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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in Dickens (3)

Monday
Mar232015

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

A wise old Greek once said that we gaze upon what we find most repulsive because we have an inner need to learn – a statement of particular truth if we assume the human soul to be deathless. Our souls may indeed glean some reflection of light and hope from behind the cloudy sunsets that all Romantics adore; but what really propels us forth in a life that ultimately promises infirmity and decrepitude is the chance for redemption, for the restoration of all the days and nights lost to work, to illness, to bickering or internecine. In their stead we wish ourselves the chance to fill our past with the glory of living – the greatest work of art we could ever achieve. Even when the best and most breathtaking of young life has passed us by and we begin the turn through a second existence of increasing responsibility, pensiveness, and loss, we are reminded of why we were once young: never having been young means never having been immortal. Youth serves its placeholder when it extends its gaze past its greedy hands and gains a premonition of what is to come. That is why when the young perish they remain young forever both in our memory and in their own, but they will not have lived or loved as completely as those who survive to grayness. So although dying young for a starlet may lead to greater posthumous worship it is not to be desired on any soul however deserving it may be of adulation. Which brings us to one of the most famous unfinished novels of all time.

The plot involves a certain simplicity enriched only by the sensations and motives of true art. Our title character is a young man betrothed as a child by his dying father to another orphan-in-waiting, Rosa. Drood is well-spoken and temperamental like many who have had to justify their suffering, and in that way he resembles his uncle and guardian, John Jasper. Jasper is only a few years older than Drood and the cathedral choirmaster in Cloisterham, the smallish town in which our events accumulate. His position remains one of respect and clout, and his truck with all the local authorities grants him the sheen of blamelessness. Yet even a cursory glance at this "dark man" injects distrust in his vanity as if he were an alembic of maledictions:

Mr. Jasper is a dark man of some six-and-twenty, with thick, lustrous, well-arranged black hair and whisker. He looks older than he is, as dark men often do. His voice is deep and good, his face and figure are good, his manner is a little sombre. His room is a little sombre, and may have had some influence in forming his manner. It is mostly in shadow. Even when the sun shines brilliantly, it seldom touches the grand piano in the recess, or the folio music-books on the stand, or the bookshelves on the wall, or the unfinished picture of a blooming schoolgirl hanging over the chimneypiece; her flowing brown hair tied with a blue riband, and her beauty remarkable for a quite childish, almost babyish, touch of saucy discontent, comically conscious of itself (There is not the least artistic merit in this picture, which is a mere daub; but it is clear that the painter has made it humorously – one might almost say, revengefully – like the original).

We all know the type of girl depicted in such vulgarity, but our conclusions should caption the beholder not the beheld. If a cheeky, frisky young thing is your idea of a beautiful painting – or at least something worth looking at day in and day out – then the satisfaction of some primal needs will be your recurring priority. Jasper does little to conceal his fondness for Rosa, and given her attractiveness, the general dearth of eligible women in the vicinity, as well as the mild discrepancy in age (Rosa is but eighteen as the novel opens), such lust is hardly extraordinary. Jasper, Rosa, and Drood comprise the three points of an unlikely love triangle swept aside by the other characters: Sapsea, the pompous future mayor; Crisparkle, the minor canon; the Landless twins, Helena and Neville, born in Sri Lanka but of mystical origin much like certain characters in this novel; Grewgious, "the Angular man" and Rosa's benefactor who claims if forced to write a play or be decapitated, he would surely lose his head; Bazzard, his shadowy valet and closet playwright; Miss Twinkleton, the headmistress of Rosa's boarding school; and Durdles, stonemason and local drunk who also hears and knows more than most everyone else in Cloisterham. Even with this extensive cast and conversation, we never lose the thread of an argument, such as the one that Neville and Edwin have shortly before the latter's disappearance on Christmas Eve – and I will end our summary right about there.

Critics have spared no effort in decoding the novel, apparently only half-written, and arrived at the conclusion that the psyche of the criminal trumps the detective story that encases it; were it so, however, one would have serious doubts as to the validity of the whole enterprise. There is surely one overwhelming suspect and motive for the crime, but the motive vanishes once a shocking announcement (to the characters but not to the reader) dissolves a bond that many had held for eternal. The most glaring mistake of critics, and one rather endemic to academe, is to prod a hot poker among the ashes of notes that Dickens left for the continuation of the novel as well as letters dispatched to relatives and friends and try to reassemble his original intentions. There is a reason why Durdles, who is consistently inebriated yet just as consistently alert, hears a scream in or near the cemetery he patrols almost a year before Drood vanishes, and why certain characters tend to slip offstage when others appear. In fact, it is Durdles who seems to know or suspect much more than he could effectively impart:

Durdles is asleep at once, and in his sleep he dreams a dream. It is not much of a dream, considering the vast extent of the domains of dreamland, and their wonderful productions; it is only remarkable for being unusually restless, and unusually real. He dreams of lying there, asleep, and yet counting his companion's footsteps as he walks to and fro. He dreams that the footsteps die away into distance of time and of space, and that something touches him, and that something falls from his hand. Then something clinks and gropes about, and he dreams that he is alone for so long a time, that the lanes of light take new directions as the moon advances in its course. From succeeding unconsciousness he passes into a dream of slow uneasiness from cold; and painfully awakes to a perception of the lanes of light – really changed, much as he had dreamed – and Jasper walking among them, beating his hands and feet.

