Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dickens, Representation and Chocolate Biscuits

When the poster advertised ‘High Tea with Dickens,’ celebrating the author’s birthday, I expected a few pots of hot water and a discussion. But I was mistaken. They were serious about the high tea, and Lang Cafe boasted a sumptuous spread: different types of teas, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, breads and spreads, and even chocolate biscuits. Toothpicks stood in little cups to facilitate retrieval of tea bags, cucumber slices and crumbly chunks of cheese. I happily filled my plate and cup.

Associate Professor of Literature Carolyn Berman presented a talk on ‘Dickens and the Art of Representation,’ which I found more palatable than the food (even the chocolate biscuits). Berman studies 18th and 19th century fiction and is currently working on a book on Dickens, Parliament and the media. The text and images she showed us connected lightly with the research for this book, but are not a part of her manuscript. 

To open a discussion about representation, Berman started with images. She showed us an illustration from Nicholas Nickleby, of Miss La Creevy painting a miniature portrait of Kate Nickleby. As you can see, Miss La Creevy is depicted almost larger-than-life, with an enormous hat, elaborate outfit, and surrounded by her paintings, making very clear to the reader that Miss La Creevy is a painter. The details of the image are inaccurate--one did not use a paintbrush for miniatures, for example--but Dickens and the illustrator were more interested in the representation of the characters by their accoutrements and descriptive characteristics. In fact, Miss La Creevy later describes the difficulty of miniature painting, since heads have to be enlarged, eyes widened, noses diminished and teeth invisible. Cut to a miniature portrait of Dickens when he was 18 years old, painted by his aunt, and those techniques are apparent. At the time that Dickens was writing, stories were printed in installments in publications, and generously illustrated. This allowed for conscious and unconscious collaborations between the writer and illustrator, where prose tried to approximate image, and vice versa. Characters, therefore, came into existence flush with adjectives and accessories, their representation confirmed and compounded by each other.

From there Berman moved to textual representations of characters -- the bit I found most interesting.


She read aloud the second and third paragraph of the first chapter of Great Expectations:
“As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father's, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, "Also Georgiana Wife of the Above," I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly.”
Young Pip probably could not read at this time, and yet he drew information from text, from letters, about his parents -- that we, as readers, similarly were drawing from to learn about the characters. Berman pointed out the refraction of information and experience here: where illiterate Pip is responding to the appearance of the words, the lettering on the tombstone, we are fully literate and converting Pip’s intuitive reactions into realities for his parents’ characters. Dickens found unconventional ways to represent characters to other characters, and, one layer later, to us.
“At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”
Berman marveled at this passage for a few reasons: it being a confident run-on sentence, Dickens’ deferral of the subject (Pip) until the very last word of the last line. I enjoyed it for the wording: I can imagine a long quiet river being a “low leaden line” and the source of the wind, yet unexplored by a young character, being a “distant savage lair.”

Dickens learned shorthand to become a Parliament reporter. His fascination with graphic representations continued as he imagined the ‘arbitrary characters’ of Gurney’s Shorthand as arbitrary characters in his works, playing with the words, the implications, and the characters themselves.

For a man whose vocation was words, art was never far from his mind.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

20,000 Books Under His Roof

You hear about privileged 6 year-olds with educated parents entering school with a 20,000 word vocabulary. But it’s not a given that 81 years later, that privileged adult will possess a home library of 20,000 books. Professor and writer William H. Gass is one such revered bibliophile, even more esteemed for his love of not just books, but grammar and sentences themselves. He spoke at The New School about his love of libraries, sentence structure and Plato’s philosophical writings.

He read aloud from 'Shelf Life,' an essay published in St. Louis Magazine in December 2007, and here I have pasted some bits he did not share in person. To him, “a good library is miserly, as proud of its relics as a church, permitting even a cheap novel to be useful to the study of the culture it came from, an institution, consequently, that won’t allow ephemera to ephemerate and is not ashamed of having the finest collection of bodice-rippers in existence; a library that has sat safely in the same place and watched like a sage its contents age, consequently a library whose dust is the rust of time; a library that never closes on cold days and will allow the homeless to rest in its reading room; a library that will permit me to poke about in its innards as long and as often as I like.”

A Ph.D student working day after day in Cornell’s library, whose steel infrastructure and dim lighting evoked his days in the Navy, Gass grew accustomed to sharing air with a paginated population rather than a two-legged one. The endless rows of books quickly became his world: “sitting there, day after day in dusky light, my conception of Eden began to change. It had no location on a map, but was a destination determined by the Dewey Decimal System.”

What were the rules of this world, if there could be any in such a diverse and profound environment? He told us a few:
  • A sentence “must not forget its way and wander in the wilderness.”
  • Sentences are like fences, to be “left open...or prudently closed.”
  • A powerful sentence does not require a reader to reflect its intensity: “not even a bored eye can rob a Rembrandt of its greatness.”
There was a reason, Gass pointed out, that in the olden days, elementary and middle school were simply called Grammar School. It sparked Gass' attitude to later declare, I love words and arrangements. I want the reader stopped short at the language.” in a letter to Charles Shattuck, editor of the University of Illinois journal Accent (read it here).

From his 2000 essay collection, The World Within The Word, he expounded further: “Sentences like this create a world in which you very well may turn a corner in a marble hall and find yourself in a shack; in which every custom is a cover for novelty, and novelty is normal; where you may learn to proceed with caution because a wave of meaning may flow back over you and alter everything; that its you and not your husband who is leading a double life.

When asked about his philosophy background -- from his Cornell Ph.D to his teaching experience at the University of St. Louis -- he quipped, “most philosophy is fiction, I think.” He explained that each sentence in a philosophical treatise, or novel, is a microcosm of the work and its argument. For example Faulkner, he said, would produce six chapters riffing off a single sentence, given his style of prose. His favorite philosophers? Hobbes is “magnificent despite T.S.Eliot’s dislike”, and Plato is “unmatched,” he said conclusively.

What about other famous authors? Proust? Gass admitted to only having read Proust in translation, so “I guess I don’t know much of him at all.” Gass shared his deep respect for Henry James, and remembered his fiery writing in The Wings of the Dove, written, as he put it, at “the edge of the First World War.”

Gass ended his speech differently but this part of his 'Shelf Life' essay stuck a chord: 
Collectors who do not care for books but only for their rarity prefer them in an unopened, pure and virginal condition, but such volumes have had no life, and now even that one chance has been taken from them, so that, imprisoned by stifling plastic, priced to flatter the vanity of the parvenu who has made its purchase, such a book sits out of the light in a glass-enclosed humidor like wine too old to open, too expensive to enjoy.”

Not Gass, though. And his extensive, exhausting writing proves it.