Jekyll and Hyde

Stevenson, Jekyll and HydeJekyll and Hyde have become a byword for the notion of mankind’s dual nature, the good and the bad, the virtuous and the immoral. At times the text seems to support this reading: Henry Jekyll’s “Full Statement of the Case,” for instance, opens with a discussion of “those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s dual nature” (48) and goes on to describe how the author “learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man” (49). But the first of these two observations is rather more complicated than it might at first appear: it is not that “good and ill” constitute “man’s dual nature”; rather they “divide and compound it.” In other words, any “duality of man” refers to something other than the binary divide between the good and the bad, something that becomes still more complex (“divide[d] and compound[ed]”) when the distinction between virtue and vice is taken into account. Indeed, between these two comments on duality comes the recognition that this is at best a first approximation to the truth: “I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens” (48). We are multiple; we contain multitudes.

Moreover, it is not as though the characters of Jekyll and Hyde themselves incarnate anything like the “primitive duality” that Jekyll mentions here. For though Hyde is perhaps the pure precipitate of all that is wicked in Jekyll, Jekyll himself remains irreducibly multiple: he is an “incongruous compound” (52), “composite” (55). There is, in short, no kind of dialectical relationship between the two, no simple contradiction: Jekyll is already divided; Hyde is best understood as a supplement or embodied overdetermination. No wonder Jekyll “loses” in the end: his good nature has to struggle not only against Hyde but also against the evil that still resides within Jekyll himself. Perhaps for this reason, and again despite appearances, it is never a matter of Jekyll or Hyde, it can only ever be Jekyll and: Jekyll plus a part of his nature that stands beside him without in fact leaving him.

Of course, there is much attention to the differences between Jekyll and Hyde. There is their contrasting stature, for example, or their distinct voices, which is how Jekyll’s manservant, Poole, determines that his master has been disappeared: “Have I been twenty years in this man’s house, to be deceived about his voice?” (35). Moreover, there is much discussion of the distinction between the men’s faces, and indeed of faces in general. Utterson, the tale’s narrator, demands to see Hyde’s face, “and the pair stared at each other pretty fixedly for a few seconds. ‘Now I shall know you again,’ said Mr Utterson. ‘It may be useful’” (16). Utterson goes on to declare to Jekyll that “If ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend” (17). But Utterson is wrong: he doesn’t “know” Hyde at all, and he completely misreads the signature on the man’s face; indeed, his conception of Hyde is as much a projection of his own fears and anxieties as it is a product of Jekyll’s own foibles and failings.

To understand Hyde–and the relation between Hyde and Jekyll–it is best to look to the man’s hand. It is by his hands, after all, that Jekyll/Hyde himself determines, in the absence of a mirror, his qualities at any particular moment. Jekyll’s description of his first transformation into Hyde notes that he “stretched out [his] hands, exulting in the freshness of these sensations” (50). Later, when he has started to transform involuntarily from one state into another, again the hand provides the clue: “the hand that lay on my knee was corded and hairy. I was once more Edward Hyde” (58). But the hand is not only the sign of the difference between Jekyll and Hyde: it is also the sign of their underlying identity. “Then I remembered,” Jekyll tells us, “that of one of my original character, one part remained to me: I could write my own hand” (58-9). Jekyll and Hyde’s hand, in the sense of handwriting, is the same. As a result it is impossible to tell who is writing, except when Jekyll/Hyde deliberately alters his own penmanship–and even then, Utterson’s clerk, “a great student and critic of handwriting” (27), notes “a rather singular resemblance; the two hands are in many points identical: only differently sloped.” Utterson’s response is the horrific thought that “Henry Jekyll [has] forge[d] for a murderer!” (28). But often as not it is Hyde who “forges” for Jekyll, while at other times we can never know who has forged (for) whom. Hence Patrick Brantlinger notes the threat posed by this instability, this duplicity of signature and impossibility of “reading” either Hyde’s or Jekyll’s hands aright: “Hyde menaces society not just by his criminal violence but by his ability to write checks and letters, draw up wills, and pen blasphemies in books of ‘divinity’” (201).

Hyde (or is it Jekyll?) takes advantage of his uncanny literacy, the fact that the difference between himself and his other is strictly speaking unreadable, to send a message to his friend Lanyon and persuade him to collect the drugs enabling him to transform himself back into Jekyll once more. And it is here that the book’s most shocking scene comes: not in the mutation of Jekyll into Hyde, as one might have thought; but in the resurrection (“like a man restored from death”) of Jekyll from Hyde. It is this that prompts Lanyon to say: “My life is shaken to its roots; sleep has left me; the deadliest terror sits by me at all hours of the day at night; I feel that my days are numbered” (47). For the staid bachelor society that Stevenson’s tale portrays, it is not the revelation of the evil in man, the appearance of Hyde, that is the most terrifying aspect of the story. Nor is it any kind of dualistic opposition between Jekyll and Hyde. It is the fact that Hyde gives life to Jekyll, and that in doing so he gives birth to multitudes.

