things, even where empirical evidence suggests quite otherwise.

In reviewing the book, I’ve written as if my experience of the book was very much abstracted from the reading of fiction as narrative, and focused on fiction as elucidation of ideas. But in fact, as a narrative I found this book very readable and interesting. I’m a sucker for late 19th-c., early 20th-c. bildungsromans: David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Portrait of the Artist, Of Human Bondage, This Side of Paradise, Tono-Bungay; more recently,  I discovered Paul Kelver by Jerome K. Jerome (definitely not a classic, but one I still found plenty of interest in). Given that predilection, I was always going to enjoy Stark Munro, especially given the vitality and simple elegance of Conan Doyle’s prose. For all his insight, however, the philosophy he tried to impose on life was, basically, bosh, and it was for this that he wanted the book to be judged. Some may find Holmes’ “true cold reason” a little arid, but Conan Doyle could with profit have applied a little of it to his own arguments in The Stark Munro Letters.

“The Religious Opinions of Sherlock Holmes”, A Case of Witchcraft

Sherlock Holmes, The Lovable Quack

Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes is a recently published book by a PhD in psychology, Maria Konnikova. I’m studying the Holmes stories and their adaptations at the moment and Mastermind was going pretty cheap as an ebook, so I’ve had a look, and it’s got me thinking about the attraction of Holmes to many people, myself included. Konnikova theorizes two models of mind: the Watson system and the Holmes system. I won’t go into detail, as anyone familiar with Holmes and Watson can figure out the basic points of the contrast. As an early-stage academic writer and researcher in the humanities, one conclusion I’ve reached about my intellectual tendencies is that I’m more interested in specific analysis than generalizable theorizing. I sometimes recall the words of Carlyle on this:

[W]hat theory is so certain as this, That all theories, were they never so earnest, painfully elaborated, are, and, by the very conditions of them, must be incomplete, questionable and even false? (French Revolution, Vol. 1,Bk. 2, Ch. 7)

So rather than a general theory of mind and reductive binary categorization, I was interested in specific analyses of Sherlockian techniques or moments, of which Mastermind has some interesting ones, and some less so. The thing that struck me, though, and not for the first time, was how poorly Holmes’ own techniques often demonstrate his principles.  Holmes’ principles are excellent; ones quite applicable to my own occupation as well (I suggest):

It is a grand mistake to theorize before one has the facts. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. (A Scandal in Bohemia)

The temptation to form theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession. (The Valley of Fear, Bk. 1, Ch. 2)

His uncompromising commitment to “severe reasoning from cause to effect” (The Copper Beeches”) is likewise impressive, as is the impartiality with which he tackles all fields of knowledge – a true interdisciplinarian; his ultimate aim is the simple yet profound one of seeing “all things […] exactly as they are” (The Greek Interpreter)  while his independence from all institutionalized forms of power marks him out as a true Hero, in the Carlylean sense. If we take Carlyle’s definition that: “A Hero, as I repeat, has this first distinction, […] That he looks through the shows of things into things.” (On Heroes, lecture 1) we find that Holmes fits it very well.

And yet, Holmes’ actual methods, far from eliminating the impossible through the use of severe reasoning, are often based on less secure grounds, sometimes the most crass generalizing. The only reason one can read Conan Doyle’s stories without paying much attention to this is that Holmes does always turn out to be right, simply because the narratives are constructed to reinforce the idea of his great intellect. So, Holmes can receive a telegram and announce that it is from a man, giving his reason as follows:

No woman would ever send a reply-paid telegram. She would have come. (Wisteria Lodge)

He has eliminated the idea of a woman sending a telegram as impossible! Thus, of course, it had to be a man. And it does turn out to be a man, but that is no testament to Holmes’ assumption being a safe one, simply to Conan Doyle’s commitment to showing Holmes as an (almost) infallible genius – and, perhaps, his lack of commitment to coming up with properly thought-out demonstrations of this. An even more egregious example of Holmes’ presumptuousness is from The Blue Carbuncle. He can declare that a large hat he finds must be the possession of an “intellectual”. Why?: “‘It is a question of cubic capacity,’ said he. ‘A man with so large a brain must have something in it.'” It has been said that Holmes’ reasoning is effectively not deductive but abductive, or reasoning to the best explanation, but often he falls far below even this lesser standard. Holmes, in short, is something of a quack, setting up as a professional science what often amounts to simple jumping to conclusions based on generalisations. Yet we all still love Holmes. Even I do. It is perhaps rather pedantic to find fault in the way I have done. This is not a real person, after all, but a fictional character. By his manner, his attitudes, his wit, and his explication of a certain worldview and a certain way of engaging with the universe, he fulfils our idea of a Hero. But also he quite nicely illustrates, as, probably, do most real-life heroes, the difference between appearing to be heroic, and actually putting that into practice. So anyone intent on being “system Holmes” 24-7 should realize that not only is it a hard thing to be, it proved impossible to even write for Conan Doyle, whose Holmes is really most Holmes when he’s talking about being Holmes, rather than being Holmes.

When Do I Get The Manual?

A blog about adulting without a notion

it's this or get a real job




"The game is afoot."

Exploring Youth Issues

Alan Mackie PhD Student @ Edinburgh University

Bundle of Books

Thoughts from a bookworm

Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

The Web log of Dr. Joseph Suglia

Anti-Fascist News

Taking on Fascism and Racism from the Ground Up.

Black Label Logic

The Sophisticated man's shitlord

Hammy Reviews

Reviews of Films, TV Shows, WWE and more...

Pechorin's Journal

A literary blog

voice in the nightland

A literary look at weird fiction

The Reading Bug

A blog about reading, books, and language.

Dead Homer Society

Zombie Simpsons Must Die

for the love of climbing

do what you love, with love

Fiontar agus Scoil na Gaeilge (DCU)

Ollscoil Chathair Bhaile Átha Cliath

In Gaza

and beyond


A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

Colleen Chesebro ~ Fairy Whisperer

Available now on Amazon: The Heart Stone Chronicles: The Swamp Fairy