Sunday, December 2, 2007

Electronic Office Hours & Essay Submission, Monday

Weather conditions at present make it uncertain whether the University will be open tomorrow, but a certainty that travelling conditions will be treacherous.

Accordingly, I am cancelling in-person Office Hours tomorrow and substituting electronic Office Hours. This means that you can give me your questions by email or contact me by phone at 604-250-9432 and I will give direct response between 10:00 am and 4:30 pm. If voice mail kicks in on the phone, just leave a message.

Class will in likelihood NOT be cancelled, so I will be have an in-person Office Hour from 5:30pm-6:30pm

However, if you do feel that travelling is too risky, you can submit your essay by email and still meet the deadline, given the circumstances.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Degenercacy Concerns -- Today

We haven't had anything recently on present-day concerns with degeneracy. Here's one from Italy:
A Giorgio Armani advertisement showing a little girl in a bikini has drawn the attention of Spanish authorities who are debating whether it depicts a child in an improperly sexual manner....
The decision was taken a few days after Dolce & Gabbana was forced to pull an image from Spain showing a fashionably dressed woman pinned to the ground by a man as other men looked on.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cardinal Newman's Influence

On the list of English public intellectuals who are clearly in the lineage of Newman's move from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, add Tony Blair who is about to do the same....

His wife Cherie Blair is a Roman Catholic, on the activist-Left side.

Darwin's Victorian rhetoric

A very illuminating article sent along by classfellow D.S.:

The Persuasive Mr. Darwin
Randy Moore, BioScience Vol. 47, No. 2 (Feb., 1997)
"It's interesting because it talks about Darwin's use of rhetoric to persuade his Victorian audience. It sums up each section and basically states that Darwin didn't believe in God but used the language of Christianity to make his argument more palatable to Victorians."

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ripped (as they say) from today's headlines ....

From Arts & Letters Daily, an article from The Nation that shows how contemporarily relevant is our course: shows, that is, how the modern intelligentsia are (a.) still gripped by the Nineteenth Century and (b.) enraptured by Darwinism as universal explanans.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Weather symmetry

Update: now that was mildly freaky.
[Today's (smaller) picture beside ..... ]

Here is a picture I took from my office window on November 29th last year.

Be ready....

Final Essay Draught Due

A reminder that a hard-copy draught of the thesis paragraph of the Final Essay is due in class this coming Monday, November 19th.

[Image via the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Selfish Gene, finally, becoming extinct.

As we know, our reading of Darwin shows that he offers group selection as the means by which social degeneracy is turned to moral progress. For the past twenty years or so, a cult of what have been called (by Stephen J. Gould for one) 'Darwinian Fundamentalists', headed by Richard Dawkins, have peed on the very idea of group selection from the twin dogma belief that (a.)individual genes are the only operative site for natural selection, and (b.) individual genes are entirely and uniersally concerned with their own survival. Hence the slogan "selfish gene."

As the following blog article sets forward, this cult is now being overthrown. (Full disclosure: I have been making great polemical hay, publically and privately, mocking this preposterous dogma from my undergraduate days. The great Edward O. Wilson has changed his mnd, which is the not the end of the beginning but the beginning of the end!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A.N. Wilson Interview

Classfellow D.S. sends along this very informative interview with A.N. Wilson developing some of the ideas in our recommended course text, God's Funeral.
So begins the latest book by A.N. Wilson, British novelist (The Healing Arts, Wise Virgin, Incline Our Hearts) and noted biographer (of Tolstoy, Milton, C.S. Lewis) who provoked controversy with his biographical studies of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. In God’s Funeral, Wilson presents the biography of a wounded culture: the great writers, artists and intellectuals of the 19th century who lost their faith when confronted with that century’s great scientific discoveries — particularly Darwin’s The Origin of Species. It was a clash between science and religion that shook the foundations of the Western world and "brought about a devastating sense of emotional loss which extends to our own times."

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Supernaturalism

This succinct article, presented courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily, looks at the creator of Sherlock Holmes & his interest in supernaturalism: yet another facet of the invaluable gem that was Victorian Britain.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Brief Article on Kingsley

Here is the link to the article on Kingsley that you are to read over the next two weeks in conjunction with, and ahead of, the section from Kingsley's famous Sermons on National Subjects handed out in class today.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Essay Blogging

Reading over your essays again ahead of returning them tomorrow, I'm struck with how rewardingly much they display a grasp of the underlying themes we are studying. The papers which dealt with the MacDonald topic, for instance, nearly all got, almost without surface mention, the fact, which I deliberately left implicit in lecture, that Princess & Curdie is an allegory of Victorian degeneracy.

Dan Rather, Vancouver & Dickens

Disgraced American journalist Dan Rather is in Vancouver, capitalising on the media appeal of the Olympic Games presumably in an attempt to rebuild his reputation, and is filming a news story on the downtown East side, which he describes with the term "Dickensian."

Interesting in Rather's disgrace was that his was the first case of investigatory journalism into corruption done, not by the corporate media, but by bloggers. Briefly, CBS News ran a story in 2004 by Dan Rather in which he claimed to have documents proving that the President of the U.S., George W. Bush, then up for re-election, had evaded service during the Vietnam War. As part of the story, CBS News put PDF copies of the putative documents on their website.

Directly, individual bloggers -- who were later described as 'an army of Davids -- began investigating the claims, and almost immediately discovered that the documents, which were presented as having been written in 1972, were actually done on Microsoft Word. This, of course, is like finding the nuclear submarine which won the Battle of Trafalgar.

In this case, Wikipedia is a suitable place to read a summation (the article is labelled "Rather-gate.") Most astonishing, in my view, and a real-life example of degeneracy, is the closing paragraph of the article which quotes Dan Rather himself, saying, first, that he stands by the fraudulent documents "because they haven't been proven false," and, second, (in a now infamous formulation) that the documents are "fake but accurate."

