Critics have well acquainted us with Charles Dickens the sentimentalist—lover of the oppressed, defender of childhood innocence, decrier of England’s industrial sweatshops. But seldom have they given readers a glimpse of the Dickens with whom Myron Magnet deals in “Dickens and the Social Order”: Dickens the philosophical traditionalist.
Dickens and the Social Order, by Myron Magnet (266 pages, ISI Books, 2004)
Critics have well acquainted us with Dickens the sentimentalist—lover of the oppressed, defender of childhood innocence, decrier of England’s industrial sweatshops. But seldom have they given readers a glimpse of the Dickens with whom Myron Magnet deals in his study of Britain’s preeminent fictionist, the Dickens who had an “almost fanatical devotion to the Metropolitan Police,” who reproved his government’s failure to punish sufficiently the hardened violators of its laws, supported Governor Eyre’s notoriously violent quelling of the 1864 Negro uprising in Jamaica, and called the proverbial noble savage and annoying “superstition” that “ought to be civilized off the face of the earth.” In short, critics have said far too little about the philosophical traditionalist reconsidered in Dickens and the Social Order.
Yes, Dickens was a reformer, a radical one at that, but his reforming spirit, as Dr. Magnet carefully reveals, was checked by the intrinsic conservatism by no means shared by his present-day enthusiasts, who, for the sake of validating generally liberal aims and assumptions, prefer to focus on the sanguine aspects of his achievement. True, Dickens may have been qualitatively liberal, at least by the standards of nineteenth-century English liberalism. But he was neither a liberal per se nor a conservative liberal of any sort. He was, to make an important semantic distinction, a liberal conservative.
Nor did he become a conservative, liberal or otherwise, with age or experience. As the argument goes in Dickens and the Social Order, he always was one. In fact, the four books that Dr. Magnet adduces to make his case were all written between 1838 and 1844, during the first stage of Dickens’s career (beginning in 1836, with the publication of the Pickwick Papers, and ending with the Mystery of Edwin Drood, a novel left unfinished at the author’s death in 1870). These four books—Nicholas Nickleby (1839), Barnaby Rudge (1841), American Notes (1842), and Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)—constitute a rigorous working out of the worldview behind their author’s artistic imagination and social thought.
The motif of these early books is natural human aggression, the chief and perennial threat to civilization. Left unchecked by custom and social contract, man’s instinctual aggressiveness, Dickens believed, returns society to the brutishness implied in the state-of-nature myth formulated by Thomas Hobbes. The establishment of this premise being of foremost importance to the author of Nicholas Nickleby and Barnaby Rudge, it is not surprising, Dr. Magnet says, to find in these early works characters as menacing and egotistical as any to be seen in Dickens’s later novels.
Take, for example, Wackford Squeers, the sadistic schoolteacher in Nicholas Nickleby. “In Squeers,” writes Magnet, “Dickens presents an aggression that seeks to appropriate all reality, people as well as things, as grist for the mill of self.” Squeers is far worse than Thomas Gradgrind, that fatuous pedagogue of Hard Times. Gradgrind imposes on his students as much as Squeers, but that which he imposes—namely, his utilitarian faith—is something he earnestly, if rigidly, believes to be of value. The case is different with Squeers. He and his wife, whose aggression subtly manifests itself in her deliberate calling of things and people by their wrong names, impose—inflict, rather—nothing on the children in their charge but the Squeerses themselves.
Ralph Nickleby, of the same novel, is equally villainous. Unlike the Squeerses, though, he is altogether uninterested in imposing himself or anything else. Ralph, a nihilist full of contempt for his fellow man, endeavors to cut himself off entirely from humanity. Dickens considered such attempts to be self-destructive, Dr. Magnet observes, for he knew that one has his being—socially speaking, anyway—not in solitude but in a community of men and women who share a metaphysical dream, abide common traditions, make of a toast at the pub a “social sacrament” (to quote Dickens), and together celebrate those communal rites of greater note—holidays and signal occasions like birth, marriage, and mourning the dead.
In his aggressive solipsism, Ralph rejects all the ties that would bind him. “When Ralph [avows] that ‘births, deaths, marriages, and every event which is of interest to most men, ha[ve] no interest for me,’ what he is of course rejecting,” Dr. Magnet explains, “is not human life in general but social life in particular.”
In his rejection of society, Ralph foreshadows his counterparts in Barnaby Rudge—Hugh and Barnaby—who figure prominently in this novel based on the rampageous Gordon Riots of 1780, which, according to Dr. Magnet, represented for Dickens “an epidemic breaking-out of those powerful impulses of cruelty and aggression . . . inherent in human nature.” Like other flouters of convention and followers of raw instinct, Ralph, Hugh, and Barnaby may intrigue us. But “with their undeveloped or defective souls and their imperfect humanity,” they “shock and repel Dickens,” who presupposes, as Dr. Magnet goes on to make clear, that the soul, while submerged in every human being, depends on civilization for full realization.
