A Tale of Two Cities

Cited as one of the top 5 best selling books of all time, [not including the Bible or the Qu’ran], Charles Dickens’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘ is a stand-out seller at over 200 million copies world wide. Though exact numbers of book sales is debated, it is interesting that Dickens’ 1859 novel, set in London and Paris during the French Revolution, is his best-selling work.

‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ranks only slightly behind Miguel Cervantes ‘Don Quixote‘ and Mao Tze-Tung “Quotations From Chairman Mao” [or the Little Red Book], to beat out any individual Harry Potter book, The Lord of the Rings and  The Hobbit for all time popularity stakes of fiction novels.

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What makes this novel, of all Dickens’ novels, so great?

Born in 1812 and living until 1870, Dickens was within his own lifetime a legend. Best known for his comedy, unique characterisations, and social criticism, his writing style is so distinctive, that the term Dickensian has come to be used to describe stories featuring poor social conditions and comically repulsive characters.

His fiction was so effective he shifted Victorian public opinion in regard to class inequalities.

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Karl Marx wrote that Dickens:

…issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.

A Tale of Two Cities, is unlike many of Dickens’ other works in that it is a work of historical fiction, less reliant upon comedy, satire, caricature and class idioms. He sides neither with the working class nor the aristocracy in his account of the bitter Revolution, telling the story of people on both sides caught up in the violence and turmoil.

It opens with famous lines describing its setting:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …

The story recounts the release of Doctor Manette from 18 years of imprisonment in the Bastille, the infamous Parisian fortress prison beloved by french nobles. Manette an old man, much broken by his years in prison, is reunited with his now adult daughter Lucie, and with the help of friend Mr Lorry, immigrates to London.

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In London, they are befriended by Darnay, a man who unknown to them is the nephew and heir of a French Aristocrat, the Marquis of St. Evrémonde, the very man who imprisoned Doctor Manette years ago. Darnay, disgusted by the cruelty of his aristocratic family had taken the name of his mother and sought a new life in England.

Here however, Darnay is accused of treason to the British crown for leaking documents to the French in North America. He is acquitted on the grounds that his appearance is strikingly like a Barrister present in the court by the name of Sydney Carton and so therefore cannot be irrefutably linked to the crime.

Darnay and Carton, while copies of one another physically, are entirely unlike in nature. Carton is a drunkard while Darnay is a man of integrity and character. Both love Lucie and confess their love to her, however Carton knowing she will not love him in return, promises to “embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you.”

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As the years pass, Darnay and Lucie raise a young family and Carton is accepted as a close friend of the family becoming a favourite of their daughter, little Lucie. Across the channel however, as the French Revolution sparks into flame, and the Bastille is stormed, Doctor Manette’s former cell is searched. A detailed account of his imprisonment at the hands of Darnay’s uncle, the Marquis de Evremonde is found hidden in the cell.

Throughout the countryside, officials and representatives of the aristocracy are dragged from their homes to be killed, and the St. Evrémonde château is burned to the ground. Darnay is summoned to France to aid his uncle’s servants who have been imprisoned by the revolutionaries. They plead for him, the new Marquis to help secure their release. Once there, Darnay is caught and put on trial for the crimes against Doctor Manette.

Manette, Lucie and Mr Lorry travel to Paris to seek Darnay’s release, however Doctor Manette’s own testimony discovered in his cell in the Bastille is used to accuses Darnay, the now Marquis de Evremonde.

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Carton, true to his promise to Lucie, arranges a secret visit with Darnay in prison. There he drugs Darnay, and then trades clothes, arranging him to be carried out. Carton has given his own identification papers to Mr Lorry to present on Darnay’s behalf and urges them to flee to England. In London, Darnay can live out his life as Sydney Carton. Meanwhile, Carton walks to the guillotine as the Marquis de Evremonde.

Carton’s unspoken last thoughts speak of the life he sees beyond the horizon of his own death:

I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more….

I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

The story reaches beyond social commentary and into heroic epic, touching on resonant symbols of sacrifice and redemption. Sydney Carton transforms from dissolute man to heroic saviour through his own death, and foresees the future lives of Lucie, Darnay and their children, yet unborn living free because of his sacrifice.

Carton, a scoundrel, goes to his rest a peaceful man.

 

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Recently, I completed the Gold Coast Half Marathon, slowly and rather painfully. It made me think of one of my favourite writers and his love for long distance running.

Haruki Murakami is a best selling Japanese writer whose works have been translated into 50 languages and sold millions of copies globally. He has completed over 20 marathons since the 1980s and one ultra marathon.

Haruki Murakam

Famous for his fiction works which blend fantasy with realism, it’s his non fiction work “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” [走ることについて語るときに僕の語ること Hashiru Koto ni Tsuite Kataru Toki ni Boku no Kataru Koto] which depicts his love of running so well.

The book’s title was inspired by Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories entitled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Murakami sits within the tradition of post-modern writers such as Carver, Kurt Vonnegut and J. D. Salinger. Frequently featuring western pop culture, music and themes, Murakami’s works are a pastiche of impressions, often surrealistic, melancholic or fatalistic, characterised by post-modernist themes of alienation and loneliness.

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The reason he is one of my favourite writers is because he paints a world of magical realism; a world in which dream and reality intertwine curiously lending an otherwise inexplicable existence, something magical, something mythical, something akin to wonder.

“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” recounts Murakami’s foray into long distance running in his early 30s, some five years after becoming a full time writer. 

