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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, March 17, 2017

“And, by the bye, every body ought to have two pair of spectacles; they should indeed. Jane said so.”

 In belated response to my thread about Anne Elliot’s vision impairment in Persuasion, Victoria Lansburgh, an old friendly intellectual adversary in the Janeites group, wrote: 
“…I find very curious Arnie’s idea that the book is filled with clues pointing to Anne’s profound visual impairment, as I remembered from prior readings, and it struck me again this time, how many times Anne looks, watches, sees. [Victoria then gives several textual examples and interprets them]….There is more; a lot more; but including all of it would make this already long post way too long. The point is, it is all well and good to expound an unusual theory, but theories must arrive from the whole picture carefully taken note of, not merely from select pieces picked out here and there. And if I have picked out select pieces, it is not as proof of some unusual theory, but rather as the negation of one ;  The text clearly shows that Anne is not vision-impaired.”

First, welcome back, Victoria, it has been a very long while. I’m very glad you’ve returned and posted the above argument, in your usual well-organized, succinctly lawyerly way, because it gives me a chance to restate the deeper theoretical basis for my claims about Anne’s vision impairment, which I haven’t posted in a while. So here goes:

“My fundamental premise is that each Austen novel is told from (pretty much) the exclusive point of view of the heroine for a crucial reason--which is that, by means of her infinitely clever narrative technique, I have found that Jane Austen became increasingly expert in telling 2 completely different stories using the identical words for each--just like the proverbial figure ground image:    Is it two faces looking at each other, or a candle-stick holder? It’s both, depending on the observer’s point of view. Both are plausible, and therefore neither is exclusively correct. The image itself never alters, only our perception of it. And it’s still pretty mysterious how our brains can switch back and forth between the two images, both with and without our conscious control.

The same applies, I claim, with JA’s novels. On the one hand, if we read the narrative as mostly objective, and therefore both accurate and complete as presenting “all we need to know” in order to comprehend the story told, then we get the novels as they have been pretty universally read for 2 centuries—what I call the “overt stories”. And it is the understatement of the millennium to state that each of JA’s six completed overt stories are miraculous works of sublime genius. But… if we read the narrative as mostly subjective ( and therefore extremely incomplete in terms of presenting the story from the heroine’s often fallible point of view), then we get the novels as they have never been coherently read for 2 centuries prior to my discoveries of the past decade. Many other readers before me have seen pieces of the proverbial elephant in Austen’s novels, but I am the first to assert that each novel contains a second entire “elephant” we need to work very hard. over a long period of time, in order to glimpse it in its full splendor and glory—and you know I call that the “shadow story”.

And one last crucial aspect to this—reading JA’s narrative as fundamentally objective is the opposite of real-life experience of the real world, whereas the reading of her narrative as subjective is an exact replication of real life experience of the real world. I.e., in real life, none of us has an omniscient narrator perched on our shoulder reliably telling us what is “really” happening in our lives—we each must struggle to overcome our own often flawed individual judgments, to make the best sense we can of what happens, particularly in terms of understanding both our own personalities and actions, and also those of other people. Our real lives are a perpetual struggle to discern what is happening in the shadows around (and inside) us, and to not be prone to either faulty “first impressions” or to hard-wired prejudices.”

So, Victoria, I suggest to you, it is not just the imaginist Emma Woodhouse and the Gothic-obsessed Catherine Morland who project their imaginings onto the “real” world around them, it’s also the “sober” Elinor, the “studier of character” Elizabeth, the “rational” Fanny, and the “realistic” Anne, too. Jane Austen’s novels are, more than anything else, enactments of the most fundamental aspect of being human all too human – the eternal struggle (first articulated by the Buddha, I believe, but echoing down the millennia in the words of many of history’s greatest minds) to experience the world “as it is”, not as we wish, fear or otherwise imagine it to be.

As I’ve also not noted in quite a while, there is a strand of scholarly criticism of Austen’s novels dating back several decades, which do not go as far as my above-stated double-view, but which coincide with it in important ways. This includes Hennedy’s article about Persuasion, Blackwell’s article about S&S, and also in particular Adena Rosmarin’s 1986 masterpiece of scholarship, “Misreading Emma”. Rosmarin beautifully explained how Austen deliberately turned all her readers into Emmas, but also, in good faith, kept hinting to us to alert us what she was up to, because her purpose was didactic, to make us better “readers” not only of literature, but of the stories of our own lives.

So, with that background, I could present you with a few hundred passages scattered through all of JA’s novels, which each partake of that figure/ground ambiguity I outlined, above ---including all the examples you presented. It’s not that I consider your interpretations to be wrong, but that they constitute only the “two faces” figure of Austen’s fiction, whereas mine represent the “candlestick holder” ground.

In short, then, I suggest that because you believe it to be settled fact that Emma and Catherine are essentially different in their way of perceiving the world than the other 4 heroines, you cannot “see” an Anne Elliot who could be Emma-esquely self-deluding in her interpretations of the visual evidence absorbed by her (I claim, impaired) eyes.

I will conclude by giving you not one but two examples from real life (my own) which only occurred to me this morning, and which I believe are particularly apt in illustrating my claim about Anne’s vision impairment. I’ve been myopic all my life, and have worn corrective lenses since I was in the second grade. The precipitating event, in 1959, to my first beginning to wear glasses, was when I came home one day from school and complained to my mother that the teacher was scribbling on the blackboard, and so I could not read what she was writing. That was long before the realization that all young children should have their senses checked for impairment, and so I was lucky that I complained, because the teacher coincidentally immediately stopped scribbling right after I began wearing glasses!

The serious point in this true story is that in my 7-year mind, I blithely assumed that if I could not read what the teacher was writing, it must be her handwriting which was at fault, not my eyes-i.e., my erroneous “first impressions” of the words on the blackboard resulted from my own faulty, childish epistemology.

Now, skip ahead to my adult years --- for a period of a couple of years after we got married, my wife and I would now and then squabble over whether our house had gotten dirty enough to warrant having it cleaned – and I’d say to her it’s not that dirty, when she’d say it’s very dirty. Our squabbles came to an end the day I was coming out of the shower and she said it was time for the cleaner, because the shower in particular was dirty. I felt very justified in disagreeing at first, because as I looked around me in the shower, it seemed perfectly clean to me. But then I realized my epistemological error --- pretty much the only time I took off my glasses while I was awake in the house was when I took a shower, and so, in that specific context, because of my own (temporarily uncorrected) vision impairment, the shower stall did indeed appear completely clean. It was only when I realized the flawed subjectivity of my perceptions, that I put on my glasses, both physically and metaphorically, and was instantly able to reinterpret and acknowledge that I had been blind on both the visual and the epistemological level.

Eyeglasses can correct the former impairment, but only awareness of one’s own human subjectivity can correct the latter; and that, I claim, was Jane Austen’s most fundamental goal as an author – to teach readers by first prompting errors of interpretation, and then giving us the tools to reread and reconsider, and to develop the flexibility to see more than one plausible interpretation of what at first seems to be only one way.

So, that’s the vision-impaired Anne Elliot I’ve written about. And I now invite you, Victoria, to go back to those same passages you quoted to me. Ask yourself whether they could also plausibly be interpreted as Anne’s unjustified conviction that she was accurately perceiving the facial expressions and other visual evidence from the world around her. Assume, hypothetically, that Anne is a much less obvious version of Emma, and perhaps that new set of “spectacles” will surprise you with what you see. As Miss Bates says,

“And, by the bye, every body ought to have two pair of spectacles; they should indeed. Jane said so.” 

Now is that Jane Fairfax who said that to Miss Bates, or Jane Austen who is saying that to the reader?

Of course, my answer is “Both!”

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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