Thursday, January 31, 2013

On? Dickens ???

[So many hundreds of pages of unpublished notes… and no time to work them up into a book, or even an essay.  Yet almost it is hubris  not to breathe a word of these, since the Reaper might  require my soul  (and thine)  this very night … (and there is no editor to handle the Nachlass …)

And so, ere I lay me down to (perhaps eternal) sleep,
a simple posting, un-proofread, of miscellaneous jottings
re him whom I deem our greatest novelist.]


Complete caricature:
Punch & Judy, Commedia dell'arte
Comic strip characters of the usual sort, like Beetle Bailey, whose tabula becomes again rasa at the end of each four-panel strip.  However many years or decades the strip runs, the character never develops.  If by chance he changes (as, Garfield was more coarsely drawn in the first year of the strip), the change has nothing to do with development within a story, it's just a sort of drift that may not be noticed by readers, so long is the time-span

Intermediate between caricature and situated:
La Bruyère, Caractères de Théophraste

Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (2nd edn. 1955) , p. 361: "Faulkner's tobacco-drooling phantoms are not the constituents of a representative American epic, protagonists in a great modern tragedy; they are the tonal expression of Faulkner's own torment."

Gissing: "All Dickens might be summed in the title of Jonson's play; no figure but is representative of a 'humour', running at times into excesses hardly surpassed by Ben himself."

(Henry James) : learn nothing abt people
Thus Henry James (may bats sh*t on his forehead as he sits, hat on knees, in the waiting-room of purgatory, his application for admission to that salubrious locality having been indefinitely delayed), citizen James, I say, the paladin of boredom (guano dripping through his brows), has no doubt rendered many lessons about human behavior, but only about such humans as have long suffered from constipation; humans whom (and in this they are more to be pitied than blamed) in the extended absence of any satisfactory defecation, and being so impacted that, in default of an apple-corer or other appropriate reaming instrument diligently applied….[the author died of boredom before he was able to complete this sentence; but we preserve its fragments as a memorial].

I read Saintsbury's once-standard History of Nineteenth Century Literature with little profit and mounting irritation.  It is a ratings-game approach to criticism, literature on a scale of 1 to 10.  But it may at least serve as a springboard for disagreement.
            He writes: "It  was in Dombey and Son (1846-48) that the Dickens of the decadence first appeared. … A new and very inauspicious element appeared in certain mechanical tricks of phrase, and in a totally unreal style of character  exemplified in the Bagstocks …"
What my own experience of Bagstock would have been  had I met him first in print, whether he would have been forgettable or seemed unreal, I'll never know, for I was introduced to him in the brilliant reading by Frederick Davidson on Blackstone Audiobooks, where the Major appeared as a reality of chilling clarity, as unforgettable and looming and alarming as though, strolling through the woods, you had come upon a bear.  The simple formula "Joe-y B…"  rings on in the mind's ear with the resonance of "… and smote him thus" if you've ever heard a good performance of Othello.  No, the portrait of Bagstock  is not a full person, but it is a simple, striking image, a fixed point of reference and a new one in the heavens, and as such a valuable addition to our ontology, as is the outline of an eagle against the sky, or the hiss of an adder, though we personally be no further acquainted with either eagles or adders.  No-one we ever meet will be an undiluted expression of…of what may we call …of Bagstockery:  but with this prototype fixed indelibly in mind, we have a tool to pry apart the confused mix of tints and traits which any actual person presents, and to winkle out whatever there may be of this one, a step towards better understanding that person as a whole.
In his essay "Charles Dickens", Orwell quotes at length  Magwitch's threatening speech to Pip, only to denounce it.  "To begin with, no starving and hunted man would speak in the least like that."  But thank goodness Magwitch did!  The speech is wonderful, simultaneously a pragmatically appropriate horribilis to send the boy smartly on his errand, and a sort of gently winking bit of humor to the adult reader. --  I was startled, upon seeing the movie "Treasure Island" again, now as an adult, to see what an amiable scarescullion Long John Silver really is as there played.  We do not, in literature, seek the transcribed minutes of familiar everyday dithering.  No prince or no pauper ever spoke as they speak in Shakespeare, and the plays are none the worse for it.
(wish to address that charge that his characters are caricatures).  The charge is embarrassing for me as a reader, since I find these characters  all that one could wish.

