(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Connected Zen Buddhist Aphorisms of Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde & HL Mencken

"WE ALL LOVE TO INSTRUCT, THOUGH WE CAN TEACH ONLY WHAT IS NOT WORTH KNOWING.” --- Eliza Bennet to sister Jane in Pride & Prejudice

"Oh! if that is all, I have a very poor opinion of young men who live in Derbyshire; and their intimate friends who live in Hertfordshire are not much better. I am sick of them all. Thank Heaven! I am going to-morrow where I shall find a man who has not one agreeable quality, who has neither manner nor sense to recommend him. STUPID MEN ARE THE ONLY ONES WORTH KNOWING, after all." – Eliza Bennet, earlier in Pride & Prejudice.

…she could NEVER LEARN OR UNDERSTAND ANYTHING BEFORE SHE WAS TAUGHT…” –narrator of Northanger Abbey, re heroine Catherine Morland

"You think me foolish to call instruction a torment, but if you had been as much used as myself to hear poor little children first learning their letters and then learning to spell, if you had ever seen how stupid they can be for a whole morning together, and how tired my poor mother is at the end of it, as I am in the habit of seeing almost every day of my life at home, you would allow that 'TO TORMENT' AND 'TO INSTRUCT' might sometimes be used as SYNONYMOUS WORDS." – Catherine Morland to Henry Tilney

“She is a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman. Hers is a line for seeing human nature; and she has a fund of good sense and observation, which, as a companion, make her infinitely superior to thousands of those who, having only received "the best education in the world," KNOW NOTHING WORTH ATTENDING TO. Call it gossip, if you will, but when Nurse Rooke has half an hour's leisure to bestow on me, she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable: something that makes one know one's species better. One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly. To me, who live so much alone, her conversation, I assure you, is a treat." – Anne Elliot, re Nurse Rooke in Persuasion

'Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught…The fact is, that the public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything except what is worth knowing….the man who is so occupied in trying to educate others, that he has never had any time to educate himself.” ---All three aphorisms by Oscar Wilde

H.L. Mencken: "Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.

I’ll bet many of you who love Jane Austen, and Pride & Prejudice in particular, were surprised to read the first of the above two quotations spoken by Eliza Bennet, and wondered what was the context Eliza speaks those particular words to her sister, as they seem to be a Zen Buddhist bolt from the blue. As far as I am aware, they’ve never found their way into any film adaptation of Pride & Prejudice.

The context is that Lizzy has been teasing and, if you will, “instructing” her sister Jane about Bingley’s return being evidence of Jane’s renewed love for him, but Lizzy quickly disarms Jane with self-deprecating humor, after Jane, feeling sensitive, gets prickly with her. But that alone does not account for Lizzy’s sudden aphoristic turn, especially when viewed in the context of her sour grapes aphorism to her aunt after getting jilted by Wickham, in the second quotation. They both strike me strongly as having been written by someone who was pretty familiar with the kind of startling paradox that is a key aspect of Zen Buddhism and similar East Asian spiritual/psychological practice and thought.

No one knows, or probably will ever know, for sure, whether Jane Austen ever read any Buddhist or Hindu texts or commentaries. The conventional view of Jane Austen is that these would have been the furthest thing from her mind while writing her novels and living he r(supposedly) pious and humble Anglican life. But I have long been convinced that the above quotations are strong evidence that Jane Austen, who my research has shown me a thousand times must have been one of intellectual history’s great autodidacts, did somehow come into contact with, and become seriously engaged with, such unsettlingly paradoxical thought.

In particular, Jane might have had a very informative source and guide into those ideas via her elder cousin/sister in law, the brilliant and formally educated Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen, who was the goddaughter (and, I believe, also the illegitimate biological daughter) of Warren Hastings, controversial Governor General of India whose impeachment trial dominated the headlines during Jane Austen’s teenage years. Hastings was, as it happens, also a lifelong scholar of, and advocate for greater Western awareness of, East Asian religions.

