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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.

1 comment:

Rousi said...

A week ago I finished Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and it hit me that maybe Jane Austen was aware of the Buddhist philosophy and the concept of knowing yourself once you understand your surroundings/people who surround you.
In chapter 36 Elizabeth Bennet receives a letter written by Darcy explaining his reasons to separate Bingley and Jane and the reasons for his grudge with Wickham. After she reads the letter she says:
“How despicably have I acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable distrust. How humiliating is this discovery! yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”
The last sentence, she has put aside her ego and has empathised with Darcy's problems. She can begin to understand herself because she understands the other.
We don't know for sure if she read any Buddhist text, but it looks like she did. If not, she was in possession of an outstanding emotional intelligence, which, as you have mentioned in your post, could be seen in more than one novel. She was generous even with those characters who were not ready to grow emotionally.