1. i’ve been reading Martin Chuzzlewit the last few days, amused and a little horrified, as is the way with Dickens. i admire him more & more as the years pass; as a stripling, i gobbled up Dostoevsky, Conrad, Proust, James, and while recognising Dickens’ rhetorical power, dismissed his work as quaint, made-for-BBC-costume-drama silliness.
My younger self would have judged Dickens a very crude psychologist, with his evident caricatures. However, i find that Dickensian caricature is often a precise concentration of some human trait, not tediously inert like much Medieval allegory, but imbued with enough weird life to evade total categorisation. The power is evident in this, that over a century and a half, some of his characters seem acutely illustrative of very modern types. For example, the smiling hypocrite Pecksniff, introduced thus:
Perhaps there never was a more moral man than Mr Pecksniff: especially in his conversation and correspondence. […] He was a most exemplary man: fuller of virtuous precept than a copy-book. Some people likened him to a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there: but these were his enemies: the shadows cast by his brightness; that was all. His very throat was moral. You saw a good deal of it. You looked over a very low fence of white cravat (whereof no man had ever beheld the tie, for he fastened it behind), and there it lay, a valley between two jutting heights of collar, serene and whiskerless before you. It seemed to say, on the part of Mr Pecksniff, ‘There is no deception, ladies and gentlemen, all is peace: a holy calm pervades me.’ […] So did his person, which was sleek though free from corpulency. So did his manner, which was soft and oily. In a word, even his plain black suit, and state of widower, and dangling double eye-glass, all tended to the same purpose, and cried aloud, ‘Behold the moral Pecksniff!’
Another character addresses him:
‘Why, the annoying quality in you is,’ said the old man, ‘that you never have a confederate or partner in your juggling; you would deceive everybody, even those who practise the same art; and have a way with you, as if you – he, he he! – as if you really believed yourself. I’d lay a handsome wager now,’ said the old man, ‘if I laid wagers, which I don’t and never did, that you keep up appearances by a tacit understanding, even before your own daughters here. Now I, when I have a business scheme in hand, tell Jonas what it is, and we discuss it openly.’
Pecksniff, with his blandly superior manner, his relentless self-satisfaction, and his ability to combine exploitation, greed, and mercenary wickedness, with an unwavering belief in his own ineffable goodness – one need only add a fixed, lunatic grin and it would be the person Peter Hitchens calls Anthony Blair.
i once argued with a conspiracy theorist who believed that all politicians and all journalists were Jesuits, that they performed human sacrifice and knew the inside story on everything. When i suggested it would be logistically very difficult to have so very many people “in the loop”, and that, furthermore, i felt people like Blair and Bush were merely absolute hypocrites, the theorist told me i was naive. For him, they were Satanists, avatars of pure evil, as were of course all other politicans, all journalists, and everyone who disagreed with him – they knew they were doing evil, and they rejoiced in it, like the Simpsons episode where an evil villain toasts his confederates: “Gentlemen – to evil!”
Dickens would have had fun with conspiracy types. It’s not that i don’t credit conspiracies – conspiracy is, and always has been, human nature, and it would be very strange if there had been conspiracies, assassinations, provocations, etc., at every point in human history, except ours. But i also have faith in human stupidity and hypocrisy. i guess the reason people like Blair and Bush were able to proceed so directly, without doubts, and to gull so many, is that they had the Pecksniffian ability to gull themselves first, no doubt aided by their own mediocre intelligence and the ardent need to be right, all the time.
Tolstoy likewise notes that (his) Napoleon was never troubled by doubt, because his starting position was this, that whatever he did or thought was the right thing. Working from this a priori foundation, he merely had to adjust the facts to his interpretation, an increasingly automatic process of ignoring, dismissing, or forgetting the incompatible. i’ve observed this in many people, just in this life. For example, i knew a self-professed Zen/Taoist master who was in his life a petty, aggressive egomaniac, demanding absolute submission from everyone. Those who obeyed were fit to be his disciples; those who dissented were his enemies; there was no middle category. Sifu Pecksniff had a barbed sense of humour – directly wholly at other people; he couldn’t take the slightest criticism or even hint of insubordination, and would react with violent hatred against anyone who differed from his divine understanding. He once wrote a page on his I Am Very Zen website about compassion, criticising people who think they are compassionate but delight in being cruel to others, and in the same week he wrote me an email gloating about how he had “destroyed” colleagues at work with deliberately sadistic remarks. i wondered if he was being ironic, but after some time realised he wouldn’t have even seen that the apparently Zen article contradicted his personal cruelty; he was such an accomplished and pathological hypocrite, he wouldn’t have noticed. i felt the email was the real person; the “Zen” always felt hollow and automatic, something a machine could produce after assimilating enough Alan Watts.
i have no problem with a little recreational cruelty, to the deserving; but i won’t pretend to be a good person, let alone a Pecksniffian Zen master in my white robes, drifting serenely about to the soundtrack of authentic Chinese folk music, untroubled by merely mortal matters. (i think i understand now why a real Zen master wrote a book and immediately burnt it – for otherwise people would parrot it and think they knew something about Zen).
2. Well, one can learn something from books but it seems best if the process is indirect, almost to the point of being untraceable. When I was about 20, after half-dropping out of my first degree (Psychology, at a grim northern university), i decided to try either Philosophy or English Literature. i tried to shift to the Philosophy, then the Eng Lit, departments in the same northern university, this being easier & quicker than going through the whole application system from scratch. Luckily, i was rejected by both and so ended up studying English Lit in Durham, a commendably old-fash place somewhat shielded from Lit Theory and the late 20th Century (at my school we said it was for “Oxford & Cambridge rejects”). Although this education left me unemployable in England, i learnt enough to keep me psychologically intact in the subsequent trenches of minimum wage data entry, just about.
i sometimes wonder how i would have managed a Philosophy course, at a modern university; very badly, i think. A fellow English teacher at my first school, in Kiel, had done Philosophy and said he had always got marked down for not citing enough sources, not merely regurgitating what Aristotle or Kant had thought. i’ve always hated reading tedious commentaries, and footnotes enrage me with their servile pointlessness (Bush, p 6), so it would have been worse for me. In addition i have no real interest in philosophers like Aristotle or Hegel or Kant, being far more interested in “poetic” thinkers like Niezsche, Schopenhauer, Camus, the pre-Socratics, the Plato of Phaedrus and Symposium. i get the feeling these are not quite reputable in academia, not dry & abstract enough, no doubt.
There is another danger in studying Philosophy – the transmission of knowledge, or wisdom if you like, is too direct; this encourages discipleship, cliques, the mere parroting of jargon and phrases, as we see in Literary Theory (transgressive, jouissance, différance, liminal, aporia, marginalised, hegemony, patriarchy, feminine, structures, post- anything, construct, homo-anything, gendered, discourse, Foucault). Just as with Sifu Pecksniff, who could reflexively and unthinkingly emit a Zen/Krishnamurti saying for every occasion, so with academic philosophers.
It’s easier to learn about one’s world and self by reading novels and poems, precisely because it is indirect. There are fewer temptations; one is not misled by jargon, provided one steers clear of Literary Theory. Being indirect, this transmission cannot be defended against people who, naturally enough, think it doesn’t exist (for actually, it is fairly rare – i think only one out of ten English students at Durham seemed at all interested in reading or thinking; and Lit Theory has further discredit the whole of the Humanities).
Roughly speaking, in reading and understanding a poem or a novel or play, you contemplate a mental structure, and absorb it into yourself. If you cannot, it remains an external structure, incomprehensible and closed (like most of Wallace Stevens, to me). But when you really get beneath the surface of, say, Lord Jim or The Waste Land, it as it were yields its substance to you, and becomes part of you. Thereafter, the mental structure acts as a psychological shortcut, a reference point by which one can comprehend other fictions, or one’s own life. So, for example, i found Tolkien’s Galadriel enormously accelerated my understanding of narcissism, as i saw it in a girl i loved – like Galadriel, she was charismatic, beautiful, and desired power over others. Without Galadriel, perhaps i would have long remained frustratedly aware of the girl’s contradictions, and mentally circled about her image, wondering how someone could be beautiful, in spirit and body, and yet (often it not always) so cold and manipulative and vain (the beauty and the vanity existed in a dynamic relation, so as her vanity grew, her beauty became less persuasive, less real). Or i could say that i am so ruthless about my position here in Germany – that i will not return to England, will not live off others, because, like Lord Jim with his bulkhead, i am deeply ashamed of submitting to data entry for 5 years, when i should have committed suicide as soon as i left university. This is a great sin, which i cannot undo; i can only make sure i don’t do it again. So Jim accepts his fate, in the end, because he once tried to evade it.
These absorbed mental structures – Jim, Galadriel, or the movement through death to regeneration in The Waste Land – these underpin and give resonance and solidity to my otherwise precarious life. No one who has not felt this in himself, not felt how a poem or fiction can enter the blood, would understand it. So there is no point defending the Humanities to politicians – for i would suppose very few have joined their substance to a poem or book, just as very few English Lit students will read a book after their last exam.
i see more now, why i don’t take to Aristotle or Kant – they are too direct, as if truth can be arrived at as a man might take the train to another town. The Symposium, or Camus’s The Fall, interest me more, in their indirection, poetry as philosophy. As one sees with the pre-Socratics, philosophy once was poetry, because wisdom was initiation, a mystery, and one does not arrive at the gods in a very easy and direct fashion, as on a train; though perhaps it could be likened to a trip on an English train, full of surprise cancellations, heavy delays, suicides, the wrong leaves, stones hurled from bridges by youths, ripped-up seats, bottles of booze rolling down the aisle, abortions, emergency surgeries, psychotic passengers, half-eaten Greggs pasties, murders, rapes, and general fuss and inconvenience and bother.