Tuesday, January 28, 2014

the love and thoughts of the workman: final thoughts on Bleak House

I hardly know whether to note under the head of ├Žsthetic or constructive law, this important principle, that masonry is always bad which appears to have arrested the attention of the architect more than absolute conditions of strength require. Nothing is more contemptible in any work than an appearance of the slightest desire on the part of the builder to direct attention to the way its stones are put together [...] Exhibited masonry is in most cases the expedient of architects who do not know how to fill up blank spaces, and many a building, which would have been decent enough if let alone, has been scrawled over with straight lines, on exactly the same principles, and with just the same amount of intelligence as a boy’s in scrawling his copy-book when he cannot write. The device was thought ingenious at one period of architectural history; St. Paul’s and Whitehall are covered with it, and it is in this I imagine that some of our modern architects suppose the great merit of those buildings to consist. There [...] is but one law upon the subject, and that is easily complied with, to avoid all affectation and all unnecessary expense, either in showing or concealing. Every one knows a building is built of separate stones; nobody will ever object to seeing that it is so, but nobody wants to count them. The divisions of a church are much like the divisions of a sermon; they are always right so long as they are necessary to edification, and always wrong when they are thrust upon the attention as divisions only. There may be neatness in carving when there is richness in feasting; but I have heard many a discourse, and seen many a church wall, in which it was all carving and no meat. [edits mine]
That's John Ruskin from The Stones of Venice, warning us away from making technique an end in itself. The literary equivalent to Ruskin's "all carving and no meat" might be what is called purple prose. Which brings us to Dickens, that being the conceit behind these recent posts. In Bleak House, Esther Summerson's narration is generally written in plain, functional language:
I was brought up, from my earliest remembrance--like some of the princesses in the fairy stories, only I was not charming--by my godmother. At least, I only knew her as such. She was a good, good woman! She went to church three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to lectures whenever there were lectures; and never missed. She was handsome; and if she had ever smiled, would have been (I used to think) like an angel--but she never smiled. She was always grave and strict. She was so very good herself, I thought, that the badness of other people made her frown all her life.
The other narrator--the Nameless Omniscient speaker--uses a more complex language, winding sentences around and going on flights of figurative fancy:
Like a dingy London bird among the birds at roost in these pleasant fields, where the sheep are all made into parchment, the goats into wigs, and the pasture into chaff, the lawyer, smoke-dried and faded, dwelling among mankind but not consorting with them, aged without experience of genial youth, and so long used to make his cramped nest in holes and corners of human nature that he has forgotten its broader and better range, comes sauntering home. In the oven made by the hot pavements and hot buildings, he has baked himself dryer than usual; and he has in his thirsty mind his mellowed port-wine half a century old.
Plenty of meat there to be carved. What about this, though:
All that prospect, which from the terrace looked so near, has moved solemnly away and changed--not the first nor the last of beautiful things that look so near and will so change--into a distant phantom. Light mists arise, and the dew falls, and all the sweet scents in the garden are heavy in the air. Now the woods settle into great masses as if they were each one profound tree. And now the moon rises to separate them, and to glimmer here and there in horizontal lines behind their stems, and to make the avenue a pavement of light among high cathedral arches fantastically broken.

Now the moon is high; and the great house, needing habitation more than ever, is like a body without life. Now it is even awful, stealing through it, to think of the live people who have slept in the solitary bedrooms, to say nothing of the dead. Now is the time for shadow, when every corner is a cavern and every downward step a pit, when the stained glass is reflected in pale and faded hues upon the floors, when anything and everything can be made of the heavy staircase beams excepting their own proper shapes, when the armour has dull lights upon it not easily to be distinguished from stealthy movement, and when barred helmets are frightfully suggestive of heads inside. But of all the shadows in Chesney Wold, the shadow in the long drawing-room upon my Lady's picture is the first to come, the last to be disturbed. At this hour and by this light it changes into threatening hands raised up and menacing the handsome face with every breath that stirs.
No, that's pitch perfect, too. I was looking for something that was too much, but Dickens--even when he's at his most baroque--is never too much. Certainly those 19th-century writers used a prose style that is generally thicker than today's English, especially the English written by American novelists. In his descriptive passages, Dickens' texture is richer and denser than anything that comes from my own pen, surely, but he's not speaking a foreign tongue from an exotic land, nor is he being showy (well, I'm sure there were plenty of moments when old Charles sat back from his work and smiled with pleasure and pride, and why not?). He's not merely being showy, is what I mean. John Ruskin also labored over his prose, to make it beautiful yes, but also to better carry his message to the reader. Possibly for Ruskin, there was little difference because Ruskin's message was that we should open ourselves to an appreciation of the many forms of beauty which surround us. So I'll let Ruskin have the last word:
...in decoration or beauty, it is less the actual loveliness of the thing produced, than the choice and invention concerned in the production, which are to delight us; the love and the thoughts of the workman more than his work: his work must always be imperfect, but his thoughts and affections may be true and deep.


  1. Gosh, I love Dickens. Sometimes I have to set his books aside and take a break from them because the writing is sometimes so beautiful that I just can't stand it. I get too emotional.

    Seriously. I really do that.

  2. I have been utterly gobsmacked by some of Dickens' passages before, but I've never set it aside; I keep plowing forward into it all, because it's so beautiful I want to stay in that moment.

    My next Dickens will be a re-read of Hard Times, the first Dickens I ever read. For a class in political science, as it happens. I have almost no memory of that novel; all I know is that it put me off Dickens for about 20 years. So it'll be interesting to go back to it.

  3. Oh, I think that I read "Hard Times" too young. Maybe you did too. He is wondrous--the characters, the fluent and surprising passages, the indelible images.

    Scott, I want you to know that I at long last found your book! Somehow it surfaced when we took down (at long last) the Christmas tree. And it was in the most obvious place--a stack of new books in the living room. (Of course, there are other stacks of new books...)

  4. When I was a kid taking poli sci classes at university, I was very earnest and I also thought I was very avant garde, so I wanted every book to be edgy in a William S Burroughs manner. The riches of Dickens were totally lost on me. Pearls, swine, etc. I was such a little prig then. I am a little bit less of one now.

    When you find time to read it, I hope you enjoy the Astrologer even if it's a bagatelle and not a real meal.

    At some point late this week (I hope), I will begin sending out queries to literary agents for another project. Wish me luck.

    I have no idea how many stacks of new books we have about the house. A lot of them. I have no idea what books are in those stacks.

  5. Luck!

    Although I must say that today I encountered a 6-figure book so bad that it shook me for a moment, made me wonder for about twenty minutes how and why I so easily tossed my life onto the altar of art so long ago. So just remember that out there in the world are a bunch of attractive-looking evil ones trying to print money instead of make culture.

  6. Thank you for the luck!

    This will not be my first dance with agents/submissions/publishers, so I have my eyes wide open.