Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Tale of Two Mysteries

Twenty years ago or so, a friend of mine from the economics department introduced me to a professor from the English department. “You two should hit it off,” my friend had said. “You’re into Dickens, and he’s published work on Dickens.” His prediction made sense, so I looked forward to meeting Prof. Lawrence Frank, author of Charles Dickens and the Romantic Self. But when we got together, Prof. Frank didn’t seem to want to talk much about our shared interest. “I do Freudian stuff with Dickens,” is all he said about his work. Of Dickens himself, he only said that David Copperfield was an astounding achievement, without providing any further details.

Curious about the reticent Prof. Frank, I checked out his book and started reading. I read the lengthy first chapter and didn’t understand it. I read it again and thought I understood it. I read it a third time and decided that I did in fact understand it but couldn’t believe it. There is no such thing as a self, says Frank; no person is an individual. A series of texts exists having issued from a series of disconnected phenomena all collectively going by the name Charles Dickens. But that a unity named Charles Dickens lived continuously for sixty-some years is an illusion, a convention of language. This type of postmodern critique of the self was completely new to me, so I had a hard time coming to terms with seeing such ideas in black and white. But even more unacceptable to me was the statement that Dickens himself (that can’t possibly be the way he put it, but I don’t know how to say it any other way) believed that the self was an illusion and that he wrote his books as a demonstration of that fact. Just look at chapter 2 of A Tale of Two Cities, Prof. Frank argued. The passengers in the Dover mail coach are all wrapped up so that no one can tell who anyone else is. Dickens is showing us that personal identity is unknown, unknowable, and nonexistent.

Lawrence Frank can believe what he must believe. I understand now that people (mostly academics) believe such things. But to say that Dickens believed selfhood was a fiction or that his books demonstrate it is simply to misread Dickens. Chapter 3 of “Book the First” of A Tale of Two Cities begins by saying that “every human creature is” a “profound mystery and secret to every other.” Secret, not illusion. The death of a friend, the narrator goes on to say, closes the door forever on “the secret that was always in that individuality.” Always, not intermittently. Individuality, not disconnected series. So those passengers on the coach in chapter 2 may have been “hidden under almost as many wrappers from the eyes of the mind, as from the eyes of the body, of his two companions,” but they definitely exist. Illusions aren’t hidden.

Secrets, codes, hidden messages, spies, and mysterious people, in fact, constitute the driving theme of the novel. Why does Mme Defarge always knit? We find out that in the pattern of her stitches she registers names and descriptions of aristocrats she wants to see guillotined. How did Doctor Manette end up in the Bastille? We find out when the letter he hid in the chimney is found and read. So of course Dickens would play out this theme consistently with characters as well as objects and events. To claim that Dickens meant to say that no concrete secret lay behind the code of human appearance is to claim that Dickens didn’t know how to write a unified novel. No one knows what Miss Pross is capable of – not even Miss Pross – until Mme Defarge confronts her. But Miss Pross's capability exists; it is latent, not illusory. The reader doesn’t at first know what Jerry Cruncher does at night, but Jerry Cruncher has a very definite nocturnal profession. And Sydney Carton! Sydney’s past, present, and future come together one night on the Pont Neuf when he finds hope in the words “I am the Resurrection and the Life” and purpose in his determination to sacrifice himself for Lucie’s happiness. He is a unified individual, not an empty shell. Almost no one knows Sydney’s heart, but he has a heart. Lucie knows that there is a man behind the curtain, because Sydney confides the secret of his heart to Lucie. And a soulless illusion doesn’t confide the secret of a nonexistent heart.

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