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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A truth universally acknowledged....and a report universally contradicted!

An interesting exchange occurred in Janeites today.

First Deb Barnum responded to my earlier comments about the opening phrase of Pride and Prejudice as follows:

[Deb] "This has likely been addressed here before, but I have always thought that Austen found her "truth" words from Frances Burney [as she did a number of terms, certainly her "pride and prejudice"]... if you read Burney's "advertisement" that prefaces "Cecilia" you will find the
following: "the animation of success is too universally acknowledged, to make the writer of the following sheets dread much censure of temerity...etc, etc.." anyway, just a thought - I return now to my comfortable lurking state..."

I then responded:

Deb, of course you are correct that this was an intentional allusion by JA, how could it be otherwise, given JA's intimate knowledge of Burney's novels, and her life for that matter. in my response to Anielka re the title "Pride and Prejudice", I join with Pat Rogers in saying that this was one of many allusions embedded in that first sentence--JA was sending up all the cliches, mocking the notion of anything being a "truth universally acknowledged"--that would be the truth most likely to be false!

But then, Mark Zussman challenged some of my claims in my response to Deb, and I responded as shown below:

[Mark] "Arnie, ...this idea that Deb was "of course . . . correct that this [the truth universally acknowledged] was an intentional allusion by JA, how could it be otherwise, given JA's intimate knowledge of Burney's novels" just doesn`t make any sense."

Well, we disagree strongly, Mark. I think it's obvious, given what we know about JA's strong familiarity with everything to do with Fanny Burney, and in particular Burney's very famous novels, and also that it was such a commonly used catchphrase/cliche (which answers your later point as well).

[Mark] "My idea about Jane is that she had great antennae. I have no idea what she read, beyond the obvious of course, or to what purpose. But I believe that Jane`s antennae were such that she would have known about truths universally acknowledged even if she`d never read a word. The idea -- the formulation -- was in the air."

Well, I do have a number of ideas about what she read beyond the obvious...but _nothing_ I wrote states or implies that she _needed_ to read that phrase in order to think of phrases like it--her novels are filled with as many original memorable turns of phrase as they are also filled with the memorable turns of phrase invented by other writers. She was not lacking in the ability to make all of them up if she had wished to, but she realized that her veiled quotations could be used for a higher purpose, i.e., to allude to the themes of the texts she read them in.

[Mark] "You, Arnie, seem (correct me if I`m wrong) committed to the idea that she was a great scholar, that she had (your word, not mine) erudition -- so kind of like Goethe`s Faust she was up into the wee hours poring over tomes? If I am right about your position, Arnie, then you should be even more reluctant than I am to ascribe her embrace of the idea of a truth universally acknowledged to her reading of (and making notes on?) a -- forgive me again -- mere Fanny Burney."

No, again, you've got her dead wrong. She was an omnivore who read everything, high literature, popular novels, and a wide range of nonfiction, including periodicals. But again, JA's strong familiarity with Burney is not my idea, it is common knowledge in Austen scholarly realms.

[Mark] "Now who is this Pat Rogers who finds other allusions "embedded" in PP sentence one? Is this one of the great scholars? If so, she`s working too hard. She`s making PP sentence one into a palimpsest. And it`s not that. It`s something much lighter than that. People nowadays say things like "everybody agrees that. . . ." What`s that an allusion to? A "TUA" isn`t all that different."

Pat Rogers is a "he", and he is a well respected Austen scholar, but I quoted him only because he had already done a beautiful job of summarizing the very point I wished to make. You disagree with him and with me, so be it.

[Mark] " And it is also not true that JA was "mocking the notion of anything being a `truth universally acknowledged`--that would be the truth most likely to be false!" Too simplistic, notwithstanding the QED argument-ender exclamation point."

And I continue to claim that JA was most skeptical of conventional wisdom, and loved to deploy her irony on it at every possible occasion, to puncture certitudes that were not certain. So again you and I completely disagree.

And i finish by pointing to the playfulness of JA vis a vis this most famous of lines in her novels, which I only just realized as I was composing this response, to wit:

For every truth which is universally acknowledged, there must be, in the words of that eminent philosopher Lady Catherine de Bourgh--who if she had studied philosophy, would probably have written A Critique of Pure Reason:

"At once to insist upon having such a report UNIVERSALLY CONTRADICTED."


Cheers, ARNIE

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