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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Jane Austen Wayyyyyyy Ahead of Her Time

In the Janeites yahoogroup during the past  two days, I’ve been engaged in a thread with Christy Somer and Nancy Mayer, which arose out of our discussing  the behavior of Mr. Bennet in the beginning of Pride & Prejudice, when he tricks  his wife and daughters  into believing he has not gone to greet the new eligible   bachelor  in the neighborhood, Mr. Bennet, only to suddenly reveal that he did it a while ago.

Christy raised the question about the validity of describing Mr. Bennet as “passive-aggressive”, suggesting  that perhaps we might be guilty of anachronism, imposing a modern interpretation on a 200 year old novel. I responded as follows:

Christy, I may be misreading you, but you seem to be making a leap from the clear modernity of the _term passive-aggressive to a shaky suggestion of modernity of the idea and/or depiction of passive aggression. JA obviously never used the term “passive-aggressive” in her writing  (although she used the word “passive” 3 times and “aggression”  once), but  I think there is a very powerful argument that she deliberately and memorably depicted what we today call “passive –aggression”  in not just P&P but in several of her novels.

Not merely Mr. Bennet, with his constant veiled jibes  at his wife, and  at three of his daughters, as well as other characters in the novel, but also the mistress of bloodless but very painful passive aggression, Lucy Steele, who wounds Elinor  at least a  dozen times during S&S.  And don’t forget  the dyspepsia  of John Knightley and Mr. Palmer, who are sometimes directly rude, but also sometimes indirectly, to those whom they resent. And I bet I have not covered the whole list of passive aggressive Austen characters.

And I am sure examples of this behavior can readily be plucked from most of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as the fictions of other writers from before the Freudian Age was ushered in a century ago. So, does it matter what term is used to describe this behavior, as long  as we are talking about the same behavior? Of course not!

Christy then replied: "Even though `human nature' may be historically recognizable at its core; and some of these fictional presentations may seemingly lend themselves to modern analysis and diagnosis; today, our modern 'sense of self', and the flexible relationship `rules' we live and play by, imo, do not ever truly `harmonize' with the social and religious world of Jane Austen 2+ centuries ago."

And I in  turn replied to her as follows:

I believe we shall never agree, Christy, we are light-years apart on this crucial point. Without having to address the mindset of the average English person living in JA's era, and whether their way of living, thinking, feeling, etc. would match closely with the average Western person in 2013, I focus on the mindset and insights of the greatest premodern literary geniuses like Shakespeare and JA (and Chaucer and a few others), and there I find no real difference between them and us today, because they truly were centuries ahead of their time (for Shakespeare, 4, for JA, 2) in terms of their insight into human nature.

Put  another way---we are reading novels written not by some abstract entity, "the social and religious world of JA 2+ centuries ago", but by a single person, a great author, one mind, Jane Austen herself, a genius who stood utterly apart (actually above) the rest of her contemporaries, and whose fiction ought not be straitjacketed within the societal norms of her era. She was a freak of nature, the worldclass once in a century sort of genius. And most relevant, someone who made her own idiosyncratic moral judgments on good and evil in her society, having freed herself from the convention, cant, hypocrisy, and doubletalk that prevailed in her world.

That is precisely why the most intelligent and literate of modern day people can read his plays and her novels, and recognize our own modern lives everywhere in them. The greatest geniuses are truly timeless, and their wisdom will speak to readers in the 25th century just as eloquently as they do to us  Harold Bloom was right about one thing--Shakespeare in many senses did invent the modern--and we might say that Jane Austen reinvented it two centuries later. And they both are immortal because of it.

I suggest to you that I work from the fair implications of the words they actually wrote, while you seem to start from an a priori assumption that what is implied on the page simply cannot be.

Then Nancy Mayer  chimed in on Christie’s side of the debate:

Nancy: "Now, while I agree that the two were geniuses, I believe they were geniuses within their own time period and that neither was a seer or a prophet."

I do believe they each were, by the fair non-religious meaning of the word, "prophets", ...and not minor prophets either. They were world-altering prophets, both of them. That's why the two of them sit at the apex of world literature today, around the world.

 Nancy: "They both knew human nature well but both were influenced by the mores and beliefs of their world."

I think they were both intellectual rebels of the best kind, their rebellion was against the bad things in the world.

And one other key point---a physicist, chemist, or biologist from JA's era would be at a severe disadvantage in comparison to their modern counterparts, because of huge paradigm-shifting progress in those sciences during the past 2 centuries. Whereas, in the field, say, of music and the fine arts, it's entirely different. One could plausibly argue that the summit of achievement in those fields occurred centuries ago. I say that in the fields of psychology and moral philosophy, we are much more in realms  like music  and art, than we are in hard sciences. There's nothing that I attribute to Jane Austen or Shakespeare, in terms of knowledge of human nature, that was not available to them simply by observing their fellow human beings, and themselves, with their eyes and ears.

If this  were not so, why exactly do people read the Bible, the Koran, the Hindu and Buddhist holy texts?  Does anyone suggest that there has been some startling improvement on the wisdom of the authors of these ancient texts that can be found in the modern world?

These same skills were available centuries  ago, to those geniuses who could truly think for themselves.

 Nancy: "I doubt Jane Austen would appreciate being described as a secular humanist, for instance."

Well, I actually think she was a radical Christian, who followed (and extended) the precepts of Jefferson's Jesus, the one who hated injustice, and cared deeply for the lowest and the last. I.e., the precise opposite of the hypocritical Anglican Church of JA's era. And history documents that other such radical Christians spoke out in her world---she was one of them, but her speaking out was covert, and I do not judge her for that, she just did not have a martyr complex.

I think she wanted to extend Christian doctrine to embrace women as full equal partners in society, and she wanted to warn women against the perils they faced which the Anglican church was not about to warn them against.

That's my Jane Austen, a woman of her time, and also a genius wayyyyyyyyy ahead of her time.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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