The Fool

Characters:

Samuel Pickwick; Samuel Weller.

Book:

The Posthumous Papers of

The Pickwick Club

         The Pickwick Papers see Charles Dickens discovering himself as a novelist. As G.K. Chesterton said, Dickens' Pickwick is “the mere mass of light before the creation of sun or moon. It is the splendid, shapeless substance of which all his stars were ultimately made.” When first hired to write up some incidents to accompany some sporting sketches by the respected illustrator Robert Seymour, Dickens was yet an untested author. His various short pieces printed in newspapers and periodicals, eventually published as Sketches by Boz, had achieved some public success. To capitalize on this, Dickens retained the pseudonym Boz – originally pronounced with a long o, as in bozo. Only two instalments of the uncertain enterprise had been illustrated before Seymour killed himself by putting a shotgun to his head. This dark happenstance might've sunk a more fragile personality, but not Dickens, who often mucked about in a black humour which never missed an opportunity to poke fun at the handicapped or the dead. Seymour's work was disliked by Dickens anyway, and the artist's replacement would come to be the illustrator most associated with the author's work – Hablot Knight Browne, who adopted his own pseudonym: Phiz.

 

 

 Begun at the dawn of the Victorian era, Pickwick's Pickwick doesn't quite begin as he means to proceed. Unlike most heroes, Mr. Pickwick is not a lad - the youngest of three brothers, say - but a fat, middle-aged, middle-class man. He has studied and memorized facts and taxonomies but of the real, tangible, messed-up world he remains oblivious. To rectify this, he sets out not on a journey of self-discovery - since, really, there is nothing there to discover - but rather a journey in which he may discover us. In this sense Pickwick is but a lad. As Sam Weller says of him, “His heart had been born later than his body.” Sam Pickwick is constantly taken in – by tricksters, con men, romantic notions – but also taken into homes, to hearts, to prison even, thereby seeing and experiencing the outside world from within. By embracing the English people and presenting to them who they were, Pickwick and Dickens were in turn embraced by the English people. With the wide-eyed sincerity of a child, Pickwick is on an errand to uncover the child within us, his reader.

 

 Similarly and simultaneously, Dickens is discovering who he himself is as a writer. We see him in the very midst of inventing himself. To aid in this Dickens invents a foil for his foil - a Sam thin where the other Sam is fat; a Sam young where the other Sam is getting on; a Sam colloquial and of the street where the other Sam is bookish and of the parlour. With a dog-like devotion, the servant Sam Weller may be something of the rascal to Pickwick's credulous rube, but he comes by it as honestly as does his master – with an open-hearted optimism which has to it a touch of the divine. As the rascal who is really no rascal says of his master who is really no master: “He's a reg'lar thoroughbred angel.”

 

 While technically Dickens' first novel, Pickwick Papers is a rambling self-generating picaresque, a scrapbook for crude anecdotes and childhood remembrances, more stream of consciousness than unified body. It is chaotic, raw youthful energy, with the author learning along with us as he goes. In it, we have the distillation in reverse of everything that would come to be lovingly known as Dickensian. Sam Weller and Sam Pickwick do not exist for the story - the story exists for them. Here, before Dickens has learned how to make his characters further the drama, we see how the author doesn't so much write characters as they write him. Neither does he write novels so much as he does begin and end somewhere along an ongoing continuum – like stepping for a certain amount of time into Heraclitus' ever-changing river.

 

 The book itself appears to be an unprecedented act of self-genesis. The book's full title, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, is itself paradoxical – not only is Dickens' first book “posthumous” but he is not officially its author, but rather its “editor”. Fitting, then, that it was for a time credited to Boz – a child's mispronunciation of Moses, biblical author and father of his people. Whatever its obscure pedigree, in the beginning was the word and the word was Pickwick. Quickly followed by the fiat lux:

 

 “The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as the proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted.”

 

 Like the Bible, the book presents some discrepancies between names and dates, as seen in the novel's second sentence (really the first sentence of the postulated papers, itself enclosed in parenthesis): “May 12, 1827. Joseph Smiggers, Esq., P.V.P.M.P.C.,* presiding.” In the proper name we may hear the author's sniggers, but the date is significant enough - albeit outside of the work itself - since it was the date the 15-year-old Dickens first went to work for the law firm Ellis & Blackmore – the moment, in the popular idiom of the time, at which he “began the world”. And begun here in Pickwick is a new dispensation for the English novel. Literally a literary mutatis mutandis. Mr. Pickwick's own use of language is literal, denotative, normative. As a god visiting his creation he is bland, a blank doodle, a circular body on which sits a bald circular head on which rest his circular spectacles, the eyes of which have yet to be filled in. It is Sam Weller's job, then, to hold up the mirror as it were to Sam Pickwick's nature, rejoining his totally abstract language with the concrete language of the bona fide world, with as little accuracy or success. Between them, accidentally as it were, they free speech from the tyranny of written representation. Who, after all, said it was written in stone?

 

 When Mr. Pickwick, self-styled lexicographic philologist, stumbles across the stone inscribed “Bill Stumps, his mark.”, its meaning remains arcane. Naturally enough, this doesn't stop him from writing a 96-page pamphlet elucidating 27 different readings of the inscription. The blighter Blotton, however, soon shows up, ascribing the stone's inscription to “an idle mood”, accusing Pickwick of being a fool, and refuting it thus. Yet, as with all argumentum ad lapidems, pretty much everything remains unsaid. “Bill Stumps, his mark.” is the literal formula an illiterate man [Bill Stumps] uses to refer to his mark; the word stump meantime comes from the Old German - where marks were used to pay a bill - meaning: “to stumble over a tree stump” - itself a confounding tautology, compounded by its colloquial use as a kind of speech, often given by politicians on the campaign trail. In the end, then, maybe Mr. Pickwick was right(?). As the Inimitable remarks, it's “an illegible monument” to Mr. Pickwick, to The Illegible one presumes, as is Pickwick itself – the novel act of the novelist's own coming into existence. And fast on its heels, before it's had time to sink in, Mr. Pickwick sends for his easy-going feudal servant, Sam Weller - the untapped resource of language in the illiterate past master of linguistic invention. From the moment of his arrival and here on in, he is the novelist's surrogate and its principal creative centre.

 

 With Weller's appearance, Mr. Pickwick fades into the background and, in so doing, comes to the fore. Soon, he is quite literally a “magic word”. While waiting at the White Horse Cellar, the servant Sam draws his master Sam's attention to a door on which is written “in gilt letters of a goodly size... the magic name of PICKWICK!” Here, Dickens reveals the origin of Pickwick's name – the man who ran the coach to Bath. And, coming full-circle, what should this man's first name be? - Moses. In the words of Weller, who speaks for every Englishman in an as yet unwritten English, the name Moses Pickwick is what “I call addin' insult to injury, as the parrot said ven they not only took him from his native land, but made him talk the English langwidge arterwards.” In a similar trompe-l'œil of the written word, the chapter entitled “The Parish Clerk” consists primarily of an unsophisticated tale recounted by Sam Weller as edited by Samuel Pickwick. In this way, for a brief moment, we see Dickens editing Sam editing Sam who is really Dickens – or, Pickwick is editing Dickens who is editing Pickwick – or, in short: Pickwick is writing writing itself.

 

 

 The popularity of The Pickwick Papers was a literary phenomenon unlike any seen before. It was quickly published all over the world. Five theatrical adaptations were afoot before its completion. Within 100 years there were 96 separate English editions and 127 American. The public were stricken with Bozomania – a disease which caused the unchecked proliferation of Pickwick hats, coats, canes, cigars, &c. &c. The condition then mutated into the less quotidian malady, Pickwickian Syndrome. Later, the disease even became its own literal cliché, commonly known as a Wellerism. The Pickwick Papers spawned actual clubs in emulation, some whose members were only referred to by sobriquets bestowed them based on characters from the novel, such as Job Trotter and Fat Boy. One such society – The Pickwick Bicycle Club in London – was inaugurated in the year of Dickens' death and is still in operation today.

