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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

P&P, Ch 54 -Teaching What is not Worth Knowing: What is the Sound of One Story Teaching?

Yesterday, in one of my extended dialogues with Christy Somer in Austen L and Janietes, I wrote the following:

"So it would not surprise me at all to learn that she was aware of, and even perhaps familiar with, the basics of Eastern spiritual thought. In particular, as I have noted before, the following statement by Elizabeth Bennet is wonderfully Zen its rich sense of paradox: "We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing." The Buddha himself would have smiled at that one.

Christy replied to me as follows: ".....So I tend to interpret this `bon mot' of Lizzy's as nothing more than a clever play with words which basically espouse a well understood Christian tenet. "

And that led me to respond to her as follows:

So, who will call the newspapers, you or I? Because we disagree completely.... again! ;)

Christy: "Human nature often brings many to set themselves up as teachers of one thing or another -just like Mr. Bennet, Lizzy, Darcy, Wickham, Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins. Yet, very often, what they are actually teaching are their very worst habits and inclinations coming from pride, vanity, and prejudice."

Yes, that is very true, and those examples you gave are part of the evidence that Jane Austen was very much aware of those pitfalls. Indeed, that is precisely my point about Mr Bennet and Lizzy. He was a narcissist who got his naches (parental pride) from having his favorite daughter emulate him, which in his mind felt like a very positive reflection back on him. His love of her, in short, was 80% love of himself in disguise.

But, to get back to the Zen-like aphoristic paradox of Chapter 54, I claim (a) that Jane Austen, as an author and as a person, _did_ have her pride under good regulation, and (b) that JA was aware of the formidable difficulties that she faced, as a feminist novelist with didactic (as well as aesthetic) goals---she had read heavy handed moralizing tripe like Hannah More's _Coelebs_, and she understood perfectly that this sort of "veiled sermon" was not going to be helpful to the female audience she so desperately wished to inspire and awaken. Sermons rarely change attitudes and behavior.

So instead, she followed her own infallible dramatic and psychological instincts, and she devised a strategy to provide to her readers with a fictional simulation of real life--hence the intensely realistic feel of her novels, in which the characters really do feel like people we know intimately---in which her female readers would be presented with the same confusions and ambiguities that faced, and endangered, real women in real life in her world, and she would in this way _show_ (rather than _tell_) them how a woman can go wrong as a studier of character, especially when dealing with men. So, to take one example out of a hundred, when we first read Emma, she shows us how a narcissistic precocious young woman can misread romantic cues from men in a nearly infinite variety of ways. The didactic payoff comes when the first time reader, who has so identified with Emma that she has joined in all of Emma's expectations, experiences a deflation similar to Emma's and then reflects on this, perhaps, and realizes that this has happened to _her_ in real life sometime, and is not just part of a novel.

And since it was crucial to JA's didactic goals that her female readers should _reread_ JA's novels enough so as to eventually begin to register all the ambiguities, and to realize that there was more than one way to understand what they had read, she realized that she could kill many birds with one stone--by making her novels such satisfyingly intelligent, believable, _and_ romantic love stories, she would not only reap financial and prestige benefits, she would also assure that her readers would return to reread them again and again (take that out to 30 or 40 "agains" for many Janeites), and would also talk about them with their friends, and eventually some things _very_ worth knowing---about how to survive in a sexist world--would eventually dawn on many of those same female readers.

And the kind of learning that would occur by this indirect process would be a way of transcending the paradox of Lizzy's Zen-like paradox---you can teach....but only by not teaching! That is the sound of one story teaching (thank you Anthony Burgess!).

"And yes, there is some eastern thought existing within the pure essence of Christianity. Some theologians hypothesize that Christ spent some of his `missing' years in the east. And there are ancient teachings within Tibetan Buddhism and the Hindu religion where this idea seems to find a supportive place. "

And I had a feeling that would resonate with you, Christy, I really do believe that it was something Jane Austen herself became aware of, sometime during her all too short lifetime. It would only have deepened her personal form of Christianity, which, again, I understand to be one of dedication of one's self to providing comfort and guidance to those most in need of same.

And so I thank you, Christy, because it is by your probing and skeptical questioning of my claims that I am led to clarify my thoughts further and further, and I hope you derive some comparable value from our exchanges as well.

Cheers, ARNIE

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