Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

The Uses and Usages of Muddle (Part One)

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

The Uses and Usages of Muddle (Part One)

Article excerpt

Incoherence, illogicality, confusion, and vagueness--with or without broken sentences and grammatical shifts--constantly mark the conversation of many Dickens characters, such as Mrs. Nickleby, Mr. Toots, and Plornish. Needing a term to include them all, I want to appropriate "muddle," because it suggests a mixture which resists processing into a compound and it yields useful derivatives. Dickens himself uses the term for physical, mental, and institutional disorder. In Hard Times Stephen Blackpool speaks of it several times, although he is no muddler in his speech.

Talking about muddle is risky. Coleridge once undertook the task, but rambled so much that Charles Lamb remarked, "He promised a lecture on the Nurse in 'Romeo and Juliet,' and in its place he has given us one in the manner of the Nurse" (Robinson, 182). One modern study of conversational incoherence finds it inevitable (Farrell 265), but another finds it impossible (Linell and Korolija 199), partly because the first takes the viewpoint of speakers using an imperfect medium and the second that of hearers cooperating to maximize meaning. Incoherence and other forms of muddle might better be seen as a matter of degree, as Sperber and Wilson see relevance: "a phenomenon is relevant to an individual to the extent that the effort required to process it optimally is small" (153).

Muddle is often accidental and involuntary, but just as often it is chosen and serves as a rhetorical strategy. We hear people say that in talking to someone they played dumb, and Robert Musil, in an engaging essay "On Stupidity," has observed that

   traces of such venerable craftiness and artful stupidity are also
   still to be found in dependent relationships in which the relative
   strengths are so disproportionately divided that the weaker person
   seeks his salvation by acting more stupid than he is. (271)

In treating conversational politeness Robin Lakoff writes that when it conflicts with clarity "politeness supersedes: it is considered more important in a conversation to avoid offense than to achieve clarity" (297-8). Her phrasing is helpful because although it may be counterintuitive to suggest that people create muddle for muddle's sake, it is reasonable enough that they sometimes do so as a means or a side effect of achieving something else. Even when not chosen, however, muddle can achieve the ends served by rhetorical strategies, so that La Rochefoucauld can make for real stupidity a claim similar to that which Musil makes for the artful: "To be slow-witted is sometimes enough to save one from a clever trickster" (53).

Of course, the most important authority here is Dickens, who sometimes explicitly attributes muddle to a character's choice and even more often establishes the point through context. Sometimes he uses indirect speech. In Our Mutual Friend, at the beginning of his campaign for Parliament, "Veneering having instructed his driver to charge at the Public in the streets, like the Life-Guards at Waterloo, is driven furiously to Duke Street, St. James's" (244; bk. 2,ch. 3). The speech imputed is muddled or absurd because not coherent with the situation in which it occurs. A conversion or translation into direct speech, which might be implied in normal processing, clearly suggests intentionality: "In effect, Veneering instructed his driver, 'Charge at the Public in the Streets.'" A similar conversion could be made for much of the hybrid speech from Little Dorrit which Bakhtin cites in The Dialogic Imagination (302-8).

Indirect speech can create an effect like that which Jean Paul Richter and others have called comic lending. In his main example Sancho Panza is comic when he hangs on all night to a low cliff which he believes a high one, because

   we lend our insight and perspective to his effort.... It is our
   self-deception in attributing to the other person a knowledge and
   motivation contradictory to his effort which produces that minimum
   of understanding, that perceived nonsense, at which we laugh. … 
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