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

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Food of Love

I was just thinking about the passage in Chapter 9 of P&P in which Darcy famously opines "I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love," and then Lizzy punctures his argument with the wickedly satirical notion that some poetry may starve "a slight, thin sort of inclination". It just occurred to me that this is a particularly great example of how complexly and sophisticatedly JA alludes to Shakespeare in her fiction.

It has often been noted that Darcy is, obviously, paraphrasing Duke Orsino, who, at the very beginning of Twelfth Night, says, "If music is the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die. "

Most Austen critics have either ignored this allusion, and the handful who have taken note of it have not made much of it. The sterling exception is John Wiltshire, whose Recreating Jane Austen has been lauded for, inter alia, its interpretations of JA's Shakespearean allusions, and rightly so. His discussion, at p. 71 of his book, of Darcy's and Lizzy's exchange, is perhaps the most eloquent and persuasive of Wiltshire's elegant and insightful criticism, and is worth quoting at length:

"The dialogue is used to suggest how the participants have rather more in common with each other than they know....When Elizabeth says, 'I wonder who first discovered...?' she is putting lightly a historical or cultural question and it is this hint that Darcy is able to respond to with his play on Shakespeare's line. He in fact feeds her this line so that--at his rather tense moment in front of her relations--she can go on to cap her earlier comment. But it's also notable that Elizabeth's remark expresses a refreshing skepticism about the relation of true feeling to literary, or received expression. So whilst the exchange is 'feeding off' both of Shakespeare's comedies [earlier, Wiltshire has referred to Lizzy as playing "Beatrice" from Much Ado About Nothing], it is simultaneously questioning whether rehearsing the language of another can ever reliably express true feeling.
As Marianne Novy comments '[w]hile Austen is making fun of cultural uses of Shakespearean quotations, she is also employing a technique rather like his own: both of them include and parody ideas of love associated with literary convention'....Darcy and Elizabeth are playing together in the presence of Shakespeare. That is to say their freedom (or perhaps it is only Elizabeth's freedom?) to play with Shakespeare is attained through Shakespeare but is in no way dependent on him. The passage is offering a kind of metacritical commentary on what it is performing, suggesting the idea of literature (or at any rate of writing) as nourishment of one's feelings, and critiquing the notion of feelings needing the bolstering or mediation of writing. JA's relation to Shakespeare seems often to involve simultaneously resumption and mockery or scepticism, trashing, even..."

I endorse everything Wiltshire says in that carefully articulated formulation--it may sound at first like jargony lit crit, but it's really not, and it's well worth reading slowly to savor each of his points. But in his insightful unpacking of JA's complex layering of allusive meanings, he (and Novy) have missed the most basic one of all, the one that connects what is actually happening in the action of P&P at that moment to what is happening in the action at the beginning of Twelfth Night, and the one that knits everything together.

Think about what Duke Orsino is saying at that moment--we find out very soon that he is sick with unrequited love for Olivia, and so he is spinning out the irrational poetical fantasy that the fire of emotion generated by listening to music will somehow, paradoxically, extinguish the flame of his love. Sort of like the real life technique of fighting wild fires by lighting fires around them.

And isn't that EXACTLY the mode Darcy is in at that moment of the story! He has been captured by Lizzy's fine eyes, but he is so deeply ambivalent that he has antagonized Lizzy, who has taken several potshots at him already, and so he, too, wishes to extinguish his own attraction to Lizzy. And, being the intellectual snob that he is, rather than reciting poetry of his own (and perhaps he has actually written some, in private), he elects instead to take the safe route and QUOTE some high-quality, tried-and-true poetry (and Duke Orsino's famous line is, after all, written in blank verse, Shakespeare's preferred form of poetic expression).

And, predictably, his pompous paraphrase of Shakespeare has the effect, as Wiltshire suggests, of acting as a set-up line for Lizzy's punch (and it is a sort of verbal punch she throws at Darcy) line. Almost as though he enjoys taking her punches, because at least he is the focus of her attention at that moment--just like Beatrice and Benedick play the same game over the course of at least half of Much Ado About Nothing.

But (and here is MY punch line)--the best part of JA's having Darcy allude to Duke Orsino is that the "food" which feeds Darcy's infatuation for Lizzy, and finally causes it to blossom into "love", is none other than Lizzy's playing of MUSIC at Rosings! That's where JA lands the plane of this allusion to Duke Orsino, undoing Darcy's original paraphrase and restoring the original metaphor of music, rather than poetry, in Chapter 31:

"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault -- because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution."
Darcy smiled and said, "You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. NO ONE ADMITTED TO THE PRIVILEGE OF HEARING YOU CAN THINK ANYTHING WANTING. We neither of us perform to strangers."
Here they were interrupted by Lady Catherine, who called out to know what they were talking of. Elizabeth immediately began playing again. Lady Catherine approached, and, after listening for a few minutes, said to Darcy --
"Miss Bennet would not play at all amiss if she practised more, and could have the advantage of a London master. She has a very good notion of fingering, though her taste is not equal to Anne's. Anne would have been a delightful performer, had her health allowed her to learn."
Elizabeth looked at Darcy to see how cordially he assented to his cousin's praise; but NEITHER AT THAT MOMENT NOR AT ANY OTHER COULD SHE DISCERN ANY SYMPTOM OF LOVE; and from the whole of his behaviour to Miss De Bourgh she derived this comfort for Miss Bingley, that he might have been just as likely to marry her, had she been his relation."

On the one hand, we see that music has indeed been the food of love, between Lizzy and Darcy. But JA can't resist a final wrinkle, by depicting Lizzy, ever the empiricist, as making field observations, and Lizzy concludes from her data collecting that Anne's music has most definitely NOT been the "food of love" to "surfeit" Darcy's "appetite", but instead has been (like Anne's own sad self) too "slight" and "thin" for the task.

Now that I've pointed it out, isn't this an exquisite structure created by JA, linking, with a rich metaphorical twine, two scenes in Chapters 9 and 31, respectively, via the seemingly throwaway paraphrasing of Duke Orsino by Darcy.

And some critics have actually wondered how well JA really knew Shakespeare! The above allusion illustrates that one generation after Samuel Johnson wrote his "great" volume of Shakespeare criticism, JA was quietly writing some of the greatest "criticism" of Shakespeare's writing that has EVER been written, and was content to have it be understood only by a tiny handful of close readers.

Cheers, Arnie

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