Despair meets Tale of Two Cities: On the Uselessness of Sacrifice

You might remember that Nabokov’s Despair features a man convinced he’s found his doppelgänger. He enlists the doppelgänger in a murder plot only to discover — SPOILER? — that they, in fact, look nothing like each other. The plot fails. The murderer’s, that is, but not the novel’s.

Now, from the Dickens,  you may also remember the resemblance between Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, eg:

Allowing for my learned friend’s appearance being careless and slovenly if not debauched, they were sufficiently like each other to surprise, not only the witness, but everybody present, when they were thus brought into comparison. My Lord being prayed to bid my learned friend lay aside his wig, and giving no very gracious consent, the likeness became much more remarkable.

You’ll remember that Carton, the drunk, uses this resemblance to spring the upstanding Darnay from the clutches of the French revolutionaries (“It is far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done” etc.)

Let’s now imagine that Carton bears no resemblance to Darnay. Let’s imagine, then, that the sacrifice does no good, except for the good conscience of Carton, certain that he’s done the right thing by substituting himself for his friend. But the good conscience gets Darnay nothing. We end up with nothing more than two more corpses, one happy, one disappointed.

Let’s take this a step further and imagine that the Christian God has his son tortured to death, as he thinks, to free the human race from the burden of death. But the devil, being wily, rejects the sacrifice: claiming entrapment, he’ll take nothing less than the souls he deserves. Or, pace Anselm, let’s imagine that Jesus simply won’t do. He’s incommensurable; the singularity and mortality of each individual soul Christ’s death wants to save means there’s no substitute to be had; there’s no one else who can do it for you. Your death has to be your own.

This may be the true despair of Nabokov’s novel: without any chance of finding a substitute, there’s no sacrifice. Or, the only suitable sacrifice for you is you. This is also, then, the kitsch of Dicken’s novel, which is itself the kitsch of Christianity. The kitsch isn’t the unwarranted love of an infinite God–that part has its beauties, I’ll admit–but the exit the God offers, of standing in for us, letting us off the hook for our fundamental, unsatisfiable obligations.