The horned owl calling from oak and camphor trees. Before the wind came up and began lolloping across the fields, chasing clouds like grey sheep, it was a deep gentle night, some moonlight, many stars. The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit, as Joyce wrote in Ulysses.
An addendum on shame. (I have been following the Affect theory of Silvan Tomkins, as well as readings in Melanie Klein’s Object Relations for those who might want to research further.)
When I was a child I read all the novels of Charles Dickens, one by one, because we had them at home, lined up in gilt- and green-backed volumes in the library next to my father’s study. Bleak House, Hard Times, Nicolas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers. On each shelf of the tall bookcase, there were white naphthalene mothballs tucked into corners to discourage fish moths or silverfish. The ferocious pure smell assaults me still.
In books I found myself and in Dickens I found something that spoke to the heart of my own experience.
I looked for something in each volume of Dickens that I could not name, but with which I identified very closely, finding myself between the lines and in shadowy places. At night I would sit up in bed reading and rereading certain passages and speeches.
Years later, I read about Dickens’ own childhood for the first time. The feeling of recognition, that ‘Aha, I knew it!’ sensation was immediate. The secret had to do with Dickens’ year-long incarceration in a rat-infested blacking factory warehouse near the Thames when he was twelve years old, following the arrest of his father John Dickens for debt in 1824 who was sent to the debtors’ prison at Marshalsea.
A previously cosseted and sickly child, a bookworm dreaming great dreams, the 12-year-old boy found himself blacking pots in a factory amongst near-destitute men, women and children with rotting teeth, dressed in rags, illiterate, hopeless, homeless, many of them alone in the world. The child was terrified he would stay there all his life, betrayed and ‘sold into slavery’ by his feckless and improvident parents. The experience was hell, but it was also the making of the writer he would become. Later in life Dickens described this time:
“The blacking warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumbledown old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscotted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary’s shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label; and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty downstairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin.”
The writer was born, but a part of the daydreaming boy died that year.
No words can express the secret agony of my soul…the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position… My whole nature was penetrated with grief and humiliation.
And out of that experience came the great generosity and tenderness Dickens felt for the poor, especially frightened orphaned children but also those sent to the workhouse to die, those thrown into debtors’ prisons, desperate women with starving children, society’s outcasts, those who took up crime to try and escape from that ghetto.
That was the more positive result — what also emerged were the terrifying caricatures of villains, larger than life, the brutal headmasters, the gaolers, the hard-hearted wealthy tyrants, the greedy lawyers: all of them monstrous shadows leaping on the candlelit walls. And the children of those books, so helpless and treacherously treated. For Dickens they were real, that was the world of his imagination. He distorted reality in order to reach the imaginative truth of human cruelty. He knew too that his terrors limited his ability to write, that he was pursued by that dread of finding himself again in poverty and helplessness.
There was a great artist trapped in the child and the artist would spend his adult life still imprisoned in that traumatic memory of the blacking factory.
“I know I do not exaggerate, unconsciously and unintentionally, the scantiness of my resources and the difficulties of my life. I know that if a shilling or so were given me by any one, I spent it in a dinner or a tea. I know that I worked, from morning to night, with common men and boys, a shabby child. I know that I tried, but ineffectually, not to anticipate my money, and to make it last the week through; by putting it away in a drawer I had in the counting-house, wrapped into six little parcels, each parcel containing the same amount, and labelled with a different day. I know that I have lounged about the streets, insufficiently and unsatisfactorily fed. I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond… I suffered in secret, and that I suffered exquisitely, no one ever knew but I. How much I suffered, it is, as I have said already, utterly beyond my power to tell. No man’s imagination can overstep the reality.”
From the Canadian poet Anne Carson’s poem cycle on the biblical harlot Jezebel:
the eyes of others
unlike guilt. Eyes
of Elijah the Tishbite saw
in Jezebel a person with much
to be ashamed of. There is a link
between shame and mercy people who
lack the one lack the other. Psychoanalysts say
shame ruins your capacity for reverie by making cracks
in the mind where it is dangerous for thought to wander. In
the end Jezebel’s own eunuchs throw her off the parapet. Her blood
is on the wall and on the horses.