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

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Jane Austen, Shadow Stories and Anagogical Exegeses

In Austen-L today, Anielka Brigges wrote a post about her own Austen related research and theorizing which began as follows:

"Might writing in the style of four-fold Christian exegesis explain and exculpate at the same time? Thus moral stories can be told with three other layers to consider, just like the King James bible. Those modern writers who are creative theorists who are unfamiliar with this technique become embedded in one of the four levels of interpretation and immured to the existence of the other three. Thus they cannot reconcile an Austen with seemingly sexual references with the writer of the superficial moral story. Nor can they reconcile the historic allusions with the other layers or the anagogical, covert Christian allegories with Austen's sharp and satirical wit. Yet all can co-exist if the author intended the Anglican morality to be told in an exegetic style. Exegesis is a form of authorial cookery. The ingredients must be carefully planned and selected before cooking but the experiences cook can compose a complex cake with layers of flavour at some speed. The average eater will only taste the most blatant ingredients. Only when challenged to taste beyond the over-arching cinnamon topping can they perhaps distinguish the sharp taste of chilli, (harsh, hidden truths) the bitter taste of nutmeg (history repeating itself) or the mysterious flavour of star-anise (Christianity)."   END QUOTE

Anyone who's been reading along in this blog the past few years will immediately recognize the relevance of what she wrote to my own Austen related research and theorizing, and so I've just responded as follows, to clarify that relevance as I see it:

Anielka, you've constructed a very elegant model/structure with your usual flair, but (as seems particularly aptly ironic for me to observe in this instance) the devil is in the details! I.e., whether you've got enough "fairy dust"--hard textual and allusive evidence---to sprinkle on your model in order to bring it to life and convince Janeites that your model fits what Jane Austen herself intended to do as an author,  I am skeptical....but interested.  Based on everything you've brought forward publicly of your own findings to date,  I expect you to be long on ingenuity and wit, but short on substance and actually a little too ingenious, seeing connections that are not really there. But time will tell.

I've taken a great deal of extra time---several years, in fact---on my own research in order to gather--and equally important, to analyze and understand the full significance of---the mountain of evidence I now have in hand, even though my basic model has remained unchanged for many years now.  And time will also tell if I am correct in my assertion that I have got the goods to prove my claims.

Obviously, what your model and mine have in common is the claim that there is more going on in JA's six novels than what you call the "cinnamon" layer (and which I call the "overt story"). I know from nearly a decade of personal experience on the Internet and in private communications with other Janeites that there is an extremely high bar of probative evidence required in order to convince enough knowledgeable Janeites that any extra layer--whatever its authorial purpose----is real and not Memorex.

But otherwise, now that you've laid out your model, I am very glad to confirm that there is great difference between your model and mine. I'm more convinced than ever before that I have responded correctly to the evidence that my research has yielded, and that I have formulated a model of Jane Austen as a radical early feminist writing a female Torah in order to teach her female readers some basic survival skills in a world run by and for the benefit of men, which fits that evidence extremely well.

That is a very different worldview from the one you've articulated for Jane Austen the author.   And one other important structural difference. My work has focused mostly on what you call the "chili layer" (and which I call the "shadow story"),  and I have always understood those two other concealed layers (which you call nutmeg and star-anise) as being present, but indubitably subordinated to the shadow story.

In a nutshell, then, from my point of view, you've got the tail wagging the dog, and from what I gather of your model, you see mine as the tail wagging the dog.  Another epistemological irony Jane Austen would have appreciated if she could have read our respective reactions to her writing.

And I am also very glad to see that your brief description.....

"The spicy secrets of illegitimacy, sexual liaisons, harsh satire and hidden lies"

....of what I call the "shadow story" is so shallow and far off the mark, in my opinion, as to what Jane Austen was about in creating it, that there is a very clear choice between your model and mine even as to that layer alone.

So, lots of fundamental differences between us, even though, ironically, from the point of view of the ordinary Janeite, we seem very similar simply because the one large point we do have in common, which is, again, that we're both saying there is much more there beneath the surface of these six novels than has met the eye of Janeites for two centuries.

All in all, then, I am very glad that you've articulated a model which is so clearly distinct from my own---it reminds me of what we are hearing here in the States constantly during this latest electoral campaign, about two visions of America that are utterly different in several major aspects---so that Janeites who are interested in what Jane Austen concealed in her novels will have the luxury of two new and very different models to examine and consider vis a vis alleged concealed layers of Jane Austen's writing.  That's a very good thing, in my opinion.

I recognized very quickly in 2007 that you and I had far too divergent an approach to Jane Austen's shadows to ever be able to reconcile our theoretical stances, and I am glad to see that in the end of the day, each of us will be making the case we each want to make.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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