Last week went by too quickly for comment, apparently. The usual term-time feeling of things hurtling by is exacerbated by my Brit Lit survey course: Monday was Tennyson, Wednesday was Browning, Friday was Arnold. Forget the Romantics–they’re so, like, the week before last! But I also tripped into my own small version of the perpetual ‘crisis of the humanities,’ and there went all my blogging time.
So, this week.
In Mystery and Detective Fiction it’s Sherlock Holmes week. In previous incarnations of this course I have given short shrift to the greatest detective of all, or so at least my evaluations have routinely pointed out. So this year we’re doing not just a short story (“Silver Blaze,” the one with the dog that does nothing in the night time) but also The Hound of the Baskervilles, which we start tomorrow. I find Holmes’s displays of superhuman brilliance and pseudo-scientific deduction fairly tedious, actually, and I don’t find there’s much to say about them once you’ve run through the basic “Holmes represents the comforting promise that science and reason can control the world’s complex uncertainties” theory, to but Hound has a rich mix of gothic, mythic, historical, and symbolic elements, so I hope it will prove more interesting to work through.
In the Brit Lit survey, we’re rushing onward through Victorian poetry. We read the Norton’s excerpts from Aurora Leigh for Monday. I enjoyed working them up: Aurora Leigh is one of those texts I get quite excited about, mostly because of its enormous exuberance, but also because it has such brilliant unity of form and content. As I tried to explain to the class, it’s a poem that overcomes all kinds of conventional oppositions, not just poetry / prose (it’s a ‘novel-poem,’ after all) but also epic / lyric, art / life, fallen / pure, spiritual / material, social / personal… Take Aurora’s defiant words to her practical cousin (and would-be lover), Romney:
I hold you will not compass your poor ends
Of barley-feeding and material ease,
Without a poet’s individualism
To work your universal. It takes a soul
To move a body: it takes a high-sould man,
To move the masses, even to a cleaner stye:
It takes the ideal, to blow a hair’s-breadth off
The dust of the actual.
Then there’s her radical poetics, as announced in this passage as remarkable for its imagery as for its self-assertion:
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava of a song
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
‘Behold,–behold the paps we all have sucked!
This bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating: this is living art,
Which thus presents and thus records true life.’
I find the Norton’s choice of excerpts somewhat tendentious, selecting out those that illustrate, not so much Aurora’s development as a poet or the crucial reconciliation between her artistic ideals and Romney’s commitment to social reform, or Marian’s radical revision of the ‘fallen woman’ narrative, but the condition of women, particularly through her chafing against her limited education and then against Romney’s belittling suggestions that she abandon her art to become his “helpmate.” These choices make Aurora Leigh seem more comfortably feminist than I think it actually is, and the complications that arise (but are not excerpted) make it a less doctrinaire and more interesting work than it seems from these pieces. What about Aurora’s declaration, for instance, that “art is much, but love is more,” or that “the end of life is not a book”? It’s tempting to make her an iconic figure for the woman artist’s struggle for autonomy, but it matters, I think, that for her there really is a struggle between love and independence. Arguably, this opposition is also resolved in the poem’s jubilantly erotic conclusion, also not excerpted, which is a shame. Here’s a bit of it:
But oh, the night! oh, bitter-sweet! oh, sweet!
O dark, O moon and stars, O ecstasy
Of darkness! O great mystery of love,–
In which absorbed, loss, anguish, treason’s self
Enlarges rapture,–as a pebble dropt
In some full wine-cup, over-brims the wine!
While we two sate together, leaned that night
So close, my very garments crept and thrilled
With strange electric life; and both my cheeks
Grew red, then pale, with touches from my hair
In which his breath was…
And in my George Eliot graduate seminar, we’ve moved on to The Mill on the Floss. Much as I like Adam Bede, this novel feels like a substantial leap forward in artistry and intellectual reach–though, as I’m sure we’ll discuss next week, there is (arguably) an imbalance in its structure, as George Eliot herself felt (she confessed to having lingered too long on the childhood scenes for sheer delight in them, only to find herself running out of room for her conclusion). Though if anything the narrative commentary is more pervasive here than in Adam Bede, the voice seems surer and better integrated. It’s also darned funny. Here’s just a tiny sample:
But,’ continued Mr Tulliver after a pause, ‘what I’m a bit afraid on is, as Tom hasn’t got the right sort o’ brains for a smart fellow. I doubt he’s a bit slowish. He takes after your family, Bessy.’
‘Yes, that he does,’ said Mrs Tulliver, accepting the last proposition entirely on its own merits, ‘he’s wonderful for liking a deal o’ salt in his broth. That was my brother’s way and my father’s before him.’
At the same time, Mill has some of Eliot’s most poignantly evocative passages, particularly when she treats the relationship between landscape and memory:
There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality: we accepted and loved it as we accepted our own sense of existence and our own limbs. Very commonplace, even ugly, that furniture of our early home might look if it were put up to auction: an improved taste in upholstery scorns it; and is not the striving after something better and better in our surroundings, the grand characteristic that distinguishes man from the brute – or, to satisfy a scrupulous accuracy of definition, that distinguishes the British man from the foreign brute? But heaven knows where that striving might lead us, if our affections had not a trick of twining round those old inferior things, if the loves and sanctities of our life had no deep immovable roots in memory. One’s delight in an elderberry bush overhanging the confused leafage of a hedgerow bank as a more gladdening sight than the finest cistus or fuchsia spreading itself on the softest undulating turf, is an entirely unjustifiable preference to a landscape gardener, or to any of those severely regulated minds who are free from the weakness of any attachment that does not rest on a demonstrable superiority of qualities. And there is no better reason for preferring this elderberry bush than that it stirs an early memory – that it is no novelty in my life speaking to me merely through my present sensibilities to form and colour, but the long companion of my existence that wove itself into my joys when joys were vivid.
The novel (and, indeed, all of her fiction) can be read as an extended meditation on “the labor of choice”; sadly, those “deep immovable roots” may entangle as much as enable us, which is probably why these passages feel elegaic and yet mournful. The importance of memory to morality in the novel has always seemed to me to justify the imbalance of its parts: if we hadn’t spent so much (and such closely scrutinized) time with Maggie and Tom in their childhood, it would be impossible for us to understand the intensity of Maggie’s dilemma later on.