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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"One half of the world cannot understand the METHODS of the other."

The following debate arose in Janeites as Elissa Schiff mounted a passionate objection to my comments about Jane Austen as being both a scientist and an artist. This is one of two posts on this subject.

[Elissa] "To which I must reply Arnie: No, most emphatically she was not a scientist, she was an ARTIST, and like all artists, she used her powerful gifts of observation to create beauty by being discriminating in including only that which is relevant to her creation"

Again, Elissa, with all due respect, I think you have made another unfounded assumption, which is that JA was the kind of artist who entirely subordinated her scientific powers of observation to her art. Whereas I claim there was a complex, indeed extraordinary, synergy
between her science (which today we call psychology) and her art (fiction), with _neither_ subordinate to the other, but each _enhancing_ the other. If you read Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature, you will have a better sense that the boundary between art and science is in some ways a mirage--Darwin's science was informed by his love of Jane Austen and Shakespeare, e.g.

I claim that JA's art benefited from her amazingly insightful psychologizing--which even two centuries later is still ahead of her time, hence the strong following she has among modern psychologists (like my wife)---but her science also benefited from her art, because fiction is a uniquely powerful way of teaching psychology to others. A textbook on personality, no matter how brilliantly written (and I have read many), which _tells_ its readers about how people tick, cannot possibly teach psychology as powerfully as a great psychologically-minded novel (like all of JA's novels) can _show_ how people tick. The former sort of teaching is not durable, and is not deep--the latter is extremely durable, and is very deep.

That is why all of here in Janeites, and all the other Janeites around the world, all spend so much of our time, over entire lifetimes, endlessly revisiting these characters, analyzing, probing, discussing, disagreeing, thinking about them-we are all still getting to know these
characters, learning about them, changing our opinions about them--this process enhances the way we live our own lives, we are being trained to think more critically and deeply about ourselves and everyone we know.

So I claim that _is_ science, and everything I know about Jane Austen tells me that, as much as she wished her novels to be great works of art, she just as much wished them to be great "secular sermons", to teach people, especially women, how to live better, by learning to read
_life_ better.

You seem to be drawing a false dichotomy between art and science in the case of Jane Austen--if you are, I disagree, and I claim that her novels were _both_.

" see these subjects as the important *main course* or *main event* of her novels is to totally lose sight of both the artistry of creation and, ultimately, of the work of art as a whole."

As I just clarified my comments, above, I stand by them. Art and psychology/teaching were in perfect balance in JA's novels, and anything I can find in her letters that sheds light on her sexuality is crucial to helping me better understand both her art and her psychologizing. You
beg the question of what is relevant--you see a mountain of mundane details, I see clues to help fill in a complex figure in a carpet (and yes, I did read James's story with that title, and I happen to believe that it is, covertly, _about_ Jane Austen, just as The Turn of the Screw is, covertly, about both Hamlet _and_ Emma!).However, when James wrote literary criticism about fiction, he did _not_ speak for all artists, only for himself.

"Art is Pride and Prejudice or Emma after we dismiss from our minds a querulous, demanding mother, small, smelly bedrooms with faded peeling wallpaper, various personal disappointments. What matters is that Austen has created the petulent, demanding Mrs. Bennet....[etc.]"

And I must disagree yet again with you. It appears that you don't choose to look at the artist's life in responding to the novels, and of course that is your privilege. But are you going further, and claiming that to look at the artist's life is an illegitimate exercise? If so, then I fear you are begging yet another important question. Others, like myself, can find great value in such an enterprise.

I am reminded of what Emma says, "One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other."

The issue of serial pregnancy and death in childbirth is a _perfect_ example of the value I find in looking at an artist's real life (in this case, JA's letters)--it is a dramatic validation of my own independently-derived-from-novel-texts claim that this issue was of
paramount importance in understanding several of her novels, but most of all Mrs. Tilney in Northanger Abbey that I then connected that large dot to the well established antipathy that JA frequently expressed on this very issue in decades of letters. Many heads were nodding during my presentation at the JASNA AGM when I described the real life Mrs. Tilneys whom JA knew and wrote about in her letters!

I am especially sensitive to the need for both intra- and -extra-textual arguments, because my theories regarding her shadow stories are based on circumstantial inferences from the texts of her novels. So it is crucial to my making convincing arguments that I muster whatever support I find from outside the novels that supports my theories, and this issue of serial pregnancy and death in childbirth is Exhibit A---there is method in my (apparent) madness! ;)

So I am not saying that one _must_ look at JA's life and letters in order to understand her novels, but I am saying that I understand her novels _better_, in the ways that matter to me, and I believe to many other Janeites I have been in contact with over the past 10 years.

Cheers, ARNIE

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