‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Farrar's Horcrux Is Wanking: "Eric, or Little by Little" (1858)




= 1 =

Having taught Victorian literature for, ooh (I tremble to think) decades now, I’m struck by the easy condescension modern students so often feel towards the period. We look down, smilingly or derisively, upon them; and the reason for our sense of superiority is—sex. If our grandparents and great-grandparents had hang-ups in that area, they were (in Larkin’s words)
fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
The received wisdom is: the Victorians were repressed about sex. We, who are (apparently) not ‘repressed’ about sex, feel a natural superiority to the poor suckers—veiling the legs of their pianos, filling their kids ears with sermons on the inherently sinful nature of their privates, and so on. This is a caricature, of course, and (of course) a misleading one; but we need to work through it if we want to understand a novel like Farrar’s Eric, or Little by Little (1858); because there is something very strange hidden in plain view at the heart of this novel; and that strange thing is sexual.

A few obvious things, first. One is that, as a Victorianist, my perspective on ‘sexuality’ in this period has been shaped in part by reading Foucault’s Histoire de la sexualité, especially vol 1, la volonté de savoir (1976; English translation The Will to Knowledge 1978) as an impressionable young PhD student. Here Foucault poignards the so-called ‘repressive hypothesis’, demonstrating that rather than suppressing sexuality from the 17th to the mid-20th century, western society opened itself to discourses of sex in a wealth of new ways, from scientific and pseudo-scientific ‘classification’ approaches to more confessional and personal accounts, right through to a mushrooming cultural subterraneana of porn. Foucault argues that ‘modernity’ is in part characterised by a restless urge to discover the ‘truth’ of sex. According to Foucault modern-day individuals are ‘other Victorians’; the inheritors of an epoch in which people's identities became increasingly tied to their sexuality.

It is true, of course, that the parameters of what is acceptable in terms of the public presentation of sex and sexual matters have shifted, post-Chatterley; but it's also true (I think) that this shift is less huge and prodigious than is sometimes claimed.  Accordingly I’m going to try and discuss Eric in this broader Foucauldian way. All this preamble is needful, I think, because it is so easy to read Eric, and its hysterical ‘masturbation kills schoolboys!’ agenda, with a sneer of modern-day superiority. This strikes me as by far the least interesting way of taking the novel; but more than that, it seems to me to miss a very important point. We congratulate ourselves that we are less hung-up on matters of sexual guilt and shame than were the Victorians; but we have our own deep-rooted hang-ups. Death is the most obvious one. We are much more embarrassed by death than the Victorians ever were by sex—death seems to us, somehow, an affront to our ever-young-and-beautiful celebrity-lead pop cultural world. We hide our dying away in hospitals and hospices, so we don’t have to deal with them. We delegate all the ‘death’ stuff to a caste of discrete professionals, not the least part of whose tact is that they won’t force us to confront the messy business of Actual Human Dying. The thought of a 21st-century citizen (for instance) washing the corpse of a loved one, dressing it and placing it in a coffin fills us with a kind of horror—although this was how most of humanity handled the reality of death for most of its history. It’s not just the practicalities. The emotions of death scare us, with an almost superstitious terror. When we meet someone who is bereaved we find ourselves actively embarrassed by the news, because we don’t know how to act. When we are bereaved ourselves the experience is not only of emotional suffering (of course that) but also of being blindsided, or being smacked in the face with something for which we have not been prepared. Even an expected death will shock us with the force of its grief, of course; but it goes beyond that state in the modern West. It’s like an ignorant Victorian girl suddenly discovering, without entirely understanding how or why, that she is pregnant.

I don’t want to labour the point, except to say: Eric is at least as much about death and the pain of bereavement as it is about sex and the dangers of masturbation. In this, it is the heir to a long tradition of mournful (or if you prefer: morbid) stories of child death that characterise 18th and 19th-century writing for and about children. The Victorians faced death more straightforwardly than we do today, I think; they were less embarrassed by it, and better equipped with social protocols for handling it.

