Vous êtes sur la nouvelle plateforme d’Érudit. Bonne visite! Retour à l’ancien site

Hidden Meaning: Andrew Lang, H. Rider Haggard, Sigmund Freud, and Interpretation

  • Kathy Alexis Psomiades

…plus d’informations

  • Kathy Alexis Psomiades
    Duke University

The connections I make here, between the works of Victorian anthropologists like Edward Tylor, Andrew Lang’s theory of Romance, Rider Haggard’s She, and Sigmund Freud’s interpretive method, have been made numerous times in critical writing about She, where they operate to elucidate the meaning of Haggard’s fantastical text. For many interpreters, that meaning is to be found in the “deep structure” of late-imperial culture; all these writers share in a common attempt to define civilized European masculinity against its others—femininity, the “primitive,” the “savage.” In these readings of Haggard’s fantasy of European men penetrating Africa to find degenerated and miscegenated savages and a 2,000-year-old “New” woman, Lang tends to appear as the advocate of Romance as a genre that can restore savage masculinity to a civilized world overly dominated by feminine concerns. Freud appears as a fellow sufferer of a father complex, and, also concerned with writing and masculinity, he employs imperialist metaphors—exploration, the “dark continent”—to describe his own intellectual quest. That Freud himself should actually have read and admired a novel that lends itself so easily to a Freudian reading—the erotic triangle! the pillar and the cave! the goddess figure who proves deadly to her mortal male lover!—makes such connections even more delightful. What the connections do in such analyses is lend intellectual seriousness to Haggard’s imperialism; the connections enable Haggard’s novel to be read as a kind of microcosm of late-nineteenth-century ideologies of race, gender, and empire, its fantastic strangeness ultimately allied to the strangeness of the imperial project itself.  [1]

But what happens if we shift the center of this web of connections to Andrew Lang? Lang connects these diverse figures together literally, by means of a concrete set of historical acts, but also more abstractly in his cultural role as a circulator of ideas. As a facilitator of idea transmission, rather than the generator of original ideas and arguments, Lang helps us see how the movement of ideas between and among writers is part of the meaning of those ideas. Of course Victorian anthropological and psychoanalytic theories are part of a knowledge-project that comes out of imperialism and colonialism. But they are also part of the prehistory of a different knowledge project, the very project that enabled literary critics to read texts as “reflective” or “emblematic” of something called imperial culture: the project of critical reading. Foregrounding Lang might move us away from thinking of the Victorians as the producers of cultural texts that we, as late twentieth-century readers of Haggard, Tylor, Lang, and Freud, interpret, and toward a model where we and those Victorian writers move together in a circuit of ideas featuring Lang as a central node. Shifting the focus to Lang and the fin-de-siècle interpretive project enables me to consider Victorian interpretive practices as parallel to our own, rather than as our object of study.

In other words, my centering of this essay on Lang follows from the assumption that the ideas that circulate through the texts he transmits and enables can be read as theory, rather than as ideology. Ideology has been classically described as imaginary solutions to real problems. [2] Theory, however, seeks to provide real solutions to real problems. Rather than being passively determined by history, theory aims to intervene actively into it. In the practice of critique, the critic is typically understood to be informed by theory, while the object of critique (the text) is understood to be ideological in the sense that it awaits the critical analysis of the (historically subsequent) critical reader. What I’m proposing here is not the abandonment of the idea of ideology, but the realization that theory and ideology are always intertwined, that the imaginary and the real can exist in complicated relationships to each other, and that the very question of the relation between the “imaginary” and the “real” was ongoing in the nineteenth century, in an inquiry into interpretation that structured what would become anthropology, literary criticism, and psychoanalysis. [3]

So while abstract concepts like fin-de-siècle masculinity and empire are woven throughout the “real” connections of this essay, what constitutes the real for me here is a set of material historical facts and events. Andrew Lang read Edward Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871) around the time of its publication, while studying at Oxford. [4] In articles for a variety of periodicals in the 1870s and early 1880s, he championed Tylor’s anthropological theory of myth against the philological theories of Max Müller. Lang collected these articles in his book Custom and Myth (1884), which he dedicated to Tylor. In 1885, Lang met Haggard (whose work by that point he had already read) through William Ernest Henley, whom Haggard had asked for advice about publishing King Solomon’s Mines. The two men became close friends, and Haggard dedicated She—which was serialized in 1886-7 and published in 1887—to Lang, who reviewed it in the Academy. Lang’s article, “Realism and Romance,” championing the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and Haggard (including She) over the realist domestic novel, appeared in the Contemporary Review in the same year. Here Lang explicitly used Tylor’s ideas to connect Haggard and Stevenson’s romances to a primitive, myth-making stage of human culture. Lang continued to write books about anthropological theory like Myth, Ritual and Religion (1887, 1901), Social Origins (1903), and The Secret of the Totem (1905). Both Social Origins and The Secret of the Totem are cited by Freud in Totem and Taboo (1913). Social Origins was bound together in the same volume with J. J. Atkinson’s Primal Law, an account of the origins of incest taboo important to Freud’s conception of a primitive family structured by conflict between a patriarch and his sons.

