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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

JA's Synthesis


Thanks for posting that excerpt from James Collins's "A Truth Universally Acknowledged". I was strongly struck by the following passage:

"In their essence, Austen's books are moral works. "Northanger Abbey" is really about Catherine Morland's moral education: She learns that the world does not operate on the principles of a gothic novel. As the title indicates, "Sense and Sensibility" is a moral tale: It is the story of Elinor's self-command and Marianne's self-indulgence. The central event of both "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma" is each heroine's discovery of her own moral weakness. "Mansfield Park" treats any number of moral issues, from the propriety of engaging in amateur theatricals to the consequences of leaving one's husband for another man. The premise of "Persuasion" is that Anne Elliot once sacrificed her happiness by doing her duty and obeying the admonishment of her moral guide, Lady Russell. Moral concerns are not only reflected in the large themes of the books, however: They are pervasive. Even the smallest act or the briefest dialogue or the mere description of a character's manner of dress is freighted with moral content. "

Mr. Collins (I couldn't resist calling him that!) is 100% correct that JA's primary goals were didactic, and he does an admirable job of summarizing the moral content of JA’s overt stories. However, he is unaware of the existence of the shadow stories, and therefore he fails to realize that there is a whole additional layer of didacticism in JA's novels, a whole additional layer of moral content, contained in the shadow stories, and the bonus from that is that there is a third level generated by the interaction of the first two, which interacts with the moral content of the overt stories in a dazzlingly Hegelian synergy.

And speaking of Hegel, I never read Hegel, but my scant knowledge of his ideas has always been that he espoused a view of dialectics, and now I think I REALLY need to read some of his stuff, after reading the following at Wikipedia:

"Hegel developed a comprehensive philosophical framework, or "system", to account in an integrated and developmental way for the relation of mind and nature, the subject and object of knowledge, and psychology, the state, history, art, religion and philosophy. In particular, he developed a concept of mind or spirit that manifested itself in a set of contradictions and oppositions that it ultimately integrated and united, without eliminating either pole or reducing one to the other. Examples of such contradictions include those between nature and freedom, and between immanence and transcendence.”

That is fabulous, in terms of how it almost seems to have been written to describe my understanding of what JA was about in writing her novels—I do see the overt story as the thesis, the shadow story as the antithesis, and JA’s “true meaning” (difficult as I know it to be, to try to synthesize and reconcile two such radically different interpretations of the stories of the novels) to be the synthesis of the two. But the following is even more fabulous and on point, in describing the reactions to JA’s novels by Janeites over the past two centuries, as much today as way back when:

“Some historians have spoken of Hegel's influence as represented by two opposing camps. The Right Hegelians, the allegedly direct disciples of Hegel….advocated the orthodoxy and the political conservatism of the post-Napoleon Restoration period. The Left Hegelians, also known as the Young Hegelians, interpreted Hegel in a revolutionary sense, leading to an advocacy of atheism in religion and liberal democracy in politics.”

Sounds awfully familiar to me, just substitute those who read JA as a conservative defender of the social status quo, and those who read JA as a subversive, radical critic of the status quo.

And in that regard, consider the following Wikipedia comments on Hegel:

“In previous modern accounts of Hegelianism (to undergraduate classes, for example), especially those formed prior to the Hegel renaissance, Hegel's dialectic was most often characterized as a three-step process, "thesis, antithesis, synthesis"; namely, that a "thesis" (e.g. the French Revolution) would cause the creation of its "antithesis" (e.g. the Reign of Terror that followed), and would eventually result in a "synthesis" (e.g. the Constitutional state of free citizens). However, Hegel used this classification only once, and he attributed the terminology to Immanuel Kant. The terminology was largely developed earlier by Johann Fichte. It was spread by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus in a popular account of Hegelian philosophy, and since then the misfit terms have stuck…….. What is wrong with the "thesis-antithesis-synthesis" approach is that it gives the sense that things or ideas are contradicted or opposed by things that come from outside them. To the contrary, the fundamental notion of Hegel's dialectic is that things or ideas have internal contradictions. From Hegel's point of view, analysis or comprehension of a thing or idea reveals that underneath its apparently simple identity or unity is an underlying inner contradiction. This contradiction leads to the dissolution of the thing or idea in the simple form in which it presented itself and to a higher-level, more complex thing or idea that more adequately incorporates the contradiction. The triadic form that appears in many places in Hegel (e.g. being-nothingness-becoming, immediate-mediate-concrete, abstract-negative-concrete) is about this movement from inner contradiction to higher-level integration or unification.”

I do believe that JA rejected both shallow conservatism and shallow radicalism, and instead aspired to, and often achieved, a profound understanding of the morality and dynamics of her world, which is , for all our technological advances in the past two centuries, still very much like her world, in terms of how we humans live in families.

I was curious to see if any scholars have written about parallels between Austen and Hegel (he was five years older than JA and he lived 14 years beyond her death), and Google tells me that a large number of scholars have done so, in various ways. From my initial scan of results, I found the following very interesting discussion in a 1996 book, in a chapter by Frances Olsen, entitled “Hegel, Sexual Ethics, and the Oppression of Women…” in _Feminist Interpretations of GWF Hegel_ edited by Patricia Jagentowicz Mills.

At Page 109-112, we read, in relevant part:

“GWF Hegel and David Krell’s essay on Hegel (see Ch. 4) raise the question of how men and women can relate to one another as equals—or at all. How is it possible to have intimate relations between men and women in a society in which men as a group dominate women as a group? Women are systematically subordinated to men….Men’s voices are heard…men of goodwill are faced with a quandary….When Hegel suggests that the stakes regarding sensuous abandon are higher for women than men and that men have another field for ethical efficacy, is he not basically correct in describing his society?...Perhaps we should read Hegel as approaching the world as it actually was—recognizing the radical subordination of women—and making the best he could of it all within that context…..Jane Austen approaches the world as it is—recognizing the present inequality—and in P&P offers us Elizabeth. ..Elizabeth is neither Hegel’s plant nor Nietzsche’s castrating, moralizing woman. JA can be viewed as carrying out the same project as Hegel: creating a world alive with sensibility and yet safe from the death, suicide, and madness of excess romanticism..While Elizabeth is a remarkable and appealing young woman, she is not the rare exception of a woman who is subject to less domination. Elizabeth exists as a woman in a world in which women are oppressed. Austen’s irony saves her from apologetics and allows her to criticize the inequality she recognizes. Elizabeth’s behavior deals with the world that existed at that time as well as one could. “


DBH said...

Nice. Hegel will redeem the 21st century from the barbarism of greed. And JA would be a worthy acolyte! Keep spreading the word.

Arnie Perlstein said...

DBH, it's very nice to make your acquaintance, and thanks for the positive response!

You leave me hungry for a further unpacking of your slightly Sphinx-like comment!

(I took a peek at your blog, hence the little in joke) ;)

Anonymous said...

Good post and this post helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you for your information.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Anonymous, I am very curious to hear what your teacher thought about your citing my comparison of Hegel to Austen!

Arnie Perlstein said...

I've noticed a sudden surge in people reading this particular blog post---did I post a link to it or did someone else? If you have been brought here by a link, please let me know what it was!

Thanks, ARNIE

Arnie Perlstein said...

See the following recent post as well:

Ch. said...

Jane Austen and "The Golden Mean"...

Anonymous said...

There was no difficulty about men and women having close relationships despite the subordination of women as a group. If you read letters from the period between men and women, you can see evidence of great affection, and respect.

The subordination of women as a group did not stoo men and women loving each other, as all Jane Austen's heroines have very happy marriages.