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

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Opinions of Mansfield Park and Emma: Jane Austen Treating Ambiguity Intolerance

The comment was made in Janeites, in response to my claim that Jane Austen did not collect opinions from friends and family about Mansfield Park and Emma because she craved recognition and praise from friends and family. I.e.., she was only human.  I responded as follows:

I am sure Jane Austen was very happy, as a human being, to receive praise from loved ones. But...she was not at all surprised or mortified (to use her vocabulary) to receive negative comments from unsophisticated and/or stupid readers who happened to be loved ones. In fact, she expected it.

And it's not that she was writing only for an elite audience, either. Yes, she hoped that the best readers would grasp at least some of her complex agenda as a writer, and appreciate it as connoisseurs appreciate the hidden genius of a truly fine work of art. But her primary audience was the ordinary reader, whom she wished to both entertain and to enlighten, in very different ways.

Just think of Mozart as a composer, who really is, in many ways, the best analog for Jane Austen. His music can be enjoyed by completely unsophisticated listeners, but it can also cause reactions like the one parodied in Amadeus- Emperor Joseph II insisting that Mozart's opera The Abduction from the Seraglio had "too many notes". I don't think Mozart lost too much sleep worrying about the Emperor's opinion from an aesthetic perspective, and was only concerned with the negative impact that such a powerful man's opinion could have on his career.

But Mozart's music was appreciated by the best listeners, such as (famously) Haydn who opined that "If only I could impress Mozart's inimitable works on the soul of every friend of music, and the souls of high personages in particular, as deeply, with the same musical understanding and with the same deep feeling, as I understand and feel them, the nations would vie with each other to possess such a jewel."

But Jane Austen was not writing merely for fame or fortune, even for fame among the connoisseurs. She also wrote as a teacher. Jane Austen was fully aware that the subliminal didacticism of her writing could, paradoxically, have educational benefits to readers, even if those readers did not realize they were being "worked on". JA understood that if she entertained, then readers would not only read her novels, they'd reread her novels, and it was in the rereading that the education kicked in, as even unsophisticated readers would then begin to notice the ambiguities, and begin to wonder whether their "first impressions" were actually "correct".

Put another way---It was not so long ago that medical science began to recognize that human beings are allergic to or intolerant of many substances which enter their bodies via eating. For example, surely there are some reading this message who are lactose intolerant.

Well, I claim that Jane Austen saw herself as a kind of a long-distance psychologist or physician, and that one of the principal "diseases" of the mind which she wished to treat was "ambiguity intolerance". If she could help her readers learn, by reading and rereading her novels, that life is often ambiguous, and therefore it behooves a person to hold off reaching a final and irrevocable decision on some important matter (marriage, career choice, where to live, etc) until they had considered things beyond their first or even second impressions, then they had a better chance of getting it right.

She knew that human beings are mostly born with ambiguity intolerance, it's part of the human condition, and so it must be struggled against, and people need practice, lots of practice, to develop and maintain it. And novels like hers were the perfect "medicine" for that "disease", because all a person needed was a copy of the novel and the time to read  and reread it. Portable, inexpensive, durable, effective.

So.....getting back to Jane Austen and the opinions she collected, she was not "most authors", and, as I said, when she collected these opinions, she was not a girl or beginning writer, she was a mature woman and complete master of fiction writing, and she knew it.

So, again, she didn't collect opinions for the reasons any of the rest of us would do it.

Here's the relevant portion of  a private response I received yesterday, from a friend who is a first rate literary scholar, regarding this very point:

"Just read your post and couldn't agree more....Austen (unlike, say, the anxiously directive Richardson or the stage-managing Fielding) constructed her novels as non coercive texts, knowing that different readers would read them in different ways, thus revealing themselves in their responses. Hence her clinical fascination in those responses, starting with Henry's reading of the proof copy...."

And I could not agree more with my friend. Jane Austen's novels are fictional versions of Hamlet's mousetrap, designed to "catch" the personality of the reader. So of course JA would be observing the reader's reactions. This was part of "diagnosis".

I just went to Wikipedia, and realized that I must have read the term “ambiguity intolerance” many years ago during my college studies in psychology. The term was introduced in the classic book, The Authoritarian Personality, in 1950, and was further defined in 1975 as a “tendency to perceive or interpret information marked by vague, incomplete, fragmented, multiple, probable, unstructured, uncertain, inconsistent, contrary, contradictory, or unclear meanings as actual or potential sources of psychological discomfort or threat.”

As I read that latter definition, I wonder whether Jane Austen saw herself not only as assisting her readers in making better life decisions for themselves, but also in making them better citizens, by reducing political paranoia. General Tilney, Sir Thomas Bertram, Mrs. Ferrars, and Lady Catherine all  came to mind immediately, as rigid, authoritarian people whose orientation was to oversimplify, and to insist on hierarchical forms of social interaction.  And I also thought about the patriarchal nature of English society, which stamped down on attempts to bring about equality between men and women, because that would lead (so thought the likes of Sir Thomas) to unstructured, uncertain, inconsistent patterns of behavior in society, and we could not have that now, could we???

Bottom line: Jane Austen, as the sincere and passionate Christian that she was, recognized that she had been blessed by God with great genius, and she chose to make her primary goal the education of her readers, who so desperately needed it.

She had bigger fish to fry than to worry whether Fanny Knight believed she had not been given enough information about Jane Fairfax. Had Fanny been a better student, she'd have recognized that the burden was on herself to work harder to look into the shadows, and find the information that was indeed provided between the lines of the novel.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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