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Jonathan Wilson © 1999

 

 
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The work of Dickens teems with characters who, at first sight, apparently exist purely for the purposes of making the reader laugh, whether at or with them. Mr Dick, in David Copperfield, for instance, though amusing, could quite easily be dispensed with. While there would have to be slight modifications in the resurrection of Dr Strong's marriage and the exposure of Heep, the overall effect, in terms of plot, would be negligible. I would, however, argue that Mr Dick is far more than simply an avatar of what Margaret Ganz terms "the technique of the tag line" [1]

Bergson suggests that one of our principle modes of humour is the observation of another repeating a routine of behaviour - "the technique of the tag line". This is particularly the case if that routine of behaviour lies outside the conventions of society: "Any individual is comic who automatically goes his own way without troubling himself about getting into touch with the rest of his fellow-beings. It is the part of laughter to reprove his absent-mindedness and wake him out of his dream." [2]

The causes of such a routine of behaviour, however, are rather more sinister, for such a routine has marked similarities to the Freudian concept of neurosis. The neurotic, Freud says, unable to articulate a repressed trauma, repeats as an alternative an apparently senseless act: "The patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out. He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it." The symptom attempts the symbolic satisfaction of a repudiated wish, and will not necessarily be produced as an object or in a language immediately connected to what has been repressed; the repetition is merely the formal by-product of the repression. Freud provides an example of this transference in his observations on a patient with a repressed and unresolved hostility to his parents:

"The patient does not say that he remembers that he used to be defiant and critical toward his parents' authority; instead, he behaves in that way to the doctor. The symptomatic gesture can, it appears, be decoded by realigning it with the repressed context in which it once had meaning, articulating openly a forgotten wish." [3]

In "The Uncanny" and Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud arrives at two related understandings of the purpose of repetition for the neurotic. Firstly, having observed a child repeatedly throw away and then drag back a wooden reel on a string, Freud suggests that repetition can be understood as the mastery of a loss through the production of controllable representations; the repeater counters his helplessness in object-reality by demonstrating his power to make representations appear and disappear at will - the "fort-da principle". This leads to his second point, that the repetition of an apparently pointless action could be the psyche's belated attempt to prepare itself for a trauma that's already happened, by retrospectively developing the anxious readiness whose absence initially permitted a breach in its defences - a kind of psychological shutting of the stable door after the horse has bolted. [4]

John N. Swift argues that, with regard to literature, it is possible to see the psyche reacting to a neurosis by frantically repeating its "one genuinely masterful activity", its capacity for producing and reproducing representations of language [5]. and maintain an identity". [6] David, to find the way into an awareness of his present self"[7].

Robert E. Lougy notes Barthes's comment in Writing Degree Zero that "the Novel is a Death; it transforms life into a destiny, a memory into a useful act, duration into an orientated and meaningful time"[8]. "mythos"[9]

Mr Dick has become "'fixated' to a particular portion of [his] past and for that reason [is] alienated from the present and the future." He cannot express an articulated memory of the trauma he has repressed, but instead repeats neurotically what Betsey Trotwood terms "the figure, or the simile, or whatever it's called" of King Charles: "That's his allegorical way of expressing it" (DC, 196).

Mr Dick and David both have need of exorcising very specific traumas in their pasts in the marriages of their sister and mother respectively, and the subsequent behaviour of other relatives, but there are times when the novel hints at something more general.

When Freud published The Ego and the Id in 1923, he acknowledged that he was drawing the term "das Es" ("the id") from Nietzsche by way of Groddeck[10] random determinants of human existence[11]

There are still harmless self-observers who believe 'immediate certainties' exist, for example 'I Think' - but the philosopher must say to himself: when I analyse the event expressed in the sentence 'I think', I acquire a series of rash assertions which are difficult, perhaps imposible to prove - for example that it is I who think, that it has to be something at all which thinks, that thinking is an activity and operation on the part of an entity thought as a cause, that an 'I' exists, finally what is designated by 'thinking' has already been determined."[12]

A little earlier, he states, "The falseness of a judgement is to us not necessarily an objection to a judgement. The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding"[13] it thus!'"[14]; the world and of the self."[15] from which his existence takes on all the meaning it has."[16]

It is, as Lougy demonstrates, in the tempest scenes that David comes to terms with the emptiness that lies behind the construction of his 'I'. If we were in any doubt that the text of David Copperfield is the record of David's construction of his self, it is surely removed by the opening lines of Chapter LV:

"I now approach an event in my life, so indelible, so awful, so bound by an infinite variety of ties to all that has preceded it, in these pages, that, from the beginning of my narrative, I have seen it growing larger and larger as I advanced, like a great tower in a plain, and throwing its forecast shadow even on the incidents of my childish days. (DC, 721).

