Archive for October 2004

Fear and Loathing in Victorian London

October 31, 2004

Victorian England tried to present itself as a pristine white handkerchief, but upon closer inspection, we see that this garment was saturated with blood.  No one knows how many murders Englishmen of that time actually committed, but we do know that this dastardly deed fascinated the culture, and the official estimates were woefully inadequate due to the incompetence of the police (Altick 281-283).  The massive number of crimes which went unpunished helped to shape the attitudes of the citizenry.  During this era, people believed that they were really no different from any other animal (Wiener 26).  A person from any walk of life might unleash his inner villainy upon his unsuspecting friends and family.  Stephen F. Altick and Martin J. Wiener addressed this crisis in their nonfiction works, Victorian Studies in Scarlet and Reconstructing the Criminal: Culture, Law, and Policy in England, 1830-1914, respectively, while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle investigated it in one of his Sherlock Holmes tales, “The Speckled Band.”  Altick, Wiener, and Doyle portray the Victorian view that man, while appearing good, is innately savage; thus, people of any social class could kill anyone, even members of their own families, for anything, even money; therefore, the best of people could be the worst of villains, and no one could be trusted.

Under the clothes of culture, Victorians said, man is a cruel beast.  Though he usually controls this part of his dichotomy, it sometimes manifests itself in hideous acts, be they violent or sexual.  The high-profile murder cases of the Victorian Era were extremely popular, inspiring reams of reporting from newspapers (Altick 297, 300-301).  Some critics found the citizens’ thirst for bloody reading material unnerving.  Among them was the Bishop of York who criticized the sensational novels of the time for making murder seem commonplace.  Some thinkers, such as Thomas Malthus, said that sexual desire must be controlled before it wrecked the society with lust and overpopulation (Wiener 26-28).  Anyone could succumb to desire, even the most modest woman. When Malthus softened his stance on sexuality, saying that moral restraint might save English society from ruin, his disciples turned against him and called him a “voider of menstrual pollution” (28-29).  To social critics like Thomas Carlyle and Charles Kingsley, the entire society was as polluted as the Industrial Revolution-era skies.  The gang rape and ensuing death of a young woman in 1874 led the Daily Telegraph to rhapsodize that Englishmen were no better than the people they colonized or even the beasts of the wilderness (294-295).  For poet Matthew Arnold, a case of infanticide which a young girl named Wragg perpetrated was proof positive that the nation was corrupt (Altick 293-296).  With mankind’s dark, animalistic nature so prevalent in society, many Victorians agreed with Malthus’s disciples that saving society would be impossible.  The festering boils of hatred might break out anywhere at any time.

The Victorians exempted neither beggars nor kings from the beasts that live inside of them.  They believed that everyone, both poor and rich, was a slave to the instinctive passions which could rip him apart (Wiener 26).  Many fiction and nonfiction works portrayed the slums as a chaotic, deviant, savage place (30-31).  The poor are a mindless tribe of hooligans who could overthrow the social order at any moment (32-33).  This evil could wash over the middle and upper classes, as well (35-36).  Charles Dickens’s novels also include rich savages such as Lord George Gordon of Barnaby Rudge and the Marquis de Evrémonde, a French aristocrat whose runaway carriage murders a young boy at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities (36-37).  Doyle’s Dr. Grimesby Roylott, the antagonist of “The Speckled Band,” is a textbook case of a rich, respected person who is inwardly wicked.  The Roylott line, whose last member is the nefarious Doctor Grimesby, is one of the oldest Saxon families in England and was once among the richest (Doyle 3).  Unfortunately, a number of miscreants have sapped the family of its strength, and they have also developed a hereditary predisposition for madness (4).  When the doctor returns from India, the neighbors welcome him because they are so happy to see a member of his family return; unfortunately, he wastes this goodwill with his misanthropy.  He instead uses the proceeds from his estate and from his practice to purchase exotic animals (5).  For a society as class-conscious as Victorian England, the egalitarianism of crime is an interesting twist.  Truly, fear can cross all artificial boundaries.

Terror can cross natural boundaries, as well, including the bonds between family members.  People could be trying to kill their kin at any time.  In fact, domestic murders were more common than any other kind (Altick 286).  Roylott, for example, uses a venomous snake from India as his instrument of death (Doyle 24-25).  With it, he attempts to kill his step-daughters whom he should love and cherish.  Lovers, too, would often turn into killers.  The untimely death of a wife or mistress could free a man from an uncomfortable situation, or women might slay each other for jealousy.  The aforementioned Wragg’s murder of her child is a detestable example of a mother betraying the closest connection in all of human relationships.  If children survived the threats of abortion and infanticide, they would often disappear into the institutions, be it the state or a baby farm (Altick 284).  People who did not want the pressure of raising children would give them to baby farms for a fee (284-285).  Conditions there were often so brutal and unsanitary that many of the youth perished, but this did not deter desperate parents.  That a person could kill his closest loved ones in cold blood reveals something monstrous about human nature and substantiates the Victorians’ fear.  Family members have a responsibility to protect each other; if the bond of blood is not enough, what is?