One way or another, once Jane Austen was exposed to it, I am certain she was irresistibly drawn to the subtle, paradoxical irony and psychology of Zen Buddhism. Above all, I see the influence of such ideas on her fiction, in her full embrace of the central Buddhism tenet that all human beings are in a real sense prisoners of our own fallible pride & prejudice, and our sense & sensibility, and all too prone to persuading ourselves that what we see is objectively true, when it is actually highly subjective. And I think the above quotations from three of her novels, all presenting radically subversive views regarding the nature of a real and meaningful education, and of what constitutes meaningful knowledge, are a reflection of her enduring interest in same.

Which brings us to the above quotations by Oscar Wilde and HL Mencken. I also believe, based on those quotations, and other textual evidence in the writings of Wilde and Mencken that I’ve found which are beyond the scope of this essay, that these two literary titans were both Janeites who took serious note of those quotations from JA’s fiction, and the spirit and insight they reveal in their author, and therefore paid homage to JA’s parallel interest in East Asian philosophy.

We also have hard evidence that Oscar Wilde was steeped in Zen  Buddhism. In Jerusha McCormack’s ."From Chinese wisdom to Irish wit: Zhuangzi and Oscar Wilde." Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies 37.2 (2007): 302+, we read the following:  “….…In the broadest terms, both Zhuangzi and Wilde are what we might call 'contrarians'. This is a useful term for describing those who think against prevailing conventions in a way that appears to be systematically perverse, hence 'contrary' to the dominant discourse. Thus Wilde is often accused of merely inverting common epigrams in his own philosophical sayings, such as: 'Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught' ('The Critic as Artist: Part I', p.1114)--a sentiment derived directly from the teachings of Zhuangzi, who tells the story of the wheelwright who, after many years as master of his craft, still could not transmit his skills to his son (Chuang Tsu, Chapter 13).”
However, McCormack apparently was unaware that Wilde also likely took the latter part of that aphorism, “nothing that is worth knowing can be taught”, from Eliza Bennet’s strikingly similar corollary:  “"We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.”

And finally, HL Mencken, who, as I said, was a Janeite, and surely also knew Wilde’s writings as well, seems to me, by his witty aphorism about theology, to very likely have written it in direct and loving emulation of and homage to those two earlier masters of irony. And, last but not least, if you don’t believe a word of what I’ve written above, then it only goes to prove that Elizabeth Bennet was right!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S. added 12/20/15:
Perhaps another source that Austen, Wilde, and/Mencken had in the back of the mind:

Proverbs 12:1  Whoso loveth instruction loveth knowledge: but he that hateth reproof is brutish.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Announcing Charlotte Lucas of Pride & Prejudice as the (lesbian) model for Charlotte Blacklock in Christie’s A Murder is Announced

“Okay, I'm thinking of a famous novel, as to which ALL of the following statements are true. What is the title of the novel, and what is the name of its author?”

As my Subject Line reveals, there are two novels which fit all of my quiz clues, and they are Pride & Prejudice (P&P) by Jane Austen, and A Murder is Announced (AMIA) by Agatha Christie (and anyone who is concerned about SPOILERS as to who dun it in Christie’s novel should stop at this point!)

I will first quickly dispose of the three trick clues, which do not reveal any substantive connections between these two novels, but which I included, to bring home that this quiz is about female authors of the past who still matter to millions of readers, many of whom love both of them!

There are no female English authors more famous in 2015 than Jane Austen and Agatha Christie. Their respective novels are indeed all famous and are as popular today as they have ever been. And there were four film adaptations of P&P from 1940-2005, and three film adaptations of AMIA. Now for the substantive clues, which do reveal a great deal of heretofore unrecognized connections between these two novels:

“The entire arc of action in the novel is triggered by an announcement of something surprising and intriguing coming to the small country town where the main action takes place, an event that gets all the local gossips speculating about it.”

ANSWER:   In A Murder is Announced, the action-triggering event is a mysterious personal ad placed in the local Gazette, which reads as follows:          “A murder is announced … and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6:30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.”

