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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, October 18, 2010

C'mon baby light my pyre

Marilyn Marshall just wrote a brilliant post in Austen L, which I respond to below:

[Marilyn] "This is something I've been giving thought to lately and I think there was something more involved than Austen having a good memory for sources. People in Austen's time had a somewhat different relationship with books than we do now. Being rare(r) items, books were read and reread, often out loud to others, which I'm sure led to lively discussion and interpretation, but also had the effect of creating deep familiarity with what they read. Having shared a book, a group with the literary savvy of the Austens must have often bandied about quotes during family discussions and made many of the connections between plots and characters and ideas that you are now discovering."

Excellent insight, Marilyn, and totally valid! I think JA must have been born with a sponge-like memory for words anyway, but she grew up in the perfect family environment to nurture her lifelong obsession with wordplay and expression in words. No question, it was a perfect storm for creation of a full blown genius!

"Another factor is memorization. I suspect that Austen carried a large amount of favorite text around in her head. A hint at this can be found in Persuasion. When Captain Benwick uttered a few lines of poetry, Anne was able to finish the quote."

Excellent! A perfect example of her metafictional winking, of obliquely pointing to herself.

"Byron was the rock star of his generation and his poetry captured people's attention in much the same way as John Lennon's lyrics 150 years later."

You remind me that I discovered, quite by accident a few years ago, the following interesting correspondence:

"The time to hesitate is through, there's no time to wallow in the mire. Darling we can only lose, and our love become a funeral pyre. C'mon baby light my fire..."

Byron's The Two Foscari, Act IV:

“Yes, light us on, as to a funeral pyre.”

Byron's Don Juan, Canto VIII”

Thus on they wallow'd in the bloody mire

"The mechanics of memorization surrounded Austen. How many family theatricals of scenes from Shakespeare were performed where young Jane had to memorize her lines? How many dinner table disagreements were settled by the memory of an apt line? And what did she and Cassandra talk about during their many long walks across the countryside? Reciting poetry is as effective a way to pace your steps as singing a song. Memorization is a good method for understanding text. You read it, you reread it, then you memorize it and as it rolls off your tongue you get the sense and feel of its meaning. When you memorize something, it belongs to you, because it resides inside your head -- and when you sit down to write, as you search for a way to express your thoughts the words are there to be plucked from your brain, compliments of Mr. William Shakespeare ... or John Milton ..."

Yup, no doubt she had all of it on recall, and then she would check the texts themselves the next time she found herself in a good library, to make sure she had remembered correctly.

"Because literature was Austen's chosen field, she made it her business to be an expert. She read widely, she retained important information, she exercised her brain, and her involvement was continuous and driving. Like a baseball player who is able to hit the ball further over the fence than anyone else because of the thousands of times he has swung the bat throughout his life, Jane Austen was able to hit literary home runs because of the constant churning of words and ideas in her brain. Blessed with a facility, she dedicated her life to being at the top of her game. This is the quality, above all others, that defines her genius. No matter what century she lived in, this would be her gift."

No question, she took her work VERY seriously, that is obvious from the depth and breadth of the workmanship throughout all her writing.

"I often wondered if the distractions of the Internet and the pop culture noise of the 21st century would dim her lights, but I think what must have been an intense interest and drive to absorb beauty and inhabit the continuum of literary expression would insulate her from being drowned in drivel."

Oh, I think she loved the drivel, too, because she used it in her work--she did not only allude to the timeless classics, she alluded to the pulp as well. Which makes perfect sense, because JA was a kind of Camille Paglia or Tom Wolfe, an anthropologist on Mars, like Mr. Bennet, enjoying the entire human comedy, high and low.

Thanks for a great post, Marilyn!


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