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Violence et trauma

Language in Flight: Memorial, Narrative and History in David Copperfield

Cathy Caruth

Abstracts

This article addresses David Copperfield to try and understand what it means to write the autobiography of a violently traumatic life story. The traditional interpretation of the novel is to read it as representing, and overcoming, a childhood trauma through the linguistic mastery of the adult. Yet if the novel thus dramatizes how traumatic origins can be represented in writing, it also asks what it means for autobiographical language to originate in a trauma. In this sense the novel is not only about the orphan who becomes an autobiographer, but about the emergence of a literary language when the self can no longer tell its own story. What would it mean to read the novel as both the story of an orphan and as a literary, and traumatic, orphaned story?

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Once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And as it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself. (Plato, Phaedrus)

1I would like to address the question of “the writing of violence” by asking what it means to write the autobiography of a violently traumatic life story. From what perspective would a self tell its own history when that history consists, precisely, in the ungrounding of the self? In the study of trauma, as it has emerged over the last century, the uniqueness of the traumatic experience consists in the rupturing of the very framework of which experience traditionally consists: of the perception, understanding, or memory of the self. If the event of trauma is the undoing of experience, then, what language would allow for the telling of this event?

  • 1 Of all my books, I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every (...)
  • 2 See for example Robert L. Patten, “Autobiography into Autobiography: The Evolution of David Copperf (...)

2In order to respond to this question I will turn to Charles Dickens’s novel David Copperfield, long considered Dickens’s fictionalized account of his own passage from traumatic early childhood to a master of English letters. This is the story of an orphan, named David Copperfield, who overcomes his traumatic past and eventually comes to write the story of his autobiography, the book David Copperfield. As a text that presents itself as both the fictional autobiography of the main character (David Copperfield), and the autobiographical fiction of its author (Charles Dickens), the novel David Copperfield (which Dickens called his “favorite child”)1 can be said to dramatize, and enact, the story of self-grounding at the heart of a catastrophic personal history2.

  • 3 The structure of this argument is illustrated clearly by Patten; often it is implicit. See for exam (...)
  • 4 The problem of “trauma” emerges precisely here, when we can no longer speak of a self that can tell (...)

3The story of the orphan is, also, of course, the story of an uprooted self at the origins of an autobiography. On the one hand, by representing David Copperfield in his own orphaned childhood, and by showing how he comes to write the autobiography that is this very text, Dickens’s novel can be seen as representing, and overcoming, a childhood trauma through the linguistic mastery of the adult. This is David Copperfield's most common critical interpretation3. Yet if the novel thus dramatizes how traumatic origins can be represented in writing, it also asks, I would suggest, what it means for autobiographical language to originate in a trauma. In this sense the novel is not only about the orphan who becomes an autobiographer, but about the emergence of a literary language when the self can no longer tell its own story4. What would it mean to read the novel, I will ask today, as both the story of an orphan and as a literary, and traumatic, orphaned story?

Men of Letters

4There is no better place to ask these questions, I would argue, than in Dicken’s text. For as I have noted, David Copperfield is the story of an orphan who grows up to write his autobiography, a narrative in which the protagonist claims to trace the roots of his orphaned past. And this orphan story can also be read as the story of a literary writer reflecting upon his own roots and a literary language that tells the story of its own origination.

5On the one hand, then, at the center of the novel is a story of abandonment and survival that appears to be the fictional retelling of Charles Dickens’s own childhood and his emergence as a literary writer. Orphaned by the death of his father before his birth and the death of his mother at the age of 10, David Copperfield is sent to a bottling factory (as Dickens was to a blacking factory), eventually finds his way back into a family (though not his own, like Dickens, but that of his Aunt Betsey), and learning to be a clerk in the courts (like Dickens) eventually becomes a successful novelist. Turning from an orphan into the writer of David Copperfield, Dickens’s “favorite child,” David Copperfield the character—whose initials mirror and reverse those of Charles Dickens—could be said to figure the shift from illegitimacy to legitimacy, from the child separated from his mother to a master of the mother tongue.

  • 5 The chiastic reversal and mirroring of initials assimilates the figure (chiasmus) to the plot (reve (...)

6Likewise, the novel itself turns, as a figure, from the language of the orphan to the language of the “favorite child.” The orphan here thus figures the relation between figure (David Copperfield) and referent (Charles Dickens), and moreover appears to bear witness to what is referred to as the “trauma” of Dickens’s life—his abandonment in the blacking factory at the age of 12—as it is precisely turned into the source of the master of English letters. From the referent Charles Dickens (the one who suffers early trauma) to the letters DC, or from the letters of an orphan (DC) to the man of letters (DC), the text appears to situate and contain—to adopt—the figure of the orphan at the heart of the literary through the figural transformation of a traumatic referent into the pleasurable wandering of its protagonist. The reversal of letters, as the initials of the protagonist and author, thus tells the story of the reversal of fortune that constitutes the story of both David and Dickens. The orphan, here, appears to be the figure of the literary writer par excellence, and of a literature that would adopt the figure and thus recognize itself—and the history of its author--in its own, uniquely English, linguistic play5.

Unfortunate Men

  • 6 Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (Norton Critical Edition), ed. By Jerome H. Buckley (New York an (...)
  • 7 Aunt Betsey has been beaten by her husband; she divorces him and takes her “maiden name” back (Trot (...)

7If the figure of the author thus emerges, successfully, through this play of letters, the author’s name nonetheless reappears, in the story, in another, less recognizable figure. There is in fact a second orphan in the story, not usually treated at length in critical readings of the text, who is also an autobiographer and whom David meets when he escapes from the blacking factory and finds his way to his Aunt Betsey’s home. This is the eccentric and affable Mr. Dick, presumed mad by all who meet him except Aunt Betsey, who has also taken in this “distant connexion”6 and saved him from an abusive past just as she has David Copperfield7. When David appeals to Aunt Betsey to let him live in her home, it is Mr. Dick who convinces Aunt Betsey to do it, and the two orphan writers seem, in many ways, to provide a staging of the transformative relationship between Dickens and his own character, through which he represents the triumph over his past. Yet Mr. Dick, unlike David, is defined not by his transformation into an autobiographical writer but by his failure to complete the “Memorial” of his life at which he is always at work; and unlike David, for whom their meeting constitutes “another beginning,” Mr. Dick’s madness takes the form of a repetitive breaking off of his narrative that is an apparent repetition of his own abusive past.

