Sherlock Holmes stories have been metafictional since there have been Sherlock Holmes stories, what with Holmes complaining that Watson likes to gin up the sensation to maximize his readership. Since the 1970s or so, however, adaptations have taken the more mischievous and/or subversive approach of foregrounding the purported distance between Watson's character "Holmes" and the "real" Holmes, from Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Michael Dibdin's The Last Sherlock Holmes Story to more recent examples like Michael Chabon's The Final Solution and Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind. The Sherlock special The Abominable Bride is thus yet another excursus into the realm of explicit Holmes metafiction, with the added fillip that it takes on the current series' relationship to the Jeremy Brett Granada adaptation (establishing shots, a few snatches of the opening theme, the discussion of the story title at the end) and to its legions of online critics and fans.
At one level, the episode sent up the Granada series' famous attempts to reconstruct "authentic" period detail, which here becomes a kind of shorthand for Holmes as walking dead, as it were. This was perhaps most obvious in the closing shot, in which the 19th-century 221B set was abruptly juxtaposed with a 21st-century street scene, but also in the repeated references to the Paget illustrations (something for which the Granada series was also known), which here, rather cheekily, are ripped out of their original narrative contexts and made to serve an entirely different purpose. More generally, the undeniably bonkers Gothic plot, which somehow manages to yoke "The Five Orange Pips" (the, er, five orange pips, the revenge plot, and the KKK imagery) to "The Greek Interpreter" (Mycroft, the obliquity of the ecliptic, the avenging woman) to the sort of bizarre church setting one expects from the steampunk Robert Downey, Jr. films, is uncomfortably reminiscent of the later Granada journeys into extended episodes (many of which viewers would like to forget). "Is this silly enough for you yet?" inquires Moriarty. But the repeated breakdowns in both cinematic style (Holmes' second confrontation with Mycroft in particular, with its odd upward angles and lighting) and language, as the 21st century kept erupting into the 19th, reminded viewers that such aspirations to authenticity have a bad habit of pulling apart at the seams when examined too closely. Characters do what the authors want them to do, in good Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead fashion, which is why poor Mrs. Hudson goes from complaining about being reduced to a "plot function" to making everyone tea because, well, that's what she does. Of course, the whole thing is just a cocaine-and-who-knows-what-else dream, and so it's one added layer of irony that Holmes dreams up an "authentic" Holmes based on an adaptation of a series that does not exist in Sherlock's own universe. Speaking of which, much of the episode relies on a stealth pun: shooting guns vs. shooting up. The bride blows her brains out (well, sort of) just as the mysteriously reappearing Moriarty did/does--when she isn't murdering her husband with an awfully phallic rifle--and the solution to her mystery is also the solution to the 21st-century case of revenant Moriarty. Meanwhile, the gun-toting feminist approach to patriarchy, as presented here, is as potentially lethal as Sherlock's own recreational use of cocaine, morphine, and whatever else (and, perhaps, just as addictive?).
The quite deliberately embarrassing "ooh, feminists are the real KKK!" reveal at the end, even when taken as modern-day Sherlock's own drug-addled fantasy about what the women in his life really think*, seems suspiciously like a parody of a certain type of social justice rhetoric. Faced with a room full of avenging angels (well, in KKK garb), Holmes the good ally speechifies at length about silenced women engaging in resistance &c. And it's there that Moriarty wearily pops up to point out how "silly" this all is--both the ridiculous framing (activists as the KKK) and Holmes' purported moment of truth. Here, we gave you what you wanted, the showrunners say to the segment of their audience who complain about the series' sexist aspects; now, isn't it all so ludicrous? (Moriarty's suggestion that Sherlock and John really ought to "elope" is equally sardonic fanservice, yet another shout-out to the sort of fandom ship-teasing that the showrunners have quite calculatedly employed.) Then again, Moriarty's own "defeat" at Reichenbach Falls, where Watson magically shows up to save the day (with yet another gun, possibly Chekhov's), is itself overtly silly, what with the ineffective fistfighting and Moriarty's eventual demise. Nothing much here to be taken seriously.
In terms of how effective all this meta was...well, aside from the more mean-spirited facets of some of it, it might have worked better if so many other authors had not already explored these issues. (A Slight Trick of the Mind and Mr. Holmes are all about why the Sherlock Holmes stories worked; they're also about the ethical limitations of such storytelling.) This perhaps speaks to the source of my ongoing frustration with this series, which is that it keeps imagining that it is more original than it actually is--even when, as here, it is thumbing its nose at people who insist on fetishizing a previous adaptation.
