Tuesday 18 December 2012

Small Islands, Big Eyes: How Jack the Ripper, the Cosmos, and Myth-Making Are Connected

by Jonathan Bellot

In the autumn of 1888, a series of extraordinary murders began in Whitechapel in London. Whitechapel was well-known for its prostitutes—its “tarts,” who, to use a wondrous Victorian euphemism, would take their customers to “Hairyfordshire” for some action—and the victims of the Whitechapel murders were female prositutes—five in particular. I say “in particular” because many more than five female corpses turned up that dark autumn, but five stand out for the cold, clinical brutality the killer—if not killers—exacted upon their bodies. Their bodies had been sliced up and eviscerated, organs removed with a surgeon’s precision. While murder was nothing new in Whitechapel, the brutality was, and the story of a mystery killer—even from the first corpse on—spread throughout London and beyond. The precision of the murders, alongside the darkness—literal or otherwise—cloaking the identity of the killer, shocked and excited the public.

The murderer soon received a name. Or, more accurately, someone sent Scotland Yard a letter that supplied the murderer with a name, a name that would become nearly as well-known (if as little popularly understood) as Shakespeare’s. (And Shakespeare, as we see with Titus Andronicus and the impressive kill counts in Richard III and other plays, was not above gory details himself.)

I’m speaking, of course, about Jack the Ripper.

Even after 124 years, we’re no closer to unmasking the Ripper. Many tried, of course. Queen Victoria’s personal psychic, Robert Lees, supposedly declared that he had used his clairvoyance to determine that her personal physician, William Gull, was the murderer; a discredited conspiracy theory by Stephen Knight goes so far as to claim that Queen Victoria personally ordered Gull to assassinate the women because they had attempted to blackmail her due to an affair with one of them Prince Albert had had, and that Gull’s brutality was in reality part lunacy and part Masonic ritual. The solitary and possibly homosexual cricket enthusiast and teacher, Montague Druitt, is another possibility. Then, of course, there are those who claim that there is either no one Jack the Ripper or that “Jack” was a woman. (Incidentally, scholars of Ripper lore—Ripperologists—deem most of the letters from “Jack the Ripper” fabrications, but the one person who was caught writing such a letter was a woman.) Because of how open the case is, the possible identities of “Jack” and his victims have expanded, in fiction, to include not merely human beings but no less than a gigantic version of Mr. Hyde (Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Jack Seward from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, in which Seward’s victims are vampire prostitutes), and, as Kim Newman notes in “Drac the Ripper,” an article in The Ripperologist (#60, 2005), just about any literary figure from the 1880s, from Count Dracula himself to Algy from The Importance of Being Earnest (“Bunburying” takes on new meaning here!) to H. G. Wells’ Martians and Marlow, Joseph Conrad’s extraordinary narrator.

In short: we don’t know, but we want to know, and yet we don’t want to know, because that would spoil the mystery. Mystery, after all, can be both beautiful and infuriating, and yet we might prefer that bit of fury to having the case put to rest.

Why resurrect Jack (or Jill?) the Ripper? Well, there’s something significant in the way people responded to those killings. Although the killings took place in a small area of London, in a tiny patch of the globe, they quickly took on grand dimensions. The strangeness of the crimes, alongside, perhaps, a society desiring a new thing to wonder and shudder about, generated a myth. Perhaps there was no Jack the Ripper, per se, or, if there was, he, she, or they were nothing like the legends. But people wanted to believe in something. They wanted excitement, danger. In many ways, the murders were just what they wanted—though those who actually saw the gruesome bodies might not agree. What should have been a blip on history’s radar became a myth that has lasted over a century and shows no sign of dying away. Murder, of course, is no minor thing--but murder, unfortunately, is also no uncommon thing.

It is worth looking at how this idea—taking something relatively small and making it into something grand, into a great legend—may apply to how many people view the Earth in relation to the rest of the universe. After all, in a sense, we tend to do the same thing. We are tiny, scarcely even blips on a cosmic radar, specks on a vast map God might lose sight of for thousands of years if he had the misfortune to blink or sneeze. The Earth is utterly nothing, size-wise, compared to the Milky Way galaxy where we live, to say nothing of the billions of other galaxies out there. And the Milky Way alone contains at least 809 (as of September 20th, 2012) confirmed exoplanets—planets outside our solar system, planets with their own suns and moons, planets with their own valleys, cliffs, icy seas, storms, and—perhaps—life forms, be they microbes or multicellular pranksters that tease Americans as they drive along dark highways. There are likely millions of planets just in our galaxy, and if the same is true for other galaxies, there are too many planets to conceive of. The Earth, in other words, is only special so far, only special because we have not confirmed that life exists on another planet. If we do that, we will finally put to rest the belief that our planet, and by extension we humans, are alone in the universe, and are alone for a reason—because we’re somehow special. No, we may simply be alone because, well--dull as it seems--that's how things worked out.

