Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Thickening the Description: A Response to John R. Reed and Efraim Sicher*1

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Thickening the Description: A Response to John R. Reed and Efraim Sicher*1

Article excerpt

It is with gratitude that I read John R. Reed's letter of response, which concludes by saying that the main concern of my article on Our Mutual Friend is the artistic achievement of the novel. Indeed, I see one of the constituents of the aesthetic merit of the novel in the mastery with which narrative details that pertain to what Benjamin Harshav has called "External Field of Reference" are transformed when they enter patterns of new significance in the "Internal Frame of Reference," turning, as it were, from issues into motifs, especially motifs of decline and regeneration. Reed's letter, as well as Efraim Sicher7 s informative response essay, have stimulated further thinking about the aesthetic feat accomplished in that novel. This can be seen as what in The Company We Keep Wayne Booth has described as coduction (72-73) - changing one's attitude or opinion under the influence of strongly held views of other readers. In the present case, coduction is not a matter of altering my reading of Our Mutual Friend; rather it is a matter of further developing the thought started in the 2006/2007 article upon the input of the ideas and observations of others.

Timely input has also come from the doctoral work-in-progress by Nurit Kerner, who studies Dickens's novels, especially Little Dornt, in terms of what in The Production of Presence Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has called "meaning effects" and "presence effects" (104-11). To paraphrase Gumbrecht's argument all too briefly, aesthetic effects of a work of art may be associated with our perceptual response to the features of the work's presence. This is, predominantly, the case with music and with visual arts. But the aesthetic effect of a work also extends to our intellectual response, a response to the meanings, and especially to the coherent patterns of meaning, to which the work gives rise. The literary work creates the conditions for our construction of meaning - as well as for our enjoyment of the process and, in particular, our joy at its success.2 The aesthetic response to literary works is dominated by meaning effects,3 but it also involves presence effects, such as enjoyment of the style, of the material texture of the work (especially when it is read out loud), as well as enjoyment of whatever the text elicits in our cooperative imagination - images, scenes and dialogues, portraits, ekphrastic landscapes, and, as is often the case with Dickens, the mysterious sense of the characters' presence. Whereas it is not possible to foresee or objectively assess the nature and intensity of such effects in each individual reading, it is possible to note the conditions that the text creates for these effects, irrespective of whether or not such conditions are actualized by every reader.

What seems to specifically characterize the aesthetic effect of Our Mutual Friend is that, while the effects of Dickens's style are here as infallible as those in his other major novels, the imaginary -presence effects tend to be aversive (a large proportion of the images conjured up are ugly, jarring, disgusting), but their cumulative impact is either cancelled, redeemed, lightened, or compensated by meaning effects.

Since Aristotle, it has been recognized that what is monstrous in nature can be beauteous in a work of art. In a work that belongs to what in Laokoon Lessing discussed as time-arts, the succession of images can prevent the gelling of an ugly moment in our minds. In Our Mutual Friend, however, long chains of images such as the river sequences, the sequences in Venus' s shop, around the dust-mounds, in the Wilfers' dwelling, or at Wegg's stall, conjure up presences that, unless tempered by meaning effects, can hurt our senses, even if, following Dickens's own curiosity, we experience them in the mode of "the attraction of repulsion" (Baumgarten 228-29).4 Our Mutual Friend is a novel without a hero: the role of Eugene (" well-born" ) Wrayburn as a jeune premier is largely subverted by his wryness, and the ill-starred John Harmon is too deliberately self-effacing to constitute a strong and aesthetically appealing presence; though not repulsive themselves, these two characters do not suffice to offset the aversive potential of most other male characters, not even with the help of Mortimer Lightwood and Mrs. …

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