Taking care: a slightly Levinasian reading of Dombey and Son.
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In 1988, Arion Press of San Francisco published a fine-press edition of Laurence Sterne's Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) with 39 photo-collage illustrations by John Baldessari, a California modernist whose trademark is a round colored disk pasted over faces in his photo-collages. Baldessari has suggested that this device indicates his hatred of certain occupations--bankers, lawyers, businessmen--the Paul Dombeys of the world. One might suggest that these are the same holders of wealth who are willing and able to support his art, so that this particular Tristram Shandy appeared in a limited edition of 400 copies at $900 per copy; an additional suite of five large-scale lithographic prints (selected from the original 39 illustrations) was available for $4800. (1) Well might little Paul Dombey inquire: "Papa! what's money?" (2)
Sterne had had, of course, other illustrators before Baldessari, including the famous William Hogarth, whom Sterne had solicited for illustrations for the first two installments, and the less well known C. R. Leslie, whose painting of "Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman," completed in 1830, had achieved iconographic status by midcentury. (3) Careful readers of Dombey and Son will have seen this portrait on the wall overlooking the devils' dinner as portrayed by Phiz for chapter 26 (Dombey 316); my label for the trio--Dombey, Carker, Bagstock--at their celebratory dinner takes its cue from the illustration's legend: "Joe B is sly Sir; devilish sly." (4)
A comparison between these earlier illustrators and Baldessari is instructive, and especially when informed by the writings of Levinas. Baldessari's justification for obliterating the faces of those who looked like "bank presidents opening a bank"--he "hated" them (5)--is, most obviously, a dubious usurpation of authority from the literary to the visual text, from the originary to the secondary; Baldessari's trademark would appear to be wholly interchangeable with any literary text, as opposed to the illustrations of Hogarth and Leslie, which move toward a transparency whereby the objective (and secondary) representation sacramentalizes the text, reaffirming rather than ignoring its real presence. But even more disturbing is the deplorable embrace of violence in Baldessari's comment. A decade ago, in writing about the Baldessari illustrations, I suggested this violence had "much to do ... with living too comfortably with untruths" (W&I 193). And I invoked Levinas directly: "Put as succinctly as possible, Baldessari and literary critics might profit from adding Emmanuel Levinas to their reading list, if they have not already done so. They might then be less inclined to efface the faces they meet, Baldessari among [his found images], theorists among the authors they have deauthorized; and more inclined, I would hope, to recognize the vital importance of the other (the face of the other) in determining our own presentness. Above all, we might come to recognize the unethicalness of the disk ... which jealously, resentfully effaces the author he thought he was complementing" (W&I 193-94).
Throughout that essay Hogarth's illustrations were offered as an aesthetic and ethical alternative to Baldessari's, but the essay's conclusion turned to Leslie's "Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman" and again to Levinas. One may look at the Leslie image (see figure 1) or reread the wonderful chapters 24 and 25 of volume 8 of Tristram Shandy and discover in both an uncanny echo of one of Levinas's most beautiful insights:
Signification is not added to the existent.... The symbolism of the sign already presupposes the signification of expression, the face. In the face the existent par excellence presents itself ... The primordial signifyingness of the existent, its presentation in person or its expression, its way of incessantly upsurging outside of its plastic image, is produced concretely as a temptation to total negation, and as the infinite resistance to murder, in the other qua other, in the hard resistance of these eyes without protection--what is softest and most uncovered. (6)
Baldessari succumbs precisely to this temptation of total negation, of murder. The crucial difference, then, between the art of Hogarth and Leslie on the one hand, Baldessari on the other, is ethical; his is an art that obliterates the face of the other, a commentary that obliterates the face in the text. I concluded my observations, perhaps melodramatically, with the famous final words of 1984: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--forever." (7)
We do not know for certain whether the inclusion of the Leslie painting in Phiz's illustration (see figure 2) was Dickens's or Hablot Browne's idea, but Michael Steig, the best commentator on the relationship between the novelist and the illustrator, argues most convincingly that the inspiration was Browne's, and perhaps a commentary on sexual incapacity (certainly a central Sterneian theme): Dombey "is not able to command Edith's submission." (8) Of more importance to my present purpose, however, is Steig's notion of Phiz's independence: "But with Dickens and his illustrators we cannot, despite Dickens' practice of giving detailed instructions, assume ... a single intention. Because the illustrations include elements which are specified by the author, but are not the author's own creations, and further because the artist introduces details of his own, we find that the illustrator is at once collaborator ... interpreter ... and perhaps even an artist, sometimes creating independently valuable works of art" (3). And again: "Perhaps the question can never be settled, but on the basis of the evidence it seems to me harder to present a convincing argument for Dickens' complete dominance over his artist than for Browne's independence in matters of iconography" (21). Assuming this independence, we can ask what it was that Browne read in the chapter that led him to Leslie.
The most pleasing answer from my perspective would draw the following equation: just as I was led from the violence of Baldessari to the faces of Leslie to the melodrama of the Orwellian boot, so was Browne drawn by the contrast in this chapter between these three men, whose existence is defined by their collective willingness to efface every face they meet, and the loving faces that Leslie found in Sterne's description of Toby's vulnerability to the vulnerable eye of the Widow Wadman. If this were indeed the case, perhaps Browne also had an insight into the melodramatic ending that Dickens provided for the chapter, so much insight that we might come to believe that the Browne illustration summons forth the real presence of the text, converting the melodramatic into a sacramental moment in which we understand, perhaps for the first time, the pervasive presence of demonic evil in the world of Dombey and Son. Uncannily, Dickens echoes Orwell: "There was a faint blur on the surface of the mirror in Mr. Carker's chamber, and its reflection was, perhaps, a false one. But it showed, that night, the image of a man, who saw, in his fancy, a crowd of people slumbering on the ground at his feet, like the poor Native at his master's door: who picked his way among them: looking down, maliciously enough: but trod upon no upturned face--as yet" (Dombey 320).
It is noteworthy that in the opening of the next chapter, Dickens observes that Mr. Carker "had his face so perfectly under control, that few could say more, in distinct terms, of its expression, than that it smiled or that it pondered" (320). What Browne's inclusion of the Leslie portrait has suggested is that a face under such control is already effaced; the desire to efface others turns on itself, and already the evil intentions celebrated at the dinner are ironically undercut by their toast to the "angelic Edith" (316). The devils' dinner turns, despite its participants, into the communion table, and the Leslie icon on the wall, framed by candles, reminds us that the privilege of real presence is to convert evil to good. Similarly, the privilege of both author and illustrator is to incarnate that conversion in words and images, to provide, in other words, a text the transparency of which makes meaning (Greek: logos) possible. Levinas would explain it thus: "expression defines culture; culture is art, and art or the celebration of being constitutes the original essence of incarnation. Language qua expression is, above all, the creative language of poetry. Art is then not a blissful wandering of man, who sets out to make something beautiful. Culture and artistic creation are part of the ontological order itself." (9) One need only add that for both Dickens and Levinas that order is ethical.
I have taken this circumambulating entry into the possibility of a Levinasian meditation on Dombey and Son in order to suggest an analogy that may help us explore what I am coming to believe is the great critical failing of our age, our naive and essentially unexamined practice of juxtaposing the theoretical with the aesthetic in order to make the work of art "speak to us." Levinas, with his privileging of the caress over the grasp, unknowingness over cognitive mastery, makes every such juxtaposition involving his own theoretical activity at best problematic, at worst, a usurpation. Yet, as he himself acknowledges in his own complex attempt to unravel art from criticism, "Reality and Its Shadow" ("La realite et son ombre," 1948), without the critic, art's place in the world would be greatly reduced, if not irresponsible (unethical): "But all this is true for art separated from the criticism that integrates the inhuman work of the artist into the human world. Criticism already detaches it from its irresponsibility by envisaging its technique." (10)
Levinas's aim in "Reality and Its Shadow" would appear to be the revival of Plato's infamous denigration of art as twice or thrice removed from Truth, but now restored to its full significance by the critic qua philosopher. Fortunately, as is also true of Plato, Levinas is too much an artist himself--and too much a philosopher, as well--to allow himself or his readers fully to credit this assault on art. Significantly, precisely his comments on Dickens in this essay can, alongside my initial comments on the illustration of Hablot Browne, help us toward an understanding of how we might situate Levinas in proximity with Dombey and Son, not in order to "understand" the novel, but rather to incarnate the text's always absent meaning into that real presence by which art regains, despite Levinas's temporary displacement, its exalted position as "the supreme value of civilization" ("Reality" 12). Criticism, in this light, is the means by which art engages in its endless negotiation with the eternal.
