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

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Jane Austen teaches what IS worth knowing via the paradoxical epigrammatism of Pride & Prejudice

My post yesterday about the subtle cleverness of Eliza Bennet’s lively wit (in her absurdist attribution of one man’s worth of merit in Darcy and Wickham, and one woman’s worth of compassion in herself and Jane) got me thinking again about that mysterious something in P&P---especially in Eliza’s memorable utterances---that makes it JA’s most popular novel among Janeites, and arguably the most popular novel by any author. I start from Ground Zero, i.e., Jane Austen’s own famous and witty words that she wrote to sister Cassandra right after P&P was first published:    “The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte, or anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.”

How many Janeites have been taken in by the serious tone of this self-critique, which is actually one of Jane’s greatest put-ons!  It’s written in exactly the sort of mock serious tone which Darcy calls out, when he shows Eliza that he’s totally aware of the danger of taking her words at face value:  "…you could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you; and I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own."  Elizabeth “laughed heartily at this picture of herself”, and then promptly gave an encore, with “I am particularly unlucky in meeting with a person so able to expose my real character, in a part of the world where I had hoped to pass myself off with some degree of credit….”  

But it’s much more than just the love of a great put-on that gives endless pleasure to Janeites in the sophisticated comedy of P&P. The dictionary tells us an epigram is a short proverbial saying which often crosses the reader’s expectations up at the end, sometimes with paradox. In Eliza’s bon mots, and in many of Darcy’s as well, there is a deep love of paradox and contradiction--the joy and enlightenment delivered via a shock of surprise; which jolts the passive reader into awareness of unexamined assumptions.

There’s then more than a little of Socrates and Zen masters in Eliza Bennet and Mr. Darcy, and in that spirit I’ve collected some famous epigrammatical passages from P&P, accompanied by my analyses of their paradoxical genius. It’s fitting to begin with the most famous words of Lizzy’s first and most influential teacher of picturesque and provocative self-expression:  her father, the elegant epigrammatist:

"Come here, child," cried her father as she appeared. "I have sent for you on an affair of importance. I understand that Mr. Collins has made you an offer of marriage. Is it true?" Elizabeth replied that it was. "Very well—and this offer of marriage you have refused?"   "I have, sir."
"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’”

We can readily imagine that Mr. Bennet was many times similarly put through his rhetorical paces by his philosophy tutor at Oxford or Cambridge, and so he delights in providing a similar but informal education to his precocious daughter, who’d have manifested an early affinity for inspired play of wit. And we also can imagine the same game as a regular feature of real life at Steventon when Jane Austen was a girl; such that she, at age 23---the very age she wrote First Impressions---would’ve found it second nature to toss off epigrammatic epistolary gems like the one that caught the eye of new author L.M. Montgomery when she was writing Anne of Green Gables: “Miss Blackford is agreeable enough. I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.“

So, here are some of the passages in P&P in which we witness Lizzy’s (and Darcy’s) dazzling skill and delight in producing utterances which exhibit that unique and extraordinary blend of wordplay, rhetoric and epistemology, which helps motivate Janeites to reread this novel countless times. It only occurs to me now that the great joke hidden behind JA’s above-quoted epistolary mock self-critique is that the deepest meanings of the novel are transmitted directly into the reader’s heart and mind via that same subtle epigrammatism! Austen, like her great model, Shakespeare, was “unwilling to speak, unless [she] expect[ed] to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb.".  And we are that very same posterity, so prepare to be properly amazed:

“…If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud."
"That is very true," replied Elizabeth, "and I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine."

Is it not often the case that our powers of empathy for and understanding of the foibles of others tend to be disabled when we are attacked on the very same vulnerability?

"What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished society."
"Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. Every savage can dance."

There is sharp, compelling irony in Darcy, the unabashed elitist, being the puncturer of Sir William’s pretentious blather. And if we consider more deeply, we also hear Jane Austen herself, the Audenesque cynic, exposing the clueless hypocrisy of a society founded on unspeakable economic, social savagery---most of all, colonial slavery and exploitation of the domestic poor.

"And so ended his affection," said Elizabeth impatiently. "There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!"
"I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love," said Darcy.
"Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away."

How does one convey love in words? Eliza cynically exposes the fine line between insincere overblown words of love, and honest expression of feeling.

"Miss Eliza Bennet," said Miss Bingley, "despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else."
"I deserve neither such praise nor such censure," cried Elizabeth; "I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things."

What trial lawyer wouldn’t want to have Eliza as their star witness, when she demonstrates such lightning fast agility in dodging leading questions, and then tossing them back with interest?

"All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."
"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any."

