Category Archives: 2014

Post-Holocaust Poetry and the (In)efficacy of Language

by Heather Pujals

How can we begin to talk about the Holocaust and its resulting literature, especially now when some of us are personally so far removed from that time and place in history? I could start with a reminder of some of the innumerable horrors or express an impossible empathy—impossible because empathy requires understanding—for the survivors and victims. Instead, through examining some of the poetic works of Paul Celan (1920-1970) and Charlotte Delbo (1913-1985), I aim to shed light on what I have found to be a common message in the genre of post-Holocaust poetry: that somehow the Holocaust has fractured the system of language, making communication for survivors difficult, if not impossible, and that certain experiences during and surrounding the Holocaust can be literally indescribable because they are part of an unprecedented horror for which language has no words.

       Celan’s “Keine Sandkust Mehr” [“No More Sand Art”] is a characteristically sparse and difficult poem from late in his career. Delbo’s untitled poem (which I will henceforth identify by its first line “Vous voudriez savoir” [“You’d Like To Know”]), originally written in French, comes from Mesure des Nos Jours [The Measure of Our Days], which was published in 1971 and later became the final book translated into English by Rosette C. Lamont for Delbo’s prose-poetry trilogy Auschwitz and After. In these poems, the two writers echo each other as they address the inability of language to convey their experiences as Holocaust survivors, though they take different approaches: Celan’s point ironically seems, at least initially, lost in the general incomprehensibility of the poem, while Delbo’s claim is posed more directly. However, the claim they make—that language cannot effectively be used to convey anything meaningful to both readers and listeners—at least partially disproves itself simply because it is possible to extract meaning from their poems.

       In the fragmented first line of Celan’s “Keine Sandkunst mehr,” references to Jewish heritage in a religio-cultural sense and Germanic heritage in an artistic and academic sense run parallel: “Keine Sandkunst mehr, kein Sandbuch, keine / Meister” [“No more sand art, no sand book, no / masters”] (Paul Celan 1-2). Through the loaded signifiers “sand,” which conjures images of the desert (i.e., the region of Israel and the Jewish homeland), and “book”(likely refering to none other than the most holy book within Judaism, the Torah), he invites the German-speaking Jewish community, or whatever is left of it, to bear special witness to the claims he makes in this poem. With “No more…sand book,” Celan is insinuating religion itself, at the very least Judaism, cannot exist after the Holocaust, a claim reminiscent of Theodore Adorno’s famous statement from Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft [Cultural Criticism and Society] (1951) about how writing poetry after Auschwitz would be barbarous. Of course, this statement is often taken out of its context within Adorno’s discussion of the dialectic of culture and barbarism; but if we were to take it literally, or even interpret “barbarous” as synonymous with “lacking civilization,” then we might say that nobody could write poetry after Auschwitz in any civilized manner, or possibly that the poetry itself might be uncivilized. With this and Celan’s claim in mind, poetry and organized religion can be seen as markers of civilization on a large scale; and if those markers are “no more,” then Celan and Adorno are effectively in agreement that the Holocaust has de-civilized the world.

       The last word of the first line is just as heavily freighted. With meister, which in German can be singular or plural depending on surrounding grammar, Celan references a rich collection of German Classical and Romantic “masters” of music, literature, and philosophy; such as Beethoven, Goethe, and Kant, respectively, who represent high points in German culture. He does this more directly in his well-known and earlier poem “Todesfuge” [“Death Fugue”] when he references Margarete, a character from Goethe’s Faust. However, Celan is not claiming that the memory of these masters has been erased, but rather that the Nazis of the Third Reich have taken sole custody of this heritage, even using it against their victims who would have previously considered it their heritage as well. At Auschwitz, for example, SS officers would force prisoners who had training with musical instruments to perform and dance to well-known national German songs for hours on end while guarded via gunpoint and snarling German Shepherds. They turned playing Bach—noble, familiar Bach—into a form of torture. Celan alludes to these occurrences directly in “Todesfuge” when the speaker of the poem quotes his SS master: “ihr andern singet / und spielt…spielt weiter zum / Tanz auf” [“you others sing / and play…play on for the dance”] (Celan, Paul Celan 24-25, 28-29). Through the Nazis’ systematic appropriation of the works of these masters for their own sadistic purposes, the masters no longer belong to a broader European audience, especially not to Jews. Furthermore, “Todesfuge” asserts that “Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland” [“Death is a master from Germany”], a phrase which has at least a double meaning: the masters of death camps were from Germany in a literal sense, while the iconic meister of Germany played an indirect role in aiding Nazi malevolence. Together, “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” and “Todesfuge” reveal that the process of a vast cultural heritage being taken away from German-speaking Jews began as soon as the meister became affiliated specifically with torture at the hands of the Nazis.

       As I mentioned before, Celan’s “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” also suggests that the Holocaust resulted in a loss of the ability for the survivors to convey meaning through language, i.e., not only the loss of cultural heritage, but of linguistic heritage as well. The speaker asks, “Wieviel / Stumme?” which Michael Hamburger translates to “How many / Dumb ones?” (Celan, Paul Celan 3-4). I think, however, that “How many / struck dumb?” conveys the German meaning better since stumme has more of a verbal rather than simply adjectival force, which then suggests that at a certain place in time some number of people have been passively made mute as opposed to always having been so. Trying to make the lines into a sentence (“How many have been struck dumb?”) would probably be most appropriate. The Holocaust—the systematic extermination of European Jews and others deemed undeserving of life—has caused this muteness. When faced with something so impossible to explain, let alone justify, there can and never will be a clear explanation since mere signifiers, individual letters and phonemes, do not have the capability to convey that which cannot be signified—the uniquely horrible occurrences that make up the Holocaust.

       The last three lines of “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” further attempt to show (because they cannot explain) the concept that, after the Holocaust, the system of language, at least for the survivors, is broken.

              I—i—e. (Celan, Paul Celan 8-10)


At first read, these three short lines appear to be utter nonsense, and in a way they are. Although German readers may be accustomed to seeing words combined in a similar manner, it produces extra confusion for those reading the English translation. That the words are so crowded calls to mind the train cars, which were used to transport masses of Jews and other victims throughout Europe to work and death camps; and as “Tiefimschnee” suggests, those trains did not stop during winter.

       Incidentally, “snow” further acts as a replacement for the earlier mention of “sand” and its connotations, which were lost at the beginning of the poem. It hints that as an already displaced people, and originally from a desert region, Jews stuck in the snows of Europe are both literally and figuratively “out of their element.” Both within the train cars and the poet’s words there is no breathing room, no room for coherence or understanding. The following downgrade to “Iefimnee,” which at least still maintains a resemblance to the preceding triple-word, and finally to the mere phoneme string “I—i—e” is a metaphor for the dissolution of language as a means for communication. These vowel sounds are reminiscent of the babbling of infants, or perhaps that of a dying person, suggesting that the survivors’ ability to communicate has fallen out of their own conscious control.

       Furthermore, in Hebrew (Celan chose to write in German, but he knew Hebrew as well) vowels are generally not signified at all, and therefore this final line becomes even more powerful. If, let’s say, this poem were translated into Hebrew, we would be left with nothing at the end; the whole line composed only of vowels would vanish, as many Jews themselves did. The signifiers, which usually carry meaning, are reduced to, at least in German and in English, the most basic forms of utterance that signify nothing besides, perhaps, the absence of something signified. This is where we run into a paradox, though. If those isolated letter groupings (or a blank line if in Hebrew) mean nothing, then how am I here interpreting them (or it)? At this point, the only way to make sense of Celan’s poetry is to conclude that as far as language goes, it is not lost, not like the masters anyway, but it is fractured—fractured enough that there is a disconnect between survivor and “other,” and perhaps between survivors themselves as well.

