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Saturday, September 18, 2010

The belated epiphany of the late great Wayne Booth

"As I recall Booth did not change his mind all that much. I did read the new article. However, whether he did or no, does not change the basic thrust of what I wrote. Booth is just an instance of that type of thinking Mudrick exemplifies and Trilling puts into a gender perspective."

Ellen, I beg to strongly differ, it is Booth who, in 1983, sees deep into the heart of the mystery of Emma, and in particular the relationship of Emma and Knightley, in a way that Mudrick, genuine pioneer that he was 60 years ago, and Trilling (who, it seems to me, is vastly overrated in terms of his grasp of Austen) never got close to seeing. Booth was on the verge of seeing the shadow story of Emma, but he never crossed the river and made it to the promised land. But....indubitably, he pointed the way, very clearly, in his 1983 article, which, not surprisingly, is almost never mentioned when his name comes up, it's always The Rhetoric of Fiction, where he got it wrong, that always gets all the attention. It's not surprising, because what he said in 1983 was way too radical, way too destabilizing, to be assimilated by those reading that article, and since it has rarely been cited since then, it has mouldered on the shelf of literary critical history, until now, as I resurrect it from its premature grave.

If you read the following excerpt from Booth's 1983 article, you will realize what a profound shift Booth experienced from 1961 to 1983--but don't take my word for it, he makes that seismic shift crystal clear himself, in particular in the ALL CAPS language. And anyway, Booth's entire 1983 article is utterly brilliant, and deserves to be read in full!

"...what must we think of the undercutting of [Knightley,] the perfect man, the paragon, full of objective wisdom, the mentor who is above the human battle, when we read the final paragraph of this scene?: ‘He had found her agitated and low. – Frank Churchill was a villain. – He heard her declare that she had never loved him. Frank Churchill’s character was not desperate. – She was his own Emma, by hand and word, when they returned into the house; and if he could have thought of Frank Churchill then, he might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow.’

Some readers have considered such passages to be dodges, signs of Jane Austen’s own sexual inhibitions or lack of novelistic skill – poor woman, she just did not know how to write a love scene! I suggest instead that they are signs of A NOVELIST WHO KNOWS HER DOUBLE TASK: HOW TO MAKE A CONVENTIONAL FORM WORK, WHILE MAKING IT WORK FOR MATTERS UNCONVENTIONAL. The intrusions in no way diminish the portrait of the happy marriage to come, as we read in OUR ROLES AS CREDULOUS PARTICIPANTS in the conventional world of Hartfield and environs. But they provide us in OUR OTHER ROLES, as readers who know we are reading a fiction, a climax to our friendship with a woman who lives very much in the world as we know it, who knows thatwe know that she has been presenting an idealized fiction, A WOMAN WHOSE GIFTS OF IMAGINATION AND WISDOM FAR SURPASS KNIGHTLEY'S – and indeed yours and mine. In short, the most lasting demonstration of this novel, concerning men and women in the world, is that most of us, male and female, are as little children compared with this one glorious human being, quite real on the page.

G. B. Stern once wrote that the marriage of Emma and George Knightley is not a happy ending. “Oh, Miss Austen, it was not a good solution; it was a bad solution, an unhappy ending, could we see beyond the last pages of the book.” Edmund Wilson predicted that Emma would find a new protegĂ© like Harriet, since she has not been cured of her inclination to “infatuations with women.” Marvin Mudrick emphatically rejected Jane Austen’s final sentence, claiming that Emma is still a “confirmed exploiter.” For him, the ending must be read as ironic.

WHEN I FIRST REPORTED VIEWS OF THIS KIND, MORE THAN TWO DECADES AGO, I REJECTED THEM. THOUGH I STILL SEE THEM AS AT BEST HALF OF WHAT SHOULD BE SAID, I THINK MY RESPONSE WAS TOO SIMPLE.My point here is that unless we can somehow incorporate something like an ironic vision of the ending, even while pretending not to, even while enjoying the fairy tale to the full, we are indeed confirming its capacity to implant a harmful vision of the sexes. In other words the ending is indeed a happy ending, not the least ironic, given the world of the conventional plot, a world that we are to enter with absolute whole-heartedness. AND YET, SIMULTANEOUSLY, we are taught by this work the standards by which the ending must be experienced as we experience fairy-tales or fantasies; the implied author has been teaching us all along what it means to keep our wits about us, and how we must maintain a steady vision about the follies and meannesses in our world. Though all is well for Emma and George Knightley, in their fairy-tale world, WE HAVE BEEN TAUGHT THAT ALL IS FAR FROM WELL IN THE REAL WORLD IMPLIED BY THE BOOK, either for their kind (if any such exist) or for those less fortunate men and women who surround them. Every perceptive reader will have learned, by the end, that IN THE REALER WORLD PORTRAYED SO PERCEPTIVELY BY JANE AUSTEN, THE LOT OF WOMEN IS CONSIDERABLY MORE CHANCY, CONSIDERABLY MORE THREATENING, THAN THE LOT OF MEN. Emma, with her rich fortune, could build some sort of decent life without a Knightley, just as she earlier claimed. But where would a Jane Fairfax be if Mrs. Churchill had not died to fulfil the needs of the conventional plot?

Still it would be folly itself to pretend that the dangers I earlier described will simply go away for anyone who reads with sufficient skill. We may tell ourselves that Jane Austen knows, and assumes that we will know, that Knightley is a fantasy figure, the wise magician who promises us from the beginning that all will be well in this created world, even though it can never be entirely or permanently so in our own. But the power of Jane Austen’s realized conventional form, the delicious happiness she makes us feel in the “perfect union” of two almost perfect creatures, the weaker one of whom almost deserves the stronger – that power must surely be matched by a kind of reading that is as powerful and courageous and sensitive as Jane Austen’s reading of her predecessors. She knew better than to pretend that fictions are not dangerously loaded weapons for all who grasp them seriously. And she thus would welcome, I like to think, THE PROBING QUESTIONS THAT FEMINIST CRITICS HAVE BEEN TEACHING US TO ASK. Her kind of critical spirit, applied in 1983 to her kind of works, will not leave those works unmodified. But to me it is wonderful to discover that most of the modifications, most of what we learn by asking the questions raised by feminist criticism, LEAVE JANE AUSTEN LOOKING PERHAPS GREATER THAN SHE DID BEFORE."


A belated epiphany, but not too late!




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