Hypochondria and the Gothic Imagination

January 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

There was a reading and reception for Poe’s 200th birthday yesterday at the Duke library — a fine event, with some exceptionally good readings of six Poe works (three prose, three poetry).  Ariel Dorfman, who read “The Cask of Amontillado,” made a great point about how appropriate it was that Poe lived and died in Baltimore, the dividing point between the cold, rational North and the Gothic South, just as his works feature both some of the first detective stories and some of the most overheated Gothic prose ever.

Plus I’ve been reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy very slowly, as bedtime reading, for the last few months.  It is really quite a fantastic read — a page or two at a time is perfect, since the whole book’s basically one big digression after another anyway.  And it has me thinking about all the things we’ve meant by “melancholy,” down through the centuries, and why and how the word and concept persist.

So: let’s talk about mental illness.  Specifically, hypochondria.  Ishmael’s famous “hypos.”  (And the comparison is illuminating: when Ishmael felt suicidal, he was able to run off to sea.  Lucy had no such option; her short trip across the Channel was harrowing enough, and then, if she wanted to keep a measure of independence,  she had to find some place to do respectable work — viz. the passage on p. 329-331 in which Lucy reveals to the de Bassompierres that she is a teacher.)

We now use “hypochondria” to refer to the condition of constant fear of illness; the meaning in the nineteenth century was similar, but referred more to low spirits, melancholy, a depression-like state, with no apparent cause.  I am not a psychiatrist, so I use the following terms as a layman, but what we now call bipolarity and depression seem to have been considered symptomatic of hypochondria.  Oh, and hallucinations could also be a symptom, in some cases.

Of course, you can find Gothic and/or Victorian attitudes toward psychology and mental illness discussed ad nauseam; and you can even find studies of Brontë’s writing and the psychology of the time in books like this.  It can all seem fairly played out.  But personally, I never seem to get tired of the subject: the time was the crossroads between so much superstition and speculation and so much new science, thought, and experimentation.  That pre-Freudian century contains so much potential energy in the enthusiasms for phrenology, spiritualism, evolution, utopian thinking and living.  Plus, no matter how much Brontë is contextualized and demythologized, Charlotte really does seem a special case, and Lucy Snowe — well, Lucy Snowe’s something else entirely.

(A crabby aside: the academic party line now seems to be contextualizing and historicizing the Brontës, products of their time and environment and all that.  I hear this from profs, I see it in books and articles.  Now, I know the Brontës have been considered these utter anomalies, writing their wild imaginings in the hinterlands, but must we really insist that no one is special, that there’s nothing strange or amazing about these sisters’ writings, that they’re just products of their historical moment((s), I’m sure the lit profs would add) like all the others?  Can we keep the humanities at least a little non-scientific, please, and savor something that smacks of miracle?  I know, I know: no one’s getting tenure savoring a miracle.  End crabby aside.)

Hypochondria pops up over and over again in Villette, and there are times when Lucy certainly does seem clinically depressed or manic.  The writing at the times of depression can be quite heart-wrenchingly sad and beautiful.  Chapter 15, “The Long Vacation,” when Lucy becomes desperately lonely and resorts to a Catholic priest’s confessional, and the beginning of chapter 24, as she suffers a seven-week silence from Dr. John, are especially memorable.  But the two episodes most directly touched by hypochondria (so far, at least) are the appearances of the ghost-nun and the king of Labassecour.

