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1. Dickensian Prospects / Perspectives Dickensiennes
III/ Widening Prospects

Dickens’s Global Art: Cultural and Ecological Legacy in Pictures from Italy

Juliet JOHN

Résumés

La recherche actuelle sur Dickens confère bien volontiers à l’auteur un statut mondial. Les études marquantes que Nisbet, Jordan et Gagnier, pour ne citer qu’eux, ont menées sur « Dickens, auteur au statut mondial », privilégient toutefois la diffusion et la réception internationales de son œuvre, au détriment du regard que lui-même y portait. Indéniablement, Dickens s’est d’emblée considéré comme un auteur au statut mondial, ainsi qu’en témoigne, par exemple, son maniement de la métaphore de « l’océan de l’humanité » pour évoquer le public visé (lettre à W. C. Macready du 14 janvier 1853). Or, comme le suggère le présent article, c’est par le biais de ses carnets de voyage des années 1840 que Dickens a su se pencher, avec une attention inédite, sur le concept d’un art mondial et sur les problèmes engendrés par ce qu’on nomme aujourd’hui la mondialisation, anticipant ainsi certaines des idées clés de la théorie culturelle actuelle. Dickens était convaincu qu’un art mondial devait avoir une portée à la fois temporelle et spatiale. Optimiste, il croyait qu’un art durable pouvait apporter de la cohérence au monde et à son histoire. Ses voyages en Italie lui firent mesurer combien il est difficile de produire un art capable de traverser le temps et l’espace, surtout à une époque où, semblait-il, les nouvelles tendances sur les plans technique et politique remodelaient le monde, en perturbant les conceptions organiques de la nature, la culture et la société. Alors que American Notes (1842) se concentre sur la menace que représente potentiellement la culture de masse, Pictures from Italy (1846) s’inquiète davantage de l’héritage culturel et écologique. Dickens se demande si la modification des relations culture-nature peut faire émerger des mondes esthétiques et géographiques d’une richesse nouvelle, ou si, du fait de sa rupture apparente avec des modes de vie passés, ce récit apparent de progrès ne débouche pas sur un inévitable déclin, prélude à une catastrophe. Pictures from Italy témoigne de l’inquiétude de Dickens quant à l’héritage qu’il va lui-même laisser, et de sa compréhension du rôle clé que l’expression artistique de l’espace est ainsi amenée à jouer. Le fait que qu’il s’agisse du dernier récit de voyage international de Dickens révèle sa compréhension intuitive des difficultés, face au concept de durabilité, que ne manque de rencontrer le récit de voyage (en un sens, l’acte d’écriture le plus sincèrement en quête d’une esthétique mondialisée) : difficultés qui anticipent celles qui guettent la planète que ce récit cherche à immortaliser.

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I am very grateful for the input of several people into this article: Marie-Amelie Coste, Robert Hampson, Ruth Livesey, Wendy Parkins, Adam Roberts, Dominic Rainsford and Nathalie Vanfasse.

Our Household Words will not be echoes of the present time alone, but of the past too. Neither will they treat of the hopes, the enterprises, triumphs, joys, and sorrows, of this country only, but, in some degree, of those of every nation upon earth. For nothing can be a source of real interest in one of them, without concerning all the rest. (Charles Dickens, “A Preliminary Word,” Household Words 30 March 1850)

  • 1 Letter to W. C. Macready (14 January 1853). See below in this essay for the full context of this qu (...)
  • 2 E.g. McLuhan’s idea of the “global village,” Baudrillard’s opposition between globalisation and uni (...)
  • 3 See my epigraph and the complete “Preliminary Word” to Household Words.
  • 4 John 74–102. Adelene Buckland detects awareness of pre-Darwinian “catastrophism” in Dickens’s novel (...)

1In today’s Dickens Studies, “Global Dickens” is all the critical rage. Yet it is telling that the international dimension to Dickens’s most cited statement of cultural vision, the “Preliminary Word” to Household Words, has received scant attention. With the exception of Dominic Rainsford’s bicentenary essay “Out of Place,” the landmark work on global Dickens by Nisbet, Jordan, Gagnier and others focuses on the international dissemination and reception of Dickens’s work as opposed to Dickens’s own conception of his art. There is no doubt that Dickens saw himself as a global writer from the outset, using metaphors like “the ocean of humanity” to describe his target audience (Letters 7: 10).1 But the travelogues of the 1840s were pivotal, I contend, to the development of a newly intense scrutiny of the idea of the global and the problems attending what we now call globalisation, presaging some of the most influential ideas in contemporary cultural theory.2 For Dickens, global art should have both temporal and spatial reach; optimistically, he believed that enduring art could help the world and its history to cohere.3 His travels to Italy made clear the difficulty of producing art which travelled across space and time—particularly in an era when new technical and political impulses seemed to reshape the world, disrupting organic conceptions of nature, culture and society. While American Notes (1842), as I have argued elsewhere, focuses on the potential threat of mass culture, Pictures from Italy is particularly preoccupied with intertwined concerns about cultural and ecological legacy—about whether the changed relationship between culture and nature opened up newly fertile aesthetic and geographical worlds, or whether this narrative of progress carried with it, in its seeming schism with past ways of being, the inevitability of decline and catastrophe.4

1. Travel, Place and Enduring Art

  • 5 Brayton explains that the phrase “the global ocean” is “standard in the marine sciences” (1).
  • 6 See Drew 1996 and Lennartz for more on the indebtedness of Dickens’s travel writing to eighteenth-c (...)

2For Dickens, the 1840s do not so much mark a new awareness of the global as they do greater empirical experience of travel and the wider world which had fascinated him since childhood. Born in Portsmouth and raised in Chatham in early childhood, Dickens demonstrated a sensitivity to what “blue cultural studies” now calls the “global ocean” from a young age (Mentz; Brayton).5 His appetite for stories of elsewhere is evident in his childhood enthusiasm for the eighteenth-century novel, with its originary entwinings in the fictitious literature of travel, as well as in his lifelong fascination with the Arabian Nights.6 John Drew has demonstrated that seven per cent of Dickens’s Gad’s Hill library books were travel narratives of some kind, many from the eighteenth century, which made travel literature “the largest section of books of one particular description purposefully acquired by Dickens during his lifetime” (“Voyages Extraordinaires” 177). “We have outgrown no story of voyage and travel, […] no ardent interest in voyagers and travellers,” Dickens declared in his journalistic piece “Where We Stopped Growing” (112). In another essay, “The Long Voyage,” Dickens confessed: “Such books have had a strong fascination for my mind from my earliest childhood; and I wonder it should have come to pass that I never have been round the world, never have been shipwrecked, ice-environed, tomahawked, or eaten” (181).

3Dickens was also well versed in travellers’ guides, including Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers. As McNees and others have demonstrated, travel was democratised by Murray’s Handbooks, the advent of the railways and later Thomas Cook’s tours to the continent, opening up the possibility of European travel beyond the aristocratic pathways of the Grand Tour. In the 1840s, Dickens possessed not only the finance and transport to put his fantasies of travel to the test but a textual road map in Murray’s Handbooks to help him to do so before Thomas Cook’s first continental tour in 1855 accelerated the new age of international mass travel.

4While there has been a growing volume of research in recent years on the importance of travel and ecological concerns to Dickens’s development and self-conceptualisation as a novelist, less attention has been paid to his related concern to secure his own cultural legacy. Yet there is clear evidence that Dickens regarded travel as necessary fuel for his art if it was to endure. As he wrote to Forster when contemplating the trip to Italy ([1 November 1843]), “I should unquestionably fade away from the public eye for a year, and enlarge my stock of description and observation by seeing countries new to me; which it is most necessary to me that I should see” (Letters 3: 588). Travel is “most necessary” because Dickens intuited that the security of his affective place in the cultural memory was dependent on the ability to render place affective in the novel in a more mobile era. He was acutely aware that mobility destabilised traditional relations to place and that his works needed to reflect this. In his journalistic essay, “An Unsettled Neighbourhood,” for example, he announces:

what I do complain of, and what I am distressed at, is, the state of mind—the moral condition—into which the neighbourhood has got. It is unsettled, dissipated, wandering (I believe nomadic is the crack word for that sort of thing just at present), and don’t know its own mind for an hour. (245)

5Responsibility for this “nomadic” tendency in the essay is located firmly with “the Railway Terminus springing up in the midst of the neighbourhood,” the psychological and “moral” effect of which is that

Everybody wants to be off somewhere. Everybody does every thing in a hurry. Everybody has the strangest ideas of its being vaguely his or her business to go ‘down the line.’ If any Fast-train could take it, I believe the whole neighbourhood of which I write: bricks, stones, timber, ironwork, and everything else: would set off down the line. (245–46)

  • 7 Letter from John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton (19 June 1870) (Ruskin 5).

6Even the Railway Terminus Works themselves look “confused and dissipated,” “always giddy,” “a picture of our moral state” (247). The fact that Dickens was always excited by the possibilities of trains should not make this essay surprising. He was never straightforwardly the “pure modernist” or “leader of the steam-whistle party par excellence” that Ruskin made him out to be.7 He was conscious throughout his career of the destabilising as well as liberating effects of faster travel, not only on the self but on the “neighbourhood,” which often “goes out of its mind” (245).

  • 8 It is interesting that David Lean, the Director who has best captured Dickensian place, did so “by (...)

7Dickens’s desire to literally keep place in mind in his writing derives from a combined impulse to anchor, as well as to reflect, an “unsettled” world—and in doing so to keep his works “in mind.” In the fascinatingly entitled, “Where [rather than “When”] We Stopped Growing,” Dickens declares that “There are real people and places that we have never outgrown, though they themselves may have passed away long since: which we always regard with the eye and mind of childhood” (110). Place in his writing often seems to be framed through “the eye and mind of childhood,” a phrase which is key to the luminosity of place in Dickens’s works and to the cultural memory of his works which has grown from it. Dickensian place is place mythologised, intensified and in many ways memorialised, but his consciousness of place as the product of a willed plenitude of vision is as redolent of modernity as it is of nostalgia.8 The mythic dimension to Dickensian place thus offers the reader an affective stability and aesthetic plenitude which can be experienced as a feeling of rootedness offering solace in an age of rootlessness.

  • 9 “Charles Dickens’s Last Will and Codicil” (12 May 1869 and 2 June 1870), Letters 12: 730–33 (732).
  • 10 He made this comment in the wake of the mixed reception of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44).

8Dickens sensed that his “pictures” of place were integral to his own cultural and historical place. It is not difficult, however, to see why neither his concern for his legacy nor its relationship to his representation of place has attracted critical attention. The wish professed in his will not to be made “the subject of any monument, memorial or testimonial whatever,” like his dislike of elaborate funeral displays more generally, is typical of his seeming antipathy to memorialisation.9 His public loyalty to “the people” can occlude the acceptance of cultural hierarchy and indeed pre-Darwinian competitiveness underpinning statements such as his confession to Forster: “I feel my power now, more than I ever did […]. I know, if I have health, I could sustain my place in the minds of thinking men, though fifty writers started up to-morrow” (Forster 305).10 But from the 1841 Preface to Oliver Twist onwards, Dickens aspired to be ranked not with “the insects of the hour, who raised their little hum, and died, and were forgotten,” but in “the noblest range of English literature” with artists, like Hogarth in whose great works, the times in which he lived [would] […] never cease to be reflected.” To Macready, he declared that only by addressing “the great ocean of humanity in which we are drops, and not to bye-ponds (very stagnant), here and there” can art “lay the foundation of an endurable retrospect” (14 January 1853, Letters 7: 10).

