Tuesday, February 7, 2012
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times": Charles Dickens and the Arab Uprisings
Today is the bicentenary of the birth of the famous 19th century English novelist, social critic, and social activist Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812-June 9, 1870). It may be difficult from today's perspective to remember how much Dickens challenged Victorian society, and particularly its treatment of the poor, the working class, the indebted, and the orphaned. Motivated by his own experience at the age of 10--of being sent from school as child labour in a factory to earn money while the rest of his family was in debtors' prison--many of Dickens' most famous novels as well as his journalist work are a direct condemnation of these practices.
Dickens preferred to publish his novels as monthly serialized episodes in newspapers, writing them as he went along (rather than serializing a finished work). This allowed him to respond to current events and issues within the framework of an engaging story, often about the life of an unfortunate boy, and to reach a mass audience, thereby shifting public opinion. Dickens also acted through philanthropy and public readings of his works to shift the circumstances of the less fortunate in his society.
There are many celebrations of Dickens' work, and his bicentenary, ongoing and planned. Some focus around a particular work, chosen in light of the organizers' perspectives on the relevence of Dickens today, or his literary contribution. Some which I have heard referenced specifically are A Christmas Carol (over this past Christmas season), David Copperfield (his most autobiographical work), Great Expectations, and The Pickwick Papers--the latter two as somewhat of a compendium of Dickensian themes and characters.
Following recent events in the MENA these past few days (and longer), made me think immediately of Dickens A Tale of Two Cities. Set during the French Revolution, the novel describes the impact of that transformative period, with a particular focus on London and Paris. The novel famously begins, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...".
One may paraphrase and say that the Arab Uprisings throughout MENA have been the best of times, and the worst of times--energized times of standing up for long overdue rights and societal changes, violent times of physical and psychological repression; euphoric times of triumph over a dictator; dysphoric times of retaking physical or social ground, and of mourning the imprisoned, tortured, injured, and killed.
This past weekend the two main cities of this ongoing tale have been Homs and Cairo. In both there was cruel, unbridled repression of demonstrators resulting in more injured, more dead, and more disappeared. The resilience of the protesters is as admirable as the obstinancy of the governments in place in Syria and Egypt is reprehensible. I use the phrase "ongoing tale" not to disparage or minimize, but rather to remind that history occurs over time, is told and retold, and that like the French Revolution, the Arab Revolution(s) will take longer than a day, a week, a month, a season.
There is much more that I would like to say about these events, and those ongoing in other MENA countries, but for now I will only say that I hope that reform will come as swiftly as possible, with the least damage possible, and that those guilty of crimes against their own people will be held accountable one way or another, even if they have to move perpetually through Dante's 2nd to 9th circles of Hell-- Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, Treachery. The 1st circle, Limbo, is too good for them.
A Bastille Day Reminder: A Revolution Isn't Built In a Day--or a Spring
The Inevitability of a Victory for the Arab Spring--The Doha Debates Chez Chiara
Literature and Culture: 10 Literary Great Reads--Part I (# 1-5)
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Egypt: protests over Port Said soccer deaths;