George Packer (who’s book, The Assassin’s Gate, is the next non-fiction book in the stack on my bedside table) has a nice piece over at Lapham’s Quarterly.  Packer’s primary concern in that article is rightly with the plight of those living in Dickensian conditions outside the confines of Western modernity, but given that he’s taken Western literature as a starting point for that discussion, I don’t think it would be in horribly bad taste to tie in some of what he’s written there with what I wrote about literary criticism earlier today.

In particular, I was struck by the claim made by Somerset, the young Burmese man from Packer’s first paragraph:

Neither a British nor American young man living in the twenty-first century can understand a Dickens as well as I can. I am living in a Dickens atmosphere. Our country is at least one or two centuries behind the Western world. My neighborhood—bleak, poor, with small domestic industries, children playing on the street, the parents are fighting with each other, some are with great debt, everyone is dirty. That is Dickens. In that Dickens atmosphere I grew up. I am more equipped to understand Dickens than modern novels. I don’t know what is air conditioning, what is subway, what is fingerprint exam.

That may not be entirely true — Somerset probably doesn’t imagine that there are American children eking an existence straight out of Hard Times, like those in Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities — but in the main I think we can grant that he has some direct insight into 19th century literature that most Americans and Eastern Europeans simply don’t.  Granting that, I have a point to make and a question to ask.

The point is simply that, though Packer’s intent may have been to illuminate the lives of modern people, his article also serves as one means of closing the gap in the literary circuit that was opened, in part, by the very books he mentions.  Packer notes that,

The special power of the late-nineteenth-century novel comes from the proximity of acute sentience and overwhelming circumstance. Its moral atmosphere depends on characters whose awareness and ambition are too large for the social order (described with relentless detail) into which fate has thrown them. They are painfully conscious of the contours of their society, the dominance of money, the price of transgression, the place on the scale of rank and clout of everyone they encounter.

He might also have added that books like Bleak House and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle added immeasurably to that moral consciousness.  Without the cumulative outcry they helped to raise, it’s doubtful whether or not we’d have made the progress we have.  It is, in part, because of the books of a Zola, Dickens, Balzac and their peers that many of us have lost touch with the conditions that made them so urgent.  That’s less an irony than it is a triumph, albeit a partial one, as “Dickens in Lagos” illustrates.

Earlier today, I argued that, if it is to remain vital, literary criticism must reconnect with readers and address their concerns.  Packer has shown us one way of doing that with classic French and English literature.  Dickens, at least, remains a staple of compulsory education in America, but if anything, that complicates the question of how you entice an American adult to read Dickens.  If you’re anything like me, a high school episode with Great Expectations has long made reading Dickens for his own merits all but unthinkable.  I didn’t see the point then, and for most fiction readers, I suspect that it’s hard to see the point now.

Packer’s answer is that, however much we may have escaped the context that made Dickens relevant, the parts of the world that interest and concern us now may be better understood by seeing the social novels of the 19th century as a kind of middle ground.  There remain enough similarities to our own culture to keep them familiar, but we can read into the struggles of an Oliver Twist modern contexts like “Bombay, Cairo, Jakarta, Rio, or Lagos.”  Reading our own literary inheritance becomes a means of imaginatively inhabiting those places.  That approach is not without its own dangers — Bombay is not 19th century London, and the temptation to suppose that it can be treated as precisely analogous has, no doubt, already led to some serious failures of communication and policy.  But if we’re unable to find interest and empathy in, say, Germinal, then how can we begin to find them in the slums of Lagos?

So while Packer’s ultimate goal is to illuminate the more urgent concerns of the living, he nevertheless finds a moment to cast off a few capsule book reviews.  George Gissing, for example,

was not blessed with Dickens’ dazzling imagination and bravura style but made up for it in hard-won sensitivity to the daily humiliations of London life, produced, in the course of a short life, novel after novel about men and women whose aspirations always end in suffering and sordid compromise. His eye for the petty details of thwarted lives was flawless.

Packer’s assessment of Tom Wolfe’s contribution to the genre proves less glowing.  Because he is fixing each author and book in a context relative to the issue of contemporary poverty, you likely now have a sense of which, if any, you would like to read.

Now for the question I promised earlier.  Is there a comparable way to connect these books directly to the lives of potential readers in affluent West?  Packer has done so (to what degree of success you’ll have to decide for yourself) mostly by appealing to our cosmopolitanism.  To the extent that we look outward to the world as part of a unified community, we may feel persuaded to read the authors he mentions in order to understand the circumstances in which others live.  But if, for whatever reason, we don’t find that persuasive, is there a way to persuade the reading public that these books still matter, not because they allow us to understand Lagos, but because their content bears directly on the sort of lives that we lead?

That’s a question I may get back to in a future post.  For the moment, I think I’ll leave it open.  Feel free to make your own suggestions in the comments.


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