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Man looking into a mirror.

The Cheval Glass. Artwork by Charles Raymond Macauley for the 1904 edition of The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Publisher: New York Scott-Thaw

Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic fiction The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would seem on the surface to be a reasonably straightforward narrative – a discourse on good versus evil and the moral opposites that exist within.

Nevertheless the story does present certain mysteries that have puzzled readers since its first publication, and behind these lie pointers to the real significance of a story that is often misunderstood.

The appearance of Mr Hyde

Take the conundrum that John Sutherland highlights in his essay ‘What does Edward Hyde look like?’– that “where Hyde’s face ought to be in the narrative there is a blank” (the essay can be found in Is Heathcliff a Murderer?: Great Puzzles in Nineteenth-Century Fiction).

When Enfield attempts to paint a picture of Hyde he comes up with nothing:

‘I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him at this moment.’

While we can’t see Hyde in the text, we can feel him. Enfield describes his instant loathing of Hyde, and relates that the doctor in attendance at the start of the story “turns sick and white with the desire to kill him”. As a crowd gathers, the women become “as wild as harpies… with hateful faces” as soon as they set eyes on him.

These visceral reactions, we are told by Enfield, are not due to his visual appearance so much as a sense of something detestable about him: “He gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way.”

We later learn that Hyde has never been photographed, and that:

…the few who could describe him differed widely, as common observers will. Only on one point, were they agreed; and that was the haunting sense of unexpressed deformity with which the fugitive impressed his beholders.

I think that the answer to John Sutherland’s question is this: Stevenson presents Hyde with a ‘blank’ face because we are meant to see every person’s face reflected in him, including, of course, our own. The deformity is unexpressed because we identify our own deformity within Hyde, the parts of our psyche that we hide from society and ourselves.

Stevenson presents Hyde as a kind of dark mirror, exposing the hidden and shameful parts within all of us. This explains the anger and violence he provokes in anyone who meets him.

The dark mirror of the subconscious

Stevenson was writing this 30 years before Freud presented his breakthrough theories on the conscious and subconscious minds, but it’s hard not to see pre-echoes. The dual houses of Jekyll and Hyde present an apt metaphor for the Freudian view of mind, as Stephen King points out:

On Jekyll’s side, the side presented to the public eye, it seems a lovely, graceful building, inhabited by one of London’s most respected physicians. On the other side – but still part of the same building – we find rubbish and squalor, people abroad on questionable errands at three in the morning, and that ‘blistered and distained door’ set in a ‘blind forehead of discoloured wall.’ …Even if you’re an anti-Freudian and won’t grant Stevenson’s insight into the human psyche, you’ll perhaps grant that the building serves as a nice symbol for the duality of human nature.
From Danse Macabre

The house offers a psychological symbol throughout the story, presenting a winding labyrinth of stairs, corridors, cabinets, theatres, locked doors within locked doors, drawers and presses – a metaphor for the tortuous journey into the inner psyche and its central mysteries.

When Utterson and Poole finally break down the door of Jekyll’s inner cabinet to discover what lies within, they eventually discover a ‘cheval glass’ (a body length mirror on a central pivot) “…into whose depths they looked with an involuntary horror.”

‘This glass have seen some strange things, sir,’ whispered Poole.
‘And surely none stranger than itself,’ echoed the lawyer in the same tones.

It’s the dark mirror that’s at the very heart of the story.

Degeneration and the sickness of society

What Steveson is suggesting in this novel is not just that people have hidden dualities, but that society itself has.

In her compelling book Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle, Julia Reid shows how the contemporary theory of degeneration that haunted fin-de-siécle Europe… “increasingly challenged the meliorist narratives of evolutionist psychology and anthropology.”

Advanced by British scientists, including Henry Maudsley and Edwin Ray Lankster, along with their Continental counterparts, the theory of degeneration recognised that life did not always move from the simple to the complex, and envisaged instead a future characterised by arrested development, atavistic throwbacks, and the disintegration of overly evolved civilisations.
From Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle

For Stevenson, perhaps, society is sick because of the very fact that it won’t face these inner demons, but prefers to ‘hide’ them away. 

