Tomorrow I’ll be introducing my class in ‘English Romantic Literature’ to the pleasure of discovering William Blake (1757-1827). I haven’t taught this course in fifteen years and, so, I needed to re-discover Blake myself, re-learn the basics I must transmit. Within limits, careful as usual not to let myself be carried away and use for three hours of lecturing five times that in preparation, or more. We lead hectic lives and even the most interesting tasks need to be restricted, or else risk producing no new research at all.

I’ll mention first a 1995 episode of The South Bank Show devoted to Blake, available from YouTube (for instance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qvx0on0Hj2I). The documentary is conducted by novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd, not by chance: he had just published then his well-received biography Blake, part of a long list that began in 1863 with Alexander and Anne’s Gilchrist pioneering work (of which more, later). The biggest surprise in this documentary is, no doubt, the presence of notorious American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg singing Blake’s poems as he plays a vintage harmonium. This, he explains, is how Blake would have presented his poems to an audience, since for him the figure of the bard of ancient times was essential. Funnily, even though Blake’s best-known works are Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, I had missed that the word ‘songs’ has a literal meaning. Leaving this aside, the documentary, about 50 minutes long, made me wonder what the point of classroom lecturing is in the times of YouTube and, generally, the internet. My lectures will borrow, after all, from online sources, including Wikipedia and Google Books. And of course, the simply splendid Blake Archive.

In my times as an undergrad there was no internet, strange as this may sound to current undergrads. I was very lucky, nonetheless, because having heard about Blake in some introduction to English Literature, I could see some of his original drawings in a stunning room of London’s Tate Gallery. This was in the mid-1980s, before Erasmus, when every girl student who wanted to learn English spent a year as an au-pair. A decade later, in 1996, ‘La Caixa’ staged a major exhibition of Blake’s works in Barcelona, which was a marvel to see. Nothing compares to seeing the originals but the Blake Archive (www.blakearchive.org)–founded also in 1996 as a joint international project by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and now run now by the Carolina Digital Library and Archives–has digitalised practically everything by Blake which the ravages of time have respected. This is a great little miracle, considering that he made and sold very few prints of his major works and that his best-selling work sold about 30 copies.

Browsing through the Archive, I wished I could be free from the onerous task of assessing my students–I would gladly give all of them an A+ if they promised to read the Romantic poems I have selected for study and spend a few hours enjoying online wonders like the Archive. Honestly: how can an exam or any alternative exercise replace the joy of admiring Blake’s work? What can I possibly say that makes a lecture more exciting? I could, naturally, use my classroom time to show a selection of what is in the Archive (or The South Bank Show episode) but public sharing doesn’t work. Somehow, one must be alone to enjoy the feeling of personal discovery; ideally, the teacher’s task should only be pointing out where to find the best resources. On Blake or anyone else.

Some places where Blake is present are obvious (Wikipedia!), others unexpected. Three comments on the YouTube channel offering the documentary named the videogame Devil May Cry 5 as the reason why these persons where interested in Blake. As it turns out, in Capcom’s new release of their popular videogame, just launched this week, there is a new character called V, who is fond of quoting Blake. This is great but no novelty: William Blake often crops up in popular culture. For instance, he is a central element in the first Hannibal Lecter novel by Thomas Harris, Red Dragon (1981), made into a film as Manhunter in 1986 and later again in 2002. Harris’s serial killer (not Lecter but another man) is so obsessed by Blake’s series of watercolour paintings (1805-1810) for the Book of Revelation that he has a tattoo of the red dragon covering his whole back (he even tries to eat Blake’s original). Check on Google images of English actor Ralph Fiennes made up in this way. I wonder what Blake would think!

The South Bank Show episode does not explain why William Blake, an obscure artist few knew in his own time, has become such an ubiquitous presence. In fact, Blake is remembered because of the biography by Alexander Gilchrist, which I have named before. A reference in the Wikipedia page led me to an excellent article by top-rank biographer Richard Holmes, actually a segment of the introduction to the 2004 re-issue of Gilchrist’s work, The Life of William Blake: Pictor Ignotus: “Saving Blake” (The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/may/29/classics.williamblake). ‘Pictor Ignotus’ means ‘unknown painter’ and we must wonder why publisher Macmillan decided to issue a volume about someone who had been largely forgotten by the mid-19th century, with the exception of some keen admirers. Yet, this is how Blake survived into our times.

The story is worth telling, if only briefly. Gilchrist, born one year after Blake’s death, was a trained lawyer but also a budding art critic. He published a biography of minor artist William Etty before embarking in the two projects that articulated the rest of his brief life: his marriage to Anne Burrows and his work on William Blake–whom he discovered accidentally thanks to a second-hand copy of The Book of Job. Gilchrist’s subsequent research passed through interviewing people who had met Blake, and others interested in him, among them the leader of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Dante Gabriel Rossetti–a collector of Blake’s work. No wonder, since Blake had to appeal necessarily to the neo-Medieval spirit of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Gilchrist succeeded in completing his investigation and signing the contract with Macmillan but he died of scarlet fever passed on by his daughter. His distraught wife Anne, a major collaborator in her husband’s work, completed the manuscript, attributing to herself only editorial tasks rather than co-authorship. William Rossetti, Dante’s brother and a major art critic, endorsed the biography, which found a receptive audience. This success started the process of canonization by which Blake eventually became studied both as an artist and a poet, and also his seeping down into popular culture, with the infinite lists of allusions.

Gilchrist’s many sacrifices to rescue Blake from oblivion raise an important issue: would we remember Blake without him? Or would, inevitably, someone else have fallen in love with his artwork and rescue it? How many other obscure artists are waiting to be rescued in similar ways? And how come that the Pictor Ignotus of a time can be the star of a later time? It is usually claimed that this happens because some artists are ahead of their times but in Blake’s case this is a peculiar stance. Blake is perhaps best explained as a belated Old Testament prophet rather than as a modern artist, though it is true that his Romantic pledge to follow his own course rather than the art of his time, and the niche he carved for himself as a unique engraver using his own technique of relief engraving, make him closer to us. He was his own person, and this is something we appreciate. As for his heavily religious writing, we tend to downplay it (and woefully misread it), preferring to enjoy on the whole the mystery of his muscular figures and his alluring, vibrant colours.

Here’s a pocket biography. Blake was the child of a middle-class Soho hosier, attended briefly school as he was a difficult child, and was next home-schooled by his mother. Between ages 10 to 14 he attended drawing school, while he continued his domestic education by reading voraciously (the Bible was a central text for him, also John Milton). At 15 he was apprenticed to engraver James Basire, formally becoming at 21 a professional engraver, even though he was always employed by others, mainly as an illustrator. He married Catherine Boucher in 1782 and the pair enjoyed a happy union for 45 years, only flawed by the birth of a stillborn child and Kate’s subsequent inability to bear children. She was a most valuable collaborator, to the point that Blake trained her as a fellow engraver, caring besides for her husband on the domestic front with no complaint about their poverty. Both worked very hard to turn Blake’s visions and ideas into the illustrated books that transmitted them to posterity (thanks to Gilchrist!). Incidentally, Blake and Kate spent their lives mainly in London, and appear not to have travelled at all (or very little).

Blake had proto-anarchist ideas, which we celebrate today. He defended that individuals should be free to enjoy life without being fettered by any tyrannical Government or Church. According to him, personal evolution should be encouraged, sexuality fully explored, the body respected as a source of perception indivisible from the soul. Because of these tenets we trick ourselves into believing that Blake is of our times, which he was not. The man constantly had, since age 4, visions of God, angels, spirits, the dead and even the Devil–that was the reason why he spent such short time in school. Most contemporaries believed him mad, whereas now we tend to call him depressed or, less gently, schizophrenic. Actually, he had the kind of self-mythologizing imagination that others like J.R.R. Tolkien also possessed with the difference that Blake drew no separation between rationality and his visions. He was not insane at all, just a man comfortable with a kind of mind we now call pathological but that used to be called mystical. Perhaps only Biblical New Agers can truly understand Blake. A New Age approach, however, is not encouraged in our ultra-rational Literary and Cultural Studies.

In many senses, therefore, we profoundly misunderstand Blake. He is, among the artists we insist on calling Romantic, possibly the most resistant to science, having made of Newton his main nemesis. In Newton’s mechanicist universe there is no room for spiritual visions, which have been denied by science since the Enlightenment. As a child of the 18th century, Blake seemingly sides with the writers of Gothic fiction, who claimed there must be something beyond stark reality. The difference is that whereas they imagine evil monsters– frequently explained as illusions rather than actual supernatural occurrences–what Blake imagines is not scary but comforting. He claimed to speak with his dead brother Robert on a daily basis, in the same way widowed Kate later claimed to speak daily to him once dead. Blake is an in-your-face example of a pre-Enlightenment imagination which is fully aware of Enlightenment rational restrictions, in a way that his Medieval predecessors could not be. It was easy to call him madman, but also convenient because accepting that his visions were not a product of disease would be too scary–too Gothic!

Tolkien wrote that although he had been fantasizing about Middle-Earth for as long as he could remember, he had no notion of having invented any element in it: when he wrote he felt as if he was being told what to write. Though a strict pro-establishment Catholic, and not an anti-establishment Dissenter like Blake, Tolkien also turned belief into mythology. I’ll argue, then, that individuals with a strong sense of belief are more prone to accepting the existence of other universes, which rational Enlightenment denied. This may sound like something borrowed from Carl Jung but I truly think that adamantly denying other possible universes is… irrational. I’m not myself a believer in God the patriarch but I do suspect that we live in just one of many possible multiverses, a view many scientists support today in view of what quantum physics is teaching us. We make enormous efforts to convince ourselves of the coherence of our world-view but perhaps individuals like Blake–and the many others after him that tap directly into their imaginations to create the parallel universes we enjoy in fiction–are simply quite at ease with the idea of this numinous elsewhere. We fear monsters as children and are taught to suppress that fear as adults but I always say that seeing an angel would be far scarier than seeing a monster, particularly if you’re not a believer. This is why we need to convince ourselves that Blake was a lunatic, though one whose art is wonderful.

Teaching the basics of any artist’s work is, then, reducing a person to trite, manageable slogans. Once a madman, later Pictor Ignotus, then a Victorian favourite and currently both canon and legend, William Blake reminds us that we cannot condense any living person, and much less an artist, into a matter for two lectures, a Wikipedia entry, a documentary, or a biography–no matter how enthusiastic. Yet, this is how we learn and teach: hurriedly, in little pills, and trusting that one day students will have more time to take pleasure in names like Blake rather than just take credits for a course.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


The volume that interests me today is a novel: No Mean City (1935), ‘the classic novel of the Glasgow slum underworld’ as the cover of the Corgi edition announces. Apparently, this novel has its origins in the short stories written by Gorbals unemployed baker Alexander McArthur. They were polished for publication by journalist H. Kingsley Long, a choice made by the original publisher, Longmans, Green & Co. The middle-class target readership might explain the unique narrative style of No Mean City, which mixes melodramatic, violent action with pseudo-ethnographic comments on working-class life in Glasgow’s most notorious neighbourhood, the Gorbals, between 1921 and 1930. Despite the abundant Lowland Scots dialogue this does not feel like a novel primarily addressed to Scottish people, though it might well be that I’m mistaken and that the patronizing tone adopted is intended to inform anyone outside the Gorbals of its degraded social situation, whether they live in Glasgow, in London or elsewhere.

In essence, the plot concerns the efforts of Razor King Johnny Stark to maintain his reputation among the local gangs by getting involved in a variety of brawls, though the novel also narrates the failure of his brother Peter and of his friend Bobby to climb socially upwards beyond the Gorbals. McArthur and Long portray a lifestyle which is absolutely depressing for there is no way out of the violence, the squalor, the economic insecurity, and the general injustice that keeps these characters tied to their sordid background. The vicious circle depicted is easy to understand: poverty results in working lives that begin too early, with no chance of an education; boys and girls marry young and soon have too many children, which results in poverty like their parents’. Finding decent housing is simply impossible because slum landlords charge outrageous amounts for appalling accommodation–if that’s a word to be used in this context–with unhygienic bathrooms shared by dozens. Ill-health is general. Not even youth offers a respite. With no prospects at all, girls try to catch a husband as soon as possible to leave their exploitative, low-paying jobs and boys try to find in gang violence and heavy drinking the enjoyment which work does not offer. All this is well-known but it is still shocking to find it described in so much detail.

Critics and readers since 1935 have complained, precisely, that the detail is lurid and that the plot veers in the last third of the book towards the sensationalist–and I agree. The novel loses interest and quality the moment the marriage of Stark and Lizzie begins disintegrating and the authors show more interest in how other persons take part in their sex life than in why they live in that miserable way. The sub-plot dealing with Peter narrates how his budding political awareness–stimulated by his voracious but haphazard reading–results in his leading, though unwillingly, a more than justified workers’ protest. This ends up costing him his job and, hence, his chances of accessing the low middle-class. Yet, No Mean City is not at all a political novel, nor a text that seeks to denounce the situation of the characters in any way: it is just a vivid representation of a condition that seems to be impossible to solve; the authors demand no reaction from middle-class readers except curiosity for the human zoo that the Gorbals appears to be. They offer no pity for any of the characters, which is understandable in Johnny’s case but not so much in Peter’s and Bobby’s. Much as it happens in its main successor, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993), the main aim seems to épater les bourgeois.

