Dickens’ Thing

by Christopher Horner

Man is that night, that empty Nothingness, which contains everything in its undivided simplicity: the wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him—or which are not present. This night, the interior of nature, that exists here—pure self—in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head—there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye—into a night that becomes awful; it is the night of the world which then presents itself to us. Hegel

In psychoanalysis nothing is true except the exaggerations —Adorno

Here is the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ last novel. What is going on?

An ancient English Cathedral Town? How can the ancient English Cathedral town be here! The well-known massive grey square tower of its old Cathedral? How can that be here! There is no spike of rusty iron in the air, between the eye and it, from any point of the real prospect. What is the spike that intervenes, and who has set it up? Maybe it is set up by the Sultan’s orders for the impaling of a horde of Turkish robbers, one by one. It is so, for cymbals clash, and the Sultan goes by to his palace in long procession. Ten thousand scimitars flash in the sunlight, and thrice ten thousand dancing-girls strew flowers. Then, follow white elephants caparisoned in countless gorgeous colours, and infinite in number and attendants. Still the Cathedral Tower rises in the background, where it cannot be, and still no writhing figure is on the grim spike. Stay! Is the spike so low a thing as the rusty spike on the top of a post of an old bedstead that has tumbled all awry? Some vague period of drowsy laughter must be devoted to the consideration of this possibility.

This is the strange opening of Charles Dickens’ last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. We come to learn pretty quickly that we are in the ‘stream of consciousness’ of a man in the grip of an opium induced hallucination – stream of unconsciousness might fit the case better. Note the way in which we get the effect of a double exposure, and not one of a still, but a moving picture. And the book proceeds, still written in the present tense, for most of the text that he completed.

Dickens is one of those writers who are so well known that we almost don’t see how strange he can be. It is commonplace to describe him as a creator of the grotesque and fantastic – a kind of writer of dreams. His books are full of the strange business of the dream and fairy tale – the transformations, metamorphoses, and monsters (the door knocker becoming Jacob Marley’s face, and then reverting back in A Christmas Carol), the embodiments of evil -the dwarf Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop, bending low to find the cowering victim hiding under the bed. And there is  Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham, in her bridal clothes, stuck repeating forever the marriage day that never was:

She was dressed in rich materials,—satins, and lace, and silks,—all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on,—the other was on the table near her hand,—her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a Prayer-Book all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.

This is a scene that has come from somewhere very strange and uncanny. And it is this kind of thing that Dickens excels in producing – not stories. With Dickens, the plot is the least memorable thing, in general. We recall not the narratives but the scenes, the people, and the turns of language. We remember the dream. If we take the notion of Dickens’ art as that of a dream weaver seriously, we might recall that for Freud and Lacan, it is language that structures the dream, a dream thought, a wish. Given Lacan’s insight that the unconscious itself is structured like a language, it is unsurprising that that most verbal of artists, Dickens, uses words to convey something that cannot, somehow, be delivered in the prose of sober realism. What is that thing?

Theatre of Distortion

The dream is the theatre of distortion, where according the Freud,  we get condensation and displacement. Condensation, when a number of dream elements are combined into one; displacement, where the emotions associated with one thing are moved onto quite another feature of the dream. And always we are we are dealing with language, with signifiers. Beyond that there there is ‘secondary revision’ -at the end of the process of dream-construction with the application of conscious thought processes to the dream material in order to make it coherent and ‘make sense’. One could examine Dickens writings and find this again and again – the dream work is the door knocker that becomes Jacob Marley, the fog in Bleak House, the frozen image of Miss Havisham, while the secondary revision in the way Dickens tries to make a plot, a story with a happy ending and a moral. But if Dickens’ art is that of distortion, what is the thing being distorted? What isn’t shown directly, but can only appear as a distortion? 

The Thing

What motivates his fiction is a kind of anxiety. There is a dread in much of his imagery, a dread that asks the question: what is this other thing, my neighbour, the face that looks at me? What does it want of me? This other thing is The Thing. The Thing is the darkness that lies in the neighbour, the unknowable Real that threatens and entices. Much of his art, and I very much include the comedy here, lies in converting the lurking question of what the other wants into a kind of hysterical dance. Dickens converts the almost unbearable tension around the question of what the Thing is and what it wants, into words: signifiers that keep the abyss at a distance, and make it tolerable. More than that, a kind of intense enjoyment in the verbal business of creation infuses his work at its finest, an enjoyment in the grotesque, the baroque and the extreme.

