Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Charles Dickens (page 1 of 1)

the system


I’m going to begin by quoting a very long passage from Bleak House, one involving a suitor in the court of Chancery, generally known as “the man from Shropshire,” an oddity who in every session cries out “My Lord!” – hoping to get the attention of the Lord Chancellor; hoping always in vain. His name is Mr. Gridley and Esther Summerson relates an encounter with him:

“Mr. Jarndyce,” he said, “consider my case. As true as there is a heaven above us, this is my case. I am one of two brothers. My father (a farmer) made a will and left his farm and stock and so forth to my mother for her life. After my mother’s death, all was to come to me except a legacy of three hundred pounds that I was then to pay my brother. My mother died. My brother some time afterwards claimed his legacy. I and some of my relations said that he had had a part of it already in board and lodging and some other things. Now mind! That was the question, and nothing else. No one disputed the will; no one disputed anything but whether part of that three hundred pounds had been already paid or not. To settle that question, my brother filing a bill, I was obliged to go into this accursed Chancery; I was forced there because the law forced me and would let me go nowhere else. Seventeen people were made defendants to that simple suit! It first came on after two years. It was then stopped for another two years while the master (may his head rot off!) inquired whether I was my father’s son, about which there was no dispute at all with any mortal creature. He then found out that there were not defendants enough—remember, there were only seventeen as yet!—but that we must have another who had been left out and must begin all over again. The costs at that time — before the thing was begun! — were three times the legacy. My brother would have given up the legacy, and joyful, to escape more costs. My whole estate, left to me in that will of my father’s, has gone in costs. The suit, still undecided, has fallen into rack, and ruin, and despair, with everything else — and here I stand, this day! Now, Mr. Jarndyce, in your suit there are thousands and thousands involved, where in mine there are hundreds. Is mine less hard to bear or is it harder to bear, when my whole living was in it and has been thus shamefully sucked away?”

Mr. Jarndyce said that he condoled with him with all his heart and that he set up no monopoly himself in being unjustly treated by this monstrous system.

“There again!” said Mr. Gridley with no diminution of his rage. “The system! I am told on all hands, it’s the system. I mustn’t look to individuals. It’s the system. I mustn’t go into court and say, ‘My Lord, I beg to know this from you — is this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice and therefore am dismissed?’ My Lord knows nothing of it. He sits there to administer the system. I mustn’t go to Mr. Tulkinghorn, the solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and say to him when he makes me furious by being so cool and satisfied — as they all do, for I know they gain by it while I lose, don’t I? — I mustn’t say to him, ‘I will have something out of some one for my ruin, by fair means or foul!’ HE is not responsible. It’s the system. But, if I do no violence to any of them, here — I may! I don’t know what may happen if I am carried beyond myself at last! I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!”

His passion was fearful. I could not have believed in such rage without seeing it.

Now, please bear Mr. Gridley, and his rage, in mind as I turn to George Orwell’s great essay on Dickens. It’s possibly the finest thing ever written about Dickens – even though it’s often wrong – and is a wonderful illustration of Orwell’s power of inquiring into his own readerly responses. (A topic for another post.) 

The first point I want to call attention to is this: Orwell was of course a socialist, a person who believed that British society required radical change; and there were people who saw Dickens as a kind of proto-socialist. This, Orwell points out, is nonsense on stilts. If you want to know what Dickens thinks about revolutionary political movements, just read A Tale of Two Cities. He’s horrified by them.

Orwell then goes on to note that Dickens’s early experiences as a reporter on Parliament seem to have been important for shaping his attitude towards government as a whole: “at the back of his mind there is usually a half-belief that the whole apparatus of government is unnecessary. Parliament is simply Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle, the Empire is simply Major Bagstock and his Indian servant, the Army is simply Colonel Chowser and Doctor Slammer, the public services are simply Bumble and the Circumlocution Office — and so on and so forth.”

Such a man could never be a socialist. And yet, “Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached.” So what is the nature of this attack?

The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens’s attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power. Of course one can draw this inference for oneself, and one can draw it again from the remarks about Bounderby’s will at the end of Hard Times, and indeed from the whole of Dickens’s work one can infer the evil of laissez-faire capitalism; but Dickens makes no such inference himself. It is said that Macaulay refused to review Hard Times because he disapproved of its ‘sullen Socialism’. Obviously Macaulay is here using the word ‘Socialism’ in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as ‘Bolshevism’. There is not a line in the book that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious. Bounder by is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.

And here’s what I love about Orwell: he says that Dickens’s position “at first glance looks like an enormous platitude” – but he is not content with a first glance. He continues to think about it, and as he does he realizes that Dickens, after all, has a point. This I think is the most extraordinary moment in the essay:

His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, ‘Behave decently’, which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence.

Most revolutionaries are potential Tories – that is, their revolutionary sensibility would erase itself if they could just get Their Boys into power. Once they and people like them are in charge, then they will do anything they can to thwart change. But what that means is: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (As I note in this essay, following Ursula K. LeGuin, even an anarchist society would have its petty tyrants.) Most would-be revolutionaries ignore this problem, but “Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness.” And that’s why he’s vital.

This point takes us back to the man from Shropshire, Mr. Gridley. He will not be calmed by invocations of “the system,” the broken system in which everyone is trapped. The Lord Chancellor is not trapped as he is trapped. The Lord Chancellor is not a victim as he is a victim. The people who enable the system, and profit from it, must be held accountable – or nothing important will change. The salon of politics will only be redecorated. So: “I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!”

And this, Orwell suggests, is what the novelist can do, what the novelist can bring before our minds and lay upon our hearts. Some political systems are clearly superior to others; but Dickens understands that whatever political system we build, its chief material will be what Kant called “the crooked timber of humanity,” of which “no straight thing was ever made.”  To force us to look at that truth — which, properly understood, will result not in political quietism but a genuine and healthy realism — is what the novelist can do for us. “That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician.” The novelist-as-moralist has the power to drag the individual workers of the system, any system, “before the great eternal bar” — but not God’s bar as such, which is what Mr. Gridley means, but rather, the bar of our readerly witness, our readerly judgment, whoever and whenever we are.  

in defense of Esther Summerson

Cover Bleak House 1852 3

Esther Summerson, the protagonist of Dickens’s Bleak House – insofar as that outrageously ambitious and wide-ranging novel can be said to have a protagonist – has come in for a lot of criticism over the decades. Charlotte Brontë found her “weak and twaddling”; Terry Eagleton calls her “insipid”; examples could easily be multiplied. She’s often linked with Agnes Wickfield of David Copperfield and Amy Dorrit of Little Dorrit: exemplars, it is said, of a certain Victorian ideal of femininity — serious, responsible, endlessly patient, methodically virtuous. I agree with this reading of Agnes, who is perhaps the only tiresome character in a wondrous book, and I think it at least defensible as an interpretation of little Amy Dorrit; but Esther is a different character altogether and doesn’t deserve the criticism she gets. Dickens is doing something quite subtle with the character of Esther; when she’s properly understood I think she stands forth as one of Dickens’s greatest creations.

Let’s have some context. 

Marshalsea prison London 18th century 3

As is well-known, when Dickens was eleven years old his father was arrested for debt and sent to the Marshalsea, a debtors’ prison on the south bank of the Thames, and young Charles was removed from school and sent to work in a factory. Charles, who was already ambitious and full of hopes for himself, hated every minute of it and felt that he was wasting away; moreover, he was separated from his family and lived in lodgings near the factory. He could scarcely believe — as, decades later, he told his friend and biographer John Forster — “how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age.” This situation lasted for about a year, and even after John Dickens was released — his mother died, and his inheritance enabled him to pay his debts — Charles’s parents considered keeping him working at the factory. It was John Dickens who decided to send Charles to school, over his wife’s objections. The adult Dickens to Forster: “I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.” (We cannot know what Elizabeth Dickens was thinking, but I suspect she knew that her husband would soon be in debt again — as indeed he was — and wished to find some means of keeping him out of the Marshalsea.) 

It’s hard to overstress the influence of this experience over the thought, and the fiction, of Charles Dickens. It touched him and shaped him in many ways, but one of the chief consequences was this: he acquired an abiding interest in how children respond to injustice and suffering of all kinds — if we can use a word now common, to trauma.

Only gradually in Bleak House do we discover Esther Summerson’s story — only gradually does she herself discover it. She was an illegitimate child, the product of an affair between one Captain Hawdon and an unmarried woman named Honoria, and nearly died in her first minutes of life — indeed, Honoria’s sister told her that the baby had died, and, shocked and horrified by the gross sin that had produced this child, immediately cut Honoria out of her life, and determined to raise the child herself. Of course, Esther was never told any of this; and while her aunt — never acknowledged as such; she called herself Esther’s godmother — gave Esther physical sustenance, she gave her no love. Once, Esther’s birthday was marked by this outburst: “It would have been far better, little Esther, that you had had no birthday, that you had never been born!” And she gave Esther this advice: “Submission, self-denial, diligent work, are the preparations for a life begun with such a shadow on it. You are different from other children, Esther, because you were not born, like them, in common sinfulness and wrath. You are set apart.” And from this point on Esther never for a moment forgot that she was “filling a place in [her godmother’s] house which ought to have been empty.” Filling a place which ought to have been empty — that’s quite a phrase. 

Again, what especially interests Dickens is how children respond to trauma, and here is how Esther responded to hers: 

I went up to my room, and crept to bed, and laid my doll’s cheek against mine wet with tears, and holding that solitary friend upon my bosom, cried myself to sleep. Imperfect as my understanding of my sorrow was, I knew that I had brought no joy at any time to anybody’s heart and that I was to no one upon earth what Dolly was to me.

Dear, dear, to think how much time we passed alone together afterwards, and how often I repeated to the doll the story of my birthday and confided to her that I would try as hard as ever I could to repair the fault I had been born with (of which I confessedly felt guilty and yet innocent) and would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself if I could. 

“Guilty and yet innocent” of a life-blighting “fault.”