9The phrase “endurable retrospect” lays bare his strange perspective of the future looking back as well as the present looking forward, a perspective which—combined with the awareness of the past so obvious in Pictures from Italy and elsewhere—suggests a prismatic relationship to time, which exerts a distinctly Dickensian pressure on place. Dickens literally and imaginatively pictures place: as an empiricist experiencing in the present, he sees; as an idealist who seeks to make his own time and place, he envisions. When Dickens declared to Forster that “a new picturesque will have to be established as the world goes onward,” he was imagining how pictures from his own day will look from the vantage point of “retrospect” (Forster 370). In the same letter, he confessed: “I have often thought that one of the best chances of immortality for a writer is in the Death of his language” (Forster 370).The idea that languages can die and yet further a writer’s survival invokes the tension between ideas of progress (later “evolution”) and catastrophe which Adelène Buckland has traced to nineteenth-century geological debates, but which shadows Dickens’s thinking about what T. S. Eliot calls “the ecology of cultures” (131). Cultural change for Dickens can be figured as both an organic process of incremental growth and as schismatic rupture. The fact that Dickens uses natural metaphors—“ocean,” “drops,” “insects,” “Death”—when pondering issues of legacy demonstrates the extent to which his thinking about cultural sustainability was permeated by the language and lessons of natural ecology.

2. Italy

  • 11 Though Dickens’s desire to travel “to some place I know beforehand to be CHEAP” is often cited as t (...)
  • 12 See Caponi-Doherty.

10Italy was in many ways an inevitable destination for a writer negotiating both his place and the importance of place in the global cultural landscape of the past and future.11 An Italianophile who chose to learn Italian, Dickens was acutely aware of Italy’s cultural position as the birthplace of what nineteenth-century historians first labelled the European Renaissance. In many ways, it was to Dickens the home of modern European culture, but a “nation” yet to be born, sadly fragmented and weighed down by political division and inequality. It was thus also the home of the revolutionary nationalist movement, the Risorgimento, which Dickens consistently supported.12 Italy was to Dickens a potent and conflicted symbol of both international cultural power and its limitations.

11Noddy Boffin’s comic obsession with Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89) in Our Mutual Friend (1864–55) demonstrates not only the power of place but its vulnerability to the tides of political power and its dependence on cultural dissemination. The comedy of the illiterate Boffin’s confusing the Roman empire with the “Rooshan” empire is not simply a joke at Boffin’s expense but evidence of Dickens’s awareness of the ways in which political and cultural power ebbs and flows—in and between nations—and the importance of imagined place to this process. To Boffin, Gibbon’s History is in the first instance a symbol of cultural capital in the material form of books; Rome as an actual geographical and cultural capital is secondary. This is comically reinforced when Wegg avoids Boffin’s question, “what’s the difference” between the “Rooshan” and Roman empire, with the evasive “the difference is to be postponed to some other occasion when Mrs. Boffin does not honour us with her company” (58–59). Though Boffin’s Rome gains imaginative weight through Wegg’s readings, it is dependent on received ideas of the past, of place and indeed of books. His relationship to Rome is a reminder of the potential meaninglessness underlying the potency of place experienced only as an idea. It also draws playful attention to the way in which tides of power render vulnerable and replaceable even a seat of empire like Rome—“a city which” in Wegg’s words, “originated in twins and a wolf, and ended in Imperial marble” but “wasn’t built in a day” (478).

12One of the most striking and often quoted comments from Pictures from Italy is Dickens’s disappointment with Rome:

When we were fairly going off again, we began, in a perfect fever, to strain our eyes for Rome; and when, after another mile or two, the Eternal City appeared, at length, in the distance; it looked like—I am half afraid to write the word—like LONDON!!! (115)

13The fact that the Eternal City seems to Dickens so comically, so bathetically, like London, suggests his sensitivity to the fact that cultures have to struggle hard to be “eternal,” and that places can be quick to lose their resonance in an age of globalisation. Elsewhere in Pictures from Italy, Lyons, for example, is according to Flint a “lamentable transnational hybrid, a verbal rehearsal” for Tom-all-Alone’s in Bleak House (1852–53) (xviii). What Terrell Dixon has called the “literature of toxicity” has its origins, he argues, in “the urban novels of Charles Dickens” and draws its sustenance from the toxic cities which replicate themselves across the globe (257). Thus when Dickens tackles the marvels of the modern world, for example, he is often not a worshipper but a serial polluter: in Rome as described by Dickens, there is a stark contrast between the historic monuments on display and “the narrow streets, devoid of footways, and choked, in every obscure corner, by heaps of dunghill-rubbish” (PfI 150). In the Marseilles of the opening of Little Dorrit (1855–57), the “foul water” or the harbour contrasts with the “beautiful sea” without. The replication and transnational hybridity which have become staple features of today’s global landscape are reflected in Dickens’s style of travel writing: at times parodically “Dickensian,” as Flint has demonstrated, it makes uneconomical use of repetition and imposes a certain stamp and set of writerly techniques on some of the great sights of the world (xvi). Replication and hybridity fascinate Dickens because they seem to posit a schismatic, rootless relationship between nature and culture which he both represents and critiques.

  • 13 For Benjamin, the “aura” is the idea of a “unique existence” or “authenticity” which, in traditiona (...)

14It would be wrong, however, to tie Dickens’s perceptions into a retrospectively realised vision of an evenly replicated process of globalisation. In Pictures from Italy, in fact, the emphasis is often on a rooted, organicist sense of society, landscape and culture, all having evolved over a long history to which they will always be intrinsically connected. Dickens’s Italy is Ruskinian in the sense that its imperfections—even its violence and corruptions—have produced “illustrious men of history” and a country “full to overflowing” with “beauties, natural and artificial” (186–87). In Pisa, for example, Dickens describes historic buildings “clustered, there, together, away from the ordinary transactions and details of the town” as capturing “the architectural essence of a rich old city, with all its common life and common habitations pressed out, and filtered away” (107). This description captures the reservations shadowing Dickens’s admiration of Italy’s beauty and traditional organicism. The beauty has a Benjaminian “aura.”13 The architecture seems to distil the essence of a nation and its history. However, this essence is achieved by “filtering away” the “common life” of the population. The organicism is founded on a hierarchical and corrupt model of social organisation that has, to Dickens, had its day and creates its own pre-industrial human waste or pollution. The dominant sense is that for Dickens “the wheel of Time,” as he calls it, has left Italy behind, a country too tethered by the past and reluctant to embrace a fairer, more progressive and systematic social model. Italy’s aversion to railroads, with their precedents of “punctuality, order, plain dealing, and improvement” (110), comes to symbolise for Dickens its destructive rootedness in a history which chokes as it nourishes.