No Mean City came to attention again in 2010, in its 75 anniversary, with some controversy about whether it should be kept alive at all. An interesting article by Dave Graham (https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-glasgow/glasgow-fights-no-mean-city-tag-75-years-on-idUKTRE6042N520100105) explains that Johnny Stark’s “fondness for slashing his adversaries’ faces with razors” is still a problem today. As local police officer Carnochan warns “If you bring a child up in a war zone, you’ll create a warrior. That’s what we’re doing. I’ve been a cop for 35 years and I can tell you, you can’t arrest your way out of this”. Actually, Glasgow Police and the Town Council authorities have started a quite successful programme to if not eradicate at least to curb down the stabbings that have replaced the slashings (in my time in that city I learned that a ‘Glasgow kiss’ is a knife cut that opens both corners of the mouth…). The authorities are doing something quite simple but effective: have the gang members talk to each other. Most boys simply do not know why they are perpetuating a type of patriarchal masculinity that only finds satisfaction in hurting other equally disempowered young men, and women, and talking seems a good way to start deconstructing it.

Two issues caught my attention in particular when reading No Mean City. One is the ambition for ‘reflected glory’ that leads women like Lizzie to encourage men like Johnny onto their violent path, regardless of the dangerous consequences. The women were (and are) mostly the victims of Johnny and his ilk and, indeed, in the novel they are beaten and raped as he pleases. Yet, they are loyal, though it is also true that only as long as it is convenient. To my surprise, Johnny’s mistresses, even his wife, take other lovers without concealing this from him; Stark is so certain that his reputation will attract other girls that he does not care for any in particular (except briefly for Lizzie). The women may be disempowered in this patriarchal regime but the authors remind us that they have some domestic power derived from the unstable economy: the men are often unemployed and depend on their women; they feel, however, no qualms to let the girls pay for drink, entertainment, or household expenses–even for their upkeep. There is a kind of equality combined with inequality, though it is also evident that the couples’ social standing depends on the husband, which is why the wives are constantly judging (to their face) whether they are ‘manly’ enough to get better jobs.

The other issue is ‘the impossibility of imagining something better’. There is an obsession in No Mean City for specifying how much money each character earns at each job they take, accompanied by frequent comments on how being on the dole often pays better than taking the worst jobs. The working classes are presented as tremendous snobs that classify neighbours depending on their unkempt looks and clothes with more precision than any middle or upper-class person might use. At the same time, the jobs the characters aspire to are a limited selection–the best-paid men are Lizzie’s lover, a foreman at the bakery where they work, and Peter’s father-in-law, an usher at a ‘kinema’. Bobby manages to earn quite a nice amount of money as a professional dancer, partnering with his girlfriend and later wife Lily but their private lessons also include sexual services for the richer patrons. Not only upper middle-class professions, such as medicine or the law, are totally absent from the horizon of the Gorbals’ people but also the professions by which many working-class individuals have improved their lot: primary school teaching or nursing for women, office work or specialized positions as mechanics for men, among others. Blue-collar life is not even guaranteed in the Gorbals, though it is obvious that those with higher aspirations (mainly Peter) are trying to copy more affluent neighbours. Of course, those with no chance of upgrading their lives hate the better off workers.

School is never mentioned, either, in No Mean City and this seems to be a glaring absence. Social upward mobility was (and is) encouraged in working-class schools by teachers: to begin with, theirs might be the first and only example of employment based primarily on mental work that working-class children ever see. Things have changed very much since the 1920s of this novel but I can tell first hand that contact with teachers, particularly those in possession of university degrees, is primordial in awakening the imagination of the less privileged children to social mobility. In middle-class families this is very different: children are surrounded by relatives with socially respectable jobs and the family’s income allows them to take a higher education for granted. This does not mean that middle-class children do not face any battles but it means that they needn’t face some battles. There is an abyss between a child who wishes to be, say, a lawyer in a middle-class family and who perhaps has lawyers in the family and a child with the same vocation whose parents are constantly in and out of employment (even always out) and who, besides, knows no one with a university degree.

Obviously, primary and secondary school teachers are also often the ones to help children see beyond their family’s horizon of expectations, suggesting specific professional training, further education and even careers. Apart from them, working-class kids with a wish to pull themselves up by their bootstraps started dreaming of a chance to leave the Gorbals–or their local equivalent–thanks to each new 20th century media. Movies, the popular press, radio, television, the internet, etc… have made the representation of desirable middle-class lives constant in the cultural panorama of the working classes. Some may bemoan that the glorification of the middle classes has destroyed working-class culture but, as the authors of No Mean City claim, the truth is that, given the choice, workers prefer being middle-class. This is what Marx and Communism, generally, woefully misunderstood.

