Monday, June 27, 2016


Reading the Dickens portion of the Epsom article, you notice that he is not stimulated by horses or by racing but by the spectacle of human mass. “Never, to be sure, were there so many carriages, so many fours, so many twos, so many ones, so many horsemen, so many people who have come down by ‘rail,’ so many fine ladies in so many broughams, so many Fortnum and Mason hampers, so much ice and champagne!” There is the wonderful moment when the writing pretends to be the crowd so that it can describe the crowd’s actions compressively; but what is it saying – it is not the crowd – it has something to say about the crowd – it does not only observe the crowd – it wears the crowd’s voice -- the people watching the race are saying “What is the matter?” and there is an omniscient party that shows itself to witnesses with the words, “Another roar,” –

Amidst the hum of voices, a bell rings. What’s that? What’s the matter? They are clearing the course. Never mind. Try the pigeon-pie. A roar. What’s the matter? It’s only the dog upon the course. Is that all? Glass of wine. Another roar. What’s that? It is only the man who wants to cross the course, and is intercepted, and brought back. Is that all? I wonder whether it is always the same man and the same dog, year after year!

and, as a complete aside, the other Dickens races that I can think of at this moment, in the Old Curiosity Shop, 1841, are all narrated in that omniscient roar voice, and everything there is different: the glad crowd of Epsom in “so many carriages, so many fours” is, in Shop, a group of selfishnesses who neglect the desires of the poor entertainers and flower-sellers such as Nell (“Now, all the variety of human riddles who propound themselves on race courses, come about the carriage to be guessed,” says Epsom, meaning the same kind of poor people), the adventurers who travel with the girl and her grandfather to the track are sinister; the child, with a bad feeling, leaves in a way that feels like an escape from danger, and decides that she enjoys being alone in a churchyard where death and solitude are the keynotes; they are both forms of peace, it seems, which she will attain, Nell will, eventually, her life being motion and harassment. You note that Epsom is about motion and pleasure: “And now, Heavens! all the hampers fly wide open and the green Downs burst into a blossom of lobster salad!” A woman who has been tending the grave of her husband for more than half a century tells the little girl a story.

Then growing garrulous upon a theme which was new to one listener though it were but a child, she told her how she had wept and moaned and prayed to die herself, when this happened; and how when she first came to that place, a young creature strong in love and grief, she had hoped that her heart was breaking as it seemed to be. But that time passed by, and although she continued to be sad when she came there, still she could bear to come, and so went on until it was pain no longer, but a solemn pleasure, and a duty she had learned to like. And now that five-and-fifty years were gone, she spoke of the dead man as if he had been her son or grandson, with a kind of pity for his youth, growing out of her own old age, and an exalting of his strength and manly beauty as compared with her own weakness and decay; and yet she spoke about him as her husband too, and thinking of herself in connexion with him, as she used to be and not as she was now, talked of their meeting in another world, as if he were dead but yesterday, and she, separated from her former self, were thinking of the happiness of that comely girl who seemed to have died with him.

Proustian convolution. You notice that Dickens puts her outside herself, so that she is like David Copperfield watching his own red eyes in the mirror ("If ever child were stricken with sincere grief, I was. But I remember that this importance was a kind of satisfaction to me," in Copperfield), she wants her impressions and her body to coincide, “she hoped her heart was breaking as it seemed to be” (wishing, like Nell, for death) but her growing physical, ageing weakness means the separation and confusing of one and the other, and if this anecdote had flowed open (instead of being closed at the end into a story) then there is the possibility that she might have split into more and more people as she went on: so, then, eventually -- eventually, you see -- she could have been every Dickens character (in secret); she could represent the lady in the carriage who gives Nell a coin, the gypsy with the silvery voice at Derby Day in Epsom, the ventriloquist, the lobster salad in the Fortnum and Masons hampers, Mr Micawber, and all of the horses. Probably that is true, and this woman is all of Dickens’ characters, but how would I know, I’m not an expert.