This isn’t to say that I’m going to pretend Eric is a forgotten masterpiece It is, it seems to me, quite a bad novel—but bad in an interesting, and symptomatic way. I'm teaching a course on Children's Literature this term, and I put it on the syllabus because a major strand of the 20-week course is school literature, up to and including Harry Potter, bears its mark. Certainly Eric was staggeringly influential and popular in its day; it’s one reason the name ‘Eric’ came into 20th-century vogue. But, let’s make no bony bones about it, it's not a good novel. Here’s Jeffrey Richards, in Happiest Days: The Public Schools in English Fiction (Manchester University Press 1988), summarising reactions:
Few best-sellers can have been so reviled and excoriated over the years as Dean Farrar’s Eric, or Little by Little. It has consistently earned such critical judgments as ‘mawkishly false’ (Vivian Ogilve), ‘a preposterous book’ (John Rowe Townshend), ‘the sort of story Dr Arnold would have written if he’d taken to drink’ (Hugh Kingsmill), ‘terrible warnings, soaked in nauseously cloying piety’ (Roger Lancelyn Green), ‘the only book I ever wanted to lose’ (Eric Ambler), ‘the nightmare emanation of some morbid, introverted brain’ (Edward C. Mack), ‘one of the most idiotic books of the nineteenth-century’ (Benny Green). The undoubted immortality of Eric is, then, as one historian has put it, ‘an immorality of derision.’ [70]
That’s posterity. What about the book’s contemporaries?
The criticism began as soon as the book was published. Writing in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1861, W Lucas Collins said of the book, ‘A more utter failure can hardly be conceived. Seldom has a book been written with such an excellent intention, by a scholar and a gentleman, which is so painful to read.’ He admitted its popularity, which he attributed to the general interest in school stories, the authority of the author as a Harrow master, and the sensationalism and ‘painful and repulsive details of the story’, which ‘confirmed all that anxious mothers had always feared and half-believed of the enormities of large schools.’ But he deprecated the sensationalism (‘granting the facts, we can see no sufficient motive for dragging such a miserable history into the daylight’) and the excessive emotionalism. … The Saturday Review complained ‘we can scarcely imagine a less healthy book to put into a boy's hand’, pointing to the dangers of inculcating priggishness, self-importance and a morbid self-consciousness. It also poured scorn on the excess emotionalism:
Its general tone is uniformly sad and this sadness is heightened artificially. To say nothing of three more or less violent deaths, two of which involve angelic deathbeds, everything is served up with tear sauce. The boys quote hymns, and to the infinite indignation of all English readers, occasionally kiss each other.
Experts on children’s literature were soon expressing doubts similar to those of the critics. In 1869 Charlotte Yonge described Eric as that morbid dismal tale, which we hope no mother or boy ever reads, since it can answer no purpose but to make them unhappy and suspicious, besides that it enforces by numerous telling examples that the sure reward for virtue is a fatal accident. [70-72]
That Saturday Review piece is rather glorious in its mockery. Yet there’s clearly something in the novel. It touched a nerve; it entertained several generations; it worked its way into the DNA of school fiction more generally. It was vastly and enduringly popular, reprinted twenty times before the century ended. Why?

The story in Eric, or, Little by Little is of the gradual, incremental moral decline of the titular schoolboy protagonist, Eric Williams at the fictional public school of ‘Rosslyn’. Eric is not a wicked boy—there are such boys in the tale, Barker the Bully most prominently. Barker
hated Eric at first sight, simply because his feeble mind could only realise one idea about him, and that was the new boy’s striking contrast with his own imperfections. Hence he left no means untried to vent on Eric his low and mean jealousy. He showed undisguised pleasure when he fell in form, and signs of disgust when he rose; he fomented every little source of disapproval or quarrelling which happened to arise against him; he never looked at him without a frown or a sneer; he waited for him to kick and annoy him as he came out of, or went in to, the schoolroom. In fact, he did his very best to make the boy’s life miserable, and the occupation of hating him seemed in some measure to fill up the vacuity of an ill-conditioned and degraded mind. [E, 1:3]
Eric, by contrast, is a Roussean pure soul (he grew up, we’re told, in Nature, the ‘wisest, gentles, holiest of teachers’). Nonetheless he falls, Farrar makes plain he falls because he trots blithely down the primrose path, succumbing to the trivial temptations of schoolboy popularity, skipping homework and larking about, from thence to more serious infractions such as cheating and drinking, and the unnameable activity that is the real core of the book's moral sermon. His best friend, the ridiculously virtuous Edwin Russell, dies as a result of a seashore accident. Then Eric’s kid brother Vernon dies, falling off a cliff (this is Eric's fault, we're told). Eric is moved and promises to repent his ways, but he always slides back. Eventually he runs away to sea, is beaten and whipped, returning abashed to his own home. Here he discovers that his own mother has already died of that affliction uniquely fatal to mothers, shame. Eric himself expires, repenting with his last breaths.

