Monday, February 26, 2018

The World Is a Curiosity Shop

The more I learn about Charles Dickens, the more he amazes me. Brilliant author. Reformer. Midnight wanderer. Actor. Hero at fatal railway accidents. One of the most amazing aspects of his career was his ability to create coherent artistic wholes while writing in a periodical format. The Old Curiosity Shop, which I read this month for the third time in my life, starts out as a vignette about characters met by a first-person narrator on a late-night perambulation through London (no doubt based on some real people Dickens encountered on one of his night-time walks). Only after this short item appeared in print did the Inimitable decide to turn the story into a novel. He even had to make an explicit change of narrators in order to lengthen the story. How could he have kept the whole thing unified?

Yet somehow he did. Several consistent themes run through the entire book and, in spite of the difference in tone and narrator, even incorporate the opening chapters. One such theme is one’s relationship to death. Nell often thinks about her approaching death. Other characters try to put off their approaching death, ignore it, fear it, and cause it.

Another theme explores attitudes of loyalty. Loyalty cannot be simply professed, as Tom Codlin does to Nell and Sampson does to Kit. It must be consistently shown, as with Nell to her Grandfather, the Marchioness to Dick, the Clergyman and the Bachelor, and the Sexton and his assistant. It must sometimes be earned, as with the pony and Kit. (Is this the only Dickens animal whose end is told in the wrap-up chapter as if he were a major character?)

But the theme that struck me most during this reading was that of the Old Curiosity Shop itself. Nell and her grandfather leave the actual, physical shop behind early in the story, and yet Dickens retained the title. Did he have a notion of using that title figuratively at the beginning of his creative process? Nell and her grandfather are certainly seen as curiosities by the first narrator. Or did Dickens decide to make a figurative theme of the title only after the abandonment of the literal Curiosity Shop made that title an inappropriate curiosity of its own?

One way or another, displays of curiosities abound throughout the book. (Humanoid curiosities stood out to me. Perhaps the figurative Curiosity Shop specializes in figurines.) Nell says that the rows of chimneys she sees at night appear to have faces. She works for a while at a traveling wax museum (and sleeps among the historical characters). The crowd at a race are described as being in a panorama, as are a group of pupils in the school, seated all in rows. Puppets make several appearances in the book (once sitting on tombs). And Quilp, perhaps Dickens’s most odious villain, often appears at a window, his bizarre face on display in a frame. All these images lead in the end to the effigies on the tombs in the church where Nell sits alone pondering her impending death (continuing the frequent connection of the curiosity-display theme and the death theme) and the imagined crowd of angels that accompany Nell’s soul to Heaven.

As I think about it longer, though, maybe it isn’t so strange that the title of Dickens’s fourth novel should shine light on a metaphoric thread running through its fabric. All of Dickens’s works are displays of curiosities. It’s the way he saw London, England, the world. He regularly set out in the wee hours to find and interact with social outcasts: prisoners, asylum inmates, the homeless. He did this partly out of a sense of Christian charitable duty (by contrast, I admit, with bowed head, that when I find myself on a night-time errand in a big city, I generally try to avoid human contact) and partly to feed his understanding of the wondrous variety of humanity. Even in daylight, Charles Dickens had an eye for the eccentricity in every human being. The artist René Magritte seems to tell us in his work that individuality, if it exists, is always hidden and that a person always presents as and instance of a type: the Lover, the middle-class Suit, and so on. But the author of The Old Curiosity Shop, like Rembrandt, reminds us that every human we are tempted to parse as nothing more than an embodiment of a category is actually a Dickens character.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Splintered Fragments

It has long seemed clear to me that a Christian can learn from someone of another faith or even of no faith, although many half-thinking Christians have disagreed with me or, worse, looked past me while declaring their purified principles to the air. But which of us Christians hasn’t had a teacher, a professor, a work supervisor that taught us things without agreeing with us on the Being of God? I’ve even learned spiritual things from Hindus and Greek Pagans and Atheists – without coming one step closer to converting. So I’m always happy to find a Christian author who recognizes what seems to me an obvious fact. Paul commending the Athenians for being “in every way very religious” and then quoting approvingly one of their own poets. Augustine declaring that “wherever truth may be found, it belongs to [the] Master.” Lewis calling myth “a splintered fragment of the true light.”

I discovered two more sympathetic souls this month in Lactantius and Justin Martyr. Acting on a tip, the source of which I’ve forgotten, I read just book VII of the Divine Institutes of Lactantius, who was an advisor to Constantine in the early fourth century. At that point in this apologetical work, Lactantius gives arguments for believing in the immortality of the soul and in divine judgment, using Greek philosophers, poets, Cicero, and even the Sibyls as evidence. He goes on to more specifically Christian doctrines, which of course he must support using the New Testament, not Cicero. (Of special interest to me was Lactantius’ belief in a literal Millennium between the reign of the Antichrist and the end of the world.) But starting with the pagan classics was a technique worthy of the Apostle’s sermon on Mars Hill.

Writing a couple hundred years earlier than Lactantius, Justin Martyr also had read the classic philosophers and even opened his own little philosophical college in Rome. Justin believed that some of the Greeks’ “splintered fragments” were pretty hefty shards. He thought that Homer had access to Christian truth that he did not understand and that the Sibyls were inspired by the true God and spoke their oracles unwittingly. Most amazing of all, he believed that Plato had read the books of Moses in Alexandria and understood them in all their prophetic sense to the extent that he could be called a Christian believer before the birth of Christ. Plato’s dialogs, says Justin, don’t reveal his Mosaic beliefs more explicitly only because he had to disguise the truth out of fear for the authorities. Justin himself had reason to fear the authorities: the Romans beheaded him for the doctrines he taught in his academy.

I read some Augustine this month, as well, but it had little to do with Roman gods or God’s truth being found in the mouths of pagan philosophers. In books I-V of his treatise On the Trinity, Augustine began laying out his views on this most important and most mysterious of Christian beliefs. The Bishop of Hippo lived and wrote just after the Church had worked out its teaching on the Trinity at the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople and had enshrined their conclusions in the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed. This creed kept the Latin and Greek churches together for seven hundred years before the two split, presumably over the addition of one word to the Latin version: the word filioque. The Greek-speaking half objected that the word represented a recent idea and, more importantly to them one would hope, a false one. But I was fascinated to see that Augustine very clearly states, six hundred years before the Great Schism of East and West, that the Holy Spirit proceeds both from the Father and from the Son (filioque). As for myself, I agree with Augustine, but I also believe that we understand so little what we mean by “proceeds” that the Churches had (and have) no business hurling anathemas at each other over either the word or the idea.