8If Mr. Dick appears as a double of David, then, he seems to move in the opposite direction in his own journey: rather than progressing forward, like David, from orphaned youth to successful autobiographer and writer, Mr. Dick is an autobiographer who cannot complete his task and whose very attempt to do so seems to cause him to regress to the past. At the moment that David resumes the path to adulthood and success, he encounters a man who seems to be moving in the opposite direction: who remains in a regressed and child-like state, and whose repetitive breaking off of his narrative, as Aunt Betsey will suggest, is an apparent repetition of a past he cannot write. Where David’s autobiographical narrative emerges as the final conquest of his orphaned past, Mr. Dick’s memorial appears to be the site of an endless return to a past he has not simply survived. Whereas David enacts a form of mastery though his story, Mr. Dick introduces a Memorial that cannot be written at the heart of the autobiographical text.

Autobiography as Be-Heading

  • 8 David Copperfield, 176-177.

‘How does the world go? I’ll tell you what,’ he added, in a lower tone, ‘I shouldn’t wish it to be mentioned, but it’s a’—here he beckoned to me, and put his lips close to my ear—‘it’s a mad world. Mad as Bedlam, boy!”8

9Indeed, while David appears to write the story of his trauma as an autobiographical narrative of his uprooting, Mr. Dick, in being unable to write, precisely uproots his narrative over and over again. This takes place, moreover, though a symptom that seems to represent, but in fact enacts a peculiar cutting—off. David discovers this when he is first sent upstairs by Aunt Betsey to ask about the progress of the Memorial:

Well, said Mr. Dick, in answer, “my compliments to her, and I—I believe I have made a start. I think I have made a start,” said Mr. Dick, passing his hand among his grey hair, and casting anything but a confident look at his manuscript. You have been to school?
“Yes, sir,” I answered, “for a short time.”
“Do you recollect the date,” said Mr. Dick, looking earnestly at me, and taking up his pen to note it down, “when King Charles the First had his head cut off?”
I said I believed it happened in the year sixteen hundred and forty-nine.
“Well,” returned Mr. Dick, scratching his ear with his pen, and looking dubiously at me. “So the books say; but I don’t see how that can be. Because, if it was so long ago, how could the people about him have made that mistake of putting some of the trouble out of his head, after it was taken off, into mine?”
I was very much surprised by the inquiry; but could give no information on this point.
“It’s,” said Mr. Dick, with a despondent look upon his papers, and with his hand among his hair again, “that I never can get that quite right. I never can make that perfectly clear. But no matter, no matter!” he said cheerfully, and rousing himself, “there’s time enough! My compliments to Miss Trotwood, I am getting on very well indeed.” (177)

  • 9 See Charles Dickens, Dickens, Charles. A Child’s History of England. London: Chapman and Hall, 1929 (...)
  • 10 The pun is thus the sight of a repetition. The theory of repetition that emerged in Freud’s Beyond (...)

10Mr. Dick’s inability to write is connected—as we learn here and later—with the intrusion of the head of Charles the First—the king executed in 1649 for his authoritarian rule and his belief in the divine right of kings—which invades Mr. Dick’s text whenever he begins his story. Just as the historical Charles the First lost his head, as Dickens tells us in his account of the execution in A Child’s History of England, after uttering the word “Remember!”, Mr. Dick’s attempt to remember, through his Memorial, would appear to cause him to “lose his head.”9 While the cutting-off of King Charles the First’s head might seem to be a figurative displacement of a repressed referent in Mr. Dick’s past story, then, it actually operates, in the scene of Mr. Dick’s writing, as a strangely literal repetition of the cutting-off of both memory and word. The loss of the head, that is, is a pun that does not represent, but rather reenacts, an event that undoes memory, the repetition of a word that cuts off its own referential ground10.

  • 11 On the posthumous (ghost-written) text of Charles I and Milton’s response see, for example, Steven (...)

11Mr. Dick’s “madness” does not consist in the loss of reality, therefore, but in the repetition of a reality that is not precisely his own. Indeed King Charles the First’s execution was itself more than a violent act that could be represented in language, since it was also a violence to the name that constituted it as historical event. In cutting off Charles the First’s head, the people also uprooted the divine ground on which he had based the authority of his name, thus cutting a gap in the story of “Charles” that forever entangled the story of the Divine King with the execution of the man. The history of the King thus took the form of competing stories bound around this cut: Charles’s own posthumous self-glorifying hagiography entitled Eikon Basilike, for example, and Milton’s Eikonoclastes as a belittling of the divinity, precisely, of this story11. We can understand why Dickens thus described the event as a cutting off of the word “Remember,” an event that is memorialized doubly in his own “Child’s History” and in the fictional (impossible) history of Mr. Dick. Cut off from its divine authority, the name “Charles” thus splits around the doubleness of its own significance, which itself appears to be best represented by its landing in—and de-authorizing—the text of Mr. Dick.

12While the story of David thus seems to represent the trauma of Dickens through the figurative retelling of a proper referent, the punning of Mr. Dick’s failed story produces a sort of disfiguration narrated as the loss of authorization, or authorship, in the cutting of the authority’s—in his case the father’s—name. Indeed Aunt Betsey, attempting to explain his symptom in terms of the facts of his history, ends up telling a story of Mr. Dick’s unnaming. She thus connects the return of Charles the First’s head to the origins of Mr. Dick’s illness, which she says first began when his favorite sister was mistreated by her husband, who also threw Mr. Dick out of his father’s house:

That was before he came to me, but the recollection of it is oppressive to him even now. Did he say anything to you about King Charles the First, child?’
‘Yes, aunt.’
Ah!’ said my aunt, rubbing her nose as if she were a little vexed. ‘That’s his allegorical way of expressing it. He connects his illness with great disturbance and agitation, naturally, and that’s the figure, or the simile, or whatever it’s called, which he chooses to use. And why shouldn’t he, if he thinks proper!’ (179)

  • 12 On names and fathers see Lynn Cain, “David Copperfield,” in Dickens, Family, Authorship. Cain argue (...)