The sickness of a society that can’t see itself and can’t know itself, is depicted in some of Stevenson’s finest and subtlest imagery, in which the city’s clouded arterial streets suggest a body laid out on a surgeon’s table.

The following powerful description suggests that the city can only ever be glimpsed in parts and never as a whole.  The world around Utterson is seen as if in a nightmare, alienating the lawyer from the very law he serves:

A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of a rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare. The thoughts of his mind, besides, were of the gloomiest dye; and when he glanced at the companion of his drive, he was conscious of some touch of that terror of the law and the law’s officers which may at times assail the most honest.

The hypocrisy of society

What this novel is really about is hypocrisy – its causes, its dangers, the destruction it brings to man’s spirit and the threat it presents to society itself. As Stephen King says:

It is Dr Henry Jekyll who creates Mr Hyde essentially out of Victorian hypocrisy – he wants to be able to carouse and party-down without anyone, even the lowliest Whitechapel drab, knowing that he is anything but saintly Dr Jekyll whose feet are ‘ever treading the upward path’.
From Danse Macabre

In this sense, it is Utterson who becomes the real hero of the story. He is the opposite of Jekyll in that he is the least hypocritical, a man who met many ‘going-down men’… “…and to such as these, so long as they came about his chambers, he never marked a shade of change in his demeanour.”

The opening description makes this clear:

At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life. He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theatre, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove.

As King says in Danse Macabre: “The difference between Utterson and Jekyll is that Jekyll would only drink gin to mortify a taste for vintages in public… Jekyll does not want to mortify any of his tastes. He only wants to gratify them in secret.”


I just finished reading Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. Books about music often leave me cold. As someone once said ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,’ or something like that (the quote’s been attributed to John Lennon, Elvis Costello and Frank Zappa, to my knowledge – anyone know the true source?)

Rip it Up is an exception. The book covers the immediate years after ‘punk rock’ had revolutionised the music scene. What happened next, between the years 1978 to 1984, is described by Reynolds in his introduction as:

‘…a distinct pop cultural epoch that rivals those fabled years between 1963 and 1967 commonly known as the “sixties”… in terms of the sheer amount of great music created, the spirit of adventure and idealism that infused it, and the way that the music seemed inextricably connected to the political and social turbulence of the times.’

The book then goes on to celebrate the glittering shards of extraordinary creativity that exploded out of the punk revolution, through a dizzying array of genres, sub-genres and maverick approaches to the creativity and business of pop and rock music.

Reynolds traces the lines that connect such diverse acts as the spacious avant-garde dub style of Public Image Ltd, the shocking performance art meance of Throbbing Gristle, the lushly orchestrated mainstream pop of ABC, the gothic ponderousness of Joy Division and the edgy neo-funk of Gang of Four, to name just a few of the incredibly diverse musical styles described within these pages. That they all share a common source in the punk rock revolution is testament to the impact of this remarkable period in music history.

The aftermath of punk

What struck me most is how each of these very different acts took the spirit of punk (the anti-establishment stance, the do it yourself ethos, the ‘anti-rock’ aesthetic) and did something completely new with it.

Above all the imperative to push forward into new musical and cultural terrain was punk’s greatest legacy. I was just becoming aware of pop music myself during this period, and remember the spirit of the time vividly. The idea of ‘looking forward’ was taken for granted in the postpunk era. It’s something that has definitely been lost since, as Reynolds convincingly argues:

‘…the reason why the main body of this book concludes in 1984 is that independent culture’s shift from futurism to retro really hardened decisively in that year. The desire to “rip it up and start again” that had driven first post-punk and then New Pop still existed. But for the first time that impulse took the form of looking to the past.’

I’d always blamed the ’90s for that shift, when bands like OasisBlur and the whole Britpop movement very consciously styled themselves on ’60s and ’70s looks and sounds, but Reynolds perceptively sees the shift happening with bands like The Smiths, R.E.M. and the Jesus and Mary Chain in the mid-’80s. (And you could even make a case that the seeds of this were sown by the ’60s revivalism of the likes of the Specials and the Jam during the postpunk period.)

Postpunk Spotify playlists

The period covered by the book is so richly diverse that it was impossible for anyone but a music journalist at the time to indulge in more than a fraction of the postpunk music scene.

