Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Is it OK to be foolish?, in which our narrator can't refrain from television references: Middlemarch Chapters 34-42, Book 4, "Three Love Problems"

Poor Mary. When we realize that medicine is not a respected profession in Middlemarch, Eliot's world seems far away. But Mary's predicament, we can all imagine "And you see, I must teach: there is nothing else to be done." She is unhappy because "I am not fond of a school-room: I like the outside world better. It is a very inconvenient fault of mine." But the others ignore this, explaining instead that she must dislike it because she'd be teaching girls, who are of course, completely silly and "can neither throw nor leap."

And Casaubon. Ah, poor Casaubon, Eliot keeps telling us. He's sick and in a painful stalemate with his wife and can taste the young Will circling Dorothea. It’s so easy to mock, the narrator keeps childing us, but we should have some sympathy for the man. It's a an admirable position, even if we sometimes feel like we're been scolded. I'm often not fond of satire: people say it's about our hypocrisy, but we usually mean, 'look at how foolish they are!" Baudelaire said, we laugh to feel superior, and this has always seemed to me a real and intractable problem.

Of course, Causabon’s suspicion of his foolishness is not harmless: he sabotages Will's desire to acquire a respectable position, and we can tell worse is to come. On Sunday night's Mad Men, the Berkeley coed tells Don, "But no one knows what's wrong with themselves and everyone else can see it right away." So often when we have third person narration, we feel that that's what's going on "look at what's wrong with them and they're too foolish to see it!" No wonder the pull of first person to shield these poor characters from such piercing inspections.

But it's just as easy to say that people can imagine all too well what is wrong with them, but must protect themselves or others from that knowledge. Thus "Casaubon had never put any question concerning the nature of his illness to Lydgate, nor had he even to Dorothea betrayed any anxiety as to how far it might be likely to cut short his labours or his life. On this point, as on all others, he shrank from pity; and if the suspicion of being pitied for anything in his lot surmised or known in spite of himself was embittering, the idea of calling forth a show of compassion by frankly admitting an alarm or a sorrow was necessarily intolerable to him." Poor sickly Casaubon (although as always with the 19th century, it's hard to figure out exactly what his symptoms are supposed to be) brings to mind another moment from the golden age of cable: Tony Soprano, in one of his moments of clarity, venting his anger at Christopher, says "I took pity on him. But people shit on your pity."

Our narrator is so very considerate and responsible in helping us to empathize with her characters and their foibles. But we still wouldn't want to be the Casaubon of this story any more than if Eliot took a more satiric approach. We want to be the center of the story, whose flaws are inevitably noble rather than foolish. Eliot is trying to paint a portrait of a whole community (and how much it takes, by her method, just to get one small provincial town - making you question those whole claim to capture nations), but she's no naturalist. This isn't Zola or the wire, where environment is all. Eliot believes, fiercely, in something called character. (Mad Men believes in it too, even though it's always telling us that it's an invention). And as long as we're in the world of character, we find ourselves jockeying for position in the narrator's favor. I'm not like that, not at all.

Of course, then there's Mr. Brooke, who really just is foolish, for whom the narrator makes no special pleas, and who is of course absolutely nothing like us or anyone we know.

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