“The Cooked Cat”

Roberto ArltI recently translated one of the Argentine writer Roberto Arlt’s very first short stories: “El gato cocido,” from 1926.  Arlt is hardly known outside of Latin America–indeed, outside of Argentina–and little of his work is translated.  But it’s worth a read, not least (as critic Ricardo Piglia has argued) as the messy face of early twentieth-century modernization, as opposed to Borges’s splendid but often icy lucidity.

Precisely because of its messiness, its localism, its use of slang and (frankly) at times its sheer ungrammaticality, Arlt’s writing is a challenge to translate. Any suggestions for improvements or changes would be most appreciated.

Here’s how it starts:

“I remember.

“Old Pepa Mondelli lived in Las Perdices. She was an aunt of my in-laws, who were the children of Alfonso Mondelli, the terrifying Don Alfonso, who used to beat his wife, María Palombi, in the back office of his General Store business. He exploded, there’s no other way to put it, one night in an attic of the big house jam-packed with merchandise, while in Italy Mrs Palombi spent, on the gum-diggers of Terra Bossa, the money that Don Alfonso was sending to support his children’s schooling.

“Now the seven Mondellis were dark, egotistical, and cruel as death. It was said that one of them once, in front of the train station, used his whip handle to beat out the eyes of a horse that couldn’t pull an over-laden cart out from a pothole.

Thanks to María Palombi, passion raced in their blood, combined with the nerve to stop short suddenly, making their fury at the moment of danger all the more calculating. This they showed later on.”

Read more… (.pdf file)


Nietzsche, Genealogy of MoralsThere’s no doubt that that Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals is, as its subtitle announces, “a polemic” (13). Nietzsche rages against Western (so-called) civilization and the palpable sense of claustrophobia, defeat, sickness, and enervation in which we find ourselves: “Enough! Enough! I can’t take any more. Bad air! Bad air! This workshop where ideals are manufactured–it seems to me it stinks of so many lies” (47). Hence he rails also against the various forces that have led up to and keep us in this dire situation: slave morality and its inversion of values such that what was once good is now pronounced evil; ressentiment and its negation of all that is “different” that is “not itself” (36); the cult of guilt and “the oppressive narrowness and punctiliousness of custom” (85); the ascetic ideal and its priesthood that, by making us feel that our own sinfulness is to blame for our predicament, seeks “to exploit the bad instincts of all sufferers for the purpose of self-discipline, self-surveillance, and self-overcoming” (128).

No wonder Nietzsche’s style is so impetuous and abrasive. To wake his somnolent readers and alert them to the damage they have been doing themselves for centuries, let alone to carve out a different path, requires “a kind of sublime wickedness, an ultimate, supremely self-confident mischievousness in knowledge that goes with great health” (96).

One can almost feel the ebb and flow of his emotions as Nietzsche writes: disbelief, anger, impatience, frustration, irritation, annoyance, exhaustion… and hope. Yes, hope, not only because his belief in mankind’s potential as great as his dismay at the ingeniousness with which we have perversely tortured and hobbled ourselves, but also because even the ruins themselves have something that can be salvaged.

First, there is the fact that even the immense disasters that afflict us (that we have inflicted on ourselves) have their own value. The sick body, too, has its own perspective and there is no perspective so misguided that it should be summarily eliminated. Or to put this another way: the sick body, too, knows something; we cannot deny the body even in its weakness and its suffering. And all knowledge should be welcome to those who really seek to know. The various “reversals of accustomed perspectives and valuations with which the spirit has, with apparent mischievousness”–note that word again–“and futility, raged against itself for so long” allow us “to see differently in this way for once, to want to see differently” (119). They add to the stock of human experience and discovery, and against the poisonous ideal of a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject” we should welcome even this hobbled perspective in that “the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of this thing” (119). Even the sick and the weary, the defeated and the self-defeating, have their contribution to make.

(Note by the way that it is this impulse to see value in ruination, this accommodation of impurity and difference, that makes Nietzsche very far from the proto-fascist he is sometimes lazily assumed to be. Nietzsche is engaged in a war, that’s true, but in his view the noble spirit always learns even from his enemies. And ultimately Nietzsche’s goal is more variety, not less; more life and more different kinds of life rather than the death and destruction upon which the Third Reich became fixated.)

Second, the very stubbornness and ingenuity with which we have turned against our better natures is, Nietzsche believes, itself a sign of hope. He concludes the book by noting that mankind’s self-abasement, its “rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life,” indicates our nihilism, our “will to nothingness.” But precisely the fact that we struggle so hard for our own oppression shows that at least we are still struggling: “it is and remains a will!” The final consolation that Nietzsche offers is that “man would rather will nothingness than not will” (163). There is life in the old brute yet, however much that life may be turned against itself. We may be weary, we may be suffering, but the very effort we invest in perpetuating our own degradation shows that we are not dead yet. Now if only we could put the same amount of affective energy into a battle for life, rather than against it. What a wonderful sight that would be!

About Academia

About AcademiaLast week I went to a panel discussion organized by the curators of Antoni Muntadas’s current exhibition at SFU’s Audain Gallery: “About Academia”. The show itself is interesting enough–though its aesthetic aspects are obscure at best–consisting as it does of a series of interviews with figures such as Carol Becker, Noam Chomsky, David Harvey, and Doris Sommer, academics mostly based in elite institutions in the US Northeast who are asked to reflect upon the politics of the university.

The purpose of the panel was, in like manner but with a focus on the Canadian and specifically the Vancouver context, to pay “critical attention to the structure and function of the university, and [investigate] the complicated, often contradictory relationship between the production of knowledge and economic power.”

But I have seldom seen a more incoherent and disjointed dialogue of the deaf. Panelists variously told personal anecdotes, spoke in broad platitudes, and/or simply outlined their own research interests with little or no attempt to address the supposed themes of the discussion. Especially given what a small and self-selecting subset of the university was actually represented–more or less left-leaning Humanities professors; nothing from, say, the Sciences or the student body–the fact that it seemed utterly impossible to generate any kind of conversation was little short of pathetic.

Ultimately, the person who came out best was the one representative of management–a UBC Associate Dean, whose perspective was limited but pragmatic. But again, what was most of concern is that there was no conception of the university as an institution for the production, exchange, and dissemination of ideas. We saw rather a display of single-minded specialization, disciplinary fragmentation, and speech that expected no audience or response.

If this is the state of academia today, then it deserves all (the neoliberal corporatization, public opprobrium or dismissal, withdrawal of state subsidy, and so on) that it gets.


Shelley, FrankensteinIt’s easy enough to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a warning against scientific hubris, or what might these days be termed “over-reach.” Indeed, this is the moral drawn for us in Victor Frankenstein’s own death-bed speech: “Seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition, even it if be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries” (220). And Maurice Hindle, the editor of the Penguin edition of the book, expands upon the same theme in somewhat leaden terms:

The “incestuous” violation of life on this planet has reached epidemic proportions, and much of the blame for this state of affairs must surely be laid at the feet of those who find an endless thrill of excitement in scientifically “penetrating” the “secrets of nature,” taking little or no responsible account of the damaging implications “theory” might have for “practice.” (xlvii)

Is this then a Romantic critique of Englightenment hubris, an argument for more feeling and sensibility, against single-minded dedication to abstract goals?

Yet it is surely strange that a book purportedly promoting tranquility and repudiating excitement should be written in such a thrilling manner, with the design (it seems) to perturb even the calmest of souls.

The book reveals a fundamental ambivalence about its own terrifying narrative. The Creature that Frankenstein created suggests (in what is his final speech, following the scientist’s demise) that it is best that the whole story be buried and forgotten: “He is dead who called me into being; and when I shall be no more, the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish” (224). But of course Walton, the narrator who conveys us this tale, is keen to record and preserve its memory: he tells his sister, to whom he is notionally addressing his account, that the Creature’s revelations pronounced over the corpse of his maker constitute a “final and wonderful catastrophe” (221). And the book itself sets out to provoke and excite: born of a competition among friends who are bored on a rain-soaked holiday (“’We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron” [7]), and inspired by Shelley’s frightful dream (“My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me” [9]), it has been both distracting readers and giving them nightmares ever since its original 1818 publication.

How much in any case can we trust Frankenstein, given that he has just reprimanded Walton’s crew for their faint-heartedness in the face of their “glorious expedition” in the high Arctic: “And wherefore was it glorious? [. . .] Because danger and death surrounded it, and these you were to brave and overcome” (217). He and Walton alike have a decidedly Romantic conception of scientific inquiry. Walton ascribes his “passionate enthusiasm for [. . .] the dangerous mysteries of ocean [. . .] to that production of the most imaginative of modern poets” (21-22). For his part, Frankenstein finds inspiration in medieval alchemists and has to be reminded by his university tutors that these are not real scientists: “In what desert land have you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fancies which you have so greedily imbibed are a thousand years old and as musty as they are ancient?” (47). And the Creature himself is surely as much an offspring of the Romantic imagination–as “sublime” in his own way as the “awful majesty” of the Alps in which he thrives where humans struggle and stumble (100, 101)–as he is the product of scientific experimentation and toil in the laboratory.

