Jack the Ripper, the dialectic of enlightenment and the search for spiritual deliverance in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings

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Author: Alex Murray
Date: Jan. 2004
From: Critical Survey(Vol. 16, Issue 1)
Publisher: Berghahn Books, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,192 words

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Jack the Ripper is purported to have claimed: 'I gave birth to the twentieth-century.' In what follows I want to suggest that what Jack the Ripper 'gave birth to' was little more than a perpetuation of the paradox that lies at the heart of Western civilization: the dialectic of enlightenment. The rationalising impulse that led to the liberation of the modern subject from the tyrannical faith in myth, superstition, and sovereign power, and their embodiment in the objective world is, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, also responsible for its negation by reducing it to the status of that objective, or natural world from which it was attempting to liberate itself. A reading of lain Sinclair's 1987 novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, in relation to contemporary theorisations of modernity, such as that of Alain Touraine, suggests that any escape from the Ripper paradox, any 'spiritual deliverance' through historical investigation, requires a reconceptualisation of the relationship between subject and object, past and present--in short--a reappraisal of the project of modernity.

Jack the Ripper never existed. The facts in the case of Jack the Ripper are contained within a certain moment in time and space: Whitechapel, East London in Autumn 1888. Everything outside of this co-ordinate is conjecture. The only thing to be revealed in the investigation of Jack the Ripper is ourselves, and the one hundred and fifteen years of theorising, investigation and myth stands as a testament to the latent desires and crises that have lurked behind the facade of progress and reason that has driven modernity. The field of Jack the Ripper studies, or, as it has been dubbed, Ripperology, has grown steadily, from the feverish tabloid press phenomenon at the time of the murder, to the countless numbers of books purporting to tell "the facts;' reveal a 'final solution.' To investigate precisely what drives this discourse it is necessary to consider its inherent logic, and its relationship to the rationalising drive of modernity and the philosophical discourse which has both produced and challenged it.

The investigations of Jack the Ripper are multifarious and contradictory, yet all reveal certain Waits: determination, moral indignation, conviction, and perhaps, most tellingly, a faith in the rationality of human thought. Stephen Knight's Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution is one of the foundational texts of modern Ripperology. While the investigation of the crimes continues, from the fumbling police investigations at the time, to over 250 different studies--many offering a new suspect--Knight's study was responsible for the resurgence in Ripper scholarship. Knight's study, like many others, proffers a version of the crime that has peeled away the obfuscating layers of mythology to discover 'the truth': 'Jack the Ripper is a misnomer ... [F]or Jack the ripper was not one man but three, two killers and an accomplice. The facts surrounding their exploits have never before been teased from the confused skein of truths, half-truths and lies which have been woven around the case. Falsehoods deliberate and accidental have hopelessly enmeshed the truth ... The truth about Jack the Ripper is ugly. Many would rather not bear it, others will revile it. But it is the truth.' (1) With these unequivocal words Knight goes on to detail his story of The Ripper as Sir William Withey Gull, his driver, John Netley, and a third man that Knight suggests is either the artist Walter Sickert, or the Assistant Police Commisioner John Anderson. In this account Prince Eddie, Duke of Clarence met Annie Chapman while receiving painting lessons from Sickert and fell in love, sparking the bizarre series of royal conspiracies and Masonic rituals that resulted in The Ripper killings. While this version has since been severely discredited, Knight's certainty and claims to truth are indicative of Ripperology's attempt to posit itself as a rational, empirical discourse.