13The “allegorical” use of the “figure” or “simile” of the cutting off of Charles the First’s head—Aunt Betsey has trouble finding a name for the figure itself—can only be “proper” to Mr. Dick’s story if it is also a story about the loss of the proper name12. Indeed, as David goes on to tell us:

‘I suppose, said my aunt,’ . . . ‘you think Mr. Dick a short name, eh?’
‘I thought it was rather a short name, yesterday,’ I confessed.
‘You are not to suppose that he hasn’t got a longer name, if he chose to use it,’ said my aunt, with a loftier air. ‘Babley—Mr. Richard Babley—that’s the gentleman’s true name. . . . But don’t you call him by it, whatever you do. He can’t bear his name. That’s a peculiarity of his. Though I don’t know that it’s much of a peculiarity, either; for he has been ill-used enough, by some that bear it, to have a mortal antipathy for it, Heaven knows. Mr. Dick is his name here.” (176)

  • 13 The historical and linguistic events are thus inseparable; the language of Mr. Dick introduces (as (...)
  • 14 The Hebrew word may mean “Gates of God” but “babble” apparently comes from a middle low German or o (...)

14In losing his connection to his paternal roots, Mr. Dick loses the “Babley” of paternal authority, becoming the author, as it were, only of the “babble” of his own “improper” name. In this other allegory of a loss of divine authority, Mr. Dick’s name, and its uprooting, retells the Biblical story of the tower reaching up to heaven that is also the story of a catastrophe to language performed by God. In the story of Babel God does not ground the language of man but makes of one many languages in order to punish man for his divine pretensions13. The catastrophe, here too, is thus a kind of trauma of language as it is split off into fragments from its unified comprehensibility and authority. The proper name “Babel,” ironically enough, itself becomes a kind of improper pun, in linguistic tradition, since the proper name (from a Hebrew word) sounds like, but is not the etymological root of, the word “babble” that describes the result that the catastrophe produces14. Doubly cut off from authority—both in his “proper” name Babley, and replacement by “Dick” — Mr. Dick thus seems to have no proper story. Or rather his proper story is, precisely, the story of the loss of the name by which he can author his own history. This is why Mr. Dick’s trauma can be named only through the story of another’s loss of historical authority.

  • 15 On Richard Dadd see Nicholas Tromans, Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum, D.A.P./Tate (August (...)

15It is precisely at this moment, however, that the story of Mr. Dick’s inability to author his own story is reconnected with the real authorship of Charles Dickens, by means of the joining of the cut-off name of the king, Charles, joined with another non-paternal nomination, Dick (“Charles Dick”). While the story of David thus seems to represent the trauma of Dickens through the figurative retelling of a proper referent, the punning of Mr. Dick’s failed story connects with the real author through the uprooting and disfiguration of the paternal, or authoritative, name. (It is interesting, in this context, that the character on which Mr. Dick is supposed to have been based, the mad poet Richard Dadd, was imprisoned in an insane asylum for the killing of none other than his own dad)15.

  • 16 Two worthwhile essays devoted to Mr. Dick (there are not many) include Stanley Tick, “Memorializing (...)

16The pun of Mr. Dick’s mad symptom, we might say, rather than turning the referent into a recognizable figure, conveys the reality of a trauma constituted by the uprooted and de-authorized (and indeed forgotten) figure of Mr. Dick.16 The history of a trauma, that is, seems to lie only in the uprooting of its own history: in the passage from the man who “makes his name” to the unfortunate name of the one who is barely recognizable as a man. This crossing of reality and fiction in the disfiguring pun emerges, as well, through another problem of “memorialization” at the heart of Mr. Dick’s Memorial:

‘Is it a Memorial about his own history that he is writing, aunt?’
‘Yes, child,’ said my aunt, rubbing her nose again. ‘He is memorializing the Lord Chancellor, or the Lord Somebody or other—one of those people, at all events, who are paid to be memorialized—about his affairs. I suppose it will go in, one of these days. He hasn’t been able to draw it up yet, without introducing that mode of expressing himself; but it don’t signify; it keeps him employed. (179)

  • 17 See James A. Davies John Forster: A Literary Life. On the “autobiographical fragment,” see Philip C (...)

17In being unable to memorialize—to write the Memorial of--his life, Mr. Dick is also unable to memorialize—to address—his story to the Lord Chancellor, that is, the proper authority. Charles Dickens, for his part, ultimately revealed the non-literary version of his “real” story in a no longer recoverable, and only partially written, “autobiographical fragment” that he conveyed to his biographer John Forster, who also, it turns out, became the Commissioner in Lunacy, assigned to report on lunatic asylums to none other than the Lord Chancellor17.

18Dickens’s own story, it would seem, thus emerging between David and Mr. Dick, seems lost in the gap between the one who masters letters and the one whose letters never quite make it to the master.

Floating Signifiers

19Yet the very literal letters of the Memorial also become, in the novel, the beginning of another story, the story of a friendship that binds David and Mr. Dick in the continuation of the plot. This takes place, in fact, around another sort of manuscript, which appears at the close of the scene in which David has asked about Mr. Dick’s writing progress at the behest of Aunt Betsey:

I was going away, when he directed my attention to the kite.
“What do you think of that for a kite?”
he said.
I answered that it was a beautiful one. I should think it must have been as
much as seven feet high.
“I made it. We’ll go and fly it, you and I,” said Mr. Dick. “Do you see this?”
He showed me that it was covered with manuscript, very closely and laboriously written; but so plainly, that as I looked along the lines I thought I saw some allusion to King Charles the First’s head again, in one or two places.
“There’s plenty of string,” said Mr. Dick, “and when it flies high, it takes the facts a long way. That’s my manner of diffusing’em. I don’t know where they may come down. It’s according to circumstances, and the wind, and so forth; but I take my chance of that.” (177)

  • 18 When David first arrives, Aunt Betsey asks Mr. Dick what to do with David, and Mr. Dick answers, “w (...)

