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

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Little Zigzags of Embarrassment: Another Rationalization by Emma

This evening,  I noticed for the first time the extraordinary expression Jane Austen invents at the end of the paragraph in Chapter 16 which describes the final, interminable stage of the fateful carriage ride from Randalls to Hartfield:

"[Elton] was too angry to say another word; her manner too decided to invite supplication; and in this state of swelling resentment, and mutually deep mortification, they had to continue together a few minutes longer, for the fears of Mr. Woodhouse had confined them to a foot-pace. If there had not been so much anger, there would have been desperate awkwardness; but their straightforward emotions left no room for THE LITTLE ZIGZAGS OF EMBARRASSMENT."
I checked in Google Books and there are a handful of uses of the word "zigzag" before the publication of Emma, but they all use the word in a physical, tangible sense, e.g., to describe faults lines in geology. However, JA appears to me to have been the first to use it in an intangible, metaphorical sense, as she describes a psychological sort of zigzagging. That is so characteristic of JA, as a wordsmith--- she appropriates words from the full range of her omnivorous reading on a hundred diverse subjects, and transmutes them all into a new metaphorical vocabulary for her complex psychology.

I’ve read that last quoted sentence a dozen times, wondering if it is psychologically sound. Is it really so that the emotion of embarrassment slithers into our minds and hearts only when we are not very angry?  Or is this bit of narration not a reflection of Jane Austen’s own psychology, but instead of Emma’s thinking?

After some tossing it around in my mind, I think it is not sound, and is not what Jane Austen thought. Rather I imagine Emma sitting in the carriage, observing Elton sitting there looking like a poisonous toad, bursting with venomous anger, and trying to convince herself that it’s not desperately awkward. As the carriage creeps forward, straight, but at “a foot-pace”  that makes the ride seem endless to her, she is doing what she always does—she is rationalizing, pretending that she’s not embarrassed—and, more important, pretending she is not AFRAID . After all, she is trapped all alone in a carriage with a very angry and very drunk young man, who is dealing very poorly with the massive narcissistic injury she has (however unwittingly) inflicted on him. We all recall that Jane Austen joked in very darkly comic terms about just such a situation in one of her early surviving letters.                                                                                                                                                               

It is Emma’s own mind which is desperately denying the embarrassment and fear she is experiencing, and is frantically zigzagging as she waits for the interminable ride to end and tries to evade her fear.

And…if we think further about this novel with its thousand subtle interconnections, we can also see that Emma has been inspired to this neologism by what she heard only days earlier at Hartfield during a very different sort of embarrassing and alarming situation:

"True, true," cried Mr. Knightley, with most ready interposition—"very true. That's a consideration indeed.—But John, as to what I was telling you of my idea of moving the path to Langham, of turning it more to the right that it may not cut through the home meadows, I cannot conceive any difficulty. I should not attempt it, if it were to be the means of inconvenience to the Highbury people, but if you call to mind exactly the present line of the path.... The only way of proving it, however, will be to turn to our maps. I shall see you at the Abbey to-morrow morning I hope, and then we will look them over, and you shall give me your opinion."

In other words, Mr. Knightley, in order to neutralize the war of words between Mr. Woodhouse and his son in law John Knightley, hastily changes the subject by proposing that the path to Langham should zag where it currently zigs!   ;)
By the way, the earliest other such intangible usage I could find was the following description from an 1817 book published in the U.S., consisting of essays on agriculture (perhaps a book that Robert Martin might have read):

"Farmers and mechanicks have been political slaves in all countries, because we are political fools. We know how to convert a wilderness into a paradise, and a forest into palaces and elegant furniture; but we have been taught by those whose object is to monopolize the sweets of life, which we sweat for, that politicks are without our province, and in us a ridiculous affection; for the purpose of converting our ignorance into the screen of regular advances, which artificial interests or legal factions, are forever making in straight or ZIGZAG lines, against the citadel of our rights and liberties."

Cheers, ARNIE
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