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Dickens for our time

The Browser links to the essay on Dickens [1]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.

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5 Comments To "Dickens for our time"

#1 Comment By Lulu On January 31, 2012 @ 11:12 am

Oh, please, please read Dickens because he is the greatest creator of characters in the English language after Shakespeare! Please read Dickens out of love, not duty!

#2 Comment By Jaybird On January 31, 2012 @ 11:32 am

He veers crazily between the ferociously reactionary and the mushily liberal.

This may be the most succinct approximation of my own political orientation(s) I have ever read.

#3 Comment By Matt On January 31, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

The things-coming-apart Murray post from earlier today says there are no solutions to the problems of our age. Allan Bloom said that, well, we could at least *start* by bringing back the Great Books.

“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.”

If a big part of our problems is in fact the failure of one-size-fits-all social and economic engineering, I think the power of Dickens can be salutary indeed.

“Please read Dickens out of love, not duty!”

That’s a big part of what makes him great. He’s so lovable. Chesterton said of him that the primary response provoked, in the presence of his greatness, is not analysis but gratitude.

#4 Comment By Clare Krishan On January 31, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

Is not virtue the mean of two opposing extremes?
How else can one teach the ideal without exemplifying the harm of deficit and surfeit? Barring knowledge of some greater good, how would a deficit appear unpleasant? How would surfeit be seen to enfeeble, absent the experience of modest vitality? How should we know the extent of the folly of either without venturing along a path some of the way and then turn about or around or muddle thru somehow? This post ties into the review of Murray’s contemporary social history – cultural goods have value only when cultural consumers seek them out as attractive and desirable to the alternative they have an extant experience of as unpleasant enough to vere away from, the “genetic heritage” in cultural genesis of 19thC Mengerian/Darwinian social thought (note that the ‘bad’ association of scientism’s genes and Bell Curve polemics can be resolved if viewed as acting persons phenomenologically speaking, values are subject to the souls of them that practice them, no? Some freedom to learn by ones mistakes or experience a conversion of conscience when encountering new information ie free will, is the basis for civilized integral human development development in any admirable culture, no?)

While quantity of intellect (IQ) may be native and inborn, the quality of its content ‘knowledge’ (fitness for purpose) may only be acquired by laborious trial and error under patient tutelage of some liberal benefactor able to fill the void at risk to his or her own opportunity cost. The solidarity of opportunity bounded firmly within family is the first seed bed of liberality anyone encounters, however briefly, and certainly why the Bible enjoins quality over quantity in care of widows and orphans (aka the preferential option for the poor). A relativistic puritanical ideology of meted ‘fixed’ perfection always endangers a justified ‘variable’ subsidiarity of subjective values characteristic of richly enculturated societies.

To quote Christian liturgical form, only that social economy that is both “meet” (right balance, harmonious proportions) and “just” (voluntary association, inviolate boundaries) has the capacity to generate cohesion of culture. Culture’s centripetal order tames our fallen human nature’s centrifugal tendencies. The shape of successful centripetal forms take on a perpetual validity only in a “free market” comparison with dissolution evident in forms less rigorous in withstanding debasement’s onslaught. To promote beauty, goodness and truth, social intercourse has to defend an exchange of value propositions in which events that feature ugliness, evil, and falsehood are weighed and found wanting. The sad reality of time preference however tells us that outcomes of some events have unavoidable long-tail consequences. This knowledge is what comprises the wisdom of the ages, traditionally associated with “legitimacy” in social order: the end never justifies the means (any exchange of human wisdom can only be ‘human’ and ‘wise’ in so far as participants volunteering to the encounter acknowledge mutual dignity: their capacity for wisdom, a shared preference for virtue over vice). The messy business of how humans arrive at such a ‘negotiated’ preference is what all great literature reveals, including Dickens. We are each of us a work in progress… Revelation is key to appropriating knowledge. It is gift: the pain of loss teaches perishable risk, the joy of attainment teaches valuation price. Each us in his or her own time and place values one over another on rational if not always perceptible grounds. This imperceptible diversity or unique variety is the spice of life, the mystery of human being.

#5 Comment By Gus On January 31, 2012 @ 9:30 pm

The idea is to read a novelist BECAUSE HE’S A GREAT WRITER! Looking for confirmation of your political biases in art is the greatest killer of enjoyment in art. That gives us the “John Lennon would be conservative if he was still alive” or “50 great conservative rock songs” ridiculousness that’s so pervasive rags like National Review.