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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

“Vanity…..definitely my favorite sin” & “Pride is a very common failing, I believe”

Yesterday, Diana Birchall wrote this in Janeites & Austen-L
"Here's an excellent panel discussion, recorded by the BBC in Oxford, on the subject of Jane Austen and religion. “Ernie Rea considers the religious world of Jane Austen and how it is reflected in her novels. Ernie is joined by novelist and priest Marie-Elsa Bragg, the social and architectural historian William Whyte, Oxford University lecturer Freya Johnston and Rev Paula Hollingsworth, author of The Spirituality of Jane Austen.”

Diana, thanks very much for posting the link to that show, it was surprisingly good. The intelligence of the knowledgeable Janeite was not insulted, as is so often the case with the typical dumbed-down radio talking heads show about JA. It managed the neat trick of being informative and provocative both to Janeites and non-Janeites alike. Aside from that general praise, I have four specific reactions:

First, Rev. Hollingsworth credited Paula Byrne with the discovery that the real life Chief Justice Lord Mansfield (author of the hugely important 1772 Mansfield decision banning slavery on English soil) was behind the title of the novel and its great estate. I don’t believe Byrne actually claimed that credit, which belongs to Margaret Kirkham, who made that argument first in 1982 in her groundbreaking, influential Jane Austen, Feminism & Fiction.

Second, I was very glad that the moderator’s (Ernie Rea) suggestion that JA was at heart a conservative Tory was politely but quickly shot down by the other talking heads. That such a suggestion was even presented at all shows how the Myth of Jane Austen perpetrated by James Edward Austen Leigh still lives on a century and a half later, not merely in the minds of the uninformed general public and casual Janeites, but even in the mind of a very knowledgeable Janeite like Rea.

Third, the best comment moment in the show for me was reminiscent of DW Harding. If you listen from 14:15 to 14:55 in the 30-minute audio, you’ll hear Marie-Elsa Bragg (the novelist/priest) shrewdly speculate as follows about Jane Austen’s modus operandi and moral agenda as an author, within the context of the religious meaning of her novels:

Bragg:  “I see [Austen’s] work as very clever polemic, because in truth if we are going to try to change things, we have to do it in ways that we know, and she writes about what she knows; but she very cleverly writes in such a way as people would want to read it; it’s too easy to be rebellious and have a message that those who we’re trying to persuade won’t even want to listen to. What she’s doing is something much more clever; she’s actually inviting people into understanding a world, in a way that she’d like to help them.”

I agree 100% with Bragg, as I understand her point. I’ve been saying something very similar for over a decade, my version being that I see Austen’s novels as Jesus-esque parables in disguise, which “bait” with pleasurable romance, but then “switch” to a subtle psychological, and epistemological lesson, that creeps up on those who reread her novels for pleasure.  For example, I’ve demonstrated repeatedly that the most memorable aphorisms in P&P (pride and prejudice, a truth universally acknowledged, poetry as the food of love, every savage can dance, we do not perform to strangers, the shades of Pemberley thus polluted, etc.) all carry the greatest allusive meanings; showing me that JA hoped that her well-read readers would eventually recognize the connections of those favorite (even memorized) turns of phrase to the thematically significant literary and historical sources lurking beneath.

And what do I think was the deepest spiritual, religious, moral purpose of Jane Austen’s irresistibly rereadable novels? I say that at its base, it was not so simple as correctly judging one character good and another one bad. It was to sensitize her readers to be suspicious of all apparent revelations as to who seems good and who seems bad. Yes, paradoxically, I have found that JA seemed to me to be warning that it is when we manage to correct an error of judgment caused by our pride or vanity, that we are most vulnerable!

I’ll unpack further. Jane Austen, whose morality was inseparable from her psychology, wished her readers (especially the female readers, who were disadvantaged by their strongly patriarchal society) to somehow reach a deeper level of wisdom, and remain ever vigilant, lest pride or vanity sneak right back into their hearts and minds by the back door, and lead them straight into a fresh, new error of moral judgment. Even the otherwise worthy act of confession and contrition for misjudgment can carry within it the seeds of pride. We tend to relax, and close our inner eye while we’re busy patting ourselves on the back for our virtuous humility. Now that is a sophisticated moral theology, which has little to do with God, and everything to do with helping ourselves, so as to truly merit God’s help.

