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Archive for April 28th, 2014

Middlemarch

My replacement secondhand copy – found 22 April 2014

The previous post looked at Rebecca Mead’s engaging exploration of George Eliot’s greatest novel in her recent book The Road to Middlemarch. In that post, after lamenting the disintegration of my paperback copy, I ended up discussing narrative styles and wondering whether having the author speaking directly to us was now so old hat as to be completely off-putting and pointless. Mead feels that we should not necessarily dismiss Eliot’s use of that device as a weakness.

Not all bad though

Mead feels that authorial intervention of the kind that Eliot makes does have a value (page 55): “By directly addressing us, Eliot draws us deeper inside her panorama. She makes Middlemarchers of us all.” There is more even than that (ibid): “Eliot does something in addition with those moments of authorial interjection. She insists that the reader look at the characters in the book from her own elevated viewpoint.”

Making use of this broader view, which is not locked into any particular perspective within characters, enables us to enlarge our sympathies in an important way, Mead feels. She quotes Eliot as stating (page 56): ‘the only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.’

We are again moving among ideas that we are also finding important for us now, in the 21st Century. We are, almost to the last syllable, in the all-important Robert Wrightterritory of Robert Wright here in his thought-provoking book, The Evolution of God. In his consideration of the over-riding need for us to widen our compass of compassion, he states (page 428-429):

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that.

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

This idea is clearly close to Eliot’s heart. Mead returns to this later in her book (page 158) quoting Eliot as writing in an essay published in 1856, called The Natural History of German Life, the following observation:

. . . the greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether a painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies… Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”

Eliot’s Creed

There’s more than this to Mead’s case for the novel being one for ‘grown-ups.’ Her chapters weave information from the book itself, Eliot’s own life and Mead’s personal experience into an engaging process of exploration. Each chapter has a theme. She says, towards the end of the one I have quoted from, almost by way of summary (page 72): “One of the things that makes Middlemarch a book for grown-ups – a book for adults, even – is Eliot’s insistence upon taking moral questions seriously, and considering them in their complexity.’

I don’t intend to go through every scene of every chapter in my attempt to demonstrate that the book is well worth reading. I shall just leap to a later point in the book and pick another illustration of particular significance to me and leave it to you to judge whether you want to buy the book and read it. The fact that I have enjoyed the book may not be a compelling reason for your making the same choice.

whirlpoolseymoreI struggled for many years to find a faith that would help me realise my desire to help others and to improve society. This was largely because the faith I eventually espoused had to sail most skilfully between two equal dangers: it had to avoid what sinks many an ideology, the rock of supposing that its ends justify almost any means that might achieve them, and to steer clear of what sucks most of the others to a watery grave, the whirlpool of being so determined to look harmless that they become of very little actual use in the real world.

Not surprisingly, both on my way towards discovering the Bahá’í Faith, in my view a ship of faith that steers successfully between the two hazards I’ve described, and also afterwards, George Eliot wrote a great deal that was helpful and it is fascinating to find that Mead also draws inspiration from this (page 221):

To the extent that she had a faith, it was in what she called ‘meliorism’ – the conviction that, through the small, beneficent actions and intentions of individuals, the world might gradually grow to be a better place.’

She unpacks further what George Eliot might have meant by that (page 223):

Her credo might be expressed this way: if I really care for you, if I try to think myself into your position and orientation – then the world is bettered by my effort at understanding and comprehension. If you respond to my effort by trying to extend the same sympathy and understanding to others in turn, then the betterment of the world has been minutely but significantly extended.’

'Animal Farm': for source of image see link

‘Animal Farm’: for source of image see link

Her Bête Noire

With that, we are in Robert Wright’s territory still. Shortly we will find ourselves stepping across a border into Jonathan Haidt’s country (page 224):

. . . [I]n the last essay that she wrote for the Westminster Review Eliot gave as good an exposition of her moral code as she did anywhere. The essay is a scything indictment of Edward Young, the 18th century poet-cleric whom she had adored in her youth. By 1858… she had diagnosed a falsity in his theology and morality…

Young, she wrote, adheres to abstractions… ‘Religion coming down from the skies’ – while paying no attention to ‘virtue or religion as it really exists.’ Virtue as it really exists, she went on to say, can be found ‘in courageous effort for unselfish ends, in the internal triumph of justice and pity over personal resentment, in all the sublime self-renunciation and sweet charities which are found in the details of ordinary life.’

Mead feels that, while Bulstrode in Middlemarch, exemplifies what happens when protestations of piety are betrayed in corrupt action, the Reverend Camden Farebrother is the touchstone of genuine religion and morality (page 227):

He delivers pithy sermons, which draw listeners from parishes other than his own, but his religion is shown in how he treats others, rather than how he preaches to them.