You might do well to consider this dream, and you might do better to omit for a moment the two characters it mentions. It is this passage that illuminates all of The Mystery of Edwin Drood in such a manner as to leave the careful reader only one decision as to the identity of the person behind our protagonist's disappearance. There is also that odd sailor, or maybe two, that drifts into Cloisterham for no apparent reason other than to visit old Crisparkle. And sailors, as we know, often detect danger from very far off.  

Thursday
Mar202014

Some Recollections of Mortality

We had been excited in the highest degree by seeing the Custodians pull off their coats and tuck up their shirt-sleeves, as the procession came along. It looked so interestingly like business.

                                                                                              Charles Dickens

One spring day and evening in New York twenty years ago I happened to watch, at intermittent points, the television news (what this author claims "tells no more than the survival of greed and fear and pain and hate"). Three white men, bearded and stout, were leaning against a vehicle surrounded by reporters, cameramen and, as it turned out, forces unsympathetic to their cause. Their cause, as it were, appeared to be nothing more than mere survival. They had been riddled with lead, not in any critical areas yet enough to stymie flight, and they pleaded with the camera and anyone to whom the camera dispensed its images to have pity on them. Should they be pitied because their cause is just or simply because without medical attention they will not live more than twenty-four hours? One of the three men, the broadest of chest, spoke loudly and with a Germanic accent, and the casual observer could not help but ask where all this was taking place. He spoke and the camera decided to listen for a minute or two, and then other events of the days required other cameras and other pleas. When, hours later, we returned to the three wounded soldiers – they were mercenaries in a pro-Apartheid South African militia – there was nothing more to hear or sense. They leaned motionlessly on the tires of their jeep, ambushed on the outskirts of this desert and the camera found them all quiet and cooperative. I asked myself and my uncle sitting next to me whether they were still alive and he responded with three words: "They look dead." There was no other confirmation, no voiceover from the camera which surveyed their bodies, no statement of anguish or regret; these were contract killers who had known that they would probably die pursuing their odious profession. We were not expected to pity but to observe them, gaze upon them, and, as it stated in this essay, "look at something that could not return a look."

Perhaps not surprisingly, our narrator is British and the field of his investigation French; death, after all, is a foreign affair. In the first paragraph, he saunters out at four o'clock in the morning – when nothing but birds and the most debauched of Paris's nightcrawlers are out and about – only to end up, a few hours later, at the far end of the plaza before Notre Dame. It is here that he beholds "an airy procession coming round," which he mistakes for "a marriage in Blouse-life, or a Christening, or some other domestic festivity," yet which happens to be the funeral march of an old man. He ponders how we can insouciantly look upon the lot of a stranger and speculate as to the reasons for his demise. The ideas that surface are not among the most pleasant:

An old man was not much: moreover, we could have wished he had been killed by human agency – his own, or somebody else's: the latter, preferable – but our comfort was, that he had nothing about him to lend to his identification, and that his people must seek him here. Perhaps they were waiting dinner for him right now? We liked that. Such of us as had pocket-handkerchiefs took a slow intense protracted wipe at our noses, and then crammed our handkerchiefs into the breast of our blouses.

His death may not be tragic; it may in fact be just as commonplace as his life. A wonderful passage follows between a pair of creaking hinges in which the custodian to the funeral,  a "tall and sallow Mason," reminds the crowd of onlookers about the procedures necessary so that this man, unknown to most if not all of them, may enjoy full burial rites in accordance with the lay tradition. 

The scene is the first of three glimpses at death: an old man who passed after a long life; an unknown thirty-year-old woman found dead on the street; and then the narrator's participation as a juror in the inquest of the death of a child. All three stations in life – thirty being roughly halfway through our existence according to life expectancy of the mid-nineteenth-century – are accounted for, as are three very different ways to look at what may happen to us when our biological systems fail and end. In the case of the young child who may or may not have been done away with by his mother, the courtroom's suspicious faces and baleful implications are not kind to the accused:

The miserable young creature who had given birth to this child within a very few days, and who had cleaned the cold wet door-steps immediately afterwards, was brought before us when we resumed our horse-hair chairs, and was present during the proceedings. She had a horse-hair chair herself, being very weak and ill; and I remember how she turned to the unsympathetic nurse who attended her, and who might have been the figurehead of a pauper-ship, and how she hid her face and sobs and tears upon that wooden shoulder.  

Despite her posturings and testimony, the woman was convicted although "her sentence was lenient, and her history and conduct proved that it was right." Her child had barely tasted life, and her responsibility for its well-being was never quite bereft of doubts about her ability and desire to be a good mother. Thus the one who is to bestow life upon her child cannot bring herself to accept the commitment she has entered into, leaving her child from her inception already in the dark and thorned arms of death.