If anything, Frankenstein is a polemic against neither Romanticism nor Science, but against the mixing of the two. It is not opposed to passion or affect or “unremitting ardour” (55); rather, it censures misplaced affect, the “enthusiasm of success” in domains that should be preserve of desiccated reason and careful consideration. Nature should induce high passions, the “sublime ecstasy” that gives “wings to the soul”; human artifice should not. Romanticism should know and keep to its own preserve; Science should do likewise.

And yet, again, the final irony is that there is no greater instance of the powerful admixture of scientific fascination and the Romantic sensibility, than the memorable and pulsating tale told by Frankenstein itself.


Arts One bannerThere’s been a lot of talk about so-called Massive Online Open Courses. According to the New York Times, 2012 was the year of the MOOC. Come 2013, some of the enthusiasm has died down a little, as people realize it may not be easy to make money out of these things. And there are plenty who are (rightly) critical of all the hoopla in the first place.

Anyhow, in the meantime here at UBC we’ve been putting together something like a MOOC that doesn’t depend upon Coursera or any other of the for-profit enterprises that are looking to capitalize upon the conjunction of education and the Internet. We’re constructing a DIY MOOC that piggy-banks upon an existing first-year course, Arts One.

Arts One is essentially a course in the Western Humanities: it covers “great books” from Genesis to Cormac McCarthy. This vast panorama is given focus by the choice of specific themes (currently, “Monster in the Mirror” and “Explorations and Encounters”) that change every couple of years.

The idea of the online version, Arts One Digital, is that people can follow along with the program as it is taught at UBC, or they can construct their own syllabus, using the ever-growing range of lectures and material that we are making available online. There are also a number of options for interactivity: Twitter conversations and hashtags, and the option to syndicate blog posts and comments.

We’ll be building this over the semester, so watch this space. Any feedback or suggestions would be most welcome at any time.


Rousseau, Discourse on InequalityIn the Discourse on Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau sets out to turn Thomas Hobbes’s famously pessimistic account of “natural man” on its head. Where for Hobbes life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish, and short” as everyone struggles against each other in a “war of all against all,” for Rousseau it is a form of existence characterized by self-sufficiency and relative harmony: “these men’s disputes would seldom have had bloody consequences” (102). We can prove this empirically, indeed, by looking to the New World: “the Caribs, who of all peoples existing today have least departed from the state of nature, are precisely the most peaceful in their loves, and the least subject to jealousy” (103).

This relative tranquility in the state of nature stems less, Rousseau argues, from any innate human goodness (indeed, the opposition between “good” and “evil” scarcely makes sense in such a situation) as from a number of more pragmatic considerations. First, as each of them is effectively self-sufficient, primitive humans have no need (and no desire) to maintain extended contact with each other. Beyond answering the call of sexual desire to mate (a singularly unromantic process, in Rousseau’s account) and reproduce, they keep themselves to themselves. Second, when they do meet, natural inequalities–of size or strength or speed, for example–are relatively minor; there would seldom be any obvious advantage in starting a fight, especially given that one could satisfy one’s needs for food and shelter etc. on one’s own. And third, any aggressive impulses are kept in check by a more fundamental sense of compassion: “It is pity which in the state of nature takes the place of laws, morals and virtues, with the added advantage that no one there is tempted to disobey its gentle voice” (101).

It is then (and this is Rousseau’s main argument) society that will create divisions, by accentuating natural inequality and adding to it the burdens that are artificial inequalities of wealth, rank, honour, and so on. So whereas for Hobbes, we are all equal before the law, because we are all equally lowly in the face of the Leviathan’s supreme power (for this reason, if no other, he is a classical liberal), for Rousseau civilization introduces difference–and, what is more, an awareness of difference (pride)–and therefore discord as we compete for status and to satisfy artificial needs. If there is a “war of all against all,” it is propelled by the fact that “inequality of influence and authority soon becomes inevitable among individuals as soon as, being united in the same society, they are forced to compare themselves with one another and to take into account the differences they discover in the continual dealings they have with one another” (132). This is the hectic social whirl, the “petulant activity of our own pride” (115) that makes social life uncertain and unstable.

By contrast, the life of a savage is also, then, one of singularly low intensity. Indeed, it is a life of “indolence” (115) that is scarcely ruffled by the slightest affect. Where Hobbes sees primitive man in terms of panic and fear, for Rousseau the passions are overwhelmingly artificial. Affect is the product of society and habit: there is nothing particularly natural about either love or hate, happiness or sadness, fear or joy. And even Rousseau (Romantic that he was) had to thank socialization for finally teaching us to feel.