Thursday, December 31, 2009

Okay smart guy

What is wrong with Isabella then?

I think the question is trickier than we might think because it isn't a matter of identifying her vices but in figuring out what is missing. Everybody has weaknesses and vices—how well we respond or not is determined by how well we have built our character.


I think the problem is the missing virtue. In the moral tradition that Austen follows, the primary moral goal is to be a certain sort of person; the goal is to build a certain sort of character. It's not enough to be prudent or amiable or constant. The good person uses these things to build a complete woman or man.

As a later writer put it, Isabella's failing is that she is only part of a person pretending to be whole.

Furthermore, I would argue that the thing she is missing is hidden right on the surface. What Isabella is missing is the thing she is always pretending to have.

Nobody asked me ...

... but here are my best songs of the decade.

Why should anyone listen to me or care what I think?

No reason that I can think of.

I don't even go about studying popular music in any serious way. When I look at other people's best-of lists my reaction is that I've never heard of most of the songs or artists listed.

These are songs that jumped out at me and then stuck. My one and only Serpentine One was listening to these along with me last night. I hadn't told her what the songs had in common, why I had assembled them, I just played them and she commented that these songs are all very sing alongable. That they certainly are and that is probably what caught my attention about them all in the first place.

Why did they stick? Good question. They have something in common philosophically speaking but I can't quite say what it is but, whatever it is, fragility is an important part of it. But rather than try and figure out what that is, here they are (in no particular order):

Mirador Fredric Gary Comeau
I couldn't find a video link on line for tis one. "Mirador" means tower or watchtower and the song works over the the already overworked theme of being in love with someone distant and unreachable in their lonely tower. It's glory lies entirely in the way it makes the most of the word "Mirador" which, in it's French pronunciation, is one of those words that feels very good in your mouth. If you can listen without singing along there is something wrong with you.

Find My Way Back Home Priscilla Ahn
This is so warm, so human, so fragile, so perfect. As near as I can tell, she can open her mouth and sing like this any time she wants.

Hang On Little Tomato Pink Martini
An ordinary enough sentiment, as, again, all these songs are, but expressed so wonderfully. Having a clarinet introduce the melody line sure doesn't hurt.

Butterfly Nets Bishop Allen
If your mother loved you this should be pretty self evident. If she didn't, listening to this could help make up for that a little bit.

The Prettiest Thing Norah Jones
Okay, everybody hates Norah nowadays. Even I have to admit that she ran out of things to say somewhere in the middle of this, her second, CD. But what a voice. Again, a common sentiment well expressed. It's a fragile, domestic pleasure like wrapping your hands around a warm cup of tea or like a Mary Cassat painting of a mother and her daughter. Some people hate this sort of thing, I wonder why.

New Soul Yael Naïm
I'm not sure this needs explaining. I love that she is clearly singing in a language foreign to her: "this is a happy end" instead of
"this is a happy ending".

Goodnight Moon Shivaree
A bit of a cheat as this was released in 1999 but I heard it in 2000 so there. Fragility again but with dark erotic undertones.

Time Emilie Clepper
No video link for this either. It's a dialogue with Time. The opening line, "Time says don't you worry, I will take care of you." We should worry.

Alexandra Leaving Leonard Cohen
A good Quebecois boy Mr. Cohen. He probably should have given Cavafy a shared credit for the lyrics. It's about love, sex, betrayal and a hint of redemption. Just about all Cohen's songs are about those things.

Holes to Heaven Jack Johnson
A song that gives a real feel for mixed feelings of a first world tourist in the third world.

Drops of Jupiter Train
His mother died and he wrote a song about her. When they realized that the song might be a hit, they changed the lyrics a bit so it wasn't obvious that it was a boy mourning his mother. That gives it that haunting quality of being clearly about something that you can't quite pin down. Now that you know the truth, you can listen to it again and think about her. Everybody's mother dies but that doesn't diminish the terrible universe-altering importance of the event when it happens to you.

L'amour est un tricheur Caracol
Literally, love is a cheater. She can't mean it; she sounds too happy. The third song in the list to feature an ukulele making the ukulele the instrument of the decade.

Quelqu'un m'a dit Carla Bruni
Okay, she was born not only beautiful but also a multi-billionaire. She became a supermodel, had an affair with Mick Jagger, took up music as a second career and sold millions of copies (like she needed more success), then she married the French president. Even her own sister appears to dislike her given the way she chose to portray her in this (brilliant) movie.

But let's forget about all that and listen to the song. It starts off with a reference to a very famous French poem written for a daughter who died early, "And Rose, who had but the life of a rose." Our life doesn't amount to much, it passes quickly, time callously spins our regrets and sadness into yarn and makes coats out of them (I'm not doing the poetry justice).

But it's alright because someone told me you still love me. There is still hope then.

And that is it. Except, who could possibly love me that way? She doesn't say and can't even remember who told her, a voice in the night, veiled, she can't quite see who said it.

All love songs promise too much. Ain't no mountain high enough? Well, there is really, also valleys deep enough and rivers wide enough and no we may not always have one another. There are lots of things that can come between us. And even if we do everything right, death will. And yet this love song promises hope.

So who is he? Never mind what Bruni did or didn't mean the song to be about, who does it have to be about to make sense? Who could he possibly be that the mere fact that he continues to love me is enough to give me hope?

I know, some won't want to go there but who else could he be? Who else could promise that much?

Isabella's vices

A now we're getting to the fun stuff because what could be more fun that tear Isabella to little shreds?

But it is so complicated. Consider, for example, the pedagogical relationship. The what you say? The pedagogical relationship; there is one in every Austen novel. In Northanger Abbey it is between Catherine and Miss Tilney, in Sense and Sensibility it is between Marianne and Elinor, in Pride and Prejudice it is (big shift here*) between Elizabeth and Darcy, in Emma it is Emma and Mr. Knightly and in Mansfield Park it is between Fanny and Edmund.

So what you say? Well lets have a look ahead to Chapter 10 wherein Catherine meets Miss Tilney (and we can't help but notice that she is not nearly so quick to move to Christian names as Isabella was) at the Pump-room. And there she has a conversation towards the end of which Catherine "artlessly" blurts out that Miss Tilney's brother dances well. The conversation carries on in a like manner fora while and concludes with the following summation by our author:
... and they parted — on Miss Tilney's side with some knowledge of her new acquaintance's feelings, and on Catherine's, without the smallest consciousness of having explained them.
All of which tells me that it is time to learn to suck eggs again. Why? Because what Catherine has unconsciously achieved with Miss Tilney is exactly the thing that Isabella is trying to achieve consciously over and over again. Beginning with her gentle sigh over the clergy and her partiality to young men in the profession on, Isabella repeatedly tries to get Catherine to be able to read her feelings.

What exactly is so wrong about what Isabella does and what is so right about Catherine herself does in her pedagogical relationship with Miss Tilney?

* It's not just that the pedagogical relationship is between a man and a woman in love from P & P on, it is also reciprocal with each party having as much to learn from the other. Miss Tilney, OTOH, learns nothing from Catherine and while Elinor might learn something from Marianne she does not profit nearly so much as her sister from the relationship.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I said "mostly" because ...

... there is more here than just the story.

On paper we can forget what Isabella is like because, in our imaginations, we can construct pictures of our behaviour that have nothing to do with the real world.

Way back in 1980, my first year at university, I listened to a woman named Jillian expound such a construction. The fact that women shaved their legs bothered some feminists at the time. This was said to be something that was imposed on women by men. Jillian believed we would soon live in a world in which women stopped shaving.

Jillian was 18 and was wearing a pastel T-shirt and jeans as we talked. I had mixed feelings because I thought she was really beautiful and I didn't want her to stop shaving her legs (even though I'd never seen them). I knew she shaved because she had told me in the course of the conversation that she still did. She was quite sure, however, that most women would soon respond to their new freedoms by stopping and she was going to be one of them. It wasn't what I would have chosen but I was ready to go along with it; morally, I didn't feel I had any right to object.

Within three years of our having that conversation, before we graduated, I was at a cottage with Jillian and some other friends and I overheard her say to another woman that she was paying to have wax poured on her pubic hair in order that it could be pulled out by the roots. Needless to say, she never stopped shaving her legs. And yet, I'm sure that she believed every word as she told me she and other women would soon stop shaving their legs back in 1980.

I often think of Jillian when I try and dramatize Isabella to myself. Consider the difference between Isabella and her brother John. John is obnoxious in a way that most guys are obnoxious at some point in their lives. Most change, although a significant subset persist in being jerks all their lives and we cannot help but conclude, along with Catherine, that John Thorpe wil be one of these.