       Charlotte Delbo also tackles the issue of post-Holocaust communication in her poem “Vous voudriez savoir” from her memoir Mesure des Nos Jours. While not as seemingly nonsensical as the closing lines of “Keine Sandkunst Mehr,” Delbo’s poem still does not conform to any typical poetic form or stanza organization. The most notable point to make about the format is that the entire poem is posed as one long run-on sentence with a capital letter beginning it and a period ending it. Otherwise, there are no other punctuation marks, and the grammar is incidentally difficult to follow, forcing readers to make assumptions about where a comma or set of quotation marks might have gone. This very act, though—making assumptions and filling in what we deem necessary additions to Delbo’s seemingly incomplete expression—may be exactly what she and other survivors warn us against. She writes, “et nous ne savons pas répondre / nous ne savons pas répondre avec vos mots à vous / et nos mots à nous / vous ne les comprenez pas” [“and we don’t know how to answer / not with the words you use / our own words / you can’t understand”], which suggests that survivors are operating in an entirely different language system than the rest of us (Delbo 10-13). Survivors cannot use our words to describe their experiences, nor can we understand the words they would use to do so. Our vocabularies do not overlap since there are no extant words to describe her experiences.

       Delbo presents patience as a solution to this conundrum. Since survivors are only capable of using language a certain way at this time, inquirers are the ones who must remain patient as survivors attempt to answer their questions. Conversely, Delbo maintains that without patience this conundrum of communication will remain so:

alors vous demandez des choses plus simples
dites-nous par exemple
comment se passait une journée
c’est si long une journée
que vous n’auriez pas la patience
et quand nous répondons
vous ne savez pas comment passait une journée
et vous croyez que nous ne savons pas répdondre. (Delbo 14-21)
[so you ask the simpler things
tell us for example
how a day was spent
a day goes by so slowly
you’d run out of patience listening
but if we gave you an answer
you still don’t know how a day was spent
and assume we don’t know how to answer.]

These lines indicate that even if a survivor were asked “simpler things,” their answer would produce enough boredom, confusion, or frustration that the inquirer would give up trying to understand. Out of impatience, the inquirer would not wait to have their question sufficiently answered and would then write off the survivor as indefinitely incapable of doing so, effectively eradicating any chance of future communication.

       In “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” with the line “Deine Frage—deine Antwort” [“Your question—your answer”], Celan agrees with this disconnection (Paul Celan 6). Firstly, it is important to note that deine is an informal pronoun and therefore carries certain implications, for instance, that the speaker is on familiar terms with the listener, as if Celan himself (or the poem’s fictional speaker) is affectionately reaching out to us, or that this is a dialogue he (or, again, the speaker) is having within his own mind, or, more pessimistically, that the speaker simply does not have respect for the listener. Regardless, the hyphen is of paramount importance. It physically implies there is a certain unbridgeable gap between question and answer, and perhaps between questioner and answerer as well. Does this, along with Delbo’s concern, mean that, despite patience and time, post-Holocaust communication may never improve?

       Upon receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen in 1958, Celan said,

It, the language, remained, not lost—yes, in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. (Selected Poems 395, emphasis mine.)

Celan’s comment suggests that since language did, in fact, survive the Holocaust, perhaps there is hope for communication to improve. It argues for language as an enduring apparatus, one that was not destroyed, but damaged, and therefore might be repaired. With this claim, Celan may be borrowing a concept from Kabbalah, an oft-misunderstood tract within the umbrella of Jewish mysticism, in hinting at a possible tikkun [repair] for language. Furthermore, arguing that the Holocaust has destroyed the capacity for survivors to communicate in any meaningful way creates a paradox and this paper is proof: here we have two survivors effectively conveying emotions and ideas, and although we can never know exactly what the survivors experienced, we can appreciate their efforts, though often fragmented and fractured, to reach out and, through patiently hearing and appreciating their accounts, we can facilitate the repair of the system of post-Holocaust communication.

       To some extent, communication is and may remain broken, however, simply because effective communication is based on a necessary identification, a perception of common ground, between the speaker (or writer) and the listener (or reader). The nature of the Holocaust, i.e., the impossibility to replicate it (and who would want to?), ensures that listeners and readers will never be able to have that moment of identification, of recognition, with the speakers and writers.

       So what can we take away from this dismal situation? Celan’s “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” laments that somehow certain aspects of culture, like artistic and academic heritage, along with language itself, have been lost indefinitely, while Delbo’s “Vous voudriez savoir” suggests that people are asking the wrong questions and not listening with enough patience to connect with survivors. Both are certainly valuable points, but actively addressing Delbo’s more tangible one may be the most productive path toward improving communication. Imre Kertesz intrepidly speaks for us all with the question, “How should the world free itself from Auschwitz, from the burden of the Holocaust?” He justifies that despite its seemingly “dishonest motives,” the question expresses a natural longing possessed by survivors and outsiders alike, and answers it thusly:

The decades have taught me that the only passable route to liberation leads us through memory. The artist hopes that, through a precise description, leading him once more along the pathways of death, he will finally break through to the noblest kind of liberation, to a catharsis in which he can perhaps allow his reader to partake as well. (Kertesz 268)

Kertesz suggests that as outsiders our choice of action should be to hear, in more than just a literal sense, what the survivors have to say. Surely there will remain facets of culture indefinitely tarnished, certain experiences may never be able to be put into words, and maybe post-Holocaust poetry is itself “barbarous,” but following the survivors’ written trajectory is the only way we can hope to tikkun olam, repair the world. By narrowing the gap between us and them we can begin to transcend the burden of the Holocaust, which, as citizens of the world regardless of temporal or regional origin, we all inherit.

Works Cited

Celan, Paul. Paul Celan: Poems, a Bilingual Edition. Trans. Michael Hamburger. New York: Persea, 1980.

Celan, Paul. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. Trans. John Felstiner. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.

Delbo, Charlotte. Auschwitz and After. Trans. Rosette C. Lamont. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

Delbo, Charlotte. Mesure des nos jours. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1971.

Kertesz, Imre. “Who Owns Auschwitz?” Trans. John MacKay. The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001): 267-72.

“Keine Sandkunst Mehr” by Paul Celan

Keine Sandkunst mehr, kein Sandbuch, keine

Nichts erwürfelt. Wieviel

Deine Frage—deine Antwort
Dein Gesang, was weiß er?


“No More Sand Art” translated by Michael Hamburger

No more sand art, no sand book, no master.

Nothing won by dicing. How many
dumb ones?

Your question—your answer.
Your song, what does it know?


An untitled poem by Charlotte Delbo

Vous voudriez savoir
poser des questions
et vous ne savez quelles questions
et vous ne savez comment poser les questions
alors vous demandez
des choses simples
la faim
la peur
la mort
et nous ne savons pas répondre
nous ne savons pas répondre avec vos mots à vous
et nos mots à nous
vous ne les comprenez pas
alors vous demandez des choses plus simples
dites-nous par exemple
comment se passait une journée
c’est si long une journée
que vous n’auriez pas la patience
et quand nous répondons
vous ne savez pas comment passait une journée
et vous croyez que nous ne savons pas répdondre.

Charlotte Delbo’s poem translated by Rosette C. Lamont

You’d like to know
ask questions
but you don’t know what questions
and don’t know how to ask them
so you inquire
about simple things
and we don’t know how to answer
not with the words you use
our own words
you can’t understand
so you ask the simpler things
tell us for example
how a day was spent
a day goes by so slowly
you’d run out of patience listening
but if we gave you an answer
you still don’t know how a day was spent
and assume we don’t know how to answer.

