I was captivated and humbled by this speech in Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens, given by the idiot Barnaby Rudge. The entire novel is seen through his eyes, and it lends a swirl of color and fascination; it appeals to your conscience, saying: “There! was that right? Poor, wronged Barnaby!” But I’ll explain after the text.
* * *
“Speed!” said Barnaby, folding the little packet in his breast, “Speed! if you want to see hurry and mystery, come here. Here!” With that, he put his hand, very much to John Willet’s horror, on the guest’s fine broadcloth sleeve, and led him stealthily to the back window.
“Look down there,” he said softly; “Do you mark how they whisper in each other’s ears; then dance and leap, to make believe they are in sport? Do you see how they stop for a moment, when they think there is no one looking, and mutter among themselves; and then how they roll and gambol, delighted with the mischief they’ve been plotting? Look at ’em now. See how they whirl and plunge. And now they stop again, and whisper cautiously together—little thinking, mind, how often I have lain upon the grass and watched them. I say—what is it that they plot and hatch? Do you know?”
“They are only clothes,” returned the guest, “such as we wear; hanging on those lines to dry, and fluttering in the wind.”
“Clothes!” echoed Barnaby, looking close into his face, and falling quickly back. “Ha ha! Why, how much better to be silly, than as wise as you! You don’t see shadowy people there, like those that live in sleep—not you. Nor eyes in the knotted panes of glass, nor swift ghosts when it blows hard, nor do you hear voices in the air, nor see men stalking in the sky—not you! I lead a merrier life than you, with all your cleverness. You’re the dull men. We’re the bright ones. Ha! ha! I’ll not change with you, clever as you are—not I!”
With that, he waved his hat above his head, and darted off.
“A strange creature, upon my word!” said the guest, pulling out a handsome box, and taking a pinch of snuff.
“He wants imagination,” said Mr. Willet, very slowly and after a long silence; “that’s what he wants. I’ve tried to instil it into him, many and many’s the time; but”—John added this, in confidence–”he ain’t made for it; that’s the fact.”
* * *
Oh you stiff-necked John Willet! Oh you and your terrible facts! Your sense of reality, believe me, is idealistic. Your idea of an imagination must be terrible indeed! How can you talk so!
Barnaby’s speech captivated me. How, though an idiot, he could pick out these simple things… things we see every single day and take for granted… and find beauty in them. When he was first describing the clothes, it reminded me of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies. Actually, that’s what I thought he was talking about. And I was very surprised—and pleased—when I found that he was talking about something quite different. Just a few pages later I read this:
* * *
“Stay.—Look. Do you wise men see nothing there, now?”
He bent eagerly down on one knee, and gazed intently aat the smoke, which was rolling up the chimney in a think black cloud. John Willet, who appeared to consider himself particularly and chiefly referred to under the term wise men, looked that way likewise, and with great solidity of feature.
“Now, where do they go to, when they spring so fast up there,” asked Barnaby; “eh? Why do they tread so closely on each other’s heels, and why are they always in a hurry—which is what you blame me for, when I only take pattern by these busy folk about me? More of ’em! catching to each other’s skirts; and as fast as they go, others come! What a merry dance it is! I would that Grip and I could frisk like that!”
* * *
O, to have a mind like Barnaby’s. There is something beautiful, albeit a little pathetic, in his speeches. It is beautiful because he creates a beautiful thought out of a “crude” image, if you will, like the laundry hanging out to dry, and the fire. It is pathetic because it seems as though it is a waste of time. We don’t have time to think about that. After all, couldn’t we be thinking of other higher thoughts that require attention or improve the mind?
Well, I said it humbled me too. It did humble me. It was because thinking of those higher thoughts that improve the mind made me proud. I have an imagination. I am able to conjure up these things. But Barnaby humbled me. In his little speech, he said so much. The guest, when he replied: “they are only clothes…” I would have said the same as he, before Barnaby spoke. I would have looked at them and thought: “Oh, how lovely; some domesticated housewife has done her laundry today. Good for her.” Barnaby is right. If this is considered wisdom, it is better to be an idiot like him. He sees the beauty everywhere.
Here’s what humbled me… Even in the lowliest mind, even in the most pathetic nature, there is the ability to think a beautiful thought. Something more beautiful than a “normal” person might be able to think. Barnaby’s was beautiful because he is so sharp and quick-witted, and yet and idiot. He lives completely outside of this world, or this reality. The sight of blood makes him cry out in horror, and have fits. It is the blood. It is because it represents violence, and Barnaby cringes from it. But I wonder—I do wonder if Barnaby’s world is not better than this one that we live in. Have you ever stood on the corner of a busy street and just watched the people? They talk on their phones, they walk fast to where they need to get to. They pass each other, they walk into shops… there is a ceaseless flow of people. It would be rare indeed to see a girl skipping down such a street, looking up and smiling back at the sky, laughing at all the pretty things in the windows, bursting out in song or dance. Wouldn’t you think how odd that was? How slightly crazy? And yet, we must admire the people who resist the rush of every day life, and take time to live their life. Amidst everyone else’s rush, they are taking in the moment, breathing the air, soaking in the glory of the day. They are creating memories.
Through the eyes of Barnaby Rudge, through the eyes of even an idiot, I, the proud one, can see the earth as it really is, and the world as it stands. He gathers the beauty of nature, the beauty of living. He sees the deception of men, he points out their so-called “wisdom,” which is little better than foolishness. How much I have to learn from people!
O, to have a mind like Barnaby…
As C.S. Lewis said: “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”