Dickens, The Haunting Man

(On L-iterature)

Steven Connor

This is an extended version of a paper given at the conference A Man For All Media: The Popularity of Dickens 1902-2002, Institute for English Studies, July 25-27 2002.


Of course, there is an obvious sense in which Dickens, a haunted man in many senses, also turned into a haunting man, a writer who keeps coming back, in the reading of whom reverence consorts closely with a sort of revenance. Perhaps this is enough to justify the exercise upon which I shall enter here, which is to consider some aspects of what Jacques Derrida (1994) has called a ‘hauntology’ of Dickens’s life and cultural afterlife. This term, like so many others that Derrida has originated, is a joke – a joke of immense solemnity and stately unfolding, but a joke nevertheless. One must imagine the word given its full measure of cavernous nasality for the thrilling associations with ‘ontology’, the philosophical study of being, to resonate in the way that Derrida intends. Je est un autre: to be, is to be haunted. I think therefore I hante . That sort of thing. To be haunted, as so many of Dickens’s characters are, is to be held together around some invasive or obsessive foreign body, and thus to be displaced from yourself. ‘I am strange to myself’, as Redlaw says in Dickens's story The Haunted Man. Even babies are subject to Derridean displacements of identity, as for example the Tetterby baby in The Haunted Man, who suffers from a kind of dental haunting, if such a thing may be allowed, in that it is perpetually cutting painful, but entirely phantom teeth. So the predicament of the Tetterby baby is not so much ontological as odontological:

All sorts of objects were impressed for the rubbing of its gums, notwithstanding that it carried, dangling at its waist (which was immediately under its chin), a bone ring, large enough to have represented the rosary of a young nun. Knife handles, umbrella- tops, the heads of walking-sticks selected from the stock, the fingers of the family in general, but especially of Johnny, nutmeg-graters, crusts, the handles of doors, and the cool knobs on the tops of pokers, were among the commonest instruments indiscriminately applied for this baby’s relief. The amount of electricity that must have been rubbed out of it in a week, is not to be calculated. Still Mrs Tetterby always said ‘it was coming through, and then the child would be herself’; and still it never did come through, and the child continued to be somebody else. (Dickens 1988, 450)

As a term, ‘haunting’ has an almost disappointingly innocuous past. Well into the eighteenth century, a ‘haunt’, could be simply a place to which one had frequent recourse or, as we say, ‘frequented’. The word ‘haunt’ was commonly used in guides to the habitats of fauna and flora, as well as (with a slight glide sideways into the word 'hunt') in the titles of books on the ‘haunts’ of moths, spiders, flowers, ferns, and sportsmen’s guides to the ‘haunts’ of mouse, caribou, deer and elephant, without meaning to suggest anything furtive or malingering in those animals. During the last years of the nineteenth century, the commonest use of the term was in books feeding the fashion for literary tourism, which became strongly established during the 1880s and 1890s, though the fashion had perhaps been set by William Howitt’s Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets, which was frequently reprinted after its appearance in 1847. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the knapsack of the determined literary pilgrim would have bulged with titles such as Charles Lamb; His Friends, His Haunts, and His Books (Fitzgerald 1866), The Homes and Haunts of the Italian Poets (Trollope 1881), Thackeray's London: A Description of His Haunts and the Scenes of His Novels (Rideing 1885), Mrs. Gaskell: Haunts, Homes, and Stories (Chadwick 1891), The Poets' Corner, or Haunts and Homes of the Poets (Corkran 1892), The Home and Early Haunts of Robert Louis Stevenson (Armour 1895), Literary Haunts and Homes (Wolf 1899) The Homes and Haunts of Thomas Carlyle (Anon 1895), Thackeray's Haunts and Homes (Crow 1897), The Ayrshire Homes and Haunts of Burns (Shelley 1897) and The Early Haunts of Oliver Goldsmith (Kelly 1905). This is not to mention any of the service done for the most relentlessly-gazetteered of writers, Shakespeare, from George May’s A Guide to the Birth-town of Shakspere and the Poet's Rural Haunts (1847), to James Williams, The Home and Haunts of Shakespeare (1892). The globetrotting tourist would have secured copies of Literary Shrines: The Haunts of Some Famous American Authors (Wolf 1895) and Literary Pilgrimages in New England to the Homes of Famous Makers of American Literature and Among their Haunts and the Scenes of Their Writings (Bacon 1902). Somewhat later, there was Andrew Lang’s Poets' Country: The Homes and Haunts of the Poets (1907) and the volumes in the ‘Pilgrim Books’ series edited by Samuel Bensusan, which included his own Charles Lamb: His Homes and Haunts (1910) and William Wordsworth: His Homes and Haunts (1910; see too Ambler 1911 and Greville 1912). Thomas Wright extended his topographic researches further than most, in his The Loved Haunts of Cowper (1891), which bore the subtitle An Outline of the Life of William Cowper, with Special Reference to his Favourite Resorts in Olney and Weston Underwood, to which is appended a poem by John Newton, entitled “The Supposed Meeting of Cowper and Newton in Heaven.”  (Have I missed anything? I think not.)