(First, characters in most other novels  are not all they're cracked up to be. Often just the author and his various egocentric projections.)
(Then there is the matter of the reader's limitations.  I suspect that we recall even the central characters that we do recall  by a sort of insensible regression to the mean.  We have our own notion of The Hero, and this exerts a gravitational attraction upon our memory of the actual hero of any given novel, which with time therefore  conforms more and more  to this simple common denominator.
Novels are by nature well suited for imparting ideas and for giving full reign to language, but not particularly apt for fixing individualized characters in the reader's mind.  For, our sense of the individual essence of the various people we know  is based partly on a kind of aura each person has, some emanation of the soul, which may be illustrated but is not constituted by that person's sum of utterances over the course of our acquaintance.

(Dickens does not limit his characters to caricatures.  Only, he makes certain that there is a striking visual or lexical figure – a caricature if you insist – which will remain in memory, instantly identifiable, and on which we may, as the case arises, hang further particulars, like hats upon a hatrack.)
Take Bitser in Hard Times, a minor character who would be lost in the shuffle of most novels. (Indeed, how many distinct and differentiated child characters do you recall, from books that are not themselves children's books?)  Dickens begins by presenting him visually, literally in a shaft of light. (Eerily etiolated.)  Next, he complies circumstantially with the schoolmaster's demand to "define a horse".  So far, his position is antithetical rather than individual: his light complexion and male sex contrasting with the dark complexion and gentler gender of Cissy, his bill of particulars with her muteness on the subject (although actually, of course, she knows far more about horses, living as she does in a family of circus riders), his factuality and her fancy; and his import is merely structural: here is a member of the next generation that actually takes to the Gradgrind educational system – as, indeed, in any age, there will always be some individuals who take to the dictates of the prevailing ethos, whatever it might be.  And if Dickens stopped there, the character would fade from memory, probably before the novel was over.  But the author does two clever things. 
First, the reply to the horse question, though perfect for its satiric purposes within the project of the novel  as capturing none of the verve of this magnificent animal  and emphasizing aspects practical for commence, is yet more attractive to the attention of the reader than would have been, say, an intellectually indifferent though mnemonically equally impressive recital of, say, the names of every river in Asia: "  40 teeth….   "  This is actually sort of interesting – some readers, reading this, may perhaps for the first time hit upon the motivation for the expression about looking a gift horse "in the mouth".   Further, for any older reader, it is memorable because rather alarming, triggering that instinct we have (inherited from our troglodyte patriarch, no doubt) of keeping a sharp eye out for any prodigy of a whippersnapper who swims into our ken.  Despite half a century spent roaming about this planet, I did not myself know, prior to reading this passage, how many teeth are in the head of a horse, let alone the tariff of their individual specializations; nor seemed, it must be conceded, in a fair way ever to learn these particulars, in the normal course of living.  When I shall rise from the grave, were Saint Peter to put to me this very question, I should have flunked, and had doubtless to have spent a stretch in some chalky purgatory doing those things that I ought to have done yet left undone, by way of practical learning. Yet here's this bleached-out halfpint of a schoolboy, who can give you chapter and verse!  Better keep an eye on that one!
Second, Dickens gives the lad a gesture: " [quote]  "  And whenever we meet this person again, we see him knuckling his forehead.  Now, this sort of thing may be just what the critics have in mind when they complain of caricature:  but it is no shallow thing, whatever it is;  it is more like the simple yet mysterious whiteness of the whale, in Moby Dick.  The whiteness serves by mere difference  to mark out this whale from the others that fill the seas, but it does something more, which Melville himself can only speculate about, in a chapter devoted to this question.   This forehead-knuckling too, is at once a simple simile for the lad's grad-grinding of so many facts into his own hard head, and something more, an echo from an unseen corridor, which gains in resonance when we meet him again. (gesture of the damned in Michaelangelo…)

