“‘Yon’s our house, Mas’r Davy!’”

I looked in all directions, as far as I could stare over the wilderness, and away at the sea, and away at the river, but no house could I make out. There was a black barge, or some other kind of superannuated boat, not far off, high and dry on the ground, with an iron funnel sticking out of it for a chimney and smoking very cosily; but nothing else in the way of a habitation that was visible to me.

‘That’s not it?’ said I. ‘That ship-looking thing?’

‘That’s it, Mas’r Davy,’ returned Ham.

If it had been Aladdin’s palace, roc’s egg and all, I suppose I could not have been more charmed with the romantic idea of living in it. There was a delightful door cut in the side, and it was roofed in, and there were little windows in it; but the wonderful charm of it was, that it was a real boat which had no doubt been upon the water hundreds of times, and which had never been intended to be lived in, on dry land. That was the captivation of it to me. If it had ever been meant to be lived in, I might have thought it small, or inconvenient, or lonely; but never having been designed for any such use, it became a perfect abode.

So my dear Charles Dickens in David Copperfield today. Like Austen and Sophocles, he holds the mirror up to nature for us, and for a bright moment the author is totally effaced: it is just the reflection of life—the image in the mirror—, the truth, and we…we stand in the presence of life and of what we know to be true and for a moment a new truth is irresistible and independent of our stupid brain.

We have all been children, we have all seen a mysterious “superannuated boat” and been charmed by the idea of living in it, or exploring it.

Or we have seen our own son, playing in the back yard under the ivy vines that hang from the trees of the impenetrable forest behind the house, swinging a stick like a sword, when suddenly something catches his eye.

He pauses. He moves closer to explore. It’s just a wooden pallet; God knows what forklift left it there, on this wooded river back in an old mill-town, on the steep slope of an ivy-constricted, tree covered bank.

We’ve seen the little girl walking and tottering from one room to the next, trying to find out where Daddy is—she passes by an empty laundry basket, upside down on the floor, and stops… She leans over, her body folded at a right angle, with her hands on her thighs, reaching out and lifting up the edge of the basket and wobbling and pulling the big thing over her head until it falls on her head—and she drops it!—and now she is inside an upside-down basket, giggling for all the world like nothing funnier ever happened.

Why, then, my brother, do we need all of this argument? Why do we need to be told why you were so delighted when you saw that ship-house?

You placed us before it. We were presented with reality. We knew the truth—it lay in our living memory—and in the moment a new truth emerged in our hearts! Why must the stupid brain chatter on to the stupid brain?

I would athetize everything after “never been intended to be lived in, on dry land.” But if you’re going to commit the sin of argumentativeness, you could be in worse company than Euripides and Austen.

I have never seen a man convinced by an argument. But hold the mirror up to nature, show the age and body of the time his form and pressure, and confront men with such a form, and their sure knowledge of the truth, and even the most hardened self-deceiver will, for a moment, before he equips himself with lies, be touched to the quick, as if he had touched it without a fingernail, and he will feel it all the way to his heart.

Thanks, dear reader, for being the gadfly of my discipline.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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