Novel * Charles Dickens * Cash Rules Everything Around Me * 1865
I have a strange ambition. I mean, I have several, but I can’t really talk about my plans to become the Commandant of the Greater Western Republic after The Fall. Gotta keep that one on the DL. This particular strange ambition has to do with the perceived decline of Western Civilization in general, Modernism a little less generally, and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, specifically. My ambition is to fully understand the poem. That’s it. CRAZY.
Here’s the catch, though. The Waste Land is a long, convoluted, complicated poem. It is also a stunning achievement of language, on par with Ulysses when it comes to unparalleled works of art that are difficult to understand. That’s actually the Moderns whole thing. In the case of T.S. Eliot, we’re talking about a hyper-educated young man with a damaged soul reflecting a point in world history where the weight of civilization is starting cause serious problems amongst humanity. The Waste Land is a fractured reflection of a damaged society. A heap of broken images, if you will. Yet because Eliot is so well-versed in the literary tradition, his ultra-Modern poem is still steeped in allusions and references to the past. In order to fully understand and appreciate the present, one must understand and appreciate the past.
I encountered this poem at various points in my own education. High school was the first, but like I said, it’s a major poem so it comes up a lot when you study literature. I forget the where or when, but during one of these classes, the instructor was very adamant about the difficulty of understanding The Waste Land. He (or she, I really don’t recall) went so far as to make the audacious claim that to truly get what Eliot was going for, one must be fully versed in the literary tradition that Eliot is constantly referring to. In other words, you have to have read what Eliot has read in order to really “read” The Waste Land. On the one hand, that’s obviously stupid. And pretentious as fuck. Like, it’s a poem homie. You get out of it what you get out of it, and if it’s well-crafted there’s value in the language alone. It’s not necessary to understand oblique references to fragments of 1st century writing (that’s really a thing) to feel the vibe of The Waste Land. On the other hand, part of me thought at the time “okay, challenge accepted, motherfucker.”
So here I am. I parsed the notes of T.S. Eliot himself, and the annotations of the Penguin Classic Edition and made a big old list of references. These range from The Bible to Shakespeare to Dante to shit I’ve never even heard of. There’s about sixty or so major and minor works of literature listed in the notes. I’m going to read all of them, and then write about them so I can organize my thoughts/expose my ignorance. At the end, I will see if the poem is elucidated any better. In addition, I’ve taken care to add a few things that aren’t directly noted in the text. One of those is a book about the Holy Grail that Eliot says is a kind of framework for his poem. That sounded important, so I’ll read that. Perhaps a little more obscure is the first major literary work I intend to examine, Our Mutual Friend.
When The Waste Land was first conceived, it was a much longer, far different poem than what the final version turned out to be. Eliot was a genius, but not a great editor. For that, he turned to one of his best bros, Ezra Pound (or as Eliot himself noted at the beginning of the poem, ‘the better craftsman.’ Although he said this in Italian for no real reason other than to show off how smart he is, and fuck you Eliot, I’m not learning Italian for your stupid poetry). Pound ruthlessly hacked and slashed at the manuscript, most of which Eliot went along with. It is undoubtedly a better poem for the editing, it went from good Modern poem to outright masterpiece. If you doubt this, consider the original title that Eliot thought was a cool idea for some reason: He Do the Police in Different Voices.
Even if you know what that’s referencing, it still doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s a weird, clumsy statement that has little-to-nothing to do with the poem itself. I imagine Ezra Pound reading the title, looking at Eliot (who is sitting there all anxious and excited, worried but pleased with himself), looking at the title again before cocking his head and saying “yo, that’s dumb as shit, bruh.” And then Eliot’s face just falls and he’s tempted to just snatch the manuscript away and run off to his room crying out “you’ll never understand me!” but he doesn’t and just sucks it up and takes it. Because Pound is right, that’s a terrible title. It is the most obscure reference I think I’ve ever come across. The novel the line comes from is Our Mutual Friend, which is Charles Dickens’ final novel. It’s an incidental line spoken in an incidental scene by a minor character in reference to another minor character. He literally reads the newspaper and do the police in different voices. That’s it. 800 pages of Dickensian nonsense, and that one line is what stuck with old T.S. Eliot.
The thing to do, obviously, is to read Our Mutual Friend and try to make sense of this choice. In order to do that, I will take the book on its own terms. I don’t know how you feel about Dickens. I like The Muppet Christmas Carol, and I think I read Great Expectations a million years ago, but that’s about it for my experience with his work. There’s a few things to know before wading into a big old Dickens novel. One is that these books were printed in installments. It was an episodic novel, and sections would appear periodically in print until it was finished. This means that there is some amount of repetition, because Dickens needs to remind his readers who these people are and what they’re doing. More importantly, for modern readers, it grants permission to not try and blast through all 800 pages at once. Maybe you’re into that, but my attention span is not, so I was happy to break this into chunks and not get bogged down into Dickensian detail. The story, while convoluted and filled with a vast assortment of characters, is still told clearly, so I never felt like I forgot what was happening.
Here’s the quickest summary I can come up with for Our Mutual Friend: There was a man who made his fortune collecting London’s trash. He had a son and a servant. When he died, he left everything to his son, contingent upon the son marrying some girl sight unseen. If the son, John Harmon, should die, the estate goes to the servant, Mr. Boffin (and his wife, Mrs. Boffin). The novel begins in a grim place, with two people skulking along the Thames at night, fishing for corpses. The idea is to secure the coins in their pockets before turning them into the police. This night, however, the corpse they pull up is said to be that of the dustman’s son. Since he’s dead, the fortune goes to Mr. Boffin. Turns out, though, that the dustman’s son isn’t dead. It was a case of mistaken identity! The son uses this confusion to avoid taking over the estate and having to marry some girl. Meanwhile the girl, Bella, is all pissed off because she was going to be rich but now she isn’t. Until the Boffins, who are jovial and silly, take her in because they felt bad. Then there’s some orphans and this weird little handicapped woman and some peg-legged dickhead named Wegg who runs a scam on the Boffins. The son goes hot undercover as Mr. Rokesmith and makes himself Secretary to the Boffins so he can make sure they’re not taken advantage of. He eventually falls for Bella, the girl he was intended to marry in the first place. Then there’s these other two dudes who are gentleman with fat bank, but are sort of ineffectual and lazy until one falls for the aforementioned river girl from the beginning of the novel. So this guy, Eugene, spends a bunch of time trying to find the river girl, Lizzie, and even though she’s into him, she stays away because they’re from different social classes, which is a big deal because 1865. Meanwhile, Lizzie’s brother, who is a sniveling little wanker, is trying to prop up his teacher/mentor Mr. Headstone as a potential husband, but he’s way too intense and she’s all like ‘ew, no.’ This deeply offends her bitch brother and Headstone goes slowly nuts and eventually tries to murk Eugene on dark and spooky night. This only ensures that Eugene and Lizzie get married, and he goes more crazy but he dies so whatever. Oh, while this is all unspooling, you’ve got John and Bella over here falling in love, and that’s all sweet as pudding, and she’s not even mad when she learns the truth about his identity and whatnot. Mr. Wegg, who has been basically blackmailing the Boffins this whole time is thwarted, and he stumps off on his peg leg. The good guys live happily ever after, evil is punished, money is bad, fuck high society.
Whew! Also, I left out a bunch of stuff. Dickens rolls deep, yo.
As you can see, there is no shortage of things to discuss within the confines of a Dickens novel. There’s the weird plot elements, for instance. Toward the end, it is revealed that Mr. Boffin’s heel turn was all an act. The part where he went full Miser and kicked John out of the house because he had the audacity to court Bella, who is better than him because of her money, was all a ruse. This, coupled with John’s own dishonesty about his own identity, seems like it would fully undermine any and all trust Bella could have in her husband and friends. Nope! Turns out she’s thankful for them showing her the error of her money-focused attitude at the beginning of the book. Okay, girl, whatever you say. That’s not really the crux of the novel, though. Dickens wanted a happily-ever-after, it’s 1865, and Bella should just be happy she’s got a good husband. And fine, to his credit Dickens is more often on the right side of history than not. There’s a Jew in this story, and he’s a cool guy who is generally abused by some Gentile buttface. So Dickens is like, hey, don’t be mean to Jews. Yet even that’s not really the focus here. Nah, what Dickens sets out to do is to attack the idea of social classes.
The novel is occasionally interrupted by what amounts to moments of plot summary. These take the form of dinner parties at the esteemed estate of the Veneerings. These are pretty much non-characters who are there to be made fun of, but are surrounded by a bunch of other Society types who flit in and out of the narrative. The most important of these is Eugene, but there are other minor characters with their own small arcs. Regardless, these dinner party scenes are there to provide a bird’s eye view of the complicated plot and to make fun of Society. Pretty much everyone in attendance is depicted as a blowhard, an imbecile, an asshole, or all three. It’s an important contrast to the relationships that form out of mutual respect and love found within the story proper. The upper classes view the plot of the story as wry amusement, until Eugene marries the river girl at the end, then they’re all appalled.
