The Inimitable

“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

Murmuring

My previous post raises two obvious questions. How do we get happiness? And what does it mean to lead a human, a noble life?

The Books of Moses in the Bible hint in an amusing way at the answer. The children of Israel, having groaned under the lash of the Egyptians in slavery for generations, are liberated by God. God puts forth his hand and rescues the Israelites from slavery, revealing “wonders” beyond imagination as he does so. He leads them through the wilderness, providing food and and driving off whole armies along the way, before arriving at a land flowing with milk and honey. God gifts this bountiful land to the children of Israel, promising to be with them in their trials and to drive out before them their enemies, if they will just walk in the ways of God, ie, live a noble life. And how do the Israelites show their gratitude for such miracles, such gifts? They do nothing but “murmur” and whinge and rebel against Him at every opportunity, every step of the way! Even if we were liberated from our daily grind and granted the whole universe, it seems, the human response would be to get bored with it and demand another one.

If happiness is not to be found in getting what we want, but in living a good life, how then are we to do that? It’s hard to think of a better or more concise answer than that offered by Tolstoy in his short parable, “Three Questions”. Please do have a quick read of it here. But if those few hundreds words are too much for you, you lazy dogs, just two capture it perfectly. Only connect.–Stuart