June 25, 2007

George Eliot: The Friendly Face of Unbelief

I've read a number of reviews lately on the spate of books by the 'new atheists,' notably Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and, most recently, Christopher Hitchens. Among the many interesting features of these reviews is how often they protest against the tone of the books, even if they agree with their arguments. A lot of people seem worried that a world without religion will be either a coldly austere, heartless place, or a chaotic place with no moral principles or values drawing people into communities. The complaints about the harsh tone of these books seem motivated by these fears, as well as by the widespread (but, as Harris especially would argue, misguided) attitude that whatever our own views on religion, we ought to treat it with respect. They are also often accompanied by the complaint that writers like Dawkins and Harris are taking away beliefs that bring comfort or satisfy emotional and aesthetic needs, without offering up anything to replace them.

I don't personally think there is any obligation for critics of religion to be nice, or for them to make up for whatever people may feel has been taken away from them along with their superstitions. And, in fact, all three of the writers I have named have plenty to say about ways an atheistic worldview can enhance, rather than inhibit, our emotional, moral, and aesthetic experiences and sensibilities. But it's clear that their case is not always persuasive, particularly to those readers who most need persuading. Because I think the world would benefit if they were victorious in their campaign on behalf of reason and evidence, I think they should call in some allies who can help them past what may be primarily a problem of genre. In addition to making the case against religion, they need to help people move imaginatively towards a world in which it is no longer necessary. Who better to assist in this endeavour than George Eliot, who was, as noted by one of her contemporaries, "the first great godless writer of fiction"?

Of the three writers I've named, Hitchens makes the most explicit appeal to literature. In god is not Great, he remarks that atheists "are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books" (5). Later, he notes that the "study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected" (283). This general position is one with which I have great sympathy; it is also one which, though without explicit reference to replacing theistic moral systems, is much considered in the work of contemporary moral philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum who are exploring the contributions literary forms make towards our ethical understanding. But Hitchens could get a lot more specific about just how George Eliot is useful to his project. Here are some excerpts from my paper "George Eliot: Moralist for the 21st Century" that suggest how her ideas, particularly as given literary form through her fiction, might complement his and the others' work and contribute to forming what Ronald Aronson in The Nation describes as "coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life's vital questions."
[A recent University of Minnesota study] found that many people consider atheists "self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good" (Edgell et al. 227). The researchers conclude that “Americans construct the atheist as the symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether” (230). However contingent the relationship between morality and religion may seem in academic or philosophic circles (witness the decisive critiques of divine command theory in analytic ethics, for example), most of our real-world compatriots are convinced that morality will break down without religion, with dire consequences for human flourishing. To correct this mistake—to lay these fears to rest—we could really use George Eliot’s help.

As her contemporaries noted, George Eliot’s novels portray “a world of high endeavour, pure morality, and strong enthusiasm, existing and in full work, without any reference to, or help from, the thought of God” (Mallock 698). After her own de-conversion from Christianity, Eliot worked tirelessly to develop a secular, humanistic framework for morality. As is well known, she believed, with Feuerbach, that people have given the name “God” to qualities and aspirations of their own, that motives and accomplishments called “religious” and credited to supernatural forces are really the products of human effort, of the human capacity for generosity, sympathy, and love—but also egotism, pettiness, and hatred. In her deterministic universe, we are responsible for our own deeds and their consequences, for our own contributions to, or obstructions of, the “growing good of the world” (Finale). She rejected extrinsic motives for good behaviour, including appeals to the “glory of God” or hope of an afterlife, arguing eloquently that “the immediate impulse of love or justice … alone makes an action truly moral” (rev. of Constance Herbert 322). These are components of an ethos that seems highly conducive to “moral solidarity” and “the common good.”

