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Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Misplaced Confidence of the Literal Mind.



In 1955, in his essay about Jane Austen in his collection entitled "The Opposing Self", the late great literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote the following about Jane Austen's irony:

“...In irony, even in the large derived sense of the word, there is a kind of malice. The ironist has the intention of practicing upon the misplaced confidence of the literal mind, of disappointing comfortable expectation. Jane Austen’s malice of irony is directed not only upon certain of the characters of his novels but also upon the reader himself. We are quick, too quick, to understand that Northanger Abbey invites us into a snug conspiracy to disabuse the little heroine of the errors of her corrupted fancy—Catherine Morland, having become addicted to novels of terror, has accepted their inadmissible premise, she believes that life is violent and unpredictable. And that is exactly what life is shown to be by the events of the story: it is we who must be disabused of our belief that life is sane and orderly. The shock of our surprise at the disappointment of our settled views is of course the more startling because we believe that we have settled our views in conformity with the author’s own. Just when we have concluded in Sense and Sensibility that we ought to prefer Elinor Dashwood’s sense to Marianne Dashwood’s sensibility, Elinor herself yearns toward the anarchic passionateness of sensibility…This interference with our moral and intellectual comfort constitutes, as I say, a malice on the part of the author. And when we respond to Jane Austen with pleasure, we are likely to do so in part because we recognize in her work an analogue with the malice of the experienced universe, with the irony of circumstance, which is always disclosing more than we bargained for....“

I had previously taken passing notice of the above in the course of preparing to give my 2009 JASNA AGM talk about the anti-parody of Northanger Abbey, but I never went back to Trilling's full essay in order to fully appreciate the historical significance of the claim he was making. 

Way back in 1955, aside from the brilliant and prophetic WD Harding, I don't recall (and am not at my usual desk so as to be able to check all my files to verify) that any other Austen critic had ever suggested so clearly as Trilling did, above, that Jane Austen  was engaged in a deliberate and systematic enterprise of (in Trilling's elegant formulation) "practicing upon the misplaced confidence of the literal mind" of her readers. 

That is of course exactly my vision of Jane Austen, and so I am pretty certain that if Trilling could be transported to the present for a day, and I could spend a few hours with him, he'd be astonished, but delighted, to learn that he was so close to "getting" the central mystery of Jane Austen's writing! 

So a tip of the hat, 57 years later, to Lionel Trilling, for his pioneering insights!

Cheers, ARNIE 
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: We can only wonder whether Trilling intentionally echoed, in a subtly deflating way, the famous poetic line of the infallible Pope: 

"the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind"  

There is strong resonance between the two---Pope's tragic lover yearns for the simple innocence of the vestal virgin who lives in solitary communion with God, untainted by human yearnings and concerns. 

Trilling's (and my) vision of Jane Austen is of a serpent in the garden of Eden, subtly guiding her readers to take a bite out of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of human life, and to accept, embrace, and even celebrate, a complex, contradictory world in which little is certain.

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