Dickens: Two Tales of Transformation

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Marley was dead: to begin with.” What a way to begin a story! But this is how the story begins in A Christmas Carol, an ever-popular story written by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) in 1843, which has been made into plays, television dramas, movies—and a musical, no less. Dickens, of course, wrote other memorable opening sentences, such as: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” (Hard Times, 1854), and: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” (A Tale of Two Cities, 1859).

If known to his readers for his memorable opening sentences, Dickens is also known for the memorable characters he created: Fagin and the band of thieves he runs, including a young pickpocket with the nickname of Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist (1839); Nelly Trent, a gentle and noble Little Nell, and Daniel Quilp, a malicious and deformed moneylender who drives Little Nell and her grandfather to their eventual death in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841); Wilkins Micawber, who is constantly in debt despite his sincerity and hard work, and Uriah Heep, a self-proclaimed humble clerk with the mind of a scheming villain in David Copperfield (1850); Philip Pirrip, an orphan nicknamed Pip, Abel Magwitch, an escaped convict who later becomes Pip’s benefactor, and Miss Havisham, a reclusive old lady who perishes in a fire with her wedding dress in Great Expectations (1861). And the list goes on and on.

By creating these memorable characters, Dickens was showing us the wide array of characters—inflexible and corrupt bureaucrats, stern and narrow-minded educators, exploitative and pompous industrialists, cunning and opportunistic lawyers, street-wise and ubiquitous petty thieves, malicious and murderous villains—that he found in Victorian England of his day. Those of us who read his novels today are reminded of the sad fact that these memorable characters, as archetypes, still exist in the world around us. That being the case, the way Dickens depicts the transformation of his major characters serves as a lesson in the plasticity of human nature as it is molded by varieties of life experiences.

In Hard Times, we have Thomas Gradgrind, an educator, who runs his school based on his firm belief in only facts, and who wants to establish one day “a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact.” To him, “reason is the only faculty to which education should be addressed.” With his firm belief in facts, Gradgrind convinces his daughter Louisa to marry the town’s influential banker, Josiah Bounderby, despite a great disparity in their ages, quoting figures and statistics to support his claim that such marriages between parties of very unequal ages are quite common. When Louisa comes home from her failed marriage, Gradgrind comes to a painful realization that reason, or “a wisdom of the Head”, alone is not sufficient in life, and that he has neglected the other kind of wisdom, “a wisdom of the Heart”.

While the transformation of Thomas Gradgrind takes place as a result of unanticipated developments in his relationships with real people, the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, the main character in A Christmas Carol, comes about as a result of his unanticipated encounters with ghosts. Anyone who is at all familiar with it, whether as a reader or a viewer, knows that Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s old business partner, while he was no doubt dead, reappears in the story as a ghost. In fact, it is Marley’s reappearance as a ghost, along with visits by three ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come, that transforms Scrooge, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner,” into a compassionate, generous, and kind old man filled with Christmas spirit.

Where did Dickens get the idea of using ghosts to trigger the transformation of a major character? Since the story takes place on Christmas Eve, it is conceivable that Dickens was thinking about the story of the transformation of the Apostle Paul from Saul the persecutor into the most fervent missionary of early Christianity as a result of his encounter with the vision of the resurrected Jesus on his way to Damascus. The origin of Dickens’ idea is less important than the lesson we can take from it. Reading this story and applying it to our own lives, we might acknowledge that wholesale transformation of our character and personality does come about as a result of our encounters with ghosts, or visions, in the world of our psyche, whether in the realm of our repressed memories or in the realm of the collective unconscious. With the help of a seasoned psychoanalyst or with the practice of deep meditation, we could gain access to what resides in that world and transform ourselves into people with compassion and loving-kindness towards our fellow human beings.

This year, 2012, marks the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Dickens. Many events have taken place and are still under way to commemorate the occasion in London and around the world, including readings of his stories, exhibitions of his life and work, and new screen adaptations of his novels. With the opening of Dickens World, a theme park in Kent, the world seems to be caught in the Dickens frenzy. In fact, Dickens World is already regarded as a commercial success in creating jobs and selling all sorts of Dickens-related products. While Dickens himself saw the emergence of the “Dickens industry” in his day, it is interesting to speculate what he would have to say about the commercialization of his life and work in view of his harsh criticism of the “Political Economy” of his day in Hard Times.

Instead of being caught in the frenzy of the occasion, let us simply pay tribute to Dickens and his marvelous skills as a storyteller who continues to entertain—and enlighten—us with his wonderful stories and memorable characters. Let us then hope that bankers and financiers, bureaucrats and officials, dictators and party leaders, educators and school administrators, lawyers and law enforcement officers, and merchants and traders of our day will all go through the kinds of transformations that Dickens’ characters went through and wake up, as Thomas Gradgrind and Ebenezer Scrooge did, in order to become people with compassion and loving-kindness towards their fellow human beings.