The industry that surrounds Jack the Ripper is notoriously inventive and prolific. Every year sees the addition of numerous texts in Ripperology, and the advent of the interact has seen the field expand at a rapid rate with websites such as Casebook (2) providing massive Ripper compendiums. The past few years has been productive for the field of study, with many important studies emerging, such as Paul Feldman's Jack the Ripper: The Final Chapter, (3) which maintains that the discredited Maybrick dimes were genuine, and Michael Gordon's The American Murders of Jack the Ripper, (4) following the story of George Chapman as the Ripper who went on to murder four women in the New York/New Jersey area during 1891-2. There has also been numerous guides that detail both the theories and fact, such as David Speare's Jack The Ripper: Crime Scene Investigation, (5) Phillip Sugden's The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, (6) and Paul Begg's Jack The Ripper: The Definitive History. (7) For the reasons of brevity I will analyse the most recent Ripper investigation as reflecting several of these dominant trends in the field of study. Patricia Cornwell, best-selling celebrity forensic crime-author had her first serious encounter with Jack the Ripper in May 2001 while being invited to tour Scotland Yard. On the personal tour she met Deputy Assistant Commisioner John Grieve, a part-time Ripperologist, who gave her a brief history and offered the next day to give her a personal tour of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. Cornwell's imagination was sparked, and she devoted the next twelve months and six million dollars to investigating the most famous unsolved crime of modernity. While most investigations within the field of Ripperology have been conducted by investigative journalists, retired police officers, and historians, none have had the financial backing and access to forensic techniques that characterise Cornwell's account. It is in particular the introduction of the rationalising, scientific discourse of forensic criminology that marks perhaps the apotheosis in Ripperology, and its intrinsic link to modernity.

Cornwell's study, entitled Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper--Case Closed, proves 'beyond doubt' that Jack The Ripper was world-famous artist Walter Sickert. Sickert has long been associated with the murders, telling the tale in the 1890s of the young veterinary surgeon as the Ripper that would later be the basis of Hitchcock's 1923 adaptation of Belloc Lowndes' 1911 novel The Lodger. He was also a central figure in the most famous of Ripper theories, put forward by Stephen Knight. (8) Cornwell's account was the first to seriously consider Sickert as the sole murderer, and through criminal pathology, handwriting tests and DNA constructs a case that is, it appears, irrefutable. Cornwell's faith in forensic criminology propelled her belief that the case of the Ripper could be finally solved: 'My intense curiosity about violence hardened long ago into a suit of clinical armour that is protective ... Murder is not a mystery, and it is my mission to fight it with my pen.' (9) In this statement we see an infallible belief in rationality, murder cannot remain a mystery because the reasoning arts of deduction and investigation can, and must, solve all mysteries. This model of supreme faith in the reasoning endeavours of modern thought remains impervious to the post-foundational thinking that has, with Lyotard, expressed the upmost incredulity toward such meta-narratives. (10) Nor does it seek to question the foundation of its own position. Indeed for Cornwell, as for most of those entering the arena of Ripperology, faith in progress and totalising teleological thought remains undiminished. It is questionable whether the wider faith in technological progress has ever been dimmed, and it is unsurprising that Cornwell has employed the latest advancements in genetic technology as a legitimating force in her study. Cornwell utilises modern DNA analysis of certain items of Ripper 'evidence' such as samples taken from the stamps and adhesive backing of letters sent by the Ripper, as well as letters sent by Sickert, along with samples taken from his painting overalls. DNA testing is considered an almost infallible source of evidence in modern murder cases. Its application to the Ripper cases represented an attempt to substitute the failure of rational methods of the past for the more advanced rational methods of the present. Cornwell admits that 'the ripper case is not one to be conclusively solved by DNA or fingerprints, and, in a way this is good. Society has come to expect the wizardry of forensic science to solve all crimes, but without the human element of deductive skills, teamwork, very hard investigation, and smart prosecution, evidence means nothing.' (11)

Perhaps Cornwell should have added a comprehensive fictionalisation and a selective usage of forensic evidence to this list. Cornwell, while conceding that forensic science is not conclusive in a 115-year-old murder case, certainly suggests that it offers a breakthrough. In the introduction Cornwell asserts: 'I began adding layer after layer of circumstantial evidence to the physical evidence discovered by modern forensic evidence and expert minds.' (12) Here Cornwell is deploying technology to sanction and excuse her at-times hackneyed circumstantial evidence, relying on the status of this technology. This issue is explored by Terry Melton (The Scientist, 2003), an expert in mitochondrial DNA analysis, who asserts of Cornwell's project: 'tragically, given the current popular belief that DNA reveals all, the average reader will not realize that these results are meaningless, or at least glaringly incomplete.' (13) Melton then goes on to explain how the method of collecting samples would have picked up the DNA of any person who had touched the evidence (in this case letters sent by Jack the Ripper and Walter Sickert) in the past 115 years. The 'evidence' obtained from these letters amounted to two nucleotide mitochondrial positions, 73 and 263, but these results are far from conclusive, as Melton suggests, wryly questioning: 'Did no one tell her that these substitutions are found in roughly 50% and 99% of all Europeans, respectively?' (14) For Melton, Cornwell's study is the product of a faith in technological progress that is hardly concerned with the efficacy and validity of technological applications, but with their deployment as harbingers of truth and accuracy, placing them specifically within critical discourses of modernity, in which the faith in progress and the emergence of an instrumental rationality has lead to the negation of many of the benefits of such a modality of thought.

The epoch of modernity brought about what Max Weber termed, 'the disenchantment of the world'. (15) In modernity the enchanted, superstitious and irrational nature of pre-modern thought was to be decisively rejected by implementing a rationalising imperative. In this disenchanted world the subject was freed from the tyrannical chains of church and state, and could thus develop and progress, with the unrestricted advancement of science and technology. This advancement drove most of the western world, from the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century, and right through the Victorian period. England in particular was a fundamental site of this modernising drive, with London representing the heart of the British Empire and a steadfast commitment to the enlightenment project Lynda Nead, in her study Victorian Babylon (2000), notes that London in the Victorian period, was 'the centre of a global commerce that was subjugating the rest of the world; it was the seat of an empire that was defining contemporary history.' (16) It is therefore somewhat ironic that it was the sight for an event that embodies the paradoxical failure of the enlightenment tradition in Jack the Ripper. (17) The twentieth century, in particular the atrocities of the two wars and the utilisation of rationalising science and technology in the widespread destruction of human Life, saw the dissipation of this faith in the project of modernity, along with a detailed analysis of the ideological construct that supported it. One of the most representative documents in this loss of faith was Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's study The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947).

The disillusionment of Horkeimer and Adorno following the Second World War led them to conduct a complex critique of the bourgeois ideology that emanated from the enlightenment. The result was a decisive rejection of instrumental rationality that called into question the efficacy of reason as the driving force of the Hegelian inspired critical theory of the Frankfurt School. It was Little wonder that Habermas referred to it as 'their blackest book'. (18) The critique centres around the notion that the enlightenment that gave birth to modernity was born out of the mythic structures of thought from which it had attempted to escape. It had, therefore, in its inherent logic introduced an internal contradiction whereby reason was embodied in the structure of mythical faith and perpetuated those structures in a dialectical progression that was incapable of instituting any model of self-reflexivity and critique that may have disentangled reason from its instrumental, and self-destructive logic. For Adorno and Horkeimer 'the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.' (19) In an attempt to understand this paradox they set about a systematic analysis of enlightenment thought, hoping to uncover at its point of epistemological development an internal contradiction that could explain the failure of reason and enlightenment thought in the twentieth century. This investigation inevitably lead back to Homer. In the figure of Odysseus, Adorno and Horkheimer saw the birth of the bourgeois rationalist. They argue that in order to escape from the power of myth, Homer had to utilise the rational logic of that myth. For Adorno and Horkheimer then, myth is essentially rational, and therefore equitable with the enlightenment, and the enlightenment, as a product of the inherent logic of myth, perpetuates those same mythical structures. This dialectical relationship between myth and reason thus explains the progression of modernity, and its structure leaves little room for a fundamental change in social, cultural or political formation that, from a traditional Marxist perspective, was associated with a revolutionary praxis. The apotheosis of this negative dialect is Odysseus chained to the mast in order to escape the seductive temptation of the Sirens. Having plugged up his crew's ears with wax, Odysseus alone can hear the beauty of the sirens song, yet cannot convince his men to unchain him, as his earlier use of a prototypical enlightenment rationality has lead to their perpetual subordination. As Adorno and Horkheimer state: 'the servant remains enslaved in body and soul; the master regresses. No authority has yet been able to escape paying this price, and the apparent cyclical nature of this advance of history is partly explained by this debilitation, the equivalent of power' (35). What Adorno and Horkheimer had thus created was a picture of modernity based upon an instrumental rationality, one that had liberated man, but at the same time enslaved him. It is this expression of the antinomies of modernity, of a reason that has led to liberation, yet prevented that liberation from ever reaching its fulfilment that I would like to explore in relation to Jack the Ripper.

