Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dickens, Etched in Flesh

From TTR Studio (click on "body art', then the photo, for a high-res image.)

I. A Dickens Tattoo

I went looking for a picture related to Charles Dickens that wasn't one of the same old ones we've seen a hundred times, and I found this tattoo of the opening lines of his Tale of Two Cities. *
I've never wanted a tattoo before; but I now I'm tempted to have my favorite first line engraved:
"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."

That's Dickens's David Copperfield (1850), you know, which I just finished for the dozenth time last night. I first read the novel the summer I was nine. My mother had bought an old copy whose green board covers were barely attached, and we all took turns reading it, until the boards fell off. (I wonder if my father still has it?)

My original impressions are lost under the layers of many successive readings; but, along with Jane Eyre, published three years before D.C., which I first read when I was ten, it is one of the books of my life.
Both are semi-autobiographical stories of an individual's agonized struggles to become their own person--the hero (or the author) of their own lives. What could be more appealing, given that they succeed?

II. Dickens Is in the Details

I'm a greedy, speedy reader, however, and I never read D.C. carefully until now.
Why now? As I approach the mid-century mark, am I more patient?
I think so. I feel some distance between myself and the human drama, having seen it so many times. I can slow down and attend to the details with more patience--and more disinterested interest.

Turns out, I'd missed so much, in skimming!
I'd been so impatient with Dickens's wordy details, I didn't realize how much they add. His details aren't throw-aways, they serve the story. If he mentions the silverware, and he does, it's for a purpose (Traddles's good-natured poverty). His descriptions are never just to set the scene, as modern, mechanistic writing workshops sometimes teach. (And then we must read about knives and forks because the author wants to impress the real-lifeness of the story, which only moves us to put the book down.)

[OK, too much text. Here's a classic portrait (right), after all: Charles Dickens, 1839, by Daniel Maclise]

Dickens's details about people, however, sometimes seem to be throw-aways, told for the delight in telling, like Mr. Micawber's verbose letters, where one word is never used when three are at hand. I see no reason, for instance, to describe Mr. and Mrs. Micawber's eldest son, except for fun--and the writer's and readers' fellow feeling for David spending an evening with the Micawber family.
It's a perfect description of a child society would now dose with Ritalin:
"These observations, and indeed the greater part of the observations made that evening, were interrupted by Mrs Micawber's discovering that [her son] Master Micawber was sitting on his boots, or holding his head on with both arms as if he felt it loose, or accidentally kicking Traddles under the table, or shuffling his feet over one another, or producing them at distances from himself outrageous to nature, or lying sideways with his hair among the wine-glasses, or developing restlessness of limb in some other form incompatible with the general interests of society; and by Master Micawber's receiving those discoveries in a resentful spirit."

But fellow-feeling is one Dickens's many strengths. (He has plenty of weaknesses to match--in fact, I can't stomach most of his books.)
I could almost imagine choosing the description of Master Micawber as a tattoo simply because it's a description people of all times might recognize, and laugh at, much as we recognize "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." (though there's not much funny in that book). That is why, of course, we still read Dickens, if we do, or even carve him on our bodies: we recognize ourselves, our feelings and our times being so like his.

III. On Writing

I wish Dickens had written more about being a writer here, which he makes David's profession too. What he does have David say, some of us might recognize more in wishing we had his confidence than in fellow feeling of it:
"Having some foundation for believing, by this time, that nature and accident had made me an author, I pursued my vocation with confidence. Without such assurance I should certainly have left it alone, and bestowed my energy on some other endeavour. I should have tried to find out what nature and accident really had made me, and to be that, and nothing else."

I recognize more fully his claim to lifelong little self-doubts:
"A distrust of myself, which has often beset me in life on small occasions, when it would have been better away, was assuredly not stopped in its growth by this little [humiliating] incident outside the Canterbrury coach. ...I felt completely extinguished."
Still, those small occasions didn't keep Dickens from writing biggly. What energy the man had!

What if F. Scott Fitzgerald had possessed Copperfield's drive "to be that [a writer], and nothing else"? One of the most cutting comments on its lack comes in Fitzgerald's letter to his daughter mourning his wasted talents:
"What little I've accomplished has been by the most laborious and uphill work, and I wish now I'd never relaxed or looked back--but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: I've found my line--from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty--without this I am nothing."
This always gives me pause--a real Marley's ghost, it is...

