5/9: The Theatricals at Mansfield Park


The transition in “Mansfield Park” from language that is occluded because it is calculated to language that is, by and large, in the clear because the characters have need of a language whereby they can express who they are, takes place at the same moment that is the pivotal point for the plot of the novel, which is when Sir Thomas Bertram returns from Antigua. Jane Austen seems to expect her more literate puzzle solvers to catch on to this union of her structural and language leverage points, and so see the Shakespearean allusion as well as the importance for the plot of weaving the change of language into the new developments in the plot, just as she expects her merely attentive reader to solve the puzzle of her characters if some attention is paid to the abundance of clues Jane has so thoughtfully provided to help the reader along.

The Shakespeare play that Jane Austen chose to rework as “Mansfield Park” is probably “Measure for Measure”. There, just as in “Mansfield Park”, a heroine who seems devoted to virtue comes to seem perverse because of her seeming unwillingness ever to consider prudence, even to serve, there, the interests of her brother, and in spite of the advice of all those who surround her. There is also an absent nobleman, who has allowed his society to run on its own dynamics, presuming these to be fixed, settled, and self-balancing, only to return to find that things have fallen apart, his society on the verge of some kind of moral anarchy. The general belief is that society can only be restored to its proper balance by the intervention of the returned leader, though it is not clear that he has either the understanding or the will to do so. The audience and the reader are left with the very sour feeling that people keep making messes of their lives, and will continue to do so, and manage to rectify things, if at all, only by redefining relative failure as relative success. Their problems arise not so much from tragic flaws, from their own or the universe's nature, but from thoughtlessness, stubbornness, and other minor vices.

As soon as Sir Thomas appears on the scene on his return from Antigua, there is an immediate change in the meaning of language. Now events which had been frivolous and words which had been meaningless take on their full resonance and meaning all at once, as if everyone had been removed to a higher level of understanding, the veil between illusion and reality suddenly lifted.

It is interesting to contemplate the first emotions people might have felt under this new dispensation. It might have been gladness, reasonability, sentiment, or any number of other emotions thought characteristic of the Eighteenth Century. Instead, the first emotion every character feels is guilt, even down to Fanny, who has least to feel guilty about since she had held out longest against the temptation of doing theatricals, even though she had at the end given in ever so little to it.

Sir Thomas forgives the family immediately, though Jane Austen suggests this has less to do with relenting from a deserved sternness that in his unwillingness to forego the pleasure of his reunion with his family. He does put an immediate end to the festivities, even if Yates, a friend of the family who had first proposed the theatricals, is so crude as to ask why everyone had done such an about face, and wonders what was so wrong with the theatricals, especially since Sir Thomas, perhaps out of a touch of guilt about having cancelled them, decides to give a ball that will serve as a kind of coming out party for Fanny.

The trouble with the theatricals is in part financial. Mrs. Norris is quick to note how much money she saved on the project, so everyone was at the time of their plans aware that they should not spend too much money. Sir Thomas was, after all, away in Antigua to straighten out their finances, and it is to be presumed, though Jane Austen does not say so in so many words, that the family was trying to live frugally until the economic problems were resolved.

There is a larger problem with the theatricals. They are a recipe for license because they allow people to proclaim emotions they do not feel which are of an intimate sort, or even worse, allow people to proclaim private feelings which they do feel, but which are not properly spoken of. The irony of this situation was lost on the characters, though not to the reader, before Sir Thomas' reappearance, but it is sensed as a careless form of liberation afterwards. It is not that the characters did not know before what they knew afterwards, but that they took it all more seriously, with more responsibility, as if now they had to be responsible for their actions when the presiding figure was present but were not responsible for their actions, did not have to act as other than children, when their father was away.

The reader is made ever more aware of the precarious hold morality has on Mansfield Park. Far from secure, morality is always challenged by the immoral ways of the country gentry young folk, the likes of Tom, Sir Thomas’ eldest son, who are always off on some misadventures which they can talk about only in the euphemisms of horseracing. Sir Thomas does not want his family's country respectability to give way to the looser morals of the large country estates or of the city.

The ball for Fanny is not the same thing as theatricals, since it is a real rather than a fancied event, and so people will, if anything, act more properly than they otherwise might. It is also an event where there is sufficient formality and control by the elders so that flirting is kept within its proper bounds of providing indications of interest in pairing off. It is the kind of courtship which allows the passions to present themselves in a useful way, and it takes Sir Thomas' presiding genius to understand the delicate balance of pretense and compromise which allows the passions to be turned to useful arrangements, even if he is eventually to be overcome by his inability to manage things as well as he would have liked.

The play within a play that moves along the plot of the novel or play into which it is interpolated is, of course, an inheritance from “Hamlet”. Shakespeare is also known for his performances-within-performances, where characters go through set piece ceremonies where they each know what role they are supposed to play and, for some reason, fail to act properly. In the plays that precede the great tragedies, these performances are set towards or after the middle of the play and result in its subsequent events, and so function as the play within the play will function. Shylock is so overtaken by his rage that during the trial scene he drops the life long guise of magnanimity which he had adopted for the sake of prudence and so brings down all the evils which his Jewish soul had dreaded, by for once giving vent to his desire for vengeance. He for once holds a gentile to his promise, as he is presumably always held to his despite the entreaties of all the good gentiles that he act with nobility, even if the nobles engage in this performance of Christian virtue only this one time when the life of one of their own is at stake. Henry V, for his part, is remarkably passive, falling back on his old contemplative ways, when he listens to the explanation of his rights to the French throne, and unleashes the war as if he did not in that formal performance of his kingly role have the right to ask his advisors to reconsider, or give them new guidance about ways to deal with the French, who would probably have bartered their daughter for a peace treaty before as well as after the war.

Most of the time, however, the performances come close to the beginning of a play, as if the set pieces, the public occasions, generate the entire play or its most general movement when a key character misreads his role or perversely refuses to play it or somehow has risen beyond it. The intrigue in “Julius Caesar” emerges from the interpretation of what Caesar meant when he three times turned down the throne. Was it merely a performance, or an intention as well? There was nothing Caesar could have done within that performance that would have appeased his opponents. Hamlet suggests the depths of his own misanthropy and his preoccupation with his own cleverness when he plays on the pun of being a son during his formal reintroduction at the Danish court. Othello is better at declaring his love of state and of Desdemona at his formal return to Venice than he is able to avoid personal and social anarchy at the end of the play during the private performance of the confrontation scene he had set up in his mind. And, of course, both Lear and Cordelia both violate and uphold performance standards in the set piece that opens “King Lear”.

Jane Austen has a play within a play as a central moment of “Mansfield Park”, the point of which is that when people feign emotions they really have, as is the case when Maria plays opposite Henry, then people actually do perform the roles they have hesitated to perform in real life, and so reveal themselves more than is discrete, not because it is improper to be so forward, but because it is too emotionally destabilizing to act as if one is acting emotions which are not being merely performed but are in fact felt. People come to recognize themselves in their roles, or if they fail to do so, as is the case with the characters at Mansfield Park, it is not only a sign that they are obtuse, but are, in their own "real" world within the novel, merely prisoners of their roles, unsaved by circumspection and thoughtfulness, which is the virtue Jane Austen saves for herself and, occasionally, bestows on Fanny.

The characters do not know what to make of what they feel because they think they are merely playing roles, rather than displaying their feelings in public. Theatricals are a threat to social order not because they are play, but because they come too close to the truth. They serve the same purpose as a psychoanalytic session: they provide an occasion for the projection of feelings that are otherwise unnamed, and which are not less real because they are not attributed to the players during the dispensation of the performance.

The ball that Sir Thomas prefers to the theatricals is a performance within a performance that contains its own paradoxes and ironies. People at balls know they are feigning roles, while during the theatricals they do not know they are not merely feigning roles. At the ball, everyone cooperates to make Fanny look good, and so they discount what they are doing, though what they do not only succeeds in elevating Fanny's position in society, and her own self-esteem in a realm where, like Othello, she thought herself inadequate, but where her enthusiasms do not seem to create a disaster, her indulgence of her dreams of herself sustained rather than the object of humiliation, but where people do reveal themselves more than they want to, both Henry and Edmund coming off as her especial friends, which leads to the two courtships, one or the other either sacred or profane, that will dominate the rest of the book.

As Shakespeare knew, plays and performances are not fictions, but kinds of reality in which more is revealed than the characters recognize is revealed even if they see and are participants in the revelation. While Shakespeare may consequently have seen theatrics and performances as metaphors for religious conversion, Jane Austen simply regards them as methods and mechanisms for the continuing unraveling of character which is the nature of life in the world, and the ultimate justification of fiction.

Interpreting Manet

Edouard Manet as well as Gustave Courbet, who was the subject of a recent post, are subject to conflicting interpretations, T. J. Clark again serving as my foil for pointing out the limitations of a Marxist interpretation of painting. Clark interprets Manet's “Olympia” in the same way he interprets Courbet’s “The Stonecutters”. He sees the stereotypical depiction of its subject as a visually accurate description of a social role, in this case the role of courtesan. The painting was offensive to the bourgeois viewing public, he argued, because it so blatantly identified its subject as a prostitute, while other paintings of the time used prostitutes as the unacknowledged models for nudes. The picture was also scandalous because it was so overt a rejection of the bourgeois convention of referring nudes to the world of myth and other forms of culture. The direct stare of the model out into the world outside the painting showed the alienation and oppression of the prostitute, and thus of womankind in general.