The enlightenment, in leading to the disenchantment of the world, was meant to eliminate all fear. Through a rationalisation of nature, nothing would be unknown. As Adorno and Horkheimer state: 'man imagines himself free from fear when there is no longer anything unknown ... The pure immanence of positivism, its ultimate product, is no more than a so to speak universal taboo. Nothing at all may remain outside, because the mere idea of outsideness is the very source of fear' (16) Jack the Ripper thus represents the great unknown: that which the rationalising discourses of modernity have failed to uncover. Yet as Adorno and Horkheimer suggest, we are unwilling to believe that anything can lie outside, so the quest to uncover the identity of Jack the Ripper will not end. At the heart of this quest is a faith in rationality that is inherently irrational. We have developed such a faith in the discourses of the enlightenment that we have failed to develop a philosophical dimension to the practice. This faith, referred to as instrumental rationality, needs according to Adorno and Horkheimer, a greater sense of self-reflexivity. As they assert: 'the enlightenment must examine itself, if men are not to be wholly betrayed. The task to be accomplished is not the conservation of the past, but the redemption of the hopes of the past' (xv). Yet as the paradigmatic case of Jack the Ripper demonstrates, we remain unwilling to expose the tenets of modernity to a philosophical investigation, we fear the results of shifting the philosophical foundations of our epoch. The problem of Jack the Ripper thus becomes symbolic of the problem of modernity, and the rest of this article will attempt to suggest how interventions within both the discourse of Ripper-inflected contemporary London fiction and critical theory address such problems, and how a dialogue between the two can expand and enrich our understanding of both paradoxical situations.

The past twenty years has seen a rise in fictionalised accounts of the Jack the Ripper crimes. From Allan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic novel From Hell, to the recent Hollywood film sharing the same name, the Ripper myth has been treated to various retellings. In the discourse surrounding Jack the Ripper moments of self-reflexivity are rare. Iain Sinclair's 1987 novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, is an attempt to question and expand our understanding of the crimes, and an investigation of its philosophical and critical paradigms will demonstrate how such an approach to Jack the Ripper can alleviate many of the conceptual flaws of conventional investigations, and can demonstrate the potential efficacy of alternative approaches to our understanding of modernity. A brief analysis of the small, yet growing field of academic research on Sinclair's writing tends to see him largely within the theoretical paradigms of post-structural theory. Julian Wolfreys sees Sinclair's project as reflective of the ineffability of the contemporary city, and the reflection of that in Sinclair, the urban subject. This representation, in Wolfreys' Derridean inspired analysis, leads to the conclusion that 'when we believe we comprehend London it ceases to be, for perception, sensuous communion with the city, precedes and escapes understanding.' (20) Yet what Wolfreys and other critics (21) fail to see is that Sinclair's project is about a comprehensive understanding, but one that is not rational in the traditional sense. Critics such as Wolfreys, through their investment within the 'subjective idealism' that rejects rationalised thought, potentially fail to engage Sinclair's project as a form of subjective dialogue with rationalisation, and in doing so perpetuate the suturing of modern thought. In order to comprehend the nature of Sinclair's project within more comprehensive understandings of modern thought, it is necessary to utilise theoretical paradigms that reflect the curious mixture of historical engagement and the occult, of the rational and the romantic.