John's vices disqualify him with women, although not with other men. Isabella is still getting away with it at the end of the story. And that is because she has virtues her brother des not. Catherine is aware of Isabella's vices but continues to be attracted because Isabella has virtues. However much we might like to pretend otherwise, we'd enjoy Isabella's company if we met her and she showed an interest in us. In the abstract we can dismiss her but make her breathe and we cannot.

Catherine only moves on because she finds someone even better. Someone more admirable, more worth emulating in Miss Tilney and her brother.

What if she weren't oddly passive?

One of the odd things about the story is just how oddly passive Catherine Morland is throughout the book including her responses to isabella. What if she were more spirited, a more enthusiastic participant? If she were still not approving but swept up enough and left unrestrained enough by others that she could indulge herself in a little Isabella-like behaviour?

I think she would be in great danger of becoming Elizabeth Bennett.

Why am I persisting ...

... with Isabella's virtues?

Mostly because the story requires it. If we really want to enjoy this book, we need to make the imaginative effort to get inside the story. Not, as Zadie Smith would apparently have it, so that the author can communicate her thoughts to us or we can get inside Jane Austen's mind.* No, we have to do it because we will never really understand this story if we can't imagine what it is like to be Catherine Morland confronted with Isabella Thorpe.

I think Book 1, Chapter VII is the one to do this. Catherine is, as she always is, an oddly passive girl so we cannot attribute what happens here to her character. Everything that happens is because of Isabella's virtue.

Do a thought experiment, go back to when you were seventeen. You are on vacation, away from your friends who know you, away from your parents. You meet this beautiful, flirtatious girl a little older and more experienced than you. Her name is Isabella. She does things that are contradictory but charming. She does things that you know your mother would not approve of and that would lead your friends to think less of you. But they aren't here and haven't you always wondered what it would be like to let go just a little bit? Haven't you wondered if the moral strictures that keep girls from being Isabella are just artificial?

Let go a bit; hang around with her a bit. Let her charm you and confuse you.

* Don't even think of trying this. Jane Austen was the greatest novelist to write in the English language, quite possibly the greatest novelist to write in any language. It's not just that she is smarter than me and smarter than you, she is a lot smarter than us.


Isabella's beauty is not anything to sneer at as her younger sisters and Catherine readily appreciate. Beauty is, of course, partly genetic and that is to say unearned in modern terms. The ancients did not see it that way. Beauty to them meant blessed by the gods and fate and they admired such people.

We moderns do so as well but we are hypocrites about it and affect not to until a beautiful young woman or man walks into the room.

But beauty is also an achievement and I think we can credit Isabella with improving on what her genes have given her as demonstrated by Austen's remark that her less attractive sisters have done well by imitating her.

In terms contemporary to Austen, the beautiful was often contrasted with the sublime. The source of the distinction was Burke and he associated the beautiful with the feminine, with curves and with all that inclined us to fall in love. As much as he liked the beautiful, he rated it below the sublime which he associated with the masculine, with what is jagged and powerful and, if we get too close, dangerous. Nine million people before me have used the Alps as an example of the sublime and I see no reason to break with tradition on this.

From some distance, however, the sublime was not only safe but inspiring and morally healthful. One example of this pertinent to Austen herself is Ellena in Ann Radcliffe's The Italian. While held prsioner and threatened with possible death or forced acceptance of the veil, Ellena is shored up, fortified because she can see the sublime majesty of the mountains around the monastery.

Austen to some extent reverses this. She picks the beautiful over the sublime and her heroines get sustenance from exposure to good manners and domestic beauty. A big part of what we might, for lack of a better term, call Austen's feminism is tied up in her emphasis on the beautiful in contrast to the masculine sublime.

So the bad news is, as much as we want to start hating Isabella as quickly as possible, her beauty is a real virtue in Austen's eyes just as it was for the ancients; all beauty especially female beauty is a positive thing to Austen.

Isabella's virtues

As I wrote quite a few posts ago, Alasdair MacIntyre can't see that physical strength is a virtue in a Homeric hero such as Odysseus He has similar problems with Penelope who describes as her virtue what MacIntyre would prefer to call her charms.

And, as with strength, we all like to pretend we agree. Something genetically determined such as beauty cannot, we say, possibly be a virtue. And then we all turn around and act as if it were a virtue because it matters to us and matters very much.

And here we have Isabella Thorpe and both Catherine Morland and her brother are attracted to her in a large part because of her beauty. It would be too much to say she is exactly what Mrs. Bennett was when Mr. Bennett first fell in love with her and then married her but we might say the two women are of a general type and James would do well not to marry her.

Guy guys

When I was at university in the early 1980s I worked for a while as the doorman at a disco. The primary benefits of the job were the power to make or break people's evening and regular access to the society of promiscuous young women. The pay was atrocious and insult was added to injury because the waitresses and bartenders inside the club raked in the tips, some earning more than my weekly salary every night.

Still it was a job and it was "sociologically" interesting. I began my training as the snob some may find me now to be at that club as I became familiar with the type of guy most likely to be thrown out.

This type, briefly, drinks one of the heavily marketed lager beers and has considerable loyalty to his brand even though he could not distinguish it from any of the other leading lagers. He watches professional sports and will talk at great length about his team. He has strong political opinions of a very conformist type, and uses the same terms as he uses to talk about sports to describe why his party is best. He likes heterosexual sex, at least he likes to talk about it a whole lot, but is not very fond of women.

He is harmless alone but put him at a table with a bunch of guys just like him and look out. The waitresses at the club used to keep an eye for the type and the giveaway was that a whole table would order the big-selling lagers. The waitresses used to call it asshole beer.

His type is nothing new or unique to our era as any reader of Northanger Abbey can witness to. There are few better literary portrayals of the type than the character of John Thorpe. A guy guy, which is to say a guy who is very intent on being guy-like and is not much of a man really. John Thorpe shows the pattern well in Chapter 8 when he engages Catherine for her first two dances and then promptly disappears to play cards leaving her alone to wait.

If you're going to be paranoid ...

... please be paranoid about the things you should be paranoid about.

Slate has a tech column and today's features questions about Facebook. This one jumped out at me:
Dear Farhad,

How does Facebook pick which ads to display? I'm gay, out, and proud, but my sexual orientation isn't listed on my Facebook page. However, Atlantis' gay-cruise ads still appear when I'm browsing. Has the site somehow figured out that I'm gay?

—Not Happy With Facebook Ads

Dear Not Happy,

Were you convinced by Farhad's answer? I wasn't. BTW, did you notice how often Farhad seems to answer troubling questions about Facebook by contacting officials at Facebook? You could do that yourself.

Let's face it, a Facebook advertiser figured out that you're gay and they have done it on the basis of very little information indeed. Strictly speaking, they figured out that you're probably gay, they have no way of knowing for certain. That is what the Facebook officials Farhad talked to meant when they told him this:

... you've most probably been swept up in an ad targeted to a very broad group. When companies advertise on Facebook, they're allowed to choose a range of demographic characteristics that determine which people see their ads.

Here is the thing though: How often do you think they get it wrong? You were upset to see the ad but imagine how straight guys, especially straight guys who are touchy about being thought gay (and there are still lots of guys in that category), would feel if the ad showed up for them? Think Facebook is going to risk angering all sorts of users that way? Of course they aren't. Phrases like "swept up in an ad targeted to a very broad group" are intended to be comforting but men who are very probably gay is a very broad group.

By the way, they didn't figure out you're gay from mining intimate details you want to keep private. They figured it out from information it never occurred to you to worry about: your age, where you live, your status as single or married and your Facebook friends.

I wouldn't worry about Facebook, however. It would be against their interest to exploit this information in ways that might hurt you or others.

Feel better? You shouldn't.

Here is the problem: if Facebook can do it, so can lots of other people. And they can find the information they need to do this quite easily because it's on Facebook.

I hope this helps. JA

The days of the week

Carol Burnett used to do a parody of the soap opera Days of our Lives that she called The Days of the Week. It was a parody driven by pure love. Burnett loved the show and even appeared on it.

If Northanger Abbey is a burlesque of anything it is a burlesque by someone who loved novels, even somewhat dubious novels. I'm only the 9 millionth person to cite this I'm sure but here goes anyway:
“And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
Austen didn't think all novels met this standard but she thought a lot of them did, including a few we don't hold in such high regard today. Such as, for example, Sir Charles Grandison, the least read of Richardson's works but a favourite of both Catherine Morland's mother and her creator.

Yes, novels

Back to Northanger Abbey and to chapter five where Miss Austen writes:
... they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel–writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?
For a long time television worked the same way. Characters on television shows in my youth never watched television themselves and there was never any evidence that they even owned one. Nowadays, of course, we regard novels as a higher form of art than television (although there is a growing dissent on this) but they were often-criticized for being base and corrupting at the time Austen was writing.