The nun, a legend of Madame Beck’s school, appears to Lucy in chapter 22, and the circumstances are quite intriguing.  Lucy has received her first letter from Dr. John, and read it in the garret, and been made very happy by its warmth and “good-nature.”  (Lucy, that tricksy narrator, is coy on this throughout, but I do think she is in a fairly conventional kind of love with Dr. John, even if she doesn’t admit it to herself.)  “The present moment had no pain, no blot, no want; full, pure, perfect, it deeply blessed me.” Then we get a remarkable run of paragraphs — I love how the textures and rhythms of this passage telegraph their Gothic-ness but nevertheless powerfully build suspense:

Are there wicked things, not human, which envy human bliss?  Are there evil influences haunting the air, and poisoning it for man?  What was near me?…

Something in that vast solitary garret sounded strangely.  Most surely and certainly I heard, as it seemed, a solitary foot on that floor: a sort of gliding out from the direction of the black recess haunted by the malefactor cloaks.  I turned: my light was dim; the room was long — but, as I live! I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black or white; the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white.

Say what you will, reader — tell me I was nervous or mad; affirm that I was unsettled by the excitement of that letter; declare that I dreamed: this I vow — I saw there — in that room — on that night — an image like — A NUN.

Dr. John soon diagnoses this as an effect of hypochondria, and I, at least at first blush, am inclined to agree.  The image of a silent, celibate woman — one of the dreaded Catholics, no less — appearing to Lucy after a glimmer of romantic hope is simply too powerful to resist as a figure out of her own mind.  The nun reappears to Lucy thereafter, and there remains some degree of Gothic mystery about whether the nun actually is a ghost.

But turn it around: what if it’s not a phantasm of sexual fear and frustration or some long-lost relative of Lucy’s, but a bloody ghost?  What if it’s an affront to Reason?  There is, after all, the remarkable dialogue between Lucy and her Reason on p. 265-6 (beginning at no. 19 in the e-text), and the ensuing castigation of the “hag” Reason to the glorification of Imagination and Hope. What if the nun is exactly what Lucy Snowe needs to acknowledge as the reason behind her impulse to flee to the continent — the missing (or repressed) part of herself?

The other remarkable passage on hypochondria is Lucy’s observation of the king, sitting in the royal box at a concert Lucy attends with Dr. John, and her recognition in him of a kindred spirit:

There sat a silent sufferer — a nervous, melancholy man.  Those eyes had looked on the visits of a certain ghost — had long waited the comings and goings of that strangest spectre, Hypochondria.  Perhaps he saw her now on that stage, over against him, amidst all that brilliant throng.  Hypochondria has that wont, to rise in the midst of thousands — dark as Doom, pale as Malady, and well-nigh strong as Death.

And but so here it is again, in another form: the great white shark of pain.

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The Lost Art of the Complex Narrative Metaphor

January 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

I’m reading this book at the behest of my wife, Jaime; we occasionally like to make each other read something we love that the other probably wouldn’t get around to.  She read it after a long string of 19th-century books featuring typically selfless heroine-martyr female characters and was blown away by the complexity of Lucy’s character and narration.  “You’ve got to watch yourself with Lucy Snowe,” she told me.  “She lies.”

Brontë really does do some strange, brilliant things with her narrator: things that remind me of Nabokov, and maybe even Laurence Sterne.  As those names suggest, the book can feel both archaic and modern, sometimes simultaneously.

For instance: the beginning of chapter four.  The first two paragraphs of this chapter employ a technique that’s more or less never used anymore: the use of an extended, complicated metaphor as a narrative device, pushing the plot along in a kind of encoded message just short of allegory.  You see this in Victorian literature frequently; I think it died out with modernism’s disdain for the flourishes and fillips of Victorian prose.

Lucy refuses to say much of anything about her family (or lack thereof?); it’s impossible to tell if her family has died, or is estranged, or abusive, or what, exactly.  Instead of telling us what happens in the eight years after the opening scenes, she assigns to us, the readers, a “conjecture” that she was happy to go home, and spins around this a metaphor of a “bark” floating along merrily in the sunshine.  “A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?”

So, okay, we’re already just playing along with Lucy, and already cannot say with any certainty what actually happened to her.  Then she says that, if that metaphor of the calmly floating boat was accurate, she “must somehow have fallen over-board, or that there must have been a wreck at last,” and talks of a “nightmare” along these lines of drowning; whether this is an actual nightmare or still a metaphoric nightmare of remembering something in those eight years is impossible to say.  Finally, “the ship was lost, the crew perished.”

