not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
I had mentioned the possibility of writing about my summer teaching plans tonight, but in a microcosm of my entire grad school life, my teaching plans were swept aside by a great book. My single graduate seminar this semester is in the middle of Bleak House, and absent any other opportunity to discuss it (class was canceled this evening), I wanted to record my impressions 200 pages in.
I hadn’t read Dickens since high school, and though I read Bleak House in the summer of my senior year (or sometime thereabout), I didn’t remember anything about it except that it was a criticism of the Court of Chancery (the Victorian equivalent of civil court, where private lawsuits between parties are settled), and there were a lot of descriptions of fog. Well, I remembered a few scenes here and there – including the part where Jo finally does die, albeit in a less ruinous place than the narrator seems to expect – but my major impression of it was that it had over fifty characters and took me about six months to get through. The only book I’d had a comparative amount of trouble with and still took the time to slog through was The Fellowship of the Ring when I was 12. It’s going quite a bit faster this time, and even though I’m going to need to step up my pace, I should be done by next week, and I’m gradually recalling the story, having major details come into my head moments before they show up on page. I also remember that it has an instance of spontaneous human combustion, even though I have yet to come to it, and I’m looking forward to remembering why Dickens needed possibly the clumsiest plot device ever in order to push his story forward, or whether there is some greater significance to it. But when you read a foreword and the author explains that, while it may seem far-fetched, there have been medically-verified cases of spontaneous combustion, and so it’s okay to keep it in the novel, it makes your ears (or eyes? I guess “ears” is the traditional nomenclature) perk up.
But the beginning is rather slow-going, and one gets the sense almost immediately of being thrown into an Advanced Dickens novel. Even if you don’t know that this is one of his later novels, you can tell that he’s playing with the expectations of an audience that is used to trying to outguess him, feinting one way and moving his story in another direction, having two characters talk about everything except the secret information each has that would immediately clear things up, and (my favorite development so far) putting the gas on the love story that would normally take the whole novel to resolve. The mutual declaration of love that normally occurs only in the last few pages of, say, an Austen novel has happened after less than 200 pages, and besides the way this defies our expectations of the typical Victorian form (and yes, I know Austen was Regency era, not Victorian), it brings a great sense of freedom to the novel. What’s going to happen next? Where do we go from here?
Where we go, of course, is into one of the most brutal takedowns of the Aimless Young Man trope I’ve ever read. Anyone who’s spent enough time reading classic English literature has run into the Aimless Young Man, he originates with Don Quixote, the Mad Old Man, but first appears in English as either (depending on who you ask) Robinson Crusoe or Tom Jones. Oddly enough, he’s not shown up much in American Literature, with Tom Sawyer and Holden Caulfield being the only two who really come to mind, but he’s a staple of modern fantasy, movies, videogames, anything where the goal is to reach a wide audience that can all put themselves in the shoes of a basically well-intentioned but rather formless young man just starting to set out on the adventure that is life. And no, Huck Finn isn’t one, I don’t think – he’s too well-defined as a confirmed sinner who stumbles backwardly into sainthood to really fit the mold. Dickens himself is the creator of some of the most enduring Aimless Young Men in history, with Pip and David Copperfield both being stellar examples of the form. Richard Carstone seems another such example- he’s handsome, charming, basically an empty suit at this point, but then who, looking back on themselves at 17 or 18, would be willing to call that version of oneself fully formed? Above all he is good, and loves a girl who deserves to be loved, and who we get the sense hasn’t been loved as much as she has deserved to this point. One of the great peculiarities of Dickens is how his writing seems to insist on his readers’ humanity in such a way that we’re loath to disappoint him. The girl Richard loves, Ada, has a personality somewhat shorter than her name, and is more airheaded than even Dickensian heroines tend to be, and in any other novel she would be openly derided by readers. I expect she will be openly derided by many of the readers I am discussing the novel with next week. But I can’t laugh at her the way I can laugh at Harriet Smith in Emma, or Rose Bradwardine in Waverley, or, say (for a more modern example), Sansa Stark in A Game of Thrones. The same could be said for Richard, who has less of a sense of identity than even Edward Waverley, the eternal example of the Aimless Young Man. Despite all my critical knowledge and post-modern knowingness (two quite different things), I just want those not-so-crazy kids to end up together- even though they’re technically first cousins, something that was enough to put me off Mansfield Park entirely. They haven’t harmed anybody, which is more than can be said for most people! Don’t they deserve to find happiness in each other, if nothing else? Of course they do. And of course they won’t.
The great lure of the Aimless Young Man is that we can all remember having the entire world before us- or, if we are younger, we can’t wait to have the entire world before us – and the character returns us to that brief shining moment when we had world enough and time to become anything, rather than our disappointing current selves. There’s something melancholy about growing up, but it’s of course necessary (Philip Pullman wrote an entire trilogy about this that is quite good), and no matter which road we travel by, we are as likely as Robert Frost to finally recall that journey with a sigh. But what happens if the Aimless Young Man takes no path, if he just keeps going on and on a well-intentioned but disruddered individual, as his looks age and his debts pile up? I haven’t quite gotten to this part of Bleak House yet, but I’m pretty sure it ends with Richard Carstone staying in graduate school too long and spending his nights writing on a blog no one reads because he hasn’t developed the courage to tell anyone it exists.
In my current circles, I can’t bring up the limited merits of Ayn Rand’s books at all, no matter how much I stress that they are limited. She’s sort of become a Goldstein figure for academics, the mere mention of her name spurring a spontaneous Five Minute Hate. But I’ll always remember one scene in The Fountainhead. The Fountainhead is an odd novel because it begins from the point of view of the antagonist, an ambitious architecture student who has no great love for the craft – he wanted to be a painter – but who listened to his overbearing mother and enrolls in the career path most likely to bring financial success. Near the novel’s end he is a fat, miserable man making uninspired buildings that he can never quite bring himself to care about, and in his last scene he asks the protagonist, Howard Roark, to follow him to his room. In the room, there are paintings, dozens of paintings, which he holds toward Roark like broken dolls. Is there anything interesting in them? He never got any training, never studied art, but a few years ago he just started painting them and couldn’t stop…
Roark looks at them, and back at the man (I can’t recall his name, I’m not sure if that’s a casualty of Rand’s writing or a testament to her level of authorial control) with a pained expression on his face. There’s nothing in them. They’re conventional, bland, a grade-schooler’s idea of what “art” is supposed to look like. Through his own neglect and insecurity, this man has managed to turn his life’s passion into a mediocre hobby. He lived his life for others, and in doing so managed to crush any real potential he had. He’s a shadow of what Rand feels every human being should rightly be.
When I read Great Expectations or Waverley, I am reassured. I remember that I am not too old, that I am still improving myself, that there’s no set time to begin one’s true calling, that while my father may have found his job when he was three years younger than I am now, my mother started in her 40s and gained no less satisfaction from it. But when I read Bleak House (and yes, that section of The Fountainhead), I feel the fear come over me like a cold sweat. What if my time has passed? What if I slept too long and missed it?