Friday, June 17, 2016

homage to those who insist on being found

The characters who can see that Andoche Finot is “the evident son of a hat-maker“ don’t need him to know anything about hats. If he had been the son of a shoe-maker then nothing would have had to change in the book besides the word “hat,” and the son of a table-maker or a butcher would have done equally well because the others don’t need him to know about tables or meat. “Son of a perfumer” would have been a problem since there are already people in the book working on perfumes and then Balzac would have had to align him with the existing perfume-universe in some way, which would have been a waste of time, the plot not needing another perfume person. It already has more than the average number of perfumers for a work of fiction. You can also say that it has more than the average number of sons of hat-makers, because most books have none. There is a certain character in the same author's Sarrasine, 1830, who, if he had been able to look “from head to foot” like precisely what he was, would have made it impossible for Balzac to write the story. As I am reading the introduction by Susan Bernofsky and Christine Burgin to the recent translation of Robert Walser’s essays about art I learn that the writer once managed to get himself fired from a secretarial position by sending “highly inappropriate business letters” to clients of the Berliner Secession. Immediately I assume that he found it essential. The displaced and abandoned title character in Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, 1832, does not need people to see that he is Colonel Chabert so much as he needs them to see that he is not someone who would pretend to be Colonel Chabert. There is one person who recognised him flawlessly and against her own desires but she is also unfortunately the human being who most benefits from him not being Colonel Chabert, and so she undermines him, knowing what he is but not wanting anyone else to know. Several theatre-workers in Sarrasine prefer to keep a certain true identity secret too, for their own enrichment -- emotional rather than financial: now that they have caused the sculptor Ernest-Jean Sarrasine to think that he is something that he is not, they are able to laugh and nourish themselves on that fun misapprehension. Chabert’s wife likewise derives satisfaction from her husband not being himself. The knowledge that Finot sends shining out of his appearance is not harmful to him because no one in The Rise and Fall of César Birotteau is going to cripple a man with the information that his father makes hats. But he is not going to benefit from it either. So his ability to look like the son of a hat-maker is not useful to him in any way that the reader can see. The crowd of characters in other Balzac books who travel from the provinces to the city because they want to be successful and envied do not want people to look at them and know that they are the sons of villager individuals. Think that I am the offspring of someone other than my parents: that is their wish and their hope. If Finot had been one of those characters then his skill would have been a liability that he would have had to overcome by being rich. “No one likes to pay homage to those who insist on being found noteworthy,” writes Walser in his essay on Manet’s Olympia, but money is strong, says Balzac, as he makes his characters wrestle the strongman, money. Some of them will lose the fight voluntarily. The author is thrilled by those freaks. César Birotteau himself wants to pay his debts honestly. His wife and daughter are the same way; his impoverishment has made them act out what they are, says Balzac: they are quiet, resolute, strong, upright, attractive, etc. Ferdinand du Tillet, the one who has decided to destroy César by taking away his livelihood, is being true to himself when he behaves cruelly, we are told; he is a destructive, vindictive person. But he is not happy at the end, even though he has been himself. People respect this brave Birotteau. Du Tillet is uneasy. Meanwhile Colonel Chabert realises that he has the opportunity to resume his identity but he is not willing to put up with the personal warfare he will have to go through to get it. He is enraged; he produces a dramatic spasm, he gives up on the possibility of money. His creator is deeply moved by what he has done. Ernest-Jean Sarrasine, seeing that he is thwarted and realising that he is not able to be what he thought he was, threatens to commit murder, and is murdered. Chabert dies, Birotteau dies, Finot leaves the story one way or another; Walser died in the snow. It is safer to be one of the series of ventriloquists that Charles Dickens imagined at subsequent Derby Days in the Epsom article he co-authored for Household Words in 1851.* They had an eternal appearance, “the sickly-looking ventriloquist with an anxious face (and always with a wife in a shawl) teaches the alphabet to the puppet pupil, whom he takes out of his pocket.” He doesn’t have to be the same individual every time, only the same evident self.

* Reprinted in Charles Dickens' Uncollected Writings from Household Words 1850 - 1859, vol. I, 1969, ed. Harry Stone

Thursday, June 9, 2016

arms, legs, bones, and other trash

“Furthermore, the mutilated bodies of Jacob Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Joseph Reinhardt, Antoine, and James Smith were still unburied and scattered around the tents and Tamsen was not of a mind to clear up the mess.”

“Mutilated body parts of arms, legs, bones, and other trash were prevalent in the cabins and on the grounds, but Eddy and Foster had just been through their own tragedy, and refused to clean up the mess.”

Richard F. Kaufman’s Saving the Donner Party: and Forlorn Hope, 2014

Who expected Tamsen Donner to tidy mangled corpses? Who were William Eddy and Charles Foster defying? “Mess” and “_____ up” were both incongruous, as were the words “from head to toe the evident son of a hat-maker” in a sentence from Balzac’s Rise and Fall of César Birotteau, 1837, tr. Katherine Wormeley. “A stout, chubby-faced fellow of medium height, from head to foot the evident son of a hat-maker, with round features whose shrewdness was hidden under a restrained and subdued manner, suddenly appeared,” he says, without telling you what might have made the man look distinctly “from head to toe” like something as totally precise as the son of a hat-maker. The son of a hat-maker is mystical here: what does it do to signal its presence? How does it overcome and supersede the ordinary qualities that Balzac actually lists? He has decided without anything else that this character not only is “Andoche Finot, son of a hat-maker in the Rue du Coq“ but also phenomenally resembles himself. Finot is dazzling, like the sun seen in its idea. All characters could be introduced like that in all books. For a moment the imaginary figure is in his pure form, untouched by story, and it is downhill from here. In Kaufman the people are impurified, they are not what they are, they are as petty as someone who won't pick up their socks; they are detached or split, they are in more than one place. “One does not often see a lamp and an angel united in the same body,” writes Lautreamont, tr. Guy Wernham, Les Chants de Maldoror, 1868, as the lamp in a sentence develops an angel’s wings and torso. Maldoror licks the angel’s face until the skin is gangrenous. The incongruity here is in the word “often.”