Levinas invokes Dickens twice in "Reality and Its Shadow." In the first instance, he is in the midst of pursuing the notion--which he shares with Keats--that all art is a caricature of life because the work of art embodies "a quasi-eternal duration," afloat in "an eternally suspended future" ("Reality" 9). The "life" within art is thus "a lifeless life, a derisory life which is not master of itself, a caricature of life"; and this leads Levinas to Dickens, among other artists:
Every image is already a caricature. But this caricature turns into something tragic. The same man is indeed a comic poet and a tragic poet, an ambiguity which constitutes the particular magic of poets like Gogol, Dickens, Tchekov--and Moliere, Cervantes, and above all, Shakespeare. (9)
Because all art is constituted as images of the objects of the real world, separated from that world by its completeness and its disengagement, Levinas seems ready to condemn art to irrelevancy, a futile attempt to "go beyond," toward the realm of Platonic notions; art is, then, failed philosophy. However, in his most typical gesture, Levinas immediately suggests, instead, the alternative of unknowingness as his new definition of art: 'just this is the artwork, an event of darkening of being, parallel with its revelation, its truth" (9).
This suggestion, in turn, harkens back to an earlier passage in the essay: "Does not the function of art lie in not understanding? Does not obscurity provide it with its very element and a completion sui generis, foreign to dialectics and the life of ideas? Will we then say that the artist knows and expresses the very obscurity of the real?" ("Reality" 3). Here we are on Levinas's most cherished ground, the importance of the obscure, the unknown, or, as Paul Celan writes:
"Wahr spricht, wer Schatten spricht" ("He speaks truly, who speaks the shade").H If knowledge is the condition of being, then art is somewhere else, "on the hither side" perhaps: "Does not the commerce with the obscure, as a totally independent ontological event, describe categories irreducible to those of cognition? We should like to show this event in art. Art does not know a particular type of reality; it contrasts with knowledge. It is the very event of obscuring, a descent of the night, an invasion of shadow" (3).
It is to be expected that Levinas would now seek a theological equivalent, and indeed he immediately moves in that direction. Art, he insists, is not revelation; nor, even more paradoxically, is it creation. Rather, given his argument that art substitutes images for objects, where images are precisely not concepts, ideas, or powers, we may conceive of the work of art as a "fundamental passivity," visible to sensation and connected to "ecstatic rites" ("Reality" 3-4). The connection is drawn to music, because, one suspects, of music's "inarticulateness": "An image is musical. Its passivity is directly visible in magic, song, music, and poetry. The exceptional structure of aesthetic existence invokes this singular term magic [we recall that Dickens was invoked as a poet of this "particular magic"], which will enable us to make the somewhat worn-out notion of passivity precise and concrete" (3). (12) And again, Levinas shepherds his argument toward theology:
Here we have really an exteriority of the inward. It is surprising that phenomenological analysis never tried to apply this fundamental paradox of rhythm and dreams, which describes a sphere situated outside of the conscious and the unconscious, a sphere whose role in all ecstatic rites has been shown by ethnography ... A represented object, by the simple fact of becoming an image, is converted into a nonobject; the image as such enters into categories proper to it which we would like to bring out here. The disincarnation of reality by an image is not equivalent to a simple diminution in degree. It belongs to an ontological dimension that does not extend between us and a reality to be captured, a dimension where commerce with reality is a rhythm. (4-5)
Or, we might suggest, returning to our discussion of illustrating a text, art is a dimension of the sacramental, the incarnation of the object by the liturgical.
So much has already been written about Paul's death, both by those who embrace its sentimentality and by those who are appalled by it, that one would almost prefer to avoid additional commentary. But Levinas has led us, perhaps unexpectedly, to "What the Waves Were Always Saying," and, indeed, it is at this point in "Reality and Its Shadow" that he invokes Dickens for a second time. Expanding on his concept of art as rhythm, Levinas explores its novelistic manifestation in the sequence of events that Aristotle defines as "plot" and Levinas as "a situation--akin to a plastic ideal" ("Reality" 10). This plasticity, the "natural selection of facts and traits which are fixed in a rhythm, and transform time into images," may, in fact, be the goal of the "psychological novel." Levinas is challenging, it would appear, the far more traditional view that such novels must look inward; for him the opposite is the case. Returning to his investment in the obscurity of the image, he now singles out Dickens to support his belief:
an exterior vision--of a total exteriority, like the exteriority in rhythm we have described above ... is the true vision of the novelist. Atmosphere is the very obscurity of images. The poetry of Dickens, who was surely a rudimentary psychologist, the atmosphere of those dusty boarding schools, the pale light of London offices with their clerks, the antique and second-hand clothing shops ... only appear in an exterior vision set up as a method. There is no other method. Even the psychological novelist sees his inner life on the outside, not necessarily through the eyes of another, but as one participates in a rhythm or a dream. All the power of the contemporary novel, its art-magic, is perhaps due to this way of seeing inwardness from the outside.... (10-11)
One can enumerate many scenes in Dickens that might have led Levinas to cite him as his primary exemplum, but surely the death of Paul would be a most likely candidate. And since Sterne has already imposed himself into Dombey and Son, via Browne's rendition of the Leslie painting, perhaps we can also invoke his own fictional deathbed scene, surely one of the most famous sentimental deathbed scenes prior to Dickens, the death of Le Fever in volume 6 of Tristram Shandy. The question for both artists, interestingly enough, seems to have been how to break the "rhythm" of the scene. Thus Sterne: "Nature instantly ebb'd again,--the film returned to its place,--the pulse fluttered--stopp'd--went on--throb'd--stopp'd again--moved--stopp'd--shall I go on?--No." (13) Most criticism of Sterne has centered on the "No," the moment when it is felt Sterne yet again winks at his audience, shattering the rhythm of the event and letting us know that the sentimentalism demanded by his readers comes with a jester's cap.
With Dickens, too, criticism of the death scene has bypassed the moment of dying--the plastic event that can never be other than it is, fated to occur every time we encounter the book--to concentrate on Miss Tox's famous declaration that shatters the sentimental scene and returns us to the world: "that Dombey and Son should be a Daughter after all!" (Dombey 191). Levinas's musings on rhythm and image may suggest, however, that we can profitably return to these scenes with a better sense of their artistic achievement (and in them both, Sterne and Dickens addressed their artistry to the senses rather than to the understanding) if we learn to read the play of rippling shadows on the wall as incarnating a truth other than the truth of dialectical reasoning. Whether by magic, by music, by incantation, the text demands a responsive criticism that is difficult to locate in an intellectual milieu where the most proscribed "ism" is "sentimentalism":
Sister and brother wound their arms around each other, and the golden light came streaming in, and fell upon them, locked together.
"How fast the river runs, between its green banks and the rushes, Floy! But it's very near the sea. I hear the waves! They always said so!" (191)
Paul is almost gone now, already in sight of the nether shore, but he returns for one final observation: "Mama is like you, Floy. I know her by the face! But tell them that the print upon the stairs at school is not Divine enough." At his ending, in his final words, Paul turns "critic," twice evaluating what Levinas would establish as the fundamental relationship of art, the resemblance between image and object.
In measuring Florence and the "print upon the stairs" by their resemblance to his mother, Paul concretizes Levinas's abstract discourse on the painterly image:
The consciousness of the representation lies in knowing that the object is not there.... These elements [of plasticity] ... in the absence of the object ... do not force its presence, but by their presence insist on its absence ... They occupy its place fully to mark its removal, as though the represented object died, were degraded, were disincarnated in its own reflection. The painting then does not lead us beyond the given reality, but somehow to the hither side of it. ("Reality" 7)
At the moment of Paul's death, if we listen carefully enough, the rhythm of the waves tells us, as did the rhythmic breathing of Le Fever, that the work of art--in offering the image or shadow that is the always accompanying nether side of the objects of the world, and in thus refusing the dialectic knowingness by which those objects can be grasped and demystified--will always make its ultimate claim in the face of death, "the old, old fashion--Death!" (Dombey 191). Paul, as a critic of resemblance, of art, opens us to something other than death, other than reality: "Oh thank GOD, all who see it, for that older fashion yet, of Immortality! And look upon us, angels of young children, with regards not quite estranged, when the swift river bears us to the ocean!" (191).
