Tuesday, 12 June 2012
Literary criticism, in almost all cases, tries to clarify things. Accordingly one of the problems the literary critic faces is: what to do with texts that resist the cleanness and order implied by clarity; or to put it more precisely, texts in which the process clarification smooths away or fails to transfer crucial aspects of the original. In terms of Dickens, I’d say there are two qualities: one—about which critics often speak, sometimes with a mournful acknowledgement that it slips through the net despite being patently one of the most important aspects of Dickens’s art—is his humour, his comic brilliance, his ability to make us laugh. The problem, of course, is the old one: a joke explained ceases to be funny. But there’s another element integral to Dickens’s work as a novelist that clarification misses, and that is, precisely, clutter. Dickens’s novels are full of stuff: lots of objects, myriad cultural references, in-jokes and out-jokes, subplots, interpolated tales, diversions, descriptions, catch-phrases and quirks and oddities. His novels teem, and that is precisely part of their distinctive appeal. But short of a bald taxonomy of the multitudinous items that constitute the clutter (and that is in itself a violation of the logic of clutter, an ordering of it), what can the critic hope to do with it? Clutter clarified isn’t clutter anymore.