V. Empire

First exhibited in 1840, The Slave Ship was J.M.W. Turner’s passionate protest against slavery. The story is that Turner painted it after reading Thomas Clarkson’s History and Abolition of the Slave Trade. In it, Clarkson tells a gruesome tale: in 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong apparently ordered 133 slaves thrown overboard while at sea just so his company could collect insurance money. No doubt the vermillion red surrounding the sun is by itself almost sufficiently expressive, but in case you don’t get the point Turner portrays a number of slaves still in chains struggling to stay afloat in the churning water, mixed with sharks who are already beginning to scent their prey. In the distance, the masts of the ship are plainly visible because all the sails are completely furled—a typhoon is coming on. Typhoon, sharks, the churning sea itself—for the poor slaves, it’s just a question of what gets them first. Nonetheless the captain isn’t taking any chances, so the slaves remain manacled while being tossed overboard. It’s an instance of what seems to have happened so often with slavery, the captain simply not feeling the slaves at all, his sole concern being to make absolutely sure they drown so that his ship owners can collect the insurance money.

Essentially, empire is all about being able to use others instrumentally. By that I mean seeing people as objects merely, rather than as possessing consciousness or subjectivity, and so using them the same way you might use machinery or other inert things to achieve a goal. I think Hardt and Negri in Empire are too influenced by the current business model of empire: the international corporation. To me, that kind of empire works on a merely aggregative principle, and for that reason is still relatively superficial: it doesn’t have much effect on individual consciousness or subjectivity. For the deeper sense of empire, however, I think we need to look elsewhere. The funny thing about instrumental use of others, though, is that it doesn’t have to involve actual slavery. So while actual slavery was abolished fairly early in the 19th century throughout the British Empire thanks to the efforts of abolitionists like Wilberforce, we continue to see plenty of instances in Victorian fiction of similar exploitation. In fact, as many Victorian authors were quick to notice, any society that involves a social hierarchy makes the instrumental use of others possible. Inevitably, having a social hierarchy implies a power dynamic of some kind. Nobody really likes being underneath anybody else. So anytime you have a social hierarchy, it has to be constantly reinforced. To reinforce it, though, those who belong to the lower classes have to be compelled to do what people of the upper classes want. In this way, people of the lower classes are forced to recognize their inferior position—rather than doing what they themselves want, they do what others (i.e., those who belong to the upper classes) want. In 19th century England, this power dynamic becomes evident in various ways. In the most extreme instances (e.g., the “Peterloo” massacre), there’s even a resort to something like military force. Otherwise, there’s the more subtle pressure of the law, which protects property and hence wealth. And, obviously, wealth itself can easily become a means of enforcing the social hierarchy in all kinds of ways. And since the social hierarchy is pervaded throughout by a power dynamic that’s constantly in force, it then becomes possible for those who control it to use others (those below them) instrumentally. From this standpoint, you might say, empire comes about simply by the spread or extension of a social hierarchy to new places. In particular, those who live in colonial places can be exploited by those occupying the imperial center. So the social hierarchy of England gets extended to India and elsewhere. Because of the wholesale use of colonial others instrumentally, however, it’s inevitable that at some point self-consciousness or awareness of the injustice of this instrumental use would ensue. And that’s how we come to have in Victorian literature some reflection on the power dynamics that made empire possible.

Of the various Victorian authors, perhaps no one reflected more astutely on the power dynamics inherent in a social hierarchy, and hence in empire, than Thackeray. Nowadays we mostly know him through Vanity Fair—a pity, since this isn’t where his analysis of the dynamics of power is best on display. Partly because it’s a historical novel and partly because it largely tells the story of upstarts like Becky Sharp (modeled on Valerie Marneffe of Balzac’s Cousine Bette), Vanity Fair isn’t in the best position to tell the story of how people get morally corrupted by power and dominance. Fortunately, Thackeray takes care to tell that story elsewhere. And as I’ve tried to trace it, I have to confess to finding myself increasingly interested in Thackeray. We’ve all known that Thackeray’s very good at social critique. But it’s even better when he applies his critical acuteness to an analysis of the social hierarchy and the power dynamics by which it’s sustained. And even though most of that analysis is to be found in his fiction, there’s at least one other place where Thackeray steps away from his fictional pose to look at the matter directly. Here I’m thinking of his Snobs of England, published just around the same as Vanity Fair. He begins with a definition of a snob and, implicitly, of snobbery:

He who meanly admires mean things is a Snob—perhaps that is a safe definition of the character.
(p. 8)

To understand what’s involved here, however, we first need to know what “meanly” admiring something would consist of. A simple way to put it, I think, would be: taking a low view of it, looking at it in a way that’s debasing to the viewer. And when we apply this to “mean” (= low) things, the sense is something like: taking a low or debasing view of something that’s in itself debasing. All this comes out much more clearly in Thackeray’s analysis of an actual case:

I am told that in a kingdom where there is a German King-Consort [Portugal], whenever the Consort takes the diversion of shooting among the rabbit-warrens of Cintra, or the pheasant-preserves of Mafra, he has a keeper to load his guns, as a matter of course, and then they are handed to the nobleman, his equerry, and the nobleman hands them to the Prince, who blazes away—gives back the discharged gun to the nobleman, who gives it to the keeper, and so on. But the Prince won’t take the gun from the hands of the loader.

