DICKENS AND BENJAMIN: MOMENTS OF REVELATION, FRAGMENTS OF MODERNITY by Gillian Piggott, Reviewed by Jeremy Tambling
 

DICKENS AND BENJAMIN: MOMENTS OF REVELATION, FRAGMENTS OF MODERNITY
By Gillian Piggott
(Ashgate, 2012)
Reviewed by Jeremy Tambling on 2013-09-22.

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It is not easy to combine a study of an author with a theorized approach. Few critics combine adequate knowledge of the author's texts, of the scholarship on them, and of theory as well. It is still more difficult to examine the work of an author such as Dickens through the lens of a single theoretical approach, such as that of Walter Benjamin. Yet Gillian Piggott boldly, imaginatively, and promisingly argues that Dickens and Benjamin share several things: not only a passion for cities, particularly London and Paris, but also an interest in allegory. In light of these shared concerns, Piggott chiefly studies The Old Curiosity Shop, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and Dickens' journalism; and three texts from Benjamin: The Origin of German Tragic Drama (the Trauerspiel study), the writing on Baudelaire, and the Arcades project.

Piggott writes more confidently about Dickens than she does about Benjamin, though she adopts a highly self-confident position with regard to the latter. As for the former, though she is slightly more aware of the minefields of Dickens criticism she has to negotiate, some of her urban topics -- the flâneur, commodity culture, the city as labyrinth, the city as enforcing secrecy, the appearance of the detective -- have already been fairly extensively tied to Dickens. On Benjamin's account of the city in the Arcades project she is considerably better, but I do not think she is a reliable guide to his other work. Her bibliography omits Samuel Weber's Benjamin's -- abilities (2008), which is definitive for Benjamin's "On Language as Such and the Language of Man." To make sense of this essay, which Piggott several times misconstrues on the question of language and naming, it must be read beside the "Critique of Violence," to say nothing of "The Task of the Translator."

Piggot likewise fails to cite Beatrice Hanssen's Walter Benjamin's Other History: Of Stones, Animals, Human Beings and Angels (2000), one of the best studies of the Trauerspiel book, Max Pensky's Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning (1993) and, even better, Rainer Nägele's Theater, Theory, Speculation: Walter Benjamin and the Scenes of Modernity (1991). It is not one-upmanship to note the absence of any reference to these studies; it is rather to wonder how--without them-- anyone could ever hope to understand the possibly most difficult theorist of the twentieth-century, bar Lacan. I will not dwell on other lacunae: on the absence of Christine Buci-Glucksmann, or Peter Fenves, or the late Miriam Hansen's account of the aura in her wonderful Cinema and Experience (2011), which must have appeared too late for Piggott to use. But apart from the one article by Hansen that she cites (178), she could have drawn on several others. She also slights Irving Wohlfarth, whom she mentions in the text but not in the bibliography.

As a result, the whole of the first part of this book, "Exquisite Agony: Elements of Messianism and the Baroque in Dickens and Benjamin," wobbles and does neither author enough service. Benjamin is not a writer of "the absolute" in any useful way (19); history is not a "causal chain of disaster" (23, my emphasis); Benjamin is not a writer of "totality" (24); and the discussion of "messianism" needs much more nuance than appears in this confident writing. Is it Dickens, or Benjamin, for whom "the Manichean world" (38) is meaningful? Certainly not Benjamin, for whom the subjective nature of evil is the endpoint of The Origin of German Tragic Drama; for Benjamin, evil is allegorical and nonsense only in the "sense in which Kierkegaard understood that word" (The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans John Osborne [1977], 233). Piggott often uses Benjamin and Dickens as alibis for each other, but I do not think "Manichean" fits Dickens either. In any case, her account of what is misleadingly considered messianic in Dickens goes no further than Alexander Welsh's treatment of religious and secular cities in The City of Dickens (Oxford, 1969), which she cites: a book whose conservative readings seem very similar to the arguments advanced here.

To have to quibble with almost every page of the discussions of allegory and the Baroque is regrettably negative, but the tensions between Benjamin as Marxist and as Jewish thinker are so fine, and so difficult, and the debates with Adorno, especially on the "dialectical image" (noted 148), are so subtle and pertinent, that one must conclude that much has been ignored here. Piggott notes Adorno's essay on The Old Curiosity Shop, which Benjamin cites in the Arcades project, but in glossing the Nell-Trent-Quilp nexus of the novel, she somewhat overstates "the constant sexual-paedophiliac threat Nell lives under" (34). In a footnote to this phrase, she substantiates it only by mentioning Dostoevsky, presumably alluding to his use of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) in The Insulted and the Injured (1861). A later novel is thus made to lend a sexual threat to an earlier one. But in saying virtually nothing about the parts of Curiosity that do not concern Nell, Piggott tilts the novel in one direction, and while a detailed reading of Adorno's essay on Curiosity would have been both appropriate and useful, she offers only a few quotations from it.

As I have said in my own Allegory (2009), it is interesting that Dickens was fascinated with allegory, but the point needs developing. By comparing the allegorical image in the seventeenth-century with the commodity fetish in the nineteenth, as Benjamin does, one might link what he says about allegory and the Baroque with his analysis of the contents of the arcades, and with Fashion, as in "Madam Death" (Arcades, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin [1999], 18). But grasping this material means grappling with topics such as the "phantasmagoria," which Piggott briefly considers (162) without any reference to Benjamin's use of this Marx-inflected term (as in "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century," starting with Arcades 14). Thus Piggott fails to explain how the commodity and the form of the city combine with its visual culture: a question obviously pursued in yet another source she does not cite: Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth-Century (1990).

The second half of the book, "Dickens, Benjamin and the City," deals with such topics as experience and memory, and what is called the "Gothic City of the Flâneur and the Crowd." Here the argument is stronger, largely because the author can draw on Benjamin's writings about Baudelaire, who was not only coeval with Dickens but also, as Piggott points out, aware of him (170). She ably reads Sketches by Boz, A Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield as a tale of urban memory, but her account of the crowd in A Tale of Two Cities slights Carlyle. Barely mentioning The French Revolution (230), she ignores what its scrutiny of unconscious processes might have helped to reveal about Dickens's portrayal of the crowd. Somewhat repetitive on the topic of shock experience, Piggott's chapters on the city underplay the sense that for Benjamin, Erlebnis denotes a subjective experience that cannot be communicated because it is so intensely personal. Benjamin distrusted the term in its Diltheyan sense because he thought its intensity and incommunicability tended towards Fascism. Furthermore, in using Mark Spilka's discussion of the grotesque in Dickens and Kafka (Dickens and Kafka: A Mutual Interpretation [1963]), Piggott treats Spilka as if he were discussing the gothic, as if gothic and grotesque could be interchanged (205). The confusion seems to spring from the strange confidence of the book in its ability to handle so much. It would probably have worked better as an article, or series of articles, where the author need not have felt bound to make and substantiate so many claims, and could have been more experimental in testing her ideas. As it is, she over-extends a promising comparison through two bodies of writing that are too heteregenous within themselves to be easily considered self-consistent bodies of work. How much of Dickens, one wonders, does Piggott have to leave out, and how much does Benjamin have to be simplified when one tries to write about his whole body of work? This book is a serious study of a wonderful subject, and it tries very hard, but it stretches itself beyond its ability to sustain the comparison of Dickens and Benjamin.

Jeremy Tambling is Professor of Literature at the University of Manchester.


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