Although I no longer really believe in the idea of ‘the literary’, or ‘literariness’ as such – or even really believe in other people’s belief in these mystical conditions – it is plain that ours is a world in which literature is experienced increasingly is secondary or mediated ways, which is to say, through various kinds of framing, anticipation, advocacy, substitution and surrogacy, whether in education, criticism, or adaptation. But perhaps ‘literature’ - or l-iterature, we might perhaps call it - is never anything other than these mediations. The mediation of literature begins much earlier than we tend to think, and is certainly at work in the fashion for literary tourism which arose in the second half of the nineteenth century. This literary tourism indicates the establishment of a literary fan culture. It was after this period that museums of writers began to be set up, often in their own homes, like Dove Cottage, or, of course, Dickens House. To be sure, many of those who haunted the homes of literary celebrities were devoted readers of their works, and wanted to see a place thronged, as it were with the absent other places of the authors’ imagination. But the swelling authority of literary culture and tradition was inevitably accompanied by commodification, and literary tourists may at this period have started to substitute their ramblings and visits for the work of reading their authors, or at least seen them as offshoots or equivalents to each other, just as reading biography is today. Just as writers in the nineteenth century must have had one eye on posterity when writing their journals and letters, so writers who grew up amid these years of literary tourism, like Virginia Woolf (much interested in haunting and author of her own ‘Haunted House’), and George Bernard Shaw must surely sometimes have seen in spectral array the troops of schoolparties who would file dutifully through the summer houses and inner sancta where they had spent so long doodling, staring at the wall, farting and generally wrestling down their muse.

We can say that this kind of literary tourism sought to ground the experience and image of certain writers in particular places, places which are held to determine and preserve the quality of their imaginations, even as a particular authorial imprint also marks and preserves the identity of a place. Topographising the person personalises the place.

Perhaps questions of space seem to bulk large in considerations of the Victorian supernatural because the supernatural came up close during the course of the nineteenth century, and became intimate and domestic. The yawning vaults, pits and turrets, the cavernous castles and catacombs and cataracts of the Gothic novel became progressively more pent, urban, petit-bourgeois. In the middle of the century, Dickens’s Mrs Rouncewell announced that a ghost was a necessity for the best houses; but, as the century wore on, haunting began to be a feature of less exclusive addresses. Charles Maurice Davies’s Mystic London (1875), a gazetteer of his occult experiences in the dubious drawing-rooms of the capital, is another mark of the identification of the occult with urban space, and the occult powers of city space as such. By the end of the century, Stevenson and Machen and Blackwood had consolidated the position of the urban ghost. The opening up from mid-century of country houses to crowds of class tourists on the trail of‘ ’omes ’n’ ’aunts made them vulnerable to new kinds of ‘visitation’, as well as perhaps stimulating the manufacture of more ancestral spooks than ever before. The earthly visitors who came to see or hear tell of the ghosts in the house were liable to be identified with them. The story is told in many country houses of the pale visitor left behind in the drawing room who, when reminded that it is closing time, takes her leave calmly through the wall.