So one problem is: if Eric is fundamentally innocent and noble, how does he fall? Mr. Rose, Eric's mentor at Roslyn, writes a letter explaining the danger:
The innocence of mere ignorance is a poor thing; it cannot, under any circumstances, be permanent, nor is it at all valuable as a foundation of character. The true preparation for life, the true basis of a manly character, is not to have been ignorant of evil, but to have known it and avoided it; not to have been sheltered from temptation, but to have passed through it and overcome it by God's help. [1:15]
Death seems a heavy price to pay for a touch of childish high-spirits; but the notorious core of the boyish sinfulness is not skipping homework, or even drinking and running away to the navy. It is something Farrar’s novel insists is far worse. In an early scene, the previously sheltered Eric overhears the other boys in his dorm engaging in indecent talk. He does not join in, but neither does he speak out and condemn it, and this is enough:
Now, Eric, now or never! Life and death, ruin and salvation, corruption and purity, are perhaps in the balance together, and the scale of your destiny may hang on a single word of yours. Speak out, boy! Tell these fellows that unseemly words wound your conscience; tell them that they are ruinous, sinful, damnable; speak out and save yourself and the rest. Virtue is strong and beautiful, Eric, and vice is downcast in her awful presence. Lose your purity of heart, Eric, and you have lost a jewel which the whole world, if it were "one entire and perfect chrysolite," cannot replace. [1:9]
The Othello reference is interesting, I think; it is a way of talking about sexual purity (of course), but it also carries with it an implied correlative, that the sexual sin being carefully unexpressed here is connected in some way with envy. What sin is it, anyway?
Oh, young boys, if your eyes ever read these pages, pause and beware. The knowledge of evil is ruin, and the continuance in it is moral death. That little matter—that beginning of evil—it will be like the snowflake detached by the breath of air from the mountain-top, which, as it rushes down, gains size and strength and impetus, till it has swollen to the mighty and irresistible avalanche that overwhelms garden and field and village in a chaos of undistinguishable death.

Kibroth-Hattaavah! Many and many a young Englishman has perished there! Many and many a happy English boy, the jewel of his mother’s heart—brave and beautiful and strong—lies buried there. Very pale their shadows rise before us—the shadows of our young brothers who have sinned and suffered. From the sea and the sod, from foreign graves and English churchyards, they start up and throng around us in the paleness of their fall. May every schoolboy who reads this page be warned by the waving of their wasted hands, from that burning marle of passion where they found nothing but shame and ruin, polluted affections, and an early grave.
Blimey. That's us told, at any rate.

So what's going on, here? Eric was published in 1858, one year after William Acton’s The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age, and Advanced Life: Considered in Their Physiological, Social, and Moral Relations (1857). Now when I was a young Victorianist, Acton tended to be invoked in the scholarship only to be mocked -- the very epitome of the attitude I talked about in the opening few paragraphs. And however influential he was (and he was influential) he remains eminently mock-worthy. It was Acton who insisted that ‘the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind. … As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband's embraces, but principally to gratify him; and, were it not for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions.’ Victorianists earnestly debated how representative Acton’s views were, and the consensus used to be: not very. Certainly it’s hard to see how such a belief could stand up in the real world, where real women, I am assured, do indeed—under the right circumstances—experience sexual desire. Nonetheless Acton’s Functions and Disorders book went through many editions, and was widely read. And the section that really hit home was about masturbation. ‘Chiromania’ was Acton’s term for it, and he thought it a desperately dangerous practice. This in turn lead to a genuine-and-actual moral panic in Victorian Britain through into the 1860s, the echoes of which lasted much longer, and the nub of which was: how can we stamp out this pernicious practice?
CHAPT. II.—MASTURBATION IN CHILDHOOD. On the whole, I am disposed to hope that in most public schools, the feeling is strongly against these vile practices. Still, every now and then, facts leak out, which show, that, even into these establishments, evil influences sometimes find their way, and the destructive habit may take root and become common. In private schools, however, which are to a great extent free from the control of that healthy public opinion that, even among boys, has so salutary an effect, there is too much reason to fear that this scourge of our youth prevails to an alarming extent.

