EATING PEOPLE IS WRONG: MORE ON DR. JEKYLL, DR. LECTER AND PROF. HENRIETTA JEKYLL

Last week I wrote that even Dr. Lecter would find Mr. Hyde scary and since then I’ve been mulling over why cannibalism never comes up in connection with Stevenson’s masterpiece. Actually, we had a lively discussion in class about the worst crime we imagine Hyde committing, and because the contemporary readings of the text focus so much on (Victorian, repressed) sexuality, we just came up with child rape and murder. Someone mentioned the Amstetten monster, as you might expect, as our most potent recent Jekyll-related nightmare but not the ultimate taboo of eating people.

Check any database and you’ll soon find that plenty has been written about Lecter as the 1990s quintessential Dr. Jekyll, with suggestions that he’s both the good doctor and his evil self in one, sealing thus Stevenson’s self-divide. Other candidates to the post of best fictional Dr. Jekyll of the last twenty years might be, of course, Patrick Bateman from Bret Easton Ellis’ magnificently horrid American Psycho (1991) and, yes, the split protagonist of Chuck Palahniuk’s truly great Fight Club (1996, film –also great- by David Fincher 1999). Yet, I haven’t been unable to trace an essay arguing that Hyde’s favourite debauchery consists of eating people. Why not consider this? Ummm… yummy!

Now, seriously, most critics gloat over the hidden sexuality of Stevenson’s text, fantasizing mainly that Hyde is either a sadistic, misogynistic heterosexual or a homosexual –do they mean just plain or also sadistic? See for instance Elaine Showalter’s confusing essay “Dr. Jekyll’s closet” in her book Sexual Anarchy (1991 – my thanks to Josh Bazell for pointing it out to me). Showalter makes three claims: 1) Hyde’s crimes are sexual, 2) late Victorian male readers leading a double life would have quickly guessed that Jekyll’s dark pleasures are homosexual, 3) it’s hard to imagine a version with a female protagonist. Well, yes, if you must focus on sex.

Showalter wonders, as I do, what a contemporary Ms. Edie Hyde might do secretly that is too shameful for Prof. Henrietta Jekyll, chair, I would add, in Gender Studies at any US or UK university. Have sado-masochistic (lesbian) sex with a student? Really evil… As for her twin claims that Stevenson may have, perhaps, possibly, perchance, who knows, come in and out of the closet which is why Jekyll and his cronies are clearly gay, I find it intolerant and homophobic. I know she intends to condemn the author’s and the original readers’ hypocrisy but believing that Jekyll needs Hyde because he is gay simply hurts my queer (=anti-homophobic) sensitivity. Last time I saw Lecter (in print) he had trapped Clarice Starling into an appalling HETEROSEXUAL affair…

The problem with Hyde is that we don’t seem to have much imagination when it comes to evil –um, luckily? Thomas Harris opened up through his Dr. Lecter new possibilities regarding ultimate evil at a modest individual scale (Lecter is no Hitler, not even a Bush). And why not imagine that in her college office Prof. Henrietta Jekyll daydreams about having some students for dinner? Unless, of course, you think that ladies can never be that evil… or good cooks like Lecter. That would be sexist, wouldn’t it?

PREPARING JUST ONE LITERATURE CLASS

To begin with, I’m aware than I’m probably misusing the word ‘class’ as in the Anglo-American world teachers give lectures and teach seminars, whereas we, here in Spain, do a mixture of both, and, so, we teach ‘classes.’ Somebody correct me if I’m doubly wrong, please. Anyway, here’s my ranting and raving for today.

If I remember correctly, my university uses a 1:1 ratio to work out how much time we use to prepare classes. Thus, if I teach for one hour, I should use one hour for preparation. No way, it never works: I always need at least twice as much and at particular points it seems as if preparing just one session might take the whole day if not the whole week. I won’t mention the word PowerPoint (my, I just did…).

Logically, things run faster if the class in question is repeated from a previous academic year but, even so, I still need to re-read the primary source –the literary text, the film, the TV episode– I’ll be dealing with. I think most of us do. It’s easy to explain: not even the briefest short story can be fully recalled with confidence enough to teach it. (Or just call me incompetent.) One thing is commenting on it in passing (at a conference during question time, in conversation) and quite another keeping all of it in mind for classroom analysis. And, then, literary texts have this enticing but exasperating quality: they seem to change all the time and no two readings are the same. Making exhaustive notes is useless –maybe except for plot summaries– as our ideas about what we read change all the time. Beautiful, sure, but hardly practical.

