Sunday, February 12, 2012

London Fog Surrounding the Lights

Two days ago I wrote about some passages from Bleak House that praised invincible goods: love, duty, courage, happiness, and life. Today, maybe because I’ve reached the point in the book where the shadowy forces have started plots (both in the criminal sense and in the literary), I’m contemplating some darker passages – passages that paint the evil face of our world, sometimes in just a couple of lines.

After young Richard Carstone’s first visit to the Court of Chancery, that magician’s box where legacies vanish in decades of legal costs, he has this to say:
To see that composed court yesterday jogging on so serenely and to think of the wretchedness of the pieces on the board gave me the headache and the heartache both together. My head ached with wondering how it happened, if men were neither fools nor rascals; and my heart ached to think they could possibly be either.
And there we have the fallen human state in a nutshell. I may think I’m not a fool or rascal, but everyone else thinks the same thing about himself, and still we live in a bleak house that could only have been built by fools and rascals. As much as we want to blame someone or something else for our woes, in the end we must submit to the realization that we cast our own shadows and dig our own graves.

Later in the book, Dickens’s present-tense narrator calls an overfull, pestilent city graveyard “a shameful testimony to future ages how civilization and barbarism walked this boastful island together.” Blaise Pascal called man “an incomprehensible monster,” “a chaos, a contradition,” “the pride and refuse of the universe.” Dickens uses that contradiction in this indictment of a culture both civilized and barbaric, and then caps it by pointing out that his blind compatriots dare to boast of their monstrosity.

Dickens had a talent for capturing dark images of human nature with accuracy and a cold beauty. But dark images can only be seen in the presence of light. In the sunless recesses of the deepest cave, smoke would be no darker than anything else. It would present itself to an observer only as a smell, taste, and feeling, not as a sight. But light a torch, and suddenly the smoke is black. Dickens’s torch burns bright, indeed.

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