Sunday, May 29, 2016

Jekyll and Hyde

Since its first publication in 1886, "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" has never been out of print. Stage adaptations began the next year, 1887, and the first film version was released in 1910. By one count, there have been 123 film versions in all. In both stage and film versions, the same actor is traditionally cast in both roles, and the high point of the drama is the "transformation scene" in which Jekyll becomes Hyde. Happily, many of these are now available on YouTube; you can see the earliest surviving film version from 1912, along with the performances of Frederic March, John Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, Boris Karloff, and even Bugs Bunny.

It's too bad, though, that nearly every version of this story has Mr. Hyde physically looking monstrous. The stage transformations, of course, relied more on the actors' ability to manipulate their expression, stance, and movements, but nearly every film gives Hyde fangs, hair, and a hunchback. This misses the whole point of Stevenson's story, which is that Hyde's "deformity" was inward; no one who saw him could quite put their finger on why his appearance made them suddenly want to kill him. Simply put: Mr. Hyde walks among us, or perhaps within us, and there is no sure way of detecting the transformation from the respectable to the detestable.

Perhaps we all have "secret selves." After all, we're social creatures, and there's no reason we should act or feel the same when we are in different company, or by ourselves. But the million small acts of repression required to shape our social identities can't help but have some effect on our psyche. These repressed thoughts may surface briefly in dreams or nightmares, may spur the creativity of artists. Indeed, some performers, such as Marilyn Manson, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Ghoulardi, or the Gravediggaz, have made careers out of wearing their horror on their sleeve. We can then be reassured when we see that, off stageand out of makeup, these performers are "nice" people -- but what of the reverse? What of those who, though outwardly nice, respectable citizens, are leading double lives, in one of which they are cheating on their partners, betting on dogfights, frequenting prostitutes, or gambling away their life savings?

So perhaps Jekyll and Hyde are, more or less, symptoms of civilization, a double metaphor for what we must all do to survive in a world of pressures and performances. The common view is that the Victorian society of Stevenson's day was far more restricted and repressed than ours; no wonder such men created monsters! Or are we just as repressed, perhaps even more so?

Is Jekyll and Hyde a story for its time, or for all time? What parallels do you see between the psychological world it presents and the world of today? How far from us, in 2014, is that decrepit old house with its mouldering green door? And who of us has the key?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Victorian Era

The Victorian era remains in many ways the most curious of our precursors, seeming almost a phantasmic preview of so many ideas, issues, and institutions. This vision has its darker sides -- the problem of poverty, and the question of social welfare; the need for a government role in providing or certifying sanitation, education, and hospitals; the difficulty of understanding or treating mental illness -- as well as its brighter ones: the expansion of railways and the enabling of travel over long distances to those of modest means; the rise of literacy and popular literature; and the birth of numerous technologies without which our world would seem hard to imagine: photography, the fax machine, the telephone, and the cinema.

For our purposes, the rise in literacy is perhaps the most significant social change of the era. In part due to the establishment of a system of schools for the poor, in part to the increasing size of the middle classes, and in both cases driven by economic need more than a desire to enlighten the masses; between 1840 and 1900 a largely illiterate Britain was transformed into a land of nearly universal literacy. The new and growing mass audience drove a revolution in print, with newspapers vastly increasing their circulation, and made a world in which a serialized popular author such as Dickens gained wealth and fame far beyond anything available to writers of earlier generations. For those who could not afford to purchase books to feed their appetites, there was Mudie's Library, the Netflix of its day; if Mudie's felt that a book would do well, they would purchase 2,000 to 3,000 copies at a stroke, greatly affecting the shape of popular literacy.

We ourselves, in fact, stand in an institution -- the former Rhode Island Normal School -- which was in many regards the equivalent of the Victorian teacher training schools. And, ironically enough, the great project of establishing and funding a public education for all, the offspring of this era (and of advocates such as Henry Barnard and Horace Mann) is now, once again, a problem child, with great debates raging on school reform and how to fix the system.

Exploitative labor, the other great social problem of the Victorian era, continues as well, though mostly out of sight of the middle-class consumers of today. We've outsourced our exploitation to China, the Philippines, and American Samoa, and hidden our piece-workers deep in the recesses of half-abandoned buildings. Those who harvest our crops are equally invisible, though there if we care to see them. So until such work can be completely automated -- or until, as Stephen Colbert has said, we can develop "vegetables that pick themselves," we too must address this still-neglected problem of human society.

All this calls into question another idea we inherited from the Victorians: progress. If, a hundred a nine years after the death of Queen Victoria, we're still struggling with the same old social issues, what can "progress" mean?

Sunday, May 15, 2016


All of us know the story of Frankenstein -- or do we? Some of our collective memories come from the James Whale film of 1931, which introduced Boris Karloff as the Monster, or its descendants and parodies, such as Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein of 1974. Every year at Halloween, there are any number of young monsters at our door, and the image is deeply ingrained into our popular culture. From Frankenberry cereal to Herman Munster; from Edward Scissorhands to the Terminator, the image of a terrifying man-made man seems to haunt our technological era.

But how many know the story of the original novel? Written by Mary Shelley when she was only eighteen years old, and published anonymously in 1818, it gives us a very different "monster," one who can talk eloquently, argue philosophy, and revel in the poetry of Milton. It also gives us a rather different Victor Frankenstein, a haunted, romantic soul whose quest was inspired by Albertus Magnus and Cornelius Agrippa. It's a story which has never fully been brought to film or television, and thus a surprise to many of its readers.

One of the most fascinating episodes in the book is where the Creature stumbles upon a lost valise with several old books:
One night, during my accustomed visit to the neighbouring wood, where I collected my own food, and brought home firing for my protectors, I found on the ground a leathern portmanteau, containing several articles of dress and some books. I eagerly seized the prize, and returned with it to my hovel. Fortunately the books were written in the language the elements of which I had acquired at the cottage; they consisted of Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch's Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter. The possession of these treasures gave me extreme delight; I now continually studied and exercised my mind upon these histories, whilst my friends were employed in their ordinary occupations.
And so, we too can peer over the Creature's shoulder, since John Milton's Paradise Lost, the Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by Plutarch, and the Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe are all readily available to our eyes.  In addition, we can also now read Volney's Ruins of Empire -- the book used in the schoolroom where the Creature got his learning -- online.

Yet given the sad fate of the Creature, it is hard not to wonder what his life might have been like if there had been different books in that fabled valise. So: if you had the power, what three books would you put within the creature's grasp, and why?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

It's one of the foundational tales of the Romantic movement, an exemplar of horror ('the nightmare life-in-death was she') and grim irony ('water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink'). Its also one of the few of the Lyrical Ballads to actually be a ballad (there are a few others in ballad stanza, but only one or two -- perhaps "We are Seven" -- that really embody the ballad's mixture of lyricism and repetition). And it's proven very durable, still an engaging read in which the combination of the words 'narrative' and 'poetry' elicits a sense of dread -- not of the horror of the tale but the tedium of the form.

Coleridge originally wrote the poem in mock-antique orthography, with "ancient" spelled old-style as "antient" and "mariner" with a completely unnecessary final e as "marinere." Happily, he abandoned this in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, and added helpful side-notes, an early instance of a poet annotating his own work. He chose for its setting the extremes of the ocean, evoking both the Sargasso Sea (a mid-ocean area with much floating vegetation where ships were often becalmed) and the Antarctic (the mariner's headlong careening south is a journey revisited by Edgar Allan Poe (both in "MS. Found in a Bottle" and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym). The natural sublime, in the form both of the sea's teeming with unknown life, and the sterile and hostile cold of the realm of ice, is perfectly framed here, and the supernatural elements are perfectly integrated into the natural ones. And of course the mariner shoots the albatross, which is later hung about his neck by the superstitious sailors -- giving us a metaphor that's still in political use today.