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

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Jane Austen’s “obscured” figure-ground novels

In the Janeites group, a skeptic named Louise responded to one of my recent posts, and I respond as follows: 

Louise wrote: "I don't see what the point was of her writing 'shadow stories' so obscure that nobody found out about them until 200 years later."

Louise I'm satisfied with my explanation, which, briefly again is that they weren't discovered till now primarily because of the active and successful obfuscation of the Austen family from 1817 onward. People see what they expect to see, and explain away the rest as “imaginary” or “mistake”. That’s exactly what has happened in this instance.

As anyone who’s closely followed my posts the past decade would know, I've collected a huge number of readerly reactions to JA’s novels, dating back to JA's lifetime, when readers (other than me) have (to my mind correctly) spotted pieces of the proverbial elephant (i.e., JA’s shadow stories). However, in pretty much every instance until the present day, having been told by everyone else that there was no “elephant” there, they explained away what they saw as either the product of their own overactive imagination, or as JA having been careless about inadvertently creating the appearance of an alternative version of a given character; or similar rationalizations.

So, in short, I say you’re begging the most important question when you refer to JA’s shadow stories as “obscure” – I believe “obscured” is a better descriptor, because what should have been visible on rereading of the novels has been obscured by a deeply erroneous orthodoxy in interpreting JA’s novels. Just because “it is a truth universally acknowledged” that JA’s novels do not have shadow stories, that doesn’t mean it’s true, only that most people believe it to be true.

Louise also wrote: "As for warning readers against the dangers of predatory men - she does that quite openly in her books, there are many charming men who turn out to be bad lots."

As I’ve also explained many times, yes indeed those seducers were identified in JA's overt stories. But it was the powerful Machiavellian hypocrites, who pretended to be reliable and honest, who could be even more dangerous - like the shadow Darcy or shadow Knightley I've written about so often. It wasn’t an “either/or” situation with male predators in JA’s era, alas, it was a “both” scenario. In short, Wickham being bad did not mean Darcy had to be good, he could also be bad, but in a different way.

Louise also wrote: "The main problem with there being 'shadow stories' though is that Jane Austen's characters have always seemed like real people to me, it's what is so clever about her writing.  If they are really just cardboard cutouts who can be viewed one way or another, that ruins the whole thing.  I don't believe she intended that at all.  I think her characters were real to her, just as they are to her readers."

Louise, to reply to arguments like yours, I've often used the example of the familiar figure-ground image, like this one…  

  …to make my point about the ambiguity and anamorphism of Jane Austen’s shadow stories. If you’re willing to spend 15 minutes on a little experiment, perhaps you’ll be surprised at what happens, and I’d love to hear what happens if you (or anyone else reading this) takes a shot at it.

So now, look at that linked image. What do you see? (scroll down after you give it a go for a few minutes)

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Speaking for myself, when I first looked at it this morning (I had last looked at it a few years ago), what I saw initially was only the image of a fashionable young woman with a lot of dark hair wearing a large round hat of some kind.  She is looking back and to the viewer’s left, but you can’t see her eyes at all. I am guessing that this is what most people see, but perhaps that’s not so. What did you see?

Now, had I not already known that there was a second possible female face visible in that same image, I seriously doubt I’d ever have seen the second one – not because it is not there, but because I wouldn’t even have looked for it!

It’s only because I knew in advance that this is a figure-ground image, that I kept looking, and kept struggling to free myself from the tyranny of that initial “overt” image. It was only then that, after a few minutes, something flipped in my brain, and I suddenly “saw” the old woman; she is also looking to the left, but the young woman’s delicate jawline has now miraculously morphed into a very large Roman nose in the old woman. The old woman’s left eye seems to just be peeping out from under her hair, and she’s wearing a kind of scarf wrapped closely on her head.  Do you see her?

Now, how does this work this way? The human brain is mysterious, but it’s clear that we are each capable of organizing ambiguous images from the visual world into different “gestalts”. That’s the whole point of the Rorschach test, which is to create an image that is so ambiguous that it can readily be seen as 100 different objects.

