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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, February 21, 2014



I'm now asserting that causality in a literary context-- which, contra Todorov, is not homologous with the causality human beings experience in life-- has both a cognitive aspect and an affective aspect, summed up as "regularity" and "intelligibility." 

And in the first installment of OF SHERLOCK AND PSYCHOS I defined the uncanny aspect of the film as inherent in Sherlock Holmes' foe Jack the Ripper:

 ...in what qualities does Jack the Ripper's metaphenomenality inhere?  As his only qualification for the metaphenomenal is his status as a "perilous psycho," that metaphenomenality must inhere in a mental, "non-body" quality.  His madness is his method, and therefore his metaphenomenality.

I then debated whether or not Sherlock Holmes' "polymath" qualities might qualify him for as a "mental metaphenomenality," but decided that I would have to re-view STUDY IN TERROR to see whether or not Holmes showed such uncanny qualities himself.  However, in OF SHERLOCK AND PSYCHOS PT. 2 I acknowledged that the Holmes of the 2009 SHERLOCK HOLMES film definitely did use his special deductive powers in an "uncanny" fashion:

What I did not then note is that in this scene Holmes-- who is obviously less heavily muscled than his opponent-- is utilizing his deductive skills as Doyle never did and probably would not have: to suss out his opponent's weaknesses and to plan his attack with machine-like efficiency.  Thus this film, which I have not yet reviewed, would fit the uncanny version of my trope for "uncanny skills." The film's use of graphics to depict the way Holmes thinks-- projecting words or images onto the screen, to share diegetic space with the actors-- also imparts an aura of "strangeness" to Holmes' computer-like cogitations.
I have no problem in stating that this sort of mental acuity, while it does not violate the regularity aspect of causality, does defy its intelligibility aspect, even as does Jack the Ripper's madness. And though I explored a couple of Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories briefly, I have not yet decided whether or not Holmes' unusual command of arcane knowledge can be termed "anti-intelligible." I am tending currently to think not.

Fictional reiterations of Jack the Ripper, though, do not show the same ambivalence. 

I do not render any final verdict here as to whether "the causality human beings experience in life" is entirely naturalistic or not.  But it is certainly of a different order than anything we experience through fiction, and so the two are not homologous.  That said, when I think of the historical figure of Jack the Ripper, I opt for the default characterization that almost everyone does: that he was a real human being who killed out of some lunacy and eluded the law.

I have yet to encounter a fictionalized Jack the Ripper, however, whose spectre does not suggest either "the uncanny" or "the marvelous."  This is in contrast to many other perilous psychos. 

In this essay I showed how Norman Bates, though his character was based on the real-life aberration Ed Gein, exceeded what I now call the intelligibility aspect of causality.  Despite attempts by writer Bloch and director Hitchcock to inject standardized psychological readings of Norman Bates, Norman is not reduced by these readings.  He remains a figure who dominantly suggests the antipathetic affect of dread, as signified by the famous shot of Anthony Perkins at the film's conclusion, which I like to call the "Mona Lisa Death's Head."

Ironically, the A&E BATES MOTEL teleseries manages to reduce Norman to the more mundane level of "fear"-- although to be sure, the opening episodes focus more on the fearful nature of his mother, Norma Bates, and softening Norman as the series works toward its "evolution of a psycho."

I admit that I have not seen or read every fictional portrayal of Jack the Ripper, which this Wikipedia list purports to cover.  There may be renditions of the Ripper that do to him what A&E did to Norman.  Yet because the real Ripper was never apprehended, his figure resists the naturalistic straight-jacket.  Of course, many "imitation Rippers" may fall into this category.

 This 1927 Hitchcock film departs from its source by renaming the serial killer "the Avenger." Further, though Hitchcock had wanted to keep some ambivalence as to the guilt or innocence of the man suspected of being the killer, he was overruled, with the result that the accused man is proved innocent and the real killer, though his capture is mentioned, is never seen on-screen.  Without question Hitchcock introduces visual motifs to suggest the dread associated with a serial-killer boogieman, but one may argue that these are overpowered by the film's naturalistic focus.

And of course, Hitchcock himself did a seventies-era version of this type of serial murderer in 1972's FRENZY, reviewed here.  I noted in the review that despite an early comparison between the film's "Necktie Killer" and the legendary "Jack the Ripper," there was no "strangeness" in Hitchcock's handling of FRENZY's strangler, in contrast to his handling of Norman Bates.

By contrasting Hitchcock's approach to the serial killer in this and a genuinely uncanny film like PSYCHO,  I find that Hitchcock's approach with FRENZY has more in common with his 1943 film SHADOW OF A DOUBT.  In my earlier essay I asserted that the psycho-killer of SHADOW lacked any of the "strange or unworldly aspects" I find in Norman Bates, and the same is true of the "Necktie Killer" in FRENZY, even though he's compared to Jack the Ripper in the film's first ten minutes.

To my knowledge, though, whenever a modern writer attempts to write of the actual Jack the Ripper-- the tendency is to see him through the lens of the uncanny affect of dread, whether he is seen as a man hiding a psychotic secret (A STUDY IN TERROR),  a delver into supernatural secrets (Moore and Campbell's FROM HELL), or even-- as in one novel I won't name to avoid giving away the "big reveal"-- Sherlock Holmes himself.  There are, as I said above, also versions in which Jack the Ripper is some marvelous being, as in Robert Bloch's short story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper." But more than any other famous madman of reality or fiction, the Ripper seems to work best as an image of dread--one that bends, but does not break, the normal configurations of the causal world.


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