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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mr. Fitzhugh, Corinna & St. Swithin: Stone Deafness in its many forms

I've also been engaged in an ongoing dialogue with Christy Somer in Janeites and Austen L, about my three posts earlier this week about Jane Austen's cryptic allusion in Letter 63 to Germaine de Stael's novel Corinna and its symbolic cannon blasts:

Christy picked up on my stating the following.....

"if Mr. Fitzhugh could not hear a cannon in the real world, at least he would be able to "hear" a cannon blast described in a novel!"

...and Christy then replied:

"To clarify, I interpret this 'Corinna' interchange with Mr. Fitzhugh as _only_ being an 'absurdist burlesque' -when she relays the moment to Cassandra. I do not sense that JA is secretly jesting to his deafness and letting him discover it later. That would imply more intimacy than existed between them. And certainly would be considered vulgar and inappropriate to use a disability for the seat of an inside joke."

I just responded thusly:

You're preaching to the choir, Christy! Of course I was _not_ saying that JA was mocking Mr. Fitzhugh's disability! Read back to my earlier posts about JA's satirical reference to Corinna for further verification in that regard. Not in a million years would JA do such a thing, nor would I suggest it.

In addition to the sheer, self-justifying, self-contained pleasure of an absurdist joke, there _is_ a definite satire of deafness here by JA, but it has _nothing_ to do with the physical deafness of poor old Mr. Fitzhugh--no, as I will now briefly explain, Mr. Fitzhugh's deafness is only significant as a symbol---the biting satire is of De Stael's writing style, and the way certain readers read JA and read De Stael as if they were in the same writing universe, when actually, they were the furthest thing from it!

What Jane Austen was mocking was the overblown symbolism of Corinna--while Jane Austen, like Corinna, did yearn for artistic immortality, the contrast between the endless, bloated sausage of ultra-pathos in Corinna's dying poem, on the one hand, and Jane Austen's nimble, absurdist, enigmatic, and disturbing mini-fable of a vengeant St. Swithin, all beneath a seemingly innocent surface, on the other, could not be greater.

What Jane Austen is saying, in so many words, is that De Stael's writing style was like the cannon blasts De Stael includes in her novel--blasts which unwitttingly reveal De Stael's own self indulgent, crudely obvious uber-Romantic excess. Whereas JA's preferred mode of expression was diametrically opposite---the wink, the whisper, the almost subliminal tickling of the reader's imagination.

And it is in carrying that metaphor to its logical conclusion that the deafness comes in---Mr. Fitzhugh stands in as a symbol of all those who read JA as if they were reading De Stael, expecting that what is on the surface is meant to be taken at face value. All that such readers will ever "hear" are the blasts that JA uses to conceal the whispers in her writing. So in that sense, readers who don't understand this core principle of JA's writing are as stone deaf to what JA is really saying as Mr. Fitzhugh was to words (and cannons) sounded in his presence.

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