And God bless Jane Austen, she read a lot of trash. I like her for that; and not just because I started on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys myself.

Janet Todd called Austen's reading habits promiscuous* and that is a good way to put it.

* She actually described Austen as "reading promiscuously".

A secret no more

After nearly a month of blessed irrelevance, I am a little sorry to see this blog now shows up on Google. It is still unknown on Bing.

To mark the occasion, as it is the blog name that gets the hit, here is where that title comes from:
The character of James remains disappointingly obscure. Here was a royal rake who became a devout believer. Charles II, himself a crypto-Catholic libertine, was reputedly appalled by James's folly in matters of religion and sex: "My brother will lose his kingdom by his bigotry, and his soul for a lot of ugly trollops."
I read that review article a few years ago now and immediately fell in love with the tag crypto-Catholic libertine that John Mullan uses for the two Stuart rakes. I have no idea whether Mullan came up with it himself or whether it appears elsewhere. As of today, Google finds exactly two links, the review in The Guardian and this blog. In any case I decided as soon as I read it that I would find a way to "own the insult", even though it was not aimed at me.

I don't hold much of a brief for the Stuarts. They were imprudent, ineffective leaders and the sort of guys who give libertinism a bad image in their private lives. That said, they inspired a lot of good poetry and fiction and, from a distance of a few hundred years, are a lot of fun to consider.

I should note that libertines who are also devout Catholics are not so rare in occurrence as John Mullan assumes. Casanova, most famously, never saw any contradiction between his life and his Catholic faith. The first censoring of Casanova was undertaken not to remove sexual references but to remove what his first French editor found to be disturbingly religious and pro-royalist sentiments.

In England, the aesthetes converted to Catholicism with considerable regularity and it sometimes seems like the more decadent they were, the more likely the conversion.

And then there is me.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The 1950s

One of the recurring refrains of the 1980s and 1990s was that some types of thinkers, generally dubbed "conservative" with pejorative intent, were trying to turn the clock back to the 1950s. To read this line from Variety, spotted by Tyler Cowen, it would seem we are going back; being driven there by market forces not conservatives:
Someone teleported through time from the early 1950s to 2009 would find a music business curiously similar to the landscape of 60 years ago. Few specialty record outlets. Department stores dominating the market. A singles-driven industry. Pop music dominating radio. TV musical talent shows all the rage.
I was too young to have caught much of the 1960s and care remarkably little about the era. I have, however, had the notion that the 1960s were a revolutionary era force fed to me from a tender age onwards. Leaving aside what other social and political changes did or did not happen in that era, one thing we can say for certain was that if anything was supposed to have changed in the 1960s, it was the music industry. People of the time thought they were achieving revolutionary change in that industry.

Jane Austen, definitely did live in period when huge political and social changes really were taking place. Most readers and not a few critics think there is no evidence of this change in her writing. But is that really true or is it that we look for the wrong sort of indications change?

If we consider the 1960s as an example, it would seem that people alive during an era can be deeply wrong about what really is changing. Austen's contemporary and current critics tend to be fairly certain that whatever was driving change at the end of the 18th century, it was not what Austen wrote about.

But what if attitudes about marriage were changing. The fact of Austen being so concerned with marriage is usually presented as a sign of her "conservatism" (again with pejorative intent) but marriage is a powerful element of any society. Austen's presentation of "marriageship", as opposed to courtship, tales might be the best indicator we have of what was really driving the social changes of the era.

Last shot at James Collins

He means well; he really does. Here he is heroically defending the virtue of Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliot:
To dispense briefly with Elinor and Anne, I will say simply that their actions must be seen in the context of their own sincerely held beliefs. The lesson is that it is sometimes right to sacrifice something we want for the sake of our conscience.
This is okay as far as it goes but what does it really mean to say we sacrifice something "we want" for the sake of our conscience? Why would it bother us to ignore an internal moral voice? It's not as if our conscience can't be wrong.

The point that Collins keeps coming up to an missing* is that for either of these women to have behaved differently, to have pursued what they "wanted", would have meant ceasing to be the kind of woman they both aspired (and succeeded) to be. To ignore their conscience would mean to cease to be the person they wanted to be.

Or, to make the egg-sucking point, in both cases what they really want is what they chose to do, not what they gave up.

*To give Collins his due, this WSJ article is only an excerpt and he perhaps gets around to this point in a section that is not included here.

Modifier snark

Before letting this go, a longish digression about modifier use in the article about Zadie Smith I wrote about in previous posts. Here are two examples:
One of Smith's most lucid essays pits Nabokov's reading style ...

And yet, try as she might, Smith cannot get the two to join together. They're basically irreconcilable.
I would not use lucidity to admit of degrees but lots of other people have and do use the concept that way so it isn't ridiculous to say "most lucid". But what can "lucid" possibly mean in this case? This is the only time in the piece that the author uses the word lucid or alludes to the clarity of expression in Smith's work so why single this one essay out as one of the most lucid? Are the other essays opaque and badly expressed?

No, what has happened here is that "lucid" is just a synonym for "good" in Nathan Heller's vocabulary. He just means this is one of the better essays and, having said that, he wants to drive the point home by piling yet another modifier on so that we get "most lucid".

Most excellent dude, party on!

Now, consider the literary wonder of "basically irreconcilable". That "basically" is doing a lot of useful work don't you think? It means something so very different from saying just "irreconcilable". What could he mean here? That they are irreconcilable in their basic elements?

And it's not just sloppy language use here, it's sloppy language use that is driving sloppy thinking. Lets step back and consider the problem that Nathan Heller is using this expression to describe:
  1. Nabokov's reading style (based on the idea of the author's absolute control) against
  2. Roland Barthes' famous "death of the author" theory (that meaning is created in the act of reading, independent of the author's wishes).
Does it seem likely that it is going to take a lot of deep thinking to determine that these two theories about reading are going to be irreconcilable? Isn't it plain from the very statement of the problem that it cannot be done? (And what difference does it make that Barthes theory is famous?)

And I could go on and on and on. For example, Heller writes:
Zadie Smith is both an envy object and a kind of hero, plucked out of the world's slush pile to churn out three hefty, precocious books.
Okay, I'll be generous and let him get away with "envy object" because that means something, although it is hardly elegantly expressed, but do tell me, what in tarnation is a precocious book? Is it a book that is developmentally advanced compared to others in its age group?
The book isn't just a group of gently argued judgments and critical reinterpretations; it's an unsettled look at the systems of thought that make those judgments and interpretations possible.
What is an "argued judgment" and what does that argued judgment gain by being "gently" argued? And does he really mean an "unsettled look" or did he instead mean to say an "unsettling look"?
You can choose one way of reading and persuade yourself the other is completely wrong.
The word "completely" is doing so much valuable work in that sentence isn't it? Why it would not be nearly so effective so simply say "wrong".

And there is more but ...

This brings me back to a point I've made before about modifier use and social class. Heller is a copy editor and I'd say he is a good one based on this article. The mistakes here are not grammatical. The problems are entirely linguistic though. Language, as Wittgenstein put it, has gone on holiday here. The words are just hanging around in familiar arrangements but they are not working, they're on vacation.

And Heller should be the top class in language use. He should be the example that others can emulate. Instead he writes the way the lowest classes in our society speak.

More on Zadie Smith

A quick caveat, it may be that the Slate author is reading Smith wrong, projecting their own concerns onto her.

If not, however, this is really telling:
One of Smith's most lucid essays pits Nabokov's reading style (based on the idea of the author's absolute control) against Roland Barthes' famous "death of the author" theory (that meaning is created in the act of reading, independent of the author's wishes). The appeal of each approach is clear at once. Smith loved Barthes' reader empowerment as a theory-minded college student, she says; as a fiction writer trying to communicate with readers, though, she favors Nabokov. Both perspectives reflect reading at its most educated and refined. Both are clearly very useful. And yet, try as she might, Smith cannot get the two to join together. They're basically irreconcilable.
The first thing that jumps out at me is how terribly old all this is. Didn't Sir Phillip Sidney do this stuff to death 430 years ago now.

Except, of course, Sidney had considerably more ambition. He thought poetry might improve its readers. Smith, at least in the above account is, "a fiction writer trying to communicate with readers".

Another way to think about it is that Zadie Smith is an immensely privileged person who, by luck or talent, has acquired a large audience willing to read her works and apparently thinks this is reason to not only spend her time navel gazing but also expects that the rest of us should care about her navel gazing.