For those unaware of Dickens's contributions as an essayist – he is one of the finest in the English language – look no further than this succulent collection. The pieces range from odd piles of observations on life's minutia to short and modest tracts on more profound matters, and they are unequivocally a rousing success. Dickens has a love for Paris betrayed only by his greater endearment to certain facets of his homeland, and his feelings are evident in the detail which he proffers on death in its various guises. He wonders aloud "whether it is positively in the essence and nature of things, as a certain school of Britons would seem to think it, that a Capital must be ensnared and enslaved before it can be made beautiful" (we would do well to apply this credo to our own daily routines). He is also puzzled by the inquest, considering that the truth might never be fully revealed, attributing all of this to his own ingenuousness:

The thing happened, say five-and-twenty years ago. I was a modest young uncommercial then, and timid and inexperienced. Many suns and winds have browned me in the line, but those were my pale days.

And his brown skin will one day become pale and sallow like that of the pallbearer and custodian, as we too become greyer and night gains in its darkness.

Saturday
Dec262009

A Christmas Carol

The study of human soul has been claimed by many a discipline, both scientific and pseudo-scientific, which means that while the conclusions boast the stamp of empirical evidence, the data culled is almost purely subjective.  The latest cabalists on the scene are neuropsychiatrists, and their particular methods border on the fascinating while, at the same time, straddling the ridiculous.  Do certain parts of our brain (forgive my simplifications) rev and rumble when certain things happen to us?  Well, I suppose they do, since we are nothing if programmed robots when it comes to chemical conflict.  Can we understand abnormal behavior through abnormalities in our cerebral structure or patterns?  I'm sure that those beleaguered by delusions will light up an odd selection of ornaments and constellations.  Should we at all be worried that our interpretation of brain activity is subject to the subjective filter that is our own mind's pulse?  How could frontal-subcortical circuitry not produce the desired personality, might be the retort echoing against our silent discomfort at the ease of such conclusions.  And the personality in question may well be the main character of this renowned story.

We begin with an affirmation of the material world: Jacob Marley, the long-time partner of Ebenezer Scrooge, is dead and has lain in such a state for seven long years.  Marley must be dead for the events of the story to occur as they do; but he must also be dead (and he is killed repeatedly on the story's first page) so that we may consider a belief in his reappearance.  We must also depict our protagonist as someone so unlikely to accept the contrivances of the spiritual world as to be immune to the faint whiffs of humanity that encircle the dowdyism of his wretched soul:

Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

As subsequent episodes reveal, Scrooge once had a soul and wishes for a happy life within society.  He forfeited these dreams once business became his only burden; over time his wizened countenance has come to reflect the lack of human humidity.  He is spouseless and unchildrened, year after year he rejects his deceased sister's only son's Christmas dinner invitation, and in dreariest winter his poor clerk is allotted one feeble coal to match his number of paid yearly holidays.  Is Scrooge a caricature?  Most evidently; his name, now a figure of common parlance, suggests the coiled grip of a lusty hand.  Even his domicile bears his blueprints:

They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again.

Scrooge was free and full of the freshest dreams that a promising young life can hold; what closed him off to the world we shall never know for sure.  Could the smell of pocket change have replaced violets in his imagination?  Could the smooth sides of bullion imbued him with a more concrete sense of nature's perfection?   Perhaps Scrooge was always there for the tempting, awaiting his turn on the rickety stage known as financial prosperity, a mystery that is better left as Dickens intended: an inexplicable yet all too common deviation from the straight road of moral well-being.

We have still said nothing about those famous ghosts.  They are three, like the Magi; and like the Kings they are harbingers of something fantastic from which no mind can avert itself in indifference.  They vary in physical size, or at least the size of what they represent: the Ghost of Christmas Past is an old man shrunk to the dimensions of a child; Christmas Present is a jolly green giant, if an evanescent one; and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come bears a remarkable resemblance to the Keeper of the Scythe (and like He, the future is dark and mute).  I stand corrected: four apparitions envelop Ebenezer Scrooge that lonesome Christmas Eve, and it is the first among them that will be the most affecting because it is the ghost of his old partner, Marley.  Marley appears in the chains that Scrooge tells himself are customary for spirits, but chains of "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses" – the souvenirs of lifelong dealings with the greatest miser of London.  After some staring and banter (the ghost first announces his presence by mimicking Scrooge's knocker, but then is quick to materialize fully), Marley's spirit cuts to the chase and warns his erstwhile associate about what is to befall him during the longest night of his life.  Scrooge will eventually believe him, but his instinct hints at a more modern explanation for such phenomena:

'Why do you doubt your senses?'

'Because,' said Scrooge, 'a little thing affects them.  A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats.  You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.  There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!'

Modern science informs us that digestive obstacles manipulate the retinogeniculocalcarine tract, which in turn redounds in the summoning of visual hallucinations; that would explain those particularly vicious images after a spicy meal.  Ah, but Scrooge likes his meals the way he likes his morals: unaccompanied, tasteless, and wholly pragmatic.