And the Women Shall Inherit the Earth: Late Victorian Over-Population and the Condition of England on the Threshold in George Gissing’s The Odd Women

by Carroll Clayton Savant

“‘But do you know that there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours?[…] Something like that, they say. So many odd women—no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives…I look upon them as a great reserve…’” (Gissing 44). Rhoda Nunn’s concern for the future of the “odd women,” who far outnumber the population of men and remain unmarried, is one of the many undercurrents found throughout George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women. Set in the overcrowded, industrial, and overwhelming late-Victorian London, Gissing’s pessimistic novel of decay and devolution investigates the anxieties facing Victorian society, brought about by overpopulation. The Odd Women portrays the plight of the New Woman within the context of this changing paradigm, as Gissing’s hysterical “odd women” negotiate their way through London in a deluge of people and technology. The tone of Gissing’s novel creates a pervasive sense of melancholic anxiety that is indicative of the late-Victorian devolution/degeneracy debates that dominated the 1890s. Noting this pervasive tone, Nicholas Shrimpton argues that the nineteenth century saw a series of philosophical and psychological waves of pessimism, which culminated in the pessimism at this time. He writes that

Christians, positivists, and Hegelians continued to insist that the world was essentially a good place, and that the pattern of history was progressive. Pessimists responded with a view of existence summed up by one of the aphorisms in Schopenhauer’s Parerga und Paralipomena of 1851: ‘No rose without a thorn. But many a thorn without a rose’…the contest between optimism and pessimism was a prominent feature of the intellectual life of the late nineteenth century. (42-43)

Gissing’s The Odd Women adds to this debate on pessimism and decay by setting the tone of the interaction between the disenfranchised “odd women” and the overpopulated and dehumanizing city of London. The goal of this project is to investigate the social and philosophical functions of Gissing’s novel and show that by addressing the anxieties of his day about the future place of the individual within the overpopulated, industrial city, his text contributed to the growing hysteria facing the late-Victorian period. By placing Gissing’s text within the context of the degeneration/devolution novels of the 1890s, I intend to show that Gissing’s novel allows him to draw on and contribute to the philosophical and intellectual debates of his time by illustrating the philosophical/psychological impact of the industrial city and its overpopulation on the individual.

       In a New Historicist reading of Gissing’s The Odd Women, I intend to look at Gissing’s representation of overpopulation in order to show that the anxiety and “hysteria” seen in Gissing’s novel is an extension of the devolution and degeneracy debates of the 1890s. In looking at the way Gissing addresses the “population problem,” I intend to show, in a Malthusian vein, that the “odd women’s” misery is symptomatic of the miseries of overpopulation. In looking at the historical population statistics of Victorian England, I aim to show that Victorian Britain, spurred by the industrial and technological advances brought about by the Industrial Revolution, effectively avoided the Malthusian population “checks,” but that these very technological advances produced the misery seen in The Odd Women. By investigating the population “boom” of the mid-to-late Victorian period, I plan on showing that Gissing’s overpopulated and over-stimulated London is the genesis of the many social and industrial problems addressed in his novel.

       The fin de siècle marked a turning point in Victorian society and was illustrated in a new trend in literature, which attempted to understand this social, economic, and industrial paradigm shift. Shrimpton argues that the pessimistic philosophies that began circulating in the mid-nineteenth century had spread to the literary discipline by the century’s end. In particular, Shrimpton writes that it was the “second wave” of pessimism, dominated by the Romantic movement, and exacerbated by Matthew Arnold, that was a driving force in the Victorian “anxieties” about technology, population, and, most importantly, the future. He writes that “[i]t was an economist rather than a poet, however, who provided the most influentially pessimistic statement of the Romantic period. Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1793) was an empirical study of the way in which population outstrips food supply” (51). For Shrimpton, the authors of the 1890s caught on to this “climate” of pessimism and sought to express it in their works. He writes that “English writers in the late nineteenth century [and notes Gissing in particular] were feeling the effects of the third of the three great—and increasingly powerful—waves of modern philosophical pessimism” (49). The pessimism of which Shrimpton writes was illustrative of the artistic and literary Aesthetic movement, as artists turned to artistic disciplines in order to try to come to terms with the anxieties concerning social devolution and degeneration.

       According to degeneration and devolution theorists and writers, late-nineteenth century civilization had evolved as far as possible and risked devolving back into its more “primitive” state. As early as 1880, Edwin Lankester attempted to place the “problem” of degeneration [1] in its connection to Darwinian evolution and the ability of humanity to adapt to the evolving environment.[2] He writes that “[d]egeneration may be defined as a gradual change of the structure in which the organism becomes adapted to less varied and less complex conditions of life…” (3). For Lankester, the threat of degeneration lay in the possibility that humanity, having reached its pinnacle of “civilization,” could no longer adapt to changing environmental conditions; in this instance, environmental conditions were becoming more and more industrial, as an overpopulated society turned to technology in order to assuage the problems of population. In this way, the individual was becoming unable to “adapt” to the evolving conditions of life, thereby risking “devolving” into a more primitive state. Lankester writes that “[t]he traditional history of mankind furnishes us with notable examples of degeneration. High states of civilisation have decayed and given place to low and degenerate states. At one time it was a favourite doctrine that the savage races of mankind were degenerate descendants of the higher and civilised aces” (4). In a similar line, science fiction and science writer H.G. Wells takes Lankester’s concept further, as he notes the social ramifications of biological devolution of the individual. Using the metaphor of zoological species degradation to reinforce the anxieties facing human devolution, Wells writes that

[i]t has decided that in the past the great scroll of nature has been steadily unfolding to reveal a constantly richer harmony of forms and successively higher grades of being, and it assumes that this ‘evolution’ will continue with increasing velocity under the supervision of its extreme expression—man. This belief, as effective, progressive, and pleasing as transformation scenes at a pantomime, receives neither in the geological record nor in the studies of the phylogenetic embryologist any entirely satisfactory confirmation. (6)

For Wells, the threat of devolution and degeneration is clear: one species can only progress so far before it begins to regress on its evolutionary path of progress. And for Gissing’s late-Victorian world, this is seen in the overreliance on technology and industry in order to “survive” in the overpopulated and congested city. Wells writes that “…degradation may perhaps suffice to show that there is a good deal to be found in the work of biologists quite inharmonious with such phrases as ‘the progress of ages,’ and the ‘march of mind.’ The zoologist demonstrates that advance has been fitful and uncertain; rapid progress has often been followed by rapid extinction or degeneration” (12). For Lankester, Wells, and Gissing alike, this hysterical anxiety about the trajectory of mankind and mankind’s ability to survive (and thrive) in an overpopulated and industrial world dominated the aesthetics of the late nineteenth century. The various trends that marked the late-nineteenth century Aesthetic movement captured the hysterical pessimism of these debates on devolution and degeneracy and illustrated them through their various art forms.

       The rise of the Aesthetic movement offered a new literary form in which to voice and illustrate the anxieties facing late-nineteenth century England, in particular, the pessimistic debates on devolution.[3] Tracing the rise of “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” Arthur Symons [4] writes that

[t]he most representative literature of the day [for Symons, 1893]…is certainly not classic, nor has it any relation with that old antithesis of the Classic, the Romantic. After a fashion it is no doubt a decadence: an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity. If what we call the classic is indeed the supreme art…then this representative literature of today, interesting, beautiful, novel as it is, is really a new and beautiful and interesting disease. (105)

This degenerate and “diseased” literature of which Symons writes is the aesthetic fulfillment of the degeneracy/devolution debates of which Wells and Lankester were warning, and one might add, predicting. This highly decadent, over-the-top literature relies, according to Symons, on “la nervose” and is a product of the “maladie fin de siècle”, which contributes to the hysteria of the collapse and devolution of society (105). This, as Joyce Carol Oates argues, is the “Aesthetics of Fear.” Though tracing the historical/aesthetic function of the role of horror and fear in literature, Oates writes that “[w]e can presume that the aesthetic fear is not an authentic fear but an artful simulation of what is crude, inchoate, nerve-driven and ungovernable in life; its evolutionary advantage must be the preparation for the authentic experience, unpredictable and always imminent” (176). This “diseased” and decadent literature of the late-nineteenth century is the fear-mongering fruition of the “pessimistic” debates on devolution (and, as will be pointed out later, the culmination of the late-Victorian debates on population, overcrowding, and, inherently, industrialization). Symons writes that

…this literature is certainly typical of a civilization grown over-luxurious, over-inquiring, too languid for the relief of action, too uncertain for any emphasis in opinion or in conduct. It reflects the moods, all the manners, of a sophisticated society: its very artificiality is a way of being true to nature: simplicity, sanity, proportion…how much do we possess them in our life, our surroundings, that we should look to find them in our literature—so evidently the literature of a decadence? (106)

This decadent literature highlights all of the social, political, and economic ills of the late nineteenth century. Studying the social, and one could further, devolutionary, effects of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oates writes that “Stoker was dramatizing the clash of Darwinian evolutionary theory with traditional Christian-humanist sentiment…In the austere Darwinian model of our beleaguered Earth, the individual counts for virtually nothing; only the species matters, the replication of DNA” (184). For Oates, though she chooses not to call it such, Stoker’s novel is a “degeneracy” novel, illustrating and highlighting the anxieties of Stoker’s time, in this instance, the “progressive march,” of society. Though Oates attempts to place Stoker’s novel within a historical/theological context, if we eliminate any discussion of theology and investigate Stoker’s novel as a historical artifact, we begin to see the Aesthetic function of literature as an illustration of the social and cultural anxieties of its day. Similarly, this is the function of George Gissing’s The Odd Women.

       From the very beginning of his novel, Gissing’s The Odd Women is illustrative of the degeneracy and devolutionary tone infiltrating society during of the 1890s. Robert Selig notes this tone throughout Gissing’s novel, noting that

[t]he first seven chapters and scattered later ones depict the sufferings of ‘The Odd Women’ [sic] with both sympathy and authentic social detail. The six Madden sisters provide the central examples of unfortunate single females. Their father has given them genteel educations but dies without leaving them a large enough income to support genteel ways. Within 10 years three have suffered early deaths, and three struggle on ill-paid and degrading work[…] (62)

This tone is the undercurrent for the entire novel and Gissing introduces the reader to it from the very beginning. The novel opens with an introduction to the Madden family, as Alice Madden remembers her mother while she speaks with her father, Dr. Madden, about the family’s precarious future. Gissing writes:

Mrs. Madden, having given birth to six daughters, had fulfilled her function in this wonderful world; for two years she had been resting in the old churchyard that looks upon the Severn sea…A sweet, calm, unpretending woman; admirable in the domesticities; in speech and thought distinguished by a native refinement, which in the most fastidious eyes would have established her claim to the title of a lady. She had known but little repose, and secret anxieties told upon her countenance long before the final collapse of health. (5-6)

What is interesting to note in Gissing’s description of the late Mrs. Madden is her temperament; in this way, the Maddens embody the “anxieties” of the future that we see in figures like Symons, Wells, and Lankester. Though the Maddens hail from the remote coastal town of Clevedon, it is clear that Mrs. Madden, described as a “sweet, calm” woman, lacks the evolutionary ability to “adapt” to her surroundings, even in the remote countryside, and therefore declines, devolves, and dies away. As if to reiterate the melancholic anxious tone of the novel and press his point further, by the end of the first chapter, after Dr. Madden has run an errand to escort home a family friend, Rhoda Nunn, news of the Doctor’s trip alters the Madden sisters’ futures irreparably. Gissing writes:

[…]Dr. Madden, driving back from Kingston Seymour, had been thrown from his vehicle, and lay insensible at a roadside cottage[…]For some time the doctor had been intending to buy a new horse; his faithful old roadster was very weak in the knees. As in other matters, so in this, postponement became fatality; the horse stumbled and fell, and its driver was flung head forward into the road. Some hours later they brought him to his home, and for a day or two there were hopes that he might rally. But the sufferer’s respite only permitted him to dictate and sign a brief will; this duty performed, Dr. Madden closed his lips forever. (10)

Dr. Madden’s death throws the family into a tailspin as sister after sister dies as they venture into the “maddening,” overwhelming city of London in an attempt to survive. Gissing chronicles the various sisters’ fates as they slowly dwindle in numbers. He writes that “Gertrude and Martha were dead; the former of consumption, the other drowned by the over-turning of a pleasure boat[…]Alice plied her domestic teaching; Virginia remained a ‘companion.’ Isabel, now aged twenty, taught in a Board School at Bridgwater, and Monica, just fifteen, was on the point of being apprenticed to a draper at Weston, where Virginia abode” (15). Once the sisters reach a point of “stability,” the struggle for survival catches up with them, overwhelming them in an age of overpopulation and over-industrialization. Gissing writes that “Isabel was soon worked into illness. Brain trouble came on, resulting in melancholia. A charitable institution ultimately received her, and there, at two-and-twenty, the poor hard-featured girl drowned herself in a bath” (emphasis added, 16). It is quickly obvious that life in the overcrowded, industrial, and “maddening” city has its effects on the individual. Gissing’s novel picks up with the three remaining sisters struggling, where their other sisters could not adapt (in a Malthusian and Darwinian sense), for survival. The fact that Gissing introduces the reader to an entire family, only to end up with over half of the family dead within the first two chapters sets up the tone for the entire novel. Throughout the novel, one begins to see how Gissing’s London affects the individual on an “organic” level.

       As if anticipating the “pessimism” debates that marked the 1890s hysteria of devolution and degeneracy [5], Malthus’ 1798 essay on population examines the unstable trajectory of the future—and the theoretical warning in which Gissing and the Victorians, found themselves one century later: an overpopulated land plagued with dwindling resources (and over-industrialization as society worked, through machines, in order to survive). In language that anticipates the Darwinian struggle for survival, Malthus writes “[…]that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio” (4). For Malthus, population booms are contributed to by increased human industry that allows the population to increase unchecked; however, he argues that the natural resources available for humanity will always dictate the population trajectory. Malthus writes that “[t]he reason that the greater part of Europe is more populous now than it was in former times, is that the industry of the inhabitants has made these countries produce a greater quantity of human subsistence” (17). However, Malthus argues that no matter how many technological and industrial improvements society has made, there are only so many resources physically available in order to sustain a growing population. Similarly, this is the problem we see in Gissing’s London: an overpopulated city has turned to an overreliance on technology to attempt to meet the demands of survival (and Gissing shows us the “cost” of this overreliance throughout his novel). According to Malthus, and one could argue later, in Darwin, the scarcity of resources promotes competition among individuals in order to survive.[6] For Malthus, this struggle for survival is rooted in the trajectory of population, which, when continued unchecked, outstrips all available resources, creating miserable living conditions. He writes that “[…]the superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery or vice, the ample portion of these too bitter ingredients in the cup of human life and the continuance of the physical causes that seem to have produced them bear too convincing a testimony” (11). Thus, as sustenance dwindles, population numbers come in check due to the lack of available resources, essentially creating the “misery” that effectively puts a damper on population growth.[7] The anxieties and hysterics that Malthus forewarns of are exactly part and parcel of the problem that Gissing’s “odd women,” and to a greater extent, the Victorians, faced in the late nineteenth century.

       Late-Victorian Britain marked a turning point in British population growth, as economic and foreign affairs affected the population “boom” made possible by the advances of the Industrial Revolution. In a study of the population demographics of Victorian Britain, Robert Woods notes that “[…]the Victorian period was so important as a [population] turning point in England” (4). For Woods, this “turning point” was marked by a lower mortality rate and higher fertility rates. The implication, as Jeremy Black and Donald MacRaild suggest, is that increased technological and industrial advances allowed such a population boom and prevented the traditional Malthusian checks to population.[8] Black and MacRaild write that Victorian Britain saw a population boom on the scale of which Malthus warned. They write that “[p]opulation grew dramatically in this period without famines[…]in other words, without the ‘positive checks’ on population which were seen as so vital by the Reverend Thomas Malthus[…]” (59). Black and MacRaild argue that the “checks” Malthus warned would produce misery and vice were relatively minimal, due to the technological and industrial gains that produced such a boom. Black and MacRaild state that though Malthus’s “prophesies of a population crisis never occurred,” this population boom clearly put a strain on the new urban-centered English societies (59). What is interesting is that Black and MacRaild focus on the “relief valve” of emigration as a way to help assuage the pressure resulting from the booming population in the absence of Malthusian population checks (59). Historical consensus indicates that the Victorian period marked a break with Malthusian population theory and altered the shape and geography of Britain, resulting in a new “debate” on the population trajectory of British society.