  • 14 In using the term “cultural ecology,” I wish to align myself exclusively neither with Steward’s ori (...)

15Yet to represent Dickens as a pure moderniser who wrote off the dead weight of Italy’s cultural past would also be to under-estimate the complexity of his attitudes to cultural ecology and his sense of its reciprocal relationship with natural and political ecology.14 Dickens’s experience of America had blunted the enthusiasm he had once felt for the idea of a “new” world—even a democratic one—relatively unburdened by the kind of cultural heritage and attendant political hierarchies evident in Italy, and free to recreate itself. America, though offering the prospect of greater democracy, seemed lacking in beauty and barren in cultural history. The relative lack of landscape in American Notes (Notes not Pictures is telling) emphasises Dickens’s disappointment with what he perceived as the barrenness of this country which had embodied so many of his hopes for a new, progressive model of society. In American Notes and Pictures from Italy, landscape acts as a site of commentary on history, culture and society. There is a hint of Baudrillard’s theory that history—or rather the idea of historical progress——ended with the spread of globalisation, in Dickens’s view of America, Dickens fearing that America embodies the processes of a regressive-progressive model of globalisation which will come to pollute the world (1994, 1997).

16Taken together, these two travelogues present sustained reflection on the newly fraught question of roots in cultural and political development, imbued with the shadow language of natural ecology. In them, Dickens pondered whether great art had to be tied to dominant cultural histories and the political hierarchies which often underpinned them, as well as the possible effects of new artistic and social worlds which attempted a rupture with naturalised past ways of being. It would be caricaturing these two texts to say that one represents the inherent conservatism of an organic worldview and the other the necessary superficiality and rootlessness of a forward-facing society careering competitively along to the future. But the question of the relationship between these two world views is an urgent one for Dickens. Within both texts are signs of “the Other”: in America, Dickens looks for signs of transcendence and historical depth; in Italy, Dickens looks out for railroads and notes the replication which inhered in art even before mechanisation: artists “in the hands of monks and priests, painted monks and priests a great deal too often” (PfI 146). So the Benjaminian idea that mechanical reproduction led to less originality and more reproduction does not hold here, as it often does in Dickens. There is no clear schism in Pictures from Italy between the mode of aesthetic production of the industrial and pre-industrial eras, but rather an overlaying. As Browning makes clear in “Andrea del Sarto” (1855), patronage could encourage formulaic reproduction or “faultless” art in a pre-machine era. By implication, for Dickens, machines do not preclude originality. So both within and between Dickens’s travelogues, what we have is a vision of the world at a crossroads, looking forwards and backwards, caught between an organic, hierarchical world-view and an industrial, technological conception of social organisation.

  • 15 John 157; see also Schlicke, Ledger (2007) and Gagnier.

17The fusion between the traditional and the modern in Dickens’s world-view—or “threshold art,” as I call it elsewhere—has been recognised by several critics.15 In his travel writing, the idea of the world at a crossroads is foregrounded and put to the real-world test in different contexts. Dickens was keenly aware of difference, of the fact that New York may situate itself differently around this crossroads than, for example, “the beautiful old city of Siena” (PfI 110). But consistent is his sense of the importance of place and its aesthetic rendering to the ways in which a newly “giddy” world could make sense of itself.

3. “Shadows in the Water”: New Pictures of Place

  • 16 Buzard (“The Grand Tour and After” 44); Christopher Donaldson, paper entitled “The Lady of the Lake (...)
  • 17 Key to the vacillation in Dickens’s travel writing between the journalistic and the oblique is a te (...)

18Dickens was highly conscious of what Buzard calls “the power of authorship and artifice to endow places with cultural identity and value,” as he was of the way “place mediates the writing and reception of literary works,” in the words of Christopher Donaldson.16 This consciousness plays into the odd combination of detached journalistic specificity and oblique presentational strategies in Pictures from Italy. The more direct journalistic method suggests a respect on Dickens’s part for the singularity or essence of places. The oblique method suggests the idea of the travel artist as the creator of place—and with it, the sense that place in its essence and of itself barely exists.17 The latter technique underpins some of the most memorable passages: what is right before Dickens is thereby filtered through a “magic lantern,” to use one of his favourite travel writing analogies, or indeed a range of other devices which invoke visual technologies and/or inflect or distort the real. Most obviously, the idea of scenes as “pictures” is foregrounded throughout; dream states are central; the concluding chapter is entitled “A Rapid Diorama.” In the chapter “By Verona, Mantua, and Milan . . . into Switzerland,” Dickens states that he “will not recall […] how the Swiss villages, clustered at the feet of Giant mountains, looked like playthings” (99), following this paragraph with six which start “Or how […],” “Or how […]” (100–101). Negation, deflection, distortion and reinvention repeatedly frame his Italian “pictures.” At sentence and paragraph level, grammar is deployed paradoxically to both reflect the provisional, contingent nature of sights and to create a lasting impression of place. For example, in the “Italian Dream” section on Venice, Dickens repeats the word “Past” to invoke both place and time as he travels through the city, history and consciousness. Nothing is ever quite present: he is framing dream pictures for posterity.

19Dickens’s rendering of place in Pictures from Italy is inseparable from a concern with the processes of cultural influence and his own place in cultural history in a global context. His professed intention in the “Reader’s Passport,” for example, to avoid expansive commentary “on famous Pictures and Statues,” is in fact a symptom of anxiety about how to forge new “pictures” for posterity in a cultural landscape haunted by history (5). For all its seeming emphasis on essence and organicism, the Italian travelogue is saturated in intertextuality, and in Dickens’s own concern to distinguish his representation of famous places from those of other writers and artists. Towards the end of his reflections on Parma, Modena and Bologna, he declares: “I have such a perverse disposition in respect of sights that are cut, and dried, and dictated” (70). But disdain for received cultural opinion is not the same as disdain for recognised cultural achievement: Dickens is in fact haunted, sometime literally, by an anxiety of influence about artists who seem to have made the world before him. In Venice, for example, he senses the ghosts of Shylock and Desdemona; “in the dream,” he “thought that Shakespeare’s spirit was abroad upon the water somewhere: stealing through the city” (84). Pre-empting postmodernism, he has a strong sense that Rome and Venice are famous landmarks of world culture and geography because human mediation of those places, via writing, photography, art, and conversation, have made them so. Dickens’s sense of the importance of an English writer like Shakespeare in mediating his own experience of Venice suggests his awareness of both a transnational cultural landscape and the role of imagined geographies in mediating place. In an age before digital reproduction, he was particularly aware of the power of verbal pictures of place in global cultural history and geography, of their capacity to create landscapes and landmarks via the newly expansive reach of text.