More important than her specific conclusions, though, is her resolve to work with the facts of human existence rather than comforting fictions. She did not deny the austerity of non-belief, but she agrees with Harris that
“the fact that unjustified beliefs can have a consoling influence on the human mind is no argument in their favour” (67). The “‘highest calling and election’,” she asserted, “is to do without opium and live through all our pain with conscious, clear-eyed endurance” (Letter 254).
Other examples of George Eliot's own statements on the relationship between faith and morality include this, from "Worldiness and Other-Worldiness: The Poet Young":
‘And in opposition to your theory that a belief in immortality is the only source of virtue, I maintain that, so far as moral action is dependent on that belief, so far the emotion which prompts it is not truly moral—is still in the stage of egoism, and has not yet attained the higher development of sympathy. In proportion as a man would care less for the rights and the welfare of his fellow, if he did not believe in a future life, in that proportion is he wanting in the genuine feelings of justice and benevolence...’
And this, from her letters, a simple statement that would have revolutionary consequences if applied instead of many of the doctrines put forward in the world's sacred books:
Our moral progress may be measured by the degree in which we sympathize with individual suffering and individual joys.
These are all philosophical statements, but George Eliot opted to give her ideas fictional form so that we would not just understand them intellectually, but experience them as principles operating in the world of human feelings, histories, and relationships. I have written more about this choice elsewhere. For my purposes now, I'll just say that this choice of genres allows her to show us morality and community both flourishing and faltering as the result of human character and human choices. The mathematician Laplace famously replied to Napoleon, when asked about the role of God in his view of the universe, that he had "no need of that hypothesis." Through her novels, George Eliot helps us understand that we too have no need of it, and that we will do better by ourselves and by others when we acknowledge our own responsibility for the world we live in and the rules we live by.

June 22, 2007

Criticism as 'Coduction'

I have remarked a couple of times that Wayne Booth's idea of 'coduction' seems to me to capture something important about the way thoughtful literary criticism unfolds. I was reminded of this yet again reading Dan Green's lastest posting on the ethics of book reviewing, in which he proposes that any review that aspires to the status of criticism must take into account what other reviewers have said. As discussed in my previous post, one distinction between reviewing and criticism is that the critic may be aiming at explication rather than evaluation, while the main expectation most of us have of a review is that it will culminate in and justify a judgment. I think Booth would argue that criticism is always at least implicitly judgmental. In any case, here's some of what he says about the process by which "we arrive at our sense of value in narratives":
Even in my first intuition of 'this new one,' whether a story or a person, I see it against a backdrop of my long personal history of untraceably complex experiences of other stories and persons. Thus my initial acquaintance is comparative even when I do not think of comparisons. If I then converse with others about their impressions--if, that is, I move toward a public 'criticism'--the primary intuition (with its implicit acknowledgment of value) can be altered in at least three ways: it can become conscious and more consciously comparative...; it can become less dependent on my private experience...; and it can be related to principles and norms.... Every appraisal of a narrative is implicitly a comparison between the always complex experience we have had in its presence and what we have known before. (The Company We Keep, pp. 70-71)
It's not that the 'primary intuition' (especially of a reader with an already rich 'personal history' of literature and criticism) is invalid; it's that putting that intuition into dialogue with other ideas enriches it and complicates it, and makes it better--more "serious," to use Green's word.

Just as a bit of an aside, this idea that criticism is not finite or absolute but always in process, part of an ongoing conversation, is what makes a medium such as a blog seem appropriate for it. Conventional academic publishing inhibits any real exchange of views, first because its pace is so unbelievably slow that by the time anything you write appears in print you can barely remember what you said or why you said it, and second because you have to at least sound as if you think what you've said is definitive. Hardly anybody reads most academic criticism, either, even within the academy (half the time it seems the real audience is the person who reads only the title, on your cv...).

June 20, 2007

More on the Purpose of Criticism

Some time ago I posted some thoughts on Cynthia Ozick's Harper's essay "Literary Entrails" (see "Academic Criticism Criticized"). Belatedly, I notice that there was a good posting in response to it at Scott Esposito's Conversational Reading which concludes that "Ozick's better criticism . . . would add another reason to read, a further way to engage a book once it had been closed and to continually re-think and re-evaluate books that have been around for a while. This might not bring any new readers into the fold, but it might make better readers out of those who already do so. Over time, I think that would make books better for everyone." I like the idea that the critic's role is to keep us engaged and to encourage us to "re-think and re-evaluate" what we have read; as both this author and Ozick emphasize, the pace of reviewing can be too hasty to allow for a "slower, more contemplative critical approach to literature." For myself, I have been finding it exhausting trying to keep pace at all with the texts and topics addressed in litblogs and literary journals: I'm starting to look forward to the start of the teaching term in September because I will be back to worrying obsessively over a small handful of books, and to feel grateful for "the canon," however unstable or elastic its definition, if only because the very idea of a canon implies that there is no obligation to pay attention to everything!

Meanwhile, at The Reading Experience, Dan Green has some good things to say about the distinction between reviewing and criticism: "The essential task of criticism is not to evaluate fiction. It is an essential task of reviewing, but criticism can take place entirely outside the context of judgment and evaluation, or at least it can take place in a context that assumes evaluation and judgment have already taken place. Some of the best criticism attempts not to argue for the merits of a particular work but to describe and analyze a work the critic already values and wants to "read" more closely. Sometimes this results in convincing readers of the quality of the work, but doing that has not been the critic's primary task." I like to think in terms of appreciation rather than evaluation, because it sidelines the issue of taste. I can appreciate a work of fiction for being artful, well-crafted, original, historically significant, etc. without actually liking it (Pamela, anyone?). Yet I am unlikely to devote a lot of critical time (or classroom time) to any text that I am not personally convinced has value, whether artistic, intellectual, social, or some combination. We value different books for different reasons, after all. I'm not sure I'd want to convince anyone of the quality of, say, Gaskell's Mary Barton, though I enjoy reading and teaching it and consider it an important example of Victorian social problem fiction. On the other hand, I find I am prepared to expend a great deal of energy convincing people of the value of Bleak House or Middlemarch! Of course, when past works are the ones at issue, there's presumably no longer any question of reviewing them--or is there? Actually, that's an interesting question, and one linked to my ongoing musings about the potential role of something like a blog in my own work. How or why could writing about a 'classic' be relevant, useful, desirable to a contemporary audience? I still hold to the fairly simple distinction that reviewing is a form of literary journalism that requires a specific occasion as an incentive, while criticism has more abstract (longitudinal?) interests. In any case, I like Green's comment that criticism is "a way of paying attention and of perhaps assisting others in the effort to pay closer attention." Like the comments at Conversational Reading, this one reminds me of Booth's idea of "coduction," which seems to me an excellent model of the way our judgments of literature are in fact formed and reformed.

June 15, 2007

Joanna Trollope, A Village Affair

When I decided to take a break from more "serious" reading with A Village Affair, I wasn't really expecting the novel to reach towards the serious itself. I had read it before, but what I had retained was admiration for the clarity with which Trollope gives us the people she has devised: many (though not all) of her novels that I have read have struck me as achieving an enviable quality in their characters: they are enormously specific and individual and often intensely, even poignantly, believable. Here, Alice's father-in-law, Richard, seems especially well conceived. Everything he says communicates to us who he is and how he has lived, particularly in his marriage to a woman he persists in loving but who cannot, in her turn, recognize in him someone as complex and fully human as she is. He lives this hampered life in full knowledge of its limits, neither tragic nor stoic. Alice's discontent is the stuff of cliches; her affair seems contrived (by the author) to break up the seemingly calm surface, the routines and compromises of daily life. In fact, this is how Trollope's plots generally work: the ordinary people, the change or revelation, the repercussions. For me, it's the repercussions she does really well. Having set up her experiment in life, she works out plausibly how it will play out, and she does not sentimentalize--as, in this case, Alice's "coming alive" through a new and different experience of love creates more problems than it solves.

In this case, as in another of her novels that I think is very smart, Marrying the Mistress, Trollope sets her characters up to confront what is a central dilemma in many 19th-century novels as well, namely how to resolve the conflict between, or how to decide between, duty to self and duty to others. That she is aware of her predecessors in this investigation is indicated by the quotation from Adam Bede recited (OK, improbably) by one of the characters in A Village Affair. As that quotation forcefully indicates, George Eliot placed a high value on renunciation and on accepting (as gracefully as possible) the burden of duty: resignation to less than you want, or less than you can imagine, is a constant refrain, and this with no promise of rapturous happiness. Hence the melancholic tinge at the end of Romola, for instance, or Daniel Deronda, or, for all its lightning flashes of romantic fulfilment, Middlemarch. (Of course, famously, it is her heroines who must resign or, like Maggie Tulliver, die.)

Although much has changed socially and politically since George Eliot found it unrealistic to give Romola, Maggie, or Dorothea uncompromised happy endings, the struggle between what we want for ourselves and what is expected or demanded of us by others continues to be a staple of fiction. Though Trollope's scenario is much more contemporary, she too accepts that one's individual desire cannot (or not easily, or not ethically) be one's guiding principle, because of the "visible and invisible relations beyond any of which our present or prospective self is the centre" (Adam Bede). So Trollope, with admirable restraint, refuses a fairy tale ending for her protagonist, though, with a different kind of insistence that perhaps George Eliot would respect, she also pushes her out of the unsatisfactory life that was her reality before, and into what, given this context, seems like a narrative limbo, or a waiting room. This is not to say that Alice's single life is an incomplete one, but she herself acknowledges that it is not, in fact, what she really wanted--only what she was capable of achieving.

I think this novel makes an interesting comparison to another quiet novel about a woman reconsidering her life, Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years, which I have always admired. But Tyler, though far from offering simplistic fairy tales, offers her own version of the resignation narrative. In Ladder of Years, as in Back When We Were Grownups, it proves mistaken for the heroine to try to start a new life, however much she is, or believes she is, following the promptings of her innermost self. Again, the "visible and invisible relations" exert a powerful pressure, like the entangling webs of family and society in Middlemarch but perceived, overall, as more kindly, less petty and destructive. The plain litte room Delia takes and uses as a staging ground to reinvent her life is a room of her own, but her story is not rightly understood as being just about her own life ("was she alone," Dorothea asks herself). In these novels Tyler's women learn to appreciate the value of what they tried to leave, to see their own identities as having become inseparable from those of the others whose demands and complications hamper their desires. The vision seems starker in Trollope's novel ("Aga saga" though it certainly is).

June 13, 2007

Blogging Reservations

Today's New York Sun includes a short piece by Adam Kirsh on The Scorn of the Literary Blog. Kirsh is mostly writing about the much-noted rivalry between "professional" reviewers and literary bloggers, in the context of the also much-noted decline of book sections in print journalism. I don't have much to say about these broader contexts, but I am interested in Kirsh's remarks on the limitations of blogging as a form of literary criticism:
The blog form, that miscellany of observations, opinions, and links, is not well-suited to writing about literature, and it is no coincidence that there is no literary blogger with the audience and influence of the top political bloggers. For one thing, literature is not news the way politics is news — it doesn't offer multiple events every day for the blogger to comment on. For another, bitesized commentary, which is all the blog form allows, is next to useless when it comes to talking about books. Literary criticism is only worth having if it at least strives to be literary in its own right, with a scope, complexity, and authority that no blogger I know even wants to achieve. The only useful part of most book blogs, in fact, are the links to long-form essays and articles by professional writers, usually from print journals.
That last bit seems disingenuous, as the links in fact take us to electronic versions of the longer pieces which are themselves seamlessly integrated into the web versions of journals, which include many features typical of blogs, including opportunities to comment and links to other related materials.

I agree that it makes a difference that "literature is not news" and that this distinction has implications for the kind of criticism that works on blogs. Literature can be news, in the sense that new books come out all the time and one function of book reviews is to let readers know about them. But not all kinds of literary criticism serve this market-oriented function. It's not obvious to me that all blogs do either: many of the ones I've been reading don't aspire to that kind of timeliness, but rather offer commentary on a range of reading material. If a book is not news, does that mean writing about it lacks relevance? It lacks urgency, I suppose, but surely not interest.

It's also true that "bite-sized commentary" is common, but I've been reading a number of blogs that offer more of a mouthful--not in every post, perhaps, but often enough to make it seem unfair to dismiss all blogging as inevitably superficial. The literary posts on Amardeep Singh's blog, for instance, can be quite extensive and detailed, as can those offered by The Reading Experience or The Little Professor.

Not coincidentally, I've used as my examples blogs maintained by writers who are are highly trained as professional readers and writers (two of them are English professors, one is a 'reformed' academic). While academic credentials are not the only things that can establish someone's credibility as a literary critic, it's hard to argue that the opinions of these three lack "authority," even when offered in these less formal venues. Further, they set an example of thoughtful, historically-informed commentary that helps expose the inadequacy of the "anyone can say anything" culture of Amazon.Com reviewing and the many more slap-dash reading blogs. It's hard not to see their efforts as complementary to those of the "professional writers" whose work Kirsh prefers.

And precisely because, as Kirsh says, "the whole point of a review is to set one mind against another, and see what sparks fly," surely the bloggers who offer their expertise as generously as the three I've mentioned are doing us all a great service by putting their literary encounters out there for the rest of us to learn from and participate in.

June 11, 2007

Wish List and Back Lists

I haven't done much serious reading since finishing An Equal Music; I was so absorbed by that novel that I haven't been able to settle on what to follow it with, so I'm taking a break with a little Joanna Trollope. The problem is not lack of choice, though, but a surfeit of attractive options, including not just the books already ripening on my shelves but my wish list of books I'm eager to read for one reason or another but have yet to get my hands on. Currently leading this wish list:
  1. Ian McEwan, Chesil Beach (is it just me, or between Saturday and his new novel, does McEwan have a bit of a "Dover Beach" thing going on?)
  2. James Wood, Life Against God
  3. Ahdaf Soueif, In the Eye of the Sun
  4. V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas
  5. Anne Tyler, Digging for American
  6. Claire Messud, The Emperor's Children
  7. Elizabeth von Arnim, Enchanted April
  8. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy
  9. Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
  10. Rachel Cusk, Arlington Park
A number of these are fairly recent novels I have been reading a lot about in review sections and lit blogs. Some of them are older novels that I have learned about or become curious about belatedly. In fact, one of the questions that has been on my mind as I explore the world of literary writing online is how to break out of the 'new releases' or 'hot properties' cycle and find out about books you did not hear about back when they first came out. I have been frustrated sometimes when I've been motivated by the hype around a new novel to snatch it up and read it with great expectations only to find it disappointing (this is frequently my reaction to books I buy on the basis of glowing reviews in The Globe and Mail, a caution I now take with me to the bookstore). But there seem to be factors in the book industry, and certainly in the big chain stores, that make it difficult to discern which books are standing the test of time.

I think this problem relates to a question I asked earlier about whether lit blogging must be a form of literary journalism. Are blogs in fact best or most useful if they are opportunistic or occasional, offering timely responses to new material? If book reviews are buying guides, then there's some reason for them to address primarily new options, and lots of reasons for them not to spend time on out-of-print options, though there are a lot of titles in between these two extremes. Blogs seem to be (or at least can be) less tied to the book market, more driven by literary than by commercial interests. Maybe this is even a particularly valuable thing bloggers can do, keeping "backlist" titles from going stale.