Dickens’s solution to the problem of man’s inborn aggression, as proposed in Nicholas Nickleby and Barnaby Rudge and affirmed in American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit, consists in what Dr. Magnet refers to as the civilizing norms “externally embodied in society and internally institutionalized in the mind of every civilized individual.” Norms, Dr. Magnet rightly declares, become “externally embodied in society” through moral inculcation and the enforcement of positive law. (Dr. Magnet has very little to say about divine natural law, although, as an organizing principle of functional importance, he clearly presumes it to be behind Dickens’s vision of order.)
Norms are “internally institutionalized in the mind of every civilized individual” by the implantation of a social conscience analogous to Sigmund Freud’s super-ego, an indispensable faculty of civilization that develops through a man’s relationship with his father. As Dr. Magnet describes it, “[t]hat relationship, never experienced by [Hugh and Barnaby of Barnaby Rudge] has as its content primarily the oppression of the son by the father, which, rendering the son civilized, simultaneously makes him unhappy and unfree.” Behind this description is Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, a sapient book to which Dr. Magnet adverts repeatedly.
For Dickens, then, the norms that civilize begin at home, and they have their genesis in the dining room. A meal, he held, should be viewed as something more than a biological necessity; it should aspire to a ritual, a communion where two or more are gathered. We learn in his American Notes that Dickens was appalled by the rapidity with which Americans fed, as if meals for them were “mere animal observances” void of any “sociability,” as if “breakfasts, dinners, and suppers were necessities of nature never to be coupled with recreation or enjoyment.”
Despite the disconcerting table manners he witnessed in America, Dickens discovered much to praise in the country’s northeastern cities. In Boston, for instance, he noticed the unusual concern of municipal government with the education of all classes of people, a concern unshared by most of his English contemporaries, but one that he, with Matthew Arnold, assumed to be vital to civilization, which Arnold defined as “the humanization of man in society.”
Its hinterlands and plantations, however, left Dickens ultimately disenchanted with America, a land he feared would finally deal “the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty” in “the failure of its example to the earth.” The snake-infested backwater of America, treated with contempt in American Notes and ridiculed in Martin Chuzzlewit, was no Eden. On the contrary, it was postlapsarian nature at its vilest, the feral qualities of which the American Adam had yet to subdue by toil. Nor was the frontiersman naturally noble. He was, in Dickens’s view, a brute with pistols who often confused liberty with license.
As for American slavery, what appalled Dickens more than the general wickedness of the institution he witnessed firsthand were the atavistic faces of the individual slaves, who, in Dr. Magnet’s words, were “forcibly deprived of the means of realizing their full of humanity.” His disapproval of the Jamaican uprisings notwithstanding, Dickens denounced Southern slave owners as “free-born outlaws,” whose social interactions, as he declaimed them in American Notes, neither bore “the impress of civilization and refinement,” nor suggested men “accustomed to restrain their passions.” To them Dickens attributed the “sanguinary and violent” compulsions of a “brutal savage.” He discerned in them, Dr. Magnet adds, a veritable “nation of Squeerses, and interpret[ed] what they [were] doing to the slaves not in economic terms but rather in terms of the psychology of aggression.”
Dickens probed deeply into the human core of darkness, revealing not only the Squeers that lurked in the tenebrous heart of the American slave owner, but also the Squeers that lurks somewhere within every one of us. Dr. Magnet’s book reminds us that civilization—not as a particular manifestation of one or another historical polity, but as a general condition without which life devolves into anomie—depends upon the successful restraint of ourselves by way of social contract. To be sure, the public enforcers of that contract can fast become as savage as the savagery they desire to keep in check, leading to “a society in which, as Edmund Burke cautioned, ‘at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.’ ” But that possibility ought not to discourage efforts to realize the ideal civilization envisioned between the lines of Dickens and the Social Order.
That civilization, what Dickens called the “Republic of my imagination,” does not limit itself “solely to the interdiction of human aggression,” Dr. Magnet remarks, “but also includes the fostering of that full humanity which nature gives men only as a potentiality not an achieved actuality.” Its means of civilizing man in society neither begin nor end with the necessary, “legitimate force and violence at the disposal of the state,” as Dr. Magnet puts it—with the “strong Hand,” in Dickens’s words. Rather the paradigmatic civilization begins and ends with what Dickens the liberal conservative termed the “strong Heart,” that humanizing element Dr. Magnet attributes to education, to “trust and forbearance,” and to “the full inclusiveness of the community of men.”
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The featured image is a detail from “Dickens’ Dream” and is in the Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.