In Pride & Prejudice, the action-triggering event is the arrival in Meryton of Mr. Bingley, his sisters (& brother in law), and of course Mr. Darcy.  Are the following two related parallels just a coincidence?:
Per the announcement in AMIA, the murder occurs on Friday October 29 at (what becomes) a large social gathering, whereas the Meryton assembly (where Darcy & Eliza first see each other) is a large social gathering which occurs on Friday, October 18; AND
Per the announcement, it is “the ONLY INTIMATION”, a very odd word for this context.  
In P&P, the (literally) only (usage of the word) “intimation” occurs in Chapter 43:
“Mrs. Reynolds respect for Elizabeth seemed to increase on this INTIMATION of her knowing her master [Darcy]”.

“It has a character named Charlotte, who turns out to be the mastermind who subtly manipulates many other characters into doing what she wants, without its being traced back to her, and who is believed to have schemed for an inheritance.”

ANSWER: In the shadow story of P&P, CHARLOTTE Lucas (as first brilliantly described by Kim Damstra, and later elaborated by myself) subtly manipulates many other characters (most notably by tricking her sycophantic husband, Mr. Collins, into passing the false rumor of Darcy and Elizabeth being engaged, on to his idol, Lady Catherine de Bourgh), all with the goal (I claim) of provoking Darcy & Eliza to actually marry, all for Charlotte’s deeper purpose---so that Charlotte will wind up living close by her true but secret love, Eliza!
In AMIA, the murderer’s name is CHARLOTTE Blacklock, who commits several murders, accomplished by cleverly manipulating several other characters, all in order to protect her disguise as her late sister Leticia, whom she murdered in order to impersonate her and thereby obtain a large inheritance.

“It has a character named Mrs. Lucas.”

ANSWER: In P&P, Mrs. Lucas is obviously Charlotte Lucas’s mother, mistress of the significant estate Lucas Lodge. In AMIA, Mrs. Lucas is the owner of a significant estate near that of Blacklock residence.

“It presents a member of the Lucas family as being involved with poultry in a home garden.”

ANSWER: In P&P, the following occurs at Hunsford while Eliza is visiting Charlotte:“[Lady Catherine] inquired into Charlotte's domestic concerns familiarly and minutely, gave her a great deal of advice as to the management of them all; told her how everything ought to be regulated in so small a family as hers, and instructed her as to the care of her cows and her poultry.”  And we repeatedly hear about Mr. Collins and his oft-tended-to garden.
In AMIA, we hear several times about the garden at Dayas Hall, the Lucas family estate, including its poultry.

“In a film made in the 21st century, one of the main characters from this novel is shown or stated to be lesbian, and that character is notably associated in the novel itself with pigs.”

ANSWER: In The Jane Austen Book Club, we read the following exchange:
[Allegra, who is a lesbian] “What I was thinking was that Charlotte Lucas might be gay. Remember when she says she’s not romantic like Lizzie? Maybe that’s what she means. Maybe that’s why there’s no point in holding out for a better offer.”
…”Are you saying Austen meant her to be gay?” Sylvia asked. “Or that she’s gay and Austen doesn’t know it?”
Sylvia preferred the latter. There was something appealing in thinking of a character with a secret life that her author knew nothing about….”
And I myself have repeatedly brought forward various textual evidence to support the depiction of Charlotte Lucas as a lesbian in love as Jane Austen  intentional authorial act.

In the 2005 Geraldine McEwan version of AMIA (and, for that matter, in the 1986 version of AMIA as well), the two women who live with each other, Misses Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd, are depicted as out lesbians, whereas in the novel, their relationship is never clearly stated to be gay or straight.

As for their respective textual associations with pigs:
In P&P, we hear about pigs in the Hunsford garden here:
"Oh, my dear Eliza! pray make haste and come into the dining-room, for there is such a sight to be seen! I will not tell you what it is. Make haste, and come down this moment."
Elizabeth asked questions in vain; Maria would tell her nothing more, and down they ran into the dining-room, which fronted the lane, in quest of this wonder; It was two ladies stopping in a low phaeton at the garden gate.
"And is this all?" cried Elizabeth. "I expected at least that the PIGS were got into the GARDEN, and here is nothing but Lady Catherine and her daughter."
In AMIA, there are, remarkably, nine disconnected references to pigs, which seem to be random, but mostly have to do with some sort of disruption or danger.