I heard echoes of my own faith tradition in those words. In the 20th Century Shoghi Effendi wrote: ‘it is not preaching and rules the world wants, but love and action…’

Mead argues that the roots of this insight go back much earlier in Eliot’s thinking (page 232):

In The Mill on the Floss, she warned against the “men of maxims”… the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy.’

For these reasons, Eliot had little patience with Young’s (page 238) ‘unintermitting habit of pedagogic moralising.’ She feel this is a ‘moral deficit’ on Young’s part. Mead quotes Eliot’s explanation (ibid.):

In proportion as morality is emotional, i.e., has an affinity with Art, it will exhibit itself in direct sympathetic feeling and action, and not as the recognition of a rule.’ Minds that are ‘primarily didactic,’ Eliot feels, ‘are deficient in sympathetic emotion.’

Mixed Dictators v5Jonathan Haidt is if anything even more scathing, though this is not perhaps surprising after the modern world has seen, in Auschwitz, the Gulags and the caves of Yenan, what blind ideology, mindless or terrorised obedience and the fanatical enactment of a creed can do. Under such circumstances even the most well meaning people can end up committing atrocities, especially if we come to accept an extremist regime’s propaganda, which uses dehumanising labels such cockroach (Rwanda) and sewer rat (Nazi) to switch off our compassion, and then it’s as though the people we are torturing and killing are suddenly a different and inferior species.

In his humane and compassionate book The Happiness Hypothesis Haidt  indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

One chilling sentence conveys all we need to know about the horrors that can result from such a scenario  (Mao: the Uknown Story – Chang and Halliday; page 254):

At night, amid the quiet of the hills, from inside the rows of caves screams of lacerating pain travelled far and wide, within earshot of most who lived in Yenan.

It’s this kind of idealism that turns rules and ends into juggernauts under whose wheels multitudes are crushed, especially when the leaders are pathological narcissists, as seems all too often to be the case.

The difference between what Eliot is describing and what we have now seen is one of degree rather than kind. The French Revolution had already given a clear indication of where unbridled and self-righteous idealism could lead, when practised on the industrial scale to which we have now grown more accustomed. Eliot must surely have been aware of that. Frederick Karl, the one biographer of hers that I have read, suggests as much (George Eliot: a biography: page 95):

She had little but contempt for Louis Philippe, who, she knew, had to be overthrown if France was to enjoy the ‘Rights of Man’; but she also refused to see the revolution as some panacea for man’s ills or as a direction which would make a better life for the English if the revolution could be exported.

Her detailed analysis of the situation and her reasons for reaching this conclusion as a young woman of 29, from which he quotes at length, leave much to be desired, but it is clear she was thinking about the issues from an early age.

Towards the end of her engaging and uplifting book, Mead adds one or two more pointers in this direction (page 265): ‘[Eliot] believed that growth depends upon complex connections and openness to others, and does not derive from a solitary swelling of the self. She became great because she recognised that she was small.’

Middlemarch

Her Last Reach for a World-Embracing Vision

As a footnote, I would like to share my astonishment when I finally came to read her grossly under-rated final novel, Daniel Deronda published in 1876.

It strives to achieve an integration of two divergent cultures, of two distinct ways of life, of two sometimes seemingly contradictory world views – the Jewish and the Christian – into a transcendent pattern at a higher level than the component parts could achieve alone. I may be going too far in seeing in it glimpses, from an imperial island in the 19th Century, of what the world needs now in the 21st.  I feel it is, if only partially realised, a truly admirable striving towards a more world embracing vision – another and greater example of the way her concerns so consistently anticipate ours.

It seems to me an amazing attempt to see where the world might be going. Frederick Karl expresses it intriguingly, unbiased as he is by any desire to read Bahá’í thought backwards into her text (though Tolstoy had heard of the Bahá’í Faith, there is no evidence Eliot had living so early as this in the Faith’s history – page 547):

The Jewish and Christian elements [of the novel] link as a historical, temporal unity. If we view the novel in this perspective, we can connect the two plot strands into a universal entity or into a generalised human struggle reaching for some transcendental level, a form of ultimate health.

He goes onto describe her as (ibid.) ‘reaching towards some cure for the Western world as for herself,’ and failing in the attempt. Most critics, perhaps rightly, also feel she has failed and the two threads of understanding expressed in the two plot lines fail to blend as she would have wished, and the novel is irremediably split.

On the other hand, what she was striving for needed to be attempted and, I feel, there is so much depth and vigour in what she has succeeded in expressing that the novel is a richly rewarding read. As such, it took my breath away when I read it only a few years ago. The unsympathetic assessment of the book by the critics had put me off, in the same way as I had been steered away from Mansfield Park, and I regret that.

While her last novel might have been a noble failure, her life and her art are an inspiration, and Mead’s book helped me to see more deeply into that than I had before. I think it’s a truly worthwhile read.

 

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