THE ONE, OTHER, AND ONLY DICKENS by Garrett Stewart, Reviewed by Wendy Veronica Xin
 


THE ONE, OTHER, AND ONLY DICKENS
By Garrett Stewart
(Cornell, 2018) xxv + 216 pp.
Reviewed by Wendy Veronica Xin on 2021-02-22.

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Familiar as we might already be with Boz the social commentator and master-plotter, this book reveals an "Other" Dickens lurking silently in his novels all along, if only we could hear him. By scrutinizing what he calls the "formative phonetic unconscious" of Dickens's prose (1), Garrett Stewart elicits a verbal alter ego that haunts the author's writing. According to Stewart, the phonetic cadences of Dickens's ghostly under-presence have been too often passed over as a mere rhetorical vehicle for major thematic points rather than as objects of interest in their own right. Stewart aims to make us hear the sound of Dickens's prose, the voice of the "Other" Dickens that materializes in the snags and snares of its own writing rather than in the embodied Charles Dickens or Boz the "One and Only." Without a personality of its own per se, the Other Dickens emerges as the "agitated underside" of Dickens's art, the "scriptive, writerly" creases and pleats of the prose we read (2, 3). 

Stewart's title echoes that of John Bowen's The Other Dickens: Pickwick to Chuzzlewit (2000). But unlike Bowen, he does not build his case on little-read and often-ignored "minor" works like Martin Chuzzlewit, Barnaby Rudge, and Master Humphrey's Clock, which have been slighted in favor of the "major" novels. Instead, Stewart's argument revolves around a secret paradoxical relationship between author and text: a compact permeating Dickens's style even in its earliest incarnations. This "Other," Stewart writes, sounds almost as if he is "taking dictation from its own phonetic unconscious" (xvi). Dickens's prose flaunts an excess or even explosion of lexical flourishes and syntactic embellishments. Remarkably enough, however, these embellishments serve no sense-making purpose. Never fully or finally "subsumed to purpose," the phonetic efflorescence of Dickens's writing suggests nothing more than a delight in the sound of its words. If the master of intrigue known as Boz must finally bow to the demands of narrative intent--of emplotted coherence, suspense, and the meaning-making mechanisms of novelistic structure--this alter ego, Stewart's titular "Other" Dickens, is free to generate sounds alone, sounds untethered to semantic and thematic meaning. Under Stewart's fuller readings (or hearings), this exuberant revelry in sound renders Dickens's "verbal bravura" a strain of writing that exists only for its own sake (4). 

By meticulously analyzing what Graham Greene once called the author's "secret prose," Stewart reveals a strain of "unexpected coruscations of syllables and syntax" in Dickens's language (1). First and foremost, Stewart seeks to amplify all those "undertones" that readers of Dickens have naturalized or grown to tune out. Secondly, he traces the workings of Dickens's prose back to the author's stints as a stenographer and as an avid reader of Shakespeare (xv). These two parts of Dickens's experience have been studied in Valerie L. Gager's Shakespeare and Dickens: The Dynamics of Influence (1996), Hugo Bowles's Dickens and the Stenographic Mind (2019), and, to a lesser extent, Alexander Welsh's From Copyright to Copperfield: The Identity of Dickens (1987). Yet Stewart brings something new to these topics. While previous critics have always subordinated letters and phonemes to theme, Stewart does the reverse, elevating sound over and beyond sense, making the sound of words and phrases upstage their signifying functions, giving the tones and timbres of Dickens's language the same kind of attention we have paid to, say, plot or character. And Stewart is a master of making much out of very little. In his hands, a description of Miss Havisham's yellowing bridal gown ("lost its lustre") supplies a form of "poststenographic expansion" (75), and what might appear to be a throwaway phrase from Little Dorrit ("a curious stir was observable in her") becomes newly audible as the graphonics of a "tremor of panicked movement" that breaks up Mrs. Clennam's previously assured rigidity (74). By this means, Stewart argues, we can situate the mini-dramas of sound over and against the propulsive and meaning-making engine of a cosmic plot (164).