“There was widespread shock and dismay expressed by many of the numerous lovers of this author and her novels, when a film adaptation depicted a lesbian relationship.”

ANSWER: Indeed, many Janeites and Christie fans have fiercely resisted the idea that there could be intended lesbian characters in any of their novels. 
But in that regard, note what Mathew Prichard, Christie's grandson and the chairman of her estate, said about his grandmother’s sly subtextual richness:
"Sometimes you can't always stick rigidly to what she wrote. What she wanted to do was entertain and this is very entertaining…It's an enormous compliment to her that people still want to see these stories and different interpretations are like different interpretations of Shakespeare….If you think my grandmother was not aware of different sexual preferences, of course she was. If you read the books carefully, it's all there. This is just more overt."
To which I reply “Bravo!” and add that AMIA was first “outed” in print, as far as I can tell, by the fantasy writer Marion Zimmer Bradley way back in 1960 (only ten years after AMIA was published), as Bradley referred to Misses Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd as “problematical lesbians”.
And…it has also been pointed out in online discussions of this lesbian subtext of AMIA that the live-in relationship between Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd is not the only woman-woman cohabitation in AMIA — it is also the case with Charlotte (pretending to be Letitia) Blacklock and Dora “Bunny” Buner. And how striking, then, that it is Charlotte Blacklock who murders both Miss Murgatroyd and Bunny, thereby ending both of these de facto lesbian “marriages”.

Speaking of lesbian “marriages”, I believe Agatha Christie was hinting at this in the following comic exchange in Chapter One of AMIA, when we first read the announcement:

“Mrs. Swettenham was once more deep in the Personal Column.
“Second hand Motor Mower for sale. Now I wonder … Goodness, what a price!… More dachshunds … ‘Do write or communicate desperate Woggles.’ What silly nicknames people have … Cocker Spaniels … Do you remember darling Susie, Edmund? She really was human. Understood every word you said to her … Sheraton sideboard for sale. Genuine family antique. Mrs. Lucas, Dayas Hall … What a liar that woman is! Sheraton indeed …!”
Mrs. Swettenham sniffed and then continued her reading:
“All a mistake, darling. Undying love. Friday as usual.—J … I suppose they’ve had a lovers’ quarrel—or do you think it’s a code for burglars?… More dachshunds! Really, I do think people have gone a little crazy about breeding dachshunds. I mean, there are other dogs. Your Uncle Simon used to breed Manchester Terriers. Such graceful little things. I do like dogs with legs … Lady going abroad will sell her navy two piece suiting … no measurements or price given … A marriage is announced—no, a murder. What? Well, I never! Edmund, Edmund, listen to this….
A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6:30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.
 What an extraordinary thing! Edmund!”
“What’s that?” Edmund looked up from his newspaper.”

Notice that Mrs. Swettenham (who sounds like a latter-day Mrs. Bennet!) first misreads it as “A MARRIAGE is announced” and then realizes it says “murder” not “marriage”---I believe this is Christie’s game of misdirection, planting the seed in the reader’s mind that this novel is going to be a kind of announcement—in the form of a veiled intimation, if you will- of marriages of a different sort than Christie’s mostly heterosexual readers would expect to see in one of her novels. It’s what we would today call taking the forbidden topic of lesbianism out of the closet, and it’s remarkable for 1950.

So, does anyone reading the above believe this is all just coincidence and wild conjecture?

Before you double down in such a reaction, realize that I also wrote two consecutive posts last year about the allusion to Pride & Prejudice that I had sleuthed out in the first Miss Marple novel, Murder at the Vicarage:

It does not take a Miss Marple to ascertain from all of the above that I believe it’s no coincidence at all that I have now happened upon a second Miss Marple novel--written two decades after the first---which also has the word “Murder” in its title (no big shocker there, I agree) but which also has Pride & Prejudice up the wazoo in its subtext!

