IV. The Problem of Time

In many ways, if we look at Western cultural history from a perspective defined by the Romantic concept of development, 1850 might well figure as the last good year of the nineteenth century. Consider what happens that year. Among the many novels published, we have one by Dickens that he always considered his favorite: David Copperfield. Of course, the Dickens scholarship will be quick to claim the reason David Copperfield was his favorite was that he put so much of himself into it. But I think there’s also a deeper, less obvious reason. If we look carefully at all his later novels, we can say that in no work after Copperfield do we ever again see what might be described as an example of perfect development, where an individual fulfills his/her promise and fully becomes what he/she ought to be. That, I think, was for Dickens the magic of David Copperfield. Despite his orphan background, despite horrible schoolmasters and questionable companions like Steerforth, despite his child-wife Dora, despite all these and many other circumstances that could easily have led him astray, David Copperfield somehow manages to survive them all and to become, in the end, someone whose growth cycle comes to a proper climax morally and emotionally. All the later novels, you might say, are about great expectations that never quite come to fruition: about people who fail to meet the right person at the right time and so waste themselves on the wrong people, about people fed on false rumors who base all their hopes on these, and about people who squander their lives away for lack of a meaningful objective. But in Copperfield, for once, it all comes out right. And that might lead us in turn to ask why it never comes out right anywhere else.
One answer I would like to propose is a shift, somewhere around the middle of the nineteenth century, from subjectivity to intersubjectivity. Consider this diagram, which shows, by stages, the population growth of London: As you can see, from the end of the eighteenth century to the 1830s there isn’t all that much difference. But from the 1830s to the 1870s, the increase is massive— more than double, at a quick glance.

Roy Porter, London: A Social History (Harvard UP, 1994)


And, to get a sense of what that meant physically or materially, take a look at this 1863 depiction of the city: It’s by David Roberts, a Royal Academy painter, and is entitled St. Paul’s, from the Thames, Looking West. I’m sure you all recognize the haze rising from all quarters of the city: it’s not just London fog. Then as now, it meant one thing: too many people. Too many people, in turn, might help to explain how we get from subjectivity to intersubjectivity. Too many people means people getting in your face (as we say), preventing you from focusing on your own thoughts and wishes, forcing you to take account of them in all the ways you live and move. And that’s how we get instances of skewed or arrested development. When people are forced to deal with others, to think about others and about their relationship to those others, that’s when we have intersubjectivity. For now, let’s leave it defined only in this loose, intuitive & casual way. The fuller implications of what I mean by intersubjectivity will come out when we look at mid-19th century fiction in detail. For the moment, though, I simply want to suggest that intersubjectivity gets in the way of individual subjectivity, and hence of individual development. And that, you might say, is why we no longer have any instances in 19th century fiction of perfect development or becoming roughly after the mid-century. But large changes like this don’t happen overnight. In fact, the ground for these will have had to have been prepared long before. Specifically, I want to suggest that it was prepared in terms of theory by a solitary thinker living in a city (Copenhagen) that was hardly overcrowded at all: Søren Kierkegaard. In putting him forward I don’t mean to claim Kierkegaard was read by Dickens or Melville or anybody else at that time. He wasn’t. But what Kierkegaard was thinking about the Hegelian model of development is reflective, I would argue, of what a lot of other people were thinking, both in Germany (Feuerbach et al., which then passes on to George Eliot and hence to the English Victorian scene) and elsewhere. My reason for turning to him, then, is just that he puts matters more incisively, and in more detail. In particular, I want to turn to his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the major work in which Kierkegaard voices, more fully than anywhere else, his argument against Hegel. Most of it comes in a section of the book entitled, significantly, “Truth is Subjectivity.” We can pick it up at the point where Kierkegaard introduces the Hegelian notion of thinking and being as identical, which makes possible (as we’ve seen), the movement Substance → Subject. Here is Kierkegaard’s take on it:

