When Words Fail: Shakespeare, Dickens, and Lacan

August 17, 2020


Wayne Batten, Friends of the Dickens Project Board Member, points us to a passage from David Copperfield to demonstrate how the Inimitable conveys the inexpressible.



Hello. I'm Wayne Batten, a retired school teacher living in Nashville, and I'm on the faculty of the Dickens Universe. I would like to share today a brief passage from David Copperfield in which he describes Agnes. David has been shocked by Uriah Heep's plans to marry Agnes; and although David cannot acknowledge the full extent of his feelings for Agnes, he comes close to expressing them here.

This is chapter 39, page 585 in the Penguin [Classics] Edition. Now, I would like to subject Dickens to a little of my favorite philosopher, currently Jacques Lacan, whose writings are almost impossible to understand, although that opaqueness has only inspired people to attempt to understand them. What little weight we can discern of Lacan's ideas can be applied to literature, I think. Lacan said that there are three so-called registers. That is, ways that we experience ourselves in the world. The first of these is the imaginary. And by this he meant not just something imagined or fictional, but any image that we conceive—it  can be based on reality or a fiction—and at will remember.

The second register, which develops about the time the child learns language, Lacan called the symbolic. And this includes not only verbal expression, but all the conventions and rules, concepts that can be expressed in language, and which to a large extent guide our lives.

The third register, and the last that Lacan developed himself in his theory, is the Real with a capital R. And it is really quite simple in a way, though because anytime we say words cannot express, we are referring to this third register. The Real, then, represents things that cannot be expressed either in an image or in language.

Now, a further preface will involve a little Shakespeare, of whom we know Dickens was very fond. This is Sonnet 18.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
    So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This sonnet was always a wonderful teaching tool for me for thirty years in high school, because it's almost a catalog of figures of speech. You name it: the metaphors, synecdoche, metonymy, paradox, oxymoron. But in addition, it really expresses something that cannot be simply put into words. In fact, the entire poem is a negation.

I can't compare thee to anything. Now, in the last line of the couplet, "So long lives this, and this gives life to thee," that repetition of "this," which in ordinary prose is not quite good diction because it's a demonstrative pronoun being used in a substantive way. But of course, Shakespeare invites us to think about what "this" is.

And two things come to mind. Of course, the poem itself. I always joked with my students, Shakespeare was right. The poem is still alive. We still read it, often with pleasure, and we certainly teach it. The poem has created a kind of immortality for the beloved.

But the second "this" could be the beloved or the sensation of love that cannot directly be described. That is, it is Lacan's Real. Now, to look at the interchange with Agnes:

'Dear Agnes,' I said, 'it is presumptuous for me, who am so poor in all in which you are so rich--goodness resolution, all noble qualities--to doubt or direct you; but you know how much I love you, and how much I owe you. You will never sacrifice yourself to a mistaken sense of duty, Agnes?

More agitated for a moment than I had ever seen her, she took her hand from me, and moved a step back.

'Say you have no such thought, dear Agnes! Much more than sister! Think of the priceless gift of such a heart as yours, of such a love as yours!'

Oh! long, long afterwards, I saw that face rise up before me, with its momentary look, not wondering, not accusing, not regretting. Oh, long, long afterwards, I saw that look subside, as it did now, into the lovely smile, with which she told me she had no fear for herself--I need have none for her--and parted from me by the name of Brother, and was gone!

Now, of course, Dickens had never heard of Lacan, but I would not be surprised if Lacan had read David Copperfield. Of course, I can't show any direct influence here, but it is remarkable that this very intense moment between them really presents something that cannot be directly described. It can't be imaged, and it can't be verbalized.

Thank you.


Wayne Batten taught English (regular, honors, and AP) at Montgomery Bell Academy, an all-boys preparatory school in Nashville, for thirty years. During this time, he directed the school’s art-and-literary magazine, Archives, and sponsored the Philosophy Club. He has attended the Dickens Universe almost yearly since 1995. Since retiring from teaching in 2015, he has been researching and writing full time, largely in nineteenth-century literature. He has published articles on Kate Chopin, Jesse Hill Ford, and Charles Dickens. His current research extends to the art of adaptation and cinema. 



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