Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dickens, Pt III

Like many novelists, Dickens does not submit all that well to being excerpted.  Much of his power is cumulative.  He paints in broad canvases, not small details.  As a result, the pleasure that he has to offer does require a certain amount of time.  However, I think this passage (especially in the context of the passage I put up earlier) does a decent job of showing off his virtues.

Mr Pickwick and his friends have checked into an inn where they happen upon Mr Pott, the editor of the "Blue" newspaper mentioned previously.  It's been several months since they've seen each other and Mr Pickwick, always the gentleman, makes a polite, somewhat pro forma, inquiry about the state of things in Pott's home town.  The contrast between the easy-going affability of Mr Pickwick and his friends, and the near-incoherent rage and smug, self-deluded egotism of Pott help to give the scene some of its humorous power.

'And how are matters going on in Eatanswill?' inquired Mr. Pickwick, when Pott had taken a seat near the fire, and the whole party had got their wet boots off, and dry slippers on. 'Is the INDEPENDENT still in being?'  
'The INDEPENDENT, sir,' replied Pott, 'is still dragging on a wretched and lingering career. Abhorred and despised by even the few who are cognisant of its miserable and disgraceful existence, stifled by the very filth it so profusely scatters, rendered deaf and blind by the exhalations of its own slime, the obscene journal, happily unconscious of its degraded state, is rapidly sinking beneath that treacherous mud which, while it seems to give it a firm standing with the low and debased classes of society, is nevertheless rising above its detested head, and will speedily engulf it for ever.'

Having delivered this manifesto (which formed a portion of his last week's leader) with vehement articulation, the editor paused to take breath, and looked majestically at Bob Sawyer. 
'You are a young man, sir,' said Pott. 
Mr. Bob Sawyer nodded. 
'So are you, sir,' said Pott, addressing Mr. Ben Allen. 
Ben admitted the soft impeachment. 
'And are both deeply imbued with those blue principles, which, so long as I live, I have pledged myself to the people of these kingdoms to support and to maintain?' suggested Pott. 
'Why, I don't exactly know about that,' replied Bob Sawyer. 'I am - ' 
'Not buff, Mr. Pickwick,' interrupted Pott, drawing back his chair, 'your friend is not buff, sir?' 
'No, no,' rejoined Bob, 'I'm a kind of plaid at present; a compound of all sorts of colours.' 
'A waverer,' said Pott solemnly, 'a waverer. I should like to show you a series of eight articles, Sir, that have appeared in the Eatanswill GAZETTE. I think I may venture to say that you would not be long in establishing your opinions on a firm and solid blue basis, sir.' 'I dare say I should turn very blue, long before I got to the end of them,' responded Bob. 
Mr. Pott looked dubiously at Bob Sawyer for some seconds, and, turning to Mr. Pickwick, said - 
'You have seen the literary articles which have appeared at intervals in the Eatanswill GAZETTE in the course of the last three months, and which have excited such general - I may say such universal - attention and admiration?' 
'Why,' replied Mr. Pickwick, slightly embarrassed by the question, 'the fact is, I have been so much engaged in other ways, that I really have not had an opportunity of perusing them.' 
'You should do so, Sir,' said Pott, with a severe countenance. 
'I will,' said Mr. Pickwick. 
'They appeared in the form of a copious review of a work on Chinese metaphysics, Sir,' said Pott. 
'Oh,' observed Mr. Pickwick; 'from your pen, I hope?' 
'From the pen of my critic, Sir,' rejoined Pott, with dignity. 
'An abstruse subject, I should conceive,' said Mr. Pickwick. 
'Very, Sir,' responded Pott, looking intensely sage. 'He CRAMMED for it, to use a technical but expressive term; he read up for the subject, at my desire, in the "Encyclopaedia Britannica." ' 
'Indeed!' said Mr. Pickwick; 'I was not aware that that valuable work contained any information respecting Chinese metaphysics.' 
'He read, Sir,' rejoined Pott, laying his hand on Mr. Pickwick's knee, and looking round with a smile of intellectual superiority - 'he read for metaphysics under the letter M, and for China under the letter C, and combined his information, Sir!' 
Mr. Pott's features assumed so much additional grandeur at the recollection of the power and research displayed in the learned effusions in question, that some minutes elapsed before Mr. Pickwick felt emboldened to renew the conversation; at length, as the editor's countenance gradually relaxed into its customary expression of moral supremacy, he ventured to resume the discourse.... 


Barbara Carlson said...

Sorry. Not being British, I just don't get this guy.

ANCIANT said...

I'm not either, obviously.
"Soft impeachment." That's so good. Perfect words in the perfect order. (
And then this-- 'I'm a kind of plaid at present; a compound of all sorts of colours..."--followed by Pott's totally missing the joke and turning that too into a political statement: ("'A waverer,' said Pott solemnly, 'a waverer.")
And... "that valuable work"...Pickwick's reflexive generosity
And...in Pott's condemnation of the Gazette.. ("stifled by the very filth it so profusely scatters, rendered deaf and blind by the exhalations of its own slime")
It all just makes me happy. "Exhalations" of its own slime.... That's not a word most people would use. I love the idea that this newspaper is exhaling slime, like some moribund salamander, flailing in the muck. It's so vivid. It lives. For me, the whole passage does. It's not subtle, but it's vital. It inspires me. It gives me hope.