Lucy moves us through eight years without actually telling us one thing that truly happened: instead, she employs a metaphor that she herself disputes the validity of.  It is impossible to say if the constituent parts of her metaphor (ship, steersman, storm, crew) function allegorically, standing for events and people in Lucy’s life, or are merely conveniences to capture the emotional landscape through which Lucy moves to the present of the novel.

This is brilliant.  We get a sense of what that time entailed, but more importantly, we get a strong sense of how powerfully Lucy wants to avoid confronting the details of that time; how deeply she feels it still and how distant she tries to keep it from her thoughts.  There is both expression and repression in the convolutions of metaphor.

She does it again in chapter 12, pages 124-25, provoked by a real storm this time.  (The Gothic and Romantic elements in the book are palpable here, and really quite ingenious, I think.)  This is another of my favorite passages in the book so far: Lucy looks at the moon on a calm night, and recalls how it looked “leaning back on azure, beside an old thorn at the top of an old field, in Old England,” during her childhood.  (What a brilliant turn of phrase — “leaning back on azure!”)  And it recalls her childhood to her.  Then we get what seems one of the key paragraphs in the book:

Oh, my childhood!  I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel.  About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future — such a future as mine — to be dead.  And in catalepsy and a dead trance, I studiously held the quick of my nature.

I mean… good Lord!  What are we to make of that?  What are we to feel towards this girl, and towards the older woman recalling that level of repressed despair and grief?  That level of repressed life? (Well, here’s what I felt: sympathy; horror; some level of queasy recognition.)

But Lucy goes on to recount a night of thunderstorms; she gets out on the roof and sits in the rain, wind, and lightning, feeling a kind of wild, Romantic kinship with nature.  She feels a “longing” for a release from her “present existence.”  In the midst of this scene of psychology projected onto nature, we get another, stunning, bruising extended metaphor:

This longing, and all of a similar kind, it was necessary to knock on the head; which I did, figuratively, after the manner of Jael to Sisera, driving a nail through their temples.  Unlike Sisera, they did not die: they were but transiently stunned, and at intervals would turn on the nail with a rebellious wrench; then did the temples bleed, and the brain thrill to its core.

She then returns to the calm night, watching the moon, but extends the metaphor of Jael and Sisera (from Judges 4): Jael, “the stern woman,” watches over her captive Sisera, captain of the Canaanites’ army, while waiting for her husband, Heber, but does not drive the nail through his temples; instead, “something like an angel — the Ideal!” soothes Sisera, just as Lucy feels hopeful in “the cool peace and dewy sweetness of the night.”

So there’s some serious sexual longing and repression going on here.  Lucy’s calm hopefulness is shattered by a love letter falling down to her secret resting place; and while she says (to herself and to us) that she “did not dream… for a moment” that it was for her, we feel for her; we know she let herself hope, at least for a moment.  We read between the lines of her complicated metaphor to the desperate loneliness and desire she feels.  It was no easy thing, being an unattached, “independent” woman (voluntarily or not); does Brontë invite us to feel sorry or elated for her, that she so often drove the nail into the temple of her desire?

The Uncanny Doll-Child

January 22, 2009 § 6 Comments

Now reading: Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.

Dolls are creepy; homunculi are creepy; children, in fact, are often creepy, and not just in horror movies.  All are much creepier if they’re Victorian.

It takes all of four pages for us to meet a very strange child, who seems something like a doll, something like a homunculus (homuncula?), something like a dream.  Paulina Mary, step right up: you are a first-ballot admission to the Creepy Victorian Children Hall of Fame.