20When David first enters the room and inquires about the progress of the Memorial, Mr. Dick responds with the mad dialogue that brings in Charles the First, who interrupts the Memorial’s proper address to the Lord Chancellor. But when Mr. Dick points to the failed writing on the Kite—as David is about to leave—he begins his first true address to his friend. Likewise, just after Mr. Dick has convinced Aunt Betsey originally to let the orphan David enter her home18—and thus make his first real progress in the plot that will lead to his writing—the failed writing of the Memorial ultimately allows Mr. Dick to enter the plot of the story when he first befriends David around the creative use of the writing on the kite. The kite thus becomes the literal means of moving the story along, even as it moves the words on the pages from their original place to the side of a creation that can be flown.

21Indeed the kite, precisely in so far as it receives the useless letters of the cut-off manuscript, becomes the creative figure—the figure of the creativity—of the uprooted word. In so doing the failed Memorial serves, indeed, as a different kind of memorialization in the address to, and impression upon, David:

What Mr. Dick supposed would come of the Memorial, if it were completed; where he thought it was to go, or what he thought it was to do; he knew no more than anybody else, I believe. Nor was it at all necessary that he should trouble himself with such questions, for if anything were certain under the sun, it was certain that the Memorial never would be finished. It was quite an affecting sight, I used to think, to see him with the kite when it was up a great height in the air. What he had told me, in his room, about his belief in its disseminating the statements pasted on it, which were nothing but old leaves of abortive Memorials, might have been a fancy with him sometimes; but not when he was out, looking up at the kite in the sky, and feeling it pull and tug at his hand. He never looked so serene as he did then. I used to fancy, as I sat by him of an evening, on a green slope, and saw him watch the kite high in the quiet air, that it lifted his mind out of its confusion, and bore it (such was my boyish thought) into the skies. (188-89)

22As David watches Mr. Dick watching the kite, Mr. Dick’s “fancy” of disseminating the facts turns into David’s “fancy” of Mr. Dick, himself, floating off into the skies. As the facts are separated from the words, that is, the Memorial—in its meaningless floating—becomes the “affecting sight” that addresses David. In the giving-up of the project of the Memorial, and in the letting-go of the direction of the words (“I don’t know where they may come down”), Mr. Dick precisely passes on the story of his orphaned language to the sight, and fancy, of another orphan.

  • 19 The scene of kite-flying-and-watching might also, therefore, be considered a scene of witness. The (...)

23The kite is thus also a figure of the literary that, in releasing the written word, also memorializes through the impact of an address19. Floating between David and Mr. Dick, the words that mark Mr. Dick’s failure to tie his language to himself begin the new journey, and language, that tells the story of David and Mr. Dick. No longer attempting to master his past, but—in David’s fancy—letting the words take him up with them, Mr. Dick is thus passed on through a writing—and a reading—that at least in part frees him from the traumatic disfiguration of the past.

Searching for Roots

24If Mr. Dick thus enters the story through the figure of the kite, he also appears, however, to lose something of the truth—the literality and insistence—of his history. This would seem to be represented by the end of the flying scene, in which the kite, as David reports, inevitably comes down:

As he wound the string in, and it came lower and lower down out of the beautiful light, until it fluttered to the ground, and lay there like a dead thing, he seemed to wake gradually out of a dream; and I remember to have seen him take it up, and look about him in a lost way, as if they had both come down together, so that I pitied him with all my heart. (189)

25If the string lets the kite fly, it also pulls it back to earth, where the “dream” of his fancy—the diffusion of the facts—meets the hard ground of a reality that reveals the kite to be a form of illusion. The flying of the kite thus also appears to remain a kind of dream-scene in the novel, a passing figure, itself subsumed or forgotten in the history of the reception of Dickens’s text.

26But the figure of the flying kite itself, as it turns out, enters the story in a different way, through the story of yet another writing project, which both resumes the figures of Mr. Dick’s manuscripts and does so on the hinge of another pun. Mr. Dick’s uprooted language thus returns through the friendship with Dr. Strong, a teacher at David’s school and friend of Mr. Dick, whose name is etymologically linked to “string,” a fact he would presumably know, as his own project is a search for linguistic roots:

I learnt . . . how the Doct’rs cogitating manner was attributable to his being always engaged in looking out for Greek roots; which, in my innocence and ignorance, I supposed to be a botanical furor on the Doctor’s part, especially as he always looked at the ground when he walked about—until I understood that they were roots of words, with a view to a new Dictionary, which he had in contemplation. (205-6)

  • 20 It is remarkable that one of the main contributors to the OED was a “madman,” though Dickens wouldn (...)

27The search for roots that occupies Dr. Strong appears the opposite of Mr. Dick’s kite-flying, just as the upward-gazing dreamer appears to have little in common with the downward-gazing scholar20. Yet the pun on the word “roots” that introduces Dr. Strong’s project and the etymological link to the word “string” in Dr. Strong’s name bind the new manuscript, linguistically, to that of Mr. Dick, whose own name is also literally inscribed in the Dic-tionary.

28Indeed the Dictionary turns out to be as impossible as the Memorial, to whose own interruptions it is explicitly linked:

Adams, our head-boy, who had a turn for mathematics, had made a calculation, I was informed, of the time this Dictionary would take in completing, on the Doctor’s plan, and at the Doctor’s rate of going. He considered that it might be done in one thousand six hundred and forty-nine years, counting from the Doctor’s last, or sixty-second, birthday. (206)

29The number of years that it will presumably take to complete the Dictionary ties it to the date that marked the interruption of Mr. Dick’s own Memorial, but does so in the form of a history that extends and unfolds, rather than cuts off, the text. Mr. Dick’s uprooted Memorial thus reappears in the search for roots that is, itself, an impossible Memorial to language—the incompletable story of the roots of its own words—which unfolds, nonetheless in its own, unique (his)tory. If the cut of the date (“sixteen hundred and forty-nine”) introduced the traumatic past as the uprooted name of Charles, then, the future of the Dictionary (sixteen hundred and forty-nine more years) reintroduces the name of Mr. Dic(k) as the beginning of a new kind of history.