These materially connected texts and writers share interests in interpretation, in the intellectual questions surrounding the late nineteenth-century theories of myth and symbol, and in the project of finding meaning in the seemingly meaningless phenomena of a given culture. [5] In Victorian Relativity (2001), Christopher Herbert succinctly describes the common assumption underwriting these interests in culture as something to be interpreted: “every cultural formation, whatever its degree of supposed evolutionary value and however purely instrumental it may appear, can be understood as a structure of symbolic imagery readable in the way poetic texts or, according to Freud, dreams are readable” (185-186). [6] What Tylor, Lang, Haggard, and Freud are all interested in here is what Freud identified in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) as a property of She: “hidden meaning.” According to Freud’s method and to current literary-critical practice, this meaning can be made visible with a proper understanding of the relationship between the literal and the metaphoric and of the role time plays in constituting that relationship.

Lang and the Anthropology of Myth

Andrew Lang’s Custom and Myth is dedicated not just to a man but to a man as the author of a book: “To E. B. Tylor, author of ‘Primitive Culture,’ these studies of the oldest stories are dedicated.” In the two thick volumes of Primitive Culture, Tylor had explained the principles and method of social evolutionism and given a social evolutionist account of the development of religion, including myth, magic and ritual. He elaborated three central concepts: the comparative method, “survivals,” and “animism.” For Tylor the comparative method meant collecting the stories, practices, and artifacts of cultures dispersed across time and place and sorting these cultural features into a single table of evolutionary development. “Survivals” are anomalous features in a culture whose strangeness is explicable by their temporal dislocation; they have survived beyond their appropriate moment in history. “Animism” is primitive man’s theory of how his universe works. Though Lang read other anthropologists, like John McLennan and John Lubbock, he seems to have been particularly excited by Tylor because Tylor made clear how anthropological thinking could be used to interpret the things Lang cared about most: stories, poems, myths, literature. It is that literary-critical aspect of Tylor that Lang references in the dedication when, rather than using the terms “myth” or “folklore,” he refers instead to “the oldest stories.”

The periodical articles that make up Custom and Myth spread the new gospel of anthropology. Lang recapitulated various extant theories about the development of the family, explicated ornamental shapes in “savage” art, and explained how Tylor’s theories could revolutionize the study of folklore. But most of the book is devoted to the practice of the methods of Tylorian interpretation—elucidating the meaning of classical Greek mythology by comparing its features to those of “savage” myth—and a defense of these interpretive methods against the philological model of Max Müller. In the process, Lang explicates and popularizes both Tylor and Müller’s interpretive methods.

Both methods focus on what doesn’t make sense. As Lang writes, quoting an 1882 article of Müller’s in Nineteenth Century, “[w]hat makes mythology mythological, in the true sense of the word, is what is utterly unintelligible, absurd, strange, or miraculous” (Custom and Myth 197). Lang uses this quote to open his chapter, “Hottentot Mythology,” and foregrounds the interpretive difficulty that will also fascinate Haggard and Freud: how to account for the weirdness of stories that violate the assumptions of realism. Müller’s answer is that the weirdness is inherent in the way language works. Says Lang:

Men, in Mr. Müller’s opinion, had originally pure ideas about the gods, and expressed them in language which we should call figurative. The figures remained, when their meaning was lost; the names were then supposed to be gods, the nomina became numina, and out of the inextricable confusion of thought which followed, the belief in cannibal, bestial, adulterous, and incestuous gods was evolved. That is Mr. Müller’s hypothesis; with him, the evolution, a result of a disease of language, has been from early comparative purity to later religious abominations.

Custom and Myth 198-199

Müller’s The Science of Language went through multiple editions between 1861 and 1891. In it, he showed how myth might have emerged, given the nature of language itself. Human language, he argued, is of necessity concrete, developing out of man’s sensuous impressions. To express in language things that cannot be experienced sensuously, like abstract ideas, human beings need metaphor. “No advance was possible in the intellectual life of man without metaphor” (Müller 450), because abstract thoughts require that concrete language become metaphoric to express them. Mankind must thus have gone through a metaphorical or mythological period, in which an originally concrete language became abstract. According to Müller:

Whenever any word, that was at first used metaphorically, is used without a clear conception of the steps that led from its original to its metaphoric meaning, there is a danger of mythology; whenever those steps are forgotten and artificial steps put in their places, we have mythology, or, if I may say so, we have diseased language, whether that language refers to religious or secular interests.


So primitive man, having an intuitive and profound experience of something timeless, above and beyond the world of temporal change and everyday actions, and having no word to name an experience that fell outside the concrete world of the senses, used a word meaning “sky” to name that experience, since the sky seems to be something always present, unchangeable, and unfathomable. The word still meant sky, however, and stories developed around the literalization of that metaphor—“God is like the sky” becomes “the sky is God.” From that initial logical error follows all manner of sun chariots, thunderbolts, etc. Mythology is thus for Müller not indicative of primitive religion, but a corruption of that religion that emerges from the nature of language itself:

Everything is true, natural, significant, if we enter with a reverent spirit into the meaning of ancient art and ancient language. Everything becomes false, miraculous, and unmeaning, if we interpret the deep and mighty words of the seers of old in the shallow and feeble sense of modern chroniclers.


Hidden meaning in Müller’s model resides in the root words of the Indo-European languages that can be discerned in the names of Indo-European gods. The philological interpreter reads the roots in the names of the gods (roots usually referring to sky, sun, light) as metaphors expressive of an intimation of the infinite. This temporal model is more degenerationist than developmental; an original perception of the divine is debased by the language that expresses it, and that debasement accounts for the “false, miraculous, and unmeaning” aspects of myth.