 

 Pickwick remained Dickens' best-loved novel for decades, and its pure inventive energy was never quite matched again by its author. For many modern readers, however, Pickwick's wandering childlike wonder can be infantile, rambling, irrelevant, and almost impossible to relate to anymore. While begun at the birth of the Victorian era, Pickwick is actually located in the Regency period - the time of John and Elizabeth Dickens' courtship and the birth of Charles Dickens himself. The modern reader may do well to locate Pickwick in a world before their own existence - when their parents had only just met perhaps or were themselves only kids - since Pickwick represents a pre-natal world, being itself the precursor of all Dickens' children yet to be born. For, although nascent, in Pickwick is the germ of a core Dickensian theme, namely: Society constrains, confines, incarcerates creation, the life force, the child. The author - whose life's work championed the child in children who were in actuality little adults - begins his career with a risible old man who is nothing if not in his heart and soul no more than a child. If modernity can find nothing of itself in this, perhaps it can find itself in this inability to find itself. Or, in other words, through the way freedom and value and a sense of self is only found through the loss of these things – the paradox of striving for and attaining all that is unquestionably not foolish.

 

 According to the poet Auden, Pickwick was a retelling of the mythical Fall of Man. Pickwick, the man, is the word made fleshy - the embodiment of consciousness itself which is, in the end, the essence of Original Sin. Facts, property, money – these are just words and words will never free humanity of them. Similarly, Pickwick as a novel is neither good nor bad – it is free from such encumbrances since it's not really a novel to begin with. Charles Dickens, a genius of language, in the very midst of his transcendent celebration of self-revelation, nevertheless chooses to place his two surrogate selves in chains. No doubt he did them this wrong for his own just reasons, but also it turns out so that, in Sam Pickwick and Sam Weller locked away in Fleet prison, the otherwise too busy modern reader might see themselves. As Dickens' Pickwick quickens, these restraints and limitations, which begin here and last a lifetime, actually lead away from old-fashioned modernity toward the fulfilment of a promise made in childhood, namely: timelessness.

 

 Pickwick is both Holy Fool and not wholly fool. The gullibility he ambles through life with is godlike. In the end, the modern may do well - or at the very least weller - to remember another distinction made by Chesterton: “The greenhorn is taken in by Life. And the sceptic is cast out by it.”

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Notes for General Circulation

 

  • The unnumbered card of the Tarot's Major Arcana signifies the fundamental condition in which man finds himself in the world. We may assume Mr. Pickwick carries in his valise the 19th Century symbolic equivalents of the elements Earth, Air, Water, and Fire – or perhaps his bag is empty so to fill it with the aforesaid elementary samples he finds along his way. It may be said that Pickwick looks a little self-pleased – or able to break the 4th wall and smile directly at the reader.

  • The traditional dog figure, symbolizing man's animal nature and the animal's sorrow at seeing his companion foolishly striving headlong toward the unnatural, is here replaced by his loyal page, Samuel Weller. Pickwick's journey is indefinite and may indeed require Weller's services as a bootblack. That the polish he uses for the job is Warren's Blacking seems unquestionable.

  • Pickwick's almost insistent lack of structure is The Fool's most unifying motif. The card's lack of number represents its lack of name, the sound a child makes, a blank left for the reader himself to fill in.

  • This card's appearance in a formal pattern usually means two things: 1.) the reader needs to have a look at what it is they have in their hands, and 2.) the reader has set out on a venture which needs to be seen as such and demands the reader strives on some level to understand.

  • It is not linked with any planetary influences, rather it is the empty space between planets. The Fool indicates unexpected influences, coincidence, luck, Providence, and the unplanned.

  • The Fool may suggest the divine; the infinite wellspring of creativity or the birth of an exceptionally creative person. It may also indicate the loss of innocence, recklessness, and the Fall of Man which results in the rational but senseless bondage of the Soul.