Monday, 2 January 2012

Top Ten All-Time Bestselling Books, 1: Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)


So, we reach the end of this series with the world's bestselling book; and we do so just as 2011 folds over into 2012, the bicentenary of Dickens's birth. As to why this Dickens title, amongst so many other (let's be honest: better) Dickens novels, is the one to sell more than any other ... well I suppose it combines a vivid, well-plotted story -- and the plotting, though obviously melodramatic, is good -- with a degree of historical interest.  Plus it's considerably shorter than the fat-man-sized masterpieces, from Copperfield through to Our Mutual Friend.  Let us not underestimate the importance of relative shortness, in reaching a global audience who have heard that Dickens is one of the greatest novelists, but who don't feel like scaling a 1000-page mountain, particularly if English isn't their first language.  On the downside, this book lacks some of the sheer brilliance of Dickens's humour at its finest; and where Bleak House and Little Dorrit (my personal favourites in the Dickens canon) do extraordinary, eloquent, resonant things with their respective structures of theme and symbol, the bi-urban Tale wrings a rather wearying stream from Christian tropes out of its narrower stretch of cloth: wine that is also blood; dead bodies coming to life; substitutionary atonement.  Still, I do love this novel.  I love it as the most autobiographical book Dickens ever wrote.

That's not normally how it's taken, of course.  The Standard Critical View of A Tale of Two Cities is that it rehearses Carlyle's French Revolution in fictional form by way of airing CD's political views and anxieties.  And that's certainly a part of what is going on here.  It's just not (I think) a very important part.  For the greater part, I'm gonna ask you to -- gimme a 'C'! ("C!")  Gimme a 'D'! ("D!").

It is about justice, or more exactly about fairness, just like all of Dickens’s novels—one of the things that gives Dickens his unique appeal is his acute sense of the valences of fairness. Children understand this quality, and it matters very much to them; but some adults fall into cynicism, or despair, about it. I must say I’ve never understood why ‘but that’s not fair!’ has, as a phrase, the negative overtones of spoilt child about it. ‘It’s not fair’ is the most penetrating criticism it is possible to make about human social affairs: it is, at root, the force of the criticism of Marx—and the Gospels. A characteristic Dickens storyline concerns a child, with whom we empathise, who suffers a series of grotesque unfairnesses at the hand of adulthood. In his best books these unfairnesses accumulate, and are only paid-off with a restorative dose of justice right at the end of the book. In this sense A Tale of Two Cities is both intensely characteristic and rather unusual—unusual in that it concerns no children, it traces no Bildungsroman, it does not surround a bland everyman with a ring of exaggeratedly intensified caricature and grotesques. But it is characteristic, intensely so, in that the issue of fairness is elevated to a national, indeed a cosmic level. The abuses of Dickens’s ancien regime are so hyperbolically extreme, the unfairness of life for the poor so manifest, that it feels crude, even clumsy. This, though, is to read only on the level of manifest content.  The more interesting things happening here are going on on the level of the latent.

Two cities, one tale.  A tale about what?  Well, most obviously about the French revolution, and various people (most especially Dr Manette and his daughter Lucy, virtuous Charles Darnay and dissolute Sidney Carton) caught up in it.  What else?  Well, it's also about the thread linking London and Paris.  London, of course, was Dickens's city.  He knew Paris pretty well, too: he holidayed there often, especially in the 1850s.  And I think the key salient here is that, for respectable British Victorians, there was something disreputable about France, of course: a different alignment of sexual mores (or mœurs) both in life and art.  In May 1856 he had a conversation with a friend, Mrs Brown, on this matter.  I'll quote from Claire Tomalin's excellent new biography:
When she spoke against them, he praised their openness about social problems, telling her that a leading difference between them and the English was that "in England people dismiss the mention of social evils and vices which do nevertheless exist amongst them; and that in France people people do not dismiss the mention of the same things but habitually recognise their existence." Mrs Brown cried out, "Don't say that!" and Dickens insisted, "Oh but I must say it, you know, when according to our national vanity and prejudice, you disparage an unquestionably great nation." At which Mrs Brown burst into tears. [272]
Hah! That told her! It's always edifying, I feel, when a millionaire celebrity, one of the most influential men of his day, makes an ordinary non-famous woman cry.  On another occasion Dickens complained to his friend Forster that Balzac and Sand could write about real heroes, where the hero of an English novel must be 'always uninteresting -- too good.' This question of the representation of the 'indecencies' (Dickens's word) is one of the fault lines separating the English and French literary traditions, I suppose: but it points to one of the way 'France' functions, symbolically, in this novel. Violence and revolution, yes; but also sex.

Now, in the usual course of things I shy away from biographical criticism, and I urge my students to do the same. The notion that a work of literature can be ‘unlocked’ once we understand the life-story of the individual who wrote it can hardly escape banality. Speaking as an author myself I can confirm that the author is dead, and that the business of literary criticism is with literature. But I say all that in order to violate my own rules; and advance a strictly biographical reading of A Tale of Two Cities. Many critics before me have noticed biographical parallels in the novel, of course; but I wish to go further—to suggest, in fact, that this is a novel absolutely saturated with CD. A critical commonplace is that David Copperfield is CD’s most autobiographical novel; I propose that A Tale of Two Cities merits that title.

Appropriately for a novel much concerned with secrets, and repression, the autobiography it construes is a hidden one. In the mid 1850s, after nearly two decades of marriage, Dickens separated from his wife Catherine. After giving birth to ten children (not counting her miscarriages) Catherine had certainly played her part in the Victorian conception of marriage; and if she had grown fat and sluggish in the process I know of no contemporary commentators inclined to judge her harshly on that account. But it is clear that Dickens had long since grown to feel his marriage was a prison, and that being married to his slow, conventional wife and his (even by nineteenth-century standards) large brood of children was tantamount to being buried alive. A Tale of Two Cities opens with Dr Manette, who has been buried alive in an actual prison cell for nearly two decades, reduced to the obsessive making of shoes (shoes are an eloquent trope for the material demands of parenthood: any parent will confirm that one seems constantly to be buying new shoes. The little buggers’ feet keep growing). But the novel opens with him recalled to life, drawn back to the light by the golden thread of his beautiful, eighteen-year-old daughter Lucy—whose name, of course, means light.

The story of Dickens infatuation with the beautiful, eighteen-year-old Ellen Ternan has been well documented—CD first fell for her when she was playing a character called ‘Lucy’ in Dickens’s and Collins’s play, The Frozen Deep. Like Lucy Manette, Ternan was a petite, fair-faced blonde (unlike the large-limbed, corpulent, dark-haired Catherine). Intensely protective of his public reputation as the preëminent family entertainer of his day, CD kept his relationship with Ternan secret; he did such a good job, indeed, that there are professional Dickensians who refuse to accept that theirs was a sexual relationship at all. But of course it was. And CD would hardly be the first wealthy middle-aged-man to have had an affair with a complaisant beautiful younger woman and to feel, thereby, that he had been as it were released from prison.

It seems logical to me (although we have no hard evidence) to think that Dickens told Ellen—and her mother, who was certainly ‘in’ on the relationship—that he would marry her if and when he could. But divorcing the blameless Catherine was out of the question, and so they had to wait—in his letters to his All the Year Round editor Willis (who knew about the affair) CD refers to Ternan as ‘the Patient’, presumably because she was having to wait patiently for Catherine to die to wed. In the meantime, Dickens bought ‘Nelly’ (and her mother) a house in Slough—then, as now, a charming countryside village a short train ride from London.

I used to live a couple miles from Slough. I know all about it.

Later he sold the Slough house and bought her place in Peckham; and there are rumours that (contra the official story, in which Dickens died at his Kentish house Gad’s Hill) he died in Peckham in Nelly’s arms. Certainly the couple travelled often between England and France, on one occasion, perhaps, to go to a safely anonymous place in order for Ellen to give birth to Dickens's son (if this happened, it seems the boy did not live long).  Meanwhile he forced his actual wife away from him, against her wishes, with a startling ruthlessness; he was pitiless to those friends, no matter of how longstanding, who did not entirely side with him, and said a raft of cruel things, some of them untrue, about Catherine.  As he conceded to a friend: 'I am a man full of passion and energy, and my own wild way that I must go.'  For many, to quote Tomalin again, 'the spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and his attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying.'  But Tomlin, in a perceptive move, speculates that it was precisely the middle-class propriety of Ternan that precipitated the savagery of CD's behaviour during this climacteric: 'a naughty girl,' she speculates, 'could have made him happy.'  As it was Ternan seems to have held out, for a while at least.  But Dickens, father of ten children and full of stomping, rushing, urgent, unsatisfied vitality, was (to quote his friend Macready) 'not the celibate type'. Tomalin puts it less laconically: 'Nelly simply succumbed. Dickens was a great performer who liked to please his audience. He was famous for his energy, and took his physical pleasures seriously, eating and drinking, walking, dancing, travelling, singing. He had fathered ten children on his wife in twenty years, not counting miscarriages, and he believed that sexual activity was necessary to a healthy man' [Tomalin, 327].  This is not the same thing as saying that he was happy to have so conspicuously lost his moral compass, of course; on the contrary.  But however uncomfortable it may have been for CD himself, the rock-and-a-hard-place pressures applied to a genuinely creative imagination can at least generate great art.