So, preparing a class might take as long as reading/seeing the text requires plus taking fresh notes, plus finding bibliography. And, then, what happens is this: class discussion suddenly takes an unexpected turn, too interesting to drop, and I run short of time to say what I’ve been working on for too long. Or students, ehem, haven’t read the set text and I just manage to say 25% of what I had prepared, which means I have wasted my time. Or all goes well in class but I needed, anyway, to use many hours for preparation because I’m teaching new material I’m not yet wholly familiar with – as they say, often you teach to learn. Just think how long it takes to read a 250 page book for just one or two sessions.

And here’s the killer: no matter how detailed my notes can be before or after class, they will be probably useless the following year, as we tend to change the set books, for the sake of variety as there’s soooo much to choose from. I’m not sure whether this is plain romantic or plain dumb.

So, 1:1, sure, yes, whatever.

ISN’T JEKYLL, NOT HYDE, THE SCARY ONE? JUST WONDERING (ABOUT THE SCOTS)

I’ve read once more The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as I’ll start teaching it again tomorrow –actually, the second time this semester as my UOC students have already gone through it– and I marvel at how powerful Stevenson’s writing is. I also puzzle about how to explain to the students that this is a deeply Scottish text in its depiction of evil. I do not mean villainy but, rather, the very tangible presence of something truly frightening, yet comprehensible, in the human mind. I find English fiction much tamer in this. Not even the Americans, for all their serial killers, can really compete with the Scots. I have the impression that Hyde would scare even Hannibal Lecter (or maybe eat him!). Perhaps only the Irish, with LeFanu’s Carmilla and Stoker’s Count Dracula, can truly match the Scots.

Anyone interested in Scottish Literature knows that the figure of the double is quite strong in it, beginning with James Hogg’s masterpiece The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), nearly 60 years older than Stevenson’s dark tale. Other literatures have attractive Gothic tales built around that figure but there is something singular in the way the Scots deal with the doppelgänger. Many critics have dealt with the issue, seeing in the nation’s oppressive Calvinist background the main source for this basic acknowledgement that human beings are tainted and, thus, condemned to put up with their evil versions. It seems, somehow, hard for Scottish Literature to believe in unambiguous good though not so hard to believe in pure evil. Read Ian Rankin’s splendid series of 17 novels on Detective Inspector John Rebus and you’ll see how the hero falls gradually under the spell of his dark half, the self-assured, sardonic gangster Big Ger Cafferty. So will you.

On close consideration, what scares me in Stevenson’s story is not really Hyde but Jekyll. His own account of the disastrous experiment that brings about his personality split and, eventually, his death is quite chilly, as Jekyll frankly acknowledges his addiction to Hyde’s extreme freedom. Like many readers, I first approached the text thinking this was the story of a good man who wanted to help mankind get rid of its evil side, and, after all these years, I’m still reeling from the shock of realising this is not true at all. Jekyll never thinks of good, only of how to free himself from all moral restraints to enjoy his darkest pleasures without the burden of a conscience (or the loss of his social position). Hyde is pure evil, but Jekyll is much worse as he makes the decision to release Hyde. Just think: although he is in Hyde’s shape, it is actually Dr. Jekyll who kills poor Dr. Lanyon, formerly his best friend, by showing him how the appalling transformation works. It is important to see that Lanyon dies of the shock produced by seeing Jekyll emerge from Hyde’s body –not the other way round– as I very much suspect the ‘good’ doctor wanted all along.

As the story progresses, Jekyll loses control over Hyde because Hyde grows stronger –not a word is said about how Jekyll’s good side grows weaker. It’s tempting to think of an alternative version in which Jekyll distils the essence of good mixed in his personality to become not an evil sinner but a holy saint. It sounds like the kind of fiction only American Christian fundamentalists or Opus Dei members might enjoy –unless it was made as a comedy. It might be fun! The point is that none, as far as I know, has written this. All we have is the dark progeny of Stevenson’s tale.