Against this philological model, Lang argued for Tylor’s anthropological approach. For Tylor, myths are not the debased form of an originally poetic/philosophical/religious approach to the mysteries of the universe, but a primitive form of science. Myth originates in “that actual experience of nature and life, which is the ultimate source of human fancy” (Tylor I: 248). Rather than attempting to name the ineffable in concrete language, primitive man attempts to theorize the causes of events in nature. In response to “two groups of biological problems” (I: 387)—the difference between life and death, and the phenomenon of dreams—primitive man theorizes the existence of souls and spirits. Animism, the ascription of souls or spirits to animals, plants, and inanimate objects, is a way of explaining the world that leads to myths in which nature is inhabited by spirits. It is “a savage theory of the universe” (II: 99); indeed, Tylor repeatedly used the word “theory” in his discussion of primitive mythology and religion.

As many critics have noted, Tylor imagined primitive man as a less developed version of himself; primitive thinkers are scientific realists engaged in a knowledge project analogous to Tylor’s own. [7] Both civilized and primitive scientists reason by analogy to explain how nature works. In Tylor’s model primitive religion is not an “other” to modern secular thought, but an earlier version of that thought with a narrower knowledge base. Thus Tylor’s theory of culture is also a theory of mind that, at the same time as it hierarchizes cultures, also stresses their common features. His interpretive theory, in other words, also applies to his own work, a meta-theoretical outcome he stresses in a passage added in the 1874 second edition:

It was no spontaneous fancy, but the reasonable inference that effects are due to causes, which led the rude men of old days to people with such ethereal phantoms their own homes and haunts and the vast earth and sky beyond. Spirits are simply personified causes.

1874, II: 108

Here he picks up on a word—“cause”—that he uses throughout the book in discussing his own method, and makes it a central part of his description of primitive thinking, conceived here as a method in its own right. Spirits only seem irrational and unscientific; they are actually the hypothesized forces of an early rational science like Tylor’s own.

Rather than literalizing metaphor, the passage of time, for Tylor, has the effect of metaphorizing the literal: “what we call poetry was to them real life” (I: 269). Savages, like children, are naturally poetic, blurring the line between the real and the imaginary, ascribing agency to inanimate objects by analogy, defying strict divisions between man and animal. Eventually, modern science provides better explanations for natural phenomena, and myth falls away, bits of it remaining in poetry. For Tylor,

[t]he state of mind to which such imaginative fictions belong is found in full vigour in the savage condition of mankind, its growth and inheritance continue into the higher culture of barbarous or half-civilized nations, and at last in the civilized world its effects pass more and more from realized belief into fanciful, affected and even artificial poetry.

I: 331

The outmoded science of the past becomes the poetry of the present; analogy, which originally functioned to reason about cause and effect, now merely makes metaphors and similes. Hidden meaning can be found by returning to the moment at which myth seemed to be literally true.

Tylor’s model is progressive; myths seem irrational to us not because language is unsuited to their original high content, as Müller would have it, but because their rationality inheres in their original moment of production as explanation. By reconnecting myths to their historical moment of origin, a later theorist can recreate the mental state of early man, to whom they actually were rational. A central concept in this methodology is the “survival”: those “processes, customs, opinions, and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home” (I: 15). Generally, such aberrant social facts seem to the untutored eye to be irrational or meaningless, but this is because they have been temporally separated from their meaning-making context. Temporal dislocation from context, rather than the nature of language, produces for later readers the appearance of irrationality, strangeness, a demand for interpretation. This is why poetry makes that demand: it is temporally-dislocated “real life.” [8]

For Lang, Tylor’s formulations about the “real” and the “poetic” or metaphoric authorize an analysis of the fantastic, unreal, and irrational in contemporary literature. Romance is not just a pre-realist literary form in the process of being displaced by modern realism; rather, it is a prehistoric survival. Lang hangs his 1887 essay “Realism and Romance” on this connection: books like She are valuable because they are survivals that appeal to the savage who survives within “the natural man within me, the survival of some blue-painted Briton or of some gypsy” (“Realism and Romance” 689). Lang uses Tylor’s word to apply both to romances and to their readers:

The advantage of our mixed condition, civilized at top with the old barbarian under our clothes, is just this, that we can enjoy all sorts of things…Do not let us cry that, because we are “cultured,” there shall be no Buffalo Bill….If we will only be tolerant, we shall permit the great public also to delight in our few modern romances of adventure. They may be “savage survivals” but so is the whole of the poetic way of regarding Nature.


Stories like She seem wild and fanciful now, Lang concedes, but their value and meaning can be seen if we understand them as temporally dissonant forms that appeal to readers who are themselves temporally dissonant subjects, containing in their bodies both personal past selves (the child) and historical past selves (the primitive). This is a theory of genre as a kind of temporal dislocation. Lang expresses this dislocation as Haggard and Freud did after him by the jarring juxtaposition of realist and non-realist, modern and savage modes—juxtapositions that foreground the fantastic as an anomalous feature of a realist world:

The dubitations of a Bostonian spinster may be made as interesting, by one genius, as a fight between a crocodile and a catawampus, by another genius. One may be as much excited in trying to discover whom a married American lady is really in love with, as by the search for the Fire of Immortality in the heart of Africa.


