Thursday, January 9, 2014

"it is not easy to be accurate in an account of anything, however simple" Dickens and Ruskin, part 1, maybe

I begin the year with a Big Novel: Charles Dickens’ immense Bleak House, which I’ve never read. At the same time I’m reading John Ruskin’s immense The Stones of Venice, which is half a million words on art and architecture and how the Renaissance was a Very Bad Thing. Except I’m not reading that part (see below for why not). Dickens and Ruskin were both rabbiting away on these particular books in the first years of the 1850s, so I get to compare and contrast what two great English minds were doing at the same time. Both men were writing about the idea that England was rotting from within, though both saw different symptoms and different causes for alarum and offered different solutions (though not that different, not really, just different ways to get to the same basic solution). I’m not being deliberately vague; I’m just circling the ideas I might want to write about for the next few weeks. So much has already been written about Dickens and Ruskin, that whatever clever things that might pop into my head will likely be nothing new or worth writing down, even on a blog. You can learn more about these two books with fifteen minutes of googling than you’ll ever learn from me no matter how much I beazle and prolix about them here. But beazle and prolix I might anyway. We’ll see.

Bleak House has one of those brilliant Dickensian opening salvos: a long description of London during a thick fog (“fog” is Victorian London English for “coal smoke smog”). It’s just great stuff:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
What a nasty city London must’ve been for a long time. I assume all the great cities of Europe had coal smoke fog. The description goes on, and Dickens follows the fog into the Chancery where the legal machinery of London is grinding along, producing legal bills but few legal decisions, and eventually, in the fog-filled chambers of the court, we are introduced to the long-running suit of Jarndyce-and-Jarndyce, a lawsuit so old and complex that nobody on Earth understands it, a lawsuit that has collected and grown additional suits and countersuits the way a ship grows barnacles, so many that most of London’s inhabitants are now somehow touched by the affairs of Jarndyce-and-Jarndyce, the legal matter that will never be resolved. This is Dickens’ great formal device for the novel: the incomprehensible and unending lawsuit, the frame to hold the whole book together. The second great formal device is a reflection of the lawsuit: documents. There are letters or documents or papers of some sort in almost every scene, and letters or court documents or newspaper clippings or whathaveyou provide impetus for the plot movement. Very clever, Mr Dickens, and very postmodern.

Speaking of pomo, Dickens also provides two narrators: one of them unnamed, the implied author maybe, who writes with black humor in a brisk present tense voice; and the other is Esther, a character in the story, who writes in a first-person voice in past tense. Esther is a Good person, the noble Dickensian character I’ve been looking for, who is both noble and not a hollow prop around which the action turns. Dickens has solved the problem of the dull noble character by the method of making her a narrator. She must act, she must think, she must feel, in order to narrate the story of which she is a part. As Amateur Reader(Tom) promised, the solution Dickens found was simple. Well done again, Charles.

What of Ruskin? I am running out of room here, so I'll be brief. The version I am reading is not the 450,000-word original, because I could not lay my hands on it. I bought a 1960 abridgement, some 220 pages long, some 380,000 words cut away, of the original, wherein the editor (J.G. Links) seeks to present the bones, the main thrust of Ruskin’s ideas about architecture. I will have to find the unabridged 3-volume version if I want to read the 30,000-word essay on “Renaissance Pride” (and of course I do want to read that essay). Anyway, Ruskin is writing, as always, about how estrangement from beauty and a pure heart will destroy us. Dickens is writing about much the same thing. Dickens shows us the poor of London, scrabbling through rubbish in search of anything of use. Ruskin shows us the middle classes, who would enjoy giving money to the poor if only they were made aware that it is better to give than to receive. Ruskin wraps his ideas in a discussion of art, because art matters to him, but as usual he can’t avoid talking about right and wrong in terms of human activity in general. More about all of this, maybe, later this week or next week or whenever. Maybe. I’m reading these books, and other books, and I’m working on projects of my own which involve yet more books, and the more I think about it all, the more my head aches.

13 comments:

  1. Ah, the fog will lift -- well sort of -- for some in Bleak House. Your posting may motivate me to read about Jarndyce and Jarndyce again. I will follow with interest your progress.

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  2. Tim, I don't promise to post more about Bleak House at all. But crikey, it's a long book so maybe I'll find something interesting to say. The book is plenty good so far, but I don't know why I write about the books about which I write; I'm as surprised as anyone when there's a new post here. So we'll see. I do like the idea of pushing Dickens against Ruskin and seeing what happens. They are so different from one another.