What motivated men to bow to their lower natures?  What substance could be thicker than respect or blood?  Often, it was something as transient and piddling as money.  The second largest class of murders was those committed in the act of robbery (287).  Doctors Palmer and Pritchard made their offering to Mammon when they killed their charges for insurance money (297-298).  Dr. Grimesby Roylott attempts to kill his step-daughters because they are entitled to a piece of his wife’s estate after they marry, and Roylott wants to keep the riches all to himself (Doyle 12).  In cases of violence between lovers or between armies, there is passion or ideology at stake, but the man who murders for money risks death and destroys his responsibilities to his class and to his family to gain a medium of exchange which he can use to procure goods and services.  If they could kill their loved ones for cash, what could stop them from slaying strangers?  Everyone has money, and most people carry it on their persons, so anyone could be a target for murder.  How much blood would spill, then, over a serious dispute between families?  Truly, none should be trusted.

If a person could master both sides of his nature, he could commit insidious murders in such a refined fashion that he would completely escape observation (Altick 284).  The prime examples of this phenomenon were doctors Palmer and Pritchard (297-298).  The character of Dr. Grimesby Roylott, who attempts to murder his daughters so that he can keep the entire annual income from his wife’s will, appears to be modeled after these men (Doyle 12).  Like Palmer and Pritchard, Roylott turns his great intelligence, which helped him to establish a large practice in Calcutta, to the service of villainy (4).  As Sherlock Holmes says, “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals.  He has nerve and he has knowledge.  Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession” (20).  Clearly, the Victorians would not take anything at face value.  A man might fall victim to his savage nature at any time; the greater the man, the greater the evil.  Thus, no man could be trusted; even the most magnanimous of men could be immensely malicious.

One of the scourges of modern America is white collar crime.  In the past few years, heads of major corporations such as Enron, WorldCom, and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia have suffered criminal convictions.  These leaders were upright, trusted citizens, and their scandalous behavior greatly damaged Americans’ esteem in businessmen.  In the common man’s mind, anyone could now be a criminal.  The Victorians would have accepted this analysis wholeheartedly.  In their world, death was rampant, and one never knew when a person’s carefully cultivated restraint over his savage side would collapse.  Though cases of clandestine domestic violence are few and far between now, we can apply their teachings to the worlds of business and politics.  We should presume people are innocent until proven guilty, but when we see wrongdoing, we should not hesitate to prosecute it.  We should not equate success with morality, and we should not have blind faith in anyone.  People err; people sin.  If we raise them to the level of gods, we may be too often disappointed.

Works Cited

Altick, Stephen F.  Victorian Studies in Scarlet.  New York: Norton, 1970.

Doyle, Arthur Conan.  “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”  <http://bakerstreet221b.de/canon/spec.htm>.  26 Oct. 2004.

Wiener, Martin J.  Reconstructing the Criminal: Culture, Law, and Policy in England, 1830-1914.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Response to Descartes

October 27, 2004

The metaphysics and epistemology of René Descartes’s mind-body dualism and Plato’s Theory of the Forms are essentially the same. Both assert that there is an eternal spiritual world which trumps the physical world; geometric figures are a part of this spiritual world, and we can learn about the spiritual world through mystical insight.

According to Descartes and Plato, our bodies belong to this world, but our souls do not. Descartes even doubts the existence of this world, saying the only things of which we can be sure are our immortal souls and an omnipotent God. Our souls must be immortal because we are so different from animals, and God must exist because we have perceived his existence even though there is no proof of Him in this world. In his Divided Line analogy, Plato said that the World of the Forms is larger and more real than the physical world, and in the Myth of Alcinous, he expresses his belief in the immortality and transmigration of souls. To prove the validity of the spiritual world, both philosophers cite our awareness of geometric concepts; we believe in them though they do not exist in reality. Since we can see these figures clearly in our mind, more clearly than our memories, they must occupy a higher, more perfect plane of being.

Both Descartes and Plato say that we gain knowledge about this physical world not from our senses but from mystical insight. According to Descartes, God must have revealed Himself to us because we could never have conceived of him ourselves. Plato says the purpose of education is to turn men’s hearts away from the illusions of the cave (the physical world) towards the brilliant light of the sun, and man could only pursue the higher forms through dialectic.