As long as this unnatural and monstrous etiquette continues, Snobs there must be. The three persons engaged in this transaction are, for the time being, Snobs.

1. The keeper—the least Snob of all, because he is discharging his daily duty; but he appears here as a Snob, that is to say, in a position of debasement, before another human being, (the German Prince,) with whom he is only allowed to communicate through another party. A free Portuguese game-keeper, who confesses himself to be unworthy to communicate directly with any person, confesses himself to be a Snob.

2. The nobleman in waiting is a Snob. If it degrades the German Prince to receive the gun from the game-keeper, it is degrading to the nobleman in waiting to execute that service. He acts as a Snob towards the keeper, whom he keeps from communication with the Prince—a Snob towards the Prince, to whom he pays a degrading homage.

3. The King-Consort of Portugal is a Snob for insulting fellow-men in this way. There’s no harm in his accepting the services of the keeper directly; but indirectly he insults the service performed, and the two servants who perform it; and therefore, I say respectfully, is a most undoubted, though royal SN—B.
(p. 15)

Significantly, all 3 of the people involved here figure as snobs in Thackeray’s book. In effect, the keeper doesn’t do anything. But presumably he figures as a snob because he accepts a routine in which he’s not allowed to hand a gun to the king directly. So even though he isn’t debased by performing a debasing act, he’s still debased by accepting the way this act has to get performed. Interestingly, too, Thackeray sees the nobleman-in-waiting as a snob vis-à-vis both the king and the keeper. At first glance we might think he’s only debased by having to hand the gun to the king, when the keeper should’ve done it. But Thackeray also insists on his being a snob vis-à-vis the keeper, presumably because his preventing the keeper from giving the gun to the king is debasing by the way it forces the nobleman to take the king’s position too seriously. Finally, the king is a snob (as Thackeray sees it) not because someone else has to hand him his gun, but because of his forcing this to be done according to a protocol that’s debasing to both the nobleman and the keeper. So all 3, as it turns out, are implicated in snobbery.

For Thackeray, the problem with snobbery lies in its psychological consequences. Obviously nobody suffers any physical harm from having to hand over a gun, or from not having to do it. Instead, the problem seems to lie in the psychological consequences of not being thought good enough to do it, or of thinking someone else isn’t good enough to do it. The keeper’s debased because he accepts his not being thought good enough to do it. The king’s debased because he thinks someone else isn’t good enough to do it. And the nobleman’s debased because he thinks someone else isn’t good enough to do it, which means he has to perform the service himself—which is debasing to him because he shouldn’t have to perform this service, and wouldn’t have if he thought the keeper good enough to do it. Now in this analysis it’s pretty clear why both the keeper and the nobleman are debased—they’re both forced to think less well of themselves than they should. What isn’t so clear is why the protocol’s debasing to the king. After all, he gets 2 other people to take him as superior to themselves. To see why Thackeray sees his role as debasing, then, we have to look elsewhere in his work.

What we have here is an illustration from what might well be in many ways Thackeray’s finest novel, The Newcomes. This is a typical Victorian multiplot novel, with too many plot strands to pursue them all fully here. Instead, I want to focus on just one, involving Col. Thomas Newcome, who after years of service in India has come back to England. Shortly after he gets back, he goes to a party where he meets someone he knew in India: Rummun Lall. Now before Col. Newcome arrives at the party, Rummun Lall is getting treated not only with respect but even as a big-deal personage, somebody to whom even the English aristocracy have to defer. The reason for that is, simply, money: Rummun Lall’s a banker and—because of all the schemes in which he’s involved—one of the richest people in India. But Col. Newcome doesn’t buy into any of that: because he’s been in India for years, where Rummun Lall is known to be a somewhat shady businessman, the Colonel not only won’t defer to him but even—as you can see in the illustration—treats him somewhat contemptuously. All he says is: “What Rummun, you here?” Now at first glance this sort of behavior might seem to implicate him in snobbery. Interestingly, though, I don’t think Thackeray sees it that way. And the reason I suspect he doesn’t is because the Colonel (from his long years of service in India) knows all about Rummun Lall’s shady business dealings there, which he finds absolutely repellant. So it isn’t so much because he believes in his own superiority to Lall that the Colonel treats him badly—it’s because he doesn’t like what the guy’s all about, and doesn’t feel anybody engaged in shady business practices should get a lot of respect. In other words, it’s not because he thinks he himself is superior to Lall, but because he doesn’t think Lall should be associating with any decent people that he’s so uncivil.

