Here is your guide.
“If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” So claims an oft-repeated quote of Isaac Babel’s. I doubt any lover of Tolstoy would have trouble understanding or sympathising with this claim – if perhaps wondering whether the implied artlessness isn’t an illusion created by some very great art indeed. The whole of life is in Tolstoy’s novels, and, as in all our great writers, it is his genius for close observation that helps us see for ourselves what has all along been under our very noses. If the world was able, however, not just to write by itself but to tell a good ghost story, then it would write like Dickens.
Of course some of Dickens’s stories feature actual ghosts – A Christmas Carol being the obvious example. But in a broader sense, all his stories are haunted, in the same way that we are. For the world really can “write by itself” – and what it writes resembles Dickens more than Tolstoy. I mean the dreams and memories and fancies that arise unbidden in our minds, and most especially the strangely dramatic, moving and oddly coloured memories of our childhood. We all have stories that we tell to ourselves and to each other and, consciously or not, these tales have grown in the telling. The comedy is better timed than if life had written for itself, the trials and tribulations more dramatic, the horrors and evils more grotesque, the depressions deeper and darker, the joys and loves cast in brighter lights, the triumphs more glorious, the battles more heroic. This is not in any way to downplay Tolstoy’s art or story-telling genius. It is just to marvel at the airy products of our own imaginations – to shudder at the ghostly power they can hold over us – and to admire the art that enabled Dickens to trap them, in the forms in which they appear to us, rather than as may be in reality, on a page.
In the real world, as the Buddha taught us, our selves and characters and stories have no substantial reality, no permanence. We are bubbles of earth, floating along and before too long – gone! What a pity for us that the ghosts that haunt our minds can seem so real, so terrifying! How seriously we take life! How scared we are by… never mind by gargoyles or ghosts or extreme poverty, but by the cupboard under the stairs! The hatch that leads to the attic! By Mr Pumblechook giving us a sum to perform. No one captures life as it is caught and fretted over by our egos better than Dickens.
Dickens is often accused of penning caricatures, but are caricatures not precisely what haunt us, the things with which our imaginations populate our inner world? That chap sitting there across from us now – he may well be a very well rounded and complex character, from the inside, from his own point of view, from a God’s eye point of view, from the point of view of a world “writing by itself”. But how does he appear to us, in the never-ending ghost stories that run constantly through our minds? Do we not tend to see people and other objects of reality through the glasses of our minds, and then somewhat darkly? We peer through the masks we have created for ourselves and what do we see? Leering and goggling and grinning back at us are the masks we have put on other people – or perhaps rather the masks they most insist on being seen in themselves. This is a mistake. We must make an effort to see more clearly if we are not to go on creating unnecessary suffering for ourselves and for the world. Yet we do it. If we cannot see that we do it, if we come to take ourselves and our stories seriously, if our characters continue to insist on the reality of the absurd tragedies we play, the dramas where we star in the lead role, a spotlight on our own importance and achievements, we become hard, unfeeling, grotesque monsters – we start wars. We become Dickensian. Our modern world is Dickensian still.
This is what Dickens shows us. But he also shows us the possibility of breaking these spells, of dismissing the ghosts, of exorcising the well-trodden paths we cut through life. He shows us the possibility of love and compassion for the suffering in this world. When we see this clearly, perhaps we might do some good. Perhaps one frosty morning we will leap from our beds like Scrooge on Christmas day, eager to begin, and with a smile in our hearts. As John Cowper Powys says, reading Dickens gives one a healthy disdain for flippancy and cynicism. Dickens may lapse into sentimentality, as critics are all too eager to point out, but it is after all better to cry than to comb one’s hair all day with an ivory comb.
But no, no, I’ve still not captured what I most love about Dickens. Yes, Dickens is Serious Literature. Who didn’t know it? But there’s a lot of that about. What makes him stand above all others for me is that he is such a pleasure to read. My happiest memories of reading date from when I was very young and I would make the conscious decision to stay indoors, spurning the sunshine, to lie on the floor, pick up an Enid Blyton, and read it from cover to cover for no other reason than the sheer thrill of it. No reading experience came close to that until I discovered Dickens, many years later. Dickens makes you see the world through the eye of a child once again – surely no one does this quite like Dickens –but he grows you up too. He is a moralist, but one who understands the vital importance of a full belly, warmth, good cheer and “some rare and startling occurrence” (as Powys puts it in a different essay, sadly not online). His novels are the fifth gospel – and for moderns such as myself, not brought up on the Bible, his gospel speaks much more powerfully to my heart than do the other four. He truly is The Inimitable.–Stuart
What is it all about really – this life? What are we after? What are we searching for? Why do we so often suffer with feelings of disconnection, incompleteness, anxiety? Sometimes it’s overwhelming, and darkness descends. At other times you must really pay close attention to discover it at all – and yet, there it is, a gnat bite of unsatisfactoriness. For what do we hanker?
What it comes right down to, in the end, is happiness – isn’t it? That somehow doesn’t sound serious or upright or ambitious enough, so we may find ourselves saying instead that what we want is more money, more fame, more power. Or perhaps, hoping to sound more noble, we lust after freedom, or truth, or to do good. We struggle for some great reform, start a revolution, dig in and bank up the sides of the status quo, fight for the reaction. Some of us hanker for more money; some to do more good work for others or to save the world. Some, in the case of the “effective altruism” movement, do both. But why would we want any of these things if not to be happy? Surely we only want money to be happy; to help others so that we feel ourselves to be good and useful and hence happy?
Maybe, but happiness alone is not quite enough. In his great novel, Wolf Solent, John Cowper Powys presents two visions that represent the extremes of what fate might hold in store for human beings. The first is the “face on the Waterloo steps”, glimpsed by the book’s protagonist at the railway station. Just to look at such a face is to enter yourself into the very depths of misery and despair. It is life without hope. It is the plain, unadorned struggle for existence – and the eagle digs his claws into your shoulders.
The second extreme, also glimpsed by the book’s protagonist on his literal and philosophic wanderings, is self-satisfied “happiness”. There, sitting in a neat garden, retired from life’s struggles at last, puffing contentedly on a pipe and enjoying his property and the passing show, is the face of a man with the look of a cat lapping up the cream. Contentment and indulgence. Perhaps this vision might sound more appealing to you. And yet, just think, how could you sit there lapping up the cream while you know that there is yet in this world that face on the Waterloo steps? It’s grotesque. Unworthy. Could we think of a better word than inhuman?
We arrive, then, at a tentative conclusion. The aim of existence is to be happy while pursuing a human life, a noble life. Except that this is not so much a conclusion – not something to be decided and resolved upon and that’s that. It’s more like an art, something that demands study and practice. What’s delightful about it is that it’s art we can all play a part in creating; no credentials nor any particular talents are required. If you are a human being, practising the art of living – whether it’s for one minute or one day or the next 40 years – is something you can actually do, every minute of your life. The result can be great happiness – for ourselves, and for our fellow creatures.–Stuart
Stuart and Dave’s blog, featuring thoughts and fragments on politics, economics, philosophy, literature, and spirituality.
“Man is the animal who weeps and laughs – and writes. If the first Prometheus brought fire from heaven in a fennel-stalk, the last will take it back – in a book.”
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