Friday, December 19, 2008
Ring out, wild bells! Time to chime in on “The Chimes”!
To be honest, “The Chimes” has left me a bit at a loss, and so I’m looking forward to hearing reactions from others. My biggest confusion was over Trotty himself: what did he do to deserve these terrible visions of deprivation and depravity, and what is he supposed to do about them? His sin appears to be his loss of faith in humanity:
‘Unnatural and cruel!’ Toby cried. ‘Unnatural and cruel! None but people who were bad at heart, born bad, who had no business on the earth, could do such deeds. It’s too true, all I’ve heard to-day; too just, too full of proof. We’re Bad!’
He has to learn to blame nurture, rather than nature:
‘I know that we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another.’
But because he’s really such a kindly fellow himself, and so powerless that his error can hardly do any damage, while his redemption can hardly do any good, he seems a far more artificial device for this re-education project than Scrooge does. The story’s didacticism, in other words, seemed to overpower its aesthetic conception and thus blunted its emotional effects: it was always already about me (and you), not about Trotty, and unpleasantly so, as the underlying assumption about me (and you) is that we will blame and despise desperate mothers who make their terrible way towards the river to take “the dreadful plunge."* In short, I didn’t like it that much overall.
Still, it’s Dickens, and he can’t help being brilliant, at least fitfully. My favourite bit was definitely the opening of the third quarter--yes, the bit with the goblins:
He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells. He saw them leaping, flying, dropping, pouring from the Bells without a pause. He saw them, round him on the ground; above him, in the air; clambering from him, by the ropes below; looking down upon him, from the massive iron–girded beams; peeping in upon him, through the chinks and loopholes in the walls; spreading away and away from him in enlarging circles, as the water ripples give way to a huge stone that suddenly comes plashing in among them. He saw them, of all aspects and all shapes. He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed. He saw them young, he saw them old, he saw them kind, he saw them cruel, he saw them merry, he saw them grim; he saw them dance, and heard them sing; he saw them tear their hair, and heard them howl. He saw the air thick with them. He saw them come and go, incessantly. He saw them riding downward, soaring upward, sailing off afar, perching near at hand, all restless and all violently active. Stone, and brick, and slate, and tile, became transparent to him as to them. He saw them IN the houses, busy at the sleepers’ beds. He saw them soothing people in their dreams; he saw them beating them with knotted whips; he saw them yelling in their ears; he saw them playing softest music on their pillows; he saw them cheering some with the songs of birds and the perfume of flowers; he saw them flashing awful faces on the troubled rest of others, from enchanted mirrors which they carried in their hands.
He saw these creatures, not only among sleeping men but waking also, active in pursuits irreconcilable with one another, and possessing or assuming natures the most opposite. He saw one buckling on innumerable wings to increase his speed; another loading himself with chains and weights, to retard his. He saw some putting the hands of clocks forward, some putting the hands of clocks backward, some endeavouring to stop the clock entirely. He saw them representing, here a marriage ceremony, there a funeral; in this chamber an election, in that a ball he saw, everywhere, restless and untiring motion.
OK, help me out: is “The Chimes” better than I think? What struck you most about it?
*A much better example of a ‘fallen woman’ story, just btw, is Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Lizzie Leigh.”
I’ll have more to write about this if I have time later today, but first, an atmospheric post here.
What I plan to write later, in short: it’s a political novel, much more so than A Christmas Carol, so of course it seems overly didactic. It’s interesting that Dickens is here being vaguely Marxist-sounding without Marx. What Trotty is being blamed for, here, is really false consciousness. And he’s warned not to oppose the engine of history. There’s a whole lot of rhetoric that I’d thought was specifically Marxian that seems to have really been general to the time.
It makes me better appreciate Poe and Hoffmann, and even Irving. I think you’re right that the story is not really interested in Toby. He seems grist for Dickens’ social theories (history progresses, Xmas is a season of renewal, art (the bells) can be revelatory or terrifying) as much as the bourgeois gentlemen. Ironically, though, that seems closely bound up with the reason Dickens’ novels are more concerned with people than, say, Poe. Poe only sees his own vision, Dickens sees where a man with a vision might fit in (an unfair) society.
The part I liked best was the earlier scene where Meg and Lily were alone together. The dialogue seemed more natural, which was also odd, because I’m not sure Dickens has a place for women in his idea of society (other than as an angel in the house). The tenderness struck me in part because I remember Mike Nichols cut the lion’s share of the scenes between Harper and her mother-in-law in his adaptation of Angels in America, and how much that changed the play.
"Marxist-sounding without Marx” = Thomas Carlyle, specifically Past and Present (1843)
I thought that it was clearly probable that Richard had had sex with Lilian before drunkenly visiting Meg, which was a rather odd implied scene, for Dickens.
Rich is right, I think, on the false consciousness thing. Trotty wholly buys into the dominant ideology of the various members of the ruling classes he encounters, to the point of despising the working class of which he is a part, and hence despising himself. He’s almost a kind of class traitor.
It’s tempting, although perhaps a little misleading, to read the book via Marxist. For instance, what is Trotty? He is not a salaried worker, and he is not productive; he’s almost, despite his evident ‘respectability’ a member of the lumpenproletariat. He scrapes the barest living carrying messages back and forth between monied people--a kind of embodiment of the principle of the fluidity of capital; or an externalisation of the principle of liquidity.
I say ‘misleading’ because I suppose Dickens means something different by his haunting ‘spectres’ than Marx does (’a spectre is haunting Europe’ and so on). Although having said that, there’s something in this line that makes it read almost as a gloss precisely upon The Chimes: ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’
OK, here’s my slightly more substantial response to reading The Chimes. I hadn’t looked at it in a long time, and I was glad for the chance to re-read it. Unlike Rohan I enjoyed it very much indeed. One thing I particularly liked, for instance, was the way CD riffed off articulations of ‘hardness’ and ‘softness’. People are made of flesh, which is soft; the bells are made of iron, which is hard. But—and this is the keynote, I think—the times are hard, and that metaphorical hardness get actualised in literal terms in Dickens’s representation of the poor (Meg says: ‘And how hard, father, to grow old, and die, and think we might have cheered and helped each other! How hard in all our lives to love each other; and to grieve, apart, to see each other working, changing, growing old and grey’). Now, for example, wealthy Bowley’s fleshly porter is called ‘Fish’, and later marries the excessively softbodied Mrs Chickenstalker. Trotty, on the other hand, is described in terms of his pared-down, starvation hardness. Richard is explicitly metallic:
Richard, who had come upon them unobserved, and stood before the father and daughter; looking down upon them with a face as glowing as the iron on which his stout sledge–hammer daily rung. A handsome, well–made, powerful youngster he was; with eyes that sparkled like the red–hot droppings from a furnace fire. [1st Quarter]
I particularly noticed it with regard to heads, because I suppose the anthropomorphised Bells are metal heads and faces rather than metallic bodies. Trotty eating twice in one day is as incredible a notion to him as ‘that I have a gold head all my life’. At one point Trotty worries that his nose has ‘gone’: because he can’t feel it in the cold: it’s as if it has been worn down like a metal nose, perhaps by the abrasive ‘Filer’ and his hard views. The times are hard, like the bells; and also heavy like the bells (‘I dragged on,’ says Fern, ‘but so heavy that I couldn’t put a cheerful face upon it’). The erasure of the poor, the way they are ground or ‘filed’ down like metal, is epitomised by the bells themselves, who have lost their names and their ‘mugs’ (a pun, I think, on actual baptismal mugs and ‘faces’):
Centuries ago, these Bells had been baptized by bishops: so many centuries ago, that the register of their baptism was lost long, long before the memory of man, and no one knew their names. They had had their Godfathers and Godmothers, these Bells (for my own part, by the way, I would rather incur the responsibility of being Godfather to a Bell than a Boy), and had their silver mugs no doubt, besides. But Time had mowed down their sponsors, and Henry the Eighth had melted down their mugs; and they now hung, nameless and mugless, in the church–tower.
But all this carefully detailed hardness, and spareness, dissolves in Trotty’s encounter with the Chime-goblins, the phantasmagoric passage Rohan rightly picks out in the post above for its general extraordinariness, and which she quotes at length: the ‘swarming elfin creatures of the Bells’ who ‘peep in upon him, through the chinks and loopholes in the walls’ like voyeurs; and flow like ‘water ripples’ visiting people in their homes and in their beds like succubi, dancing and singing, or howling like women wailing for their demon lovers, or ‘riding downward’ soothing people or ‘beating them with knotted whips’. The shift to an untrammelled pouring fluidity is extraordinary, and it struck me as very sexualised, even orgiastic: look at the profusion of mostly sexually-mature, naked male and female bodies tangling in an erotic melée drawn by Maclise for the frontispiece, here, for instance (not a brilliant reproduction, but the best I could find online in a hurry). That really is one of the most sensual and frankly erotic illustrations I can think of in any Victorian family-oriented book. Or else it’s my foul and sewer-like mind seeing sex where there is none … except that, as Rohan points out, The Chimes is essentially a story of how poverty leads to sexual corruption and the fall of fallen women, a prospect to which even suicide and infanticide is, on some level, to be preferred. Sex, in other words, is everywhere throughout the book, something ever-present which can’t be quite be properly articulated; which in turn leads me to wonder whether there’s another sense of ‘hard’ in the novel, in addition to the ones I mention above.
"Or else it’s my foul and sewer-like mind seeing sex where there is none … “
Not just yours; see my comment above. The scene where Richard says that Lillian finally convinced him to go see Meg, and in which he tells Meg about it with an oddly gloating character—well, he’s a creep, and it’s easy to believe.
“except that, as Rohan points out, The Chimes is essentially a story of how poverty leads to sexual corruption and the fall of fallen women, a prospect to which even suicide and infanticide is, on some level, to be preferred.”
It’s not just that, though. Lillian’s corruption is only one of the sorts that Dickens tries out, a (because of his inability to refer directly to it) one of the least convincing ones. Meg is simply worn down by virtuous poverty. And here’s William Fell:
“‘What have you done?’ she asked again.
‘There’ll be a Fire to–night,’ he said, removing from her. ‘There’ll be Fires this winter–time, to light the dark nights, East, West, North, and South. When you see the distant sky red, they’ll be blazing. When you see the distant sky red, think of me no more; or, if you do, remember what a Hell was lighted up inside of me, and think you see its flames reflected in the clouds. Good night. Good bye!’”
He’s essentially become what we’d call a political terrorist. As a person who can’t bring himself to bow down, it’s essentially the only action left to him.
I disliked The Chimes, too. I didn’t find Trotty to be a very engaging character, and it seemed like a weird sort of cause and effect that he treated Will and Lillian Fern so kindly, and that same night was haunted by a horrible vision. (I enjoyed the generous Trotty’s quote “It’s a curious circumstance… that I never care, myself, for rashers, nor for tea. I like to see other people enjoy ‘em… but to me, as food, they’re disagreeable.")
I understand that Trotty was haunted by the goblins because of his reaction to the newspaper story about the woman drowning herself and her baby, but the response seemed disproportionate since Trotty was so kind generally. Hardly like Ebenezer Scrooge being given one last chance to atone for a lifetime of meanness and greed.
My book had a note saying that the crime was based on the 1844 case of Mary Furley, who tried to drown herself and her baby in order to avoid the workhouse, and was sentenced to death. Dickens wrote an article protesting the sentence and it was eventually made lighter. This made me wonder how much readers at the time would have been aware of the Mary Furley case, and if that would have made the allusion to it more powerful for them.
Reading The Chimes did inspire me to reread A Christmas Carol, which I am enjoying very much, but otherwise I was underwhelmed.
Here are my more lengthy comments on the book.
Julie: “...it seemed like a weird sort of cause and effect that he treated Will and Lillian Fern so kindly, and that same night was haunted by a horrible vision.”
I appreciate it can be an annoying tic to take things that people object to about a text and turn them around into ‘but that was precisely what is so good about it!’ Nevertheless ... isn’t what you identify actually one of the ways Chimes scores over Christmas Carol? In the latter Scrooge is nasty, is shown that being nasty in the world leads to supernatural horriblenesses, and changes his ways. Is that the way the world works, do you think? The Chimes inverts that schema: a good poor, not a wicked rich, protagonist. Trotty is decent and hardworking and capable of enormous love and generosity; he does his best, puts others before him, and indeed engages in the highest act of Christian charity by housing, clothing and feeding a stranger and his ward (’I was hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in ... inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me’). In return the cosmos shits all over him. Isn’t there something more ethically, or even metaphysically, nuanced in that? The rich are bastards, but still get all the pie; the poor are basically decent and still suffer. That’s the hungry 40s. Or, you know, the noughties.
One other random thought: as per Rohan’s title I was conscious, reading The Chimes, of Dickens making play with chinking and chiming, for instance in the clink of money being counted out, or more generally of tropes of harmony and disharmony. But because Hanukkah starts tomorrow (coincidentally my son’s first birthday) I kept thinking of ’L’Chaim!‘ It is a book about life, isn’t it though? I wonder whether Dickens’s knew enough about Judaism to know this word. I doubt it, actually: he did have Jewish friends, but later in life than the early 40s. Still ... L’Chaim everybody.
I don’t want to change the subject if others are discussing Julie’s and Adam’s point, and I haven’t read Rich’s longer comments yet, but the passage Rohan included just reminded me of something else interesting. The goblins torment Toby in something like the same way demons torture suffering souls in the texts cited by Stephen Greenblatt in Hamlet in Purgatory. Because of the Reformation, it was illegal for English people to believe in purgatory. This seems like it could be described as almost similar to the return of the repressed. An impossible to eradicate feeling comes back in a form that might be worse than what you had before the attempt to eradicate it.
