Monday, July 8, 2013

What the Dickens Happened to Us?

A simple, small wooden desk, topped by a sloped, leather writing panel. It is not at all the type of thing upon which one would expect greatness to appear. But appear it did.

dickensdeskI spent a good ten minutes studying the writing desk that served Charles Dickens for so many years. It was on this self-designed desk where he scratched out Great Expectations and The Tale of Two Cities. Within the walls of his Doughty Street house in London, now occupied by the Charles Dickens Museum, he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby by hand. To stand in his office and spend some time near that tiny desk was humbling and a little sad.
Just think of his legacy: A Christmas Carol, The Pickwick Papers, The Old Curiosity Shop... All of it coming from time he spent alone shaping the raw material he gathered from the teeming city around him. Dickens wrote "I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time." Dickens routine was to write undisturbed between breakfast and lunch. He would then spend the afternoon attending to his philanthropic work and later honing dramatic readings of his masterpieces.
But this enduring output was reliant on the life and culture around him. He took time to wander the streets of town picking up story ideas, cadences and the passions of his era. Dickens attended everything from public hangings to grand theatre premieres. Today one wonders what Dickens would find on those same streets were he to wander them today. I just went for a stroll myself (in the DC area admittedly) and found a menagerie of loners: People entirely cut off from one another--tethered to ear buds, trapped in an audio universe of their own construction. When they do look up it's usually to avoid walking into an oncoming vehicle or to check a text on their smart phones. The only dialogue I heard on my 20 minute walk were either people cursing each other out, or people cursing loudly into cell phones. Not exactly the raw matter of the next David Copperfield...

For all our connectivity we are more isolated today than at any time in human history. The recent book Going Solo cites the staggering statistic that in 1950 22% of American adults were single, today that number has risen to 50%. 31 million Americans are soloists. We are (to borrow that old song title) alone together. Without real interaction--the human clash-- drama, music, film, television and literature withers. It leads to a pop culture and arts scene drained of life-- tired and recycled. It falls back on what was and what worked before. Is it any wonder that our cineplexes are featuring yet another Lone Ranger reboot, after another Superman reboot, after another Star Trek reboot, all overwhelmed by one more sequel appropriately called: Despicable Me 2!

The arts are usually an accurate reflection of where we are as a people. And it seems a pretty Bleak House from this vantage point. Culturally speaking you might even call it Hard Times. Perhaps Dickens' captured it best in 1842, following his first tour of America, when he wrote to his friend William Macready: "This is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination." I think we all know how he must have felt.
Original Oliver Twist