Monday, August 16, 2010

Reading Gesture Part I: Benjamin and Dickens

     A couple of posts ago, I introduced a self-revolution in methodology, rejecting the underlying logic of deconstruction in favor of a type of reading based in an element I tentatively called the gesture. Yet the post left the consistency and means of ascertaining the gesture in a text unexplained. I did, fortunately, indicate that the gesture rests somewhere on the margins of a text – both inside and outside the text. The gesture could be, therefore, defined as a sort of textual membrane of a specific sort, one which produces a self-reflective resemblance.
     In “The Image of Proust,” Benjamin outlines, in one of his most lyrical passages, Proust’s “cult of similarity.” Proust’s similarities (resemblances) do not point towards a likeness of one thing to any other thing, but instead, towards “the deeper resemblance of the dream world in which everything that happens appears not identical but in a similar guise, opaquely similar one to another” (204). Here, the underlying context for Benjamin is his concept of the Messianic as a world wherein “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different” because of a “tiny displacement” occurring (and this is Agamben on Benjamin) at things’ “periphery, in the space of ease between everything and itself” (Coming Community 54). The messianic world in which everything is just as ours only with a tiny displacement between the thing and itself is the dream world of Proust’s cult of similarity. Importantly for any understanding of the gesture, things in this messianic dream world (which, crucially, is a state of absolute between-ness) appear as “images.” Through the Benjaminian/Proustian image appears “the world distorted in the state of resemblance, a world in which the true surrealist face of existence breaks through” (205). Benjamin continues (and I will just quote this amazing passage at length): “To this [Messianic] world belongs what happens in Proust, and the deliberate and fastidious way in which it appears. It is never isolated, rhetorical, or visionary; carefully heralded and securely supported, it bears a fragile, precarious reality: the image. It detaches itself from the structure of Proust’s sentences as that summer day at Balbec – old, immemorial, mummified – emerged from the lace curtain under Francoise’s hands.” m
     This detaching emergence is precisely what any reading of the gesture must address and bring into language. The gesture, a declension of the messianic image, belongs to both any given sentence and the “air” surrounding and supporting it within a world that simultaneously is and is not the text’s and, very powerfully, our own. Once again, this world that we, in reading gestically, share with the text, is a messianic world, a world of the resemblance of the thing to itself in a typology allowing the thing’s fulfillment in language. Through the gesture the thing as such both enters into language and emerges as a crystalline image of itself.
     Now for a concrete example. Benjamin’s Messianic world of resemblance bears a striking parallel to Dickens’s states of hypnagogia, of which his fiction is rife. An early (and particularly illuminating) example occurs midway through Oliver Twist. One evening at twilight, Oliver, lodged in middle-class privilege and comfort, sits reading in his “little room” overlooking the Maylie’s idyllic gardens and fields. Fatigued from his studies, Oliver passes into that “kind of sleep that steals upon us sometimes which, while it holds the body prisoner, does not free the mind from a sense of things about it,” and Oliver, in this state of bodily sleep, retains “a consciousness of all that is going on about [him], and even if [he] dreams, words which are really spoken, or sounds which really exist in the moment, accommodate themselves with surprising readiness to [his] visions” (281). Now, while we all can remember such moments of half-sleep (so often when we drift away from our reading, the text running on according to our own thoughts, the author’s cadence flowing underneath our own half-thought words), Oliver’s particular moment of hypnagogia is of a momentous occurrence. Dreaming that he is once again back in Fagin’s den of thieving children, Oliver overhears Fagin speaking to an as yet unrecognized man. Startled within his liminal rest, Oliver pushes himself into a more conscious state and, in a flash, recognizes both Fagin and his gothic accomplice: “It was but an instant, a glance, a flash before his eyes, and they were gone. But they had recognized him, and he them” (283). Out of his hypnagogia, Oliver recognizes the unrecognizable, the mysterious strage stranger’s resemblance only to himself. Such recognition, Dickens asserts, is possible only through the preparation of the liminal state of hypnagogia. Oliver, pushed to the threshold of sleep and consciousness, enters into the Messianic world of profound resemblances and glances, however momentarily, the gestic guise of his never before glimpsed brother.

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