Count the degeneracies .....

Monday Class, November 5th

As I said in the email last week, this Monday we have a venerable Paterophiliac giving us an interactive look at Victorian art, and a counter-view of the Renaissance to Ruskin's. The Victorians had something of an obsession with the Renaissance and art (as we saw with Ruskin, for instance, and Dickens famous attack on Millais' Christ in the House of his Parents, raised in lecture, essentially assumed a Renaissance aesthetic), which found its most enduring expression, I would say, in the foounding in 1848, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Again, Monday is also the scheduled day for the peer-review component on the Group Project; and we will also have class time dedicated for you to work on that project.

Also scheduled is an introduction to the estimable Charles Kingsley.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Final Paper

Here are the criteria for the Final Paper.
  • Thirty-five hundred words
  • Due in class December 3rd.
  • Works from a minimum of two course novels and one course essay.
  • Engages with the course themes: Victorian degeneracy or progressivism; the 19th Century death-of-God idea; Darwinian evolution.
  • Includes secondary or tertiary research support, or an comparably strong independent analysis.
  • Follows the MLA style guide, or literary equivalent.
  • A creative alternative is available, requiring a thorough written proposal in advance of two to three pages length including detailed failure standards.

A draught of your thesis paragraph or a one-page point-form outline of the essay is due in class on November 19th.

The Sex Pistols & Degeneracy

The Sex Pistols' bass players has strongly complained that television is promoting degeneracy and corrupting his child. No, seriously.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Penny Dreadfuls

As I suspected, there is excellent internet presence for Victorian penny dreadfuls, such as can be seen here. And also here.

These are, in my opinion, arguably the true origin of comics, an argument, indeed, I make in my current lecture series on graphic novels. This, of course, is what a Englishman would say against the Americans' claim for genesis.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Proofreading Symbols

An on-line list of proofreading abbreviations may be viewed at this link.
I use the version authorised in my beloved Little, Brown Handbook for marking essays, but the differences are minor.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Solution to "Edwin Drood"

Hoping things are going well for the groups we set last week to look for the ending to the perfect mystery: Dickens' unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The task was to explain:
  1. Whodunit
  2. How who did it, did it.
  3. Three characters involved in the discovery, excluding Edwin, Jasper and Neville & Helena Landless.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Lecture this coming Monday

Remember to bring your Buckler text on Monday: we are going to work through Ruskin's seminal essay on "The Nature of Gothic." Given that the Gothic has such enduring and widespread appeal, and is so difficult to define precisely and accurately that one hears confident assertions of "what Gothic is" from every quarter, and few of which agree. Ruskin lets us go right back to the source in Gothic architecture, and thus allows you to engage the larger topic of Gothic literature from a sound empirical and historical basis that, you will find, will give you scholarly credibility in future discussions of the concept.

We will also, of course, look more at the master, Charles Dickens, and see how the book expresses the author's inner tension over and self-chastisement because of, his decade-long double life with a wife and with a mistress unkown to the public. Fascinating in this, and in other, regards, is the question of whether the novel shows Dickens possessed of a presentiment of his upcoming early death ....

On Degenerate Vancouver

Classfellow M.S. sends along this helpful link to yesterday's Vancouver Province.".... just a little thing of degeneracy and our modern age that I found interesting."

I might also add this link....

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dinner: Next Monday Class?

You'll all be working to the last minute, revising and re-evluating your mid-term essay ahead of class this coming Monday, so a dinner to start us off seems .... uh, on.

Fish 'n Chips were created in Victorian England -- there's an interesting story there -- and the are degeneracy to some, progression to others. So Cockney Kings Fish 'n Chips & beer? I'll supply the beer, you all (ahem) 'chip' in about five or six dollars for the food. Vegetarians can go chips & plot peas.

[I will bring the food up to class for six thirty....]

Let me know!

The New Victorians

Found via Arts & Letters Daily, with a tidy George Eliot reference:
But recent years have seen a breed of ambitious, twentysomething nesters settling in the city, embracing the comforts of hearth and home with all the fervor of characters in Middlemarch. This prudish pack—call them the New Victorians—appears to have little interest in the prolonged puberty of earlier generations. While their forbears flitted away their 20’s in a haze of booze, Bolivian marching powder, and bed-hopping, New Vics throw dinner parties, tend to pedigreed pets, practice earnest monogamy, and affect an air of complacent careerism. Indeed, at the tender age of 28, 26, even 24, the New Vics have developed such fierce commitments, be they romantic or professional, that angst-ridden cultural productions like the 1994 movie Reality Bites, or Benjamin Kunkel’s 2005 novel Indecision, simply wouldn’t make sense to them. More>>>

Group Project Proposals

The group project proposals that I received by the deadline this week will be returned with comments this coming class. There is no grading for this: this and the peer evaluation are means to ensure that you keep yourselves on a good pace and not leave everything to the tragedy of the last moment in which, though it seems inviting, is, alas, universally insufficent for excellence.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Progressivism & Degeneracy in Contemporary Culture

There is a useful page on a political movement under the name "Progressivism" at this link. The various sub-pages are, unusually, at the bottom of the page. As I read it, this is a Naderite movement, vaguely equivalent to the ideal (but not the actual) Green Party in Canada. I say not actual because the party platform of the Greens is manifestly feeble relative to this American version.

For contemporary Degeneracy, see Marilyn Manson's Nachtkabarett and its "Degenerate Art" section.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Hyphens: Illustrating Grammar vs. Style

From today's Toronto Globe and Mail
Bye-bye (or is it byebye?) to 16,000 silly hyphens
October 11, 2007 at 1:35 AM EDT
In my position of great privilege, hyphens are one thing I never have to worry about. Oh, I have the explanatory pages marked in reference books, and there are many of them. My Editing Canadian English devotes 12 solid pages to compounds and how they are made, to the difference between a hyphen and an n-dash and a solidus (that's what commoners call a forward slash). My Oxford Dictionary for Writers And Editors has a separate entry for each compound, one for crossbill (a passerine bird) and one for cross-bill (a promissory note), one for cross-link (hyphen), crossmatch (one word) and cross section (two words). I don't have to learn all these words and
exceptional cases; I don't even have to read them.

Office Hours

I like to have a great deal of availability, as not everyone is on campus outside class times in this day & age, and so I squeezed in an extra Office Hour between my morning and afternoon classes Tuesday & Thursday this term. As it has happened, two or three times already, including today, I have remained in the morning classroom in student consultation where it seemed discourteous, and perhaps superfluous, to break up to the office

I was just alerted also that the sign directing you to the Bennett Library yesterday was removed sometime before three o'clock.

What I will do, then, to provide maxiumum availability is to (a.) keep my Tuesday and Thursday hour, but to advise that I may be consulting in transit during the time, while (b.) extending my Monday Office Hour from four hours to six and a half hours, ten o'clock to four thirty, and my Wednesday Office Hour from five hours to six hours, from ten o'clock to three o'clock.

I am also available for consultation by appointment Friday mornings. And should there be a missed appointment, by all means call my daytime cell phone number: 604-250-9432.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Mid Term Topics

Take your pick of one of the following mid-term topics. The essay, worth twenty percent of the course grade, is twenty-five hundred words. You are very welcome to bring draught versions to office hours to work through revisions.
  1. It can be said of the Victorian era, and certainly so of the novels on our course reading list, that essays preceded fiction. Taking T.H. Huxley's "On the Physical Basis of Life" and John Stuart Mill's "On Nature" as your samples, and in light of information from lecture, explain what the rhetorical and polemical aspects of the essays reveal about about the implied Victorian reader of fiction.
  2. Assume that George MacDonald wrote The Princess & Curdie as an artistic counterpoint to the selection of writings comprising our course Charles Darwin package (a plausible assumption, in literary-historical terms.) Using techniques of literay analysis, and concentrating on the category of morality, present an anatomy of the representation of anti-Darwinian progress in MacDonald's text.
  3. Begin with a close reading of the opening chapter of Mill on the Floss in terms of course themes and then present an analytical evaluation of how George Eliot's powerful and unique narratorial voice functions in the text, using your own choice of examples.

Rod Stewart -- Rod Stewart! -- Opposes Degeneracy

Frankly, I enjoyed this news story regarding the recent "Live Earth" event:

Rocker Rod Stewart was so unhappy at the colourful language used at Saturday's Live Earth concerts - he pledged to cut out swearing at a recent gig.
Comedian Chris Rock's foul-mouthed appearance at Live Earth London prompted TV host Jonathan Ross to apologise to viewers.
And when Stewart played at Rioch Arena in Coventry on Tuesday, he promised to pay £10 to each member of the crowd if he swore.
He says, "I listened to people effing and blinding during the Live Earth Concert last weekend and it just sounded so cheap.
"If you hear me swear on stage I'll give you all a tenner."


I've been keeping my eye open, as always, on Arts & Letters Daily for pertinent articles, and today one appears that is effectively a refutatio of the polemical direction of Huxley & Mill. It also coins a term: soulism.

The Spiritual Brain
A Neuroscientist's Casefor the Existence of the Soul
By Mario Beauregard
and Denyse O'Leary
HarperOne. 368 pp. $25.95
....the materialists have two problems. Their certainty of victory is, for the moment, a leap of faith. There is no clear scientific consensus on how the brain produces the higher functions we call being human. And, second, the great mystery, the ultimate hard question, remains: How does matter produce mind, how can it? Irrespective of religious belief, immaterialism cannot easily be dismissed. What is the nature of what I am thinking and feeling now? To tell me that it is all a by-product of my brain is to tell me nothing. What I am is at least as real as the chair I am sitting on, and what I am seems to be immaterial.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Group Project Proposal Criteria

Here are the limiting criteria for the proposal for the group polemical project. These now apply to all groups.

The proposal will between one and four double-spaced pages in length, detailing the focus, scope, content, form and intention of the project.It must take the form of a set of failure standards -- applying the falsification concept from experimental science, where a theory is ranked as scientific only when it is capable of being falsified in a reproducible trial.

For instance, "The project will be judged to have failed if it does not:
  • advance an academic thesis,
  • reference one or more of the primary course texts,
  • reference at least one of Victorian essayists on the course reading list,
  • base itself on Charles Darwin's conception of either social degeneracy or progress, as expressed in the Darwin handout package.
  • form itself as a polemic, in the manner of the Victorian essays and fiction,
  • engage a present-day issue of either degeneration or progressivism,
  • contain two thousand words per student or equivalent,
  • show evidence of equal participation from all group members,
  • effectively apply the ideas of the Victorian age -- as represented by one of the great prose writers, and with reference to one of the important novelists -- to any of the issues that our own society has with either progression or degeneration,
  • &c, &c."

Nb. Polemical here is meant in its plain sense. For review, see (as always) the Oxford English Dictionary, and note how all the essays in our course, and all the fiction with the exception of The Mill on the Floss, are polemical. There is explanation of the contemporary polemical context on the assignment post.

