Thursday, December 20, 2007

From Hell - Some Musings...

One day men will look back and Say
that I Gave birth to the 20th century.
- Jack The Ripper, 1888

London, England - late Autumn 1888. Five prostitutes are brutally slain in an area known as Whitechapel - situated in London's squalor-ridden East End. Their throats were cut and their bodies savagely disemboweled; the murderer, who simply called himself Jack The Ripper, was never found or brought to justice. Although history has had its share of antecedent homicidal butchers, Gilles de Rais, Countess Elizabeth Bathory and Peter Stubbe notable among them, The Ripper murders, with their grisly, sensationalistic details and victims of lower class, economic level, and virtue proved to be an international scandal and fodder for newspapers across the globe.

"Ripperologists" debate over the veracity of the alleged quote that begins this essay, however, I take as my stance and point of departure the axiom put forth in John Ford's seminal anti-western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), "When myth becomes legend, print the legend." The Ripper "quote" is of some significance as author Alan Moore appropriated it as a wedge to interrogate the conspiracy theory put forth in Stephen Knight's Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1977); Knight posits the birth of a Monarchy/Masonic conspiracy to shield the Royal Family from public disgrace and shame. The progeny of this theory then was the "myth" of Jack the Ripper, while in reality (according to the theory) the butcher was Royal physician, Sir William Gull.

In his essay, "The Violence of Criticism: The Mutilation and Exhibition of History in From Hell", Barish Ali offers this succinct summarization of the film's scandal concealing diegesis:

From Hell traces the foundation of these [Ripper] slayings to Prince Edward Albert Victor (Prince Eddy), grandson of Queen Victoria, who secretly marries a working-class girl, Annie Crook, and fathers her child. When Queen Victoria learns of the child, she summons the physician William Gull, who has been rising in the ranks of his profession as a doctor and in his social position as a Freemason, and orders him to "silence" the mother of the child, who has been put in a mental asylum. Gull does so by operating on her, damaging her mental faculties, and laying the matter to rest. Circumstances become complicated, however, when Mary Kelly, an acquaintance of Annie Crook, and her friends Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, and Liz Stride, all prostitutes, decide to blackmail the Royal family.1

I'll be posting the occasional tangentially "academic" musings from time to time here. So, the broader concerns of this essay/blog post then, target late Victorian society as a possible locus of ideological coordinates that ultimately chart particular formations - shaping and forming late modernity. Alan Moore, the author of From Hell, noted that "The Ripper murders — happening when they did and where they did — were almost like an apocalyptic summary of... that entire Victorian age. Also, they prefigure a lot of the horrors of the 20th century."2

I also take this statement as a wedge to engage in thematic analysis with From Hell's narrative - exploring both Alan Moore's graphic novel and the Hughes' Brothers 2001 film. Theoretically, this essay traverses the works of Marx, Freud and Foucault. Marxist analysis is indispensable when discussing class struggles and the economics of nineteenth century England, Freud's notions on the Uncanny are especially important with regard to the opium-laced visions of Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp) and the gaze that they produce. And lastly, I turn to Foucault, who stressed that it is not the event itself but the formation of the event that is significant. The more formal aspects of this brief essay attempt to map a Foucaultian genealogy of the events that led to the Whitechapel murders and the residual effects they hold over the twentieth century.

Marxist Interpretations

Conceptually, Moore chooses an interesting criminological methodology for his graphic novel; he focuses on the Ripper investigation as a holistic procedure. In other words, Moore articulates through his narrative that in order to solve society's ills and transgressions, one must first cure the ills of the society.

At a societal level, the Marxist lens holds great dominion over Victorian London. Marx's exile from Prussia was spent in London; for over forty years, the conditions of his poverty-stricken life inspired his major works on class, communism, labor, and capital.

To discuss Marx and Victorian London is to weave a skein that cannot be undone. To quote another famous, although fictional, homicidal butcher, Hannibal Lector, "And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? No, we covet what we see." Whether Marx coveted the life of ease and delicacy so prominently on display in the West End of London is another matter, but for our purposes let us say that Marxist theory begins, in a sense, with Victoria's oligarchy. Marx's work while living in London would change the lives of hundreds of millions. London was the geographic center for the philosophical and economic frameworks that would inspire justifiable revolt and revolution in many regions of the world including, of course, the United States of America.

Marx literally saturates every sequential frame of the graphic novel; indeed he takes center stage at one particular point:

During one murder, scenes from the killing are interspersed with scenes from a nearby meeting of a socialist club, addressed by William Morris, where a portrait of Karl Marx comes to dominate the scene. In his appendix, Moore sardonically expresses regret that England never had a bloody revolution as France did.3

As we know, revolution is not the guarantor of social equality or harmony; the French Revolution should be evidence enough of this as often one form of corrupt self-government is substituted merely for another.
the setting of Whitechapel holds numerous, extremely important social and economic factors that require exploration. Judith R. Walkowitz notes:

To middle-class observers, Whitechapel was an alien place, a center of cosmopolitan culture and entrepot for foreign immigrants and refugees, whose latest wave consisted of poor Jews escaping the progroms of Eastern Europe in the 1880s… Whitechapel had come to epitomize the social ills of "Outcast London." Certainly, casual and seasonal employment, starvation wages, overcrowding at exploitative rents, an inhumane system of poor relief, declining traditional industries, and an increase in "sweated" labor were all marked features of living and working conditions there.4

Under these conditions, and especially at the dawning of a new century, it is not difficult to imagine a man such as Marx criticizing the current conditions in favor of a more equitable system of government.