What's missing

Another paragraph from James Collins:
I find that reading Jane Austen helps me clarify ethical choices, helps me figure out a way to live with integrity in the corrupt world, even helps me adopt the proper tone and manner in dealing with others. Her moralism and the modern mind are not, in fact, in direct opposition, as is so often assumed.
Well, I'm pleased for him, I really am but I am afraid he has completely missed the point. Modern moral thinking is all about "clarifying ethical choices". Jane Austen's morality was not unconcerned with these things but it was concerned with something else first. And that something else was about developing a good character. Her morality is primarily concerned with how we become good people not about how we make choices.

Modern morality (which is to say either deontology or some variety of consequentialism such as utilitarianism for any philosophy geeks) is always about making choices. In Austen's world, the far more important thing is to be, or become if you are not, a certain sort of person.

I must be doing something wrong

Slate has an piece up this morning about a book of essays by Zadie Smith. Smith apparently has much to say about why and how we ought to read novels. This is apparently a common problem:
This problem will strike many people as familiar. We fall into a novel on the subway, enjoy a magazine short story in the bath, or tear through 60 pages before falling asleep in one of Borders' very comfortable chairs—all without ever wondering whether we're reading properly.

Strangely enough, no, I have never wondered if I was reading properly. I can't begin to imagine why we'd worry about it.

I was assigned to read an essay about how we should read in university. It was written by Nabokov. It was stupid.

California Dreamin'

I've picked on this before but I think it is worth revisiting because the lyrics of the song bring out something typical of modern morality. Consider this couplet after our singer-narrator visits the church and pretends to pray:
you know the preacher likes the cold
he knows I'm gonna stay
Or this couplet from near the very end of the song.
if I didn't tell her
I could leave today
In both cases, pleasure and duty are set up as opposing forces. And that isn't surprising, really, as almost every modern moralist sets them up as opposites.

Jane Austen most emphatically does not. And that is why even a well-meaning and well-informed writer such as James Collins can get things wrong. Notice what he does in this piece excerpted in the Wall Street Journal:
How can morals, sentiments and manners help one live in the world? What should one's relations to the world be? Should one reject the world entirely as corrupt and mercenary and hypocritical and shallow? Or is there some other way, where one can keep one's integrity and sensitivity, but live in the world too? W. H. Auden stated the problem well when he wrote:

"Does Life only offer two alternatives: 'You shall be happy, healthy, attractive, a good mixer, a good lover and parent, but on the condition that you are not overcurious about life. On the other hand you shall be sensitive, conscious of what is happening round you, but in that case you must not expect to be happy, or successful in love or at home in any company. There are two worlds and you cannot belong to them both.'"

In effect, Auden is asking if life offers only the two alternatives of "Sense and Sensibility," and one can sympathize with his cry of despair, for when the dilemma is put the way he puts it, the two seem hopelessly irreconcilable.

Is is really what Austen does or is Collins so tied up with modern morality that he cannot see that Austen sees things in a very different way? Well, I obviously think so or I wouldn't be posing the rhetorical question.

For now, I'd just like to point out that Austen's two alternatives are exactly the ones that bother the Mamas and the Papas, albeit a little more elegantly phrased. And the subsequent lives of the members of that group would seem to bear out Auden's concern. They were unquestionably sensitive and conscious of what was happening around them but it is equally unquestionable that they did not lead happy lives nor were they successful in love.

More to come ...

Monday, December 28, 2009


It took me a while to get this out because I don't have a whole lot that is new to say on the subject. A good modern word for sensibility might be "responsive".

And while sensibility is not a purely erotic phenomenon, a good way to get a handle on sensibility is to think of it as analogous to sexual responsiveness. You might say that a person incapable of sensibility has the same disadvantages in relating to the world as a person who is incapable of responding sexually has in relating to their spouse. Which is to say, it can be done and is done but not nearly as well as people who do have the ability to respond can do.

This analogy works because sexual responsiveness is part of sensibility and anyone who is paying attention to what goes on in Austen will see that this erotic responsiveness is a key part of the characters of Catherine Morland, Elinor and Mariann Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennett.

Sensibility is a virtue but it needs other virtues to balance it.

Although it is a virtue it can easily be characterized so that it looks like narcissism. For related reasons, what is only narcissism and nothing more (see Isabella Thorpe and Lydia Bennett) can be disguised so as to look like sensibility.

Stupid tatoo trends

Glen Reynolds links to an article on the Frisky with the above title and quotes the article as saying:
“One good way of identifying a stupid tattoo trend is if Lindsay Lohan is involved.”
Well, another good way to identify a stupid tattoo trend is if there is a tattoo involved.

Mimetic rivalry (2)

A while ago I suggested that sensibility* is a virtue best learnt by emulating women and, by implication, that women learn it by emulating other women. We have to pick our role models here very carefully and poor Catherine Morland picks hers poorly.

But why does she pick her Isabella the first place? That is to say, before we get to Isabella's failings, what made her so attractive to Catherine? I think the asnwer is two things:
  1. Because Isabella deliberately sets out to make herself attractive to Catherine to get closer to her brother James Morland. (And this is interesting because Catherine will follow this example later by building a friendship with Henry Tilney's sister.)
  2. Isabella is already a powerful role model for other women as we can clearly see in her relationship with her sisters:
Her eldest daughter had great personal beauty, and the younger ones, by pretending to be as handsome as their sister, imitating her air, and dressing in the same style, did very well.
* Should fess up that I have not come clean about what I think sensibility is yet and don't intend to until I get to blogging Sense and Sensibility. I'll give a bit of a hint in an upcoming post.

Mimetic rivalry (of a sort)

I don't know that René Girard ever said much about Jane Austen. A quick search on Bing would suggest not, although others have applied his approach. I don't think Girard's understanding of mimesis and mimetic rivalry is, in any case, a good approach to Austen. But some sort of mimetic rivalry is at work here.

On the basis of no evidence whatsoever, I'd like to suggest that the the friendship between Morland and John Thorpe is based on Morland's admiration for Thorpe. And we can see this (okay maybe there is some evidence for my view :-) in the sort of figure Thorpe cuts. We might miss this at first reading because we get to see John Thorpe's failings even more quickly than is the case with his sister.

BUT, we get to see those failings through Catherine's eyes. And Catherine is most emphatically not in love with John Thorpe. (Morland, in love with Isabella, cannot do as well at seeing her faults and comes perilously close to repeating Mr. Allen's mistake.) If we step back and consider what sort of companion John Thorpe would make at university, I think we get a different figure. He likes all the guy things and he talks them up rather well. It is easy to see how a relatively poor provincial parson's son could decide he wanted to become just like him. This is true even though Morland clearly sees through some of Thorpe's claims about his horse's abilities for example.

And here is a question. Right from the beginning, John Thorpe is under the misapprehension that Morland is wealthier than he is. Where did he get this idea? Is there any more likely explanation than that Morland responded to Thorpe's bragging with some of his own?

James Morland

Unlike Henry Tilney, whom I have discussed previously, James Morland strikes me as a wonderfully drawn character. And that is interesting because Austen only gives us the dots and it is left to us to connect them by implication.

Morland is, at least partially, the cause of considerable trouble for Catherine. Yes it is Mrs. Allen's acquaintance with Mrs. Thorpe that gets Catherine entangled with that family but James Moreland's already existent friendship with John makes things a bit worse. And it does not help that Morland clearly admires the odious John Thorpe and says so to Catherine.

What does he like about this awful man?

Every heroine needs a villain[ess]

The first three Austen novels feature a seductive villain. Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice both feature a male villain who is attractive and agreeable on the surface but has vices that cause trouble for the heroine. In Northanger Abbey we do have some rather nasty examples of malehood in John Thorpe and General Tilney neither presents the threat of seduction that Willoughby or Wickham do. That threat to our heroine comes from another woman: Isabella Thorpe.

At first we get very little indication of what exactly makes Isabella bad. And when do get evidence, it is rather too much fun to get our claws out. A more interesting thing to do on rereading this book, I think, is to try and figure out exactly why Isabella is so attractive in the first place.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Austen's philosophical views

Does Jane Austen take a stand on big philosophical issues or is she someone who simply has a lot of insight into human character?

And, when we read that last question are we tempted to say "is she just someone who ...."

I think Austen definitely does have a philosophical position and that it is a carefully worked out position and I think this can be pretty much proven by a close look at the way Edward Ferrars responds to Marianne's defense of the picturesque in Sense and Sensibility.

But long before we get there we get statements like this:
She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and some times not even then, for she was often inattentive, and sometimes stupid.
I've highlighted this one before to show that Catherine Morland is the founding example of a now common type in literature. But there may also be something else here. Is Austen taking a stand on a priori knowledge, namely that it does not exist, here?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Is this a gothic burlesque?

There are very few claims more common about Northanger Abbey than that it is a burlesque of Ann Radcliffe. Okay, this is arrogant and perverse but I don't think so. Here is why:

First, let's consider the publication history, Austen begins writing the first version, called Susan, in 1798. She sells this no longer existent text to a publisher in 1803. The publisher pays for it but does not produce an edition. They then sit on it and refuse to let Austen peddle it elsewhere unless she buy back the rights for 10 pounds (a big chunk of money for Austen).

While this book is sitting in limbo, a man named Eaton Stannard Barrett publishes a book called The Heroine in which a girl who is a huge fan of gothic fiction imagines herself to be like the heroine of same and has funny misadventures. It is a successful book.

Austen reads The Heroine, and enjoys it and writes to Cassandra:
‘I finished the Heroine last night & was very much amused by it. I wonder James did not like it better. It diverted me exceedingly . . . I have torn through the 3d. vol. of the Heroine, & do not think it falls off.—It is a delightful burlesque, particularly on the Radcliffe style’
Is this the way Austen would respond if she understood her own book, the one the publisher refuses to put on the market, to also be a burlesque of Radcliffe? Is this the way she'd respond seeing Barrett making money that rightfully should have been hers? I don't think so and I think the only explanation is that Susan, later Northanger Abbey, is not a burlesque of Radclifffe.

Yes, she picks on Radcliffe a lot, but she picks on lots of novels. And we don't know what Susan looked like; that is we don't know how much revision happened. When Susan was written, Radcliffe was very much in style. When it was revised into Northanger Abbey, she was much less so.

What is it then? Answer: don't know yet.

A problem like Henry

Austen keeps the slightly improper tone going by introducing the subject of what Catherine did or did not dream of. And that raises what is, for me anway, a bit of a problem. Henry Tilney and Jane Austen are rather close. He says things that are flirtatious and arouse Catherine's sensibility but he also is the voice for a lot of observations about novels in general and it's hard to see how these observations are anything but Austen's own views. At other times, the problem with Henry is not that he speaks his Author's thoughts as he is just a little too obviously at her beck and call.

My first temptation is thing the novel we are reading here is a bit of a burlesque, although of what exactly is a mystery to me, and yet it is a marriage story too and that puts Henry Tilney in a strange place dramatically speaking.

Very improper

Whatever it is that Henry is doing that Catherine likes but does not wholly understand, it enables him to slide into quite questionable territory quite easily. As soon as Mrs. Allen joins them and talks of muslin, Henry uses this to discuss Catherine's gown, to gravely examine it (and we do have to wonder what parts of her he looks at while doing so), to suggest that it will fray, and to talk about cutting it to pieces. he does all this under the guise of furthering a discussion of the practicalities of muslin introduced by Mrs. Allen.

Pretty good work that.

And, flogging my favourite subject again, anyone who thinks there is no awareness of sexuality in Austen ...

You doubt me? Read a couple of paragraphs and tell me this isn't sexual:
"And pray sir, what do you think of Miss Morland's gown?"
"It is very pretty, madam" said he, gravely examining it; "but I do not think it will wash well; I am afraid it will fray."
"How can you," said Catherine, laughing, "be so —' she had almost said, strange.
Read something like that and you have to wonder if the people who find Austen sexually repressed are very sexually aware themselves.

Meanwhile in another part of the conversation

At the same time that Austen is getting digs in at Richardson, we have a fair amount of "sensibility" going on. And when Catherine finally does meet a man who arouses her sensibility, it is interesting what exactly he does to arouse it. He speaks with her:
There was little leisure for speaking while they danced; but when they were seated at tea, she found him as agreeable as she had already given him credit for being. He talked with fluency and spirit — and there was an archness and pleasantry in his manner which interested, though it was hardly understood by her.
Catherine is seventeen, an age in which young women and young men are not really sure what they want but they do want it very badly whatever it is.

The cynic will say, what it's no mystery at all, they want sex. I don't think so. Sex is always avilable to a seventeen year old girl, of course, although it might mean having sex with some Roman Polanksi like creep, but most want something else. Love? Eros? Something we don't have a word for?

There is still more

The final reference to Richardson (for now anyway) comes at the very end of the chapter wherein Austen discusses whether or not Catherine dreamed of Henry that night. She does not answer her own question because she only introduced the subject to geta dig in at "a celebrated writer":
... for if it is true, as a celebrated writer has maintained, that no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman's love is declared, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is known to have dreamt of her.
The celebrated writer is Richardson. I know this because a footnote in my edition tells me that Richardson expressed this very belief in a letter to The Rambler (#97).

I can't help but notice that while Austen mocks Richardson's attitude here, she is not so far away from it as we might conclude. Sense and Sensibility is very much concerned with questions of when it is prudent to, or proper to, let yourself fall in love and while the answer Austen gives there is much more detailed and nuanced that Richardson's, it isn't that far from his in its general thrust.

Even more Richardson

Let's stop and consider Pamela, the person not the novel of which she is the heroine, for a moment. The book is subtitled "Virtue Rewarded", but what virtue is rewarded?

At first glance it would seem to have to be her carefully preserved virginity. And that leads me to a bit of a digression about the history of virtue and the way the word changed its meaning.

Once upon a time, to be a good person was to be a good person. That is, being good was to strive to become a certain kind of human being. Saint Augustine, for example, insisted that there was no shame in being raped, not because he was a particularly progressive guy but because that was the logical consequence of the way he thought: to be be good was to cultivate your character not to be possessed of intact hymen.

During the period that Austen was writing, this idea of character was being replaced by a series of restrictions on what people could do and remain virtuous. A virtuous person stopped meaning someone who was good at doing certain kinds of things and started meaning someone who was good at resisting doing certain things, particularly sexual things.

Pamela, however, has another kind of virtue and it is a virtue we might expect to appeal to Austen. Pamela is a very good writer. All Richardson's claims to the contrary, it is Pamela's letter- and journal-writing abilities that lead her to succeed. We see this most clearly after she is married and Mr. B's sister shows up and insults her. Tragedy is averted by the sister reading Pamela's journal. What wins the sister over is Pamela's character and she learns about it through Pamela's writing. Which is to say that this character is not revearled just by what Pamela says but by how she says it.

Which is interesting given the way that Henry has just mocked the writing abilities of women. It is also interesting in that language and tehw ay it is used is a consistent marker of character in Austen. In Northanger Abbey, for example, the conversations that Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe have, in which much self-affirmation takes place but little actual connection is a standard Austen motif marking a character as morally insubstantial. On the other side of the ledger, the very rich conversations Elizabeth and Darcy have right from the beginning of their relationship (even when being unpleasant to one another as much information as affirmation is exchanged) mark them as morally substantial characters.

More Richardson

Sly digs at Richardson resume when Henry Tilney enters the story in Chapter 3. The first is when Henty playfully restarts their conversation by asking Catheruine a series of questions that serve no purpose other than to slip plot details in through dialogue that would have been better included in narration. This is a familiar Richardson device, one he often resorts to because he has no choice but to do so given the limitations of the epistolary style.

No sooner have we gone through this, than Henry asks Catherine how she will portray him in her journal, to which she coyly replies that perhaps she does not keep one. Henry insists that this possibility is no more likely than their not actually being together talking. He then goes on to talk of his certain knowledge of the ways of young women in keeping journals and their natural abilities to write them. This praise turns out to be ironic:
"... it appears to me that the usual style of letter writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars."
"And what are they?"
"A general deficiency of subject, a total innatention to stops and a very frequent ignorance of grammar."
Henry goes on to say that in writing, as in all matters of taste, women are no better and no worse than women. I'd say that's a statement with fairly profound implications ...

When the hour of departure grew near ...

In chapter 2 we get a reference to Richardson. It starts with the advice that Mrs. Morland does not give her daughter:
Cautions against the violence of such noblemen and baronets as delight in forcing young ladies away to some remote farmhouse, must, at the moment, relieve the fullness of her heart. Who would not think so? But Mrs. Morland knew so little of lords and baronets, that she entertained no notion of their general mischeviousness, and was wholly unsuspicious of the danger to her daughter from their machinations.
The reference here is to Sir Charles Grandison in which Sir Hargrave Pollexfen kidnaps Harriet Byron, although it could also refer to the bit of Pamela where Mr. B sends Pamela away and cuts her off from her family.

The Richardson references continue with the news that Catherine's sister does not insist "on Catherine's writing by every post, nor exacted her promise of transmitting the character of every new acquaintance, nor a detail of every interesting conversation Bath might produce." This a fairly clear dig at the lack of realism of Richardson's epistolary style, which Austen had recently used then abandoned.