       The population boom that dominated the Victorian period, made possible by the technological and industrial advances spurred by the Industrial Revolution, altered the very geography of Victorian society. Woods notes that population growth was spurred by an increasingly urban culture (27). Tracing The Population History of England in their seminal study, E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield claim that h, h,istorically London was the epicenter of all population booms and declines. They write that “[i]t was the very size and untypicality [sic] of London that made it seem advisable to make separate estimates of the numbers of ecclesiastical [population] events occurring there and to incorporate them explicitly in the estimated national totals of events[…]” (170). Similarly, Black and MacRaild note that the population growth that dominated Victorian Britain was overshadowed by that which was seen in London, specifically. They write that “[b]etween 1861 and 1911, it [London] burgeoned from 2.8 m[illion] to 4.5 m[illion] inhabitants. While much of this was due to net immigration, natural increase accounted for 85 per cent of all growth by the end of the century” (81). According to Wrigley and Schofield, London’s population “boom” began to take hold at the beginning of the nineteenth century when London comprised 3.6% of the entire total population of England (168). For Wrigley and Schofield, as for Woods, the nineteenth century marked a turning point in London’s population trends, which continued to grow exponentially throughout the rest of the century. Black and MacRaild write that the total population of England in the mid-nineteenth century was 17.93 million, booming to 29 million by the end of the century. While the urban population made up 50.2% of the total population of 17.93 million in 1851, by 1891, the urban population comprised 72% of the 29 million residents of England. Black and MacRaild, similar to Wrigley and Schofield, argue that London, due to its immense size, made up the majority of this “urban population” (80). While the traditional Malthusian checks to population increase were greatly reduced in the new highly-industrialized Victorian England, particularly in London the Victorian population boom produced an overtly new form of society, one that was just as miserable as Malthus’ “lower orders.” As Woods argues, overcrowding and dwindling resources did have an effect on London society. He writes that

[t]he crowding together of people affected disease patterns, especially those of infectious diseases; it created a more lethal sanitary environment; and it also led to new, higher and more concentrated levels of air pollution. These hazards were faced by all those living in cities, but there were other problems—those associated with poverty and type of employment, with housing and diet—whose effects were borne differentially depending on one’s social group or class. (27-28)

This is exactly the society that Gissing and his fellow Aesthetes attempt to illustrate in their late-Victorian novels.

       The London that Gissing’s Madden sisters inhabit is crowded and over-stimulating, an indication of the overpopulation seen at the end of the nineteenth century. This overcrowding has a clearly visible effect on the individual. After the death of her father, Virginia Madden finds herself living in London with her sister Alice in a small, single-room apartment, struggling to survive. Gissing writes that

Virginia (about thirty-three) had[…]an unhealthy look, but the poverty, or vitiation, of her blood manifested itself in less unsightly forms[…]For she was rapidly ageing; her lax lips grew laxer, with emphasis of a characteristic one would rather not have perceived there; her eyes sank into deeper hollows; wrinkles extended their net-work; the flesh of her neck wore away. Her tall meagre body did not seem strong enough to hold itself upright. (14)

It is clear that the mix of the overpopulated London and lack of resources has taken a toll on Virginia’s health. As she sits down for lunch with her sister, we see the extent of their problem. Gissing writes:

[t]hey were preparing their mid-day meal, the substantial repast of the day. In a little saucepan on an oil cooking-stove was some plain rice, bubbling, as Alice stirred it. Virginia fetched from downstairs[…]bread, butter, cheese, a pot of preserve, and arranged the table[…]at which they were accustomed to eat. The rice being ready, it was turned out in two portions; made savoury with a little butter, pepper, and salt, it invited them to sit down. (17)

The Madden sisters at once illustrate the Malthusian population problems facing London at the end of the nineteenth century: an overpopulated, overcrowded city, struggling (in a Darwinian way) for resources and survival.

       We see the full effect of the city on the individual when Virginia ventures out to buy a present for her other surviving sister, Monica. Gissing writes that

“[a] very long walk was before her. She wished to get as far as the Strand book-shops, not only for the sake of choice, but because this region pleased her and gave her a sense of holiday. Past Battersea Park, over Chelsea Bridge, then the weary stretch to Victoria Station, and the upward labour to Charing Cross. Five miles, at least, measured by pavement. But Virginia walked quickly[…]. (22)

Throughout her “quick walk,” the fast pace of London life takes a toll on Virginia. Gissing makes references to the “anxiety” and “clamorous life” that she finds throughout London. Ultimately, it is this “anxiety” that causes Virginia to turn back from her “holiday.” As she approaches the railroad in order to return home, Gissing writes that “[a]t the entrance [to Charing Cross Station] again she stopped. Her features were now working in the strangest way, as though a difficulty of breathing had assailed her. In her eyes was an eager, yet frightened look; her lips stood apart. Another quick movement, and she entered the station. She went straight to the door of the refreshment room…” (23). Virginia’s movements, like the technologically-driven London environment, become quicker and more mechanical, as she becomes “one” with the industrial, “maddening” city. In the refreshment room, Virginia seeks out solace and begins to establish a pattern and a means of coping with life in the overpopulated and over-stimulated London. Gissing writes that “[b]ending forward, she said to the barmaid in a voice just above a whisper: ‘Kindly give me a little brandy.’ Beads of perspiration were on her face, which had turned to a ghastly pallor. The barmaid, concluding that she was ill, served her promptly and with a sympathetic look” (23). It is clear that the cacophonous city has had an effect on Virginia. By the end of the novel, the extent of Virginia’s drinking problem is clear, as she strives to find a way to survive in London. After the “scandal” of Monica’s “affair,” we see Virginia alone in the room she shares with Alice and Monica, turning once again to gin and water for respite. Gissing writes that this was “[t]he last, the very last, of such enjoyment; so she assured herself[…]If she abstained from strong liquors for three or four days it was now a great triumph; yet worthless, for even in abstaining she knew that the hour of indulgence had only been postponed. A fit of unendurable depression soon drove her to the only resource which had immediate efficacy” (333). Invocative of the vice of which Malthus warned would envelop the working classes, overwhelmed by the overpopulated city and their struggle to survive there, Virginia turns to drink in order to calm her nerves. Gissing writes that

[h]er bottle was almost empty; she would finish it to-night[…]To sit comfortably at home, the bottle beside her and her novel on her lap, was an avoidance of the worst shame attaching to this vice[…]Brandy had first of all been her drink, as is generally the case with women of the educated classes. There are so many plausible excuses for taking a drop of brandy. But it cost too much. Whiskey she had tried, and did not like. Finally she had recourse to gin, which was palatable and very cheap. (333-334)

Virginia turns to alcohol to calm her nerves from the over-stimulation wrought by the crowded, fast-paced city. What is clear in Virginia’s alcoholism is that the overpopulated city has had an effect on her, biologically and psychologically.

       Just like Virginia Madden, the few men who populate Gissing’s London are altered radically, essentially devolved, by the influences of the overpopulated city. The first man (of the few) we encounter in the novel is clearly altered by his surroundings. As Monica wanders in the park on her birthday, contemplating her precarious fate, her future husband, Edmund Widdowson, approaches her as she sits in the grass.[9] Gissing writes that

[t]he gravity of his appearance and manner, the good-natured commonplace that fell from his lips, could not alarm her; a dialogue began, and went on for about half an hour. How old might he be?[…]His utterance fell short of perfect refinement, but seemed that of an educated man. And certainly his clothes were such as a gentleman wears. He had thin, hairy hands, unmarked by any effect of labour; the nails could not have been better cared for. (38)

Edmund’s appearance indicates, other than his class, that he is “soft” and not used to working with his hands, contrary to the industrial male laborer. The men who populate industrial London are effeminate and weak in this way. As Edmund “courts” Monica, he essentially stalks her, manipulating her through his fits of heightened emotions, effectually bullying her into a miserable marriage. Similarly, Mary Barfoot’s cousin, Everard, is portrayed just as effeminately. After returning to London from his journeys around the world, Everard dines at Mary’s house. Gissing writes that

[h]e had a tall, muscular frame, and a head of striking outline, with large nose, full lips, deep-set eyes, and prominent eyebrows. His hair was the richest tone of chestnut; his moustache and beard[…]inclined to redness. Excellent health manifested itself in the warm purity of his skin, in his cheerful aspect, and the lightness of his bearing[…]On sitting down, he at once abandoned himself to a posture of the completest [sic] ease, which his admirable proportions made graceful[…]he had a soft voice, and used it with all the discretion of good-breeding, so that at times it seemed to caress the ear. (88)

Though Everard appears physically healthy and masculine, one could argue that his healthy demeanor is derived from his time abroad[10] and is undermined by his speech and mannerisms. Everard and Edmund are the inverted effete “new men” who counterbalance the populous “new women,” and who take up the traditional “masculine” roles in order to survive in an increasingly effeminate world.

       The industrial late-Victorian city was overrun with people; however, the people who overran this city were predominantly women, as Gissing’s novel illustrates. This indicates a drastic shift in the population demographics that marked the Victorian population boom. Many factors contributed to the evolving demographic changes in the Victorian industrial city. Black and MacRaild state that “[t]hroughout the century, women outnumbered men. Industrial accidents and wars took a heavier toll on men and accentuated the statistical fact that live female births were anyway more numerous than male” (57). By the time Gissing’s novel appeared in 1893, the population ratio of women to men was 106 to 100 (Black and MacRaild 57). At heart in Gissing’s The Odd Women is the way these women view their function and place within this new, overpopulated, predominantly feminine world.

       The state of marriage seen in The Odd Women is indicative of the predicament in which late-Victorian women found themselves: outnumbering men proportionately, women in the late-nineteenth century had to turn to other means in order to support themselves. Though one of the population checks for which Malthus advocates is the postponement of marriage, particularly among the “lower orders,” Gissing’s “odd women” do not have that luxury; instead, they are the very women left over after all of the “available” men and women have been “matched.” Poole writes that “[t]he theme of the novel is explicit. The ‘odd women’ are the unwanted, unmarried minority, being quietly crucified on the social fiat that a woman’s role is marriage and motherhood” (186). In lieu of marriage, Gissing’s “odd women” turn to other means in order to survive: education and the professional workforce. This alternative echoes one of Malthus’s positive checks to population growth; however, in Gissing’s novel, this alternative is not simply an alternative, but a means of survival. Emma Liggins writes that “[b]y the early 1890s the female desire for greater economic independence, produced by the lack of financial support available from fathers and the increasing surplus of single women, ensured that more women than ever before felt compelled to enter the labour market” (ix). This “viable solution” appears quite early in Gissing’s novel. When she visits the Madden sisters to “recruit” them, Rhoda Nunn lays out the new mode of survival for women in this overpopulated, industrial society. She states that

I went to Bristol to learn everything I could that would help me out of school-life. Shorthand, book-keeping, commercial correspondence—I had lessons in them all, and worked desperately for a year [responding to a job offer, Rhoda leaves Bath and moves to London]. It was a move towards London, and I couldn’t rest till I had come the whole way. My first engagement here was as a shorthand writer to the secretary of a company. But he soon wanted some one who could use a type-writer. That was a suggestion. I went to learn type-writing, and the lady who taught me [Mary Barfoot] asked me in the end to stay with her as an assistant. (27)

Rhoda’s practical education serves as a means of survival in the absence of marriage. As an assistant to Mary Barfoot, Rhoda’s career in life is to help train and educate the unmarried “odd women,” so they may survive outside the economic and social institution of marriage. She says that Ms. Barfoot “makes it her object to train young girls for work in offices, teaching them the things that I learnt in Bristol and type-writing as well” (27-28). Ms. Barfoot’s school, in training the “odd women” in the skill of typewriting, allows the unmatchable women to enter the workforce, attempting to support themselves in the absence of eligible bachelors. By taking up traditionally “masculine” white-collar careers, the “odd women” effectively invert their own gender paradigms and “devolve” in the social hierarchy of industrial London society. Outpaced and outstripped of resources, these “odd women” cling to whatever means for survival.

       Gissing’s “odd women” negotiate their way through the increasingly industrial, overpopulated London in an attempt to survive in a period that witnessed a population boom on the scale of which Malthus had warned. Through looking at the “debates” surrounding the late-Victorian population boom, we can see how the Victorians themselves were concerned about the overpopulation of the industrial city, in particular, how the dwindling resources (in a Malthusian and Darwinian vein) available to urban residents occupied a special place in Victorian thought and created a sense of social “hysteria.” We see this in the devolutionary/degeneracy debates of the 1890s, as figures like Wells and Lankester debated the ability of mankind to survive life in an (overly-industrialized) overpopulated Victorian (mega) city. Gissing’s novel illustrates these anxieties circulating throughout late-Victorian society concerning futurity, population, sustenance, and cultural progress. While The Odd Women has conventionally been investigated through the feministic cultural work that it performs, when one looks at the philosophical history in which the novel is rooted, it is clear that Gissing’s novel is an approach to the “hysteria” facing late-Victorian England amidst the concerns about the overpopulation of the industrial city, and in particular, the individual’s ability to “adapt” (Darwinistically) to life in this overpopulated, over-industrialized city.

Works Cited

Black, Jeremy and Donald M. MacRaild. Nineteenth-Century Britain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Bowler, Peter. “Malthus, Darwin, and the Concept of Struggle,” Journal of the History of Ideas 37:4 (Oct.-Dec. 1976): 631-650. JSTOR. Web. 21 March 2013.

Gissing, George. The Odd Women, reissue, Patricia Ingham, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, revised seventh edition. New York: Touchstone, 1999. Print.

Lankester, Edwin Ray. “Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism.” The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History, c. 1880-1900, Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Liggins, Emma. George Gissing, the Working Woman, and Urban Culture. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006. Print.

Malthus, Thomas. An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, m. Condorcet, and Other Writers. <> Web. 3 September 2012.

Maltz, Diana. “Practical Aesthetics and Decadent Rationale in George Gissing,” Victorian Literature and Culture 28:1 (2000): 55-71. JSTOR. Web. 21 March 2013.

Nordau, Max. “Degeneration,” in Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, Laura Otis, ed. Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Aesthetics of Fear,” Salmagundi 120 (Fall 1998): 176-185. JSTOR. Web. 21 March 2013.

Poole, Adrian. Gissing in Context. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975. Print.

Selig, Robert. George Gissing, revised edition. New York: Twayne Publishers, Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.

Shrimpton, Nicholas. “‘Lane, you’re a perfect pessimist’: Pessimism and the English Fin de siècle,” The Yearbook of English Studies, From Decadent to Modernist: And Other Essays 37:1 (2007) 41-57. JSTOR. Web. 23 March 2013.

Spencer, Kathleen. “Purity and Danger: Dracula, the Urban Gothic, and the Late Victorian Degeneracy Crisis,” ELH 59:1 (Spring 1992): 197-225. JSTOR. Web. 23 March 2013.

Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation, Stephen Barker, transl. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. Print.

Symons, Arthur. “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” in The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History, c. 1880-1900, Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Walasek, Helen, ed. The Best of Punch Cartoons: 2,000 Humor Classics. New York: Overlook Press, 2009. Print.

Wells, H.G. “Zoological Retrogression,” in The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History, c. 1880-1900, Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Woods, Robert. The Demography of Victorian England and Wales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Wrigley, E.A. and R.S. Shofield. The Population History of England 1541-1871: A reconstruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.


[1] Here, “devolution” and “degeneration” are interchangeable terms, as both concepts are interested in humanity’s evolutionary progress.

[2] We could posit that the “evolving environments” in which humanity now found itself was the overpopulated city, overrun with technology as mankind attempted to find his place in this new overpopulated landscape, in this instance, through the mediation of technology.

[3] The late-Victorian Aesthetic movement had many currents. Diana Maltz writes that Gissing participated in all forms of the Aesthetic movement, whether the Decadence of Gissing’s early formative years or the anti-Aestheticism, advocated by Walter Pater, in Gissing’s later texts, in particular, The Odd Women.

[4] It is interesting to note that Symons’ treatise on literary decadence was published in the same year as Gissing’s novel.

[5] Malthus’ voice sounds remarkably similar to the “doom-and-gloom” pessimists of the late nineteenth century. Very early in his Essay, he writes that “[i]t has been said that the great question is now at issue, whether man shall henceforth start forwards with accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived [sic] improvement, or be condemned to perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery, and after every effort remain still at an immeasurable distance from the wished-for goal” (1).

[6] Peter Bowler makes the correlation between Malthus and Darwin in tracing the two types of struggle. He writes that “[…]the competition between the different individuals of the same species to see which of them shall survive and reproduce[…]” is the very root of the Darwinian, and one could claim, Malthusian, struggle for survival.

[7] Bowler writes that “[s]ince the supply of food can never be increased at the same rate as the population, the number of births must be artificially limited if misery is to be avoided. But Malthus classed birth control as a vice, and hence came to feel that the only solution lay in teaching the whole population the need for moral restraint” (642).

