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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The extraordinary “precisely the right (and wrong) word” qualities of Jane Austen’s writing

Ellen wrote: "…her language, plain but having a great deal of accurate meaning for each word are important and insofar as that is conscious (and it's not quite as words either come to us or don't) is also central..."

Diana responded on that point: "Yes, that is one of the things I most admire about her. That "precisely the right word" quality, in which the precision and "rightness" have a luxurious fullness! And yes, to summon the word that is so very right, is partially an involuntary function."

Of course what you put your finger on, Diana, is crucial—Janeites can enjoy, forever, over and over, the exquisite combination of taste, wit, irony, intellect, and wisdom that Jane Austen managed to capture epigrammatically in a thousand different sentences and paragraphs in her novels. But I would suggest that, abundant as the pleasure and edification is that we reap from this aspect of her writing, this is only the half—and perhaps the less remarkable half--- of full appreciation of JA’s word choice genius.

Any analysis of Jane Austen's word choices needs to also take into account a hugely significant aspect of her word choices, which has rarely been recognized by Austen scholars. It’s something I believe was very consciously at the core of her authorial strategy and agenda, an aspect of her writing I also am certain she largely absorbed from her lifelong immersion in, and captivation by, the unfathomable genius of Shakespeare—and, as I will now briefly explain, it’s a major reason why they’re both more universally popular and admired than ever before.

To wit, there are also a thousand different places in her novels where JA deliberately chose precisely the WRONG word! I.e., if her goal as a writer had been merely to communicate, with maximum clarity and minimum ambiguity, her narrative descriptions and explanations, and to have her characters all do the same, then her novels would be completely different than they actually are, and would, to me, not be worth reading—they would be intolerably boring and unenlightening.

Jane Austen did something infinitely more difficult and valuable- she deliberately wrote ambiguously-- for a number of reasons, but most of all, I believe, so that she would thereby create alternative coherent shadow stories which were as plausible as her overt stories.

And the Rosetta Stone of this deliberate ambiguity is her famous dictum in her post-P&P letter:

"There are a few Typical errors – & a “said he” or a “said she” would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear – but “I do not write for such dull Elves” “As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.”

This epigram is the Rosetta Stone of Austenian ambiguity for two major reasons:

First, it wittily describes the quintessential example of her intentional textual ambiguities—there are dozens and dozens of such pronomial ambiguities scattered throughout ALL of JA’s novels, which do indeed require a great deal of ingenuity from a reader in order to parse out the alternative readings, and then check them against the rest of the text, to test how well the alternative readings fit with the textual surroundings.  

And second, it itself is an extremely ambiguous statement --- on the surface, it sounds like JA is admitting that she was careless as a writer, and is being shockingly flippant about these careless errors, basically saying, I can’t be bothered to go through my “beloved child” to make sure it doesn’t contain these syntactical errors, but I can trust my super-smart readers to do my authorial due diligence for me.

It still astounds me that so many Austen scholars have taken that statement straight, without questioning  whether JA really means to laugh off being a slovenly writer as being perfectly okay with her. It’s so ridiculous, especially because we know how many times JA must have revised and revised P&P in particular—the first half of the novel feels like there is not a single WORD that has not been massaged and shaped to perfection.

To me, it has always been obvious that the against-the-grain meaning is what JA expected CEA, a sharp elf, to recognize, i.e., that JA has placed such pronomial (and for that matter, many other kinds of) ambiguities in her novels, precisely so that her readers would be challenged to use all the ingenuity they could muster, in order to see two or more plausible meanings, and to hold them both in their minds simultaneously. And JA is sharing a very private laugh with CEA, as if to say, just under the surface, look how I’ve completely taken in our presumptuous family members (some of whom might well have been shown that very letter by CEA!) who think they can advise me as to my writing errors—this is exactly the  tone of JA’s letters to James Stanier Clarke—JA was the mistress of the perfect put-on.

But, getting back to the ambiguities in her novels---that’s still not all. The key point in this ingenuity, which elevates such ambiguous writing from mere sterile literary puzzle–construction and transmutes it into the highest level of literature, is that Jane Austen, by such ambiguity-creation, thereby creates an uncanny verisimilitude of real-life, such that the reader is forced to judge and analyze what is happening in the story, without having an omniscient, objective narrator to hold their hand and explain everything.

I.e., as in real life, the reader must struggle to create meaning, and must learn to tolerate not being sure if his or her inferences and conclusions are accurate—and in that struggle, especially upon rereadings, when more is seen in the text than upon first impression, and when the reader’s subconscious has had a long while to work, unseen, on making sense of what was at first confusing or bewildering, the reader is educated, becomes smarter and wiser. Without the pain of that struggle, there is no gain in insight.  

And that is how JA found a way to write novels which are at once supremely psychologically and morally didactic and yet also supremely entertaining and moving. JA at her peak was able to transcend that seeming paradox, without even a whiff of the classroom or the pulpit. Just as Mr. Miyagi, by the backdoor, taught Daniel the basics of martial arts in The Karate Kid, so too JA has taught us all, with varying degrees of success with different readers, how to read both her novels and our own lives against the grain. I know she’s been teaching me for nearly 2 decades now how to still the voice of my own internal (and highly subjective, prejudiced) “narrator”, and to struggle to see what really is happening in her novels and in my own life, from a more objective, balanced point of view. As the Buddha advised us, this is a lifelong struggle, but it’s great to have as a “confidante” the woman who, two centuries ago, wrote these very Zen sentiments:

‘We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.”

The Jane Austen I know loved to instruct, and found a way to teach what was most worth knowing, packaged in the greatest stories ever told.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

ADDED 7/31/14 at 12:37 PM

Nancy: I have always taken her saying about sharp elves as meaning that most readers will know who was speaking and so didn't need a he said or she said. NO syntax , no errors, no subterfuge- just being able to decide which character uttered the speech."

But there are many such ambiguities in her writing, which she could have easily avoided had that been her intent. I've actually collected them, it's easy because they're the ones that get brought up all the time in
Austen book reads.

And that's not even talking about the Mother of all Austen Ambiguities, the one that gets raised constantly, and which couldn't be more crucial to the story---of course, I refer to the question of who told Lady Catherine about Lizzy and Darcy being engaged. I've seen a dozen different answers proposed, and unless you have a coherent alternative narrative in mind, there's no rational way to pick among them.

Now, do you really think that JA was that careless as to create that ambiguity accidentally? Or not to care about leaving that as a loose end?

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