Henry James’s The Bostonians (1886), and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Through One Administration (1883) are juxtaposed with Haggard’s African adventure stories to make a point in the 1880s periodical debates about the realist novel and literary value. [9] Lang not only transmits and popularizes Tylor; he also uses him to theorize the value of the romances of Stevenson and Haggard at a point at which literary value is being claimed by realists like William Dean Howells and James. [10]

By characterizing Haggard’s work as a “savage survival,” Lang applied Tylorian theory to Haggard’s literary project. He brought Primitive Culture and She together in “Realism and Romance” in the same way in which countless literary critics have brought theory and literature together in their own writing. In addition to applying Tylor’s ideas to Haggard’s text, however, Lang also transmitted Tylor’s ideas, the myth debates, and other anthropological theories to Haggard through Custom and Myth[11] By the time Haggard came to write She, the romance novelist not only had a theory of his own writing practice as the insertion of temporally dissonant material into a realist world, but was also familiar with a set of interpretive problems: about the relationship between the “real” and the “represented,” about the temporal significance of literalization and metaphorization, and about the interpretive demand made by “survivals” both in the culture at large and inside the individual psyche. Tylor’s theory, via Lang, had given shape to Haggard’s writerly practice.

She, Myth, and Knowledge

Andrew Lang dedicated Custom and Myth to Tylor, not personally, but as the author of a book. Haggard dedicated She to Lang “in token of personal regard and of my sincere admiration for his learning and his works.” Often this dedication is read along with the novel’s references to Cambridge, its translations of Latin and Greek, its faux-erudite footnotes, and its academic hero as part of Haggard’s attempt to work through his sense of his own intellectual inferiority and his father’s refusal to educate him as well as his brothers. Taking seriously how She engages with Lang’s “learning and his works” rather than reading that engagement purely as a symptom of Haggard’s psycho-social maladjustment allows us to see the theoretical concepts that shape both the content and form of the novel. For if one joke of She is that it expends its scholarly energy on fantastic imaginary events and texts, making palpable to the point of irony the disconnect between its patina of science and supra-rational plot, Lang’s learning in the anthropology of myth is the serious version of that same enterprise, an attempt to explain the imaginary and fantastic with the apparatus of science. She is genuinely engaged with the ideas Lang writes about, and this engagement is expressed not only in its incidental content, but in its largest sense of itself as a project.

Haggard’s imaginary savages, the Amahaggar, combine aspects of the imaginary savages of anthropological speculation in a jumbled and incoherent way. As the descendents of the people of the ancient civilization of Kôr, they seem to have degenerated into savagery and, as in Müllerian myth, into literalism. They use the artifacts of Kôrian culture in ways that divorce them from their original purposes and incorporate them into practical daily domestic life: pots that had symbolic funerary meaning or that functioned as instruments of state violence against criminals become containers for food, or instruments for killing men and then serving their flesh; preserved bodies that indicated a set of beliefs in the afterlife become torches; and tombs become homes. Yet these Müllerian primitives also resemble the progressive savages of Tylor and his fellow anthropologist McLennan; indeed their culture contains many of the elements McLennan associated with Totemism in his 1869-70 essay “On the Worship of Animals and Plants”: matrilineage, the use of animal names for people (they call Leo and Holly the Lion and the Baboon, respectively), and ritual feasting. The animal names in particular reference the problem of how it is that people become associated with animals in totemism; the Amahaggar think Leo, Holly, and their servant Job resemble a lion, a baboon, and a pig, so they call them by these names. An actual lion and baboon later figure in a ritual dance with other animals, which suggests that a myth is in the process of formation here, as metaphorical resemblance is in the process of being erased. All this is vastly complicated by the fact that civilized people also call Holly and Leo by nicknames—and those nicknames, tellingly, refer to fairytale and myth: the Beast and Beauty, Charon and Apollo. Finally, Holly and Leo actually are the names of “plants and animals,” something the characters themselves remark upon, and which Holly and Leo happen to bear. Giving nicknames is thus seen as a common tendency; savages may invent names that function as simple appearance-related similes (as She scornfully remarks), but civilized men also give names that comment on physical resemblance, though these refer to fictional stories rather than literal African animals. Holly and Leo’s actual names (which may or may not be their “real” names), however, still refer to plants and animals; the implication is that those names are survivals of a past in which Europeans gave themselves plant and animal names. And, of course, the savages of this novel bear the name of its author (Amahaggar), which suggests that the literal mindedness of this primitive group, and their jumbling up of the relics of the past, are a version of Haggard’s own novelistic practice; they are the internal savage Lang conceived as the survival within.

Not only is She full of content that echoes Lang, Tylor, and Müller’s anthropological writing, but it also repeatedly, if jokingly, announces itself as caught up precisely in the concerns of that writing—knowledge, time, truth, fiction. The larger subject-matter of She—knowledge, immortality, the problem of the soul, reincarnation, religious belief—is what Tylor and his savages use animistic theories to understand. From the beginning, the novel foregrounds the problem of interpretation. Its fictional editor remarks:

At first I was inclined to believe that this history of woman on whom, clothed in the majesty of her almost endless years, the shadow of Eternity itself lay like the dark wing of Night, was some gigantic allegory of which I could not catch the meaning. Then I thought that it might be a bold attempt to portray the possible results of practical immortality, informing the substance of a mortal who yet drew her strength from Earth, and in whose human bosom passions yet rose and fell and beat as in the undying world around her the winds and the tides rise and fall and beat unceasingly. But as I went on I abandoned that idea also. To me the story seems to bear the stamp of truth upon its face.

She 5

The possibilities the editor considers resonate with Müller and Tylor’s theories of myth. Is it expressive of some high ideas about the infinite that language struggles to express clearly? Is it akin to a scientific experiment—an attempt to imagine the results of a natural immortality? But then, in the punchline of the passage, the editor jarringly invokes fact. The story, he says, may be understood with reference to the real. Fantastic things happen in myth, he seems to suggest, because fantastic things really did happen back in the prehistory of the world. [12] Trope becomes truth.