In George Orwell’s lacerating essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” he narrates his years at school under the tyranny of abusive schoolmaster and his wife, and describes how he was constantly being told of his inferiority — he was a scholarship boy; his parents couldn’t afford the school’s fees — and the likelihood that he was headed for financial ruin or, at best, a miserable hand-to-mouth existence.

To grasp the effect of this kind of thing on a child of ten or twelve, one has to remember that the child has little sense of proportion or probability. A child may be a mass of egoism and rebelliousness, but it as no accumulated experience to give it confidence in its own judgements. On the whole it will accept what it is told, and it will believe in the most fantastic way in the knowledge and powers of the adults surrounding it.

And you can see that for just this reason Esther believes what her “godmother” tells her: that she should not exist, that her very being is “set apart” for unique shame, that she must devote her life to the service of others not in order to make her life worthwhile — that could never be — but to reduce, if only slightly, the humiliation of her very being. Esther believes it, and acts accordingly. 

Much later on, when the adult Esther contracts smallpox — something that happens because her kindness towards others puts her in danger — she nearly dies, and emerges with a deeply scarred face. She realizes that whatever looks she might have had are gone, and feels certain that the man she can barely bring herself to acknowledge loving could now never love her in return. Then, when the infinitely kind older man who has become her guardian plans to send her to a friend’s house for further healing, here’s what she thinks:  

When my guardian left me, I turned my face away upon my couch and prayed to be forgiven if I, surrounded by such blessings, had magnified to myself the little trial that I had to undergo. The childish prayer of that old birthday when I had aspired to be industrious, contented, and true-hearted and to do good to some one and win some love to myself if I could came back into my mind with a reproachful sense of all the happiness I had since enjoyed and all the affectionate hearts that had been turned towards me. If I were weak now, what had I profited by those mercies? I repeated the old childish prayer in its old childish words and found that its old peace had not departed from it. 

The point I want to make here is simply that everything Esther does and thinks — her investment in the lives of others; her perpetual kindness; her refusal of self-pity; her determination to give endlessly while expecting nothing in return — all arises from the profound trauma of being taught, and coming wholly to believe, that she is “filling a place … which ought to have been empty,” that her life can never be truly worthwhile, that the only love she will ever get is the love she can “win” through strenuous effort. 

Esther is a wounded healer; her goodness and compassion are real and admirable, but they are also a continual testimony to an injury that cannot be cured. Esther will never be able simply to rest in the love of her family and friends; she must always strive to earn it, again and again and again. In this sense she has indeed been “set apart”; her viciously judgmental aunt ensured that. In the end, things go well for Esther; but they go well for her in large part because of the character that she develops and demonstrates; and that character, in turn, is marked but also in a sense made by a grief and a shame that goes all the way down to the bone. “Insipid”? Anything but.

Dickens’s reflections on how children are affected by trauma always circle around a great mystery: some people get trapped in their trauma, remain perpetually victimized by it, re-enact the same patterns of mean-spirited or self-destructive behavior, all their lives; but others prove strikingly resilient, and find creative ways to meet that trauma, though it always marks them in some way. Dickens saw these two paths in his own family: his brother Fred ended up simply imitating the dissolute and improvident ways of their father, while his sister Fanny seems largely to have ignored her chaotic family life and made a decent career in music (though, sadly, she died in her thirties of tuberculosis, leaving behind a husband and two children). Who can say why some of the early-wounded take the one path and some the other? Dickens, as far as I can tell, didn’t think he knew, but, as one who escaped, he seems to have striven not to judge the ones who failed to manage it. When Fred died he wrote to Forster, “It was a wasted life, but God forbid that one should be hard upon it, or upon anything in this world that is not deliberately and coldly wrong.” Perhaps the striving was not wholly successful. 

Esther Summerson is not likely to be a role model for anyone today, in part because I don’t think our book-reading culture (such as it is) admires resilience. To our cultured folk, I think, a resilient person can’t have suffered all that badly; the only way you can authenticate your suffering is to succumb to it. But this is an unfortunate attitude. Esther’s story has some powerful — and not altogether comforting — lessons for those with ears to hear. 

Bleak House is, I think, one of the two greatest novels in English, the other being George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I used to teach it regularly, but since coming to Baylor I haven’t had the opportunity, so recently I picked it up to re-read for the first time in a decade. It has kept its hold upon me. I think in the coming days I’ll write a post or two on other elements of this marvelous book. 

From my essay ”You Are Not a Server”, on Dickensian characters:

To begin to cite examples is a dangerous thing.  Once embarked on that journey, how would one end it? How could one mention the circumlocutions of Mr. Tite Barnacle without also mentioning the unctuousness of Uriah Heep, the commitment to Fact of Mr. Gradgrind, the endless compassion of Little Dorrit? Lo, I have already commenced. They are all infinitely memorable because they are all infinitely excessive; they are, as it were, nothing but surplus. They always remind us of the possibility of living at an outsize scale, of being simply more than anyone could expect, more than any reasonable person would ask for. If they seem mere caricatures, that may say something more about our crimped and confined moment than about them. They are a constant encouragement to expand rather than contract one’s options.

And that is why we need to read Dickens, now more than ever.

I published this a couple of months ago, but I don’t think I mentioned it here? 

contractual and unconditional love


We know that when Dickens wrote David Copperfield he had not read Kierkegaard’s Either/Or – published less than a decade earlier, available only in Danish – but when I reflect on one character from that novel, James Steerforth, I find it hard to believe that Dickens didn’t know the “Seducer’s Diary.” Steerforth’s seduction, abduction, and abandonment of David’s childhood love Emily (Little Em’ly, as her family call her) proceeds precisely according to the emotional sequence outlined in that diary. Johannes the Seducer and Steerforth are both perfect embodiments of what Emile Durkheim would later call anomie – a combination of amorality and unconquerable boredom, with the boredom generated by the amorality, though seducers think that by rejecting the moral laws of their societies they can make their lives more interesting.

More on anomie later. For now I want to focus not on Steerforth himself but on his family – his, and Emily’s. Dickens regularly juxtaposes Mrs. Steerforth, James’s mother, to Daniel Peggotty, Emily’s uncle and adoptive father; this juxtaposition is one of the most important elements of the book. When Steerforth sweeps Emily away, just on the eve of her marriage to her cousin Ham, and takes her to Europe, both families are devastated, but in very different ways.

When, soon after the lovers’ disappearance, Daniel Peggotty visits Mrs. Steerforth – he hopes to learn whether Steerforth is likely to marry Emily – the lady treats him to this discourse:

“My son, who has been the object of my life, to whom its every thought has been devoted, whom I have gratified from a child in every wish, from whom I have had no separate existence since his birth – to take up in a moment with a miserable girl, and avoid me! To repay my confidence with systematic deception, for her sake, and quit me for her! To set this wretched fancy, against his mother’s claims upon his duty, love, respect, gratitude – claims that every day and hour of his life should have strengthened into ties that nothing could be proof against! Is this no injury? […]

“If he can stake his all upon the lightest object, I can stake my all upon a greater purpose. Let him go where he will, with the means that my love has secured to him! Does he think to reduce me by long absence? He knows his mother very little if he does. Let him put away his whim now, and he is welcome back. Let him not put her away now, and he never shall come near me, living or dying, while I can raise my hand to make a sign against it, unless, being rid of her forever, he comes humbly to me and begs for my forgiveness. This is my right. This is the acknowledgement I will have. This is the separation that there is between us!”

To understand this outburst fully, we need to recall that earlier in the story, Mrs. Steerforth’s companion Rosa Dartle – a shrewd and ironic young woman embittered by her hopeless love for Steerforth – had, with a malicious false ingenuousness, asked Steerforth what might happen if “you and your mother were to have a serious quarrel.” To this Mrs. Steerforth replied, “My dear Rosa, … suggest some other supposition! James and I know our duty to each other better, I pray Heaven!”

“Oh!” said Miss Dartle, nodding her head thoughtfully. “To be sure. That would prevent it? Why, of course it would. Exactly. Now, I am glad I have been so foolish as to put the case, for it is so very good to know that your duty to each other would prevent it! Thank you very much.”

Rosa’s mock-inquiry arises from her understanding that Steerforth and his mother do not perceive their relationship in the same light: his “duty” would not, and in the end does not, prevent him from acting in what he perceives to be his interest, even when that interest is merely the avoidance of boredom. Rosa also understands that Mrs. Steerforth sees her relationship with her son contractually and legalistically: he owes her obedience and deference because, she says, he is the one “whom I have gratified from a child in every wish.” Thus her outrage at his failure to meet the terms of the contract is extreme and implacable: he is banished from her presence until he (a) abandons Emily forever and (b) begs his mother’s forgiveness. “This is the acknowledgement I will have.”

After she delivers herself of this announcement Daniel Peggotty takes his leave of her; there is no more to be said; their models of parental love are incommensurable, irreconcilable.

The vastness of the chasm between them may be seen by comparing Mrs. Steerforth’s distribe with Daniel Peggotty’s response when he learns that Emily has fled with her lover:

“I’m a-going to seek her, fur and wide. If she should come home while I’m away – but ah, that ain’t like to be! – or if I should bring her back, my meaning is, that she and me shall live and die where no one can’t reproach her. If any hurt should come to me, remember that the last words I left for her was, ‘My unchanged love is with my darling child, and I forgive her!’”

Call me a normie if you want, call me sentimental, what you will – I don’t know many things in all of fiction more moving than this. Let me wipe a tear from my eye and then take a moment to unpack both the explicit statements and the implications in Mr. Peggotty’s declaration.

  1. Emily is in need of forgiveness, for she has sinned. (Emily herself knows this perfectly well; she is nearly consumed with guilt.)
  2. Mr. Peggotty offers this forgiveness completely and without condition or reservation, no matter what Emily does or fails to do.
  3. He does not wait for her to beg forgiveness – he does not wait for her to repent or return – he’s “a-going to seek her, fur and wide.” The biblical analogue here is not the parable of the Prodigal Son, because there the son returns home on his own initiative. That story is lovely enough, with the old man seeing his son “a long way off” and, as Frederick Buechner has envisioned the scene, picking up his skirts and running as fast as his old legs will carry him to the beloved boy. But what Mr. Peggotty does calls forth something more radical still: “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.”
  4. He knows that Emily will suffer for her sin; he knows that the way of the world – as exemplified, for instance, by Mrs. Steerforth – is not to forgive but rather to “reproach”; so he will do what he has to do, suffer whatever he needs to suffer, so that she will not be further wounded.
  5. His love for his “darling child” is “unchanged” – unchanged. Not altered in one fraction of a degree either by what she has done or what she has left undone, and never to be altered by anything in the whole wide reproaching world.

What most people want, or think they want, is affirmation. Indeed, many people demand it, and seek to punish those who do not give it to them. But affirmation never comes without conditions, even if they’re unstated. Thus I think it’s fair to say that Mrs. Steerforth, by explicitly indulging her son’s every wish while forever hinting that by so doing she is binding him contractually to her, is enriching the soil in which anomie flourishes. (Rosa Dartle sees all this coming, but because Steerforth does not return her love, she does nothing to avert it but merely waits for the inevitable crack-up. This may be a function of some inbuilt perversity of Rosa’s character, but I think it rather an outgrowth of her dependent status and Mrs. Steerforth’s contempt for her needs — that relationship too is contractual; it’s impossible to imagine Mrs. Steerforth having any other kind.)

What people need, whether they know it or not, is not affirmation but rather unconditional love – because only with unconditional love can there be genuine honesty. What Emily needs is not the fiction that she has done no wrong; what she needs, and what she receives, is the double truthfulness that she has indeed sinned but is wholly forgiven. It’s what she needs; it’s what we all need, and from those who genuinely love us we just may get it.

From David Copperfield, Chapter XV:

Mr. Dick and I soon became the best of friends, and very often, when his day’s work was done, went out together to fly the great kite. Every day of his life he had a long sitting at the Memorial, which never made the least progress, however hard he laboured, for King Charles the First always strayed into it, sooner or later, and then it was thrown aside, and another one begun. The patience and hope with which he bore these perpetual disappointments, the mild perception he had that there was something wrong about King Charles the First, the feeble efforts he made to keep him out, and the certainty with which he came in, and tumbled the Memorial out of all shape, made a deep impression on me. What Mr. Dick supposed would come of the Memorial, if it were completed; where he thought it was to go, or what he thought it was to do; he knew no more than anybody else, I believe. Nor was it at all necessary that he should trouble himself with such questions, for if anything were certain under the sun, it was certain that the Memorial never would be finished. It was quite an affecting sight, I used to think, to see him with the kite when it was up a great height in the air. What he had told me, in his room, about his belief in its disseminating the statements pasted on it, which were nothing but old leaves of abortive Memorials, might have been a fancy with him sometimes; but not when he was out, looking up at the kite in the sky, and feeling it pull and tug at his hand. He never looked so serene as he did then. I used to fancy, as I sat by him of an evening, on a green slope, and saw him watch the kite high in the quiet air, that it lifted his mind out of its confusion, and bore it (such was my boyish thought) into the skies. As he wound the string in and it came lower and lower down out of the beautiful light, until it fluttered to the ground, and lay there like a dead thing, he seemed to wake gradually out of a dream; and I remember to have seen him take it up, and look about him in a lost way, as if they had both come down together, so that I pitied him with all my heart. 

I identify with Mr. Dick. I think if I could take all this stuff I write and make a kite from it, I’d be happier … as long as I could keep the kite aloft. 

universal neighborliness

Re: my earlier post on an Ezra Klein column, I want to add that the universality of Christianity takes a very peculiar form, because it is a universality that also emphasizes neighborliness, a particular care for those who are nearby. Thus Matthew Loftus:

We cannot love “the whole world” except in abstraction, nor work for the mutual benefit of everyone in the same way that we can take care of our children or our sick neighbor. We must not fail in our duties to those close to us, even if our love ultimately does not stop there. Only by honoring the relationships that we have with others based on our common humanity and our common interchanges of trade and culture can we honor the God who created those people and places. Our local affections will have universal implications for how we use technology, farm the land, and execute trade. And in the global realm as well as the communal, love and sanity require limits.

I have forbidden the use of the EMR [Electronic Medical Records] in my mental health clinic at the hospital, at least for now. As I scribble my notes on paper, I look to the parent, sibling, child, or friend who has accompanied the patient to the clinic. When I ask how well the medications are working, sometimes the patient will say they are fine while their companion smiles and tells me the truth. Rarely do patients come alone; some friends or family members pay a day’s wages for an hour-long bus ride to the hospital to accompany their suffering loved one. I like to think that no one in our hospital suffers alone because the cultural ethos here forbids it. 

Please do read the whole thing. But this is key: “Our local affections will have universal implications.” And, conversely, our universal commitments will necessarily have local instantiations. 

I think Charles Dickens understood this paradox very well, as we see in the greatest of his novels, Bleak House. There we note Mrs. Jellyby practicing her “telescopic philanthropy” — meditating always on the suffering of the people of Borrioboola-Gha while utterly neglecting her own children — and the “business-like and systematic” charity of Mrs. Pardiggle. As Esther Summerson says, “Ada and I … thought that Mrs. Pardiggle would have got on infinitely better if she had not had such a mechanical way of taking possession of people.” When pressed by Mrs. Pardiggle to join in her “rounds,” Esther has a profound response (even if Mrs. P can’t grasp the import of it): 

At first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself. 

