Burrowing, Aspiring, Mouldering, Unintelligible

While on my Dombey and Son journey, I’ve also been reading a bit about Bleak House. Mostly because it’s included in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, and I felt like flipping throught that. Before getting into things, he says, “If it were possible I would like to devote the fifty minutes of every class meeting to mute meditation, concentration, and admiration of Dickens.” That is actually how I like to read, when I’m sitting there doing it. Him too:

All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle. Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle.

This kind of aesthetic enjoyment is so wholesome and natural that it can be hard, or even unhelpful, to talk about it. In the spirit of Rohan Maitzen’s new Index to Novel Readings, I decided to read her “chapters” on Dickens. In Fog. Mud. Smoke. Soot. Gas. Fog., she says, of the opening passage of Bleak House, “I consider it an aesthetic accomplishment self-sufficient enough to render critical commentary not just redundant, but irritating.” Her commentary, of course, is not the least bit irritating and I think captures the exclamatory admiration for the passage while at the same time saying something worth reading. It is a hard thing to do and something I hope to succeed at least a little bit at myself.

I find it interesting that in Dickens it is so often the exposition where he becomes “the enchanter” (not that I have anything against the yarn spinner or the teacher, but…*). His descriptive passages are where he is decried for filler, for being long-winded, for being boring—horrors! And it is slow, in terms of action, and not the sort of thing you find in anything like popular contemporary literature. But it’s also not slow at all, it’s practically tumbling on itself, that’s how the enchantment works, like here, in Dombey:

Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing. There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream. Hot springs and fiery eruptions, the usual attendants upon earthquakes, lent their contributions of confusion to the scene. Boiling water hissed and heaved within dilapidated walls; whence, also, the glare and roar of flames came issuing forth; and mounds of ashes blocked up rights of way and wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.

In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railway was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.

And that’s for a neighborhood that, so far, we have only spent a single afternoon in. We may well return; if we do it will be to a completed railway though, and presumably a further changed Camden Town.

*“As is quite clear, the enchanter interests me more than the yarn spinner or the teacher.” —Vladimir Nabokov

3 comments to Burrowing, Aspiring, Mouldering, Unintelligible

  • I love Dickens’s long-windedness. He never bores me. (Love your new site, btw.) :D

  • D

    Hello, I enjoy your comments on literature, they are very insightful.

    You probably know that Dickens was paid by the word for his novels that were published in periodic segments, which I think is a fortunate circumstance…otherwise, he might have been more succinct, and we wouldn’t have the pleasure of his “long winded” passages.

    Dombey and Son and Bleak House are two of my favorite novels. I’ve read both multiple times, and every time I read them again, even though I know the stories by heart, I always find another very slight rhetorical nuance within those “long winded” passages that increases my appreciation of Dickens’s rhetorical and novelistic brilliance in general, and the novel in particular. It isn’t easy to describe a scene or character so eloquently that a reader seems to be there, witnessing the moment, or even almost seeming to come to know a character on a personal basis (Cap’n Cuttle is one of my favorite characters–after reading Dombey & Son, I feel like I’ve made acquaintance with an old Sea Dog.)

    Anyway, I guess my point is that Dickens wasn’t “long winded” (in the pejorative sense) but rather, happily scribbling along knowing that every word he penned earned a little bit more upon publication, and he did so brilliantly without being a mere hack. He certainly earned every quid and farthing.

    Love your site! Thanks for sharing it.

  • D, can I just agree with everything you’ve said without having much to add? I’ve actually never re-read Dickens, something I’m determined to remedy before too many more years have gone by. I think I will have a lot new to appreciate.