I cannot venture to print the accounts patients have given me of what they have seen or even been drawn into at schools. I would fain hope that such abominations are things of the past, and cannot be now repeated under more perfect supervision, and wider knowledge of what is at least possible.Acton believed (erroneously, I should stress) that masturbation has terribly deleterious effects on health.

The Symptoms which mark the commencement of the practice are too clear for an experienced eye to be deceived. As Lallemand remarks: "However young the children may be, they get thin, pale, and irritable, and their features become haggard. We notice the sunken eye, the long, cadaverous-looking countenance, the downcast look which seems to arise from a consciousness that their habits are suspected, and, at a later period, that their virility is lost. It may depend upon timidity acquired or inherited. I wish by no means to assert that every boy unable to look another in the face is or has been a masturbator, but I believe this vice is a very frequent cause of timidity. Such boys have a dank, moist, cold hand, very characteristic of great vital exhaustion; their sleep is short, and most complete marasmus comes on; they may die if their evil passion is not got the better of; nervous symptoms set in, such as spasmodic contraction, or partial or entire convulsive movements, together with epilepsy, eclampsy, and a species of paralysis accompanied with contractions of the limbs."
He goes on, in a passage that directly influenced Farrar:
A vigorous healthy boy is not likely to have any tendency to debase himself, and it is a question with many if it is wise (on his going to school) to caution him against the vile habit of masturbation and its consequences. My own impression long was, that it would be a pity to poison the mind of a high-spirited lad with any cautions about vile practices; but the confessions of many, who, in ignorance of the results, have, by the example of others, been led to practice masturbation, have very much altered my opinion. I believe that in many cases a parent should at least hint to his son that he may very possibly have to witness unclean practices, and conjure him at once manfully to resist and oppose them, pointing out at the same time the consequences to which they tend. Of course there is the risk of tainting an ingenuous mind by broaching such a subject, and unfolding before it this distressing page in the book of knowledge of good and evil. But when it is needful, a father should in my opinion accept the grave responsibility; for, knowing what I know, and seeing what I see, I would not face the greater unknown ill of dismissing my child to the probability of contamination, without an attempt to save him. I esteem it false delicacy and a wrong, that a parent should hesitate to warn his boy, when he can, at the most, anticipate by a few days or weeks the offices of a schoolmaster in vice, as ignorant of consequences as the pupil, and unable to administer the antidote with the poison.
To revert to my point at the beginning, this is the kind of thing that gives Victorians a bad name. How can we read it and not snort derisively? Not only that Acton wrote it, but that it was so widely believed. But let’s put derision to one side for a moment. A number of things are worth exploring further. One is the matter of the unspeakability of the ‘sin’. Acton’s pinching dilemma, in that last quotation, is that boys must be warned again masturbation, and yet that warning them will actually bring masturbation to their attention. This is a curious double-bind: to balance moral prophylaxis against tact, to speak the unspeakable since not speaking it will leave boys open to sin, although speaking it may have exactly the same consequences.

Farrar’s solution is fascinating. He puts masturbation front and centre, as it were; and yet does not name it. Instead we get the baffling reference to Kibroth-Hattaavah. Many, indeed, must have been the young 19th-century readers of this novel who came across this passage only to cry out, internally, ‘but what is this terrible sin? Kibroth-Hattaavah—what does that even mean? If I don't know what it is, how can I ever avoid it?’ Hakuna Matata this is not.

