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1. Dickensian Prospects / Perspectives Dickensiennes
I/ Sight, Insight and Sightlessness in Dickens

Modern Painters: Dickens and Cézanne



Cet article compare les formes de regard dans la fiction de Dickens et l’œuvre de Cézanne, en s’appuyant, pour aborder l’art de Cézanne, sur les travaux de Merleau-Ponty et sur les commentaires de Lacan sur Merleau-Ponty. On examinera ici la modernité, dans le traitement des modes de perception, de Dickens, romancier dont l’intérêt pour les arts visuels n’est que rarement pris en compte. Grâce à des illustrations et des exemples empruntés au romancier, on éclairera le sens de la représentation telle que Merleau-Ponty la voit dans Cézanne.

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1When David Copperfield reaches the chapter of the storm which, drowning Steerforth and Ham, reveals Copperfield’s hollowness, he says the “event” has been “growing larger and larger as I advanced, like a great tower in a plain, and throwing its fore-cast shadow even on the incidents of my childish days” (790).

2Another example. When Esther first wakes at Bleak House before daylight, the candles reflected in the “black panes,” she watches the day dawn, showing the scene “over which the wind had wandered in the dark like my memory over my life.” Eventually the day shows “a cheerful landscape, prominent in which the old Abbey Church, with its massive tower, threw a softer train of shadow on the view than seemed compatible with its rugged character” (BH 114–15). In the novel Edwin Drood, the “massive grey square tower of [Cloisterham’s] old Cathedral” (7) equally destroys the “real prospect” which Jasper wants to see, which is fantastic (not “real”), and desired. These obstructing outward towers, which for Esther complement night-time memories which even included thinking Jarndyce was her father, embody inward secrecy, repressed and visible simultaneously. They resemble what Theodor W. Adorno describes in Kierkegaard: a “castle door of inwardness” (400).

  • 1 This is central to F.R. Leavis’s discussion; see Dickens the Novelist, 213–76, and for examples, se (...)

3While features in the landscapes obstruct, they appear, like all Dickens’ figures, familiar, unfamiliar, ambiguous, “blurring,” especially in Little Dorrit (Rosenberg 14563). When Arthur Clennam, in love with Pet Meagles, walks to Twickenham, the word “real,” prominent in this novel1 appears significantly:

The long lines of red and gold in the sky, and the glorious track of the descending sun, were all divinely calm. Upon the purple tree-tops far away, and on the green height near at hand up which the shades were slowly creeping, there was an equal hush. Between the real landscape and its shadow in the water, there was no division; both were so untroubled and clear […]. (35354)

1. Doubleness

  • 2 See Lettis 19–87 for Dickens on art.

4Literally, the “landscape” excludes reflections; there is a division between landscape’s reality and its shadows, which are “only” appearance. But despite saying “there was no division,” Dickens’ writing denies that: showing the landscape up as double. Landscape painting is usually seen in Dickens as appearance only;2 at the “conference” at Mr. Merdle’s house, its blandness caricatures humans and power-relationships: Tite Barnacle and Mr. Merdle sitting together on a yellow ottoman “bore a strong general resemblance to the two cows in the Cuyp picture over against them” (LD 587). Something in landscape painting is caricatured when Mrs. Skewton, remembering a Georgian portrait of herself, declares herself an “Arcadian […] cows are my passion” (DS 320). Mr. Dombey, doubtful, intimates in agreement that “Nature was, no doubt, a very respectable institution.” If Dickens seems distanced from “Nature”, that is from suspicion of it as ideology: it is an “institution.” We may compare him writing “it might be worth while, sometimes, to inquire what Nature is, and how men work to change her, and whether, in the enforced distortions so produced, it is not natural to be unnatural” (DS 700).

5If Nature exists as changed, as in “landscape”, a word which implies that what is objectively out there has become formal, stylized pattern, and is seen as such, there is no originary nature to be known; and Nature is, itself, an ideological, or cultural concept. Dickens notes painting whose reproductions maintain class distinctions: Bleak House notes copper-plate impressions from the “Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty,” with women exhibiting “every variety of smirk [of] art combined with capital”; where Beauty “ogles every variety of prospect and is backed up by every variety of flower-pot and balustrade” (330–31). Shatto (168) notes how Peter Lely’s “Hampton Court Beauties” are implicit here, and a line of portraiture extending through Reynolds and Romney to Regency portraits. She also notes in Chesney Wold the portrait of the maid of honour of the court of Charles the Second (641), a conventional art which Dickens mocks. This “Galaxy” repro art, exporting a fantasy-image of the aristocracy for bourgeois consumption, puts Lady Dedlock: “on a terrace, with a pedestal upon the terrace, and a vase upon the pedestal, and her shawl upon the vase, and a prodigious piece of fur upon the shawl, and her arm on the prodigious piece of fur, and a bracelet on her arm” (510).

