That human beings understand themselves in terms of their dominant technologies has become a commonplace. Indeed, one could say that it was already a commonplace roughly 2,500 years ago, when the Psalmist wrote,
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:
They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not:
They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.
So it is natural and indeed inevitable that we today think of our brains as computers, even though that is an inaccurate and woefully inadequate model. But I would like to suggest that, because there are many kinds of computers that perform widely varied functions, we should be more specific. I believe that we have been trained by social media to use our brains as servers—as machines designed to receive requests and respond to them according to strict instructions.
Consider how you got to this essay. Either by typing in a URL or clicking a link, you sent a request to the server that stores these words. When it received your request, the server faithfully returned this particular page. That request-response method is precisely what social media encourages us to practice. You must, like a server, respond in the designated way to the request.
But there’s a complication: Multiple responses are available to you. The webpage on which you are reading these words is—in the technical parlance that I am simplifying here—static: every time anyone requests this URL the response yields the same essay. But some webpages are dynamic: They yield different results according to the context of the request. When someone tweets something or posts a picture to Instagram, you essentially have three options:
- Respond with affirmation
- Respond with denunciation
And the third is not the safest option. Have you not heard that “silence is violence”? So you have choices, and your decision may be consequential for you—but the choices are very limited, and it is necessary to avoid ambiguity. This combination of rigidity and consequentiality has the effect of producing rote responses, as manifested most tersely in hashtags (#SilenceIsViolence), which allow you to signify your tribal loyalties without risking any words of your own.
The more authoritarian a social regime is, the more insistently it will simplify the possible responses—always converging on thumbs up or thumbs down—and demand the correct one. I don’t think we live in a totalitarian, or even an authoritarian regime—not even close—but in any given culture there are always authoritarian subcultures, and we have more of those than we used to, because our social media empower such attitudes and practices and demands. And to accept those attitudes and practices and demands is to undergo a diminution of personhood.
Someone who lived under a genuinely totalitarian regime, the great Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin, often wrote about what he called the “surplus,” a term he used in several ways. The one I want to emphasize is this: The surplus of any human being (me, you, my neighbor) is what exceeds description, what cannot be expressed in any sociological definitions of identity. In his magnificent essay “Epic and Novel” (1941), Bakhtin writes of the “surplus of humanness” that each of us possesses and that makes us—this is a numinous term for him—“unfinalizable.” No one can say the last and complete word about any of us. It is the ambition of all authoritarian regimes, social or political, to utter that final and definitive word about whoever comes within its orbit; it is, for Bakhtin, an ethical imperative to refuse that final word, whether uttered about myself or my neighbor.
But quite often inequities of power make it impossible to refuse directly and explicitly—and this is where, for Bakhtin, laughter comes in, and especially the laughter that arises in parody and satire. Bakhtin has a particular affection for comic novels whose heroes “cannot exhaust their possibilities.” They are “always retaining a happy surplus of their own,” and so always merrily carry on their “free improvisation.” In so doing they may delight us, but they also represent a “life process that is imperishable and forever renewing itself.” And that’s why I think that in our current moment there’s no writer more important than Charles Dickens.
* * *
We speak of Orwellian language, of Kafkaesque experiences, but always of Dickensian characters. What makes a character Dickensian is precisely this surplus, this ever-renewing excess. Dickens’s characters are just like everyone else, only more so. As G.K. Chesterton—himself an eminently comical and unfinalizable character—wrote,
The general impression produced by Dickens’s work is the same as that produced by miraculous visions; it is the destruction of time. Thomas Aquinas said that there was no time in the sight of God; however this may be, there was no time in the sight of Dickens. As a general rule Dickens can be read in any order; not only in any order of books, but even in any order of chapters. In an average Dickens book every part is so amusing and alive that you can read the parts backwards; you can read the quarrel first and then the cause of the quarrel; you can fall in love with a woman in the tenth chapter and then turn back to the first chapter to find out who she is. This is not chaos; it is eternity. It means merely that Dickens instinctively felt all his figures to be immortal souls who existed whether he wrote of them or not, and whether the reader read of them or not. There is a peculiar quality as of celestial pre-existence about the Dickens characters. Not only did they exist before we heard of them, they existed also before Dickens heard of them.
To begin to cite examples is a dangerous thing. Once embarked on that journey, how would one end it? How could one mention the circumlocutions of Mr. Tite Barnacle without also mentioning the unctuousness of Uriah Heep, the commitment to Fact of Mr. Gradgrind, the endless compassion of Little Dorrit? Lo, I have already commenced. They are all infinitely memorable because they are all infinitely excessive; they are, as it were, nothing but surplus. They always remind us of the possibility of living at an outsize scale, of being simply more than anyone could expect, more than any reasonable person would ask for. If they seem mere caricatures, that may say something more about our crimped and confined moment than about them. They are a constant encouragement to expand rather than contract one’s options.
And that is why we need to read Dickens, now more than ever.
I will leave off my citations—but only after one final one. I think of Bleak House and I think of Sir Leicester Dedlock:
Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills but would be done up without Dedlocks. 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. He is a gentleman of strict conscience, disdainful of all littleness and meanness and ready on the shortest notice to die any death you may please to mention rather than give occasion for the least impeachment of his integrity. He is an honourable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man.
In this novel devoted to exposing the dead hand of legalism, there is no character more legalistic than Sir Leicester Dedlock. No one could possibly stand more fiercely for predictable order and unwavering hierarchy and rigorous obedience than Sir Leicester. And therefore one can imagine what happens to him when it is revealed that his wife had a secret prior life, an irregular life, one might evensay an immoral life – and that, at the news of this exposure, she has, in fear and shame, run away from home. He is broken. He goes to his bed; his life begins to ebb. But he calls his cousin Volumnia to his side and speaks—“in case I should relapse, in case I should not recover, in case I should lose both my speech and the power of writing, though I hope for better things”—speaks words meant for his entire family:
Let it be known to them, as I make it known to you, that being of sound mind, memory, and understanding, I revoke no disposition I have made in her favour. I abridge nothing I have ever bestowed upon her. I am on unaltered terms with her, and I recall—having the full power to do it if I were so disposed, as you see—no act I have done for her advantage and happiness.
When he has done, Dickens’s narrator makes this comment: “His formal array of words might have at any other time, as it has often had, something ludicrous in it, but at this time it is serious and affecting.” It is “serious and affecting” because Sir Leicester has no words but formal ones, no vocabulary but the legalistic—and yet what he utters with that vocabulary is a message of pure grace. The flight of Lady Dedlock and her exposure are, as it were, requests that call for a specific and clearly defined response—but Sir Leicester does not give that response. He surprises us, and surprises us with a grace that exceeds any and all obligation, as grace always does, or it would not be grace. He, even he, was not, after all, finalizable. Nor should we be.