Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Dickensian Tangent

 The boy wanted more!

After a long hiatus my wife and I have decided to return to a pleasant custom of our early married years—the setting aside on a regular basis of some time dedicated to reading aloud.  We are returning as well to the most audible of novelists—Dickens, of course.  We have begun with Oliver Twist.  The choice, though not inexorable, was not entirely arbitrary either.  We own no fewer than two complete sets of Dickens’s novels, but Joan possesses as well a prize volume in the “Macdonald Illustrated Classics” series, with a bookplate commending its recipient for meritorious “General Work” in the Lower Third Form in 1949.  Its cover bears in gold stamp the emblem of The Girls Public Day School Trust—the head of Minerva encircled by its early feminist motto “Knowledge is now no more a fountain sealed.”

            It didn’t take long for our reading to become “relevant,” bloguistically speaking.  The first chapter of the novel concerns “the place where Oliver Twist was born and the circumstances attending his birth”.  It was an awful place (a town workhouse) and the circumstances terrible (his mother died within minutes of his birth).  The unprepossessing workhouse staff immediately remark upon the babe’s miserable destiny.  As he leaves for the night, “The surgeon leaned over the body, and raised the left hand.  ‘The old story,’ he said, shaking his head: ‘no wedding ring, I see.  Ah!  Good night!’”

            We have long since overcome most forms of Victorian prudery and at least renovated most forms of Victorian cruelty.  Few people would even recognize the literal sense of the word “bastard,” and those few would eschew it for its political incorrectness, which is hardly more tolerable than that of its one-time euphemism,  “illegitimate child.”  Blaming the victim has itself become blamable.  Yet the social problems so vividly explored in Oliver Twist—the inadequacy of our social service agencies, the relationship of child poverty to the absence of parents, and the relationship of both to youthful criminality—are as obvious, and as dangerous, as they were a hundred and fifty years ago.  Dickens is pretty brutal in satirizing the inadequate ways in which his contemporaries faced their social problems; but at least they were usually not in total denial of them.  I sometimes think we are.

            I have several times expressed my opinion, in dealing with “educational” questions, that the crisis in American public education is to a large extent a reflection of a crisis yet more serious, that of the American family.  That is because the education that comes with settled and competent family life is less dispensable than that obtained from a textbook or a problem set.  Whether my view is a hobby-horse to be ridden or a dead horse not to be flogged, however, I shall today leave it in its stable.

            I have learned from my anthropologist son Luke that it is dangerous to posit universal theories of human society; but I still hope for some useful generalities.  One of them is that a viable family structure is a constant feature of successful societies.  In America the rapid social change of the last half century may have revolutionized many young people’s view of marriage without, however, having done much to disprove the necessity for family structures.  The more we deny the social aspect of marriage by imputing to it a purely personal or individual nature, the more we weaken our communal strength.

            Our classical western political theory is based in the idea of contract, a trade-off of rights and responsibilities.  The theorist’s attitude toward human nature may be pessimistic (as in Hobbes’s Leviathan) or optimistic (as in Rousseau’s Social Contract), but there is always some balance of license and constraint, liberty and coercion.

            Looking back over the broad sweep of human history, one can identify two huge and unstable dynamic forces at work.  In the ancient vocabulary of faculty psychology commonplace among Western thinkers and moralists for at least two millennia, they were called the “irascible and concupiscible passions”.  In ancient and medieval literature—an excellent example being Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale--they are associated with the gods Mars and Venus.  Often enough, of course,  Mars and Venus got together with unhappy result.   Witness the Trojan War.  Nam fuit ante Helenam,” writes Horace, “cunnus taterrima belli causa.”*  Powerful bellicose and libidinous forces might be undeniable, but they could perhaps be channeled, contained, regulated.

            With regard to the irascible passions we get the “warrior codes” that are a feature of many early societies and often enough of their oldest surviving textual legislation.  Only religious dreamers could propose the abolition of violence itself.  Realists invented medieval European chivalry, which is still alive in slightly more modern garb in the Geneva Conventions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Such devices by no means achieved social perfection, but they did make things better.

            So far as the concupiscible passions were concerned, the effective constraint proved to be marriage.  Medieval writers quite openly call it an instrument of coercion, along with monarchical power and the “positive” law (meaning written legal codes).  It may not be all that great, but it is definitely better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, which was essentially St. Paul’s attitude: “It is better to marry than to burn”.

            Of course in this conception of “coercion” there was a paradox—just as there is in the Leviathan or the Constitution of the United States.  The voluntary submission to some constraints is the necessary price of the larger social efflorescence.  We still speak of the “yoke” of matrimony, but it can be a blessed one.
In the “Clerk’s Tale” the ruler Walter is counseled thus:
                        Boweth your nekke under that blissful yok
                        Which that men clepe [call] spousaille or wedlock.

*”Even before Helen [of Troy], cunnus was a most terrible cause of war.”