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

Monday, January 27, 2014

The HAPPY Alternative Before All Janeites: Acknowledge her Novels as Quintessentially Scientific & Philosophical; or Underestimate them…as the Clueless James Stanier Clarke did

During the latest round of the lively exchange between Mssrs. Chwe and Deresiewicz in the LA Review of Books….
…., in which Michael Chwe (author of Jane Austen Game Theorist) impressively rebutted William Deresiewicz’s over the top and personal attack, the glassy composition of the intellectual house that Deresiewicz’s ideas inhabit also suddenly came into clear focus for me. So now it’s time to turn the intellectual tables.   

Specifically, in the same breath as he condemned Chwe for the intellectual sin of forcing Jane Austen’s writing through a so-called game theory sausage grinder, Deresiewicz revealed his own sandy foundation, when he begged the hugest of questions in the following two paragraphs:

“Though really, of course, [Shakespeare] was none of these. He was a dramatist, just as Austen was a novelist. She didn’t write textbooks, she had no use for concepts, and she wasn’t interested in making arguments. If she had a research program, as Chwe insists, it was into the techniques of fiction and the possibilities of the English language. She was no more a social theorist than Marx or Weber was a novelist….The fact that some other writer, in some other century, may be interested in scientific concepts tells us precisely nothing. Austen is conspicuous, among the great novelists, in almost never making general assertions—and when she does, as in the famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, in seating them upon an abyss of irony. They are literary statements, in other words, not conceptual ones. To speak of her novels as “game theory textbooks” (or any other kind), even in a metaphorical sense, is to get them exactly wrong.”  END QUOTE

In my post, below, I will show that, ironically, it is Deresiewicz who is exactly wrong in these assertions! I.e., Deresiewicz extrapolates from the (indisputable) absence of explicit, unironic intellectual pronouncements in JA’s writing, to the wholly unfoundedly and unwittingly clueless further assumption that there was therefore also an absence of implicit unironic intellectual meaning in JA’s writing.

In that crucial latter assumption, I claim Deresiewicz could not possibly have been more wrong, because a decade of my own research, painstakingly excavating bone after bone of allusion to all manner of scientific and philosophic wisdom from JA’s novels, has enabled me to document that pretty much every page of her writing is filled with nothing but implicit intellectual meaning. In this sense, her novels are much better textbooks than ordinary textbooks, because they don’t just tell readers what they mean, they show them what they mean, a manner of education which is infinitely more meaningful to readers who understand the Jane Austen Code, and who understand the koanic wisdom of Lizzy Bennet’s quasi-Buddhist aphorism:  “We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.” JA found a way to teach what was worth knowing, by not teaching, but allowing her readers to teach themselves, using her novels as assistants in that self-educative process!

In short, the joke is on Deresiewicz---not only has he wrongly accused Chwe of overreaching claims which Chwe (as he so meticulously documented in his rebuttal) did NOT make, he has himself been guilty of the very same sin he accused Michael of committing, which is making unfounded, overreaching claims about JA’s writing!

In this, Deresiewicz has unwittingly walked in the footsteps of none other than James Stanier Clarke, in drinking the intellectual Kool-Aid JA so wickedly offered to all her readers. Clarke was certain that JA was being sincerely modest and realistic when she wrote her numerous faux-modest self-deprecations in her famous letters to him. And she played him for an April Fool par excellence in a dozen ways in her replies to his literary “advice”.  

But JA has played Deresiewicz for an April Fool as well, but in an even more virtuosic way. The not very intelligent Clarke just plain underestimated JA’s writing, but the clearly highly intelligent Deresiewicz on the surface appears to do the opposite, as he (accurately) refers to JA as being among the greatest of novelists. But where he has walked right into JA’s special trap for overzealous intelligent elves is in his conception of what it is to be a novelist—which is revealed to be painfully and woefully inaccurate in the case of JA. He fails to understand that he has been caught at a different level of the serpentine literary garden path which JA laid out for her readers.

In this regard, take a second look at Jane Austen’s last laugh on readers like Deresiwicz in Northanger Abbey—Catherine dislikes “real solemn history”, preferring to read novels instead. Even many conventional readers of the novel have come to realize that Catherine is not stupid or ignorant in this opinion, she is actually the mouthpiece for JA herself, and this is actually the implied addendum to JA’s famous defence of the novel in NA.

