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Monday, October 8, 2012

2012 JASNA AGM in Brooklyn: Keynote Speakers Anna Quindlen & Cornel West

I just returned last night to South Florida after attending my seventh Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) Annual General Meeting (AGM) in the past eight years:

http://www.jasna.org/agms/newyork/index.html

I was in my usual state of exhilaration and exhaustion by the end of it, the result of spending absurdly large amounts of face time with a healthy cross-section of the 700+ other Janeites who attended. A JASNA AGM is a place where conversation with total strangers, as well as old friends, occurs effortlessly, as we discuss our own lives and also the lives of our special "mutual friends", being all the characters of Jane Austen's novels, and the most cherished mutual friend of all, Jane Austen herself!

Anyway, it has been my custom to give an AGM report here the past few years, and 2012 will be no exception.

I will begin in this post talking about the two charismatic speakers who gave the first two plenary addresses, who are each famous wide and far beyond the world of Jane Austen---Anna Quindlen and Cornel West--but who happen each to be hardcore Janeites!

Each of them did a spectacular job--I will not try to recreate the particulars of what they said, because what was most stirring was the way they each projected their own formidable and unique personalities to the crowd, and generated a spiritual Austenesque aura that we all bathed in--in short, both of them master storytellers.

What was most wonderful, which might be surprising to some, was that their personal styles of speechifying were so very different, and yet seemed to synergize, via that contrast,  with each other.  Quindlen's style was restrained, down-home, lowkey, while Dr. West was like the head preacher in the Church of the Holy Jane, leading a true revival meeting.  And yet both seem so organically connected to the Protean personality of Jane Austen.

What they had in common most of all was an obvious deep understanding, on every level--spiritual, psychological, and intellectual--of the enormous genius of Jane Austen. We were not hearing any of the still-heard-frequently nonsense about Jane being a miniaturist, Jane being modest in her aspirations as an artist--no, we were hearing names like Shakespeare and Joyce, Plato and Socrates, with Jane Austen's name right up there at the highest rung of the ladder with the rest of those titans. Not a great woman writer, but a great writer PERIOD.

So, while Andrew Davies's keynote speech in Ft. Worth last year was still the one and only truly electrifying "Woodstock" experience I have ever had at a JASNA AGM, Quindlen and West both did themselves and Jane Austen proud, and created an unforgettable experience for us all.

I have a specific goodie or two to toss in the mix about each of them vis a vis Jane Austen, and both, by coincidence, were addressed by me in a post in Austen L a year and a half ago, which I just re-posted here in this blog an hour ago here:

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2012/10/jane-austens-rosetta-stone-mrs-eltons.html

First, here is what I wrote then about Anna Quindlen, before I was even aware that she would be on the AGM bill this past weekend:

"In 1995, the novelist Anna Quindlen, in her Intro to an edition of Pride & Prejudice, wrote: "For those of us who suspect all the mysteries of life are contained in the microcosm of the family, that personal relationships prefigure all else, the work of Jane Austen is the Rosetta Stone of literature. We can only hope that when she described her first novel as “rather too light and bright”, she was being ironic rather than self-deprecating.”"
That is why, when I first became aware, in early 2005, of secret answers in Emma's Chapter 9 word games, I myself began calling Chapter 9 of Emma the Rosetta Stone of Jane Austen's fiction, because these word games are perfect symbols of the novels themselves, i.e. , each novel has one "answer" (i.e., one story line) that everyone sees, and a second secret "answer" that is concealed. And, as I will explain before this post is over, the second charade in Chapter 9 of _Emma_ is also a Rosetta Stone in the sense of revealing a crucial secret within the shadow story of _Emma_."    END QUOTE
It was gratifying to read another Janeite's thinking about Jane Austen and the Rosetta Stone in the same breath, but in a different way. 

Second, as to Cornel West, he may have surprised more than a few in the audience with his repeated assertion that Jane Austen had much in common as an author with West's other hero, Anton Chekhov--another titan who appeared to be a miniaturist. 

I recollected at the time that I had during the course of my research collected a few tidbits about Chekhov vis a vis Austen, and today I had a chance to delve into my files and find them.

The first was a 2002 Austen-L post by Anubala Varikat, who claimed to see some startling resonances between Chekhov's play The Three Sisters, on the one hand, and Austen's novel Sense & Sensibility, on the other:

http://lists.mcgill.ca/scripts/wa.exe?A2=ind0201C&L=AUSTEN-L&P=R157&I=-3

Now, I don't know if Dr. West has also noticed those resonances, but it was clear from the way he kept coming back to Chekhov during his address that he considers Austen and Chekhov to be deeply linked in some mysterious way. So now I intend to dip my toe a bit in the Chekhov Sea, where I have barely found time to dip my toe in the past---and see what I see when i do--I am hoping there will be some more Austen surprises lurking there, which would validate the intuitions of both A. Varikat and Dr. West.
Finally....Google Desktop reminded me of the other Austen-Chekhov connection  that I myself have been making for several years now, and here is one example from that same prior post of mine:

"As my Subject Line states, I claim that Mrs. Elton's acrostic _is_ Mr. Elton's charade! I realized this a few years ago, when I revisited the question which had first occurred to me in 2005, i.e., where in Emma was Mrs. Elton's acrostic? I was convinced that JA would not have had Mrs. Elton mention receiving an acrostic on her name from an unnamed puppy, unless the text of that acrostic was hidden somewhere in Emma, and unless the identity of that puppy was somehow revealed in Emma as well. Like Chekhov's famous dictum:"
 "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."
 I believe that JA adhered to that dictum, and that all the "background" details in her novels which appear to be insignificant are actually significant. In that regard, I had guessed, in 2005, for various reasons, that Frank Churchill was the puppy who gives Miss Hawkins an acrostic,. But beyond that, I was frustrated, because I could not find any hints as to the actual text of the acrostic anywhere in the text of the novel."

And now, as I look at those comments of mine in the light of Dr. West's linkages of Chekhov and Austen, I realize that this is a very significant connection between them---because it's not just Mrs. Elton's acrostic that fits in the same category as Chekhov's rifle hanging on a wall, there must be a few hundred such details lurking everywhere in Jane Austen's writing--details which, in the normative way of reading her novels--which I call the "overt story"---are trivial, mere background, which play no apparent role whatsoever in the movement of the story.  

But that's just why I consider the fact that Mrs. Elton's acrostic is, once you solve the puzzle to the end, the same as Mrs. Elton's charade, so important. Because I am the first and only Austen scholar to ever suggest that Mrs. Elton's acrostic might have any significance whatsoever in the story of Emma. So, we may say that Jane Austen religiously followed Chekhov's dictum about rifles hanging on walls, but with the humongous caveat that she often gave no overt meaning to those hanging rifles, but instead left it to the reader to discover what role they played in the shadow story of her novels!  

Or to use a biological metaphor, in the overt story, those details are junk DNA, but in the overt story, they are key DNA playing a vital role in the life of the story!  

 So, having taken a tour through Rosetta Stones, hanging rifles and junk DNA, I conclude this first post about the 2012 JASNA AGM.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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