Making the ordinary, the everyday, the ideal (a tad long)
Posted by Erin on January 12, 1998 at 23:18:11:
In response to Painting by numbers, written by Patrick on January 12, 1998 at 14:59:32
I think it is useful to keep in mind the constraints that JA operated under, that she had to be aware of if she wanted anyone to read her novels. [snip] If she had expressed the view that Lizzy should damn convention and live in sin with Darcy (for example), she would not have been published, let alone read, in her time.
In addition, there is a question here about the extent to which "right living," whatever JA may have thought that to consist of, could be managed without appeal to "rational order." In my own very humble opinion, JA thought that right living could be managed quite well without rational analysis of the world. Rationality, measurement and analysis, treating the world as object, were the things that got society into the pickle it was (and still is) in. Balance has a nice sound to it, but can you have balance between, say, being a burglar and not being a burglar?
Yes, balance is nice, and for Austen it is the guiding virtue, which is more articulated than you suggest with your example, let me tell you why:
I cannot base a correct understanding of Austen's 'morality' (and the disclosure of it in her novels) on what she did not articulate, even though such an idea may be tempered by the possibility of self-censorship on Austen's part. I have come to believe with some certainty that Austen posited an ideal existence possibility grounded in Enlightenment thought (primarily an idea of freedom of self determined through rational reflection --I would point you to one of the many biographies/histories of Austen and her era for affirmation of this statement) and a Christian spiritual ethic (which promotes obedience to the social order). I do not view her ideal as unconditionally radical. She is an author who is keenly aware of the rules and rituals of her society; and offers, through her heroines, an ideal that can fundamentally be defined as symmetrical. As such, Austen also criticizes (through satire) some of the absurdities wrought by the rules/rituals, e.g., in the end, Lydia's marrige is considered necessary and 'good', even though it is preceived by many that Wickham's a lout.
A frequent visitor to our pages once described to me why she enjoys Austen so much. I think it's a wonderful description of the virtue of Austen's work:
blockquote>there is a lot of fun to be had from the Janeite point of view (clothes, dances, love, romances...) but the moral infrastructure is so awe-inspiringly solid and functional--stainless steel-clad principles like surgical instruments for dissecting society's ills!
For further proof that Austen's world is ordered by rational reflection (I'm sublimating the term!), I quote one of her most infamous critics, Charlotte Bronte, who stands in a direct idealogical opposition to Austen:
After reading P&P, Bronte finds "an accurate deguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but not glance of bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I [sic] should hardly like to live with her laides and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses"
Bronte views P&P in this way because she recognizes that its' clarity of vision (ie, resolution, character definition) negates her priorities and values, e.g., untamed, dark emotions, the unknown, uncharted terrority of the human pysche. "Truth in pain, great suffering". (or something to that effect. ;-)) From her point of view (Romanticism) she's right --it would seem that Austen's philosophy is limiting and for this reason, unsophisticated. But herein lies Bronte's mistake: freedom of self is (can be) achieved in the ordinary, unremarkable situations of everyday life. (If this is not a real possibility for any of us, let me check out right now.) Austen proves that the free-choosing self (ie., happy and fulfilled) is possible, and that the individual may not be alienated from society as a result of such freedom, ie., living authentically to one's truth.
Bronte is part of a movement where the source of truth is the limitless...insanity itself; and Bronte's characters suffer for her version of personal authenticity. In fact, I've often thought that death is sole avenue of self-discovery and self-possession for many Romantic authors (or authors of Romanticism).
In contrast, Austen articulates her ideal through balance/symmetry: (i) of individual characters and their choices --brought about by reflection (which necessarily has to be rationally-based for her), (ii) of society --via various character 'types' and their dynamic within the overall context of the story. To see the various levels of character in combination with the social rituals (both in terms of the individual and the story's mosiac) is the real joy for me.
From one perspective, Austen heroines (and heros), like Elizabeth, gain redemption by the act which can only be best described as 'being true to oneself'. In this way, Austen and CB are not that different; rather it's the 'how' that is different, and this goes back to the different worldviews posited/presupposed by each author. For Austen, it's not after the homocidal/suicidal first wife burns down the estate and almost you with it, that you finally realize your turth and live by it.
It's an interesting view. But an alternative is that Mary and Lydia are not divided by their polarity on the rationalism dimension, but united by their lack of genuine emotional contact with other people. Lydia is semi-hysterical most of the time, but she is no more engaged with other people than Mary is. Even her lust for Wyckham is not about him. It does not take him into consideration as a particular person with particular characteristics. He is simply a convenient object, more convenient than any of the other soldiers because he wants to be with her.
I agree with your interpretation. I would only add that with Austen, we can set up characters in opposition, but through another analysis place them together. (Helen and I did this with Lydia and Mr. Collins: the manner in which they were opposite extremes and another aspect in which they were similar.) I think this is another exposition of the complexity inherent in Austen that is so deceptively concealed through the 'everyday' context of her novels; and this puzzel of Austen is beautifully expressed in P&P.
I recall Patrick your comment (to me) that you find such delineations to be a 'paint-by-numbers' interpretation.
I hope that comment didn't offend :-) I meant only that JA was good enough to create a world, in which storytelling needs would be answered, without deliberate attempts to "use" characters for particular purposes. Your analysis of the Lydia - Mary contrast above is compelling, but must it have been deliberate?
The comparison is deliberate, but it is not the only one provided. As you just proved, we can contrast two characters only then to group them together in another interpretation. It's not as limiting as you make it sound. (At least that is what I preceive in your comments.)
I think we have to realize that, in constructing P&P, Austen was buttressed by a philosophy of the world that proscribed clear definition and explication. I detect that you dislike over-arching interpretations that lack ambiguity (or more grey as opposed to black and white).
What I dislike about them is that they are very likely to be wrong.
You don't have to like them my friend...only realize that Austen did believed in (or was conditioned by) the idea that the world was orderly, intelligible, and could be made good through rational self-discovery.
I also wonder to what extent Austen wished that her society to be otherwise.
Pretty strongly, I think. That's why she wrote P&P, and Persuasion.
I think she posits a version of a happy life lived within the pre-established boundaries --an 'existence-possibility' (help me Patrick, I'm sounding like Aufgehaben!) that was full of consciousness --of self, role (or non-role in a certain sense) and absurdities and awkwardness of the social ritual.
Bless you, if you've made it this far! I'm too longwinded. :-)
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