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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Teaching what cannot be taught, Pope and Austen style

" I appreciate your response."

Christy, I ALWAYS enjoy, and am grateful for, your unfailingly creative AND polite engagement with my ideas, regardless of whether you agree or not. ;)

"Here is an extract from Alexander Pope's 1719, "An Essay on Criticism":
"Men must be taught, as if you taught them not, And things unknown propos'd as things forgot."

A truly EXCELLENT find, Christy! Not only does that sound very much like it was THE primary inspiration for JA's aphorism in P&P, it also resonates strongly with Eliza de Feuillide's quotation from Pope's poem "Eloisa and Abelard" in a letter to Phylly Walter (aka Fanny Price), which I discussed two weeks ago—I believe Eliza in particular shared her love of Pope’s irony with young and impressionable cousin Jane:

"The above sounds a bit Zen-like also~~~:-)"

Precisely! Indeed it does, in exactly the same way I interpret JA's aphorism. And I think you did not realize that the entire stanza in Pope's poetic essay is directly relevant to our current discussion:

'Tis not enough your Counsel still be true, BLUNT TRUTHS more Mischief than NICE FALSEHOODS do; Men must be taught as if you taught them not; And Things ne'er known propos'd as Things forgot; Without Good Breeding, Truth is not approv'd, That only makes Superior Sense beloved."

There you have, in that SAME stanza, the EXACT rationale I claim JA operated under as an author of moral fiction—i.e., I claim JA chose to follow Pope’s pragmatic advice by masking her bluntest truths about hypocrisy and moral turpitude, especially in the male of the species, under the cover not of nice falsehoods, but of a significantly less hard-edged take on the human comedy.

I claim that JA, like Pope, recognized that subterfuge was an honorable attribute in a writer who wished to teach effectively. So her novels embody the quintessence of the kind of literary “good breeding” Pope prescribed, in order to make more palatable the “superior sense” she wished to convey to her readers, a superiority of sense that we all agree is universal in all of her writing.

And, by the way, I wonder whether Knightley was channeling Pope when he spoke angrily to Emma about Robert Martin and Harriet?: "No, he is not her equal indeed, for he is as much her SUPERIOR in SENSE as in situation...."

And I would bet the store that Pope’s advice was saliently in JA’s mind when she wrote Mrs. Smith’s description of her savior, friend and colleague, Nurse Rooke:
“….Nurse Rooke thoroughly understands when to speak. She is a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman. Hers is a line for seeing human nature; and she has a fund of good SENSE and observation, which, as a companion, make her infinitely SUPERIOR to thousands of those who, having only received "the best education in the world," know nothing worth attending to. Call it gossip, if you will, but when Nurse Rooke has half an hour's leisure to bestow on me, she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable: something that makes one know one's species better. One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly. To me, who live so much alone, her conversation, I assure you, is a treat."

Nurse Rooke “thoroughly understood when to speak”—that sounds like the same sort of discretion that Pope recommends.

And as for any remaining points of disagreement between us….

“And we'll just have to agree to disagree I suppose.... since imho, there's nothing 'meek' about such tactics applied to literary agenda's -even if that is there true intention.”

…..I NEVER suggested that JA as meek, only that she PRETENDED (as in her letters to Stanier Clarke) to be meek. And had JA lived another two decades, I believe she WOULD have inherited the earth, or, at least, the good opinion of those in her society whose good opinion was worth having!

Cheers, ARNIE

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