  • 3 Compare with Freud SE 21.152; see also Harari 28–29.

6In this writing, matching an accumulation of fetish-items, by its own step-like accumulation of details, (like “this is the house that Jack built”), each familiar item disappears after enumeration, being replaced by another, as objects are consumed in capitalist modernity. Objects, having only their familiarity to commend them (this is not a Cubist presentation of objects), disappear before being noticed, including Lady Dedlock’s arm, which is not an object, but something real, an implicit sexual invitation, though, in the description, it is a thing disappearing, displaced by its gleaming bracelet. The gleam is not noticed here, but is nonetheless characteristic of the fetish.3 It reflects light; so it brings itself forward as the visible.

  • 4 This idea of complex doubleness in Dickens’s writing and Cézanne painting was also explored by Juli (...)

7The unfamiliar in the familiar is not simply Dickens’ “style,” looking for something unusual, exaggerating for its own sake. It suggests doubleness, “doubt,” as Maurice Merleau-Ponty names an essay “Cézanne’s Doubt” (1945). And that, in Cézanne, who is fundamental for thinking about landscape, prompts the idea of comparing Cézanne’s landscapes, and Merleau-Ponty on these, with Dickens’ modernism in writing.4 John Berger argues that Cézanne (1839–1906) was divided between wanting to see the world in an harmonious, classical vision, like Poussin, and from his awareness, derived from Impressionism, of how vision is relative, double, including the different seeing that two eyes give. Whereas traditionally landscape art separates the painter from the field of vision, giving an illusion of mastery to the viewer, Berger writes: “Before Cézanne, every painting was [to some extent] like a view seen through a window. Courbet had tried to open the window and climb out. Cézanne broke the glass. The room became part of the landscape, the viewer part of the view” (55). Merleau-Ponty stresses the impossibility in Cézanne’s work: “that is what [Emile] Bernard called Cézanne’s suicide: aiming for reality while denying himself the means to attain it” (“Cézanne’s Doubt” 63).

8Nature, as Berger shows, is no longer outside in Cézanne. A single point of view is displaced by the sense that the painting could originate from its vanishing point, so that landscape painting encloses the painter within space, while reversing spatial relationships. To give an example: “Les grands arbres au Jas de Bouffan” (c. 1883, Courtauld Institute, London),

We note an opacity in the normally transparent sky and its insistent encroachment upon the trees. As we follow the outline of the leaves and trunks we come upon single touches of light blue laid over the green and brown; they create extra space between the wood and the foliage, and they also make a void solidthey transform negative space into solid. (Machotka 61)

9The painting assumes the sky’s presence between the tree and the point from which the painter views; it assumes a view from behind the tree looking out. This implicit diminution of the artist’s dominant position may be compared with the art-critic Hubert Damisch concluding: “painting […] has the power to make man sensible of his own nothingness, his dependence, his void” (181). “Dependency” is a relevant word, because looking means to receive a look from the painting itself, confirming a sense of lack; landscape, far from giving a sense of mastery (especially to the owner of a property being painted!), removes certainty.

  • 5 See OED, “fat” adj. 7c.