I just wonder why Stevenson, a Scot, was the first to muster the courage necessary to say that evil is not the Other but us and why we still blindly insist in finding Hyde scarier than Jekyll.

PAYING TO READ MYSELF

Many people assume that because a handful of writers make a spectacular living off their best-selling books, any writer makes money. So far, if I count what I have invested in my writing and what I have gained, I am awfully, appallingly in the red. I have the experience of earning nothing whatsoever from a book that cost me plenty of money to write (yep, I never got royalties for the book Expediente X: En honor a la verdad, 2006, as the publisher, dear Alberto Santos, claims to be ruined…). Yet, here’s a new experience for me: paying for a copy of a volume to which I have contributed an essay.

The book is called A Comparison of Popular TV in English and Spanish Speaking Societies: Soaps, Sci-Fi, Sitcoms, Adult Cartoons, and Cult Series and has been edited by my colleagues at UIB Marta Fernández Morales and José Igor Prieto-Arranz. I only have words of praise for them and for the hard work they’ve put into editing this very interesting volume, which is, precisely, the reason why I want to read it complete and keep it. Yet, the Edwin Mellen Press, which has published it, is not in the habit of giving copies to contributors. We, authors, are offered a discount, a strange practice imitated by other publishers (such as Cambridge Scholars Publishing).

For the benefit of the poor souls reading me who ignore it all about academic publishing, let me explain that we get no money from sales as chapter contributors do not really sign a contract but a waver of their copyright. I doubt that editors, who do sign a contract, get money, anyway. We, authors, sign contracts for books but, for instance, my colleague Isabel Santaulària has got so far for her great book El monstruo humano: Una introducción a la ficción de los asesinos en serie (2009) around 250 euros. Yes, it pays more to teach a seminar any afternoon (but then, you need to publish books for anyone to call you).

It could be worse: I should have to pay to have my work published, as many academics do all over the world for articles in academic books or for books, collective or otherwise. What truly puzzles me is that Amazon.com is selling at 5.95$ an essay on Stephen King that I published in the journal Atlantis years ago and which can be downloaded from the internet for free (and for which, as usual, I wasn’t paid). I have simply no idea who is the middleman distributing this to Amazon.com and I very much doubt the editor of Atlantis knows about this odd situation. Or maybe I’m the one who had no idea.

I understand that writing is part of my job and that, somehow, as Spanish society subsidises my time to write I am not really entitled to making even more money out of it. Or am I? I’m confused. I also assume that many academic presses make very little money out of publishing their books but I still don’t get it: what kind of business is this? Can really the 9 copies for the contributors make such a big difference to the publishers?

I’m taking a deep breath here… and counting my savings to buy the book.

SEXUAL FANTASIES AND VICTORIAN FICTION

I ask the students to read a passage in Great Expectations which ends with the sentence “I must obey.” One of them pretends to mishear me and asks in surprise “masturbate?” The whole class laughs at the fake Freudian slip and we start then a conversation on Pip’s (and Heathcliff’s) strange sexual lives. If they have one…

Unless Brontë wants us to read between the lines, we must accept that Heathcliff has no sex (at least in company) for almost twenty years, ages 21 to 39: from the moment his wife Isabella leaves him to the moment he dies. We may speculate about what goes on in his rambles in the moors with Cathy and during the three years of his mysterious absence but have no proof whatsoever that he’s ever had sex before his disastrous wedding night (that might explain Isabella’s wish to run away the following morning). Cathy, at least, bears a daughter, which suggests that Edgar and her are sexually active –at least once, yes, seemingly inspired by Heathcliff’s return. In Great Expectations Pip falls madly in love with Estella aged 7 and gives her up aged 23 when she marries, remaining a bachelor until the age of 34 when he meets her again, already a widow. Once more, Dickens keeps silent about the hero’s sexual life despite Pip’s ranting about his passion for the girl. We might infer from her marriage to the brutal Drummle that Estella does have sex, who knows of what kind -sadomasochistic would be a safe bet.

