Sunday, February 5, 2012

Dickens and Ishtar

Hype is an ironic trickster, a purveyor of self-negating prophecy, always accomplishing an end contrary to that of the task entrusted to it. “Urgent,” shouts the envelope, guaranteeing that the contents are anything but. “New and Improved,” exclaims the box, ensuring a product of an efficacy exactly equal to that of last year’s formula. “The Greatest Legend of All Time,” boasts the movie trailer, making certain that the advertised film will act as a soporific.

Negative hype works in the same contrary way. Having heard Ishtar called the worst movie of all time, I watched it prepared to find any merit at all as a virtue beyond all expectation. So naturally, I liked it. In fact, I laughed loudly at the scene where Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty start composing their first song. (It’s true that I fell asleep during the second half, but we’ll credit that to the late hour and ignore the fact that I’ve never seen fit to go back and finsh watching.)

Sometimes negative hype comes not from an outsider but from our own memories. Dickens’s Bleak House disappointed me when I first read it. I had read A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend, and enjoyed every page, but Bleak House just didn’t seem to stack up. My mind had probably hyped Dickens to a degree that he couldn’t possibly live up to. But now in 2012, the process is working the other way: remembering the book as a disappointment, I can’t believe how good it is on a second reading.

I know one thing that annoyed me the first time was the use of present tense for half the book’s chapters. I found them boring before and tried to get through them as fast as I could for the more accessible, past-tense, first-person memoirs of heroine Esther Summerson. Maybe I’m just older now. Or maybe it’s that I just read The Hunger Games in December. But whatever the reason, the present tense has a powerful effect on me this time around. The topical backdrop of the whole book is the Court of Chancery, where civil suits typically lasted decades. The present tense works perfectly in chapters concerning the Court by conveying the absence of time and progress that plagues Chancery. Dickens also uses the present tense to describe the routines of the Dedlock family whose seven centuries of ancestry, he says, have distinguished themselves chiefly by accomplishing nothing. Reading about the Dedlocks in a tense with no temporal horizon, I get the impression that their characters are in – well – deadlock.

I don’t know what else bothered me in my first reading. But one more thing I like this time is the way Dickens shows character shaping perception. For instance, everyone praises Esther for being thoughtful, but she -- because she is thoughtful -- can only see the praise as a sign of a good heart in her laudator. As another example, Bleak House itself has been named so by old Tom Jarndyce, who saw in it only cobwebs and decay -- but then Tom felt ruined by Chancery and put a bullet through his head one night. The more contented John Jarndyce, on the other hand, has fixed up the house and decorated it to the point that Esther finds it quite the cozy home when she first sees it. To the pure all things are pure.

And that last point suggests to me a new reason the book seems so much better than it did thirty years ago. Maybe I’m looking at things more like John Jarndyce now.

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