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

Monday, January 23, 2012

Always Under Good Regulation? Not Always....

My recent posting about Jane Austen's yearnings for artistic immortality....

...triggered an interesting challenge from my friendly adversary in Austen interpretation, Christy Somer, in which she focused on my quotation of the following famous utterance by Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, and suggested that I was wrong to attribute Darcy's hubris to Jane Austen, personally:

"...where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation." [Ch 11 P&P]

Christy: "This moment occurs just in the beginning of the story. And both Darcy and Elizabeth are so full of themselves -in both pride and prejudice, that the irony just oozes out."

Christy, the key word in that sentence (for me, and, as I will now argue, for Jane Austen as well) is "always". I am so glad you've made this comment, because this point goes to the heart of Jane Austen's artistry, and I will try to explain why I see it that way.

In my opinion, where Darcy goes too far is not in the reasonable assertion that a gifted person's pride can be regulated, but in the Raskolnikov-like, hubristic assertion that a person of superior intellect cannot _ever_ be led astray by feelings of pride, because, somehow, by some miraculous capacity of the gifted human mind, such pride is _automatically_ regulated.

Jane Austen was an excellent and intensely pragmatic psychologist, and understood very well that Darcy's hubris was absurd and very dangerous. She knew better than anyone that pride was a feeling that was extremely difficult to regulate--but, I also am of the opinion that Jane Austen believed that if a highly gifted person such as herself was _aware_ of her own natural feelings of pride, and of their dangerous power, and exercised steady vigilance with respect to same over one's entire lifetime, then these feelings of pride _could_ be effectively regulated.

No good psychologist (or Buddhist] would suggest that the only way to regulate pride is to squash it into nothingness by a rigid puritanical, self-effacement. I recall reading something the Dalai Lama said about this very topic--to the effect that people had the false impression about him that he was such a rarefied being that he never felt any negative emotions, such as anger or pride. Quite to the contrary, he explained that Buddhism aspired to a healthy respect for one's own negative emotions, which were an inevitable part of being human, and therefore he had spent his lifetime working hard to minimize their negative impacts on his own life, and on those around him. I found that explanation compelling, and I assert that Jane Austen understood that fundamental principle very well.

Which is why I clarified my post (to which you were responding) by adding the following crucial caveat to Darcy's pronouncement:

"And I think that JA was a connoisseur of the very fine line that divided the weakness of vanity from the strength of well regulated pride, because she lived on that razor's edge herself."

Jane Austen recognized that with uniquely special gifts came uniquely special challenges, and one of the biggest challenges in her own life was learning how to regulate and channel her own astonishing gifts, and to apply them in the world for the benefit of herself, her loved ones, and the world at large. My speculation is that she recognized that she needed to strike a balance between, on the one hand, the pride and ambition that a great creative artist needs in order to be confident enough to send her creations out into the world, and, on the other hand, the awareness of the great risk that such pride and ambition would become poisonous and take over her mind entirely.

One of the many wonders of P&P is how well JA depicts these infinitely subtle inner processes of regulation of pride inside the mind of _Lizzy_. Lizzy repeatedly and _unwittingly_ gives the reader a constant flow of evidence that she does _not_ have any clue as to how to regulate her own pride, and JA also shows us how this came about in the first place. Lizzy's father, who is a hardened narcissist, has indulged _Lizzy's_ pride from a young age, and has nurtured it into a great vanity where Elizabeth believes herself superior to every one of her sisters, and of course to her mother, as well as to Charlotte, as well as to the true buffoons like Mr. Collins. And so, at age 21, Lizzy has never learned how to effectively regulate her pride in her _own_ superiority of mind.

Therefore, she (like Emma) remains extremely vulnerable both to intimidation _and_ to flattery throughout the entire novel. JA has written P&P so that one entirely plausible interpretation of it, is that Lizzy does not _ever_ learn to regulate her pride after absorbing Darcy's post-proposal letter. Instead, she can plausibly be read as instead veering all the way to the other side of the spectrum, and goes straight from unregulated vanity to abject submission without passing Go along the way. And, although she jokes about it, Lizzy never really does understand that a significant part of what motivates her to this complete flip of personality is that she has become mistress of Pemberley, which to her feels like collecting a _lot_ of "rent" in Monopoly! Her feelings of _gratitude_ are unregulated, and therefore are as dangerous as unregulated pride.

But let's return to Jane Austen herself. JA was the psychologist who could depict the infinitely subtle processes of regulation of pride (and other potentially distortive emotions) in the human mind as well as she did, especially in her depiction of unregulated narcissism---think not just Mr. Bennet, but also Sir Walter Elliot, Mr. Woodhouse, Sir Thomas Bertram (i.e., nearly all the heroines's fathers), as well as Mrs. Elton & Lady Catherine, etc.---was a person who clearly understood the importance of such regulation, and was not operating in a Darcy-like cocky self-assurance that anything she did was ok.

Your idea of a Jane Austen who humbly submitted herself to the will of the male authorities in her family is utterly alien to the one I read on every page of her fiction and of her letters.

You write:

"The stoical brand of Anglicanism she was born into, and lived with everyday, accepted that man needed religion to control and guide his earth-bound, naturally tainted inclinations. "

And I completely disagree, and claim that JA's Christianity was not about squelching the healthy pride and ambition of a gifted woman, but was instead about the burden of the gifted woman to use her gifts to better the lives of other women not so gifted---all the Miss Bateses and Mrs. Tilneys of her world.

You write:

"Imo, JA and her family, would see egregious folly in truly believing, living, speaking from such elevations of ‘self-realized’ and ‘individualized’ thinking -putting oneself beyond ones own family, and most everyone else. "

And I completely disagree with your mantra of JA as being only one part of a large family, rather than an intensely individual artist and personality, who would never allow herself to be submerged to the (mostly male) power in her family in the way you claim she was.

Rather, like Lizzy Bennet, she could truthfully say:

"There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me."

But _unlike_ Lizzy, JA found a way to avoid submission, but also not to ever allow this healthy and useful stubbornness to morph into a narcissism that could bear no reasonable regulation from her own conscience, heart, and intellect.

And, coming full circle to the clever veiled allusion to Corinna that prompted this thread, I claim that JA making clever allusive jokes about her desire for artistic immortality is part of that healthy approach to life that I see in Jane Austen. Her yearning for artistic immortality was entirely normal, entirely admirable, entirely useful, given the extraordinary gifts with which she was endowed, and which she so diligently cultivated in herself.

Cheers, ARNIE

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