Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Warmth of Dickens


An excerpt from an “Orthodox Survival Course” given by Hieromonk Seraphim in 1975, as reproduced in Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works:

In our present society, boys by the time they are fourteen or fifteen years old know all about sexual sins, much more than even married people used to know. They know exactly what is going on in the movies, they see it, and the whole atmosphere in which they live is one of indulgence. “Why fight against this sort of thing?” it is said. “It’s natural.” Obviously, they are being prepared for a life of indulgence in sin.

Such a boy may be given the standard of truth, which is chastity, virginity; but this is a very high and difficult standard if all he has in mind is the abstract idea of chastity in order to fight against this all-pervading atmosphere of sensuality which attacks not only the mind but also the heart – and the body directly. He sees everywhere billboards which lead to temptation, and the magazines which he can now look at are frightful; and all this is much stronger than the single idea of being pure. In fact, everybody will laugh at that idea, and the poor boy will have a very difficult time not just in resisting, but even in seeing that he should resist temptation, because all the evidence is against it except for that one little abstract truth that he should be pure. In this respect he can be helped by literature...

The boy can read something like David Copperfield, which describes a boy growing up: not some kind of monk or ascetic hero, but just an ordinary boy growing up in a different time... It’s true that this is a worldly book about people living in the world – but that world is quite different [from today’s world]. Already you get a different perspective on things: that the world has not always been the way it is now; that the standard which is now in the air is one kind of world and there are other kinds; and that this is a different, normal world in which, although the element of sex is present, it has a definite role. You get strength from seeing what was normal in that time, from the way Dickens describes this young boy growing up and falling in love. He is embarrassed to be around the girl and never thinks about dirty things because nothing like that ever comes up; whereas if you read any contemporary novel that’s all you get. This book shows a much higher view of love, which is of course for the sake of marriage, which is for the sake of children. The whole of one’s life is bound up with this, and the thought never comes up in this book that one can have some kind of momentary satisfaction and then pass on to the next girl. David Copperfield is full of dreams of this woman, how he is going to live with her and be a big man of the world. It is assumed that he has sexual relations after he’s married, but this is involved with what one is going to do with one’s whole life.

Again, this gives strength to a boy who is himself occupied with precisely these temptations. When he asks questions like, “How do I behave towards a girl?” – an abstract sort of standard doesn’t help much. But if he sees how this fictional person, who is very true to life at a different age, was so embarrassed, so concerned, so polite, so idealistic and tender, this inspires him to behave himself more normally, according to past standards. And in such a novel we see how many sides there are to the whole question of love and sex, how complicated it is in our whole human nature. Although no Orthodoxy is preached, the whole atmosphere is filled with at least a large remnant of Christian values, and this gives a definite help to the boy on his own level, not on a spiritual level, but on the level of his leading an everyday life in the world.

Also, Dickens communicates an extremely warm feeling about life, about human relationships, which is not given in schools today. And this very feeling of warmth about human relationships might have more effect on keeping a boy pure than giving him the abstract standard of Orthodoxy...

The warmth of Dickens can help break through one-sided rationalism better than years of arguments, because even if you accept the truth you can still be cold and rationalistic and insensitive. Simply reading Dickens can already produce in one tears of gratitude for having the true religion of love. The earnestness and compassion of Dostoevsky can help break through one’s self-love and complacency. Even someone like Thomas Mann, who doesn’t have the qualities of great warmth and compassion, can give one a deeper insight into the wrongness of the path of Western life.
Fr Seraphim had this to say about films, when asked if there were any that portray Christian virtue:
There are a lot of them, but they don’t make them any more. Maybe they do once in a while, but it is very rare. Old movies, especially ones that are dramatizations of novels or classic plays, are often very well done and there is a point to them. Everything in Dickens is that way; it is full of Christianity. He doesn’t mention Christ even, but it is full of love. In The Pickwick Papers, for example, the hero Mr Pickwick is a person who refuses to give up his innocence in trusting people. Finally he gets put in the debtor’s prison because he trusted someone. There comes to him the man who put him in prison and seduced his relative, and who has now been put in prison himself. Mr Pickwick weeps over the man and gives him money so he can buy a meal, because the man has no money to but food in debtor’s prison. One sees this man, this criminal who has been taking advantage of everyone, and one little tear forms in the man’s eye. In the end Mr Pickwick is triumphant, because he trusted men; and he wins because people’s hearts are changed.

There are lots of old movies like this which show either the passions of men, the innocence of men, or various Christian virtues. In fact, these nineteenth-century novels on which they are based are very down-to-earth and real; and they show how to live a normal Christian life, how to deal with these various passions that arise. They do not give it on a spiritual level, but by showing it in life, and by having a basic Christian understanding of life, they are very beneficial. I don’t know of any movies nowadays that are that way. Maybe here and there you can find one, but they have all become so weird... For examples, Dickens is heartwarming with regard to normal, everyday life, but the recent movie E.T. is heartwarming with regard to some kind of freakish thing, which becomes something like a savior.

I think we should seek out more of these old movies. For a group – say, a church group – to get together and show these old movies would be very good, especially for the young people.

4 comments:

John Martin said...

Are there modern authors who have this same warmth that Dickens had?

Felix Culpa said...

Try "Home" by Marilynne Robinson.

Felix Culpa said...

Sorry, I meant "Gilead" by the same author

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