I’m just baffled by this character.  When we first meet Paulina she’s bundled up like a baby, but she says, “Put me down, please, and take off this shawl.”  We learn that “she appeared exceedingly tiny;  but was a neat, completely-fashioned little figure, light, slight, and straight.”  In other words, not a dwarf or midget, but a kind of miniature adult.

She seems somehow an utter failure as a depiction of a child but strangely convincing as one, too.  While she domineers and speaks in her polite English gentlewomanly way, and sews like a little housewife, she also clings desperately to her father when he visits, and dotes on him in creepy-Victorian-child ways.  And when her father leaves again, she is disconsolate, as any child would be; Graham, Mrs. Bretton’s son (who earlier, in a surrealistic touch, “caught her up with one hand, and with that one hand held her poised aloft above his head”; I imagine her indignantly standing on the palm of his hand), picks her up in his arms one night and soothes her.  She transfers her doting to him, instantly, and is horribly conflicted when the call comes for her to rejoin her father on the continent.  (The exchange between Lucy and Polly before her departure, on p. 35-36 of this Modern Library edition, is fantastic.)

This all seems very wrapped up in the fact that Polly’s mother has just died; and that seems wrapped up in Brontë’s biography, and her own strange childhood.  Perhaps more will be made of Paulina later in the book — although it seems that perhaps it will not be; that she wanders into the first 30 pages and then right back out — again, like a dream.

These early chapters, incidentally, also do a great job of establishing Lucy’s distinctive voice and character.  My favorite paragraph so far, I think, is this, after Paulina’s father has left.  The last line just kills me; what a way to reveal the narrator’s name!

It was low and long; a sort of “Why hast thou forsaken me?”  During an ensuing space of some minutes, I perceived she endured agony.  She went through, in that brief interval of her infant life, emotions such as some never feel; it was in her constitution: she would have more of such instants if she lived.  Nobody spoke.  Mrs. Bretton, being a mother, shed a tear or two.  Graham, who was writing, lifted up his eyes and gazed at her.  I, Lucy Snowe, was calm.

What a line!  Lucy Snowe, indeed!

(An interesting connection: just a couple of chapters later, Lucy, criticizing Madame Beck’s lack of mercy,  says of her, “Not the agony of Gethsemane, not the death on Calvary, could have wrung from her eyes one tear.”  Like you didn’t cry when Paulina felt as forsaken by her father as Christ did, Lucy?  What a strange, duplicitous narrator Lucy promises to be!)

Reading Hemon

January 19, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon.

Reading next: Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.

I find it somehow hard to write about Hemon’s work.  This is not for lack of interesting ideas or techniques or even a lack of correspondence between my interests and his.  If anything, there’s too much to say: I like thinking about his idiosyncratic methods of narration, his strange way of inserting himself and/or people with his name into his stories,  his kinship with the great Bruno Schulz, his treatment of memory and childhood, his crazy surrealistic flourishes, the very specific details of Chicago in his stories, etc.  And yet somehow he defeats me: I could write about all of these things, and would like to, but it seems somehow beside the point.

This is a good thing, I think.

The experience of reading Aleksandar Hemon is strange.  I read Nowhere Man (his second book, after this one) a few years ago, and had the same kind of feeling then.  It always seems both vitally important and beside the point who is telling a Hemon story: the story typically works, and works beautifully, as the product of an anonymous Bosnian narrator, but can have additional resonance or a transformed meaning if a specific narrator is deduced.  For someone as interested in espionage and the breakup of the Soviet Union as Hemon is, the ways in which he reveals or seems to reveal his stories’ tellers can create a fascinating narrative of its own.

For instance, “The Sorge Spy Ring” tells of the great, non-fictional spy, Richard Sorge, a Soviet agent in Japan before World War II.  It tells Sorge’s story in footnotes, which are entertaining but more or less scholarly in tone and nature.  The footnotes, provoked by incidental correspondencies in the main text (the word “mother” leads to a footnote on the character of Sorge’s mother, along with the Sebaldian touch of a photograph of her), occur in a text about a boy who loves spy games, and comes to suspect his father is a spy in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

There’s reason to believe that the boy telling this story is Jozef Pronek, the protagonist of “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls,” the masterpiece at the heart of this book, and also of most of Nowhere Man.  Pronek’s story is narrated by a self-consciously omnipresent (but only semi-omniscient)  “We,” which operates like a surveillance team, switching camera angles to view him and dropping in comments on his thoughts and predicaments.  There’s also this surreal touch, as Pronek looks at the miniature rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago:

…he was the only one to see a minikin figure, with long white hair, and an impish mini-grin, running across the miniature room.  Pronek could hear the tapping, the barely audible, evanescent, echoes of the creature’s tiny steps, which then disappeared into the garden.

Doubtless, a hallucination.

Is this an operative, monitoring Pronek?  Is Hemon equating fiction with espionage?

Perhaps because they are so often matter-of-fact about horrible and beautiful things alike, his stories can sometimes seem flat, or somehow I’ll read them and not be immediately affected by them.  It’s only when I look back at them, review and reread sections, that they gel for me and I see how brilliant they are.  In this collection, “Islands” and “Imitation of Life,” the first and last stories, were especially like that for me.  But really, I can open to any page of this book and find something incredible that my mind somehow passed over.  For instance, I open to p. 184, scan, and remember how the words “rotting,” “decay,” and “filthy” seem to be everywhere in “Blind Jozef,” and how strange this seems, considering that Jozef has escaped from Sarajevo into Chicago.  And yet it is somehow just right: uncannily correct, like so much of Hemon.

I feel like the key to all this might be that the stories tell themselves so effectively that my words seem beside the point.  The experience of reading them cannot be recaptured by my breaking them down into their constituent parts: they’re gestalt-ish, I guess.

Dickens, Poe, Milton, Shakespeare

January 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Just a few more words about Jonas Chuzzlewit’s demise and then I’ll move on.

I neglected to mention the two paragraphs before Jonas’s nightmare in my last post: they’re fascinating, haunting, beautiful.

The fishes slumbered in the cold, bright, glistening streams and rivers, perhaps; and the birds roosted on the branches of the trees; and in their stalls and pastures beasts were quiet; and human creatures slept.  But what of that, when the solemn night was watching, when it never winked, when its darkness watched no less than its light!  The stately trees, the moon and shining stars, the softly-stirring wind, the over-shadowed lane, the broad, bright countryside, they all kept watch.  There was not a blade of growing grass or corn, but watched; and the quieter it was, the more intent and fixed its watch upon him seemed to be.

And yet he slept.  Riding on among those sentinels of God, he slept, and did not change the purpose of his journey….

I love many things about this passage, but especially how it turns Jonas’s solipsism inside out.  Jonas, center of his own universe, for once is universally watched, as he sleeps.  I think this passage still puts us, somehow, in the mind of Jonas: he feels watched, he feels the night watching him, even as he sleeps, rocked by the motion of the carriage.  The world is alive with the “sentinels of God,” whose eyes he feels.  And the morning after the murder, he’s made uneasy by the mirror, into which he glances before reentering society: “His last glance at the glass had seen a tell-tale face…”  He has made the world in his own image, and now he can no longer stand it.

There’s something Satanic about Jonas, in the sense of Milton’s Satan, as this essay points out.  Although he has none of Satan’s majestic rhetoric or noble rebellion, he carries hell within himself, just as Satan does; and just like Satan, he seems to believe (at least for a while) that he can make a heaven out of that hell — but cannot, or at least does not.  Dickens does have an inclination towards Biblical syntax, cadence, and vocabulary in his weightier chapters (evident, I think, in that passage above), which reinforces this similarity for me.

