Review: Bleak House

Review: Bleak House

Bleak HouseBleak House by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Call it by any name Your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally—inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only—Spontaneous Combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.

For better or for worse, I read this novel through the lens of two critics: Harold Bloom and George Orwell.

In The Western Canon, Bloom calls Bleak House Dickens’s finest achievements; and he considers the novel to be among the central novels in the titular canon. This opinion is based, in part, on Esther Summerson’s narrative (which comprises half of the book; the other half is told from an omniscient narrator).

Bloom agrees with the conventional opinion that Dickens’s modus operandi is to create static and cartoonish characters, far removed from the constantly changing and evolving characters of, say, Tolstoy or Shakespeare. But in Esther, Bloom thought Dickens had transcended his art: he had created a genuinely Shakespearean self, a narrator who could overhear her own narration, and who engaged in a constant dialogue with herself—a mercurial and growing consciousness.

This opinion is far from popular. I’m not sure I agree with it; certainly she doesn’t strike me as “Shakespearean,” and she would not be at home in any of Tolstoy’s works. Unlike a Shakespearean or a Tolstoyan character, it is difficult to see myself in her. This isn’t just me. Esther has irked critics from the beginning. She is too good for her own good. She is passive, forgiving, unconditionally loving, self-negating, dutiful, hardworking, dreadfully kind, painfully virtuous, devoid of malice, thankful to a fault—someone who lives exclusively for others. It’s hard to like her, because it’s so hard to identify with somebody like that, and such a selfless ideal of feminine behavior strikes us nowadays as both sexist and untenable.

And yet, for me, she is ultimately sympathetic, at least from a distance. I think this is due to her resilience. Her childhood as an orphan is harsh and loveless; she is so thirsty for affection that every slight kindness reduces her to tears. As she grows, she is formed by an ethos of feminine subservience and duty, modesty and virtue, an ethos which she embodies as perfectly as possible.

In Esther, however, this is not a sign of passivity and weakness, but of independence and strength. She does not let the world, so often cruel and unfair, make her spiteful; she does not become bitter and resentful from the blows of misfortune. She is determined to be happy; and she realizes that happiness cannot be achieved through selfishness, but requires generosity, forgiveness, and identifying oneself with others. She realizes, in short, that selflessness is the wisest and best form of selfishness, since it leads to the greatest fulfillment.

Nevertheless, I should immediately add that this ethical ideal is so tinged by Dickens’s patriarchal worldview and sickly sweet sentimentality that Esther becomes more of a fairytale heroine than a religious figure. It is hard to admire her, since she is so painfully self-effacing; it is hard to imagine being her friend, since she always puts others above herself, and friendship is based on equality. She is independent and strong, but only in the context of a world where women are expected to be passive to the point of invisibility.

On second thought, perhaps it is wrong to attribute this irksome self-sacrificing nature purely to sexism; for Dickens also gives us a masculine embodiment of this virtue in the form of Mr. Jarndyce. Jarndyce is almost equally self-sacrificing and self-effacing; his one selfish act is his marriage proposal to Esther, which he eventually retracts; everything else he does for the good of his kith and kin. Granted, he is far more active than Esther, being the masculine patriarch; but this activity is oriented exclusively to the good of others.

All this notwithstanding, I found Jarndyce far less sympathetic than Esther, because his personality is nothing but a benign vacuum. A person—at least for me—is partly defined by what he or she wants; and someone who only wants what other people want is not a person, but a kindly automaton. With Esther, selflessness is made to seem, if not desirable, at least viable; but with Jardynce it is neither. He is palpably a figure of the infantile imagination, a kind of idealized father, protective, caring, loving, and in the end such a fantasy that he vanishes altogether into a ray of sunlight.

Esther’s foil is Mrs. Jellyby. She is a picture of selfish selflessness. Mrs. Jellyby abuses her family, neglects her children, and ignores her husband, subordinating everything to her plans for a small tribe in Africa. On the surface, she is an immensely charitable person, living purely for the sake of this tribe. Her “charity,” however, is manifestly an implement of extreme egoism, reducing everyone else in her house to servants and assistants, directing all attention to herself and her own seeming goodness. She talks incessantly about helping others but never actually does.

In his essay on Dickens, Orwell divides up do-gooders into moralists and reformers. Moralists try to improve people’s behavior and values, and see society’s ills as flowing from personal failings. Reformers take the opposite view; they try to improve the structure of society, seeing individual moral failings as products rather than causes of social ills. Dickens is a classic moralist, and Mrs. Jellyby is his portrait of a misguided reformer.

For Dickens, all goodness is personal—flowing from one individual to another—while reformers, like Mrs. Jellyby, mistakenly believe that goodness is impersonal, which is why she concerns herself with the lives of people she has never met. She cannot make society better because she herself is full of vices; while Esther improves society without even trying, by her every virtuous action and her inspiring example.

Again, it must immediately be said that Dickens’s portrayal of Mrs. Jellyby is also tinged with sexism. Aside from a rash reformer, Mrs. Jellyby is a meddling woman—a woman who thinks she can be a man, a woman who doesn’t know her place, a woman who fails to be a wife and a mother. It is impossible to imagine Dickens using the same tone with a male character. This sexism is something to keep in mind, of course; but it does not, for me, negate his wider point about charity and goodness.

Perhaps Orwell’s best insight into Dickens is this: “The outstanding, unmistakable mark of Dickens’s writing is the unnecessary detail.” This novel is long; it is unnecessarily long. For the first four hundred or so pages, it seems to be still trying to get going; the plot clanks and clunks into motion like an old steam engine. A partial explanation for this is that the book was at first a serial, the 19th century equivalent of a sitcom, spinning out plots and subplots to fill episodes and seasons, entertaining its readers piecemeal. But it is also due to Dickens’s perspective. He sees life always in the concrete, never in the abstract, and with a vividness of vision and a relish for daily life that fill his novels with energy and color. The plot serves the detail rather than the reverse; the story is just a conveyance for brilliant particulars.

Many things irked me about this book. Dickens’s sentimentality is often nauseating and sometimes comes across a cheap trick, like the overwrought string music playing in the background of a bad soap opera. The transition from an omniscient narrator to Esther’s narration was a brilliant device, but also made the book a bit difficult for me to follow, and easy to put down. Dickens’s characters are always exciting, but his descriptive language can be soporific. He has a tendency to let himself get carried away into prose poetry, all written in the passive voice. Occasionally, these are masterful, such as the famous beginning paragraphs of this novel; but just as often they make me drowsy.

What is miraculous about Dickens is that his books are so apparently simple and straightforward, and yet they can be endlessly analyzed. Perhaps this is because he effortlessly combines so many contradictory elements: social realism with imaginative fancy, sentimental prettiness with grotesque horror, moral preaching with biting satire, advocacy with art, propaganda with poetry. Dickens’s flaws leap to the eye—his inability to create three-dimensional characters, his lack of intellectual curiosity, his superficial view of the world, his inability to appreciate the sublime, his clumsy plots, his mountains of petty details, his soporific prose style—and yet his appeal is nearly universal. That the same writer could entrance both Harold Bloom, the enemy of political art, and George Orwell, the champion of political art, is a sign of his genius. And in the end, when faced with somebody as universal and powerful as Dickens, all analysis can do is reveal the limitations of its method.

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Quotes & Commentary #41: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #41: Emerson

It is impossible to extricate oneself from the questions in which our age is involved. You can no more keep out of politics than out of the frost.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I suppose Emerson wrote this at a time when insulation was far less robust, since nowadays it is perfectly possible to keep out of the frost. Or perhaps he meant that the only way to keep out of politics was to shut oneself up like a hermit. In any case, though the comparison has aged, the sentiment certainly has not.

Lately I have been reading some of Orwell’s essays, which called this quote to mind. It was Orwell’s essay on Dickens—in which he utters his famous dictum, “All art is propaganda”—that specifically made me think of Emerson.

Is it really true that all art contains political preaching? Is it true that it is impossible to extricate oneself from controversial questions?

To these answers I would give a qualified “yes.” I do not think it possible to create art that is politically neutral, since our thoughts about personality, philosophy, nationality, morality, sexuality, human nature, society, and so forth, all have political ramifications, even if the author has not thought through these ramifications. Every artistic choice—the characters, the setting, the plot—carries ideological baggage, even if this baggage is unintended.

Even if we attempted to create “art for art’s sake”—purely formal art, devoid of any identifiable content—this, too, would have political consequences, since it takes a stance, a very particular stance, on the role of art and the artist in society.

Before I go on, I will try to define what I mean by “politics.” To me, politics is the struggle between demographic groups for resources and power. Politics isn’t politics without controversy, since it necessarily involves a zero-sum game. This controversy is typically carried on in highly charged, stringently moral language; but the fundamental motive that animates political struggle is self-interest.

Where I disagree is that I think the political content of art is usually uninteresting, and plays little role in the art’s quality. There is no contradiction in saying that a great novel may embody backwards political principles, or noting that a movie that champions progressive values may be boring and amateurish.

Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, it stuffed to the brim with the politics of his age; and these political passages are, in my opinion, inevitably the weakest and most tiresome of the poem. The Divine Comedy is great in spite of, not because of, its politics. Likewise, the political implications of Milton’s Paradise Lost are chiefly of historical interest, and for me neither add to nor subtract from the poem’s artistic force. Nothing ages faster than politics, since politics is always embroiled in transitory struggles between factions.

Orwell’s essay itself, ironically enough, also illustrates the limitations of seeing art as propaganda. Orwell attempts to treat Dickens as a sort of social philosopher—trying to furrow out Dickens views on the state, on the economy, on education, on the good life—only to repeatedly hit a wall. Dickens was not a reformer, and not a revolutionary; he was, if anything, a moralist, as Orwell himself admits. But above all Dickens was a novelist, something that should not need pointing out. His books are far more interesting as novels than as sermons.

Do not mistake my meaning. I am not arguing for “art for art’s sake.” Some art cannot be properly appreciated without noting its political message. I am, however, arguing that the political implications of a work of art do not exhaust its meaning, nor do they even constitute its most valuable meaning.

The aesthetic is as valid a category as the political and the moral. And by categorizing something as “art,” we implicitly acknowledge that its aesthetic qualities are its most important traits, and determine its ultimate value. Even if we insist otherwise, the very fact that we differentiate between polemical cartoons and portraits, between political pamphlets and plays, between national anthems and symphonies, belies the fact that we consider art a special category.

How anyone chooses to interpret a piece of art is, of course, up to them. Great art is distinguished by its ability to inspire nearly infinite reactions. But I do believe that every interpretation, if it wishes to respect the work in question, ought to increase our appreciation of it, or at least to try.

When somebody reads a novel solely for its political content, and then evaluates it solely on the extent to which it agrees or disagrees with the interpreter’s beliefs, the work of art is turned into a mere weapon of political struggle. In other words, to treat art merely as propaganda is not to respect it as art.

I have heard many movies and television shows denounced for their political implications; nowadays there are endless controversies about representation in media. Now, I believe the question of interpretation is undoubtedly important. But to condemn or champion works of art purely on this criterion is, I think, just as narrow-minded as ignoring the question of representation altogether.

Art speaks in different languages to different people. This is its magic and its lasting value. And anybody who thinks that they unequivocally “know” the meaning of a work of art, and is so politically self-righteous that they think they can pronounce eternal judgement on its worth, is acting tyrannical, even if they are mouthing sentiments of egalitarianism.

* * *

Parenthetically, it is worth noting that this anxiety about representation and political values in art, so common nowadays, is grounded in a certain, tacit theory of human behavior. This is the belief that our media exerts a decisive influence over our values and actions. Indeed, I’m sure this proposition would hardly be regarded as controversial in some circles.

But isn’t it equally possible that our media is just a reflection of our values and actions? And doesn’t the very fact that people are often politically dissatisfied with their media prove that we are not under their control? For, if the influence of media were decisive over our political perspective, how could we ever be dissatisfied with it?

Artists and art critics tend to be intellectuals. Intellectuals are naturally prone to believing that humans are motivated by ideas, since that’s what motivates intellectuals. Thus they can be expected to pay too much attention to art as a social force, and not enough to the other things that drive human behavior, like economic trends or political institutions, since art operates on the level of symbols. 

And since much of our discourse is framed by intellectuals—people tend to become politically conscious in college, under the influence of professors—it seems likely that paying too much attention to the political power of art would be a pervasive error, which I believe it is.

Quotes & Commentary #34: Dickens

Quotes & Commentary #34: Dickens

‘Why do you doubt your senses?’ said Marley’s ghost.

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

—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Recently I read a book about yoga by Swami Vivekananda. In it, the swami puts forward the common argument in favor of mystical truth: that direct experience of the super-sensuous realm—the spiritual plane—can attest to its existence. That is, the existence of the spiritual plane, while it cannot be detected with any technological device, deduced from any scientific theory, or proven on any philosophical grounds, can be known for certain to exist via direct experience.

I have no doubt that, through yoga, meditation, and prayer, people have had extraordinary experiences. These experiences may well have been far more intense than day-to-day life. On occasion these visions may have left such a lasting mark on a sage’s mind that he was forever transformed, perhaps much for the better.

Since experiences such as these are uncommon and unusual, these gurus will then be faced with the impossible task of capturing their private sensation in words and conveying it to somebody who has never felt anything similar. It would be like describing the color red to a blind man. This is why mystical writing is so often poetical. This also explains why it so often strays into metaphysics.

For my part, I am very fond of mystical poetry. But I have little patience for any epistemology that considers fleeting, incommunicable, and private experiences to be valid sources of insight into the nature of reality. Science works because its methodology does its very best to shun these sorts of visions. Science is effective because it treats knowledge as a social product, not a private hallucination, and because it treats experience as prone to error and in need of interpretation, not as a direct window into reality.

Ebenezer Scrooge was wrong about many things. But he was right to distrust his senses when he thought he saw a ghost. Luckily for him, the reality-status of the ghosts he saw does not make their moral message any less true. Likewise, even if mystical visions and meditative ecstasies may not be valid sources of knowledge about the universe, they can lead to valuable personal transformations.