Students and teachers used to the explicitness of current narratives with an erotic component and to the openness with which matters like masturbation and orgasm can be discussed today don’t know what to make of odd fish like Heathcliff and Pip. The only option left is to think that they “must obey” their natural impulses and “masturbate” thinking of the women they fancy, yet it’s even hard to apply this term to Victorian fiction. Our current post-Freudian, post-Foucaltian discourse on sexuality is complicated enough to complicate matters even further with a discussion of celibacy in Victorian fiction.

If staying mentally and physically healthy requires regular sex (alone or not) as we believe, then Heathcliff and Pip must be mad, as their obsession for a particular woman shows. Yet, because they’re not presented as the pathological abnormalities we believe them to be today but as deluded, sad romantic heroes, we can hardly assess them as men. The women are, somehow, normalised by marriage but not Heathcliff and Pip. Perhaps a Victorian reader could automatically guess what kind of sex life they lead or accept they have none but us, 21st century readers, just puzzle and wonder.

MORE STATISTIC IMPOSSIBILITIES (WHO AM I WRITING FOR?)

Let me return to the idea of how statistic impossibility undermines our common ground from another angle.

This came up time ago in conversation with a colleague at the University of Castilla-La Mancha, Ángel Mateos (another SF fan!!). We were wondering one day about how many readers any of our publications actually get and how many academic essays go completely unread. Ángel came up with the startling idea that it is statistically impossible to read everything published in the field of English Literature.

He didn’t mean on an individual basis but as a collective. Suppose you could count all the teachers, all the students and all the publications and then you’d see that our collective time is not enough to read all that we academics absolutely insist on publishing. It’s a depressing thought. Limbo, after all, exists –and it is not only a cheeky Catholic ruse to frighten parents into baptising their babies!!

Impact indexes, one of the new obsessions dominating our bureaucratic academic life, count the times we’re quoted for good or bad (yes, my post on Laura Mulvey). They register that someone or no one has quoted us, yet cannot quantify how many readers we get for each time we are quoted nor whether no references means no readers at all. I mean, of course, readers of actual published material, apart from editors and peer reviewers.

Professional writers tend to claim that they write with no particular reader in mind and that they’re always surprised by their actual, material presence. We, academics, should be wise to address our writings, likewise, to this blank non-entity. I was going to write that we could also feign cool surprise at the material reality of our readers but I personally needn’t feign anything –I attended a conference last week in which someone quoted me and I almost fainted!! Me??? Is she quoting me?? I introduced myself to the young academic who oddly enough thought I was worth quoting and she was the one surprised at my unexpected materialisation. (My, I realise this sounds Gothic).

I know that someone like Terry Eagleton would not understand my feelings… but there you are, academic life has so many levels and there are so many of us labour so close to limbo all the time. Now, in a clear case of sour grapes, I’ll claim that I wouldn’t like being as big as Eagleton –my nose grows long as I write… yours too…– as I’m sure that for him we, his numerous readers, are more a pest than a pleasure. I’d rather communicate with my readers on a personal basis and exchange ideas, as that’s why I write academic work. Also, because I assume that my readers are my peers, the people I myself read. But… where are you???

GREAT EXPECTATIONS ABOUT GREAT EXPECTATIONS

A bright girl student pours down onto a long, singular email message the many reasons why she’s disappointed with Dickens: she “cannot see the literature” in Great Expectations, she dislikes Dickens’s too obvious moralising, and, generally, she finds him unable to impress her with a deep vision of what being human is about. He ‘doesn’t stir her soul’ (as Emily Brontë did). We meet for coffee, together with another student –a boy– who does enjoy reading Dickens. (Um, precious meetings like this are indeed one of the joys of teaching Literature!). Here is what happens: we badger her but sound less and less convincing as the conversation goes on.

For other students in class, the feeling is just the opposite: they love Dickens and can’t stomach Wuthering Heights’s claustrophobic, mad Romanticism. I am so used to defending the merits of popular fiction against the attacks of canonical-minded academics, that I find myself less well equipped to defend the merits of a particular literary novel. Specially, with students who understand very well what Literature, as applied to the novel, is supposed to be (the artistic manipulation of all the elements for the purposes of enriching content beyond mere narrative, I think). Does this boil down to a matter of personal taste? Could it be that some texts generate great expectations they fail to meet and there is nothing we can do about this?