Noh and the aesthetics of no-action

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

One salient feature of Oriental performing arts is the effective use of the tension between action and no-action, between movement and rest. While the graceful movement of the body is highly cherished and, therefore, needs to be cultivated, it is equally, if not more, important to control the body when it is in the state of no-action and rest. As a matter of fact, controlling one’s body when the body is in the state of no-action and rest, which requires mental concentration, is regarded as a mark of highest artistic achievement.

Take Noh, for example, which explicitly incorporates the tension between action and no-action, between movement and rest. As Zeami (1363-1443) explains, the moments of no-action are of crucial importance in the Noh play: “Dancing and singing, movements and the different types of miming are all acts performed by the body. Moments of ‘no-action’ occur inbetween. When we examine why such moments without actions are enjoyable, we find that it is due to the underlying spiritual strength of the actor which unremittingly holds the attention. He does not relax the tension when the dancing or singing comes to an end or at intervals between the dialogue and the different types of miming, but maintains an unswerving inner strength. This feeling of inner strength will faintly reveal itself and bring enjoyment.” (Zeami, as quoted in Tsunoda et.al. 1958, p.291)

The moments of no-action acquire their importance, in the first place, from the necessity of integrating the body and the mind. While the body engages in all kinds of actions in the performing arts, the mind is called upon to unify the whole performance by interspersing them with moments of no-action when the body is at rest. This is the way in which the tension between action and no-action, between movement and rest, is created in the Noh play. Zeami, judging from his words quoted above, suggests that the moments of no-action are equally, if not more, enjoyable in the Noh play. To the extent that the moments of no-action are important, Noh as an art from explicitly appeals to what might be termed the aesthetics of no-action.

The main aesthetic principle underlying Noh, according to Zeami, is yugen, which roughly translates into “mystery” or “profundity”. Zeami employs yugen as the term that characterizes the state of highest achievement in the Noh dance as embodied in the beauty of form at moments of both action and no-action. In Zeami’s own words, yugen refers to “a degree of artistry which is of that middle ground where being and non-being meet.” (Zeami, ibid, p.295)

The influence of Zen Buddhism is apparent in these words. Noh, as a performing art, tries to recreate human drama which invariably involves efforts to overcome the tension between the pain of life and the stillness of death. This tension defines the middle ground between life and death where being and non-being meet.

There are other features of Noh that can also be easily identifiable as Zen elements. First, there is the idea of simplicity that regulates the staging of the Noh play. Although the costumes worn by the Noh actors are often colorful and elaborate, reminiscent of the artistic ideal of miyabi which characterized Heian court life, the Noh stage itself is a simple rectangular structure. Moreover, the stage is usually left completely bare except for small gadgets called tsukurimomo, which are employed in some plays. This is one way of conveying to the audience that the Noh play relies heavily on the power of suggestion. The simplicity of the stage is reinforced by the simplicity of actions and movements in the Noh play. Unlike the ballet dancer, the Noh actor, as a rule, is not expected to walk on toes or leap in the air. In fact, the whole performance is one of graceful restraint, as if to evoke the stillness beyond this world. The Noh actor often wears the masks of ghosts, suggesting that the audience is being invited to glimpse into another reality.

Gadgets and masks are one thing, but dancing is quite another. In the final analysis, it is the mental power of the Noh actor that guides the audience into the middle ground where being and non-being meet: “The actions before and after an interval of ‘no-action’ must be linked by entering the state of mindlessness in which one conceals even from oneself one’s intent. This, then, is the faculty of moving audiences, by linking all the artistic powers with one mind.” (Zeami, ibid, p.291)

The mind thus becomes the unifying element in the Noh play. As the Noh actor enters the state of mindlessness with his performance, the audience is expected to participate in the play with the mind of Zen practitioners in order to glimpse into the world of reality beyond appearances. As Zeami puts it, “what the mind sees is the essence; what the eyes see is the performance” (Zeami, 1958, P.302). By entering the state of mindlessness, or mushin (no-mind) as Zeami calls it, the Noh actor can guide the audience into that middle ground where being and non-being meet. Indeed, a highly accomplished Noh actor, like a highly trained Zen master, can potentially guide the audience to glimpse into the world of ultimate reality that transcends both being and non-being.

* Zeami, “On the mind linking all powers”, “The book of the way of the highest flower”, “The nine stages of the No in order”, as translated and compiled in: R. Tsunoda, W.T. de Barry, and D. Keene (eds.), Sources of Japanese Tradition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.