Descartes never mentions Plato in Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, but their views share striking similarity. Perhaps, they have seen something that the rest of the world has not. Perhaps, Western philosophy is locked in an eternal struggle between the Platos and the Aristotles, between the supernaturalists and the naturalists. We may not know the answers until we jump off this mortal coil. Then, as Wesley says in “The Princess Bride,” “We will see who is right, and who is dead.”

Response to “What The Buddha Taught”

October 13, 2004

The Buddhist doctrine of No-Soul states that identity is an illusion which man must discard in order to be happy. I reject this view of human nature because it seems negate the distinctions of personality which clearly appear to exist and which make human relationships so diverse, intriguing, and rewarding.

Every human being has a unique set of abilities and character traits. Some have great talent for mechanical operations such as flying planes, while others are built for abstract thought. Some are warm, excitable, and talkative; some are introverted and contemplative. One can see these differences even in a pre-school filled with three-year olds. The uniqueness of an individual gives him great joy; in my experience, I have found that people who do not believe that they have any talents or traits which make them different from others, that they are just mediocre blobs with no identity, are very miserable people. Yet, No-Soul seems to encourage people to accept this.

As each person grows up, he takes a vocation which corresponds to his talents and associates people who complement his personality; his vocation and his friends give him great joy. These relationships cannot simply be passed from one person to another; an airplane pilot would be miserable as a philosopher, for example. This shows that the distinction between one person and another is real and cannot be suppressed or denied; yet, No-Soul does that.

I find the Buddha’s view of the ideal person lacking. He has ignored a fundamental facet of human nature, the value of personality. Why do human beings have these unique traits if they aren’t supposed to use them? How can one defend the non-existence of something that seems so clearly to exist?

There’s Daggers in Men’s Smiles

October 12, 2004

“The Speckled Band” by Arthur Conan Doyle and “Hunted Down” by Charles Dickens feature unconventional antagonists.  The villains are not poor, brutish, or stupid; rather, they are educated men of good social class who use their poisoned minds to profit from the murders of their loved ones.  Doyle’s Dr. Grimesby Roylott imports a venomous snake from India to slither into his stepdaughters’ rooms and kill them; Dickens’s Julius Slinkton is a socialite who concocts his own poisons and pours them into the drinks of his nieces to cause their slow deaths (Doyle 24-25; Dickens 177-180, 192-193).  In this paper, I will focus on the passages in these stories in which the authors divulge the motivations of the murderers and will show what these incentives reveal about the Victorian character.  These paranoid people believed that death could be lurking behind any corner: “Where we are, there’s daggers in men’s smiles,” as Prince Donalbain, the son of the recently murdered King Duncan, says in Macbeth.  Dr. Grimesby Roylott of “The Speckled Band” by Arthur Conan Doyle and Julius Slinkton of “Hunted Down” by Charles Dickens are both socially respectable men who kill innocent family members for money, thus personifying the Victorian view that anyone could be a murderer.

Both Roylott and Slinkton are socially respectable.  Roylott is a doctor and a landed aristocrat (Doyle 13).  He receives between ₤750 and ₤1100 a year from his dead wife’s estate (12).  The mansion in which he lives, Stoke Moran, is ancient, secluded, and surrounded by beautiful vegetation (13).  Slinkton is a smooth-talking “man of the world” (Dickens 190).  When Mr. Sampson asks Slinkton about Slinkton’s niece’s escape, the villain claims that it was an act of treachery orchestrated by “some designing rascal” (190).  He explains away the horrid condition of his “friend” Mr. Beckwith using the same devices; Slinkton first presents himself as a man of the world who will speak plainly with Sampson and then exclaims that the insurance agent’s “old tricks of trade,” meant to revoke Beckwith’s two-thousand pound policy, will not succeed (190).  The evil actions of these men defy the notion that the rich are more civilized than the poor.  People often assume that life is intrinsically just, so a good man should reap earthly rewards as well as heavenly ones.  Under this projection, wealth, cultivation, and education indicate moral character.  Roylott and Slinkton prove that this is not always the case and reinforce the Victorian belief that someone from any social class could be a criminal.

The two men compound their villainy by directing it against their closest loved ones: innocent, trusting, young, female family members.  Roylott focuses on his stepdaughters.  Miss Stoner says of her stepfather, “He is so cunning that I never know when I am safe from him” (Doyle 14).  Sherlock Holmes deduces that Roylott has strong motives to kill his daughters and advises Miss Stoner to keep herself away from the doctor (12, 14).  Slinkton turns his murderous designs towards his nieces using his homemade venom.  Beckwith, whom Slinkton tried to slay as well, reveals that the nieces were dying because their uncle wanted to collect the insurance policies on their lives (Dickens 191-192).  These men have perverted the family structure.  Relatives should love and support each other, and the adult males have a special responsibility to protect their dependents.  Roylott and Slinkton feast on their charges instead.  This aspect of the crooks’ crimes conveys the Victorian belief that a person must watch for murderous intent not just from strangers but from his own family and friends.  Anyone could be planning to kill anyone else at any time.

