I don’t break my New Year’s resolutions, because I never make any, but if I were to recommend one to readers today, it would be to try to read one genuinely good book every month, and to try to embody, in prayer, in conversation, in work and in play, something of that joy that Christians know, that joy which is in harmony with the solemn, and that can shine forth in times of sorrow as well as in times of what the world calls happiness.
What prompts me here is something I have long noticed about the current state of mass entertainment. My wife and I have recently been watching some old BBC productions of the novels of Charles Dickens. That greatest of English novelists was, as a dear friend of mine deftly put it, “in love with goodness”. It follows that if you are not in love with goodness, you should not try to put Dickens on film. There’s always Ibsen, if you want to be a grouch, highlighting grey against black. Dickens, I’ve said, never took two steps without thinking of the Gospels; they are the air he breathes. Therefore his essential mode is comic. He transcends satire. His laughter is so filled with mirth, it can raise some of his villains to a pitch of madcap wickedness, and we end up “liking” them – the boisterous fire-drinking dwarf Quilp, the ’umble hand-wringing hypocrite Uriah Heep, the “literary man with a wooden leg”, Silas Wegg. And that’s not getting to the energetic goodness of the most amiable of his saints and children: Captain Cuttle, Mrs Bagnet, Aunt Betsy Trotwood, Sam Weller, Miss Pross, Kit Nubbles – and on and on.
The BBC productions we watched, except for David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers, were notable for their grimness. They were like Downton Abbey – a shell, a fossil of what used to be a culture, no high-heartedness, no hope. They were as mirthless as the new adaptation of Little Women appears to be, though not as angry and bitter, and not a travesty of all that their author stood for.
But one moment in David Copperfield was especially fine, and it illustrates what I miss elsewhere. David and the chubby half-mad Mr Dick are flying a kite atop the bluffs at Dover, and both boys, the old and the young, are laughing with complete self-forgetfulness and that silliness which is cousin to the holy.
So then, how do we bring what is hearty and innocent to a world where drag queens are set to work on warping the imaginations of little children, where everything is political including politics, where religious worship aspires to the condition of Narcissus singing a torch song to himself, and where you will see more dogs in the park than boys playing ball – if you ever see the boys at all?
I have no idea, or I have a hundred ideas, but you will no doubt have as many. Sing songs, real songs; folk songs, love songs, foolish songs, spiritual songs. Go outdoors and stay there longer than you need to. Play games, in the parlour or in the backyard. Visit people. Play music. Have dances, real dances, not strobe-light exercises in epileptic seizures. Dress up the boys and the girls and teach them how to do the dancing – reels, waltzes, polkas. Make it a regular thing in your school or parish, these dances. Remember Mr and Mrs Fezziwig and their twinkling ankles in A Christmas Carol? You’ll never have them unless you start them as boy and girl.
Real cultures welcome pageantry, so different from the slack and drearily informal, as words that lift the heart are different from small talk and empty smiles. Have some pageantry. What is a Catholic church good for, if you can’t have processions? Ring the bells. Three people in a transport of joy, or gamboling with that cousin in the overalls, are more remarkable than 3,000 people walking all alone together to their jobs. Play the organ. Everybody has heard guitar chords. Not everybody has heard the roaring and braying of that mighty instrument that fills a church.
Our work, says CS Lewis, is less to cut down jungles than to irrigate deserts. The world about us is listless and dry. “Son of man,” said the Lord to the prophet in the dry valley, “can these bones live?” Well, they do jitter about in a Danse Macabre, and they may sometimes be galvanised into a simulation of the lively: see Times Square on New Year’s Eve. But then they fall all of a heap, and it is back on the train from the nowhere that is where you sleep to the nowhere that is where you work.
We must be, for ourselves and the world, the bearers of good and joyful things again.
Let the Lord raise us all to heaven! We’ll find a sweet place called earth along the way.
Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire