Saturday, January 14, 2017

Learning from Jane Austen

There’s a lot of tribalism and romanticism in the water these days. By tribalism I mean the idea that loyalty to one’s side comes first and arguments come later, and when they do, they must be bent to fit the needs of one’s side. By romanticism, I mean the primacy of feelings over facts.

I understand the point Goldberg wants to make here. He’s wrong though. Wrong about a technical point that only geeks would care about. So let’s go with that.

The primacy of feelings over facts was a feature of some aspects of Romanticism but it was more a feature of something that immediately preceded Romanticism. Sentimentalism, sometimes called “sensibility”, regarded feeling as special way to view the world, an alternative to rationalism, that would give a better understanding of reality. It’s been back in vogue a bit lately in academic circles. Romanticism, whatever that means (and it has many meanings), came as a response to sentimentalism.

Whatever the history and correct use of labels, sentimentalism has returned in a big way to popular culture and that is what Goldberg is right about. We want, as he ably discusses, our feelings validated. We want to be told that the prism we see the world through is a morally superior way to see things.

One way we might respond is to look at the different responses that the first round of sentimentalism engendered to see if we can learn something. Outside of the various kinds of Romanticism, the most famous response was Jane Austen’s. Her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, dealt with the issue directly but all her novels feature at least one character who causes trouble for herself and others because she takes her feelings as authoritative.

The most important thing is to work on ourselves so that we don’t become that person. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, so we become less like that person than we currently are.

There are, I think, two key lessons from Austen that we would all do well to begin applying to our lives. The first of these comes from William Deresiewicz:

Being a good person is more important than being a fun person*.

Probably the best novel to see this is Mansfield Park where it comes out strongly in the contrast between Mary Crawford and Fanny Price.

The second lesson is my own:

Learning is more important than being vindicated.

The best novel to see this is Austen’s most famous, Pride and Prejudice. The pride in that novel is primarily Mr. Darcy’s and that has been much discussed here and elsewhere. But what is Elizabeth Bennet’s failing. Well, prejudice obviously but not in our sense of the word wherein prejudice has come to mean something like racism. It originally meant simply to pre-judge something. And why would we do that? Well, there are a number of reasons but one way to make certain you are prejudiced is to seek vindication over learning. Both Darcy and Elizabeth suffer from pride and prejudice but Darcy is better at overcoming his need to feel vindicated than Elizabeth.

If we're going to restart this blog, let's make a point of emphasizing being a good person and learning. (To return to Goldberg's point, the search for vindication often leads to tribalism and our attenpts at being a fun person tend to lead to sentimentalism.)

* I'm quoting from a podcast interview he did at the Art of Manliness.

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