Geschrieben am 1. Februar 2012 von für Kolumnen und Themen, Litmag

Klassiker-Check: Charles Dickens und die heutige Welt

Anfang Februar vor 200 Jahren wurde Charles Dickens geboren. Aus diesem Anlass fragte das British Council in Berlin: “What would Dickens write – and what would he write about – if he were alive today?” Unsere „Afrika-Korrespondentin” Sandi Baker ist in ihrem „Klassiker-Check“ dieser Fragestellung aus einer ganz spezifischen Perspektive nachgegangen…

Hard Times in Kibera

Africa is home to some of the biggest slums in the world from Khayelitsha in Cape Town to Kibera in Nairobi. Kibera is one of the biggest slums in the world; it is home to between 700 000 to one million people. Estimates vary considerably. In Kibera there is virtually no urban infrastructure, no streetlights, hardly any electricity, it is too expensive for the inhabitants. There is little or no running water except for the water that runs down the middle of the lanes between the shacks (containing human and other waste). As there is roughly one latrine for about 400 people ‘flying toilets’ are used. People relieve themselves in plastic bags and then throw the used bags outside. Living conditions are squalid and overcrowded, providing ideal conditions for disease to flourish. Unemployment is high at about 50% and when employment is found it tends to be piecemeal and poorly paid. Alcohol is extremely cheap and people start drinking from early morning. Crime is a means of survival.

So what has this to do with the seminar held by the British Council in the UK and Germany, on the bicentenary of Charles Dickens birthday and which was chaired by UCL professor and Guardian writer John Mullan and which showcased UK contemporary writers A.S. Byatt, Claire Tomalin, David Nicholls, Toby Litt, Philip Hensher, Louise Doughty, John Burnside and Denise Mina (mehr hier)? Quite a lot, as we will see.

Dickens is widely regarded as one of the greatest English writers with his description of everyman characters and the ‘condition of England’. His formidable skill in characterisation crafting and description of milieu is difficult to surpass, as is his plethora of work. By all accounts Dickens was a hard worker, verging on being a workaholic. His level of output is astonishing and he is most probably second only to Shakespeare. But the social issues that Dickens commentated on are still very much with us. The subversive, rebellious way in which he wrote about these issues is, together with the vivid characters and settings and with the moral bent of the stories, what makes the work contemporary. His vivid description of the ‘lumpen proletariat’, the slums that they lived in, their bourgeois aims and his stripping of the hypocritical veneer of the bourgeoisie helped to further the aims of social change. His descriptions of workplace alienation are Marxist in tone. Although, he does depart from Marx in that his characters’ greatest ambition is to retire with sufficient income, nothing extravagant, without doing any obvious work and live a contented life. Well what is wrong with that? It is an aspiration which quite a number of people share, whether they are part of the ‘lumpen proletariat’ or even middle-class income earners who have to work.

The term ‘Dickensian’ has now come to mean the double-faced image of the syrupy sweet bourgeois imagery of the Victorian era, happy pater families as well as the grinding, brutal lives of the abject poor living in the squalid Victorian slums. The English would possibly be happier to focus rather on the successes of the Victorian era such as the age of industrialisation and Darwin’s scientific discoveries, than on the exploited and abused labour, particularly of children who comprised the labour mainstay. To stay with the myth of the happy middle-class, we need to forget about the Poor Law Act of 1834 that was ostensibly implemented to provide for the English poor but which was in fact a system of abuse and cruelty, and resulted in increased starvation and misery. It was formally abolished in 1948. A sad fact is that the cruelty in these workhouses was possibly exceeded only by the concentration camps, which the English set up in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) and which resulted in the deaths of over 40 000 people (the numbers are difficult to verify as proper records were not kept for the camps for the blacks), of whom over 20 000 were children.

The poor had no voice; they were completely disconnected from society and politics. Their only means of escape was alcohol and opiates or death. Unlike the bourgeoning middle class who were at pains to distance themselves from the impoverished and lower classes whilst simultaneously attempting to prove themselves to the upper classes. As Marx co-wrote with Engels in the “Communist Manifesto”: “The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression…” One has only to think about “Hard Times” where Dickens describes the repressive, mechanistic working conditions in the factories. “The wearisome heads went up and down at the same rate, in hot weather and cold, wet weather and dry, fair weather and foul. The measured motion of their shadows on the walls, was the substitute Coketown had to show for the shadows of rustling woods…”

But Dickens doesn’t allow us to forget the squalor and abuse that took place. His stories are fully compliant with the archetypes and conceits of the Victorian era and expose the hypocrisy of the era. He makes fun of and satirises the Court of Chancery, educational systems and he reveals the vice and the greed of the bourgeoisie. He does this in such a subversive way, that the targets of his attacks also read and seemingly enjoyed his works.  Dickens attack on the Poor Law Act of 1834, the so-called places of learning and the Court of Chancery is not part of a strategy to address and to provide an alternative option. He has no direct objective in mind other than to expose these organisations and reveal their corruption, cruelty and small mindedness. Perhaps this is part of his appeal. He wants to improve conditions and he simply wants people to be kind. If one thinks of current day events, Dickens’ lack of providing an alternative option is similar to the Occupy Wall Street Movement; it too, seeks to attack the establishment and big businesses, which it sees as corrupt. It, too, has no specific alternative to offer.