* ETA: A poster on Metafilter makes this interesting argument: "The link for me comes from reading David Graeber’s “Debt: the first 5,000 years” in which he writes about the way societies who based their economies on slave labour had a kind of societal guilt about the institution that expressed itself in (amongst other ways) bloody violence against the slightest hint of slave revolts out of the fear of what such a revolt would do to the slave-owning classes - in other words they feared the worst because they knew deep down that they deserved the worst. By the same argument, if we read the episode as taking part in Sherlock’s head & not representing anything real, then perhaps Moffat’s plot isn’t saying that feminism wants to kill all men, but rather that this is what men feared - that their subjugation of woma[n] meant that they deserved this, even if no woman ever seriously plotted to kill their husbands for some inchoate feminist cause. Perhaps then the feminist plot in this episode really represents Sherlock’s own buried feelings about his treatment of the women in his life, from Hooper to Irene Adler on? Treating women badly seems to be a Sherlock trope & deep down he knows he deserves censure for it."
Covenanter fiction is its own subgenre of the Scottish historical novel, starting with the famous three-way argument between Walter Scott (Old Mortality), James Hogg (The Brownie of Bodsbeck), and John Galt (Ringan Gilhaize). The Covenanters, who have their heated partisans and equally heated detractors, open up narrative space to address everything from religious psychology to violence to national identity to modernity (or the lack thereof). Harry Tait's The Ballad of Sawney Bain (1990), which might seem to promise cannibalism, actually produces Covenanters; if you came for the cannibalism, you're likely to be sorely disappointed. Although the novel is loosely based on the influential Sawney Bean legend--a tale whose illustrious descendants include the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and others of that ilk--it says relatively little about what Sawney Bain, his wife Agnes, and their various and sundry brood were getting up to in their cave, leaving most of it to the imagination of our "civilized" viewpoint character, known simply as "the minister," a Presbyterian clergyman newly returned to Scotland from his life abroad in Holland at the very end of the seventeenth century. Initially as secure in his proto-Enlightenment gentility as he is in his King's English, which marks his otherness in a narrative where virtually everyone else speaks and/or writes in Scots, the minister becomes increasingly obsessed with finding out the truth of what went on in the cave, until the quest leaves him at the end with little more than dubious sanity.
The minister is only one voice amongst several. There are the narratives of Mathius Pringle, an earlier Presbyterian clergyman and avid witch-hunter; the Black Book of Sawney's wife Agnes, which forms the bulk of the novel; the occasional testimony of the Bains' apparently sole surviving child; and various oral narratives, folk and otherwise, about the Civil War period, the Bains, and the Bains' mentor, the purported warlock Steven Malecky. In other words, as you might expect, the novel foregrounds problems of interpretation, conflicting evidence, and point-of-view, especially in the context of an overarching Christian "plot" in which all events are part of God's divine providence (if only one can figure out how to see them in that light...). Now, historiographic metafiction, as Linda Hutcheon famously dubbed such self-reflexive meditations on the nature of historical truth, can be an awfully arid business unless the project has a greater point than deconstructing history's grand metanarrative. By the end of the minister's quest, he has failed to resolve much of anything; indeed, the obstinate silence with which Sawney Bain greets his interrogation at the very beginning foreshadows the rest of the plot, which frequently consists of characters ignoring, evading, or resisting his questions. In a moment of frustration, the minister thinks to himself that " [t]he peasant memory [...] is like the peasant mind, a childish thing, unguided it drifts helplessly in a tale composed of superstition and blood, passion, hardship, and despair" (265). This contemptuous observation, built out of his moderate cosmopolitanism and staunch Presbyterianism, quite obviously casts him as the objective adult in this affair, even as it also hits on the consistently nightmarish aspects of seventeenth-century Scottish history (famine, ongoing bloodshed) that shape his parishioners in the present. At the same time, "childish" fails to register the extent to which the locals consciously seek to undermine his quest.
The minister's dismissiveness is one way of keeping himself grounded--something all the more necessary in this intensely peripatetic novel. In the present, the minister arrives in the Lowlands from Holland, travels to his new church in Trig, and then travels to the Highlands and back in search of Malecky. In the past, Sawney Bain travels to Germany and back in order to fight, returns to Trig, and then leaves to fight again, traversing both the Lowlands and Highlands as both soldier and refugee from Pringle's persecutions; so too do Malecky and Agnes. This rootlessness receives its stark counterpoint in the form of the Bains' cave, simultaneously the Bains' final destination and the object of the minister's quest. Significantly, for the minister, the cave initially isolates the abject "horror" (an important keyword) of the Bains and their actions, both temporally and spatially: "The mist was no more than a natural hazard and to master it some sensible care had to be taken. There were no other dangers. The dreadful pestilence of the cannibal clan was already a thing of the past, already a terrible secret, but still, he thought, days like these would surely have been counted as blessings by them" (41-42). If, for the minister, the world in general is fallen, it is nevertheless easily negotiated and, more importantly, not necessarily pregnant with demonic activity (witch-hunting is, by this point, mostly an anachronism). The cave, though, gathers within itself a host of unspeakable and unnatural evils, most importantly cannibalism and incest, which are all the more horrific because undergirded by a strange twist of Presbyterian theology. (The Bains are believers who train their children to read the Bible and know their catechism, something that makes them even more frightening to the minister.) It is both a uniquely evil space, unlike the rest of creation, and--at least, at first--something violently erased from the present, leaving only testimony and terrible memories. But for the Bains, the cave was a conscious attempt to reconstruct a Biblical Eden in the face of what they call "Chaos," the world of mutual destruction unleashed by the Civil Wars: "But o this cave He had made anither Eden," explains Sawney Bain to Agnes, "and it was His will that we should bide there and multiply till the appointed hour when He wad call us forth. And was not the proof o this the fact that neither death nor famine nor pestilence visited us, forbye we kent very weel that they raged mightily in Chaos" (407). The Bains, from their point of view, do not exit Christianity so much as they exist in its purified annex, a bounded location free from the anarchy of the fallen world (Chaos) in which God's providence manifests itself with absolute clarity. Indeed, incest and cannibalism (to the extent that they're real--the characters tend to be evasive on this point) simply literalize or reenact the Bible. Incest, of course, happens repeatedly in the Bible (Adam and Eve, Lot, Noah), and when it comes to eating of the body...well. In other words, the cave is terrifying not because it is absolutely not-Christian but because it is all too reminiscent of Christianity and its Holy Book, insufficiently Other to the world of Chaos where all things kill and are killed on a depressingly regular basis.
When the minister pushes beyond the cave to seek Steven Malecky, the man whom he blames for what happened there, he seeks the Devil--the better to exorcise the possibility that the cave is rooted in Presbyterianism itself. It must be Malecky, or something far worse: "I have prayed for guidance in this matter, and I must think it possible that I have been chosen to be God's instrument, and when I am finally faced with Malecky I will know as that instrument how to act. I cannot rationally think otherwise, for to do so would be to declare that God's kingdom is but an arbitrary place of chance, and men little more than beasts imperfectly elevated by some freak of nature, and containing in their midst unnatural monsters as a matter of course" (358). It would, that is, be Chaos. The minister thus doubles Sawney Bain, who goes through the novel seeking Christian certainty (and thereby makes himself vulnerable to anyone with an ounce of authority, as both Agnes and Malecky point out repeatedly); his faith promises to make sense of a world that is otherwise bloody and meaningless, but, as we have seen repeatedly, such sense-making is frequently just another method of justifying bloodshed. Thinking in terms of God's plot becomes just one more way of evading the sheer nightmarishness of human history. In that sense, the minister's figurative punishment near the end, as he takes a literal fall (off a horse) and finds himself fallen in more ways than one, is to realize that "the world that now remained was an arbitrary comedy, a cruel jest in a wilderness of lies" (446). The horrors of the book's final pages resides in this new reality, in which the minister finds himself veering between Christian faith and nihilistic terror. Unable to find Malecky, the minister is instead saddled with the ominous figure of Samuel Free Frae Sin Gilfinnan, a one-legged piper whose last name is strangely reminiscent of James Hogg's demonic Gil-Martin, and who has the strange habit of appearing without regard to the laws of physics. The minister's response to Gilfinnan, whose appearance is angelic one moment, demonic the next, registers the final breakdown of his belief in an all-explanatory providence (nothing does much to explain Gilfinnan). Gilfinnan's coming heralds something entirely different, the coming of a rebellion that is neither for "Kirk or King" or, for that matter "God in Heaven," but for the people's "ain cause" (464)--a new Scottish identity that resists all the old authority and promises to put a being authentically of the people in its place. The promise of this new revolution constitutes the novel's way out from the minister's fractured interpretation of this world and all its inhabitants. Whether it's a less bloody way out, though, is something about which the novel remains silent. The minister will not be part of that new Eden, whatever it is.
