A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 12 December 2011

Two Lives Of Dickens

Charles Dickens
Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. EL DOCTOROW

Two biographies have been published recently anticipating the bicentenary of Charles Dickens's birth next February: Becoming Dickens: The Invention Of A Novelist by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, and Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life.

Both books mention the meeting Dickens reputedly had with Dostoyevsky in 1862. In a subsequent letter mentioning this momentous encounter, the great Russian novelist recalls his great British counterpart telling him that All the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity toward those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him ... one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Whereupon Dostoyevsky was supposed to have asked: Only two people? 

Whether or not the meeting actually occurred, and whether or not the letter is authentic (it has never been traced, and there is no extant copy), no matter. What's interesting is the Jekyll and Hyde (though Stevenson's novel The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde did not come out until sixteen years after Dickens's death!) 'split personality' Dickens admits to here. Of course, Dostoyevsky himself was fascinated by multifaceted personalities (one of his stories is called The Double) and the dilemmas caused by opposing moralities struggling for ascendance in the same human soul (just look at Raskolnikov in Crime And Punishment).

Dickens, after twenty one years of faithful (so far as we know) marriage to his wife Catherine, began a liaison with the actress Ellen Ternan in 1857 - which continued until his death in 1870. Divorce was barely thinkable for a man in his position at the time, so he separated from Catherine in 1858 but remained married to her. Perhaps guilt about this was at the back of his mind when he made his startling revelation to Dostoyevsky, perhaps not. Who knows?

However, from a personal point of view, the longer I live, and the more I experience life, the more convinced I am that we all have, to a greater or lesser extent, split or multiple personalities. We all have some of the saint and the sinner, the hero and the villain, the good and the bad within us - in varying proportions. And it's only when we get beyond such manifest polarities of our fragile and fearful ego that we can start to experience the unquenchable joy, peace and love which characterises our true Being and Consciousness - as Eckhart Tolle* might say.

* I'll have more to say at a later date about Eckhart Tolle's book The Power Of Now.   


George said...

Very interesting material on Dickens, and I agree with you entirely that, to some extent, we all have split or multifaceted personalities—fragments that are always seeking integration. This reminds me of Jung's discussion of one's shadow and the need to embrace it. I also think, as you suggest, that Eckhart Tolle's writing explores this issue, though using different terms than Jung. I suspect that old Dicken's bad self was the part that identified with his ego, while the good self was the authentic, unconditioned self which was capable of standing outside of the ego and witnessing the bad self.

Ruth said...

I heartily agree, Robert. This is an intriguing focus, regarding Dickens, and on Tolle's book, which has been very helpful to me. I'd say my spiritual journey has been, more than anything else, a series of practices to disable those ego-characters. Working on one now, in fact.

I just finished Chimes and will read the next two Christmas tales in the days ahead. My boss, the Chair of the English department, who urged me to read them, said that the public were clamoring for more Christmas tales after he published A Christmas Carol to wild success. He stressed out in July to get a new one started!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, George and Ruth. I'm reading Tolle's 'The Power Of Now' for the first time and finding it a revelation. Well, not so much of a revelation, more of a confirmation. It brings together lots of strands from Jung and Krishnamurti via all sorts of Zen Buddhist writers to Kabat-Zinn and many others. I like Tolle's interpretation of the life, deeds and sayings of Jesus very much.

Ruth said...

Isn't it interesting how these things go? The Power of Now was the first book that almost literally jumped off the shelf when I began searching beneath the surface of religion. It was an excellent start, and I imagine it is also an excellent sort of culmination at your point in the journey.