Reading David Copperfield, on the other hand, makes me think--go on! Write reams and reams of stuff! Then I recall David's schedule, which he tells us didn't include much sleep, and I confess that after all, I'm much more like simple-minded Mr. Dick, who by the end of the book is still taking the sheets of his failed efforts to write his memoirs, the Memorial, and turning them into kites.
The last Dickens shows us of him, Mr. Dick is among David's sons at summer holiday time:
"I see an old man making giant kites and gazing at them in the air, with a delight for which there are no words. He greets me rapturously, and whispers, with many nods and winks, '...You will be glad to hear that I shall finish the Memorial when I have nothing else to do....'"
Ah! I have found my tattoo!
"I shall finish the Memorial when I have nothing else to do"!

* IV. Opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

V. The Inevitable Star Trek Tie-In
Like Mr. Dick endlessly endeavoring to keep Charles I out of his Memorial, to no avail, I never do seem able to keep Star Trek out of my blog for long. I fully intended to take a break from it, but it will sneak in.

Trekkies among us will recognize the opening lines in the section above. Spock gives Kirk an antique copy of A Tale of Two Cities as a birthday present, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, maybe the ST movie with the most literary references? including Moby Dick and Paradise Lost.

Quotes from the tale bookmark the movie, opening with Spock's "the best of times, surely?" referring to Kirk's birthday, and closing with Kirk saying, " It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before. A far better resting place that I go to than I have ever known," in reference to Spock's death, as self-sacrificing as Sydney Carton's.


bink said...

It finally popped into my mind that the book that had started me on my Dickens reading jag about 10 years ago was Our Mutual Friend. I'm thinking it's time for a re-read...

fresca said...

I am off to the library right now!
I shall finish Slovakia when I have nothing else to do!

Anonymous said...

Hope you read this and are attending to whatever needs attention!

I haven't been reading your blog religiously and never saw this col Dickensian post until just now! (noonish on Monday, 18 May):

Literary co-inkydink: (we'd been watching blurry versions of PBS's new version of THE LITTLE DORRITT over the pasty couple weeks, so I've been in a Dickensian frame of mind--and, of course, being unemployed and aa thinking person helps--upon being one of the first customers to enter Steeple People last week Monday, as they opened, the first thing that caught my eye as I walked in was a set of white tiles in the glass cabinet. They are hand painted with cartoonish characters from several Dickens works. I thought of my dear old friend Elizabeth, but did not buy them, 'cuz' they were too much for the likes of me and I didn't care that much for the ceramics or the artwork. Turns out, ol' Lizzie came into town the next day on a hunt for furniture and saw these very same tiles herself and went nuts for 'em! She has them on hold for her unitl she collects the funds!



fresca said...

Hi, Stef--
"Old" comments and new alike get sent to my e-mail so I always get them.

Thanks for writing--Dickens is everywhere. I went to the library to check out "Tale of 2 Cities" and it was out. However, as I left, I saw it displayed in the window of the library's used books store, so I bought it.

deanna said...

I didn't read Dickens until I audited a class at my daughter's college, and then it was A Tale of Two Cities. You've made me want to find David Copperfield now. I also remember watching Hamlet and remembering Star Trek IV, where Spock recalls the exact quote for Bones's reference, even though just back from beyond.

Btw, watching the new ST movie, did you think about the fact that Spock was restored at the end of the third movie by Vulcans who would not be around in the new time line? But, I know, they'll say everything can be different now...personally, I think Spock would've disappeared (like in Back to the Future), the minute the new timeline took effect. Not that I'm into such nerdy speculations...

fresca said...

You're right, Deanna--Spock Prime, the new Spock, should wink out, like the entire Enterprise crew in "City on the Edge of Forever" after McCoy changed the past.

The movie was careless with time travel, not to mention physics in general.
I'm not a general science-nerd so when even I catch the mistakes, you know they're stinkers.

Eleanor said...

Good ol' Daisy, how I loved that book. But I also craved more about David's journey as a writer. It's interesting how minimal a part it played in a novel that takes after Dicken's own life. And Jane Eyre! My first love in literature! I must confess: I may love you for connecting Star Trek to Dickens.

fresca said...

Hey! Thanks Eleanor, for appreciating my connection!
Yes, I wanted to hear more about David's writing too. I wonder why he didn't write more about writing...