All the battles about the literary canon seem to forget what great debunkers of reputations students are. They may accept our reading lists but this doesn’t mean we convince them, whether we try to perpetuate the canon or attack it. Sometimes this has to do with their bringing a virgin mind to what we read or see –I’m thinking of the class who found Apocalypse Now! soooo slow and boring (maybe it is!), or the class who found Laurence Olivier’s Richard III simply hilarious (oh my, but it is!). Other times, this has to do with students’ having firm criteria we simply can’t manipulate: this girl’s discomfort with Great Expectations is, I’m sure, one among many cases. The difference in her case is that she’s worried enough to try to articulate the reasons for her disappointment rather than just reject the text. Good for her!

After that coffee I had to use all my heavy artillery to explain why I think that Dickens is a great literary writer. Remember that as recently as 1948 F.R. Leavis still hesitated about what place Dickens occupied in the great tradition of the English novel, as Leavis also disliked Victorian moralising and didn’t believe that Dickens had marked a turning point in the evolution of the novel. My personal opinion is that Dickens did amazing things with the English language and had a wonderful eye to penetrate not only into the weird and the grotesque but also into the general ugliness lurking beneath civilized mid-Victorian Britain. Yes, a very Gothic eye.

Just read the wonderful passage in which Pip, just arrived in London, takes a walk in Smithfields leading to Newgate and see how in just TWO paragraphs Dickens says it all about how justice treated people like animals. Is this obvious preaching? Maybe. I just happen to think we need more of this in our own individualistic, atomised post-modern time (obvious: we teachers are preachers). Of course, forcing my opinions onto students and shutting them up (or do I mean shouting them down?) would amount to committing the worst crime in teaching: behaving like a fascist. I don’t Dickens would have like that.

STATISTIC IMPOSSIBILITIES (WHY OUR COMMON GROUND IS GONE)

“What happened to essential books?,” Rick Gekoski wonders, recalling with candid nostalgia an ideal 1974 when everyone had read the 21 books in his list, at least everyone he knew at Oxford (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/oct/22/essential-books, thanks to Laura Gimeno for the link). What’s happened is statistics, for now there’s so much of everything and so many more of us that it is almost statistically impossible that your friends and colleagues read the same books you’re reading. I don’t see why students, apparently much annoyed by Gekoski’s patronising comments (see Twitter), should be different in this.

Gekoski’s approach seems both right and wrong, for since 1974 much has changed that makes forming canons more difficult; at the same time, though, readers still form canons of all kinds. In my view, the problem Gekoski misses is specialisation, not just field specialisation within Literary Studies but also genre specialisation among readers. No doubt, his canon is already specialised, as what he calls essential books were essential for an elite minority on elite campuses, hardly for the common reader.

Here’s an example of these difficulties. I happen to love SF but even though that is a relatively small field within academia, it is impossible for me (and too expensive!) to keep up with all the academic novelties in English, Spanish and Catalan. As for SF fiction itself, I punctually receive the newsletter of the SFSite (http://www.sfsite.com/), and feel, thus, regularly overwhelmed by how much I must miss for lack of time. I just choose a few books every year, aided by reviews and awards, and hope for the best. I find it very unlikely that another SF fan reads exactly what I read, which makes sharing my pleasures difficult, regardless of the internet. Yet all SF fans agree that there is a core canon that everyone should read, and we do read it (see for instance http://home.austarnet.com.au/petersykes/topscifilists_books_rank1.html). The same phenomenon applies to all genres, I’m sure, from detective fiction to literary novels about middle-age crises, passing through hard core philosophy or mathematics.

Gekoski himself realises that the Harry Potter and Twilight sagas are essential books but he is uncomfortable with the idea that popular fantasy has taken the place of his essential books. Actually, popular fictions of this kind provide the only common ground for large numbers of readers, which doesn’t mean that other essential books do not emerge (I’m thinking here of the passion unleashed for Zygmunt Bauman’s books in academic circles). Perhaps the question, as usual, should be rephrased: what is an essential book today? And for whom? And are essential books more essential than essential films (movies?), comics, TV series, videogames and music? Isn’t what we call Culture, in the end, a generational phenomenon marked by the media most highly valued in each time? Let’s ask our students…