At any rate, these circumstance presumably bred two Dickenses: the one who watched the dial on his own moral compass spin wildly and could not get past his self-revulsion at what he had done to his blameless wife, to his family, and potentially to his reputation--and the other, who feeling sexual activity was necessary to a healthy man could not get past his boyish delight that the sexual activity in question was now happening with a beautiful eighteen-year old rather than a corpulent woman his own age.

All in all, it would not overstate things to describe the appearance of Ternan as a revolution in Dickens's life.  When things happen to writers, they tend to write about them.  Dickens could not write directly about this illicit sexual connection, of course; but he was a writer to the marrow.  And so he wrote the story by not writing the story.  I've done the same thing myself.  Most writers have.

In A Tale of Two Cities, we have three characters who act, to one degree or another, as ciphers for CD. One, Dr Manette, represents Dickens’s sense of himself as imprisoned; as old enough to be Nelly’s father (which he was) and as broken down physically (which, again, he increasingly was: Tomalin is particularly good on this). Two others are the doppelgangers, upon which the plot hinges: the virtuous, hard-working, uxorious Charles 'CD' Darnay—and the talented but alcoholic and reprobate Sidney Carton. Darnay is CD on a good day; with a guilty secret in his past, but making the best of the present. Carton is a repository of all of CD’s worst traits: his rootlessness, his boozing, his faithlessness. We might want to see Carton as a sort of anti-Dickens (hence his name; not C. DIC. but [C]ID C.). Both Carton and Darnay love the young, blonde Ellen Ternan, sorry, I mean, the young, blonde Lucy Manette; and both are prevented, in the novel, from being able to realise that love, Darnay by the outside world (rendered in the novel as in terms of the anger of the mob that feels itself to have been betrayed—CD’s own fears about crossing his own large fanbase) and Carton by his own fundamental unworthiness. This is the Dickens of the early days of his relationship with Ternan: feeling himself blocked from his happy-ever-after with the woman he loved both by the world’s opposition and his own unfitness.

As I say many critics have noted these sorts of parallels. It is less often pointed out that there's a greater preponderance of ‘C’s and ‘D’s in character names in this novel than any other by CD.  So we have not only Charles Darnay and Carton, but also the Crunchers, the Defarges (Mr and Mrs). There’s also Cly. Even Stryver has the initial ‘C’. And when character names aren’t built up from Cs and Dcs, they tend instead to elaborate CD’s middle names, ‘John Huffam’—the great many Jacques in the novel, for instance, have a clear relationship to the John (for Dickens is also, in his heart, the force of Revolution and ruin in this novel too, as in his own life); just as the turncoat spy Barsad has the first name John, and even Lorry is a ‘J’ too. There's a plethora of Jacques running through the heart of the novel ("How goes it, Jacques? Is all the spilt wine swallowed?" "Every drop, Jacques" ... "It is not often that many of these miserable beasts know the taste of wine, or of anything but black bread and death. Is it not so, Jacques?" "It is so, Jacques." ... "Hard lives they live, Jacques. Am I right, Jacques?" "You are right, Jacques" and so on). Stretching it a little, I’ve always assumed that ‘Gaspard’, the man whose son is run over by the wicked Marquis, and who kills him in revenge, suggests the gasping, huffing-puffing ‘Huffam’ from inbetween the 'John' and the 'Dickens'. I tell you: I find myself thinking that there’s hardly a character name in the novel than doesn’t riff on Dickens’s own name.

There’s more—much more, I’d say, than even the most assiduous Dickensian has excavated from the novel (and, I must concede, more than many would consider plausible.  Not that that's going to stop me). Part of the plot hinges on a letter, hidden in the prison itself, but unearthed by Defarge.
Upon a corner stone in an angle of the wall, one prisoner, who seemed to have gone to execution, had cut as his last work, three letters. They were done with some very poor instrument, and hurriedly, with an unsteady hand. At first, they were read as D. I. C.; but, on being more carefully examined, the last letter was found to be G. There was no record or legend of any prisoner with those initials, and many fruitless guesses were made what the name could have been. At length, it was suggested that the letters were not initials, but the complete word, DIG. The floor was examined very carefully under the inscription, and, in the earth beneath a stone, or tile, or some fragment of paving, were found the ashes of a paper, mingled with the ashes of a small leathern case or bag. What the unknown prisoner had written will never be read, but he had written something, and hidden it away to keep it from the gaoler." [1:6]
DIC, right. What of the prisoner himself? So traumatised by his incarceration that his name has become a number:
"Did you ask me for my name?"
"Assuredly I did."
"One Hundred and Five, North Tower."
“Is that all?"
"One Hundred and Five, North Tower."
With a weary sound that was not a sigh, nor a groan, he bent to work again.
What a name! We read it as 105, but there’s nothing stopping us as reading it as one hundred and then five (hundred); which is to say, in Roman numerals, as C and then D. Did you ask him for his name? It’s CD.

I’m going to go even further. Dickens originally wanted to call his novel Recalled To Life, which is a perfectly good title (he also toyed with The Golden Thread). Yet A Tale of Two Cities wouldn’t leave him alone as a title; and he went with it. A Tale of Two Cities struck him, on some level, as the right name for this novel. And that’s because of what the novel actually is: A Tale of Two CDs. The privately good CD who is blocked by the world, and the privately bad CD who looks exactly like him and who sacrifices himself so the other can go on with his life.

You want more?  “Charles Darnay brought before the lawless Court, and examined” [3:4] CD and the Lawless court? Lawless (ah, but you know this already) was Ellen Ternan’s middle name.  "When he awoke and was afoot again [by the river], he lingered there yet a little longer, watching an eddy that turned and turned purposeless, until the stream absorbed it, and carried it on to the sea.—'Like me.'" [3:9] Carton, here: the anti-Dickens watching an eddy (E for Ellen, D for Dickens) that ‘turned and’. That Ternan. Like him.

What's that? You don't want me to go on?  Oh, alright.

To be clear, or a little clearer. I am not suggesting the A Tale of Two CDs is a designedly constructed allegory of CD’s relations with Ellen Lawless Ternan. On the contrary: I don't believe there's anything strictly allegorical here at all. What there is, I think, is the profound saturation of a imaginative creativity with a set of emotional quanta that relate intensely, in an intensely felt way, to his own life. This in turn produces a text that is haunted by the poltergeists of Dickens’s violent passion for his new inamoratas, and his equally violent guilt and self-disgust at breaking up his marriage, lying (by omission and commission both) to his public, friends and family and—more fundamentally—for being an old and physically broken-down man who had pressed his attentions upon a young, virtuous virgin. Rich old men who press their sexual attentions upon impoverished young women may spin themselves enabling fictions about how the girl in question ‘really’ likes older men—perhaps even going further, trying to convince themselves that he and she are soul-mates, or something of that fashion. But at some level they know that the true salient in ‘rich old man’ is the first of those three terms. And Dickens, however pulled-along he was by his desire for this beautiful young woman, can hardly have been able to keep from his knowledge the thought that had he been poor and unfamous, young Ellen wouldn’t have looked at him twice.  Because -- well, of course not!

In other words, the shadow-play of their relationship may have had wonderful moments (who knows?); but the Substance of the Shadow (to use the name Dickens gives the chapter in A Tale of Two CDs where the buried secret of the novel is finally revealed) is surely one of sexual guilt.  And, really, how could the buried secret at the heart of A Tale of Two CDs be anything other than the story of the sexual exploitation of a young powerless girl by a old powerful man?  The document, written in secrecy by old Doctor Manette, and buried in the Bastille under the rebus 'DIC', reveals that the wicked old Marquis of Evrémonde exercised his droit de seigneur upon an innocent young girl. The girl's brother objected to this treatment, and was stabbed to death with a sword for his pains. As he dies he tells Manette:
They have had their shameful rights, these Nobles, in the modesty and virtue of our sisters, many years, but we have had good girls among us. I know it, and have heard my father say so. She was a good girl.
In the fiercely compressed symbolic economy of the novel it is this (‘he took her away—for his pleasure and diversion’) that propels the entire country into revolution; this is the primal sin that can only be expiated in blood. And whilst Dickens’ outrage at a society in which a rich, old man can see an attractive younger woman and simply ‘take her away for his pleasure and diversion’ is doubtless real, so is his secret exhilaration at precisely that power. This conflict is the identity of the two CDs in this tale: the CD who is properly outraged by this scenario, and the CD who can’t help desire it for himself.

The brother dies, of course; and the woman herself repeatedly shrieks ‘'My husband, my father, and my brother!’—in reference to those of her family who have been killed, but also, we might think, channelling Ellen Ternan’s conflicted sense of the nature of Dickens’s relation to her: old enough to be her father; assisting her and her sisters with brotherly charity; secretly her sexual partner. CDs litter the prose throughout, but in this passage they become more cloggingly obvious: ("I write with so much Difficulty, the Cold is so severe, I am so fearful of being Detected and Consigned to an underground cell and total Darkness, that I must abridge this narrative. There is no Confusion in my memory; it can recall, and Could Detail, every word that was ever spoken between me and those brothers”). When the document is read, at the final trial, it seals CD’s doom, to the C and the D, ‘to the Conciergerie, and Death’.

This is not a novel that delineates the externalities of Dickens's 1850s.  Such a book would be much duller.  This, on the contrary, is a book about the overturning of an old regime not so much in terms of its externals but as the revolution of the heart and mind, the stirring up of old passions CD had tried to consider long buried.  More specifically, it styles the force powering this revolution as dual: as Londonish and Parisian; as the desire to make a better world and the desire to indulge bad appetites and bestial yearnings.  And since this is the story of one man, it is therefore the story of his two doppelgangers -- the man who wants to put his bad past behind him and live a virtuous life, only the world won't let him; and the man who wants to make love to a woman on an equal footing -- only he's not worthy.  It is a far far better thing, and so on, and so forth.

Perhaps the most far-fetched claim I make in all this blogpost's parsec-far fetches, is the one that A Tale of Two CDs is actually a more interesting story than A Tale of Two Cities.  Why is such a claim particularly far-fetched?  Because (the contrary voice mutters in my ear) the story of a wealthy middle-aged man putting his wife away to have sex with a younger girl is worse than seedy and scuzzy -- it's banal.  It's such a cliché! Whereas, for better or worse, the French Revolution was a unique and prodigious event in world history!  But (I reply, to that contrary voice), especially when viewed from the auspice of moral fable, as A Tale of Two Cities does, the French Revolution is horribly one dimensional.  The ancien regime was full of horrors; and the revolution, reacting against them, went too far the other way.  End of, as the contemporary idiom has it.  But A Tale of Two CDs is a story about something intrinsically dramatic, a man at war with himself.  I once interviewed Brian Aldiss at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, and he expressed a low opinion of The Lord of the Rings because it had no characters in it, just two-dimensional types; and then he corrected himself -- no (he went on) there was one character in that novel, by far the most interesting figure Tolkien created.  Gollum.  Now, Dickens was, it seems to me, a better maker of characters than Tolkien. But nevertheless he is open to the charge that his characters tend to be defined by a single dominant.  His greatest achievements in that way -- Pip, Clenham, maybe Scrooge -- stand out from the rest.  And, I am suggesting here, the fullest articulation of that sense of human nature as intrinsically divided, striated and driven in ways it does not necessarily even understand itself, is here, in this novel.  CD.  Or the two CDs, of whom this novel is the tale.

9 comments:

Rich Puchalsky said...

This is a excellent review -- even if I don't believe in some of the quasi-numerology of the C's and D's -- and I was going to advance something of a theory about the best-selling books being selected out of a pool of not-quite-best-selling cohort books because they tap into anxieties about the most anxious large-scale human events (the French Revolution here, the World Wars in the case of the Tolkien books).

But I'm going to write all about me instead: "Now, in the usual course of things I shy away from biographical criticism, and I urge my students to do the same. The notion that a work of literature can be ‘unlocked’ once we understand the life-story of the individual who wrote it can hardly escape banality. Speaking as an author myself I can confirm that the author is dead, and that the business of literary criticism is with literature. But I say all that in order to violate my own rules [...]"