It is, of course, an Old Testament Biblical reference. But what’s odd about it is that it isn’t the usual OT Biblical reference to the evils of masturbation—that is Onan, from Genesis 38, who ‘spilled his seed on the ground’. Kibroth-Hattaavah is a much more obscure reference. It is, in fact, a place mentioned in Numbers 11:34-35. Kibroth-hattaavah (קִבְרוֹת הַתַּאֲוָה‎) is one of the sites through which the Israelites passed during their Exodus trek. The Hebreww means ‘graves of lust’ (Farrar was an expert in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and wrote a influential Life of Christ); and in that sense we can see how it applies to Eric’s temptations. Lust leads to the grave! But to open the relevant bit of the Book of Numbers is to confuse matters: because the lust mentioned there is not sexual but food-y. The Israelites loudly complained about constantly eating only manna, and yearned for the fish, vegetables, fruit, and meat they had eaten in Egyptian captivity. Moses prays to God, who replies that the complainers will eat meat solidly for a month ‘until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you: because that ye have despised the Lord which is among you, and have wept before him, saying, Why came we forth out of Egypt?’ God sends great flocks of quail to the Israelites: ‘And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague. And he called the name of that place Kibrothhattaavah: because there they buried the people that lusted.’ The graveyard of those who lusted! Lusted after food, though; not lusted after Madame Palm and her five comely daughters.

Now this connects (in a slightly oblique way) with one of the strands of the course I’ve been teaching: that children’s literature consistently mediate appetite and desire via food, because for kids, and especially pre-pubescent kids, food is the main sensual pleasures available to them. And the ambiguity is an interesting textual function of the novel. What it means, I think, is that we can take the signifying structure of Eric, scoop out the specifics of the moral alarmism (masturbation, say) and interpretively-speaking replace it with whatever is at the top of the presentday list of 'Oh Won't Somebody Please Think Of The Children?' flapdoodles.

My point is that, although the moral panic of the late 1850s and 1860s concerned masturbation, moral panics themselves are nothing new. Read E S Turner’s elderly but still brilliant account of 19th and early 20th century moral panics, Roads To Ruin, The Shocking History of Social Reform (1950)—Turner’s examples include: should daylight savings time be abolished? Should the ban on marrying your dead wife’s sister be lifted? Should spring guns be banned? Should children be forbidden to buy gin (for their parents, not themselves) in pubs? The main problem Eric as a novel faces today is the E S Turner effect: what was once genuinely believed to be a matter of spiritual and perhaps literal Life And Death looks, now, so bizarrely trivial a matter to get worked up about. This in turn leads to the sorts of dismissive, derisively-laughing readings of Farrar’s novel. I’d like to propose a more sympathetic reading. Not that I think masturbation, or same-sex desire, will lead to certain decadence and death (of course not!); but rather because I think two things—one, that the structure of the sort of school story Farrar tells here has directly influenced the way school stories are written right up to the present day (that they still are built around some transgression or danger that is explicitly or implicitly unnameable); and two because it seems to me we are today exactly as in thrall to crazy moral panics as the mid-Victorians were, especially where children are concerned. Those panics are no longer about whether a man ought to be able to marry his dead wife’s sister, but they are no less virulent. Arguably they are more so. The ones dominant at the moment have to do with paedophilia, homosexuality (especially same-sex marriage and same-sex couples rearing kids), transgender identities, internet porn, the internet itself. Go back a little further and we come to: violent video games; comic books; pop music (especially swear-word laden rap music); obesity epidemics; anorexia epidemics and so on.

Now the second of these two things strikes me as general and societal—and as something with interesting implications. But the former is the one more specifically relevant to what I’m talking about here, so I’ll dilate upon it a little. My example would be: Harry Potter, as school story, has the same structure as Eric; or to be more precise, if we reconfigure Harry Potter in our minds as a story about Tom Riddle, then it becomes pretty much Eric, Retold. Like Eric, young Tom is a pupil of manifold, exceptional talents; and like Eric he is seduced by something centrally dark and unnameable to—eventually—his death. Farrar calls his moral structural principle ‘Kibroth-Hattaavah’; Rowling calls hers ‘The Horcrux’, a secret ‘something’ so malign that the invocation of it requires one to commit the supreme act of evil, a murder; something that actually ‘rips the soul apart’. The unnameable nature of this central transgression is transferred onto the character himself, who loses his deictic ‘riddling’ name and becomes precisely ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’. In other words, not in terms of the internal logic of the text, but in terms of the representational or formal (or structural) semantic function of the thing, Rowling’s Horcrux is Farrar’s Wanking. Kibroth-Hataavah is a variant of the Avada-Kedavra. Ask yourself: why does Voldemort lack a nose? Tall, pale Voldemort, with the dank, moist, cold hands, characteristic of great vital exhaustion, and his various scowling, twitching nervous symptoms. Why the lack of nose? Is it because of his intrinsic snakiness? Or is the reference to the symptoms of physical decline associated with, say, tertiary syphilis? You decide.




