Tuesday, December 10, 2013

ADVENT 12/10: Stephen Burt on George Eliot

George Eliot’s best and most famous essays are not essays—or, at least, they were not presented as such. Eliot started out as an essayist proper, publishing long book reviews and short think-pieces in the British equivalents of the New York Review of Books in the 1850s, and near the end of her life she was an essayist still—see The Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879)—but her strongest attempts at general claims about human life, founded on observations and impressions, inviting us to fill in details for ourselves, depending as much on style, tone and personality as on evidence directly given—in other words, her strongest essays—occur in the midst of her novels, as sentences, paragraphs, passages, or chapters interpolated in between slabs of plot. You might have seen the most famous among them, though you might have seen it (it is George Eliot’s fate to be seen thus) in truncated, and thus sentimentalized, form:
Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity. (Middlemarch II:20)
If you encounter this passage within her novel Middlemarch you will see additional work that it does (Eliot’s heroine, Dorothea, has been crying, soon after a mistake of a wedding); but the passage also stands alone, and it is not alone in Eliot’s work in standing up, and speaking to us, with some confidence, as if it were an essay of its own. She was known for passages like that—derided for them, admired for them, quoted out of context again and again— and no wonder; such passage ask to be quoted, because they are so recognizable,  because they are so generous in acknowledging how we are not as we wish to be, because they are (there is no better word for it, even now) wise.

Eliot wrote with asperity, with good humor, with exasperation, with resolve, but above all she wrote with a careful authority, one that emerged from long consideration both of what she discovered in books, and what she found outside them: she was a reader from the English hinterlands, a committed evangelical, then a reluctant unbeliever (her brother stopped speaking to her, in part, over that), a translator of philosophy and theology, a professional book reviewer, an essayist who could not stop asking about what linked religion to ethics, ethics to society, society to self-knowledge. Eliot’s famously compound sentences, though you can get lost in them, always have destinations; often, they end up by trying to help you find a path.

And yet they put their confident abstractions, their clear and forceful generalizations, in the service—more often than not—of details, of complexities, of doubt: the essays embedded within George Eliot’s novels, the famous excursions and explanations undertaken by her reliable Narrator, often tell us not to trust our instincts, not to go on preconceived beliefs, not to judge everybody by the same handy yardsticks, but to stop, wait, listen, doubt our first conclusions, and try to expand what we know.  Her alter ego Theophrastus Such begins The Impressions by warning us not to trust him: “while I carry in myself the key to other men’s experience,” he muses, “it is only by observing others that I can so far correct my self-ignorance as to arrive at the certainty that I am liable to commit myself unawares, and to manifest some incompetency which I know no more of than the blind man knows of his image in the glass.”

Here is another of Eliot’s mini-essays, from one of her less-perused novels, Felix Holt. In the passage that precedes it, she has explaining local election results:
The social changes in Treby parish are comparatively public matters, and this history [i.e. her novel] is chiefly concerned with the private lot of a few men and women; but there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life, from the time when the primeval milkmaid had to wander with the wanderings of her clan, because the cow she milked was one of a herd which had made the pastures bare. Even in that conservatory existence where the fair Camelia is sighed for by the noble young Pineapple, neither of them needing to care about the frost or rain outside, there is a nether apparatus of hot-water pipes liable to cool down on a strike of the gardeners or a scarcity of coal. And the lives we are about to look back to do not belong to those conservatory species; they are rooted in the common earth, having to endure all the ordinary chances of past and present weather. (I:3)
This style of sentence, page after page, makes demands on us, both ethical and cognitive—it is the sort of writing that the modernism of Hemingway and Stein rejected; but the demands can be good for us; they can give pleasure too. Notice the way the allegorical names—Camelia, Pineapple—become literal, referring to flowers and fruit; notice the way that “common” does double duty, meaning “not aristocratic” and “sharing much with us.” Notice, too, how Eliot digresses even while justifying her digression: it is a least likely case—if even Camelia’s affections are shaped by material circumstances, then surely the less effete people of Treby parish… It is a piece of compact self-description: seemingly patient, and generous, and self-assured.

From that passage it follows (though she does not spell this moral out) that we should not generalize about love; it will work differently in different soils, different classes, different professions, perhaps even differently in different towns. We must exercise the sympathies that Eliot, as a novelist, can generate, we must give people (real and fictive) the benefit of the doubt, but we must also doubt; we must gather data; we must not overgeneralize. Look closely—her multiply subordinated sentences tell us—and do not step back to draw your conclusions too fast; form hypotheses, test them, consider discarding them; put not your trust in theories (much less in one theory of everything). And listen to writers and artists, but only if they seem in turn to have listened to real human beings; do not trust only what you can see for yourself. “Art is the nearest thing to life,” she remarked in a long essay of 1856, one that set out some goals for her novels; art “is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” (“The Natural History of German Life”) She believed it, too. Many groovier, or more modern-seeming, arguments for art’s importance (or relevance or power or something) can be reduced to that unfashionable claim.

This outlook on art and on writing—measure twice; cut once; pay close attention to real life, and not only to our own; beware big theories—stands behind the authority of her sentences, which sound like the theory, the authority (in her early life, it had been a religious authority) that they tell us not to trust. That counterpoint is part of the fun of reading her work, of reading the essays within it.  It has political implications, too: “there is a perpetual action and reaction between individuals and institutions,” Eliot opined in 1855; “we must try and mend both by little and little—the only way in which human things can be mended.” That outlook got her labeled as conservative, in the sense that worried carried in her own day; she opposed both violent revolutionaries, and free-market extremists (who were then called “liberals”), though it is impossible to imagine that she would make common cause with so-called conservatives now. (That claim for incrementalism, that absolute judgment in favor of relative measures, comes in the course of an essay praising Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft, and their “ardent hopes of what women may become.”)

If you teach “the essay” you are probably tired of being told, or of telling your students, that “essay” means “try”: you might even be tired of Montaigne, who insisted that his own essays were sketches, drafts, attempts, honest starts, at what would look quite different were it a big finished work. Eliot’s essays—the ones embedded in her novels, and the ones that stand alone—tell us to try harder, not to stop trying, and to remember that every attempt we make to understand human action has to be imperfect—it’s only a try, since we can’t understand everything about their material circumstances, can’t understand every point of view that affects them, can’t understand every vector of need, want, hope or misunderstanding that comes into play. Nevertheless, we must; Eliot will help us out—few voices have seemed so fit to that intensely moralized, and quintessentially essayistic, task.


Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and criticism, most recently Belmont (Graywolf, 2013). For more about Stephen, see www.closecallswithnonsense.com.

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