The #MLAlienation account posted a run of interesting possibilities for dealing with departments that mistreat adjuncts and, more generally, supporting adjuncts within the Association as a whole, including this:
#MLA16 “They could refuse to allow departments whose PTF earn less than XX to interview at their convention.”
I'd previously had thoughts along these lines on a different topic, but pondering it a bit more, there is at least one major problem in the way of enforcing such a rule: "departments" don't interview at the conjunction; members of departments do. That is, "the Department of English, College at Brockport, SUNY" doesn't reserve a suite, but "Current Department Chair" does. There's no way to ban the department--just people from the department. Which is the rub, because barring some easily-outmaneuvered question on the registration form ("Are you coming to the conference to interview? To deliver a paper? To spend all your time in the book exhibit?"), the only way to disallow departments from interviewing at the convention is to disallow anyone associated with said department from attending in the first place. And while that is probably something a computer could handle easily enough, it would disadvantage graduate students, adjuncts, and anyone else in the department who might be in need of a job. (More cynically, I can imagine a lot of universities that might shrug at the news that their department was banned from the MLA. Saves money, and all that.)
Now, that being said, it's certainly within the MLA's power to name-and-shame universities that don't pay their part-time faculty a living wage. It would take some work (complaining that a Directional State in a low COL rural area isn't paying the same as a university in New York City makes little sense, for starters), but it would certainly be doable. It might also be possible for the MLA to establish a minimum payment threshold below which a department couldn't advertise in the JIL--denying them an imprimatur, in other words--but that would probably cause more trouble for jobseekers than the department.
There is nothing more tempting (OK, there are many things more tempting, but bear with me) for a harried academic, of any age or rank, than to turn a book chapter, dissertation chapter, or article into a conference presentation. It exists! The research has been done! Just wave a magic wand--or cursor--and presto! Insta-conference paper. Of course, as everyone who has ever been present for such conference papers can attest, the result is as likely to be insta-disaster than otherwise, especially when the speaker has not quite been able to trim their work to the necessary ten pages/twenty minutes, or perhaps hasn't even tried to trim it. (Cue rapid shuffling as the speaker discards multiple pages over the course of the talk, leaving paper fluttering about in their determined but desperate wake.) Worse still, academic prose written to be read is not at all the same as academic prose written to be heard, as becomes all too apparent when listening to a speaker losing themselves in the labyrinths of their ten-line sentences.
And so, I'm...adapting a chapter for a conference presentation. Presumably, this is a sign that I like to live dangerously (to the extent that academics live dangerously). The chapter, from Book 3 1/2, is about the weird history of the term "religious novel" in the first half of the nineteenth century (short version: no agreement about "religious," "novel," or "religious novel"). I cannot "do" the chapter in twenty minutes, because the chapter is forty pages long. I cannot "do" the chapter's full argument, because, well, the full argument is as long as the chapter. (Or so one would hope, because otherwise, the chapter has no business being forty pages long.) The conference paper therefore has to be about one thread of the argument; moreover, it has to be about one thread of the argument during a more limited chronological period, as the chapter covers about five decades or so. In addition, one of the most difficult aspects of doing this kind of reduction (which, one hopes, will not become a reductio ad absurdum) is that I have to toss most of the evidence and keep only a handful of truly punchy quotations. This is always a sad process when working with book reviews, because nineteenth-century reviewers could certainly bring the entertaining snark, and religious fiction definitely brought out the big snark guns amongst a certain segment of the reviewing population. Powerpoint can come in handy at this juncture ("here, look at this quotation while I keep presenting"), but does nothing to eliminate the need for an editorial axe.