30This history is also the scene of an address and the scene of a floating word, a word that enters the story merely through the sound of its letters:

This veneration Mr. Dick extended to the Doctor, whom he thought the most subtle and accomplished philosopher of any age. It was long before Mr. Dick ever spoke to him otherwise than bare-headed; and even when he and the Doctor had struck up quite a friendship, and would walk together by the hour . . . Mr. Dick would pull off his hat at intervals . . . How it ever came about, that the Doctor began to read out scraps of the famous Dictionary, in these walks, I never knew . . . However, . . . Mr. Dick, listening with a face shining with pride and pleasure, in his heart of hearts believed the Dictionary to be the most delightful book in the world.

As I think of them going up and down before those school-room windows—the Doctor reading with his complacent smile, an occasional flourish of the manuscript, or grave motion of his head; and Mr. Dick listening, enchained by interest, with his poor wits calmly wandering God knows where, upon the wings of hard words—I think of it as one of the pleasantest things . . . that I have ever seen. (218-19)

  • 21 David seems to be passing on a history as well, then—in fact that history of the uprooted root—thro (...)
  • 22 The relation between the dead metaphor and the “living” metaphor might be thought of as another sto (...)
  • 23 These scenes of reading are remarkably devoid of content or interpretation, which suggests that it (...)

31When the Dictionary, read by Dr. Strong, “goes to the roots,” Mr. Dick begins, once again, to soar: “and Mr. Dick listening, enchained by interest, with his poor wits calmly wandering . . . upon the wings of hard words.” In David’s retelling, Mr. Dick flies on new wings with his friend, which, in David’s words, are themselves no longer simply English, but Greek—and specifically Homeric Greek, since “winged words” is a translation of ἔπεα πτερόεντα (epea pteroenta)—one of the most common Homeric formulaic epithets.21 The English phrase here, by introducing the semantic meaning of the Homeric metrical phrase (and dead metaphor)22 “winged words” as a figure for Mr. Dick’s listening (Mr. Dick’s wits soar, as he listens, on the “wings of hard words”), both pass on something of the Greek and suggest that it is the foreign word that lifts Mr. Dick up. Untrained, himself, in foreign languages, we must assume that Mr. Dick listens to, and flies along with, the sound of the roots, with the mere sound of the letters, a foreignness of the letter within English and a wandering of the signifier undone, in writing, from its meaning. This uprooting of meaning had haunted Mr. Dick, in his Memorial, but also frees him in the history of friendship that is possible in the scenes of reading between him and Dr. Strong23.

  • 24 This is from a passage in which David describes the scraps of paper sticking out of Dr. Strong’s po (...)

32David is equally affected by this sight, “one of the pleasantest things . . . I ever have seen.” The “memorialization of Mr. Dick” thus takes the form of an address to him by Dr. Strong that also “memorializes” David, who passes on the figure of Mr. Dick as another letter that passes up into the skies: “and Mr. Dick listening, enchained by interest, with his poor wits calmly wandering God knows where, upon the wings of hard words.” As the word “Dick” floats up to the sky with the Dictionary, the kite itself emerges in the story through its own linguistic history—the “kite” achieved its name as a figure of the bird that it seemed, in its floating, to resemble—though it is a history that ties it most closely, as a figure, to the sound and to the non-signifying letter. This is also, though, the generation of the character at the heart of the plot, as Dr. Strong’s very project, searching through the roots of foreign languages--through the foreignness of the roots of what had appeared to be a single language--in fact emerges, mythically, from the destruction of language in the Babel story that echoes through the sound of Mr. Dick’s uprooted paternal name. “Babley” in a sense returns, or is given back to Mr. Dick, in Dr. Strong’s (reading of his) “cumbrous scraps”24—and in David’s retelling of the scene of reading—as the allegory, or history, of the return of the name in the dispersal, and persistence of a string of letters.

33It is a string of floating letters that indeed, as Mr. Dick tells David, binds him to his friend:

I have sent his name up, on a scrap of paper, to the kite, along the string, when it has been in the sky, among the larks. The kite has been glad to receive it, sir, and the day has been brighter with it. (550-51)

  • 25 The “D” insists here beyond its meaning or signification (even as the first letter of a name). (It (...)

34Dr. Strong joins Mr. Dick in the sky—and in the story—through the return of the letter—the “D” now released even from “Dick” and “David” (and “Dickens”) to the honorary title “Dr.,” by which he is equally often referred to in the text—which persists in the story even as it is uprooted, and floats, beyond any determined name25.

Freeing Writing

  • 26 The word “employed” is used by Aunt Betsey about Mr. Dick’s writing of the Memorial when she first (...)
  • 27 Mr. Dick helps others (and himself) the more occupied he is with pure writing and letters. This cou (...)

