Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"The smelly little orthodoxies...."

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. From "Hard Times Again" by Theodore Dalrymple:
.... Dickens is often reproached for his absence of firm and unequivocal moral, political, and philosophical outlook. He veers crazily between the ferociously reactionary and the mushily liberal. He lampoons the disinterested philanthropy of Mrs. Jellyby (in Bleak House) with the same gusto or ferocity as he excoriates the egotism of Mr. Veneering (in Our Mutual Friend). He suggests that businessmen are heartless swine (Bounderby in Hard Times) or disinterestedly charitable (the Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby). He satirizes temperance (in The Pickwick Papers) as much as he derides drunkenness (in Martin Chuzzlewit). The evil Jew (in Oliver Twist) is matched by the saintly Jew (in Our Mutual Friend). As Stephen Blackpool, the working-class hero of Hard Times says, “it’s aw a muddle.”

George Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, saw in this philosophical and moral muddle not a weakness but a strength, a generosity of spirit, an openness to the irreducible complexity of mankind’s moral situation, an immunity to what he called “the smelly little orthodoxies that are now contending for our souls.” And indeed, the principal target of Hard Times is such an orthodoxy, namely a hard-nosed utilitarianism combined with an unbending liberalism. (Liberal in the economic, not cultural, sense.)

The principal bearers of the doctrine are Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby. Gradgrind is a teacher whose statement of pedagogical philosophy is surely one of the greatest opening passages of any novel ever written:
Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!
By the end of the novel, Gradgrind has learned the insufficiency of facts for the conduct of human life, as he might have done merely by a little self-examination or reflection on the nature of moral and aesthetic judgment. It cannot be said that Gradgrind is a caricature, a character so exaggerated that he never did or could exist: passage after passage in Hard Times parallels almost exactly the account of John Stuart Mill’s education in his Autobiography, published 19 years after the novel. Furthermore, “the minds of reasoning animals” exactly captures the flavor of much recent scientistic writing about the human condition. Like hope in the human breast, scientism springs eternal in the human mind. .... [more]
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