Monday, October 1, 2007

John Stuart Mill "On Nature"

Here is a salient precis of Mill's argument in "On Nature" in relation to our course. "On Nature' was written between the publication of "In Memoriam" and Origin of Species and is notable for the succinct clarity of its articulation of a configuration of 'first things.' Due to the print culture of the nineteenth century -- prose essays from 'eminent Victorians' were read all but universally by the middle- and upper-classes -- and to the status of the subject, Nature, as the de facto 'summum bonum', Mill's essay becomes in effect the invisible but efficacious background ultimate belief through the Edwardians; even, I believe, to us, the Second Elizabethans.
  1. Nature is "the entire system of things; the aggregate of all the power and properties of all things." Mill's Nature, then, replaces God.

  2. 'Nature' is also a word used, in a secondary, a looser, a less accurate, sense, to denote "....things as they would be, apart from human intervention.' This is the sense in which people use the phrase "Nature as opposed to Art' or distinguish the natural from the artificial.

  3. This secondary sense is an inferior -- a misleading, in fact, in Mill's term, an "unmeaning" -- one for Mill, by primum principium. (MajorP.) Nature is 'all things.' (MinorP1.) Human actions are included in 'all things'. (C.) Human actions are part of Nature. Thus, 'human intervention' or 'Art' is not 'apart' from Nature, and thus the secondary sense is meaningless.

  4. The (reductionist, monist) summary of this is that " has no power to do anything else than follow nature; all his actions are done through, and in obedience to, some one or many of nature's physical or mental laws."

  5. There is also a third sense in which people use the word 'Nature': a moral standard against which human actions are to be compared. "[A] third meaning in which Nature does not stand for what is, but for what ought to be; or for the rule or standard of what ought to be." This is expressed in terms such as "Natural Law," Natural Justice," "human nature," "unnatural acts," "inhuman behavior," etc.

  6. Mill wrote 'On Nature' to debunk this third sense. In his words, "The examination of this notion, is the object of the present essay."

  7. Mill has three points against this.

  8. First, because man is part of nature, all of his actions conform to nature by, once again, primum principium.

  9. Second, the third sense is irrational, "....because all human action whatever, consists in altering, and all useful action in improving, the spontaneous course of nature." Instead of copying nature, sane human actions oppose nature: building houses for shelter & warmth, farming, curing diseases, etc.

  10. Third, the sense is immoral, "....because the course of natural phenomena being replete with everything which when committed by human beings is most worth of abhorrence [i.e. nature murders everyone, nature tortures many (and every one of us is born of torture & often death), and nature destroys property and land without mercy or discrimination], anyone who endeavoured in his actions to imitate the natural course of things would be universally seen and acknowledged to be the wickedest of men."

  11. In his debunking of this third sense of Nature, Mill shows himself to share -- even, I believe, to advance -- the Victorian obsession with and anxiety over, progress and degeneracy.

  12. This opposition to the state of nature which Mill presents as being the mark of rational man produces progress.

  13. Nature is instinct: and 'society' is the name given to the state of human control over instinct. "[N]early every respectable attribute of humanity is the result not of instinct, but of a victory over instinct." An example of progress is the increased cleanliness of (some few) societies.

  14. The natural state is filth. Cleanliness is the most artificial state imaginable. "Children, and the lower classes of most countries, seem to be actually fond of dirt. The vast majority of the human race are indifferent to it: whole nations of otherwise civilised and cultivated human beings tolerate it in some of its worst forms, and only a very small minority are consistently offended by it. Indeed, the universal law of the subject appears to be that uncleanliness offends only those to whom it is unfamiliar, so that those who have lived in so artificial a state as to be unused to it in any form are the sole persons whom it disgusts in all forms. Of all virtues this is the most evidently not instinctive, but a triumph over instinct. Assuredly neither cleanliness nor the love of cleanliness is natural to man...."

  15. Evident in the emboldened passages is the attitude of caution, suggesting a fear of, degeneracy: in fact, a class anxiety: middle against lower.

  16. This is most expicitly stated. "But even if it were true that every one of the elementary impulses of human nature has its good side, and may by a sufficient amount of artificial training be made more useful than hurtful; how little would this amount to, when it must in any case be admitted that without such training all of them, even those which are necessary to our preservation, would fill the world with misery, making human life an exaggerated likeness of the odious scene of violence and tyranny which is exhibited by the rest of the animal kingdom."

  17. This characteristic and deep-seated unease about social degeneracy can be detected in a passage on "social virtues."So completely is it the verdict of all experience that selfishness is natural. By this I do not in any wise mean to deny that sympathy is natural also; I believe, on the contrary that on that important fact rests the possibility of any cultivation of goodness and nobleness, and the hope of the ultimate entire ascendancy [i.e. the hope of progress.] But sympathetic characters, left uncultivated and given up to their sympathetic instinct are as selfish as others.... But (to speak no further of self-control for the benefit of others) the commonest self-control for one's own benefit - that power of sacrificing a present desire to a distant object or a general purpose which is indispensable for making the actions of the individual accord with his own notions of his individual good; even this is most unnatural to the undisciplined human being: as may be seen by....the marked absence of the quality in savages, in soldiers and sailors, and in a somewhat less degree in nearly the whole of the poorer classes in this and many other countries....Veracity might seem, of all virtues, to have the most plausible claim to being natural, since in the absence of motives to the contrary, speech usually conforms to, or at least does not intentionally deviate from, fact....Unfortunately this is a mere fancy picture, contradicted by all the realities of savage life. Savages are always liars. They have not the faintest notion of not betraying to their hurt, as of not hurting in any other way, persons to whom they are bound by some special tie of obligation; their chief, their guest, perhaps, or their friend: these feelings of obligation being the taught morality of the savage state, growing out of its characteristic circumstances. But of any point of honour respecting truth for truth's sake they have not the remotest idea; no more than the whole East and the greater part of Europe...."

  18. Mill also addresses moral degeneracy -- in the sense of vice and depravity -- directly, and posits the need for penal or capital punishment of degenerates. "Again, there are persons who are cruel by character, or, as the phrase is, naturally cruel; who have a real pleasure in inflicting, or seeing the infliction of pain. This kind of cruelty is not mere hard-heartedness, absence of pity or remorse; it is a positive thing; a particular kind of voluptuous excitement. The East and Southern Europe have afforded, and probably still afford, abundant examples of this hateful propensity. I suppose it will be granted that this is not one of the natural inclinations which it would be wrong to suppress. The only question would be whether it is not a duty to suppress the man himself along with it."

  19. Finally, the following passage lays out a general vision of Progressivism, which, although pre-Darwin, is very evidently evolutionary in form, entirely gradualist, and rooted in an ordered society. It is, if fact, the type of understanding which is the essence of the Idea which George Eliot transmutes into literary art in The Mill on the Floss, her pastoral masterpiece.

  20. In the section from which the following passage is taken, Mill is continuing his debunking of the conception of nature as a guide for human conduct, and is saying that, since evil exists, God (assuming He existed) would either have to be willing the evil to exist or be powerless to stop it, unless, He is under some necessary limitation whereby a Perfectly Good world is an imposibility, and His only way of bringing about goodness for humanity is through accumulated progress. [In a footnote, Mill makes clear that this he has taken from Leibnitz, and is the real meaning of that philosopher's famous dictum that God has created here 'the best of all possible worlds' -- with significant emphasis on the word possible.

  21. "....[God] could do any one thing, but not any combination of things; that his government, like human government, was a system of adjustments and compromises; that the world is inevitably imperfect, contrary to his intention....[T]he best he could do for his human creatures was to make an immense majority of all who have yet existed be born (without any fault of their own) Patagonians, or Esquimaux, or something nearly as brutal and degraded, but to give them capacities which, by being cultivated for very many centuries in toil and suffering, and after many of the best specimens of the race have sacrificed their lives for the purpose, have at last enabled some chosen portions of the species to grow into something better, capable of being improved in centuries more into something really good, of which hitherto there are only to be found individual instances....[I]f Nature and man are both the works of a Being of perfect goodness, that Being intended Nature as a scheme to be amended, not imitated, by man."

Friday, September 28, 2007

On-line Individual Presentation Files

The individual presentations are a wealth of helpful information for research papers and, possibly, group work. Accordingly, I have set up an on-line repository for each student's presentation document(s). Please send me yours by e-mail some time after your presentation & I will upload them to a central filespace, accessible here and by clicking on this post's title.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

On teaching "The Mill on the Floss"

This majestic (arguably world-historical) poem sums up my attitude to teaching The Mill on the Floss.

-- The Tables Turned --

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

-- William Wordsworth --

I love the beauty and the gentleness and the balance and the flow and the ease and the cool flow of narrative confidence that Eliot has created in what is simply a work of highest art, tout court. I want to enjoy and participate in the artistic masterpience, not pull it apart and look at the guts.

I hope that you too are enjoying the book, and that we can reach & appreciative understanding in lecture with the body still leaping and growing and flowing alive.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

MacDonald and Huxley

So, I hope you enjoyed, as I did, experiencing the literary dialectic between George MacDonald's Princess & Curdie and T.H. Huxley's essays, particularly "On the Physical Basis of Life." Whether direct or indirect, the exchange is greatly illuminating and represents a level of sophistication on the part of the Victorian readership which, though not native in our own culture, can be learned, appreciated....and emulated by us.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

"Idiocracy" & devo

Here is a link to the clip we saw in opening lecture from Idiocracy, which delightfully illustrates the (elitist) Darwinian anxiety about the progression & regression of humanity.
"WARNING: The following program deals with mature (Darwinian) subject matter and contains scenes of violence and coarse language. Viewer discretion
is advised."
The idea traces back to a classic SciFi short story to by Cyril Kornbluth, "The Marching Morons."

TLS on "Evolution Myths"

Relevant to our course, the TLS has this excellent article by historian Jim Endersby which encapsulates the theme our course & vector of lecture approach to the primary material. (Via the indispensible Arts & Letters Daily.)
On the morning of November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species made its first appearance and the world changed forever. An age of faith was plunged into profound religious doubt, and believers of every kind rose to pronounce anathema on Darwin’s godless tract, sparking a fresh battle in the long-running war between science and religion. But while the reactionaries raged, the scientific community soon came to accept natural selection, and the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work in 1900 (which marked the founding of modern genetics) set the seal on Darwin’s triumph by providing the missing piece to his puzzle – a scientific understanding of just how inheritance works.
Unfortunately, everything in the previous paragraph is nonsense....

A Pre-Darwinian "Survival of the Fittest" Image

Here is La Beche’s drawing Duria Antiquior (An earlier Dorset), 1830. To me, it has an application to the character of the Victorian Age: that is, a vigorous and at time violent moil of competing ideas and systems, belying the accepted appearance of uniformity and agreement.

Contemporary degeneracy talk, video-blog version

The latest episode is a debate on "declinism" in contemporary America: the two sides are a moderate declinist versus an extremist declinist (which says a lot, when one thinks about it...)

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Thomas Carlyle on Course Theme and the Relativity of Space

The assigned essays read in class -- well, lectured on only, I fear -- from Thomas Carlyle present the ideas of that great Victorian sage on degeneracy and progress, in the realm of the individual's attitude to the world; and set up the great mythopoeic project of novelist George MacDonald.

The essays form part of an important sequence in his masterwork, Sartor Resartus: "The Everlasting No," "The Centre of Indifference," "The Everlasting Yea," and "Natural Supernaturalism. The sequence is in fact a progression: from a state of spiritual decay in materialism and egotism, up, by stages, to the vigour and health of a state of wonder before the universe.