(Some of his characters are indeed) too little caricatures to really serve for the later antonomastic use that is made of them.  The dictionary defines "Pecksniffian" as "hypocritical" or "pharisaical".  That is to capture but a sliver of the man.   You do no great injustice to (Prometheus) if you describe (an enterprise) as "Promethean", for of the original we know little beyond what is summarized in the adjective.  But to use "Pecksniffian" as a mere extra synonym of "hypocritical" is to (render the word superfluous), save as you may wanting a rhyme for – well – it is hard to imagine for what; nor will the word ever nestle comfortably among the iambs and trochees.  And to seek to use the word with its full flavor of the essence and accidents of Mr. Pecksniff, is to seek the fleece, or the roc on its fabled eyrie.  Your hairs will grow grey, then white, then drop out one by one, before you encounter on the streets of life anyone fully fitting this eponym; he is no more to be met with, in his fullness, than Hercules, clad in his lion's pelt.

(He fixes his characters in our minds by means of characteristic expressions or gestures, and fixes these by repetition.) 
But repetition alone does not suffice.  Witness Pamela, who over and over (and over  (and over) )  again and again, vents forth the same sentiments in much the same terms.  Yet her we never sense as much more than a wisp amid petticoats.

(It will be well) to compare Dickens with Orwell in this respect, if only because Orwell wrote so superbly on Dickens.
            Now, Orwell (in his fiction), has no memorable characters – not even himself:  for though his weather eye is always in evidence, its lens is not (seems not to be) so to speak tinted, with any personal quirks or particulars; this is indeed the virtue of this trustworthy guide. It is part of his character  not to be overconcerned with his own person, and thus he doesn't flaunt those little mannerisms which round out a portrait and help fix it in the mind.  It's not that he's a nullity, he doesn't disappear into the landscape  so much as overtop it, a firm beacon, fixing it with his beam.
            There are memorable anecdotes in Orwell, some of them even Dickensian.  As, the Loyalist militiaman, a stranger to letters, trying to keep up with the elaborate Tom-Sawyerish system of challenge and countersign, and being told that the S-R of the day was "… "  Asking the meaning of the latter word, he was told it meant "valiente".  Later, challenged with "", he replied "Valiente" – and was shot at by his own sentry.  Now, this is tragic and funny and all-to--human, and you can generally visualize the cast of characters from which such an incident would spring:  but the individuals, sentry and shot-at, are here nameless and faceless.  They exemplify the tragicomedy of a class, memorably and tellingly, but they do it anonymously.
A word in defense of the mnemonic function of caricature.  An Edward Gibbon or an Edmund Wilson, who remembered everything, had no need of such aids.  But most of us must make do with a more lossy cerebral filing system.  Now, just as a car is meant to be driven, so a novel is meant to be read; and this basic fact has functional consequences.  The earliest automobiles were not usable by the average citizen, and airplanes still are not; this limited their usefulness.  And one may argue that a novel by its nature must be more user-friendly than an automobile: for in the early days one could still get about by hiring a chauffeur, whereas no-one can do your reading for you.

(Dickens imprints his characters on your memory, by repetition of phrases and traits.)  Yet overall he is quite sparing with recapitulation, despite the practical fact of drawn-out publication in installments.  (The postface to Our Mutual Friend, with its complicated plexus of plots, says the process took 19 months.)
(signature tunes)

So suggestive are his characters, Harry Johnson wrote a novel The Veneerings (1922).  And Wodehouse seems to have taken just certain precious chips from Dickens' characters, and fashioned them into puppets of his own.  Thus Psmith is fleshed out of one facet of Eugene Wrayburn, without the rest.

In defense of caricature names:
To the principle characters, who must be at liberty to develop in any direction (whether or not the author makes ample use of this liberty), give neutral names like Joseph Andrews or Parson Adams.  But the puppets they meet may as well receive humorously appropriate designations: Mrs Slip-slop, Mrs Grave-airs.  This signals their function instantly and keeps them from getting confused in the mind with other minor characters.  It is an annoyance, reading a modern novel, where Tim and Tom and Ben and Bob and Lee and Lisa and Linda and Barb are falling in and out of love and in and out of beds, to try to keep them straight.
(Flat chars, round chars, &) spectral characters.  Cf. Fauvism: brilliant surfaces, shallow but not flat, because refracted.
Such depth as they have derives from the dreamer.  As: sexual feelings projected and reflected from a hundred objects over a lifetime, now melded in the dream.

