April 2, 2008

Middlemarch in the 21st Century?

(cross-posted to The Valve)

I’ve been going through a book of essays called Middlemarch in the 21st Century. It’s an interesting enough collection, with contributions by a lot of the big names in current George Eliot scholarship. It is also at least as much about criticism in the 21st century as about Middlemarch. Of course, it is self-consciously so (in these metacritical days, how could it not be?); the editor is intelligently expressive on the intevitable interplay between text and (our) context:
The essays in this volume attach Middlemarch to the twenty-first century by way of their aesthetic, ethical, and social concerns, but each reading also dwells within the confines of the pages of the novel and its communities. We move constantly between the early and later nineteenth century and to the start of the twenty-first century, respecting the differences without allowing them to become obstacles in our way. (4)
That’s all fine, and so are the essays I’ve read, though to be sure I find some of them more engaging than others. What I’ve been thinking as I read, though, is that really none of them really presents a version of Middlemarch for the 21st century: that is, none of them addresses ways Middlemarch (or, for that matter, any other past literary work) might have special relevance in the 21st century beyond those interpretive contexts selected by the contributors--none of which contexts, in turn, seems pointedly or necessarily fixed in the 21st century (except by accident of critical history, e.g. “this year, we’re doing materiality,” or “Lacanian readings are so 1990s”). I think it’s accurate to say that typically we take our “aesthetic, ethical, and social concerns” to our texts and see how they answer back. Is there a way to “attach” them to our century starting, as it were, from the other direction? How might Middlemarch, for instance, “read” the 21st century? What “aesthetic, ethical, and social concerns” might it bring to us? What would such a criticism look like? What (or who) would it be for?

I tried my hand at something of the sort for a panel called (coincidentally) “George Eliot in the 21st Century” at ACCUTE a couple of years ago. My presentation was called “George Eliot: Moralist for the 21st Century”; its major contention (stripped of nuance) was that her secularized morality offers a philosophical perspective of great potential benefit to our times, and that its presentation in compelling fictional form could help her stand as "the friendly face of unbelief.” Now, on the one hand, I realize there is something reductive about such an approach. At the same time, we know that George Eliot herself conceived of her work as fundamentally ethical, which means (as I argued in my paper) that she offered it as (in part) an answer to the basic question of moral philosophy, namely “how ought I to live?” Many (though certainly not all) of the academic approaches now in vogue have little in common with this project. At this moment, (well, not at this moment, as clearly I am procrastinating by writing this instead) I am working on a proposal for a conference paper about Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun; Soueif has been called “Egypt’s George Eliot,” and In the Eye of the Sun takes the “squirrel’s heartbeat” passage as its epigraph (and refers to Middlemarch at many other points as well). Although I am still in the early stages of thinking through the relationship between the two novels, my feeling is that part of what Soueif does is bring the ethos of Middlemarch forward into a very different historical and cultural context, almost as if to ask, herself, “Can Middlemarch help us with this?” (The other part of what she does, I think, works in the other direction, testing that ethos against these new contexts; that Soueif uses a radically different form of novel suggests that, in some respects, “it won’t do, you known, it won’t do.”)

Thoughts? Do I exaggerate the difference between taking our concerns to the text and bringing the text’s concerns to us? Do I underestimate the risks or wrongs of the approach I took in my earlier paper? Or, in the spirit of the “public academic workbench,” if you’ve read In the Eye of the Sun, any ideas about the direction I’m taking in the new one? (Or about whether working on an Egyptian novelist writing in a post-colonial context necessitates using post-colonial theory? Just wondering...)

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