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Dante’s Commedia, written in the early 1300s, is ostensibly an epic poem about a pilgrim who travels through Inferno (hell), Purgatorio (purgatory), and Paradiso (heaven) to encounter God face-to-face and then returns to tell us about it. More interestingly, it is a poem of learning, philosophy, and the struggles of life with more nuances, depth and perspectives than I would have thought possible had I not read it myself. To say that the Commedia is rich in a multidimensional way is an understatement. The Commedia is intricate, dramatic, thrilling, mind-blowing, cosmic, shocking, ineffable, sometimes oppressive, and altogether extraordinary!

Dante In Translation at Open Yale Courses in Giuseppe MazzottaThe pilgrim is Dante himself and his guide through most of the journey is the Roman poet Virgil. Open Yale Courses provides its own able guide in Giuseppe Mazzotta who presents a fascinating and deeply engaging course ITAL 310: Dante in Translation (videos at YouTube). Mazzotta places the Commedia, more commonly entitled The Divine Comedy, in the encyclopedic tradition (a circle of knowledge through the liberal arts) but he also calls it an epic, romantic, autobiographical, and visionary poem. Indeed by the end of the course, I had lost track of how many different angles on the poem Mazzotta had identified: prophetic, philosophical, historical, sublime, humanistic, theological, scientific, geometrical, musical, a poetry of hope, a poetry of the future, etc., etc.!

Dante makes large claims for poetry: poetry is a way of knowing.
— Giuseppe Mazzotta

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The Pickwickian Sentiment

datePosted on 24 January 2012 by cjf

The Pickwick PapersI tuned in to the Pickwickian sentiment some 30 years ago when I first read Charles Dickens’ inaugural novel The Pickwick Papers. Thanks to the impetus of The Free Library of Philadelphia’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, I’ve re-read it and had the chance to think through its meaning more carefully. It seems to me that Pickwickian refers to the quality of certain expeditions, slice of life adventures or ordinary events which entail the strife and mettle incumbent upon most trials and tribulations which with good-heartedness, good-humour, patience, nurturing and some surprise tend to bring forth general benevolence and joy. It is a great sentiment which we could use more of in this world!

It seems to me this Pickwickian sentiment is the thread that holds together the plot of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, the title in the original publication. The sentiment emerges explicitly with Mr. Bolton’s clamour in chapter 1 and continues with the cab driver in chapter 2 who assaults Pickwick for taking notes on their conversation. Throughout there are countless incidents of turmoil and challenge which after at least some modicum of sound and fury end with wholesome benevolence and good will.

In the big picture of the novel, it is Pickwick’s relationship with Nathaniel Winkle which exhibits Pickwickianism in its most dramatically nurturing and good-hearted sense. It is Winkle, the sportsman, whose careless shooting wounds fellow Pickwickian, Tracey Tupman. Winkle’s disastrous outing on ice skates results in Pickwick’s scathing admonition “[You're a] humbug, sir. I will speak plainer, if you wish it. An impostor, sir.” Then at Pickwick’s trial, it is Winkle who volunteers the “one instance of suspicious behavior towards females” which helps the jury decide against our good natured and innocent protagonist.

Through all these ills borne of Winkle’s youthful ineptness, our eponymous leader embodies Pickwickian good spirit and supports his protégé. He intervenes after the unfortunate incident with the Dowlers in Bath which sends Winkle in flight. The dénouement of the novel is Pickwick’s difficult mission to reconcile Winkle with his father. I was struck at Pickwick’s remarkable devotion to Winkle and how that relationship exudes the Pickwickian sentiment through and through. Is this the plot that GK Chesterton missed in critiquing the novel?

These good-hearted and good-humoured adventures in the large as well as the innumerable little scenes throughout the novel reinforce my view that the plot of The Pickwick Papers is a tale of adventure showcasing the Pickwickian sentiment which through numerous fun and funny tribulations end with good-humour, pride and exultation. A comedy indeed!

It may be that my exalted view of Pickwick is unjustified. For a more conventional perspective see Edward Pettit‘s write-up Dickens Literary Salon: Pickwick Papers with its sundry references.

How would you characterize “Pickwickian”? Does “the Pickwickian sentiment” constitute a plot?

Pickwick and Bucky

When I discovered Buckminster Fuller it was his benevolence (“the planet’s friendly genius”) that attracted me. Could my enchantment with Pickwick have led me to another humanist like Bucky? I do not know. But both the great character and the great thinker share Pickwickian qualities. The one that seems most striking is Bucky’s Mistake Mystique — Pickwickian indeed!

Do you see connections between Bucky and Pickwick?

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