Tuesday, 30 November 2010

What the Dickens

As part of my campaign to re-engage with classic fiction, I've been re-reading David Copperfield, and finding myself astonished once again at the genius of Dickens. However, I was shocked to discover that this puts me in pretty appalling company. Apparently Anwar al-Awlaki, chief theoretician of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, became an avid admirer of Dickens during his incarceration in Yemen, having been forbidden to read Islamic texts:
I read Hard Times thrice. So, I ordered more Charles Dickens and read Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and his masterpiece: David Copperfield. I read this one twice.
How anyone could immerse themselves in these rich, humane narratives and still plan the mass murder of innocents is an unfathomable mystery. Or it would be, if we didn't already have the image imprinted in our minds of SS officers listening to Mozart and Beethoven after a day's work at the concentration camp.

The extract from al-Awlaki's defunct blog occurs in Shiraz Maher's revealing analysis of the latest issue of AQAP's propaganda rag, Inspire, which I came across via Christopher Hitchens' article on airport security in Slate. Both are required and sobering reading.


sarah said...

This is not entirely surprising. The books only reinforced his previous perception that the Western civilisation is fundamentally flawed.

Brigada Flores Magon said...

All a matter of opinion, I suppose, but I'd put 'Bleak House' and 'Our Mutual Friend' and 'Little Dorrit' in the masterpiece category. And yes, 'do the humanities humanise?' is still a valid question.

Martin said...

I'd be inclined to agree re. Bleak House and Little Dorrit (ashamed to say I haven't read Our Mutual Friend - next on my list perhaps) but I wasn't going to enter into a discussion of al-Awlaki's literary judgements. As for the question as to why didn't his engagement with this great if sentimental humanist 'humanise', I'd recommend looking at the original quote and scrolling down - he tends to see Dickensian characters as 'types' who remind him of his favourite western bogeymen (Bush et al). So his reading may have been superficial, to say the least.

Brigada Flores Magon said...

Sorry to have just not seen all that was there in the post first time round: funny, actually quite scary, things happening with meds at the moment. I do think that question about the humanities and humanity [in the sense of the humane, not, as it was when I studied the subject at university 43 years ago, Latin]is valid--Goebbels had a brilliant doctorate from Heidelberg, concentration camp commanders relaxed to Schubert, extremely nasty Renaissance potentates relished high art and torture. I'm not sure of an answer, I just find it creepy.