November 30, 2007

This Week in My Classes (November 30, 2007)

This week in my classes we are all very tired, because it's almost the end of term. We're finishing Jude the Obscure in the 19th-century novels class, and Wednesday in my graduate seminar was our second session on Hester and the last meeting for the course overall. I think I'm finally tired of ending up with Jude: "nobody did come, because nobody does" (and variations, such as "'Throat--water--Sue--darling--drop of water--please--O please!' No water came...") is just not the best note to go out on. Speaking of conclusions, though, the ending of Hester proved very provocative, as it should, given the way it flouts the conventions of the marriage plot novel and also frustrates readings of Hester's story as any kind of Bildungsroman. Now we move into exams and papers, and perhaps in between grading and managing fellowship applications and admissions, I can also get the last tasks done on the anthology that I hope to submit to Broadview in January!

November 26, 2007

Dickens and "The Limitations of Anguished Humanism"

(Expanded version.)

Here's some context for the post I quoted on Friday from The Sharp Side. The discussion begins with a piece in The Guardian by Ronan Bennett criticizing "Islamophobic" statements by Martin Amis and broadening into a more general indictment of hostile expressions and actions towards Muslims, particularly by "writers claiming to be the champions of true liberalism." Towards the end of the piece, Bennett asks how novelists have behaved in this context, and he recalls the essays Ian McEwan wrote for The Guardian immediately after 9/11:
Four days after the Pentagon and the twin towers were attacked, the novelist Ian McEwan wrote on these pages: "Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality." As an expression of outraged, anguished humanism, McEwan's formulation was truthful, moving and humbling, and can hardly be bettered. But it seems to me the compassion is flowing in one direction, the anger in another. I can't help feeling that Amis's remarks, his defence of them, and the reaction to them were a test. They were a test of our commitment to a society in which imaginative sympathy applies not just to those like us but to those whose lives and beliefs run along different lines.

And I can't help feeling we failed that test. Amis got away with it. He got away with as odious an outburst of racist sentiment as any public figure has made in this country for a very long time. Shame on him for saying it, and shame on us for tolerating it.

(McEwan's essays can be found here and here.) The Sharp Side posted a response that pointed to "the limitations of anguished humanism" the author sees in responses such as McEwan's:
McEwan’s brand of compassion is oddly reminiscent of George Eliot’s. Her solution to working-class unrest was a change in the human heart. Instead of nonsense like trade unions and an 8 hour day, she advocated that everyone should just be nicer to each other. Compassionate understanding – not social equality.

“Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity.” According to McEwan, this is the novelist’s gift. And who was better at imagining a whole cast of characters than Charles Dickens? And what happened when the Indian mutiny broke out? Did Dickens use his prodigious imaginative gifts to understand why there was resistance to the British occupation of India? He certainly dreamed of being Commander in Chief of the British army of occupation. In this role, he assured his dear friend Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, he would “do my utmost to exterminate the [Indian] Race” and “with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution…blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.”
This is the post remarked by This Space, who concludes "Again, Kafka is proved right to recognise "a heartlessness behind [Dickens'] sentimentally overflowing style". Then came the longer "indictment" of Dickens at The Sharp Side, which has since followed up with further contextual information; follow-up discussion can also be found here.

I wanted to at least begin sorting out my thoughts on this exchange. There are a number of issues mingling in these discussions, probably the least interesting of which (from a literary standpoint) is the biographical question of Dickens's racist / imperialist views. One question is how far admiration of writers' work commits someone to admiration of the writers personally--or, coming at it from the other direction, whether distaste for a writer's character (personality, values, politics, etc.) ought to affect our estimation of his or her work. (Do we also wonder whether whole-hearted endorsement of writers' values or politics ought to motivate us to value their literary productions especially highly? I think we allow, in such cases, for plenty of "yes, but..." responses.) A further question is whether writers' work inevitably (if not explicitly) reflects or reproduces their stated values, so that if we learn something distasteful about a writer, we should re-examine our understanding of their work expecting to find traces of that quality. If Dickens was racist, is it inevitable that his works are, in some way, also racist? Do we--must we--read them differently once this biographical aspect is known? Does an indictment of Dickens's ideology lead us towards an indictment of his fiction? The initial Sharp Side post suggests that the answer is yes: that the stance of "anguished humanism" attributed to his novels is inevitably a flawed or inadequate attitude, as we should expect from someone who could express "genocidal" sentiments. So the biographical criticism is meant to affect our literary criticism (at least insofar as that criticism is political).

Not wholly 'by the way,' I think the above account of George Eliot's "compassion" is not just reductive but inaccurate. "A change in the human heart" is not a bad summary of Dickens's proposed solution to class conflict, but GE (while admittedly a skeptic about rapid social transformation by way of mechanical devices such as suffrage--see Felix Holt, for instance) has much more complicated and demanding views on sympathy. She is certainly one of those who believe fiction can (and should) help us "imagin[e] what it is like to be someone other than [ourselves]," though. From "The Natural History of German life":

The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.
Perhaps it is helpful to consider that this sympathetic imagination of others is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for morality ("raw material," as GE says). This essay also contains her well-known criticism of Dickens for the "transcendent unreality" of some of his representations, which limit, she argues, his contribution to the "awakening of social sympathies." The two of them can't be quite so simply lumped together.

Addendum: I think bloggers need a code that indicates something like 'had I but world enough and time'--it would be at least as useful as LOL, at least for academic types. But HIBWEAT is unwieldy... suggestions welcome. In any event, I do want to add some bits and pieces to what I've been able to post so far. The questions Sharp's post provokes are not new ones, of course, but they continue to be difficult ones, and (HIBWEAT) I think it would be worth working through them more patiently with reference to some of the thoughtful contributions made by those working at the intersection of literature and ethics or moral philosophy. (The discussion would also bring in the question recently raised at A Comfortable Place about why, if we can no longer be sure that the humanities "improve us," we should continue to study them.) In Philosophy and Literature a few years back, for instance, there was a piece by Richard Posner called "Against Ethical Criticism" (21:1, 1997); it was followed by responses from Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, and then Posner's reply (22:2, 1998). Among the topics they debated were the relevance of an "author's moral qualities or opinions" to our "valuations of their works" (they basically agree that no, it should not--which, for what it's worth, seemed to be the consensus in my afternoon class today when I asked whether it changed their view of Dickens's novels to learn of his "genocidal" views). Here's Booth, right on topic:
Should the moral qualities of the flesh-and-blood author affect our evaluation of any work? For example, should a brilliant story celebrating the triumph of compassion be dismissed when we discover that the author actually beats his wife? Should my judgment of the literary worth of the novels by the Marquis de Sade be determined by learning that he committed atrociously sadistic acts, or, in the opposite direction, that Sade could behave generously, however rarely?

I hope we would all answer "no." Moralistic criticism that answers "yes" is dangerous. Authors whose daily behavior is scandalous can compose stories of wondrous moral richness, sometimes actually realizing, as Samuel Johnson liked to insist, their own genuine ethical aspirations better than they ever do in "real life." As he says, "a man writes much better than he lives." I love living with the Tolstoy I meet in his novels. But I would certainly not want to live with the man that his mistreated wife had to live with. Does this view of the man change my judgments of War and Peace? Absolutely not. On the other hand, a perfect angel might write a tale exhibiting every conceivable fault, including a lot of ethical balderdash. ("Why Banning Ethical Criticism is a Serious Mistake")
Readers who can't reconcile their readerly experience of Dickens via his novels with revelations about his personal prejudices can be helped out with Booth's idea of the "implied author": "the full engagement is with the chooser, the molder, the shaper" of the story--"it is that chooser who constitutes the full ethos of any work" and Booth argues (persuasively, I think) that it is "that chooser" with whose ethics we must engage. Of course, the question of whether Dickens's novels are morally admirable or objectionable begins, not ends, here. Both Booth and Nussbaum provide extensive examples of how we might pursue such an ethical inquiry through attentive reading of literary form, while Posner defends a version of aestheticism according to which "the moral content and consequences of a work of literature are irrelevant to its value as literature" ("Against Ethical Criticism"). (Interested readers will find Booth's The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction a particularly rich and engaging source of ideas and questions.) This cluster of essays also includes discussion of what Nussbaum calls "the empathetic torturer" and the "bad-litterati" arguments, including the example raised at A Comfortable Place of the art-and-music-loving-Nazis. I think among the most salient points to be made in this context is that there are ways and ways of reading (and listening). Here's a sound-bite from Nussbaum to indicate how such an argument might get going: "reading can only have the good effects we claim for it if one reads with immersion, not just as a painful duty." Both she and Booth are great advocates of the reader's responsibility to give the story "a fair chance": "only after such an effort to understand should we engage in overstanding" (Booth). "I am not aware," Nussbaum also notes--a bit deadpan?--"that Nazis were great readers of Dickens"--thus returning us more or less to where we began, and certainly running me out of time for tonight.

Further Addendum: Finally, HIBWEAT, I think the next step, and the one that perhaps goes to the heart of Sharp's criticism (I don't know the character of the blog well enough to be sure, but the Dickens posts certainly point in this direction), is to consider some arguments against the idea that humanism itself is an inadequate literary or moral stance. After all, the post points to the "limitations of anguished humanism" and then uses Dickens as an example of that theory apparently running up against its inherent limitations. Included in this discussion would be critiques of literary criticism that, like Booth's and Nussbaum's, is itself essentially humanistic (though terms would need to be defined, historicized, etc.). As this post is already too long for almost any blog reader to make it to the end (see previous discussions about the limitations of the blogosphere...), I'll just say that it does not go without saying that humanism has lost all credibility. Interesting sources on what a modern, theoretically-aware critical humanism would involve include Richard Freadman and Seamus Miller's Re-Thinking Theory: A Critique of Contemporary Literary Theory and an Alternative Account, Daniel R. Schwarz, The Humanistic Heritage: Critical Theories of the English Novel from James to Hillis Miller, and Charles Altieri, Canons and Consequences: Reflections on the Ethical Force of Imaginative Ideals. It's not that the arguments of these (and other related) books are conclusive; it's just that it often seems too readily assumed that once you've named Arnold and Leavis as the elder statesmen of literary humanism, you've killed it off as a viable option.

I hope it's obvious that the point here is not to defend Dickens the man but to complicate the moves that people might make from feeling "shocked and utterly appalled" at learning he said such things to feeling that this negative judgment automatically extends to his novels. Maybe most readers would (like my students) shrug off that suggestion. I hope so. The thing is, most people who would say something like "I love Dickens" really mean they love what they experience as readers of his novels. Unless that experience is itself somehow caught up in his "genocidal" views, those people have nothing to worry about, and the test of that possibility is in re-reading the novels. For the record, then, I love Dickens...though I don't agree that Great Expectations is his greatest novel. This year anyway, my vote is for Bleak House. And if anyone is still reading, I think we've proved that we can use a blog for something fairly sustained after all.

November 23, 2007

"Indicting Charles Dickens"?

From The Sharp Side, a post "indicting Charles Dickens":
This Space is shocked to learn that Dickens was an advocate of genocide. In fact the novelist’s wish to see Indians wiped from the face of earth was perfectly consistent with his lifelong racism. In his massive Dickens biography Peter Ackroyd acknowledges but softens the relevant material (just as Ackroyd’s biography of Sir Thomas More passes lightly over the astonishing reality that More imprisoned and brutalised religious dissidents at his Chelsea home).

It’s interesting just how much the sentimental popular image of Dickens is at variance with the realities of his life. When the standard biographical introduction to the Penguin English Library editions of Dickens’ novels used to assert of his wife Kate that she was ‘a shadowy, slow person’ who ‘had never suited his exuberant temperament very well’ it simply reproduced the version which Dickens orchestrated in his lifetime. He fathered ten children on her but she was never really his type. Just how effectively Dickens controlled his public image is revealed in Claire Tomalin’s illuminating and entertaining investigation of his secret life.

What should most concern us now, of course, are Dickens’s crimes against literature. His use of exclamation marks, say – scattered like sugar across the marzipan treats of anagnorisis and peripeteia. Worst of all, perhaps, is what he did to his finest novel, Great Expectations. Here, the whimsy and the sentiment are held back and Dickens delivers a dark, troubling study of delusion and obsession. But when his friend the hack bestseller writer Edward Bulwer Lytton deplored the unhappy ending, Dickens rushed to make amends. In place of the bleak and desolating original, Dickens substituted a trite romantic coincidence and the serene reassurance of closure. Of this cop-out new ending he wrote, ‘I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.’
I don't have time for an extended response (maybe on the weekend, though my 'must get done' list is terribly long!). But, just quickly on the issue of "crimes against literature," I will just say that I think the revised ending of Great Expectations offers only the most ambiguous promise of 'closure,' and its tone and imagery seem to me to improve on the fairly blunt, abrupt first try.

November 20, 2007

Kindle kindles my interest...

Update: From Amazon Customer Service: "At this time, we are unable to offer the Amazon Kindle and associated digital content from the Kindle Store to our international customers due to import/export laws and other restrictions." Well, never mind. Regular books work just fine for me, even if they do make my bags heavy when I travel. (Not that I was actually about to drop $400 on a gadget anyway!)