Sinclair's novel is indicative of the author's somewhat obscure and idiosyncratic writing style and interests. It is an autobiographical novelised non-fictional fictionalisation of the author's fascination with Jack the Ripper, Whitechapel, urban history, and the spatialised metaphysics of absence. There is little plot, multiple competing narratives that move from contemporary to Victorian London and back again, high levels of inter-textuality, and a celebration of the occult. If one was to attempt a summary of the narrative, it is Sinclair's spiritual seance into the Ripper murders, in order to achieve a spiritual deliverance from the past. This narrative combines Sinclair's reflections as a book dealer and Ripperologist in London in the late 70s, as well as accounts of the ripper murders, the life of William Gull and other brief vignettes of Victorian London. While the complexity of the novel results in it addressing many varied, and at times conflicting concerns, it is it meditation of the relationship between rationality and historical investigation that it most pertinent to this discussion. Sinclair is under no illusions about the subjective nature of Ripperology, and of the addictive and inherently irrational figures who constitute the field. As Sinclair suggests: 'There's something inherently seedy and salacious in continually picking the scabs of these crimes, peering at mutilated bodies, listing the undergarments, trekking over the tainted ground in quest of some long-delayed occult frisson'(57). (22) This understanding of his own complicity within the tainted discourse and of the irrational and potentially obfuscating gaze of the ripperologist, highlights Sinclair's reflective intervention.

Sinclair extends this strain of self-reflexivity throughout the course of the novel, explicit in advocating a greater sense of self-reflexivity in our understanding of the ripper murders, and of history in general. Sinclair's project does indeed fall into contemporary debates on historiography, and the widespread critiques of positivistic historical empiricism--a field that the manifold investigations into Jack the Ripper endeavour to participate within. Sinclair's text repeatedly calls into question the objectivity of historical discourses, and suggests that any truly pragmatic historical investigation must first evaluate its own philosophical foundation, namely the position of the historian. Mr Eves, a ripper expert, is visited by Sinclair and Joblard. 'He swivelled a desktop magnifying glass, put his thumb against it, a tongue in a window. The whorl forensically enlarged. "This is the true spiral," he said, "the first map of the labyrinth"' (50). Therefore the truth of any Ripper investigation, according to Sinclair, lies in the self, revealing more about the investigator than about the crimes. Sinclair is suggesting that our rational objectivity should be brought into balance with an understanding of our own investment and implication in the past. We must understand that what we will' solve' through the Ripper investigations can only ever be a form of self-understanding.

This notion is again highlighted through Sinclair's reflection upon Stephen Knight's canonical text Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution. 'If Mr Knight had been a chemist, not a journalist, I wonder if he would have described any solution as final. A solution, according to my dictionary, is "the act of separating the parts, specially the connected parts of any body" Unfortunate that. "the dissolving of a fluid; release; deliverance." This is precisely what Knight's explanation does not procure. We are informed, heated, drawn into a collaboration with his version of the truth. But released and delivered? I think not. I don't think he understands that any delivery is required' (58). Sinclair thus sets out the importance of deliverance in his investigation, or what I would like to refer to as 'spiritual deliverance.' I use the term to suggest the subjective nature of Sinclair's investigation, his focus upon a sense of personal understanding, one that does not aim to solve the murders, but to understand them, achieve deliverance, and move forward. I also use it in relation to a split between the subjective and objective spirits that Georg Simmel suggests is at the heart of our experience of urban modernity. In his seminal essay 'The Metropolis and Mental Life', Simmel examines the metropolis as the experience of freedom from the agrarian lifestyle by offering the opportunity for each person to have the experience of equality, a notion he aligns with the enlightenment. He also suggests that the modern period gives rise to the romantic sensibility in which each person feels the need to exert their own individuality from the collective, indistinguishable mass. Simmel asserts: 'it is the function of the metropolis to make a place for the conflict and for the attempt at the unification of both of these in the sense that its own peculiar conditions have been revealed to us as the occasion and the stimulus for the development of both.' For Simmel this unification comes at a point of deliverance. His closing statement highlights where any resolution will arise: 'it is our task not to complain or to condone but only to understand.' (23) For Simell a greater understanding between the objective and subjective spirit, the two predominant forces of modernity, will alter our experience of the present. What we see in Simell is a prototypical questioning of the relationship between the rationalising logic of objective modernity, and the subjectivising force of Romantic modernity. It is an attempt to mediate between these two spirits that highlights the analogous relationship between the theoretical investigations into the philosophical discourse of modernity, and Sinclair's attempt to achieve a spiritual deliverance from the paradox of reason through an increasing dialogue with the subject.

