PRESENTISM: WHY THE PAST DOES NOT EXIST FOR YOUNG READERS

Marking the essays on Victorian Literature by my second-year students I’m puzzled by three which read the corresponding literary texts they analyze in terms of whether they are adequate for the present. One, in particular, focuses the paper almost entirely on why a recent film adaptation of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is more apt for our times than the ‘faulty’ original text. I explain in a lengthy note why this approach is biased, noting that adaptations are particular readings of texts and not intended to be their replacements. Somehow or other, I recall the word ‘presentism’ which, I’m sure, I have read in some newspaper article I now forget about the current generation of students.

To my further puzzlement, Wikipedia informs me that ‘presentism’ is not just a feature of our undergrads’ worldview but, attention, a philosophical current. According to its proponents, “events and entities that are wholly past or wholly future do not exist at all”; presentism “contrasts with eternalism and the growing block theory of time”, currents which do defend the existence of past events and entities. I’m flabbergasted. Or possibly very poorly informed, for the consequence of this aberration is the denial of History and, hence, of tragedies like the Holocaust and any dictatorship you can thinks of.

When Hayden White argued back in 1973 that History is an agreed upon fiction (or a consensual hallucination, borrowing Willian Gibson’s definition of hyperspace), he didn’t mean that certain horrific events could be denied or were not ‘true’. He meant that the way we narrate History is subjective and interested. Hence, in a second, more rational sense, in literary and historical analysis, “presentism is the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past”. It seems that this word, first cited “in its historiographic sense” in 1916 according to the OED, may be dated back to the 1870s. This concept or label is behind the kind of trick by which historians with certain political interests read the past according to a supposed teleological drive that culminates in the present. You may think of Hitler’s dream of building a Third Reich as one of the most disastrous applications of this type of presentism.

In the papers that so puzzled me, however, presentism was not “the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past”, not even in the historiographic version. It was, rather, a belief that the past can be discarded because it does not measure up to the present in any sense. Of course, I am exaggerating the presence of this trend among my students’ papers because I want to insist here on a point I have been struggling to make throughout the course: We all belong in a certain historical time and this is like any other time–everyone, therefore, needs to understand not only the nature of other historical periods but also that our own period will sooner or later be the past. A quaint one.

We may gaze at our navels thinking that all that came before us, Victorian Literature included, was a) important only because it led to us or b) irrelevant because we are all that matters on Earth. In this way, however, we limit very much our vision. And our empathy. I think you can only read well the Literature of the past if you do the mental exercise of imagining what life would be like for you if you lived at that time. This always reminds me of actors’ saying that they only understand characters alive in other periods when they wear the right costumes. I am always joking, hence, that I need to teach Victorian Literature wearing the appropriate corset and crinoline–actually changing fashions as I move from the 1830s to the 1890s. I have proposed to my colleagues that once a year we celebrate the periods we teach in this way. So far the proposal has met with great theoretical acceptance which has not translated into practice… Since my colleague Joan Curbet seems certainly very keen on donning Medieval cloak, tunic, trousers, and leggings I have not lost hope…

I don’t know what this is like for other people, as it not a subject I have ever discussed with anyone, but although I had excellent History teachers in secondary school, it was only when I became an undergrad that I became fully aware of my historical placement. To be honest, my young self was a bit disappointed to understand that the 1980s were not the culmination of world History, perhaps an impression enhanced by Spanish Transition and the death throes of the then still raging Cold War. Even Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of History had arrived in 1989 when the Berlin Wall collapsed.

So, imagine my disorientation when I finally did see that my generation is just one among many in the History of the world, perhaps only particularly gifted at complicating matters for everyone else, from the way we cannot stop the destruction of Earth to the way we have generalized the use of the digital technologies. The realisation of one’s very modest place in the universe is, however, extremely liberating because it enables you to finally open up to other times and places, as I say. I’m not thinking here of the idiotic fantasy of imagining yourself alive in other times: people always imagine being in Pharaoh’s court as a courtier but not being an abused Egyptian slave. Also, being a woman, only the future is preferable for me. I mean the kind of liberation that allows you to read the Literature of the past without being judgemental and finding fault with it all the time because it is old-fashioned.