And what I love most, and find most interesting, about this is that Christie, when writing AMIA, at age 60 and at the peak of her writing skill and popularity, chose to use her bully pulpit for good, by focusing her veiled allusion to P&P in the mysterious, enigmatic character of Charlotte Lucas depicted as a lesbian. It means that Agatha Christie, in 1950, understood Jane Austen’s intent to create a complex lesbian character in Charlotte Lucas, and that ought to be big news, I think, in both Austen and Christie circles.

And finally, this is what unites many readers in a love of both Jane Austen and Agatha Christie. Miss Marple explains it best when she makes one of her famous faux-modest comments about her own homespun psychology in AMIA:

“I’m afraid you’ve been listening to Sir Henry. Sir Henry is always too kind. He thinks too much of any little observations I may have made in the past. Really, I have no gifts—no gifts at all—except perhaps a certain knowledge of human nature. People, I find, are apt to be far too trustful. I’m afraid that I have a tendency always to believe the worst. Not a nice trait. But so often justified by subsequent events.”

I think that Agatha Christie, behind the mask of being a “mere” writer of commercially successful whodunits, was actually also a subtle “studier of character” who emulated the two writers who taught her the most in this regard—Jane Austen and William Shakespeare, both of whom were supreme geniuses as to human nature. And speaking of Shakespeare, it is therefore no accident at all that we read the following passage in AMIA, about Phillipa Haymes, looking a lot like Eliza Bennet after her famous muddy walk to Netherfield, reminding Craddock of Rosalind, Shakespeare’s witty cross-dresser:

“And sure enough in the apple orchard Craddock found Phillipa Haymes. His first view was a pair of nice legs encased in breeches sliding easily down the trunk of a tree. Then Phillipa, her face flushed, her fair hair ruffled by the branches, stood looking at him in a startled fashion.
“Make a good Rosalind,” Craddock thought automatically, for Detective-Inspector Craddock was a Shakespeare enthusiast and had played the part of the melancholy Jaques with great success in a performance of As You Like It for the Police Orphanage.
A moment later he amended his views. Phillipa Haymes was too wooden for Rosalind, her fairness and her impassivity were intensely English, but English of the twentieth rather than of the sixteenth century. Well-bred, unemotional English, without a spark of mischief.”

I see many sparks of Christiean mischief flying out of that “well-bred, unemotional English” passage. I will leave it at that, for your consideration, with the promise to return with a followup after I receive (hopefully) some interesting responses.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Another little literary quiz

[Revised at 6:36 pm PST, to add a few more clues]

Okay, I'm thinking of a famous novel, as to which ALL of the following statements are true:

ONE: It was written by a very famous English female author quite a while ago.
TWO: Her novels are all famous and are as popular today as they have ever been.
THREE: The entire arc of action in the novel is triggered by an announcement of something surprising and intriguing coming to the small country town, that gets all the local gossips speculating about it.
FOUR: It has a character named Charlotte, who turns out to be the mastermind who subtly manipulates many other characters into doing what she wants, without its being traced back to her, and who is believed to have schemed for an inheritance.
FIVE: It has a character named Mrs. Lucas.
SIX: It shows a member of the Lucas family as repeatedly associated with poultry in a home garden.
SEVEN: It has been adapted into film several times between 1940 and 2005.
EIGHT: In a film made in the 21st century, one of the main characters from this novel is shown or stated to be lesbian, and that character is notably associated in the novel itself with pigs.
NINE: There was widespread shock and dismay expressed by many of the numerous lovers of this author and her novels, when a film adaptation depicted a lesbian relationship.

So, what is the title of the novel, and what is the name of its author?

HINT: Given my love of charades, riddles, and novels which have more than one "answer", you might want to think about whether there is more than one answer to this quiz....

Cheers, ARNIE