Dickens is not subtle when pointing out how and why these people suck. There is a fun moment when two of these Society dickweeds are to be married at the Veneering house. It’s all a big to-do, and is described thusly:
“The mature young lady is a lady of property. The mature young gentleman is a gentleman of property. He invests his property. He goes, in a condescending amateurish way, into the City, attends meetings of Directors, and has to do with traffic in Shares. As is well known to the wise in their generation, traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners; have Shares. Have Shares enough to be on Boards of Direction in capital letters, oscillate on mysterious business between London and Paris, and be great. Where does he come from? Shares. Where is he going to? Shares. What squeezes him into Parliament? Shares. Perhaps he never of himself achieved success in anything, never originated anything, never produced anything? Sufficient answer to all; Shares. O mighty Shares! To set those blaring images so high, and to cause us smaller vermin, as under the influence of henbane or opium, to cry out, night and day, ‘Relieve us of our money, scatter it for us, buy us and sell us, ruin us, only beseech ye take rank among the powers of the earth, and fatten on us’!”
Holy shit, dude! Okay, two things. First of all, I would like to acknowledge the obvious modern parallel to our current political situation. This was written over a hundred years ago, and it pretty much sums up the attitude that success in the world of abstract Capital should directly translate into political and social power. This is to say that Trump will be a great leader because he’s good at money (or at least his dad was). Second of all, equally obvious, is that Dickens thinks this is bullshit. This is far from the only moment in the novel where he goes on a huge aside about the evils of abstracted money markets and the corrosive nature of their existence. There’s another pretty funny bit about buying orphans that makes essentially the same satirical observations. What Dickens does with rants like this is to supplement them with narrative, which works more often than not.
Despite the seething mass of humanity that makes up Our Mutual Friend’s cast of characters, it’s pretty clear that Bella Wilford/Harmon has the most important arc. When we first meet her, she’s an entitled little brat. She’s relatively poor (compared to the Veneerings, although is quite rich compared to Lizzie), but for all that she acts like a spoiled princess. Her mom sucks and her sister is also a brat, but the father is a loveable cherub/doormat. Over the course of the novel, she is exposed to riches and the grand lifestyle that she had always dreamed of. Turns out, though, her strength of character is revealed when she rejects all this in the face of money’s corruptive qualities. Instead of responding to money and social status, she embraces love and charity and all that good stuff. Bella demonstrates what civilized life should look like.
To look at this from a slightly different angle, Dickens has serious problems with abstract systems. That’s all money markets are, after all. As soon as numbers get big enough, our human minds cannot conceive of them in concrete terms. If you doubt this, try and visualize what a million of any one object would look like, and then count them one by one. That will take you a very long time, and you’d get bored and lose count and give up. However, if you abstract those objects into an easily transcribed number, then you can deal with it. What Dickens is railing against in that heavily sarcastic passage above is the evolution of this abstraction to incorporate all human interactions. The larger a society gets, the more we must abstract our thinking to encompass the sheer vastness of the systems needed to serve the needs of humanity. This ends up leading to a visceral disconnect between the physical reality of the city’s inhabitants and the abstract mental landscape they’ve created for themselves. Another lengthy excerpt:
“A grey dusty withered evening in London city has not a hopeful aspect. The closed warehouses and offices have an air of death about them, and the national dread of colour has an air of mourning. The towers and steeples of the many house-encompassed churches, dark and dingy as the sky that seems descending on them, are not relief to the general gloom; a sun-dial on a church wall has the look, in its useless black shade, of having failed in its business enterprise and stopped payment for ever; melancholy waifs and strays of housekeepers and porters sweep melancholy waifs and strays of papers and pins into the kennels, and other more melancholy waifs and strays explore them, searching and stooping and poking for anything to sell. The set of humanity outward from the City is as a set of prisoners departing from the gaol, and dismal Newgate seems quite as fit a stronghold for the mighty Lord Mayor as his own state-dwelling.”
To be fair, and to put this quote into context, this description is used to set a scene between the would-be murderer Bradley Headstone and Lizzie. It matches the mood of this unfortunate gentleman, and is a physical manifestation of the grey horror Lizzie’s rejection puts him in. That said, most of Dickens’ descriptions of London are similar in tone. I chose this particular image because it incorporates the flood of dejected humanity created by the abstract machinations of those in power within the confines of the City (point of clarification if you’re not British/a shameless Anglophile, “the City” refers to the financial district of London, not the city as a whole). Dickens has never been afraid to dive into the muck of London, and again and again he illustrates in the most concrete terms possible the damage done to humanity by the vicious abstraction of social class and money.
And just like that, I fully understand why T.S. Eliot used a line from this novel to encompass his masterwork. The Waste Land was published roughly sixty years after Our Mutual Friend, but the size of these abstract social structures had only grown in importance in the interim. Add to this the speed of technological advancement and the horrors they wrought (specifically, World War I) only add depth to the pathos found within The Waste Land. Dickens, of course, was still something of an optimist. After all, John and Bella and Eugene and Lizzie both find love and happiness and presumably get to live in comfort uncorrupted by their money. This optimism was roundly rejected by the Moderns, but it is clear that Eliot, at least, had a deep understanding of Dickens’ weary hatred of the abstract horror of civilization.