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Champing at the Impeachment Bit

Historians try to cultivate past-mindedness. That means they are trying to recapture the sense and the dynamics of a past time without reference to or explanation by what comes afterwards. Don’t tell the story of the Civil War in the light of the Civil Rights Movement because that will make you forget that emancipation of the slaves became a central issue only when the Civil War was well underway. Political commentators and cable channel news anchors, on the other hand, cultivate present centeredness. They are on the lookout to see how the past is made relevant by the present and so they talk about what a past event predicts about the future. And so both cable and print people spent the three days of the George H. W. Bush funeral pointing out how statesmanlike and presidential he was in comparison to the current President, though that is to set a very low bar over which to hurdle. That and interviewing incoming members of the House, who have nothing much to say, is a way to fill the time until something serious comes out of the Mueller investigation, the cable and print people trying to squeeze what they can out of sentencing recommendations, about what the future will hold, because newscasters seem ever less interested in reporting what has happened and ever more interested in guessing at what will happen.

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4/9: Jane Austen and Shakespeare

Lady Reading in an Interior,  Marguerite     Gérard,  1795

Lady Reading in an Interior, Marguerite Gérard, 1795

Jane Austen was a literary intellectual in the sense that she used literature as a vehicle for writing about life rather than just to amuse readers so that they would buy her books, notwithstanding that her first two novels were satires of the popular genres of her time: the gothic romance and the novel of domestic life. Jane Austen was also an avid follower of the contemporary theatre. It is not surprising, therefore, that she would self-consciously choose Shakespeare as the model against which to work “Mansfield Park”, the first completed of her second trilogy of novels. Shakespeare was both part of her own education and part of the accepted lore of English culture, he just coming into his Romantic stature as a god-like figure who could even serve as the basis for a set of imitations and reflections in a number of genres for a number of Romantic figures that included Coleridge, Hazlitt, Lamb, and Landor.

Austen says as much within “Mansfield Park”. Jane is playing with her reader when she provides Mr. Crawford, a supposedly obtuse young man, with a speech about how Shakespeare seeps into every Englishman's sensibility, whether the plays are read or not. Fanny and Edmund, who think themselves well read, are horrified at this excuse for ignorance, but they are not prepared to see its truth, which is that there is such a thing as a culture, with its own way of seeing things, that goes beyond a set of quotations or plot summaries. What Crawford says strikes home because it is so candid an admission of how Shakespeare functions even for those who are not particularly literate. By this point in the novel, Jane's readers should know that admissions about how the world serves self interest are usually true observations. Culture operates even upon those who simply wish to appropriate it so that they will seem cultured. So Jane's clue that her own novel is Shakespearean even if it does not again overtly refer to Shakespeare is so obvious that, like the purloined letter, it is likely to be missed.

The structure of “Mansfield Park” is that of a Shakespearean tragedy. First, the plot adds on additional complexities until it becomes a Gordian knot somewhere in the third act. This is the moment of highest emotional distress and tragic recognition. The play then unravels its complexities into some kind of resolution. If the play had been a comedy or romance, there would have been a restoration of family through intricate pairings of lovers on every level of class and generation. If the play is a tragedy, however, the family whose life the play chronicles is destroyed once and for all. Lear's soul is destroyed, but the life of his favorite daughter is also taken. The crown does not descend from Hamlet to some relative but is usurped by Fortinbras. No descendants are mentioned for Anthony and Othello. None of these tragic heroes become connected to future generations. For Shakespeare, tragedy is when a family line ends, because the usual melodrama of fate can no longer operate, as it inevitably does, to merely alter a family or cause it grief. In a tragedy, there is no longer a stable universe of the family within which grief can be acknowledged and overcome.

The same can be said of “Mansfield Park”, which is also about the continuation of families into the next generation, and which ends only with the creation of a replacement family for the Bertrams, rather than any of the marriages that would have simply extended the family line into another generation of gentility built on inherited wealth and community standing. This tragedy is shown indirectly, however, because it does not arise out of a decline in family fortunes, which is the early clue Jane Austen plants to provide suspense about the future of the family, or even with the melodramatic foolishness of some of the characters, who seem to bring the family to ruin because they throw their lives away by loving the wrong people, which is a false trail Jane Austen provides towards the end of the novel and which takes in most readers and critics.

The reader trained on the Brontes is likely to think that Fanny's story is that of an observer who has been brought into the drama to do that and to some extent rescue the fall of the Bertrams. But Fanny is more than an observer; she is a deus ex machina. The story is constructed around Fanny's rise to prominence in the family, which is not just an ironic counterpoint to the fate of the family, but also suggests her growing role in creating that fate. She is the one who appears to come to fit into the world of the Bertrams, but who, in fact, is so unassimilable that her presence skews the responses of others, like the Crawfords, to the Bertrams, and makes more difficult a sensible response by one or another of the Bertrams to the opportunities that avail themselves. Though not the single force that leads to the degeneration of the Bertrams to a family whose best marriage, finally, is between Edmund, a clergyman, and Fanny, his poor relation, Fanny does live up to the prophecy of the Cassandra of the story, Mrs. Norris, who thought from the beginning that Fanny would detract rather than add to the family.

The drama is arranged as a rags to riches story. Fanny's rise in the family from a minor to a major figure accompanies the first part of the drama, which moves from childhood to the crisis of courtship and arrives at its apex when Sir Thomas Bertram returns from Antigua and proceeds to set things on their topsy turvy course--or else to preside over trying to set right what has already gone so amiss that it proves beyond repair. The denouement, suitable for Shakespeare, is full of action as well as attempts to find as right a pairing as is possible that will preserve the future of the family. Sir Thomas is moved to discard one pairing after another, each one of lessened importance, until the final matching of Edmund and Fanny, far from a triumph, comes out as the best that can be done under the circumstances, no matter that it is a love match or that Sir Thomas actually likes Fanny.

Even that minor saving grace is accomplished only after even this last match has been made almost impossible. Fanny has been sent off to Portsmouth, where she had begun her life, with no expectation of a future role in the family drama in which she played so large a role despite herself. The drama is turned full circle: she had arrived at Mansfield Park, found a place for herself there, moved to center stage, then moved herself off center when she refuses to marry Crawford, and then even farther off stage to Portsmouth from which she is rescued only by her usefulness in patching up as best can be events that had gone beyond all control.

This symmetrical movement, which also appeals to Keats and Emily Bronte, runs counter to another feature of the narrative. The pace of the novel picks up as it moves along, and there is an unfolding of ever more sophisticated levels of description by the author, and a building to a final epiphany that changes all meanings, rather than just a central meaning to which the plot ascends and from which it descends.

As in Shakespeare, the stages of plot are symmetrical but the stages of language are successive. In each of the great tragedies, language proceeds from its "lower" to its "higher" forms. Macbeth, Othello, Lear especially, and even Hamlet, move from the language of politics in the first sections of each play, where the characters are concerned with the calculation and balancing of the interests of the political players, a type of language Shakespeare had perfected in “Julius Caesar”, to the language of the great soliloquies, in which the central characters consider the confrontation of mankind with the forces of nature, including the elemental passions. Lear on the heath, Macbeth transformed by his guilt and his understanding of his own nature and nation, Othello confronted with the possibility of his own jealousy, an uncontrollable force which surprises a man whose passions had previously been so in concert with his social position, the protagonist now agonized into eloquence, and so speaking poetry.

Poetry then gives way in the resolution of each of the tragedies to what might be called, following Lear, the language of the birds, the music which allows perfect communication of love and the kind of serenity provided by the survival of tragedy and the appreciation of tragedy. This is very short for Othello, who turns his grief into a ritualistic killing of the one he loves, a sacrifice to the gods performed by him, perhaps for the first time, as an act from which his consciousness is removed. For Macbeth, this period is somewhat more extended, as he resolves to be what he has become, and move ever deeper into blood.

The removal from one language to the next brings a quickening of the pace of the narrative in each tragedy because each level of language operates at its own speed. Events in the political world seem to move quickly only because there is so much talk and analysis of what people mean by each action they take. There are so many implications in any possible action that any action once taken seems a surprise, an intrusion on the never satisfied pace of deliberations. Any action is taken too soon for the significance of the last prior action to have been properly analyzed, and so there is certainly insufficient time left over for the contemplation of an impending event. Politics moves too quickly in real time to allow time for its analysis, and so seems always rushed.

Here is a passage from the first third of “Mansfield Park” which speaks the language of calculation, the prose of political discourse:

“The time was now come when Sir Thomas expected his sister-in-law to claim her share in their niece, the change in Mrs. Norris’s situation,and the improvement in Fanny’s age, seeming not merely to do away any former objection to their living together, but even to give it the most decided eligibility; and as his own circumstances were rendered less fair than heretofore, by some recent losses on his West India Estate, in addition to his eldest son’s extravagance, it became not undesirable to himself to be relieved from the expense of her support, and the obligation of her future provision. “

The language of poetry, for its part, can go on indefinitely exploring the meaning of nature for a new level of insight. Nature comes to mean whatever is eternal because it means what repays infinite contemplation. Nature is not rushed, nor is the plenitude of poetry that it stimulates, but there is no completion of that relationship, because it is timeless, and is altered only when the metaphysical and natural landscape which sparks the poetry is eliminated. Lear could have stayed on the heath forever, or at least only until he died, just as Hamlet could have wondered around Elsinore, forever contemplating the psychological dynamics of kinship and love, if he had not been moved by his thoughts to actions that had consequences. To alter the environment is to take away the object of contemplation, the seat of reverberations.

Now here is a passage from the second third of “Mansfield Park”. It speaks the language of poetry, which is, for Jane Austen, the description of the natural social situation, and is particularly well put by Edmund, Fanny’s true love:

“ “But, Fanny,” he presently added, “in order to have a comfortable walk, something more is necessary than merely pacing the gravel together. You must talk to me. I know you have something on your mind. I know what you are thinking of. You cannot suppose me uninformed. Am I to hear of it from everybody but Fanny herself?” “

These few lines are funny. They are also poetic in the conventional sense because “pacing the gravel together is such an apt image of a walk without conversation. It is also a reflection on the nature of conversation as that is put at a distance from the present occasion to which this wisdom applies. Staying silent when there is something on your mind means that others can reveal it and that is not a good thing if the two parties to the conversation are to consider themselves intimate friends. Edmund’s remarks also indicate that he is someone worthy of Fanny because of his wit and intelligence.

The final language of music is the most quickly paced because action is unhurried since action and language move at the same pace, the language now a direct expression of action, fully integrated with action. Characters, like Lear, need speak very little, and Hamlet can become terse, for actions seem decisive, decisions quickly made, events unfolding with a will of their own as the protagonists adopt the Shakespearean understanding of Stoicism: they appreciate that their own engagement in the world is part of the action of the world rather than merely a cause or a contemplation of actions in the world. They thereby succeed, for a moment, in achieving a kind of simultaneous distance from and acceptance of action.

The characteristics of Shakespearean tragedy hold true for “Mansfield Park”, except that the novel is set in the framework of Humean empiricism rather than the framework of Elizabethan Stoicism. The language of the novel moves from a way to cloak self-interest as good will, which is the way Mrs. Norris talks when Fanny first arrives, and which places Fanny as the outsider who must parse the language to find who are her friends and enemies, where her self-interest lies in the politics of Mansfield Park. The language then shifts, as Fanny becomes a member of the family, to a way to align self-interest with sentiment, which is the way Fanny and the other members of the Bertram family come to talk between themselves as they contemplate the eternal round of life that country life imagines itself to be, full of platitudinous and universal moral truths about the way life has to be, how reality is connected to illusion, and language to sentiments, and how each of us pine to find a way out of the metaphysical impasse of convention and self.

The language of the novel makes a second transition to being a language which is able to speak truthfully and therefore of the consequences of the events described, in which case words are meaningful and, far from being fluff, are all too accurate and lacerating. This new language allows the narrative to move along at ever greater speed, since events can be so quickly telescoped and their implications communicated, if the reader has learned his lessons, and been prepared by Jane Austen's instruction on how to read language and character. The novel can now move into the pace of actual life, rather than operate on the levels of, first, calculation and then, second, the obfuscation or poetry by which we make life managable or, at the least, commensurable.

And here is a passage from the last third of “Mansfield Park”. It speaks the language of the birds, which in this case means the rapid fire emotionally charged action where the events and the meaning are smoothlessly tied together, the events proceeding so rapidly that the characters have little time to consider what is being said but must get on with drawing conclusions. This passage takes place when Fanny has returned to Portsmouth:

”Mr. Crawford contrived a minute’s privacy for telling Fanny that his only business in Portsmouth was to see her, that he had come down for a couple of days on her account and her’s only, and because he could not endure a longer total separation. She was sorry, really sorry; and yet, in spite of this and the two or three other things she wished he had not said, she thought him altogether improved since she had seen him; he was much more gentle, obliging, and attentive to other people’s feelings than he had ever been at Mansfield;....”

Fanny makes instant and complicated judgments of which she feels very sure because that is what is now required by the circumstances but also by the author. Those rapid fire decisions, with which Jane's characters too often seem to indulge themselves, require considerable patience and insight by the reader if they are to be unravelled, even if it is the case that most of life does indeed go on at this pace and does seem to require what might anachronistically be described as simultaneous translation. The consequence of having to cope with subtleties is that life seems to go on much more slowly than it really does. Jane Austen seems to suggest that by careful instruction the reader can be liberated to follow the action quickly by apprehending language as if it were direct, rather than cope with the more realistic slow pace of language that, however accurate, makes the commission of literature so much harder. Literature is artificial because it makes language more accurate and more subtle and more effectual than it really is so that reality can be represented, as in Shakespeare, through eloquence and poetry as well as a music of words that can break through from feeling to action.

Interpreting Courbet

To be blunt about it, Marxist art criticism, like Marxist criticism of the other arts, makes interpretations which point out class conflict, while what we might call bourgeois criticism points out issues of individuality. This is certainly true in the case of Gustave Courbet, a leading French artist in the period that preceded the Impressionist deluge. It is worth considering the two opposing camps of criticism if for no other reason than that viewers of the paintings are still liable to turn toward a class interpretation as the most obvious one even though Marxism has passed out of style, which perhaps shows the individualism is still a theme difficult to grasp as an idea even as it is countered by more fractionating movements such as those represented by Modern and Postmodern art.

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3/9: Mobility and Manners in "Mansfield Park"

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“Upward mobility” is a sociological term coined to describe the movement of people from the social class into which they were born into a higher class during their lifetimes. It also refers to the movement into higher social classes across the generations, children outdoing their parents. The point of upward mobility, whether it is intra- or inter-generational, is that it is not merely a matter of increased position and wealth, but also a matter of changed perspectives. The upwardly mobile person has to adjust to the way of life of the class which is joined, and even then may be regarded as presumptuous for appropriating the ways of his betters.

For the most part, the Eighteenth Century drama of upward mobility was played out as a matter of self-interest, legitimacy, and marriage, that mix further tangled by passion or indiscretion. This presentation did not do justice to the difficulty of upward mobility, for the portraits of the different classes were less nuanced in England than were, for example, the portraits of different nationality groups, which were understood by Goldsmith and others to have different personality traits, as well as contrary interests. Just as children were little adults, the inferior social classes were thought of as just more deprived in wealth and position, given to liquor or licentiousness as a result of their situation, rather than because the differing situations of the differing social classes gave rise to differing perspectives about what made sense in the conduct of life. Moll Flanders is as articulate as her betters, and just as given to calculation. Even the characters in “Tom Jones” are differentiated by station and what is therefore their natural interests, rather than by a different sense of life. Every individual can be thought to calculate what is best in the same way and would arrive at the same conclusion, given the same particular set of circumstances. Utilitarianism is a calculus which is the same to the observer and the observed.

Jane Austen refocuses the calculation of interests by adding to it the differing sentiments which arise in particular social classes. She is a Humean who relies on human sympathy to help people coordinate their interests with one another and to make the social world a humanly recognizable one, a place for mutual cooperation as well as competition. The calculus of morals combined with sentiment and self interest is a complex one which she demonstrates in some detail. But she also accomplishes something else: she offers a set of classes who do not understand one another, where there is no common measure of moral worth which all classes accept. There is indeed an objective scale of classes, but each social class understands the virtues and vices which seem morally essential to each class differently. It could not very well be otherwise, since each class will prize its own virtues and see the virtues of the other classes as vices, so closely does a class identify its own way of life with the way things have to be, of right. Social classes are mutually intolerant, and so their intermingling leads to misperceptions by each of them of the meanings of the words and actions in the other social classes. To the extent that Jane Austen has a thesis she wishes to illustrate, this is it, but the social analysis which occupies the first third of “Mansfield Park”, the novel which most clearly addresses the ways the social classes rub off against and with one another, will give way to a second third that is tragic, and then to a lyrical vision, each of the three parts of the novel so well worked out that the author's ability to transcend her own terms of analysis, not once but twice, is intellectually and emotionally dazzling.

The deep dirty secret of “Mansfield Park” is that Fanny Price, its heroine, doesn’t much like or come to identify with her erstwhile benefactors, and they don’t have much use for her either. A generation before Jane Eyre is frightened but ready to fall in love with posh living and a dashing benefactor, Fanny does not lose her resentment at the slights which she might be expected to weather for having been introduced on the scene as the poor cousin of the Bertrams, brought to Mansfield Park out of the misplaced goodwill of Mrs. Norris, who makes some purely verbal gesture at doing something for a child of the poor sister of Lady Bertram. Even though Mrs. Norris never takes any responsibility for the child, refusing to take her into her own home even after she is widowed, and despite what she had promised to undertake, Fanny's fate is the result of the flippant and hypocritical words of Mrs. Norris. Fanny does not outgrow her grudges.

The world into which Fanny is introduced is full of hypocrisy. All the words mean the opposite of what they would seem to mean. People exercise power by claiming they are doing something for other people, when they are in fact arranging matters in their own favor. Language seems to serve the purposes of making excuses for doing things in one's own interest, and a person is a master of language to the sense that they can craft it for those purposes.

Fanny comes to see that the class inflected language increases her own condition of dependance. She is at first not equipped to speak it at all. Her introduction to Mansfield Park has the Dickensian quality of a child observing the fulsome speech of their elders without yet having the wit to defend herself or the sophistication to hide her own immediate concerns. Fanny arrives on the doorstep at Mansfield Park tired after a long journey, and acts the way a child would under such circumstances, and this is taken as the sign of the class from which she has come. This also is a Dickensian touch, blaming the lower class for being merely human, rather than demonstrating some superhuman virtues which the betters could not themselves offer.

Fanny is hard pressed to survive in this environment. She makes some room for herself by never by asking too much or demanding too much. Rather, she simply waits around so that something can be offered out of the generosity that overcomes the giver because of the awkwardness that results from her being a member of the family deprived of such simple amenities. How Fanny gets her horse is a good example of this. She pouts and resents until Sir Thomas Bertram finds a horse for her, while Maria, a “legitimate” daughter, has no trouble getting her’s. The lesson Fanny learns is that you get what you are entitled to by pouting and not forgetting the humiliation you have to go through to get what should not need to be asked for. Fanny bears the scars of her ordeal. She takes Mrs. Norris too seriously, thinking herself unworthy of more than the crumbs she gets; she falls back upon herself, and her own wit, in which she can take some pride, and the moral righteousness she shares with Edmund, the cousin to whom she is closest.

