On Dickens (Part 1): Art and Life

Considerably before there was dada, surrealism, magic realism, or animation, there was Dickens, who foreshadowed them all. He was born two hundred years ago last month into a world that he would later give his nameDickens' study at Gad's Hill to. His childhood was what can only be described as Dickensian - financially precarious, socially liminal, involving stints in a blacking factory. He grew up, somewhat embittered, to skewer a succession of fat, juicy Victorianisms on the spit of his genius, and roast them to a delicious crispness. He’s praised and censured for how much larger his imaginary world is than life, but it’s this largeness, more than anything else, that makes him great. 

What first grabbed me about Dickens was his sheer energy. His narratives rush at and past you. His prose feels like some winged creature swooping and wheeling, circling upwards then suddenly diving, pecking savagely at the nasty characters, tenderly enfolding the sweet ones in soft feathers. His language is elastic, inventive, rhythmic, even onomatapoeic; jazz is latent in it. There are jokes, or at least barbs, embedded in the very syntax. Perhaps my favourite sentence in all of Dickens (it’s the one Miriam Margulyes ends her show with) is the names of the birds that, in Bleak House, Miss Flite keeps caged: “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.” This sentence runs the reeling gamut of Dickens’ portraiture. Here, and everywhere, he seems to skitter along the edge of the fantastic, the unbelievable. But this, after all, is his most consistent comment: life is unbelievable. 

In his speech at the official wreath-laying in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, the Archbishop used words like ‘exuberance’ and ‘excess’ to describe the essence of Dickens.   What appeals is the exaggeration and caricature, but more because they reach for something truthful than because they go beyond it: “The truth is extreme, the truth is excessive. The truth about human beings is more grotesque and bizarre than we can imagine. And Dickens' generous embrace of human beings does not arise out of a chilly sense of what is due to them, but out of a celebratory feeling that there is always more to be discovered.”  

This is a thought GK Chesterton took up in his marvellous biography of Dickens, published in 1906. He answers the critics who found Dickens’ works unlike life.  “Dickens is ‘like life’ in the truer sense, in the sense that he is akin to the living principle in us and in the universe; he is like life, at least in this detail, that he is alive. His art is like life, because, like life, it cares for nothing outside itself, and goes on its way rejoicing. Both produce monsters with a kind of carelessness... Art indeed copies life in not copying life, for life copies nothing. Dickens's art is like life because, like life, it is irresponsible, because, like life, it is incredible.”


More soon, I promise, but till I have more time, here's where I'm up to:

I picked up two books today ($5 each) from the big discount store that has moved in where Borders was. A gorgeous Vintage edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and Chesterton's biography of Dickens, which I shall place on the shelf next his biography of Browning. Chesterton is a marvellous biographer simply because he breaks all the rules: fiercely partial, wildly speculative, intrusively pontifical - in short, a delight. I won't read the Chesterton immediately because I'm knee-deep in Middlemarch, which I'm reading for the third time.  This time around my sympathies are given differently, and I have a much better grasp of Eliot's peripatetic narration. The sensations of my 19-year-old self reading it for the first time are there as a kind of watermark, against which I can measure my progress. I'm also thinking about how far Dorothea Brooke might be compared with Isabel Archer, of Henry James' masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady: both young women affronting their destinies, making fatal choices about where to bestow their promise. Indeed, both might be the objects of sonnet 87:
Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate:
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thyself thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gavest it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

I recall that James, though with the highest admiration for her, called Eliot a 'great horse-faced blue-stocking.' Surely one of the great literary insults, of which even Chesterton might have been proud.

Home of the brave

Independence Day celebrates, among other things, America's repulsion of the alien. Today the land of the free and the home of the brave is often nurse to a great deal of force and fear, and 235 years on from its declaration, the cherished independence is still threatened by the alien.

One such alien was Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who was characteristically amused by the form he had to fill in to gain entry to the US in 1921. He recorded the incident in “What I saw in America.”

One of the questions on the paper was, “Are you an anarchist?” To which a detached philosopher would naturally feel inclined to answer, “What the devil has that to do with you?” ... Then there was the question, “Are you in favor of subverting the government of the United States by force?”Against this I should write, “I prefer to answer that question at the end of my tour and not the beginning.”... But among many things that amused me almost to the point of treating the form thus disrespectfully, the most amusing was the thought of the ruthless outlaw who should feel compelled to treat it respectfully. I like to think of the foreign desperado, seeking to slip into America with official papers under official protection, and sitting down to write with a beautiful gravity, “I am an anarchist. I hate you all and wish to destroy you.” Or, “I intend to subvert by force the government of the United States as soon as possible, sticking the long sheath-knife in my left trouser-pocket into your President at the earliest opportunity.” There seems to be a certain simplicity of mind about these answers; and it is reassuring to know that anarchists... are so pure and good that the police have only to ask them questions and they are certain to tell no lies.

I doubt whether this touching naivete obtains in contemporary US customs officials, but the questions come out of an enduring disquiet about America's natural predators. More than 30 years from the end of the Cold War, the communist is still a dreaded bogey. The word “socialism” makes grown men quake. There is much to admire about what America has meant and won in the world, but I'm afraid their tight grip on freedom will finally choke it. FDR told them they had nothing to fear but fear itself; I don't think they heard him.