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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"...experimentally acquainted..."

And here is part two of my friendly but passionate debate with Elissa Schiff about Jane Austen as a scientist and artist (and be sure to read through to the end for an explanation of the title of this post):

[Elissa] "No - I am NOT saying that - Just the opposite - only I do not consider observational psychology "hard science," although many contemporary psychologists do. Please so not put assign me words or positions that are not at all mine."

Elissa, it is important to point out that our dialog on this point started because you criticized _my_ claim that JA combined art and science, not the reverse. JA's psychology is science enough for _me_, but I have no need to debate that point with you further, or to characterize your position, you are perfectly free to continue to disagree with me about that, if you do disagree, as seems to be the case.

"Kindly do not lecture me on Bateson, Arnie - as I am one of the editors of two volumes of retrospectives of some of his seminal writings, AND *most ironically*, although you could not possibly have known this, am currently at this very time editing an important volume about the psychological origins of the phenomenon "empathy" that discusses his foundational work in this field in great detail."

I speak only for myself--I have studied Mind and Nature, which is one of my favorite books alltime, over a period of decades, and have also discussed Bateson's work, at length, with people who are even more connoisseurs of his work than I--people who go back to the beginning of the cybernetics/constructivist movement that, as I am sure you know, Bateson was a foundational member of. And that is all prelude to my saying that I am very confident of my simple assertion that long before I said, or even thought it, Bateson himself argued that the boundary between art and science is a very fuzzy one in many important ways, even as it is very sharp in others. Again, I have no desire to debate that with you, I am just stating _my_ clear understanding of that crucial aspect of Bateson's worldview.

"What I was saying - perhaps I should have been more blunt - is that by microscopically dissecting every bit of these personal writings - writings that only represent a small portion of what several relatives wanted shown by the way and that natural decay did not destroy - merely to connect up bits and shards of information from them to people/places/situations in the novels puts us in danger of beginning only to see the bits and shards and connections rather than the integral artistry of the novels themselves. But, if you do take the position that the bits and shards are basically what counts, then you are like many modern "neuropsychologists" who claim that "the brain [synaptic connections between neurons] instantiates the mind." "

Elissa, I have no problem with your being blunt, but I still don't agree with you. What I am doing is very close reading of the novels and letters, and using imagination to discern connections between them, which I then carefully analyze and develop, and then, if I find them worthy, embed them in the larger matrix of my overall interpretation of Jane Austen. The last thing I am doing is getting lost in the trees, my mind is always on the forest. For me, the forest includes both the letters and the novels, because the forest for me is Jane Austen, as author of the novels. That is a larger forest than confining myself to the novels alone, and, for me, I find that looking at that larger container, it enhances my understanding of both parts of it. Your mileage apparently differs.

Of course the shards are not all that count, but I find it very rewarding to lavish great attention even on the small, individual "tiles", because that brings them into the clearest focus before I insert them into the "mosaic" that is a very clear and very beautiful image of Jane Austen, the artist/scientist, as I see her. I could give many historical examples of thinkers and creators far greater than I will ever be, who obsessed over small details, without losing their global vision. I aspire to the same, to the best of my own ability.

And, apropos my view of Austen as a scientist (and in particular a naturalist) as well as an artist, I finish by quoting the Opinion about Mansfield Park voiced by Mrs. Pole:

"There is a particular satisfaction in reading all Miss A----'s works -- they are so evidently written by a Gentlewoman -- most Novellists fail & betray themselves in attempting to describe familiar scenes in high Life; some little vulgarism escapes & shews that they are not _experimentally acquainted_ with what they describe, but here it is quite different. Everything is natural, & the situations & incidents are told in a manner which clearly evinces the Writer to /belong/ to the Society whose Manners she so ably delineates." Mrs. Pole also said that no Books had ever occasioned so much canvassing & doubt, & that everybody was desirous to attribute them to some of theirown friends, or to some person of whom they thought highly. -- "

Mrs. Pole beautifully describes one important aspect of how I see JA as a scientist and a naturalist. And it should not be at all surprising that Mrs. Pole should demonstrate such a deep insight into JA's fiction, because it was Mrs. Pole whom I (by paying attention to a "shard" that was ignored by every other Austen scholar who has ever read Mrs. Pole's opinion) took the 10 minutes of Googling required in order to be the first to identify her as the widow of Erasmus Darwin and the matriarch of the family into which the great naturalist Charles Darwin was born--and therefore very likely the early influence in Charles's life that led to his own lifelong love of Jane Austen's novels. So, as Alanis Morissette might have said, "She (meaning Mrs. Pole) oughta know" what a scientist is!

Cheers, ARNIE

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