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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, January 18, 2016

Austen’s anamorphic novels are “reverse Miracle Fruits”!

 In Janeites and Austen L, I just wrote the following rebuttal to Ellen Moody’s response to my post about Knightley as the ghostwriter of both Mr. Martin’s and Frank Churchill’s letters:

Ellen: "I refer others to Eco's essay in Six Walks in the Woods where he demonstrates (argues) that why we are not reading the novel in front of us if our conclusions are based on the belief that characters go off and do things never registered in the novel."

My following analysis will show you that there is no "one size fits all" literary critical standard for determining whether it is plausible, looking at a given novel, to infer offstage behavior and/or hidden motivations of characters, which is not overtly described by narration.

To take one extreme: think of an author using an unironic, clearly omniscient narrator to tell a story, where there is no consistent focalization of point of view in one character, and where there are no
teasing intrusive narrative hints that there is more going on offstage. I believe these constitute the overwhelming majority of novels ever written. That is NOT a story where I’d spend a lot of time looking to infer offstage character action, unless there was some other strong reason to do so.

But that example is the diametric opposite of all six of Jane Austen's novels, where (using mostly Emma but also P&P as examples, below) I can give you many good reasons to look for offstage actions and behavior of characters:

ONE: There is 99+% focalization of point of view in the heroine, who is in all cases but one a very young woman (5 of the 6 heroines are 21 years old or younger), i.e., not likely to be accurate studiers of the character of either themselves or of other people.
TWO: The narration ranges across a wide spectrum of often ambiguous intermingling of the heroine's thoughts and perceptions with objective comments about what "really" happens, so it is often impossible to be certain that what has been described is "real";

I believe that only a small minority of novels fit both of the above criteria, but all of Jane Austen's novels do. And when you take ONE and TWO together, you realize that this is the perfect structure to encourage a reader to look for offstage action and/or motivation. Why? Because we're seeing the action almost always from the point of view of an immature even naive observer--think about your own understanding of what happened in your life when you were 18, 21, or even as "old" as 27--assuming many reading this point are a good deal older than that, don't you understand people and yourself a good deal better than you
did when you were a young adult?

But that's not all....Jane Austen adds at least three other aspects to all six of her novels, which increase the plausibility of looking for offstage action and/or behavior:

THREE: The narrator winks at behind the scenes, offstage action with intrusive comments like:
"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material."
And even in narration that is part of the blending of author and heroine that I described in TWO, above, there is subtler irony everywhere – that is the source both of great delight to us as readers, but also is a
pervasive background noise that subtly undermines the certainty of....everything in the novel!' AND
FOUR: There are major unexplained coincidences (the quadruple coincidence in P&P that brings all those connected suitors to Elizabeth's door in Meryton is the most spectacular example, but subtler ones are everywhere in JA's novels); AND
FIVE: Important family background info is given about some major characters (like Emma), but none is give about others (like the Knightley brothers).

So, based on those five major reasons, and some other lesser ones, I think it's very sensible to put aside the pattern that prevails with most other novelists, and to see Jane Austen as a quintessential example of that rare author who begs to be read for offstage and undisclosed actions and motivations of characters, and she was also one who had the genius to pull off such a difficult authorial achievement.

Ellen also wrote: "Wendy Moffat writes an essay on Austen's Emma about a dual perspective in the novel which includes Mr Knightley and remains true to the text…this one is from College English, is not too long (but filled with real detail and thorough thought), clear reading, and feminist."

Ellen, I think you have forgotten that I brought Moffat's article (which I agree is excellent) to these groups in May 2010, and then you, Diane, Linda Ribas and others discussed it with me!  These posts can be found in the Janeites archive beginning at my Post # 38572 dated May 4, 2010. Moffat's essential point (which I have cited in every one of my Emma presentations to JASNA chapters in NYC and elsewhere) is that the conventional interpretation of Emma's marriage to Knightley as one that Jane Austen wished all her readers to be overjoyed about is not valid, because Knightley is not the totally honest, very wise, and totally benevolent man that Emma believes him to be. And that fits with my most recent post in which I claim not only that Knightley was the ghostwriter of Robert Martin's letter to Harriet, but also of the latter half of Frank Churchill's Chapter 50 letter to Mrs. Weston.

Finally, in addition to the above, crossing my above post in Janeites and Austen L, Diane Reynolds wrote the following additional response to Ellen, in which Diane discussed what is or is not “really” there in Jane Austen’s novels:

“ ‘Really there’ of course means different things to different people. We're all strung like lights along a spectrum. Ellen rejects the idea of Mr. Knightley writing Mr. Martin's letter; others for, in their minds, equally strong reasons of it not being "in" the text, vehemently reject, eg, the idea of slavery subtext in MP. Are they wrong? I find a slavery subtext, but I agree that you have to assemble it from fragments: Austen never once has a character say "I think slavery is horrible and should be abolished." Mr. Bertram doesn't come back and clutch his head and say, "ohmeohmy, I wish I could afford to free those slaves." So the people who say that we're reading this into the text aren't wrong. Their reading hermeneutic simply isn't mine. Do I stand by mine because it has been legitimized by a certain (now large) segment of the academy or because after multiple readings I believe it to be true? I pick the latter. Other people do the same on the other side of the spectrum. By the same token, but again approaching what I think are overly sweet and cloying readings of dear Miss Austen, people absolutely say, well, here's the quote, what is wrong with you, how can you deny Austen said that?  It's right there in the text. I may (would) say they are completely missing context, the irony, characterization, etc (and this happens even with well respected critics: I sometimes wonder how they can possibly slice and dice the texts the way they do) but people can, I suppose, say the sweet words on the page and must be taken as sugar flavored rather than acidic. We must agree to disagree--and Austen is a genius at leaving us hanging." END DIANE QUOTE

All I can do to add to my earlier argument, and to Diane’s usual even-handed, jargon-free appeals to all of our better and wiser angels, is to pick up on, and extend, Diane’s final metaphor about whether Austen’s words are sweet or acidic.

What came to my mind immediately (and perhaps was in the back of Diane’s mind as well) was this:   Specifically, read this excerpt therefrom:
Synsepalum dulcificum [Miracle Fruit] is a plant known for its berry that, when eaten, causes sour foods (such as lemons and limes) subsequently consumed to taste sweet. This effect is due to miraculine…[and] lasts until the protein is washed away by saliva (up to about 30 minutes)”

I cannot think of a better metaphor for the relationship between the overt and shadow stories I see in each of JA’s six novels. I.e., the overt stories generally accepted by Janeites can fairly be characterized as “sweet”, at least in regard to their romantic endings, when boy marries girl, and they presumably live happily ever after.

But, I say that by reading against, instead of with, the grain of the narrative (that is the “miraculine” in the equation), a determined, patient, and ingenious reader can, over a period of time, gradually bring into full focus a radically alternative version of the story, in which the ending is not so romantic. I.e., sophisticated wish fulfillment fantasy is transformed into dark cautionary tale.

And now the metaphor of “reverse Miracle Fruit” is clear. Taking a bite of an actual miracle fruit temporarily rewires our taste buds to be able to experience sour as sweet. Analogously,  Jane Austen’s literary miracle fruit—her teasing appeal to our sharp-elf capacities---enables our minds to experience her novels as sour, not sweet—hence, taking an Edenic bite of the miracle fruit I’ve been peddling for over a decade has precisely the reverse effect as the real life Miracle Fruit!

Now, you reasonably may ask, why is that a good thing? Who wants to eat sour fruit? Because, I suggest, there are no adverse consequences if we eat some “sweet” lemons and limes once in a while—we won’t forget that limes and lemons are best consumed as flavorings, not straight up. But, seeing a “sweet” world all the time in real life can be dangerous. It’s wise to learn that the rhythm of sweet and sour in daily life is the destiny of all people, and so we should learn to be ready to take the next twist and turns in our lives as either sweet wish fulfillment or sour cautionary tale—and not leap at “first impressions”.

So, thanks to Diane, for alerting me to another aspect of the “miracle” that was Jane Austen!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter  

P.S.: 20 years ago, a friend with a Miracle Fruit tree in his backyard gave my wife and me the unforgettable treat of experiencing the transformation from sour to sweet!

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