The literal-minded Amahaggar have a different realist theory of She, however: a political theory that sees the story of her immortality as a kind of propaganda. The savage Ustane speculates that there really are multiple Shes, an unbroken biological line of mothers and daughters, the result of secret marriages with men who later disappear:

What she believed was that the Queen chose a husband from time to time, and as soon as a female child was born this husband, who was never again seen, was put to death. Then the female child grew up and took the place of the Queen when its mother died, and had been buried in the great caves.


Behind the metaphorical secret of life—living forever—is the actual secret of life, biological reproduction. Haggard’s savage is a skeptic, reversing the usual trope of savage credulity. But as the novel goes on to demonstrate, she is also wrong.

Why is it that She prompts so much interpretive speculation both inside and outside the story of the novel? She resembles the goddesses to which she compares herself—Venus, Diana—and also Isis, to whom she does not compare herself, but who stands in relation to Osiris in the same relation Venus stands to Adonis, Diana to Actäon, and She herself to Kallikrates/Leo. And yet the mystery of She is not solved by making her one of these goddesses; she is not something out of the realm of the infinite and eternal. Like the Tylorian survival, which seems strange because it exists in temporal dissonance with its surroundings, She is a remnant of the time in which goddesses were worshipped that lives on in modernity. She the character is a literalization of a concept of survival, something that continues to exist when its own temporal moment has passed. And She, the romance, is likewise a survival, a myth located in a realist world.

The giant statue of the Goddess Truth acts as a symbol that pulls all of the novel’s interpretive material together. On their way to the caves of eternal life, Holly, Leo, and She stop off in Kôr, where they ponder a beautiful 20-foot statue of a naked woman with a veiled face. She tells Holly: “It is Truth standing on the World and calling to its children to unveil her face” (265). This language invites us to remember the Editor’s commentary, about the story bearing the stamp of truth upon its face. The phrase “gigantic allegory,” which the editor seems to be using metaphorically to mean “broadly symbolic of something else,” becomes literal; the statue is huge, and it is an allegory. The invocation of allegory also invites us to recall a moment Holly has before he even meets She, when he gazes up at the “eternal stars” like one of Müller’s savages:

Oh, that we could shake loose the prisoned pinions of the soul and soar to that superior point, whence, like to some traveler looking out through space from Darien’s giddiest peak, we might gaze with the spiritual eyes of noble thoughts deep into Infinity!


Holly here turns Keats’ metaphorical Darien, from “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” (1816), into his own metaphorical gazing point, one that reasserts Müller’s classic association of the sky with the infinite. [13] Piously, Holly checks himself, this time with a solar metaphor: “The truth is veiled, because we could no more look upon her glory than we can upon the sun. It would destroy us” (118). Once again we have a “high” allegorical reading of the trope of the veiled goddess; by implication, all the stories about how dangerous it is for mortals to look directly at goddesses would have in them this truth about the infinite that is also a truth about the human experience of the sun. Yet the novel also suggests that these stories may not be allegories at all; there may really have been practically immortal women whose beauty really did pose a threat to mortals, for reasons connected to the “science” that prolongs their lives.

Both She and the statue of the Goddess Truth give concrete form to all these metaphors. The statue seems to demand from Holly and from us a reading of its high metaphorical significance, and seems to include She in that significance. Yet, as often as he makes high metaphorical interpretations, Holly deflates his own metaphors with a literalizing gesture: “Ayesha was veiled like the marble Truth (by the way, I wonder if she originally got the idea of covering up her beauty from that statue?)” (267). The sentence itself stylistically imitates the gesture of deflation; the high poetic phrase “veiled like the marble Truth” gives way to the casual, slangy, “by the way, I wonder.” This kind of code-switching, juxtaposing high and low language, noble truths and their slangy deflation, is an often-noted feature of Haggard’s writing and one that troubled his contemporaries, including Lang and Stevenson, who were perpetually trying to get him to abandon low diction and low jokes about serious matters. It also happens, however, to be a stylistic representation of the problem of the interpretation of myth: recall Müller’s caution that interpreting mythic details with “the shallow and feeble sense of modern chroniclers” makes them seem “false, miraculous and unmeaning,” but looking at them with “a reverent spirit” shows them to be “deep and mighty words” (Müller 689). Theories of myth allow Haggard to connect the stylistic dissonance between high and low language, and the interpretive dissonance between deep and shallow readings, to the temporal dissonance between ancient past and modern present that constitutes the survival. Code-switching is thus both a feature of the genre of Haggardian romance, and a representation of the theory that constitutes that genre.

As a lover of low jokes myself, I want to point to a third literalist reading of the statue and She, one that undoes the metaphor of the veiled goddess to reduce it to its literal meaning. Unlike She, who is veiled and clothed, except when engaged in strategic clothing removal, the veiled statue is veiled only across its face. And it is a very big statue. You cannot see the face of Truth, but you can certainly see everything else, four times bigger than life. The mysterious high secret of life with which the text concerns itself might really be a lower secret, located a little further down the statue. Ustane might be right after all, in her sense that the secret of life may “really” be reproduction. It’s difficult to put a metaphor inside a naked lady, without having the naked lady at the very least distract you from that metaphor with thoughts of more concrete actions in which you might engage with actual naked ladies. The big joke of She might also be a dirty joke.