But with a different sort of image, one deliberately designed to be ambiguous between two “gestalts”, like the one I linked to, we are capable of flipping back and forth between them in our minds. Go ahead and try it, and you’ll see that you can see the young woman, then see the old woman, then go back again, ad infinitum. The more repetitions, the easier it becomes.

And that brings me to my main point, which rebuts your above comment. Is the image of the young woman any less real or complex, now that we know that there is also the face of an old woman there as well? Has it become more of a “cardboard figure”, to use your terminology? Of course not! They both seem real and complex, just different.

The various visual elements are ambiguous, and have been carefully chosen so as to create two distinct visual pathways for interpretation by the brain. Even though I didn’t see the old woman until I worked hard at it, now I see both with equal ease. My brain has obviously learned to see the old woman too, in part by remembering to notice her large nose, her headscarf, her tiny eye.

And all I am saying to you is that Jane Austen, using words on pages, achieved that exact same result with the characters and storylines of the six novels--- for example, Harriet Smith may be the naïve impulsive doofus that Emma sees her as throughout most of the novel, or she may be the hard nosed, pragmatic, ambitious young woman who suddenly shows her face to Emma late in the novel, and shocks Emma with the news that Harriet has her sights set on Knightley. Which one is real?  Both of them! It does not diminish the complexity of Harriet the trusting doofus, if there is also a Harriet the manipulative fortune hunter. Actually, they constitute a fascinating contrast with each other. But, they can’t be combined – Harriet cannot be a schemer in one scene, and a doofus in the next one, because human personality (at least in people who do not suffer from psychosis) is very stable.

And finally, this also explains why I so readily see elements of JA’s shadow stories, whereas I had to really struggle to see them 14 years ago, when I saw my first one (Willoughby was stalking Marianne when she falls and twists her ankle). As I’ve often recounted, it took me 2 ½ years to reach the epiphany that all of JA’s novels have coherent shadow stories. Up till then, I kept gathering more and more shadow story elements, but I kept trying to squeeze these literary square blocks into the circular holes of the novels as customarily read. It was only when I realized Jane Fairfax’s concealed pregnancy, and Frank’s having murdered his aunt, in early 2005, that the scales fell from my eyes. 

And since then, by means of frequent continuous practice, a few thousand times over the past 14 years, I’ve trained my brain to recognize the particular sort of anamorphism that JA created in her fiction, utilizing ambiguous wordplay and situations rather than the lines and shadings of the figure-ground image of the old/young women. It’s truly a breathtaking beautiful artistry that she must have developed, like Mozart writing his late masterpieces. And that is already reason enough to want to become acquainted with her shadow stories. They are like discovering another six Austen novels!

And this is one important reason why my theory sounds so crazy to you – the shadow story does not pop out in your mind as a whole, the way the old woman does in the visual image. Obviously, a Jane Austen novel has complexity on a scale thousands of times larger than a simple visual image. So it is a leap of faith to take the intellectual/cognitive journey required in order to really see the shadow stories as “real”—and also to learn to move back and forth between it and the overt story, as I have now also learned to do.

You may well ask at this point—this sounds like a gigantic amount of work—why should I bother, beyond appreciating JA’s artistry? And my answer is, another hidden benefit of such an exercise is that this sort of skill is widely generalizable to all sort of creative thinking. I have often pointed out that my longtime crossword puzzle addiction is one of the key factors that predisposed me to see Jane Austen’s shadow stories. They both depend on developing brain flexibility and pattern recognition skill. And guess what? I have found (and my wife, who is a clinical psychologist who has been a skilled therapist for a quarter century, agrees) that this skill can be transferred into real life, allowing a person to read their own and other people’s characters with greater nuance, allowing for the possibility of moving beyond “first impressions” to more nuanced interpretations of the personalities of ourselves and those around us. That was JA’s didactic purpose, I believe, but alas, her ambitions were thwarted by her premature death and the snow job her family then perpetrated on the reading public at large. But now the light bulb can be switched on again.

[For those who want to read two earlier explanations of mine emphasizing different aspects of Jane Austen's double stories, here are links to two other posts at this same blog:
Thank you for your interest!]

Cheers, ARNIE 
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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