The Sunshine of Genius

by HAROLD NICOLSON

HAVING embarked upon an ambitious study of the causes and nature of the English sense of humor, I had occasion recently to read and analyze The Pickwick Papers, a book at which I had not even glanced for a quarter of a century. In my early childhood I used to sit upon the floor while my mother read to my elder brothers the works of Charles Dickens. I was not, I suppose, intended to understand these stories, and I would sit there, quite happily to all appearance, playing with little lengths of string, pretending that they were boa constrictors swinging like vast lianas through the jungle of a Turkey rug. Yet something of what was being read must have pierced my infant consciousness, since I am aware that the word “Dickens" aroused in me thereafter feelings of confusion, bewilderment, and fear.

To these unpleasant associations was added a few years later a feeling-tone of embarrassment. When I was about seven or eight my mother conceived the extraordinary idea that I possessed a gift for amateur theatricals, a form of self-display to which I must always have been unutterably ill-attuned. Certain of the more farcical situations devised by Dickens were removed from their context and turned into features” or “sketches,” in which I was expected to play a — and sometimes even the — leading part. Arrayed in a blue coat with brass buttons, a top hat upon my head and spectacles upon my nose, I was obliged, for instance, to enact the truly idiotic scene in which Mr. Pickwick loses his way in the Great White Horse Inn at Ipswich and enters the bedroom of an elderly spinster. I am prepared to believe that at the time — at the age, that is, of seven or eight — I derived some satisfaction from this performance; but when I reached the age of self-consciousness the memory of these displays aroused in me all the sensations of acute shame. I felt that my dignity had been degraded, my personality outraged.

It is not surprising, therefore, that when, on reaching adult age, I sought to understand the point of The Pickwick Papers, these unfortunate associations should have risen from the shadows of the past and have intervened between me and my appreciation ol what I suppose is one of the undoubted masterpieces of comic literature. The whole book then seemed little more than an artificial and most ill-constructed jumble of facetious episodes and ludicrous caricatures. Not only did the work appear devoid of all composition; it seemed to lack all reasonable content or intent.

It was quite apparent that the young Dickens (he was only twenty-three at the time), having been commissioned by Chapman and Hall to write the captions for a series of Cockney sporting prints, had started off with a purely farcical conception of Mr. Pickwick and his friends and had ended by turning them into sentimental figures of great beneficence and romance. Mr. Winkle, for instance, begins as a buffoon and ends as a charming and acceptable young man; and Mr. Pickwick himself, who at the outset is represented as an elderly gentleman of innocence and pretension, becomes in the final sketches the shrewd and calculating benefactor: the old zany in a wheelbarrow turns into the god in the machine.

These undeniable defects of composition (which can be explained by the fact that the first few numbers proved that Dickens’s captions were far more popular than Mr. Seymour’s illustrations) led me to suppose that Dickens had from the start trimmed his sails to the breeze of public sentiment, and thus induced in me a mood of chill dislike. In such a mood the faults of Dickens’s style, which are irritating and frequent, blinded me to the bright sunshine of genius by which the book is illumined.

The increase of tolerance, which is among the many adornments and consolations of later middle age, teaches one to regard with surprised regret the wasteful intolerance of one’s younger years. It seems to me today that I approached works of art which had secured the approval of minds which to my vanity appeared less subtle, or merely more old-fashioned, than my own, in a mood almost of disapproval and with a desire to expose their faults rather than to enjoy their virtues. I am today just as conscious of the faults of Dickens as I was twenty-five years ago. I am fully aware, for instance, that the following passage might well be taken as an example of meaningless rhetoric, and therefore of sheer bad writing: “The river, reflecting the clear blue of the sky, glistened and sparkled as it flowed noiselessly on; and the oars of the fishermen dipped into the water with a clear and liquid sound, as the heavy but picturesque boats glided slowly down the stream.” That, I admit, is very bad indeed, and there are many passages in Dickens’s later work which display the same unscrupulous inattention.

I agree also that much of Dickens’s facetiousness, especially when he is indulging in verbal felicity, grates upon the modern ear. His employment, for instance, of the device of polysyllabic humor is intensely irritating; nor is our present sensibility enlivened by such phrases as “auricular organ,” “the metropolis,”or “Mrs. Nupkins’s tears continued to gush forth with great velocity.” It is not that we are too priggish to appreciate the verbally ludicrous. I adore good puns. It is rather that, of all jokes, the verbal joke is the most perishable, and that this brand of humor is the one which most rapidly becomes stale. The necessary surprise is numbed by repetition.

There is one form of verbal dexterity in which Sam Weller indulges and which, although it irritated me twenty-five years ago, now fills me with fascinated interest. It is a form of quip or simile, invariably introduced by the comparative conjunction, which I am assured still retains its popularity in barrackrooms and canteens. Sam Weller employs this device some thirty-five times in the course of The Pickwick Papers, and his father, who was not a man of many words, employs it twice. It consists of a tag, or “notion, which implies a double incongruity: first, the incongruity between the momentary circumstances and the simile which it suggests; and secondly, an incongruity in the terms of the simile itself. “ Well, it’s no use talking about it now,” said Sam. “It’s over, and can’t be helped, and that’s one consolation, as they always says in Turkey, ven they cuts the wrong mans head off.”“Business first, pleasure afterwards, as King Richard the Third said when he stabbed the t other king in the Tower, afore he smothered the babbies. I here; now we look compact and comfortable, as the father said ven he cut his little boy’s head off, to cure him o’ squinting.”

A large proportion of Sam Weller’s notions are thus concerned with sudden murders or decapitations, and these similes, while providing a contrast with the ordinary circumstances by which they are suggested, also contain a logical inconsistency within their own terms. It is this which renders the device as employed by Sam Weller more ingenious than the facile “As the bishop said to the actress” music-hall or barrackroom type. It seems to me that this love of imaginative unreality, this delight in impossible analogies or illogical similarities, is what distinguishes more than anything else the English from the foreign, or even the Scotch, sense of the ludicrous.

Yet what surprises me most on reading The Pickwick Papers after all these years is that I could ever have remained unaffected by the contagion of the high spirits with which it is inspired. Is it that with the approach of second childhood one reverts to the play-attitudes of one’s infantile state? Or is it that one’s palate becomes sated with the refinements of intellectual subtlety and that one comes to hate Lord Chesterfield for never having laughed at a bad joke, or even laughed out loud at all? I feel ashamed of myself for having remained coldly unamused by Bob Sawyer s antics upon the coach from Bristol to Birmingham.

I have repaired this omission. And I now realize that as one becomes older one comes to value vitality, even exuberant vitality, as one never valued it before; and that after six years of anxiety, and on the threshold of a world which may seem at moments a little too interesting for our tired nerves, the boisterous energy of The Pickwick Papers forms an admirable stimulant.