Thursday, May 31, 2012
the indistinct and airy colours of fancy
So Ann Radcliffe believed that emotions could be understood, and then, a few years later, in one of his essays, not answering her but making an independent statement, William Hazlitt said that the feelings we don't understand are the ones we prefer. Baruch or Benedict de Spinoza in his Ethics (1677, posthumous, published by his friends) decided that anyone who thought God planned chains of events so that they would lead to an outcome addressed to human beings, was impious. These people, he said, chase every accident back toward its source until their imagination is exhausted and then they think they have found evidence of the divine. I suspected that Hazlitt had been reading Spinoza and became almost sure that I was right when I came across this sentence in his 1822 essay, On Going on a Journey: "We measure the universe by ourselves, and even comprehend the texture of our own being only piece-meal." Radcliffe, in her books, wrote a description of each character's emotion as it moved from cause to effect or vice versa, and doing this she imitated the manners that Spinoza described as impious, although there is no evidence as far as I can see that she was pursuing or proving the divine. What was she pursuing? Reason? She loves reason, as any reader can see for themselves. And the same reader, coming later to Hazlitt's essay, remembers that she loved reason and suspects therefore that it was far away from her; she did not possess it; it was distant -- reading thus -- "Distant objects please, because, in the first place, they imply an idea of space and magnitude, and because, not being obtruded too close upon the eye, we clothe them with the indistinct and airy colours of fancy." So says Hazlitt. Radcliffe was pleased by reason and her heroes and heroines were those characters who chose to view their situation through a reasonable frame of mind and not one of the other frames they might have chosen, for example, exasperation (which is one I select for myself very easily and normally and as proof I offer this vision of me standing in the bedroom yesterday exclaiming, "This is stupid, everything here is stupid," and otherwise denigrating the state of Nevada, which has done what exactly to deserve it I ask you, beyond being hot, this poor long state with the shape of a knife?). They do choose, it doesn't come naturally, they select it. The villains see that reason exists but decide to live unreasonably. Assume that each villain in Radcliffe is the same person, since they all reject reason, and you see she is testing (probably unconsciously) Boethius' suggestion that a bad person confronted by good people may on some occasions become good. The villainous Marquis in Romance of the Forest performs a good deed on his deathbed. Radcliffe, hopeful in her faith, has prepared for his change of heart, the story allows it to take place, and a balanced ending grows calmly from that root. The good characters not only succeed, their success is well-proportioned. Triumph is not excessive, which means that, according to the unstated calculations underneath her fiction, it is not villainous. No character can be good in Romance of the Forest unless they adhere to a set of nonextravagant proportions. A Radcliffe villain who managed to fit his wickedness into a set of reasonable proportions couldn't be a villain. He would have to be something not-quite.