20It is important to Dickens’s threshold art to hold on to a belief in the “real” which he understands as a responsiveness to the sensed environment and to the cultural landscape past and present. Somewhat disturbingly, the bedrock of Italian art, to Dickens, is its roots in “the real” of the body, blood and violence—both in its dependence on systems of patronage inseparable from repressive regimes and in its fascination with scenes of graphic violence. This is particularly obvious in the art of Rome: in the St Stefano Rotondo, for example, “hideous paintings” depicting “the martyrdom of saints and early Christians” comprise “such a panorama of horror and butchery” as “no man can imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper” (136). But throughout Italy, we are reminded of the bodily suffering behind and within the scenes of some of the great art and architectural achievements. The marble quarries of Carrara, for instance, provide “the genius of the country, and the spirit of its institutions,” yet transporting the marble by cart and road has for five hundred years led to the death of both oxen and drivers in the “agony of this cruel work.” To build a railroad, Dickens comments with heavy sarcasm, would be “flat blasphemy” (105). History and beauty evolve, in this view, out of blood, which in turn is the product of hierarchical and unjust political (and religious) systems. Sally Ledger is right to highlight Dickens’s interest in Italy in the popular pastimes which make up cultural experience for many Italians, and the democratising effect of this focus on the ordinary (2009). But there remains an unsettled fear or perhaps fascination running through Pictures from Italy with the idea that artistic achievement and legacy may depend on a rootedness in unequal and violent past political and cultural formations.

21It would be easy to ascribe this yoking of beauty and abjection in Pictures from Italy to Dickens’s critique of the influence of the Catholic church, but its impetus is in fact more complex than that. Musing on the “many studii of Carrarra […] full of beautifully-finished copies in marble […],” it seemed to Dickens “at first, so strange […] that those exquisite shapes, replete with grace, and thought, and delicate repose, should grow out of all this toil, and sweat, and torture!”:

But I soon found a parallel to it, and an explanation of it, in every virtue that springs up in miserable ground, and every good thing that has its birth in sorrow and distress. And, looking out of the sculptor’s great window, upon the marble mountains, all red and glowing in the decline of day, but stern and solemn to the last, I thought, my God! how many quarries of human hearts and souls, capable of far more beautiful results, are left shut up and mouldering away: while pleasure-travellers through life, avert their faces, as they pass, and shudder at the gloom and ruggedness that conceal them! (106)

22This multi-layered passage suggests that human ruins are created not by “sorrow and distress” in themselves, which are part of nature, but by the disconnection of those who are “left” from the care and regard of “pleasure-travellers through life” who seek to live life on the surface. In rejecting what is unpleasant, these “travellers” debar themselves from human and natural sustenance and “shut up” the growth of those whom they ignore. Dickens sought an art and a world order which left the brute politics and primal hierarchies of the body behind without losing the connection to a world beyond signs, to a larger natural and cultural eco-system. This is one of the reasons why, in Pictures from Italy, he seems to want readers to feel the landscape, as if he senses the inadequacy of purely journalistic descriptions. This impulse comes from more than personal volition or an attempt to reprise Romantic landscape writing: the desire present in all his writing to forge affective connection is posited as part of his solution to anxieties about rootedness, history and cultural sustainability.

23To affect connection is particularly difficult, perhaps, for the travel writer aiming to communicate across countries and indeed time, in a mobile age, and demanded, for Dickens, startling modes of representation which function as metaphors for consciousness and history. Dickens is drawn, in Pictures from Italy—as well as Bleak House, his great novel of ‘connexion’—to geology and the natural sciences for images which capture the conflicting possibilities of catastrophe or “ruin” (PfI’s obsession) and organic models of progress. The prominence given to Carrara’s “marble mountains,” for example, framed by Dickens’s gaze from the sculptor’s window, insists on the significance of the mountains as a symbol of the fusion of nature and art, beauty and suffering, permanence and change, as well as of human hearts and souls. This example is also typical of the way in which the felt connection to place on which the future of art seems to depend, is for Dickens itself reliant on subject/object relations and an individualising sense of self.

  • 18 Baumgarten identifies a related tension between “‘a hunger for home”’ and the “theatre of exile and (...)

24The sea functions as the most resonant natural image of a nexus of ideas about place, time and consciousness in Pictures from Italy. It is also literally and symbolically crucial to Dickens’s global vision. Unlike Lyell’s geological model of a layered world that is vertically organised, suggesting greater and greater depth the further back we go and a surface/depth model of history and identity, the sea’s mobile ecology functions laterally as well as vertically. This is in keeping with Dickens’s desire to keep roots and travel, history and change, surface and depth, in suspense in his world view—as well as to explore new structures of feeling for art more attuned to his inclusive politics. Rainsford quotes David Copperfield’s description of Mr. Dick (the failed author), walking back and forth with Doctor Strong (the teacher reading aloud from the dictionary he is compiling) as “one of the pleasantest things, in a quiet way, that I have ever seen”. David says, “I feel as if they might go walking to and fro for ever, and the world might somehow be the better for it” (Rainsford 202; David Copperfield, Ch. 17: 216). The ideal way of inhabiting the planet, spatially and temporally in Dickens, seems to be a kind of pendulum movement which has a sense of bounds.18 While books and authors may have a role in reinforcing new ways of being, the sea is the perfect natural symbol of the repetitive toing and froing that Dickens seems to have viewed as productive.

