“Dickens and Benjamin: Moments of Revelation, Fragments of Modernity” by Gillian Piggott

Published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd – Reviewed by Jennifer Gribble.

Michael Hollington’s pioneering essay on ‘Dickens the Flaneur’, in 1981, continues to generate interest in the links between the novels of Dickens and the writings of the French theorist of Modernism, Walter Benjamin. Dickens presents himself as a flaneur of the London streets in his essay ‘Gone Astray’ (Household Words August 13, 1853). Piggott acknowledges her debt to Hollington, who writes a handsome Foreword to her book. Piggott notes key references to Dickens throughout Benjamin’s work, and speculates that their common ground is sourced in German Romanticism, absorbed, in the case of Dickens, through his admiration for Carlyle, and for Benjamin, through his immersion in German Baroque.

Focussing on Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), and his The Arcades Project (1927-40),  Piggott draws attention to numerous references to Dickens in these works.   Piggott suggests that both writers are interested in the role of theological truth and religious experience in everyday life, an unusual emphasis to find in the context of Marxian theories of commodity fetischism. Benjamin’s ‘rediscovery’ of his Jewish religion, his ‘messianism’, and his critique of industrial capitalism, prompts useful points of comparison with Dickens. In my view she underestimates the Christian vantage point from which Dickens habitually makes his criticism of Victorian society. And whereas Dickens affirms the Judeo-Christian narrative, Benjamin rejects the idea of history as progress. Piggott contends that Benjamin comes close to Lyotard’s position that our era has witnessed the collapse of the grand narrative.

Yet the dialogue between Benjamin and Dickens reveals fruitful points of comparison, most notably in their representations of the phenomena of Modernity: urban experience and its effects on consciousness, its realizations of the city and the crowd, of flux, contingency, and the fleeting nature of urban experience.

The Old Curiosity Shop, seen by G.K. Chesterton as ‘the key to the Dickens romance’, makes a seminal text for Benjamin, as it does for his colleague Adorno, and for Piggott herself. Arguably, the allegorical dimensions so graphically expressed in the engraving of Nell asleep amid the material objects of the Curiosity Shop, and her exilic wanderings and sufferings in the company of her improvident grandfather, owe more to Bunyan and the Bible than Piggott allows. But she reads the allegory suggestively, and Benjamin’s notion of spiel (play), and the Baroque image of the world as a stage privileging fakery and theatricality sheds light on the strange figure of Quilp. Concepts Benjamin derives from German tragic drama: erlebris (the experience of time chopped up) and chockerlebnis (the shock) find illustrations in Dickensian streetscapes and such a tormented urban consciousness as Bradley Headstone. Representations of time and memory, with the city as both ’palimpsest and archive’, are extensively explored in Piggott’s analysis of her second key novel, David Copperfield, in which changing perspectives, and the twists and turns of coincidence are enabled by the urban environment.

The quest for Dickens the Modernist touches on some central tensions in his writing: urban life may well be a source of struggle, material values, competition, but it is also a site in which identity defines itself as heightened consciousness and psychic discovery. Mechanization may bring repetitive rhythms and an altered sense of time, yet as Mr Dombey’s railway journey to Leamington Spa reminds us, the train makes possible new points of view, new possibilities of journeying. In her detailed readings of Dickens, Gillian Piggott demonstrates how some of Benjamin’s leading ideas make available new ways of reading him.

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