He equates the process of setting out on a long run with writing, both methodical decisions to complete a journey, often pointless to everyone except the one undertaking it. Used as a metaphor for existence, the race and the novel are both grueling but beautiful endeavours, inexplicable yet sweet, painful yet redemptive, each in their own unique way.

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Through running, as with writing, Murakami has met many people, seen many strange and remote places, thought hours of his own thoughts and suffered great highs and great lows. It is the same methodical discipline that Murakami applies to writing and to life.

As with Carver’s original, what is talked about when talking about running is far more trivial and yet far more profound. By running and by writing about running, Murakami explores the sweetness and mystery of being and becoming. The sweetness and mystery of life.

If all the books disappeared…..

In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, the British comedian Ricky Gervais discussed religion. Colbert, an avowed Catholic asked Gervais provocatively about the existence of God as prime mover:

But why is there something rather than nothing?

Gervais, an agnostic-atheist, countered that the question “why” was irrelevant. Rather, HOW was a much more relevant question.

Colbert, a monotheist would deny the 2999 gods of other religions, but maintains one ….the Judeo-Christian God.

Gervais simply denies one more God than Colbert.

Ricky adhers to the scientific process, exploring the eternal laws of the universe, without needing a recourse to theism to accept existence or manufacture morality.

But science is constantly proved all the time. If we take any fiction, or any holy book, and destroyed it, okay, in 1,000 years time that wouldn’t come back just as it was. But if you took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all, in 1,000 years they’d all be back — because all the same tests would be the same results.

What is interesting about this exchange is the elision of several hundred years of western philosophy.

Friedrich Nietzsche stated at the end of the 19th century, ‘God is dead’. This was not a triumphant declaration on behalf a race who had finally overcome millennia of slavery to the dreams and fairy-tales of their ancestors.

It was a melancholy observation of his times and a gloomy foreboding of the consequence of this for subsequent generations.

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Without an understanding of a realm of absolutes, it was not morality that is corroded….. but meaning and identity.

The 20th century found itself contending with existentialism, subjectivism, post-modernism and individualism.  We live in a culture of “alternative facts” in which even the foundations of empirical rationalism can be declared “subjective.”

If all the books disappeared from the world, along with all memory of what they contain, humans would return to campfire story telling dreamers. We would return to pre-scientific intuitive learners, oral historians, mythmakers and poets. 

We would become religious again.

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Knowing this, Carl Jung, following from Nietzsche, sought to re-understand religion and myth, plumbing the depth of our dreams to understand ancient narratives and legends and apply them to human psychology and culture building.

Should all the books of the world disappear, we would have to rediscover the scientific process.

This would require a relearning of an ability to know, to form meaning and have identity.

This would, as it did with the Greeks, the Hindus, the Chinese, the Hebrews, our scientific forbears (and all highly spiritual people), be forged within a framework of absolutes; a transcendental realm in which ideas and knowledge are – within the mind of God.

What’s in a spell?

This semester I embarked on the very first subject of a law degree, a study which, if completed at the current pace of one subject per semester, will take me 12 long years to complete.

As a lover of debate, dialogue, the parsing of meaning, the construction of ideas from mere ink marks on paper, much of law, even the introductory subject I have completed thus far, is fascinating.

For example, the legal definition of a “person” in Australian law is “a body politic or corporate as well as an individual.” [Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth)]. So, to be a “person” in legal terms is to be more than a human individual, but also to be a business, or a nation, at least in terms of rights and responsibilities.

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The magic is that a business is created, or born, when a person or group of people register a business name, acquire an ABN, perhaps create a constitution outlining shares and duties and VOILA,  a person is summoned from thin air, from ink marks on paper.

It follows, ergo, that since words create things, and contracts and constitutions, rightly parsed and formally agreed upon, create something with legal force, an entity, a person, out of the air from nothing…. then laws are like spells.

Furthermore, after studying a few semesters of Biblical Hebrew, it came clear that the commonly used magical term “Abbrakadabra” had Semitic roots. “E’barah, ki’dibborah” literally reads “let it be [created] by the word.” The Hebrew verb barah is used in Genesis 1 to describe God’s creation of the heavens and the earth from nothing, from mere words or commands.

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What unfolds though is an interesting correlation between ancient literature and modern physics. The Hebrew account of creation, in comparison to many creation myths of the Ancient Near East [ANE] saw all matter arising from the divine word or “logos”. Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian creation accounts of that time, told of the stars, planets, oceans and mountains being formed from the corpses of slain divinities.

Contemporary physics identifies energy underlying all matter, and asserts that our thoughts themselves create energy. It seems the ancient Hebrews understood the world is the articulation of a spectacular divine thought and word.

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Another unique feature of the Hebrew creation story is the nobility granted to humanity. Rather than a servile race, condemned to suffer from the whims of their makers, Hebrews saw humans, gifted with God’s image, capable of further shaping and forming the material world.

Indeed, it is by “words” that humans create laws, contracts, constitutions and so forth, which form societies, nations, businesses, relationships and more.

Percy Shelley in his essay “A Defense of Poetry” [1821] writes “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What he points out is that by the “word,” poets move ideas into energy. In doing so they bring into being, a force and energy, much like a law or a spell does. 

It is their poems, songs, elegies and ballads, which have the force to move humans, to move societies, and to change them and form them anew. 

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It was and is the job of poets, much like lawyers and good governors, to bring life to societies, to nations, to businesses, to individuals and more.