As to that point, one of the most disturbing things about the story is the fact that Toby is made so miserable when he hardly deserves any of that, being he’s one of the oppressed and not the proud. I don’t feel Dickens has a good answer for my questions in that regard, at least in this story. Saying false consciousness only raises more questions. I wasn’t convinced by the representation of the proud either. They were all talking heads; knowing their sources, I couldn’t believe them as characters—they were almost as unreal as the bell-people.
It’s not just that it attempts a certain metaphysical realism, the text also takes aim at some of the middle-class values that go uncontested earlier. Scrooge has let thrift turn into greed. But in this book, the bad guys make a point of saying that they pay back their debts—about how good it is to go into a new year not owing anything to anyone. While Toby, on the other hand, has run up a tab at the store that he’s probably never going to pay entirely back. And it’s just another form of oppression to say how good it is to clear what’s owed, because Toby can never clear what he owes. Here Dickens isn’t attacking greed, or even thrift; he’s starting to attack the very concept of assigning moral worth to paying back debts.
I read it as an inverted Christmas Carol: both tales share a belief in the possibility of universal human goodness, but ACC advocates for a change in sensibility from the top down (the guy with all the dough must learn to judge others with sympathy and according to some other metric than cash value) and TC from the bottom up (the guy with no dough must learn to sympathize with others like himself ). Trotty has no independent sense of self in part because he cannot imaginatively identify with others, as his inability to sympathize with the Mary Furley stand-in suggests; he’s much nicer than Scrooge, but where Scrooge is miserly with his cash, Trotty is miserly with his sympathies (in the Adam Smith sense). In condemning the desperate young woman, he denies their common humanity--rather like those who deny the Irish Widow in Carlyle’s Past and Present, with fatal results--and by effectively writing her off as a monster, he can ignore the conditions that led her to do as she did. Until the vision, he cannot begin to articulate any resistance to the Scrooge-types higher up--in fact, he can’t even imagine that there’s some resistance to be articulated. The put-downs of his daughter are really shocking, if you think about it: she’s just about called out as a potential prostitute, and Trotty...stands there? This moment begins the chain of events that Trotty witnesses in the vision--he bears some responsibility for her ultimate degradation and despair. In the immortal words of Stephen Sondheim, “nice is different than good.”
Scrooge isn’t just nasty, though, and I think one of the things that Dickens does in ACC that is quite affecting is weaving in and out between Scrooge’s present and past, showing us Scrooge as a boy at school and as a young clerk at the Fezziwigs’ wonderful party. So ACC is dealing with the passage of time and lost opportunities where The Chimes just projecting into a dreary future, and for that reason I think ACC has a bittersweet quality and sense of urgency and universality (Life is short!) that The Chimes doesn’t have.
And to me the plot of a hard-hearted man being redeemed and reclaiming his former goodness is simply more powerful than the plot of a benevolent man condemning someone and then coming to realize he was uncharitable. I mean, Trotty doesn’t directly act on the beliefs he has started to absorb over the course of the day; he goes through all that torment just because he thinks to himself that the poor are Born Bad. And Dickens has painted Trotty as such a simple and easily confused fellow, that he doesn’t seem to hold very strong convictions in the matter.
I feared the worst when I stumbled on the decision to do this on The Valve as Adam Bede was so badly received and even Rohan doesn’t seem exactly committed to this.
I don’t think I’ll bother defending a superb writer this time, as no-one here gets Dickens at all, do they? (If only he had written a comic book you’d all be falling over yourselves to praise its every nuance!)
Lighten up, guys, it’s Christmas - those three ghosts from that other book will visit you if you don’t!
(Snooty English remark: Dickens didn’t like you lot either and what can we expect from a country that contributed the appalling term ‘Happy Holidays’ to the world not to mention a Santa straight from a coke can - and you criticise the ‘man who invented Christmas’? Aaaargh!!)
Don’t suppose anyone will reply either ... ‘Bah, humbug!
Dickens’ friend (yes, he had some)and first biographer on ‘The Chimes’:
‘The picture I am now to give of him at work should be prefaced by a word or two that may throw light on the design he was working at. It was a large theme for so small an instrument; and the disproportion was not more characteristic of the man, than the throes of suffering and passion to be presently undergone by him for results that many men would smile at. He was bent, as he says, on striking a blow for the poor. They had always been his clients, they had never been forgotten in any of his books, but here nothing else was to be remembered. He had become, in short, terribly earnest in the matter. Several months before he left England I had noticed in him the habit of more gravely regarding many things before passed lightly enough; the hopelessness of any true solution of either political or social problems by the ordinary Downing-street methods had been startlingly impressed on him in Carlyle’s writings; and in the parliamentary talk of that day he had come to have as little faith for the putting down of any serious evil, as in a then notorious city alderman’s gabble for the putting down of suicide. The latter had stirred his indignation to its depths just before he came to Italy, and his increased opportunities of solitary reflection since had strengthened and extended it. When he came therefore to think of his new story for Christmas time, he resolved to make it a plea for the poor. He did not want it to resemble his Carol, but the same kind of moral was in his mind. He was to try and convert Society, as he had converted Scrooge, by showing that its happiness rested on the same foundations as those of the individual, which are mercy and charity not less than justice. Whether right or wrong in these assumptions, need not be questioned here, where facts are merely stated to render intelligible what will follow; he had not made politics at any time a study, and they were always an instinct with him rather than a science; but the instinct was wholesome and sound, and to set class against class he never ceased to think as odious as he thought it righteous at all times to help each to a kindlier knowledge of the other. And so, here in Italy, amid the grand surroundings of this Palazzo Peschiere, the hero of his imagination was to be a sorry old drudge of a London ticket-porter, who in his anxiety not to distrust or think hardly of the rich, has fallen into the opposite extreme of distrusting the poor. From such distrust it is the object of the story to reclaim him; and, to the writer of it, the tale became itself of less moment than what he thus intended it to enforce.’
So, ‘yah, boo, sucks’, to the lot of you!
Thank you all for these very thought-provoking comments; I have been doing some holiday baking (chocolate cherry shortbread, yum, much better than tripe) and socializing and haven’t had time to join in properly--and now I’m too tired. But I’m going to re-read TC tomorrow, if the children will let me, and see what happens. I think maybe knowing ACC so well was disabling for me on my first readings. I expected a certain kind of thing and didn’t really know what to do with the kind of thing I read. I think Miriam’s comment in particular ("Until the vision, he cannot begin to articulate any resistance to the Scrooge-types higher up--in fact, he can’t even imagine that there’s some resistance to be articulated") has given me something to work with in terms I’m fairly comfortable with.
This kind of exchange to me exemplifies Booth’s notion of “coduction.”
Thanks for posting that excerpt from Forster.
It doesn’t seem as if you’ve been reading the comments in this thread very carefully. I don’t know whether we “get” Dickens, whatever you mean by that exactly, but many people are clearly very interested in and compelled by “The Chimes.” And if you have bothered to learn more about “our lot” by reading, say, my posts on teaching Bleak House, you would find lots of evidence for pretty widespread admiration for the genius and achievement of Dickens. But this isn’t a Dickens fan club; if the only kind of literary criticism you accept is wholly uncritical encomiums on your favorite writers, then you are right that The Valve is never going to be a congenial intellectual environment for you.
Dickens didn’t like you lot either
What did Dickens have against Canadians? :-)
So, ‘yah, boo, sucks’, to the lot of you!
Well, that makes an exception to my previous remark about coduction. Nonetheless, in what I take to be the proper Dickensian spirit, Merry Christmas to you.
‘God bless us, everyone!’ Dickens liked a good joke and so do I - it’s fun to stir the pudding!
‘Happy Christmas’ to you, too!
Rohan, The Ethics is not my favorite of Booth’s books (could he really think Austen is emotionally immature because she hates? could he really think Jaws<i> is <i>that much of a danger to Western civilization? could he really think the salient fact about Rabelais is immorality?), but I never figured out just what he means by “coduction.” Is it a kind of (Aristotelian) dialectic?
’It doesn’t seem as if you’ve been reading the comments in this thread very carefully. I don’t know whether we “get” Dickens, whatever you mean by that exactly, but many people are clearly very interested in and compelled by “The Chimes.” ‘
Thought some more about this and feel the need to defend myself.
I have read these comments very carefully indeed and stick to my point that no-one ‘gets’ CD, here: there’s lots of articulate criticism and frevent interest but no personal connective save in a negative sense - that’s what I mean by ‘get’.
No, I haven’t read your teaching posts on ‘Bleak House’ but then I don’t suppose you have read my contributions on Dickens on The Literary Encyclopaedia (commissioned)or you would know that I have critical faculties myself and do not wish to be seen as someone who desires an uncritical Dickens ‘fan club’ (I don’t even belong to the Society).
However, I have, like yourself, no doubt, done a great deal of work on CD over the years and to begin a post on one book by saying how much better others are seems to be killing the project stone dead before it starts! As does the use of elitist words such as ‘conduction’ - like Bianca, I’m at a loss, here (at least ‘yah, boo, sucks’ is easy to understand). Still, as you clearly feel my presence is redundant on The Valve I shall depart.
(My comments on Americans were a joke but yours on Canadians show that you know exactly to what I was referring about CD’s feelings on the subject!)
‘Happy Cookie Making’,
I meant ‘coduction’ but it’s all Greek to me!
I have enjoyed this discussion and found it very useful.
One way to think of the reason for Trotty’s travails: he has committed the sin of despair, a narrow lapse, possibly, but deep and deadly. This ties in to the prostitution and suicide themes. It doesn’t seem to me very Dickensian to think in terms of sin (peril in the hereafter rather than the living world), but it’s a possibility.
The 1848 Dickens Christmas story, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain is actually explicitly about despair, though, so maybe there’s something to it. In that story, a man not only succumbs to despair himself but supernaturally transmits his despair to everyone around him. In The Chimes, of course, it’s the various theorists and improvers who spread despair.
I wrote a bit a week or two ago over at Wuthering Expectations about the link between The Chimes and Thomas Carlyle. Dickens’ story is clearly, in part, a direct response to Carlyle.
Hi (again) Rohan,
Just wanted to say that if I have given the impression that your Adam Bede event or this one were not successes I apologise - I made most of my earlier remarks tongue in cheek and just felt people were, perhaps, so concerned with the politics they were kind of ‘missing the meaning’?
For all and any offence caused to you or anyone, I apologise.
‘Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!’
I made most of my earlier remarks tongue in cheek
I’ll have to take your word for this, Sue; I can’t see any sign in your first two posts on this thread--or your fourth, for that matter--that you felt anything but hostility towards the other participants in the discussion. But tone is notoriously difficult to control in electronic communication. So, apology accepted.
I don’t think it makes sense to call “coduction” an “elite” term, though to be sure it is not a term that would be familiar to everyone--the same can be said of any specialized language, and I would think the language of professional literary criticism is well within what’s appropriate on this site. As Bianca recognizes, it is a coinage of Wayne Booth’s from his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. A simple Google search turns up good information on its meaning: try this or this. I like the term because I think it aptly describes the process we do in fact go through as we exchange insights, interpretations, and information with other readers--a critical process I think blogging is particularly well suited to.
And now,with our power restored and the little people tucked away for the night, I’m off at last to reread “The Chimes,” with everyone’s interesting ideas in mind (AR: Carlyle--yes!) and Adam’s compelling close readings setting the standard.
That is the most ungracious ‘acceptance’ of an apology I have ever read (and I apologised privately too, as you know).
Just to clarfy, here are the intended ‘tongue in cheek’ bits:
Joke 1: Lighten up, guys, it’s Christmas - those three ghosts from that other book will visit you if you don’t!
(Snooty English remark: Dickens didn’t like you lot either and what can we expect from a country that contributed the appalling term ‘Happy Holidays’ to the world not to mention a Santa straight from a coke can - and you criticise the ‘man who invented Christmas’? Aaaargh!!)
Don’t suppose anyone will reply either ... ‘Bah, humbug’!
‘God bless us, everyone!’ Dickens liked a good joke and so do I
it’s fun to stir the pudding!
Dickens’ friend (yes, he had some)
So, ‘yah, boo, sucks’, to the lot of you!
NONE of this was meant to offend and my fourth post was in defence of my earlier comments. I feel no hostility towards anyone!
The rest was just apology after apology but no, I hadn’t heard the word coduction before there are lots of things that lots of us don’t know, I imagine.
However, I do know when to leave a party ...
p.s. I don’t know what ‘encomiums’ means either - anyone else brave enough to acknowledge their ignorance or is it just me?
I am most disappointed that you offered so grudging an acceptance of my personal and private apologies; I did not expect this from a fellow academic and one I held in such high esteem. I have posted a reply on the site pointing out the ‘tongue in cheek’ elements you missed but I truly did not mean to offend and there were many ‘tongue in cheek’ jokes in my posts - surely you didn’t think I - or CD for that matter - really held an entire nation in some kind of hostile state? As for ‘yah, boo, sucks’, it was intended to be like ‘Bah, Humbug’ - again, how could you think I was serious? Or on ‘Happy Holidays’ and ‘Coke can Santa’? Or ‘lighten up, guys’? Really, it’s too silly for words.
Certainly, I feel there is a lack of empathy towards CD on the site (as there was towards GE) but that does not mean I feel ‘hostility’ to anyone and you must admit you did begin your discussion on The Chimes rather negatively by recommending ‘Lizzie Leigh’ instead. (In fact, didn’t you also say earlier that you preferred Silas Marner to A Christmas Carol? Then you asked others to convince you that the book under discussion was ‘better’ than you thought: all of this must have influenced the general reaction.)