What Catherine does not elaborate, but which is, I suggest, JA’s plain meaning, is that Catherine is spot on in her preference for novels, because in her novels, Jane Austen invented a kind of Herstory told through the medium of fiction rather than nonfiction, a herstory which not only told the previously untold story of women, but which was also much more faithful to the social worlds depicted in them than any real solemn nonfiction history written in her (or any other) era. And that is precisely why all those “great” nonfiction histories now serve principally as gatherers of dust on library shelves, read only by a handful of scholars of esoterica, while JA’s “ histories” enlighten millions  as to what life was really like in her world.

And I repeat—at the foundation of JA’s fictional artistry was the omnipresence of veiled allusion to all the great intellectual works known to the most learned of Oxford and Cambridge dons two centuries ago—works which, I can demonstrate, were all read, understood, and, in many cases, superseded and/or lampooned by JA!

Re Diane’s  Reynolds's Response to Michael Chwe in Janeites:  Diane, if I’ve understood you correctly, in your latest post responding to Michael, you suggested that sausage grinding is the universal norm in literary criticism, so why single him out. I think it much preferable to use JA’s own metaphor/symbol for describing different intellectual ways of looking at her writing, from different perspectives—Mrs. Bates’s spectacles.  I’ve been arguing for 9 years that JA wrote her novels to be amenable to multiple interpretations, depending on what interpretive lenses you view them through. She expected the sharpest elves among her readers to be ingenious and imaginative enough to discern, upon rereadings, what sorts of lenses she had in mind for each novel, and then to be patient enough to keep going back over her text, rereading repeatedly, to see what could be seen in them through each of these lenses. Only then, after a number of seemingly incompatible images had been generated by viewings through multiple lenses, would it be possible for those sharp elves to bring them all to bear on each novel, and obtain thereby the deepest, broadest, and more nuanced understanding of the novel as a whole.

In short, I suggest that there couldn’t be a more scientific/philosopher fiction writer than Jane Austen, given that I’ve lost count already of the number of lenses I have, over time, learned to use in order to see all the images concealed in her novels. Feminism, abolitionism, philosophy, economics, psychology, sociology, history, theology, the list of –ologies tucked away in JA’s novels goes on forever.

But unlike those heavy-handed modern novelists (Chwe mentioned one) who provide appendices to explain their arcane scientific subtexts to their passive readers, Jane Austen demanded the maximum of ingenuity and proactivity in her readers—in fact, she did everything in her power, on the surface, to lull unsuspecting readers (James Stanier Clarke being the poster child) into thinking “Of course this uneducated, uninformed, country spinster couldn’t possibly have been having fun lampooning all the “great” male minds of intellectual history; she couldn’t possibly have actually imagined that she knew better than most of them, and was not afraid to express her better answers to eternal questions about human nature and society.

In short, Chwe’s book is a lens, and while there can be legitimate quibbling as to whether Chwe used his lens successfully in all cases to see what could be seen through a game-theory lens, only a James Stanier Clarke would just assume that JA would never have applied such a lens to her novels.

Conclusion:  I conclude by pointing to what I realized today, as I was composing this post, is far and away the most famous and obvious textual example in all of JA’s novels, where game theory analysis is made explicit in JA’s novels, as I so broadly hinted at in my Subject Line:

"Very well. We now come to the point. Your mother insists upon your accepting it. Is it not so, Mrs. Bennet?"
"Yes, or I will never see her again."
"An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."
Elizabeth could not but smile at such a conclusion of such a beginning,

I guess that the reason why Chwe failed to identify this example in his book is that, unlike Mrs. Weston’s delineation of the choice facing Jane Fairfax, Lizzy’s choice as to how to respond to Mr. Collins’s proposal was presented by the inimitable Mr. Bennet in such a droll, absurdist, satirical way, as a parody of what we’d call game theory. So, I give you Mr. Bennet, the Game Theorist at a Twelfth Night masquerade, who speaks like a blend of John (Beautiful Mind) Nash channeling Samuel (Godot) Beckett!

And I cannot help but smile at this conclusion to my rebuttal to Deresiewicz, because there really is a happy alternative to Deresiewicz’s absurdly narrow view of JA’s novelizing—read books like Chwe’s (and, one day, mine as well) in which JA’s sophisticated multilayered novelistic vision is brought into ever increasing clarity, such that one day not too far in the future, it will be clear even to mainstream Janeism that JA was indeed the most scientific and philosophic of novelists, precisely because she had the good taste and the tact to hide it all in plain sight, where it would not disturb the James Stanier Clarkes of the Janeite world.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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