Whether truth is defined more empirically as the agreement of thinking with being or more idealistically as the agreement of being with thinking, the point in each case is to pay scrupulous attention to what is understood by being and also to pay attention to whether the knowing human spirit might not be lured out into the indefinite and fantastically become something such as no existing human being has ever been or can be….
(p. 189)

In other words, Kierkegaard doesn’t buy Hegel’s thinking = being. And since he doesn’t buy that, his notion of individual development will obviously be different. So where Hegel has development end with a Subject that is, in effect, just Substance continuously transformed, Kierkegaard doesn’t believe this sort of continuity is possible. Another way to put it would be that Kierkegaard doesn’t believe subjective = objective. Subsequently he explains why:

Subjective reflection turns inward toward subjectivity and in this inward deepening will be of the truth, and in such a way that, just as… when objectivity was advanced, subjectivity vanished, here subjectivity as such becomes the final factor and objectivity the vanishing. Here it is not forgotten, even for a single moment, that the subject is existing, and that existing is a becoming, and that truth as the identity of thought and being is therefore a chimera of abstraction and truly only a longing of creation, not because truth is not an identity, but because the knower is an existing person, and thus truth cannot be an identity for him as long as he exists. If this is not held fast, then with the aid of speculative thought we promptly enter into the fantastical I-I that recent speculative thought certainly has used but without explaining how a particular individual relates himself to it, and, good Lord, of course no human being is more than a particular individual. (pp. 196-97)

For Kierkegaard, then, we can never have I = I because the subjective I is always changing, and is always subjective. I = I, however, is an objective statement—which is to say, a statement made about an abstract category or concept. If we think about this statement abstractly, it’s true in the same way that A = A is true. But if we try to apply it to an individual person, it’s no longer true because no individual person can fit a large, abstract category like the “I.” Instead, Kierkegaard says, we can never forget that “the subject [i.e., an individual person] is existing, and that existing is a becoming.” Kierkegaard goes on to assert that “because the knower is an existing person… truth cannot be an identity for him as long as he exists.” Here the implication is that existing and the kind of identity-relation truth is supposed to involve are somehow inimical. But why should that be? To answer this question, we need to recall, first of all, that for Kierkegaard existing = becoming. So a subject or individual person who exists is one that’s constantly in the process of becoming. By being constantly involved in the process of becoming, however, that individual person isn’t able to verify for himself or herself the kind of stable identity-relationship a statement like I = I would presuppose. So “truth would not be an identity for him as long as he exists.” What isn’t yet clear, though, is why an individual person has to be constantly involved in the process of becoming. Yes, we do change over time. But why shouldn’t there be moments when we can embrace a statement like I = I as true? Here we need to come back to what Kierkegaard says at the outset: “Subjective reflection turns inward toward subjectivity and in this inward deepening will be of the truth, and in such a way that, just as…. when objectivity was advanced, subjectivity vanished, here subjectivity as such becomes the final factor and objectivity the vanishing.” In other words, as subjective individuals we tend to feel, and because we’re subjective (i.e., possessing something like individual consciousness or awareness) our mind’s eye turns inward (i.e., toward our own feeling or experiencing) and hence to an awareness of our own subjectivity. Kierkegaard sees this process as one that “in this inward deepening will be of the truth”—presumably because the more we get into it, the more aware we become of our own feeling/experiencing. But the more we do that, the more we enter into a state of pure subjectivity, turned inward and hence away from anything like the conditions necessary for objectivity. So objectivity (a state of mind where we consider statements like A = A) disappears, yielding to subjectivity. The fact that Kierkegaard links this inward “deepening” or awareness to truth introduces the issue of how he defines knowledge, which is all about linking our mental state to what we believe to be true. In a later passage, Kierkegaard explicitly takes up the issue with a discussion of what he means by “essential knowing”:

All essential knowing pertains to existence, or only the knowing whose relation to existence is essential is essential knowing. That essential knowing is essentially related to existence does not, however, signify the above-mentioned abstract identity between thinking and being, nor does it signify that the knowledge is objectively related to something existent as its object, but it means that the knowledge is related to the knower, who is essentially an existing person, and that all essential knowing is therefore essentially related to existence and to existing. (pp. 197-98)

But if all essential knowing is fundamentally linked to existing, then we can say essential knowing = subjectivity, because existing = becoming, and becoming is all about that process of becoming aware of our own feeling/experiencing which for Kierkegaard = subjectivity. So Kierkegaard can refuse the Hegelian thinking = being as too abstract—not, in other words, the kind of thing we perceive as we get into a deeper awareness of what we experience and feel—and likewise the notion that knowledge is “objectively related to something existent as its object.” For that to be true, the individual person (i.e., the “something existent”) would have to possess the knowledge of his/her inner processes objectively, i.e., in the same way we know A = A to be true. But that isn’t the way we know our own inner processes. Instead, we only know these by becoming aware of them through that inward turn of reflection—which is to say, by subjectivity. So Kierkegaard can say that “knowledge is related to the knower, who is essentially an existing person.” Knowledge, then, comes about because of who and what we are specifically in our individuality, as people who through subjectivity come to awareness of the processes by which we experience and feel. This absolute dependence of knowledge on who and what we are individually leads Kierkegaard, in turn, to insist on an absolute either/or separation between thought and existing:

If existing cannot be thought, and the existing person is thinking nevertheless, what does this mean? It means that he thinks momentarily; he thinks before and he thinks afterward. His thinking cannot attain absolute continuity. Only in a fantastical way can an existing person continually be sub specie aeterni. (p. 329)

We can’t think our own existing, Kierkegaard would say, because thinking is a kind of activity that occurs in a timeless condition or state. A = A isn’t affected by what we experience or feel from one moment to the next. And when we think about it, we abstract from what we are to look at this proposition from a sort of eternal perspective. Existing, by contrast, is all about what happens from one minute to the next. So when we’re existing we can’t stop the clock: existing is precisely the sense of things passing, which we register through all the ways we experience or feel. If we exist at all in the way Kierkegaard wants to define it,then we ourselves are necessarily moving from one minute to the next in a process of constant change or becoming because what we experience or feel just doesn’t remain the same. And so we ourselves “become” as well.

If we apply this Kierkegaardian belief about the absolute either/or split between thinking and existing to 19th century fiction after the mid-century, my argument is that it turns into a sense of temporal discrepancy, which typically means: a sense of being too late. This sense of being too late comes about because characters within the fiction try to understand their situation, try to grasp who and what they are. And as they do that, they realize that what they’re able to grasp, to see objectively, is no longer what they are. To be able to see themselves objectively means, in effect, to freeze time. But time—and they themselves—move on, even as they’re making the effort to freeze it. Hence the discrepancy. And here we see how their sense is different from that of the Romantic era. Hegelian development or becoming is all about a perfect synchronicity between thinking and existing. We exist and think at the same time, and what we experience or feel, our whole process of becoming, is always completely accessible to thought. This perfect transparency of existing to thinking is based on a belief that being and thought are identical. In Hegelian becoming we take everything we are with us as we change or move, and what we bring is always accessible to thought. But as existing after the mid-century becomes increasingly subjectivized, that link between being and thought is precisely what’s no longer there.

A good place to see the post-Kierkegaardian split between existing and thinking is in Melville’s 1852 novel Pierre. In Moby-Dick Ahab, and perhaps to a lesser extent Ishmael, might still feel the rightness of his own process of development, a belief that things happened when they were supposed to happen, in the fullness of time. For Pierre, the protagonist of Melville’s next novel, it’s different. At one moment in the novel, he gets under a massive rock called the Memnon Stone, and lies there for a long time completely motionless. It’s one of those passages in the novel that I think has never been adequately explained. I suspect that what he’s doing is trying to make thinking and existing connect. Typically, existence goes by too quickly, because it’s always on the move. But by lying motionless under this huge stone, he’s trying to slow things down, so as to reconnect with his essence (in French, after all, his name Pierre means stone). And if he could do that, he might then be able to figure out what’s going on inside himself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. So Pierre moves on. Specifically, to a deeper and more entangled relationship with his half-sister Isabel. Significantly, we get the pivotal episode in that relationship from a multiple-time perspective in which it’s presented both within a present-tense framework and retrospectively:

Now this first night was Pierre made aware of what, in the superstitiousness of his rapt enthusiasm, he could not help believing was an extraordinary physical magnetism in Isabel. And—as it were derived from this marvelous quality thus imputed to her—he now first became vaguely sensible of a certain still more marvelous power in the girl over himself and his most interior thoughts and motions; –a power so hovering upon the confines of the invisible world, that it seemed more inclined that way than this; –a power which not only seemed irresistibly to draw him toward Isabel, but to draw him away from another quarter—wantonly as it were, and yet quite ignorantly and unintendingly; and, besides, without respect to any thing ulterior, and yet again, only under cover of drawing him to her. For over all these things, and interfusing itself with the sparkling electricity in which she seemed to swim, was an ever-creeping and condensing haze of ambiguities. Often, in after-times with her, did he recall this first magnetic night, and would seem to see that she had then bound him to her by an extraordinary atmospheric spell—both physical and spiritual—which henceforth it had become impossible for him to break, but whose full potency he never recognized till long after he had become habituated to its sway. This spell seemed one with that Pantheistic master-spell, which eternally locks in mystery and muteness the universal subject world, and the physical electricalness of Isabel seemed reciprocal with the heat-lightnings and the ground-lightnings nigh to which it had first become revealed to Pierre. (p. 151)

The reason for this split-time perspective, I suggest, is a desire to show how Pierre can never quite manage to grasp the present until it becomes past. In other words, he’s always too late—which is to say, he can only see his circumstances objectively when it becomes too late to act on these. So the text subtly mixes past and present: “Now this first night was Pierre made aware…” but later: “he now first became vaguely sensible of…” In effect, the overall frame is past-tense, but into that the narrative will intrude with present tense so we realize how it’s all being experienced. Later in the passage, the split-time perspective becomes even more evident: “Often, in after-times with her, did he recall this first magnetic night, and would seem to see that she then had bound him to her by an extraordinary atmospheric spell… which henceforth it had become impossible for him to break, but whose full potency he never recognized till long after he had become habituated to its sway.” Even here, the experiential present tense still has force: “and would seem to see…” Yet the overall past-tense framework makes it clear that any attempt to make the present objective (i.e., to overcome the thinking/existing split) is always too late: “whose full potency he never recognized till long after…” Of course, this present/past or thinking/existing split has significant moral consequences, as Pierre never quite manages to retrieve what he does under an initial purely subjective impulse. And that’s why the split turns into a sense of temporal discrepancy, of always being too late.

We see this sense of being too late developed even more extensively in what has gradually come to be recognized as perhaps the finest Dickens novel —Little Dorrit. It comes up already fairly early, i.e., soon after Arthur Clennam’s return from China, when he goes to look up Flora Casby (now Finching), his early love. His meeting with her is one of painful disillusionment, but only when he gets back to his own place is he able to put it all together:

When he got to his lodging, he sat down before the dying fire…and turned his gaze back upon the gloomy vista by which he had come to that stage in his existence. So long, so bare, so blank. No childhood; no youth, except for one remembrance; the one remembrance proved, only that day, to be a piece of folly.