Original Post: I love books as artefacts--the look, the smell, the feel of the pages, the jacket designs, the inscriptions on the fly leaves from loved ones, the history of their material existence that old ones carry with them like an aura. Books are also, as many have pointed out, near-perfect technology for their purposes. It has been hard to imagine an electronic device giving as much pleasure, or allowing the same range of uses, even it could deliver the same content. But this week Amazon is launching its new Kindle, and I admit, I'd like to be able to try one out. Mark Thwaite at ReadySteadyBook points us to the write-up at the OUPblog:
With the keyboard driving the ability to look up and notate content, the cellular wireless feature feeds the user with instant ecommerce gratification and enables connectivity to the broader world of content. Imagine finishing an ebook while stranded in the airport and not being able to get more content unless you find a bookstore. With cellular wireless connectivity (Amazon is calling their wireless service Whispernet) you can get instant access to the Amazon ebookstore and buy a new book to while away the hours… And if getting more ebooks instantly isn’t compelling enough, getting access to subscription products such as newspapers will be optimal with Kindle. Wake up every morning and the New York Times will be as up to date as the online version, but as easy and convenient to read as the paper version. (read the rest here)
The Amazon product description amplifies what is meant by 'notate content': "By using the keyboard, you can add annotations to text, just like you might write in the margins of a book. And because it is digital, you can edit, delete, and export your notes, highlight and clip key passages, and bookmark pages for future use. You'll never need to bookmark your last place in the book, because Kindle remembers for you and always opens to the last page you read." Awesome! But now the question all serious booklovers need answered: can you read the Kindle safely in the bathtub?

Follow-Up: I'm also wondering whether the device will be available for customers outside the U.S. Amazon.Ca does not seem to be listing it. So far I haven't found this question directly addressed at Amazon.Com; I've written to their Customer Service to see what I can find out.

This Week in My Classes (November 20, 2007)

The great Middlemarch festival is, sadly, over for this year (well, for this term, at any rate--I get to go through it again in my winter seminar on the Victorian 'woman question'). Here's what's up:

1. 19th-Century Novel. This course is in the Calendar as "The 19th-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy." So we started with Great Expectations and now we've arrived at Jude the Obscure. Perhaps it's not the kindest thing in the world to wrap up our term's work with a novel that focuses on ruined hopes, blighted scholarly aspirations, failed love, and death. On the other hand, usually (to my dismay) my students love this stuff. Certainly we will find lots of continuities between Jude and our other readings, despite some dramatic differences in tone or attitude. We began with Trollope's quizzical look at wordliness in the Church of England, for instance: though it's hard to imagine two books that read more differently than Jude and The Warden, both urge us to consider the role of institutionalized religion in social as well as spiritual affairs. Great Expectations gives us another ambitious young man whose aspirations are complicated, if not wholly dashed--and Estella, as well as Lady Audley, provides intriguing points of comparison to both Arabella and Sue. Middlemarch sets us up to consider Hardy's indictment of social mores, especially in relation to marriage; we'll also talk about both novels' inquiry into morality, especially in the absence of faith. I usually take as the epigraph for our class work on the novel the narrator's remark, "nobody did come, because nobody does." (There's also a late Hardy poem called "Nobody Comes.") I don't usually find much to say about the form of the novel, though when we get to Father Time we'll consider what this heavy-handed allegorical element is doing in what seemed, until then, like a realist novel, and we'll talk about it a bit in terms of tragedy. I find Hardy a pretty clunky stylist; there's not much aesthetic pleasure in his sentences for me.

2. Victorian Women Writers. Here we are taking up our last 'lady novelist' with Margaret Oliphant's Hester. We began the course with Oliphant's Autobiography, in which she famously remarks that nobody will ever speak of her in the same breath as George Eliot. While putting one of her novels up right after Middlemarch might seem a bit unfair, well, she asks for it. And Hester is reading well so far, on this time through. It's particularly interesting to come at Hester herself after spending so much time with Margaret (in North and South) and Dorothea: all these energetic young women looking so hard for something useful to do! They make Jane Eyre seem quite self-centered...interesting how much more attractive she has been to feminist critics. The editors of our edition remark that Oliphant shares the "mysterious literalness" of Trollope. That seems right to me; as I've remarked before, both writers seem to have a kind of "a spade is just a spade" quality to their plots and prose, making symbolic readings seem perverse. At the same time, the social reach of the story is extensive. Oliphant's characterizations, though they strike me as somewhat more haphazard than Eliot's, are one of her strengths, I think. Along with the novel, we're reading some critics who make various interesting and fairly plausible arguments for the subversive potential of Oliphant's approach to literary conventions, or for the ways her pragmatic approach to novel-writing undercuts some kinds of claims about women's relationship to literary authority or tradition. I think (I hope) the relative lack of criticism about Hester in particular will be liberating for our class discussion. Jane Eyre and Middlemarch are especially difficult to work with because it seems so difficult to find something fresh to say.

November 18, 2007

Blogging Talk Follow-Up

There was a great turn-out and a lot of lively discussion at my talk on Friday about blogging. Several people suggested that they would like links to the material I highlighted, so I'm providing them below, grouped by where I used them in my presentation. First, though, here are some of the things I've taken away with me to think about more.

Because I framed my discussion of blogging with some material on academic publishing, one topic that got a fair amount of attention in the questions after was peer-review; this was no surprise, and also it's something that is addressed a lot among academics who blog. One colleague made the interesting observation that debates about academic blogging seem always (including in my talk) to be set up in terms of its potential contributions to or value as research; much less consideration is given to how it might relate to our teaching. I know there are people using blogging as a pedagogical tool, as a way for students to communicate with each other about course material, for instance, or as a version of reading responses (Miriam Jones does course blogs, for instance). But I think this comment was not so much about how we might add student blogging to our array of assignment options (though others picked up on this possibility as appealing) as about how writing as an academic blogger might put a kind of public face on our own pedagogical activities and ideas (along the lines of what I have been doing with my posts on 'This Week in My Classes,' perhaps). The 'routine' or everyday character of blogging also matches the rhythm of teaching, in which you are incessantly rethinking your material and looking for ways to bring it to life (intellectually and affectively) in your classes. Writing up this work requires conceptualizing it in ways that perhaps we don't always do otherwise--and also, I've found, brings out connections I might not have seen otherwise. I've seen some suggestions that, of the categories used to measure academics' professional contributions, blogging should be considered 'service'; I guess I think that's just a way out of trying to evaluate the substance of the writing.

Another suggestion, from the same colleague, was that academic scholarship has a wider audience outside the academy than is often supposed. I'm not sure how we would go about testing this hypothesis, but it would be interesting to know. And another colleague observed, also in discussion about our relationship to the wider public, that teaching is too often overlooked (in my dozen years of teaching, how many students have passed through my classes? it's tricky to measure, especially as many students take two or more classes with me--I've had some take five or six!--but certainly the number would be somewhere around 2000). As others pointed out in response, even so, that's only a fraction of the reading public, and only for a limited part of their lives (and when they are under compulsion to pay attention!). But when measuring our impact on literary culture, it's true that we ought to take teaching into account. (That said, one of the reasons I've been thinking again about my own research projects is that they tended not to resemble very much the work I do for my teaching. This is where the trouble starts, for me.)

Finally, another colleague proposed that, overall, the internet is great for connections, comments, and other 'lighter' forms of scholarly interaction (I'm paraphrasing) but not suited for sustained analysis. I think this is true in a way, but more because of how we use the internet than because of any necessary limits on its forms. Among the disincentives to long, thoughtful posts is that they don't 'matter' or 'count' professionally, for example. But if we re-imagine scholarly discourse to accommodate or value some kinds of on-line exchanges as professional contributions (CV-worthy, in other words), I don't see why they should be taken any less seriously by writers or readers than, say, 'responses' to articles that sometimes appear in journals by invitation--which are not, strictly speaking, peer-reviewed in the same way as anonymous submissions. Participation in book events is a form of on-line academic discourse that seems basically equivalent to publishing a book review, with the extra burden of having to respond to other scholars' queries or dissenting views. (Update: See Dan Green's thoughts on these issues at The Reading Experience.)

Overall, then, much to continue thinking about. As the point of my presentation was to get just this kind of conversation going, I consider it a success. Thanks to everyone who showed up!


First, I compiled a number of links about academic blogging previously; see here. Also, if I referred in my talk to a source I haven't included here and you'd like to follow it up, let me know; it wasn't feasible to put in every single cited source.

I. Questions About Academic Publishing

MLA Task Force Report
FitzPatrick, "On the Future of Academic Publishing, Peer Review, and Tenure Requirements
Krause, "Considering the Value of Self-Published Websites"

II. Questions About Audiences: Ourselves, Other Academics, Other Readers

Erin O'Connor, "Relatively Sincere"Lisa Ruddick, "The Near Enemy of the Humanities is Professionalism"

III. Blogging in Particular

Tedra Osell (BitchPhD), Academic Blogging and the Public Sphere
John Holbo, "Form Follows the Function of the Little Magazine"
Miriam Jones, "What I Told the Tenure Committee"

IV. Varieties of Literary and Academic Blogs (samples)

Conversational Reading
The Elegant Variation
The Reading Experience

Academic (Administrative, Literary, and Other)
Confessions of a Community College Dean
Deans' Weblog
The Little Professor
Michael Berube
The Long Eighteenth
Blogging the Renaissance
Crooked Timber
The Valve

V. Long-time Bloggers Reflect

An Enthusiast's View of Academic Blogging
A Skeptic's Take on Academic Blogging
Academic Blogging Revisited

November 15, 2007

Say it isn't so!

Bad news from the west coast: Murchie's Tea and Coffee is in receivership:

The company has been importing, blending and selling its specialty teas and coffees for the Victoria and Vancouver markets since John Murchie founded the company in 1894.

The elegant tea rooms and shops remained a family operation under current president Gwen Murchie, but now the company is up for sale. (read the full CBC story here)

What does this have to do with literature or criticism, you ask? For me, lots, as I have been sitting down with a book and a cup of Murchie's tea for more than three decades! Here's hoping they find a sympathetic and savvy buyer who can keep the tradition alive--and all my favourite blends available.

November 14, 2007

This Week in My Classes (November 14, 2007)

It's a short week, thanks to the Remembrance Day holiday. It's also the last week on Middlemarch in both my classes. My graduate seminar has already met; following a good presentation raising questions about the relationship of different characters (especially Dorothea) to political reform, we had some lively discussion about the feminist critiques (and defenses) of Middlemarch raised in our cluster of secondary readings for the day, and then moved to questions about the role of desire in the novel and about Rosamond and how far the novel realizes its ostensible project of sympathy where she is concerned. Inevitably there were topics we wanted to talk about but couldn't. The same will be true in my undergraduate class this afternoon: it's always a challenge deciding what to cover, with a novel so capacious in its interests and complex in its plot and structure. I'll use some time to clarify ways the novel's final events, especially, of course, the climactic encounter between Rosamond and Dorothea, work out the novel's central ideas about egotism, altruism, and sympathy. Then I think we'll debate whether Dorothea's ending is a failure, and if so, of what, and with what effects. I like to bring in some of the many criticisms of Will Ladislaw, whom Henry James early on called "the only eminent failure in the book": "he is, in short, roughly speaking, a woman's man." Then there's Gilbert and Gubar's rather different take: "Will is Eliot's radically anti-patriarchal attempt to create an image of masculinity attractive to women." In Approaches to Teaching Middlemarch, Juliet McMaster notes that "[her] students have strong responses to Will...and that their responses are often (though certainly not always) aligned with their sex. Usually, the women like him, the men don't. As a way of setting the cat among the pigeons, I have sometimes suggested to my classful of young men and women that the male reader tends to object to Will because he is jealous of him." I like to encourage students to look for thematic reasons why Will does (or does not) make the 'right' partner for Dorothea, at least of the options she has. And as for the debate about whether the ending is happy, I usually bring in other novels with less problematic romantic conclusions (Pride and Prejudice, for instance) and ask them to think about the effects of satisfaction vs. the effects of dissatisfaction. A. S. Byatt remarks (in the DVD feature we watched last week) that one thing Virginia Woolf may have meant by calling Middlemarch a novel "for grown-up people" is that it is a novel that does not "pander" to the fairy-tale form. And yet Dorothea herself is happy in her choice: it seems important to separate our own possible dissatisfactions from her judgment--as well as to think about the implications of or reasons for our differences of view (a very Middlemarch thing to do!).

November 11, 2007

Victorian Goodies from The Guardian

Jenny Uglow on Gaskell's Cranford, now being dramatized by the BBC:
This is not entirely escapist territory, despite its air of nostalgia. The Amazons of Cranford, like the ladies of Mr Harrison's Duncombe and Lady Ludlow's Hanbury, are not sheltered beings.
They have been through much a youthful love affair stifled, a life threatened by bankruptcy, an estate lost through gambling. And while they squabble over the sedan chair and settle down to cards, they also hear in the distance the rumble of the new, speedy world with its railways and new-fangled medical treatments, its factories and mines. The stories are wonderfully funny, but the ridiculous is bathed in a poignant, dreamlike mood found nowhere else in fiction, and profound ideas and strong values sleep beneath everyday details of bonnets and cakes. (read the rest here)
And a new 'neo-Victorian' novel, The Journal of Dora Damage, by Belinda Starling (a good Dickensian name):
Starling skilfully conjures up a dank, deviant London, although at times the plot seems as bewildering and overcrowded as the city itself - opium dens, blackmail, the American Civil War, the slave trade. Yet the novel's twin themes of subjugation and emancipation are interesting and well balanced; the idea of intense satisfaction gained through sexual pleasure and meaningful work is gratifying, as are the memorable characterisation and plush imagery. (read the Guardian review here; see also the LA Times review here)

Recent Reading

I've fallen behind in writing up my recent reading, but I have in fact read a few things besides the books for my classes this term. Here are at least some brief comments on them--so that I can tidy them back onto my bookshelves.

1. K. M. Peyton, the Pennington series. These are old, old favourites of mine; the copies I have are battered old Vancouver Public Library discards, and as the series does not appear to be in print any longer, I'll continue to cherish these. I picked them off my shelf again when I was thinking about the issues touched on in my post about 'just right' books for children. Although these books are written for young readers, they seem to me to assume fairly adult interests; Pennington's Heir, for instance, turns to a large extent on the drama and demands of Penn's learning to play Liszt's B-minor sonata. The vocabulary also aims high: one short paragraph, for instance, includes both 'assuage' and 'punctilious,' words I'm sure I didn't know when I first read the books. Now, as then, it's the characters--driven, complicated, impulsive, trying to find their way--that draw me into the story.

2. Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I hadn't read this in years but, perhaps for the same reasons that I was drawn back to the Pennington books, I couldn't resist it when I came across it in a second-hand bookstore recently. The style seemed remarkably blunt to me when I began reading; with the exception of the central motif of the tree, it's almost wholly non-'literary,' just moving along from one person and even to the next. Yet the cumulative effect is powerfully evocative of a time and place. I didn't find Francie altogether believable or compelling, especially towards the end. Perhaps it's a sign of how my own position in life has changed that it was her parents whose story moved me the most!

3. Anne Tyler, Digging to America. Anne Tyler has written some of my favourite novels, including Ladder of Years, Back When We Were Grown-Ups, The Patchwork Planet, and The Accidental Tourist. I have always agreed with Wayne Booth's remark (about Back When We Were Grown-Ups) that with her, you always feel she is giving you the best she has got. (I believe the comparison he is drawing is to Peter Benchley's Jaws, which Booth does not consider very flattering to its implied audience.) Tyler's prose is spare but deft; her lightness of touch often conceals, or eases us into, more difficult feelings of regret, poignancy, and loss. But typically her protagonists, who often begin their novels as wistful or wry misfits in the lives they are living, come through their process of exploration only to find themselves happy, after all, with what they have made or found. Somewhere recently I came across a comment about her realism being of a "conservative" type. I'm not sure if it is because of the form and style she uses (there's nothing metafictional or postmodern about it) or because of this tendency to teach her characters to appreciate what they already have. (I've written a bit about this before when comparing the fate or attitude of Tyler's heroines to those of Joanna Trollope's and George Eliot's.) Tyler's novels also typically operate on quite a small scale: marriages, families, with only implicit engagement with the larger social systems that shape them. The Amateur Marriage moved that domesticity into a larger historical frame; to me, the novel seemed (perhaps as a result?) to be moving too fast for itself, so the kinds of intensely evocative tiny moments, and the nuances, of the novels I like best were diffused. Digging to America also takes on more, and in this case I found that the lightness of handling I usually appreciate seemed inappropriate to the topics it touches on, including the tensions of post-9/11 America. But at the same time, I appreciate what I take to be Tyler's ideas, that big political conflicts are experienced very personally, and that national, ethnic, or religious stereotypes lose their potency when we focus on the individual--on what, in her other books, we also see as the "quirkiness" of people seen up close. This may be a novel that grows on me.

4. Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach. This is a book that has been written on plenty recently by all kinds of terribly serious book types; I find I don't have much to say about it myself. I admired Saturday enormously. This novel seemed to think too much of itself and its subject. I was struck, page after page, by the technical control McEwan shows: every word seemed solid, judicious, effective. But I just didn't care for the purpose he was using them for. On Friday I showed my class the excellent documentary included with the DVD of Middlemarch. It includes interviews with David Lodge, Terry Eagleton, A. S. Byatt, Kate Flint, and Claire Tomalin, all, of course, supremely articulate. At one point Tomalin remarks (I forget a propos of just what question) that "George Eliot writes about sex perfectly: she never mentions it, and of course that's the best way to write about it. Who needs the penis and the pubic hair? That's not sex. Sex is the feeling" (that might not be the exact quotation--but close enough to get the point). Perhaps the distinction might be that you don't need the explicit elements of sex to achieve eroticism; is there a more erotically charged scene in 'proper' Victorian literature than the moment in which Stephen Guest kisses the inside of Maggie Tulliver's arm in The Mill on the Floss? McEwan writes like a clinician; even the feelings his couple have are dissected, presented for our analysis and judgment. It seemed a tired cliche to me (despite his careful historicization of their attitudes) that he is keen and she is uninterested, even frigid. It also struck me as unfair that at the end, it becomes his novel. For most of the book, their perspectives are balanced, one against the other. Somewhere there's a paper to be written (no doubt, being written) on McEwan's late fiction and "Dover Beach"...

5. Jane Smiley, Moo. I picked this up soon after reading Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel, which I wrote about, mostly admiringly, before. This one, I'm sorry to say, I haven't finished yet, though I began it months ago. It turns out it is arch. I don't enjoy arch, at least not in long stretches.

6. Elizabeth von Armin, The Enchanted April. This was delightful. In many ways, it was exactly what I expected, light but touching, warm but poignant. Without extended explicit social commentary, it shows its women realizing, emotionally more than intellectually, how the constraints of their usual world confine them, but also how they contribute to their own diminishment. More than the movie version, the novel maintains some skepticism about the rapprochement of the women and their husbands (for instance, we always know, though Lotty doesn't, that Mellersh is well-behaved mostly because he hopes to gain clients, and we also know the comedy of errors that nearly erupted because Frederick comes to see the wrong woman). But what I wasn't expecting was the marvellously tactile quality of von Armin's prose:
The cherry-trees and peach-trees were in blossom--lovely showers of white and deep rose-colour among the trembling delicacy of the olives; the fig-leaves were just big enough to smell of figs, the vine-buds were only beginning to show. And beneath these trees were groups of blue and purple irises, and bushes of lavendar, and grey, sharp cactuses, and the grass was thick with dandelions and daisies, and right down at the bottom was the sea. Colour seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of colour, piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers...
The obvious comparison is with A Room with a View (and I learned from the afterword in my edition that Forster tutored von Arnim's children for a time). But this novel is about adults coming to terms with their lives and loves, and so it has more wistfulness, and more lurking pathos, than Forster's. I loved Mrs Fisher's gradual emergence from what Lotty calls her "cocoon" (even if it is, like Lucy's awakening in A Room with a View, basically at the expense of the Victorians): "Her great dead friends [Ruskin, Arnold, Tennyson...] did not seem worth reading that night. . . . No doubt they were greater than any one was now, but they had this immense disadvantage, that they were dead. Nothing further was to be expected of them; while of the living, what might one not still expect?" The afterword remarks, rather unexpectedly, "The novel is the lightest of omelettes, in the making of which the least possible number of eggs gets broken. Only an incorrigible pedant would try to judge it at a deeper level." Well, call me incorrigible, and a pedant (I've been called worse, goodness knows), but I enjoyed the novel so much it lit a little spark of scholar's curiosity in me and made me curious to look up a former M.A. student of mine I haven't heard from in a while whom I recall had proposed a Ph.D. project on von Arnim. It also (especially in combination with our first snow of the season) made me dream of going back to Italy!

Next up? I picked up A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on my last expedition to Doull's (Haligonians know all about Doull's and its temptations). But I've also got Suite Francaise and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in my 'to read next' pile--and first priority is Margaret Oliphant's Hester to begin again for my graduate seminar.

November 9, 2007

Rehabilitating Rhett Butler?

The New York Times Sunday Book Review includes this review by Stephen L. Carter of Rhett Butler's People, a recent novel by Donald McCaig. I'm not sure the review inspires me to read McCaig's novel, but it does increase my desire to re-read Gone with the Wind, a book I read more than two dozen times in my youth but have not returned to since I turned professional. Even in my earliest readings, I think I knew enough, as an avid reader and history buff (and daughter of a civil rights activist) to recognize that idealizing the Old South was unacceptable, but my recollection is that I always felt it was the movie that played the nostalgia card, not the book. The opening text of the movie, for instance, none of which (except the phrase 'gone with the wind' itself, of course) is taken from the novel, reads,
There was a land of Cavaliers and cotton fields called the Old South...Here in this patrician world the Age of Chivalry took its last bow...Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave...Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind...
I copied out that text from the movie once so that I could use it when I teach Scott's Waverley; part of what I argue (drawing, of course, on a number of critics including the wise man who taught me to appreciate Scott, Harry E. Shaw) is that Scott avoids such idealization of the past, attaching that kind of naivete to Waverley himself before "the romance of his life has ended and its real history [has] begun." My memory of the novel has always been that it is not sentimental in this way, and that while it is about people fighting for "the Cause," it does not, itself, embrace that Cause as obviously worth their blood and tears. For one thing, the most loyal characters (Melanie, for instance) are the weakest and least able to survive; the momentum towards the future is powerful, with Scarlett's selfish pragmatism outpacing any other ideological commitments (though she operates unthinkingly with the racist assumptions of her upbringing, slavery is primarily a means to an end for her, readily replaced with white convict labour as times change--her readiness to use people of all kinds to achieve her goals is her moral trademark, as is true of her closest Victorian counterpart, Becky Sharp). But here is Carter's summary of the novel's attitude:
“Gone With the Wind” was published in 1936, and despite heroic efforts over the last seven decades to transform it into something else, the novel stands as an apologia for the Old South — the South of gallant white plantation owners and darkies too foolish for anything but slavery, a civilization ruined by a vengeful North that subsequently flooded that idyllic world with rapacious Union soldiers, greedy carpetbaggers and the despotic power of the Freedmen’s Bureau. That Mitchell was able to defend this vision in a novel of such power, beauty and depth is a tribute to her literary genius. But the vision is no less terrifying for having been brilliantly presented.
These generalizations seem (again, in my recollection of the novel) open to a number of counter-examples (there actually aren't many "gallant plantation owners," for instance, except the Wilkeses, with the other county families of varying degrees of wealth and pretty mixed manners [and the whole community carefully historicized], and Mitchell apparently found quite comic the way Tara was transformed from her idea of a prosperous farmer's home into a pillared mansion--and while I remember black characters who conform to the negative stereotype Carter invokes, I also remember characters like Dilcey, and I wonder if Mammy's role is so simply degraded and degrading).

I think part of what we might return to is a question I raised earlier in thinking about the film Far from Heaven, which was also, as I look back, a point at which I thought about Gone with the Wind as it might look to me today. The main character in "Far from Heaven" suffers socially for her liberal views on both race and, as it turns out, homosexuality
, which are shown as highly atypical in her community and social circle;
I found myself wondering if it would be impossible to do a sympathetic story in which a character who is not tolerant of such divergence from the norms was the protagonist: Kathleen's best friend, for instance, who feels sorry for her having a gay husband (but has no liberal views on homosexuality), and whose sympathy seems to dry up when Kathleen admits her feelings for a black man. Of course we do not accept or want to sympathize with those attitudes, but does her (historically typical) mindset put her outside the pale? Is this why Gone with the Wind is not an entirely respectable novel today--because, among other things, its main characters are almost all quite satisfied with racial discrimination and slavery? But isn't that realistic, in terms of majority opinion in the antebellum south? Can you depict that society as it was historically, depict its Weltanschauung without a layer of overt critique, and not appear to be (or really be) endorsing past values which we have learned to reject as immoral?
(It occurs to me that the best example I know of a novel that knowingly makes us intimate with a wrong-headed protagonist is Ishiguro's brilliant The Remains of the Day, though even there, it's not Lord Darlington we are brought to sympathize with.) At any rate, Carter's view that "the filmmakers were in fact trying to sanitize Mitchell’s novel" does not seem obviously true to me in terms of its overall attitude--though he is right to point to the indirection introduced about "the Klan" as an example of easing our relationship to one of the novel's most dramatic but also problematic incidents. It's interesting that Carter acknowledges "power, beauty, and depth" in the novel while also rejecting it ethically and politically; this seems like a good case for the kind of analysis Wayne Booth experiments with in The Company We Keep, in terms of how far we can separate ethical and aesthetic judgments.

A further question Carter's review raised for me--or, really, the whole project of the novel he's reviewing raised--is what does it mean to "rehabilitate" someone who never actually existed?

The Klan question, the woman he dishonored, the rumors of a bastard in New Orleans, the money supposedly pilfered from the Confederate treasury — all of this McCaig explains away while keeping the story moving at a nice clip, faster even than the original....

McCaig pierces the mystery in which Mitchell shrouded Rhett Butler. He gives Rhett a life. We begin to understand where he came from, and why he was the way he was and did the things he did. McCaig discards Ripley’s cumbersome tale and invents fresh lives even for the characters necessarily common to both sequels. The new story has its own integrity. It makes sense.
It's not as if what he has provided is the real backstory of the character (any more than Jean Rhys provided the true story of Mr Rochester's first marriage when she wrote Wide Sargasso Sea--an oddly common perception among students, which suggests that they are getting it from their teachers...). To what extent does, or should, this new story infiltrate our interpretation of the original? Carter concludes his review by suggesting that "after finishing Rhett Butler’s People, it may be impossible to read Gone With the Wind in quite the same way." I can't test that theory unless I read McCaig's novel, but once the pressure of the term lets up, maybe I can at least read Gone with the Wind again for myself.

November 8, 2007

It's Application Season Again... here's what you've all been waiting for: "the template that a nation of anxious undergrads [and MA students!] has been looking for":

This project was deeply influenced by your thinking and I am very grateful for that will you please advise my Ph.D. dissertation.

Oh!!!! And Your Institution also has that Awesome Institute/Center/Program-Thing! Which I know absolutely nothing about but am totally totally prepared to praise to the skies because I just know it will be crucial to my research!!! (read the whole thing here).

It's easily adaptable to SSHRC applications, too, so no need for anyone to bring by any more for me to vet! Thanks to Footnoted for the link.

November 6, 2007

Resistance to Theory, Middlemarch Style

Dorothea: "And then I should know what to do, when I get older: I should see how it was possible to lead a grand life here--now--in England. I don't feel sure about doing good in any way now: everything seems like going on a mission to a people whose language I don't know."

J. Hillis Miller: "The discontinuity of a repetition blasts a detached monad, crystallized into immobility, out of the homogeneous course of history, in order to take possession of of it in a present which is no present. It is the cessation of happening in a metaleptic assumption of the past, preserving and annulling it at the same time. This repetition disarticulates the backbone of logic and frees both history and fiction, for the moment, before the spider-web is re-woven, from the illusory continuities of origin leading to aim leading to end."

Dorothea: "What could be sadder than so much ardent labour all in vain?"