Dickens everyman protagonists and characters reflect his major theme of goodness and morality prevailing. One only has to think of Oliver Twist, the orphan who survives the workhouse, works as an oakum picker, a funeral assistant and for a gang of thieves, but who manages to survive and rightfully join his family who are middle-class, but not before witnessing profound cruelty, brutality and crime. Oliver is rewarded for being good.

When Dickens writes of the poor or proletariat, they are not the main characters of the story, the main characters transcend their impoverishment and tend to become bourgeois and find happiness. The poor provide the picturesque background in the story. The story is never about them, per se. Even in “Oliver Twist”, where some of the most violent and cruel scenes are written such as the brutal murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes, it is not about the poor, but rather about a child who had the misfortune to be an orphan and mix with the poor and the criminals, but who has an ‘innate’ understanding that he is somehow different from the poor and is able by being good to transcend the poverty. As Dickens says in the preface to “Oliver Twist”: “I saw no reason, when I wrote this book, why the very dregs of life, so long as their speech did not offend the ear, should not serve the purpose of a moral at least as its froth and cream. In this spirit, I wished to shew, in little Oliver, the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last…“

Dickens says a lot about the abuse and exploitation of children. He is able to describe the world the way a child sees it. He displays a rare understanding of how children function. The social commentary he provides on child–abuse goes further than the commentary of the social conditions of the time. Nearly all the child protagonists that he writes about are abused in some form or the other, either, physically, verbally or both or are even just neglected. That the children are able to see beyond the abuse and tend be so forgiving, is a ploy which makes the books so melodramatic, but this contrast between the innocence of the child and the corrupt society is effective. It is also, probably, a reflection on the impact it had on him when he was forced into child labour in a ‘blacking factory’ at the age of twelve to support his family while they were imprisoned with his father due to the debt his father ran up. Dickens was also made to carry on working after the family was released from prison.

William Hogarth: Gin Lane

What do Dickens stories have to do with us today?

Of course we may ask ourselves what do these stories with morals and vivid caricatures that Dickens wrote have to do with us today?  Are they relevant worldwide or are they well crafted period pieces set in a particular milieu? These Victorian tales set mostly in London with their everyman themes are applicable to today’s times. But here in the western world we sit in a privileged world, with every convenience at hand. We go to school. We work. We shop. We are oblivious of the poor and the impoverished. We are unaware of child exploitation. Of course we may we read about the poor, but they tend to be in far away places like Africa; we may read about the occasional case of child abuse or child-labour but they tend to be dealt with by the justice system or are too far away for us to concern ourselves with. These days such scenes of utter poverty are not so easily visible in the western world. Although some may argue that they are coming. In Africa, slums are well known, from Khayelitsha in Cape Town to Kibera in Nairobi, people are trapped in the seething morass of inescapable poverty, just like what Dickens wrote about. There is the same lack of basic infrastructure, the same diseased-ridden and unsanitary conditions with raw sewerage leaking into the streets, even their own versions of Hogarth’s “Gin Lane”. They, also have no voice and are disconnected from politics. Their only means of survival is probably also having to resort to crime. The difference, of course, is that there is about 200 years separating the London slums from the African slums and, in the heyday of the Victorian age, Africa was a considerably different place to what it is today. For one thing there weren’t the slums that exist today.

Kibera and the other slums in Africa and around the world are so reminiscent of Victorian era slums that the association quite naturally leads you think of Dickens. So, too, does the social problem of the millions of African orphaned children (some newspapers sell because of the voyeuristic pictures of starving children; Kevin Carter, a member of the photo journalist ‘Bang-Bang Club’ even won a Pulitzer prize award for his picture of a starving toddler in Sudan being closely watched by a vulture). It is this Dickensian aspect of the slums that an enterprising group of people in Kenya is showcasing. According to the Economist magazine, Shujaaz, a Kenyan comic plans to bring Dickens to Kenya, in the form of the tale of Titus Twist, obviously based on “Oliver Twist”. Titus Twist is an apprentice to a coffin-maker. His tale of survival is set in a slum in Nairobi. There is obviously a modern slant to the story. It is envisaged that the characters could probably be ‘modernised’ to include well meaning, foreign non-governmental officials read charity and aid workers, parsimonious church workers and shallow, self serving politicians. One of the producers of the magazine sees the ‘Artful Dodger’ as being a rapper and going to church. Shujaaz distributes its monthly print for free and it plans to run Titus Twist in serial form, just as Dickens produced some of his stories in serial form. Stories in Shujaaz are printed in Sheng a mixture of Swahili and English, and are about young Kenyans, who like many of Dickens’s characters, live in squalid and fetid slums and who simply want a better life.

George Orwell wrote in his critique of Dickens that the Dickens’ everyman should be nice, and treat others kindly. Perhaps that is not such a mundane option. Given the Dickensian cruelty and injustices that still exist today despite sophisticated social engineering plans, laws and regulations, the more radical notion could be to try to treat each other with more respect and kindness. In these hard times, have we have simply lost our way just as Pip did in “Great Expectations” before he realised that it is not the external trappings that make a gentleman, but rather inner worth? After all, it is possible that a little kindness can go a long way to ensure a better life; well it does in Dickens’ novels.

Sandi Baker

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