Charles Dickens, whom Tolstoy described as the best novelist of the 19th century, was also a tormented man, haunted by ghosts. During a season of his life, and as a result of his insomnia and latent distress, he would leave his house at midnight and start walking; he would explore the streets of London in the rain, seeking for the company of inorganic objects around the Thames and among the handful of lights that were still lit in the city.

It was during this period that he wrote an essay entitled “Night Walks”, where he describes the intimate dialogues between his own taciturn state and London’s nocturnal environments.

Some years ago, a temporary inability to sleep, referable to a distressing impression, caused me to walk about the streets all night, for a series of several nights. “The disorder might have taken a long time to conquer, if it had been faintly experimented on in bed; but, it was soon defeated by the brisk treatment of getting up directly after lying down, and going out, and coming home tired at sunrise”.

For the writer, none of the things that happened on the streets were separate from his own. London suffered from the same insomnia, the same disorder, the same specters as he did: “it was always the case that London, as if in imitation of individual citizens belonging to it, had expiring fits and starts of restlessness,” he wrote.

Because of that bleak empathy he witnessed profusely, those nights sponsored what he referred to as his “amateur houselessness education”. He was able to overcome his disorder with this abrupt treatment: getting out of bed and observing his own mind’s ghosts, projected on the myriad of entities that wandered through the “City of Encounters”. In 1999, Joyce Carol Oates wrote:  “No one has captured the romance of desolation, the ecstasy of near-madness, more forcibly than Dickens.”

The houselessness he refers to continuously not only urged him to go out to the streets after midnight and seek refuge in anything that would cross his path, but it possessed him entirely. In his text he writes the word with a capital letter; Houselessness takes the place of the narrator and becomes the walking character, an allegory of the “existential wandering” which seeks a home without wanting to ever find it.

During his night walks, Dickens finds all sorts of oddities that only reveal their secrets, as men do, at night. In Covent Garden, for example, when the market was yet to be erected and the only thing in sight were barefoot children hiding behind piles of hay, Houselessness sees a “spectral person” that pulls a meat pudding from his hat and “stabs” it with a dirty knife. “The remembrance of this man with the pudding remains with me as the remembrance of the most spectral person my houselessness encountered.”

He also finds the horror of the Thames, which at the time was a cemetery for corpses of people that had inadvertently fallen into the river, and which nobody ever claimed. Even with its “awful look”, the river accompanied the writer as an ubiquitous conscience.

But the river had an awful look, the buildings on the banks were muffled in black shrouds, and the reflected lights seemed to originate deep in the water, as if the specters of suicides were holding them to show where they went down. The wild moon and clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed, and the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river.

Perhaps the key moment to understand Dickens’ feeling of unease at this time in his life is when he confuses the ringing of church bells with company, only to later realize that these were merely a distant sound.

When a church clock strikes, on houseless ears in the dead of the night, it may be at first mistaken for company and hailed as such. But, as the spreading circles of vibration, which you may perceive at such a time with great clearness, go opening out, for ever and ever afterwards widening perhaps (as the philosopher has suggested) in eternal space, the mistake is rectified and the sense of loneliness is profounder.

“Night Walks”, as accessible and addictive as all of Dickens’ prose, reveals the metaphysics that take place when a mind and a city are joined together in nightly gatherings. The map of London has different levels of unreality, but one of the most intriguing belongs to Charles Dickens. “My houselessness had many miles upon miles of streets in which it could, and did, have its own solitary way.” His specters still wander the city and the last lights of the pubs, the bells of Saint Paul’s and the dead of the Thames recall him without knowing it.

Charles Dickens, whom Tolstoy described as the best novelist of the 19th century, was also a tormented man, haunted by ghosts. During a season of his life, and as a result of his insomnia and latent distress, he would leave his house at midnight and start walking; he would explore the streets of London in the rain, seeking for the company of inorganic objects around the Thames and among the handful of lights that were still lit in the city.

It was during this period that he wrote an essay entitled “Night Walks”, where he describes the intimate dialogues between his own taciturn state and London’s nocturnal environments.

Some years ago, a temporary inability to sleep, referable to a distressing impression, caused me to walk about the streets all night, for a series of several nights. “The disorder might have taken a long time to conquer, if it had been faintly experimented on in bed; but, it was soon defeated by the brisk treatment of getting up directly after lying down, and going out, and coming home tired at sunrise”.

For the writer, none of the things that happened on the streets were separate from his own. London suffered from the same insomnia, the same disorder, the same specters as he did: “it was always the case that London, as if in imitation of individual citizens belonging to it, had expiring fits and starts of restlessness,” he wrote.

Because of that bleak empathy he witnessed profusely, those nights sponsored what he referred to as his “amateur houselessness education”. He was able to overcome his disorder with this abrupt treatment: getting out of bed and observing his own mind’s ghosts, projected on the myriad of entities that wandered through the “City of Encounters”. In 1999, Joyce Carol Oates wrote:  “No one has captured the romance of desolation, the ecstasy of near-madness, more forcibly than Dickens.”

The houselessness he refers to continuously not only urged him to go out to the streets after midnight and seek refuge in anything that would cross his path, but it possessed him entirely. In his text he writes the word with a capital letter; Houselessness takes the place of the narrator and becomes the walking character, an allegory of the “existential wandering” which seeks a home without wanting to ever find it.

During his night walks, Dickens finds all sorts of oddities that only reveal their secrets, as men do, at night. In Covent Garden, for example, when the market was yet to be erected and the only thing in sight were barefoot children hiding behind piles of hay, Houselessness sees a “spectral person” that pulls a meat pudding from his hat and “stabs” it with a dirty knife. “The remembrance of this man with the pudding remains with me as the remembrance of the most spectral person my houselessness encountered.”

He also finds the horror of the Thames, which at the time was a cemetery for corpses of people that had inadvertently fallen into the river, and which nobody ever claimed. Even with its “awful look”, the river accompanied the writer as an ubiquitous conscience.

But the river had an awful look, the buildings on the banks were muffled in black shrouds, and the reflected lights seemed to originate deep in the water, as if the specters of suicides were holding them to show where they went down. The wild moon and clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed, and the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river.

Perhaps the key moment to understand Dickens’ feeling of unease at this time in his life is when he confuses the ringing of church bells with company, only to later realize that these were merely a distant sound.

When a church clock strikes, on houseless ears in the dead of the night, it may be at first mistaken for company and hailed as such. But, as the spreading circles of vibration, which you may perceive at such a time with great clearness, go opening out, for ever and ever afterwards widening perhaps (as the philosopher has suggested) in eternal space, the mistake is rectified and the sense of loneliness is profounder.

“Night Walks”, as accessible and addictive as all of Dickens’ prose, reveals the metaphysics that take place when a mind and a city are joined together in nightly gatherings. The map of London has different levels of unreality, but one of the most intriguing belongs to Charles Dickens. “My houselessness had many miles upon miles of streets in which it could, and did, have its own solitary way.” His specters still wander the city and the last lights of the pubs, the bells of Saint Paul’s and the dead of the Thames recall him without knowing it.

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