The past thirty years have seen a proliferation in such alternative interpretations of the project of modernity. This attempt to retrieve the project of modernity has been led by Jurgen Habermas, whose study The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987) argued for a reappraisal of modernity through a reinvigoration of Hegel's conceptualisation of the modern philosophical project. Habermas' work, along with theorists such as Agnes Heller, Axel Honneth and Cornelius Castoriadis, (24) has precipitated a great deal of interest in attempting to resurrect the project from the proponents of postmodern theory in its various manifestations, in particular Nietzschean derived analyses of the institutionalisation and governmentalisation of power and post-Heideggerian phenomenology. Habermas asserts that these modes of thinking are little more than subjective idealism, and represent the danger of the allowing the Romantic individualism of enlightenment thought to function without the logic of Hegelian reason. As he asserts: 'the critique of subjective idealism is at the same time a critique of modernity; only in this way can the latter secure its concept, and thereby assure its own stability.' (25)

It is within this rationally oriented reappraisal of modernity that I would like to introduce the work of Alain Touraine. Touraine's The Critique of Modernity (1995) is a sustained attempt to examine both the successes and failures of modernity, and to highlight the necessity for, and a potential path to, a reinvigorated modernity. Like Habermas, Touraine sees the project of modernity as unfinished, one that we cannot abandon. Yet unlike Habermas his path to its reinvigoration lies not in the necessity for communicative action, of the ideal speech situation and of rationalising intersubjective dialogue. Touraine, a labour-movement historian and sociologist, approached modernity as being fundamentally about the relationship between rationalisation and subjectivation. For Touriane the enlightenment project, through seminal texts such as the Cartesian Meditations and The Declarations of the Rights of Man, posited modern subjectivity as being intrinsically related to the development of reason, yet as Touraine argues the crises of Modernity have been about the fundamental absence of dialogue between rationalisation and subjectivation, or to use the language of Alain Badiou, Modernity has sutured its antinomical categories. It is this call for a dialogue between reason and the ideology of the subject that distinguishes Touraine's study as antithetical to the distrust of rationality displayed by much contemporary French philosophy, and the disdain for the philosophy of the Romantic subject in the work of Habermas. As Touraine asserts: 'Without Reason the Subject is trapped in an obsession with identity; without the Subject, Reason becomes an instrument of might. In this century, we have seen both the dictatorship of Reason and totalitarian perversions of the Subject. Is it at last possible for both figures of modernity, which have either fought or ignored one another, to begin to speak to one another and learn to live together?' (26) For Touraine the path toward a modernity that is still future oriented, yet does not acquiesce into Totalitarianism, is about the de-suturing of modernity, about a comprehensive analysis of the antinomical economisation of modern social and philosophical discourses, and their relationship to the social realities that face us in the life-world. Subjectivation is the essential term in relating Touraine's project to the work of Sinclair, and deserves a comprehensive definition.

In The Critique of Modernity, Touraine asserts 'those who insist on equating modernity with rationalization alone refer to the subject only so as to reduce the subject to reason and to enforce depersonalisation ... The modern world, in contrast, increasingly abounds in references to a Subject. That Subject is freedom, and the criterion of the good is the individual's ability to control his or her actions and situation, to see and experience modes of behaviour as components in a personal history, to see himself or herself as actor. The Subject is an individual's will to act and to be recognised as an actor.' (27) In Touraine's definition we see the term Subject becomes not so much the individual, or the ego, but the potential of that individual to act. The Subject challenges transcendental values and the imposition of market-related demands, yet the subject is only really truly a subject when it becomes related to social movements, when it is involved with collective social action. The Subject is also the questioning and reflexive voice within modernity, it is the fundamentally rational mode of self-questioning which reason in its dialectical progression as identified by Adorno and Horkheimer is unable to perform. This model of the Subject, of the social actor is one that I believe we can align with Sinclair's model of writing. Sinclair's writing is expressly concerned with the development of alternative forms of urban subjectivity in which the urban subject, through the threefold functions of writing, walking, and historical investigation is able to develop a critically efficable interaction with the urban environment. Sinclair's subject is not however complicit in the subjective idealism of which Habermas is so critical. Sinclair's project is an attempt to outline a rational engagement with the past: he does not proclaim that the past is unknowable or that the experience of the city is imperceptible. Instead, he unites historical investigation with the subjectivity of Touraine's social actor, and in doing so, attempts to move beyond the impasse of the Jack the Ripper paradox.

The necessity of exposing our rationalising impulse to subjectivation is addressed explicitly in Sinclair's novel. Describing one of he and Joblard's many walks around the Ripper sites Sinclair asserts: 'Matfellon, Hanbury, Durward. Winding it in. The heart's stomach. There is no breaking away from it. It describes us. Leaning into the magnetism, back into the belly of the secret. But we are within our limits, we are still bound by the circumference of reason; our energies, inflamed, fall back into themselves' (67). Sinclair realises here the limitations of rationalisation and that historical investigation cannot exclusively be equated with logical reason. The movement beyond reason is a movement beyond the most symbolic example of a faith in rationalizing progress. As Sinclair suggests: '"From one drop of water" wrote Holmes in his article, The Book of Life, "a logician could infer the Atlantic." But we are not logicians. We darted, snapped disbelieved ourselves, turned back' (58). The late Victorian faith in reason, epitomised in the figure of Sherlock Holmes, denies that logic is a fallible human activity. In Sinclair's model of historical investigation, that reason must be tempered by an understanding, and recognition of the role of the historian, of the Subject as social actor within the historicizing gaze. Sinclair's movement beyond reason is a movement that subjects logic to the inherently logical critique of its own foundation, of its own thought. For Sinclair the movement beyond the strictly logical to a serf-reflexive investigation is a process in which he himself enters the past, and in a Benjaminian fashion, allows new futures to come to pass. (28) Our present forms of rationalising historical investigation can only lead us to dead ends. As he asserts 'Until we can remake the past, go into it, change what is now, cut out those cancers--we are helpless. We are prisoners, giving birth to old faults, carrying our naked grandfathers in our arms' (113). Our deliverance from the past will thus allow for the creation of new futures, of the condition of possibility for progression. For Sinclair this means moving the crimes into ourselves, and then beyond ourselves: 'we must use what we have been given, go back over the Ripper text, turn each cell of it--until it means something else, something beyond us. Otherwise we never over-reach our obsessions. We're doomed not to relive our past, but to die into it' (198).

Sinclair's novel thus explores the events beyond pure subjectivation, moving into an understanding that is not rational or subjective, but the result of a dialogue between the two. Sinclair's moment of deliverance comes as he discovers in a field near Thorpe-le-Soken, the birth-place of William Withey Gull, an upturned boat, which for him symbolises the ark that he suggests is symbolic of Gull's conviction that he was appointed by god to save the human race from damnation by murdering the five prostitutes in an ancient Masonic ritual. This understanding is not authoritative and final, but its function is to perform an act of understanding, and thus to deliver:

   There is the foreshortened outline of something like an upturned
   shed. I move toward it, slithering on the mud slope. It is the
   shell of a great barge. Burnt out, charted, flaking; beams broken
   and twisted, grounded. In this drowned field where water runs out,
   at this boundary, on the edge of things, between past and future.
   A spar goes down into the black silt, umbilical, connecting the hulk
   to this place. It is split, it is half of something. I recognise it.
   And I know that I have to write my way back towards this moment ...
   I will return with my family; and my children will climb up onto the
   wreck, will stand at that rudder. And the connection will be
   made, the circuit completed. (210)

It is perhaps an instance of fortuitous poetry that Sinclair's moment of deliverance comes in the discovery of an upturned boat. For Adorno and Horkheimer, the crisis of modernity was born with Odysseus tied to the mast, incapable of escaping his own reason. The redemptive possibility glimpsed in different ways by Touraine and Sinclair is not to be found by launching a new ship, by jettisoning the project completely, but is discovered through our investigation of its burnt-out and dilapidated shell. The truth of the Ripper problematic is therefore not to be discovered in the proliferation of inquiry, the perpetuation of the traditional field of Ripperology that has produced accounts such as Cornwell's. Instead it is to be found in a move toward a self-reflexive understanding of the desire to know, a movement towards deliverance from the fear that governs the paradoxes of both modernity and Jack the Ripper.


(1.) Stephen Knight, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (London: Book Club Associates, 1976), 13-15.

(2.) See www.casebook.org

(3.) See Paul Feldman, Jack the Ripper." The Final Chapter (London: Virgin, 1997).

(4.) See R. Michael Gordon, The American Murders of Jack the Ripper (New York: Praeger, 2002).

(5.) See David Speare, Jack The Ripper: Crime Scene Investigation (London: Xlibris, 2003).

(6.) See Phillip Sugden's The Complete History of Jack the Ripper (London: Carroll & Graf, 2002).

(7.) See Paul Begg's Jack The Ripper: The Definitive History (London: Longman, 2002).

(8.) For an account of Sickert's role in the Ripper story see Stephen Knight, op.cit., 13-47.

(9.) Patricia Cornwell, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper--Case Closed (New York: Little Brown, 2003).

(10.) See Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition:A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).

(11.) Patricia Cornwell, op.cit., 176.

(12.) Ibid, 13.

(13.) Terry Melton, "Neither History Nor Science" The Scientist. v 17. i3 Feb 10, 2003, 16.

(14.) loc.cit.

(15.) See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (Trans. Talcott Parsons. London: Unwin University Books, 1930).

(16.) Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 1.

(17.) See William Beadle, Jack the Ripper: Anatomy of a Myth. Dagenham: Watt Tyler Books, 1995. Bendle's investigation of the Ripper myths focuses upon the socio-economic conditions of Victorian society which lead an unemployed alcoholic, William Bury, to commit the crimes.

(18.) Jurgen Habermas. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Trans. Frederick Lawrence. (Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press, 1987), 106

(19.) Theodor Adorno and Max Horkeimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment. (London: Verso, 1997), 3.

(20.) Julian Wolfreys, "Undoing London or, Urban Haunts: The Fracturing of Representation in the 1990s" in Imagined Londons. Ed. Pamela Gilbert. (Albany: State University of New York, 2002), 202.

(21.) Critics such as Dent and Whittaker suggest that "Sinclair's work is also the most clearly post-structuralist of post-modernist of the visionary London novelists, and his wanderings ... can usefully be interpreted an act of schizoanalysis, the schizophrenic out for a walk as the superior model to the introverted neurotic lying on a couch," Shirley Dent and Jason Whittaker, Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827. (Besingstoke: Palgrave McMillan, 2002), 60. This statement functions as a misrepresentation on two levels. It is firstly a simple misreading of Deleuze and Guattari's Capitalism and Schizophrenia project. Deleuze and Guattari do not suggest that schizophrenia is an ideal model of engaging with the city, in fact they do not celebrate schizophrenia at all. Their concern is to demonstrate how Capitalism creates the conditions for a schizophrenic subject. Schizoanalysis is therefore performed by the critic, analysing the schizophrenic in capitalist society, not by the schizophrenic themselves. Despite this misunderstanding, the meaning of Dent and Whittaker is not lost. They suggest that Sinclair is a schizophrenic subject. While one might ask 'how many schizophrenics have you encountered who have written 12 books and maintain normal lifestyles?' The real question here is in relation to Sinclair's project of critique. His work evidences a comprehensive engagement with the city that is predicated upon a rational and controlled subjective response to the experience of living in the city.

(22.) This and all parenthetical references taken from lain Sinclair, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. (London: Palladin, 1988).

(23.) Georg Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life" The Blackwell City Reader, Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson (eds). (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 19.

(24.) See for instance, Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987); Agnes Heller. A Theory of Modernity. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).

(25.) Jurgen Habermas. op.cit.: 21.

(26.) Alain Touraine, Critique of Modernity. Trans. David Macey. (London: Blackwell, 1995), 6.

(27.) Ibid, 207

(28.) See Walter Benjamin., "Theses on the Philosophy of History" Illuminations.Trans. Harry Zohn. (New York: Sckoken Books, 1968), 253-64.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A123366571