=2=

Because, yes, of course it has to do with death—Voldmort’s death-stained name could hardly be more explicit on that front (see also: Darth Vader). And lots of children die in both Harry Potter and Eric. For Garrett Stewart [Death Sentences: Styles of Dying in British Fiction (Harvard Univ, Press 1984)] death in Victorian fiction is what Beckett’s later novel on that topic calls ‘the Unnamable’; it exists ‘only as inexistence, is not a topic so much as a voiding event, has no vocabulary and would leave us mute before its impenetrable fact.’ [4] ‘Death,’ he says (quoting Empson) is ‘the trigger of the writer’s biggest gun’ [5]; ‘the ultimate form of closure plotted within the closure of form’ [6]. In writing deathbed scenes, Garrett argues, Victorians put death into style (‘write their death senteces’, how very 1980s lit-critical it all is) and ‘thus, at the circumscribed level of the stylistic microcosm, compact and so dramatize the very premises of representation that permit and condition it.’ [7]

In all this Garrett is egregiously of his time (‘Is my death possible? Can we understand this question?’ Derrida asks in Aporias; a doubly baffling query given Derrida’s insistence that there is no politics without ‘a topolitology of the sepulcher’ [61]). But he’s also, patently, wrong—at least as far as Eric is concerned … and, actually, as far as the broader dynamic of Victorian deathbed scenes go too. Deathbed scenes do not begin with Dickens (‘a mainstay of the novel from Dickens onwards …’). On the contrary, Dickens is closer to the end of a much longer tradition of (specifically) child death in literature. Garrett confuses death as an ontological terminus with bereavement as a human constant—for literature is always concerned with the latter, or more precisely is only ever concerned with the former as it is refracted through the latter—and he does not know his Massively Morbid Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-century Literary Context well enough. It is not death that is the Unnameable in Eric: it is ‘Kibroth-Hattaavah’.

Now, we might counter that this is a kind of death—the graves of lust. And that is a relevant consideration. But one point of difference is the way actual death has only temporary consequences for the characters—Eric grieves, promises to reform himself, but always slides back into his wicked ways. Kibroth-Hattaavah is different: though centrally nameless, its influence is always spreading out. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst [in Victorian Afterlives: The Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth-century Literature (2002), 163] has interesting things to say about ’ripples’ in the novel. These, he argue, both epitomise ‘how he sees boys going bad’; but hey also characterised how Farrar himself ‘unfolds the plot of their undoing’. Douglas-Fairhurst draws attention to the chapter ‘Ripples’ (2:5), with its Tennysonian epigraph: ‘Our echoes roll from soul to soul,/And live for ever and for ever.’ The ‘prophetically named’ (as Douglas-Fairhurst puts it) Brigson has been expelled for using his ‘pernicious influence’ to lure Eric into vice. Expulsion doesn’t stem the problem, though. Owen and Montagu, two sixth formers, mediate on this:
“Well, I think there’s another chance for him now that—that—what name is bad enough for that Brigson?—is gone.”

“I hope so. But,”—he added after a pause—“his works do follow him. Look there!” He took a large stone and threw it into the Silverburn stream; there was a great splash, and the ever-widening circles of blue ripple broke the surface of the water, dying away one by one in the sedges on the bank. “There,” he said, “see how long those ripples last, and how numerous they are.”

Owen understood him. “Poor Eric! What a gleam of new hope there was in him after Russell’s death!”

“Yes, for a time,” said Montagu; “heigh ho! I fear we shall never be warm friends again. We can’t be while he goes on as he is doing. And yet I love him.”

A sudden turn of the stream brought them to the place called Riverbend.

“If you want a practical comment on what we’ve been talking about, you’ll see it there,” said Montagu.

He pointed to a party of boys, four or five, all lying on a pleasant grass bank, smoking pipes. Prominent among them was Eric, stretched at ease, and looking up at the clouds, towards which curled the puffed fumes of his meerschaum, a gift of Wildney’s. That worthy was beside him similarly employed.

The two sixth-form boys hoped to pass by unobserved, as they did not wish for a rencontre with our hero under such circumstances. But they saw Wildney pointing to them, and, from the fits of laughter which followed his remarks, they had little doubt that they were the subject of the young gentleman’s wit. This is never a pleasant sensation; but they observed that Eric made a point of not looking their way, and went on in silence.