35The story of this letter never entirely returns, in David Copperfield, to a determinable name or figure. Yet it is in this continuing reproduction of meaningless writing that Mr. Dick is given his final “employment”26 in writing in another memorable scene. For through the friendship of Dr. Strong, and David, Mr. Dick continues to act centrally in the plot in the service of helping others repair their own catastrophic stories. Toward the end of the story, when Aunt Betsey has been ruined by the machinations of the nefarious Uriah Heep, David and a friend put Mr. Dick to work both to distract him from his own distress over Aunt Betsey’s plight, and to help her begin to get over it27. The employment of Mr. Dick--a copyist at a Clerk’s office that recalls both David’s and Dickens’s own employment histories—begins to free him of the obsession with the Memorial, but it does so through the meaningless production of more letters:

On a table by the window in Buckingham Street, we set out the work Traddles procured for him — which was to make, I forget how many copies of a legal document about some right of way — and on another table we spread the last unfinished original of the great Memorial. Our instructions to Mr. Dick were that he should copy exactly what he had before him, without the least departure from the original; and that when he felt it necessary to make the slightest allusion to King Charles the First, he should fly to the Memorial. We exhorted him to be resolute in this, and left my aunt to observe him. My aunt reported to us, afterwards, that, at first, he was like a man playing the kettle–drums, and constantly divided his attentions between the two; but that, finding this confuse and fatigue him, and having his copy there, plainly before his eyes, he soon sat at it in an orderly business–like manner, and postponed the Memorial to a more convenient time. (446)

36As a copyist Mr. Dick remains in the story through his skill at writing, at which he is able to persist by separating it—or rather placing it beside—the Memorial that attempts at meaning. This copying may be another figure for the kite, which however impresses itself upon David’s memory through the way in which Mr. Dick can use it to reverse the fortunes of his friend:

In a word, although we took great care that he should have no more to do than was good for him, and although he did not begin with the beginning of a week, he earned by the following Saturday night ten shillings and nine–pence; and never, while I live, shall I forget his going about to all the shops in the neighbourhood to change this treasure into sixpences, or his bringing them to my aunt arranged in the form of a heart upon a waiter, with tears of joy and pride in his eyes. He was like one under the propitious influence of a charm, from the moment of his being usefully employed; and if there were a happy man in the world, that Saturday night, it was the grateful creature who thought my aunt the most wonderful woman in existence, and me the most wonderful young man. (446)

The Agency of the Letter28

  • 28 This is a citation from Lacan’s essay by that name, though the interpretation of the “letter” in th (...)

37Who is memorialized in the story of Dickens, David, Dr. Strong and Mr. Dick? In the orphaning of the letter, we learn of a certain history. But this takes place, it would appear, in the dispersal of a name—and a figure—that is strung up, though never gathered together, throughout the text. In this dispersal one might first begin to read new sets of relations, that, seemingly mad, nonetheless emerge into apparent legibility in the novel: the events of a divisive political past and the struggles of a man who cannot quite write; the institutional history of “madness” and the development of a canonical “literature”; the language of a traumatic story and the history of the (English) language. Emerging and disappearing in the rearrangements of letters and puns are fleeting configurations that bind the referential losses of a text’s witty word play with the (historical) burden of listening to a new, and apparently mad, form of address.

  • 29 This insistence might be considered both the repetition of a traumatic history and its transformati (...)

38Another “history” can also be said, perhaps, to repeat itself, unconsciously, in the history of the critical search for roots in David Copperfield that continually forgets, and nonetheless repeats, the stor(ies) of the D. This may be what most addresses, and persists, in this story, a history that is equally undeterminable, and transmissible, in the insistence of the letter29 that, in David’s final recollection, memorializes the letters of Mr. Dick in the proliferation, and flight, of orphaned words:

Among my boys, this summer holiday time, I see an old man making giant kites, and gazing at them in the air, with a delight for which there are no words. He greets me rapturously, and whispers, with many nods and winks, 'Trotwood, you will be glad to hear that I shall finish the Memorial when I have nothing else to do, and that your aunt's the most extraordinary woman in the world . . . !' (735)

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Notes

1 Of all my books, I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favorite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.” (Dickens, Preface to the 1869 edition of David Copperfield.)

2 See for example Robert L. Patten, “Autobiography into Autobiography: The Evolution of David Copperfield,” in George P. Landow, ed., Approaches to Victorian Autobiography (Athens, Ohio: University of Ohio Press, 1979), pp. 284-88. Note that the relation between “fictional autobiography” and “autobiographical fiction” is the rhetorical figure of chiasmus, a mirroring and reversal that defines mimesis within literature as a particular kind of symmetrical(izing) figure.

3 The structure of this argument is illustrated clearly by Patten; often it is implicit. See for example Murray Baumgarten, “Writing and David Copperfield in Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction, 1985; 14: 39-59, among many others exploring the autobiographical dimensions of the story. As I discuss briefly below, the autobiographical assumption depends on another text, the “autobiographical fragment,” which is traditionally taken as a fairly straightforward reference to Dickens’s past and a text that thus mediates between the figurative nature of the novel and the referent supplied by the “fragment.” On the fragment see John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens. Vol. I. 1812-1842. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1874, and Philip Collins, “Dickens's Autobiographical Fragment and David Copperfield, in Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens: Revue du Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Victoriennes et Edouardiennes de l'Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier, 1984 Oct.; 20: 87-96 and Murray Baumgarten, “Writing and David Copperfield,” Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction, 1985; 14: 39-59.

4 The problem of “trauma” emerges precisely here, when we can no longer speak of a self that can tell its story; the problem of writing the autobiography of a trauma is thus not so much about how one represents an event of the past, but rather what “I” there could be to write. Who, exactly, tells the story of a trauma? On the question of who speaks or testifies in a traumatic story in the context of larger historical traum asee, for example, Shoshana Felman, “A Ghost in the House of Justice,” in The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2002), Onno van der Hart, Ellert R. S. Nijenhuis and Kathy Steele, The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization (NY: Norton, 2006) and “The Haunted Self: An Interview with Onno van der Hart” in Caruth, Listening to Trauma: Interviews with Leaders in the Theory and Treatment of Catastrophic Experience (Baltimore: Hopkins, 2014).

5 The chiastic reversal and mirroring of initials assimilates the figure (chiasmus) to the plot (reversal of fortune), thus suggesting that what appears to be a life in fact takes the form of a figure. The question of what it means for language to be “orphaned” arises through this figure and its displacement in the text. On the figure of writing as a site of orphaning in Plato see Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, tr. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981). I briefly address Derrida’s comments on the Plato in my first attempt to engage with the complexities of Dickens’s text, though in a different context. See “Orphaned Language: Traumatic Crossings in Literature and History,” in A Companion to Comparative Literature, ed. Ali Behdad and Dominic Thomas (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

6 Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (Norton Critical Edition), ed. By Jerome H. Buckley (New York and London: Norton, 1990). All quotations from the novel refer to this edition.