[8] Yet the industrial technologies that allowed the Victorian population boom exacerbated the very miseries of life in an overpopulated and over-industrialized world that we see in Gissing’s novel.’

[9] Widdowson’s audacity to approach a “lady” sitting alone in the park should be a marker for Victorian readers. This is indicative of an imbalance seen in Widdowson, one that is characteristic of his behavior and heightened emotions.

[10] Everard, who Gissing notes has spent his time traveling the world, in Egypt, Turkey, Spain, and Japan, lives a life of effeminate luxury, the very life denied to the Madden sisters.

“The Omnipotence of Simulacra”: Tracing the Evolution of the Simulacrum Throughout the History of Theory, Criticism, and Human Subjectivity

by Joshua Commander


“The dissimulation of the woven texture can in any case take centuries to undo its web: a web that envelops a web, undoing the web for centuries; reconstituting it too as an organism, indefinitely regenerating its own tissue behind the cutting trace” writes Jacques Derrida in his pivotal book La Dissémination — an observation which proves especially germane when endeavoring to dis-simulate the woven and (perhaps inextricably) entangled texture of simulation as well as the simulacrum’s role throughout the history of human subjectivity and literary theory (Derrida 1697). While Jean Baudrillard notes in “The Precession of Simulacra” that “the precession of simulacra” is now “here, everywhere[…] in a world completely catalogued and analyzed and then artificially revived as though real, in a world of simulation,” such a world has nonetheless been with us since antiquity” (1562). From Plato’s Idea of God to Donna Haraway’s cyborg, the silent precession and procession of simulacra has accompanied the evolution of Western civilization and literary theory for millennia — a procession that has only gained momentum over the centuries, a procession that is forever-present despite its tendency to signify only absence. By using Baudrillard’s theoretical framework to reveal the masked presence of simulation in Plato’s Ideal Forms, Augustine’s interpretation of biblical scripture, the mirror stage of psychosexual development, constructions of the “Other,” mimicry and metonymy of presence, and the persistent human desire for a (mythic) visible past in literary theory and criticism, we will find that simulacra has not only evolved along with us in our cultural development, but perhaps that we too are nothing other than simulacra ourselves. Indeed, to believe otherwise would be tantamount to dissimulation.

       According to Plato, “any given plurality of things which have a single name constitutes a single specific type”—an Idea or Form—in which “God” is the creator of its original, perfect, and transcendent form, and any subsequent earthly reproductions are but imperfect imitations of that “Ideal” (65). In Book X of the Republic, Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon serves to establish the Platonic order of things, but also anticipates the first two phases of the image that Baudrillard identifies in “The Precession of Simulacra” (Baudrillard 1560). Using a bed as an example, Socrates explains to Glaucon its three manifestations: first is the “real” one, the “product of divine craftsmanship”; second is the physical manifestation of the bed here on earth—the one the joiner produces; and lastly is the artistic reproduction of the bed, fashioned by a painter (Plato 66). Socrates and Glaucon move on to classify “God” as the bed’s “progenitor” (because it is God who produced the only “real bed”), the joiner as its “manufacturer,” and the painter as its “representer” (a label extended to all painters, playwrights, and poets) since s/he [2] “deals with things which are, in fact, two generations away from reality” (66). If we take Plato’s theory at face-value, his second classification of a thing—in the given example, the joiner’s bed—also fulfills Baudrillard’s criterion for the first order of simulation: a “reflection of a basic reality”; his third category, the product of a representer, then fulfills the second phase of the image since a “low-grade mother like representation” is not only “far from the truth,” but also “masks and perverts a basic reality”—both Plato and Baudrillard would agree with its classification of “an evil appearance” which belongs to “the order of malefice” (Plato 72; Baudrillard 1560). Plato and Baudrillard’s agreement ends there, however, for while the former considers his Idea of God an irrefutable reality, the latter considers it to be little more than an anthropocentric phantasm, a specter of tradition and a culturally-constructed illusion (1559). Indeed, according to Baudrillard’s subsection of his treatise titled “The Divine Irreference of Images,” the purportedly “real” Platonic Forms created by “God”— including “the Platonic Idea of God”—amount to nothing other than their own pure simulacra since they reference (in text, speech, or other images) things that do not exist and therefore mask only absences and bear “no relation to any reality whatever”—in short, they “dissimulate that there is nothing” (1559-60).

       Far from confining the “simulacrum of divinity” to Platonic Ideals, however, Baudrillard holds that “[a]ll of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange—God, of course” (1559, 1560). The vessel through which Augustine of Hippo grounds his theories of how signs function—his interpretation of (and evident belief in) biblical scripture—is a case in point. In On Christian Teaching, Augustine instructs the gentle reader on the proper method of dealing with “the ambiguities of metaphorical words” in texts: first and foremost, one must take especial care not to mistake a figurative expression for a literal one lest that expression be “understood in a carnal way” (160). He exemplifies such a spiritual oversight by relating that when an individual hears the word ‘sabbath’ and literally construes it as merely one of the calendar days of a week instead of taking into account its figurative significance (as a day commemorating the resurrection of Christ), s/he is subject to “a miserable kind of spiritual slavery” and is “incapable of raising the mind’s eye above the physical creation so as to absorb the eternal light” (160). Augustine equates the inability to recognize figurative language to “spiritual slavery” because what is at stake here is not merely a misunderstanding of meaning, but the possibility that the reader might not recognize the ‘divine truth’ of “the word of God” in his/her interpretation of scriptural text (157). As Baudrillard explains, “[t]o simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t. [It] implies[…]an absence”—but simulation is not merely limited to feigning; like an individual who simulates sickness and generates psychosomatic symptoms, the biblical advocate (Augustine) also unconsciously simulates belief in “the word of God” and in so doing generates conviction based on “an uninterrupted circuit without reference,” thereby threatening “the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’” (Baudrillard 1558-60; Augustine 157). Not unlike Plato’s Idea of God, Augustine’s “invisible attributes of God” have been “volatized into simulacra”—biblical texts—“which alone deploy their pomp and power of fascination,” therein masking the devastating truth “that ultimately there has never been any God, that only the simulacrum exists, indeed that God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum” (Augustine 157; Baudrillard 1559).

       The simulacrum’s role in human subjectivity is not limited to its manifestations as religious texts, however; indeed, its grasp first takes hold on an individual level the very moment an infant approaches the gateway to the imaginary order: the mirror stage. As Plato illustrates via Socrates and Glaucon’s dialogue:

Socrates: [G]et hold of a mirror and carry it around with you everywhere. You’ll soon be creating everything.

Glaucon: Yes, but I’d be creating appearances, not actual real things. (Plato 65)

So too does a young child create merely an appearance during its initial méconnaissance of itself, an appearance s/he mistakes for the real thing. In “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” Jacques Lacan describes the transformation that a subject undergoes when s/he first (mis)recognizes her/himself in the mirror: the infant jubilantly identifies with the seeming wholeness of its specular form, but this form only serves to situate “the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone, or rather, which will only rejoin the coming into being[…] of the subject asymptotically” (1164-65)[4]. Thus, the child’s reflection occupies the second phase of Baudrillard’s “successive phases of the image”: as an image [5] forever in “discordance with [the subject’s] own reality,” it is of the second order of simulation in that “it masks and perverts a basic reality” by depicting a figure of wholeness while simultaneously representing only an “exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted” (Baudrillard 1560; Lacan 1165). In this way, the specular image can also be read as a text, just as a text can also be read as a second-order simulacrum: according to Jacques Derrida, “[a] text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible”(1697)[6].