Dickens, at his less successful, asks us to share his fantasy of rest and contentment, of love and goodness. This almost never comes off on the page. When he does this we get the love interest, the ‘pure woman’,or the Christian charity of the frankly unbearable Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby. He seems in such passages to be trying to get us to have the ‘appropriate’ emotion. At his his most successful we do not need this because we participate with him in the excessive joy that comes from the massive over accumulation of details, of the hyperbole and and repulsion that comes through a Quilp, a Jarndyce or a Bradley Headstone. Repulsion and attraction: for there is a profound ambivalence about the Other, and I think this inability to portray women as sexual beings, as people with credible lives is connected to it. The figure of the woman creates particular unease in Dickens which he ‘solves’ by splitting: presenting the ‘love interest’ women as pure, untouchable and sexless, and displacing the dread on to the ‘bad’ woman. He is covering over the anxiety with fantasy that is is hardly ever felt by readers to be successful, because he is unable to clothe the pure woman in a convincing fictional language. The dream begins to fail and then we are in danger of waking up – to a bourgeois Victorian bride. All the creative force goes elsewhere,  into the  creations of of demonic intensity and creeping evil. In Great Expectations, Biddy is the pure and moral woman, Miss Havisham has the qualities of the Wicked Witch, and Estella has those of the sadistic, cold hearted seducer. It is Biddy that we forget.

The triumph of a certain kind of fiction of the 19th century is that of the realist novel. One of it great qualities is its panoramic sweep, its ability to conjure a whole city for world – and Dickens, as much as Balzac or Tolstoy can do this. Think of the Ariel perspective on a whole city in  Bleak House, for instance. This side sheds light, the other probes the darkness, the grotesque, the nightmare. Dickens explores both sides.

The Ideology of Everyday Life

The strength with the realist novel is also its limitation: tied to metonym rather than metaphor, it shows us the quotidian, as the place or setting for stories that show us the drama of every day life: one damn thing after another. In this it is close to common sense, to what can be called common human understanding. The problem here is what it cannot convey. Common sense is the spontaneous ideology of everyday life, and the novel that draws on it seems to show us how things are, because this is how they appear in daily life. This ideology of daily life employs a lot of imaginative work which often confounds effects with their causes, and disavows the things that are too difficult for the understanding to accept. Since Ideology is one’s imaginary relationship to one’s real conditions, it is never more effective than when it presents itself as sober realism. But things are not quite as they appear to the senses in the light of day and there is another scene in which the real work is occurring, and the straightforward prose of a Gissing or an Orwell, rarely grasps it. The very will to simple truth is, you might say, the vehicle of an untruth. Daylight is one thing, shadow and night something else.

The Impossible-Real

The Impossible-Real, the Thing that cannot be conveyed without the dream work of a Dickens is the fantastic quality of modern life. Even more than the darkness in the neighbour, it is the entire phantasmagoria of the city. For Dickens it is is the vast machine that eats people up, an unrepresentable system that grinds men’s bones to powder: capitalism. Here is the man of property in Our Mutual Friend: 

Where does he come from? Shares. Where is he going to? Shares. What are his tastes? Shares. Has he any principles? Shares. What squeezes him into Parliament? Shares. Perhaps he never of himself achieved success in anything, never originated anything, never produced anything? Sufficient answer to all; Shares. O mighty Shares! To set those blaring images so high, and to cause us smaller vermin, as under the influence of henbane or opium, to cry out, night and day, ‘Relieve us of our money, scatter it for us, buy us and sell us, ruin us, only we beseech ye take rank among the powers of the earth, and fatten on us’!

Capitalism, the entire mode of production that turns people into units of labour time, human relations into commodities is a vast and beyond any direct presentation. Now I do not think that Dickens had any of this consciously to mind, but his fiction creates the effect of truth through the intensity with which his personal fears are shared with the other denizens of the modern city. He, like so many others, like Carroll, Poe, and Melville, is wrestling with what it is to be an aware, feeling self in the darkness of the modern world. Driven by his own compulsions, his manic energy in the writing is his symptom, the sublimation that is the source of enjoyment for his readers. The art of Dickens is the dream work, and the truth of the fiction lies in the distortions, for only here can it be evoked. He partly lifts the curtain that conceals from us that Thing in the Other. And the real question posed by it is not just who, or what, is the other?, It is: who am I? What is the unknown Thing in me? In Dickens himself, and in you, dear reader. 

Books Consulted None of the following necessarily correspond to or would agree with my remarks above, but all helped me think about Dickens and much more. The really outstanding, exciting study of Dickens by Geoffrey Thurley is, alas, out of print. If ever a book on Dickens deserved to be read it is this one. Find it second hand if you can. Perhaps one day it will be republished, one can but hope.

Charles Dickens  – GK Chesterton (Methuen 1949)

The Dickens Myth – Geoffrey Thurley, (RKP 1976)

‘Bleak House’ in Lectures on Literature – V Nabokov (Harvest, 1982)

Seminar VII – The Ethics of Psychoanalysis – J Lacan (Routledge Classics, 2007)

Freud as Philosopher -R Boothby  (Routledge, 2001)

The Uncanny – S  Freud (Penguin Modern Classics 2003)

The Weird and the Eerie – Mark Fisher (Repeater books 2016)