I never wanted to live inside a Dickens novel. Who would want to wake up in the world of Oliver Twist? Or Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham, for that matter? (Especially Miss Havisham.) But we’re not likely to look around and find any of these characters at Starbucks. It’s more probable that a very confused Charles Darnay would stumble in for coffee and try to piece together why his head is still attached to his body.
That being the case, I’d like to deconstruct the opening of A Tale of Two Cities for our modern situation.
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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Quite an opening for a novel from 1859 describing the period around the French Revolution. Yet it is “so far like the present period” that it is no wonder that a recent report by the American Psychological Association shows that 63% of Americans are stressed about the future of the nation.
Many folks, particularly those with any age on us at all, understand what Truvey meant when she said, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” But reconciling the rest of that quote won’t be quite that flippant.
How is it that I can type (I don’t keyboard, I type) this column, editing and correcting as I go, save it to a box at my feet, and send it to the publisher as if by magic through the air? At which point he does something (Lord knows what), and it’s available for all to read. What wonder is it that makes this possible?
The wisdom of every great thinker humanity has ever produced is at our fingertips, accessible in a way that was impossible just a few years ago. (To clarify, I’m not conflating myself with Plato, Kant and Nietzsche.) But we foolishly use this technology to reinforce our own biases, rarely challenging ourselves to see anything from anyone else’s point of view, and pushing around memes created by others as if the wit and wisdom contained therein is our own. (However, if you want to make a meme out of anything I say, feel free. I don’t know how to make one.)
We vacillate between belief in the institutions that make our way of life possible and incredulity at the prospect of how easily they could fail us under sustained attack by self-serving interests. We go from Light to Darkness based on the scandal du jour, and move back to Light with a robust Halloween celebration or the first victory of the Houston Astros in the World Series in its 55 year history.
We hope that someone is going to cause something to happen that will lift us out of the hole we have dug for ourselves, knowing that no one or no thing can do that. And we despair that some of us haven’t even stopped digging.
What is before us isn’t “everything” or “nothing.” We’re not going to Heaven or Hell. What is actually before us is uncomfortable in the age of microwaves, fast food and streaming video. There is no “off the shelf” fix available at Home Depot for what ails us. We need to do the right thing—consistently over what looks like a pretty lengthy period of time.
Dickens, in the final words of the opening, comes across like a 19th century Nostradamus. Who are these “noisiest authorities” today? Who “insists” on “the superlative degree of comparison only”? Oh, your guess is just as good as mine. Yours may even be the most “bigly.”
And just think. All of this because I paid attention in a ninth grade English class. I trust Mrs. Kimbrough would be proud.