The author of the paper worrying me is a very sweet young man now on the verge of losing the presentism which, as I’m arguing, affects anyone young of any generation. He is in this sense like anyone else, as I could see when I tried to rationalize in class what I am explaining here. The students looked at me very much at a loss about what I was talking about, or perhaps it was beginning to dawn on them that growing up entails precisely this, the process of abandoning the presentist cocoon to see yourself as just an individual among many others in the History of the world.

This humility, however, is increasingly harder to grasp in view of the narcissistic attitude encouraged by those who run the social media and to which the digital natives have taken with such gusto. The Sillicon Valley white male patriarchs growing rich at the expense of the general loss of privacy of the post 1990 generations have pounced on the natural narcissism of teenagers. They want to convince everyone young that they need to be different and special and, thus, that they must invest much effort in keeping their personal accounts lively and interesting. Encouraged to think that they are the centre of the world, at least to themselves, young people face a harder time accepting that they’re not and thus shedding their presentism. Said like the Facebook-less, Twitter-incompetent, middle-aged woman I am…

Back to Victorian Literature, I wonder whether presentism of the kind I have described here is the root of the problem in relation to how little students read. Logically, if you believe that the past is totally irrelevant or just a prelude to your own time, it’s much harder to engage with its Literature. If I think about it, perhaps I am guilty myself of an extended form of presentism by which I’m interested in anything from 1800 onwards because unconsciously I have decided that my own historical time are the last 200 odd years. I certainly find it much harder to feel attracted by pre-1800 texts, Shakespeare excluded. Yet, I felt great pleasure when reading 16th, 17th and 18th century texts at my teachers’ request (or invitation). The same pleasure that, I hope, my own students feel when reading the Victorian texts–at least, those students who do read them.

I’ll think again of the dress-in-the-costume-of-your-period teaching day… students included!

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THE WRITER’S VIEW ON STYLE: A PASSAGE BY R.L. STEVENSON

I was planning to write a post today on what I have seen and heard in the recent XXXIX AEDEAN conference (11-13 last week) but this needs a bit of careful thinking I have no time for today. Unexpectedly–because it often happens that I end up writing about something that I never thought I would consider–I have woken up with this urge to write about R.L. Stevenson. I have already written plenty about the text by him which I teach every year, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but today I’m dealing with something quite different: the article “A Note on Realism” (1883, Magazine of Art), included in the volume Essays in the Art of Writing, which you can download from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevenson/robert_louis/s848aw/index.html.

This is a passage I have often used in class, as I did yesterday (forgive the long quotation):

Style is the invariable mark of any master; and for the student who does not aspire so high as to be numbered with the giants, it is still the one quality in which he may improve himself at will. Passion, wisdom, creative force, the power of mystery or colour, are allotted in the hour of birth, and can be neither learned nor simulated. But the just and dexterous use of what qualities we have, the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end—these, which taken together constitute technical perfection, are to some degree within the reach of industry and intellectual courage. What to put in and what to leave out; whether some particular fact be organically necessary or purely ornamental; whether, if it be purely ornamental, it may not weaken or obscure the general design; and finally, whether, if we decide to use it, we should do so grossly and notably, or in some conventional disguise: are questions of plastic style continually rearising. And the sphinx that patrols the highways of executive art has no more unanswerable riddle to propound.

To begin with, I find it a great pleasure to read texts about the craft of writing penned by the authors themselves. I would make it compulsory for all kinds of literary work to carry a writer’s comment in the style of the director’s comments on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of films. Interviews would also do. I miss very much the many presentations by writers the Barcelona British Council used to offer, because they gave me the chance not only to collect autographed books but to hear authors discuss in person the tricks and challenges of their trade. At one point I asked the British Council whether we could edit a volume with the transcriptions of these presentations but the task was so gigantic that we soon abandoned the idea. I was at the time fascinated by the series of volumes offering interviews with major writers published by the Paris Review (now online https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews). I still am.

Anyway, back to Stevenson. Consider what he says: talent (i.e. “passion, wisdom, creative force, the power of mystery or colour”) is innate but style, the “mark of any master” can be learned and even “improved at will”. He speaks next of working on “the just and dexterous use of what qualities we have” to reach “technical perfection” which is, in his view, “to some degree within the reach of industry and intellectual courage”. I may be misreading but my impression is that Stevenson is here over-optimistic in the sense that, correct me if I’m wrong, but ‘industry’ and ‘intellectual courage’ also depend on inborn qualities.

Let me rephrase this: if a writer is born with talent that amounts to 80% of what is required to become a ‘master/mistress’, the 20% that depends on hard work will also depend on their having the required innate capacities to make the best of their talent. Inborn talent + limited ability to develop style = not a master/mistress (or an oxymoron). And the other way round: if a writer is born with a 20% talent for producing good writing, there is no way s/he can ‘learn’ the remaining 80%, as acquiring skills cannot compensate for limited innate talent. Or, as Stephen King argues, creative writing courses can help only if you already have a natural talent; ergo, only those with a natural talent are in a position to complement it with the ‘industry’ required to polish it into producing outstanding writing.

Stevenson does not seem to think that there is a direct link between the inborn talent and the subsequent industry (unless I misunderstand him) because he apparently thinks that the hard work he does on his texts should have similar results for all writers, which is not the case. His style is not a ‘natural’ product in the sense that, as I taught my students yesterday, he wrote Jekyll and Hyde in a six-day fever but spent then six weeks re-writing the text. This re-writing, the search for style and ‘technical perfection’ which he describes in the passage is what makes the work outstanding–both, I’ll insist, depend on inborn abilities. The ability to reach ‘technical perfection’ can be improved but not learned from scratch and much less in the absence of inborn talent. Now, what exactly causes some individuals to be naturally inclined to producing good writing is a mystery. Perhaps one day scientists will discover that it is a mutation.

The features that Stevenson describes as contributing to ‘technical perfection’ will surely remind you of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1842) and his defence of “the unity of effect or impression” (he’s actually discussing poetry). “The true critic”, he writes in defence of the short story, “will but demand that the design intended be accomplished, to the fullest extent, by the means most advantageously applicable”. This is what Stevenson seems to bear in mind when he writes that ‘technical perfection’ consists of “the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end”.

This was useful for me to remind students that Victorian writers who serialized their work for as long as it could find an audience (Charles Dickens) or those forced to fill in a three-decker (Anne Brontë) could not afford the luxury of trimming their texts as both Poe and Stevenson recommend. It seems then that both the short story and the novella (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one) clashed with the novel in this sense until the one-volume novel became the norm (in 1894, when Mudie’s and Smith’s refused to distribute three-deckers). The famous designers’ rule that ‘less is more’ (according to Wikipedia adopted in 1947 by minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe but first found in Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto” of 1855) also applies, then, to Literature. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is, in that sense, an absolute masterpiece–whereas the other novella I teach, Heart of Darkness, would be by Stevenson’s standards in need of some pruning for its verbal flamboyance.

I agree wholeheartedly that trimming and pruning are essential tools for good writing–no matter how frustrated I feel every time I am asked to reduce my articles… The mystery, then, is why the current dominant trend in fiction writing is not the pared-down text that Ian McEwan is so fond of but the sprawling series. I wonder what Stevenson would think of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, now reaching its sixth volume and nineteenth year as I do wonder how Martin values style…

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THE (IM)POSSIBLE HENRIETTA JEKYLL: RECONSIDERING GENDER MATTERS IN STEVENSON’S MASTERPIECE

I have lost count of how often I have taught R.L. Stevenson’s masterpiece The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, on which I have published here several posts, as this seems to be an inexhaustible text. I return once more to it after having marked the most recent batch of students’ exams to focus on their answer to our question: is this text specifically about men? Can we imagine the same type of moral duplicity in women?

Four years ago I wrote a post in which I mulled about the possibility of a contemporary female version of Jekyll, a Prof. Henrietta Jekyll who, like Jekyll’s successor Dr. Hannibal Lecter, had a secret life in which perhaps she had her own students home regularly for dinner. I took the chance then to reject Elaine Showalter’s famous reading of Jekyll’s male circle as a closeted gay ring, with Hyde being the incarnation of the ‘evil’ pleasures by which Oscar Wilde was sentenced to hard labour a decade later. Despite Wilde, I find the idea that Stevenson is covertly dealing with homosexuality uncomfortably homophobic, and particularly distasteful when defended by contemporary feminists.