As a noun, a ‘haunt’ signifies not exactly a home, but rather a sort of second home, a place to which one has periodic recourse from one’s regular home. The word survives in this sense, for as late as 1963 a journal was begun with the title Holiday Haunts in Great Britain. Over the last couple of centuries, it seems to have become more common for places to be haunted than persons. Of course, the fact that the word was used from the sixteenth century onwards to describe persons possessed or besieged by spirits, and then, somewhat later on it seems, places, means that the word begins early on to acquire a sort of shadiness; one’s ‘haunts’ are likely to be at once more personal and private and more dubious and less respectable, than one’s home. When you haunt a place, you are in the place of the ill spirit, making it your haunt precisely by haunting it. When you haunt a place, or make it your haunt, you are in the place of the ill or unquiet spirit, making it a haunt precisely by haunting it. Books like Arthur Mursell’s Bright Beads on a Dark Thread; or Visits to the Haunts of Vice (1873) indicate the hauntedness of the ‘haunt’.

A haunted place is still subject to visitation rather than continuous residence, but is now a place in which the balance between visitation and occupation has slightly but decisively tipped, thus rendering it an uncanny pied-à-terre for the undeparted dead with only one foot in the grave. A haunted place has become stuck in time, or time has become scored into it. A haunted person is a person who has surrendered their capacity to move freely in space, and has become reduced to the condition of a place. Or, as we say, a plot.

The ‘spirit of place’ infects the nineteenth century, during which, we might say, not only did more and different kinds of spaces and places start to develop occult potential, but space itself started to become a haunted category. Anthony Vidler finds in the strangely disordered and uneasy spaces of nineteenth-century fiction a growing sense of what Freud called the ‘unheimlich’, the uncanny, or unhomely. The growth of cities began to create a sense of the loss of stable perspective, and once safe and familiar enclosures started to be experienced as breached or permeable. This was not entirely new - for oh what is entirely new? - but there was an intensification of the sense of spatial unsettling during the nineteenth century. It is primarily in built spaces, Vidler maintains, that the uncanny found its unhomely home - ‘first in the house, haunted or not, that pretends to afford the utmost security while opening itself to the secret intrusion of terror, and then in the city, where what was once walled and intimate, the conformation of community...has been rendered strange by the incursions of modernity’ (Vidler 1992, 11). Walter Benjamin evokes a similar sense of the spatial uncanny in his evocation of the strange and unpredictable topography of the commercial spaces of the Paris Arcades in the middle years of the nineteenth century. As in a Hoffmann story, at any moment, the unwary shopper or cruiser might slip or step through from this world of glittering modernity into an underworld (Benjamin 1999, 84). It may well be that, as Bruno Latour (1993) has put it, ‘we have never been modern’, not just in the sense that we have never managed to get thoroughly up contemporary or up-to-date with ourselves, but also in the sense that, whatever we may mean by modernity, it may have to include some notion of a heightened hauntability.

Haunting is interchangeable and contagious. Dickens, the man haunted by the characters and scenes who were so real to him that he could not ever quite dispel them, became in his time and beyond it, a haunter of others. Indeed, he set out to do this, archly telling his readers in the preface to A Christmas Carol that his purpose was ‘to raise the Ghost of an Idea’, which may ‘haunt their homes pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it’. When he missed a year in the sequence of Christmas books which he published between his first ‘Ghost Story of Christmas’, A Christmas Carol in 1843 and The Haunted Man in 1848, Dickens wrote that he was ‘loath to lose the money. And still more so to leave any gap at Christmas firesides which I ought to fill’. He need not have worried. J.A. Hammerton observed in 1910 that ‘each succeeding Yuletide it is safe to say that the Spirit of Christmas, which seems to take possession of us all, is the spirit of Dickens’ (quoted Dickens 1982, 9)

This interchangeability of haunter and haunted is actually the theme of the last Christmas story, The Haunted Man. In this, a man haunted by his past is attended by his phantom-doppelgänger, who offers to relieve him from the torment of his memories, on the condition that he will also accept the power to convey a similar oblivion to others. The moral contour of the story is mapped out neatly in the titles of its three long sections: ‘The Gift Bestowed’, ‘The Gift Diffused’ and ‘The Gift Reversed’. Of course, Redlaw is to discover the binding power of memory, even memory of pain and sorrow, through the brutalising effects wrought in those from whom he lifts it away. Dickens is here presenting, somewhat riskily we may feel, an inversion of his own powers as a novelist, to awaken memory and keep it alive. What is original and interesting about the story is the way in which haunting, which is customarily thought of as a fixation – a fixation upon a spot of time, or a claustrophobic enclosure within a place – is imaged in terms of a diffusion. If a haunted man is a man who suffers from a kind of hyperbolic existence, an unnaturally heightened concentration of being, then the haunting which Redlaw conveys by his mere presence, is an emptying out of being. Redlaw concentrates dispersal. Unable to remember, but unable either to forget that he cannot remember, he is then even more painfully haunted by the knowledge of his capacity to erase knowledge and memory, and begs for it to be taken away. This can only be done by the intermediary of another.


