The Mimesis of Disordered Consciousness

In recent posts I’ve been examining realistic mimesis through descriptions of things that are real and realistic descriptions of things that are fictional. In this post I want to consider a couple of passages that test the boundaries of realistic description through the representation of disordered consciousness. I begin with the first paragraph of Charles Dickens’ last (unfinished) novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood:

“An ancient English Cathedral town? How can the ancient Cathedral town be here? The well-known massive grey square tower of its old Cathedral? How can that be here! There is no spike of rusty iron in the air, between the eye and it, from any point of the real prospect. What IS the spike that intervenes, and who has set it up? Maybe, it is set up by the Sultan’s orders for the impaling of a horde of Turkish robbers, one by one. It is so, for cymbals clash, and the Sultan goes by to his palace in long procession. Ten thousand scimitars flash in the sunlight, and thrice ten thousand dancing-girls strew flowers. Then, follow white elephants caparisoned in countless gorgeous colors, and infinite in number and attendants. Still, the Cathedral tower rises in the background, where it cannot be, and still no writhing figure is on the grim spike. Stay! Is the spike so low a thing as the rusty spike on the top of a post of an old bedstead that has tumbled all awry? Some vague period of drowsy laughter must be devoted to the consideration of this possibility.”

Part of the effect of this passage comes from the difficulty of making sense of it, part from the rhetorical questions which tease the reader, and part from the jumble of incompatibilities. When I first read this, I’m sure I didn’t know what to make of it—until I read the explanation, in the second paragraph:

“Shaking from head to foot, the man whose scattered consciousness has thus fantastically pieced itself together, at length rises, supports his trembling frame upon his arms, and looks around. He is in the meanest and closest of small rooms. Through the ragged window-curtain, the light of early day steals in from a miserable court. He lies, dressed, across a large unseemly bed, upon a bedstead that has indeed given way under the weight upon it. Lying, also dressed and also across the bed, not longwise, are a Chinaman, a Lascar, and a haggard woman. The two first are in a sleep or stupor; the last is blowing on a kind of pipe, to kindle it. And as she blows, and shading it with her hand, concentrates its red spark of light, it serves in the dim morning as a lamp to show him what he sees of her.”

The first paragraph is a jumble of confused and contradictory subjective impressions; the second paragraph is presented as an objective account of an external reality. At this point I was able to guess that we are in an opium den, and the first paragraph describes an opium dream, though the word “opium” doesn’t appear until a half-page later. Is this description realistic? If you don’t know that this is an opium dream, it certainly doesn’t seem realistic. But once you do know, the situation changes. (I have no way of knowing if this description is accurate, but I think Dickens wants you to take it to be so.) Does realism include accurate descriptions of the fantastic? If so, is there any way to distinguish realism from fantasy? What would it mean to say that a description of the fantastic is unrealistic?

My next passage comes from Vladimir Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave; it’s fairly long, so I will break it up a little and leave some parts out. The passage begins as one of the principal characters, a naïve young man named Franz, is leaving his hometown on a train to go to Berlin, though the reader doesn’t know what’s happening right away. Here’s the first paragraph:

“The huge black clock hand is still at rest but is on the point of making its once-a-minute gesture; that resilient jolt will set a whole world in motion. The clock face will slowly turn away, full of despair, contempt, and boredom, as one by one the iron pillars will start walking past, bearing away the vault of the station like bland atlantes; the platform will begin to move past, carrying off on an unknown journey cigarette butts, used tickets, flecks of sunlight and spittle; a luggage handcart will glide by, its wheels motionless; it will be followed by a news stall hung with seductive magazine covers—photographs of naked, pearl-gray beauties; and people, people, people on the moving platform, themselves moving their feet, yet standing still, striding forward, yet retreating as in an agonizing dream full of incredible effort, nausea, a cottony weakness in one’s calves, will surge back, almost falling supine.”

There’s a lot going on here. This is, in part, an account of a familiar experience: you’re sitting on a train or in a bus that is just starting to move, quite slowly, so you don’t feel the motion. You look out the window and it seems for an instant as if you and the train or bus are motionless but the world outside is moving backwards. This passage is written as if this experience were reality rather than an illusion. The iron pillars start to walk away; the platform moves past, carrying bits of detritus with it; a luggage cart moves on motionless wheels; people are moving their feet but they stand still and then begin to retreat instead of advancing. The initial personification of the clock adds another note of inversion, as if time were caused by clocks, and it also gives an emotional tone to the passage.

This first paragraph is narrated with no subjective observer as the source of the illusion, as if this were just objective reality. The second paragraph (which I omit) introduces Franz, along with his mother and sister, who have come to see him off. Here is the third paragraph:

“And not only did they slip away, those two familiar smiles, not only did the station depart removing its newsstand, its luggage cart, and a sandwich and fruit vendor […], not only did all this fall behind; the entire old burg in its rosy autumn morning moved as well […]. There was no stopping the world now. In grand style houses pass by, the curtains flap in the open windows of his home, its floors crackle a little, the walls creak, his mother and sister are drinking their morning coffee in the swift draft, the furniture shudders from the quickening jolts, and ever more rapidly, more mysteriously, travel the houses, the cathedral, the square, the sidestreets. And even though by now tilled fields had long been unfolding their patchwork past the railway car window, Franz still felt in his very bones the receding motion of the townlet where he had lived for twenty years.”

This paragraph extends the illusion beyond the momentary sensory impression. The whole of Franz’s earlier life is now receding into the past, and a new life is coming upon him. Nabokov has extended the familiar perceptual confusion far beyond the realistic in order to make a thematic point. The disorientation Franz feels as the train starts to move away from the station is in a sense like the disorientation he feels as his life moves away from his past. At the beginning of the next paragraph, however, realism is restored: “The train was now going fast.”

My last passage is the very end of Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep. The hero of this novel is a young Jewish immigrant boy, David, in New York City in the early twentieth century. I can’t begin to summarize the story. It’s a great book, a sad and disturbing view of the immigrant experience and the anguish and trauma of family life. At the climax of the story, David deliberately touches the third rail of the streetcar in search of some kind of revelation from the shock. He falls unconscious to the street, with a bad burn on his foot. A crowd gathers around him, and he is taken home by a policeman and a doctor to rest and recover.

Here I quote the moment of revelation, the epiphany, as David feels the electric shock, and then the ending, as his mother puts him to bed. The epiphany is printed in italics and with ragged right justification, as if it were a poem. The meaning of this passage derives from the action and events of the more than 400 preceding pages of the novel, but the power is evident even in this short excerpt:

Power! Power like a paw, titanic power,
ripped through the earth and slammed him
against his body and shackled him
where he stood. Power! Incredible,
barbaric power! A blast, a siren of light
within him, rending, quaking, fusing his
brain and blood to a fountain of flame
vast rockets in a searing spray! Power!
The hawk of radiance raking him with
talons of fire, battering his skull with
a beak of fire, braying his body with
pinions of intolerable light. And he
writhed without motion in the clutch of
a fatal glory, and his brain swelled
and dilated till it dwarfed the galaxies
in a bubble of refulgence—Recoiled, the
last screaming nerve clawing for survival.
He kicked—once. Terrific rams of dark-
ness collided; out of their shock space
toppled into havoc. A thin scream wobbled
through the spirals of oblivion, fell like
a brand on water, his-s-s-s-s-ed—

The representation of extreme states of consciousness are a challenge. What is it that is being represented? Is it real in some sense? If it is not real, what is it? Is this merely a representation of David’s distorted and disordered consciousness?

When David is taken home, he is put to bed, and he falls off to sleep. Sleep is the most common experience of disordered consciousness. This passage provides a necessary kind of lessening of the tension created by David’s experience of the shock, and I think it allows his extreme experience to become integrated into his continuing life:

“Perhaps you’ll be hungry in a little while,” his mother said persuasively. “After you’ve rested a bit and we’ve put some medicine on your foot. And then some milk and a boiled egg. You’d like that?” Her question was sufficiently shored by statement to require no answer. “And then you’ll go to sleep and forget it all.” She paused. Her dark, unswerving eyes sought his. “Sleepy, beloved?”
“Yes, Mama.”
He might as well call it sleep. It was only toward sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark into the cloudy tinder of the dark, kindle out of shadowy corners of the bedroom such myriad and such vivid jets of images—of the glint on tilted beards, of the uneven shine on roller skates, of the dry light on grey stone stoops, of the tapering glitter of rails, of the oily sheen on the night-smooth rivers, of the glow on thin blonde hair, red faces, of the glow on the outstretched, open palms of legions upon legions of hands hurtling toward him. He might as well call it sleep. It was only toward sleep that ears had the power to cull again and reassemble the shrill cry, the hoarse voice, the scream of fear, the bells, the thick-breathing, the roar of crowds and all sounds that lay fermenting in the vats of silence and the past. It was only toward sleep one knew himself still lying on the cobbles, felt the cobbles under him, and over him and scudding ever toward him like a black foam, the perpetual blur of shod and running feet, the broken shoes, new shoes, stubby, pointed, caked, polished, bunion, pavement-beveled, lumpish, under skirts, under trousers, shoes, over one and through one, and feel them all and feel, not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence. One might as well call it sleep. He shut his eyes.

