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

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Long enough

A good friend and brilliant Janeite wrote the following the other day in an online discussion in the Janeites group:

“I suppose I'm only trying to say that, when trying to decipher some of her more cryptic and hard to deconstruct sentences (which tend to be formal and involved
compared to modern usage, so as to be difficult for new readers to read at all, and even difficult for old hands to decipher), it helps to remember that every word
of hers has deliberate, literal, exact meaning, that she of all writers does not throw words around "slovenly" (to use her own word). That's why I always examine
the text which seems to require a jeweler's lapidary. I leave the subtexts to the imaginists, because I only believe in what is there: and there is plenty "there" in
Jane Austen. Clearly it is a temperamental preference!"

I replied today as follows:

Apropos our recent discussion, in which you made the above statement regarding the subtleties of JA’s syntactical constructions, I’ve got something for you that I hope will knock your socks off, so to speak. ;)

About an hour ago, while looking at something else (as usual), I reread, for the first time in a while, an elaborate sentence from Emma which I first studied in detail three years ago at the time I gave my first public talk, in Oxford, about Emma’s charades and puzzles.

As I reread the sentence, my eyes, newly attuned to syntactical nuance as a result of our exchange earlier about that tricky paragraph in S&S, saw something truly remarkable, which made the hinting textual clue I had first detected over three years ago much more meaningful than I had realized before.

Here is that elaborate sentence from Chapter 26 of Emma:

“That [Jane] was not immediately ready, Emma did suspect to arise from the state of her nerves; she had not yet possessed the instrument long enough to touch it without emotion; she must reason herself into the power of performance; and Emma could not but pity such feelings, whatever their origin, and could not but resolve never to expose them to her neighbour again.”

I suggest to you that this entire sentence (so elaborate that it has not one, not two, but three semicolons!) was deliberately (in both senses of that word) crafted by JA so as to be readable with TWO entirely different, but entirely grammatical, meanings!

And the most exquisite part of JA’s diabolically clever double sentence structure is that the fulcrum for shifting between the two different meanings is the nondescript phrase “long enough”. Depending on which word that phrase modifies, you have two completely different meanings of that sentence, all the way through all the semicolons.

I would think that anyone of a grammatically inclined bent should be able to discern both candidates for the modified word within no more than a few minutes.

These are two equally grammatical options, and actually I was not consciously searching for that second option at all when I reread that sentence, it just “popped out” at me, like one of those figure/ground images, where a duck suddenly turns into a rabbit because of something that shifts in your own head---and, after a moment’s confusion, the whole thing fell into place, I understood the alternative grammatical universe of that sentence completely.

Just as the “courtship” charade, which JA (also deliberately, in both senses) crafted so as to be solvable with (more than) two entirely different meanings. Just as I claim all of JA’s novels have been (deliberately) crafted so as to embody two parallel fictional universes.

As you so correctly claimed, she did not throw words around “slovenly”, and you can bet that this sentence’s doubleness is no more the result of carelessness or unconsciousness, than the multiple meanings of Mr. Elton’s charade. Both meanings are “there’ in the text, even though only one of them is readily apparent or “overt”.

You wrote about the imaginist as being separate from the close reader. I would suggest to you that it’s only when the imaginist and the close reader become one that everything is illuminated. ;)

Let me know what you think!



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