This Week in My Classes (January 13, 2010): “Most of them seem to be twaddling stuff”

It’s always fun when there’s an unexpected synchronicity between two (or more) courses. Even the sheer coincidence of juxtapositions can be fruitful: I remember the thrill I felt as an undergraduate when I happened to be assigned the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality in my historiography seminar for the same week I was reading John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman for my English honours seminar. I still have the paper I wrote as a result, “Changing the Angle: A Re-Interpretation of Sex, Power, and Sexuality in The French Lieutenant’s Woman“–and oh my goodness, glancing through it, was my undergraduate writing self a painful blend of sincerity and sententiousness (plus ca change etc., I know).

Anyway, I had a modest version of that intertextual thrill this week rereading Adam Bede for my graduate seminar. In waltzes our “hero,” the dashing young squire Arthur Donnithorne, and almost the first thing out of his mouth is this pithy assessment of Lyrical Ballads, hot off the press when the novel is set:

“It’s a volume of poems . . . : most of them seem to be twaddling stuff; but the first is in a different style–‘The Ancient Mariner’ is the title. I can hardly make head or tail of it as a story, but it’s a strange, striking thing.”

As it happens, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was Monday’s reading for my Brit Lit survey class, and so I spent much of my weekend renewing my acquaintance with its “strange, striking” verse and browsing in the vast array of attempts to “make head or tail of it.” As I’m sure I would have known more definitely if I were a Romanticist, “Mariner” is one of those poems that have become as significant for their critical history as for themselves (if there’s a distinction, an issue which of course underlies many of the articles I was reviewing). Having introduced Romanticism last week with some Wordsworth, particularly “Tintern Abbey,” it is certainly vexing to turn to “Mariner” and see how it messes with one’s generalizations (the language of common men? I don’t think so!)–and yet that’s the point, or one of them, that there aren’t going to be any truly stable generalizations in our course even though we will need them to move forward, or to start from. And I’m in some sympathy with Arthur about Wordsworth’s contributions; as was remarked over at Wuthering Expectations some time ago, Wordsworth is probably “the most boring great poet in history.” Great, yes, but the risk of trying to write unpoetically is writing, well, unpoetically at times.

But I know I shouldn’t sympathize with Arthur’s reading taste too far, and in fact one of the interesting issues we discussed about Adam Bede in our seminar was characters’ reading (or not) and how it affects both their thinking about their own lives and our judgments of them. Hetty doesn’t read novels, we’re told, and so spins her fantasies about becoming a lady oblivious to the potential complications; Arthur should have finished Zeluco, which might have strengthened his moral resolve by emphasizing the consequences of seducing innocent young girls. A lot of our attention ended up being on our own reading of Hetty, and in particular on whether the narrator’s close attention to her interiority and the inadequacies of her self-perception and moral development in any way compensates for those defects, or whether that attention is (perhaps inevitably) condescending, or worse. We remarked that everyone around Hetty attributes qualities to her that she doesn’t really have, largely because of her deceptive beauty (leading Adam, for instance, to assume a tenderness of character equal to the softness of her arms and other curves). Dinah too mistakes Hetty for something more than she is, but Dinah’s case is particularly interesting because she gives Hetty credit for greater moral elevation, seeing in Hetty’s sobs, for instance, “the stirring of a divine impulse” when in fact Hetty is just moody, in an “excitable state of mind.” “[W]hile the lower nature can never understand the higher,” the narrator remarks,

the higher nature commands a complete view of the lower. But I think the higher nature has to learn this comprehension, as we learn the art of vision, by a good deal of hard experience.

The hierarchical language is potentially troubling here, especially in combination with the frequent associations of Hetty with animals and other “lower” creatures. Some judgment on Hetty for her vanity and selfishness (eventually destructive not just to herself, but, most painfully, to her child) is surely essential. But if she is of a “lower” kind, how far ought we to hold her responsible? It’s striking that the “hard experience” called for here is Dinah’s, or the “higher” nature’s: Dinah is capable of moral growth and the expansion of her sympathy even to Hetty as she really is, seems to be the message, but isn’t it Hetty’s “hard experience” to which much of the novel is primarily dedicated? But it’s Hetty who is not able to read her own experience and learn from it: that’s for Dinah, and us, to do.

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