10Analogously, so may a cityscape, a word for which OED gives 1856 as a first citation: the moment of Dickens at his height. The opening of Bleak House mixes timescales (November; primeval time; the day of judgment with the death of the sun) and removes certainty: “dogs, undistinguishable in mire”: dogs (present) are removed from presence. In the second paragraph, the initial “fog everywhere” negates a place outside the twelve times repeated “fog,” which also means that it negates any origin for the fog. Accumulating the word “fog”—that material and immaterial element, something and nothing—increasingly negates visibility through foregrounding the word, placed between the reader and the reality, a cityscape and an annihilated cityscape. OED knows no derivation for “fog,” though it bears the sense “unwholesomely bloated, swollen with flabby and unhealthy corpulence” (OED: “foggy,” 3b) and links via “bog” to “quag” in the “quagmires” (21) which characterizes Chesney Wold’s landscape under rain; “quagmire” was also anticipated in the “mire” miring the dogs. If the thickness of fog is the obesity of a body, itself marsh-like, a quagmire, that compares with “the corrupted humours of the vicious body” (519) inducing spontaneous combustion. And, continuing this: OED gives fog as “long grass,” and cites it as used for “moss,” which may mean “bog, or swamp.” It derives “fog” noun 2 from “foggy,” “resembling, consisting of, or covered with ‘fog’ or coarse grass”; moves from there to “boggy,” “marshy” and from there to fat in the body: compare “come out of that fat room” (Shakespeare, Henry IV.1, 2.4.1), where “fat” means “dense.”5 London, therefore, in fog is a concealed monstrous body, like the Megalosaurus “waddling,” a word deriving from “wading,” in those “waters […] newly retired from the face of the earth”; coming up Holborn Hill, from the Fleet valley.

11Such writing, where fog, however immaterial, nonetheless works through the active participles of “creeping […] lying out […] hovering […] drooping […] pinching,” creates what Guppy complacently calls “a London particular” (42). While the indefinite article makes it not particular, “London particular” is offered as a catachresis; unique to Bleak House, it is indefinable, particular in not fitting into categories, indefinable also since “fog’”s verbal associations block, and exceed, realist description. OED also gives “London particular” as meaning a Madeira wine passing through London; perhaps the sense of Madeira looking like a dull liquid helps with the fog image, and gives it its name. “Particular” suggests “particle,” as in: “the sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in a shower of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Great Britain had, by one consent, caught fire […]” (Christmas Carol, CB 1.89) The catachresis is a strangeness in the language of this cityscape: it is itself; it exceeds referential description, while being “London,” which has become strange in being definable as this landscape of words which fog negates.

12Language is always part of what is iterable, otherwise it could not exist; every word must have a general application, so that all naming, including “fog,” is a catachresis in that it is trying to confer uniqueness on what is part of a system of repetitions. As Derrida says,

When in fact I effectively use words […] I must from the outset operate (within) a structure of repetition whose basic element can only be representative. A sign is never an event, if by event we mean an irreplaceable and irreversible particular. A sign which would take place but “once” would not be a sign […]. (50)

  • 6 See Shakespeare, Hamlet, 4.5.81–82; Compare with “muddy death” (4.7.182).

13A “London particular” attempts to name something singular within this prose; while, because it is indescribable, it necessitates the increasing intensity of superlatives in the writing: “the raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest, near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar” (BH 14). OED gives 1822 for a first citation of “dense” as “stupid, thick-headed.” The word is often used of any body “having its constituent particles closely compacted together; thick, compact”. As meaning “crowded”, ‘dense’ links with the “tens of thousands” of foot-passengers. “Muddy” (compare “muddle”: Krook: “we both grub on in a muddle” (BH 70)) associates, too, with mental confusion as in “the people muddied, / Thick and unwholesome.”6 As for Temple Bar, which is a nodal point for rawness, density and mudwith which the description startedit was Christopher Wren’s triple stone gate, here leaden-headed, marking the entrance to the city and its governance. It is characterized as a head and a body (and, punningly, with “corporation,” an obese one). And “lead” returns in the landscape of Chesney Wold: “the view from my Lady Dedlock’s own windows is alternately a lead-coloured view, and a view in Indian ink” (BH 21). Dickens does not say “grey” here; he colours the concept. In the same way, Rilke notes of Cézanne that grey “cannot be found in Cézanne’s pictures. To his immensely painterly eye it didn’t hold up as a colour: he went to the core of it and found that it was violet or blue or reddish or green” (86). We may compare this with what Heinrich Wiegand Petzet says in the introduction, to this volume of Rilke on Cézanne: quoting Rilke, that Cézanne “so incorruptibly reduced a reality to its colour content that that reality resumed a new existence in a beyond of colour, without any previous memories” (xv).