Invitation to a Beheading:
Cincinnatus languishes on death row.  In bustles the prison director, saying things like "But why, may I be so bold as to ask, have you not touched your food? … Excellent sabayon! … And now, pour la digestion, allow me to offer you a cigarette. Have no fear, at most this is only the one before last." 
Are we to docket a new instance of a character-type, the Jolly Jailer?  Cf. & ctr.  ….. in Little Dorrit.
(the actions of the characters do not delimit them as characters, but point to the unreality of the situation.  As: shall we credit the parents in "Die Verwandlung" with remarkable sang-froid, when their son has suddenly turned into a giant cockroach?)
We are dealing with dream-logic, and not, in any proper sense, a plot.

 (but actually the gap is not as wide as we might wish.)  Mr. Dorrit is locked up for what (especially to our twenthieth-plus-century sense) seems an imaginary crime.  Certainly the punishment does not fit it:  He owes money; how is he to repay it if he cannot work?  And the release seems as unreal as that of Cincinnatus.

…is actually dreamt-up.  When it isn't simply a memoir with the names changed, fiction has necessarily a false bottom.
(What characters *do* we come really to know, and why?)
Though Esther Waters, in her eponymous novel, is always front and center, and though we seem to be privy to her thoughts, without hidden depths, yet we do not come really to know her.   E.g. her horror of the ending in workhouse; but when she does wind up there, for what we later learn are several months, we get no description.  Cf: Someone quite close to me once went to jail for a year.  He never talks about it. It's a gap, a phantom limb.
Nor does she give a sense of the relations of mother and child.  (Children have great particularity, and tend to surprise you with the way they keep turning out.  None of that here, he's just a cipher: now a month old, now x years.)
"We never really knew him."

In Darkness at Noon (1941), the icy interrogator Gletkin is too immobile and controled to offer much purchase for mannerism, but the reader is repeatedly confronted with two traits: "H … settled his cuffs, … while the scar on his skull reddened." (P. 201; & passim)

(opposite of mnemonic)… is John Updike's Couples, which might as well have been called Quadruples or Octets, …   There are many sharp observations in the novel, much masterly prose, but the traits and aperçus don't seem to stick consistently to any particular character.  The effort to keep them straight – Frank and Harold and …… -- was more than difficult, it was actually unpleasant; so that I soon gave up and let the book wash over me, not as a unity, but as notes for a novel, a series of skits.  (Wilfred Sheed had a similar experience with this book.  He called it a "slide lecture" and complains that the characters "become almost interchangeable".)
If the fates are favorable, one meets Pooh and Piglet very early in life.  (Archetypes)
The Pooh characters are something like archetypes, and as such they must be timeless.  You can't imagine Piglet grown to – hoghood, God forbid.

C.S. Lewis Of Other Worlds (1966), p. 14: "Why should the characters be disguised as animals at all.  The disguise is very thin, so thin that Gramame makes Mr Toad on one occasion 'comb the dry leaves out of his hair'.  Yet it is quite indispensable." {et seq}
GKC (who is worth quoting en mauvaise part as he devoted quite a lot of intelligent and sympathetic attention to this author): "The whole of Dickens is made up of the strand of satire and the strand of sentimentalism; and the strand of satire is quite unnecessarily merciless and hostile, and the strand of sentimentalism is quite unnecessarily humanitarian and even maudlin."

(Hard Times, ch. (ca. 7), incident of Loup père losing his ability to function, beating the dog bloody, then lying on the floor hugging it weeping, as it laps his face)
Perhaps this is a sentimental passage.  Perhaps the tears that even now return in memory of first hearing it, now as I re-type it, are foolish and untutored.  Yet it has a kind of spare power for which it is difficult to find the example outside of the Gospel.

            The death of little Johnny in Our Mutual Friend is told with something of the austerity of that austere novel, to a degree that younger readers (if any there be, of so adult a book) may not fully grasp what is going on; and yet it rings with a sort of steely pathos – the note of the trump of Judgment, or an iron gong.

