Saturday, April 10, 2010

pressing details of actual experience

As a coda to my last two posts, here's a quote from Felix Holt, the Radical.

He had had to do many things in law and in daily life which, in the abstract, he would have condemned; and indeed he had never been tempted by them in the abstract. Here, in fact, was the inconvenience; he had sinned for the sake of particular concrete things, and particular concrete consequences were likely to follow.

George Eliot, like Helen Garner, reminds the reader of the difference between ideas as they are conceived in the head and ideas as they are carried out in the world. If the people behind Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton, and the scripwriter Linda Woolverton, saw the way I wrote about them in the last post, they could use Eliot's quote as an argument in their favour. "Your accusation of cowardice is an abstract judgement," they might say. "Do you really think we sat around saying, "We're afraid of the audience, let's make this film as stupid as possible"? Do you think we said, "Well, we could act like hypocrites or not-hypocrites, let's pick hypocrites"? It's not that simple. Read the interviews! Don't you see we wanted to make a coming of age story? Didn't you see the interview on the Disney website? Here," says my imaginary Tim Burton, "read me here --

What I liked about this take on the story is Alice is at an age where you're between a kid and an adult, when you're crossing over as a person. A lot of young people with old souls aren't so popular in their own culture and their own time. Alice is somebody who doesn't quite fit into that Victorian structure and society. She's more internal.

See? So this teenage Alice has to go to Wonderland and fight a dragon to develop some adult self-confidence. What's cowardly or hypocritical about that? If only you'd been there, you'd know that we thought about it very carefully."

And this is how Felix Holt measures both of us:

But these things [ie, cowardice, dishonourable behaviour] which are easy to discern when they are painted for us on the large canvass of poetic story [or, I'd add, in a newspaper report, or any outside analysis], become confused and obscure even for well-read gentlemen when their affection for themselves is alarmed by pressing details of actual experience. If their comparison of instances is active at such times, it is chiefly in showing them that their own case has subtle distinction from all other cases, which should free them from unmitigated condemnation.

The idea that "things, which are easy to discern when they are painted for us on the large canvass of poetic story, become confused and obscure … by pressing details of actual experience" is present in Garner as well. What does it mean to judge? What assumptions do we make when we judge? How do we see ourselves in relation to the judged person?


  1. Good questions DKS ... and I think I shall just leave them at that.

  2. Ha: I didn't mean that to sound quite so directly questioning. I'm at the end of Mill on the Floss right now, and Eliot is on the subject of judgment again:

    "And the man of maxims is the popular representative of the minds that are guided in their moral judgment solely by general rules, thinking that these will lead them to justice by a ready-made patent method, without the trouble of exerting patience, discrimination, impartiality,--without any care to assure themselves whether they have the insight that comes from a hardly earned estimate of temptation, or from a life vivid and intense enough to have created a wide fellow-feeling with all that is human."