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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Ben Affleck, in a tight place, deserves both our praise and our censure

Everyone paying any attention of late to the news cycle knows about the recent Wikileaks revelation that Ben Affleck took an embarrassing and surprising wrong turn, when he convinced Henry Louis Gates to omit mention of Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor in an interview on Gates’s “Finding Your Roots” PBS series. In particular, Affleck’s omission took on the darker shade of hypocrisy, when viewed through the lens of his unconcealed pride (vividly expressed onscreen) in his Revolutionary War patriot ancestry.  

So I, like most of Affleck’s many fans, was very glad, but not at all surprised (because it really was his only good option), to see Good Will Hunting’s best buddy step up quickly and do the right thing, and  fess up to his all-too-human proneness to moral equivocation.

The reason for my post, however, is not to sit in judgment on Ben Affleck, but to point out something Affleck wrote in his apology, below, that should catch the eye of every true Janeite, especially in this context of the embarrassing exposure of hypocrisy. See if you spot it in the following paragraph (with the help of the big hint in my Subject Line):

[Affleck] “I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.”

Breathes there a Janeite with memory so impaired that (s)he fails to hear the unmistakable echo of the following memorable exchange in the Netherfield salon?:

"Miss Eliza Bennet," said Miss Bingley, "despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else."
"I deserve neither such praise nor such censure," cried Elizabeth; "I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things."

Off the bat, I’d have put my money on Ben Affleck being familiar enough with the above passage from Pride & Prejudice to have had it consciously in mind, and to have sought the comfort of Austenesque epigrammatism, when he composed the climactic paragraph of his delicate mea culpa. But it took me all of 15 minutes of online searching to confirm that there are not one but three important women in his life who would each seem to have played a pivotal role in leading him to lean on Jane Austen, because (as Kipling so deftly put it) “there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place.”

First, it was only last year that his co-star in the acclaimed film Gone Girl was Rosamund Pike, who, as  all Janeites also of course know, played Jane Bennet in the 2005 Joe Wright P&P.

Second, I quickly also learned from IMDB (since I have not yet seen Gone Girl) that the film contains a scene in which their two lead characters Nick and Amy have sex in a bookstore, sex kindled by a literary scavenger hunt that Amy leads Nick on, which leads to…Pride & Prejudice! Here’s the scene:

Nick is wearing a backpack, holding an Amy-blue CLUE as he makes his way; Amy follows, all grins.
AMY (voiceover) And compromise.. .and more work. Abandon all hope, ye who enter.
Nick is going past Z, past T, past O, past H.
AMY (voiceover): Well it’s not true. Not for me and Nick. With us, two years—it’s just good.
NICK I’m not crazy: “When young Amy’s hope did wane, she wandered here in search of Jane.”
Austen right?
They arrive at the A’s.
NICK: “You were an alienated teen. . . and only Elizabeth Bennet understood you.”
He pulls out Pride and Prejudice. A BLUE ENVELOPE inside. She kisses him. He reads the next
NICK: You naughty minx.
She kisses him again, deeply. Looks around. Stacks are empty.
AMY: Technically we’re supposed to fuck at the next stop.   
NICK: In keeping with tradition.
She’s already undoing his belt. Hand inside his jeans.
AMY: We’ve never fucked in a bookstore.
NICK: God bless Jane Austen.

Now, that would be enough, I think, to establish Ben Affleck’s (whom we  already knew to be a very smart and well-read fellow) likely having read Pride & Prejudice, and therefore to have had Elizabeth Bennet’s famous bon mot about praise and censure in mind when he composed his version of same.

But that’s only the beginning. Later in the film, wer read the following in the so-called “Cool Girl” monologue for Amy that the author Gillian Flynn included both in her novel and (in shortened form) in her own screenplay for same as well:

AMY: “I waited patiently - years - for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, learn how to knit, pretend to love cosmos, organize scrapbook parties, and make out with each other while we leer. And then we'd say, Yeah, he's a Cool Guy.”

But that’s still not all. In the final paragraph of Nick’s first person narration in the novel, we read these edgy ruminations:

“It had to be me who put her there [in prison]. It was my responsibility. Just as Amy took the credit for making me my best self, I had to take the blame for bringing the madness to bloom in Amy. “

Wow! And now for the icing on the Gillian Flynn cake. Last year, she gave the following answer to the question “Who’s your favorite author?” in an interview:

“I could never name a single author, but whenever I want to be inspired (and perhaps a bit daunted), I read Joyce Carol Oates, Dennis Lehane, Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, Martin Amis, and of course Jane Austen.”

Of course Jane Austen indeed!

But here’s another flavor of icing on the cake. I wondered whether Jennifer Garner might have been yet another female Austenesque voice whispering in husband Ben’s ear, leading him to savor the pleasure of the best sort of book. And would you believe that the following was the lead paragraph in a 2009 article about her?:

“Jennifer Garner's three-year-old daughter reads Jane Austen novels.
The 'Invention of Lying' actress is keen for her children - Violet and eight-month-old Seraphina, her kids with husband Ben Affleck - to have a broad range of interests, and is already encouraging Violet to read classic literature. Lynda Obst, who produced new movie 'The Invention of Lying', revealed: "Most of the time that I did spend with her when it was off-set, Violet was cooking with her, or reading Jane Austen, or doing one of these remarkable things that Violet tends to do.”

So, I think it very safe to say that while Ben Affleck still deserves our censure for his genealogical faux pas, he certainly deserves our praise both for excellent damage control, and also particularly good taste in the choice of an author to lean on in a tight place!

And....this post would not be complete without one serendipitous coincidence, so I invite you to consider the irony of Ben Affleck's attempt to conceal his slave-owner ancestor, in light of my recent posts about the slavery subtext of Pride & Prejudice!: Topsy-Turvy Elizabeth Bennet as the Bewitching Slave Girl of Pride & Prejudice

 Uncle Tom’s Cabin & Darcy’s Wet Blouse: From Stowe-mania to Austenmania, the whitewash repeats itself

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