7 Aunt Betsey has been beaten by her husband; she divorces him and takes her “maiden name” back (Trotwood). The home of Aunt Betsey thus consists of three previously abused inhabitants.

8 David Copperfield, 176-177.

9 See Charles Dickens, Dickens, Charles. A Child’s History of England. London: Chapman and Hall, 1929. On the History see Gardiner, "Dickens and the Uses of History" in A Companion to Charles Dickens, ed. Parisian; Jann, "Fact, Fiction and Interpretation" in Dickens Quarterly; John Lucas, "Past and Present" in John Schad, ed., Dickens Refigured; Birch, "A Forgotten Book" in Dickensian 51 (1955), and John O. Jordan, Supposing Bleak House, Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2011; Jordan argues that the History is itself structured as a novel, whose climax is the reign (and ending of the reign) of King Charles I. We might think of the different meanings of “Child’s History” here, since it was addressed to Dickens’s oldest son but also could perhaps also be thought of, in the context of the issues raised by the novel, as also the history of a child or by a child.

10 The pun is thus the sight of a repetition. The theory of repetition that emerged in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle posited a relation between a missed experience of an event and its later repetition; this repetition itself constituted the “event” of trauma, which could not be limited to the first (empirical) experience alone. The relation between the first missed experience and the second is not representational, as there is nothing yet to represent (though it might be thought of as a demand for representation). The psyche—or text—in or as which this event repeats itself is thus part of the history of the event; memory and psyche are not simply separated here but linked through their repetition. The theory and experience of trauma are, likewise, never purely separate. See Cathy Caruth, “Psychoanalysis in the Ashes of History,” in Literature in the Ashes of History (Baltimore: Hopkins, 2013).

11 On the posthumous (ghost-written) text of Charles I and Milton’s response see, for example, Steven D. Bennett, “King Charles I, the Eikon Basilike and Eikonoclastes.” Online publication. stevendbennett.wordpress.com/.../king-charles-i-the-eikon-basilike-and- eikonoclastes/ -.

12 On names and fathers see Lynn Cain, “David Copperfield,” in Dickens, Family, Authorship. Cain argues that the naming issues are linked to Oedipal father dynamics and can be understood through a Lacanian perspective on psychoanalysis. She makes many meaningful observations, though the emphasis on a psychic perspective guiding the linguistic one has the danger of reducing the historical insights of the problem of naming in the novel to an individual psychological ,dynamic. We would want to be cautious about the castration metaphors in the text (undoubtedly there in the cutting-off of “Dickens” into “Dick,” for example, the cutting-off of the head, and so on), as they are also linked to very specific histories (that themselves, nonetheless, are inseparable from issues of authority, grounding and their undermining).

13 The historical and linguistic events are thus inseparable; the language of Mr. Dick introduces (as an interruption) a historical event that is, itself, bound up with a linguistic effect (and perhaps even a linguistic project—to undermine the authority of “Charles” or “the First”).

14 The Hebrew word may mean “Gates of God” but “babble” apparently comes from a middle low German or old English root perhaps linked to the “ba” of a child’s first words.

15 On Richard Dadd see Nicholas Tromans, Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum, D.A.P./Tate (August 31, 2011). “Daddy” was in fact in use in this period for father. The absurdity of the pun is just the kind of madness of which Mr. Dick seems to speak when he says to David that it’s a “mad, mad world, mad as Bedlam.” Dadd was incarcerated in both Bedlam (Bethlem Royal Hospital) and Broadmoor. Dickens was known to take people to the site of the killing of Dadd’s father (during one of Dadd’s hallucinatory episodes after returning from a trip to the Middle East) and to reenact the killing there. Dickens also wrote about his distaste for the treatment of the insane and the state of asylums. An interesting—though unfortunately unpublished—manuscript on Dadd and Mr. Dick, and one of the best pieces on Mr. Dick, is Robert Polhemus, “Dickens’s Master Stroke: The Tower of Babley, David Copperfield, and the ‘Fairy Feller.” Polhemus argues that Dadd’s masterpiece, painted in the hospital, “The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke,” includes illustrations from Dickens.

16 Two worthwhile essays devoted to Mr. Dick (there are not many) include Stanley Tick, “Memorializing Mr. Dick.” In Essays on Charles Dickens, Henry James and George Eliot. Xlibris, 2005, and Joseph Bottum, “’The Gentleman’s True Name’: David Copperfield and the Philosophy of Naming.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Mar., 1995), pp. 435-455. It is noteworthy that the authors of these essays (Polhemus, Tick and Bottum) themselves sound like characters in a Dickens novel. In general, Mr. Dick seems to have disappeared from most readers’ memories and with regard to the critics, either he is not mentioned, or he is considered a madman or imbecile or an idealized figure of the aesthetic (neither version takes account of the truly historical nature of Mr. Dick’s madness.) See for example Paul Marchbanks, “From Caricature to Character: The Intellectually Disabled in Dickens’s Novels (Part Three),” Dickens Quarterly and Anatole France, “Mad Folk in Literature,” New England Review (1990-), Vol. 23, No. 3 (Summer, 2002), pp. 166-170. Mr. Dick thus seems more or less de-authorized as a character in Dickens (or as a figure inextricably linked to Dicken’s “self”-representation in David Copperfield), and is nearly erased from the archive (either by being forgotten or, in the few pieces devoted to him or in the passing discussions of him, as appearing too well-understood).

17 See James A. Davies John Forster: A Literary Life. On the “autobiographical fragment,” see Philip Collins, “Dickens's Autobiographical Fragment and David Copperfield,” Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens: Revue du Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Victoriennes et Edouardiennes de l'Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier, 1984 Oct.; 20: 87-96.
The figure of madness, as it arises through Mr. Dick, is inextricably bound up with trauma. In this sense Mr. Dick (and the novel) both illuminate and are illuminated by the fascinating work on madness and trauma in Francoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière, History Beyond Trauma (NY: Other Press, 2004), which argues that psychosis is “research into uninscribed histories” and that the psychoanalytic transference-countertransference dynamic is the site of the reenactment, and inscription, of these histories. Davoine has also written on Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy and she and Gaudillière both work extensively with humor and with literature as the site of historical transmission. The mad are also the place of intersection between “little history” and “Big history,”or individual and collective trauma. Thus too, in Mr. Dick, we see a collective, historical event that might be thought of as traumatic returning in and through the individual traumatic history of Mr. Dick, and his story seems only transmittable through the collective history that is not his own.