What I’m saying is that, though this may sound trite, No Mean City has taught me again a lesson I had forgotten: you need imagination to leave a working-class background behind, and this must be awakened somehow. We take it for granted that social upward mobility is there for the taking but it is not and though consumerism seems to fulfil the function of stimulating an urge for what the Victorians adored, namely self-improvement, this is still very limited. I’m well aware that in 2019 we are at the end of an attempt to allow the working classes to change their prospects thanks to the welfare state. Even the children who got university degrees are unemployed or find only bad-quality employment, while the children of the upper classes continue enjoying privileges based on their families’ networking as the middle classes are destroyed. I hear no one, however, truly discuss how social mobility works, if at all, and there is total silence about children born to affluent parents who end up being working-class by income, if not by background. There is much talk about how the current generation will have a worse life than their parents but the issue is not addressed from the point of view of how much actual upward mobility there has been, in Scotland or anywhere else.

If you ask me, I’d say that very little–the upper classes have noticed that too many working-class individuals have dared imagine a better future through education provided by the welfare state. The way to limit those dreams is by a) cutting funding for public education; b) putting as many obstacles as possible in the way of publicly-educated persons; c) forcing families to spend so much on housing that nothing is left for improving the chances for their children. And d) pretend anyone can become an overnight instant success on YouTube, Instagram, etc while allowing 1% of the population to enjoy 99% of all wealth on Earth.

Imagining a better future might not be enough but it’s a beginning.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


I’m in the middle of reading Jon Savage’s Teenager (2007), a study of how youth was socially constructed between 1875 and 1945 in the USA, the UK, and some other European countries. We usually assume that ‘teenager’ appeared in Western culture in the 1950s but the first thing Savage’s volume teaches is that this word actually started being used in 1944, in the USA, as a sort of harbinger of what youth would be like after an Allied victory in WWII: a time to enjoy yourself, and all the new pleasures of total consumerism, no matter what class you belong to. I remain, in any case, puzzled and amused by how the English -teen suffix was used to create the age category 13-19 quite artificially. Today there is talk of ‘teens’ and ‘tweens’ (tweenager!) for 10-14 kids, though I’m not sure to which category the 20-29 young adults belong to anymore. I don’t hear the word ‘adultescent’ so often these days, perhaps because now everyone seems to be a ‘millennial’ up to 35 (and young up to 40!).

I would say that in Spain we use predominantly ‘pre-adolescente’ (10-14) and ‘adolescente’ up to 21, which agrees more or less with the old legal majority (this was changed down to 18 in 1978). As happens, the word ‘adolescence’ is also an American creation: the contribution to our essential vocabulary of psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924), a staunch admirer of Sigmund Freud. His book of 1904 (vol. 2, 1907), Adolescence: Its Psychology, and its Relation to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime and Religion is the first instance of the use of this key word.

Before the invention of adolescence, Savage explains, childhood just ended in adult age, around 18, when youth began (the Victorians did use the label ‘young adult’, now used for different purposes in YA fiction). For Hall, childhood ended, rather, at 13-14, with puberty, and adolescence between 21-25 (presumably when you were ready to marry). One thing that bothers me is that although Latin adolēscēns means ‘growing up, maturing’–hence its use by Hall to define the transitional period from childhood to adulthood–it also meant originally ‘lacking’, which is where the Spanish verb adolecer comes from. The RAE dictionary warns that this verb means “having some sort of defect or suffering from some malady” and not “lacking” but the point I’m making is still valid: an ‘adolescent’ is, whether Hall intended it or not, an individual missing an indefinite something–arguably maturity. I’ve never really liked the word for that reason: it seems awfully patronizing to me. Even ageist, in current parlance.

It must be recalled that childhood is actually a late 18th century invention, fully established in the Romantic period (or Regency period, if you prefer it) and that, of course, the cult of youth is a product of the same era. Before that time, basically the ages between 0 and 17 were seen as a long preparation for adulthood, which could start as early as 10 (or earlier) for working-class children employed full time, apprenticed in some cases already at 7. In the early 19th century adulthood, then, was assumed to begin as soon as an individual entered the marriage market: around 16 for the girls and 20 for the boys. Naturally, the possibility to enjoy childhood and youth would depend on each family’s income–in upper-class families, the girls would also be considered marriageable adults by 16 but the men enjoyed a far more prolonged youth, including a university education, travelling and perhaps professional training (in business, the law, the military, or politics) up to the age of 30.

