Dickens for our time
The Browser links to the essay on Dickens that Theodore Dalrymple wrote for TAC’s previous issue. Dalrymple says that the lack of philosophical consistency in Dickens’ moral outlook is actually a strength:
Dickens is often reproached for his absence of firm and unequivocal moral, political, and philosophical outlook. He veers crazily between the ferociously reactionary and the mushily liberal. He lampoons the disinterested philanthropy of Mrs. Jellyby (in Bleak House) with the same gusto or ferocity as he excoriates the egotism of Mr. Veneering (in Our Mutual Friend). He suggests that businessmen are heartless swine (Bounderby in Hard Times) or disinterestedly charitable (the Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby). He satirizes temperance (in The Pickwick Papers) as much as he derides drunkenness (in Martin Chuzzlewit). The evil Jew (in Oliver Twist) is matched by the saintly Jew (in Our Mutual Friend). As Stephen Blackpool, the working-class hero of Hard Times says, “it’s aw a muddle.”
George Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, saw in this philosophical and moral muddle not a weakness but a strength, a generosity of spirit, an openness to the irreducible complexity of mankind’s moral situation, an immunity to what he called “the smelly little orthodoxies that are now contending for our souls.”
Dalrymple says there is a lesson in that for us:
Under the impact of today’s economic crisis, the shrillness of opposing camps, of diagnosers, prognosticators, and curers, has increased. Even the same financial page of the same newspaper may have articles proposing diametrically opposed solutions, the only thing in common between them being the certainty with which they are offered. Each has a single simple principle, Gradgrindian or not, that is the supposed key to happiness, prosperity, economic growth. But now more than ever it is necessary to suppress our inherent tendency to seek the key to all questions, and reading Dickens may help us to do it.