25As an objective correlative, the sea is not suggestive, in spatial terms, of a linear model of progress. It figures persistent oscillation as the closest energy we have to permanence. Its bounded vacillation and fathomless depths render the ideas of progress and permanence precarious cultural constructions—precarious and impermanent because they seek to eschew the respectful “to and fro” which should underpin historical consciousness and informed temporal understanding. To be informed is also to respect the limits of human knowledge and perception. The idea of a non-linear persistence or pendulum movement invoking vertical and lateral currents offers an alternative model of time, space and indeed narrative to the oppositional models identified by Buckland as progress vs catastrophe, and by McDuffie as “providential” vs “ecological” (13). It suggests a means to sustainability and renewal without the hubris which can be attached to a teleological idea of progress and its founding fantasies of knowledge.

  • 19 Wegg’s description of Rome as ending in “Imperial marble” is telling here also.

26Pictures from Italy is peppered with symbols of the precariousness of ideas of both permanence and progress, each figured as subject to perception and catastrophe. It is no accident that several of the most resonant images in this respect combine images of the sea with representations of aesthetic or cultural achievement or persistence. In Herculaneum, the city buried by the lava of Vesuvius, we have a marvellously commingled image of nature turning itself into art, of fluidity crystallised as stasis, of a spontaneous geological rupture seemingly rendered permanent. All this rendered again through the idea of a sea, albeit a marble sea, which draws on memories of the natural artefacts which are the mountains of Carrara: “In Herculaneum, where the flood was of a different and a heavier kind, it rolled in, like a sea. Imagine a deluge of water turned to marble, at its height—and that is what is called ‘the lava’ here” (170).19 Whereas Herculaneum is buried by a sea of lava, in the centre-piece on Venice, “Italian Dream,” Dickens pictures Venice as growing out of the sea, here figured interestingly as “the green sea”:

from my window, I looked down on boats and barks; on masts, sails, cordage, flags; on groups of busy sailors, working at the cargoes of these vessels; on wide quays, strewn with bales, casks, merchandise of many kinds; on great ships, lying near at hand in stately indolence; on islands, crowned with gorgeous domes and turrets: and where golden crosses glittered in the light, atop of wondrous churches, springing from the sea! Going down upon the margin of the green sea, rolling on before the door, and filling all the streets, I came upon a place of such surpassing beauty. (79)

27In this ultimate image of the interconnectedness of nature and culture, a symbol of persistence masquerading as permanence, water appears to unify the various phases of the magic lantern dream: throughout “flowed the same water that filled this Dream of mine, and made it seem one, even at the time” (82). But the “seeming” oneness is at odds with the “wondrous” man-made buildings interrupting the oneness of water by “springing from the sea.” Their surreal beauty inheres in the fact that they are not meant to be there: simultaneously symbolic of the ability of art to surprise, and create the world anew, to defy nature, and of the dependency and vulnerability of humankind and its creations to the co-operation and whim of nature.

28The idea of a fluidity which is both willed and interrupted is repeated in Dickens’s description of what was said to have been the dungeon of St Peter: “this little dark spot becomes a dream within a dream: and in the vision of great churches which come rolling past me like a sea, it is a small wave by itself, that melts into no other wave, and does not flow on with the rest” (137). Venice also stands out literally and imaginatively as a geographical and cultural world landmark because it “does not flow on with the rest.” Like a reverse Herculaneum, Venice is a mingled sea and cityscape, the combined product of nature and the flow of creative human consciousness figured by the interrupted sea. Herculaneum is a paradoxical monument to catastrophe whereas Venice is a symbol of the seeming ability to avoid it. Its wondrous beauty partly inheres in its precariousness, however, in its vulnerability to the seductive but potentially violent oneness of water: “Noiseless and watchful: coiled round and round it, in its many folds, like an old serpent: waiting for the time, I thought, when people should look down into its depths for any stone of the old city that had claimed to be its mistress” (85). There is a sense here and elsewhere in Pictures from Italy of landscape as provisional, subject not only to man’s care, cultivation or perception, but to the whim of nature, whose power and “transcendence” is embodied by the sea.

29Venice is in many ways an impossible city, “inconceivable,” in Dickens’ words, before aesthetic persistence willed it to exist. It is a monument to a paradoxically fragile cultural permanence whose beauty “no waking words can tell” (79, 80). Its impossibility and precarious persistence comprise its fascination for a writer like Dickens obsessed by borderline and extreme states. It is a symbol of the power of creativity to create new worlds but only if, paradoxically, the world as it is is respected. Venice offers a resonant model of place that enforces new ways of seeing but is nonetheless haunted by old voices—perhaps Shakespeare’s most of all—which threaten to submerge Dickens’s own.

30The image of Venice curled up in the serpent sea in “Italian Dream” is thus one of several in Pictures from Italy where Dickens’s use of surreal and paradoxical internal objectification for exploring the relationship between reality and dream resembles De Quincey’s concept of “involutes.” De Quincey became convinced that the mind “[especially in childhood], registers experience in the shape of concrete objects which become linked together in subconscious patterns” or “involutes,” as he called them, which often recur (Hayter 18). Perhaps coincidentally, “Suspiria de Profundis” (1845), in which De Quincey coined the term, was published the same year that Dickens was first in Italy and then at home contemplating the publication of Pictures from Italy. The fact that Dickens uses the term “involutions” in a fascinating passage from Dombey and Son (1846–48) which closely echoes De Quincey’s formulation, suggests his influence in the immediate wake of the Italian trip:

  • 20 It is very likely that Dickens read “Suspiria” as he was known to have read De Quincey and possesse (...)

He began to fear that all this intricacy in his brain would drive him mad; and that his thoughts already lost coherence as the footprints did, and were pieced on to one another, with the same trackless involutions, and varieties of indistinct shapes. (797)20

31In Pictures from Italy, place is both involuted and represented by involutes as Dickens seeks to go beyond conventional literary and phenomenological structures to connect with the reader. Involutes compress and distort time, whilst foregrounding the agency of time and consciousness in the mobile objectification of place. The interplay of stillness and movement found in his involutes and his streams of consciousness captures the “to and fro” movement through which David Copperfield intuits that “the world might somehow be better.” The sea, the magic lantern and dreams of churches, among other fused symbols of creative consciousness, operate as leitmotifs in the wave-like motion between realism and surrealism which characterises the text. Dickens in some ways anticipates modernism in his sense, to quote Woolf, that “a writer’s country is a territory within his own brain” (186). Yet the strange internalising of place in Pictures from Italy, filtered through the distortions of time and the psyche (but still embodied), is twinned with the need for contact with the material world which drives his will to travel (186).

4. Globalisation and the Unsustainability of Travel Writing

  • 21 Baudrillard argues that “universal values lose some of their authority and legitimacy” as a result (...)

32In Dickens’s travel writing, globalisation makes itself felt in the strained and changed relations between subject and object, in the difficulty of forging connection in the case of landscape, and of feeling, seeing and communicating what is before you. Dickens’s fears concerning the negative effects of an increasingly globalised world do not submerge a more hopeful vision in which art can help the planet to cohere. Dickens’s attraction to the idea of globalisation was towards the idea of lateral rather than hierarchical connectedness between nations (or inter-nationalism), the creation of what McLuhan has called a “global village,” which allowed for links between nations in the present without excluding historically rooted national cultures. In terms of Baudrillard’s opposition between the global and the universal, Dickens promotes a positive universality (or “universal culture of difference”), rather than that more negative view of globalisation which associates it with the death of culture(s).21 In seeking to achieve synchronic links between nations in the present, he foresaw that there was the potential to lose the chronological depth of historicity, cultural singularity, and ultimately, any sense of “the real.” But proceeding from a vision of art as agent rather than simply product, he believed that culture was a key part of the solution to the homogenising effects of globalisation, rather than an inevitable casualty.

  • 22 Metz also associates this with a “controlled acquiescence to non-linear modes of thinking and exper (...)

33His global art is thus imbued with a belief that in an “unsettled” world, “a home could be made out of art and artifice” (255), to quote Baumgarten. In his novels, it is the mythic plenitude of the Dickensian world, rather than the mimetic representation of any particular place or home, which offers the reader a feeling of rootedness or aesthetic “home.” Italy taught Dickens that sustainable global art demanded a rupture with neither the past nor one’s national identity, but “the synthesis of insideness and outsideness” in aesthetic relation to time and place which, as Buzard argues of cosmopolitan experience, is “essentially utopian” and imaginative (“The Country of the Plague” 60). The fact that Dickens’s travel writing does not ultimately offer futurity the same sense of affective belonging as the novels is, however, as illustrative as it is problematic. Pictures from Italy offers a sustained experiment in, and critique of, both global art and cultural ecology, but would not on its own have secured the global reputation and “endurable retrospect” that Dickens sought. In probing the boundaries between subject and object, place and time, Dickens achieves “a new poetics of travel” in his Italian travelogue which underpins the aesthetics of the later novels (Metz 44).22 But the genesis of Pictures from Italy as a series of letters hovering uncertainly between private and public spaces anticipates the way in which the text moves between detachment and involution without achieving the stylised, framed synthesis of subject and object effected by his archetypal cityscapes (Drew 2007). In the travel writing, Dickens is either inside or outside himself, at one with neither the scenes he views nor the people he meets; nor is he capable of the composed detachment of the flâneur.

34Travel writing, for Dickens, reveals itself to be the most experimental but also precarious writerly genre. Inorganic “spots of time” and proto-modernist moments thus pepper Pictures from Italy. As Dickens muses in Rome, “Such are the spots and patches in my dream of churches, that remain apart, and keep their separate identity” (139). Pictures from Italy lacks modernism’s epiphanies because it is not sure enough of its philosophical foundations; what it foreshadows in modernism is the sense of the “monstrous union” of fragments of culture (in this case architecture) from different periods and religions, of an inorganicism which cannot offer the reassurance of lasting foundations. In a Rome resembling The Waste Land (1922),

it is strange to see, how every fragment, whenever it is possible, has been blended into some modern structure, and made to serve some modern purpose—[…]—some use for which it never was designed, and associated with which it cannot otherwise than lamely assort. It is stranger still, to see how many ruins of the old mythology: how many fragments of obsolete legend and observance: have been incorporated into the worship of Christian altars here; and how, in numberless respects, the false faith and the true are fused into monstrous union. (151)

35In their ways of seeing, Dickens’s travelogues perhaps convey the “unsettled” experience of globalised modernity more than any other of his adopted forms. But for that reason, they are not able to forge the same kind of imagined community that for Dickens enabled planetary and aesthetic sustainability. More troublingly perhaps, the problems attending his travel writing, his most practical experiments in global art, suggest that, for Dickens, travel writing more generally—in a sense the most genuine writerly attempt at a globalised aesthetics—will always have its own struggles with sustainability shadowing those of the planet it seeks to memorialise.

36In its requirement for geographical and temporal wandering, travel writing ironically seemed to leave Dickens without the cultural and aesthetic insideness or stability necessary for cosmopolitan experience. Moreover, in its empirical duty to the real, however inflected, travel writing seemed to deprive Dickens of the fictional space necessary to figure the “inconceivable” doubleness which paradoxically sustains the novels’ stylised sense of wholeness. Unfathomably utopian and dystopian at once, this wholeness borne of doubleness underpins Dickens’s cultural sustainability and indeed his vision of cultural sustainability. Travel writing is less able to figure a belief in “the inconceivable” and cannot resolve its paradoxes in a sustained meta-reality. Given Dickens’s characteristically ambitious hopes to create enduring global art which spoke of “every nation upon earth,” it is thus perhaps unsurprising that Pictures from Italy, written so early in his career, was paradoxically his last international travelogue.

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Notes

1 Letter to W. C. Macready (14 January 1853). See below in this essay for the full context of this quote.

2 E.g. McLuhan’s idea of the “global village,” Baudrillard’s opposition between globalisation and universality, and Anderson’s concern that cosmopolitanism might corrode the moral centre (Anderson 64–67). See below in this paper for the full context of this quote.