“How very sad!” said Montagu.

“How very contemptible!” said Owen. “Harfagher among his subjects!”

“Did you observe what they were doing?”

“Smoking?”

“Worse than that a good deal. They were doing something which, if Eric doesn’t take care, will one day be his ruin.”

“What?”

“I saw them drinking. I have little doubt it was brandy.”

“Good heavens!”

“It is getting a common practice with some fellows. One of the ripples, you see, of Brigson’s influence.”
The ripple motif reoccurs in 2:9 where Vernon falls from the cliff to his death.
Gradually, gently [the tide] crept up to the place where Vernon lay; and the little ripples fell over him wonderingly, with the low murmur of their musical laughter, and blurred and dimmed the vivid splashes and crimson streaks upon the white stone on which his head had fallen…[2:9]
Douglas-Fairhurst notes: ‘Farrar’s ripple is a refrain which invests the physical world with the enduring effects of an absent body, material with moral influence, and its regular reappearance means that the lines of his novel spin a moral web which is designed to clung to the reader as another form of refrain: the solemn injunction, “no more” [163]

What interests me the most here is the way ‘masturbation’ is styled as a mode of outward-spreading malignancy, where the ‘wickedness’ of masturbation resides in the way it excludes others, and draws the individual wanker antisocially inward. Adam Phillips [Side Effects (2006)] quotes Leo Bersani to the effect that ‘the reason most people feel guilty about masturbation is because they fear that masturbation is the truth about sex; that the truth about sex is that we would rather do it on our own, or that, indeed, we are doing it on our own even when we seem to all intents and purposes to be doing it with other people..’ Phillips goes on, via Lacan, to consider desire as a particular kind of absence, a ‘lack, disclosed by our longings [that] sends a depth charge into our histories’ [59]. He also, elsewhere, describes masturbation as ‘not only safe sex; it’s safe incest’—by way, I think, of intimating its weird mix of the absolutely hermetically mundane and its taboo frisson. I’m not sure about this. But I am interested in the way Eric simultaneously figures masturbation as an antisocial cutting-oneself-off from the healthful influence of your fellows, and at the same time a mode of interacting with your fellows. The emission of semen is life and death at the same time. Like a horcrux, it entails the tearing-apart of one's soul, but does so in order to disseminate that soul more widely and so evade death.

Seminate. Huh.

I'll finish with a different modern-day analogue to Eric: the huge vogue for misery memoirs, or trauma memoirs: accounts of the way the abject depths of childhood transgression and suffering lead into adult life. Here's a quotation from the estimable Roger Luckhurst on trauma:
In 1993, Anne Hunsaker Hawkins published Reconstructing Illness, a study of memoirs about the experience of disease, dysfunction or death for which she coined a new term: pathography. In a move familiar from the brief flowering of the ‘personal criticism’ movement in the late 1980s, Hawkins confessed that her academic interest had been motivated by her own father’s death: the critical work thus shared the very impulse it sought to analyse. In Reconstructing Illness, Hawkins noted a striking fact: before 1950, she had discovered only a handful of published pathographies. After 1950, the genre had haltingly emerged but then accelerated, particularly in the 1980s, with hundreds of texts published. But even more strikingly, the number of pathographies doubled again in just the six years between 1993 and 1999, when the second edition of Hawkins’ book appeared.

This spike in production placed pathography at the heart of the contemporary boom in the trauma memoir. In the 1990s, life writing was partially re-oriented to pivot around the intrusive traumatic event that, at a stroke, shattered narrative coherence. The sociologist Arthur Frank saw illness as ‘narrative wreckage’ and pathography as a literal narrative salve: ‘Stories have to repair the damage that illness has done’. This formulation owed much to the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who regarded narrative as an act of con-figuration which ‘“grasps together” and integrates into one whole and complete story multiple and scattered events’. Trauma is a dis-figuration of that narrative possibility, but what the narrative memoir promises is a redemptive account of how the post-traumatic self might be re-configured around its woundedness.