  • "The Everlasting No" is the position of the materialist and atheist, who, seeing a universe of mere matter, conducts life by "the profit-and-loss philosophy" (i.e. Utilitarianism & free-market capitalism) and, faced with certain oblivion, takes a proto-Existentialist and is finally judged by Carlyle thus: "Worldlings puke-up their sick existence, by suicide, in the midst of luxury." The everlasting "No" is the Worldling's final move to Egotism, where, in a negative epiphany, realises that eternal Death does not have feared, but can be embraced and accepted: "And as I so thought there rushed like a stream of fire on my whole soul; and I shook base fear away from me forever. I was strong, of unknown strength: a spirit, almost a god. The presence here of Milton's Satan is, of course, deliberate by Carlyle
  • "The Centre of Indifference" portrays the movement (of the text's fictional device, the elusive Professor Teufelsdröckh) away from selfish nihilism, and this first stage of advance is quiescent apathy: "Ach Gott, when I gazed into these Stars, have they not looked down on me as if with pity, from their serene spaces....Thousands of human generations, all noisy as our own, have been swallowed-up of Time, and there remains no wreck of them any more....Pshaw! what is this paltry little Dog-cage of an Earth; what art thou that sittest whining there? Thou art still Nothing. Nobody: true, but who, then, is Somebody?....'This,' says our Professor, 'was the CENTRE OF INDIFFERENCE I had now reached; through which whoso travels from the Negative Pole to the Positive must necessarily pass.'
  • 'The Everlasting Yea' is the consequence of ever-questioning human nature which, reflecting upon the state of unhappiness in the universe, suddenly asks of itself: "What Act of Legislature was there that thou shouldst be Happy?....What if thou wert born and predestined not to be Happy, but to be Unhappy?"
    Parenthetically, note that Carlyle is making the step here to the idea that the Egotism -- even, as the class noted in last Monday's lecture, the Solipsism -- of the Everlasting No can be in a sense transcend, rather than negated, by focusing on the Self, but using that focus to voluntarily lessen the Self (and the 'voluntarily' rescues the move for materialist egotism) in the interest of a higher principle -- but still a "higher" within a secular, non-Christian, system.
    Carlyle presents the voluntary diminishment of Self in this neatly secular way: "....the Fraction of your Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator. Nay, unless my Algebra deceive me, Unity itself divided by Zero will give Infinity." Carlyle then takes the further step to a full and positive affirmation. "....There is in man a HIGHER than Love of Happiness....Love not Pleasure; love God. This is the EVERLASTING YEA, wherein all contradiction is resolved." Of course, this is not, in Carlyle, a mere return to the previous form of the understanding of the Divine: the nineteenth century, as Hardy would write, believed itself to witness the Funeral of God. Carlyle, note, presents 'God' as a sense of a Self, directed, as the previous quotation says, toward Love.
    "....the Mythus of the Christian Religion looks not in the eighteenth century [the age of Voltaire, et al] as it did in the eighth....What are antiquated Mythuses to me? Or is the God present, felt in my own heart....? This is Belief: all else is opinion."
    A final quotation -- in fact, the final section of 'Everlasting Yea' -- is worth quoting, for the explicit statement of the progressivism of Carlye's thought here. In it, Carlyle (being even more intensely Scotch and vestigial Calvinist than usual) announces his Philosophy of Work as the crown on the Affirmative view of Life:
    "I....could now say to myself: Be no longer a Chaos, but a World....Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a product, produce it, in God's name!....Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might."
  • Natural Supernaturalism. This section is a wonder in itself, even as it articulates Wonder as the supreme principle by which a progressive Humanism is possible. Its central understanding is exquisitely simple -- even obvious -- once the fresh and unexpected idea is seen free of the distorting lens of what Carlyle calls Custom: that is, the familiarity of repetition. The world is a miracle, Carlyle says, every action, every flower, every sunrise, every rainfall, a miraculous event. That anything happens is ineffably wondrous.
    ".... perhaps the cleverest trick is [Custom's] knack of persuading us that the Miraculous, by simple repetition, ceases to be miraculous....Am I to view the Stupendous with stupid indifference, because I have seen it twice, or two hundred, or two hundred million times?"
    [This is, by the bye, Carlyle's reiteration of another famous Scot, the 18th Century belle-lettrist and philosopher, David Hume, who explained our belief in some faery thing called "causation" as the action of Custom on our repeated observation of two events related closely in Time.] Carlyle's point of view in 'Natural Supernaturalism' is repeated at the end of the Century in a more imaginative and literary way by G.K. Chesterton in an oft-anthologised chapter (written as a non-Christian) of his Orthodoxy.
    All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking;or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington,he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstasy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning;but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE..
    The second insight that makes up the power of the 'Natural Supernaturalism' chapter, and creates the dynamism and sense of progression is perhaps best read for oneself. Carlyle's main thrust is the energetic presentation of an understanding whereby both Time and Space are less substantial than -- indeed, at the service of -- the human mind. It is, thanks to the popularisation of Einstein's theorem, no stretch for moderns to accept that Time is relative to the perceiver; to the human mind. But although it is not popular it is equally true, and equally Einsteinian, that Space is relative to the perceiver.
    Einstein's formula is that e = mc^2 (energy equals mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light). Note that the essential fact about formulae is that their arrangement is entirely subjective. It is equally valid to reformulate e = mc^2 for velocity [Fudging here between velocity and speed: speed is change of position in ratio to time taken; velocity adds the element of direction]: thus c = root(e/m). ("c" is a particular velocity: i.e. the speed of light.) There is, in other words, no objective -- i.e. fixed outside individual preference -- reason why the formula should be solved for any one of its elements rather than another. Now, observe how Space is one of the subjective elements of Einstein's formula by which the equation may be solved. Think of distance ("D") as being a change in place ("ΔP"). And velocity as "v"; and Time as "t". You'll remember from High-School that the formula for velocity is v = ΔP / t. (Recall that we're saying that "D" is the same as "ΔP"). This equation can be resolved for both Time and Space: t = ΔP / v and ΔP = vt . Putting this, then, into Einstein's formula for relativity, we have (ΔP / t) = root(e/m) where (ΔP / t) is equal to the velocity of light in a vacuum. And because ΔP is change in position -- i.e. distance, which is just to say Space -- Space is relative. Q.E.D.
    Using ordinary language, Time (which we accept as being relative) is simply a word for what happens when we change places; and Space is a word for what happens when there is a change (in our experience, a forward motion) in Time. Thus, Time and Space are both relative to our perception, and are merely different aspects of the same fact: i.e. phenomena. Carlyle, please note, is not saying that the mind creates Space & Time: he is not a solipsist. What he says (indeed, what many other writers and thinkers of this school have said -- W.V.O. Quine, for instance) is that Space and Time are relative constructs by which the mind organises and negotiates the phenomena it experiences. In a phrase, natural supernaturalism!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Schedule of Individual Presentations

I have put the schedule for the individual presentations online at this link. Please look it over to verify your date: if there are any requests for changes, please e-mail them to me.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Group Polemical Project

Groups of five will be set in class on September 24th. The project will include the following:

  1. reference to one ore more of the primary course texts,
  2. any one of Victorian essayists on the course reading list,
  3. Darwin's conception of either social degeneracy or progress,
  4. a polemical engagement with a present-day issue of either degeneration or progressivism,
  5. two thousand words per student or equivalent.

The assignment is to apply the ideas of the Victorian age -- as represented by one of the great prose writers, and with reference to one of the important novelists -- to any of the issues that our own society has with either progression or degeneration, and put in into a polemical form.

Inriguingly, the Victorians' debate over the death of God (which, as we are learning, is powerfully behind theAge's defining twin obsession with degeneracy and social progress) is not only vivid at this particular moment in Western history, but, in the form of books such as Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, and Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation, is polemical to an most extreme degree.

The project form can take the prosiac form of any of the current polemical books (Harris, for instance, has made his published polemic very brief), or can be creative in conception. There will be a intra-group peer status review of the Group projects in class on November 5th. The results of the peer review will be handed in to the Tutorial leader and form part of the grading of the project. The project is due in our penultimate class, November 26rd. The assignment is worth twenty percent of the Course grade.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Kingsley text now available

The Custom Courseware version of Charles Kingsley's Water Babies is now in the University Bookstore, and they have done a very decent job in the presentation. The illustrations, for example, appear delightfully.

The book, in its day as popular as Harry Potter is in ours, is, in this day and age, a hidden jewel, and I am sure that you will find it a memorable and highly enjoyable read.

Class Participation Anxiety Seminar

There is a seminar on overcoming anxiety about class participation on Wednesday, October 3rd from 1:30pm - 3:00pm at the W.A.C. Bennett Library, 7th floor, Room 7301. The poster with full description can be viewed here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Degeneracy & Progressivism: Current Debate in American Context

I came across an intriguing article in the Washington Post online on the topic of "declinism" in the context of the United states. The author, Joel Achenbach, runs the achenblog: you can see him on a recent episode of

Reading Victorian Prose

Among the pragmatic educational advantages of reading essential prose passages from the great Victorian writers of literæ humaniores is the experiential benefit: the opportunity to use your response to the experience as a means whereby the mind and character of the Victorians is revealed in its contadistinction to your own. For Mill, and Carlyle, and Newman were how the literate -- in effect, the entire bourgeoisie -- in the ninteenth century took their entertainment. If you did not find John Stuart Mill 'On Nature' and entertaining experience, well, then you now have an experiential window into the sensibility of your counterparts in that period.

Of course these sections also give an indispensible store of knowledge of what is perhaps just as elusive as the temper of a past Age: its background ideas, assumptions, and default principles. It is my belief that just to read the fiction solely, or to just read the fiction with the summaries of ideas that lecture provides, is a simulacrum: an incomplete and ultimately bloodless experience. The æsthetic experience is, of course, of very high value -- in George Eliot, indeed, it is in effect Final Cause -- but it is not the sole high value. The intimate, organic, and for them unexamined, unity of idea and æsthetic, of intellect and feeling, is just that characteristic note which veritably defines what it is to be a Victorian novelist.

This is so well encapsulated by a passage from John Stuart Mill's Autobiography: indeed the emboldened phrase is what I consider the very motto of the Victorian literary sensibility.
What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence.
If you should be having any challenges with the experiential pedagogy we are using this term, by all means stop by an office hour or make a special appointment to develop the understanding even further.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Opening Lecture

We had discussion outstanding on aspects of Darwin, but we had a heavy dose of introductory study and lecture and best to have that germinate and bear fruit in the coming week's class, in which we have ample discussion time.

It is important to begin the course with a solid understanding of Darwinism: the Victorian age in so many ways being encapsulated by that, chronologically & intellectually, central writer. Furthermore, the Victorians did separate their literature in fiction and prose as we do. Rather, they read both for pleasure and information quite indiscriminately. As someone has famously said, 'Go thou and do likewise'!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Individual Presentation

Update2: a reminder that the deadline for submitting your presentation date is this week.
Update: October 8th is the Thanksgiving holiday: thanks for the reminders! And so that's sorry, Todd....

Your Individual Presentations will be no more than ten minutes in length, which includes discussion time. Your presentation will cover some aspect of either degeneracy or progressivism in Victorian England -- either a specific case of either, or writing for or against it. Darwin's attitude to degeneracy would be a good example of latter, were it not that it has been already done in lecture; London slums an example of the former.