It seems appropriate that Dickens here envisions a movement beyond time (the ungraspable aesthetic image of time, we might suggest, is always Immortality), toward whatever is not time, the "being out of time" that is death itself, but as well the transcendence of time that is his own art when it is made the subject of critical observation. As Levinas suggests, "It is not that an artwork reproduced a time that has stopped: in the general economy of being, art is the falling movement on the hither side of time, into fate" ("Reality" 9-10). The death of Paul turns into the life of Florence, and much as did Browne's illustration, Paul's critical moment manifests that mode of commentary by which a work of art and "the hither side of the world which is fixed in art" are neither effaced nor denied by criticism, but instead reintroduced "into the intelligible world in which it [the work of art] stands, and which is the true homeland of the mind" (13).
We are now ready, I think, to offer the analogy promised earlier. If Browne the "illustrator" can be considered just one more critic of Dickens, does not the presence of Leslie (and thus Sterne) in his illustration suggest that criticism shares with art--despite Levinas's platonic feint at separating the two--its existence as an image or shadow of the object, unknowing even in its knowingness? Is it not possible, then, to rephrase Levinas's question--"does not the function of art lie in not understanding"--to include the critic: "Does not the function of art--and criticism--lie in not understanding"? ("Reality" 3). The movement from death toward immortality is recapitulated every time the work of art escapes from the hands of the artist into the hands of a responsive critic, not because the critic "understands" the work, but because the work of true criticism, the true measuring of resemblance between the images of the artist and the images of the critic (Can any reader doubt the "truth" of Paul's commentary on resemblance?), becomes always an image of the infinite, whereby the mind spills out beyond its capacity: "Is not to interpret Mallarme to betray him? Is not to interpret his work faithfully to suppress it? To say clearly what he says obscurely is to reveal the vanity of his obscure speech" (1).
Obviously, this notion of criticism is an imaginary one, given that within the economy of the critical we can posit an entirely different mode, the Baldessari model, whereby the image is effaced, stomped on in the name of a dialectic certainty that manifests itself in self-confessed "hatred." If Paul turns critic on his deathbed in order to sanctify the face of Florence, can we not also suggest that Dombey, Carker, and the Major represent all that can and does go wrong when we read a text--or the world--as though the end of reading were dominance, interestedness, and empowerment? Specifically, how can we offer a Levinasian reading of Dombey and Son that turns philosophy into art, into that image of itself which, in juxtaposition with the work of art, may perhaps startle us with its resemblance, or disturb us, as the print upon the stairs, with its inadequacy, but which refuses domination of the text?
Criticism cannot avoid its intimate relationship with the work of art, but as with Sterne's presence in Leslie's print on the wall within Browne's illustration of Dickens's scene, this relationship is always itself a shadow. The good reader, conversant with a multitude of shadows, a host of images united only by their unwillingness to solidify into assertions, brings a selection of those images into passive proximity with the work of art. In those two words, passive proximity, we may find, perhaps, the image of Levinas as a "reader" of the work of art, and hence our own clue as to how he may best be brought into a helpful relationship with Dickens. What we seek, above all, is not to efface Dickens with Levinas, not to conduct a philosophical unraveling of the unknowingness of the artist, in which Levinas simply replaces, for the nonce, Freud or Lacan, Marx or Gramsci, Foucault or Habermas, as the boot on the face of the literary work. On the contrary, I would here attempt a commentary no more invasive--but just as telling--as the Browne illustration, a commentary guided by an overarching insistence that we do not, in the critical process, reduce otherness (the rhythms of the artist) to sameness (the thoughts of the critic). (14)
Jonathan Swift, whose Tale of a Tub (1696) is surely one of the most perceptive engagements with artistic criticism, with "reality and its shadow," in the English language, seems an unlikely precursor of the philosopher Levinas, yet both seem to twine themselves tightly around one similar concept; hence Swift:
For what man in the natural state or course of thinking, did ever conceive it in his power to reduce the notions of all mankind exactly to the same length, and breadth, and height of his own? Yet this is the first humble and civil design of all innovators in the empire of reason. (15)
One can turn to almost any page of Levinas and find Swift's sentiment echoed, not merely philosophically but, as well, in images and shadows; I select this passage in particular because it contains one of Levinas's favorite invocations of literature:
Philosophy is produced as a form in which the refusal of engagement in the other ... indifference with regard to others, the universal allergy of the early infancy of philosophers is manifest. Philosophy's itinerary remains that of Ulysses, whose adventure in the world was only a return to his native island--a complacency in the Same, an unrecognition of the other. (16)
To be sure, Levinas's entire project seems designed to find a way not to "renounce knowing and meanings in order to find sense" (91), but by sanctifying the face of the Other, by journeying like Abraham into the unknown that refuses a return to the Same, Levinas imagines a philosophical thinker that may help us to read differently, to modify--if we cannot ever overcome--the almost irrepressible human urge to dominate with knowledge, to illuminate that which remains in the shadows. It is for this reason that I call a Levinasian approach to a literary text ethical, defined within an ethical aesthetics as the attempt to reorient criticism from the knowledge of the philosopher-critic to a responsiveness to the images that constitute the work of art; such reorientation would begin with the recognition that philosophy too cannot escape its own image. (17)
Levinas has been brought alongside Dombey and Son once before in the critical heritage, in a very fine but to my knowledge largely uncited essay by Henri Talon that appeared in the inaugural volume of the Dickens Studies Annual, in 1970. The title, "Dombey and Son: A Closer Look at the Text," is significant; the date even more so, for the essay appeared at about the same time that the critical profession en masse was beginning its long march toward empowerment, fueled above all by French theory, among its several seemingly diverse sources. Talon was, however, not an American looking for a stick with which to beat Dombey and Son into submission as a commentary on Vietnam and social injustice, but a French scholar of English literature; the catalogue of images he could bring to Dickens was enormously impressive (born in 1909, Talon was toward the end of his career with this publication). He had written on D. H. Lawrence and D. G. Rossetti, on Thackeray and Forster; however, what particularly resonates to my ears, attuned as they are to eighteenth-century England, is that Talon had written books on John Bunyan and William Law. Surely the shadow of both figures is in two of his opening comments: "I should first like to make clear that the theme of this novel proceeds from moral, not political, certitude.... [M]iracles are not exceptional occurrences in Dickens' fictional universe." (18) And before Levinas is cited, we recognize him in this acknowledgment, so often missing in Dickens criticism: "I suppose the readers who tax him with intellectual poverty can recognize 'ideas' only when conveyed by discourse, whereas in Dickens' fictions they are most often and most vividly suggested by pictures ... an art of living which makes him, in Santayana's words, 'a good philosopher.' Philosophy, as Etienne Gilson reminded us recently, is not primary knowledge; philosophy is wisdom." (19)
In a series of topics derived from the novel, Talon brings Levinas into proximity with Dickens with a deftness that suggests to me an acute engagement with--and homage to--the philosopher's own most cherished images. Thus, for example, under the rubric The House, he is able to diminish much of the gender criticism that has since emerged on Dombey and Son simply by placing alongside a few lines from Totality and Infinity--"the empirical absence of the human being of 'feminine sex' in a dwelling nowise affects the dimension of femininity which remains open there, as the very welcome of the dwelling" (TI 158) (20)--the observation that "Long before Freud some men had discovered this [feminine] principle within themselves ... [It] is found in Sol Gills and Captain Cuttle: thanks to them the Midshipman is a welcoming home for Walter, Florence, and Mr. Toots" (Talon 150).
