Reflections on Death and Mourning in Relation to Dickens’ Novel ‘Our Mutual Friend’

Geraldine Godsil
Leeds England
British Association of Psychotherapists

The edge of experience that I want to explore in this paper relates to death and the processes of mourning. In Dream Life (1984) Donald Meltzer discusses clinical material in which a little boy stands amazed when the therapist cleans his face. He quotes words from the Jewish Book of Law: “Stand close to the dying because when the soul sees the abyss it is amazed.” He comments that death is ‘an unbearably new experience-the soul has never known anything like it before’. It has to be ‘worked upon to discover its meaning.’(p. 69) The little boy and the soul at the moment of death share the same dilemma. They are aware of an experience that has not yet become meaningful.

Both Jung and Bion were interested in how meaning develops. They explored psychic reality, what Bion calls O, the unknown and unknowable and Jung calls the lapis/self the goal of the alchemical and analytic work from a similar vertex. Jung and the later Bion are both influenced by the mystical tradition dating back to the sixth century best known to us in the writings of the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing. The differentiation between different kinds of knowing is central in the writings of these mystics.

For Jung this tradition was mediated via the Renaissance alchemical texts that he studied deeply over the last thirty years of his life, resulting in three major works: Psychology and Alchemy (1944), The Psychology of the Transference (1946) and Mysterium Coniunctionis (1955/6). Jung’s extensive researches were driven by the need to discover new psychological models and he searched the alchemical texts for their relevance to his understanding of the nature of the psyche rather than researching as scholarly historian. In the alchemical writings he found illustrated in image and text the prospective, ceaselessly inventive and dangerously unstable psychic processes that made sense of his own experience. He believed that the alchemists projected ‘the process of individuation into the phenomena of chemical change’(1984, p. 482) and that the forms this experience takes in each individual may be ‘infinite in their variations, but, like the alchemical symbols, they are all variants of certain central types, and these occur universally’ (1984, p. 483)

For this paper I want to concentrate on only one sequence in The Psychology of the Transference: pictures 6-10 of the ten alchemical woodcuts Jung discussed in this crucial work.

Implicit in Jung’s model of the process of individuation within the transference/countertransference of analysis is a cycle of integration/ disintegration movements which are represented in the woodcuts of the Rosary of the Philosophers by coniunctio/mortificatio sequences. These sequences are infinite and never reach a static point. The Latin text to Picture 6 when translated reads: ‘I have never seen any living thing grow without putrefaction, unless it were made putrid the work of the alchemist would be in vain.’

In Jung’s commentary the nigredo is identified with the putrefactio and indicates a deepening of the transference.

The toleration of a psychic state of disintegration is both dangerous and essential to new development. Both parties in the analytic encounter have to change and grow against an experience of dissociation, disorientation and the threat of psychotic breakdown. The ego’s previous integration collapses. Edinger describes it as ‘the death of the ego upon encounter with the Self’.

This is the state pictured in 6, 7, and 8. Far from idealising growth, Jung is aware of the possibilities of disiunctio or psychotic disintegration. Megalomania or annihilation of the ego are possibilities. This dual possibility is inferred in the title ‘conception or putrefaction’. Fabricius (1976) speaks of the black transformation process as ‘enigmatic and paradoxical’. There is ‘a building up by building down, a putrefying moment of creation, a kind of reversed fetal development.’(p. 102)

Jung makes the transference relationship and relationships to others central to the development of the self. I am here taking the self to mean ‘that which transcends consciousness, that which is greater than what I take to be ‘my self’. (Colman, 2000, p. 3) At this moment when the old integration has failed Jung turns to a mystical tradition deeply influenced by a blending of neoplatonic and Christian ideas to describe the nature of development of new self knowledge. This tradition, called the via negativa, is of course also present in the images of the Rosarium in its use of the cloud as the site of conception of the new.