There is also an interesting criticism of Richardson in the way Mrs. Morland knows little of lords and baronets, a nice realistic detail. It is a bit of realism that Austen herself will violate in Pride and Prejudice where the meeting and marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth goes well beyond realistic probabilities.

And there is more ...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Essay on sensibility

A book review really but, as these things often are, a nice introduction to the subject for those of us who care but not enough to find and but the book: The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain.

Henry Fielding

When people speak and write about Northanger Abbey, they often characterize it as a response to romanticism and to Ann Radcliffe in particular.

It is interesting to note then that the very first mocking reference to another novel in the book seems to be aimed at Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. While explaing why it is that Catherine has had no great love affairs yet, Austen mockingly notes:
There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at the door — not one young man whose origin was unknown.
And her next target, which I will get to tomorrow, is Richardson.

Whence comes the assumption that Austen is concerned with Romanticism here?

And speaking of sensibility

Lo and behold, after mentioning these rather old examples of poetry doesn't the issue of sensibility immediately come up:
She had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility; without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient.
And here I can't help pointing out that this, the very first reference to sensibility in all Austen, has a clear sexual connotation.

What is sensibility for Austen? The more I read, the more complex it seems. The only thing I'm (mostly) sure of is that sensibility is a virtue and all the Austen heroines seem to have it, although perhaps Emma a little less. But Catherine Morland, both Dashwood girls, Elizabeth, Fanny all have it.

Her reading habits

'[F]rom fifteen to seventeen" Austen assures us Catherine Morland was "in training for a heroine" and she does this by reading, although she does not have much of a taste for books that contain useful knowledge. The exception to this rule appears to be poetry books and Austen gives a list of maxims that Catherine acquires from poetry.

The poems in question are interesting for their old fashioned quality, particularly as Austen was fond of modern stuff. On Catherine's behalf she cites Alexander Pope, Gray's elegy, James Thompson* and three bits from Shakespeare. The first three are examples of poetic sensibility and the Shakespeare quotes fit in well with them.

Not one, and this is important, is a romantic poet. Romanticism is a word that was applied to the era in retrospect** in any case but it is important to note that Austen is not much concerned with the big guns of what we would call romantic poetry. As I blog through the six books (and yes, that is what I have decided to do without announcing it) I will be keeping an eye out but I cannot remember a single reference her contemporaries to Wordsworth, Coleridge or Byron anywhere in Austen.

The concern here is not Romanticism but sensibility.

I'll be coming back to this.

* Thomson, BTW, is also a favourite of young Anne Shirley's.

** Update: This is wrong. My fault for trusting someone else's essay without looking it up. The word was coming into use right around the time Austen was writing.

Her person and disposition at 15

Things change. She stops being such a tomboy, she begins to care about balls and dancing, she puts more effort into her appearance. She begins to appreciate compliments and, Austen is at some pains to make us understand, these compliments really matter to her because she is not a great beauty but only a girl capable of looking pretty.

Something else changes and I stop here to underline this detail because it can slip right by us:
At fifteen appearances were mending; she began to curl her hair and long for balls; her complexion improved, her features were softened by by plumpness and colour, her eyes gained more animation, and her figure more consequence.
Emphasis added as they say. Yes, her breasts and hips grew. She became a sexual being, no longer a child. Austen speaks of these things in a way that seems circumspect to us but is actually direct and to the point. Sex matters and never does Austen dodge its importance.

Her own person and disposition at 10

We get a description of Catherine's person and character at two stages. First at age ten.

It's a familiar bit of literary real estate to us. She is an unattractive, gawky girl, a bit of a tomboy.
She has trouble learning, or does she. Here we have the Austen wit at its best.
She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and some times not even then, for she was often inattentive, and sometimes stupid.
This is familiar territory to anyone who has read a lot of books intended for girls and women. This is Anne Shirley. This is also more or less the description of the heroine of any Sophie Kinsella or Emily Giffin novel. We know this girl or young woman and, more than that, we can identify with her because she is like us. Most notably, I think we can see Austen exploring the territory out of which she will fashion Elizabeth Bennett here. (But very much not Elinor Dashwood or Fanny Price.)

Elizabeth Bennett is a poor musician, although we begin to suspect better than she thinks. Marianne Dashwood is a brilliant musician and Elinor Dashwood can draw. Catherine Morland can neither play music nor draw! She has some enthusiasm for drawing but never gets to be any good at it.

And then the punch line:
What a strange, unaccountable character! — for with all these symptoms of profligacy at ten years old, she had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper; was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome, and very kind to the little ones, with few interruptions of tyranny ...
Despite being nothing that ideal accounts would have a young woman be, Catherine Morland has a good character. In the Aristotelian tradition of ethical thinking, of which Austen is one of the greatest representatives, this is crucial. Someone who has not been raised well cannot learn anything about morality. Catherine can.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Her father and mother

Are good parents and they have raised Catherine well.

It is noteworthy, by the way, that Mrs. Morland is a very rare character in the Austen menagerie. She is an admirable and competent female authority figure, a type otherwise very thin on the ground in Austen. Mrs. Dashwood, Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Price all have clear and obvious deficiencies as mothers. Mrs Allen, Mrs. Jennings and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are all figures of fun in the end. Mrs. Woodhouse is dead. Anne Taylor is too much of a friend to be a good governess.

Why does Austen have so few admirable female authority figures? I don't think it is because she didn't think they existed. I suspect it's more of a literary requirement: if the young women in these stories had competent female authority figures overseeing them, they wouldn't get into trouble. At the same time, parents are always a limit on the horizon of the heroine or hero of a story. Any respectable children's story gets them off stage right away.

And Austen does just that in Northanger Abbey. Having established that Catherine's parents are good parents, she quickly gets Catherine away from them and into the hands of the ridiculous Mrs. Allen. Otherwise, the story simply could not happen.

Her situation in life

Catherine Morland is solidly planted in the middle class. Her father is a clergyman which is a profession at the point in time that he lived. And it is becoming more professionalized (according to an essay over on Victorian Web, much to the detriment of the Church of England. This rings true to me because the clergyman becomes an ongoing issue from Austen on is still an issue as late as the novels of EM Forster.)

Mr. Morland has two good livings. The family is not wealthy but they are comfortable.

This is important and is a detail about Austen that does not bother readers but deeply disturbs academics and intellectuals. She is about as bourgeois a novelist as you will find. Her virtues are the bourgeois virtues. And she writes at a time when these virtues are slowly gaining ascendancy over those of the aristocracy as the governing values of modernity.

Okay, as long as I'm being arrogant and cocksure: Harold Bloom is quite wrong. Shakespeare does not create modern humanity. No artist does, capitalism and Christianity create modern humanity. But if we ant an accurate portrayal of modern humanity as it is being created, the novels of Jane Austen are the place to go. (And it is because this development is so well portrayed in Austen that some academics and intellectuals don't like her)

The second sentence

Okay, this is where anyone foolish enough to check in will want to head for the exits. Don't worry, I am not going to blog Northanger Abbey one sentence at a time. But it is important to go very slowly at the start of any Austen novel.

So let's have a look at it:
Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.
Okay, egg-sucking detail: Austen is being ironic. These things do not match what is typical of novelistic heroines but they are the qualities Austen thinks make for a real life heroine for Catherine Morland is her heroine.

As we read on then, we should note what Austen thinks is important and what she thinks is not important.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A modern young woman

One of the interesting things this book tells us about Austen is what a modern young woman she was.

When she regained rights to the text of Susan later known as Northanger Abbey, Austen set about revising it, fixing it up. She gave up on this. I was reading someone who said that we know that one of her concerns was that the book was out of date. Bath was no longer a fashionable place and muslin was no longer the latest thing for gowns.

We think of Austen as timeless, or some of us do. Others think of her as producing period literature. Austen herself was concerned with being right up to date. Once it is pointed out to you, or at least once it was pointed out to me, I can see this all through her writing; she praises houses for being modern, condemns them for being old fashioned. She had much more in common with chick lot than many critics would like to admit. If she were alive today, she'd be writing it.

How it came about

Northanger Abbey is not the first novel Austen started and may not even be the first one she finished. It is the first completed text that we still have. She started both Elinor and Marianne and First Impressions before this.

How did this novel come about?

This isn't even a theory, just a speculation. We know that Austen liked to do burlesques of novels for her family. Perhaps, having started and having been frustrated with the results of the other two novels, she fell back on writing a burlesque because it was a comfortable thing she knew she could do well.

I read years ago that the creators of thirtysomething began their proposal for the show as a joke, as a spoof. At one point, having put an awful lot of work into the proposal it hit the creators that this might get taken seriously and they might end up having to actually make the show. Faced with that possibility, they decided to do a proper proposal.