In “About Fiction,” an essay published, like Lang’s “Realism and Romance,” in the Contemporary Review in 1887, Haggard characterized the love of romance as being “like the passions, an innate quality of mankind” (172). He goes on to inveigh against the dirt-mindedness of French naturalism:

[I]t is not so much a question of the object of the school as of the fact that it continually, and in full and luscious detail, calls attention to erotic matters. Once start the average mind upon this subject, and it will go down the slope of itself.


This inevitable descent happens because “Sexual passion is the most powerful lever with which to stir the mind of man, for it lies at the root of all things human” (176). What Haggard is actually arguing for here is the necessity for more latitude in English writing about sex. If the current restrictions continue, he says, there will be a counter-reaction, and English and American novels will become as smutty as French ones. What is needed is a way of treating the “low” subject of sex with reverence. At this point, Haggard draws upon a familiar trope:

Art in the purity of its idealized truth should resemble some perfect Grecian statue. It should be cold but naked, and looking thereon men should be led to think of naught but beauty. Here, however, we attire Art in every sort of dress, some of them suggestive enough in their own way, but for the most part in a pinafore. The difference between literary Art, as the present writer submits it ought to be, and the Naturalistic Art of France is the difference between the Venus of Milo and an obscene photograph taken from life. It seems probable that the English-speaking people will in course of time have to choose between the two.


Here once again we have the high, ancient, noble ideal, and the low, modern one, the Venus of Milo and an obscene photograph; high sex is like truth, while low sex is like, well, sex. As a 2,000-year-old goddess-like woman, She brings old high sex into a modern fleshly form, but the truth, the “root of all things human,” remains what it is. In a very few years, James Frazer will reimagine all the myths about Goddesses and their dead lovers as having been invented to explain the fertility rituals through which primitive man seeks to control natural and human reproduction. Culture really is all about sex.

Reading Haggard’s novel as a tribute to Lang’s learning and works means foregrounding these interpretive issues and the connections the novel and Lang’s writing make between anthropology’s treatment of culture and contemporary cultural production. In writing his romances, Haggard is not only writing in a genre that Lang will theorize, but his writing is itself engaged in the theorizing of its own generic qualities.

Freud, She, and Primal Law

Given Haggard’s concerns with interpretation and sex, it is perhaps not surprising that he should make an appearance in Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Briefly, Freud’s dream of Haggard appears in a section of the book that treats dreams in which the dreamer’s judgment or evaluation of some aspect of the dream is a part of the dream. This act of judgment in the case of the Haggard dream is indicated by the phrase “strangely enough,” which describes the bizarre beginning of the dream, in which Freud operates on his own lower body with the help of a woman, Louise N. The dream also involves a cab ride, which turns into a trip on foot with an alpine guide. There are a swamp, red Indians, and planks to cross. The dream ends in a wooden house in which men lie sleeping on slabs with children sleeping next to them. From this dream Freud “awoke in a mental fright” (460). The word “strange” appears repeatedly in Freud’s explication of the dream, in which he links the word explicitly to Haggard’s novel.

The following was the occasion of the dream. Louise N., the lady who was assisting me in my job in the dream, had been calling on me. ‘Lend me something to read,’ she had said. I offered her Rider Haggard’s She. ‘A strange book, but full of hidden meaning,’ I began to explain to her; ‘the eternal feminine, the immortality of our emotions…’ Here she interrupted me: ‘I know it already. Have you nothing of your own?’--- ‘No, my own immortal works have not yet been written.’--- ‘Well, when are we to expect these so called ultimate explanations of yours which you’ve promised even we shall find readable?’ she asked, with a touch of sarcasm.


Freud’s account thus connects She both to the dream, and to the book about dreams. Furthermore, in the dream She and Haggard’s The Heart of the World are responsible for much of the imagery of swamp, Red Indians, and plank. Freud says that the comment “strangely enough” applies to these “two imaginative novels.” He notes that in both novels women are the leaders—like Louise N.—but he also notes that She, “instead of finding immortality for herself and the others, perishes in the mysterious subterranean fire” (462). In this way, She becomes a figure for Freud himself, and his struggle for immortality in his works. The children at the end of the dream suggest to him the idea that perhaps his children may succeed where he has failed, an idea he connects back to Leo Vincey—“a fresh allusion to the strange novel in which a person’s identity is retained through a series of generations for over two thousand years” (462).

Readers of Lang can see how Freud picks up on the Langian content of Haggard’s novel. The common object of inquiry of the student of myth and the student of dreams is, as Müller notes in a passage Lang quotes approvingly—“what is utterly unintelligible, absurd, strange, or miraculous” (qtd. in Custom and Myth 5). Freud’s dreamer, who notices the strangeness of his own dream, seems even in the dream to be engaged in an interpretive project that responds to the strange and anomalous detail with a search for its meaning. Peter Logan has likened Tylor’s interpretive method to Freud’s in Victorian Fetishism (2009), and in Freud and Anthropology (1983) psychologist Edwin R. Wallace shows how the survival requires an interpretive operation—what he calls seeing “the historical within the metaphorical” (24)—similar to Freud’s own interpretive method. In both myths and dreams, a “fact” has over time become a “fiction,” a “reality” lies behind the “strange” and “fantastical.” Both She and Interpretation of Dreams meditate on this problematic: both juxtapose realist and romantic detail, and both think about the conjunction of “science” with “strangeness.” Referring to Freud’s concern about whether his patient’s incest stories are based in real or fantasy incestuous encounters, Bruce Mazlish eloquently links Freud to Haggard’s novel, which “seemed to deal imaginatively with the same problem of reality and romance that Freud was dealing with scientifically” (731, n 12). I would add here that Lang enables us to see that even for Haggard, there is a science behind what Mazlish calls “the problem of reality and romance.”

But since Lang is at the center of my web of connections, the Freudian text on which I focus is not Interpretation of Dreams but Totem and Taboo. In Totem and Taboo, Freud enters into Victorian anthropology’s debates about totemism, and in a move that seems triumphant and parodic at the same time, “solves” the problem of the totem with the Oedipus complex. This move requires the same kind of juxtaposition of the past and the present, romance and realism, in which Haggard delights and Lang champions. It also requires reference to Lang’s anthropology; both The Secret of the Totem and Social Origins are cited in Freud’s text.

The problem of the totem, to which Leo and Holly’s animal names and the Amahaggar’s cannibalism are linked, is a specifically Victorian problem. As Claude Levi-Strauss famously observed in Totemism (1962), totemism, like hysteria, is a fiction; its individual features were real enough, but the collection of these features into an entity that could be analyzed and explained was the work of “scientists” who made the very thing they claimed to find in women and savages (1). In totemism, a range of diverse features of diverse cultures seem to cry out for connection: sex, symbols, social organization, religion. From the moment at which John McLennan first wrote about “The Worship of Plants and Animals” in the late 1860s, these questions seemed connected: why do some tribes have totem animals with which they identify, must not kill, but occasionally ritually sacrifice and devour? Why are there prohibitions on marriage within the totem? Different strands of Victorian anthropology addressed different aspects of what they saw as these connected questions. Tylorian animism explained the attribution of souls and spirits to plants and animals. Theories about primitive marriage and kinship, put forward by McLennan and the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, seemed to explain matrilineage and the regulation of marriage within and outside of the group. Finally, Robertson Smith’s and James Frazer’s work on religion, ritual, and sacrifice seemed to explain the totem meal.

What Freud claimed psychoanalysis could do that Victorian anthropology had not been able to accomplish was to provide a unifying theory that would explain all of these features of totems through one central explanatory mechanism. That theory was the Oedipus complex, which could be used to explain social formations as well as individual psychological formations. The totem represented the father; the simultaneous prohibitions against its slaughter and obligatory sacrifice and feast represented ambivalence towards the father—simultaneous murderous jealousy and guilt over that murderousness; and the incest prohibitions worked to restrain that which had caused the jealousy and ambivalence in the first place, the desire for the father’s women. Savages are thus like neurotics in that they are subject to the Oedipus complex, and that their seemingly irrational beliefs and stories are, when examined in relation to their history, rational.

Many have noted that this connection between savages and neurotics rests on a widespread Victorian notion of the resemblance of both groups to children. Neurotics are caught up in the emotions and events of childhood—they still think magically, as children do. Savages allegedly resemble children in their mental development. And writers and artists for Freud, as for Tylor, tap into that savage, childlike, mode of magical thinking when they write. As it does for Tylor, Lang, and Haggard, this theory produces very strange juxtapositions in which genre difference seems to create temporal difference and vice versa. For example, Freud juxtaposes a Maori chief, who must take care not to blow on the fires of his subjects lest his power kill them, to a woman whose life seems governed by a series of prohibitions—against going to certain places, meeting certain people, or allowing certain objects in her home (Totem and Taboo 36). In both cases the prohibition signals dangerous and murderous ambivalence: the chief is feared for his power, but also hated for it; the woman doesn’t want her husband to bring razors into the house, not because they were purchased at a store near a funeral parlor (the reason she gives) but because she wants to protect him from her desire to kill him (120). [14] The material that Lang associates with romance and realism—stories of magic and masculine power as opposed to stories of the domestic details and desires of women—are here both opposed and equated. Temporally dissonant things, generically dissonant stories, come together and are reconciled by a similar structure of metaphorization and displacement. For Freud, what explains both realism and romance, both savages and neurotics, is ultimately the Oedipus complex, which organizes sex and violence into the family romance, not only at the beginning of the life of each modern psychological subject but also at the beginning of the history of humanity.

Lang’s influence on Totem and Taboo is characteristically less as the author of original ideas, and more as a transmitter and popularizer of the ideas of others. Frazer and William Robertson Smith are both more important to Freud theoretically, though psychologist Edwin Wallace notes that Lang’s summaries of other people’s theories shaped Freud’s conception of the debate (Wallace 91). Far more directly important to Freud’s work than Lang’s —almost essential to it—is the work of Lang’s cousin, J. J. Atkinson.

In order to put the Oedipus complex at the beginning of human culture as well as at the beginning of individual human lives, Freud needed to get rid of Victorian anthropology’s story of primitive marriage, which saw patriarchy and fathers as a relatively late-developing phenomenon. In the theory of primitive marriage elaborated by thinkers like McLennan, patriarchy is the culmination of a developmental process that begins with general promiscuity and female infanticide. Infanticide produces a shortage of women, which leads to the capture of women from other tribes, and polyandry, which in turn means that descent is traced through the female line. Eventually, the idea of fatherhood develops, and only then does the patrilineal family come into being. [15] To put fathers back at the beginning of the story, Freud drew on Charles Darwin’s argument in Descent of Man (1871) that male jealousy would have precluded the sharing of women and that early social groups must have consisted of a single male and his wives and offspring. Atkinson, Freud notes, “seems to have been the first to realize that the practical consequence of the conditions obtaining in Darwin’s primal horde must be exogamy for young males” (Totem and Taboo 156). Freud also includes a very long footnote quoting extensively from Atkinson’s account of the primal horde. This comes in the very midst of Freud’s own discussion of the original murder of the primal father by his sons:

This hypothesis, which has such a monstrous air, of the tyrannical father being overwhelmed and killed by a combination of his exiled sons was also arrived at by Atkinson as a direct implication of the state of affairs in Darwin’s primal horde.