That's a difficult thing to tell people, I think. Speaking as someone who writes amateur criticism of, well, your SF books -- and who is continually kind of uncertain about what I'm doing, and what the purpose of the whole activity is -- there are some particular kinds of biographical criticism that seem to me to be very useful. Not the details of life-story, no. But some information about the aesthetic theories of the author, yes. I'm not sure whether that counts as properly biographical criticism. But a sense of what the author is trying to do, broadly, is invaluable to me in understanding how to interpret a book.

Take what I thought was one of my best readings of one of your books, the one on Splinter. Read as a modernist isolated object, with internal criticism the only guide, I would have thought that the book was more or less a failure -- feckless hero, strained plot, nothing much happens with either. Read after reading your Palgrave history, it becomes "a savage and sometimes funny extended satire or metaphor for the history of SF" to quote myself. There is some element of knowing what the author may be on about which I'm not sure comes under "biography" that seems necessary, sometimes.

Adam Roberts said...

Rich: what you say is very interesting indeed. (I quite take the point about the quasi-numerology of the Cs and Ds, of course). And it's hard, reading your final paragraph, not to agree with any critical approach that transforms a failure of a book into an interesting text.

I must admit (I suppose) that 'the death of the author' thing is as much as anything else one of the dogmas of the school in which I was myself trained that I have yet to shed. It still strikes me as useful to concentrate on the text, and not to mistake literary criticism for biography. Nothing wrong with biography, which is a noble calling and all; but my training was in reading texts. But having said that, there's a surprising amount of slippage in the 'nothing outside the text' business. Half a dozen of my own novels have engaged 'science fiction' as a megatext (Splinter, I think you're right, is one of them) as a central portion of their textual dynamic.

In fact I've been mulling over your comment for a while now. I like to think I write good novels; that I genuinely and in good faith try to do new things with the mode I love. And some people like what I do, but many more don't. This latter group may be right, of course; but I've been wondering latterly if the sorts of novels I write actually adumbrate a latent biographical narrative (that is to say: they all tend to dramatise, in various symbolic ways, things that have happened to me, which I'd rather not elaborate in a 'realist' sense) and that this narrative just isn't of much interest, or doesn't really connect with, the experience of most people in their lives. Whereas, to return to Dickens: it could be that one reason A Tale of Two CDs is as popular as it has evidently been is that lots of people can identify with the latent biographical narrative of his life ... not the 'mid-life crisis, affair with a young girl' aspect of it, but the (a) sense of being a sensitive, or special child that the world neglected, or abandoned, or otherwise wounded; and (b) the sense of embodying two versions of yourself in yourself. That, plus the vivid rendering of chaotic repressed emotional forces coming to the surface.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Where Dickens is really powerful .. or one of the places ... is exactly the kind of thing that if you want to look at it biographically relates to the story of a mid-life man having an affair, I'd think. One of the basic fantasies, or Jungian archetypes, or what have you is about integration with the Shadow. The two quotes that everyone can rattle off about A Tale of Two Cities are "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" and "Tis a far far better thing". Tis a far far better thing is about the moment of heroism in which the shadow-self is fully justified, fully utilized, in which the negative is changed to a positive. Dickens rightly feels badly about having an affair ... but the art he produces justifies it and turns the necessary bad into good. (Or that's the psychological structure, I mean; I'm not saying that it's morally justified.)

With Scrooge, too, one of his other most-popular pieces, what always strikes me about Scrooge is how domineering he is at the end. He waits for Bob Cratchitt to show up late and then makes a nasty, sadistic joke, pretending he's going to yell at him, before telling him he's going to raise his salary. He makes a huge charitable donation and impresses people with how generous he is. He's the center of attention wherever he goes. As a good guy, he still has many of his bad characteristics, but they have been transformed into necessary parts of his present goodness -- poor unassuming Bob Crachitt can't actually save Tiny Tim without a driven, bossy person to make money and then give it away. That's the basic fantasy that I think that people find so compelling. Not that they could merely become good people, but that somehow all of the bad parts of themselves could be transfigured too, could supply their power to some good end.

So, yes, "the sense of embodying two versions of yourself in yourself" ... but in a specific way. At least, that's the interpretation (which I must be recalling badly from having read it somewhere) that I think is most compelling.

More later about your books.

Rich Puchalsky said...

"More later about your books."

Or maybe not, maybe I'll send you Email. But here's a bit about "the author is dead": I've always suspected -- though I will likely never have enough time in my life left to read enough Barthes and consequent writers to know -- that this was partially adopted as a sort of uneasy professional deformation. As academic critics started to study more and more contemporary material, and fewer "classics", it became more and more possible to just ask living authors what they meant. As the same time, the expansion of academia as more students tried to go to university for work-certification reasons meant there were more and more professors and therefore a need for more and more critical work to be done. Saying that the author didn't get to give the definitive reading of the work meant that conflicting scholarly readings were more tenable.

As it happens, I agree that authors don't get to give definitive readings of their works -- that meaning is largely though not completely determined by the reader. But there's a gray area which "the author is dead" tends to shadow. When academics write a teaching edition of a work --here, for instance -- they put in lots of footnotes that tell people, well, what the author meant. What did the author, in that example, mean by "Rose's 'Japanese pots'"? I have no idea, but it was evidently something culturally familiar to people of the time, a reference that they would get and we wouldn't.

All right. So what does it mean when an author writes about an extraordinary voyage in which no one goes anywhere? (I guess that your books return here for a bit after all.) Was it just a strange mistake -- the author forgot to put a voyage in their voyage? Or was there a reference we aren't getting? In this case, yes, it's helpful to know something about the megatext. And the author's opinions about the megatext. This kind of thing also goes into critical editions, I think.

The point is that people who "really do this kind of thing" -- English professors -- never really seem to start with an author-is-dead tabula rasa. They find out things about the background of the work, including relevant things about the author, before they write expertly about it. The cases in which someone makes a point of not doing so seem like fireworks, showy trick-pieces to show it can be done.

So I suspect that this advice to students is trying to head them out from a particular kind of connect-the-dots bad reading, but it's being overgeneralized.

Rich Puchalsky said...

"More later about your books."

Or maybe not, maybe I'll send you Email. But here's a bit about "the author is dead": I've always suspected -- though I will likely never have enough time in my life left to read enough Barthes and consequent writers to know -- that this was partially adopted as a sort of uneasy professional deformation. As academic critics started to study more and more contemporary material, and fewer "classics", it became more and more possible to just ask living authors what they meant. As the same time, the expansion of academia as more students tried to go to university for work-certification reasons meant there were more and more professors and therefore a need for more and more critical work to be done. Saying that the author didn't get to give the definitive reading of the work meant that conflicting scholarly readings were more tenable.

As it happens, I agree that authors don't get to give definitive readings of their works -- that meaning is largely though not completely determined by the reader. But there's a gray area which "the author is dead" tends to shadow. When academics write a teaching edition of a work --here, for instance -- they put in lots of footnotes that tell people, well, what the author meant. What did the author, in that example, mean by "Rose's 'Japanese pots'"? I have no idea, but it was evidently something culturally familiar to people of the time, a reference that they would get and we wouldn't.

All right. So what does it mean when an author writes about an extraordinary voyage in which no one goes anywhere? (I guess that your books return here for a bit after all.) Was it just a strange mistake -- the author forgot to put a voyage in their voyage? Or was there a reference we aren't getting? In this case, yes, it's helpful to know something about the megatext. And the author's opinions about the megatext. This kind of thing also goes into critical editions, I think.

The point is that people who "really do this kind of thing" -- English professors -- never really seem to start with an author-is-dead tabula rasa. They find out things about the background of the work, including relevant things about the author, before they write expertly about it. The cases in which someone makes a point of not doing so seem like fireworks, showy trick-pieces to show it can be done.

So I suspect that this advice to students is trying to head them out from a particular kind of connect-the-dots bad reading, but it's being overgeneralized.

Pageturners said...

The 'Jacques' business was accurate - French revolutionaries called each other 'Jacques' much as later revolutionaries called each other 'comrade'.

Adam Roberts said...

Pageturners: you’re right, ‘Jacques’ was what the French revolutionaries really called themselves. By the same token, Dickens’s middle name really was ‘John’.