Stewart's previous books include not only a study of textual sound in Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext (1990), but also analyses of cinematic framing in Between Film and Screen: Modernism's Photo Synthesis (2000) and Framed Time: Toward a Postfilmic Cinema, (2007). In this new book Stewart examines what he calls Dickens's "phrasal montage" (4), wherein--as he says in a note--the "rapid inching forward of phonemic advance happens by snatches" (178n1). With syllables and phrases activated through compression of stylistic enunciation, Stewart writes, Dickens's prose achieves a rate of "phonemes per inch" (ppi) approximating the 24 frames per second that Stewart has theorized so compellingly in his work on cinematic form. By means of phrasal montage, we are told, a spiraling collocation of enunciations combine to produce an image of words in motion and thus generate "a subplot of their own." This is much like film's "critical flicker fusion," in which a series of snapshots are strung together to produce an illusion of pure, unbroken movement. When Dickens writes that Fanny Dorrit sits "angrily trying to cry" after a concert and ball at Mrs. Merdle's house, her own "vexation" seems metaleptically to affect the discourse's own phonetic presentation, especially in a moment when Fanny has been restored to the position of focalizing consciousness once more (74). As Stewart explains, "the tears of 'vexation' ripple and distort (or refigure) her view--as if compounding this cinematic ingenuity of focus with a filmic (quasi-photogrammatic) sense of piecemeal jump cuts sliced up across the phonetic texture itself" (74). It is almost as if Dickens--and the Victorian novel--was anticipating the mechanical apparatus of cinema itself. In this book, then, a specialist in "narratography" (as in his Novel Violence: A Narratography of Victorian Fiction, 2009) has turned to what might be called "phonography," a narrative version of the zoetrope.

To offer a "fuller hearing of phrases" (xi) in Dickens's fiction, Stewart's four main chapters range in topic and investment. Rather than highlighting a single text, they foreground aspects or episodes of the novelist's life, such as his fondness for Shakespeare or his time as a Parliamentary reporter. Stewart aims to show how these two things--Dickens's immersion in Shakespearean intonations and his stenographic recording of political oration--explain his synthesis of plot and sound. Even as his plot-machine drives to its carefully routed end, Stewart observes, the pleasurable bumps and jolts of language impishly interrupt its narrative journey. Encapsulating his argument, Stewart declares: "[t]he One and Only Dickens is a celebrated and driven novelist; the Other, an impersonal function of prose's own drive, incalculable in advance" (xvii). Yet while every page of this book offers surprising observations about Dickens's prose that have long gone undetected,  Stewart's chapters do not necessarily combine to produce an overarching argument about any particular text or novel.

In Writing Degree Zero (1953), Roland Barthes writes that the function of the "Third Person" in fiction is to conceal the mystery of the novelistic plot behind the "he," who is someone other than the first-person narrator. In Agatha Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, he notes, "all the invention consisted of concealing the murderer beneath the use of the first person of the narrative. The reader looked for him behind every 'he' in the plot: he was all the time hidden under the 'I.' Agatha Christie knew perfectly well that, in the novel, the 'I' is usually a spectator and that it is the 'he' who is the actor" (Barthes, 34). In Stewart's analysis, this "he" or "they" might not be the anti-heroes, villains, criminals, and n'er-do-wells populating Dickens's novels--the Uriah Heeps, Orlicks, Steerforths, and Rosa Dartles who stand guard over the secret of the plot. Beneath them lurks the under-the-radar "Other" voice: a voice content to plumb the possibilities of an unfiltered language rather than to conscript the meanings of language into active duty. 

A more conventional move might be to distinguish between Writer and Writing: between the One and Only's desire to tie all loose ends into a coherent whole, and the Other's countermanding tendency to ramble and roam, interjecting verbal detours just for the sake of doing so. But rather than contraposing the "Inimitable" Dickens (economical master of a suspense-driven plot) to the "Other" Dickens (purveyor of distraction, counterforce, and disruption), Stewart finally argues that these two co-exist and collaborate. While the Author "portrays, narrates, pontificates, raises hackles, [and] wrings tears," the Other Dickens is "wholly given over to language in motion" (3). As Stewart himself notes, "narratography" is his name for  "the close-grained and intensive reading moment by which the microstructures of style are assimilated to narrative drive by responsive notice, whatever interpretive impetus may then follow" (5). Yet he is less intent on assimilating style to narrative drive than on probing instances in which style almost defies traditional drives toward "plot imperatives" and "thematic instrumentality" (6). 