Fanny is at first thus dependant, but then, as the years of courtship approach for the older girls in the family, she becomes entwined in the family life, still inferior in station, but allowed to hear conversation of a domestic sort which shows that language is not just for the purpose of disguise, but a complex matter of meshing sentiment and family feeling with social obligations. It becomes clear to the more mature Fanny that people are willing to shed the proprieties when it suits them because the proprieties are only that people need gentle language only when they are dependant upon it, which is what happens so that people manage to survive the day, needing company so they can do their needlework. People are useless, and social life is claustrophobic, but nonetheless essential, for without it people would be without emotional sustenance and the support that allows them to think well of themselves, because they are under such pressure to think poorly of themselves. The cripples helping the cripples.

Fanny survives by becoming a moral icon. Since she has come to this way of life late, she learns it as a lesson, a process of assimilation, and is therefore less likely to alter it, to treat it as malleable and circumstantial. She internalizes propriety while for others propriety is simply a social fact. This accomplishment comes to be a weapon with which she shames others, though largely unintentionally, since she gives off the aura of morality when in fact morality seems the natural way to act since that is what she has learned to identify as the way of life of the society which she has joined. She takes aristocratic respectability more seriously than do those born into the aristocracy. This is so much the case that when she first hears Mary Crawford, a visitor to Mansfield Park, criticize the family that had adopted her--adoption not seeming to be a strange though not therefore unremarkable an occasion, Fanny is scandalized. People don’t say such things about people on whom they are dependant. Fanny and Edmund come to the same explanation for this failing that the people at Mansfield Park had given for her own shortcomings: bad child rearing.

Not that Fanny is immune from gaffes. Her concern for her gown is comic and pathetic; her wearing of the jewelry given as gifts to her is absurd. But Fanny is taken as a person for whom it is a given that their manners are imperfect, and so that must be set aside if she is to be appreciated. Which results in the converse, that when she is appreciated, her poor manners and slightly off putting manner must be set aside. This also contributes to her character as a moral icon, since it is a characteristic to be perceived through her very visible frailties, as is also the case with Yoda, and so is a tribute to those who can observe her to have that deeper, more sublime, kind of virtue.

Fanny moves from being dependant to being part of a mutually dependant community, each member having to exhibit the social traits suitable for the social class from which they come. James Rushworth is such a failure when he takes them to visit his estate because a man of such a high station should be able to carry off the visit without a hitch, and should act as if he does not care when things go badly, for it is not he who should try to impress them, but they who should be grateful for what he condescends to offer them.

In such a world, how do people court? By where they sit on a stage, or who they walk with, because such events have double meanings: acceptable in their own right as innocent, but capable of interpretation as significant. Only when the burden of such ambiguous moments builds up, does one have the right to take them as signals of courtship, so that a declaration of love, when unambiguously stated, has been long prepared, and every indication has been given it would be accepted, because no event contrary to such an interpretation is available, even though any number of events can still take on an innocent gloss. That is why Henry Crawford’s declaration to Fanny is so dramatic even if he has made an eccentric choice and why Fanny's rejection seems so perverse in spite of that because she was in no position to do any better.  But the decorum of courtship also shows that there is a hairline of difference between events which can be interpreted and those which declare themselves to be what they are. There is always a dramatic gap between what is as yet unannounced and its announcement. This provides the suspense and the interest of these love stories, because it emphasizes the way in which all love stories turn triumphant or tragic on the basis of correctly or incorrectly understood intentions.

Fanny moves from group dependance to self-dependance. She falls back, in the third part of the story, to being her own guide, which is a role she has been prepared for, but did not want to undertake in so powerful a way, but which was unavoidable because so many unforeseen opportunities for which their is not a simple moral calculus, given her position and dispositions.

It is from this posture that she must make her judgment of Portsmouth, her original home to which she returns as a “mature” woman. Portsmouth is not easy to accept or reject, and  the reader is likely to trust Fanny's judgment because she is, despite everything, the character with the clearest and most objective sense of class since she is the one who moves most easily between them and retains her intellectual and even a bit of emotional distance. Although Fanny is at first taken aback by the material insufficiencies of her mother's house, that is not her final judgment. It is that these are not nice people, no nicer than the people at Mansfield Park.

How are we to separate out the issues of class circumstances, the culture of a class, its state of disorganization, and the individual personalities? It was not at all clear then or now. Are people more virtuous in one class rather than another, or is it simply a confusion of morals with manners? Fanny appreciates the question, but thinks the poorer people do not simply speak in a more vulgar way, or have to contend with meaner conditions, which leads them to concentrate on more vulgar concerns, but are, in fact, baser sorts of people when everything is added up. She will not make a joke of it and so, like Henry Higgins, declare Eliza Doolittle’s father to be a superior kind of moralist.

These are the issues which have become familiar from social analysis of upward mobility in any age, but are best applied to Jane Austen by understanding her usage of terms properly. What could she mean when she presents people as lacking manners? Is that an attribute of their social class? It is, if we understand the term “manners” properly. There is a conceptual gap between Fanny’s world and the world of today that is the result of just a shift in meaning. Manners do not mean today what they meant in Jane Austen’s time. Today, “manners” means a code of conduct which allows people to be civil to one another whatever are their feelings toward one another. People who have good manners will not embarrass other people out of a sense of tact and what is proper behavior for a civilized behavior at the moment. Manners are today the province of--well, Miss Manners, and also of Emily Post and all the others who write about etiquette, they quick to point out that they are not concerned about whether a reader uses the right spoon but whether a person tries to put another person at ease and otherwise tries to smooth out the bumps in social relationships, whether that means telling someone an uncomfortable truth because it might relieve the person told or telling of an uncomfortable burden, or not to tell a hidden truth because it will bring with it unnecessary pain.

But in Jane Austen’s time, as her characters make clear, manners refers to a person’s manner, what we might even call their personality, because it is about how a person presents themselves to others, whether that person can help being that way or not. A manner is a presentation, how the person comes across, whether as gruff or arrogant, or winsome, or argumentative, or flirtatious and oh much too well mannered, as is the case with Mr. Wickham, who uses his manners to seduce Lydia in “Pride and Prejudice”. So manner may be feigned or inevitable, but they are the revelations of character not always to be trusted, as is the case when Elizabeth early on finds Darcy to be arrogant and standoffish only later to find that he is decent and honorable and devoted even if he still is arrogant and standoffish.

And that is the case in “Mansfield Park”. Fanny has a poor manner in that she is greedy and pouts a lot and has to get her way, even if she has learned how to eat properly. As in Shakespeare, what appears to be the case really is the case. Richard III is in his soul as ugly as he is as a person. Jane Austen translates that insight into meaning that people are their manner: what you see is what you get. Fanny is what she is and will continue to being that however much love or the appearance of love is sent her way. Why people are the way they are is perhaps beyond Jane Austen’s understanding, as it is beyond ours. But what Austen offers is the very conservative message which is not to trust people to be any better than they apparently seem to be, which is very different from the liberal message that people can be improved and are improved, are elevated in their social class, even if their manners are better given that their manner is not. The conservative message is to trust to social categories such as race and social class, while the liberal message is to trust to essential humanity, and these two messages are so in collision that we, today, recognize them as conflicting feelings rather than conflicting ideas. We sense them to be the bedrock on which political positions and social viewpoints can rest.

Why the South and the Midwest Support Trump

In the introduction to his very comprehensive but unoriginal study of the intellectual history surrounding the Protestant Reformation,”Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind”, Michael Massing, the author, wants to show that the debate between these two towering figures is still relevant. He does so by saying that American Evangelicalism, what with its insistence on piety and the examination of the personal consciousness and its reliance on group sentiments, is a descendant of Luther rather than Calvin. While this may be no more than a rediscovery of what Troeltsch said some hundred years ago when he distinguished sects, in which all people were equal in their faith and distrustful of outsiders, from churches, which create big tents so that people of very disparate levels of faith can claim to be believers, it also points out a valid observation of American religion, which is that conformity to a creed which will not brook objection is the basis of a community rather than what follows from community, and that community sets itself up against the enclosing and hostile world so as to fight for its distinctiveness, whatever that might be and whatever that might come to encompass, such as deviant political views or racial prejudice. I want to go a bit more deeply into the way Lutheranism is a key to American religion by pointing to two strands of it that emerge from considering a basic paradox in Luther’s theology.

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2/9: Tone and Texture in "Pride and Prejudice"


Tone is a set of feelings evoked by a novel and we have long established names for characteristic sets of feelings. These are the names of the genres: comedy, tragedy, melodrama, romance, and all those others, the hybrids, such as tragicomedy, referred to by Hamlet in his speech to the players. Texture, for its part, is the way these characteristic features are established through the stylistics of the text: how a text combines dialogue with description, how it leaves ironies hanging in the air; what it takes to be a joke or a resolution or even a mere development in a conflict. Jane Austen who, as the narrator of her novels, is a distant, jaundiced and amused authorial voice, works her will largely by how she structures her scenes so as to allow for verbal confrontations, a playwright as much as a novelist, which makes sense given her debt to Shakespeare.  But as a novelist, she was quite good at changing and managing different tones within the same novel. This is certainly the case in "Pride and Prejudice", where there is a conflict between two families that differ in much more than wealth. The Bennets and the extended family of Mr. Darcy differ in tone. The Bennets are comic, always being a bit silly, though not always as much as Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth desperately wants to escape from that. The wealthy families, on the other hand, are given over to melodrama. They take themselves very seriously, and they exaggerate their emotions, as when Darcy finds the first ball he attends terribly dull. They are also touched by tragedy, which is what happens when Mr. Wickham ruins Darcy's sister, though the reader does not find that out until much later, when Darcy reveals his family disgrace to Elizabeth and so clinches the case that he really loves her by going into an intimacy that would be, at the time, truly shocking and from which his sister would not be expected to recover.