Rich: interesting, yes, and I kind of agree. “The point is that people who "really do this kind of thing" -- English professors -- never really seem to start with an author-is-dead tabula rasa” – the tabula rasa thing would indeed be an extreme textual strategy. But it’s possible to contextualize things like ‘the author is dead’. Two things in particular, I think, feed into it: one the success of ‘New Critcism’ (in which most of the lecturers who taught me as an undergraduate had themselves been schooled) with its insistence that windy generalizations about books were bad and the business of literary criticism was close attention to the text itself. The other is the broader climate out of which ‘deconstruction’ and ‘La mort de l’auteur’ emerged – the social upheavals of the 60s, not just 1968 et tout ça, but the civil rights movement in the US and the general sense of everything changing. Thinking of authors (like Shakespeare and Dickens—or composers like Mozart and Beethoven) as solitary geniuses is a fundamental Romantic and post-Romantic thing to do: and one of its many problems is that once you start thinking of authors and composers like that, it becomes easy to think of, let’s say, political leaders the same way. The shorthand for that is ‘fascism’. Which is to say, styling authors as this is part and parcel of thinking of politicians as this (or, you know; this). Or to be less prolix about it, assassinating ‘the author’ was never at attempt to deny the physical contingency of the person who actually puts the words of the poem in a certain order; it was instead part of a larger attempt to unpick the logic of the genius, with all its negative bag and baggage.

Rich Puchalsky said...

"it was instead part of a larger attempt to unpick the logic of the genius, with all its negative bag and baggage."

All right. But that brings up a sort of conflict between ideology and practice. Sure, no one wants to be admiring Romantic geniuses in a quasi-fascistic way. But really, when someone whose job it is to study writing sits down to studying some writing, they find out everything they can about this kind of thing. You don't say "everything in the book is a mere shadow of Dickens' mid-life affair" or "the author told us what the book is about ... and that's just what it means." But the person doing this is certainly interested in the author's life and their ideas about what they were doing, and that goes in along with everything else. I mean, I assume so.

So the ideological advice can get somewhat misinterpreted as practical advice. Or perhaps it really doesn't because the practical advice gets transmitted by the class essay writing and so on, in which people have critical editions of works that already implicitly have this kind of information, so they can see that they're really supposed to use it.

Mike Taylor said...

Late to the party again ...

I'd not heard of "the author is dead", but it's a nice way of summarising the stance you describe. (Does "there is nothing but the text" mean something similar? I don't know much about literature, being a scientist by trade.)

Anyway -- reading the author-is-dead parts of this fascinating essay reminded me strongly of the "fourth bleat" in Lewis's essay Fern-Seed and Elephants:

All this sort of criticism attempts to reconstruct the genesis of the texts it studies; what vanished documents each author used, when and where he wrote, with what purposes, under what influences - the whole Sitz im Leben of the text. This is done with immense erudition and great ingenuity. And at first sight it is very convincing. I think I should be convinced by it myself, but that I carry about with me a charm - the herb moly - against it. You must excuse me if I now speak for a while of myself. The value of what I say depends on its being first-hand evidence.

What forearms me against all these reconstructions is the fact that I have seen it all from the other end of the stick. I have watched reviewers reconstructing the genesis of my own books in just this way.

Until you come to be reviewed yourself you would never believe how little of an ordinary review is taken up by criticism in the strict sense; by evaluation, praise, or censure, of the book actually written. Most of it is taken up with imaginary histories of the process by which you wrote it. The very terms which the reviewers use in praising or dispraising often imply such a history. They praise a passage as 'spontaneous' and censure another as 'labored'; that is, they think they know that you wrote the one currenete calamo and the other invita Minerva.

What the value of such reconstructions is I learned very early in my career. I had published a book of essays; and in the one into which I had put most of my heart, the one I really cared about and in which I discharged a keen enthusiasm, was on William Morris. And in almost the first review I was told that this was obviously the only one in the book in which I had felt no interest. Now don't mistake. The critic was, I now believe, quite right in thinking it the worst essay in the book; at least everyone agreed with him. Where he was totally wrong was in his imaginary history of the causes which produces its dullness.

Well, this made me prick up my ears. Since then I have watched with some care similar imaginary histories both of my own books and of books by friends whose real history I knew. Reviewers, both friendly and hostile, will dash you off such histories with great confidence; will tell you what public events had directed the author's mind to this or that, what other authors had influenced him, what his overall intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why - and when - he did everything.

Now I must record my impression; then distinct from it, what I can say with certainty. My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 per cent failure. You would expect that by mere chance they would hit as often as the miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can't remember a single hit. But as I have not kept a careful record my mere impression may be mistaken. What I think I can say with certainty is that they are usually wrong.


I've always found that assertion very striking. (The whole essay can be read at http://orthodox-web.tripod.com/papers/fern_seed.html)