Back to my students answers, then. The matter is very simple: is Stevenson claiming that duplicity is a necessary condition of masculinity in late Victorian times? Or is he taking a man as a representative of all Victorian individuals? Could we, in short, place a woman in the centre of his story and if we did so, how would it change?

This is not, as you can see, a simple question to answer as it is necessary to take into account whether gender or class matters predominate in Stevenson’s text. In class, we followed the argument suggesting that Stevenson’s target is the hypocrisy of, specifically, Victorian gentlemanliness of the upper middle-class professional (not aristocratic) variety. This lead my students to write exams split among three options to explain why Stevenson’s text dealt exclusively with masculinity: a) for Victorians it was impossible to imagine ladies leading double lives, and so it was for the author; b) the author was a misogynist and this is why he practically excluded women from the text; c) since women were excluded from the professions and Jekyll led his double life to protect his professional reputation, no woman could replace him as a protagonist.

Let’s see… To begin with, we had read together Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which made it very clear that ladies like Helen Graham faced daily, like gentlemen of their class, the challenge of having to keep up appearances or see their reputation destroyed. Now, Helen creates a false identity for herself to protect her son and not to indulge in secret pleasures, yet Victorian fiction is full of femme fatales, from the vampire Carmilla to the scheming Lady Audley–it is simply not true that Victorians were incapable of imagining perverse women. Rather, as Bram Dijsktra very well explained in his classic Idols of Perversity (1988) the problem is that they imagined too many… by which I do not mean that all Victorian ladies were angelic. I’m sure Henrietta Jekyll could have been imagined as a committed adulteress, for instance; fancying her a nymphomaniac would have been harder indeed. What puzzles me is the students’ denunciations of Stevenson as an anti-feminist for as I insisted again and again in class, Stevenson offers a very negative image of masculinity in his text, and, well, paradoxically, making a woman the centre of his tale would just have resulted in just one more case of the kind Dijkstra describes, by no means in a feminist story.

Some re-writings of The Strange Case.., like Hammer’s quirky movie Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) or the idiotic American comedy Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995), have fantasised about Jekyll’s dark side being a woman (in the 1971 film, she commits, in addition, Jack the Ripper’s crimes!). Others, have enhanced women’s participation in the story, producing totally unnecessary melodrama: just recall Julia Roberts as the maid falling in love with her master Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich) in Mary Reilly (1996), based on Valerie Martin’s silly romance (1990). I have been unable to locate, whether in fan fiction or in film, however, a retelling with a female Jekyll, with the only exception of the seemingly pathetic horror comedy Jacqueline Hyde (2005), in which shy Jackie discovers she’s the granddaughter of the original Dr. Jekyll. The rest, it seems, is porn.

I have awarded the highest mark to a girl student who simply argued that Stevenson could have equally focused on a woman but once he decided to focus on a man he made the suitable decisions to make his tale as solid as possible. Of course. It makes perfect sense for Jekyll to be a gentleman scientist as it would make perfect sense for a Henrietta Jekyll to be, for example, his widow (even a former lab assistant as many scientists’ wives were). If you don’t want to go the SF way, then stick to fantasy and provide Miss or Mrs. Jekyll with a dark fairy godmother and a magic potion (Wilde, remember?, used magic for Dorian Gray’s picture). Henrietta Jekyll surely must be a lady, for ladies rather than low-class girls risked it all by losing their reputation as fallen women. If you still have problems visualizing her unspeakable pleasures, just read Dracula (1897) where you’ll find a lovely lady, Lucy, attacking every evening poor children to drink their blood.

Here’s a challenge for anyone interested, as I don’t have the time to do this myself: take Stevenson’s text and just alter the gender of the main characters, and see what happens. It will definitely not work if you insist on presenting Henrietta as a newly-minted pro-feminist Dr. Jekyll (unless you want to produce a misogynistic tale against the few women doctors practising in the 1880s). But think of all those angelic, repressed Victorian ladies and imagine what kind of secret life they would lead if in possession of a magic potion. Perhaps, here’s my conclusion, Stevenson knew very well how to do this… but refrained himself from writing what could only have been an outrageously scandalous text. Yet not impossible.

