What the Dickens

John Haber
in New York City

As opposed to an objective, conscious representation, all pictorially represented processes and influences in the psychic hinterland are symbolic: that is, they stand for and point out, as well and as closely as possible, a meaning not at the time known.
    — Carl Jung

Lacan's Great Expectations

It starts with a name, Pip. From its very first paragraph, Great Expectations says, in the voice of its narrator that pronounces everything, that he could not pronounce his own first name, Philip, or his last name, Pirrup. Both in his mouth became simply Pip, and they thus also became him in the mouth of others. The novel concludes with the young man as a clerk and finally as a gentleman—a wielder of the pen and a student of law, of the letter of the law.

That is the problem, but it is only the beginning. Post-structuralism is, as always, the problem—in the tale's plot and its frame, as its logic and its supplement. As Jacques Derrida prefers, a tale requires the logic of the supplement. Here, then, is mine. Barbara Kruger's You Are Not Yourself (World's Women On-line)

The problem behind the problem

I received a plea for help, like the demand from Magwitch that accelerates Pip's fears and sets off the plot of the novel. As happens not infrequently, a reader of my Web site had a paper due and could not find what she needed online beyond my words. Another Jacques, Lacan, would be pleased: her desire arose from a lack of words, in her own mouth and in a web of words from others.

She had appreciated my short primer on Lacan, which, fittingly, arose as a kind of footnote, another sort of supplement. I want my art reviews to challenge and to provoke, but also to invite anyone to appreciate the puzzling, annoying, or merely unfamiliar. I want to explain it all clearly, without assuming that readers know it already.

As no doubt another delight to post-structuralists, I had decided that, for the reviews to be self-contained, they needed something else. They needed a little background on Lacan elsewhere, to which I could link. So I wrote it, as I had already written extended footnotes on Derrida, Michel Foucault, and attribution, along with brief bibliographies on authenticity and feminism.

Given its purposes, it was bound to be lacking—and so a root of desire. It had to be inadequate to the needs of a student, obliged to write an essay on Lacan and Great Expectations.

As usual, I did my best to act responsibly, as and for the adult ego. I urged the use of libraries and offered a suggestion. I noted the unreliability of the Web, where anyone can publish, even I. I said, as I always do, that I cannot suggest answers or even a theme, the responsibility of the student's adult ego. And then I added a very brief hint anyway, a fragment that occurred to me as perhaps helpful.

In the days that followed, however, I became increasingly intrigued. What a neat subject. I wish I had had teachers challenging and creative enough to have assigned it. I thought that the essay in accord with my own hints really should be written, too, and I hoped she would write it, especially as it necessarily would differ from my thoughts. And then I started the following words, my own version. Call them an unnecessary supplement to a term paper that I shall never read.

The Pip and the pendulum

Charles Dickens describes the progressive assumption of language and of the law, the superego, but it took a child incapable of both to become, in time, the ego. The ego arises from his aphasia, his very deferment of speech. It arises, too, in the almost certain loss of his great expectations, of his desires for status and for love. The boy who interprets his parent's nature from the shape of the letters on their tomb has to learn to read better, simply to understand what he has lost.

It is deferment in another sense as well, the redoubling of the single sign, Pip. A single signifier swings in significance like a pendulum, from both first and last name, the Christian or "given" name—given by his parents, by the novelist, and by anyone who reads the line—and the family name. It is the name of Christ's freedom from the law and of legal right.

Great Expectations takes the point of view of Pip, expressing his needs. It will always center on his desires, his id, and the very possibility of his attaining an adult ego. It describes him as an infant, stammering his own name and stammering his fears. Again and attain, it will allow readers to relive the terrors of his childhood with hardly a hint of what he could have become, even while taking the consistent view of someone who exists only after the novel has ended, Pip the adult. In other words, it speaks for and describes an adult still very much circumscribed by his unconscious, the Other he should be expected to have discarded.

The hero is always in a mirror stage, looking at himself and seeing more. A novel this complex is necessarily a hall of mirrors. In other words, other words.