Now, though, we have Spotify, which I found myself constantly referring to whilst reading the book. I therefore created a couple of playlists to cover all the music discussed, which I’ve organised to correspond to the two main parts of the book:

  1. Postpunk
  2. New Pop & New Rock

You can link to them above, or play them from the embedded playlists at the bottom of this post.

I’ve listed the albums and tracks in the order that they appear in the book, to make it easier for the reader to synchronise their listening.

There are a few albums and songs I couldn’t find on Spotify (e.g. no early Pere Ubu, no This Heat, no Odyshape by the Raincoats, no relevant Throbbing Gristle or Psychic TV). Where possible I’ve included some representative track or tracks from later periods that give a flavour of the acts.

You will find some greyed out tracks – these belong to my personal collection and can’t be uploaded to Spotify unless you own them, so you’ll have to download them from iTunes or buy the CDs if you want to hear those.

I have to confess to taking one liberty in compiling these playlists. The one thing I felt missing from the book (and this is a personal thing) was the scant attention given to the Jam.

For some reason Reynolds only affords the Jam the briefest of mentions, and only credits one song of theirs (Start). 

Now the Jam was ‘my band’ in the years this book covers, especially from 1978 to 1982, when I bought every vinyl release of theirs, saw them play live and followed every move they made. I was a Jam fanboy.

I feel sure, then, that they should qualify for more space in this book, as they came right out of the punk movement and were one of the most successful bands of those years in terms of commercial and critical acclaim. I’ve therefore taken the liberty of ‘correcting’ this by including the Setting Sons and Sound Affects albums in the playlist – I hope Simon Reynolds will forgive me.

Please let me know if you have any suggestions for improving these playlists and I’ll amend them accordingly.

Anyway, if you’re at all interested in popular music I urge you to read this book, and I hope you’ll find that the accompanying playlists enhance your enjoyment.



Mulholland Drive and Double Narratives


There are Whodunnits and Whydunnits and there are ‘What the hell just happened there?’s.

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is certainly in the latter category – but what a great movie, and what a great example of ‘double narrative’ structure.

Explanations as to what is going on in Mulholland Drive range from the interesting to the ridiculously complex, but pretty much all of them are consistent in seeing it as an example of the ‘parallel narrative’ type. I’ve actually just made that type up, I think, but a theory has been meandering round my brain that goes something like this:

There are two types of ‘double’ narratives:

1. Transformational doubles - where a character changes into another but maintains two versions of him/herself, pre and post transformation. Examples include The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Spider-Man, Batman, The Wolf Man and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

2. Parallel narrative doubles – where two distinct narratives feature two similar or identical protagonists, sometimes encountering each other, sometimes not. Often this includes elements of ‘alternative reality’ or dream sequences. Examples include The Double Life of Veronique, Melinda and Melinda, Sliding Doors, The Double (Dostoevsky)The Secret Sharer, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Jolly Corner.

Mulholland Drive belongs in the second category – Betty’s and Diane’s story are mirror images of each other, although it’s unclear which is real and which the alternative (I’m plumping for Diane’s). The doubling is further complicated by her relationship with Rita/Camilla, which themselves become doubles of Betty/Diane.

Clearly this post is not an attempt at a full explanation for the film (if you’re looking for that try Salon’s Everything you were afraid to ask about Mulholland Drive), but personally I’m not too concerned with picking apart the intricacies of the plot. It satisfies me that this is an amazing example of the double narrative in a 21st century setting, and one that holds the attention and demands reflection long after its finish.


Doubles, doppelgängers and split personalities


It’s my turn to set the Culture Club agenda (we rotate this around the group). I’ve chosen as my theme: Doubles, Doppelgängers and Split Personalities, and we’re going to be looking at the following works:

The Confessions and Private Memoirs of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg (Novel)
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde (Novel)
The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stephenson (Novel)
The Jolly Corner, by Henry James (Short Story)
The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad (Short Story)
Black Swan (Movie)

I chose this theme because I’m currently writing a screenplay about a Doppelganger, with the working title ‘Ghost of a Flea’ (after the William Blake painting of that name). So this is great research and background for my project and I’m immersing myself in works that are focused on the idea of ‘double identity’.

It turns out there’s a wide range of interesting stuff on this theme beyond the works I’ve chosen. In fact it was hard whittling it down to the titles listed above.

I found a rich vein, from gothic fiction to Hitchcock movies, from Cyberpunk to the films of David Lynch. Click here for a good Doppelganger movie list.

There’s loads more – I’m looking forward to exploring it fully and  keeping the Culture Club blog posted.


The superhero as double


Perhaps the most striking example of the Doppelgänger theme can be found in one of the most popular genres of contemporary cinema, the ‘superhero’ movie (and its comic book antecedents).

Every superhero story is about dual identity:

  • Mild-mannered Clark Kent juxtaposed with his alter ego Superman
  • Millionaire Bruce Wayne and his darker side, the Batman
  • Scientist Bruce Banner and his raging counterpart the Hulk

It’s behind every one of them.

Some superhero movies push the ‘double’ theme more deeply; for example, in Superman III our hero has to tackle an evil doppelganger version of himself.

More recently the hit movie of last year, Iron Man 3, focused on the relationship between Tony Stark and his ‘self-creation’ Iron Man: Stark and his Iron Man persona split, creating a potentially fatal rift in the hero’s identity. It’s significant that the last line of the movie has Stark proclaiming ‘I *am* Iron Man’ – the schism is once again healed.

The huge success of the superhero genre shows that the theme of doubles and doppelgängers is more popular than ever in today’s culture.



The next theme for Culture Club is… ‘Reality’.

This was my choice, following on from our theme of ‘madness’ from last time.

Here are the works we’ll be discussing:

Plus the following poems by Dylan Thomas:

  • Ears in the turrets hear
  • Poem on his birthday
  • A winter’s tale
  • Into her lying down head
  • Love in the asylum
  • Ceremony after a fire raid
  • In country sleep
  • Fern Hill
  • From love’s first fever to her plague
  • The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
  • Especially when the October wind
  • Light breaks where no sun shines
  • And death shall have no dominion
  • After the funeral
  • A refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in London
  • Poem in October
  • Do not go gentle into that good night
  • In my craft or sullen art

Finally the prose work by Dylan Thomas, A Prospect of the Sea.

The theme is a loose one – I guess it’s to look at how each of these works explores the nature of reality, and asks the question ‘How do we experience reality?’

I hope it makes sense. I’m currently reading the Henry Green, which is wonderful – I think I see why he’s been referred to as a ‘writer’s writer’.

If I get time I’ll write some thoughts (although time seems to be in increasingly short supply at the moment).

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Catching up

Well, due to work commitments mainly, I haven’t been able to keep up with the Culture Club blog for, what, eight months (oh dear), so it’s more than due an update.

Our last assignment was on the theme of ‘madness’ and included the following works:

This was quite a challenge – Don Quixote alone is 1,000 pages, and King Lear is considered one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays.

As always it was highly rewarding. I found Don Quixote a total revelation. I hope to go into more detail at some stage, but for now suffice to say that it changed my view of the novel (Milan Kundura’s The Art of the Novel defines Don Quixote as the originator of all novels) and even (risking exagerration) life itself.

New year’s resolution – to try to keep up with the Culture Club blog. More soon.


Culture Club: Theme for May – July 2011

Aquarelle Gastebuch, by Wassily Kandinsky, 1925

Aquarelle Gastebuch, by Wassily Kandinsky, 1925

This month we’ve chosen works that were all published or released in a specific year: 1925. And what a year. In fact the variety of works is quite a surprise.

Here’s what we’ll be looking at.


Thoughts on Tristram Shandy

The Damnation of Obadiah,  from Tristram Shandy Book 3.11, 1773

The Damnation of Obadiah, from Tristram Shandy, hand-coloured etching by James Bretherton, 1773

I have been reading and studying Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman for the past couple of months. It’s been a laborious task, and I’m afraid not a happy one.

I’ve read around it and I understand the reasons why Tristram Shandy is considered a classic, but my problems with the book are based entirely on the experience of reading it. Even the book’s admirers admit that it is ‘frustrating’ for the reader.

