Dickensian and Bellovian Beginnings, Through a Rortian Lens



David Copperfield begins,

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

In its insouciant beginnings, its freewheeling charm, I was reminded immediately of the opening of Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, which begins,

I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.   

What do the passages share in common, beside a certain type of flair, an exuberant charisma, large, untoward, rollicking, comic-tragic?  I think it has something to do with the sense that these characters, through their authors, are creating themselves on the page.  But what does it mean to be “the hero of my own life,” to “make the record in my own way”?  For this I jump to Richard Rorty on Nietzsche, in his masterpiece, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of “knowing the truth.”  His definition of truth as a “mobile army of metaphors” amounted to saying that the whole idea of “representing reality” by means of language, and thus the idea of finding a single context for all human lives, should be abandoned…He hoped that once we realized that Plato’s “true world” was just a fable, we would seek consolation, at the moment of death, not in having transcended the animal condition but in being that peculiar sort of dying animal who, by describing himself in his own terms, had created himself.  (27)

Rorty then adds, in this same paragraph, which I excerpt separately for emphasis,

More exactly, he would have created the only part of himself that mattered by constructing his own mind.  To create one’s mind is to create one’s own language, rather than to let the length of one’s mind be set by the language other human beings have left behind.

This is a very heady and puzzling notion – “to create one’s own language” – so perhaps we need to dip more strategically into Rorty to find out what exactly he means; once we do so, we can apply what we have learned to Bellow and Dickens.

Final Vocabularies

At the beginning of the fourth chapter of Rorty’s CIS, he writes,

All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives.  These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes.  They are the words in which we tell, sometimes prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives.  I shall call these words a person’s “final vocabulary.” (73)

To paraphrase, Rorty goes on to say that an ironist is someone who 1.) has doubts about his or her final vocabulary, 2.) realizes that these doubts cannot be dissolved by argument, and 3.) does not think her vocabulary is closer than others to some non-human reality.  Therefore, in this blog entry, I’d like to read David Copperfield as an ironist, someone who realizes that the vocabulary he uses is not the final say on the matter, hence the need to further and further extrapolate and reflect on his life.  Copperfield is aware that his own final vocabulary has been formed by his past experience; as a result, he is aware of the contingency of his own language, and therefore, to use another Rortian phrase, the contingency of his own self.  Yet this awareness does not bring him to his knees in some abashed recognition of his own temporality, but rather serves for Copperfield as a liberating agent that allows him to, as Rorty has it, construct his own mind, to find the right language to tell his own story, and in telling his own story, to own his story, to create the vocabulary in which he shall be judged.  This is why I think I find the characters of March and Copperfield, and therefore the figures of Dickens and Bellow, so compelling; they are these amazingly self-conscious creations, who seem more alive, as Harold Bloom would have it, than most other people outside literature.  What makes March and Copperfield so wonderfully almost ingratiatingly alive seems to be their awareness that they are creating themselves out of language; and, as there is no neutral starting point for language, the awareness that they are weaving themselves out of their contingencies, just like we do, everyday.  For everyday, before we go to sleep, say, we make sense of all the contingent things that have happened to us, and by “make sense” I mean we once again, like Penelope, re-weave that tapestry of our narrative to make sense of what has most recently occurred, and how what has most recently occurred may fit into our somewhat flexible self-image.  March and Copperfield, a la Freud, are doing the same thing – they are wondering about their origins, and finding the right words to construct their origins out of the history that happened to them, or the history that they created.  Like Freud, they do not appeal to some non-human reality to help them understand where they come from and where they are going.  Instead, picaresquely secular, these characters appeal only to themselves and their stories for self-understanding and insight.  They create the language, therefore, by which they are judged; they form their final vocabularies out of their own doubt about their final vocabularies.  What a rare achievement!


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