J. Hillis Miller: "The set of assumptions common to both Western ideas of history and Western ideas of fiction are not--it is a point of importance--a collection of diverse attributes, the distinctive features which happen to be there. They are on the contrary a true system, in the sense that each implies all the others."

Dorothea (putting out her hand entreatingly): "Please not to call it by any name. You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life."

J. Hillis Miller: "Nevertheless, for those who have eyes to see it, Middlemarch is an example of a work of fiction which not only exposes the metaphysical system of history but also proposes an alternative consonant with those of Nietzsche and Benjamin."

Narrator: "There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men."

J. Hillis Miller: "!"
Seriously, though, although Hillis Miller's essay* (which I acknowledge is very smart, taken on its own terms) is more than 30 years old now, I think it illustrates a tendency that continues in some professional criticism to set aside the overt and often pressing social, ethical, political, or aesthetic interests of the text itself in favour of fairly esoteric theoretical and metacritical questions, or questions that seek out a text's 'unconscious' effects or meanings. Without insisting that these questions are unworthy ones for inquiry and scholarship, I would suggest that in some respects they serve the majority of readers (and texts) less well than critical approaches that engage us with what the text actually takes itself to be about (in Denis Donoghue's terms, we don't allow the text to have its theme--though in this case, Middlemarch works well for Hillis Miller's purposes because it is "always already" self-conscious about and thematizing his themes of history, narrative, and (mis)interpretation).** For one thing, the results are likely to preserve the differences between texts more than approaches like Hillis Miller's (any novel that becomes grist for his argument here would end up sounding pretty much the same, deconstructing the oppositions, undoing metaphysics, etc.). In his essay "What We Talk About When We Talk About Ethics," in this collection, Lawrence Buell notes the "longstanding reluctance on the part of many if not most literary scholars to allow the central disciplinary referent or value to be located in anything but language." I think there's some truth in that generalization, and that this reluctance leads us into conversations of the sort I've pasted together above, a "missing of each others' mental tracks," as George Eliot says about Rosamond and Lydgate's marriage, because we talk past, or about, rather than with, our primary sources.

But mostly I just wanted to have a little fun...

*"Narrative and History," ELH 41:3 (Autumn 1974), 455-73.

**I realize that it remains an open and controversial question whether or how professional / academic critics should have the interests of non-specialist readers in mind. Over at Crooked Timber recently there was a long thread in the comments about professional philosophers which seemed to touch on some of the same issues that come up when literary critics think about this. In both cases, of course it's not an either/or question--specialist and non-specialist discourses can and do coexist.

November 5, 2007

This Week in My Classes (November 5, 2007)

Despite the best efforts of Tropical Storm Noel, it looks like our regularly scheduled programming can go ahead this week. So it's Middlemarch again, and after working hard the last two weeks on sympathy, morality, and point of view at a more or less personal level, I think this week we'll shift our focus to politics. My undergraduates (unless this group is wildly atypical) will have at best only a dim idea of the novel's historical context, so it's time for a walk-through of some basic information about the 1832 Reform Bill. Then we can consider Mr Brooke as a 'progressive' candidate. We'll take another look at the party in Chapter 10, in which Brooke invites a "rather more miscellaneous" crowd than Mrs Cadwallader quite likes. Then we'll look closely at the visit to Dagley's farm in Chapter 39, a section which ties class and political perception to aesthetics and point of view:
Mr. Brooke got down at a farmyard-gate, and Dorothea drove on. It is wonderful how much uglier things will look when we only suspect that we are blamed for them. Even our own persons in the glass are apt to change their aspect for us after we have heard some frank remark on their less admirable points; and on the other hand it is astonishing how pleasantly conscience takes our encroachments on those who never complain or have nobody to complain for them. Dagley's homestead never before looked so dismal to Mr. Brooke as it did today, with his mind thus sore about the fault-finding of the " Trumpet," echoed by Sir James.

It is true that an observer, under that softening influence of the fine arts which makes other people's hardships picturesque, might have been delighted with this homestead called Freeman's End: the old house had dormer-windows in the dark red roof, two of the chimneys were choked with ivy, the large porch was blocked up with bundles of sticks, and half the windows were closed with gray worm-eaten shutters about which the jasmine-boughs grew in wild luxuriance; the mouldering garden wall with hollyhocks peeping over it was a perfect study of highly mingled subdued color, and there was an aged goat (kept doubtless on interesting superstitious grounds) lying against the open back-kitchen door. The mossy thatch of the cow-shed, the broken gray barn-doors, the pauper laborers in ragged breeches who had nearly finished unloading a wagon of corn into the barn ready for early thrashing; the scanty dairy of cows being tethered for milking and leaving one half of the shed in brown emptiness; the very pigs and white ducks seeming to wander about the uneven neglected yard as if in low spirits from feeding on a too meagre quality of rinsings, -- all these objects under the quiet light of a sky marbled with high clouds would have made a sort of picture which we have all paused over as a " charming bit," touching other sensibilities than those which are stirred by the depression of the agricultural interest, with the sad lack of farming capital, as seen constantly in the newspapers of that time. But these troublesome associations were just now strongly present to Mr. Brooke, and spoiled the scene for him.

I find it useful to bring students' casual assumption that universal suffrage is an obvious good up against Dagley, which of course is just what George Eliot wants to do as well. To give them a fuller sense of the intellectual context for 'progressive' intellectual opposition to the rapid expansion of suffrage, I usually bring in bits of Carlyle, such as the "Democracy" section of Past and Present, which juxtaposes impassioned lamentation for "the lot of those same dumb millions of toilers" ("Do we wonder at French Revolutions, Chartisms, Revolts of Three Days? The times, if we will consider them, are really unexampled.") with an equally impassioned refusal to accept democratic solutions:

Liberty? The true liberty of a man, you would say, consisted in his finding out, or being forced to find out the right path, and to walk thereon.... You do not allow a palpable madman to leap over precipices; you violate his liberty, you that are wise; and keep him, were it in strait-waistcoasts, away from the precipices! ... Liberty requires new definitions.

I might bring in some of Mill's cautions about the tendency of democracy towards mediocrity: "No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy, either in its political acts or in the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it fosters, ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except in so far as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided ... by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few" (On Liberty). And there's always Culture and Anarchy, too, for some choice tidbits about the pros and cons of the Englishman's fetishization of his "right to do what he likes." ("And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it," as George Eliot points out.) These examples prepare students for what they often, initially, find the oddity of George Eliot's cautious approach to democracy, which I usually illustrate with examples from Felix Holt and the later "Address to Working Men (by Felix Holt)":

"And while public opinion is what it is—while men have no better beliefs about public duty—while corruption is not felt to be a damning disgrace—while men are not ashamed in Parliament and out of it to make public questions which concern the welfare of millions a mere screen for their own petty private ends,—I say, no fresh scheme of voting will much mend our condition. For, take us working men of all sorts. Suppose out of every hundred who had a vote there were thirty who had some soberness, some sense to choose with, some good feeling to make them wish the right thing for all. And suppose there were seventy out of the hundred who were, half of them, not sober, who had no sense to choose one thing in politics more than another, and who had so little good feeling in them that they wasted on their own drinking the money that should have helped to feed and clothe their wives and children; and another half of them who, if they didn’t drink, were too ignorant or mean or stupid to see any good for themselves better than pocketing a five-shilling piece when it was offered them. Where would be the political power of the thirty sober men? The power would lie with the seventy drunken and stupid votes; and I’ll tell you what sort of men would get the power—what sort of men would end by returning whom they pleased to Parliament." (Felix Holt--the Radical?)

Now, the danger hanging over change is great, just in proportion as it tends to produce such disorder by giving any large number of ignorant men, whos notions of what is good are of a low and brutal sort, the belief that they have got power into their hands, and may do pretty much as they like. (Address to Working Men)

"Would you want Dagley to vote?" is a crudely reductive version of the questions George Eliot is raising--but at the same time, it rather goes to the heart of the problems she identifies for us, and I think it will generate some useful discussion. In turn, our consideration of the novel's class politics (if that's the right way to label these issues) prepares us to consider its gender politics once we've read to the end.

November 2, 2007

Update: More on Academic Blogging

Renewed discussion is breaking out about academic blogging among those who have been doing it for a while; here are some additions, then, to my earlier list of links.
  1. "A Skeptic's Take on Academic Blogs" (Adam Kotsko, Inside Higher Ed, November 1, 2007)
  2. "An Enthusiast's View on Academic Blogs" (Scott Eric Kaufman, Inside Higher Ed, November 1, 2007)
  3. "Academic Blogging Revisited" (Joseph Kugelmass, The Valve, November 1, 2007)
There are many points of interest in all of these pieces. In light of my own meandering reflections on generating "dialogue and exchange" through blogs, I was struck by Adam Kotsko's remark that "having a productive conversation in an online format is very hard work, which is why it happens so rarely." I think, too, from my own experience and from conversations with non-blogging (but often blog-reading) friends and colleagues, that a lot of academics are so accustomed to working in relative isolation and communicating about their research or scholarly practices exclusively with other specialists, if at all, that there is a kind of culture of secrecy (some might call it privacy) in the academy--aggravated by our defensiveness about how we are perceived by non-academics--that makes many academics anxious about expressing themselves publicly. There's also a fear of exposure: you'll say something careless and expose your ignorance, or you'll expose your views to those who disagree with you and have to answer for them, or you'll expose yourself to ill-conceived and ill-tempered attacks from those who don't understand the nature of academic scholarship, or to cranks (academic or not) who read without charity, take you out of context, etc. These factors discourage academics (many of whom are reclusive bookworms at heart, after all) from engaging in online conversations when the benefits (professional or other) are uncertain or elusive. I know I take a deep breath before clicking "post," either on my own blog or as a commenter on someone else's (the latter is more stressful for me by far). But I think Joseph Kugelmass points towards where things might go when he mentions the widening acceptance of social sites such as Facebook as an example of people coming on board with something that initially seemed fringe or irrelevant. There was a time that some of us can remember when e-mail was a strange new medium and listservs seemed like cutting-edge ways to reach across distances and form academic communities. But I wonder if any active academic today is not linked electronically in some way to others. Some form of blogging may well be equally 'normal' and common in the near future. As far as benefits go, one possibility is that such a development would work against the excessive specialization and resulting fragmentation typical of today's humanities departments; one of the commenters at Inside Higher Ed makes the point that "often, we’re not even interested in what our colleagues are doing," something with which surely many of us would ruefully agree. And if it brought differences of view and style out into the open, would that be such a bad thing? Affinities and serendipitous connections might emerge as well. The string of closed office doors in my hallway up here does not make this place look much like an intellectual community. Blogs at least open windows. More "interfacing" between academics and a wider public seems to me like a good thing as well, if only to counteract the bizarrely excessive hostility some people show towards us. (Maybe we fear that if they knew us better, they would not like us any better? Are we so bad at explaining ourselves that we feel safest not even trying?)

November 1, 2007

In the Midst of Middlemarch

I haven't had the time or mental energy to detach from the press of teaching and other 'real' work to post here for a few days, not least because I'm immersed in Middlemarch, which I'm studying with two different classes. So here, in lieu of my own words, is some of Chapter 42 for you. Lydgate has just broken to Mr Casaubon the news that his heart condition may lead to his sudden death.
Lydgate, certain that his patient wished to be alone, soon left him; and the black figure with hands behind and head bent forward continued to pace the walk where the dark yew-trees gave him a mute companionship in melancholy, and the little shadows of bird or leaf that fleeted across the isles of sunlight, stole along in silence as in the presence of a sorrow. Here was a man who now for the first time found himself looking into the eyes of death -- who was passing through one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace, which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue. When the commonplace "We must all die " transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness "I must die -- and soon," then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first. To Mr. Casaubon now, it was as if he suddenly found himself on the dark river-brink and heard the plash of the oncoming oar, not discerning the forms, but expecting the summons. In such an hour the mind does not change its lifelong bias, but carries it onward in imagination to the other side of death, gazing backward -- perhaps with the divine calm of beneficence, perhaps with the petty anxieties of self-assertion.
Dorothea approaches, hoping to offer comfort, or at least companionship. "But she hesitated, fearing to offend him by obtruding herself; for her ardour, continually repulsed, served, with her intense memory, to heighten her dread, as thwarted energy subsides into a shudder." As she fears, he rebuffs her: "There was something horrible to Dorothea in the sensation which this unresponsive hardness inflicted on her." He retreats to his library, she to her boudoir, where he (presumably) wrestles with his mortality, and she struggles with her anger and sorrow. "In such a crisis as this, some women begin to hate."
Dorothea sat almost motionless in her meditative struggle, while the evening slowly deepened into night. But the struggle changed continually, as that of a man who begins with a movement towards striking and ends with conquering his desire to strike. The energy that would animate a crime is not more than is wanted to inspire a resolved, submission, when the noble habit of the soul reasserts itself. That thought with which Dorothea had gone out to meet her husband -- her conviction that he had been asking about the possible arrest of all his work, and that the answer must have wrung his heart, could not be long without rising beside the image of him, like a shadowy monitor looking at her anger with sad remonstrance. It cost her a litany of pictured sorrows and of silent cries that she might be the mercy for those sorrows -- but the resolved submission did come; and when the house was still, and she knew that it was near the time when Mr. Casaubon habitually went to rest, she opened her door gently and stood outside in the darkness waiting for his coming up-stairs with a light in his hand. If he did not come soon she thought that she would go down and even risk incurring another pang. She would never again expect anything else. But she did hear the library door open, and slowly the light advanced up the staircase without noise from the footsteps on the carpet. When her husband stood opposite to her, she saw that his face was more haggard. He started slightly on seeing her, and she looked up at him beseechingly, without speaking.

"Dorothea!" he said, with a gentle surprise in his tone. " Were you waiting for me?"

"Yes, I did not like to disturb you."

"Come, my dear, come. You are young, and need not to extend your life by watching."

When the kind quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea's ears, she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature. She put her hand into her husband's, and they went along the broad corridor together.