In Picture 7 the soul moves upwards into the cloud before returning to revive the dead corpse. Jung cites St John of the Cross and his dark night of the soul ‘in which the invisible – and therefore dark-radiance of God comes to pierce and purify the soul.’ (p. 109) St John of the Cross belongs to a tradition of Christian contemplation dating back to the sixth century. His work bears the marks of the influence of the unknown fourteenth century author of The Cloud of Unknowing and the sixth-century writer called pseudo-Dionysus. All these great mystical thinkers followed the tradition of the via negativa. This tradition focuses not on God’s human nature but on his divine nature, seen as totally transcendent, totally beyond the reach of human understanding and human language. (Spearing, 2001, p. xvi)

God is the unknown and unknowable: he can only be defined by what he is not. When the contemplative experiences the cloud of unknowing that comes between him and his God he is in fact closer to truth in his ignorance than in all his previous knowledge which must be forgotten.

The cloud in Pictures 7, 8, and 9 appears in the work of Jung, St John of the Cross and that of the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and is linked to Moses’ entry into the cloud in Exodus to commune with God. The source text for via negativa theology, The Mystical Theology of St. Denis, published around the year 500, speaks of Moses entering

the darkness of unknowing, darkness which is truly hidden, and in which all intelligible knowledge is shut up; and, in an invisible and intangible manner, having neither feeling nor thought of any existing thing, nor yet of himself, he was made to experience in every way the presence of him who is above all things. But in the emptying out of all knowledge of what is entirely unknowable, he is united with him in the best way; and in knowing nothing he is made to know beyond understanding.(Spearing, 2001, p. 4)

This differentiation between different kinds of knowing is central in the writing of these mystics and in Jung’s broad differentiation between the Self and the ego. Humility and love are the keynotes of this discipline of contemplation where love is the ‘highest cognitive power’ (ibid., p. xvii), a point Jung also makes in Psychology of the Transference. It is love that binds the opposites.

However, this path of ignorance powered by love is not a passive process but a disciplined unseeing and unknowing. The process is compared to carving an image out of a block of wood. ‘In the divine work of contemplation we must with the dexterity of grace, skilfully pare completely away this encumbering lump, coagulated in this way out of innumerable unlikenesses, as a powerful hindrance antagonistic to the pure hidden sight of God’. (Ibid, p. 5)

Spearing speculates on whether the Cloud author’s metaphysical outlook might be closer to that of Buddhism than to that of Christianity. (2001) This would seem to have some justification.

A recent paper in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis (Falkenstrom, 2003, p. 1560) discusses the Buddhist tradition in relation to psychoanalytic theories of the self. The writer refers to ‘the Buddhist spiritual path as essentially a path of mourning the loss of illusory images of self’ and cites the same phrase from St John of the Cross that Jung quotes in Psychology of the Transference.

The movement back to integration involves tolerating loss of the previous established relationships internal and external. Mourning is integral to the mortificatio phase. The transference relationship of the mortificatio phase gives the patient, in Jung’s words, an opportunity to ‘withdraw his projections, to make good his losses and to integrate his personality’. (1946, p. 56)

In making a comparison between Jung and Bion I want to concentrate on Bion’s ideas that reach their final development in his later work: Elements of Psychoanalysis (1963), Transformations (1965) and Attention and Interpretation (1970). He also starts, like Jung, from a chemical model transformed into a highly symbolic mode. The grid on which he plots the development of thought is based on Mendeleyev’s periodic table for classifying the chemical elements, which proved to be a powerful predictive and interpretative tool. Bion uses the formula PS.D to describe the movements between integration and disintegration in psychic development. The letting go of old ways of being, with attendant images of self and other, brings about a temporary state of disintegration (the D.Ps movement in Bion’s formula). This state of disintegration has to be tolerated until a new state of integration can be reached (Ps.D). This can be impeded by omnipotent defences so that the personality is arrested. Bion sees primitive envy as a factor in this arrest: ‘the impulse to inhibit is fundamentally envy of the growth stimulating objects’.