14While Temple Bar’s solidity bars, like the non-solid fog, landscape, seen in the second chapter of Bleak House, offers only mourning and melancholia, denying a view, or a prospect, meaning by “prospect” a future; acting like Copperfield’s tower, blocking, like Esther’s. The landscapes of Bleak House give not isolatable views, but language repeating, expressions disseminated into different contexts, meaning that a London particular is a universal, only describable through catachresis, where language is the landscape. Dickens likes to show people looking at what they cannot comprehend, as with Jo, the crossing sweeper, sitting in a “baking stony corner” of Blackfriars Bridge:

And there he sits […] looking up at the great Cross on the summit of St. Paul’s cathedral, glittering above a red and violet-tinted cloud of smoke. From the boy’s face one might suppose that sacred emblem to be, in his eyes, the crowning confusion of the great, confused city; so golden, so high up, so far out of his reach. There he sits, the sun going down, the river running fast, the crowd flowing by him in two streams […]. (315)

15The passage is laden with implications of colours; “violet” may have implications of “violent.” We can note how, in Little Dorrit, Dickens reverses this view upwards, by having a solitary watcher on the gallery above the Dome of Saint Paul’s (742).

2. The Stain

  • 7 See Clark 94-122 on “double figures” in Cézanne.

16There is, in different ways in Dickens and Cézanne, an incommensurability between what is seen and what can be said. That the world may be unrepresentable in words Foucault says in analysing Velasquez’ “Las Meninas”: “it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say” (9). The gap between what is to be seen and what can be said fools realist description, doubling everything. Dickens’ landscapes are language, irresolvable into a visual form; yet “fog,” for instance, shows fog made up in repeated, blocking, obstructing language, which signifies doubly, as does Cézanne.7 For Dickens, it is the solidity of language, for Cézanne, as Rilke noted, it is colour.

  • 8 See Freud SE 21. 153, 154–56.
  • 9 See, for Lacan on visuality, Iversen 113–29.

17In Dickens, language is colour; it is not relevant to ask literal-mindedly what colours Dickens writes about (though the landscapes of Little Dorrit’s Italy are sensuously coloured); rather Dickens’ language is the equivalent of colour, showing the objective world in its hard otherness while interpreting it either through language or colour, which in Cézanne, seems strangely arbitrary, while, Rilke’s point, making the subject emerge out of colour, as the subject emerges out from Dickens’ language. This last sentence is not meant to ignore the specificity of Cézanne’s colour. Merleau-Ponty quotes Cézanne: “if I paint all the little blues and all the little browns, I capture and convey his glance. Who gives a damn if they have any idea how one can sadden a mouth or make a cheek smile by wedding a shaded green to a red?” (“Cézanne’s Doubt” 66). Lacan, whose Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis draws on Merleau-Ponty, calls Cézanne’s colourings “touches that fall like rain from the painter’s touch” (110, see Shepherdson 7078). These colours appear, like Dickens’ language, as if without deep planning; their strangeness is not part of what Lacan calls “organisation of the field of representation.” They are stains, colours applied on colours to which they seem unrelated, products of the eye over the mind. The “stain” [la tache] as the opaqueness which, baffling a single perspective, is Lacan’s subject here, the stain scotomises, a word implying dizziness and vertigo, with part of the visual field being blocked, obscured, as a blind spot (83). The word “scotoma” may be glossed from OED’s reference from 1668: “the scotoma is, when there is not only a turning round, but a mist before the eyes”. So to “scotomise” is “to avoid or deny (an undesirable fact or reality) through the creation of a mental ‘blind spot.’”8 The stain, in Lacan’s sense of what exists in the visual field “escapes from the grasp of that form of vision that is satisfied with itself in imagining itself as consciousness” (74).9 Cézanne’s painting seems to incorporate the stain. And so does Dickens, because there always seems to be something baffling knowledge, even with the familiar, in the visions he gives.

18To approach Merleau-Ponty, who has Cézanne as his reference-point:

in whatever civilization it is born, from whatever beliefs, motives, or thoughts, no matter what ceremonies surround it—and even when it appears devoted to something else—from Lascaux to our time, pure or impure, figurative or not, painting celebrates no other enigma but that of visibility. (“Eye and Mind” 127)

19“Visibility” does not mean what is empirically visible; it exceeds that, as Bleak House starts with the non-empirically visible. Similarly, Little Dorrit, dedicated to Clarkson Stanfield (1793–1867), landscape and seascape artist, begins with those trading at Marseilles in the staring sunshine, who “sought the shade,” “taking refuge in any hiding place from a sea too intensely blue to be looked at, and a sky of purple, set with one great flaming jewel of fire” (15). Here, vision is cowed, and the sun, which looks, stares in an alienating mode. It seems that Little Dorrit’s opening shows the over-exposed; but behind that whiteness, and flatness, and “stared-out” quality, there is something else, for which we need the word “visibility.” It is what Levinas calls the il y a, the “there is.” Painting happens because of “visibility,” because “there is” something to be seen, i.e. there is something which gives itself to be seen. And painting figures, tries to reach, creates, that “visibility.” And what “there is” is equally Dickens’ subject.

20What attracts the attempt to describe, or to see and to paint, is not visible. Rather, it is as if something in the landscape demands to be painted; wants to be brought out, while the attempt to paint adds to it. “It is the mountain itself which from out there makes itself seen by the painter,” while “it is the mountain that he interrogates with his gaze” (Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind” 128). Lacan, drawing on Merleau-Ponty, suggests that what appears in the landscape, and what appears in the work of art, does not yield itself; something “other” is held back for which Lacan uses different but equivalent terms: the gaze, the object a, and the real:

In our relation to things, in so far as this relation is constituted by the way of vision and ordered in the figures of representation, something slips, passes, is transmitted from stage to stage and is always to some degree eluded in it—that is what we call the gaze (le regard). (73)

21This section of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis is called “Of the Gaze as Object Petit a”, and Lacan identifies that with “the real,” the impossible, what is outside symbolisation (73, 65, 83). What we seek in a picture is not immanent within it, it is within it and outside it, and it cannot be isolated, certainly not by realism’s commitment to a single view of things. Lacan identifies the stain with the gaze (74), and implicitly with the stain of the anamorphic skull in Holbein’s The Ambassadors; the death’s head, which suggests castration fears and is the gaze (88–89). The “stain” is within David Copperfield, Chapter 55: for example, during the night of the storm, Copperfield looks out, like Esther, “but could see nothing, except the reflection in the window-panes of the faint candle I had left burning, and of my own haggard face looking in at me from the black void” (796). Lacan writes: “if I am anything in the picture, it is always in the form of the screen [here, the glass], which I earlier called the stain, the spot” (97). The screen, or stain, blocks the gaze from without; what it shows is Copperfield himself as deathly; the subject as unknowable, strange to itself, possibly feminine as Martha was “haggard” (590); perhaps, since the fog-bound gas in Bleak House, has a “haggard and unwilling look” (“look” means appearance, and also that the gas is looking), suggesting a strange light in this strange self-portrait. Copperfield is a “stain” within the picture, while the storm annihilates any sense of the seascape as a picture.

22For Lacan, Cézanne’s painting those stains in the form of touches that fall like rain from the painter’s brush, shows sovereignty in surrendering a desire for dominance, over landscape (114). The artist takes no precedence over what is painted. Similarly, Merleau-Ponty does not allow for any first look, from landscape or painter: “this precession of what is upon what one sees and makes seen, or what one sees and makes seen upon what is‑this is vision itself” (“Eye and Mind” 147). Both things come first; painting’s subject is “what is,” the “there is,” which as it were attracts the painter.

3. Delirium

23If Dickens is fascinated by landscape withholding itself, as when Lady Dedlock can see nothing at Chesney Wold, like Esther waking, he is also fascinated by landscape giving itself. So, in Martin Chuzzlewit, “there were things to gaze at from the top of Todgers’s, well worth your seeing too” (133). “Worth” appears three times in this passage, as if the viewer, the tourist, was in control, and could assess worth; but control is withheld when the viewer realises that behind him stands the Monument, “with every hair erect upon his golden head, as if the doings of the city frightened him” (133–34). Behind the viewer stands another, whose hair, like Pecksniff’s on occasion, makes him appear horrified at the city, a morally disapproving, centred spectator. And then, there is another shock: “after the first glance,” “slight features in the midst of this crowd of objects […] sprung out from the mass without any reason, as it were, and took hold of the attention whether the spectator would or no.” So, with the chimneys, which always fascinate Dickens: “the revolving chimney-pots […] seemed to be turning gravely to each other every now and then, and whispering the result of their separate observation of what was going on below” (134).

24We can compare with this passage two other moments in Dickens: a landscape artist saying about the urban scene: “Do you see how splendidly the light falls upon the left side of that broken chimney-pot at no. 48? […] I never saw an object stand out so beautifully against the clear sky in my life […]” (“The Boarding House,” SB 348). This makes a half-serious plea for a cityscape being as worth-while as a landscape. The other moment is a different roof-scene, in Our Mutual Friend, where the writing reverses the relationships of what is near and what is far, what stabilizes and what destabilizes. “The encompassing wilderness of dowager old chimneys twirled their cowls and fluttered their smoke, rather as if they were bridling, and fanning themselves, and looking on in a state of airy surprise” (276). The concealment implied in “cowl” (the monk’s hood, and the covering of a chimney: OED gives a first citation for the latter from 1812, and two from 1862 and 1864) associates with a nicely feminine and disapproving attitude.

25In Martin Chuzzlewit, those other chimneys, “holding themselves askew,” seem to “shut the prospect out and baffle Todgers’s” (134). These chimneys are observers, but different from the Monument, and the viewer on the rooftop; those that intercept “the prospect” do so by holding themselves askew; that means, according to OED, “looking as if pretending not to see,” “looking with contempt or disdain” (OED adv.2b). In this mutual looking, and concealing, which is not simple animism, appears division; what is seen is not to be taken as a single, unified vision. And that point relates to Merleau-Ponty, for whom painting shows “fission,” shows a space “that separates and unites”, reveals a “dehiscence of Being,” so that “the hallmark of the visible is to have a lining of invisibility […] which it makes present as a certain absence” (“Eye and Mind” 146, 147).

26What is invisible in the scene is still there, part of visibility; and a doubling of presence/absence is there in Dickens as much as in Merleau-Ponty interpreting Cézanne. There is, in this thought of dehiscence, a drawing on Heidegger, for whom the art-work’s unity is also a splitting, both pattern and fission at once. Heidegger writes:

Truth establishes itself as a strife within a being that is to be brought forth only in such a way that the conflict opens up in this being, that is, this being is itself brought into the rift-design [Riss]. The rift-design is the drawing together, into a unity, of sketch and basic design, breach and outline. (“The Origin of the Work of Art” 61)

27And we may quote Heidegger also on how language speaks, in an essay called “Language”: “It speaks by bidding the bidden, thing-world and world-thing, to come to the between of the difference” (203, my emphasis). Where there is a split, a break in perception, language rushes in. Or language creates splits and divisions, rather than giving a unified picture. In Martin Chuzzlewit, the cityscape reveals marks of difference, so that no single “prospect” is surveyable in an appreciative mood; and the implications of this intensify, eliminating the spectator as the centred subject:

while the looker-on felt angry with himself for this, and wondered how it was, the tumult swelled into a roar; the host of objects seemed to thicken and expand a hundredfold; and after gazing, round him, quite scared, he turned into Todgers’s again, much more rapidly than he came out; and ten to one he told M. Todgers afterwards that if he hadn’t done so, he would certainly have come into the street by the shortest cut: that is to say, head-foremost. (134)

28Edgar’s imagination in King Lear (4.6.11–24) of looking down from Dover cliff and fearing falling is repeated; this three hundred and sixty degree panoramic view produces a dizzying scotoma; sounds and objects so increased make distance disappear in Dickens’ words: “swell,” “thicken” and “expand.”

29Yet this vision, and audial perception, is not of a world separate from, outside, the viewer; Merleau-Ponty’s argument makes what is seen not separate from the self: “my body simultaneously sees and is seen […] it is a self caught up in things, having a front and back, a past and a future” (“Eye and Mind” 124). This point may be illuminated from a passage comparable with Martin Chuzzlewit: here, Uriah Heep tells David Copperfield that he loves Agnes. Here is the reaction:

I believe I had a delirious idea of seizing the red-hot poker out of the fire, and running him through with it. It went from me with a shock, like a ball fired from a rifle: but the image of Agnes, outraged by so much as a thought of this red-headed animal’s, remained in my mind when I looked at him, sitting all awry as if his mean soul griped his body, and made me giddy. He seemed to swell and grow before my eyes; the room seemed full of the echoes of his voice; and the strange feeling (to which, perhaps, no one is quite a stranger) that all this had occurred before, at some indefinite time, and that I knew what he was going to say next, took possession of me. (389)