I have spoken of the spatial or topographic dimensions of haunting. I want now to speak of the temporal aspects. Linguists distinguish between what are called singulative tenses and frequentative tenses. Singulative tenses designate actions that have taken place on one occasion. Frequentative tenses designate repeated or habitual actions. One of the most famous examples of a frequentative tense is the beginning of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu: ‘For a long time, I used to go to bed early’ (Proust 1981, I. 3) The frequentative tense (I used to; I would; I was in the habit of) is unperfected, and therefore looks to some definitive event to consummate or close it off, like a gathering sneeze. Frequentative passages in stories and novels cannot be sustained for long without being interrupted by definitiveness. Indeed, one of the commonest structures for a narrative is of the definitive or singulative breaking in to the frequentative: Once upon a time there was a man/prince/Queen/… We know we are in the realm of story, the magic land of the preterite, which we realise that the generalised, ongoing existence signalled in the ‘was’ is preparing us for the singular action which will break into it and bring it to an end, at the same moment bringing the beginning of story. Interestingly, frequentative tenses don’t seem to work in the future. When one looks forward to some ongoing condition in the future (‘It would never be the same again’) it has the force of a definite action, the closed infinitive of living happily ever after. Future frequentatives, we can say, are honorary singulatives. A fiction written entirely in frequentatives is technically possible, and, although fictions have been written under restrictions that one would have thought were much more exacting, for example dispensing entirely with the services of the letter ‘e’, the idea of an extended fiction written exclusively in frequentative tenses seems difficult to imagine. In such a fiction, everything would always be in train, or have been in train, yet without anything quite, definitively taking place, like the unsatisfactory meal in Through the Looking Glass in which dishes keep getting taken away after Alice has been introduced to them. In fact, Dickens comes close to doing something like this in Bleak House, in which one half of the novel is narrated in versions of the present tense, revealing that there is in fact something curiously absent and insufficiently present, something not all there, about this tense. We can say that the two worlds of Bleak House, which are the same world, but differently narrated, look like the structure of a haunting. Each is intersected or haunted by the other, without them ever being able quite to complete each other.

It may be said that many writers who achieve canonical status enter the domain or dimension of the frequentative. The scenes, characters and utterances for which they are chiefly known are both fixed and unchangeable – Lady Macbeth at her nocturnal abstersions, Robinson Crusoe’s discovery of the footprint, Oliver asking for more – and yet also infinitely repeatable, fated to go on happening and never again to take place as events in the real world or the work of lesser writers take place – which is to say, to happen definitively enough to pass away, or yield place.

Dickens’s characters seem to have a particularly intense relationship to the frequentative, to the condition of simply living on. Jingles, Sam Weller, Flora Finching, Mr Dick, Miss Flite, Miss Havisham, whether in the grip of a benign or malign obsession, have lives that are both less than lives – unfree, unchanging, obsessive, fixated – and yet more than the lives of ordinary persons or other kinds of literary characters; they are more than merely alive, for they will never leave off never having done. This is one of the things that makes it difficult or dubious to make a strict separation between the life of Dickens’s works, and their afterlife, as they are recalled and reformed in different versions. Dickens seems to have recognised that many of his characters had already, at the moment of their birth, entered into a kind of undead condition. There is not, for such characters, a first moment, followed by resumptions or repetitions; rather there are characters who are born into a condition that is nothing more than that of a frequenting, or l-iterature.