Of course, this applies to history, too. We haven’t been here very long, and it isn’t clear we’ll be here for much longer. As John McPhee once put it, if you imagine geological time like both arms outstretched, human existence takes up no longer than a bit of a fingernail. 99% of all species that have ever lived on our Earth in the 3.8 or so billion years life has been around are extinct--there for perhaps millions of years, and then gone. And all for what? It is easy to believe that we must be here for some grand reason, a cosmic mission greater than anything Ian Fleming could dream up James Bond doing. And perhaps we are, but the evidence is against it. We are newborns in Earth’s history and scarcely sperm and egg in our universe’s. Those of us who think we are the key to some grand design, in short, have not read their history books—and I mean the history books of the universe. “The universe (which others call the Library),” Borges begins his uncanny short story, “The Library of Babel,” and it holds true here.

The cover of Moore's novel
And, just as in the Ripper case, some of us know we’re deluding ourselves, but we play along, anyway, because some part of us yearns to be part of something bigger. In a scene from Alan Moore’s From Hell, a graphic novel partly following Knight’s vision of the Ripper murders, we see a collection of normal people sitting down to write fake letters purporting to be from Jack the Ripper. Some kids may be doing it for kicks; an older man does it while his wife calls him down to read scripture to the children. The man, in particular, is living a double life, vicariously becoming the Ripper—or, at least, injecting some excitement into a dull, puritanical existence. It’s fun to delude ourselves sometimes, to imagine that we, ourselves, are no longer the prisoners of small and boring lives but are part of something larger: a conspiracy, a mission, a societal or global (or cosmic) plan. The Ripper chilled many—but his legend excited far more. People wanted to be involved, to catch a glimpse of a bloodstained murderer, without being the victim or being in any real danger. Fantasy. If a sketch of Goya’s says that the sleep of reason produces monsters (perhaps ones that rip), deliberately giving reason some sleeping pills might produce sharp-toothed exhilaration, comfort, softer (real) sleep at night.

Goya's "Sleep of Reason"
This, of course, is how many people justify a simple theism: I don’t know if it’s true, but it helps me feel better and more meaningful, so I’ll believe. (Indeed, , Henri Bergson ends The Two Sources of Morality and Religion with the statement that the universe itself is nothing less than "a machine for the making of gods.")

I appreciate and understand this impulse. But I think we need to sit back, clear our heads as best we can, and reevaluate what we know. The fact is that the Ripper cases were not, taken as a whole, anything special, and neither are we, put up against the universe. If it turns out no life exists anywhere else in the universe—an unlikely prospect, but who knows—then we may well be unique, but that doesn’t mean we’re special so much as lucky, a fortunate fluke of planet formation, abiogenesis, and evolution. (I'm not saying we can't be special on some cosmic scale, but I just don't see why we should be; if the purpose of the Big Bang was God's way of creating life, the universe is a literally epic failure, with so much of it apparently utterly unhospitable for life.) Of course, we have much to learn about how life formed in the first place, and I don’t pretend to have the answers—but the evidence, again, points to no special creation of humankind or even of life itself. We are, and that seems to be about it. Whatever meaning we make, whatever beauty and horror we produce, bloom and fade, appear and vanish, like tiny bubbles over the vast river of time (to steal E. H. Gombrich's image from A Little History of the World). The grand myths we have made about what we mean, the global and cosmic epics, may well be no more than bubbles themselves, soon to pop and vanish as microbes and new organisms feed on our bones and the skeletons of our civilizations before the sun dies.

And in the Caribbean (and elsewhere, of course, but I have seen this often in Dominica and other islands), we do this all the time. We do not see the bigger picture; we make small things into the entire world. It is easy to make this mistake, to forget that a whole world, and a whole universe, exists beyond the shorelines. The city, the town, the village, the rooms, the streets we live in and on the most: these become the world to use, and our eyes narrow and we forget, sometimes altogether, that there is more out there. And for many people, there’s little need to remember this, to be fair, since those “small things” are really quite big in their own lives: our jobs, our loves, our losses. But that doesn’t mean we should all willingly see the world with such narrowed eyes, if we know better. There is too much else out there. And it certainly means that we should be careful about mythologizing things around us, turning tiny events into grand stories that they do not deserve to be. Myth-making isn’t bad—as an artist, I could hardly say otherwise—but it can blind us, if we don’t step back once in a while and try to take in things on a bigger scale.

But once you’ve seen how vast and seemingly baffling the universe is and how forgettably tiny we are by comparison, it may be worthwhile, too, to indulge in some mythology, some whisky against the horror of feeling small. After all, our little patch of space and times would be far less interesting without the ghost of Jack the Ripper to haunt it once in a while. And even if the Ripperologists know the myth of the Ripper is likely more interesting than the truth, and cosmologists and astrophysicists are well-aware of how infinitesimal we are--"a piece of cosmic lint," Bill Bryson calls Pluto in A Short History of Nearly Everything, and it might as well apply to us--there's no reason we can't enjoy ourselves and continue to speculate, even as we acknowledge that all the grand myths we've conjured and dreamt up may crumble away when we're gone, forgotten by ghosts and gods alike.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, hope you are perfectly fine. Very nice post about Jack the ripper who was really a mysterious serial killer. Where still people finding the points.