Levinas is not mentioned again in the essay itself and only once again in the notes (and he fails to appear in the index to the volume), but that the next topical division is The Meal might again return to us the Levinasian presence, as in this sentence: "Indeed the meal is the symbol of the readiness to welcome even more than of the actual welcome ... In Dickens' anti-Malthusian universe there is always a "vacant seat ... at Nature's mighty feast' for anyone who is hungry. The starving man does not need to claim a 'right' to be fed, for there is always a Sol Gills or a Ned Cuttle or a Harriet Carker to beg him to come in and to lay the table in no time" (Talon 151). Few philosophers have vested more in the concept of hospitality than has Levinas, none among the moderns has argued more persuasively against the egotism of the conatus, that is, the Hobbesian-Malthusian universe: "'To leave men without food is a fault that no circumstance attenuates; the distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary does not apply here,' says Rabbi Yochanan. Before the hunger of men responsibility is measured only 'objectively'; it is irrecusable" (TI 201). (21)
The next division is even more overtly an embodiment of the Levinasian shadow, The Hand and the Face. Invoking Levinas's "face to face," Talon might almost be talking about Sterne's Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman, one image invoking the other: "Words are often like screens between people, but the expression of the face opens the way to the heart. 'There was glory and delight within the Captain that spread itself over his whole visage, and made a perfect illumination there'" (Talon 153). This glances, of course, at that magnificent chapter 49, in which Florence is cared for by Captain Cuttle, and Walter is returned from the sea. Certainly, one of those aspects of art that produces (or should produce) awe is the daring of an artist like Dickens, who manages time and again in this chapter to transcend the sentimental, not by eschewing sensibility, but by openly and happily embracing it. The image of Cuttle at the stove, "cooking with extraordinary skill, making hot gravy in a second little saucepan, boiling a handful of potatoes in a third, never forgetting the egg-sauce in the first" (Dombey 569), is an image of Levinas's finest reach of the ethical human being; small wonder that Dickens, that untrained philosopher of human experience, ends where Levinas would: "there was never such a radiant cook as the Captain looked, in the height and heat of these functions: it being impossible to say whether his face or his glazed hat shone the brighter" (570). And when Florence reciprocates his "care" and fills his pipe and makes a "perfect glass of grog for him, unasked, and set it at his elbow," how much richer is his response ("his ruddy nose turned pale, he felt himself so graced and honored" ) than the critic's compulsion to efface the scene by discovering that the pipe is phallic, the perfect grog, an instance of feminine subjugation. Surely if Levinas in proximity to Dickens has any value at all, it will be to teach us how to admire, as does Talon, the skillfulness of Dickens's images of caritas and grace.
It is, however, in his concluding section, Essence and Existence, that Talon seems most Levinasian in his reading, echoing "Reality and Its Shadow," although he gives no indication of knowing it. I quote at length because I think the criticism is a model of good reading:
Thus, in order to hold our attention, Dickens does not ask from us a willing suspension of disbelief in the same way as most great novelists do. When reading him we never forget for a moment that we have entered a world which is not ours. Not for a moment do we believe in the existence of Ned Cuttle, or Carker, or Florence, but this does not preclude us from feeling sympathy, or scorn, or pity: as Etienne Gilson has said, Dickens' characters do not exist, they are....
But this distinction between esse and existere is too subtle for many readers. "What pleasure can you take ... in a caricatural world peopled with automatons?" Those who have read Santayana wonder how he could seriously write that Dickens does not exaggerate.... Of course Dickens exaggerates, and thus often gives relief to features that are familiar enough in the world, but that we are apt to forget. In this case exaggeration is the revealing agent of truth. (Talon 158)
Like Paul, this criticism seems to us today rather old fashioned, lacking that ideological strength by which the author's failings can be brought to light. One might recall what Paul overhears--"or he dreamed it"--of the Apothecary's diagnosis, "that there was a want of vital power (what was that, Paul wondered!) and great constitutional weakness.... [T]he little fellow had a fine mind, but was an old-fashioned boy" (Dombey 160). The want of "power" in Talon's "closer look at the text" is perhaps the most admirable feature of his commentary; I would suggest that his writing about Dickens takes place in the shadows and through the images afforded by Levinas. Talon illuminates the text with his closer look, but is overpowered by what he reads, finding it at once transformational and incarnational of the reality that is the world prior to--and alongside--Dickens's world.
If any one particular chapter in Dombey and Son has challenged modern criticism's desire to subdue the text, to reduce it "exactly to the same length, and breadth, and height" (Tale of a Tub 141) of our own world view, it would be chapter 59, "Retribution." It begins, as so often when Dickens is moving toward a conclusion, with the clearing away of evil, in this instance several remaining images of selfishness, Mrs. Pipchin and the Dombey household staff. They depart the house, now "a ruin, and the rats fly from it" (Dombey 696, 697, 700), a rhythm of repetition eventually replaced by the more sinister echo of a former motif, "Let him remember it in that room, years to come" (701). Dickens's portrayals of the abandoned Dombey domicile and of Mrs. Pipchin's dreams of once again gormandizing while her students wither with hunger ("there is a snaky gleam in her hard grey eye, as of anticipated rounds of buttered toast, relays of hot chops" ) cohere to remind us that the "house" and "hospitality" are, in the economy of human relationship, works of sensibility not intentionality. Levinas comments on the Pipchins of the world, as well as on those who will replace them, many times in his writings, as in these sentences from his essay "Substitution": "The recurrence of the self in responsibility for others, a persecuting obsession, goes against intentionality, such that responsibility for others could never mean altruistic will, instinct of 'natural benevolence,' or love. It is in the passivity of obsession, or incarnated passivity, that an identity individuates itself as unique, without recourse to any system of references, in the impossibility of evading the assignation of the other without blame." (22)
Those representing the rage to save themselves, the "egoism of the conatus" (CPP 138), are thus swept offstage and immediately replaced, in Dickens's typical contrapuntal rhythm, with Polly Toodle and Miss Tox. Mr. Toodle's unlearned understanding of Polly's ethical responsibilities is surely a shadow of Levinas's own image of goodness:
I shouldn't allow of your coming here, to be made dull-like, if it warn't for favours past. But favours past, Polly, is never to be forgot. To them which is in adversity, besides, your face is a cord'l.... You wish no better than to do a right act, I know; and my views is, that it's right and dutiful to do this. (699)
Better than trying, as too many critics have done, to attribute this "sentimental masking" of the harsh realities of industrial England to some flaw in Dickens's artistry, economic knowledge, or social consciousness, might we not instead recognize that the passage is, rather, a profound unmasking of the pervasive implication in such criticism that the ethical no longer exists (if it ever was more than mere ideology) among human beings. Shrewdly enough, Dickens does not attach his image of human good will toward others to an artist, a critic, an intellectual, or an elite; it is no accident, I think, that the passage begins, in fact, with a reminder that Mr. Toodle is deeply implicated in the modern world, "Being, now, an ingein-driver [sic] and well to do in the world" (699); his goodness, Dickens would seem to be saying, is prior to this self-identification in the world's economy, so deeply embedded in him, so primal a response and responsibility to the needs of those around him that the Industrial Revolution has not touched it. It behooves criticism, I think, not to do more damage to Dickens's images of goodness than the collective reality in which he found them was able to do. (23)
Even more to the point is Dickens's portrayal of Miss Tox, one of his finest illustrations of the challenge he offers again and again in his fictions: human virtue can be found in the unlikeliest vessels. For if Mr. Toodle is an unlikely enough shadow of Levinas's highly intellectualized appeal to an ethics based on responsibility, Miss Tox would seem almost the antithesis of whatever Levinas meant by his assertion that "the woman is the condition for recollection, the interiority of the Home, and inhabitation" (TI 155). Her name in itself would seem to render her inhospitable to life, and from the first description of her, "a long lean figure, wearing such a faded air that she seemed ... to have, by little and little, washed out" (5-6), she is put in stark contrast with the life-giving Polly Toodle, "a plump rosy-cheeked wholesome apple-faced young woman" (11). Dickens could see, however, the image standing always alongside Miss Tox and the cruel, crushing realities of her existence. By juxtaposing her from the beginning with the truly despicable Louisa Chick (Mr. Chick's response to his wife's absurdities, the humming of tunes, probably has its roots in Uncle Toby's Lillibullero--thus does art build incessantly on its library of shadows) and later, more crucially, with the sadistic Bagstock, Dickens enables us to see that image as well.