       And yet, “the spectral light of ethnology” can at times appear to illuminate some of the darker passages of texts, but in reality this “fourth dimension[…]of the simulacrum” only serves to further obscure them—as Edward Said so ably demonstrates in his groundbreaking work Orientalism (Baudrillard 1562). Not unlike the incomplete image that a reflection provides a subject, Edward Said writes that “Orientalism is premised on exteriority, that is, on the fact that the Orientalist, poet or scholar, makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the West”; indeed, the Western conception of the Orient is so thoroughly composed of a continuous series of Western representations repeatedly mapped onto each other that Said contends that “[t]he Orient was almost a European invention” in that the latter’s culture was able to produce the former “politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-enlightenment period” (1882, 1866, 1868). The Orient is therefore less an Eastern reality and more a Western fantasy, an endless succession of signs, images, texts, and representations that defines the East on the West’s terms—a phantasmagoric simulacrum that at once distorts, perverts, and masks the real presence of the East. The means by which this Oriental simulacrum is fashioned, of course, is via a sub-branch of ethnology—Orientalism—by a specialist of that ethnological field: the Orientalist. According to Said, the Orientalist is “[a]nyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient[…]either in its specific or general aspects,” whose work in turn produces seemingly scientific discourses that only result in the continued conquest and subjugation of the Orient (1867). In other words, “the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action”: in order for “ethnology [and Orientalism] to live, its object [the East] must die” (Said 1868; Baudrillard 1561).

       This ethnologically induced death also manifests itself in the form of what Homi Bhabha calls “mimicry” in his essay “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse”; this death, however, is exacted as if it were administered via a double-edged sword without a hilt, simultaneously wounding its wielder as it dispatches its object—all the while generating its very own precession of simulacra. As Bhabha relates, “colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same but not quite” (126). To achieve its end, though, mimicry must not cease producing the said difference—what Bhabha calls “its slippage”—but it is that difference in itself which is also “a process of disavowal” that ironically “ensure[s] [the] strategic failure” of colonial appropriation, resulting in mimicry simultaneously functioning as both “ resemblance and menace” (127). The latter is self-evident and undeniable in the visible [7] aspect of mimicry: the colonized is “[a]lmost the same but not white,” which effectively unveils the inherent “ambivalence of colonial discourse” as well as undermines its narcissistic authority, therein furnishing itself with the inadvertent means to its own destruction (130). In the meantime, however, colonial mimicry’s “strategic production of conflictual, fantastic, discriminatory ‘identity effects’” produces a mimetic Other with “no essence, no ‘itself’”; in brief, “mimicry conceals no presence or identity behind its mask” (130-31). The resultant byproducts are colonized simulacra of the colonizers: individuals whose visible aspects mask an absence of self. On the other hand—and here can be descried the colonizers’ unconscious brandishing of yet another dual-edged blade without a hilt—the apparent ease with which colonized Others may perform the cultural codes of the colonial authority reveals precisely how hollow that authority’s claim to cultural superiority really is: not unlike the replica made just five-hundred meters away from the original caves of Lascaux, “the duplication is sufficient to render both artificial” (Baudrillard 1563). Both colonized and colonizer are reduced to simulacra by the latter’s counterproductive, and ultimately ineffective, strategic objectives to maintain power.

       Moreover, those self-serving strategic objectives also take shape in yet another form: the “inappropriate signifiers of colonial discourse” that Bhabha calls the “metonymy of presence” (130). These include, according to Bhabha, “the difference between being English and being Anglicized[…]the discriminatory [stereotypical] identities constructed across traditional cultural norms and classifications, the Simian Black, the Lying Asiatic”—and also, as Edward Said has identified, the Oriental (Bhabha 130). Bhabha styles such racist sweeping generalizations as metonymies of presence because these stereotypes represent a presence in part, a part that is intended to masquerade as a whole. In other words, these stereotypes are third-order simulacra: each stereotype “plays at being an appearance,” each “masks the absence of a basic reality”—the absence of an accurate representation of the Other (Baudrillard 1560). Consider the Occident’s stereotypical depiction of the Oriental: the Oriental female is represented as being strikingly exotic and overly eager for domination; the Oriental male is portrayed as feminine, weak, but also oddly threatening in that his untamed sexuality places Western white women in apparent jeopardy; and the West’s sweeping personification of the Orient “exhibits supine malleability and feminine penetrability” and is viewed as eccentric, backward, silently different, passive, sensual, despotic, and cruel (Said 1868; Said 2, 206). Said stresses the importance of viewing such representations as precisely that: re-presentations. According to Said, “[i]n any instance of at least written language, there is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a represence, or representation” (1883). Indeed, written accounts depicting Western stereotypes of the Oriental therefore depend very little on actual individuals; “on the contrary,” Said writes, “the written statement is a presence to the reader by virtue of it having excluded, displaced, [8] made supererogatory any such real thing as the Orient[al]” (1883). Said’s classification of the West’s “represence” of the Orient and the Oriental testify to the legitimacy of Baudrillard’s claim that “simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum,” since such stereotypical representations have progressed from masking and perverting a basic reality, to masking the absence of a basic reality by virtue of excluding and displacing it, and then finally to bearing very little relation to any reality whatsoever in its policy of simultaneous exclusion and alteration; in other words, such a stereotypical depiction of the Oriental is but the simulacrum of the highest order (Baudrillard 1560).

       “We need a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin to reassure us as to our ends, since ultimately we have never believed in them” (Baudrillard 1563). Donna Haraway, in her critical essay entitled “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” would qualify Baudrillard’s disillusioned observation with the need for novelty: we need a new past, “retold stories, versions that reverse and displace hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities”; and indeed, she answers her own clarion call by constructing her own “ironic faith, [her] blasphemy,” in “the image of the cyborg” (2215, 2190). Unlike the central myths of origin that masquerade as divine histories, the cyborg embraces its existential indeterminacy as “a creature of fiction” and “a creature of social reality”—a creature after our own hearts, for the cyborg’s very composition mirrors our own: we too are part fiction, part social reality, the latter being nothing more than “lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction” (2190)[9]. Cyborgs, like ourselves, “are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism,” and there is a certain legitimacy to be had in recognizing one’s own illegitimacy: in recognizing the illegitimacy of the origin myths that have colonized our minds and governed our existence for millennia, we liberate ourselves from believing that the fictional dictates we have always lived by are facts—and can now live a fiction of our own choosing (2192). For whether we persist in believing that we were created in a fictional “god’s” image, or if we choose to re-create ourselves in the cyborg’s image, or if we abandon the question entirely, the end result is the same: we are all of the highest order of simulacra, images that bear no relation to our real origins whatsoever simply because those origins are unverifiable, which leads us to instead forever construct ourselves on the basis of a simulated reality, a woven texture forever entangled with our subjective experience. Indeed, to believe otherwise would be tantamount to dissimulation.

Works Cited

Augustine of Hippo. “From On Christian Teaching.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 154-62.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1556-566.

Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” October 28. Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis (Spring, 1984): 125-33. JSTOR. The MIT Press. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

Derrida, Jacques. “From La Dissémination.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1697-734.

—. “From Of Grammatology.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1688-696.

Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 2190-220.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1163-169.

Plato. “From Republic.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 45-77.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London: Penguin, 1977.

—. “From Orientalism.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1861-888.


[1] “The Omnipotence of Simulacra” appears in Baudrillard, 1559.

[2] I employ the gender-neutral, and more egalitarian, pronoun not out of ignorance—I understand that during the Hellenic era women were not as likely as men to be “representers” (painters, poets, tragedians, etc.)—but out of preference. This same usage will follow throughout.

[3] This is the reason why Baudrillard attributes his epigraph—“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true”—to Ecclesiastes; not because this epigraph is found in the Old Testament book of that name, but because that is what a preacher (what “Ecclesiastes” means in Ancient Greek) as an alleged representative of “God” on earth is: a simulacrum, a signifier that has no corresponding signified (1556). By extension, the church (what “ecclesia” came to mean in Greece when Christianity was introduced), as the house of God, is also its own simulacrum: its existence is based on the object of its faith—a mythic object that does not exist.

[4] My emphasis.

[5] Which Lacan calls the Gestalt (1165).

[6] My emphasis.

[7] Bhabha brilliantly plays off the layered meanings of terms—reminiscent of Derrida’s development of the linguistic concept of the “trace” in his analysis of Rousseau’s use of the term supplement—when he notes that “the visibility of mimicry is always produced at the sight of interdiction. It is a form of colonial discourse that is uttered inter dicta,” because the Latin phrase “inter dicta” means “between,” but when combined to one term, “interdicta,” it means “forbidden” (Derrida 1691; Bhabha 130). Both meanings, of course, at once apply to his usage and highlight the characteristic ambivalence of mimicry.

[8] My emphasis.

[9] My emphasis.