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This work examines the dialectic of desire and value, as it affects the protagonist's identity, in fiction from Dickens and George Eliot through Hardy and Conrad to Lawrence and Joyce. Philip Weinstein describes the growing sexualization of the imagined bodythe transformation of the protagonistic self from a figure defined by semantics, signification, and cultural value to one characterized by desire, force, and natural impulse.
Originally published in 1984.
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The Semantics of Desire
Changing Models of Identity from Dickens to Joyce
By Philip M. Weinstein
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The Nocturnal Dickens
As often, he was suffering from insomnia. Resdess, certain that sleep would not come before morning — if at all — he dressed quickly, pocketed his notebook and pencil, and headed toward the river. Perhaps he would come across the inspector, and together they could survey the sinister traffic on the water that night. He was making his way briskly along the empty streets when, to his surprise, he came upon a young prostitute standing in the middle of the road about fifty yards away, alone and energetically swearing. Curious, he listened to the unbroken stream of oaths, and he began to smile on hearing some choice phrases unknown even to him. Out came the notebook and pencil; he swiftly jotted down each unfamiliar curse. The girl paused for a moment, looked at him with a mixture of confusion and anger. "Go on, go on," he encouraged her, and she resumed her volley of oaths. At this moment there appeared on the road — probably returning late from the club and a little tipsy — just such a benevolent old duffer as had so often peopled his fiction. The duffer stared at the strange scene before him and, though he could never have said what was wrong, he knew, from the shiver along the back of his neck, that something was wrong. "Stop that immediately!" he commanded the girl, and "You, sir! What do you think you're doing?" he charged the man intent on note-taking. The notetaker looked evenly at the duffer, drew himself unhurriedly into a posture of unassailable authority, and responded, "Sir, I am Charles Dickens." Pencil in hand, he then turned to the prostitute and said curtly, "Swear!"
This vignette captures the Dickens who is the subject of the following essays. I first heard it in a graduate seminar, and I hereby exonerate the seminar instructor from all responsibility for its accuracy as fact, its accuracy in my retelling, or its accuracy in the uses I shall make of it. In my reading of Dickens during the seventeen years since that seminar at Harvard, the restless figure of the vignette has deepened in complexity and interest, and I now see that there is something of the essential Dickens, not just in the sinister authority figure, but in the benevolent duffer and the humiliated child/prostitute as well. The story seems ideally true, whatever its factual status, and it suggests, in nuce, the following: that Dickens is a restless man, in search of further outlets for an energy he finds it difficult to contain; that his devotion to the dictates of his art may momentarily cross moral barriers without a qualm; that he has a penchant for scenes that hover between the conventional and the illicit, and can draw publicly on the resources of the one, while tapping secretly those of the other; that behind the figure of mercy is a figure of power, and his power is not to be gainsayed; that the different facets of his genius are in dramatic conflict with each other, rather than serenely integrated; and that his fiction, without being hypocritical, is enigmatic and compelling to the extent that, along with his other gifts, he also exploits the "nocturnal," the demonic within him. Larvatus prodeo: as a man of desires I go forth in disguise.
A PALIMPSEST OF MOTIVES IN DAVID COPPEKFIELD
The following pages explore an unresolved tension between Dickens' involuntary imaginative vision and his moral assessment of that vision. In the Dickens world appropriation, overpowering, and imposition are inevitable effects of a thrusting human will. The frame of cultural values within which Dickens reads his world, however, centers on selfless, unaggressive discipline and cannot accommodate such effects except as the attributes of villainy. A restless and overpowering man, he makes little conceptual room for restlessness and the release of power in his Active world. To use a phrase of Nietzsche's, Dickens falls into "sentimental weakness" when he burkes the implications of his imaginative insight, when he cloaks the hardness of his perception within a soothing interpretative framework. Cloaks, not eradicates; the imaginative insight leaves its indelible trace, making for a palimpsest of contradictory scripts. The imaginative texture seems to mean something other than what is claimed for it. In interpreting such instances, I shall follow D. H. Lawrence's dictum and trust, not the artist, but his tale.
The world limned by the tale (rather than the one asserted by the artist) answers in several respects to some common tenets of Nietzsche and Freud. In their writings energy is the primary human datum; repression and self-evasion are inevitable corollaries. At our core, says Philip Rieff (describing the Freudian psyche), "we are, first of all, unhappy combinations of conflicting desires. Civilization can, at best, reach a balance of discontents" (377). Paul Ricoeur writes in Freud and Philosophy: "Because the adult remains subject to the infant he once was ... because he is capable of archaism, conflict is no mere accident which he might be spared by a better social organization or a more suitable education; human beings can experience entry into culture only in the mode of conflict. Suffering accompanies the task of culture like fate ..." (196).