All of this implies something disconcerting about frequenting and the frequentative as such. We don’t altogether like things which keep on keeping on. If one were to seek to render the experience of haunting in purely linguistic terms – and, amazingly, when structuralists walked the earth, millions of years ago, this was the sort of thing that came naturally to them – one could do even worse than to suggest it involves being stuck in the frequentative mode, without access to the singulative. In this respect the link between haunting and the afterlife is more than the obvious one. For an eternal afterlife is not orientated or on the way towards the event of death, which, although Wittgenstein crisply sets it aside as not an event in life, is the definite eventuality which gives all time and experience its point. Some in the late nineteenth century began to cast a cold eye on the idea of eternal afterlife, which seemed even more intolerable than the idea of personal extinction. Notable among these was Nietzsche, who developed the notion that history might be, without our knowing it, a cycle of eternal recurrence. The doctrine of eternal recurrence suggested, rather than things happening in the singulative mode, for the first time and last time, they had all happened many times, and would be repeated an infinite number of times.

There is a close relationship between the ideas of haunting, frequenting and frequency. Interestingly the word ‘frequent’ has itself undergone a kind of oscillation between space and time. 'Frequent' comes from Latin ‘frequens’, itself derived from the root of ‘farcire’ meaning to stuff, and means crowded or packed. Although Latin had the transferred sense for the adverb ‘frequenter’ meaning 'often' or 'repeatedly', the word ‘frequent’ tends to preserve in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English the predominantly spatial reference of the Latin ‘frequens’, and usually has the sense of 'closely-packed' or 'crowded together'. Gradually, English followed Latin in rotating the idea of crowding into a temporal axis, so that the word came to mean crowded or clustered thickly in time, which is to say, often repeated. The idea of going often to a place or ‘frequenting’ it preserves this sense of thickness, so that now a much-visited place is said to be ‘frequented’.

During the nineteenth century, frequency became the object or more and more diversified attention. The study, not of singular events, but of patterns of recurrence became the foundation of the many kinds of statistical analysis that were developed during the century, especially in studies of population and crowd behaviour. Epidemiology began to detect the regularities in the distribution of disease. Evolutionary theory depended entirely on stochastic principles. The study of frequency and probability lay behind the management of time in the development of industrial working practices. The study of letter frequencies enabled advances in both code-making and code-breaking. The sciences of anthropometry and personal identification depended on detailed understanding of the normal distribution of physical characteristics in human populations. The principle of frequency in nature – in radiations, undulations and oscillations of impulse – became the foundation not only of studies of heat, magnetism, sound and light, but also of technologies which converted one kind of frequency into another, and manipulated cyclicities which were above or below the threshold of human attention, as for example in the development of alternating current, or the cinema. You can see what you are being shown on the screen, but you cannot see the process of your seeing – unless, of course, there is a change of frequency. Gillian Beer (1996) has written about the diffusion of various forms of wave-awareness in modernism, but behind the idea of the wave is the idea of the frequency. Wells’s The Time Machine is invisible just as the cinema is invisible, even as it renders things visible: ‘ “If it is travelling through time fifty times or a hundred times faster than we are, if it gets through a minute while we get through a second, the impression it creates will of course be only one-fiftieth or one-hundredth of what it would make if it were not travelling in time” ’ (Wells 1995, 10). The Medical Man, one of those in attendance when H.G. Wells’s Time Traveller sends a prototype of his time machine travelling in time, makes a Dickensian link when he says ‘Look here…are you perfectly serious? Is this a trick – like that ghost you showed us last Christmas?’ (Wells 1995, 10).

Quantum mechanics would eventually claim that probability, the distribution of chance, went all the way down to the subatomic level of matter. Spiritualists, theosophists and others in the later nineteenth century who tried to establish a scientific basis for ghosts, hauntings and the otherworldly, quickly took over the idea of frequency: it is to the late nineteenth century that we owe the idea of good and bad vibes. Spiritualists leapt on the suggestion that apparently solid matter was in fact vibratory, to explain how it is that the other world could intersect with this one. The other world occupied by departed spirits was not far distant, but consisted of matter at a much higher state of vibration, which was distributed through our world. The idea of copresent frequencies reconfigured time, for the afterlife could be considered simply as an area of the undulatory spectrum. Even spirit photography participates in the formation of this frequentative refiguring of time. Making a ghost photograph by double exposure, turned the ghost into a matter of frequency, an overlayering of the instant of the photograph with another instant. This involves a spatialisation, a crowding or, in the seemingly superseded, but here recovered sixteenth century usage, frequenting of time. For us now, frequency analysis is everywhere. Much of this depends upon the method known as the 'Fourier transform', developed by Joseph Fourier (1768-1830), which provided a way of mapping a physical sequence - for example the movement of a wave - in trigonometrical or algebraic terms, and its refinement in the 'Fast Fourier Transform' developed by James W. Cooley and John W. Tukey in 1965, which permitted the minimisation of the previously unmanageably vast computing resources required for the Fourier Transform. Applications of frequency analysis today include stylistics, spectroscopy, gene-sequencing, cryptography, and the search for extra-terrestrial communication in the field known as bio-astronomy. (Currently 4 million people worldwide are loaning out computing power from their desktop PCs to aid the Berkeley Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project in searching for atypical patternings in the data received from outer space.