It was a misfortune to him, trifle as it might have been to another. For, while all that was hard and stern in his recollection, remained Reality on being proved— was obdurate to the sight and touch, and relaxed nothing of its old indomitable grimness—the one tender recollection of his experience would not bear the same test, and melted away. He had foreseen this, on the former night, when he had dreamed with waking eyes, but he had not felt it then; and he had now. (pp. 157-58)

Notice here how Dickens introduces the same split between thinking and existing that we saw earlier in Kierkegaard. Arthur Clennam had already anticipated in thought (when he “dreamed with waking eyes”) how it would turn out. But it’s only when he experiences it that it comes to him in full force: “he had not felt it then; and he had now.” Significantly, even his ability to anticipate disillusionment doesn’t really lessen the pain. Because of the split, thought or objectivity can’t replace subjectivity, the level on which we really live.

Later in the novel, Arthur Clennam’s disappointment over Minnie Meagles is in some ways even more complex. Because in this case it isn’t just a past love which he discovers to have no real basis. Instead, his love for Minnie Meagles is very much present-tense. Yet even here, he turns out to be too late, because she’s already agreed to marry the wastrel Henry Gowan. So Clennam has to give her up. And the way he does it gives a new twist to the thinking/existing split:

She wept, as she tried to thank him. He reassured her, took her hand as it lay with the trembling roses in it on his arm, took the remaining roses from it, and put it to his lips. At that time, it seemed to him, he first finally resigned the dying hope that had flickered in nobody’s heart, so much to its pain and trouble; and from that time he became in his own eyes, as to any similar hope or prospect, a very much older man who had done with that part of life. (p. 327)

Here Clennam becomes “nobody” from his own perspective, and that shift from a subjective I to an objective “nobody” is in effect the shift from existing to thinking. Kierkegaard had said that we can’t do both simultaneously, and we might surmise that the reason Clennam suddenly passes over from one to the other is to avoid the pain he would feel if he continued to exist subjectively rather than to think. To be “nobody” is, then, to cease to exist subjectively, to relinquish the individual subjective I. This sudden shift from existing to thinking also produces a corresponding shift in his time perspective as well. Note how “at that time… he first finally resigned the dying hope…” “First finally”—it’s almost an oxymoron. And the reason for it, I would argue, is that it mixes 2 time perspectives—present & future. “First” points to a future objective perspective, in which Clennam has given up on love. “Finally” is present perspective, in which Clennam, still subjectively existing, has to struggle with his pain. But it’s the future, objective perspective that takes over: “from that time he became… a very much older man who had done with that part of life.” Obviously he isn’t chronologically any older yet. But by projecting himself objectively into the future, he tries to take himself in thought into that objective framework where his present existential pain will no longer matter. As part of this process, Clennam then performs one final symbolic act of renunciation: he takes the roses he gave Minnie Meagles, which she then gave back to him, and casts them on the river:

When he had walked on the river’s brink in the peaceful moonlight, for some half-an-hour, he put his hand in his breast and tenderly took out the handful of roses. Perhaps he put them to his heart, perhaps he put them to his lips, but certainly he bent down on the shore, and gently launched them on the flowing river. Pale and unreal in the moonlight, the river floated them away.

The lights were bright within doors when he entered…. While the flowers, pale and unreal in the moonlight, floated away upon the river; and thus do greater things that once were in our breasts, and near our hearts, flow from us to the eternal seas. (p. 330)

We know that Dickens often left part of the significance of key passages to be conveyed by an illustration. And here, almost exactly halfway through he novel, we might well guess that’s what he’s done when we look at the “Phiz” Browne rendition of the scene:

Note the extremely sharp bend in the river, right where Clennam is standing. It’s as if Browne (and Dickens) wanted to convey that this moment marks a kind of turning point in the novel. From now on, time will flow or move in a different way. On to death, ultimately, because that’s what oceanic imagery (“the eternal seas”) typically signifies in Dickens (witness the end of Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son, who sees the reflection of flowing water—the Thames—on the wall of his bedroom just before he dies). But before that, it will bring Arthur Clennam to Amy Dorrit.

Yet even here, perhaps because of all that’s happened to him, Clennam can’t simply accept Little Dorrit’s love. Instead, when he goes to debtor’s prison due to the apparent failure of his company and falls dangerously ill with fever, he still won’t let Little Dorrit help him unless she’s willing to resume her old dress and her old ways, before she and her father came into a family fortune. In other words, Clennam won’t accept Little Dorrit unless they can go back to their old relationship, when he had money and she didn’t. Here we might argue that the reason they have to revert is that their old relationship is the only one Arthur Clennam can objectively recognize, and hence accept. Any newer relationship would cast him on dangerous existential waters, in which he can’t remove his emotions—or hers— to a safe, objective distance but instead will have to deal with them as they are. And that’s a challenge for which he’s now too broken by disappointment, the sense of always being too late, to accept. So it’s up to Amy Dorrit to resume the burden of the past:

She looked something more womanly than when she had gone away, and the ripening touch of the Italian sun was visible upon her face. But, otherwise she was quite unchanged. The same deep, timid earnestness that he had always seen in her, and never without emotion, he saw still. If it had a new meaning that smote him to the heart, the change was in his perception, not in her.

She took off her old bonnet, hung it in the old place, and noiselessly began, with Maggie’s help, to make his room as fresh and neat as it could be made, and to sprinkle it with a pleasant smelling water. When that was done, the basket which was filled with grapes and other fruit, was unpacked, and all its contents were quietly put away. When that was done, a moment’s whisper dispatched Maggie to dispatch somebody else to fill the basket again… These various arrangements completed, she took out her old needlecase to make him a curtain for his window; and thus, with a quiet reigning in the room, that seemed to diffuse itself through the else noisy prison, he found himself composed in his chair with Little Dorrit working at his side. (p. 737)

Nonetheless, despite Amy Dorrit’s effort to make things just as they were before, even she can’t prevent an eruption of the existential present within the apparent past. And this because what Clennam now feels for her is different from what he felt before—not just affection, but love: “If it had a new meaning that smote him to the heart, the change was in his perception, not in her.”

Even this feeling, however, can’t simply be accepted: it, too, must be subsumed into a kind of complex past-present relationship where Clennam can say that because he didn’t recognize and accept his own feeling for her in the past (when she was poor and he wasn’t), he can’t accept it now when the circumstances are changed:

“If, in the bygone days when this was your home and when this was your dress, I had understood myself (I speak only of myself) better, and had read the secrets of my own breast more distinctly; if, through my reserve and self-mistrust, I had discerned a light that I see brightly now when it has passed far away, and my weak footsteps can never overtake it; if I had then known, and told you that I loved and honoured you, not as the poor child I used to call you, but as a woman whose true hand would raise me high above myself, and make me a far happier and better man; if I had so used the opportunity there is no recalling—as I wish I had, O I wish I had!—and if something had kept us apart then, when I was moderately thriving, and when you were poor; I might have met your noble offer of your fortune, dearest girl, with other words than these, and still have blushed to touch it. But as it is, I must never touch it, never!” (p. 739)

Here it isn’t just because Clennam thinks it would look dishonorable for him to accept her love now, when she has money (i.e., he could appear to be accepting it for the wrong motives)—if that were the case, he shouldn’t have any problem accepting her help, since it’s precisely the duty of the wealthy to help the needy. Instead, note how he says “if I had then known, and told you that I loved and honoured you, not as the poor child I used to call you, but as a woman whose true hand would raise me high above myself…” But how exactly could Clennam do that? After all, the “poor child” is exactly what Amy Dorrit was at that time. In other words, Clennam conflates past and present in an impossible way: he would have had to love her as she presently is in a past or earlier time in order to accept her love now. Which is to say: only if he could’ve proleptically known what she would become and if he had been able then to love her future self can he accept that self in the present. The reason for all this, I suggest, is that only in this way can he place himself objectively vis-à-vis his love for her. So the past would’ve had to be the future. Ironically, Clennam does in a way get his wish: Amy becomes poor again, while he becomes rich. And then he can accept her love, and marry her. Clearly, though, not because he’s overcome his problem with the past, but only because the past has managed to become the future.