Thus, by the time we reach the chapter "Retribution," we will have another way to read this early description, and Miss Tox's overwhelming passivity and self-abnegation will no longer seem the trap for an unwary Dombey that we may initially have supposed, nor a hypocritical masking of evil ambition and invidious intent. Rather, she is the essence of the ethical argument Dickens makes in Dombey and Son: although "washed out," Miss Tox, he writes at the very beginning, "might have been described as the very pink of general propitiation and politeness" (Dombey 5). It will take us 700 more pages to give "propitiation" and "politeness" more ample meaning, and perhaps it takes Levinas to inform both words with significant philosophical depth. Even this early in the novel, however, her characteristic mode of "listening admiringly to everything that was said ... and looking at speakers as if she were mentally engaged in taking off impressions of their images upon her soul, never to part with the same but with life" (5-6), seems designed to establish her kinship with Paul, although it might detour some readers (as, I suspect, Dickens intended it should) down the path of scorn for a life so dependent on and attuned to others.
Both Paul and Miss Tox are artists, images of Dickens himself, for can we describe him--with our eye on Levinas's discussion of reality and image--any better than as an artist "taking off impressions" of the images of the people of his real world, "upon [his] soul, never to part with the same but with life"? And if her hands were constantly posed in a gesture of "involuntary admiration," and if she has the "softest voice that ever was heard" and an "invincible determination" never "to turn up [her nose] at anything," are we not in the presence of that image of the ethical that pervades so many pages of Levinas:
Nothing is more passive than this being implicated prior to my freedom, this preoriginal involvement, this frankness. The passivity of the vulnerable one is the condition (or uncondition) by which a being shows itself to be a creature.
Frankness exposes--even to wounds. The active ego reverts to the passivity of a self, to the accusative form of the oneself [se] which does not derive from any nominative, from the accusation prior to any fault. But this exposedness is never passive enough: exposedness is exposed, sincerity denudes sincerity itself. ("No Identity," in CPP 147) (24)
Miss Tox, her frank interest in Dombey exposed to everyone except the utter block of wood that is Dombey himself, and ultimately rendered naked in Princess Place before the insidious spying of Bagstock and his telescope, is indeed a victim of the readers' initial scorn for the bad motives we assign to her.
Nonetheless, she emerges in the novel as a moral beacon, and on one occasion, in particular, when no one else is present who can direct us. In chapter 18, "Father and Daughter," immediately after Paul's death, Dombey locks himself away from everyone, and Mrs. Chick accuses Florence of not having tried hard enough (there is something positively Heideggerian in both Dombey and Mrs. Chick, as if Dickens could anticipate some of the worst moments of the twentieth century's most important philosopher). Into this physical and moral vacuum, Miss Tox moves toward Florence and her sorrow: "Miss Tox was of a tender nature, and there was something in this appeal that moved her very much.... For the moment she forgot the majesty of Mrs. Chick, and patting Florence hastily on the cheek, turned aside and suffered the tears to gush from her eyes, without waiting for a lead from that wise matron" (Dombey 205). And then, as Dickens so often does, he immediately repeats the gesture so that the inattentive reader has a second chance to understand that virtue, our infinite care for the other person, is the shadow that tracks every human being; unable to convince Mrs. Chick to allow her entrance to her father in order to comfort him, to enter into a "sad community of love and grief" (315), Florence sadly retreats upstairs:
"Aunt," said Florence, "I will go and lie down on my bed."
Mrs. Chick approved of this resolution, and dismissed her with a kiss. But Miss Tox, on a faint pretense of looking for the mislaid handkerchief, went up-stairs after her; and tried in a few stolen minutes to comfort her.... [H]er sympathy seemed genuine, and had at least the vantage-ground of disinterestedness. (207)
These hints are now fulfilled in chapter 59, when Miss Tox joins Polly Toodle in reoccupying the Dombey mansion:
Miss Tox's sympathy is such that she can hardly speak. She is no chicken, but she has not grown tough with age and celibacy. Her heart is very tender, her compassion very genuine, her homage very real. Beneath the locket with the fishey eye in it, Miss Tox bears better qualities than many a less whimsical outside; such qualities as will outlive, by many courses of the sun, the best outsides and brightest husks that fall in the harvest of the great reaper. (700)
Dickens's insistence at this late point in the novel on separating the outside from the inside, the wheat from the chaff (and the scriptural passage, "What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord" [Jeremiah 23:28], is surely in Dickens's mind), is noteworthy. The reality of Miss Tox is, I would suggest, in the image of her goodness, her return to the house of her abasement and exposure, carrying "morsels of cold meats, tongues of sheep, halves of fowls" (701). (25) As such, she serves to anticipate, indeed to shadow, the most difficult moment in the novel, the return of Florence to the house of Dombey and Son.
One final time, Dickens echoes the refrain of the first half of the chapter: "[Miss Tox] ... passes the greater part of her time in the ruined house that the rats have fled from: ... only desiring to be true to the fallen object of her admiration, unknown to him, unknown to all the world but one poor simple woman" (Dombey 701). As the echoes of that refrain die, Dickens reawakens the work's most dramatic liturgical pronouncement: "Let him remember it in that room, years to come." Bridging the two refrains is a short, but most telling paragraph. Dickens allows Bagstock one final comment on the "fidelity" of Miss Tox: "Damme, Sir, the woman's a born idiot!" (701). In that Florence is about to play the fool, in both Dickens's eyes and in the eyes of many readers, we might suggest that Miss Tox has been elevated by Dickens to foreshadow his heroine's final triumph, no small reward for the woman with the "quietest voice" in the novel.
To be sure, the word fool does not seem to mean to Dickens what it means to Bagstock--or to many modern readers. Indeed, the sense with which Dickens informs a word like idiot in the mouths of the Bagstocks of the world is very dramatically suggested by another soft feminine voice at the end of chapter 58, just before Dickens launches into the chapter under discussion. Here it is Harriet--another splendid image of the ethical as giving care, being a care giver, with all the richness Levinas has infused into that concept in his writings, philosophical and theological--who is his vehicle. Sitting at the bedside of the dying Alice, she reads to her from "the eternal book for all the weary, and the heavy-laden; for all the wretched, fallen, and neglected of this earth--read the blessed history, in which the blind, lame, palsied beggar, the criminal, the woman stained with shame, the shunned of all our dainty clay, has each a portion, that no human pride, indifference, or sophistry ... can take away ..." (Dombey 692). Dickens here calls on that aspect of the Christian message that, significantly enough, Milton also invokes as Paradise Lost draws to its inevitable conclusion: "Merciful over all his works, with good / Still overcoming evil, and by small / Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak / Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise / By simply meek ..." (12.565-69). To believe that the meek will inherit the earth is to elevate the shadow over the substance, art over reality; it is to posit, as a theologian, a philosopher, a novelist, that God exists. (26)
It is no accident that Levinas's contemplations in "Reality and Its Shadow" also end with the essential question of essentialism: "Perhaps the doubts that, since the renaissance, the alleged death of God has put in souls have compromised for the artist the reality of the henceforth inconsistent models, have imposed on him the onus of finding his models anew in the heart of his production itself, and made him believe he had a mission to be creator and revealor. The task of criticism remains essential, even if God were not dead, but only exiled" (CPP 13). Just before this, however, Levinas had adduced what might be his final comment on the division between artist and critic: "The most forewarned, the most lucid writer nonetheless plays the fool. The interpretation of criticism speaks in full self-possession, frankly, through concepts, which are like the muscles of the mind." This reverts to Plato, I suspect, but it is an image of the critic that Levinas himself does not accept, except perhaps in theory, for it would render criticism essentially unethical, the conversion of infinity into totality. Without doubt, all language must speak in the manner Levinas describes, but lucid critics could--and should--play the fool just as much as lucid artists. Art evolves into propaganda when artists become critics; criticism evolves into art when critics do what has become almost unthinkable to the postmodernist practice of criticism: listen to the rhythms of the text. (27) Nietzsche, the great admirer of Sterne, did just that: "What is to be praised in [Sterne] is ... the 'endless melody': ... an artistic style in which the fixed form is constantly being broken up, displaced, transposed back into indefiniteness." (28)
How then might the "critic as fool" read the return of Florence, certainly one of Dickens's most foolish moments?
Yes. His daughter! Look at her! Look here! Down upon the ground, clinging to him, calling to him, folding her hands, praying to him.
"Papa! Dearest papa! Pardon me, forgive me! I have come back to ask forgiveness on my knees. I never can be happy more, without it!"