Finding a container that can restore thinking in this situation involves the analyst being able to contain his own fear and hatred of change and the seduction of the lie. Implicit in this is that intolerable anxiety in the analyst has to be endured.

In Attention and Interpretation (1970) he elaborated further on a catastrophic anxiety that impedes the transformation from knowing about a real self to being a real self. The differentiation between truth and lies, the injunction that the analyst should be without memory and desire and the nature of O and its evolution – these are the interdependent concepts which Bion explores. K (an earlier formulation about the nature of curiosity and knowledge) is not superceded by O but O is now viewed as a higher form of knowledge essential to growth and development. He leaves behind the mathematical vertex and relies heavily on the discipline of contemplation described by the mystics. The influence of the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing is everywhere. At different points in these last books Bion speaks of uncertainty clouds, probability clouds and possibility clouds. At every point the naming of what is experienced in the analytic encounter can run the risk of distorting what is really there. This is the dilemma of the Cloud author: ‘What difference is there between the image that represents the unrepresentable and the image that obscures it?’ (Spearing, 2001, p. xxxix)

In Bion’s language O can be become but it cannot be known.

I want to look more closely at these three key ideas of Bion: truth and lies, refraining from memory and desire and O.

The truth feeds the mind, lies destroy it and why, given that there is some sense of that in all of us, we should be so vulnerable to lies is a central preoccupation for Bion. In his fable in Attention and Interpretation he depicts the truth as revealing our helplessness attacking our self deception and sense of self importance. The truth is humbling. Truth and Lies: these two systems forever in conflict inside the personality and the social group can be understood in terms of the new idea of a negative grid. The grid, which can be used to show the development of thought from concrete to complex and sophisticated, and the processes that aid or hinder that development, is found to be insufficient for describing the nature of the problem of active destruction of thought. The functioning of the mind in perverse and psychotic states needs an anto grid or negative grid to delineate it. This is described in Transformations as a reversal of the normal direction for growth ↓→ The sign- ←↑ represents this reversal. It represents a force that ‘destroys existence space and time’. (1965, p. 102)

We are vulnerable to the lie not only because the powerful meaning- creating function of the good object may not have been sufficiently present for us, but because the difficulties in development are also immense.

In Attention and Interpretation Bion introduces a new factor, F, which is essential if transformation in O is to take place. F encompasses faith unstained by any element of memory and desire and is linked by Bion to Freud’s comment that he had to ‘blind (himself) artificially to focus all the light on one dark spot’. (p. 57)

By rendering oneself ‘artificially blind’ through the exclusion of memory and desire, one achieves F; the piercing shaft of darkness can be directed on the dark features of the analytic situation. The analyst has to listen in a state of mind that is oriented to the truth, the O of the analytic session: unknowing what he already knows in a disciplined act of attention so that he can be aware of what is unknown both to him and the analysand

The factor that holds up development and can precipitate the analyst or patient into a perverse relationship marked by the lie is the catastrophic fear of change. Bion makes a comparison to the impact of the mystic on the group. An adequate container may not be found to contain the new idea. Catastrophic anxiety can then disrupt the development of thought and hence the development of the personality as well as the group’s development.

The process of becoming O produces dread in both patient and analyst alike.

Which way is chosen is subject to multiple factors external and internal. What Bion’s work opens up is a way of studying the processes of thought in the movements on and between the grid and the negative grid and the effect within the personality.

To summarise my main line of argument before turning to Our Mutual Friend:

Both Bion and Jung indicate in their theories of oscillating cycles of coniunctio/mortificatio and PS↔D that the toleration of psychic states of disintegration are both dangerous and essential to new development, and that change is resisted and feared. Our fear of growth and development is described by Jung in the mortificatio phase of the coniunctio cycles where movement can be forward towards coniunctio or backward into disiunctio and by Bion in his delineation of a grid, which implies a negative grid where the normal direction of growth may be permanently reversed. The force operating on this grid ‘destroys anything that exists because it exists’. (1965, p. 104) Both highlight the inevitability of elements destructive to thought being present in the psyche and the need to know these forces.

Mourning is central to the processes they describe because at every stage we have to relinquish the self we know and its relationships with others against a background of catastrophic anxiety that we might not become ourselves again in a new form. It is tempting to stay with the lie of the already known and avoid discomfort and pain so that, as Jung puts it, ‘Lucifer, who could have brought light becomes the father of lies’. (Jung, 1953, p. 250)

These ideas are the background to my discussion of Dickens’ last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend. Here the central dilemma is how a death in one generation fails to find new meaning and hurtles across the boundary line between the generations in the form of a destructive will which proves hard to assimilate.

Our Mutual Friend: Death. Gold. Filth.

The story of Our Mutual Friend revolves around the following situation: Old John Harmon, the dust contractor, has made a fortune out of dustheaps – household waste collected into huge mounds. On his death he leaves a will which will allow his son, young John Harmon, to inherit – only if he marries the girl of his father’s choice. This destructive attack on the coupling of the next generation has its echo in a secondary oedipal subplot involving Lizzie, Wrayburn and Headstone. Headstone attempts to murder his rival Wrayburn to win possession of Lizzie.

Old John Harmon reaches out in death to exert a sadistic and perverse control over his son in the intimate area of his emotional and sexual life. Dickens explores through his central character young John Harmon the difficult processes of mourning. This individual drama is enmeshed within multiple other subplots where money, possessions and status exercise a destructive influence. In these worlds, possessions are sought with predatory greed and losses are obscured. The knife-edge existence between life and death, truth and lies, is the hinge or spine where the movement between coniunctio/disiunctio, or the positioning on a positive or negative grid, takes place. Recent critics have, I think rightly, compared the novel to Becket’s explorations of hope and hopelessness within a bleak landscape.

The central symbols of the river and the dustheaps elaborate the choices towards life or death. They are linked with bodily functions of excretion and evacuation but also with the procreative functions of the body and the themes of recycling and renewal.

The novel is dominated by death and loss. It dramatizes states of mind that seek to avoid and deny psychic reality and those that are more likely to allow meaning to develop. Although the novel is apparently about the death of a father and the consequences for the son, it was Dickens’ mother who died in September 1893, just before he started the novel in November of that year. His son and many close friends died during the novel’s composition and he was involved in a near fatal rail crash during the writing of it from which he never fully recovered. However, it was not just the traumas of the present that haunted him; the past had come alive again in his mind in the years preceding the writing of the novel when he returns constantly to the miseries of his childhood. This was the period of his employment in the blacking factory where he was sent to work at age twelve, at the time when his father was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea. Dickens was the only child removed from the family; his older sister continued her musical studies with great success. When his father was set free and Dickens went home, his mother was still keen to send him back so the family could continue to enjoy his wages. His father intervened but Dickens wrote, ‘I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back’.(Ackroyd, 1990, p. 102) Ackroyd notes the absence of anger in Dickens’ account of this childhood experience, the possibility of guilt as well as triumph at replacing his father as the breadwinner. Guilt and murderous jealousy, and love sacrificed for money are central themes in Our Mutual Friend.

Another important autobiographical link with the novel is provided by the essay ‘Night Walks’ (1860). Dickens returns to the insomiac state experienced after his father died when he would walk round London at night. The labyrinthine streets and the scenes he witnesses seem to reflect an internal landscape of madness, emptiness and persecutory ghosts. His wakefulness where he is a watcher of events outside himself suggests a fear of what he would find in his dreams, referred to as the ‘insanity of each day’s sanity’ (p. 139). In the hallucinatory landscape of the night walks he evokes a terrifying internal world which is also explored in the novel. The defensive need for the walking in order to expel unmanageable feelings is captured in his comment to his friend John Forster: ‘If I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should explode and perish’. (Lukacher, 1986, p. 288)

Avoidance of Mourning

Our Mutual Friend reflects Dickens’ own internal world after the death of both parents as he describes young John Harmon struggling with the work of mourning and nearly failing to survive. Both character and novel are portrayed as subject to fracture and disintegration. It is this quality of oscillating tension between integration and disintegration that links it most clearly to Jung’s and Bion’s theories.

All the defensive manoeuvres used to deny an experience of loss and separation are present in the novel, including Freud’s torturing melancholia and Abraham’s identification of lost objects with faeces as the corpses bob about in the Thames. But it is the presence of the living dead, representing an existence where psychic reality has been destroyed, that is most central to my theme. These ghosts would equate with the dead fused bodies of the king and queen in the sarcophagus in the mortificatio stage.

The novel is full of references to ghosts. The ghosts of the murdered in Hamlet and Macbeth are frequently cited. The dolls that Jenny Wren makes are patterned on society ladies, ghosts of real people. The stuffed animals and embalmed babies in the taxidermist’s shop appear alive but are actually dead. Ignes Sodre (2000) links ghosts with our guilt about the dead. Her interest is in a particular kind of manic defence against persecutory guilt at the threshold of the depressive position.

The dead object, in phantasy murdered by one’s death wishes, comes back to haunt the mind in a tormenting way, since it cannot be made to live again and cannot entirely die, that is to say, disappear from the internal world. (p. 19)

In her view in extreme states of persecution the solution employed is to destroy the part of the mind that is aware of it.

Dickens and his hero John Harmon were both children who had been wronged. Mourning is more difficult when hate and anger intensify violence and subsequent guilt. The novel is striking for the sadism explored and the evocation of a violent primal scene. The obliteration of the part of the mind that might be aware of its sadism is represented in the novel by the fog, portrayed as a ‘gigantic catarrh’. The fog obliterates difference and vision and appears to drown the city and all its inhabitants.

When Headstone finds out that Wrayburn has survived his murder attempt and Lizzie and Wrayburn are to be married, he suffers an epileptic fit. Subsequent to this internal obliteration of awareness of the couple, Dickens describes the train as an agent of destruction in the external world, ‘bursting over the quiet surface like a bombshell’ and like a ‘great rocket’. (p. 751) Dickens links the attack on the mind evoked by knowledge of a couple coming together in spite of Headstone’s attack with the train as a murderous missile exploding over the fruitful earth.

Attacks on the mind defend against the experience of loss and obstruct the process of finding a container for the new experience. This failure produces an experience of destructive spaces. The taxidermist’s shop is such a space where bits of skeleton, teeth and stuffed animals can appear ‘paralytically animated’ in the draft from the door. As the light flickers in the gloomy candlelit shop, dead babies preserved in bottles appear and disappear like the floating corpses in the Thames that start the novel.

Another powerful image in the novel for reversed growth is the surface or veneer. Mirrors and shiny surfaces, the new process of veneering, where an expensive finish is used to front cheaper material, are metaphors for the sham and the unreal. There is no genuineness or depth. Wegg, the most avaricious incarnation of greed and envy in the novel is portrayed gradually becoming more wooden, like a Midas who turns into wood, not gold.

Timothy Clark comments in a recent essay that Dickens’novels ‘manifest the combined horror and fascination of a world without interiority’. (1996, p. 23) Minds that have interior spaces and the capacity for reverie that can generate meaning from experience are represented by Mrs Boffin and John Harmon.

The Cloud of Unknowing

John Harmon has to endure waiting and frustration in the hope that something new will emerge. When he arrived back in England after his father’s death he changed identities with another man, Radfoot, aboard ship, so that he could buy some time to get to know Bella, the young woman he had to marry to inherit the fortune under the terms of his father’s will. However, he is drugged and thrown into the river, and Radfoot, the man who intended to present himself as the heir and carries documents to prove it, is also killed. Hence from the beginning of the novel John Harmon is apparently dead.

Trying to make sense of what happened on the night of the murder attempt, John Harmon revisits the scene of the crime at Limehouse Hole. The psychic murder intended by his father’s will is re-enacted in his memories of the actual murder attempt in which he was beaten drugged and shot into the Thames through ‘something like a tube’. The imagery depicts an anal space – a dark doorway, a stairway and tidal mud. However, the moment he hits the water there is an illumination of consciousness and he shouts, ‘John Harmon, struggle for your life.’ At this point there is an experience of a different sort of container linked throughout the novel to the maternal containing function of Mrs Boffin. She is the woman who looked after him after his mother’s death, who gradually and intuitively reflects and observes until her conscious and unconscious observations come together in a moment of recognition, and she knows who the strange young man is. ‘I found him out in a flash’ she says. (p. 770) Her illumination links to John Harmon’s experience of ‘a sparkling and a crackling as of fires’ (p. 369) which accompanies the return of consciousness for him as he goes under the water. The poison represents the attack on his mind, externally in his father’s will and internally in the temptation to trade emotional truth for lies. It attacks his sense of identity: ‘it was not I, there was no such thing as I within my knowledge’. It produces in him an ‘inexpressible mental horror’ (p. 371) and affects his capacity to think and express himself long after he has recovered from its physical effects. At this point in the novel he has to wait in the darkness of unknowing, still buried under the dust heaps created by his father. He doesn’t at this point know the outcome but he rejects his father’s methods and is willing to experience the loss of Bella rather than buy her with the money. In fact, she marries him later in the novel even though she believes him to be penniless.

The essence of John Harmon’s recovery is that he can wait and think and not act and recover his mind supported by Mrs Boffin’s reflective capacities. Old John Harmon no longer threatens as a ghost but can be viewed in a sad but realistic light by his son as ‘my unhappy self tormenting father’.

The change in John Harmon’s internal landscape, the recovery from depression is conveyed in the newly renovated interior of the house he and Bella are to live in when they eventually do inherit the money under a newly discovered will. The house is full of ‘tropical birds, more gorgeous in colour than the flowers … and among those birds were gold and silver fish, and mosses, and waterlilies, and a fountain, and all manner of wonders’. (p. 767)

The return of love and creativity does not end the novel. It swivels between different states right to the end. The tenacity and destructiveness of psychotic defences are recognised in Headstone’s act of murder and suicide. He shouts at Riderhood as he pulls him down into the water of the lock, ‘I’ll hold you living, and I’ll hold you dead. Come Down!’ Riderhood went over into the smooth pit, backwards, and Bradley Headstone upon him. When the two were found, lying under the ooze and scum behind one of the rotting gates, Riderhood’s hold had relaxed, probably in falling, and his eyes were staring upward. But he was girdled still with Bradley’s iron ring, and the rivets of the iron ring held tight’. (p. 802)

The witness to his murderous act and the part of his own mind that might be aware of it have both been destroyed.

The novel focuses on the father but there is a suppressed echo of absent and missing mothers, including John Harmon’s. There are reflective maternal spaces but there are also deathly voids and hard surfaces with no interiority. Dickens’ relationship with his own mother was emotionally extremely difficult. The Staplehurst train crash from which he never fully recovered may have revived the internal catastophe of his mother’s death and the feelings that were difficult to manage about her desertion of him as a child.

The ending of the novel describes two different kinds of mental space linked to two different states of mind, one containing ‘all manner of wonders’ – the John Harmon landscape – and the other, ‘the ooze and scum’ of the lock tomb in which Bradley Headstone dies.

What I have tried to show in this paper is that the impact of death represents an extreme edge of experience. It is the unknown and the not-yet meaningful. Both Jung and Bion were preoccupied in their work with resistances to change and development caused by fears and anxieties about the unknown. In the novel there is a movement towards and away from meaning. Dickens, who played out all his characters in front of the mirror, is both John Harmon and Bradley Headstone who represent the two extremes. The condition for integration is that love and curiosity struggle in a painfully oscillating way with hatred of life and of thought. This oscillating struggle in Jung’s and Bion’s theories is perceived by both as a life long condition of being alive.


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