David's experience in the storm at Yarmouth is one of almost existential horror: he admits that "I had lost the clear arrangement of time and distance"; he is "confused"; and in "the great darkness that invested the storm with new terrors, real and fanciful", the familiar forms and conventions, the mythoi of order and coherence that sustain the 'I' begin to collapse. Finally, David says, "I got up, several times, and looked out; but could see nothing, except the reflection in the window-panes of the faint candle I had left burning, and of my own haggard face looking in at me from the black void." (DC, 725-27). He becomes aware of the emptiness, the nothingness, behind the construction of his own identity.

While the tempest scene provides the clearest evidence of David's recognition of the "black void", his determination to write his way through painful scenes is perhaps demonstrated better by Chapter XXXI. Immediately after Barkis's death, and immediately before Emily's elopement with Steerforth, David returns to Blunderstone, and, having seen the madman in what was his room, he writes:

A dread falls on me here. A cloud is lowering on the distant town, towards which I retrace my solitary steps. I fear to approach it. I cannot bear to think of what did come, upon that memorable night; of what must come again, if I go on. > It is no worse, because I write of it. It would be no better, if I stopped my most unwilling hand. It is done. Nothing can undo it; nothing can make it otherwise as it was. (DC, 415).

Despite their intensity, David is nevertheless able to write of his traumatic experiences - something denied to Mr Dick - by accepting the Barthesian death of accepting the bourgeois mythos of the novel - that he does is surely evident in the opening line. With this in mind, it's significant that Traddles's response to trauma is to doodle skeletons - another image of death - while Dr Strong's dictionary never gets past 'D', for 'death'. At the school, Adams, the head boy, calculates that it will take Strong a further 1649 years to complete his dictionary, counting from his last birthday. Strong is thus linked to Dick, 1649 being the year of Charles's execution, and so our attention is drawn to the two attempts at redemptive text that will never reach conclusion.

Mr Dick is thwarted because his metaphor of King Charles's head is, as Betsey Trotwood says, "not a business-like way of speaking - nor a worldly way." (DC, 197). Society will not accept it; rather, like Dick's brother, it will judge him eccentric or mad, or, as the comments of Bergson cited earlier suggest, it will laugh. Kincaid cites Arthur Koestler to argue for the "aggressive-defensive self-assertion in laughter"[17], is the restoration of 'social equilibrum'".[18] repressive institutions such as the madhouse.[19]

A significant feature of this "madness" of Mr Dick is his habit of forming the pages of his Memorial into a kite, which, in a bizarre way, fulfils his stated intention of "disseminating the statements pasted on it" (DC, 207). "Disseminate," of course, is the very term used by Derrida as he discusses the ambiguity of writing: while it may be intended as a supplement to identity, writing, by the process of dissemination also takes that identity away[20] and the quest for "meaning", the desire to overcome death[21] closer we look at this group, the more it seems that there is no 'they' there."[22]

Mr Dick overcomes his King Charles neurosis by means of his employment copying. If we consider this in the light of Freud and Lacan's words on language as repetition, it soon becomes apparent that all that is happening is that Mr Dick is replacing one symptom with another. Not only is he repeating in the sense of reproducing units of language, indeed, but he is repeating the very same words - an extreme form of the symptom described by Swift. That he is copying neurotically, beyond all necessity or utility, is made clear: "My aunt informed me how he incessantly copied everything he could lay his hands on, and kept King Charles the First at the respectful distance by that semblance of employent." (DC, 768). As Lougy points out, it is very difficult to reconcile this Mr Dick with the nave and happy kite-flying follower of children's games of the earlier part of the novel. Society has overwhelmed the subversive madness and set it to work producing acceptable forms of writing inwhat could be seen as an extreme form of Marx's notion of alienated labour - another form of "institutionalisation".

In fact, there are several other examples in the novel of the subversive or carnivalesque being repressed by society's demands that everybody should perform some useful work. Micawber and Peggotty, who could conceivably have formed part of a Pickwickian comic society, are packed off to Australia, while Traddles settles down to his legal work and his wife, and the truly carefree Steerforth - for whom David's love is surely significant - receives his comeuppance in the storm. David himself, with his "habits of punctuality, order, and diligence" (DC, 560), devotion to learning short-hand, his writing, and his eventual marriage to the glorified house-keeper Agnes, as Kincaid says, "tries very hard to turn his novel into a celebration of prudence, distrust, discipline, rigid and unimaginative conduct, and the commonest sense," though he finds the process both melancholy and difficult, and its results largely inadequate.[23]

Mr Dick presents a challenge to the conventions of society, by his adoption for his memorial of a non-standard mythos that fails to redeem him to a unitary selfhood. This, along with his practice of dissemination or dissimulation by kite, proves unacceptable to a bourgeois capitalist society, which responds to his subversiveness in three ways: his brother sends him to a madhouse (and that just about everybody subsequently considers him mad is similar in function); Traddles sets him up in a form of alienated labour that provides him with a different, less-threatening neurosis; and we, the readers, laugh at him. Humour, in this instance, we see as one of society's defence mechanisms against a challenge to our consoling fictions of unitary selfhood.

All references in the text to "DC" are to: Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, ed. Jeremy Tambling, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996.

1: Margaret Ganz, "The Vulnerable Ego: Dickens' Humor in Decline", Dickens Studies Annual 1 (1970): 23-40.

2: Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1911); trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (London: Macmillan, 1935) 134.

3: Sigmund Freud, "Remembering, Repeating and Working-through," The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans and ed. James Strachey, Vol. XII (1911-3), London: Hogarth 1953-74, 150.

4: Freud, "The Uncanny," Standard Edition, vol. XVII (1917-19), 217-251; and Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Standard Edition, Vol. XVIII (1920-22) 7-64.

5: John N. Swift, Eternal Unrelief: Consummation and Repetition, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1993, 172-3.

6: Samuel Weber, The Legend of Freud, cited Swift, 177.

7: Janet H. Brown, "The Narrator's Role in David Copperfield", Dickens Studies Annual 2 (1971): 197-207.

8: Robert E. Lougy, "Remembrance of Death Past and Future: A Reading of David Copperfield", Dickens Studies Annual 6 (1977) 72-101.

9: Northrop Frye, "The Koine of Myth: Myth as a Universally Intelligible Language", Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays 1974-1988, ed. Robert D. Denham (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990), 3-17, 3-4.

10: Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis - Part III: General Theory of the Neuroses, 1917, Standard Edition, vol XVI, 241-476, 273.

11: Ronald Hayman, Nietzsche: A Critical Life, London: Weidenfield, 1980, 290-1.

12: Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J.Hollingdale, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, rep. 1990, 45-6.

13: Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 35.

14: Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. R.J.Hollingdale, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979, repr. 1992, 80.

15: Swift, 181

16: Jacques Lacan, cited Swift, 182.

17: Arthur Koestler, Insight and Outlook, cited James R. Kincaid, Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971, 9.

18: Ralph Priddington, The Psychology of Laughter: A Study in Social Adaptation, cited Kincaid, 14.

19: Jeremy Tambling, Introduction, David Copperfield, vii-viii.

20: Jacques Derrida, On Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore: 1974, corrected edition, 1997, 141-64.

21: Timothy Clark, "Dickens through Blanchot: the Nightmare Fascination of a World without Interiority", Dickens Refigured: bodies, Desires, and Other Histories, ed. John Schad, Manchester: Manchester UP, 1996, 22-38, 23.

22: James R. Kincaid, "Performance, Roles, and the Nature of the Self", Dramatic Dickens, ed. Carol Hanberry MacKay, New York: St Martin's, 1989, 11-26, 12.

23: Kincaid, Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter, 164.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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