A General Drama of Pain

Historical Fiction has a lot in common with Science Fiction, especially now, the more remote our present reality becomes from the past, I am continually reminded of William Gibson’s declaration that “the past is more difficult to imagine than the future”.

I just finished reading The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and it might as well have been science fiction. The world of grain merchants in early 19th century England is as foreign to me as any made-up world. Hardy’s language is full of slang and terminology that are utterly meaningless to me as a 21st Century urban American, and yet the conclusion is as familiar as any TV show, as he sums up the novel by saying that “happiness [is] but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain”.

It’s a fine soap opera, as good as anything currently acclaimed in this “golden age of television” – lots of intrigue, surprises, coincidences, shocks, cruelty both intentional and not, good things happening to bad people and bad things happening to good. It could win an Emmy award for “general drama”.

He has a passage describing two bridges in the town, one nearer to the center than the other, at which different unhappy people go to contemplate suicide, even this being a part of life divided by class and circumstance, and how fantasies are particularly correlated to realities:

“There and thus they would muse; if their grief were the grief of oppression they would wish themselves kings; if their grief were poverty, wish themselves millionaires; if sin they would wish they were saints or angels; if despised, love, that they were some much-courted Adonis of country fame”

I once had an odd encounter that has stuck with me for decades. I was walking to work one day, hating my job, when a homeless madman stopped me on the street, blocking my way, insisting on showing me what he had in his brown paper bag. He then told me that when I got to work I should get a Bible and got to a passage in Ecclesiastes. I wondered how many people’s jobs have Bibles handy, or how he knew – if he did know – that I worked in a bookstore (I later considered that as a homeless madman wandering the streets with nothing else to do he had probably seen me there at work at some point and it wasn’t just a random stoppage on the street but that he knew who I was and had planned this intervention). The passage reads: “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

Ain’t it the truth. Every day there were more and more books coming out, the hits don’t stop, it all never stops … In my RSS feed I’m continually informed about “the five best songs we heard this week” or “the twelve books you absolutely have to read now” or “the ten best places in the world to visit this year” or some such onslaught of newer, better and best.

It was rather comforting to read The Mayor of Casterbridge, a book not newer, not constantly touted, not celebrated in any list, but just a d—– fine novel (as he would have put it)

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2 thoughts on “A General Drama of Pain

  1. I like the Mayor of Casterbridge too – long time since I read it. Starts off with the guy selling his wife to a sailor as I recall? He was a pretty racy author for his day. You have a good point about the constant slew of stuff coming out. Makes you wonder where we fit, and certainly makes a mockery of any kind of self importance.

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  2. Yes, that’s the one. People here are making a huge fuss over some of the new television shows that use all the same tricks he was employing more than 150 years ago. And the guy was as depressing as they come! He’d be a huge hit today :}

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