Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Present Perfect


In thinking about my final thoughts on David Copperfield, I came across the following passage from Peter Ackroyd's massive 1990 biography, Dickens; Ackroyd's observations mirrored many of my own, and I figured I couldn't much improve on them:
Of course we might say in the modern idiom that this is a fiction which is really "about" itself.  It is both a novel of memories and a novel about memory.  Memory brightens: ". . . I have never seen such sunlight as on those bright April afternoons . . ."; memory creates in the mind fresh associations: " . . . the Martyrs and Peggotty's house have been inseparable in my mind ever since, and are now;" memory revives the clearest and most detailed impressions: "the scent of a geranium leaf, at this day, strikes me with a half comical, half serious wonder as to what change has come over me in a moment . . . ;" memory retains the sharpest of all impressions: "the face he turned up to the troubled sky, the quivering of his clasped hands, the agony of his figure, remain associated with that lonely waste, in my remembrance, to this hour.  It is always night there, and he is the only object in the scene."  And memory brings back the earliest and most permanent impressions of childhood, like the occasion when David sees his mother for the last time: "I was in the carrier's cart when I heard her calling to me.  I looked out, and she stood at the garden-gate alone; holding her baby up in her arms for me to see.  It was cold still weather; and not a hair of her head, or a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked intently at me, holding up her child.  So I lost her.  So I saw her afterwards, in my sleep at school -- a silent presence near my bed -- looking at me with the same intent face -- holding up her baby in her arms."  But there is also the mystery of other memories, preconscious memories: ". . . a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing, having been said and done before, in a remote time . . ."  Memory, then, as a form of resurrection and thus of human triumph; as David Copperfield looks out the window he had known so many years before and sees the old sorrowful image of himself as a child.  "Long miles of road then opened out before my mind, and, toiling on, I saw a ragged wayworn boy forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against mine, his own."  Thus does memory recreate the self out of adversity, linking past and present, bringing continuity and coherence, engendering peace and stillness in the very centre of the world.  It is the purest and best part of Dickens's self, the source of his being, the fountain of his tears.  All of his writing and experience over the last two years had brought him to this point, this resurrection.
Dickens, 606-607.

I was struck, again and again throughout the book, with instances in which Dickens described himself, sitting at his desk, writing, perhaps looking up, seeing a face from his memory floating before him, as he worked to fix the phantoms of his memory on the page.  Dickens makes it clear in the writing of the book that he is limited to the present in which he is writing, and the past is available only to the extent he can access it or reimagine it in the present.  He is recording his memories, but only as they come to him or appear to him at the moment he is fixing those memories on paper.

Dickens recognizes in his narrative choices in Copperfield that the present, composite and determined as it is, is a prison, of sorts.  The past exists only insofar or only in the form in which we are able -- or choose -- to remember it.


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