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Charlotte Sometimes: The Redoubled Subject


Goth Reader
A typical reader of 'Charlotte Sometimes'

Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience [...] but as a wedge of darkness.To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

This double, then, the guaranteed the autonomy of the subject, [allowed for a] freedom from a pathetic existence in which it could be manipulated by other things, persons, or traditions. But once this double was thus detached, once it was set loose in the world, it was inevitable that the subject would occasionally "run into it," approach it a little too closely. Whenever this happens, anxiety signals us to take our distance once again. Read My Desire, Joan Copjec

By account of the author herself, Penelope Farmer's Charlotte Sometimes has remained in print since its first edition due in large part to the song by the same name released in October of 1981 by the Goth group, The Cure—indeed, it is the only novel of her large body of work to do so. Since then the book has received readership by many Goths who, if only for their love of The Cure, have sought out the original text which served to inspire one of the gloomiest anthems of twentieth century popular culture.

I fully admit that this is how I came to read Charlotte Sometimes. Yet, what I found was not a story for prematurely aged cranks and perpetually adolescent adults (that strange collection of souls who make up 'Goth'), but one of the most insightful coming-of-age tales I've come across. I can't help but feel I would've been better off reading Farmer than adoring Smith during those turbulent years of youth. Hindsight is 20-20.

Allow me to provide a brief outline of the story. The year is 1958—Our Charlotte Makepeace finds herself away from home for the first time in a boarding school for girls. Now, adjusting to new surroundings, new people, and a new way of life is a trying task in itself, sure to provide enough narrative fodder for a decent coming-of-age tale. But throw in time travel? What was merely a tricky situation has squarely entered the realm of the 'bizarre'.

Time Travel?
Girlhood adolescence is hard enough without time travel. Image ID: 1260415

Yes, one day Charlotte wakes up to find that she has traveled back in time to the year 1918, and is occupying the body of a girl called Clare Moby. They continue to swap bodies and times every other day. Then, in part II, Charlotte finds herself unable to escape the year 1918 and must find a way to return to her own time before the school year runs out...

This alone makes for a strange story. But Farmer's book has an incredible depth accomplished with an effortlessness I rarely come across in contemplative fiction written for adults, let alone children. For this reason, I cannot accept it as a simple story about a child who travels time, but a story where an adolescent girl lays the foundation for her maturity.

From the first passage, we find that adjusting to the strangeness of boarding school is no easy task for Charlotte, for everything in her life suddenly smacks of unsettling novelty. The first sentence of the book reads,

By bedtime all the faces, the voices had blurred for Charlotte to one face, one voice.

At this point we may feel certain that Charlotte has a steady sense of who she has been up until now—that is, she's not the vivid swirl of strangeness which surrounds her at the boarding school. In their immediacy, all these new unsorted factors congeal into a singular mass which stand against Charlotte herself. The reader may understand this as desperate measure by Charlotte to suppress the trauma of change—a fantasy which allows Charlotte to regard all this strangeness as somewhere 'out there.' In Lacanian terms, a lack has begun to appear in Charlotte's symbolic order.

This lack presents itself gradually. An acquaintance with her roommate Suzanna's family life allows the reader to peer into the queer trauma soon to follow. Farmer tells us that in this strange, new environment of the girls' boarding school, for Charlotte, Suzanna's life becomes even more real than her own—her quest for her Self becomes a fruitless frenzied hunt,

She scarcely felt as real herself and spent much of her time hunting for her name, on lists, for instance, game lists, table lists, class lists, cloakroom lists; on everything, everywhere, lockers, pegs, drawers, clothes, shoes, even on her toothbrush and sponge, as if she needed to prove her own reality. When she was not looking for her name, she was writing it, and not just Charlotte either as she would have put on her books at home, or even at the little village school where she went before. Charlotte alone proved no identity at all*. [...] For since this morning she had felt herself to be so many different people, and half of them she did not recognize.

*emphasis mine

Then, of course, the true rupture begins. Charlotte Makepeace finds herself waking up forty years earlier in the year 1918 in the same boarding school occupying the body of a girl called Clare Mary Moby.

What's important to note here is that Charlotte's world, both in 1918 and 1958, has not become carnivalesque nonsense for Charlotte so much as Charlotte herself, as an actor with agency, has proved ineffectual in light of her new circumstances. In her new situation at the boarding school Charlotte can no longer draw upon herself as an essential 'character' which has its neat little place within a world which made sense to her.

Charlotte and Clare eventually become acquainted with their body swapping. By way of a diary dated for September 14, 1918, Clare and Charlotte realize that they are able to communicate with each other while inhabiting each other's bodies. In such a way, Charlotte lives a double life... but with herself...

[...] Charlotte felt as if she were reading two stories alternately, reaching some point of tension in one, only to continue in the other.

Temple of Time
'Charlotte Sometimes'—not your typical time-travel novel. Image ID: ps_grd_350

This relationship between the so-called Charlotte-as-such and Charlotte/Clare as historical fact calls Charlotte to retroactively reconsider who 'Charlotte' is/was in the first place. As Clare in 1918 she wants to seamlessly perform 'Clare.' Then, when returning to 1958, she must again assimilate Clare's actions and disposition as her own. In one example, Clare is very much the solitary type. Consequently, when Charlotte returns to the year 1958, she must redeem her friends' notion of her as a solitary person since all her schoolmates regard her as such. The idea of Clare eventually emerges in Charlotte's own life and times as the prohibiting superego. The anxiety of having to negotiate Charlotte and Clare-as-Charlotte eventually causes her to act out in strange ways—to sincerely 'be' Clare.

She felt she had to island herself now more and more, to draw in bridges, like a knight barricading himself in his castle. Otherwise she feared she would give herself away, asking a question, for instance, about something she ought to have known if she spent every day in the same place and time, or doing or saying something that would look odd because serious, conscientious Clare would never do or say such things.

In such a way, Clare the solitary becomes a large part of what makes Charlotte.

She did not feel comfortable till a wall of shrubs hid her from the eyes of the school buildings, when immediately there rushed hard into her a most curiously wild kind of happiness that made her tremble, yet sharpened her mind inside

It is important to note that this first, early step towards reconstructing Charlotte occurred through an initial misrecognition, and that there is never an affirmative moment of 'Charlotte'. It is useful here to draw upon Žižek's notion of 'redoubled reflection' as outlined in his 1989 work, 'The Sublime Object of Ideology'. On the basic level of what Žižek calls elementary reflection, the subject simply views the world in strict terms of essence and appearance—where by mediating-sublating-positing every positive immediacy, appearance becomes a point of absolute negativity—the chaos is 'out there' somewhere (think—the first line of Charlotte Sometimes). This point of view necessarily requires a subject which takes itself for granted as some sort of reliable terra firma apart from this world of mere appearance. It establishes the subject as one who posits their own presuppositions.

On the other hand, Zizek's redoubled subject takes things further by presupposing itself as positing. In this sense, there is no 'mere appearance', but

[...] an inverse-alienated image of the very essence, essence itself in the form of its otherness, in other words, a presupposition which is not merely posited by the essence: in it, essence presupposes itself as positing.

[...] the subject effectively 'posits his own presuppositions' by presupposing, by reflecting himself in them as positing.

In this spirit, when the so-called veil of appearances has been torn asunder the subject finds a void of nothingness not only in the world, but in themselves as well, rendering the relationship between the subject's unconscious and their world not as an interior psychic whole against externality, but as an inter-subjectivity, establishing what Lacan calls 'extimacy'. In another interesting passage, Charlotte ruminates,

Perhaps we never look at people properly, Charlotte thought. And she remembered looking in a mirror once and trying to draw herself; how, after she had been staring at her features for a little while, they seemed no longer to make her face or any face. They were just a collection of eyes and nose and mouth. Perhaps if you stared at anyone like that, their face would disintegrate in the same way, till you could not tell whether you knew them or not, especially, of course, if there was no reason for them not to be who they said they were.

It is Charlotte's 'failure to draw' a faithful rendering of herself I find very interesting. Like any other coming-of-age story, Charlotte Sometimes is about someone who finds themselves at a crossroads where they are called upon to make difficult choices which foster personal development. Yet, Charlotte's eventual maturity is not the result of looking inwardly to reveal some sort of guiding compass. Charlotte's maturity is won by redeeming her subjectivity through having to negotiate herself as a subject embedded in a world.

Ah, the proverbial crossroads... Image ID: 1663882

Throughout the book there are many episodes of confusion and anxiety. Yet, it is interesting to note that Charlotte in her most simple and satisfied state of mind occurs while she is engrossed with the rules and regulations of a game of 'spillikins,' or pick-up-sticks. In games the rules as defined by an order of symbols are simple—during play, we are able to completely forget ourselves by our complete immersion into the rules of the game being played. It is in 1918, of all times, where Charlotte expresses a moment of pure restfulness while watching the game unfold. The game allows for a world in which all that is peripheral melts away...

There was a moment of suspense when success was near, the relief as she safely flicked a spillikin away, the frustration, contrariwise, when at the last minute fingers lost their control or when one that had seemed an easy win proved so delicately balanced that it set the whole heap twitching at a single touch.

The game contracted, expanded seconds, contracted, expanded minutes; made an illusion of no time that lulled Charlotte and comforted her. They might, she thought, have been playing at any time, their minds moving easily from one present to another, from 1918, here, now, to Arthur in the past, to Emma in the future, and also to Clare. [...] She felt as if she were suspended between these times, the past, this present, that future of her own, belonging to all and none of them

Through the game, Charlotte is able to suspend her subjectivity and 'become' the game, the game itself allowing for a kind of pure presence. This passage demonstrates Charlotte's acquaintance with the entrapment of existence within systems of rules which allow for an understanding of the world. As mind-bending as it may sound, it is this entrapment which allows the subject to enjoy their freedoms, to schematize the division between themselves and the symbolic order via fantasy.

This is in no way tantamount to saying that in order to feel whole Charlotte must completely efface her own subjectivity. On the contrary, she must now learn to maintain distance from the game in order to master it. A beautiful jar of water and marbles ties in Charlotte's final step towards maturation—Charlotte is at first mesmerized by the beauty of the marbles magnified by the water in the jar...

But when she put her fingers into the water and pulled a marble out, it was small by comparison with those still in the glass, and unimportant, too. It was like the difference between what you long for and what you find—[...] It was like everything that made you ache because in one sense it was so close and in another unobtainable. Charlotte picked up the glass, held it to the light, and gazed into it obliviously. For that moment everything else around her, everything else that had happened, seemed to splinter in her head and fall away.

The close inspection of the marble removed from the jar of water which had made the marbles so beautiful for Charlotte, ended up as some horrific desire fulfillment, shattering the distance necessary for the fantasy structure that allows the subject to come to terms with 'reality.' As we can see, coming face-to-face with the object of one's desire resulted in Charlotte's psychic splintering, floating about in a state similar to the Hegelian 'Night of the World', that pre-symbolic domain of partial drives where, 'here shoots a bloody head, there another white ghastly apparition.'

Marbles, un(a)bound. Image ID: 1666811

In the first chapter of 'The Ticklish Subject', Žižek employs a fairly lengthy passage from Hegel's vivid description of the Night of the World to illustrate the dismembering of the world via the subject's imagination when it comes too close to the Notion itself (in our example, Charlotte's close examination of the marble when no longer mediated by the fantasy-relationship of the jar of water). In such a way, our knowledge can never garner a true sense of reality, but,

There is 'reality; [...] only in so far as the domain of the Notion is alienated from itself, split, traversed by some radical deadlock, caught in some debilitating inconsistency.

If we take this idea seriously, we may find a similar paradox in the objective symbolic order that we found in the subject—that the 'false' appearance is comprised within the 'thing itself'.

At the end of the story, Charlotte is reunited with this jar of marbles in 1958 when Clare's sister's daughter, Sarah, gives it to her as a gift from Clare's sister, Emily, whom Charlotte spent much time growing with in 1918. In triumph, Charlotte places this jar of marbles on her own dresser, in her own time and place, in a sense furnishing her life with the gift of legacy which she had endured so many psychic discomforts to inherit.

The marbles looked very pretty, everybody said, and Charlotte was pleased, because no longer now was her chest of drawers the only one without ornament. It looked individual; it belonged to someone. It seemed odd that it belonged to her more as Clare than as Charlotte. But she had begun to realize that she could never entirely escape from being Clare. The memory of it, if nothing else, was rooted in her mind. And what had happened to her would go on mattering, just as what had happened in the war itself would go on mattering, permanently.

In just under 200 pages, Charlotte travels time, attends a séance, learns a whole lot about the First World War, and witnesses the pain of battle (brilliant aspects of the story I have not even begun to cover!) She makes friends, and learns about who she is through her mistakes and successes. What have we learned as readers? That to be 'oneself' is not to presume a familiarity with yourself and assert it unreflectively. Neither is it a matter of blindly submitting yourself to the world you inherit. It is to realize that as individuals we not only inherit an entire world of historical intent and accident, but must adopt an attitude of responsibility towards it. That we may be comfortable in our environment only insofar as we take ownership of it, buying a little of what we are sold, yet maintaining our distance. That we ourselves are history, and are responsible for not only the future, but in how we regard the past. After all, the way in which we redeem the past is how we create a prolegomena for any philosophy which looks towards the future.

And while I'll always have a fondness for all-black, clunky boots, and a passing familiarity with Romantic poetry, Penelope Farmer's amazing book which manages to make the complexities of growing older so engrossing, charming, and above all, readable, is hard to beat.

Works to Read From This Post

Penelope Farmer—Charlotte Sometimes
Slavoj Zizek—The Ticklish Subject
Joan Copjec—Read My Desire
Jacques Lacan—Ecrits


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