176, n. 55

Freud then quotes the following passage from Atkinson’s Primal Law:

The patriarch had only one enemy whom he should dread, an enemy with each coming year more and more to be feared—deadly rivals of his very own flesh and blood, and the fruit of his loins—namely, that neighboring group of young males exiled by sexual jealousy from his own and similar family groups—a youthful band of brothers living together in forced celibacy, or at most in polyandrous relation with a single female captive. A horde as yet weak in their own impubescence, they are, but they would, when strength was gained with time, inevitably wrench by combined attacks, renewed again and again, both wife and life from the paternal tyrant. But they themselves, after brief communistic enjoyment, would be segregated anew by the fierce fire of sexual jealousy, each survivor of the slaughter relapsing into lonely sovereignty…

Lang and Atkinson 220-221

This speculative story of sex and violence takes place for Atkinson at a pre-human, pre-social stage. In order for pre-humans to become humans, they have to become social, and becoming social means dealing with male sexual jealousy by means of primal law—that is, the law against incest. He speculates that this may have come about through the intervention of mothers. Of course, for Freud, the interdiction comes about as a result of guilt for having killed the father: “They thus created out of their filial sense of guilt the two fundamental taboos of totemism, which for that very reason inevitably corresponded to the two repressed wishes of the Oedipus complex” (Totem and Taboo 178).

Atkinson’s vivid speculations on the origins of culture in the regulation of masculine jealousy and aggression enable Freud to posit a moment in human (pre)history at which killing the father is not just a fantasy, but a real historical act. The fact/fantasy opposition at the basis of the problematic of survivals and symbols in the genealogy I have sketched to this point, is, in Freud, attached in a new way to the savage/neurotic opposition. “What characterizes neurotics,” Freud writes, “is the fact that they prefer psychical to factual reality and react just as seriously to thoughts as normal persons do to realities” (Totem and Taboo 198). Yet in childhood, they must have had Oedipal feelings, “and turned them into acts so far as the impotence of childhood allowed” (199). So the primitive killing of the father really did occur; the figurative was once literal. Neurotics are satisfied with thoughts rather than deeds, but primitive men are “uninhibited: thought passes directly into action. With them it is rather the deed that is a substitute for the thought” (200). So the notion that fact becomes figure through the operations of time, that primitive man is literal minded, and that modern people are metaphoric, is here rearticulated at the very end of Freud’s classic work on method. The trope of literalization—Lang’s ghosts, immortal woman, Freud’s father-murder—is the occasion for the employment of the analyst’s interpretive process. The analyst works backwards to the extent that he can discern the literal origin of the neurotic’s symbolic displacement.

In his introduction to Social Origin and Primal Law, Lang explains how the two works came to be published together, and in so doing sketches the material network that connects himself, Haggard, Freud, and Atkinson:

The portion of this book called ‘Primal Law’ is the work of the late Mr. James Jasper Atkinson. Born in India, of Scottish parents (his mother being the paternal aunt of the present editor), Mr. Atkinson was educated (1857-1861) at Loretto School, then managed by Mssrs. Langhorne. While still young he settled on certain stations in New Caledonia bequeathed to him by his father, and, except for visits to Australia and a visit to England, he lived and died in the French colony.


Atkinson became interested in the “singular laws and customs of the natives of the New Caledonian archipelago” (viii) before he read any modern anthropology. Later, he did read them and joined the Anthropological Institute.

Given that Atkinson only visited England once, it is unlikely that Lang would have known him were they not related. But that familial relationship and the two men’s common interest in anthropology made Lang not only publish the work, as a dying Atkinson requested, but also to publish it with his own work, Social Origins, which serves as an introduction to Atkinson’s treatise. Lang introduces Atkinson with a review of anthropological debates on the origin of the family into which his work intervenes, lending to Atkinson’s work all the prestige of his own reputation and benefit of his own scholarship. The Langian connection thus underwrites Freud’s Totem and Taboo in a concrete, material way.

Like Haggard and Freud before me, then, I close with an invocation of the real: the real circumstances of publication of Atkinson’s book. In the process of doing this, however, I had my own encounter with the power of the real to transform the figurative or conceptual in a sudden, surprising moment. Relatively late in the process of writing this essay, I read Lang’s account of how he came to publish Atkinson’s work, and a familiar name astonished me:

In his [Atkinson’s] last illness, in 1899, he was most kindly attended by Commander John Haggard, R.N., then Her Majesty’s Consul in New Caledonia. Mr. Atkinson’s mind, in his latest moments, was occupied by his anthropological speculations, and, through Mr. Haggard, he sent his MS. to his cousin and present editor.


Could it be? Google informed me that it was. John Haggard was H. Rider Haggard’s brother, the one who allegedly challenged him to write King Solomon’s Mines, and who married Agnes Barber (she who is perhaps best known to Haggard readers as the woman who helped him materialize his most famous fictional artifacts—the map in King Solomon’s Mines and the Sherd of Amenartas in She). [16] Of course this real connection doesn’t make the conceptual connections I have formulated here any more real for being real itself, but, “strangely enough,” it feels like it does.

Parties annexes