None of this has direct application to Dickens, who seems by contrast to belong to a world that remains almost sluggishly embedded and embodied. And yet, of course, Dickens has been taken up into the frequentative world of modern media, and it may be that certain aspects of his work indeed, as we say, resonate with this world. In his peculiar story 'The Haunted House', Dickens gives us a comic version of this belief in the copresence of spaces, in his account of his meeting with a spiritualist in a train, who has spent the night taking down messages dictated by spirits:

The goggle-eyed gentleman withdrew his eyes from behind me, as if the back of the carriage were a hundred miles off, and said, with a lofty look of compassion for my insignificance… ‘B.’

‘B, Sir?’ said I, growing warm.

‘I have nothing to do with you, sir’, returned the gentleman: ‘pray let me listen – O.’...

‘You will excuse me,' said the gentleman contemptuously, ‘if I am too much in advance of common humanity …I have passed the night – as indeed I pass the whole of my time now – in spiritual intercourse.’

‘O!’ said I, something snappishly.

‘The conferences of the night began,’ continued the gentleman,’ continued the gentleman, turning several leaves of his note-book, ‘with this message: “Evil communications corrupt good manners.” ‘

‘Sound,’ said I; ‘but, absolutely new?’

‘New from spirits,’ returned the gentleman. (Dickens 1956, 226-7)

Despite the fun that Dickens is having here, the principle of alphabetical distribution starts to get serious. The narrator agrees to sleep in the room of one ‘Master B’, and, programmed by the Victorian alphabetical game of ‘I love my love with a B’ with which Lewis Carroll also plays, begins to be haunted by the possibilities of the letter:

I also carried the mysterious letter into the appearance and pursuits of the deceased; wondering whether he dressed in Blue, wore Boots (he couldn’t have been Bald), was a boy of Brains, liked Books, was good at Bowling, had any skill as a Boxer, even in his Buoyant Boyhood Bathed from a Bathing-machine at Bognor, Bangor, Bournemouth, Brighton, or Broadstairs, like a Bounding Billiard Ball?

So, from the first, I was haunted by the letter B. (Dickens 1956, 242)

The end of this story is very curious. Dickens sets up a structure in which a number of inhabitants of an allegedly haunted house agree to render their accounts of what has happened to them sleeping in various rooms. In fact, however, this anthology is never supplied, and we get only the narrator’s account of being addressed as ‘Barber’ by the ghost of Master B, and his various dream-pursuits of the errant ghost which turn out to be dreams of his own former life. At the end of the story, which never reconnects with its storytelling frame, Dickens gives us a man haunted not by a guilty past, nor by the attentions of a tormented spirit, but by his own life, lived, as it were, over and over, in endless, ongoing review. Here, it is as though his whole life is flashing before his eyes in the middle of his own life: as though he had got caught up in the loop of his own life.

Ah me, ah me! No other ghost has haunted the boy's room, my friends, since I have occupied it, than the ghost of my own childhood, the ghost of my own innocence, the ghost of my own airy belief. Many a time have I pursued the phantom: never with this man's stride of mine to come up with it, never with these man's hands of mine to touch it, never more to this man's heart of mine to hold it in its purity. And here you see me working out, as cheerfully and thankfully as I may, my doom of shaving in the glass a constant change of customers, and of lying down and rising up with the skeleton allotted to me for my mortal companion. (Dickens 1956, 252)

It is an apt enough image for Dickens’s own hauntology, his haunted and haunting condition, for he is haunting himself.