So, that part was serious and for the rest, which was meant in fun, I have apologised, publicly and privately. Might I suggest you read over your remarks to me and think whether they were entirely in the spirit of academic debate? I would never make anyone feel the need to look up words when I’m teaching as it does make people feel excluded and as teachers I don’t think we should do that. for me, the essence of English is universal clarity, but clearly we differ on this, too.
I wish you the gifts of laughter, joy and the ability to forgive in 2009,
Rereading “The Chimes,” I definitely found it more intelligible when (prompted by several people’s comments here) I focused on Toby’s need to resist the way Filer, Cute, Bowley etc. interpret his life, his class, and the condition of England. As a result, on this reading I found myself more interested in William Fern than before, as he is already a figure of resistance and (as Rich points out in his own blog post) the only real action Toby takes is to offer him assistance in evading the authorities. Of course, Toby does not understand his own actions as political at that point. I don’t think he does at the end either, but then what does he mean when he tells Fern, “O, Uncle Will, the obligations that you’ve laid me under, by your coming, my good friend?” If, as Adam suggests above, Toby is a “class traitor,” is it that he has learned the importance of solidarity? To what ends, though? Even Will’s revolutionary potential seems to dissipate when Mrs Chickenstalker is revealed as his friend (the fires he speaks to Margaret about are part of Toby’s visions, right? and so presumably part of what does not come to pass once Toby comes right?).
Once I started thinking more in terms of class identification and resistance, I found myself thinking about Will Fern in relation to Magwitch and also Stephen Blackpool. Like Will, Magwitch gives a history of how he came to be a ‘criminal’ in the eyes of law and society:
`So fur as I could find, there warn’t a soul that see young Abel Magwitch, with as little on him as in him, but wot caught fright at him, and either drove him off, or took him up. I was took up, took up, took up, to that extent that I reg’larly grow’d up took up.
`This is the way it was, that when I was a ragged little creetur as much to be pitied as ever I see (not that I looked in the glass, for there warn’t many insides of furnished houses known to me), I got the name of being hardened. ``This is a terrible hardened one,’’ they says to prison wisitors, picking out me. ``May be said to live in jails, this boy.’’ Then they looked at me, and I looked at them, and they measured my head, some on ‘em—they had better a measured my stomach—and others on ‘em giv me tracts what I couldn’t read, and made me speeches what I couldn’t unnerstand. They always went on agen me about the Devil. But what the Devil was I to do? I must put something into my stomach, mustn’t I?’
In the oversimplified terms I used in my first post, the blame falls on nurture, rather than nature: he’s made bad, not born bad. But I don’t think Magwitch is ever a political rebel; for all his grievances, the challenge he poses (to Pip and to the system more broadly) is primarily a moral one (I think). Still, through him Dickens shows the violent potential of systemic injustice, and by enlisting us as far as he does on Magwitch’s side, he makes potential revolutionaries of us too. But then he kills him off (with irresistible pathos--one of my favourite death-bed scenes in Dickens)...and converts our anger to pity, and so the threat is contained.
Stephen never shows the same wolfish potential, though he eloquently lays out the problem:
‘Sir, I canna, wi’ my little learning an’ my common way, tell the genelman what will better aw this-though some working men o’ this town could, above my powers-but I can tell him what I know will never do ‘t. The strong hand will never do ‘t. Vict’ry and triumph will never do ‘t. Agreeing fur to mak one side unnat’rally awlus and for ever right, and toother side unnat’rally awlus and for ever wrong, will never, never do ‘t. Nor yet lettin alone will never do ‘t. Let thousands upon thousands alone, aw leading the like lives and aw faw’en into the like muddle, and they will be as one, and yo will be as anoother, wi’ a black unpassable world betwixt yo, just as long or short a time as sich-like misery can last. Not drawin nigh to fok, wi’ kindness and patience an’ cheery ways, that so draws nigh to one another in their monny troubles, and so cherishes one another in their distresses wi’ what they need themseln-like, I humbly believe, as no people the genelman ha seen in aw his travels can beat-will never do ‘t till th’ Sun turns t’ ice. Most o’ aw, rating ‘em as so much Power, and reg’latin ‘em as if they was figures in a soom, or machines: wi’out loves and likens, wi’out memories and inclinations, wi’out souls to weary and souls to hope-when aw goes quiet, draggin on wi’ ‘em as if they’d nowt o’ th’ kind, and when aw goes onquiet, reproachin ‘em for their want o’ sitch humanly feelins in their dealins wi’ yo-this will never do ‘t, sir, till God’s work is onmade.’
Again, his sad end turns what anger we might feel on his behalf into pity, justifying Orwell’s comment that the moral of Hard Times “is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious.” Stephen too has been seen as a class traitor, but he’s also betrayed by his own class when he is ostracized by the union. His suffering thanks to both ‘masters and men’ undermines the whole idea of class loyalty (which leads to ‘groupthink’) in favour of care for the individual as the only incorruptible source of compassion.
I’m not sure either of these scenarios is what we have in “The Chimes,” though between Fern and Toby we have many similar ingredients. In fact, I still can’t see quite what we do have. The story ends without our knowing what comes of Toby’s change of heart--what does he do differently? what, if any, change does come? A lot of ideas and emotions are mobilized in the story but in what still seems to me a rather disorderly way. But then, it’s not a novel, and short(er) fiction often works more impressionistically. And I wouldn’t want to sell short the aesthetic or affective aspects of the work. The story of Meg’s degradation, for instance, was more powerful to me on this reading than on my earlier one, partly because I had been alerted to Toby’s odd passivity in the face of the insults she is offered earlier on. Will he defend her, next time, even if it costs him a ‘ticket’? The inadequacy of both paternalistic and utilitarian responses to lives like Toby’s, Margaret’s, or Fern’s is artfully exposed, and the story keeps up the classically Dickensian pressure on middle-class readers to see ‘the poor’ as fellow travellers, to “bear in mind the stern realities from which these shadows come” and “endeavour to correct, improve, and soften them.” So, yes, better than I thought--but not, on my reading, among his best work.
"Even Will’s revolutionary potential seems to dissipate when Mrs Chickenstalker is revealed as his friend (the fires he speaks to Margaret about are part of Toby’s visions, right? and so presumably part of what does not come to pass once Toby comes right?”
That’s right, I think—just as Richard does not become a drunkard outside the dream-vision, William does not become a rick-burner outside it. But I think it’s clear that, to Dickens, revolutionary potential is strictly negative potential. William is friends with Chickenstalker primarily, I’d guess, to avoid an interpretation of the book that focusses too much on class solidarity, when what Dickens wants to talk about is human solidarity.
(In fact, Mrs. Chickenstalker seems to me to occupy the analogous position that the virtuous worker occupies in many books—the one person of a class different from the rest of the characters, who seems to have little part in the book other than to convince the reader that the author admires certain values.)
At the end of my blog post, I wrote a couple of sentences about why the book doesn’t work as art. I don’t think that it’s because of the politics, but rather because Dickens can’t seem to follow through on implications of the work that go against his particular sentimentality. What people seem to get hung up on is that Toby doesn’t visibly change between the beginning and end of the book. For his change to express itself as more than a stated belief, it would have to involve pride—not class pride, for Dickens, but a certain basic human pride at least, a lessening of servility. The cognate to Scrooge becoming generous would be Toby going back and punching Alderman Cute in the nose. Well, no, but at least telling him that Toby and his family have human value and won’t be degraded. But that’s a harder thing to write with a requisite Christmas jollity scene at the end.
’The cognate to Scrooge becoming generous would be Toby going back and punching Alderman Cute in the nose. Well, no, but at least telling him that Toby and his family have human value and won’t be degraded. But that’s a harder thing to write with a requisite Christmas jollity scene at the end.’
Rich, this is a brilliant mental picture and I for one would love to see you write it but it’s a busy time of year, isn’t it?
‘The inadequacy of both paternalistic and utilitarian responses to lives like Toby’s, Margaret’s, or Fern’s is artfully exposed, and the story keeps up the classically Dickensian pressure on middle-class readers to see ‘the poor’ as fellow travellers, to “bear in mind the stern realities from which these shadows come” and “endeavour to correct, improve, and soften them.” So, yes, better than I thought--but not, on my reading, among his best work.’
FWIW I agree 100%!
That’s right, I do not like drunk think just Richard dream vision that William is not ricks-off burner. But I think that is clear is Dickens revolutionary potential serious negative potential. William is friends with chicken first talker, Id probably to avoid an interpretation of the book focuses too much on class solidarity, that Dickens wants to talk of human solidarity.
Published at the end of my blog, I wrote a few sentences about why the book does not function as art. I do not think that because of politics, but because Dickens is unable to follow the impact of the ongoing work of the specific emotion. What people seem Hung Up Toby is that apparently has not changed since the beginning and end of the book. For transformation to occur as more than the stated belief expressed, should understand the pride of pride not category from Dickens, but a proud man of some basic, at least reduction of enslavement. About Scrooge would be too cute by Toby Alderman and punched in the nose. Well, no, but at least he said that Toby and his family, human values and tends to decrease. But writing that’s difficult to achieve in a scene from the joy of Christmas required for termination.