Dickens, as a received and thus domesticated great, is now considered an ornament of empire – or rather was, for a time, before it became the fashion to denigrate everything that rises above the level of a village hut-- but in his own time he expended much effort and energy tearing down the monuments whose cold shadow lies athwart the human spirit.

There is something of charity, something of the way the shepherd watches for the least of his flock, in the way he keeps track of even his minor characters.  At various points in Hard Times, I had thought we'd seen the last of Bitser, or Sleary, or Cissy's absent dad.  Yet all return in an important part -- even the last, though he dies offstage, sending dog Merrilegs as funeral emissary.
Sometimes basically the same character pops up in more than one novel, but facing different circumstances.
Little Dorritt and Lizzy Hexam are similarly undemonstrative, self-effacing, clear-headed, self-sacrificing for their troubled fathers. But Little Dorritt vis-a-vis the Father of the Marshalsea faces a different task than Lizzy Hexam vis-a-vis Gaffer (who in any event soon turns up dead).

Eugene Wrayburn: "I am a bad, idle dog."  Cf. Sydney Carton.
& cf Psmith.  Both are aristocratic in manner and terribly offhand; untouched, unsullied as they walk through the world's commotion; with too much iron to be properly called smug, and contemptuous (without bravado) of personal danger.
Zola was probably one of the first to describe a real proletarian, and not simply a poor man, as Dickens, for instance, had done.
-- Jan Romein, The Watershed of Two Eras:  Europe in 1900 (1967, Eng. transl. 1978), p. 211
In Dickens there is a general sense of plenitude, a wide and well-stocked canvas of the whole of life.  But if with parti pris you seek this or that feature, you may find it missing.  Orwell sought in vain for any genuine sense of (industry and manufacture). 
(The hobby-horse of the last century is sex.  What do we find?  Did we not start from this a-priori project, the corpus of Dickens itself would never suggest it.)  As a concession to this age in which I find myself floating as some foreign particle, a few remarks.

Major Bagstock is a sort of perpetual erection, ever swollen with an overplus of his own humors; and his surname may perhaps be etymologized from the scrotal sac and its stick.  Yet its application is not specially sexual; certainly no fecundation is intended. He represents the mere principle of plethora, as Mrs. Gradgrind, permanently detumesced beneath the labia-like folds of her shawls, represents mere inanition.

(One place where absence of any sexual savvy is odd, is Louisa's marriage to Bounderby.  Before the marriage, we get a glimpse of actual lechery.) He eyes the rose when it is scarcely ripe, and moves to pluck it.  He gets no further then a peck on the cheek; whereafter she, with as much a tomboy's as a maiden's gesture, abrades the spot till it glows.  Now, with so much riding on so little, what might be the scene when, in possession, he forces his attentions and indulges his gross appetites in the nuptial bed? And repeats them, in and out of season (for he is not a man to be denied)? Bounderby himself is a phallic character, gross and swollen and bristling with hair. Yet we have no hint that there has ever been a wedding night.  She loathes him as before; she keeps composure, as before.  And the strange frozen horror with which she shrinks from the suit of Hardhouse (onomastic comment here superfluous), is almost that of one who has never tasted venery.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr, A Thousand Days (1965), p. 467: "The Dulles world rested on unitary conceptions of the opposing blocs:  on the one hand, the 'free world', capaciously defined to include such places as Spain [under Franco], Paraguay [under Stroesner], Batista's Cuba and Mississippi…"

Arthur Schlesinger Jr, A Thousand Days (1965), p. 480: "After the Soviet Union resumed nuclear testing, the neutral leaders gathering at Belgrade  reacted with stupefying forbearance.  We all knew how they would have blackened the skies with resolutions if we had been the first to resume."

Neil Stephenson, Cryptonomicon (1999), p. 641-3.

Gissing: "Of Little Dorrit, as of Martin Chuzzlewit, who can pretend to bear the story in mind?"

Orwell slighted the structure but noted the gorgeous gargoyles.
This might apply to the earliest work, in its less successful parts, but seems unfair to the later.  We may agree with Orwell so far, that the top-level architectonics are never quite satisfactory – the plot, the total mechanical arch of the novel.  But they are not simply spotted with little good things.  Rather – to continue the metaphor – there are exquisite chapels, an awesome altar, a beautiful choir, majestic nave, welcoming narthex, noble steeples and thilling crypts, only not perfectly fitted together to the eye of an airplane. Or to return to the literal: the novel as a whole is imperfect in its skeletal description, but consists of perfected novelettes.