The world of mass media which was incipient in Dickens’s lifetime, and which his life and literary career did so much to solidify, involves a kind of haunting through the frequentative. The world of electronic media has been intertwined with ghosts from its beginnings, with the ghost shows of Maskelyne at the Egyptian Hall and the well-documented interests that Thomas Edison had in making contact with spirits and the world of ‘the other side’. Though it would perhaps be overstating things to say that Dickens was absolutely central to the development of cinema, his work did provide the most important link between the theatrical traditions of the nineteenth century and the conventions of early cinema. His works, or sequences from them, were filmed regularly in the early decades of cinema. Film needed stories that were well known, that had passed from the page into the condition of repeatable myth. For a new industry, looking both to assert its dignity and its profitability, Dickens was an ideal ‘crossover’ product, since he was both universally admired, and yet also popular. Stories and episodes from Dickens were adapted for film more often than those of any other author. The conspicuous dip in Dickens’s critical fortunes in the early part of the twentieth century probably had more to do with his visibility in the mass media than anything else.

Early electronic technologies belonged to the frequentative. Early cinema made available the possibility of life lived not on the screen, but in the loop. Time could be endlessly rewound and replayed. The fact that early films, like the video clips currently made available via the internet, were so short, made for viewing practices that habituated audiences to the endless repeatability and modifiability of the items they were watching. Thus, having been projected forwards, films might then be shown backwards, or in slowed or speeded-up form. Trickery was of the essence even before Georges Méliès made the explicit connection between cinema and theatre. This meant that the frequentative principle entered into these works. They became ‘hauntological’ in their very form.

Doubtless, the idea that, just before death your whole life passes in review before your eyes, has its beginnings much earlier than the nineteenth century, probably in the Christian demand that one should seek actively to settle one’s accounts before departing the world. I wonder, however, when the specific form in which we know this, namely the idea that ‘one’s whole life flashes before your eyes’ arose. It will be easy to prove me wrong, but I want to believe that the flashing here might also be a flickering. For there is a difference between a consciously-recalled past, and a past that cranks itself out, as it were in fast-forward mode, before one’s passive gaze.

Dickens’s work is also suited to the frequentative world of the modern because of its own periodic inhabitation of time. Dickens’s own literary production was literally periodic, being structured around the serial repeatedly produced ‘in real time’ as we now say, over twenty monthly parts. Other cycles, centred on the seasons, especially Christmas, and the cycles of growth and age, are important in his work.

And cyclicity has a way of asserting itself in the reading of Dickens. It is a common practice to try to synchronise the reading of Dickens’s novels to their unfolding through monthly parts. Many of you will be aware that we have been conducting for the last sixteen years our own cycle of Dickensian rereadings, since 1986, when Michael Slater had the idea of celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first appearance of Pickwick Papers. Ever since then, we have been following through the sequence. Such cycles have a way of meshing with your life. I began my participation in the Dickens Days by taking the part of Jingle and then, in the following year of Fagin, this latter, surely a little precociously, at the age of 32. In 2020, we will at last have wound round to The Mystery of Edwin Drood. If my services are still required, I will be 65, and on the point of retirement. (I have my eye on the part of Mr Grewgious.)

There are other cycles and synchronicities that occur to the abstracted, or distracted mind. Our Birkbeck Dickens cycle is running, for example, on a 150 year interval. But other periods are perfectly conceivable. When we work out our 150-year gyre in 2020, we will in fact be only 16 or 17 years away from beginning again with the first of the 200th anniversaries. That casual phrase ‘16 or 17 years’ will light a bulb in the numerologically alert. For the whole cycle which we have been running comes in at just twice that, 33 or 34 years. This figure seems too rough and ready, however. If we settle instead for the pleasingly gramophonic figure of 33 and 1/3, it turns out that the complete cycle of Dickens novels from Pickwick to Drood wheels round three times per century (or, for the millennialist sticklers among you, 33 and 1/3 times per thousand years.) Had we begun our Birkbeck Dickens Days the year after Dickens died, in 1871, we would have reached port with Edwin Drood in 1903 or 1904. Rewinding promptly in the following year to Pickwick would have enabled us to fit in another complete 33/4-year cycle by the magic year of 1936, the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of Pickwick. The astrologically-minded will agree surely how auspicious this year of magical conjuncture would have been, since it would have enabled us to celebrate both Drood and Pickwick in the same year.