Unchanged still. Of all the world, unchanged. Raising the same face to his, as on that miserable night. Asking his forgiveness! (Dombey 705)
Above all, we might want to pursue Dickens's insistence that we use our eyes and ears, our sensibilities, prior to any urge to redefine the moment in conformity to our own thoughts. To see the image, to listen to the words: this rapt attentiveness to the mixture of sorrow and glory in the human imagination's capacity to envision sacrifice--the hostage, in Levinas's vocabulary--seems to me the primary role of the critical mind as it confronts the inexplicable in the work of art. Everything about the scene would seem utterly impossible, irrational, idiotic, to the critical mind, and indeed we share Dombey's incredulity, marked by Dickens's italics: "Asking his forgiveness." Surely, he should, logically and in any viable economic exchange, be asking for hers; surely, of all the characters in English literature, Florence is one of those few already with the angels as she walks the earth. (29)
Precisely the need to separate ourselves from Dombey's own incredulity at this moment--as he will shortly himself be separated from it and from the suicidal death of the spirit that he has all along represented--should move us toward that place where disbelief is suspended, scorn rejected, and mockery swallows itself, the proverbial lump in the throat. (30) Does Dickens believe in the reality of the scene? Perhaps the word "unchanged" indicates that he does not, at least not at that level of belief that accounts for reality's insistence on its own duration. Levinas speaks to this issue again and again, but perhaps never quite so perceptively as in Totality and Infinity, in the section entitled "The Ethical Relation and Time"; the entire section is philosophically relevant to understanding Florence on her knees, for, far from being a simplistic image of a simple-minded author, the moment is filled with enormous complexity. Here is just part of Levinas's analysis:
[History] excludes the apology, which undoes the totality in inserting into it, at each instant, the unsurpassable, unencompassable present of its very subjectivity. The judgment at which the subjectivity is to remain apologetically present has to be made against the evidence of history (and against philosophy, if philosophy coincides with the evidence of history). The invisible [which I would suggest is the "image" of "Reality and Its Image"] must manifest itself if history is to lose its right to the last word, necessarily unjust for the subjectivity, inevitably cruel. [The invisible] is produced in the goodness reserved to subjectivity, which thus is subject not simply to the truth of judgment, but to the source of this truth. (TI 243)
Criticism seems to me to poise itself on a cusp between "history" and "subjectivity," thus delineated by Levinas, much as does philosophy, perhaps exactly as does philosophy, which is merely a subspecies of the critical act, and hence of the creative act. The event, the work of art, is dead before us; the cold marble in the unopened museum, the unread book in the library stacks, the unheard sonata, the unrehearsed philosophy--these represent images of death perhaps more forebodingly than any human corpse--so much effort to so little effect. The observer, the reader, the listener--in short, the human being as critic--is required to bring to life the dead work, approaching this inert, unmeaning, and vulnerable object with the judgment of history, or, if I might, the history of judgment. The "judgment of history," predominant today in all modes of critical theory, under the aegis of its guiding truism, "everything is politics," brings the work of art to life by installing it within history, significantly not its own history, difficult if not impossible to recapture, but within the "history" of the present critic. As Levinas notes:
The virile judgment of history, the virile judgment of "pure reason," is cruel. The universal norms of this judgment silence the unicity in which the apology is contained and from which it draws its arguments. Inasmuch as the invisible is ordered into a totality it offends the subjectivity, since, by essence, the judgment of history consists in translating every apology into visible arguments, and in drying up the inexhaustible source of the singularity from which they proceed and against which no argument can prevail. For there can be no place for singularity in a totality. (243-44)
The cruelty Levinas finds in history is, ultimately, its justification for murder; to return to my opening discussion of the illustrations of John Baldessari, our commentary on art, whether by fellow artists, critics, or philosophers, can well awaken the work of art from its moribund state only to kill it again--sometimes unintentionally, but more and more, given the rage and scorn we turn on "bad thinking" (that is, thinking unlike our own), we intentionally attempt to rebury the work of art within the absolute obscurity from which we momentarily have resurrected it.
This would lead us to the "history of judgment," whereby we might learn that the criticism that brings a work to enduring life is that criticism which awakens the work with its apology for disturbing it, as it inevitably must do, with eyes that do not see well, ears that fail to hear all they should, attentiveness that waxes and wanes, and, most importantly, a language that again and again will lapse, as its original sin, into the judgments of history. Is it even possible for us to approach a work of art with the recognition that our judgment of it belongs to a history of judgments, each participating in the life of the work, but doing so only because enlivening criticism offers itself to the work of art in the position of a suppliant, a propitiator? Better, perhaps, that art sleep in its marble death to all eternity than to be awakened only to be tormented by the judgments of history. Surely almost all that has been created by the human mind is better off in this sleep of death from which, blissfully, there is no return. Those few masterworks, however, that disturb history, that force themselves upon our attention century after century, asking us to weigh the invisible that is the essence of art against the visible and to find the latter light in the scales, those masterworks demand that we approach them on our knees, humbled because we have come after them, are dependent on them, and have been unable, despite all, to find our way into their heart. For such works, we must take on an infinite responsibility because the dead work of art is, finally, indifferent, irresponsible, and immoral, cold to all that matters in the world, and Levinas is right after all (CPP, 12-13)--good criticism, finally, is not an exchange, not an economy, but, as Levinas defines art, "a dimension where commerce with reality is a rhythm" (5).
Put in terms of Dombey and Son, all art may be imaged in the figure of Dombey, so often compared to a statue, but ultimately, perhaps, best thought of as the unread book. Florence tries again and again to read him (Is any chapter more painful to read in terms of the visible in history than chapter 24, "The Study of a Loving Heart"?), to bring him to life, but to no avail--until this moment of approach, not with her history of the wrongs committed against her, not with her grievances on her sleeve or lips, and not even with a condescending forgiveness of the sinner (only God forgives), but rather, on her knees, in apology, taking his sins on herself as did one of those shadows after which Dickens so clearly modeled his heroine. (31)
One speaks in images and shadows in order to approach something that might resemble truth. There is perhaps no finer approach to truth in literature than Florence on her knees begging forgiveness from Dombey, unless it be Milton, describing the careworn face of Satan: "Dark'n'd so, yet shone / Above them all th' Arch-Angel: but his face / Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care / Sat on his faded cheek" (Paradise Lost, 1.599-602). Matthew Arnold surely recognized this when he singled out these few lines as offering a "touchstone" for poetic understanding, for he could not have been ignorant of the fact that Milton's great care in his epic poem, pace Blake, was to image Satan as everywhere a darkened shadow of the Divine, even in the "cares" that weigh on both God and Satan as a result of fallenness. (32) Might I suggest that chapter 59 of Dombey and Son can serve as a touchstone for the realistic novel; if we do not understand how this could be, we perhaps should remain silent for a moment and try again to "listen to what the waves are saying." Eventually we will hear, long before we understand, the truth I think Dickens has found in our shared--and fallen--world.
University of Florida
(1) For a discussion of this Arion edition, see my essay "William Hogarth and John Baldessari: Ornamenting Sterne's Tristram Shandy," Word & Image 11.2 (1995): 182-95; hereafter cited in text as W&I. Baldessari made his comments in an interview with Jeanne Siegal, "John Baldessari: Recalling Ideas," Arts Magazine 62 (1988): 89.
(2) Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, ed. Alan Horsman (Oxford U. Press, 1974), 77; hereafter cited in text as Dombey.
(3) See W. G. Day, "Charles Robert Leslie's 'My Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman': The Nineteenth-Century Icon of Sterne's Work," Shandean 9 (1997): 83-108. In addition to prints, the painting appeared on plates and potlids almost simultaneously with its appearance in Hablot Browne's illustration in chapter 26 of Dombey and Son, part 9, issued in June 1847; see Day's discussion, 100-101. For Hogarth's illustrations, see W&I, passim.
(4) The presence of the Leslie painting in Browne's illustration was first noted by T. W. Hill ("Kentley Bromhill"), "Phiz's Illustrations to Dombey and Son," Dickensian 39 (1943): 51.
(5) Siegal, 89.
(6) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Duquesne U. Press, 1969), 262. Hereafter cited in text as TI.
(7) George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), 271.
(8) Steig, Dickens and Phiz (Indiana U. Press, 1978), 96. Steig had made much the same point in "Iconography of Sexual Conflict in Dombey and Son," Dickens Studies Annual 1 (1970):161-67.
