Thursday, September 22, 2011

the fastidious blocked cleric

Ideas about trapping and being trapped were still in my head when I opened Kathryn Hughes' 1999 biography of George Eliot and saw from a sentence at the start of the Acknowledgments that she had been trapped too, in the book in fact, for, "Several times," she says, "during the writing of this book I feared that I had turned into Edward Casaubon, the fastidious blocked cleric from Middlemarch who has been working for far too long on the 'Key to all Mythologies.'"

Casaubon is the patron saint of all trapped writers, he huddles fussing over notes, he frets, he is stymied, he refuses help, he ruins his life, he dies before his work is finished, and even if it had been finished it would have been worthless. He married himself to his book, Hughes married herself to George Eliot, and the woman in Kate Jennings' book (the one I was reading in the last post) married a farmer, but after a while all of them realised that their decision was a confinement and they did not know when their confinement would end -- they were closed in, the job was endless, the marriage was going on and on, and why was this happening, bafflement, anguish: what's at the root of this suffering?

You are, says a voice (I am imagining this voice), and the sufferer responds -- Me? The voice reminds them that they entered the confinement freely, they walked in unrestrained, they said silently, "Yes," to the book or the marriage, and maybe they added out loud, "I know, I know, I understand that this is going to take some time out of my life, but I can handle it, I don't mind doing work, in fact I'm looking forward to the job," and the spirit of Writing or Marriage leapt through them, offering to drive them forward like a bullet, keen and concentrated, and they were beautifully glad, huge, and rapt, not thinking clearly, because the thousand impressions and memories that made up this impulse were flowing through them, as if the words Marriage or Book were a switch, and, click, they came on.

But somehow they've been deserted, the bullet has cracked, the clarity is gone, the world is a mist of fiddling details, and which detail needs your attention first, which one is the Key, not to all Mythologies, but to freedom and an answer? This isn't what I agreed to, says the sufferer, looking around. Oh, says the voice, it is. I said yes to a different set of circumstances. I was heading for work and purpose. Oh no no no, says the voice. Oh no. What made you think you knew how to get there? You'd never been to that point in the future before.

There is no prescience, there is no guarantee, and when they pictured themselves studying fruitfully -- and in that spirit said, "Yes, I want the job" -- they were not agreeing to future circumstances but to present delusions, which they didn't recognise at the time but now they do, now that it is too late, and oh, they say, I have learnt something, I suppose, I have learnt the route to the place where I am, and, looking back with their minds, they see the map lying crookedly behind them, a path passing through a hundred tiny decisions and circumstances until it runs to a temporary halt at the backs of their heels -- but it is moving again, and the next step has already been taken.

Forward, forward, says the world to the sufferer, persevere with the mist or else run away into a new mist, as Jennings' wife does, and Casaubon runs away too, accidentally, by dying on a bench under a tree, and his soul, once freed, begins to release his own wife, Dorothea, from her version of this trapping confinement, the marriage that she went into eagerly, gratefully, thinking that she would spend the rest of her life accepting wisdom from a wise and thoughtful man, "the fellowship in high knowledge which was to make life worthier," but she learns her most relevant lesson in less than a year, Dorothea, you are capable of mistaking a pedant for a sage.

"I do," she said at the altar, and not to this but yet to this. Her wise man does not exist, or maybe he does somewhere else but not in her husband, who houses a different spirit to the one she imagined -- a cold, extinguished spirit; and he houses it so fully that he becomes something very rare, a totemic figure, the name Casaubon representing a particular kind of failure, a writer's failure, the failure of misconceived grand projects,* especially of projects that want to be definitive -- but these are projects that need energy, and courage, and elderly Casaubon has no energy left, down, down he goes, he sees death ahead of him, and fearfully he grows even more stiff, hurt, and frozen, feeling challenged by his eager wife, who, he thinks, "sees vaguely a great many fine ends, and has not the least notion what it costs to reach them." He is angry. "For the first time since Dorothea had known him, Mr. Casaubon's face had a quick angry flush upon it." What has she done? She has asked him when he is going to finish his book.