My speculative thought is that Jane Austen had tried two novels and was unhappy with the results so she fell back on her strength, dashing off burlesques. But as she was doing it, and perhaps helped by her two false starts, Austen noticed that there was rather more to this burlesque than there had been with the others. And then she realized that here, without meaning to, she'd had her break through.

As evidence, I note the attitudes. The book starts off very self-mocking and then becomes progressively less so.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Irony (3)

A friend's father used to say to her, "Don't teach your father to suck eggs." He used the expression whenever he thought she was being condescending.

The thing is, I think it is very important to teach ourselves how to suck eggs. We have to go back and look at things that might seem too basic and obvious to analyze and analyze them. For example, we should be careful to note that the opening sentence of Northanger Abbey reads like this:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.
And not like this:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland would suppose her to be an heroine.
Here are the egg-sucking points I think follow from that:
  • Even if we take this as being ironic it does not follow that Catherine is an heroine, only that she was born to be one.
  • Her infancy—that is where she was born and how she was brought up—is the thing that Austen thinks really matters.
  • It would follow that every girl with an infancy similar to Catherine's is born to be an heroine.
Further complicating the whole thing is whether Austen is being realistically ironic or "novelistically" ironic; that is, does she mean simply that Catherine Morland has the makings of an heroine even though she doesn't seem the part or does she mean she doesn't seem like a likely heroine for a novel and I'm only sticking her in one to make a burlesque of it?

Irony (2)

If I say, "I can never have too much strawberry ice cream," I can mean that just about any amount of strawberry ice cream is too much. I said one thing and meant the opposite. In a sense, all irony is like this. With irony, you can't say X and mean something ever so slightly different. You can only say "X" and mean "not X".

Irony (1)

I'm going to blog my way through Sense and Sensibility. Before doing so, I want to go back and remind myself of a few things. I am going to have to remind myself about Northanger Abbey for starters.

Here is the first sentence:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.

And here we all sigh appreciatively and think, "Irony, irony is there anything as lovely as Austen's irony". And we say that because we appreciate that Austen's actual meaning here is subtle and complex. We need to remind ourselves that that is quite a trick on her part because irony isn't complex or subtle. Irony is about as subtle as a getting hit in the face with a kipper*.

In Austen it is never the kipper itself that is subtle because a kipper can't be subtle. What is subtle is the way Austen wields her kipper.

* This is a tribute to my mother who once let a boy know she didn't appreciate his approach by hitting him in te afce with a kipper.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Austen's Classicism (2)

Just a quick addendum to note that I deliberately chose to write classicism and not neo-classicism. I agree with MacIntyre that Austen is part of a continuous tradition of ethical thinking that might be called Aristotelian. There is nothing "neo" about it.

I'll say something about that in terms of Elinor's character very soon (although nothing that I haven't more or less already said.)

Update: I won't be getting to Elinor quite so soon as I plan to go through Northanger Abbey first

Austen's Classicism

I've just finished rereading Sense and Sensibility and I'm more convinced than ever of Austen's classicism and of Elinor's greatness. She is the towering heroine of the Austen books.

I'm also struck at how very, very different the books are from one another.

I heard an academic speaking of Austen the other day and, as academics so often seem to do, he was praising her but in a way that was clearly calculated to diminish her. He said she had written some of the greatest love stories written in English prose. But she didn't. I don't think Austen thought much of love stories. I think she thought love a rather easy thing to do, a little too easy.

No, what she wrote were great marriage stories. (Update: looking around at Austen criticism, I see, not surprisingly, that a number of critics beat me to this by decades, which is kind of reassuring, apparently I'm not crazy.)

But not so much in Sense and Sensibility as in the later books. This is a book about sisters as much as it is about the marriages they end up in.

Update: My project now is to go back and reread all six books blogging all the way. The first big question is what is sensibility and what does Austen really think of it. It's commonplace to say she is attacking sentimental novels and romanticism but I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The second in a series of posts ...

... that will probably get me in trouble.

In Quebec we have a weird system called CEGEP. It's a publicly funded college system that is the educational equivalent of the last year of high school and the first year of university. It's a great system, at least I think so because I had a great experience at CEGEP.

A big part of that great experience was that I fell in love. Wild, head over heels romantic love. It involved a repertory theatre, a trendy restaurant, a circle of women friends who dressed like they were to pose for pre-Raphaelite paintings and I spent hours just talking, flirting joking, having fun and discussing feminism with them. They were very much feminists in a town where it was an act of physical courage to be a feminist. Most of this romance was not spent in relationships but just being around those women. I treasure that memory now and if I had a time machine ....

Only a few of them, three if I remember correctly, went to my CEGEP but I fell in love will all three, made friends with them and got to know the larger circle through them. Inevitably perhaps, I ended up having two relationships with women from the group: E and A. Both had an attitude that will seem ludicrous now but felt quite normal to me the end of the 1970s. You might sum it up this way, "Men have treated women unfairly for centuries and it is now your responsibility to make it up to me personally." I cheerfully accepted that as a governing principle of both relationships.

The first relationship was with E. It lasted a year and then she ended it. She ended it with a very nice letter. It said all sorts of kind things about what a good and caring and decent guy I was. And then she said something that was clearly intended to be criticism even though it was presented as advice. E told me that I was not as good a lover as I should have been.

I was crushed and immediately took her to be right. I was failure.

And then a funny thing happened. E was running me down a bit, not a lot but persistently and consistently, to her friends. She portrayed me a "hopeless romantic". This was and is an ill-advised thing for women in their late teens to do because there will always be a certain segment of the female population of that age who crave the idea of a relationship with a hopeless romantic and A was a classic example of same.

And so I started going out with A, although it as only later that she told me I was the inadvertent beneficiary of E's criticism. I began that relationship in a state of constant dread. Never in my life have I had more sense of being an impostor. Worse, our initial sexual efforts failed in exactly the same way that things had with E.

But then things started to change. Two months in, things started to work sexually for A. And we got better at understanding one another. E and I had tried very hard to follow a standard bit of advice from the time: "tell your partner what you want." A hated this advice and I soon realized that she hated it partly because she didn't know what she really wanted and partly because the things she did know she wanted she preferred to have me figure out than to have to tell me.

And we discovered them together. And a cruel truth became clear. The problem with E and I wasn't that I couldn't understand her when she told me what to she wanted or that she couldn't express what she wanted. The problem was that there wasn't a right thing to do. There were right things to do for A and when we hit on them it was really, really obvious to both of us.

And it wasn't just sex, in just about everything in life E was not easily pleasable. A was pleasable. And A didn't have to tell me how to please her because it showed.

Another way to describe this pleasable is as sensibility. It's what Elinor and Marianne have and it is what makes them superior to the women who surround them in the novel.

I don't think poor E ever got it. By the time we both graduated from university, she'd gone through a long string of lovers and each relationship followed exactly the pattern ours had set. Part of the problem, I now know, is that she looked to these men to help her find this thing she knew was missing from her experience.

Sensibility is primarily a feminine virtue, and I don't care if that sounds old fashioned. It's not that men don't/can't have it, it's just that if you want to acquire it you should pick a woman as your role model (although you want to be very careful who you you pick). A was my role model and the debt I owe her is incalculable. She took me sailing in a boat called Phoenix, made me rusty nails with her daddy's best scotch, she showed me how to enjoy food, nature, music, art, poetry and her. And then she moved to Belgium and I lost her.

To some extent A was also her own role model. She learned how to enjoy herself by learning to enjoy herself. I'll dig the hole I'm in deeper by expanding in that later.

Asteroid Deflection as a Public Good

That's the title of a post over at Marginal Revolution, a very good blog.

And yet ...

Well, let's read down a bit more until we get to the video embedded in the article. The still shows a title for the video segment: "Asteroids to hit planet earth?" (I love the "planet" in that.)

And then let's read the teaser from the original news segment the video is drawn from: "NASA lacks funding to monitor asteroids that are potential threat." And Alex Tabarrok, the author of the post also reminds us, "Moreover, detection is only the first step towards deflection."

Why is it that every new "public good" identified by scientists turns out to be a giant sinkhole for taxpayer money?

Today, for example, we just learned that here in Canada we have millions of surplus H1N1 flu shots sitting around. A scientist-driven political panic led to their being ordered and now they are just hazardous waste.