Words to live by, say I. And let me conclude with words still wiser, from Helmut Thielicke’s great sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan: 

You will never learn who Jesus Christ is by reflecting upon whether there is such a thing as sonship or virgin birth or miracle. Who Jesus Christ is you learn from your imprisoned, hungry, distressed brothers. For it is in them that he meets us. He is always in the depths. And we shall draw near to these brethren only if we open our eyes to see the misery around us. And we can open our eyes only when we love. But we cannot go and do and love, if we stop and ask first, “Who is my neighbor?” The devil has been waiting for us to ask this question; and he will always whisper into our ears only the most convenient answers. We human beings always fall for the easiest answers. No, we can love only if we have the mind of Jesus and turn the lawyer’s question around. Then we shall ask not “Who is my neighbor?” but “To whom am I a neighbor? Who is laid at my door? Who is expecting help from me and who looks upon me as his neighbor?” This reversal of the question is precisely the point of the parable.

Anybody who loves must always be prepared to have his plans interrupted. We must be ready to be surprised by tasks which God sets for us today. God is always compelling us to improvise. For God’s tasks always have about them something surprising and unexpected, and this imprisoned, wounded, distressed brother, in whom the Saviour meets us, is always turning up on our path just at the time when we are about to do something else, just when we are occupied with altogether different duties. God is always a God of surprises, not only in the way in which he helps us — for God’s help too always comes from unexpected directions — but also in the manner in which he confronts me with tasks to perform and sends people across my path. 

P.S. I meant to schedule this to post tomorrow – sorry for all the stuff in one day. If I don’t post anything for the next day or two, just read this post several times. It’ll do you good. 

moral infections

That it is at least as difficult to stay a moral infection as a physical one; that such a disease will spread with the malignity and rapidity of the Plague; that the contagion, when it has once made head, will spare no pursuit or condition, but will lay hold on people in the soundest health, and become developed in the most unlikely constitutions: is a fact as firmly established by experience as that we human creatures breathe an atmosphere. A blessing beyond appreciation would be conferred upon mankind, if the tainted, in whose weakness or wickedness these virulent disorders are bred, could be instantly seized and placed in close confinement (not to say summarily smothered) before the poison is communicable.

— Dickens, Little Dorrit


A memorable moment from Dickens’s Little Dorrit:

‘May I inquire how I can obtain official information as to the real state of the case?’

‘It is competent,’ said Mr Barnacle, ‘to any member of the — Public,’ mentioning that obscure body with reluctance, as his natural enemy, ‘to memorialise the Circumlocution Department. Such formalities as are required to be observed in so doing, may be known on application to the proper branch of that Department.’

‘Which is the proper branch?’

‘I must refer you,’ returned Mr Barnacle, ringing the bell, ‘to the Department itself for a formal answer to that inquiry.’

‘Excuse my mentioning — ’

‘The Department is accessible to the — Public,’ Mr Barnacle was always checked a little by that word of impertinent signification, ‘if the — Public approaches it according to the official forms; if the — Public does not approach it according to the official forms, the — Public has itself to blame.’

One can discover the proper branch of the Circumlocution Department to address one’s inquiries if one goes to the Circumlocution Department and asks. Assuming, of course, that one addresses that inquiry to its proper branch.

Recently I had a medical problem that needed attention, and so — naturally enough, one might think — called the clinic that handles my primary care. I was (a) told by a robotic voice that I was caller 17, that is, that they would get to me only after they had handled the inquiries of sixteen other people, and (b) asked by a different voice whether I knew that I could make an appointment online.

I hung up and got online, where I requested an appointment. Several days of silence ensued, at the end of which I got a message telling me that if I wanted an appointment I needed to call the office. I did, and heard a robotic voice telling me that I was caller 23….

Two weeks later, I discovered that a member of my family, who has a serious medical condition, was told at the doctor’s office that she had no health insurance. I called the Benefits department of Baylor’s Human Resources — though later I discovered that I was not talking to another Baylor employee, but rather to a representative of a company to whom Baylor has farmed out such responsibilities — and was told that I could not be helped over the phone, no matter how urgent the situation, but had to submit a request for clarification (and, ultimately, coverage) to a particular email address.

I dutifully took down the email address and sent my inquiry. The email address did not exist.

I called back, got from a different person a different email address. That address too did not exist.

I went online to the company’s website and found a chatbot that gave me a third email address. This one worked. Indeed, within seconds I got a reply email telling me that if I had an urgent request I should call at a particular number — the number I had originally called.

It’s important to recognize that what I went through in both of the circumstances did not result from bugs in the systems, but from features — from purposeful design. The goal of all our contemporary Departments of Circumlocution is simply this: To make us give up. To bring us to the point of shrugging our shoulders and crossing our fingers in the hope that whatever illness we have will somehow get better; or to the point that we pay for medicine ourselves because we can’t figure out how to get our insurance to cover it, and don’t dare try to get by without it. The object of these systems is the generation of despair. Because if the systems make us despair then the companies that deploy them can boast of the money they have saved the organizations that purchase their services.

readers reading, disagreeing

I have decided that I want 2022 to be a Year of Re-Reading — it would be rash for me to say that I won’t read any new books, but I really want to focus on returning to books that I want to know better. (I realized some years ago that I don’t really know the value and use of a book until I read it three times.)

But I decided, before the new regimen begins, to read Our Mutual Friend — one of the three Dickens novels (the other two being The Old Curiosity Shop and Martin Chuzzlewit) that I had never read. Having now completed it, I find that it’s one of the most complex and profound of Dickens’s novels but also surely the least enjoyable.

I was therefore taken aback when I saw what Chesterton said about it:

Our Mutual Friend marks a happy return to the earlier manner of Dickens at the end of Dickens’s life. One might call it a sort of Indian summer of his farce. Those who most truly love Dickens love the earlier Dickens; and any return to his farce must be welcomed, like a young man come back from the dead.

Did he read the same book I read? “Farce”? The humor in this book — and there is of course a lot of it — is not farcical but savage. Insofar as the book marks a return to an earlier Dickens, it’s not a happy-go-lucky farceur but rather a bitterly angry social critic. Peter Ackroyd, in his great biography of Dickens — one of the finest biographies I have ever read — gets this right:

In fact this is the first novel in which he directly confronts and attacks contemporary English social behaviour (Little Dorrit had been much more concerned with its institutions and its bureaucracy), all the marriages, arranged or otherwise, all the dinner parties and Commons business now seeming quite false and unreal, in a world of morbid vacancy, stale routines and universal hypocrisy. Social events are depicted as occasions of torment and even the act of eating and drinking in company, so joyful a social ritual in Dickens’s earlier novels, is now seen as no more than another twist of the knife. And the gossip, the dreadful gossip, the gossip of which Dickens was so often the subject and which he truly feared and hated, is also anatomised. There is here, then, a general hatred for society; a hatred which he had as a child and young man but which now returns in a savage attack upon the world in which he lived and moved and of which he was, indeed, a principal ornament. That is why his sympathies in Our Mutual Friend lie with the odd and the outcast; those who, as it were, are forced to clean up and live off the waste and detritus of the rich (such large dust heaps, in reality dominating the landscape of Battle Bridge and Liverpool Street!). And perhaps that is also why, in the figure of the distressed Betty Higden running from the spectre of the workhouse, he returns to the attack he had made upon the New Poor Laws twenty-seven years before in Oliver Twist. All the radicalism of his youth is returning again, in his last finished novel.


If this was a man who could glance once at a row of shops and remember the details of every one, how could he do otherwise than instantaneously recognise and understand the contemporary life around him? Not just the filth and wretchedness which persisted in London through the years of reconstruction — Hippolyte Taine said of Shadwell in this decade, “I have seen the lower quarters of Marseilles, Antwerp and Paris: they come nowhere near this.” But Dickens sensed and recognised something else as well; he sensed in the change of London a change in the nature of civilisation itself. A civilisation that he anatomised in Our Mutual Friend with the Veneerings and the Podsnaps. Speculation. Peculation. Overseas investment. Short-term money markets. Brokering. Joint stock banking. Discount companies. Limited liability. Credit. A world in which human identity was seen in terms of monetary value. A world of barter and exchange. And thus, in the houses of the middle-class and upper middle-class, the fake “marbling”. Veneer. Imitation wood. Chinoiserie. Exaggerated ornamentation. Blankets of fabric. Stifled silent rooms. Death. Gold. Filth. This is the world of his last completed novel.

What a troubling book. You laugh, but you laugh uneasily; you laugh to keep from raging. It’s a brilliant performance but one that I admire far more than I enjoy — as, I am sure, Dickens intended.

I think maybe it’s an especially apt book for our own moment. It does much of what what John Lanchester tried to do in his novel Capital but didn’t have the bitterness to pull off.

And with that … Happy New Year! A toast: Good health to local cultures and confusion to surveillance capitalism! 

“a large superfluous establishment of words”

We talk about the tyranny of words, but we like to tyrannise over them too; we are fond of having a large superfluous establishment of words to wait upon us on great occasions; we think it looks important, and sounds well. As we are not particular about the meaning of our liveries on state occasions, if they be but fine and numerous enough, so, the meaning or necessity of our words is a secondary consideration, if there be but a great parade of them. And as individuals get into trouble by making too great a show of liveries, or as slaves when they are too numerous rise against their masters, so I think I could mention a nation that has got into many great difficulties, and will get into many greater, from maintaining too large a retinue of words.

— Dickens, David Copperfield 

N.B.  Quote posted by a man who has published more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles, so grains of salt may be required. 

I put this appeal before any other observations on Dickens. First let us sympathise, if only for an instant, with the hopes of the Dickens period, with that cheerful trouble of change. If democracy has disappointed you, do not think of it as a burst bubble, but at least as a broken heart, an old love-affair. Do not sneer at the time when the creed of humanity was on its honeymoon; treat it with the dreadful reverence that is due to youth. For you, perhaps, a drearier philosophy has covered and eclipsed the earth. The fierce poet of the Middle Ages wrote, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,’ over the gates of the lower world. The emancipated poets of to-day have written it over the gates of this world. But if we are to understand the story which follows, we must erase that apocalyptic writing, if only for an hour. We must recreate the faith of our fathers, if only as an artistic atmosphere If, then, you are a pessimist, in reading this story, forego for a little the pleasures of pessimism. Dream for one mad moment that the grass is green. Unlearn that sinister learning that you think so clear; deny that deadly knowledge that you think you know. Surrender the very flower of your culture; give up the very jewel of your pride; abandon hopelessness, all ye who enter here.

At last, having been (always attended by the cat) all over the house and having seen the whole stock of miscellaneous lumber, which was certainly curious, we came into the back part of the shop. Here on the head of an empty barrel stood on end were an ink-bottle, some old stumps of pens, and some dirty playbills; and against the wall were pasted several large printed alphabets in several plain hands.

“What are you doing here?” asked my guardian.

“Trying to learn myself to read and write,” said Krook.

“And how do you get on?”

“Slow. Bad,” returned the old man impatiently. “It’s hard at my time of life.”

“It would be easier to be taught by some one,” said my guardian.

“Aye, but they might teach me wrong!” returned the old man with a wonderfully suspicious flash of his eye. “I don’t know what I may have lost by not being learned afore. I wouldn’t like to lose anything by being learned wrong now.”

“Wrong?” said my guardian with his good-humoured smile. “Who do you suppose would teach you wrong?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Jarndyce of Bleak House!” replied the old man, turning up his spectacles on his forehead and rubbing his hands. “I don’t suppose as anybody would, but I’d rather trust my own self than another!”

— Charles Dickens, Bleak House

A man, then, who portrays human beings excessively and extravagantly. A man who portrays human beings in hell. And yet when we read [Dickens], it does not read like bad news. What does he have to say at the end of the day about redemption? In some ways not a great deal. Or rather there is a tension again and again in his books between a carefully, neatly resolved happy ending, and an immense burden of recognised, almost unbearable, unresolved suffering. He achieves the balance of those two most perfectly, for one reader, in Bleak House, where the past tense of Esther’s narrative is balanced by the present tense of unhealed suffering, the rain still falling on the Lincolnshire wolds. But in that book, which one reader at least thinks is perhaps his most profoundly theological—though he wouldn’t thank me for that—we have one of the strangest, most shocking images that he ever gives us of compassion and mercy, and that is the figure of Sir Leicester Dedlock. At the very end of Bleak House, left alone in his decaying mansion, holding open the possibility of forgiveness and restoration, ‘I revoke no dispositions I have made in her favour’, says Sir Leicester, with his typical dryness, about the wife who has fled from him in guilt and terror. And in that appallingly stiff phrase we hear something of the hope of mercy. Almost silent, powerless, Sir Leicester after his stroke, dying slowly in loneliness, and stubbornly holding open the possibility that there might be, once again, love and harmony.

The question that haunts every Dickens biography, Tomalin’s included, is this one: was Dickens an asshole? It’s to Tomalin’s credit that her book only complicates the question, rather than answering it.

Lev Grossman. Dickens came to hate his wife Catherine for being pregnant so often — by him, of course — and without telling her in advance had carpenters come to their bedroom and divide it in half so he wouldn’t have to sleep with her. He regularly mocked and belittled her in front of friends and company. When he decided to abandon her and pursue life with his mistress, he ordered his children never to see their mother. He even ordered Catherine’s own sister to have nothing to do with her. Tomalin herself has said that his behavior towards Catherine was “unforgivable.” Grossman oddly ignores all this, saying only that “The marriage lasted 22 years, declining into antipathy and finally ending in a bitter divorce” — as though the hostility were mutual, instead of being generated almost wholly by Dicken’s hatred of Catherine. If Charles Dickens was not an asshole, then no one ever was. Of course, that it not all he was. He was also, for example, a genius. But assholes don’t come any bigger or more evident than Dickens.

Two years ago in Rangoon, I met a toothpick-thin, boisterous young Burmese man called Somerset. He had conferred this nickname on himself at age sixteen, after renting a collection of stories by W. Somerset Maugham from one of the bookstalls on Pansodan Road. By memorizing sentences from the collection, Somerset taught himself a somewhat formal and archaic English. Then he moved on to Charles Dickens. His identification with the works of these long-dead British writers was total. ‘All of those characters are me,’ Somerset explained. ‘Neither a British nor American young man living in the twenty-first century can understand a Dickens as well as I can. I am living in a Dickens atmosphere. Our country is at least one or two centuries behind the Western world. My neighborhood—bleak, poor, with small domestic industries, children playing on the street, the parents are fighting with each other, some are with great debt, everyone is dirty. That is Dickens. In that Dickens atmosphere I grew up. I am more equipped to understand Dickens than modern novels. I don’t know what is air conditioning, what is subway, what is fingerprint exam.’

Dickens in Lagos – Lapham’s Quarterly