"My love," he said, with irritation reined in by propriety, "you may rely upon me for knowing the times and the seasons, adapted to the different stages of a work which is not to be measured by the facile conjectures of ignorant onlookers."

He shows more passion when he's defending his failure than he does when he's writing the book. The prospect of living with a pedant has replaced the prospect of living with a wise man and Dorothea sees that she will live out this prospect now second by second until her married life ends.

Her predicament is like a punishment, but a punishment for what? What would convince the authorities to let her go? The problem would be solved if she could go back in time and choose again with a different and wiser understanding, -- "Now that I know, I won't marry him," she might say, standing there in the past with her head full of the future, which is now, for her, also the past, because she is remembering it -- she is recalling the horror of the marriage that she will never have.

Instead the author pushes her forward and makes her suffer in linear time like a living person, which feels inevitable but it isn't, not in a book. Eliot could demolish the marriage in a minute if it suited her. She could have planted the crucial piece of knowledge in Dorothea's head before the wedding, and killed the union before it began. She's the author, she can reach in and change anything she likes. She doesn't have to mimic realism. Dickens gave Oliver Twist perfect diction.

But there is a lesson in Middlemarch, and the substance of the lesson is not unique to Eliot: "Nothing ever becomes real till we have experienced it," Keats had written in a letter to a friend fifty years earlier. "Even a Proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it." Eliot wants her character to learn. Didn't the other characters warn her about Casaubon before she married him? They did, but Dorothea had to see for herself before she saw. Months had to pass before she learnt. By the time her husband asks her to swear that she will devote herself to his hopeless book she has achieved wariness, she restrains impetuosity, she sees another trap approaching, and she won't say yes or no: "I think it is not right," she answers, "to make a promise when I am ignorant what it will bind me to." ("Then," he might say, "you will never promise anything. We are all ignorant.")

Linear time is not only a convention of the novel here, it is a teaching tool in the book's interior world. Eliot makes the substance of Middlemarch into a demonstration of a principle, and, since the book is a thick thing that takes a while to read, Dorothea isn't the only one heading into a prolonged experience, we are too, and of course the experience was even more prolonged for the author, who may have been teaching herself as she wrote -- in fact it seems impossible not to imagine that she was, because where else does this drive of hers come from but discovery -- not from duty to the readers but from duty to herself, her own urges -- she creates time for Dorothea so that she can waste it for her own benefit -- (torture, stated Victor Hugo once, teaches us how to make our statues seem alive) -- and once that thought is established then the reading public starts to seem incidental to the whole project, which becomes the spectacle of Eliot presenting, to herself, an experience she'd never had -- unhappy marriage -- an unhappiness that she did not suffer with George Henry Lewes, a man, says Kathryn Hughes, who looked like an orangutan or a dog, but with whom the writer lived on "mutually sustaining" terms; he was an author himself, and one of his books was titled, The Principles of Success in Literature.

* Read the comments at the end of this post if you want to see his reputation in action. "I think dissertation-writing makes most people feel a bit Casaubon-y. Heaps of scattered notes and still more to read ..."

Hughes' biography is called George Eliot: the Last Victorian. A few days after I made this post she published an article about Bleak House in the Guardian. "I think it's Dickens's best book," she says. Victor Hugo mentions torture and statues in L'Homme qui rit, which is usually translated as The Man Who Laughs, but the version I found it in was called The Laughing Man.

They knew how to produce things in those days which are not produced now; they had talents which we lack, and it is not without reason that some good folk cry out that the decline has come. We no longer know how to sculpture living human flesh; this is consequent on the loss of the art of torture. Men were once virtuosi in that respect, but are so no longer; the art has become so simplified that it will soon disappear altogether. In cutting the limbs of living men, in opening their bellies and in dragging out their entrails, phenomena were grasped on the moment and discoveries made. We are obliged to renounce these experiments now, and are thus deprived of the progress which surgery made by aid of the executioner.