Darcy and his family also have the virtue of taking situations into hand when they need to with resolution as if a good deal depended on how you handled life rather than just responded to it. Darcy is not judgmental about Lydia falling for Mr. Wickham. Foolish girls will do such things. He just sets out to do the things that will make the situation right. He arranges for a marriage by paying off Wickham's debts and may have had a hand in seeing him assigned to a military post in the north where he and Lydia will be out of the way, seen only occasionally on visits. Darcy's first marriage proposal to Elizabeth may seem unromantic but it was full of good sense. There is a problem in the marriage of people of such different wealth and disposition and so his willingness to create structures that will help resolve the differences between the two shows just how much he loves her even if he cannot put it that way and comes over, eventually, to her view that a marriage must brook no such impediments: it must be done for purely romantic reasons and so Darcy puts aside his misgivings about how well Elizabeth will do as mistress of Pemberley. For her part, Elizabeth has to put aside her amusement at Darcy's haughty manner and take him to be the recently converted non-snob he now claims to be, knowing full well that he cannot give up that part of his character, nor would she want him to.

Texture, on the other hand, refers to the various techniques of writing that are used in moving ahead the plot through whatever tone or combination of tones the author chooses to engage. Texture is created by the balance between dialogue and narration, in the nature and type of authorial voice used in the novel, in the extent of the description of such atmospherics as furniture or architecture or countryside, in whether scenes are long or short, and on whether the author indulges in subplots to pass the time or give some relief from the central action of the novel. Dickens was long on subplots and atmospherics while having a strong authorial voice inclined to sympathy for the unfortunate lives being portrayed, while Jane Austen was short on subplots and atmospherics while also having a strong authorial voice inclined to a rational appreciation of the circumstances that drove her characters to have the deep emotions that they only sometimes expressed.

So how is it that these two people, Elizabeth and Darcy, being of such different temperments, of two different styles, come together? They are brought together by Mr. Binkley and Jane Bennet, Darcy accompanying Binkley on his visits to the Bennet household, events that seem deeply unpleasant to all concerned, even to Mrs. Bennet who so much wants to move them in the right direction. Binkley and Jane, it is pointed out over and over again, are simple souls who do not see the complications of themselves falling into a love match, while Elizabeth and Darcy, at the beginning of their love affair, can see nothing but the obstacles that stand in their way. That is the way, by coincidence, that their love affair is able to prosper.

Consider the way Jane Austen uses both tone and texture to distance the reader from the scandal of Lydia's elopement, which is not just a shame on the family but a disaster for it because it means that none of the young women will be able to make a suitable marriage. The incident is rendered comic because Mr. Collins, when he comes to console them, candidly speaks of the very bad news in just the condescending and censorious tone that is likely to make the family regain a sense of amour propre. Only Mr. Collins would be so full of gloom and doom, however much what he says is true. No politeness here. Small mindedness may be rampant everywhere, but nowhere so clearly as in Mr. Collins. And the texture of the novel also distances the rendition from the emotions conveyed by the events themselves. The story of the elopement is revealed through letters concerning Lydia's disappearance, then her location, then her marriage, and then her impending visit, when, only then, does Lydia let the cat out of the bag by referring to something she was not supposed to, which was Mr. Darcy's presence at her wedding. So all becomes clear to the discerning Elizabeth, as it never becomes clear, fortunately, to the obtuse Lydia, that Darcy had arranged it all, and so introduced himself back into the story of the lives of the Bennet family, and contributed to changing Elizabeth's mind to him--clinched it, really, in that Elizabeth had already softened to him. That prepares the stage for he and his friend, Mr. Bingley, to reappear in the neighborhood, and propose their respective marriages, never mind that Lydia and Mr. Wickham have been moved off the stage so that their very unpropitious marriage can work itself out. What will happen when Wickham runs out of money this next time is not discussed by Jane Austen.

The way Jane Austen organizes her dialogues is so characteristic that it can be abstracted out to be a principle of organization and so part of the texture of the work as a whole. We have already observed the way she manages the conversations that take place at Netherfield between Elizabeth and Darcy, others present in the room. The dialogue is abbreviated, a quick set of piercing exchanges that leave the others in the room far behind and so bored but the conversations themselves crackling with bon mots and devastating insights. In the last one of these, Elizabeth says Mr. Darcy is mean and Mr. Darcy says that Elizabeth deliberately misunderstands people. Both are correct. There is nothing more to be said because each has reduced the other to some basic insight about the person: an emotion that is core to their characters.

Ending a conversation after hitting some bedrock after the preliminaries are out of the way is not the way most conversations in the real world proceed. Rather, people return over and over again to old themes and insights, to digressions, to newly invented rejoinders and side issues. But it is the way in which Jane Austen conversations operate because she is a rationalist who thinks that conversations actually do something. They clarify issues, get down to axiomatic disagreements, and then there is nothing left to say and so they are over. That is very much in keeping with Jane Austen's view of the novel itself, each of her own not simply giving the reader a window into a way of life with which the reader is unfamiliar and delicious to savor, but so as to solve a problem that Jane Austen has set up in the early pages of the novel. "Pride and Prejudice" opens with two eligible gentlemen of means coming into the neighborhood doubtlessly in search of brides, and by the end of it have been married off to girls who are either early or late all too glad to have them. Similarly, "Mansfield Park" is about how a poor relative taken in by a wealthy family makes her way with the family, changing it more than changing herself, and "Emma" is about a busybody who finally has to grow up and cope with her own feelings rather than the feelings of others. How will she manage that? "Persuasion" is also simple and straightforward in its story. How does a romance get rekindled, if it can, some years later, between people whose prior romance had not worked out? That is an intellectual problem for Jane Austen to contemplate, even as it is an emotional one as well, "Persuasion" having the most poignant of all her plots.

That this is Jane Austen's approach to dialogue and to plotting--start with a problem and end it with a solution or at least a recognition that there is no where else to go--is telegraphed many times, perhaps most successfully in Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth, which is farcical and always included in the movie versions of the novel because the irony of the scene is so readily grasped: that Elizabeth wants nothing to do with the man and that he persists anyway totally oblivious to her feelings. In spite of her not even wanting to be alone with him so he could propose, he clears the room, thanks to Mrs. Bennet, and then gives the rational basis for his decision--his comfortable position and the fact that his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, thinks he should marry--and when Elizabeth tries to let him down gently, he claims that is because girls are likely to turn down a proposal the first time out of modesty, and when she perseveres, saying that something as important as a proposal is not likely to be turned down a first time out of form lest the proposal not be repeated, Mr. Collins says right out loud why he thinks she should not turn him down: the family estate is entailed to him anyway and this is the only way for the family to get out of that difficulty, and that Elizabeth is not likely to attract another suitor. All of this is hardly gallant or likely to win over a girl. Elizabeth says her answer is final and flees the scene, but Mr. Collins will not accept that a conversation is terminated when it is over and so appeals to Mrs. Bennet to get Elizabeth to reconsider before he changes his mind, and so she appeals to Mr. Bennet to interceded, at which point, Mr. Bennet, fully aware of the disaster to his family that his judgment portends, says he will not speak to Elizabeth if she accepts the proposal, and Elizabeth, of course, is much more concerned with the judgment of her father than of her well-meaning but marriage obsessed mother.

The same principle applies to other instances of conversation in "Pride and Prejudice". There is a point to Lady Catherine de Bough's chatter, which is to intrude herself into everyone else's decisions about how they live their lives and even about things she knows nothing about, such as music, when she claims authority without being able to play herself, and people do not quarrel with her about that. She criticizes Elizabeth's family for having done without a governess and having introduced all the daughters into society, and is piqued at Elizabeth unwilling to declare her age, that to her an impertinence, however trivial a matter it is, so that Elizabeth complies by admitting to being twenty-one. So we know what conversations are about at Rosling: hearing what Lady Catherine has to say. Lady Catherine, however, is not Wilde's Lady Bracknell. She is neither wise nor witty; she is, instead, boring and boorish and no one should have to put up with her but they do simply because she is rich.

There is a different purpose in Elizabeth's conversation with Mr. Fitzsimmons, who provides crucial information to Elizabeth when she makes casual reference to the fact that Darcy seems to look after Bingley, perhaps trying to probe into a relationship where one seems so clearly the intellectual superior of the other. What Fitzsimmons reveals is that Darcy had helped Binkley by discouraging him from an inappropriate and unnamed relationship, which Elizabeth quickly enough recognizes to have been the one with her sister. So the exchange of gossip, as that takes place when any of us discuss friends who are not present, results sometimes in useful information, and that is the purport if not the intention of such conversation. Talk has purpose.

The reader has been so well schooled in Jane Austen's view of dialogue, which is that it is over when it is over, and that extending it is ridiculous and shameful, that we are prepared to see Elizabeth's rejection of Darcy's first proposal just as she perhaps did not mean it to be: categorical and final, the end of the matter. That is the person she is, not a dissembler in the manner of Mr. Collins. Darcy understands that and, given that he is not very articulate in person, sends Elizabeth a letter where he candidly admits to having intruded between Bingley and Jane, but defends his behavior towards Wickham. In a letter, Darcy can deliver an extended argument that makes clear that he is both candid, showing his real motives, owning up to those that the one who receives the letter will disapprove of, as well as feeling honorbound to explain what others might misunderstand. He does in writing what Elizabeth does in speech: make points.This theory of conversation is also why it is very brave of Darcy to raise the question of marriage one more time, much later, after the Lydia-Wickham marriage, and after Lady Catherine has already informed Elizabeth of Darcy's continuing interest in her. This time, true to form, she does not hesitate, but quickly gives her consent, which means that it is an actual and rational and fully emotional assent, true to both her own and Jane Austen's sense of dialogue.

The movie versions of "Pride and Prejudice" are not true to either the novel's tone or its texture. Elizabeth as played by Greer Garson is too regal and self-possessed to be Elizabeth, while Laurence Olivier has just the right tone of arrogance and even a bit of meanness, though he is made out to be more articulate than he is in the novel. That film becomes a romantic comedy where spats rather than issues are at stake, demonstrating only that these are independant and therefore well matched people, sort of like in Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy movies. The very well received, and deservedly so, multipart BBC production of "Pride and Prejudice" stars a much too beautiful Jennifer Ehle who is matched in her sweetness by a heartthrob Colin Firth, and so there is established a tone of not at all bittersweet romance, the emotions syrupy rather than rough. Keira Knightley, in the 2005 version directed by Joe Wright, is also regal and so self-possessed that no one could fault her virtues, thus betraying the real conflict that is going on in Darcy's soul, and which Jane Austen, who is no great fan of her heroines, is out to portray, while her soulmate, the most recent Darcy, is more moody than arrogant, a Heathcliffe without the moors, and so providing a drama that is deeply Romantic, full of feeling and poignant and pregnant expressions.

I much prefer the authorial voice of Jane Austen herself, which is clearly present in her narrative, ordering her story so that it is clear what happens first and what goes next and how complications ensue and are resolved, ever mindful, that voice, of how people respond to their good sense and not just their emotions, and come to decisions that are reasonable under the circumstances. Jane Austen is an Enlightenment, not a Romantic, writer, however much her sense of the thickness of custom and culture, in that it is real rather than imaginary obstacles that get in the way of our lives turning out as we would like, and that people are amazing in their ability to thwart what in other times would have been thought of as their fates, which, in the case of this novel, is that all of the Bennet girls would have been condemned to very unsatisfactory even if necessary marriages.

The third movie version takes an interest in the atmospherics of nature that is true to a Romantic consciousness but not to Jane Austen, who did not show much interest in descriptions of nature. Elizabeth stands on a bluff and Darcy arrives through a mist. In that movie, Elizabeth also lives in a house where pigs wander through, and so much too ramshackle for this respectable if not wealthy family. That a house befits your station is important to Jane Austen. Darcy's Pemberley is grand, while the Bennet house is not, although comfy enough, as in the Greer Garson version, and Mr. Collins' house is even more bare than that, with only a mere suggestion of a garden.

The movie versions are a backdoor way of making another distinction between tone and texture. Tone and texture are two characteristics of literature that are particularly relied on as resources for the novel, while structure and language are more important in lyric poetry and drama. The tone of a novel is front stage. It is what preoccupies the reader. How will the story turn out? What are the motives of the characters? The texture of a novel, on the other hand, is what is upstage, the scenery, as it were, of the novel, and so absorbed indirectly by the reader. The texture of a novel has to do with the social world it creates, the kinds of situations and social circumstances which people encounter. The costumes, manners, occupations, beliefs, institutions, of the society provide the texture of a novel, and the reader, like the audience to the movies that are the lineal descendants of the novel, is awash in that world which is an alternative to the present one for its vividness and its strangeness, but not so off as to be unrecognizable as the world of understandable situations that the reader does inhabit. In that sense, all novels are historical novels, in that they create a world just slightly different (and a bit before) the actual present, and embellish the setting so that it seems exotic and so sets off feelings which are perhaps more familiar to the time or setting of the reader than of the place and time described. That is one reason why the novel is told in the past tense: because it is a chronicle of what is past, although it contains information and characters new to the reader who has not heard this novel before. The reader wants to know what will happen to Elizabeth and Darcy but is also caught up, inevitably, in the manners and manors of Regency England: how people speak and how they live.

The Golden Age of Dutch Art

It is a curiosity that the Netherlands never produced any fiction or drama in the vernacular that took its place alongside that of the other languages of Western Europe, such as German, French, Italian and English. The greatest writers of the Dutch Golden Age were Spinoza and Grotius, both of whom wrote in Latin, as had Erasmus, the great Rotterdam humanist of a previous century. Rather, as everyone acknowledges, the greatness of Dutch culture rests on its paintings, which provide a vivid and even a metaphysical insight into the life of the Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently showing a rather large overview of these paintings and is avoiding the usual show of greats, including only a few by Rembrandt, one Vermeer, and none by Brueghel. The show provides a deep sense of why Dutch art is so good as well as so informative about the period it captures.

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1/9 Jane Austen: Dialogue in "Pride and Prejudice"

Jane Austen, after Cassandra Austen, published 1870, National Portrait Gallery, London

Jane Austen, after Cassandra Austen, published 1870, National Portrait Gallery, London

“This is the first of a set of nine essays that will appear weekly to show some of Jane Austen’s complexity, her charm, her never failing realistic evaluation of the human condition, however much she may seem to be showing only the most obvious of conflicts and resolutions, although that too was a part of her irony: to show what might seem obvious to be very complicated indeed. I do so by engaging in close textual analysis of the text, which is a technique not usually applied to the novel because it is such an ungainly form, and going into detail about only two of her novels: “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mansfield Park”. That analysis is set in the context of sociological observations that will show what she has to say still bears learning. The reader of the series should come away resolute in a desire to plunge even more deeply into Jane Austen, even beyond what had been thought a sufficient understanding of her novels.”

George Saintsbury, a most neglected early Twentieth Century literary critic, ranked Jane Austen, along with Charles Dickens, as the most distinguished of the English novelists. I would go much further than that and assign to her the title of greatest novelist I have ever read. That is because, when it comes to technique, she can organize a gigantic set of characters into a plot that moves at the pace of a play, and write dialogue that both crackles with wit and complexity, revealing levels of character it takes a lifetime of study to fully appreciate, and she also evokes a social ambiance that is fully aware of the historical and economic forces at work, all this while seeming only to offer up an amusing diversion about the restricted lives of the country gentry in Regency England. Moreover, while her novels may all involve courtship as the defining feature of their plots, each novel is different, exploring different aspects of the nature of life, such as the nature of the past in “Persuasion” and, in “Pride and Prejudice”, the very difficult to access aspects of class differences that lie beneath the obvious ones, such as wealth and manners, which are so easy to ridicule-- something which Austen is by no means reluctant to do. Fun is to be had, but there are more serious issues afoot which are ubiquitous and yet amorphous. Jane Austen’s themes are universal and as deep as it gets. I sometimes wish that Jane Austen were used to train Senators and diplomats and psychoanalysts in how to do their jobs. Rereading Jane Austen shows her to be even better than we remember her to have been.

This is the first of a set of nine essays that will appear weekly to show some of Jane Austen’s complexity, her charm, her never failing realistic evaluation of the human condition, however much she may seem to be showing only the most obvious of conflicts and resolutions, although that too was a part of her irony: to show what might seem obvious to be very complicated indeed. I do so by engaging in close textual analysis of the text, which is a technique not usually applied to the novel because it is such an ungainly form, and going into detail about only two of her novels: “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mansfield Park”. That analysis is set in the context of sociological observations that will show what she has to say still bears learning. The reader of the series should come away resolute in a desire to plunge even more deeply into Jane Austen, even beyond what had been thought a sufficient understanding of her novels.

A first cut at establishing the greatness of Jane Austen as a novelist can be done by comparing her to another great Nineteenth Century novelist, Leo Tolstoy, who also describes courtships that take place at balls and large social gatherings where people who are largely strangers to one another converse, flirt, and dance with one another. Leo Tolstoy is a describer. A central moment in “Anna Karenina” occurs when Anna dances with Vronsky at the ball. They have flirted with one another, but that is all. Something happens during that dance that moves them into being potential lovers. Tolstoy decided not to let the reader hear what it is that they said to one another, like a movie director who shows an argument or some other impassioned conversation taking place behind a window or a glass door, the lips moving, but not letting the audience know exactly what is being said, only indicating its purport. So is conveyed the information of a death or other bad news or the particularly good news of the declaration of peace after a war.

Why did Tolstoy do what he did? It is not that he does not have the talent to do conversation. He does many conversations between Pierre and Andre, between Levin and Kitty. But he hides the most important conversations because they are not the active forces in moving along the narrative. The actions that would be enunciated in words are already established, predetermined, by the characters and the circumstances of the people involved. We know why Anna would fall in love with Vronsky, and we know why he would fall in love with her to the extent he could. Words do not make things happen; they only can be used, therefore, to describe feelings and thoughts that are there for otherwise established reasons. Tolstoy is less concerned to explain what happened between Anna and Vronsky then to investigate its causes and consequences, even to her humiliations and eventual suicide. Indeed, one of the few times words count in “Anna Karenina” is when Anna’s husband speaks overtly to her about what is going on and gives a cynical account of how he will hide her secret for the sake of propriety. He reveals to the reader what had not been known to the reader before: how callous a man he is, one who took out the insult to his self respect by a refusal to acknowledge even his own feelings, not even willing to tell Anna how hurt he had been in his own soul by her action. It makes the reader think about what their personal life had been and whether that had not provided reason enough for Anna to look elsewhere for male companionship.

But that pulling back of the curtain on the intimate life of a Russian Victorian couple is used only to suggest what had already happened, not what was made to happen in the words, however much words had sealed the doom of the relationship. The words made neither of them free. This strategy of Tolstoy’s, to shroud pivotal conversations, is used in “War and Peace” and in “Resurrection”, and even in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, where there no conversation about death but only an internal monologue. That fact suggests Tolstoy’s sense of how alone people are at the time of their deaths, as well in the lives they lived before that.

Jane Austen, for her part, is a writer of dialogue, perhaps because she was so influenced by Shakespeare and Milton, neither of whom had much time for description but a lot of time to have their characters wax on at great length about one thing or another, some of those words, amazingly many of them, crucial for the movement of the narrative. Consider some scenes from “Pride and Prejudice” that serve the same function as the dance scene in “Anna Karenina”.