From my constant repetition of the word ‘marriage’ and similar, you might get the impression that weddings used to be the main rite of passage into adulthood–or a specific age barrier in their absence: if, as a woman, you were not married by 30, and, as a man, you were still single by 40, then you became officially a spinster or a bachelor, that is to say, a celibate adult. But I digress. Actually, the factor that introduced all the changes in the way age is socially constructed is education.

It seems quite clear from Savage’s comments that childhood was invented when the need for a prolonged primary education was understood (first by upper-class families, eventually by the British state in the 1870s). Likewise, the invention of adolescence is a by-product of the American high school system. Obviously, the biological changes leading to puberty have been a constant in the life of Homo Sapiens for many thousands of years but how each culture reads them varies enormously. In American culture, puberty started to overlap with secondary education at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th and, so, Hall could come up with the idea that, in essence, an adolescent is someone being educated beyond primary school, and up to college graduation (even MA level).

Besides education, pleasure took centre stage. The four decades between 1904 and 1944 gradually established a new understanding of youth, based on a sense of entitlement to pleasure (for boys and girls), beginning with the upper classes. Young people were socially powerless, which is why (mostly the men) had to go through the generational massacre that was WWI; they reacted against this appalling patriarchal abuse by getting rid of their late Victorian and Edwardian shackles. I still marvel that couples courted up to the early 1920s in the presence of a chaperon or that parents could choose dates for their daughters when the concept was invented in America. We are not fully aware of what the 1920s supposed in terms of a youth revolution which was possibly deeper in many senses than the 1960s by comparison with what came before, though, of course, limited to a social elite. The post-1929 Depression decade of the 1930s seems sedate and conventional by comparison. I need not explain what WWII did to the young all over the world, specially the men.

The novelty of the late 1940s to mid 1950s is that the new ‘teenager’ could be found in any social class, whereas it seems to me that the adolescent is, in contrast, a middle- and upper-class figure. To be an adolescent you need a certain educated sensitivity and leisure to ponder in true post-Romantic fashion the unfairness of life and of the adults around you. If you’re young but busy working eight to ten hours a day, you may still possess that sensitivity but far less time to engage in self-centred adolescent thinking. What you do is reinvent the concept of leisure and transform it into the time when you enjoy your hard-earned wages, either in imitation of what richer kids do or generating your own working-class version of fun, quickly catered to by the entertainment industry. Hence, the teenager.

Savage hardly ever takes into account how different youth and adolescence has always been for boys and girls–this is my main complaint against his book. Yet, apart from the constant difficulties to fix age boundaries for each period of life since the late 19th century, Savage highlights a recurrent problem: society’s inability to control unruly young men, particularly of working-class background, whether they’re called teenagers or adolescents. Many complaints against the gangs of uncontrolled, second-generation, Irish or Italian youths in early 20th century America are a dead ringer for similar fears of non-white gangs in Britain now in the 21st century. This connects with my previous post about Dick Hobbs’ Lush Life: Constructing Organized Crime in the UK, a book in which he presented working-class male youth as a phase of unruliness before the acceptance of adulthood set in. Or boys will be boys, and the rest of us must put up with them, beginning with girls their own age.

What tends to be forgotten in most studies of youth is that the idea of youthful rebellion is specifically masculine: the late 18th century and early 19th century was a time of intense masculine revolt against patriarchy, in the most traditional sense of the rule of the father. The French Revolution of 1789 and the Napoleonic Civil Code of 1804 resulted in new legislation that, while still binding women closely to their male legal tutors (father, husband or even son), allowed young men much more leeway than in the past. Fathers used to have total authority over sons, including matters of career choice or even marriage. Young men of the Romantic period and later steadily eroded that authority at the cost of eventually having to accept a loss of their own patriarchal authority when they became fathers. This seems on the whole positive but has an underside.

In short: the unruliness of young men is the collective price we are paying for diminishing the total authority of the patriarchal father. Western society has failed to find a better replacement for that authority–or, found it but lost it. Gentlemanliness worked for a while as a desirable way of having young men stick to a positive masculine ideal that did not undermine their personal autonomy; yet, it was lost in WWI, and we don’t know how to appeal to unruly young men on the basis of principles that instil respect for others. Hence, the cycle of recurrent youth violence which Savage (and Hobbs) describes: the adult men who have become fathers after going themselves through a violent youth lack the authority to restrain their unruly sons–in the worst cases, they have never matured, do not participate in their sons’ education, or even celebrate the boys’ misbehaviour. This is why, I insist, we need to see adolescence and the teenager as heavily gendered social constructions, paying specific attention to how and why youth rebellion becomes anti-social criminality.