And there’s some Poe in this chapter, too — or is it just coincidental, that “tell-tale” glance in the mirror?  The first number of Chuzzlewit appeared in January 1843; “The Tell-Tale Heart” was first published in January 1843.  There’s this passage, as well, in Jonas’s fitful night after the murder: “…the starts with which he left his couch, and looking in the glass, imagined that his deed was broadly written in his face, and lying down and burying himself once more beneath the blankets, heard his own heart beating Murder, Murder, Murder, in the bed…”  The beating of his own hideous heart, the image of this desperate man staring at himself in the dark mirror, trying to compose his features to eliminate the stain of his guilt: very Poe!  (Not the first time they crossed paths, either: there’s a talking raven in Barnaby Rudge.)

In Chapter 51, Jonas is finally exposed.  As he realizes his fate is sealed, he begs five minutes alone — with the unspoken understanding that he means to kill himself.  But he can’t do it.  (The officer finds him standing in a corner of the dark room, staring back at him; somehow, you can see this, as Dickens quickly sketches it, and it is awful.)  ‘You’re too soon,’ Jonas whimpers.  ‘I’ve not had time.  I have not been able to do it.  I — five minutes more — two minutes more!  — Only one!’

This is the culmination of Jonas’s consuming terror of death — the end of self, the end of everything.  It also strikes a chord, for me at least, with King Lear.  That bargaining for time, for a little more time in which to agonize and not do anything: it reminds me of the frittering away of Lear’s retinue by Goneril and Regan.  “What need one?”  Lear, another great solipsist echoed by Jonas.

Of course, my synapses probably wouldn’t have made this connection were it not for how the chapter ends (and probably not at all if Lear wasn’t more or less an obsession with me).   Jonas finally works up the gumption, once in the cart on the way to prison, and swallows his poison, which smells of peaches.

They dragged him out into the dark street; but jury, judge, and hangman, could have done no more, and could do nothing now.

Dead, dead, dead.

Where Cordelia gets five consecutive nevers, Jonas warrants only this simple prose epitaph.  It makes all the difference, doesn’t it?  Doesn’t it sound like clucking over a waste, that “dead, dead, dead,” as opposed to the staggering agony of Lear’s grief?  It’s so matter-of-fact, that line.  But somehow containing sorrow, too; as much sorrow as Dickens could summon for a character he despised.

The Dreams of Montague Tigg and Jonas Chuzzlewit

January 11, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Reading next: The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon.

Dickens gets really dark in the last third of this book: given how muddled the resolution of the supposed “main” plot of the young and old Martin Chuzzlewits is, I think he simply became more interested in the unremittingly dark, selfish, horrified and horrifying character of Jonas, and his path toward the murder of Montague.  (This seemed, by the way, to happen to Dickens a lot: e.g., Fagin and the Artful Dodger as opposed to Oliver, in Oliver Twist.)

Reading Dickens psychologically is tricky at best, downright dishonest at worst, especially for a layman like myself.  But Dickens, here, does seem to be more interested than in many of his books in the self, and its makeup.  There’s the whole question of how we come to care about other people, and value them as actual people like ourselves and not as obstacles, comforts, or other satellites of the self — one of the central questions of the book.  There’s also the explorations of identity inherent in the non-character of Mrs. Harris, the creation of Mrs. Gamp, who approves of Gamp’s every impulse, notion, and thought; the cipher-characters of Nadgett the detective and the porter of the Anglo-Bengalee Company, whose entire existences are based on being inconspicuous and conspicuous, respectively — entirely internal and external; and the social adventuring and posing and self-creating of Montague Tigg and Bailey Jr.

It somehow seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that Dickens was fascinated by his attraction to the worst aspects of his world and (perhaps) his self: the way his writing explodes to life when exploring London’s seedy underbelly, the way he seems most masterful — to me, anyway — when seeing the world through the eyes of those driven on by their basest instincts to horrible acts.  Did Dickens always see the miracle of his avoidance of that life, after the imprisonment of his father and his despair at going to work at age 12?