Elizabeth later admits to her sister and father that it was not love at first sight between herself and Darcy. Indeed, most of her early encounters with Darcy had been contentious. But over the long run, she had so grown on him that she says to her sister, when she does not think he will ever call on her again, that she very much regrets that he may be out there in the world thinking poorly of her. That is as fine a declaration of love as there is.

The long courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy over the course of years, takes place at occasional meetings that are remarkable for the slow pace of the developing candor between them. In fact, at first they barely speak to one another. Elizabeth overhears Darcy making a disparaging comment about her looks. At subsequent occasions, he finds himself trailing her and thinking more kindly of her looks, Jane Austen catching on to the fact that men who begin to think about a woman seriously gradually find her to be more attractive than they originally thought, their sense of a woman’s character informing their perception. Elizabeth notices that he has been overhearing her conversations and calls him on it, and he does not respond, but Darcy’s sister notices what is happening, and jumps ahead to tell Darcy that he should expect Mrs. Bennet to be a mother-in-law who is constantly visiting.

The first extended contact between the two takes place when Elizabeth walks three miles through the mud to visit her ailing sister at Mr. Bingley’s estate, and the women of the family comment on how much worse for wear Elizabeth looks, Darcy keeping to himself his admiration for Elizabeth’s devotion to Jane. That evening, in response to Mr. Hurst’s platitude about how accomplished women are, Jane downplays her own education and remarks that it is not much of an accomplishment to do the things that women do (or as we might say today, are allowed to do), such as stitching screens, and when Elizabeth leaves the room, the woman think it rude for Elizabeth to have disparaged her own sex, Darcy again left to cultivate his own thought that what Elizabeth said constituted an insight, allowing himself only to say that women who do something that is cunning, which is to say, requires some mind, are thought despicable, a remark that leaves others troubled for reasons they cannot say, perhaps because it is too foreign a thought for them to consider. Both Darcy and Elizabeth are caught up in a world of philistines, men and women who are devoted only to card playing and eating and gossip when they are in one another’s company.

Next day, Mrs. Bennet, another uninvited guest, shows up to see how Jane is doing and manages to be provincial enough to defend country living over town living, which even Elizabeth thinks is going too far, but that does not keep Elizabeth from offering another original thought, which is that love poetry puts an end to love because it substitutes for it and serves as a way to end a relationship. Darcy finds this piquant observation amusing rather than just contrarian.

And so the days pass while Jane convalesces. As if to outdo herself, or merely because she cannot resist the urge, Elizabeth does indeed turn rude in dealing with her host, Mr. Bingley, when he remarks that he dashes off his own correspondence while Darcy labors over his. Elizabeth says that he claims a false modesty because, in fact, he is proud to do things quickly, even if thoughtlessly, and so to say he would leave this estate if he took a mind to, it would mean he would neglect whatever business had been left undone, and so leave his life to chance. Darcy enters the conversation to say that a friend who asked someone to leave their estate to immediately attend upon him had offered no reason and so such a request should not be honored, to which Elizabeth replies, raising the moral stakes, that a friend need have no reason to make such a request, friendship sufficient reason to honor the request. Bingley is getting hot under the collar and Elizabeth plunges the dagger in all the way when she says that being simple does not mean being of bad character, something Bingley cannot take as a compliment. Bingley will have no more of arguments, and one wonders whether Darcy has no other friends that he spends so much time consorting with a person who is so much his intellectual inferior.

It is out of such conversations that a courtship is constructed: talk that is abbreviated, elusive, about apparently more general matters such as what is the meaning of friendship, and usually in the presence of others so that Darcy and Elizabeth do not have to confront or contend with one another, especially since their obviously growing interest in one another meets with the disapproval of all those around them. That has not changed by the time Darcy makes his first proposal to Elizabeth. He blunders about it, as if there could not have been a way to refer to their difference in positions in a less insulting way, though he is so conflicted about it, so much a prisoner of convention, that it would have been difficult for him to form a better way of saying it even if he had been much more clever than he is or nearly as clever as Elizabeth, who is able to meet not just him but Lady Catherine on equal rhetorical terms.

Early on in the novel, Jane gives forth with a sententious statement, something unusual for her, as the narrator notes, but which is key to understanding the novel. Jane says that pride is a belief in one’s own powers, while vanity is a concern with what other people think of you. Darcy is guilty of both. He is so prideful that he remains mute before most of the people with whom he associates, while he is overly concerned with the prejudices of his relatives about Elizabeth as ungainly, unmannered and overly intellectual and what they will think of her should she become his bride and so someone who has risen far above her station. So he is the one who has to overcome pride and prejudice while Elizabeth is not particularly prideful, but rather dismissive of her own accomplishments, and is not vain in that she is unmindful, to a fault, of how she might come off to other people. It is up to Darcy to see the diamond in the rough and attend to it accordingly, invoking and transforming his own feelings and beliefs. That is the gravamen of the novel: it is up to the man to be up to the task, even for an Elizabeth worthy of his love.

This point is more than adequately made by the last of the conversations at Bingley’s estate, which again takes place with others in the room. Miss Bingley asks Elizabeth to stroll around the room with her and Darcy declines to draw them insisting that there are only two reasons the two woman would do that, and he is prompted by Miss Bingley to name them: either to share a confidence or else to show off their figures. Noone is shocked, however candid Darcy may be, and Elizabeth enjoins Jane’s distinction between vanity and pride to get Darcy to say that pride will get a man to control his vanity, which leads to something of a direct confrontation, Elizabeth saying that makes Darcy perfect, if he says so himself, which brings Darcy out enough to defend himself by saying that he does not trust his own temper and that a bad opinion once formed is not likely given up. Elizabeth does not give up in spite of the fact that such self-deprecation on Darcy’s part might be thought a way to make peace. She finishes him off by saying that his propensity is to hate everyone, and the best he can reply to that is that her defect is to misunderstand him, which is true enough. Darcy emerges from the encounter warning himself that he will never get the better of her and so pursuing her is a dangerous thing to do. Elizabeth and Jane return home in the next chapter. The couple, not yet a couple, know well enough what they are each about, though they have not yet learned to see what they take to be vices are also virtues.

The pace of a Jane Austen novel picks up as it reaches its end. What had been told at a leisurely pace, as we shall see again when considering “Mansfield Park”, turns feverish or even operatic. What that means in the case of “Pride and Prejudice” is that the quality of the many important conversations that take place towards the end of the book change from being stilted or out of control to being eloquent, each character coming to say exactly what they want to say, nothing more and nothing less. This happens when Lady Catherine confronts Elizabeth and tries to get her to promise never to marry Darcy, which, as Elizabeth notes in her response, must be a prospect more real than she would have thought it to be for otherwise Lady Catherine would not be here to get a denial and a promise. Elizabeth does not go further than she wants to, as she often has before, especially as she had in denying Darcy’s first proposal, because all she says is that she is not engaged to Darcy but will not promise what will happen in the future. So Elizabeth is forewarned of what will happen when Darcy does show up again, he clearly having discussed what a marriage to Elizabeth would mean for his family, his sister already thinking well of her, whatever Lady Catherine might think. So she can accept his apology for her having treated him so badly after he first proposed, even if he had very clumsily though not untruthfully put the question of the differences between their stations in life. She had over-reacted then, but not this time, accepting him for the snobbish and proud man that he is because he is also a person of depth and integrity who seeks to right wrongs, very much a knight who had embarked on a quest to save the honor of Lydia through the means appropriate in Regency England: no duels, just payoffs.

And then Elizabeth handles her father in just the way he has to be handled to give his consent to the marriage, as if he could do otherwise even if he does not want to lose the apple of his eye. Elizabeth treats his permission as something that is freely given, not just to secure a fortune that would get his family out of hock, by declaring, truthfully, what her feelings are, which is that she truly loves Darcy. A father would not be fooled by a false declaration. As Jane Austen well knew, that scene brings a tear to every reader’s eye, and is a meaty scene for whomever plays Mr. Bennet, whether it is Edward Gwenn, Benjamin Whitrow, or Donald Sutherland. Mr. Bennet is shown to have deep feelings rather than just the avoidance of feeling that might come from having been cooped up in his library to avoid the nagging wife he must have found charming twenty years before. And so the next generation embarks on its life journey, as that is always measured by the circumstances of courtship and marriage, which may seem to be and are rendered comic, but is for most people the dramatic highpoints of their life, when they themselves become heros and heroines rather than character actors who fill up the background.

I have been told that Jane Austen’s portrayal of the courting dynamics of two hundred years ago do not hold up for the present generation which is given up to a “hookup” culture where a series of one night or abbreviated sexual relationships do not provide the basis for a long term relationship because the premise of long term relationships is that there is a process of delayed gratification whereby people try to come to understand one another before they become committed to one another and so afterwards become sexual familiars. But people can engage in sex while still holding in abeyance whether they want to have a long term relationship. People can start a new relationship, as Madonna puts it, “for the very first time”. Romance is possible even after previous sexual experience. Courtship is the process of making up one’s mind about having a stable rather than a temporary relationship. The point about stable relationships is that they are stable. People know who they are sleeping with every night, what their habits are like, what they smell like. There is less tension than there is in unstable relationships. People fall into an emotional division of labor as well as a financial one that suits their personalities and capacities. Couples become codependent. The desire to do that does not seem to have changed even if circumstances present different difficulties in Jane Austen’s time, when there were not enough eligible men in the neighborhood, and so one would have expected any girl to take up the first offer, which Elizabeth does not do, though it is suggested to her that she ought to, and the circumstances in our own time, where there is a plethora of men to pick for one night stands and therefore girls have to use other criteria to decide whether one of these or a man drawn from another pool is a subject for courtship.