Youth, then, changed around the beginning of the 20th century to be re-invented by Hall, on the basis of the Romantic cult of youth, as adolescence–a time for personal introspection and the construction of the self in opposition to parents. It became next, Savage explains, beginning in the 1920s and culminating in the 1950s, a time for hedonism and the rise of the teenager. This was followed eventually in the 1960s and 1970s by sexual liberation. It seemed, then, with fourth-wave feminism demanding total equality, that the 1990s would be the beginning of the best of worlds for youth. Yet, the stories we tell in the 21st are either the sugary nonsense of John Green and company, or grim tales connected with social network horrors (do see Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian’s visually amazing film Searching… )

Perhaps adolescence and the teenager are no longer useful to understand how the young live and it is urgent to hear what they have to say about themselves. We just can’t wait to read about them in the History books written in the second half of the 21st century.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


I will soon start teaching Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and although the best time to revisit this classic was last year–the bicentennial anniversary of its original publication–2019 is also a good moment to re-read it, for it is the year when Ridley Scott set his masterpiece, Blade Runner (1982). Both novel and film are closely connected, since Blade Runner, though based on Philip K. Dick’s bizarre SF novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969) is one of the myriad texts descended from Frankenstein. Mary Shelley was the first to ask, in earnest, ‘what if science could generate powerful monsters that could escape human control?’ and this is a question that frames Dick’s and Scott’s work. And our year 2019.

I have recently reviewed an article by a young researcher in which I found some confusion regarding the use of the concepts ‘post-human’ and ‘cyborg’, and I’ll use Frankenstein to clarify them, and then to proceed with some comments. Before I forget: I’m using the Oxford World’s Classic edition (the 2008 reprint) with my students but I was aghast to see that the prologue and the bibliography are the work of one Prof. M.K. Joseph who died in 1981. I immediately e-mailed the Literature editor at Oxford UP to suggest that they commission a new introduction by someone who truly understands how Mary Shelley’s mistresspiece connects with current, urgent issues, and, generally, with our science-fictional present. We’ll see if they answer.

Brian Aldiss famously celebrated in Billion Year Spree (1973) Mary Shelley as the mother of science fiction, stressing in passing that the Gothic narrative mode is one of the foundations of sf, at least of its more technophobic branch. Re-reading the novel now, at the beginning of 2019, and possibly for the fifth or sixth time (I lose track), a few things strike me as singular. One is that Mary’s tale is a frontal attack against male ambition but not necessarily a feminist text; the other is that she understood long before we had a name for it, what the post-human is.

The feminist question is obvious enough: Victor’s horrific ordeal is framed by the letters that explorer Robert Walton sends to his sister Margaret so that we see how useless men’s pursuit of glory, honour and fame is. The alternative lifestyle which Mary recommends is, nevertheless, one of sedate domesticity, in which women occupy a traditional position as dutiful, pre-Victorian angels in the house.

Margaret, the addressee of the letters by Captain Walton that frame Victor’s and the monster’s testimonials, stands for married bliss in safety and domesticity. So does Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s adoptive sister, and doomed wife as the monster’s victim; as such, she is the embodiment of the dangers that men bring into the peace of the hearth but also of total submission. Mary, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the woman who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), among which she placed education in a central position, never mentions Elizabeth’s right to attend university, as Victor and his friend Henry do. She is raised to be Victor’s wife and no event in the awful tragedy that unfolds diverts her from this path, even though she could have been much better company for Victor if only she had some inkling of his overambitious scientific pursuits. Mary Shelley simply offers no critique of the patriarchal script written for Elizabeth by his adoptive parents and by Victor himself, even though the author is adamant that there is something very wrong in men’s extra-domestic pursuit of glory and, using Barbara Ehrenright’s phrase, their ‘flight from commitment’.

I partly agree with Mary’s critique of the male sacrifice of domesticity–possibly what she endured as Percy Shelley’s wife–because it is often based on total selfishness. At the same time, I fail to see in which ways the world would be a better place if the many self-driven individuals (mostly men but also many women) had limited themselves to raising families. There must be a middle ground.

Reading David Grann’s excellent non-fiction account of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s suicidal search for the lost City of Z (the title of the book), I often thought that male wanderlust must be evidence of ingrained insanity. Yet, so many women also feel the drive to fulfil their ambitions even against all reason that it cannot simply be a matter of gender but something else that makes domesticity secondary. Why someone with small, dependent children would volunteer to travel to Mars, and possibly never return, baffles me, not so much because of the need to fulfil the dream but because of the aspiration to combine ambition and family. This is not, of course, Walton’s and Frankenstein’s situation, and perhaps what Mary Shelley was saying is that excessive ambition is incompatible with family life, and even with life. But, is this right? If she was imagining some low-key, pastoral idyll, as an alternative, she does not explain. At the same time, most often the likes of Victor are managing to create man-made horrors while keeping jobs and family well balanced, a possibility Mary does not contemplate, believing as she does that scientific discovery is a kind of youthful brain fever that overtakes everything else in the single individual’s life. Again: there must be a middle-ground.