In other words, Stewart suggests, Dickens's style never needs to signify beyond the sound of its words, as if it were shadow-boxing with itself for nothing more than its own amusement. Like the "purposiveness without a purpose" in Kant's definition of aesthetic judgments, the forms and deformations of the Other Dickens stand apart from the "formal" dimensions of his novels (plot, character, setting) that have tended to overshadow the aural qualities and energies of his storytelling. Rather than tethering the phonetic dimensions of his novels to any purpose, such as plot, characterization, description, or narration, Stewart provocatively argues that the newly-audible valences of Dickens's prose need not make "sense" to matter. D. A. Miller has recently suggested that in analyzing a film by Hitchcock, one form of "too-close reading" defies all our critical attempts to make every one of its elements a sign. Like Hitchcock's "hidden pictures," Stewart argues, Dickens's stylistic efflorescence often impedes rather than enables the flow of the narrative. And indeed, Stewart claims, his book constitutes "one attempt at a retrieval action": it actively works to avoid instrumentalizing Dickensian rhetoric in service of "genre and Victorian zeitgeist instead" (xii). If literary critics have spent a great deal of time lately debating the politics of form, Stewart does not seek to show how Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1854) sheds light on industrial fiction, or how Bleak House launches its class critique. Instead, Stewart nudges "the creativity of the Writing" onto center stage, pushing structural irony, polemic, and thematically motivated style back into the wings and out of the critical limelight (xii). With its inimitable and incalculable jubilance of linguistic texture, the "Other" operates "beyond all economies of sense" (xvii).

Nevertheless, though Stewart demonstrates his method with a wealth of examples that unfold the complexities of Dickens's writing, he leaves us wondering how this method could be applied to the work of other Victorian novelists whose phonetic landscapes work in different ways. We might, for instance, wish for each chapter's deeply immersive readings to consort not just with this secret Dickens, but also with other critics, to further draw out the resonances of his readings. Often operating at the depths of Dickens's understyle, this book is at its most luminous when it rises back to a methodological or meta-critical level and engages actively with other theorists of film or fiction. In one of his rare footnotes, Stewart traces a methodological likeness between his claims about phrasal montage and the "elisionary mechanism" that Julian Murphet tracks in Faulkner's novels (178n1). As Stewart points out, Murphet's analysis of Faulkner's photographic imaginary in Faulkner's Media Romance (2017) takes place at a narratological rather than a stylistic level. Yet their shared critical practice of tying novelistic and generic forms to optical and "technocultural invention[s]" (the magic lantern display of a train, locomotion, photography, montage, etc.) chime together quite beautifully. Another point at which Stewart cites the work of a kindred critic occurs midway through the book, where Alex Woloch's unpublished paper on Martin Chuzzlewit makes a brief cameo. Just as Woloch observed that the "odd gaps and catapults at the level of style" make the discourse of Dickens's fiction almost outpace the story, Stewart writes that "the telling...exceed[s] and even [override]s the told" (99). Stewart here describes his method with the aid of the story/discourse divide that Woloch's concept of "character-systems" so forcefully reconceptualized. By thus linking his consistently innovative readings with previous analyses of Dickens's fiction, Stewart makes his mode of sound-reading more generally available.

What one might recall most vividly after reading The One, Other, and Only Dickens is the way Stewart's insights repeatedly turn mere syllables into the spell-like incantations of his own distinctive prose. Written with the kind of energy that Stewart finds animating the style of "the Inimitable," this book radiates a methodological sprezzatura of its own. In arguing that the sound of Dickens's prose often operates in energetic excess of "ideological coded narrative detail" (27), in opening up the possibilities of a listening-without-meaning, and in thus trying to retrieve a minor Dickens, this book joins the post-critique movement in literary studies. Challenging Paul Ricoeur's famous paradigm of the "hermeneutics of suspicion," critics such as Rita Felski, Elizabeth S. Anker, Christopher Castiglia, and Ellen Rooney have wondered why we can't pursue more recuperative strategies of reading untethered from ideology, allegory, self-reflexivity, and dramas of exposure. This is what Stewart implicitly does in refusing to subordinate sound and style to politically or ideologically motivated sense. By reveling in the aesthetic qualities unique to Dickens's novels--the mesmerizing song and dance of their aural patternings--Stewart prompts us to re-imagine nothing less than an "Other" way of reading and writing about Dickens's novels, and in so doing, perhaps even re-imagine something beyond the "One and Only" way that we have been used to doing criticism as well.

Wendy Veronica Xin is a Departmental Lecturer in English at Oxford.


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