Sunday, September 4, 2011

Thinking about the poor

A book I began reading this summer is entitled How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read. It is by a Frenchman, Pierre Bayard, a professor of French literature at the University of Paris. The title is facetious, in the French way, since it is actually a serious book, and Professor Bayard has clearly read all the books he discusses. I bring it up, because I have been asked to write a review of a new biography of Charles Dickens for a national magazine for which I occasionally write literary reviews. I am not a scholar of Charles Dickens or of the 19th century, but in Bayard's terms I clearly know how to talk about Dickens. That is to say, I know how to find my bearings "within books as a system" and to understand how a writer or a work is situated in relation to other writers or books. Bayard's example in his first chapter is James Joyce's Ulysses, which he claims not to have read. And though its content is foreign to him, its "location" is not, and he can situate it "with relative precision" in relation to other books, for instance, Homer's Odyssey, and thus, as he writes, he often finds himself alluding to Joyce "without the slightest anxiety."

Well, I am not one to write a review of a biography of Dickens without at least consulting other biographers of the Victorian novelist. Suffice it to say that I have also read a number of novels by Dickens, back in my youth. Recently I have paged through some of those novels -- Pickwick Papers, Martin Chuzzlewit, The Old Curiosity Shop -- and I have asked myself whether anyone over the age of 18 can possibly bear to read Dickens today. George Orwell, a great writer who has some splendid insights on Dickens's novels, has said that he read all of them in his boyhood, but could our present crop of high-school grads get through Dickens' outsized loquacity and verbal inventiveness? It says much about the intelligence of early 19th-century readers that they seemed to have understood Dickens without any problem at all.

George Gissing, well worth reading though a now rather overlooked 19th-century writer, published a study of Dickens in 1898. Gissing, a man of socialist leanings, admired Dickens, and in his opening chapter he sketches the economic transformation that began to turn England into an industrial power in the early 19th century, one that bred a larger population and a larger class of poor and indeed impoverished people and resulted in, for instance, the employment of children as young as five or six in coal mines. Gissing would like to make Dickens a champion of reforms with novels that pointed out the "stupidity and heartlessness" of the age. Orwell, however, points out in his essay on Dickens that, while Dickens condemned a "gifted child working in a factory" (David Copperfield), he nowhere writes that no child should work in a factory 10 hours a day."

For Orwell, Dickens is a "radical," in the sense that he is instinctively against "the system," but with no practical solutions for improvement; he only has a perception that "something is wrong" with society. Dickens' idea of progress, according to Orwell, is moral in nature: Dickens does not suggest socialism. He does not want for workers to be rebellious, but for capitalists to be kind. He seemed to be reaching for what Orwell called "an idealized version of the existing thing."

This feeling that "something is wrong" with the world as it is can also be heard in the 18th century among the philosophes and other enlightened minds, as I mentioned in my recent postings on Franco Venturi's Utopia and Reform. In the 18th century there was a steady and increasing chorus of vociferations against "the rich" and "the powerful," coupled with denunciations of the treatment of "the poor" and otherwise disadvantaged. I can't help thinking that in the course of the transition to the 19th century, the attacks on the well-off became a kind of trope, what Venturi refers to as one of those "mental forms which, once they are fixed and shaped, will never yield without long and difficult trials and struggles." He is writing here of the expansion of the traditional utopia in the Enlightenment to the determination to create paradise on earth, in other words, the passage to the communist ideal. This determination is always accompanied by something like loathing for "what is." Gissing writes, for instance, of the mid-19th century: "A time of ugliness: ugly religion, ugly law, ugly relations between rich and poor, ugly clothes, ugly furniture." Social progress, as envisioned by reformers like Gissing, is always accompanied by hatred or repugnance for what went before.

Of course, one only lives when one lives, and it is hard to get a handle on whether a preceding age was as abominable as it is portrayed post hoc facto. I think Dickens remains a powerful and important writer because, through his very inventiveness and vibrant imagination, he "fixed and shaped" (in Venturi's words) a view of the Victorian age that allows later ages to believe that they have "morally progressed." It is only anecdotally that we are able to cite progress, and I have not yet seen the attempt by any statistician to quantify progress as such; the variables would be too numerous. My own feeling is that, even in the worst of times, people find ways to be comfortable, if not happy. Thus, another reason why Dickens remains an important writer. According to G.K. Chesterton (in his study of Dickens), Dickens "knew well that the greatest happiness that has been known since Eden is the happiness of the unhappy. ... Nothing that has ever been written about human delights, no Earthly Paradise, no Utopia has ever come so near the quick nerve of happiness as his descriptions of the rare extravagances of the poor." One only has to think of the Cratchits at their Christmas feast. (A Christmas Carol, by the way, is the one book by Dickens that I read once a year.)

Maybe someone can instruct me on this, but wasn't it Nietzsche who was the first to critique that mental form that denounces the rich and idealizes the poor?

Picture credit: I am a child


Anonymous said...

All these years gone by and still haven't read that book by J. Hillis Miller on Dickens! What's worse, I've not yet read completely "Paradise Lost"--or a single novel by Trollope. However, I did hear a really interesting conversation on the Michael Medved show the other day--his guest was David Sirota, whose article, "The Church of Denialism," makes the case that the so-called "advantages" of being black in this country are, well, an aspect of acute "denialism." The discussion was especially interesting in that conservative Medved and progressive Sirota AGREED: All things considered, the idea that it is advantageous these days to be black in ridiculous. Of course, the interlocutors disagree about how to start fixing our increasingly desperate economy, in which blacks suffer way disproportionately (according to the data that both men seemed to know as experts). The unemployment rate for black males is off the charts. (That's why one might take a look at the CNN Republicans' Debate on Monday night, September 12. Incidentally, tonight, on CNN, Ari Fleischer remarked that Jon Huntsman has a "very good" jobs/growth plan out already. Let me hasten to add that Fleischer mentioned this in a context--he is not, not yet anyway, anywhere near supporting any Republican in particular.)

Goethe Girl said...

You're ahead of me: I didn't even know that J. Hillis Miller had written a book on Dickens.