Jack the Ripper: legend and literacy 2


As I mentioned, I really enjoyed Clive Bloom’s chapter on Jack the Ripper in his Cult FictionAfter describing “the rapid dissemination of the Ripper legend and its endurance in popular publishing,” (p.167) he considers “the constellation of possibilities around which this publishing industry revolved and upon which the legend was built.” (p.167) He writes:

“It is obvious that any legend requires a small and possibly spectacular fact to unleash a great deal of ‘fiction’. Before turning to the legend as a type of ‘fictional’ genre it is necessary to consider the Ripper legend as revolving around (a) a series of bizarre and ferocious crimes, (b) an impotent and mocked authority (the Criminal Investigation Department being left totally in the dark and being criticized from Windsor), (c) a mysterious and unapprehended felon, and (d) the power of fiction and the use of the human sciences.

The murders of autumn 1888 allowed for the appearance of a new urban dweller, a dweller on the limits of society and yet fully integrated into it – the homicidal maniac, the psychopathic killer. Unlike de Sade, the psychopath is always in desguise; his intentions and his secret actions are on another plain from his social responsibilities. Consequently, the psychopath delineates that absolute psychological and mental ‘deterioration’ that Kraepelin had considered as a form of dementia praecox and that was not defined as schizophrenia until 1911. The Ripper, however, was seen as split not merely in personality but in morality as well.” (p.167) [Bloom goes on to consider Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in some depth]

“As with Jekyll and Hyde so Jack the Ripper too was seen as an inhuman, if not non-human, monster who combined possible middle-class respectability (a doctor or a surgeon) with lower-working-class savagery (an immigrant, ‘Leather-Apron’, a mad butcher). The Ripper united both classes inasmuch as he was excluded by his acts from both ( just as were his victims). The Ripper was both a technician (a post-mortem surgeon, a doctor, a butcher) and an insane lunatic (incapable of finesse). He was supposedly at once able to focus his aggression in anatomical detail and yet unable to curb its force. Thus, the forensic nature of the Ripper’s ‘work’ (his ‘job’) provided a focal point for popular fears and prejudices against those professions dealing in the limits of the ‘decent’ (psychologists, doctors, post-mortem surgeons, forensic experts). The Ripper’s supposed anatomical expertise suggested all sorts of horrible possibillities about the life of the ‘expert’ and the specialist. His ability with a knife united him to the very professionals paid to track him down!

Like Hyde, he was the alter ego of the police force and the letters clearly demonstrate him showing off his expertise to them and the vigilante forces operating in Whitechapel. Later his dual nature as criminal and enforcer-of-law became explicit when reports of his deerstalker gave one attribute to the occupier of 221b Baker Street, whose business was forensic science, whose other real-life model was a surgeon and whose friend was a doctor.” (p.170) 

“Thus the Ripper was not merely a murderer but the catalyst for a series of psychological and social reactions. He combined the supposed popular idea of the expert as well as the darker side of the madman, lunatic, animal degenerate. As a median point between middle-class respectability and a debased Darwinian proletariat, the Ripper became the invisible man…. The Ripper’s letters acknowledge the pretence of cockney patois while pointing directly toward a middle-class author – but the author of what: a letter or the murders?” (p.171)

“…we have seen that the combination of popular prejudice and fiction produced a character and a rationale for the Ripper qua murderer and respectable member of society. His split nature (if such it was or presumably had to be) was completed by the hypocrisy concerning the very people he killed (the ‘Magdalens’). For these people were themselves invisible, acting as a certain outlet and limit to urban society. The psychopath and the prostitute were two ends of a society that refused to acknowledge their presence. Invisibly, they provided their services on the edge of the rational, morally degenerate as both supposedly were.

Yet Jack the Ripper’s threat is one that spills back into ‘ordinary’ society and threatens that society. In the period when the legend of ‘the Ripper’ begins, the psychopath becomes an urban reality but as a character-type is not quite part of a mental spectrum and yet is not fully freed from being a theological problem either. Jack combines notions of evil, insanity and moral justice at the moment when the nineteenth century saw itself as the century of progress, enlightenment and escape from ‘moral’ prejudice. The Ripper’s name denotes a certain consequent frontier for the human sciences at this time.” (p.171)

In the eighteenth century executions became a ritual in which the ‘main character was the people, whose …presence was required for the performance’.  By Jack’s time public execution was long since over, but Jack took on the symbolic weight of a ‘higher’ justice operating beyond the arm of the law, exposing and cutting out the cancer of sexual commerce. His role was acknowledged in his instant fame and his ferocity in his attack on the condemned: the prostitute class. It appears that Jack represented the return of a social memory of the proximity of death (by violence, cholera, starvation) now distanced by the work of social and medical reformers.

In that latter half of the industrialized nineteenth century ceremonies about the integration of death had long ceased to be necessary. In a sense the body had gained utility value but lost its ‘sacred’ humanness (its ‘mystery’ that early Christians feared). Jack represents the unconscious of that society – a repression not yet exorcized; he forcibly reminded society (unable to speak of bodies without blushing) of the crudest function of that mass of organs. Jack clearly unites ideas about the mortification of the flesh and the technology that manipulates the body (the human sciences: biology, psychology, forensic science, medicine). One end of the spectrum acknowledges desire for and the power of the flesh while the other denies both and reduces the body to a mass of functions and utilities: an automaton. The body hence becomes ironically ‘sacred’ (as an object in religious devotion to be escaped from) and yet also machinic.” (p.173)

“Jack is demon/animal and therefore totally other, therefore unrecognizable (invisible), therefore the perfect criminal. He disturbs the human only to reinforce it. Indeed, this monstrosity embeds himself in the imagination of each generation that needs his presence. For that reason alone there is a smile on the face of the Ripper.

The historical details of the Whitechapel Murders are nothing less than the facets of a scenario for a script about modernity itself. Reworked in fiction and film as well as the focus for true crime books (of the solve-it-yourself variety), the Ripper’s deeds are ever reworked to remain forever contemporary, and thus curiously emphasized by layers of nostalgia. The Ripper’s script has violence, eroticism, sentimentality, and the supernatural: a text to live out the sensationalism of the modern.” (p.177)

Ref: (italics in original) Clive Bloom (1996) Cult Fiction: Popular reading and pulp theory. Macmillan Press Ltd: London


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