Editorial Metaphysics

August 10, 2020


Priti Joshi, Professor of English at the University of Puget Sound, directs viewers to an exchange with a minor character in The Pickwick Papers to illustrate the early "Dickensian brilliance in capturing hot air, the sheer absurdity and hollow profundity."



Hello. My name is Priti Joshi, and I teach at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. I've been attending the Dickens Universe since 2003, so I guess I'm a relative newbie. I love the idea of Dickens-to-Go, and I'm so grateful to Courtney, John, Renee, and JoAnna for finding a way to keep us connected during COVID.

When the call to share passages from Dickens came, my mind went directly to Bleak House, to my mind Dickens's masterpiece. But after some thought, I decided against Bleak House. Not only because I cannot offer anything as erudite as Renee has, but because I wanted to read from a novel that for me, is integrally and entirely tied to the Dickens Universe.

The book is Pickwick Papers, a novel--and some debate, whether it is in fact, a novel--I think it is, but Pickwick Papers is a novel that I would never have read, were it not for this astonishing annual event that is the Dickens Universe. My passage then is not only from Dickens, but it's also about the Dickens Universe.

The section I will read is about Mr. Pott, a minor character, though we Dickensians know that minor characters in Dickens are often quite central. Mr. Pot is the editor of the Eatanswill Gazette, whom the Pickwickians meet when they visit his town during an election. And, I should just pause here and say, that I have just completed a book on Indian newspapers, and so I think this is another reason why this section and character resonates for me.

So, back to Pickwick Papers. Here's Pott the first time we meet him. "...a tall, thin man, with a sandy-coloured head inclined to boldness, and a face in which solemn importance was blended with the look of unfathomable profundity."

Pot makes profound declarations such as this, "the press is a mighty engine, sir."

When Mr. Pickwick asks Mr. Pott about a rival newspaper, the Eatanswill Independent, here's Pot's reply.

'The Independent, sir, is still dragging on a wretched and lingering career. Abhorred and despised by even the few who are cognisant of its miserable and disgraceful existence, stifled by the very filth it so profusely scatters, rendered deaf and blind by the exhalations of its own slime, the obscene journal, happily unconscious of its degraded state, is rapidly sinking beneath that treacherous mud which, while it seems to give it a firm standing with the low and debased classes of society, is nevertheless rising above its detested head, and will speedily engulf it for ever.'

Having delivered this manifesto, which formed a portion of last week's leader, with vehement articulation, the editor paused to take a breath...

Let me pause to take a breath. That by the way, was all one sentence.

Having presumably taken a breath or two, he continues thus,

'You will have seen the literary articles which have appeared at intervals and the Eatanswill Gazette in the course of the last three months, and which have excited such general,--may I say, universal--attention and admiration?'

'Why,' replied Mr. Pickwick, slightly embarrassed by the question, 'the fact is, I have been so much engaged in other ways that have really have not had an opportunity of perusing them.'

'You should do so, Sir,' said Pott with a severe countenance.

'I will,' said Mr. Pickwick.

'They appeared in the form of a copious review of a work on Chinese metaphysics, Sir,' said Pott.

'Oh,' observed Mr. Pickwick; 'from your pen, I hope?'

'From the pen of my critic, Sir,' rejoined Pott with dignity.

'An abstruse subject, I should conceive,' said Mr. Pickwick.

'Very, Sir,' responded Pott looking intensely sage. 'He crammed for it, to use a technical, but expressive term; he read up for the subject, at my desire, in the "Encyclopedia Britannica."'

'Indeed!' said Mr. Pickwick; 'I was not aware that that valuable work contained any information concerning Chinese metaphysics.'

'He read, Sir,' rejoined Pott, laying his hand on Mr. Pickwick's knee, and looking round with a smile of intellectual superiority -- 'he read for metaphysics under the letter M, and for China under the letter C, and combined his information, Sir!'

Mr. Pott's features assumed so much additional grandeur at the recollection of the power and research displayed in the learned effusions in question, that some minutes elapsed before Mr. Pickwick felt emboldened to renew the conversation...'

There is much that is delightful here, the Dickensian brilliance in capturing hot air, the sheer absurdity, and hollow profundity. Pickwick's pun about abstruse that Pott misses, the irony that the learned disquisition is about metaphysics, that branch of philosophy, that concerns itself with the very nature of reality or being. There is a deeper commentary, too, here about epistemology, about knowledge, about how knowledge is made and transmitted. With a newspaper editor as the butt of the joke, Dickens in this early 1837 novel, touches upon themes that were lifelong obsessions. What we know, how we know it, and the circulation of ideas.

Pickwick Papers is filled with lovely moments like this, the irrepressible energy of the early Dickens. If you have not read it, you're in for a treat. There is Sam Weller--and small volumes of Wellerisms were popular throughout the century. And also Jingle, who's manic energy is signature Dickens and contains much that is both delightfully amusing, and just a little unhinged.

I will end my comments by gesturing to one final moment from Pickwick Papers, a moment dear to all of us who attended the 2007 Universe. That year, the brilliant Sally Ledger delivered an insightful paper about the case for breach of promise, brought against the perpetual bachelor Pickwick. As she read the passage on chops and tomato sauce, Sally burst into laughter. Every time she caught her breath and started over, she broke into laughter anew before she could finish chops and tomato sauce.

Soon, the entire room of 350 listeners was rolling in the aisles, as well. That is the magic of the Dickens Universe.

This summer, I will miss seeing so many friends, Trude and Elizabeth, whose albums are our institutional memory, by the way, Helena and Ryan, Tim, and Carl and Christian, John Bowen, and Jim Adams and Jim Buzard, Jonathan Grossman and Tricia Lootens, John Jordan, and so many more.

This parting is temporary until soon. Be well, take care.