Sunday, September 13, 2015

On Steven Marcus

Fourteen years ago, I registered for a seminar with Steven Marcus, a scholar of Freud, romantic poetry, detective novels and Victorian pornography. I think Foucault's chapter on the Victorians in History of Sexuality is a response to his work. To this day, I haven't read much of Marcus's essays and what I have read I've forgotten. But I remember the seminar, British Literature of the 1890s. Marcus was a short, lovely man in his early 70s. He had a mellifluous voice. Every great teacher has his eccentricities. Over and over again, in discussing Oscar Wilde and in discussing Freud, he told us, "The older you get, the less lovable you become." 
The first session met on Tuesday, September 4, 2001. The class had no more than eight students, and we sat and listened to a two-hour lecture in which Marcus explained the history of Western civilization via the history of calendars and the evolution of time measurement. How did Europeans, first following the Julian calendar and then the Gregorian calendar, face the psychological effects of each turn of a century? 
The next meeting was cancelled. We met again on September 18. "Little did I know when I first met you two weeks ago that history would change so dramatically." We got the second half of his lecture, and then he assigned our first real reading for the class, Henry James's The Princess Cassamasima, a novel about a young man who sets out on an assassination mission under the orders of socialist anarchists. On September 25, Marcus noted that recent history might present a problem in understanding the book. (The Internet at the time was talking about Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, which was not on the syllabus.)
To Marcus, every one of these books spoke to their own time and the devastating 100 or so years which would follow their publication. When we read The Time Machine and discussed the novel's intricate consideration of class structure and Darwinism, he mentioned a World War I story about an upper-class officer who was astonished to discover that the common soldiers he commanded were actually white, not permanently black from their time in the coal mines. When we read Jude the Obscure, he noted Hardy's knowledge of the problems of divorce, of the millions of unhappy children it would produce. A classmate and I took issue with the depiction of child suicide in the novel. We thought it was over-the-top. "Do you know the rate of child suicide during this era?" he asked. We did not. "It was very high. Do you know that historians have discovered that the rate of suicide in the short years preceding every turn of the century are higher than in the short years following?" No, we did not. "Hardy didn't make anything up." There was a gay theme in Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, he said. (Well, no shit.) There wasn't one in Sherlock Holmes. 
The last book on the syllabus was Heart of Darkness. He told us of the three main readings of the book, the initial one following its publication that was something of an apology for colonialism; the second one which arose following World War I, which saw in Kurtz the coming megalomaniac monsters of the 20th century; and the third post-colonial reading that came about in the '70s. He followed the second one, of course. Kurtz is the civilized man who engineers the destruction of everything civilization represents. Kurtz is Hitler. Kurtz is Stalin. Kurtz was what everyone should have been fearing at the turning of the last century. 
Of all the novels on the syllabus, Marcus seemed to like Jude the Obscure the most. He was fascinated by its circular structure, in which its protagonists, over and over again, return psychologically and geographically to the very places they keep trying to escape. When Marcus initially designed the course in late August, he decided to finish off with two books about colonialism. And that was the plan he followed. Kim was the second to last book we read. If you don't remember, the novel involves a young boy in India who becomes entangled in a spy network to advance English interests in an area in his region. On the last day of class he told us, "It is no accident that the first book we read this semester is about a terrorist and the second to last is about Afghanistan."

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