At any rate, nothing in this book feels as personal for Dickens as the two nightmares: Tigg’s, in chapter 42, shortly before his murder, and Jonas’s, in chapter 47, right before committing the act.  You get the feeling, reading each dream, that they were real: that Dickens had experienced nightmares very like these, that they are not created but remembered.  Tigg dreams of the door in his hotel room: there’s a “dreadful secret” about this door, and it nags at him in that he feels he both knows and does not know this secret, and this aspect of the dream is “incoherently intertwined” with another, in which the door hides “an enemy, a shadow, a phantom.”  The way this door is one thing and another, and the way it maddens him with its known/unknown secret: this smacks of truth, to me.  Although it works perfectly for the fiction, it’s also much messier than it necessarily needs to be.  This is the way real nightmares work, not fabricated nightmares.

The really brilliant thing about this dream, though, is the way “Nadgett, and he [Tigg], and a strange man with a bloody smear upon his head (who told him that he had been his playfellow, and told him, too, the real name of an old schoolmate, forgotten until then)” work to drive “iron plates and nails” into the door to make it secure.  But “the nails broke, or changed to soft twigs, or what was worse, to worms,” and the door crumbles, splinters, and refuses to accept nails.  A footnote tells me that one Joseph Brogunier suggests that the “strange man” is Tigg himself, and the “old schoolmate” is Tigg, too: keep in mind that he’s known at this point as Tigg Montague, and has raised himself from a begging, swindling, scrubby scoundrel into the dandified head of an insurance company (still a swindler, but on a grand scale, and therefore worthy of respect).

The nightmare works brilliantly on different levels: for in reality, the door connects to Jonas’s room, and Tigg wakes to find Jonas hovering over his bed (which is some scary shit, frankly, and would’ve made my heart explode in that situation).  Tigg has already become ambiguously afraid of Jonas, who creeps him out in hard-to-define ways.  But besides fictionally effective foreshadowing of murder, there is also the free-floating anxiety of getting found out: of Montague Tigg/Tigg Montague always afraid he’ll be found out, both as a fraud (although I think he could deal with that alone) and as a kid, a “schoolmate.”  I think Dickens — leaving things really mysterious, ambiguous, and unresolved, here, for once in his life — taps into some of that anxiety we all feel in dreams, and it makes an incredible counterpoint to the self-centered monstrousness of both Jonas and Tigg: the fear we (or at least I) often have in dreams that we are somehow not valid people, not adults, never to escape childhood or the people we once were.

Then there’s Jonas’s dream.  This whole chapter, incidentally, is a work of genius: it’s frenzied, blood-red, taut, surreal in the way you feel surreal when you’re about to do or have just done something terrifying or climactic.  Jonas, riding in a carriage to murder Tigg, dreams he’s in his own bed and is awakened by the old clerk, Chuffey (whom he abused so often).  They go into “a strange city” with the signs written in a strange language, but Jonas remembers he’s been there before.  The streets are at various levels, connected by ladders and ropes connected to bells.  There’s a huge crowd, and Jonas learns it’s Judgment Day.  His companion keeps changing from one person to another.  A head rises up from the crowd, “livid and deadly, but the same as he had known it,” and blames Jonas for “appoint[ing] that dreadful day to happen.”  Presumably, this is Tigg.  He tries to strike him down, but they struggle without a conclusion, and he awakes.

Again — in the protean companion, Jonas’s anxiety about the way he’s dressed, and the brilliant dreamscape of streets at various levels, for the social rising and falling of urban life — we see a kind of verisimilitude of dreams, I think.  We also see anxiety about the self, about identity, about being found out.  And, while it’s easy to see the “livid and deadly” head as that of Tigg, you could also see it as that of Jonas’s father, or his own.  What’s meant by “deadly,” after all?  Is it deadly as in dead, as his father is?  Is it deadly as in potentially fatal to Jonas, as he sees that Tigg could be?  Is it deadly as in having murder on its mind, as Jonas himself does, constantly, to the brink of paranoid insanity?