That our destiny has its source in our conflicting desires, that these desires are more or less permanently in conflict with each other, that the price of entry into culture is the suffering of instinctual repression — these are Freudian tenets creatively broached or flirted with in the Dickens world, yet rarely acknowledged. Nietzsche's superb advice, "You shall become who you are," is not adopted by the Dickens protagonist. Becoming who you are means probing the gap between cultural platitudes and conflicting desires, and then, insofar as possible, centering the self on its native and embodied resources. To become who you are requires neither abnegation nor metamorphosis, but an act of self-exploring and self-forming usually absent from the Dickens world. More often, the protagonists for whom he claims development end by "leaping" into their desired identity — or magically attaining it after a mysterious illness — and these are as different from becoming who you are as self-evasive idealism is from Nietzschean realism.
Reading Dickens' fiction in a light he could neither have intended nor accepted has been going on at least since Edmund Wilson's seminal essay. More recently, Raymond Williams writes that Dickens "works more finely than anyone in his time the tension — often the unbearable tension — between orthodox ideas, the ratifying explanations of the world as it was, and the tearing, dislocating, haunting experience which the ideas, in majority, were meant to control." Williams goes on to say: "It is easy to show him, intellectually, as inconsistent, but my final point is that these deepest ideas and experiences tore at him, profoundly, in ways that make one see not inconsistency — the analytic abstraction — but disturbance — the creative source" (87, 98). Creative disturbance, not rational inconsistency, results from the tension between his imaginative grasp of passion and disorder and the conceptual framework of altruism and discipline within which he sought to control the passion and disorder.
A few words are in order on David Copperfield's present disrepute. Its surface serenity attracts scant attention in a critical climate that still finds in Dombey and Son the first masterpiece, then jumps to Bleak House and the subsequent darker novels. When assessed, David Copperfield tends to elicit brief and condescending comments, if not an occasionally outright dismissal: "Surely, for all its extraordinary, almost revolutionary analysis of childhood thoughts," Angus Wilson says, "the most false of all his major books" (209).
In the present-day estimate, the novel accommodates only too well Gwendolyn Needham's earlier influential thesis about "the undisciplined heart of David Copperfield." Needham was the first to claim that the disciplining of the heart is the central activity of the novel: "The good heart must have no 'alloy of self,' must love humanity as well as persons. It must be self-reliant and possess constancy and fortitude ..." (86). If these platitudes were appropriate, then the novel would indeed be a complacent exercise that deserves its present critical oblivion. I want to argue, however, the opposite case: that the novel merits attention because it imaginatively overflows the limits of its conceptual framework. David Copperfield "creatively disturbs" insofar as it surreptitiously reveals the wayward heart overpowering the inadequate ideas of discipline and altruism meant to unify and tranquilize it.
* * *
The "undisciplined heart," as Needham claimed, is the major organizing concept of the novel. The careers of Clara Copperfield, Little Em'ly, Annie Strong, Dora, and David are all articulated within this framework. If we unpack the concept of the "undisciplined heart" and probe the unpersuasive resolutions of discipline asserted in its name, we can identify the novel's more interesting achievement: its expression of "conflicting desires," desires unacceptable, repressed, and yet legible nevertheless. The first of four sets of relationships keyed to this dynamic — simultaneously clamoring to be read in the light of renunciation, yet revealing less high-minded motives — is the triangle of Dr. Strong, Annie, and Jack Maldon.
The Doctor was sitting in his easy-chair by the fireside, and his young wife was on a stool at his feet. The Doctor, with a complacent smile, was reading aloud some manuscript explanation or statement of a theory out of that interminable Dictionary, and she was looking up at him. But, with such a face as I never saw. ... Distinctly as I recollect her look, I cannot say of what it was expressive. ... Penitence, humiliation, shame, pride, love, and trustfulness. I see them all. ... My entrance ... roused her. It disturbed the Doctor too, for when I went back ... he was patting her head, in his fatherly way, and saying he was a merciless drone to let her tempt him into reading on; and he would have her go to bed.
But she asked him, in a rapid, urgent manner, to let her stay — to let her feel assured ... that she was in his confidence that night. And, as she turned again towards him ... I saw her cross her hands upon his knee, and look up at him with the same face, something quieted, as he resumed his reading. (210-11)
This scene, like the entire relationship between the Strongs, is imagined in conflicting ways; it gives mixed signals. With his "complacent" smile, reading from his "interminable" Dictionary, the Doctor is a "drone." He is resolutely blind to his wife's quandary, but the narrative intelligence which upbraids David for being "blind, blind, blind!" refuses to censure the Doctor. Rather it benignly portrays Strong's blindness as one of his virtues, a sign of his incorruption. Nevertheless, our awareness that he will never complete the Dictionary, and that no one actually listens as he reads, is reinforced by the presentation of Mr. Dick writing his interminable, meaningless Memorial. Dick becomes, with unexpected swiftness, a fast friend of the Strongs, and if he and the Doctor walking together in the garden appear in one light as a brain-damaged man listening to a masterful savant, what we also see is a pair of good-natured, ineffectual duffers. Unsentimentally assessed, Dick and Strong exemplify virtue as impotence. Willless themselves, free of desire, they exist as a kind of passive ideal, touchstones of others' aggression or kindness. If Dickens' presentation of them is complex — a blend of sympathetic and satirical perceptions — his assessment of them (especially of Strong) is monotonously sentimental. It is to that smugly befuddled side of Strong and Dick that a Nietzschean reading applies; they nicely anticipate Nietzsche's corrosive equation of virtue and stupidity in Christian society. Analyzing Christian morality as a species of "slave morality," Nietzsche argues that the fearful "slave" begins by defining "evil" as those traits of mastery and power which he does not possess. The "slave" then goes on, reflexively, to identify as "good" his own incapacity:
... the good human being has to be undangerous in the slaves' way of thinking: he is good-natured, easy to deceive, a little stupid perhaps, un bonhomme. Wherever slave morality become preponderant, language tends to bring the words "good" and "stupid" closer together. (Beyond Good and Evil, 397)
Well-intentioned, pure of heart, ineffectual, "a little stupid perhaps" — no one would dream of so characterizing Charles Dickens, but these traits dominate in those benign duffers that people his fiction. Such traits seem to define evil as the danger of power itself and good as the sweetness of incapacity. My point is that Dickens' text treats these traits ambivalently. Even as David rhapsodizes over the ineffectual Strong, the novel insinuates a Nietzschean valuation of the Doctor in numerous ways: by implicitly equating him with the grotesque Mr. Dick, by emphasizing the forty-year difference between his age and Annie's, by drawing attention to Annie's guilt-ridden interest in Jack Maldon.
It is a curious fact that, during the first half of the novel, readers are as persuaded of her liaison with Maldon as of Miss Mowcher's demonic character. Eventually, we become "undeceived" on both issues; we are told that Annie Strong labors under unjustified suspicions, and that Mowcher has a maligned heart of gold. We learn from Edgar Johnson's biography, however, that our first sinister impressions of Mowcher were not ill-founded. She was originally to be an evil figure and was drawn as such; but the real dwarf who served, unawares, as her model recognized herself in the early chapters, complained to Dickens, and caused his revision (never persuasive) of the character in later scenes (Johnson, II, 674-75). Analogously, Dickens "knows," in that involuntary part of his imagination that acknowledges energy and the will to power, that Annie is implicated with Maldon because he "knows," in the same region of the imagination, that Strong is an inert, inadequate husband for a young wife as intense as she is repressed. He may be said to "know" this because his novel has been insistently, compellingly expressing her guilty gestures until Chapter 45.2 At that point we discover Annie's innocence, and we hear the impassioned speech about her "undisciplined heart."
"If I were thankful to my husband for no more, instead of for so much, I should be thankful to him for having saved me from the first mistaken impulse of my undisciplined heart. ... I do not hope that any love and duty I may render in return, will ever make me worthy of your priceless confidence; but ... I can lift my eyes to this dear face, revered as a father's, loved as a husband's, sacred to me in my childhood as a friend's, and solemnly declare that in my lightest thought I have never wronged you; never wavered in the love and the fidelity I owe you! ... Do not think or speak of disparity between us, for there is none, except in all my many imperfections. ... Oh, take me to your heart, my husband, for my love was founded on a rock, and it endures!" (564-66)
Not only does this passage unpersuasively "revise" the earlier guilt-ridden gestures, but — with its florid language, its strident tone, its blank-verse rhythms — such prose represents Dickens at his worst. The asserted emotion and the expressed emotion are hardly the same. Humility and devotion are asserted, but a near shameless self-exoneration is expressed. The lineaments of the real Dr. Strong disappear beneath his wife's operatic outpouring, as husband, father, teacher all unite into perfection itself. The ideological paradigm of the faultless father-husband and the reverent daughter-wife reveals itself. Annie's language turns religious, her husband appears divine, and her love, like Christ's church, is "founded on a rock."
The stridency and excess seem meant by Dickens to persuade the reader that Annie is (and knows herself to be) ideally situated in her marriage. Beneath Annie's rant one thus glimpses a disquieting proposition (latent here, enacted with Emily): that her desire represents a trap she may perish in, not a faculty she is entitled to, and that her elderly husband represents a sanctuary of passionless benevolence for which she should feel grateful — a protection from "the first mistaken impulses of an undisciplined heart." Her marriage may be superficially assessed by Dickens as a disciplining of the passions, but it is more punitively imagined as a retirement from them.
Excerpted from The Semantics of Desire by Philip M. Weinstein. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- Preface, pg. vii
- Acknowledgments, pg. ix
- A Note on Bibliographical Procedures and Primary Texts, pg. xi
- Contents, pg. xiii
- Introduction, pg. 1
- Introduction, pg. 19
- Chapter One. The Nocturnal Dickens, pg. 21
- Chapter Two. George Eliot and the Idolatries of the Superego, pg. 73
- Introduction, pg. 107
- Chapter Three. Hardy: "Full-Hearted Evensong", pg. 108
- Chapter Four. Conrad: Against Nature, pg. 146
- Introduction, pg. 187
- Chapter Five. "Become Who You Are": The Optative World of D. H. Lawrence, pg. 189
- Chapter Six. New Heaven, New Earth: Joyce and the Art of Reprojection, pg. 252
- Afterword, pg. 288
- List of Works Cited, pg. 293
- Index, pg. 305