  1. Always uncertain about how to respond to your writing - aside from "More, please" - I sent this post out to my little Twitter world. "Look at this!" is what I said.

    The last month - although as I leaf through the posts, I had better say two months, or - no, I had better stop - have been a real pleasure to read and think about.

  2. Thank you very much (and if the last two months have been a pleasure then that's brilliant, because, after ages of flailing around, I've been wondering if I might have finally, maybe figured out what this blog might perhaps be, and if it seems to be working then that's terrific. It's morning here now, and last night the neighbours decided that the deep bedtime darkness would not be complete if they didn't play the same song on rotation for about two hours, so, after a bad and grouchy night, you've lifted my spirits.)

  3. Great post DKS ... love your further analysis of being trapped and what a wonderful example Dorothea is - so hopeful, so earnest, and so misguided. You ache for her. Anyhow, I like the way you talk about linear time here in fiction ... the way it makes us WALK with the character as he/she LEARNS. Reminds me of that old proverb about not criticising until you've walked a month in their moccasins. Nicely done.

    Oh, and on a different but related issue, I think the fact that the new Jane Eyre film strayed from linear time was a big reason it failed emotionally. It started with the emotional crisis and so we couldn't really then build up to it, could we.

  4. Would that be the fire? I haven't seen the film but I've heard Wasikowska's performance is good, which, seeing that she's Australian, makes me pretty pleased; sort of the same pleasure I had yesterday when, as a Victorian, I heard that this year's Grand Final is going to be Collingwood and Geelong and not the West Coast Eagles.

    The end of Dorothea's story is so ruthlessly realistic and nonromantic that I sit there admiring Eliot for having the guts to stick to it even while my insides are saying, "No, no, Dorothea! Don't be satisfied with that! Smash the state! Become the Prime Minister! Either will do!" But Eliot is right. She's given the story the ending it needed. On that "ache": I think one of the great things about Middlemarch is that the author asks you to ache for Casaubon too. He's been handed the role of a villain but he isn't a villain, and there he sits, cold lonely frustrated man, trying to cheat death and knowing that he can't. (And this is terrifying and memorable.)

  5. No, it's earlier when the wedding fails. The film starts with her fleeing the house. If you don't know the story you wouldn't know why she is fleeing, just that she's distressed. By the time you build back to it I think it has somehow lost its impact so you feel, even if you know the story, "Ah that's why she was upset" or "Oh, now we are back to the beginning of the film..." rather than the full complex shock and horror of the thing.) Some don't like Wasikowska's performance, I've heard, and I believe it's because of the lack of emotional connection but I really think that's due to the narrative structure than to her acting. I thought she did a good job.

    (BTW I'd get a hold of that patriotism if I were never know where it might end!)

    You are right about Casaubon. You want to hate him - and occasionally you do - but you really can't. He's a figure of pathos isn't he?

  6. I think I can work my patriotism down till it gets almost infinitely specific. For instance, I'm glad the Cats won because Geelong is over to the west of Melbourne, and I used to live in the western suburbs of Melbourne, whereas Collingwood is to the north, therefore ...

    He's absolutely a figure of pathos, and it's brilliant, the way she keeps him there, in that pathos-phase, and maintains him in his other role as well, the role of the life-draining vampire-husband, without ever losing him to either side. She could have softpedalled it, and made him change under the influence of his wife ("Dorothea, you angel, you've shown me where I've gone wrong, I'll reform at once" -- etc), or done some other soothing, flattering thing, but no, she doomed him and he stayed doomed.

    Re. the film: I wonder why they decided to start it there. Was it just, "We need a moment of high drama to get the audience in," or was it, "We think this is the most important turning point in the film, let's draw attention to it," or, "We can't start with her being locked away at her nasty aunt's house, they'll think she's Harry Potter," a combination, or something else?