Sunday, November 25, 2007

De Quincey Beyond the Bar

De Quincey’s writings are a resource for logics of legitimate insatiability. His story “The Household Wreck” insists on irremediability, although it ends: “my revenge was perfect” (De Quincey’s Works, 22 vols. [Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1877], 21:336): it's not so much a contradiction as a way of saying that perfect revenge is not enough. Since the narrative is retrospective, the events that the narrator claims constitute this perfection precede his stress, throughout the story, on the absence of any compensation. (Possibly, then, the writing is better compensation than the events themselves.)

In the story, the unnamed narrator’s young wife is falsely accused of shoplifting and dies after prison travails and related sorrows. As in De Quincey’s other narratives of loss, “The Household Wreck” stresses the singularity of grief and a consciousness that is neither melancholic (that is, preservative) nor reconciled. A “total wreck” may bring “the total abolition of any fugitive memorial that there ever had been a vessel to be wrecked or a wreck to be obliterated” (234), but the annihilation of the last trace of the lost object somehow doesn’t diminish resistance to the loss (what could he feel the loss of if there weren’t a “fugitive memorial” to the object? what could resistance be if it weren’t itself this memorial?). We’re left with a confusion between a loss that’s wrong regardless of whether it is fair or not—inherently wrong and literally unacceptable—and the fact that the loss is caused by a legal injustice, the unjust way the loss came about. Holding to these crossed wires, “The Household Wreck” imagines even the condition of finitude in the vocabulary of injustice, ignoring any possibility of fairness to the aggregate in the finitude of the individual.

This language comes to the narrator as he wakes from a typhoid dream that covers the entire time of his wife’s trial and sentencing. Instead of witnessing the trial, he recedes to “a region where no voices were heard but the spiritual voices of transcendent passions—of ‘Wrongs unrevenged and insults unredressed’” (302; what's being advertised in this passage from Book III of Wordsworth's Excursion is retirement from socially induced bitterness). Later, when he breaks his wife out of prison so that she can die on the outside, he again dreams dreams keyed to Wordsworth, which revive wounds that Wordsworth describes himself eventually laying aside: “Every night, for the greater part, I lay painfully and elaborately involved, by deep sense of wrong,-- ‘—in long orations, which I pleaded / Before unjust tribunals’ [Prelude, Book X, 374-375]” (330; Wordsworth’s nightmare after the French Revolution). Long after the end of the Revolution and the Terror, De Quincey would seem to be still pleading. Even though the inchoate desires of the story issue disturbingly in mob action and the assignment of vengeance to God, there is something utopian in De Quincey’s imagination of something beyond justice--and beyond Wordsworth--that would have to break the laws of space and time. What the narrator gets is a confession, setting the record straight, and vigilante violence; but the narration, succeeding these turns of events and overshooting their limited satisfactions, opens in the voice of Milton’s Satan, and argues that although continued resistance is futile, “to be weak is miserable / Doing or Suffering” (Book I, 157-158).

Image: Ryan McGinley, The Aftermath, Pennsylvania, 2000

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