From the sprigs of grapes (used as bait to lure the prostitutes) that denote an educated, upper-class citizen, through the mutilations - careful, deliberate, displaying a thorough knowledge of human anatomy, to the archaic rituals of fraternity witnessed in the chambers of the Freemasons, Marx provides our first contextual leverage in forming the social and hence societal conditions that led to the Whitechapel slayings.

Marx died four years before the Ripper murders but it is tempting to query how he would have responded, through an op ed or journal or perhaps a publication? How might it have read?

Freud and the Uncanny

Certainly, Freud informs both the graphic novel and film in several noteworthy ways. I wish, however, to specifically discuss Freud's writings concerning the uncanny.5 One of the more profound ways in which Freud is introduced into the text comes by way of the adaptation process.

As is endemic to the process, Moore's graphic novel compels abbreviation. But, rather than excising the character of Robert Lees, the London psychic who reportedly collaborated with the official investigation, screenwriter Rafael Yglesias combined the character of Lees with the protagonist of the film, Inspector Fred Abberline. In doing so, the visions that Lees witnesses are not severed from the film. They provide, arguably, some of the most impressive moments in the film as they interrogate multiple planes, temporal and spatial conditions of character, gaze and vision, and future events.

These visions then exist to serve compound purposes. Firstly, Abberline, who "chases the devil" in East End opium dens dreams bits and pieces of various crimes while in his drug-induced coma. It is hinted that this ability has had impact on his stature as an Inspector given his class status. Secondly, when not at an opium den, Abberline recreationally mixes cocktails of Laudanum and Absinthe while unwinding in his bathtub. Alternatively, The Ripper (Gull) is shown going through the exact same ritual before each and every murder. There is a direct link between Abberline and Gull both filmicly and psychologically, as if Gull were literally transmitting his thoughts directly to Abberline in an Uncanny method, telegraphing his strategy and tactics. These visions directly engage Freud's theories on the uncanny. Lisa Coppin offers the following summary of the uncanny in From Hell:

Moore and Campbell focus in the construction of their book precisely on the return of both textual and visual elements to create an uncanny feeling. Hereby they skilfully make use of their knowledge that our visual memory does not stock images in the same way our conscious memory stocks words. Images remain brand-marked on our retina in a subtle, often unconscious way… Via visual procedures such as the positioning of the camera and the graphic melting together of vision and reality, the reader gets drawn into the story, what [sic] contributes to the efficiency of the uncanny.6

The visual procedures of both Moore's graphic novel and its cinematic equivalent make skillful and powerful use of one of Freud's most interesting theories. This combination of historical accuracy and horrorific poetic license do indeed create a distinctly uncanny effect for the reader and viewer.

Towards a Foucaultian Genealogy

Foucault states, "Let us give the term 'genealogy' to the union of erudite knowledge and local memories which allows us to establish a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of this knowledge tactically today."7 It is my goal to explore that which is not obvious, clear, or evident in contextualizing these various intersections, or indeed, collisions of society and culture.

But, how might one begin such a task? What questions do we ask? Judith Butler engaged in a similar inquiry when she interrogated just what events might have led to the event of September 11, 2001. She writes, "The raw public mockery of the peace movement, the characterization of antiwar demonstrations as anachronistic or nostalgic, work to produce a consensus of public opinion that profoundly marginalizes antiwar sentiment and analysis, putting into question in a very strong way the very value of dissent as part of contemporary U.S. democratic culture."8

I'd like to address a few things in this quote. To begin with, this is a fraction of many contemporaneous issues Butler raises in relation to September 11. With this in mind, let's focus on her stressing of contemporary U.S. democratic culture and in doing so, we should reflect for a moment on the political and social ideologies that were responsible for the American Revolution. It was precisely the injustices that were so prevalent in Great Britain that caused revolt among the commonwealth colonial citizens. These inequities continued to grow in scale and scope up through the Ripper murders of 1888.

Additionally, Butler takes as evidence for her claims prior aggregate opinions regarding politically charged controversy. She charts various discourses and their cumulative effects on public opinion and foreign policy.

This is where I have attempted to shape the contours of this genealogy. Are the xenophobic fears of a foreign cosmopolitan hub like Whitechapel currently extent in the United States? Did the Ripper prefigure so much of the twentieth century as his famous quasi-epitaph predicts?