Nonetheless, things take a different turn a bit later in the novel, which is what makes the Col. Newcome story so interesting for my purpose. Col. Newcome goes back to India, ostensibly because his expenses in England were too high, but really because he wants to raise more money for his nephew Clive to be able to marry Ethel. Once back in India, however, he gets involved in one of Rummun Lall’s shadiest ventures, the Bundelcund Bank, buying stock shares that yield a huge profit. Significantly, it’s at this point that the Colonel starts to go downhill morally. Nor is it surprising that he now professes to think well of Rummun Lall. In effect, what he’s now doing is using Lall instrumentally. Of course, it’s all for Clive. Nonetheless, using Lall has a corrupting effect on the Colonel. As he gets rich, he starts to bully people like Barnes Newcome, the nasty nemesis and rival to Clive. Throwing his money into an election campaign, he actually runs against Barnes Newcome for a seat in Parliament. But in other ways, too, he’s starting to impose himself on people. And the source of the trouble is the money he’s getting from Lall’s bank, which makes all of this possible. The fact that the Bundelcund Bank is based in India is, I think, not accidental. It suggests that Col. Newcome’s way of using Lall is representative of what the British Empire—or any empire—does on a larger scale. What Thackeray wants to say, I would argue, is that this way of using others is the foundation of empire but also what’s likely to take it down in the end. Unlike some people, then, I don’t believe Thackeray’s being critical of India here. The key point isn’t Rummun Lall’s shady business practices but rather the Colonel’s willingness to make use of these. Rummun Lall is what he is, and there are people like him everywhere. In other words, it isn’t a slight on India especially. But the Colonel’s having been in India for all those years (and even, perhaps, symbolically, his going back there) is precisely what makes it possible for him to succumb to the temptation of using others instrumentally, which brings about his—fortunately only temporary—moral downfall. What Thackeray’s trying to say, then, is that the ultimate source of trouble isn’t India or people like Rummun Lall, but the notion that they can be used instrumentally, which comes about—imperceptibly, perhaps—from the experience of empire.

If Thackeray offers very much an early Victorian perspective on empire, the later Victorian take, exemplified by someone like Wilkie Collins, is quite different. Thackeray was indignant about the instrumental use of others (at least as it figured within the British Empire). Collins, by contrast, seems much more resigned to what he appears to regard as inevitable. His concern is to explore how that instrumental use of others leads to a different kind of relationship with those others, one where the others we use somehow become internalized within ourselves and hence lead to a different kind of interiority or subjectivity. Here I want to look particularly at The Moonstone, in which Collins offers what’s probably his deepest and most sustained treatment of the issue.

The story starts off in an almost fabular way, with a precious diamond called the Moonstone apparently being stolen at the storming of Seringapatam by John Herncastle. At the same time, he’s also cursed by the dying Indian soldier whom he appears to have murdered to get the stone. Herncastle’s will bequeaths the Moonstone to Rachel Verinder (niece of Lady Julia Verinder, sister of Herncastle). Some time after, the Moonstone is stolen from Rachel Verinder. Her comment: “My Diamond is Lost.” Commentators have, I think, quite rightly pointed out the erotic connotations here, the way this symbolically suggests Rachel’s loss of virginity. But so far no one’s fully followed up all the implications of that symbolism. In other words, if the storming of Seringapatam is one kind of violation, Rachel’s loss of virginity is merely another: what goes around comes around. So the storming of Seringapatam = Indian loss of innocence, and prepares the way for Rachel’s loss of innocence. Once the stone has been stolen, we apparently have to be prepared for an endless cycle of theft—or at least until the stone’s restored to its rightful place. In fact, Rachel (as it turns out) literally sees Franklin Blake take the Moonstone from a drawer in her room while sleepwalking. Significantly, the novel describes her emotion while she witnesses the theft as one of indignation/anger, but also love.

In the later part of the story, involving recovery of the Moonstone, the key role is played by Ezra Jennings, Dr. Candy’s assistant. A curious-looking guy, his piebald hair is apparently (according to a theory of the time) a sign of miscegenation. He’s also said to have a gipsy complexion. In the MS., it seems, Collins originally had “nigger’s complexion,” but changed it to avoid confusion—Jennings is supposed to be from the East. In any case, what’s very clear is that he’s supposed to belong to one of those subaltern populations of the British Empire whose people can be used instrumentally. He also has, supposedly, a tarnished reputation as a doctor, but one he’s unable to do anything about—suggestive of racism of some kind. Significantly, a strong mutual trust quickly develops between Franklin Blake and Jennings. Nor is it hard to see why: despite being English and white, Blake is definitely an outsider to the Verinder circle, someone on whom it might well try to impose its sense of social superiority. In that respect, he’s not so different from Jennings as we might initially think. Now Jennings has gradually been working out a theory of the unconscious, and he employs it to partly explain Franklin Blake’s conduct. His belief is that Blake has taken a dose of laudanum—and it turns out this is actually the case, Dr. Candy having secretly administered it in response to Blake’s complaint of sleeplessness. Jennings hypothesizes that what the laudanum has done is to release or trigger some subconscious impulse Blake was feeling, one that prompted him to go into Rachel Verinder’s bedroom. ( —I know all this looks pretty obvious from a Freudian perspective, but we have to remember The Moonstone is pre-Freud). In fact, Collins is at pains to emphasize the correctness of what Jennings is saying, and to do that he even refers to the medical theory of Carpenter and Eliotson. To prove this hypothesis, Blake while asleep re-enacts his taking of the Moonstone under the influence of laudanum which Jennings administers.

What we have here, I suggest, is something like multiple levels of interiority. with different outsiders being used instrumentally while being psychologically internalized in the process. So first we’ve got Franklin Blake vis-à-vis Rachel Verinder. His entry into her bedroom at night while she’s supposedly asleep might seem a bit obvious in light of Freud, but it takes on a new twist if we think of him not only as outsider but also as subaltern—hence someone she’s capable of using instrumentally to fulfill an auto-erotic wish: notice her mix of indignation/anger and love, which presumably involves pleasure (this from the Collins who used to take Dickens for sex holidays in Paris!). But if Blake offers one form of subaltern being internalized within Rachel Verinder, we get a second with Ezra Jennings being used instrumentally by Blake. By his insight into what’s going on with Blake while he’s sleeping, and by his ability to force a re-enactment of that process with a laudanum dose, Jennings is in effect “inside” Blake just as Blake was “inside” Rachel Verinder. And—as with the relationship between Blake and Verinder—there’s a suggestion Jennings is here being used instrumentally, sacrificed to bring about a disclosure of what actually happened and hence recovery of the Moonstone. Ultimately, the point I take Collins to be trying to make here is that every instrumental use of subaltern others provokes or prompts an involuntary internalizing of that other. Nor is it accidental that all this stuff keeps happening at night. The upshot seems to be that the more you use others instrumentally, the more they get inside you, so that finally all your interiority will consist of nothing but that other. So Rachel Verinder will finally marry Franklin Blake. And the only reason Jennings doesn’t remain inside Franklin Blake is because Jennings has to die off—no doubt because (unlike Blake) he’s too dangerous an outsider from a “proper” Victorian standpoint. Nonetheless, despite all the efforts made to keep the Moonstone in England, it eventually goes back to the place from which it came, a process Collins seems to see as inevitable.

Initially, I didn’t think I’d be talking about Jacob Riis and his How the Other Half Lives here—the place for it seemed to be in my discussion of the urban scene. But as I read it, and as I looked at all the photographs by Riis reproduced in the Dover edition, I couldn’t help feeling there was something odd about his whole perspective on the poor of New York. I think the best way to put it is that they’re treated as outsiders, in effect as foreigners. Of course, many of them are: the Chinese, the Czechs, the Irish, the Jews, and all the other ethnic groups he talks about. But the African-Americans or Blacks also figure as one of these “foreign” groups, and surely most—if not all—of these people were born here. For that reason I’ve reproduced his photograph of what he calls “street arabs” (i.e., homeless boys), even though these are most likely wholly native as well. The point is, there’s a tendency on Riis’s part to think of all these groups as foreigners, outsiders. And even though he isn’t consciously thinking of how they might be used instrumentally, there’s a way in which even reform, which he thinks about a lot, always has to come to these groups from elsewhere, from some source other than themselves. So even though Riis isn’t thinking about instrumental use, you might say that in his notion of reform it seems as if these different groups will somehow get shaped or formed instrumentally, without perhaps much consulting of their own subjectivity. I’m not saying I think Riis is necessarily to be criticized or blamed. And my only real reason for introducing him here is to show how, at the end of the nineteenth century, the whole notion of empire has taken an inward turn. Clearly New York isn’t a colonial territory. Nonetheless Riis can’t help thinking of it as foreign as he looks at all the different ethnic groups occupying it. What it points to, I would suggest, is an inherent tendency of empire: that interiority (or what’s inside) keeps getting more and more occupied by outsiders until finally, arguably, the outsider perspective will have completely subsumed all interiority.