The insight Jane Austen has is that courtships are conducted through conversations in which people either explain who they are or give off who they are through their words. Not everyone is equally articulate. Elizabeth pays an unwarranted compliment to Jane when she says her sister always reports what she thinks, which is perhaps because Jane is so pure so as not to be able to lie, but may also be because Jane does not have the mental equipment to dissemble. Her courtship with Mr. Bingley is an easy one because they are so well suited to one another’s personality that they cannot but be candid, while the courtship between Elizabeth and Darcy is fraught with difficulty because both of them have their reasons not to be candid: he to protect his wealth and the feelings of his family a well as his own privacy, she to overcome the embarrassment of her family. But most of us communicate well enough to engage in courtship, to plight our trow, according to the customs of the time, and that is the drama of courtship that remains fascinating whether in romantic comedies or in farces or in romances or in the serio-comedies and tragedies of Jane Austen.

The Midterms: O Woe Is Me!

Voting is the closest that I, as a secularist, come to having a sacred liturgy. I vote so as to receive its blessings, which is to participate in electing some of my fellow citizens to office, but also to make me feel that I am not merely an observer but a part of the political process, my vote every bit as valuable as that of Andrew Cuomo or Donald Trump. So I shed a tear when the person at my polling place gave me a sticker saying “I Voted” that I attached to my jacket. Old codgers are excused for doing that.

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The Harvard Case

The lawsuit brought against the Harvard University admission process breaks new ground in the discussion of affirmative action. Previous cases in the affirmative action debate that were settled in the Supreme Court decided that race could be considered one factor in deciding whether to grant admission to a candidate, even though the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection of the laws would lead one to think that race, religion and national origin should not be used as a basis for discrimination, even to achieve a good end, because it violated the idea that one could not be deprived of life, liberty or property (and admission to an elite college is a matter of some value) without due process of law, which means that the rights of a person cannot be abridged without a trial of personal culpability for a wrong. Sandra Day O’Connor in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) declared that the Fourteenth Amendment had to be suspended for a while, perhaps a generation, so that the nation could right the wrongs of discrimination. Creating a diverse student body that included African Americans justified what was constitutionally unpalatable.

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Post-Truth Times

People say that we live in a post-truth age. What they mean by that is that people not only do not agree on facts or on the interpretation of facts but, beyond that, do not agree that there are commonly accepted standards for gauging truth. People are free to make any claim, however outrageous it may be, and not have to ground it in evidence or have it open to criticism. People can simply stew in their own juice of cynicism. Clearly that is the case in politics, where President Trump is rife with remarks based on bile that he asserts but cannot defend and feels no embarrassment that his remarks cannot bear the weight of being scrutinized for their truth, the establishment of truth inevitably a collective process wherein everyone recognizes that there is something objective out there, something that can be confirmed to any reasonable observer, whether or not that is in keeping with your political or emotional predilections. Paul Krugman, for example, is ever outraged by the fact that Paul Ryan and other Republicans have no respect for the truth and simply lie to their heart's content so long as it serves their political purposes. But this problem is not limited to politics. Serious scholars wonder if truth is a chimera invented by philosophers to cover up the fact that some people are simply advancing one ideology or another, all of us prisoners of a point of view that is not objective. Nobel Prize winning economists like Daniel Kahneman have built reputations by saying that people almost always get things wrong, preferring their superstitions and their predilections to what a rational approach to the world would dictate. I want to employ some standard philosophical concepts to get around the post-truth arguments and suggest what is really at stake.

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Delacroix, The Romantic

The review in The New Yorker of the Delacroix show currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was curiously and unnecessarily dismissive of the artist, treating him as both banal and overbearing. I think that was because Delacroix is so clearly a Romantic, which is an age so out of favor at the moment, what with its Orientalism, supercharged emotions and flamboyant militarism. It is true that Delacroix is not up there with the true greats, like Picasso, who makes us reimagine the topology of the human shape, or Rembrandt, whose lined and craggy faces testify to their humanity, or Vermeer, who sets people and their identities within the world of extension when he, for example, shows the spaces between the dustmotes in the air. But Delacroix does have his virtues as an artist, if not as a philosopher or as a humanist, and these I wish to catalogue.

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Chomsky's Imperialism

A reader, Daniel Nikolic, asks a good question. He wants to know if there is a grain of truth in Noam Chomsky’s views on international relations that goes beyond his exaggerated statement of them. My answer to that is a categorical “no”. Either the theory of imperialism is true or it is false. That theory, which goes back to C. Wright Mills and before that to Lenin and where he got it, the British writer, J. A. Hobson, claims that the main explanation for international relations is that nations want to capture one another’s territories so that they can exploit the mineral wealth of the place and the labor of the inhabitants for the economic benefit of the imperialistic nation. The contending theory, that of realpolitik or geopolitics, is that nations are in quest of ever increased security, however powerful they are, so that their risk in dealing with other nations goes down. International relations is like a game of monopoly. You want enough money so you can afford to pay the rent even if you land on an expensive property owned by an opponent. You take risks only when you have no alternative, such as when you put all your money on a hotel hoping not to land on an opponents property because your only chance of survival is if the dice run your way. Sometimes nations are in that quandary, as Britain was in 1940, but most of the time you roll the dice when you are secure enough to withstand misfortune, as was the case in both Vietnam and Iraq, where the United States could sustain defeats and yet quickly rebound. There is so much the imperialist model cannot explain, as why we went into Vietnam, where there were no natural resources discovered until after the war was over, and which we can now access because Vietnam is an ally rather than an adversary, while the theory of realpolitik can explain all of international relations, back to the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens.

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Unappreciated Heroism

A hero is a person who exercises a virtue to a high enough degree to place his or her self at risk either to body or soul. A warrior is a hero because he risks his life for his country or people and is rewarded with medals or trophies. A saint is a hero who exercises a fidelity to a holy virtue, such as forgiveness or charity, sometimes at the risk of life, but often as not in comfort, as is the case with the Fathers of the Church, though there are those who go so far in their pursuit of knowledge, like Abelard, that sainthood is denied to them, given that saints need not be a perfect person, and Abelard was certainly not that. There are also heroes of literature. Joyce is heroic because he spent eleven years composing “Ulysses”, a book that broke ground in how to compose or read a novel, making extraordinary demands on its readership, when Joyce could have settled for composing more conventional ones like the one that had already made him famous, “The Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man”, and so made him a renowned novelist of the sort Thomas Mann was.

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Wadsworth Antheneum

Susan Sontag got it wrong when she said that photography was in part distinguished by the fact that there were so many good photographs to absorb. The same is true of all painting. A little bit of craft combined with a minimal eye for color and a good eye for perspective and composition can create a painting where you are transported into the texture of its life simply by looking at it before ever getting on with the job of seeing how the parts hold together or even noticing some of the more obscure parts, much less whatever meaning or meanings the painting may hold. It is the nature of the form that makes painting so beguiling, allowing itself, for example, to be noisy (like George Bellows’ “Stag at Sharkey”) or quiet (like Henri Rousseau or most Impressionists, even when they are drawing crowds of people), or else to be rich and tasty, sweet, like Matisse, or tart even if bittersweet, like Picasso even at his most romantic. Paintings invoke all the senses, not just the eye, including, not least important, a mind’s eye that turns itself to history and to abstractions. These remarks suggest that it is painting rather than the painter that makes for art. The medium has the resources to express a great number of things and any number of craftspeople working at their trade can provide satisfaction to their viewers, just as any number of novelists can tell stories well enough so that stories can engage our eternal desire to know what happens next.

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Kavanaugh Consequences

Waiting for Susan Collins to make the speech in which she announced her support for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh was very dramatic because it made me think of the two different paths the nation might be headed down if she took one side or the other. If she opposed Kavanaugh, it would be a setback for Trump, though some commentators have said it would increase the turnout of conservatives for the midterms, while if she supported Kavanaugh, it would be a victory for the #metoo movement, which has taken central stage in national politics without the apparatus of being a movement, and might lead more and more women to take part in the midterms. Now, her vote determined, we face a rough few weeks of campaigning on, among other things, whether our sons or our daughters are more in danger. All this comes about because the Senate is so broken that it can’t even manage to get an objective investigation into whether a nominee has committed a criminal offense, the Democrats saying the FBI was curtailed by the White House, and the Republicans saying that the investigation was good enough. I don’t think either Chris Coons or Jeff Flake had this in mind just a week ago when they insisted that the FBI look into the matter. They expected a definitive finding. (Chris Coons was wrong when he said on “Meet The Press” today that the Senate confirmation process was a job interview and not a trial and so a credible accusation is enough to deny an appointment. But it is a trial, whether conducted in a faulty manner or not, because it reaches a conclusion of guilt or innocence. Either the reputation of the nominee is ruined by turning him down or his reputation is merely tarnished because he has been accused but approved anyway. We needed a definitive investigation.)

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Kate Atkinson's "Transcription"

Kate Atkinson’s recently published novel “Transcription” is a very good minor novel. A major novel, for its part, is when an author invites his readers to enter a social world slightly skewed (or more so) from the world with which they are familiar and thereby to observe the lives of people who are slightly skewed (or more so) from people with whom they are familiar in the “real” world. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and James Joyce are major novelists. Minor novels, on the other hand, are plays on generic types of novels where the author adds a touch of style or insight that distinguishes the novel from others of its type. Kate Atkinson has adapted the spy novel for these purposes. She is less interested in character than is John Le Carre and less interested in the turns history can take than is Alan Faust, and doesn’t pretend to the deep and dark seriousness of Joseph Conrad. She most reminds me of a novelist of a previous generation, Muriel Spark, who also had a light, fey touch in dealing with metaphysical metaphors, although Spark’s frame was never, as I remember, a spy story.

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