The trauma memoir is one of the cultural symptoms that follows from the securing of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a recognised psychiatric illness in official diagnostics in 1980, after a long campaign of psychiatric advocacy in the 1970s by a coalition of activists. It has been my contention that many forms of culture have played a significant role in articulating how PTSD seems to affect the narrative possibilities of selfhood after 1980. The memoir boom is now a vast and complicated delta region with major channels but also curious back-waters, and is treacherous to map. However, it is important to distinguish the tributaries rather than subsume everything into an undifferentiated trauma discourse. For the record, we might distinguish five elements that converge to produce the memoir boom since the 1990s: 1) the feminist revaluation of the autobiographical utterance, at the level of therapeutic practice, life writing, and in critical theory; 2) a politicisation of the illness memoir by people with AIDS, producing a large body of testimony designed both to commemorate the dead and to denounce medical or governmental ignorance; 3) an expanding terrain of pathographies that began with cancer memoirs but soon moved into subsets including depression, exotic or bizarre disorders and parental illness or death; 4) the related rise of thanatography, or death writing, which might include memoirs by carers for the terminally ill, suicide in the family, or accounts of the mourning process; and 5) the re-programming of the celebrity exposé to be organised around the revelation of the traumatic secret (a boom begun in England with the phenomenal success of the autobiography of the glamour model, Katie Price, Being Jordan). These elements run the gamut from honourable and political interventions to the plain tiresome and narcissistic.
Luckhurst goes on to argue that 'in sum, we might regard the trauma memoir as the exemplary form of what Ross Chambers has termed ‘aftermath cultures,’ defined by a testimonial impulse that is nevertheless marked by ‘a strange nexus of denial and acknowledgement’. These memoirs at once allure with the promise of transgressive experiences but are abjected for precisely those revelations in an irresolvable tension of attraction and repulsion that accounts for the compulsion to publish so many similar confessions.' We can go further: this abjection is eroticised. The 'secret' at the heart of the paradigmatic celebrity trauma memoir is almost always sexual in nature. This in turn relates to a broader culture in which (post 1960s) sex must be simultaneously hidden as a shameful secret and be subject to public display at all times. The conceptual slippage from the first and second of Luckhurst's five gift things like Jordan's memoirs (or Billy Connolly's, or Ulrika Rice's) the glamour of heroic honesty, as if some pubic good is being performed. The individual who might want to object to these books must run the risk of being labelled a prude; of having 'something to hide.' Of course, everybody has 'something to hide'. For all his flaws and errors, Freud's great contribution to knowledge is his articulation of the enormous truth that human subjectivity is predicated precisely upon 'something to hide'. What happens with something like Being Jordan is interesting: what Jordan, in this text, has to hide is precisely the truth that she has something to hide. She pretends a kind of panoptic ideal openness. It's not the case; but it's the heart of her appeal.

But here's another suggestion: part of the vast success of Eric has to do not with the simple prophylactic ambition of Farrar (in a nutshell: to stop boys wanking) so much as with the way it reinscribed schooldays a forming character not via a Tom Brown-esque manliness, sport and honour, but precisely via a kind of unnameable wound or trauma.

4 comments:

  1. This is the one of the best things I've read all year - it's the "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" of our time!

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  2. Thank you, Dominic! Praise indeed.

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  3. I, Melachi ibn Amillar, being of unsound mind and body, did read the article of Adam Roberts, which may be a satire, on Dean Farrar's, Eric, or Little by Little. However, let it be recorded, for the avoidance of doubt, that this book does not mention the Vice in question. Secondly, if it were mentioned, in those terms, only the most prurient of exegete would have recognised it. Thirdly, no particular sin would even so be crucial. For our youth falls gradually into sin: mere knowledge is enough; yet man born of Adam cannot fail to come to knowledge of evil. So we rely on the mercy of God and his Saviour. The scene cited refers only (and explicitly) to this apple - the 'poison of evil communication'. The "burning marle of passion" is the hell of suffering of Paradise Lost (l. 296) from which the angel ascends to bring this knowledge to man. Kibroth-Hattaavah is where those greedy for the apple were slain before even eating of the quail (Nbr 11:33). The "waving of wasted hands" recalls those Charon has yet to ferry across ("stretching out their hands in longing for the far shore") in the Aeneid (vi 314). With these every schoolboy is familiar, and Farrar's genius is not to condescend to make for them an exception from the wages of sin in the deaths that haunt the novel. And how, Melachi feels, could a Christian schoolmaster do otherwise?

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