November 08, 2011

Edward Hyde is Everyman

I recently read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and knew that in its pages there was something of value for Beingmanly. But the moral was lost in the chimera, and in my closeness to the text I could not unravel it. I therefore sent a letter to an historian friend of mine, who thinks about these things, and occasionally has a sensible word to say on such matters. With his permission I submit to you his reply, unedited, and with his wish to state the opening proviso in full:
My dear VB,

Your letter finds me between one article and another, and thinking about things far removed from the subject you present. In answering you I must confess that I have had a drink or two, and am in a somewhat altered state. But often the way to divining one’s real thoughts on a matter come in such moments, and since I do not have time to give serious thought to the matter you will have to make do with this.

The chemically induced alter ego of Dr. Jekyll is far too well known for me to shed any further light on Stevenson’s exemplary novella. I’m sure you of all people aren’t too lazy to look after this yourself. But since you crave something useful for your odd little blog, I might say that the Strange Case could well illuminate our own lives to a degree uncomfortable to admit. Taking away the extraordinary excesses of Mr. Hyde, we are left with the statement of Dr. Jekyll that lends the story verisimilitude. For in this statement, civilised men will recognise themselves:
And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life.
I will not dwell on Freud. Lord knows, enough people have done that. Nevertheless, here we have a description of the internal schism, of propriety and gratification, that blights the lives of men. We measure other men by their adherence to the former, and by the degree to which they fall from this standard. Moreover, men measure themselves in this way, wreaking guilt, anxiety, shame, and so forth, upon themselves.

Our contemporary American Macho type of man, about which you have written, and which is represented, needless to say, across the civilised world, overcomes this schism by simply paying no heed to the marks of civilisation that have, in a roundabout way, produced him. On the contrary, he listens only to the democratic culture – in the Platonic sense – that has fostered his freedom to be licentious, promiscuous, ill-tempered, ill-spoken, and indulgent. The specific manner of this man depends largely upon his access to money, but the differences are of degree rather than of kind. Striking out for himself, he is not gnawed by guilt or anxiety. He is not riven by an internal schism. No, he is already fully realised as civilisation’s Edward Hyde, devoid of conscience, on the make, leaving no avenue of gratification unexplored.

This is one solution to the shackles of propriety. If everyone ignores the restraints we may merrily go the way of the beast. For some, life will be a cruel victimhood. For others it will be nasty, brutish and short. And for yet others it will be an epicurean delight. Let the dice fall as they may.

I would humbly submit that we are not all fighting, internally, against propriety. We shall only be faced with an eternal demon if we give credence to the duality within us. I doubt not that men’s passions overflow on occasion, but this is not our internal other, beating down our public face. We are one, whole, complicated certainly, but ultimately intelligible. Propriety need not be the external force from which we are alienated, but the embraced standard by which men can live. Like the man who tells a lie so often he comes to believe it, propriety can be truly felt. A man must give himself to civilisation, not secretly fight it. He will then find his gratification through his propriety. His desires and his standards will fall into line. He will shake off this Victorian curse and live, contentedly, among the civilised.

Such is the limit of what I can presently communicate on the subject. The whiskey bottle has scarcely enough in it to merit leaving for another occasion, so I will adjourn with it and return to serious thinking. Trusting you will not embarrass me, I shall remain

Your humble servant,
PRB

P.S. There is such a thing as too much tweed, you know. You’re at risk of becoming a bore, if not a boor.

8 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Technically it's lawyer talk, which befits the primary character (Utterson).

    Science in 1886 also thought it was about justice, righteousness and nobility, especially through power over nature. It probably still does that, but in a different tone.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. Indeed it was possible. Not coherent, perhaps, but Victorian life was messy. And no, for most of the Victorian period people could not tell the difference between gentlemen and scientists. Some of the greatest gentlemen of the period flew under the banner of 'gentleman scientist'.

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  6. Rot.

    One could easily list exemplary gentlemen who were exemplary scientists, and who identified and were recognised as both. Indeed, the nature of their work depended on their gentlemanly status, since pre-professionalised science was bounded by being a public activity.

    Debating with you increasingly feels like being baited by Fox News.

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  7. Which edition did you read, Mr. VB? I have ordered the Oxford's Worlds Classics and the Penguin Classics versions for comparison (introduction, notes & c).

    " I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, and what can be the use of him is more than I can see."
    Stevenson

    ~Titus Manly

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  8. My dear Titus Manly,
    How pleasant to make your acquaintance. In truth, I can't remember the edition I had, but it was extremely thorough in its inclusion of all the ms differences in appendices. It was a hardcover, however, and shrouded in academic garb, and therefore probably not worth the extra pennies.
    VB

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