What the Dickens?

As subway reading, I’ve turned to Victorian literature: Austen, Trollope, Eliot, Dickens…. Great stuff, and perfectly absorbing, an hour each way.

This morning, I was reading Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son and came across this:

‘But he’s chockful of science,’ he observed, waving his hook towards the stock-in-trade. ‘Look’ye here! Here’s a collection of ’em. Earth, air, or water. It’s all one. Only say where you’ll have it. Up in a balloon? There you are. Down in a bell? There you are. D’ye want to put the North Star in a pair of scales and weigh it? He’ll do it for you.’

It may be gathered from these remarks that Captain Cuttle’s reverence for the stock of instruments was profound, and that his philosophy knew little or no distinction between trading in it and inventing it.

‘Ah!’ he said, with a sigh, ‘it’s a fine thing to understand ’em. And yet it’s a fine thing not to understand ’em. I hardly know which is best. It’s so comfortable to sit here and feel that you might be weighed, measured, magnified, electrified, polarized, played the very devil with: and never know how.’

Somehow, this seems more appropriate to today than to a century-and-a-half ago. 

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