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The best of all impossible worlds

  • Jun 22, 2013
Near the end of Chesterton's study of Dickens life and letters, Chesterton pulls this amazing phrase to defend Dickens from the spurious charge of "vulgar optimism".  as if Dickens needed defending and as if Chesterton could ever write only biography or literary criticism.  This is a meeting of two great artists in the studio of eternity, the best indeed of all impossible worlds.

But in 1910. when Chesterton wrote, Dickens was still contemporary with many of Chesterton's readers, and shocking as it seems today, Dickens's now-eternal reputation was not yet secure.  Chesterton in his usual iconoclastic style doesn't defend The Inimitable as much as examine him under the many faceted prism of his own intelligence--and if that last pronoun seems of uncertain antecedence, it can be read as well to refer to either writer.

So what of this optimism?  Chesterton does not refute that Dickens as a writer seems incapable of a nihilistic thought--although he can paint dark scenes and make them irretrievably dark, against the darkness there is always a light which is undimmable.  Where Chesterton does fault Dickens is when he is unable to leave dark enough alone and append the sometimes maudlin happy ending to the dark.  Dickens was, claims Chesterton as his worst fault, not a vulgar optimist but an inveterate explainer, a character trait that got him in trouble both in life and letters.  But Dickens understood that at the end of the dark there was not nothing, but everything, as can only be said by Chesterton in this extended quote.

It is currently said that hope goes with youth, and lends to youth its wings of a butterfly; but I fancy that hope is the last gift given to man, and the only gift not given to youth. Youth is preeminently the period in which a man can be lyric, fanatical, poetic; but youth is the period in which a man can be hopeless. The end of every episode is the end of the world. But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged; God has kept that good wine until now. It is from the backs of the elderly gentlemen that the wings of the butterfly should burst. There is nothing that so much mystifies the young as the consistent frivolity of the old. They have discovered their indestructibility. They are in their second and clearer childhood, and there is a meaning in the merriment of their eyes. They have seen the end of the End of the World.

By the way, as Chesterton makes clear in his rationally exuberant way throughout the book, this is an implicitly and exclusively Christian world view.  While Dickens was not known for a friendship with organized religion, his heart and mind (and creative output) were fired with the passion and light of hope.

While you can buy this book in a modern edition on Amazon, it is also. available for free from Google Play as a scanned original, and I read it this way as the first book I read on my new Nook hd+.  While many were critical of Google's actions and questioning of their motives when they began their scanning project, this volume alone is proof of its worth if it puts literature like this in the hands of people who would otherwise never see it.

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June 23, 2013
Thanks for sharing.
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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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