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The Dickens Bicentenary: What Can Dickens Offer Us Today?

April 20, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 176

"A loving heart was better and stronger than wisdom."

(David Copperfield - Chapter 9)

As a hypnotherapist I am increasingly aware of how we are influenced by culture. And I mean "culture" in the very broadest sense - music, film, television, books, plays and so on. Unless we are cramming for an exam, "culture" is a leisure activity, something we do when we are relaxing, when we are enjoying ourselves, when our guard is down.

As I have argued elsewhere, we are influenced in countless ways by the ordinary things we encounter in our day to day lives. These things affect our mood, our behaviour, our outlook, our choices, and yet we are, for the most part, blissfully unaware of any of this. We blame our negativity on the bleak economic outlook, our anger and frustration on our colleagues or other road users or the noisy kids next door or our family and friends. It's someone else's fault.

But how do we relax? We watch soap operas, in which people betray and attack each other, in which every episode contains at least one blazing row, in which violence is just beneath the surface. Or we go to a club or a gig and our ears are assailed at deafening volume by songs whose "message", if we can generalize to this extent, seems to be one of selfishness and cheap short-term gratification. Even talent shows, even cookery programs, have degenerated into gladiatorial contests in which victory is all and egotistical "self-belief" is always the key to "success".

The problem is compounded by the fact that these days we mustn't make any distinction between pop-culture and great art. To do so is "elitist". We must set Michael Jackson alongside Mozart, East Enders alongside the Oresteia. Well - not me. However politically incorrect it may be, I'm not playing that game. For me, there is such a thing as great art - great literature, music, drama and film. I believe with total conviction that it is a force for the good. The government clearly doesn't, as it is ceasing to provide funding for arts and humanities at FE level.

For me, there has always been a special aura about Dickens. My granddad had an old Odhams Press edition of the Complete Works in 15 volumes. As a child, I was fascinated by these thick, squat little books with their tiny print and their wonderfully grotesque illustrations. I spent many an hour just looking at the pictures.

It wasn't until I left school that I actually read a Dickens novel. It was Dombey and Son. To begin with I simply regarded it as a challenge. I wanted to see whether I could actually get through it. But I was hooked from the start. This was no endurance test or trial of stamina. This was an odyssey through a world which I never knew existed. I finished the book too soon. I wanted it to go on forever.

That was many years ago. To this day I haven't re-read Dombey. I haven't felt the need. I read it so carefully and I remember it so vividly. But when I do go back I'll find a thousand wonderful things which I didn't notice first time around.

Dickens is fortunate. Much great 19th century English literature languishes in obscurity. Who today reads Browning, Shelley, Byron or Tennyson - apart from reluctant undergraduates? Even more than other comparable novelists - Jane Austen or George Eliot for example - Dickens has somehow penetrated our collective national consciousness to an extent only surpassed by Shakespeare. Even if we have never read a word of Dickens we know about Scrooge and Oliver Twist, Mr Pickwick and Mr Micawber. Television adaptations, film versions and musicals based upon Dickens' novels remain as popular as ever.

What can we learn from Dickens? How can this great and humane writer help us? I suppose the man himself can certainly stand as a shining example of the virtues of industry and sheer hard work. Dickens was almost frighteningly prolific. His career as a novelist only spanned some 33 years. In that time he produced 15 huge novels (the last left unfinished). That alone would be more than a lifetime's work for any normal person. But in addition to that he produced numerous short stories, articles of journalism and some 14,000 letters. Yet he still found time to travel, to socialize, to form relationships, to engage in philanthropic work of one sort or another.

As far as the novels are concerned, Dickens so often tells us what we already know, but he does so in a uniquely compelling and forceful way. The Beatles set the words "Money Can't Buy Me Love" to a banal tune. But Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations. The same band set the words "All You Need Is Love" to a dreary rhythm which doesn't even deserve to be called a tune. Dickens demonstrated the truth of those words in Little Dorrit.

Among countless other things, Dickens' works teach us

· That "success" is not the be-all and end-all.

· That inner decency will win out against adversity.

· That love can melt the hardest of hearts.

· That there is indeed such a thing as society.

· That love and pleasure are not one and the same thing.

· That we must accept what we cannot change, but change whatever we can.

· That charity begins at home.

· That integrity will always outweigh the trappings of wealth, power and class.

When we think of Dickens it is often his larger-than-life characters who first come to mind. The early novels are full of them: Pickwick and Sam Weller, Fagin and the Dodger, Smyke, Quilp, Mrs Gamp - the list is almost endless. But, for me, the essential Dickens is to be found in the later works, with their darker plots, their stygian fogs, their vast reach into the recesses of the human heart. In them, we find a sanity, a simple humanity, which shines out all the more brightly against the dark backdrop. It shines from the simple heart of Joe Gargery in Great Expectations. And it illuminates the quiet end of Little Dorrit, as Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam, man and wife at last, bound together by a love which is infinitely stronger and deeper than mere infatuation and physical attraction, make their way down into the autumn morning, into a life of usefulness and happiness:

"They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the forward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar."

Read Dickens. Read him slowly - not the way you do if you're mugging up for an exam or working your way through a syllabus. Read him with both head and heart - and feel the healing power of great art.

Charles Dickens: 7th February 1812 - 9th June 1870

Dr. Neil S. Hall The author is a practising hypnotherapist and an Associate Lecturer with the Open University (UK)

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