A Dickens plot is like a Jurassic boneyard.  Great ribs and femurs lie about in noble profusion, almost but not quite making up an entire animal, with members from other animals intermixed.


Why doesn't Eugene Wraeburn simply marry Lizzie Hexam at the outset?  One is almost in the dark, what the impediment was, until he soliloquizes well into the novel, and then it seems absurd:  he worries that she is socially beneath him.  Our distance from accepting this is partly a matter of our perspective conditioned by current social practice, which has evolved since Dickens time in the direction of less distinct boundaries among classes.  More telling, however, is a literary reason:  in fiction, and this is fiction, men are forever wedding women from a lower social class; it's quite expected.  Further, within the framework of this novel, Eugene is not of conformist temperament, and (as a lawyer without a practice) is far from well integrated into society at any event.

Gissing isn't bad, but even he does a fairish amount of serial thumbnail censure and praise, praise generous but of no critical specificity ("Every stroke of such outlines is a manifestation of genius", p. 209), like handing out prizes on Parent's Day.

@parallels, @recurring characters
(Cf. an atom in different chemical combination)

Younger brother, spoiled by petulant self-regard, meanly ungrateful to his self-forgetting sister:
(… gradgrind); Charlie Hexam

[Jenny Wren, a "parental child" in modern psychiatric terminology. – Cf. the progeriac Nicolino in Powers' Operation Wandering Soul.]


(curious, that among the finest passages  are several excellent death scenes)  I would have no idea how to write a death scene.  The one death which should have touched me most nearly, I quite made a mess of; the memory weighs on my heart like a headstone; and am as a result crippled in this regard.

There are short stories which are as acutely observed as any equivalent number of pages in Dickens.  One can even imagine having written those oneself:  simply go out at the top of one's form, have a peak experience, rush home and write it all down before it fades in memory, expending the utmost of one's art.  But one can't rush home and write an entire novel, nor yet a suite of novels, each thick and bursting with detail.  I could right now go out to a coffeehouse and, spending the whole day there in intense observation, come up with a very nice description of someone raising a glass to her lips, in some very particular way.  But I'd have nowhere to stick such a description.  Dickens, writing novel number n, when he wanted such a description, reached into his capacious memory banks and extracted one, of a scene necessarily observed some years previously.

(learning great jokes and comparisons from him – but now it's been done.)  It would have been more charitable in him, had he, from time to time, written simply: "There is an excellent comparison to be made between (darkness) and (cerements), but the margin is too small to contain it."  That would have left something for the rest of us to do.

@wodehouse and dickens
Both have:  A rollicking collection of eccentrics, colliding with one another …

But: The Wodehouse world lacks all evil.  There are weakness and failings behind every plant-pot, and on every sleeve.  But they are amiable peccadillos that raise a smile.  Even the odd burglar is merely naughty, like a Beagle Boy.
((smash ice))

((some set such a scene, only to smash it -- expls)

((he knew when he set out, that all would end in ruin))

the Maypole ((hearkening back to a green time))
((but already, that time is long past. The inkeeper already of a leaden age))
((something of a wonder how he even managed to keep such an inn -- but keep it he does, and well)

(GKC of CD eclipsing his forbears; and GKC overshadows CD for us. GKC loves England as the knights loved it, and the elves))

Barnaby lives (in his mind) in Elfland; but alas! not surrounded by other elves.
Cf. the Woman in White: a damaged person, whose testimony is here and there of unique value, but who is not treated sentimentally as an oracle, like .... or Owen Meany.

((how to relate a tale, not told by an idiot, but *of* one.  Not, in the idiot's own stumbling, crumpled cadences))((quote: leaves like spirits))

As the novel's end impends, Dickens must drop his leisurely exploration of the depths, and hurry the plot along.  Wham bang, clunk clank.


Dickens novels tend to fall apart towards the very end, as he hastens to wrap up the plot, pulling rabbits out of hats.   (As might we ourselves, at the very end ….)

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