I’ll write a little more about Jonas and the murder in the next post.  There’s just so much that’s great about this section of the book.  It really is very reminiscent of Dostoyevsky, especially Crime and Punishment: it’s similarly claustrophobic.

Transatlantic Disappointments

January 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

As it turns out, Redburn and Chuzzlewit are interesting books to read back to back.  Both give some sense of what it was like for emigrants on board a ship bound for America.  Both tell of naive young men crossing the Atlantic with great hopes for their destination (Liverpool for Redburn, New York and then the frontier town of Eden for Martin Chuzzlewit and Mark Tapley).   And both leave their protagonists disillusioned with the foreign lands that seemed so promising.  (As a footnote: Dickens and Melville both wrote about spontaneous combustion — Dickens in Bleak House, Melville in Redburn.)

What’s interesting is how closely their paths and their impressions parallel each other on opposite sides of the Atlantic.  Redburn finds an urban hell in Liverpool, with new buildings and roads shattering his hopes of following his father’s footsteps around the town and, more importantly, families dying in the streets, ignored by callous city folk.  This explains why they’re willing to cram themselves onto an absurdly overcrowded ship to get to America.  But Redburn also takes a “Delightful Ramble into the Country,” in Chapter 43.  And he’s entertained by a lovely family, and falls in love with a young English maiden; but he’s also offended (hyperbolically so, for humorous effect) by the signs warning of “man-traps and spring-guns” in the countryside, threatening his passage.  “In America I had never heard of the like,” he says.  It’s an old country, and unfree.

Chuzzlewit and Tapley find their urban hell in New York, with its tobacco-spitting partisans and aristocrats without the traditional titles.  They, too, escape to the countryside, seeking the “true” country of which they’ve read and dreamed, but the piece of land that Martin buys in a town called Eden — which appears to be a booming frontier town on paper — turns out to be a log cabin in a swamp. The poor emigrant family which Mark comforted on the voyage has also been swindled into purchasing in Eden; all of their children die in the unhealthy swamp air.

But really, in both cases, how could they be so deluded?  The illusion of the new world/old world dichotomy is interesting here.  Did Redburn really expect that the “old world” would stay old for him, all those years after his father’s death, when he’d come from a country constantly building and rebuilding itself?  Did Martin really expect the “new world” to divorce itself immediately from old ways of thinking about class, race, and money?

Of course, Melville is more interested in the voyage itself than Dickens, for whom those weeks are a chance for some humorous seasickness, the introduction of a few tertiary characters and a little character development, and some scenery.  In their differing treatments of the immigrant passengers, we can see how they differ as moralists.  Dickens insists on modeling proper behavior: Mark Tapley keeps a stiff upper lip, helps to boost the moral of the poor passengers, and cooks and helps with the children on board.  No one does these things on Redburn’s return journey, with the absurdly inflated number of 500 starving passengers: everyone is busy with their own duties, those in the first-class cabin cannot be bothered with the proles, and the immigrant quarters descend into a kind of atavistic, fetid tenement.  Babies die.  Plagues rage.  Everyone just wants off the ship, and the narrator Melville/Redburn is left to bemoan the state of affairs on his own.

They’re both writing in the 1840s, from different perspectives, but to different audiences.  Dickens wants his audience to help these people; he sees no reason why they should leave, why they cannot be helped in England, and Melville wants to help them as well, but he especially wants their humanity acknowledged when they reach America, and the difficulties they’ve already gone through understood.  But both books were published in both England and America; Dickens’s audience dwarfed Melville’s, of course.  And something of each of their concerns appears in their own, although I think Dickens was more aware of his obligation to educate and edify.  Melville was more romantic about his business, even in Redburn, a fairly mercenary effort.

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