Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Through Dickens


I am rereading Edwin Drood. Bowled over, as always, by Dickens' linguistic power: no other writer of English prose holds a candle to him. And more convinced than ever that if you want to understand the English-speaking world, this is where to look: this is the writer who most perfectly expresses -- and had no little hand in creating -- our culture. 

For better and for worse. We are cloyingly sentimental, given to wild outbursts. We but slenderly know ourselves. We are violently suspicious of institutions, which makes us -- paradoxically -- uniquely vulnerable to them. Our medical system, our prison system, our legal system, our political system: all seem to stalk among us, loathed by all, but never to be changed:  to change institutions you have to believe in them. We are political cripples.

And for a people deeply and genuinely committed to kindness, we are astonishingly cruel. In this too we follow Dickens. Our ferocious belief in our moral perfection leads us to very dark places. We fall in love ecstatically, fall back out again, and loathe our erstwhile infatuations with no apparent sense of contradiction; no uneasiness. We put together families and recklessly explode them.

We work frantically, wearing ourselves out, in constant terror of poverty. There is never enough. We are never out of the shadow of the workhouse. We are never done with being ashamed of home.

A way forward, if there is one, leads through Dickens. There's no way around him.

1 comment:

Nimble said...

One day I will take up some more Dickens. I read Little Dorrit and Bleak House a decade or so ago and felt very enthusiastic at that time.

Your description of the human condition captured in D's melodramatic installments makes me think of Martha Wells' Murderbot books. In case you're in the market, the first one is the novella All Systems Red.