And that’s exactly what I see happening, in particular, in the shadow story of P&P. When Elizabeth’s eyes are opened to Wickham’s true character, she falls right into the trap (laid for her by Darcy’s letter) of believing that moral judgment is a zero-sum game. I.e., after overcoming her initial pride and prejudice against Darcy and for Wickham, she assumes that she must therefore be correct in simply reversing herself: Wickham bad, Darcy good after all.

But pride is not simple. Note that by the end of the novel, Elizabeth is positively cocky about it all, going so far as to joke that a good memory is a bad thing to have, when it comes to marriage. Oh, Eliza, you ought to have listened to sister Mary –yes, the younger sister whom you’ve cavalierly judged to be a foolish pedant---when she spoke to you about vanity and pride, and later still, when Mary whispered that “the men shan’t come and part us…We want none of them; do we?”. What if Elizabeth’s pride at being a great “studier of character” has blinded her to Mary’s wisdom? Because her pride was not properly humbled, Elizabeth is a sitting duck for the skillful manipulation of Darcy –yeah, the same guy who said that “disguise of every kind was [his] abhorrence”—beginning with The Letter, and then continuing throughout the remainder of the second half of the novel.

Now, THAT’S a powerful moral theology, as Crocodile Dundee might’ve put it, and that’s what I would have said had I been on that BBC panel!

But I’m not quite done. This is a good moment to point out that I believe pretty much the same authorial game was skillfully played by the writer of the 1998 film The Devil’s Advocate (MASSIVE SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT!!!), with the protagonist Kevin being led to unwittingly jump through the same double set of hoops as Elizabeth Bennet in the shadow story of P&P.

Kevin, the ambitious young criminal defense lawyer (played by Keanu Reeves) is skillfully manipulated by John Milton (aka the Devil, played by Al Pacino) into gradually and voluntarily sacrificing all that he loves (his idealism and his marriage) in Kevin’s rising lust for success, power, and fame. At just the right moment, Milton reveals how Kevin bears full moral responsibility for how his own vanity and narcissism has propelled to the very precipice of hell, and it is a crushing moment of self-knowledge for Kevin:

MILTON Come on. You're not listening. Blaming me for Mary Ann? I hope you're kidding. You could've saved her any time you liked. She only wanted love. But you knew it wouldn't really work out, didn't you? Mary Ann in New York? Face it, you started looking to better-deal her the minute you got here.
KEVIN That's a lie.
MILTON Hey, it's not that you didn't care for her, it's just you were a little bit more involved with someone else. Yourself.
KEVIN What the hell do you know about love?
MILTON Biochemically no different than eating large quantities of chocolate. (sharply now) Don't be such a f--king chump. There's only one real sickness in all of creation and that is self-delusion. I told you to take care of your wife -- that the world would understand. And you made a choice. 'You know what scares me, John? I leave the case, she gets better and I hate her for it...' Remember?
KEVIN You set me up. It's entrapment.
MILTON Who told you to pull out the stops for Mr. Gettys? And Moyez -- the direction you took -- Snake handlers, Popes and swamis all feeding at the same trough -- whose ideas were those? And then Cullen -- knowing he's guilty -- seeing those pictures -- putting that lying bitch on the stand... What did I say, Kevin? Maybe it was time to lose, right? You didn't think so.
KEVIN That's my job. That's what I do!
MILTON Exactly! (gotcha) VANITY IS DEFINITELY MY FAVORITE SIN. Self love. It's so basic. What a drug. Cheap, all-natural, and right at your fingertips. Pride. That's where you're strongest. And believe me, I understand. Work for someone else? -- Hey, I couldn't hack it. 'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.'….

The author of Ecclesiastes would be nodding in agreement with Satan on that one. But then, a shocking apparent reversal ---it appears that Kevin gets the better of the Devil. Feeling the full weight of his sins, Kevin seems to redeem himself by committing suicide, and the Devil appears genuinely shocked, screaming “NO!!”. We believe that the Devil has been foiled, and that Kevin has saved his own soul.