Adaptations of Shakespeare are frequently spectacles, occasions for lavish costumes and flashy settings to underline the prestige of yet another Shakespeare production. But the newest Macbeth sets out to be an anti-spectacle. The hilly landscapes are bleak and virtually empty; costumes run the limited gamut from white to black; and except for Duncan's (presumably chilly) castle, the only visible manmade structures are Macbeth's tiny wooden house and the nearby church, both so full of cracks that the wind blasts through the walls and the rain pours through the ceilings. Characters are alternately filmed in medium shots or tight closeups so that they fill the screen, blocking out all else, and framed in shots so long that they virtually disappear into the inhospitable surroundings, like gnats. The gloom is only interrupted by occasional blasts of fire, accelerating from the child's funeral pyre with which the film opens to the burning Birnam woods (a new twist on the prophecy--the smoke and flames come toward Dunsinane, not the trees) to the apocalyptic red blaze with which it all ends.
This bleakness, not to mention the apparent sparsity of the population, makes the play's game of thrones seem even more pointless: what, exactly, is the rationale for all this traumatic bloodshed, save the naked lust for power? The filmmakers accelerate the speed of Macbeth's rise, decline, and fall by sharply abridging Shakespeare's text. The Weird Sisters glare ominously, but actually have little to say. Virtually all of Malcolm's dialogue is gone, including his test of Macduff's virtue; so, surprisingly, is Lady Macbeth's admission that Duncan looks too much like her father for her to kill him, along with her sleepwalking (and, for that matter, all references to insomnia). Perhaps not so surprisingly under the circumstances, the Porter at the gate is also out (no humor allowed here, plus there's no gate in sight), and, given the scenery, so too is Duncan's praise for the "pleasant seat" of Macbeth's castle (which, here, is pretty much one step above a hut). The murderers neither speak nor are spoken to. Various minor characters are nowhere to be seen. Other moments have been rearranged, so that Duncan's proclamation of Malcolm as his heir happens after he arrives at Macbeth's home, while Malcolm actually walks in on Macbeth right after he murders Duncan (and, understandably, takes a hike immediately thereafter, without chatting with Donalbain).
What is the effect of all these cuts? Most importantly, the characters' motivations are stripped down to their starkest elements--greed and revenge predominant among them. In the original text, Duncan is worthy of being followed in part because he is virtuous, and ditto Malcolm (the point of testing Macduff); here, Macduff follows Malcolm because it gives him ample opportunity for avenging the murders of his wife and children, not because Malcolm is the rightful and virtuous heir. Similarly, moving Malcolm's proclamation as heir both delays Macbeth's initial expression of greed--he was quite cheerful enough about his promotion before--and alters its resolution, as it offers a more immediate psychological reason for him to change his mind about murdering the king. Lady Macbeth sans sleepwalking and sans angst about Duncan's looks becomes even more the manipulative woman behind the weak man; her crash into insanity is largely prompted by Macbeth's decision to murder the Macduff family, which the film represents as the moment at which she clearly realizes that she has lost control over her husband. That moment also brings into focus the question of her maternity: the film opens with the cremation of her child and, in a shocking echo, Lady Macduff and her three children are burnt alive at the stake. Having lost a child, Lady Macbeth ultimately implodes at the sight of her husband murdering more. Macbeth, who murders Banquo in part out of rage that his children will become kings, is haunted by the ghost of a young soldier killed during the opening battle--an obvious substitute for his own lost child--who comes bearing the fatal dagger during Macbeth's soliloquy; instead of representing future potential, the dead soldier only impels Macbeth to yet more bloodshed. Indeed, the only children who make it out of this adaptation alive are the silent baby and equally silent girl accompanying the Weird Sisters (a reference to the children who appear in the original prophecies of Macbeth's death), both apparently devoid of fathers in a world in which avenging fathers and fathers avenging alike are a prime cause of bloodshed, and Fleance, whose race towards the hellish apocalypse at the end, sword in hand, promises that the play's end is no end at all.
(There may be other acquisitions, but they're on the other side of the country.)
Jo Baker, The Telling (Vintage, 2015). Reprint of Baker's 2008 ghost story, a parallel plot novel featuring a modern woman trying to get rid of the old family home and the nineteenth-century woman who once lived there. (Barnes & Noble)
Dario Fo, The Pope's Daughter, trans. Anthony Shugaar (Europa, 2015). Historical novel aiming to recuperate the reputation of Lucrezia Borgia. (Barnes & Noble)