I’d go further and say that it is literally ‘pointless’. It commits the worst crime that literature is capable of, in that it fails to provide adequate motivation for the reader to turn the page.

Admirers will say that Sterne intended it to be frustrating, as if this makes the frustration acceptable. They will then tell you that Sterne’s achievement with Tristram Shandy represents a revolutionary new approach to fiction and narrative, parodying and satirising the realistic prose style that had come to typify the genre up to that point in history.

But as Thomas Keymer points out in his essay ‘Sterne and the “new species of writing”‘, collected in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: A Casebook (Amazon affiliate link), this adopts a view of the history of the novel that post-dates Sterne’s time of writing. The contemporary situation was not so straight forward, as Keymer explains:

Sterne writes at a time when the conventions of fictional representation, such as they were, remained fluid, ill-defined, and keenly contested. Witness the Richardson-Fielding dispute of the 1740s, which was as much about competing narrative strategies as it was about religion and ethics, or ideologies of gender and class.

The genre of prose fiction was itself still ‘novel’ (hence the name), and to see Tristram Shandy as a satire or comment on the ‘novel’ as genre is a total misunderstanding of its place in literary history. In fact the ‘new species of writing’ referred to is borrowed from an essay written in 1751 about Fielding, not Sterne.

Keymer goes on to question whether Sterne is satirising the modern novel at all in Tristram Shandy:

Why, in this most allusive of works does Sterne never refer explicitly to Richardson or Fielding and why has no modern editor of Tristram Shandy caught Sterne reworking any specific passage from their fiction?

Another critic, J.T. Parnell, points out that ‘he (Sterne) may never have read the ‘novelists’, let alone contemplated a devastating critique of the shortcomings of the emerging genre.’

And Jonathan Lamb chimes in on the debate too:

Such stabilising of Sterne’s text depends on an improbable estimate of the dominance of the novel’s realism, as if it were well enough established by the 1750s for its parody readily to be undertaken and appreciated.

All this undermines the commonly held view today that Sterne is some kind of protomodernist whose work was centuries ahead of its time. It seems clear that this was a time of great experimentation in prose writing, and that Sterne was only one of the experimenters. As it turns out he was the least successful, because the eventual direction that the novel followed was that of Richardson, Fielding and the realists. Sterne himself was harking back, rather than looking forward, his style being a later reinvention of the so-called learned wit of Rabelais, Cervantes and Montaigne.

It is equally misleading to say that Sterne preempted the modern age of literature, influencing Woolf, Joyce and Beckett. While these writers pointed to Sterne as an influence, this was without regard to his true position in the history of literature, but rather to further their own agenda, as Keymer explains:

Woolf was mainly concerned with an ulterior motive in the present: that of coopting Sterne for her ongoing campaign against the bricks-and-mortar realism typified by Galsworthy and Bennett.

Tristram Shandy was an experiment, no doubt, and a radical one. It is essentially an attempt at creating a new kind of prose genre outside of, or parallel to, the emerging genre of the novel. But it is an experiment that ultimately fails.

At least it does for me. I’m sure that Sterne fans will be keen to contend this point of view, so please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.


A Sentimental Journey, The Opera

Thanks to a comment left on this blog by the Laurence Sterne Trust I discovered that the composer Craig Vear has written and produced a digital opera based on A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne.

You can actually hear the 45-minute long piece streamed on the internet in a recording of the public showing at the Studio theatre, York Theatre Royal, 9th Feb 2011. It’s well worth a listen, especially as one of the musicians is the cellist Audrey Riley (who, incidentally, I worked with in a past life as a professional musician).

From the website dedicated to the project:

A Sentimental Journey (45mins) is a digital opera for a mixed ensemble of technologies, remote audiences and live performers: 4 musicians, 4 laptops, and an actor/singer. It is created from a book: A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne, first published in 1768.

It is not an opera about the book, nor is it with the book – as in a libretto – but something that is more inbetween. In this sense the music is created from within the book; that is to say, the imaginary dimension that the book generates when read, or was in the mind of the author when written.

Find out more at the website A Sentimental Journey – A Digital Opera.


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