What is particularly apt and lovely about Elizabeth’s riposte, is that she implicitly demonstrates (to sharp elves, at least) “the improvement of her mind by extensive reading”, without needing to make it explicit. And Darcy later shows that he received that message loud and clear, later, at Rosings, when he says, “You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting.”

And consider then how JA’s own skill at conveying ideas to her readers without being explicit, is subliminally contrasted to Bingley’s style of writing:

"My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them—by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents."
"Your humility, Mr. Bingley," said Elizabeth, "must disarm reproof."

And there’s another interesting, timeless question---does/should humility disarm reproof?  In particular, what should we make of Jane Austen’s own false humility about her own skilled writing that she so famously minimized in her letters?

"To yield readily—easily—to the persuasion of a friend is no merit with you."
"To yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding of either."

Eliza and Darcy have quickly gotten to the heart of the argument---how does one determine when showing proper tact and delicacy toward the feelings of a friend ends, and paying the compliment of rational disagreement beings?

"This walk is not wide enough for our party. We had better go into the avenue."
But Elizabeth, who had not the least inclination to remain with them, laughingly answered:
"No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good-bye."

Once again displaying remarkable intellectual flexibility, Eliza makes an off the wall yet very suggestive connection between the seemingly unrelated fields of  visual aesthetics an;d interpersonal dynamics –this being a particularly witty form of proverb-tweaking--saying, in so many words, that when it comes to both landscapes and shrubbery strolls, “Three’s company, four’s a crowd”!

"Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride—where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation."
Elizabeth turned away to hide a smile.
"Your examination of Mr. Darcy is over, I presume," said Miss Bingley; "and pray what is the result?"
"I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr. Darcy has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise."

Here Bingley has astutely characterized the repartee between Eliza and Darcy as a scene in an Oxford classroom, which perhaps will surprise those who are quick to see Bingley as a dull elf. And then Eliza, with the skill of an experienced don, in effect reframes Darcy’s self-justification as the indirect boast that it really is. Game on, Darcy:

"No," said Darcy, "I have made no such pretension. I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. It is, I believe, too little yielding—certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offenses against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost, is lost forever."
"That is a failing indeed!" cried Elizabeth. "Implacable resentment is a shade in a character. But you have chosen your fault well. I really cannot laugh at it. You are safe from me."

And here Eliza has once again landed a palpable hit on the not-quick-enough Darcy---she has led him into a trap, and he walks right into it, admitting his implacable resentment, an even nastier side of his character, which she once again has brilliantly induced him to reveal. Again, your move, Darcy?:

"There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil—a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome."
"And your defect is to hate everybody."
"And yours," he replied with a smile, "is willfully to misunderstand them."

But here we have the thrillingly brilliantly climax of this joust---is Eliza willfully misunderstanding him? Or does she use her exquisite sense of paradox to provoke him into repeatedly hoisting himself on his own rhetorical petard? Or both?

And then they resume their jousting at Rosings:

"You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me."

Again, a paradox: courage encouraged, not discouraged, by intimidation. Is this perhaps the very scene that Aldous Huxley picked up on, for the scene in his 1939 P&P screenplay, to show us a Darcy who has (shockingly) sent Lady Catherine to go and try to intimidate Eliza, precisely so as to activate her courage?

And now that you’re primed, I will leave it to you to provide your own commentary on the Merry War of (the) Rosings that begins with Darcy rationalizing...
"Perhaps I should have judged better, had I sought an introduction; but I am ill-qualified to recommend myself to strangers."
…but ends with Darcy confessing…
"You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers."

I’ll cut to the end, past the scene with Lizzy’s conceit on the limited quantities of merit and compassion, and on to another dialog between Lizzy and Jane, which includes the most enigmatic and suggestive epigram in the entire novel, one so strange that it never makes it into any of the P&P films:

"… I am perfectly satisfied, from what [Bingley’s] manners now are, that he never had any design of engaging my affection. It is only that he is blessed with greater sweetness of address, and a stronger desire of generally pleasing, than any other man." "You are very cruel," said her sister, "you will not let me smile, and are provoking me to it every moment." "How hard it is in some cases to be believed!"  "And how impossible in others!" "But why should you wish to persuade me that I feel more than I acknowledge?"  "That is a question which I hardly know how to answer. We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing. Forgive me; and if you persist in indifference, do not make me your confidante."

The core paradox of this most philosophical of novels, epitomized in Lizzy’s koan-like utterance, is that Jane Austen loved to instruct, and she transcended the paradox by invented a way of teaching what is worth knowing, by that extraordinarily powerful “non-teaching” tool, her posterity-amazing epigrams.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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