Various materialisms teach that we are what we eat, or how we earn, or this, or that. Actually, we are what we write, speak and hear. We are our language and its treasures. One treasure comes Sunday to public television's "Masterpiece Theater" in the first of eight installments of Charles Dickens' "Bleak House."
Lecture audiences were surprised by Dickens' platform decorum. They expected volcanic behavior from the source of so much written lava. In 1838, five months after finishing "Pickwick Papers," he was halfway through "Oliver Twist," and had started "Nicholas Nickleby." He wrote 14 novels in 30 years (a 15th was interrupted by his early death), eight of them nearly 900 pages long. Scholars have gathered 13,452 letters. Dickens boiled over with words.
Before electronic entertainments, the amusement of the literate consisted largely of language -- theater, reading, writing, reciting poetry. "Bleak House" appeared in a periodical, in monthly installments eagerly anticipated by a mass audience. Dickens acclimated a large public to the discipline of reading large, complex novels.
The beginning of the television dramatization does justice to one of the most memorable beginnings in English literature, Dickens' description of the fog and smoke ("London's ivy") that lay over coal-burning London. It is his intimation of the choking legal system he excoriated. The series shows not only how television can rise to excellent material but also how much excellence must elude any dramatization of a great novel. One hopes that "Masterpiece Theater" lures many readers to the masterpieces.
You who have missed seeing Diana Rigg since the "The Avengers" television series ended (you who have not missed her, lie down: you are dead) will rejoice at her return as Lady Dedlock: "She is perfectly well-bred. If she could be transported to Heaven tomorrow, she might be expected to ascend without any rapture." Her husband, Sir Leicester, is described in perfect Dickensian cadences, the censoriousness softened by wit: "He would on the whole admit Nature to be a good idea (a little low, perhaps, when not enclosed with a park-fence), but an idea dependent for its execution on your great county families."
Dickens also was a journalist, and his novels acquire moral urgency from the faith by which journalism derives dignity. It is the faith that links journalism and democracy, the faith that the masses can be informed and will rise against injustice. By defining compassion in terms of the amelioration of material conditions, Dickens was a progenitor of the democratic impulse that produced the welfare state. But Dickens valued personal more than institutional good will, and might have bee among the 20th-century critics who say the latter jeopardizes the former.
The federal government may jam the "Bleak House" telecasts in Washington. This nest of lawyers will not enjoy Dickens' polemical point: "The one great principle of English law is, to make business for itself." But "Bleak House" is not an exercise in pamphleteering; it is literature of timeless ideas.
It has been said that literature is news that stays news. Dickens endures although -- perhaps because -- he is splendidly premodern in assuming the integrity and sovereignty of the individual's will. He assumes that individuals cannot only do what they want, they can want what they ought to want -- up to a point. For all its exuberant passion, "Bleak House" is a subtle exploration of the ways in which social contingencies condition individual autonomy and responsibility.
He believes personal goodness is possible in any circumstances -- possible, but problematic. Not for him the moral vertigo of the materialisms and historicisms that portray people as playthings of vast impersonal forces, or of factions warring within the psyche.
He was radical yet conservative, convinced that the faults of corrupt systems are located in reformable individuals. He has been ridiculed by radicals who despise his conservatism and say, derisively, that his "change of heart" route to social improvement is a recipe for impotence. But after a century of heartless radicalisms imposing systems of brutal improvement, Dickens seems the realist.
The "Christmas Dickens," sometimes cloyingly saccharine, is not the Dickens of "Bleak House." Its tone often is one of barely controlled contempt. He sometimes was a sledgehammering sort of social critic, but the eyes are the windows of the soul and his eyes had seen soul-searing things. Having been destitute as a child, he wrote from a deep well of experience when he said that the children of the poor are not brought up, they are dragged up.
The universe may be, as he said, an indifferent parent. But few of its children have been as determined as Dickens was to make our patch of it a more hospitable place.