3 See my epigraph and the complete “Preliminary Word” to Household Words.

4 John 74–102. Adelene Buckland detects awareness of pre-Darwinian “catastrophism” in Dickens’s novels, the “umbrella term for several nineteenth-century theories” which see natural change as the product or “a series of catastrophes” or “Divine miracle.” Though this conception has been overshadowed by the “gradualist earth history” running through Lyell and Darwin’s works, it was prominent in popular visual entertainments like the diorama. Buckland argues correctly that “progress and catastrophe are inseparable” in Dickens’s conception of historical and natural change.

5 Brayton explains that the phrase “the global ocean” is “standard in the marine sciences” (1).

6 See Drew 1996 and Lennartz for more on the indebtedness of Dickens’s travel writing to eighteenth-century literature and travel writing.

7 Letter from John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton (19 June 1870) (Ruskin 5).

8 It is interesting that David Lean, the Director who has best captured Dickensian place, did so “by making everything larger than life, as it is in a boy’s imagination”quoted by Kevin Brownlow in his David Lean, 210.

9 “Charles Dickens’s Last Will and Codicil” (12 May 1869 and 2 June 1870), Letters 12: 730–33 (732).

10 He made this comment in the wake of the mixed reception of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44).

11 Though Dickens’s desire to travel “to some place I know beforehand to be CHEAP” is often cited as the rationale for his stay in Italy, the fact that he originally cited Normandy or Brittany as chosen destinations undermines the economic rationale as the main motive for his stay in Italy particularly (Letter to John Forster, [1 November 1843], Letters 3: 587–88 (587)).

12 See Caponi-Doherty.

13 For Benjamin, the “aura” is the idea of a “unique existence” or “authenticity” which, in traditional theories of art, seems to attach itself to the great works of art or artists (104, 103).

14 In using the term “cultural ecology,” I wish to align myself exclusively neither with Steward’s originary idea of the field as examining “the effect of environment upon culture” nor with more recent counter currents which emphasise, for example, the “ecology of mind” (Bateson, Finke), social ecology or eco-linguistics, but simply to point to Dickens’s complex fascination with “cultural ecosystems” and cultural change, which he figures in a web-like relationship to natural and social ecology predicated on the idea of reciprocal and interactive energies rather than on the assumption of an originary cause, whether cultural or environmental. While his cultural optimism, particularly regarding literature, anticipates that of Zapf (2008), in Pictures from Italy, cultural vulnerability is as evident as sustainability.

15 John 157; see also Schlicke, Ledger (2007) and Gagnier.

16 Buzard (“The Grand Tour and After” 44); Christopher Donaldson, paper entitled “The Lady of the Lakes: Harriet Martineau and Victorian Lake District Travel” at the conference Placing the Author: Literary Tourism in the Long Nineteenth Century (20 June 2015, Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, Plymouth Grove, Manchester).

17 Key to the vacillation in Dickens’s travel writing between the journalistic and the oblique is a tension which had manifested itself in Romantic landscape writing as a philosophical dialogue between Idealism and Empiricism. Paul Fussell surmises that travel’s popularity may have been related to the rise of philosophical empiricism by the end of the seventeenth century. As Buzard explains, “If knowledge is rooted in experience and nowhere else, travel instantly gains in importance and desirability” (“The Grand Tour and After” 37). Romantic poetry complicated the idea that we know the world best through the senses. As Wordsworth puts it in The Prelude (1798–99) the poetic mind is “creator and receiver both” (Bk. 2, l. 304). Postmodern theory might see this tension as between the real and the simulacra.

18 Baumgarten identifies a related tension between “‘a hunger for home”’ and the “theatre of exile and homelessness” in Dickens’s view of the contradictory “modern condition” (255). The phrase “a hunger for home” is taken from Will Wells’s poem “A Walk to the Ghetto: Venice, 2006.” Rainsford senses similarly “a certain alienation from both the acceptance of a simple, ordinary spot on Earth” in Dickens’s characters and from those who look too far afield, “gazing out, telescopically, towards some distant absolute” (202).

19 Wegg’s description of Rome as ending in “Imperial marble” is telling here also.

20 It is very likely that Dickens read “Suspiria” as he was known to have read De Quincey and possessed the text among his Uniform edition of De Quincey’s Works—see Stonehouse 37—although we have no proof of this. De Quincey is not mentioned in Dickens’s 1844–46 letters. In it, De Quincey explained: “[O]ften I have been struck with the important truth that far more of our deepest thoughts and feelings pass to us through perplexed combinations of concrete objects, pass to us as involutes (if I may coin that word) in compound experiences incapable of being disentangled, than ever reach us directly, and in their own abstract shapes” (Masson 1: 39). Interestingly, John Barrell identifies “involutes” as a scientific term used for conch-shells or the shells of sea snails, a shell which seems to allow listeners to hear the sea when the shell is held to the ear (32). Dickens’s use of the involuted image of footsteps in the mind reaches its peak in the last number (XIX–XX) of the novel, published in April 1848.

21 Baudrillard argues that “universal values lose some of their authority and legitimacy” as a result of globalisation:
So long as they could assert themselves as mediating values, they were (more or less) able to integrate the singularities as differences, in a universal culture of difference. However, as triumphant globalization sweeps away all differences and all values, ushering in a perfectly in-different (un)culture, they can no longer do this. (“The Global and the Universal” 155–59)

22 Metz also associates this with a “controlled acquiescence to non-linear modes of thinking and experiencing” (43–44).

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Référence électronique

Juliet JOHN, « Dickens’s Global Art: Cultural and Ecological Legacy in Pictures from Italy », E-rea [En ligne], 13.2 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2016, consulté le 25 avril 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/5025 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.5025

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Auteur

Juliet JOHN

Royal Holloway, University of London
Juliet.John@rhul.ac.uk
Juliet John is Hildred Carlile Chair of English Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has published widely on Victorian literature and culture. Her books include Dickens’s Villains: Melodrama, Character, Popular Culture (Oxford University Press, 2001; paperback 2003) and Dickens and Mass Culture (Oxford University Press, 2010; paperback 2013). Her most recent book (co-edited with Matthew Bradley) is Reading and the Victorians (Ashgate, 2015). She is editor-in-chief of Oxford Bibliographies: Victorian Literature.

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