Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

Aspiring tyrants know that if they give their supporters permission to kill the people they don’t like, revolution will follow by itself.

Reading ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ this summer, I was struck by the atmosphere of filth hanging about the final scenes in the prison. Not just the moral filth, the sheer horror of evil nobodies using someone else’s abstract idea to gain the power of life and death over their neighbours, and employing it mercilessly, but the physical filth of the prison. It permeates the scenes. You can smell the rats, the sweat, the seeping grey walls, the fear. You struggle to see through the darkness that fills the cell, night and day. Prison dramas don’t show you what the places smell like, but I bet there’s a fair bit of armpits and cabbage. Deodorant costs money.

Sydney Carton doesn’t make the final speech, culminating in ‘It is a far, far better thing...’ It is the narrator, or probably Dickens himself, who speaks those words immediately after his death, imagining what Carton might have said if he had the opportunity and the eloquence. Sydney Carton himself spent his last minutes helping a wholly innocent young woman to approach death with a little less terror than she otherwise would, and his only words were to her. They weren’t even half-meant for himself, and no one else heard them, or cared about them.

The last hours, knowing he would only leave that stinking black cell to be led to the block where he must lose his head, knowing that he needn’t have been there, and that neither he nor the man he replaced had done anything to deserve death, must have been suffocating, filled with unrelieved and mounting horror. The gesture itself was magnificent. The circumstances of it were vile, colourless, lacking any grandeur. The banality of evil, indeed.

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