The final paragraph is a doubled ring, ABACA: the A sections are “He might as well call it sleep”, “He might as well call it sleep”, and “One might as well call it sleep”, and the B and C sections are the passages in between. Then a coda, “He shut his eyes”, provides closure for the paragraph and for the whole novel.  Both the B and the C sections largely consist of lists of juxtaposed items, with little syntactical structure—congeries—but congeries of images—“vivid jets of images”—rather than of things in themselves. Much of the B section is made of prepositional phrases in parallel structure: “of the glint…, of the uneven shine…, of the dry light…, of the tapering glitter…, of the oily sheen…, of the glow…, red faces, of the glow…”. All of these are visual impressions of various perceptions of light. The C section begins with sound rather than sight—“the shrill cry, the hoarse voice, the scream of fear, the bells, the thick-breathing, the roar of crowds and all sounds that lay fermenting in the vats of silence and the past”—which is followed by the feeling of lying on the cobbles, after David has been knocked to the ground by the jolt of electricity, and then the juxtaposed images of a dozen kinds of shoes—David’s perspective as he lies on the street and sees the shoes of the crowd gathered around him. Because there are only the weakest syntactical connections, the items in both the B and C sections remain isolated perceptions rather than elements of a constructed world. The world of David’s disordered consciousness is a world of fragmentary perceptions. Each item is its own moment of mimesis. Thematically, the B section summarizes the events of the novel and the C section reminds the reader, from a different perspective, of the moment of revelation, while bringing the whole experience into a state of repose and closure.

In this post I have examined the mimesis of disordered consciousness in Dickens, Nabokov, and Roth, but this examination shows again the usefulness of the triple analysis of the synthetic, the mimetic, and the thematic. The composition of each of these passages creates the mimesis, and the synthesis and the mimesis together create the thematic.

3 thoughts on “The Mimesis of Disordered Consciousness

  1. What great representations of “disordered consciousness”! I love you the way you’ve shown how the synthetic, mimetic, and thematic work together in each. I’m curious about how disordered consciousness implies an idea of ordered consciousness. Would that be the unmarked term, the norm, or something else? Would ordered consciousness be more or less “real” than disordered consciousness? Is representation a kind of ordering, and if so, does it relate differently to things that are themselves ordered or disordered? I guess I’m wondering about the kinds of synthetic, mimetic, and thematic problems raised by disordered versus ordered consciousness. In what ways is representing how we think and experience normally different from representing how we think and experience in unusual ways?


    1. Another great comment. You’re on a roll. The more I work with this conception of the simultaneous synthetic, mimetic, and thematic aspects (adapted from Phelan’s view of the three as separable components), the more I find it useful. I’m not sure I have a clear conception of “ordered consciousness”; perhaps it is the unmarked case, or just the unthought-of-by-me case. It comes into focus only by contrast with disordered consciousness. As usual, I’m not very philosophic. Almost all (perhaps all) linguistic representation involves ordering, but some representations foreground ordering more than others. A Ciceronian period is highly ordered; a congeries is less so; a congeries purports to take its disorganization from the disorganization of what is represented. I will have more to say about some of these questions in a couple of weeks, when I do a kind of summation of where we are in the discussion.


  2. I’ve just finished rereading this (I’ve backtracked through the posts to get a renewed sense of the argument). On my first reading, some weeks back, I was struck by a recollection of one of the best renderings of a disordered mind I’d encountered to that point. It was so potent, in fact, that it affected my readings of other texts after that text. It, in a sense, damaged the ‘trust’ I had in the worlds texts created and (re)presented to me. It likely was helped along in that affect by the amount of ‘science’ or ‘speculative’ fiction I had been reading at the time.

    The text is Doris Lessing’s *Briefing for a Descent Into Hell*. If you’ve not read it, I recommend it. I don’t want to spoil the ‘story’ here for any who have not read it; it, I will say it makes the opening of *Edwin Drood* seem like *A Christmas Carol* in comparison.

    Your opening questions (“Does realism include accurate descriptions of the fantastic? If so, is there any way to distinguish realism from fantasy? What would it mean to say that a description of the fantastic is unrealistic?”) are important and, appropriately, not easy to answer definitively. I will, though, hazard simple answers, to be elaborated upon later:

    1. Yes. I think here of Bierce, Poe, Lovecraft, even Tolkien, C.S. Lewis.
    2. Yes … but, it is not always facilitated by textual cues in the ‘story’; rather, paratextual cues often predetermine our distinctions.
    3. It means, I think, that the description has ‘jumped the shark’ into parody.

    Liked by 1 person

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