Hard Times for These Times

December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.

After my latest long hiatus from posting, I’ve decided to try to get back to what I wanted to do with this in the first place: help myself think through, and better remember, the literature I read.  This should mean shorter, more informal posts.  More like an online commonplace book than the essay collection it had become.

What inspired me to start it back up?  Dickens, of course.  Specifically, this passage, right at the beginning of “Book the Second — Reaping” (aside: I love the purposefully archaic, Biblical book titles here, fascinating in a book about industrialization, labor, education, “progress”).  This passage: I am tempted to hire a billboard on which to post it.

The wonder was, it [Coketown, the industrial city in which the book is set] was there at all.  It had been ruined so often, that it was amazing how it had borne so many shocks.  Surely there never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made.  Handle them never so lightly and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before.  They were ruined, when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke.

In the parlance of our times: THIS.  THIS THIS THIS.  I’m only halfway through, but Hard Times strikes me as a perfect book for a One Book, One City program.  There are passages here and elsewhere directly applicable to controversies about government regulation and employers who hate them (ahem, Obamacare); to the labor movement, its complexities, and its dark side; to methods and outcomes of education; to capital-N Nature and the environment, and industrial pollution.  Plus, it is short, unlike all other Dickens novels.  And the circus is involved.

I mentioned the environment.  The chapter following the passage copied above describes an extremely hot day in Coketown.  It reads as a premonition (or, perhaps, intuition) of man-made climate change.

But the sun itself, however beneficent, generally, was less kind to Coketown than hard frost, and rarely looked intently into any of its closer regions without engendering more death than life.  So does the eye of Heaven itself become an evil eye, when incapable or sordid hands are interposed between it and the things it looks upon to bless.

It’s hard to avoid thinking that we all live in Coketown now.

Dickens: his motifs, his metaphors, his idiosyncratic conceits.  Time — and specifically mechanical regulation of time — is one of the great motifs in Hard Times. This motif comes to a crescendo in the last chapter of “Book the First,” in one of the lyrical paragraphs that makes Dickens a joy to read:

Meanwhile the marriage was appointed to be solemnized in eight weeks’ time, and Mr. Bounderby went every evening to Stone Lodge, as an accepted wooer.  Love was made on these occasions in the form of bracelets; and, on all occasions during the period of betrothal, took a manufacturing aspect.  Dresses were made, jewellery was made, cakes and gloves were made, settlements were made, and an extensive assortment of Facts did appropriate honour to the contract.  The business was all Fact, from first to last.  The Hours did not go through any of those rosy performances, which foolish poets have ascribed to them at such times; neither did the clocks go any faster, or any slower, than at other seasons.  The deadly statistical recorder in the Gradgrind observatory knocked every second on the head as it was born, and buried it with his accustomed regularity.

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