But, it seems, the Devil (who of course is nothing more than a metaphor for human nature) is no quitter.  Kevin somehow gets to go back in time to the crucial moment at the start of the film when his corruption first began, and this time Kevin is determined to do the right thing, which he did not do the first time around:

REPORTER (behind him) It was a nice run. Kev. Had to close out someday. Nobody wins 'em all.
MARY ANN Honey, what are you doing? (quietly) Are you okay?
Kevin nods. Smiles. Backs away. Into his seat. Gettys there beside him. Kevin will not look at him.
BAILIFF All rise for the honorable Justice Garson Deeds.
The Judge enters. Takes his seat.
JUDGE (to Barbara) You're still under oath, young lady.
(to Kevin) Your witness, Mr. Lomax.
KEVIN Your Honor, I'm terribly sorry, but I can no longer represent my client. I need to be replaced as counsel.

It seems clear that Kevin has succeeded, just as it seemed that Elizabeth had it made by marrying Darcy. He’s alive again, so is his wife, and this time he’s on the straight and narrow and won’t be fooled again. But then, what’s this?:

REPORTER Kevin! -- Hey! (catching up) Listen, this story -- this is the one, pal -- this is the one you dream about –
KEVIN There is no story.
REPORTER Bullshit. A lawyer with a crisis of conscience? You gotta be kidding. It's huge!
KEVIN They're gonna disbar me, Larry. You can cover that.
MARY ANN Can they do that?
REPORTER Not when I get through with the story. (still walking) You gotta talk, Kevin. You gotta gimme an exclusive…This is wire service. This is 'Sixty Minutes'. This is a story that needs to be told. It's you! You're a star!
KEVIN Call me tomorrow.
REPORTER You got it. First thing.
Kevin nods. Holding Mary Ann's hand as they escape.

And now, as Mr. Bennet would say, we come to the point, as you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYjIRbNNYe4

Here’s how the screenplay set it up: “The Reporter watching them go for a moment. Then turning back. And as he does, his features change, transforming - - like that -- into Milton. It's Milton. Always there. And he smiles. And we hear him say:  “Vanity…..definitely my favorite sin.”

So what does that have to do with Elizabeth Bennet? Only everything! I’m suggesting that Elizabeth’s epiphany that Wickham is not a good man, followed by her rapid reversal into believing Darcy is and always has been a good man, is the exact moral equivalent of Kevin’s belief that he has defeated the Devil by refusing to represent a man he knows is guilty. In the flush of pride over doing the right thing and beating the Devil at his own game, Kevin is seduced by the whispers in his ear of his own pride, and he starts the first chapter of a new life story, in which he is again the hero, this time not as a latter day Perry Mason, but of a laudatory (and probably lucrative) newspaper profile. From the Devil’s point of view, there are as many ways to steal a soul as there are ways for a human being to feel improper pride.

And, getting back one last time to Pride & Prejudice, vanity was definitely Jane Austen’s favorite sin; not because she was a devil who wished to tempt her readers to the dark side, but because she was a devil’s advocate, who wished to teach us how to avoid the moral pitfalls which come with our being human, as the Buddha taught 2500 years ago. Jane understood that message very well, but….(and here we get back to Bragg’s point) JA also recognized that it was not a message which could be effectively taught by lecture, the way Hannah More tried, in her heavy handedly didactic novels which JA playfully mocked.

How curious that it is Elizabeth Bennet who, out of nowhere, mouths the words “We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.” When we see P&P as the double story that it is,  we realize that Elizabeth does not take her own wisdom to heart—a sharp irony indeed. But her creator, Jane Austen, sure did. Jane knew that self-knowledge of narcissism (aka vanity and pride) could only be taught by the back door –using the Devil’s tactics, if you will -- via the reading and rereading of a complex story in a novel. Let the reader discover this painful truth on her own, and maybe it will really be learned well.

To which parable, or sermon, I can only conclude with, “Amen, sister Jane.”

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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