30Everything here impacts on vision: first, the sense of a sudden intensity and its discharge within Copperfield; the link between “red-hot” and “red-headed”; second, the destabilizing of looking by which Heep sitting awry compares with the “I” who is giddy (made giddy by the sexuality of the thought of Agnes being “outraged”); third, the way Copperfield’s perception distorts perspective, and sound, and throws chronology into reverse; fourth, the idea of being possessed, a word linking with “delirious” at the beginning of the paragraph. There is a violent jolt to the way the subject exists in the world, in space and in time, entailing a sudden revaluation of everything familiar as strange. Heep’s “awry” position even coincides with the awry oblique anamorphotic skull in Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” Has Heep, or Copperfield’s vision, gone awry? The “red-headed animal” is a catachresis, describing Copperfield’s perception; so the quotation makes Heep visible, not empirically, but as needing, and supplying different modes of description to bring him out, and what “there is” associated with him and with Copperfield’s sense of him. Such seeing, whether from Todgers’s, or in Copperfield’s room, is delirious. Hence Merleau-Ponty speaks of a “delirium which is vision itself, for to see is to have at a distance; painting extends this strange possession to all aspects of Being, which must somehow become visible in order to enter into the work of art” (“Eye and Mind” 127). And “distance,” in Merleau-Ponty, associates with “depth.” This is not simply a distance from the viewer; it is:

this being simultaneously present in experiences which are nevertheless mutually exclusive, this implication of one in the other, this contraction into one perceptual act of a whole possible process, constitute the originality of depth. It is the dimension in which things or elements of things envelop each other whereas breadth and height are the dimensions in which they are juxtaposed. (Phenomenology of Perception 308)

31We may remember Merleau-Ponty’s citing Giacometti, “I believe Cézanne was seeking depth all his life” (“Eye and Mind” 140).

  • 10 Merleau-Ponty thinks of Cézanne as the victim of “schizothymia” (“Cézanne’s Doubt” 61).

32Delirious intensity connects Dickens with Cézanne.10 Merleau-Ponty writes that: “things and my body are made of the same stuff” so “vision must somehow come about in them [i.e. in things], or […] their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a secret visibility” (“Eye and Mind” 125). So Heidegger says about Van Gogh’s shoes: “from the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth” (“The Origin of the Work of Art” 33; my emphasis): as if the spaces in the shoes were eyes. The body is a giving to be seen too, and Cézanne’s art of landscape shows that: the body of the viewer is in the landscape. Merleau-Ponty quotes Cézanne: “Nature is on the inside” (“Cézanne’s Doubt” 125). So we get “[…] things have an internal equivalent in me; they arouse in me a carnal formula of their presence” (126). Or “the landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness” (67). That logic, which implies reversibility, intertwining, a chiasmic relation, unites Heep and Copperfield. The description of Heep is so nervous, intense, delirious, because Heep is what he is and is a product of Copperfield’s eye, the two men being folded together, interlaced. This is what is meant by “the chiasm” (Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible 130–55). Lacan draws on this especially (93), via “intertwining” (entrelacs), which involves the sense of “reversibility,” which include reversibility in time: as Merleau-Ponty writes, “time as chiasm” (The Visible and the Invisible 267). I refer to Mazis 53–68 for the sense of “the circle of the touched and the touching […] of the visible and the seeing” (Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible 142) making reversibility an achievement within time. It gives what Heidegger calls “temporality”: not another word for time, but a sudden “ekstatikon”: “standing outside”; which “sets things outside themselves”; creates a non-self, unifies the self with what it is not (Being and Time 377). Because the chiasm is the “fold,” Judith Butler links it briefly with Deleuze, and so with the baroque (196).

  • 11 Shapiro finds Cézanne’s “open and unstable forms” baroque (27), connecting that to “ideas of solitu (...)

33These forms of doubleness inflect Cézanne’s desire to show distance, as with the mountain of Sainte-Victoire: Merleau-Ponty says that the painter asks of the mountain “to unveil the means, visible and not otherwise, by which it makes itself mountain before our eyes” (“Eye and Mind” 128). The technique is illustrated by Shapiro, on Cézanne’s “Chocquet Seated” (Gallery of Fine Arts, Columbus, Ohio), saying the painting “breaks up what lies on one place to unite on the picture surface what lies at different depths.” (50). This suggests trompe l’oeil, as something baroque.11 With “Mont Sainte-Victoire” (1885–1887, London: Courtauld Gallery), the distant mountain is framed by a pine tree, its trunk front left, its branches extending over the mountain, like a flag unfurling, and answered by fronds from another tree out of sight; pulling the mountain forward, connecting it with the front of the painting, as if answering to the branches, making the mountain look doubly, near, and from a distance (Verdi 29). With another, Richard Verdi notes “the curved branches of the trees in the centre of the picture, which form a mirror-image of the contour of the mountain itself and seem to beckon it forward” (181). The blues at the lower front “carry the hues of the mountain into the foreground landscape, linking space with surface” (181). The mountain is brought forward, and looks.