At the conclusion of your presentation, hand in a written one-page summary of your intention for the assignment.

Use the comments section to this post to commit to a date: two people per week until all dates are taken, and then three per week for any remainder. The dates as follows:

  • Sept. 17th, Sept. 24th, Oct. 1st, Oct. 15th, Oct. 22nd, Oct 29th, Nov. 5th, Nov 19th, Nov. 26th, Dec 3rd.

Course Syllabus

Course Syllabus & Information

Reading Schedule

Following this schedule will keep you technically abreast of lecture. The advisable reading schedule is, as always, to have each text read in full before the first lecture upon it. All essays are in the Buckler prose collection.

Week 1: Charles Darwin: Selected Passages (Handout);
Thomas Carlyle: The Everlasting No; Natural Supernaturalism
Week 2: George McDonald, Princess & Curdie
T.H. Huxley, Essays.
Week 3: George McDonald, Princess & Curdie
Week 4: George Eliot, Mill on the Floss
John Stuart Mill: From Autobiography; Nature.
Week 5: George Eliot, Mill on the Floss
Week 6: Charles Dickens, Mystery of Edwin Drood
John Ruskin: The Nature of Gothic
Week 7: Charles Dickens, Mystery of Edwin Drood
Week 8: Charles Kingsley, Water Babies
John Henry, Cardinal Newman: The Idea of a University; Apologia Pro Vita Sua
Week 9: Charles Kingsley, Water Babies
Week 10: Walter Horatio Pater, Essays.
Matthew Arnold, Essays.
Week 11: Marie Corelli, The Sorrows of Satan
Week 12: Marie Corelli, The Sorrows of Satan
Week 13: Recapitulation and miscellany.

The recommended text is A.N. Wilson, God's Funeral, for several reasons. I would say primarily because, I am convinced, it is an indispensable feature of each English scholar's library: permanent furniture that will be perennially beneficial. God's Funeral is a delight and an education: the style and the personal details captivate while the dialectic informs the sweep of the intellectual nineteenth century clear ringingly in your mind. Of course, more immediately, it forms the ideational basis of course lectures.

Schedule of Assignment Due Dates:
Assignment details in "Pertinent & Impertinent" Links.

Nb: There is a four percent per day late penalty for all assignments, documented medical or bereavement leave excepted. For medical exemptions, provide a letter on an MD's letterhead which declares his or her medical judgement that illness or injury prevented work on the essay. The letter must cover the entire period over which the assignment was scheduled and may be verified by telephone. For bereavement leave, simply provide, ex post facto, a copy of the order of service or other published notice of remembrance.

September 21st: Individual Presentation: due date for sign up.
October 15th: Group Polemical Project: proposal.
October 7th: Mid-Term Essay topics posted.
October 22nd: Mid-Term Essay due.
November 5th: Group Polemical Project: peer review.
November 19th: Final Essay draught thesis paragraph due.
November 26th: Group Polemical Project due.
December 3rd: Final Essay due.

Support material available on Library Reserve.

Nb: “Participation requires both attendance and punctuality ."

Instructor Contact:
[Updated] Office Hours: AQ 6094 -- Monday ten o'clock to four thirty, Tuesday & Thursday eleven thirty to twelve twenty (in office or in classroom), and Wednesday ten o'clock to three o'clock. Bring your coffee and discuss course matters freely. E-mail to Use your SFU account for e-mail contact. Other e-Mail accounts are blocked by white-list. Daytime cell phone: 604-250-9432.

Course Approach:

From the direction of the engagement with God. "God's Funeral" is the result of the materialism which produced, and was then strengthened by, Darwinism and Urban Industrialism (each of the pair then strengthening the other; and is then the cause of search for Resurrection: that is, a literary search for a revivified humanism. Giving shape to this is the perhaps paradoxical, perhaps merely natural, double-sided obsession, century long, with both progress and decadence.

Course Outline

Instructor: S. OGDEN
FALL 2007

God's Funeral

Invoking Thomas Hardy's poem of like title, A.N. Wilson's God's Funeral is a fluid exposition of what is surely the longest movement of the literary nineteenth century: the death and burial of God. Interestingly, an aspect of this long event that is subtly kept out of sight is the undeniably essential act of killing God in the first place. Main force in the assignation was, of course, Charles Darwin, and the weapon was his theory of 'natural selection.' Darwin's account of a progressive evolution from Ape to Man was victorious over the idea of Biblical creation in many minds through the long century. Fiction often has a mind of its own, however, and the power of literary art deflected the Darwinian weapon onto a different trajectory. In this course we will look at a range of nineteenth century writers who engaged very powerfully with the idea of evolution, but with a literary perception that allowed them to see to the radical heart of Darwin's theory and recognise - decades ahead of the mainstream - that evolution has no direction except survival, and thus promotes regression as easily as progression. Tying regressive evolution in with cultural anxieties about moral degradation resulting from the new industrialised urban concentrations, the novelists represent a counter-force of literary resistance to what was becoming known as Social Darwinism, and, in some cases, a vision of a funeral without a Corpse: a God resurrected as a power of regenerative evolution.

PREREQUISITES: Credit or standing in two 100-level English courses and two 200-level English courses. Students with credit in Engl 329 or 333 may not take this course for further credit.

Kingsley, Charles Water Babies
Dickens, Charles The Mystery of Edwin Drood
MacDonald, George The Princess and Curdie
Eliot, George The Mill on the Floss
Corelli, Marie The Sorrows of Satan
Buckler, William (ed.) Prose of the Victorian Period

Recommended Texts: A. N. Wilson God's Funeral

15% Participation
10% Individual writing presentation
20% Group Polemical Project
20% Mid-term paper (2500 words with revisions)
35% Final paper (3500 words with draught outline)