Pip initially encounters the law as still another name, another doubling of identity that displaces the original ego. His sister is a tyrant who substitutes for the absent parents. She is referred to only as Mrs Joe, at once erasing her claim to a family name, leaving her like a child called by her first name, making her just another version of Joe, and displacing his authority with her own irrational desires. Dickens is like a feminist saying O women.

The book will have a great many desires that assume the status of a tyrannical law. In its repeated attempts to freeze behavior, desire can only displace it to other expressions, all the while standing in for and pretending to be an adult ego.

Expectations and expectancy

Pip's first breakthrough is an encounter with an escaped criminal, a man whose name he does not even know. His first act of kindness is simultaneously to break the law, to comfort a convict in his needs and yet to help ensure his capture, to evade the law and to play the part of the law. Both deeds will come to haunt him, and the climax of the book comes with his trying to help the convict escape once again, while ensuring the man's death and the loss of his own fortune. That is the nature of repetition—never getting it right.

Along the way, the origins of Pip's wealth must be resolved. It gives him the means to become a proper bourgeois, an ego, but also, in his own eyes, to attain the love and status he associates with his earliest desires. The mystery also amounts to a case study, a case of lost origins, a redoubling of those lost parents. As long as the law defers to others, desire runs rampant, but, inevitably, it turns him into the adult he was bound to become.

The novel requires the framework of a potboiler—the breathless opening, the mystery and more mysteries, the withheld answers and more answers, the chase scene, the sense of an ending. While the book is not epistolary, it is both autobiographical and serial. Not only Pip, but also the reader is held by his own voice in expectancy, and not only the boy but the reader, more literally, is paying for his great expectations.

In the serial form, a breakthrough is never enough and must be repeated. A letter, Lacan writes, never finds its address. The letter to Pip does find its address, but only after losing its meaning. The letter attains meaning, but only by finding other addresses, other readers, perpetually undisclosed other chapters.

Pip's second breakthrough is the summons from Miss Havisham, who, in contrast to Mrs Joe, lacks a first name. Where Mrs Joe is the tyranny of the law masquerading as the tyranny of desire, Miss Havisham is the tyranny of desire masquerading as the tyranny of the law. In point of fact, in Pip's imagination, Miss Havisham is to be the law he always wanted, the imagined benefactor, the parental figure who never announces herself. And of course he is terrified of her.

Like any idealization, she seems to be above the desires of the moment. In her own eyes, she has frozen time, holding her entire life within one moment and one room, the dead center of an empty estate. She fills it with the trappings of lost desire, the wedding that betrayed her.

The women in white

Miss Havisham succeeds in freezing the hands of the clock, but at the expense of cutting off real possibilities for herself. The empty estate is filled with images of objects of desire memorialized and thus no longer obtainable. The wedding cake is there, but inedible. It makes sense that the estate's wealth came from consumption, from a brewery that now stands empty.

She cuts off time for herself symbolically, but not in reality. The clock stands still, her virginity untouched, the cake uneaten, but her lack of fulfillment turns on processes of decay—cobwebs, insects, rotting, her own aging. She preserves her moment of near triumph, but she surrenders to her abandonment and, ever increasingly, her lack of desirability.

And so she compensates, by creating a duplicate of herself, in Estella, another orphan whose parents long remain a mystery, too. She breeds Estella to be pure desire, above others, and proud of it. Both woman and girl keep asking Pip the same questions—more obsession, more repetition, taunting him with more deferral. Does he finds Estella beautiful? Does he find her proud? They put her above even the author and reader, so proud of decoding the text, but instead caught up in the imagination of his own desiring.

Miss Havisham, however, summons Pip for an even more primary reason, before she can test his susceptibility to desire. She wants him to give her exercise, to walk her in circles round and round the same room, a freezing of place not by suspension of time but by repetition once again. The hands of the clock stop, but its circular motion carries her and Pip both nowhere and endlessly ahead.

Pip sees Miss Havisham as a parent, because he wants her as a parent. She is not. She may herself know that she comes to him too early and too late for that. She dresses herself as a bride but appears to him as a ghost—the white dress in its other symbolic displacement into time. Dickens admired the very first novel in the genre of ghost stories, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, but one can see why he did not find it enough. Only one woman?

