Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Gap in the Manuscript

by Shayda Hoover (UC Irvine)

NB. Page references are to the Norton paperback (1958). Chapter references are included for convenience.

The Man of Feeling is dominated by the signs of incompleteness and interruption. The work is presented as the abandoned manuscript of a departed neighbor (known only as “the Ghost”) and has lost several pages. The “found manuscript” is a familiar pretext for fictional histories, but Mackenzie’s free use of “a gap in the manuscript” to provide a narrative break by omitting intermediate chapters suggests a willingness to use the romantic fragment to achieve sentimental effects quickly and move from height to height in the depiction of the protagonist’s responses. Between the fictional “ghost” writer, the fictional mangler of the material text (a curate), and the self-proclaimed, fictional “editor,” Harley’s history is thrice-mediated, and the result promotes its main character by omitting “the intricacies of a novel” (89/Interjection before Ch55) in order to get its readers quickly to the moments of sentimental oomph. The following is a brief overview of the effects of a fragmentary structure on The Man of Feeling’s depictions of human nature and interactions.

The Ghost’s manuscript is described as consisting of named and numbered chapters that enclose particular incidents. Most chapters move from encounter to aphorism to emotional response. The chapters are prone to break off at the moment of highest pitch. For example, visiting Bedlam gradually overpowers Harley when a young female inmate gives him a mourning ring she has made: “Harley stood fixed in astonishment and pity; his friend gave money to the keeper.—Harley looked on his ring.—He put a couple of guineas into the man’s hand: ‘Be kind to that unfortunate’—He burst into tears, and left them” (23/Ch20). The chapter breaks here and an unrelated episode follows. Larger breaks between episodes are blamed on “the depredations of the curate” (88/Editorial interjection before Ch55). Structurally, the frequent “gaps” in the narrative allow Mackenzie to omit unnecessary exposition and focus on a few episodes. The use of fragments is a kind of narrative foreshortening that causes Harley to emerge prominently from a crowd of flattened, undifferentiated characters. Very few of the characters have names; the majority of Harley’s contacts are distinguished minimalistically, e.g., “a beggar,” “the old gentleman,” “the younger stranger.” This generic quality extends to “the editor,” to his companion, “the curate,” and to the unknown author(s) of the text, “the Ghost” and also “a later pen” (who provides a moralizing interlude). The gaps in the record omit these characters’ larger histories, and make Harley’s own history appear disconnected and discontinuous: he is almost a ghost himself.

The text demonstrates that people are often baffled by appearances, and can rarely be certain whether they are esteeming each other correctly. Harley and his creator are aware that quantities of human deception can interfere perniciously in the exercise of benevolent impulses. Harley decides the question by arguing with himself (in the case of the prostitute, Miss Emily Atkins) that “to calculate the chances of deception is too tedious a business for the life of man!” (36/ch28). The narrator is slightly more guarded (see the ironical description of the mechanical process by which Harley’s hand releases a coin to a beggar, 14/Ch14), but he, too, considers it scarcely possible to discover the truth without help; and Miss Atkins reflects in hindsight that “our reason is so much of a machine, that it will not always be able to resist, when the ear is perpetually assailed” (40/Ch28). The structure of Harley’s history as a series of gaps and sentimental episodes points to a cynical truth: that individuals may be known to each other only in a fragmentary way, connected briefly, tenuously, and always with the possibility of a pernicious deception, as in the case of “the pupil” Edward Sedley’s admiration for a villainous European nobleman (“A Fragment”). In addition to the destructive effects of deliberate falsehoods, personal histories may break off or be lost to gaps in the record. Parted from his family, the old soldier Edwards loses the thread of their story. On his return, he finds his son and daughter-in-law dead, his grandchildren in a charity dame school. In this case, the story is recovered (the gap filled), but it could as easily have remained blank forever. The written history is extremely brief: the survivors locate “a ciphered R. E. plainer than the rest [of the characters]; it was the tomb they sought” (69/Ch35). The chapter—and the episode—ends with the eloquence of tears: “The girl cried afresh; Harley kissed off her tears as they flowed, and wept between every kiss.” The chapter break symbolizes the larger gap between individuals, able to feel communally but not to make experience whole.

Like the younger Edwards, Harley’s departure from life is premature. The fragmentary “conclusion” (a weak pun?) has the Ghost haunting Harley’s gravesite and pondering Harley’s legacy, which in fact seems to be restricted to the manuscript he is himself producing. The narrator has already described his response to Harley’s corpse in terms of broken connections: “’Tis a connection we cannot easily forget:—I took his hand in mine; I repeated his name involuntarily;—I felt a pulse in every vein at the sound” (92/Ch56). The Ghost strives for continuity—a continued “pulse”—but Harley’s death makes it seem that the connections between individuals are, in fact, easily broken, leaving experience incomplete (Miss Watson is left to wander “with a book in her hand”). The author is remembered chiefly for being “used to walk a-nights” before “he left the parish, and went nobody knows whither” (Introduction): nobody’s history is complete in this text. The Ghost’s concluding observation relies on his association of the gravesite with Harley’s nature, but the testimony to that nature is physically incomplete and the phrasing of his reflection takes us back to the frame story, where two ordinary men looked for amusement: “…there is such an air of gentleness around that I can hate nothing; but, as to the world—I pity the men of it” (94/Conclusion). Of these men of the world, the curate, impervious to sentiment, is probably one, and the Editor’s own sentiment is a little bit of the armchair kind—further emphasizing the amount of material that we are not given. Mackenzie’s “editor” later introduced the epistolary novel Julia de Roubigné with the claim that he “found it difficult to reduce [the letters] to narrative, because they are made up of sentiment, which narrative would destroy” (5); this clue helps us to recognize that sentimental response is itself expressive of the incomplete nature of earthly communication.

No comments: