He would have been 200 today.
Some people’s birthdays are remembered long after they are dead and gone. Jesus of Nazareth. Charles Dickens. I suppose that is unsurprising when the calendar begins with your birthday, or when there are descriptive words in the language – Dickensian – that are variants on your name.
When you’re born in 1812 and live to 1870 there are photographs of you, possibly. For some reason that’s interesting. Napoleon’s life overlapped Dickens’, but there are no photographs of him.
Dickens is popular around here, especially since the whole Occupy thing took off. Literature students have long studied Dickens in online college classes, but his works may now be studied in the economy classroom. He’s a reminder that history repeats, which can be a very sad thing of course.
What can you say about the kind of collective madness that became the French Revolution? That it was the best of times and the worst of times. That we had everything before us and nothing before us. Somehow that begins to capture it, though it would take a few more chapters to flesh it all out.
Egalitarianism is a silly idea because people are so different – in addition to being so similar. But that nuanced and conflicted mystery gets subsumed in ground level political language and thought, which is not susceptible to nuance and where conflict unpleasantly manifests beyond the patient, internal struggles of each person. There’s always been a quality of the sound-bite to such language. The thought behind it, to the extent there is one, is reduced to a slogan that everyone can remember.
Political madness takes over and it paints with a very broad brush. People are marched off to the guillotine, or the gulag, with little consideration for who they really are or what they have really done wrong, if anything. Larger issues are at stake, we think, but they are embodied in mindless slogans. And intellectually armed with nothing but that we do violence to one another.
Dr. Zhivago was about the same thing – political madness and the havoc it wreaks upon human beings and their lives:
I’m not comforted by inside knowledge of the current script, but I do have it, as lawyers will. It’s captured better by Dickens, who more extensively portrays the prelude to social breakdown: smug, ignorant institutional indifference to individual injustices. The aristocrat’s carriage runs over and kills the peasant’s child without making a dent in the aristocrat’s self-assurance that all is as it should be. The dead child simply didn’t matter to him.
We don’t like monarchs anymore, but while the numberless courtiers of France – in every sense the equivalent in their time of our current crop of Ivy League lawyers, MBA’s and economists – persisted in their oblivious pomposity as the world fell apart underneath them, it was the monarch himself who had it right:
Perhaps that is apocryphal. But it rings true.
Update: From Dickens’ will.