Monday, December 14, 2009

My odd personal flavour

I found a great reference to William James a while ago:

William James once argued that every philosophic system sets out to conceal, first of all, the philosopher’s own temperament: that pre-rational bundle of preferences that urges him to hop on whatever logic-train seems to be already heading in his general direction. This creates, as James put it, “a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned … What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is—and oh so flagrantly!—is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.”
It was in an article about Ayn Rand, of all places, in New York Magazine. In any case, it got me wondering what my temperamental prejudices are; what I think gives me my intensely odd personal flavour. Not things that I believe based on argument or logic or could in any way hope to adequately defend, but the things I believe because I want to believe them. Here is what I think they are:

  1. I resist any attempt to treat purity as a moral concept.
  2. I have a deep prejudice against religious and moral promotion of asceticism. No, damnit, I will not give up long hot showers to save the planet or my soul!
  3. I always prefer bourgeois moral values. For me, a world of Elinor Dashwoods is infinitely preferable to a world of Holden Caulfields.
  4. I believe that there is nothing necessarily ennobling about poverty and suffering. Suffering is an opportunity to build character but a lot of people just become even more petty, mean and selfish than they otherwise would be.
  5. I resolutely believe that God loves us and wants the best for us. I appreciate that tragedies happen and that they are often beyond the control of the people they happen to but I believe that God wants us to be comfortable and content. The normal human life is comedic not tragic. In fact, I believe that if we are not currently happy, we have a moral obligation to work towards being happy.
  6. I believe foolish people are foolish, mad people are mad and children are childish. They do not go around spouting deep truths that no one else can see and I get very impatient with people who try to make it seem like foolish and mad characters or children have profound lessons to teach us. They do not.

Did they or didn't they?

Okay, I'm really sticking my neck out here but I think something of a sexual nature, although not actual sex takes place between Willoughby and Marianne.

One of the reasons I like the Bitch in a Bonnet (I assume Robert Rodi means himself and not Jane Austen by that) is that he compensates for some of the misleading readings of Austen by "going too far".
Fans of
Sense and Sensibility will remember that Marianne and Willoughby disappear together at one point and we later find out that he took her to see the estate he may one day inherit. And we are shocked to further learn that they went inside and no one was there so they were inside and unchaperoned. So what does the Bitch in the Bonnet think happened?
Elinor is shocked; she must suspect, as we do, that Marianne’s criticism of the house’s unfashionable furniture is partly due to the lack of comfort to be found there when you’re flat on your back with your ankles in the air.
At which point a lot of Austen fans recoil and say "No!" But should we?

There are two huge misconceptions that need to be cleared away here. The first is that Austen was sexually repressed and/or sexually unaware. That is nonsense as anybody willing to read the books with their eyes open will see. The second misconception is that extra-marital and premarital sex were unusual things at the time. They were not.

But here is the thing, you don't have to read it either way. The novel can be read consistently and plausibly either way. Austen not only doesn't connect the dots, she sets it up so you don't have to either. If all you want to see is that they did a shocking thing in going inside alone, that's all you have to see.

Or you can read more into it. I do, although I read less than Bitch in a Bonnet does. I suspect she got pinned to the wall, kissed, felt up and maybe he got some pleasure from gently thrusting himself against her a bit he doesn't think she noticed but she did. That matches my reading of Willoughby and of Marianne.

What I think can't be done, however, is to settle on an authoritative reading for everyone that excludes the possibility of sex. As is sometimes said of the Book of Ruth, whether you think actual sex happened or not the sexual tension implied by its very real possibility is an essential part of the meaning of the story.

Stupid social science

Okay, disclosure first. I have been married for 15 years in which time I have had sex with no one but my spouse. However, a long time ago I was single and I did have some casual sex and never felt it did me any harm. For the most part, I don't think casual sex carries much risk of harm at all within limits. Do it too often, and I think the the safe bet is to stay in single digits although nothing is necessarily irredeemable, (although more than twenty times in a lifetime is getting there) and I think it will begin to damage your ability to have satisfying love relationships.

That said, the really dangerous thing to my mind is serial monogamy. When I look at friends who are seriously damaged, it is the ones who did one monogamous sexual relationship after another.

Anyway, now that my biases are clear let me get to what has to be the stupidest study since, well, since the last really stupid study ten minutes ago. Researchers from the University of Minnesota have determined that casual sex does no emotional harm. How did they figure this out, why they asked people who have recently had casual sex if they feel any worse for the experience:

"Researchers spoke to 1,311 young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 about their last sexual encounter and found that the one-fifth who last had casual sex and the four-fifths all felt emotionally similar afterward."


What I look for in Austen (2)

MacIntyre says the key virtue for Austen is constancy. I think that is close but no cigar. I think the three foundational virtues, in ascending order of importance, for Austen are constancy, sense and amiability. I think the three play a role very much like faith hope and charity for Saint Paul and habit, the mean and nobility do for Aristotle.

MacIntyre has a helpful approach to amiability in that he contrasts it with agreeableness:
... what Aristotle treats as the virtue of agreeableness she treats as only the simulacrum of a genuine virtue—the genuine virtue in question is the one she calls amiability. For the man who practices agreeableness does so from considerations of honor and expediency, according to Aristotle; whereas Jane Austen thought it was possible and necessary for the possessor of that virtue to have a certain real affection for people as such. (It matters here that Jane Austen is a Christian.) After Virtue p 183
And you can see the point here if you think of a villain like Willoughby or Wickam. Both are very agreeable men but neither is amiable. Truthfully, neither is constant either but that failure stems from the lack of amiability.

So how does a guy like me have the temerity to criticize a great mind like MacIntyre on this point? I think that the virtues are foundational. You need amiability to have sense and you need amiability and sense before you can have constancy. Everything else, prudence, justice, temperance &c, has to be built on that foundation. Constancy can appear more important because it is rarer and harder to acquire than amiability. But amiability is more important, even though more common, because it is the necessary foundation upon which to build constancy. It's an understandable mistake, particularly as constancy becomes more important in Austen's later works, particularly Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

What I look for in Austen (1)

Critics usually single out two aspects of Austen: 1. her social observations and commentary (often incorrectly identified as social criticism) and 2. her use of indirect free speech to represent consciousness. I think both these elements are in Austen but believe both serve another and far more important purpose.

I think Jane Austen is writing about virtue and I read her to learn about virtue. As Gilbert Ryle said a long time ago, I think she created her characters around concerns about virtue and what happens when it is or is not present in a person. The reason her characters are so nicely differentiated is precisely because she identifies and develops characters based on issues stemming from considerations various virtues.

I started to think that from reading Sense and Sensibility. The title identifies the two virtues she will be dealing with. Marianne and Elinor both have sensibility. Sensibility is a virtue and their possession of it raises them above others in the novel. But Elinor has sensibility and sense and that sense balances her sensibility. This enables Elinor to succeed herself and to rescue her sister Marianne from the consequences of her mistakes.

I believe everything else, the perceptive accounts of how people interact, the psychological insights, the acidic criticism of John and Fanny Dashwood and their mercenary approach to marriage and life is there only to serve the higher purpose of describing Elinor's heroic virtue.

What I'm doing

I am doing nothing to advertise blog or make it known. I am treating it like a journal, and I have a house full of journals that I have kept for decades now. The only difference is that anyone could trip across this journal and read it. That is true of the others too only in a more limited sense, I leave right in the open but you'd have to be a house guest here to read them.

For now, I am enjoying the anonymity. I sort of dread the day when someone finds it. If you do find it, you're welcome here and I'm a little impressed that you managed to find it.

An interesting take on Austen

Author Robert Rodi has a blog on Jane Austen that takes an approach I have often been tempted by.

I think he's wrong, I should say that right up front, but wrong in a helpful way. I suspect he knows this too. He is taking a strong stand that, while contrary to Austen's spirit, helps shake us out of some misconceptions.

At some point I'll spell out what I think his basic mistake is.

Meanwhile, I think I'll follow his example. I'm just going to write out what I think and then come back and see how stupid it seems in retrospect.

The Ungreening of America

Ed Kilgore is an interesting and perceptive guy who is almost always worth reading even if you suspect he is wrong. A rare exception to this rule is his article about why support for action on climate change is declining.

Kilgore gives three reasons that are really only two. The first reason is that support for environmental causes always declines during hard times. The second is that evil people on the other side of the debate are succeeding.

Nowhere does Kilgore hint at or allow for the possibility of some mistake by environmentalists themselves. That is telling.

You'd think by now that the combination of declaring the debate to be over while simultaneously demonizing anyone who disagrees with you would easily be recognizable as a bad strategy. Even if you're right you have to fight fairly. People will notice if you don't and it will hurt your credibility.

Class markers

One of the easiest ways to distinguish class status, assuming the person hasn't got some obvious disqualifier such as having a tattoo, is to listen to the way they use modifiers. Start with frequency. The more adverbs and adjectives a person uses, the lower their status. Then note how they use the words. Low class people tend to use all modifiers as intensifiers and usually have little notion of what the adjectives and adverbs they use mean. Watch for "unique" and "literally" as these are especially reliable indicators of low class.