4. Trompe-l’oeil

34Cézanne and Dickens both work by trompe l’oeil, and that, in Dickens, may be compared with the Little Dorrit passage quoted at the beginning, and the “real landscape” as opposed to the reflected; walking through that landscape gives a double experience. The contrast to Dickens in Cézanne is “Le Lac d’Annecy” (Courtauld Institute Galleries, London, 1896), where “trees, mountains, and buildings appear reflected in the surrounding lake to an almost prismatic effect” (Verdi 195); herean example of reversibilitythe sky is not visible, except in the lake. The landscape makes no sense without the unreality within the lake. In Little Dorrit, landscape is primarily what can be seen–but this is deceptive. So, in Little Dorrit’s opening, only the vines “drooping under their load of grapes” are not fixedly “staring and glaring.” “These did occasionally wink a little, as the hot air barely moved their faint leaves” (15). Are they looking?

35Lacan narrates being in his twenties out on a boat with Breton fishermen. One mocks him by pointing out a small sardine can floating on the water: “it glittered in the sun. And Petit-Jean said to me—You see that can? Do you see it? Well, it doesn’t see you” (95). The can, which is the stain, glitters as if winking, Dickens’ word for the vines; winking [not blinking] is a sexual invitation, like Lady Dedlock’s arm and bracelet. Something is giving itself‑but, as Petit-Jean means, not to Lacan; the can as the eye does not flatter the subject as the privileged onlooker. Merleau-Ponty writes:

As André Marchand [1907–1997] says, after Klee, “In a forest, I have felt many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me […] I was there, listening […] I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe and not want to penetrate it […] I expect to be inwardly submerged, buried. Perhaps I paint to break out.” (“Eye and Mind” 129)

36There is an uncanniness within what gives itself to be seen: Dickens’ language notes that strangeness by saying the vines wink. Is either the staring or the winking “real,” or are either or both trompe-l’oeil?

37Arthur Clennam feels there is no division between the real and apparent, reflected landscape; but there is not even the “real” landscape, for that term “landscape” is literary, deriving from how the eye is accustomed to create in a pattern the empirically visible. “Real landscape” is an oxymoron, and offers Clennnam hopes no more real than those in the unreal landscape. But behind, and within landscape, like language, is something tricking, as trompe-l’oeil, by holding the reader, giving, and withholding knowledge: saying what there is; an insight affecting Dickens and Cézanne.

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1 This is central to F.R. Leavis’s discussion; see Dickens the Novelist, 213–76, and for examples, see LD 2.3.488–92, 2.25.735.

2 See Lettis 19–87 for Dickens on art.

3 Compare with Freud SE 21.152; see also Harari 28–29.

4 This idea of complex doubleness in Dickens’s writing and Cézanne painting was also explored by Julian Wolfreys through the notion of “surface sensuousness” in his book Dickens’s London: Perception, Subjectivity and Phenomenal Urban Multiplicity (2012).

5 See OED, “fat” adj. 7c.

6 See Shakespeare, Hamlet, 4.5.81–82; Compare with “muddy death” (4.7.182).

7 See Clark 94-122 on “double figures” in Cézanne.

8 See Freud SE 21. 153, 154–56.

9 See, for Lacan on visuality, Iversen 113–29.

10 Merleau-Ponty thinks of Cézanne as the victim of “schizothymia” (“Cézanne’s Doubt” 61).

11 Shapiro finds Cézanne’s “open and unstable forms” baroque (27), connecting that to “ideas of solitude and death and nature’s violence” and “willing abandonment of measure” (29).

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Jeremy TAMBLING, « Modern Painters: Dickens and Cézanne », E-rea [En ligne], 13.2 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2016, consulté le 05 décembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Independent scholar
Jeremy Tambling worked as Professor of Literature at the University of Manchester until 2013, and before that was Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong. He is author of Dickens’ Novels as Poetry (Routledge, 2015) and of two other, earlier books on Dickens, and of several other monographs and studies focussed on literature and critical theory.

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