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  3. I adore Bleak House and look forward to your beazle and prolix (great title for a book of essays.) Have read parts of the Ruskin but not in a long time... And I think it interesting to smack them together and see what happens.

    Esther still comes in for a good bit of criticism, you know. But I think that was a sterling solution, though the self-abasement at the--oh, never mind! Spoilers!

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  4. Perhaps apropos of nothing (although when I say that I recognize my partial allusion to Notes from the Underground), I should point out that Harold Bloom in The Western Canon includes Bleak House as one of two canonical novels from the 19the century. The other is Middlemarch. Bloom seems to be in love with Esther. Most readers finish the novel with that feeling. Enjoy!

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  5. Marly, I am learning nothing about the books by knocking them together, but I'm somehow learning about the authors, which is interesting. Esther is too humble for my tastes, certainly, and possibly a bit too sweet, but I like what I'm reading. I wonder why Dickens never used this POV again?

    Tim, Bloom was no fool. Middlemarch has been on my TBR list for a while. We have a copy at home, even. Time is all I need. Time, a comfortable chair, and a cup of tea. Isn't that what CS Lewis said, or something like it?

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  6. Bloom was no fool? You get no disagreement from me. However, the majority of the canon-revisionists in the academy regard Bloom as something like a curmudgeonly dinosaur. But, hey, so am I!

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  7. Is "canon-revision" like replacing Shakespeare with 50 Shades of Gray? I confess that when I was young, I thought the classics deadly dull and not worth reading. Then I opened one.

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  8. Bloom has written clearly and eloquently about the revisionists in several books, especially The Western Canon. You're understanding of the concept is correct. The late 20th century anti-conservative academics have been open and aggressive in their successful efforts to push canonical texts to the side in favor of otherwise marginalized texts. So, Shakespeare must give way to hip-hop; Milton must move aside for sitcom analysis; Dante goes to the trash heap in favor of Dan Brown. Well, perhaps the latter is hyperbole. But you probably understand my point. As I am not aligned with the revisionists (and their latest pet project -- common read programs across the curriculum), I become the marginalized champion of orthodoxy and literary conservatism. Shame on me!

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  9. Correction: your NOT you're in the second sentence, please. If you see other errors, ignore them!

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  10. Well, I guess it's really like David Myers said in his most recent post: there are no longer core requirements in the humanities and "civilization" has been replaced by "culture." Now we just hold up a mirror to ourselves while we watch TV and read graphic novels. I should try harder to keep up, I guess.

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  11. "Esther is too humble for my tastes ..." I didn't like Agnes in David Copperfield until I saw someone (I don't remember who, but it might have been Rachel Brownstein) calling her a "totem", and Peter Ackroyd's description (again I don't remember if it was exactly him, but someone) of Little Nell's death as a kind of black hole or vortex that dragged the other characters in, renovated my opinion of Curiosity Shop. Dickens' characters are points of concentrated power, and in the case of the humble-irritating characters I think it can sometimes be useful to think of the power and not of the person.

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  12. I don't believe at all in "characters" except as parts of the overall machine that is the narrative. Character is a tool authors use to make claims, just like plot or descriptive detail. I guess I'm not convinced by what I think Dickens' argument-via-Esther is. I do think it's interesting that, as the story progresses (I'm at the halfwayish point now), Esther begins to editorialize about the behaviors of people she encounters, losing her tentative position in the world. I don't know if this is intentional, a show of "growth" on Esther's part by Dickens, or if Dickens needed the Esther halves of the narrative to directly comment upon the story in a way they were at first unable to do. Dickens might be, as I sometimes think (especially when Esther's language becomes poetic and complex), shoving his narrator out of the way a bit so we can hear him more clearly.

    Yes about "concentrated power." I've long thought of characters as being sort of dense areas of narrative, clots of ideas that stay grouped together, ideas that intereact with other ideas, subsystems of various importance.

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  13. Given his usual explosiveness I'm impressed by how much Dickens subdued himself for Esther, but I haven't read the book in a few years, and I can't remember what I might have thought his argument-via-Esther is, besides the one stating that ... [here I wrote out a paragraph but then I remembered that you were halfwayishly through the book, and erased it because it was referring to things that hadn't happened yet]. Have you read Little Dorrit? It might be interesting to compare Esther's gradual growing confidence to Little Dorrit's ditto. They both get hit with very different problems in the second halves of their books, but the end result is similar.

    (I have to believe in character because Peake's Fuchsia is a person to me, and always has been, and if she can be thus then any character is potentially thus.)

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