What inspires these scoundrels to do their dastardly deeds?  They have but one motivation: money.  According to the terms of Roylott’s wife’s will, each of her daughters can claim ₤250 per annum of her estate once they marry (Doyle 12).  The girls were close to marrying, and if both had done so, Roylott would have been ruined.  Thus, he plotted to take their lives and keep the whole of the stipend for himself.  For Slinkton, the impetus was not inheritance but insurance (Dickens 191).  He bought policies on the lives of his two nieces and Beckham and then slowly poisoned them to death so he could collect the money without incurring much suspicion (191-192).  People often say that money cannot buy happiness or love.  Yet, these men consider monetary sums more important than the lives of their dearest relatives.  If money can inspire socially respectable people to destroy their families, it could inspire any number of atrocities between people who don’t know each other.

In Macbeth, Donalbain and his brother Malcolm fear attempts on their lives so much that they flee Scotland.  Most citizens of Victorian England had no such option.  They spent their lives wondering if a Grimesby Roylott or a Julius Slinkton were living across the street or in their own homes.  To evildoers, money was thicker than any human institution, even social class or family.  Doyle and Dickens struck a chord with the English people who feared that anyone might kill anyone else for any reason at all.  Roylott and Slinkton were fantastic but plausible.  The dagger in one man’s smile could become the dagger in another man’s back.

Response to The Analects

October 6, 2004

Confucius never mentions spirits or a supernatural world in the Analects; he says that someone who does not understand living on earth could never grasp anything beyond it. Nevertheless, the existence of an omnipotent, all-good, orderly deity would fit perfectly into his philosophy. This being would unite Confucius’s concepts of the Decree of Heaven, Destiny, and man’s duty to respect authority and would explain the origin of these things and the world itself.

In Chinese philosophy, Heaven is the force which orders the universe, to live in harmony with it, man must follow its Decree, a transcendent moral code. Destiny measures men’s lives and determines what happens to them. The deity could combine the two. Just as men follow the Decree of Heaven because it is intrinsically good and is the way men should live, so they could follow the deity because its goodness deserves admiration, and it created men for the purpose of living in harmony. Because the deity is all-powerful, it could set the course of men’s lives and change their environment however he chooses. What it gives, it could take away.

Respect for one’s betters is central to Confucius’s ethical system. The deity would be both the oldest and most powerful being in the universe and the father of everyone. It would provide a transcendental basis for filial piety.

Confucius’s philosophy can provide men great happiness. However, it cannot explain its origin or its fundamental reason for being. The omnipotent deity would fulfill this need because it would be a self-sufficient first cause of the universe. It would give Confucianism metaphysical grounding without diluting its ethical teaching.

Is Sherlock Holmes More Like an Author or a Reader?

October 4, 2004

Sherlock Holmes is an author because he often changes his cases while he is attempting to solve them and states his inductions as if they were facts.  He is a reader because he changes his opinions when he discovers new information which contradicts them, and his cases are not always successful.  “A Scandal in Bohemia” provides a great example of Holmes’s meddling affecting the outcome of a case.  Because he follows Irene Adler into the chapel, she can get married, dispelling the King’s fear that she will use the photograph against him.  After Irene realizes that the gumshoe has tricked her into showing him the location of the incriminating photograph, she and her husband flee the city and take the photograph with them.  Holmes also seems like an author when his inductions achieve godlike powers; his assessment of Watson’s watch in “The Sign of Four” could very well be incorrect, but instead, it is completely true.  Nevertheless, Holmes is a human being, not a demigod.  He is sometimes flexible and limited.  In “The Speckled Band,” his hypothesis that gypsies killed Miss Stoner’s sister is incorrect; when he realizes the window cannot be opened, he changes his mind and focuses instead on the ventilator.  He also fails to achieve the stated goals of some of his cases.  In “The Sign of Four,” he neither locates Captain Morstan, who is long dead, nor retrieves the treasure, which is dumped into the ocean.  In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the incriminating photograph eludes his grasp.  Luckily, Holmes does not allow these misfortunes to cripple his confidence; Irene’s shrewd actions instead win Holmes’s eternal admiration.  This combination of genius and humanity makes Doyle’s stories intriguing.  Holmes’s excellent reasoning is constant, but his cases and their outcomes are always different.