How about the cyborg and the post-human? The monster that Victor creates is NOT a cyborg, for a cyborg is a creature, or person, whose body combines organic and inorganic materials. Donna Haraway had read sufficient science fiction when she wrote her famous 1985 tract ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’ to understand this, but it seems to me that very often students and scholars who use the word cyborg do not really know what they’re talking about, and simply assume that the word refers to any artificial creation.

Victor’s monster is artificial because he is not woman-born but he is 100% organic. Frankenstein discovers first the principle of life, ‘the capacity of bestowing animation’, and decides next to build a superhuman body–if that body is functional, then he will apply himself to re-animating ordinary human corpses. Since preparing ‘a frame’ is difficult because of ‘its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins’ he decides to work at a larger scale: ‘As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet [2.40 m] in height, and proportionably large’. Mary wrote before DNA was known, and before the first transplant of a human organ was ever attempted, and we need to read this part of Victor’s research as a necessarily preposterous tale; yet, the main point is that he is not using magic but science.

Once the creature is made–and in its manufacture 20-year-old Victor is amazingly successful–Frankenstein is appalled to see that he is an ugly thing: ‘His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips’. Nobody has really managed to give an accurate pictorial representation of the monster, who does not look at all like the bolts-and-nuts version of Boris Karloff. Yet, I always say that Victor’s problem is that while he is a great anatomist and a wonderful surgeon, he is a disaster as an artist. A failure, if you wish, as a plastic surgeon. Had be been able to combine the features selected harmoniously, we would have a very different tale of celebrity, as everyone admires a beautiful being. As for his being a giant, well, being 7 feet tall is the foundation of Pau Gasol’s celebrity… The monster would be a highly valuable basketball player today!

Something that I missed in previous readings is how often the monster refers to ordinary human beings as another species, and also to himself. I am always correcting my students when they refer to the human race for we are a species (Homo Sapiens) and not a race, and I was surprised to see that the monster is well aware of this crucial difference. The name Homo Sapiens was coined by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 but this was long before any thought of evolution was contemplated by Charles Darwin (1809-1882); many have commented on Mary’s allusion to Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus (1731-1802) as the scientist whose discoveries in connection to electricity may have inspired Frankenstein’s use of an engine to ignite the spark of life. Yet, to me, the monster’s awareness of species difference is far more exciting.

When he demands en Eve from his maker, the creature argues: ‘I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create’ (my italics). Of course, I’m cheating a little bit, for Mary mixes ‘species’ and ‘race’ indiscriminately and, thus, Victor decides to destroy the female creature he is working on afraid that ‘a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror’. He is horrified to see himself as the ‘pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race’. My point, though, is equally valid: Frankenstein is the earliest text to posit the possible replacement of Homo Sapiens with a man-made superior human species, that is to say, with a post-human species.

The difference between the cyborg and the post-human is, then, easy enough to understand: the cyborg has inorganic material in their body and cannot pass on any modification of this kind to their offspring; in contrast, the post-human is a different human species that will breed other individuals of the same species, and might wipe out Homo Sapiens if competing for the same environmental resources. As the Neanderthal disappeared, so might we, with the difference that this might happen out of our own mad shattering of the frontiers of science, if we go just one step too far and modify the human genome. Of course, neither Mary nor Victor knew about all this, but their ignorance is irrelevant (also an anachronism): the monster is a monster because we are terrified of the possibility that other humans might push us out. Victor, it must be recalled, manufactures not just someone who is big but also someone who is strong, extremely resistant to heat and cold, with an enhanced muscular capacity and, in short, far better equipped than Homo Sapiens to live on a radically post-human Earth.

The other novel I am teaching this semester is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), published five years before Frankenstein. Indeed, Austen died in 1817, while Mary Shelley was busy writing her novel, as a young mother of the boy William. I never cease to be amazed that English Literature could accommodate in the same period styles in fabulation so thoroughly different. And I wonder what would have happened if Elizabeth Bennet instead of Elizabeth Lavenza had fallen in love with Victor Frankenstein, rather than Fitzwilliam Darcy. Or if Darcy had kept a secret lab at Pemberley. Possibly, some kind of literary short-circuit!

How lucky we are, then, that we can enjoy both Mary Shelley and Jane Austen.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/