It does not end there (it does not end anywhere). You will recall that I will have celebrated the end of the cycle of 150th anniversaries at the age of 65 in 2020. Now, what happens if one adds the magic divisor of 33 and 1/3 to this figure? It will then be the summer of 2053, and I will be in the winter of my days at a hale 98, if I keep up the Indian clubs (a little old for the part of the 87-year old Mr Tetterby of The Haunted Man, who would have celebrated his 200th birthday five years previously in 2048). In 2053, we will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of Bleak House. The significance of this novel, of all the novels it might have been, will already have struck you. For does not this novel, written between 1851 and 1853, or from 15 to 17 years after Dickens’s Pickwick debut, fall exactly at the mid-point of the 33 and 1/3-year cycle!

One senses hidden forces at work here. Further research, for example into the quartiles, sextiles and ternary divisions of the cycle, is likely to reveal even more occult significances. You will have noticed that none of these calculations take any serious account of Sketches By Boz. The reason for this should I hope be clear. For, despite the fact that the first of these sketches appeared when Dickens was aged 21, in other words (though I haven’t checked the month) 33 and 1/3 years into the century, none of the other figures work out if one includes Sketches By Boz. I think we must regard this as in itself sufficient to cast serious doubt on the authenticity of this work.

Actually, this playing out of sequences, rhythms and periodicities is a striking feature of the haunted and haunting nature of Dickens’s work in a media age. For adaptations and revisitations of that work do tend to run on informal cycles, dictated by fashion and audience attention span, as well as on particular texts that fall in and out of favour. In these patterned recurrences, that happen before they happen, before and after start to lose their meaning. When you have finished Our Mutual Friend, it is once again waiting for you in the cycle. The frequentative nature of Dickens’s work suggests, by an appropriately false etymology, a link between the frequent revisitation of Dickens’s work, for example by Sue Roe in her Estella: Her Expectations (1982) or Peter Carey in Jack Maggs (1998) his striking reworking or preworking of Great Expectations, and the fact of frequency. Perhaps, along with all the sequels and prequels and requels, we should have the term ‘frequels’.

Perhaps there are three varieties, or epochs of time. We are accustomed enough to the first two: the cyclical, recurrent time said to be characteristic of religious and traditional societies and then, cutting violently athwart it, the urgently progressive, homogenous time of modernity, in which what matters most are not the rhythms of recurrence but the endless newness of time, and the continued, panicky dash for the future.Just as we have entered into a new form of global space, in which the old law that you cannot be present in two places at once seems to be coming under pressure, so we may be encountering or manufacturing a new kind of time, which is neither cyclical or progressive, or neither one simply. We might perhaps call it ‘periodic’ time. In this kind of time, we are no longer sure that time moves on steadily and predictably, for time is not even in its flow. Some parts of the time-world are oscillating quickly, others move on much larger cycles. Our mediated lives involve the coordination of different cycles and periodicities: not just of the working day, of the term, of the career, but also of festivals and other kinds of calendar and scheduling. Where short and long wavelengths converge – as with the appearances of a nineteenth century classic author on TV radio and in digital form – a curious haunting effect seems to be produced.

Periodic time is perhaps not so much the successor to the time of the modern, as the integral of the traditional and the modern, the cyclical and the progressive. In periodic time, there are no clean breaks, no absolute losses; on the other hand, there are no absolutely regular recurrences either. This periodic time, which we produce but do not entirely control or even understand, is part of the ‘second nature’ that we have made for ourselves in a world of media and communication.

Dickens saw and registered the ghostliness, the hauntedness of his own age, in which singulative and frequentative time cross over each other, as in the case, for example of ‘The Signalman’. Dickens’s energetic desire to inhabit all space, to be everywhere, to do everything, to be all of his characters all at once, could never succeed because it worked in mechanical or thermodynamic terms. But the churning mills and wheels of the thermodynamic age have been virtualised into the immaterial and ‘immediatised’ informatics of the age of media and communication. The merely local knottings and convulsions of space and time which Dickens evokes so often in his work have become generalised in this era, in which Dickens keeps on carrying on where he never left off.


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Steve Connor | School of English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |