Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Dickensian Britain, Dickensian Christmas

In The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961, Fr Ian Ker identifies Charles Dickens (1906) both as Chesterton’s best work and as the key to understanding his Catholicism. “It is a typically Chestertonian paradox that while Dickens was nothing if not ignorant of and prejudiced against Catholicism as well as the Middle Ages, it is his unconsciously Catholic and Mediaeval ethos that is the heart of Chesterton’s critical study.”

First, Chesterton’s Dickens celebrated the ordinary, and rejoiced in sheer living and even sheer being. He was originally a “higher optimist” whose “joy is in inverse proportion to the grounds for so rejoicing,” because he simply “falls in love with” the universe, and “those love her with most intensity who love her with least cause.” Hence the exaggeration of Dickens’s caricatures, expressing both the heights of the highs and the depths of the lows in the life of one who looks at the world in this way.

For, secondly, Dickens created “holy fools”: Toots in Dombey and Son, Miss Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend, the Misses Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit, to name but a few. Dickens also “created a personal devil in every one of his books,” figures with the “atrocious hilarity” of gargoyles. In either case, since the everyday world is so utterly extraordinary and extraordinary things so much a part of the everyday, so the absurd is utterly real and the real is utterly absurd. Postmodern, or what? Read Dickens, then read Chesterton on Dickens, and then re-read Dickens: who needs wilful French obscurantism in the name of ‘irony’?

And thirdly, then, Dickens was the true successor of Merry England, unlike his “pallid” contemporaries, the Pre-Raphaelites and “Gothicists”, whose “subtlety and sadness” was in fact “the spirit of the present day” after all. It was Dickens who “had the things of Chaucer”: “the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England”; “story within story, every man telling a tale”; and "something openly comic in men’s motley trades”.

Dickens’s defence of Christmas was therefore a fight “for the old European festival, Pagan and Christian”, i.e., for “that trinity of eating, drinking and praying that to moderns appears irreverent”, unused as the modern mind is to “the holy day which is really a holiday.” Dickens’s defence of Christmas was therefore a fight “for the old European festival, Pagan and Christian”, i.e., for “that trinity of eating, drinking and praying that to moderns appears irreverent”, unused as the modern mind is to “the holy day which is really a holiday.”

Fr Ker traces these themes in Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. The former presents Catholicism, in profoundly Dickensian terms, as “that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly termed romance”, which meets the need “so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome.” Yet so to view the world is precisely to realise “that there is something the matter”, which is why pagans have always been “conscious of the Fall if they were conscious of nothing else”, since (and this is obviously much more controversial) Original Sin “in the only part of Christian theology which can be proved,” so that “the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition”, but rather “the normal itself is an abnormality.” Once again, this is like Postmodernism, only older, wiser, better.

Better not least because, for Chesterton, it was this view of the world’s flawed goodness that made Dickens a social reformer, since he recognised people’s degraded dignity. One is made by Christianity “fond of this world, even in order to change it”, in contrast to simple (one might say, Whig or Marxist) optimism or simple pessimism (such as that of much of the political Right), each of which discourages reform. We have to “hate [the world] enough to want to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing”, for it is “at once an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.”

Such was the view of Dickens and of Chesterton; and such is the Christian view, uniquely, as all of Christianity’s critics unwittingly concede by simultaneously accusing it both of excessive optimism and of excessive pessimism. Chesterton presciently predicted that an age of unbelief would be an age of conservatism (in the worst sense), whereas for the orthodox “in the hearts of men, God has been put under the feet of Satan, so that there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration.” Furthermore, “A strict rule is not only necessary for ruling; it is also necessary for rebelling”, since “a fixed and familiar ideal is necessary to any sort of revolution.”

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