18 When David first arrives, Aunt Betsey asks Mr. Dick what to do with David, and Mr. Dick answers, “wash him.” This begins her acceptance of David into the home.

19 The scene of kite-flying-and-watching might also, therefore, be considered a scene of witness. The figure of address must be through through different rhetorical figures from, say, chiasmus; centrally important in this rhetorical history is the figure of apostrophe. The question that is central here is the problem of who speaks and who listens in a traumatic address; it is here that trauma, it seems, becomes “testimony.” On testimony and address see Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Routledge, 1991).

20 It is remarkable that one of the main contributors to the OED was a “madman,” though Dickens wouldn’t have known of this. See Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005

21 David seems to be passing on a history as well, then—in fact that history of the uprooted root—through his own (unconscious?) translation of the Greek phrase. His relation to the history of the words and Mr. Dick’s relation to their sounds may be two different versions of the persistence of the historical dimension of the language
One of the words that Mr. Dick might indeed be listening to, we can imagine, is the word “orphan” itself, which also comes from Greek roots and remains, in English, a transliteration of Greek letters, thus inscribing in the very story of the orphan, which is the story of Dick and David, Dickens and the Dictionary, another Memorial of the literary as it attempts to writes, interrupts, and rewrites its own unfinished autobiography.
On Homer’s epithets as metrical place-holders see Milman Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Adam Parry, ed. Oxford; The Clarendon Press, 1971. There is disagreement over this understanding of the epithets.

22 The relation between the dead metaphor and the “living” metaphor might be thought of as another story of death and life in this text and a question of linguistic and literary survival that is interwoven with the story of the characters.

23 These scenes of reading are remarkably devoid of content or interpretation, which suggests that it is the act of address that is central in them. And also that the “letters” that become more visible—and audible—in these scenes allow for an inscription of a history that is not necessarily reocognizable, and thus gets lost, in interpretive modes that focus on meaning. The focus on the letter in my essay, while it makes a story of its own, also attempts to follow the traces of a history that is not recognizable yet equally insistent (thus, a traumatic history).

24 This is from a passage in which David describes the scraps of paper sticking out of Dr. Strong’s pockets and hat; these constitute the “Dictionary” and thus, like the Memorial or Dickens’s own “fragment,” are not gathered into a single whole. Though they are connected, like the kite, by the “string” of Dr. Strong, which is also his reading of the “scraps” to Mr. Dick.

25 The “D” insists here beyond its meaning or signification (even as the first letter of a name). (It also becomes associated, by the end of the text, with the “s,” which is bound up, perhaps, with the “first” D of Dickens and Dr. Strong and the “s” of “Strong” and “Dickens”). The over and underdetermination of the letter that makes it call out for interpretation even while resisting a totalizing reading—or making it seem absurd (or mad)—may be considered what also breaks the mirroring of the figure in the conventional readings and, in so doing, transmits something that insists but cannot ever be fully assimilated. In this sense the story of language and of trauma meet at the point that neither can be fully understood. They, are, nonetheless, inscribed in the story, through the scenes of address. Mr. Dick’s and Dr. Strong’s “strings” bind them together; a string that is a figure and a pun and a series of letters and thus both gathers and disperses even as it allows the letters to be inscribed in the text. (It should be noted that Dr. Strong’s Dictionary is “stuck at the letter D.”) It would be interesting to put this together with Mr. Dick’s question regarding history to David once when the 1649 comes up:
'The first time he came,' said Mr. Dick, 'was—let me see—sixteen hundred and forty-nine was the date of King Charles's execution. I think you said sixteen hundred and forty-nine?'
'Yes, sir.'
'I don't know how it can be,' said Mr. Dick, sorely puzzled and shaking his head. 'I don't think I am as old as that.'
'Was it in that year that the man appeared, sir?' I asked.
'Why, really' said Mr. Dick, 'I don't see how it can have been in that year, Trotwood. Did you get that date out of history?'
'Yes, sir.'
'I suppose history never lies, does it?' said Mr. Dick, with a gleam of hope.
'Oh dear, no, sir!' I replied, most decisively. I was ingenuous and young, and I thought so.

26 The word “employed” is used by Aunt Betsey about Mr. Dick’s writing of the Memorial when she first tells David about it. Here it means “keep occupied.” The later use refers both to the occupation that helps distract him from Aunt Betsey’s troubles and, possibly, to the remuneration that results from it. The interest is that the occupation is entirely with letters.

27 Mr. Dick helps others (and himself) the more occupied he is with pure writing and letters. This could be interpreted, perhaps, in terms of the ways in which these activities create an address or inscription freed from the weight of interpretation while nonetheless passing on something of its reality. David’s retelling makes this into a story, which for Davoine and Gaudillière is also the way in which inscription happens in trauma when it is part of a scene of address. See “Mad Witnesses: A Conversation with Francoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière,” in Listening to Trauma.

28 This is a citation from Lacan’s essay by that name, though the interpretation of the “letter” in this text diverges somewhat from the psychoanalytic reading and theory he is performing. My focus is on traumatic history as it is passed on (and inscribed, or addressed) through these letters in their various persistent forms.

29 This insistence might be considered both the repetition of a traumatic history and its transformation into testimony. It is also one aspect of the way in which David Copperfield addresses us.

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References

Electronic reference

Cathy Caruth, « Language in Flight: Memorial, Narrative and History in David Copperfield », Sillages critiques [Online], 22 | 2017, Online since 30 March 2017, connection on 14 December 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/4880

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About the author

Cathy Caruth

Cornell University

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