June 5, 2007

Vikram Seth, An Equal Music

What an extraordinary, intense, poignant book. The central love story is compelling as a romance but would be conventional, perhaps even trite, if it weren't entangled with another story about a different kind of love--for music. Michael's desire for Julia, which borders on the obsessive, is itself a musical passion, aroused by and motivated by her playing, or their playing together. But his desire for his violin comes to seem like a purer form of desire, for something that transcends the impurities of human relationships or even human characters, with their flaws and imbalances. People (alas!) cannot be tuned to accommodate different needs, to make new or different combinations, new beauties. How utopian chamber music comes to seem here, as the members of the quartet ease away from their messy lives through the simplicity of a scale played in unison, until they are ready and generous enough to take their turns, to share the work and the pleasure of the music. But though I felt it this way, the novel itself is never sentimental. In his "Author's Note" Seth remarks that he felt "gripped with anxiety" at the thought of writing about music, to him "dearer even than speech." Perhaps as a result, he uses a spare but high-pressure style, relentlessly paced, never indulgent; the moments of grace appear as just that, moments in a turbulent, complicated world, themselves achieved by hard work, constant rehearsal, trial and error. Even the risky conceit of Julia's hearing loss is handled coolly; like Michael, we shy away from pity even as we wonder how and why she can continue to make music she can hear fully only in her head. Beethoven too, we know, of course made music even after he could not hear it himself. In Julia's case (she's a fictional character, after all) we might ask if there is a metaphorical or symbolic dimension. Characters lose their sight in order to gain insight; is music here also a state of mind or perception from which sensory experience is a distraction? "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter"? But in the end it does seem to be the "heard melodies" that matter here, outweighing and outlasting every other desire, met or unmet, every painful, joyful love:
Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music--not too much, or the soul could not sustain it--from time to time.
Some love stories leave us longing (no doubt in vain) for that "happily ever after" ending, the miraculously harmonious human relationship. This one has left me longing for Bach and Schubert.

Follow-up: To my joy, it turns out there is a companion CD for this novel. I eagerly await its arrival and, eventually, a second reading of the novel complete with soundtrack.

June 4, 2007

Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

I really did not like this book. I can see all kinds of literary things going on in it, some of the writing is beautiful, especially the elegaic concluding section, and all of it is artful. I can also see thematically interesting things going on, especially with the self-conscious inquiry into whether the suicides are symptoms of a historical malaise or a cultural decline. But none of that offsets how disturbing and morbid the basic premise is, how voyeuristic (falling just the wrong side of that fine line between exploring and representing male adolescent fantasies, and indulging them), and how exploitive and prurient. Among other things, Eugenides does seem to be challenging his readers to consider why or how they interpret stories, how information and observation is drawn on selectively as the narrator and his friends draw on their "evidence" about the lives of the Lisbon sisters. Again, interesting. But while I don't think the novel glamorizes or makes light of suicide (it is, I'd say, despite everything, a sad and even tragic novel), it uses it to do these arty intellectual things. All five girls are objectified in life and death, and again, for me, the novel falls just on the wrong side of being about objectification vs. being objectifying. We have no idea who these girls are or what actually motivates them: their deaths matter because of how they affect others and how they are read by others. Fairly early in the novel there's a comment about the hell of being a girl at that time, but these girls do not live anything like a representative life, so again, they are being used as symbols. Now, I know better than to talk as if the Lisbon sisters are real people somehow being abused by an unjust novelist...but there's something awry with the imagination that set up this story, something uncomfortable about taking this premise in the first place.

June 1, 2007

Kermode, The Art of Telling

Today again, I have time only to post a couple of short excerpts from my current reading:
Their ['licensed practitioners'] right to practise is indicated by arbitrary signs, not only certificates, robes, and titles, but also professional jargons. The activities of such persons, whether diagnostic or exegetical, are privileged, and they have access to senses that do not declare themselves to the laity. Moreover they are subject, in professional matters, to no censure but that of other licensed practitioners acting as a body; the opinion of the laity is of no consequence whatever, a state of affairs which did not exist before the institution now under consideration firmly established itself--as anyone may see by looking with a layman's eye on the prose its members habitually write, and comparing it with the prose of critics who still thought of themselves as writing for an educated general public, for la cour et la ville. (170)
We wean candidates from the habit of literal reading. Like the masters who reserved secret senses in the second century, we are in the business of conducting readers out of the sphere of the manifest. Our institutional readings are not those of the outsiders, so much is self-evident; though it is only when we see some intelligent non-professional confronted by a critical essay from our side of the fence that we see how esoteric we are. (182)