One of the most intriguing chapters in From Hell consists of the ideological ravings of Sir Willaim Gull as he takes his coachman and unfortunate commoner accomplice, Netley ,on a "tour" of London. Lisa Coppin writes:

Gull intends to save the world from the decay caused by women and by doing so, he definitively wants to consolidate the age of Reason, or in other words, the patriarchy. In order to save patriarchy, one has to recognise again the ongoing war between the sun (the male element, light of knowledge, personified in the Greek god Apollo) and the moon (the female element, dark, creative, since the beginning of patriarchy personified in the Greek god Dionysus).9

In this tour, Gull lectures to Netley on the achievements of mankind and modern civilization, notable among this tour are, Cleopatra's needle, St. Paul's Cathedral, Parliament, and Buckingham Palace. He stresses that women who hold sexual, political, and religious power are to be considered dangerous and a threat to the status quo of proper society.

Might we say that these ravings are part of a hegemonic order in the contemporary United States?

I have argued "yes" to many of the rhetorical questions I have posed under this Foucaultian heading and would stress that the Ripper murders do in fact predict many of the horrors of post nineteenth century modernity. Whether the quote is emblematic of this, or in fact an accurate quote does not diminish its potency.

Lastly, I pose a question worth consideration: "is From Hell a horror film?" Indeed, on all accounts it would appear so. And although From Hell belongs to several sub-genres, such as, the historical/period film, graphic novel adaptation, and the police-procedural thriller, it traverses the terrain of our worst nightmares and anxieties and as such can be situated firmly within the horror genre proper. And why should this be of note? If Jack The Ripper and the Whitechapel murders predetermined similar events in the twentieth century, was Victorian England essentially, the navigator of these occurrences? What horrors did the Ripper anticipate or prefigure in his proclamation that begins this paper?

I suggest that horror has a face in the twentieth century, of that there is little doubt, but the face is not that of the werewolf, vampire, mummy or ghost. The face of horror often is, and was, the reflection in the mirror.

The failure of Enlightenment was the major catastrophe of the twentieth century. The by-product of which is a never-ending and collective negotiation of the loss of this dream. I offer as evidence the following formations, based on class, economics, imperialism, vernacular discourse and a profound absence of multi-cultural synchronisms. Consider the events caught in the wake of Victorian London and The Ripper Murders: the Model-T and assembly line production, first flight, Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the Boxer Rebellion, World War I, Triangle Shirtwaist factory, the Titanic, The Russian Revolution, Mata Hari, Prohibiton, Women's Suffrage movement (U.S), King Tut's Tomb, Mussolini, J. Edgar Hoover, Mein Kampf, Monkey Trial, Charles Lindbergh, The Great Depression, Mohandas Gandhi, Empire State Building, Amelia Earhart, Adolf Hitler, Nazis, World War II, The Manhattan Project, Chuck Yeager, the Berlin Airlift, Apartheid, Communist China, the Hydrogen Bomb, McCarthyism, The Korean War, Rosa Parks, Sputnik, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., the Eichmann Trial, the Berlin Wall, Cuban Missile Crisis, The Vietnam War, and Charles Manson, a more modern incarnation of the Ripper.

Above all else, horror is civility and reason's lunatic. This statement predicts the transgression of law and social order that has become the prime component of all postmodern horror. The monster never really dies and is never brought to justice. Perhaps The Ripper was right after all.


1 See Barish Ali's detailed account of the metaphorical implications of post-mortem dissection in From Hell. The Violence of Criticism: The Mutilation and Exhibition of History in From Hell. Journal of Popular Culture 2005 605-31 May 2005.
2 Groth, Gary. Last Big Words - Alan Moore on "Marvelman," "From Hell," "A Small Killing," and being published. The Comics Journal 140, February 1991.
3 Ibid
4 Walkowitz, Judith R. Jack the Ripper and the Myth of Male Violence. Feminist Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3. (Autumn, 1983) 547.
5 For more see: Freud, Sigmund. [1919] 1955. "The 'Uncanny'." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological works of Sigmund Freud. Volume XVII. London: The Hogarth Press: 217-256.
6 Coppin, Lisa. Looking Inside Out. The vision as particular gaze in From Hell (Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell). Image and Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X. January 2003.
7 Foucault, Michel. Genealogy and Social Criticism - The Postmodern Turn: New Perspectives on Social theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP 42.
8 Butler, Judith. Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear. Social Text 20.3 2002) 177.
9 Ibid Coppin.


JMR said...

your assessment of both the film and graphic novel are spot on.

i saw the film prior to reading the book. the film is uniformly excellent. i think that it is in the same tradition as the great horror films from hammer studios. i read the book a few months after seeing the film. i also like the book, but concede that it would be impossible to do a proper film adaptation of it. in order to do a proper adaptation of the book, it would have to be a television miniseries, perhaps featured on the pbs show "Mystery!". i think that the filmmakers made the right decision in using the book as a springboard for the film, rather than adapting it whole cloth.

what i find disappointing is that the comic book community rejected the film when it was released. their excuse was that it was nothing like the book. my response to this is "yes, but look at what we are getting here". it was very difficult (almost impossible) to get people to see the film on its own merits and not just another alan moore adaptation gone awry.

in my opinion, the relationship between "from hell" the book and its film adaptation is the same as blade runner: both are very different, but they each give a unique insight into the other.

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