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RECONSIDERING JEKYLL AND HYDE ONCE MORE: ON PERSONALITY DISSOCIATION

This is the third post I write here on Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, which shows that a masterpiece is that kind of text that delivers something new every time the reader approaches it. In preparation for my classes, I read Nancy Gish’s essay “Jekyll and Hyde: The Pathology of Dissociation” (International Journal of Scottish Literature, 2, 2007) and I’m sorry to say I totally disagree with her claim that “[Pierre] Janet’s theory of dissociated consciousness … provides the most compelling conceptual framework for understanding Stevenson’s representation of duality.” Multiple personality disorders started being described in clinical literature, according to Gish, in 1886 the very same year when Stevenson published his text. Interesting as this coincidence clearly is, this is not what Stevenson is addressing in his text (nor is sexual repression, as Gish convincingly argues).

Stevenson, I believe, disliked Dr. Jekyll for his hypocrisy, which mirrors that of the Victorian upper-middle class all-male professional circles to which our doctor belongs. Ironically, he has Jekyll write in his final statement that “Though so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.” A common misreading, despite these words, is the belief that whenever the good doctor becomes Mr. Hyde he loses the awareness of what his worse half is doing, which is what happens in cases of multiple personalities or dissociation. Other versions, literary and filmic descendants, might be to blame for that: Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club is actually the perfect example of psychological dissociation that Gish describes. Jekyll, on the contrary, looks at himself in the mirror as Hyde and remarks: “This, too, was myself.”

To recap my argument, his case is peculiar in that whereas for common mortals the result of intoxication by drugs (alcohol included) is a change in behaviour accompanied by different degrees of disinhibition, Jekyll suffers besides a spectacular bodily transformation. Since he looks different and nobody can identify him as Jekyll his behaviour is wild, but he is all the time Jekyll, no matter whether he calls himself Hyde when in his other body. No dissociation at all, then. The problem is, of course, that once he’s murdered Sir Danvers Carew (as Hyde) he also starts losing control over his metamorphic body. Thus, when Jekyll fails definetively to shed his Hyde body, he locks himself up. When his best friend Utterson brings his door down, Jekyll has no option but to kill himself still looking like Hyde, terrified as he is of being hanged. Wrongly, Utterson concludes that Jekyll is missing, until he learns the truth (and we with him) through the final two letters by Dr. Lanyon (who’s witnessed a transformation) and by Jekyll himself.

In his statement, Jekyll writes that the progress of his line of research in the future will lead to the point when “man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous, and independent denizens.” Somehow, this is pure common sense: we are no doubt a collection of different identities, depending on the situation (professional, familiar, sexual, leisure… you name it!). We don’t change bodies, but we do change the way our bodies look –surely, we don’t wear the same outfit to class and to a rock concert– and also the way we behave. And, sorry but, unlike what Stevenson imagined, the worst aspect of our Jekyll and Hydes (I’m thinking of child abusers) is how inconspicuous they are. Jack the Ripper got that right only two years after Stevenson published his masterpiece.

Jekyll suggests that the drug is neutral and that instead of Hyde he could have metamorphosed into someone saintly, supposing his better nature to have been stronger. I asked my students why we don’t have a story like that (or do we??). Most answered it would be boring but one answered that it’s because in that case the text would hint that drugs are good… Clever!! To see how profoundly we distrust Jekylls who fight evil rather than commit it, consider Bruce Wayne, the man who, at night, becomes Batman (no drugs, just a mask and cool gadgets). We are currently asking ourselves (see Christopher Nolan’s trilogy) whether Bruce Wayne is as psychotic as Jekyll. So much for good intentions.

And a last point to this long post, suggested by my students’ exercises: the problem with arguing that Stevenson is criticising hypocritical Victorian society for forcing men to repress their instincts is that this depends on what kind of instinct we’re talking about. Supposing Jekyll is secretly a rapist of either women or children I certainly would like his instincts repressed to the hilt. Call me a hypocrite if you wish.

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?

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.