In the book's most thrilling prose, Pip wanders the empty brewery, where he sees that ghostly apparition. Is it Miss Havisham, suspended from the rafters, like the living suicide she is? Or is it Estella's apparition, too glorious to fall to earth? Either way, it strikes fear into him, and he accepts Estella, as Miss Havisham wishes, as another vision in a dress. Desire suspended is death, but it also keeps reemerging, pursuing Pip to his adult aspirations.

Consumer culture

That is how it all plays out. Miss Havisham dies in fire, along with all her symbols. Her cessation of renewal without an actuation cessation of time can amount only to a candle that burns itself out. She is consumed at last, but only by chaos.

Estella is at last consumed as well. Her marriage brutalizes her, breaking the cycle of her mentor's perpetual virginity while, in displacing it, continuing her enshrinement of victimization.

Pip attains the letter, in the law, the so-called common law, but only by losing everything it appeared to mean. He does find financial and emotional independence of a sort, but as a kind of afterward, an after word—unlike the body of the novel, told rather than described. It cannot be described without beginning still another story, a further duplication and further transference.

Yet a displacement elsewhere is essential to the novel: Pip must go to the colonies as a condition of his and the book's entering society. He must become, like so much of England itself in those times, a proper gentleman thanks to the colonial Other.

He must, in the process, make a profit. If the women are consumed, he cannot become the consumer, only the seller. Like the remuneration for Poe's detective, if one is to be believe Lacan's "Seminar on the Purloined Letter," a profit is the only way to extricate oneself from the investments in the story.

As a writer, Dickens makes a profit, too, the profit that drives the serial. The reader, the one and only consumer, does as well—the delight and moral profit that oblige Dickens to people the book with another supplement, the comic characters.

I find them the least of the book's delights and the most leaden of its morals, and Dickens is at this very moment working himself to another stage. This is the last of his books to have so light a side, like a return to form for his fans after the fog and darkness of Bleak House and Little Dorritt, before the terminal fog of Our Mutual Friend and his own unfinished mystery novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his one serial that is never played out.

The original endings

Miss Havisham and those who left her at the altar her have stunted three lives—hers and Pip's, but also Estella's, and the book cannot forget a single one. The first is safely consigned to death, and the second is the narrator, the fixed and evolving point of view, the hero with whom readers must empathize.

He has outgrown the mirror stage at last. Yet Pip's desire for Estella and, in his role as storyteller, his empathy for her cannot vanish, because they are communicated to the reader.

The promises of London's criminal society are criminal promises—already a metaphor for the unconscious. They are communicated in turn to Miss Havisham, Estella, Pip, and the reader, passed on deliberately and consciously yet always understood differently. Each, in turn, returns to the sender for understanding.

That leaves a conundrum, however. For Pip to attain maturity, he must first cast aside his infatuation. For Estella to be granted empathy, she must attain both maturity and empathy herself, and that means that she must accept his love and be accepted for it. It makes an ending seemingly impossible.

The novel does have an ending, however—or rather, once again, it has two continuations, both of them as an afterword to Pip's after word. Even the ending is caught in a mirror stage. In the "original ending," a fine oxymoron, the hero attains independence. Yet Dickens, not to mention his serial audience, so regretted Pip's never attaining his desires that he brought back Estella to marry Pip in the book.

In its last sentence, "I saw no shadow of another parting." Maybe, but there are always alternative endings. The book ends, and their lives and ours must part now—until a rereading. Mine is not original, but derivative, well after post-structuralism has gone out of fashion. Even Terry Eagleton, who did so much to popularize it, derides it. So much for Lacan's great expectations for structuralism and psychoanalysis.

We must part, then, Lacan, Dickens, you, and I, so that I can return to reviewing art. Or would you like to see the film version?

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jhaber@haberarts.com

The student's query came the first week in January 2005, when I began this. Should students submit my words under their names, it would no doubt amuse Dupin more than their professor or I.

 

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