(9) Levinas, "Meaning and Sense" in Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak, et al. (Indiana U. Press, 1996), 41. Levinas continues his thought: "Culture and artistic creation are part of the ontological order itself. They are ontological par excellence, they make the understanding of being possible." As the rest of the essay elaborates, Levinas is directing his argument against the "antiplatonism of the contemporary philosophy of meaning": "the intelligible is not conceivable outside of the becoming which suggests it. There exists no meaning in itself ..." (42).
(10) Levinas, "Reality and Its Shadow" in Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Duquesne U. Press, 1998), 12. Hereafter cited in text as "Reality."
(11) Paul Celan, Poems, trans. Michael Hamburger (New York: Persea Books, 1988), 98-99.
(12) One of the most sympathetic readings of Dombey and Son is that by Harry Stone, Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Novel-Making (Indiana U. Press, 1979), 146-92. As the title indicates, Stone is highly alert to the "magic" in Dickens, as, e.g., in this comment on Paul: "The introduction of a child's consciousness into Dombey is one of the great innovations of the novel, a stunning advance in realistic verisimilitude and psychological portraiture.
"Yet this realistic advance is the source of wildest fantasy. Paul is encompassed by divination and magic, and this supernatural influence marks him within and without" (160).
(13) Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. Melvyn New and Joan New (London: Penguin, 2003), 385. Cf. A. E. Dyson, "The Case for Dombey Senior," Novel 2 (1969): 123: "Only at the very end of chapter sixteen does Dickens intervene, and at the last moment spoil his effect." Many a critic has had the same reaction to Sterne's passage.
Few fictional works of the twentieth century better capture Levinas's concept of "seeing inwardness from the outside" than Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1931), the very tide of which may reflect the present discussion; certainly this sentence does: "To be myself ... I need the illumination of other people's eyes" (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959), 116.
(14) Critics who write about art works, artists who illustrate writings, have, I believe, a slight advantage in this regard, in that the differing media offer a foretaste of the sacrament of incarnation (transubstantiation), itself an image of an "ethical aesthetics" by which I would attempt to remystify--and pacify--the process of critical thinking. When the words of the text are confronted by the words of the critic, the tendency--and in the last thirty years, the imperative--is to argue for victory; or, even worse, to silence the other voice completely: "Such is the rhetoric that applies, not to speech that seeks to win a case or a position, but rhetoric that eats away the very substance of speech, precisely insofar as it 'functions in the absence of all truth.' Is this not already the possibility of signification that is reducible to a game of signs detached from meanings? From now on, we face an ideology more desolate than all ideology.... This threatening ideology hides in the core of the Logos itself. Plato is confident that he can escape it by means of good rhetoric, but he soon hears within discourse the simian imitation of discourse" ("Ideology and Idealism" in The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand [Oxford: Blackwell, 1989], 241.) One cannot read very far in Dickens criticism without hearing "simian imitations" of Marx and Freud, Foucault and Habermas, but probably Levinas had Derrida uppermost in mind.
(15) Jonathan Swift: Major Works, ed. Angus Ross and David Woolley (Oxford U. Press, 2003), 141.
(16) Levinas, "Meaning and Sense" in Collected Philosophical Papers, 91.
(17) If Levinas's philosophic shadow, when placed in juxtaposition with Dombey and Son, can help us rethink Dickens's novel, so too can fiction serve as a shadow to help us rethink Levinas's "Reality and Its Shadow." This passage from Hermann Broch's The Guiltless ("The Ballad of the Beekeeper") strikes me as a profound commentary: "Only the blind sing songs they have learned. Those who see (even if in the end they are blinded by too much seeing) may--then more than ever--sing their vision, the perpetually renewed vision of life.... [I]t is never an imitation of sounds, but the seen swarming of the bees, the seen flight of the lark, and still more: it is the unseen within the seen, transposed into sound.
"For a man's ultimate seeing attains to the invisible: there it is given him to intuit the living in the lifeless, in supposedly dead matter.... O eye of man, essence of life.... In the eye, the creature is farthest removed from the lifeless but life-receiving dust, out of which he was created.... The eye is holy, yet with a mere echoed holiness. For a human act of creation is an echo, communicates only an image of man's vision of life, and man, knowing himself in his eyes, seeing with his eyes that he himself and what he has done are good, arrogates to himself an immediate knowledge he does not possess; his eye makes him vain and he returns to the realm of dead things, he loses the gift of intuiting life, and his action becomes a mere wallowing in dead matter, false imitation, empty evil. The false imitation of God ... that is the danger facing the artist ..." (trans. Ralph Manheim [San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987], 82-83).
(18) Henri Talon, "Dombey and Son: A Closer Look at the Text," Dickens Studies Annual 1 (1970): 147.
(19) Talon, 148. Talon is citing Santayana from The Dickens Critics, ed. George H. Ford and Lanriat Lane, Jr. (Cornell U. Press, 1961), 137; and Gilson, from L'Etre et l'essence (Paris, 1962), 235. Hereafter Talon will be cited in the text.
It is telling that while Talon's essay has been ignored, Dyson's "The Case for Dombey Senior," 123-34, and Julian Moynahan's "Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Firmness versus Wetness," in Dickens and the Twentieth Century, ed. John Gross and Gabriel Pearson (U. of Toronto Press, 1962), 121-31, are two readings from the same period still continually cited. Both agree in their iconoclastic urge: Florence in particular, sentimentalism in general, must be desanctified. Despite the witticisms of Moynahan and the coherence of Dyson, both essays are, to my mind, examples of "Baldessarianism." Moynahan, in particular, exhibits wonderful blindness amidst his insights; what are we to think of this outburst, for example: "Dombey and Son is a very disturbing book, and its mysteries of characterization and narrative treatment are a part of what makes it disturbing. These mysteries must be faced, if not finally reduced to plain sense through analysis" (122). Dyson is the better reader, but the "uneasiness" he feels is his own shadow cast large on Dickens's text: "Florence's role is closely akin to that of a Christ-figure, despised and rejected, but in the end redemptive through love." Why then, he asks, "should a reader feel uneasy about the ending," and he answers his own question: "The presentation of Florence is to my mind a serious weakness at the very core of the book. Dickens seems determined to wear blinkers when creating her ..." (129).
(20) Talon cites the French text: "L'absence empirique de l'etre humain de sexe feminin dans une demeure ne change rien a la dimension de femininite qui y reste ouverte, comme l'accueil meme de la demeure" (Totalite et infini [La Haye, 1961], 131). Needless to say, because of Levinas's often repeated argument along these lines, he continues to draw fire from those who find sexism in his concept of the feminine; the most entertaining critique is Luce Irigaray's "Questions to Emmanuel Levinas: On the Divinity of Love," in Re-Reading Levinas, ed. Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley (Indiana U. Press, 1991), 109-18. Patricia Marks, "Paul Dombey and the Milk of Human Kindness," Dickens Quarterly 11.1 (1994): 14-25, very ably draws attention to the genderless character of "mothering" in the novel, responding in large part to Nina Auerbach's influential reading of Dickensian gendering in Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts (Columbia U. Press, 1986), 109. Auerbach is convinced that the entire novel is based on "male and female principles [sic] who can neither evade nor understand each other, whose tragedy and whose force come from their mutual exclusiveness." Auerbach's thesis is predicated on patriarchal values, whereby power and growth are still more significant human achievements than the vitalization of loss through forgiveness and modesty (118); Levinas's examination of those patriarchal values helps us to see her ethical problem.
(21) Cf. Moynahan, 128-29, who labels Sol Gills's back parlor a "quasi-religious community" and is totally dismissive of its "narrow and exclusive standard of values. Its values are simple good nature and simple-mindedness. It leaves out of account intelligence, forceful masculine energy--its males are old men, a simpleton, and Walter...." That Dombey must experience a "change of heart that reads like a second childhood" in order to enter this community and "drink of its wine" strikes Moynahan as a surrender of "all those qualities of hardness, self-control, and pride that have made him both human and actual, and inhuman as well." Clearly Moynahan believes his own reading restores the "forceful masculine energy" and "hardness" that Dickens lacks.
(22) "Substitution" in The Levinas Reader, 101. See the entire discussion, and especially pages 104-7; and this key summary, which is given Dickensian manifestation in this chapter: "The for itself signifies self-consciousness; the for all, responsibility for the others, support of the universe. Responsibility for the other, this way of answering without a prior commitment, is human fraternity itself, and it is prior to freedom." Cf. Arlene Jackson, "Reward, Punishment, and the Conclusion of Dombey and Son," Dickens Studies Annual 7 (1978): 114: "Passivity is an important component in Florence's personality, but Dickens' technique actually increases the sense of passivity in Florence." Jackson tries to redeem the heroine by demonstrating her less than passive nature, her guiltiness, so that in an ethical economy, it is "right" that she ask for forgiveness. Levinas's alternative notion of passivity as "a persecuting obsession" suggests that Dickens's great achievement in the portrayal is precisely that he found a way to image Levinas's infinite responsibility without exchange, the sacrificial gesture that alone is fully redemptive.
(23) Moynahan, 129-30, is merely the wittiest of those who have attacked Dickens from this perspective, and hence the most quotable: "Dombey and Son is also a vision of the transformation of society by love, and as such is something less than adequate. One difficulty is that the vision is neither genuinely religious ... nor genuinely secular.... The book seems to me to exhibit Protestant piety divorced from its doctrinal foundations.... Religion has become a set of loose analogies and tropes employed to conceal faulty argument by analogy: people who act like saints will be rewarded like saints in the end. The meek shall inherit the Industrial Revolution." He has been well answered by Lynda Zwinger, "The Fear of the Father: Dombey and Daughter," Nineteenth-Century Fiction 39.4 (1985): 420-44, e.g., "This dismissive attitude, which duplicates in an unsettling way Dombey's attitude toward his daughter, is itself based on a set of rather loose critical tropes and analogies. The basic critical attitude found in such readings is one of self-congratulation that we are no longer so unsophisticated as to fall for that" (434-35). I would add only that neither I nor Moynahan can know what is "genuinely religious."
(24) Cf. Levinas's note to this passage: "Subjectivity signifies by a passivity more passive than all passivity, more passive than matter, by its vulnerability, its sensibility, by its nudity more nude than nudity, the sincere denuding of this very nudity that becomes a saying, the saying of responsibility, by the substitution in which responsibility is said to the very end, by the accusative of the oneself without a nominative form, by exposedness to the traumatism of gratuitous accusation, by expiation for the other." In this way, our discussion of Miss Tox will lead directly to Florence's act of "responsibility" toward Dombey.
(25) Dyson's comment, 126, seems to me sadly mistaken: "his [Dombey's] sister's dim--and dimly perceived--friend--poor Miss Tox."
(26) Cf. Nancy Klenk Hill, "Dombey and Son: Parable for the Age," Dickens Quarterly 8.4 (1991): 169-77, and especially 175: "Dickens, in his acknowledgment of suffering and the loss of pride as pre-requisite to entrance into the community of Christian love and caring, expresses a deeply traditional, indeed Anglican theology." Precisely this sort of reading annoys Dyson: "Dickens pushes most of his leading characters too close to allegory," a literary form he finds "flawed, falsifying, and simplified," a "writing in chains." He would, presumably, also fault Dante and Dostoevsky--but Theodore Dreiser would emerge unscathed.
(27) One of the finest essays in recent years on Dombey and Son is Roger B. Henkle's "The Crisis of Representation in Dombey and Son," in Critical Reconstructions, ed. Robert M. Polhemus and Henkle (Stanford U. Press, 1994), 90-110. He finds in the novel two opposing mentalities, two discourses: Paul's "maternal," nondifferentiating way of thinking and Dombey's ethos of the competitive male (92), and he listens to Paul's rhythm: "As lyrical as such musings are, their otherworldliness detaches them from the richly detailed and grounded social text that is one of the salient qualities of a Dickens novel. Dickens's force lies in his full realization of his world, and Paul's vision seems to draw the imagination away from that world. Our eyes, as readers, are lifted above the scene spread before us; like Paul we seem to be lost in a reverie.... [I]n moments such as this, we seem to see through Paul, as if he were not there, or as if he were (as so many of Dickens's 'spiritual' characters are) a focusing lens for us" (95).
(28) Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge U. Press, 1986), 238.
(29) David W. Toise, "'As Good as Nowhere': Dickens's Dombey and Son, the Contingency of Value, and Theories of Domesticity," Criticism 41 (1999): 323-48, attempts, rather effectively, to return Florence to an economic framework without damaging her essence by suggesting that she sets up "an alternative economy from that in which her father participates: Dombey's economy is based on the exchange of goods, while Florence's is an economy based on the exchange of feeling" (338). But when he expands the argument to suggest that since "Florence seems to love everyone despite what they do or say to her, her love seems both pure and contentless, just as cash (in a system of advanced commodity exchange) is pure value and represents no commodity in particular" (342), he perhaps indicates a flaw in his formulation, since economy (justice) is precisely and always a finite mode of exchange, while Florence's guiltiness before her father has no exchange value whatsoever. It is an acknowledgment of infinite responsibility never fulfilled. Significantly enough, Toise points to one of Dickens's most telling descriptions of Florence, an early impression that forms in Walter's mind: "he could do no better than preserve her image in his mind as something precious, unattainable, unchangeable, and indefinite" (Dombey 183). One might suggest that Walter has here defined the uneconomic, the non-political--or, more positively, that he has identified the sacramental in the face of Florence. Cf. Jonathan Loesberg, "Deconstruction, Historicism, and Overdetermination: Dislocation of the Marriage Plots in Robert Elsmere and Dombey and Son," Victorian Studies 33.3 (1990): 441-64; Loesberg ties Florence to the Kantian sublime, her ability to love being a "faculty of the mind that surpasses every standard of economics" (458).
(30) To be sure, many critics in addition to Moynahan and Dyson have tried to tough it out; hence Mary Armstrong finds Florence the "perfect Victorian female: beautiful to the point of otherworldliness, selfless to the point of invisibility," and then informs us that perfectness is "boring" ("Pursuing Perfection: Dombey and Son, Female Homoerotic Desire and the Sentimental Heroine," Studies in the Novel 28.3  : 282-83) ; and Nancy Cervetti quotes Gilbert and Gubar on selflessness: "To be selfless is not only to be noble, it is to be dead." Of this forgiveness scene in particular, she waxes quite indignant: "Where is her sense of personal dignity? Must even a hearth angel be so servile? The humility seems excessive.... In order to achieve ... social connection.... Florence pays a dear price, forfeiting her dignity, agency, and sexuality. Such sacrifice seems perverse, and we must question the probability and the consequences of such fictional idealization. Florence's abstract character is not constructed with the stuff humans are made of ..." ("Dickens and Eliot in Dialogue: Empty Space, Angels and Maggie Tulliver," Victorian Newsletter 80 : 22). See also Jackson, "Reward, Punishment," and Lisa Surridge, "Domestic Violence, Female Self-Mutilation, and the Healing of the Male in Dombey and Son," Victorian Institute Journal 25 (1997): 77-103. Even when arguing specific points against him, all these voices ultimately echo Moynahan: "On a harder view, Florence is not a conduit of Grace. The miracles she performs are all arranged for her by the intrusive author. Remove her pall of quasi-religious mystery and Dombey's daughter is at best a sentimentalist lacking decent self-respect, at worst a masochist. She is an image of human feeling devoid of energy, segregated from intelligence and the life of the senses ..." (130). In fact, he seems to suggest, if her "unlimited sentiment" dominated the world, trains would not run on time (130); always, the boot stamping on a human face--forever.
(31) Cf. Frank McCombie, "Sexual Repression in Dombey and Son," Dickensian 88.1 (1992): 35: "There is, then, something truly Christ-like, or angelic, about Florence after all (as the novel draws towards its conclusion, she is repeatedly proposed as some kind of 'angel'), and this is not just a recrudescence of mid-century melodrama." Unfortunately, her actions in this forgiveness scene are taken to be a "very clever fictive illustration of Freudian theory"; the Christ-complex, one assumes.
(32) Matthew Arnold, "Essays in Criticism, Second Series"; see John Shepard Eells, Jr. The Touchstones of Matthew Arnold (New York: Bookman Associates, 1955), 161-71, and especially his view that "the single line of the passage" to which Arnold was "peculiarly responsive" was indeed "... and care / Sat on his faded cheek."
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