Reading Around: Spinoza, Dickens, and … Ruxton?

Apparently Spinoza’s philosophical “stock” is rising:

Another scientist who was passionately Spinozist (going so far as to write him a gushing poem) was Albert Einstein. In Spinoza’s conception of nature, he recognised intuitions matching his own, concerning the elusive unified field theory. Einstein also relied on Spinoza to get him out of trouble when queried by a rabbi as to whether or not he believed in God, averring that he believed in “Spinoza’s God.”

This introduces yet another reason to consider shares in Spinoza: the heightened public interest in the raucous debates between science and religion. Spinoza’s identification of God with nature, though as subtle as that Lord whom Einstein once invoked, makes an invaluable contribution to this issue—precisely because it’s subtle. As does his attempt to establish morality on the purely secular grounds of the scientific study of human nature.

Any other tips? The rising value of Spinozas indicates that postmodernism, which plays fast and loose with rationality, might be heading for a bear market. I’d advise short-selling Heideggers.

This is good news for  my Ph.D. student writing on George Eliot and philosophy, who, on hearing the news, observed that she has been betting on Spinoza for years and is looking forward to the pay-off in the new “post-post-modern world.”

Colleen at Bookphilia has been reading and writing about Martin Chuzzlewit, one of the array of Dickens novels I have yet to read. In her final post she comes at the novel by way of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky

But, Dickens, what are you doing!? You set Tom up as the novel’s moral centre and align him as closely as possible with a literary mode of living and literary typology, but then destabilize such associations via Tom’s declaration that “There is a higher justice than poetical justice” (see previous post). But then, Chaz, you make the novel’s conclusion as literary and meta-literary as can be, not only by revealing old Martin to have been actively attempting to author the paths and outcomes of almost every other character’s actions, but also by making it very difficult for readers familiar with Measure for Measure to not make comparisons between the novel and the play. Given how frequently, in every novel of his I’ve read, Dickens references Shakespeare either directly or obliquely, I can’t believe that 1) Dickens didn’t know precisely what he was doing with Martin Chuzzlewit, and 2) that he trusted his contemporary audience to be as familiar with the Bard as he was. (I had considered offering to write a book on Shakespeare and Dickens but, alas, it’s already been done. Of course it has.) . . .

Martin Chuzzlewit seems to be a novel about the fiction we all indulge in about being able to completely control our own lives, as well as the lives of others when we see fit – when, in the long run, it’s in the hands of something higher that necessarily remains mysterious. That Dickens is careful not to spend much time implying that this higher thing is God (for godliness in his novels seems always to manifest only through one’s actions on earth, especially in The Old Curiosity Shop, but here as well) suggests to me a strangely quiet and gently resigned existential angst. Having read a number of Dickens novels in the past couple of years, and having noticed how much Shakespearean Comedy seems to influence him, I’m pleased to note that overall, even as he pays homage to the Bard, Dickens never completely succumbs to the very tidy conclusions the form allows. The discomfort Shakespeare reveals in the Duke’s surveillance and absolute control is redistributed into something more human and humane in Dickens – the discomfort that comes with acknowledging the essential incompleteness of all happy endings.

I am properly humbled: Colleen, you see, is ‘by training’ an Early Modernist, and here she’s not only reading more Victorian literature than I am (I haven’t read a 19th-century novel in nearly 6 months, unless you count La Vendee, which I am reluctant to) but rocking it completely. But I have begun Our Mutual Friend, so I may make up some ground eventually.

And speaking of 19th-century novels, Amateur Reader has a new favorite–well, as he qualifies himself, “a favorite in a quite narrow sense”:

Life in the Far West is a postmodern* Western first published as a serial in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1848.  The novel describes the life of an American fur trapper La Bonté, his partner Killbuck, and a number of other real and unreal mountain men and Western adventurers.  Ruxton, himself an English mountain man with literary pretensions, in a classic postmodern gesture declared that the book was “no fiction,” italics his, I guess, which is correct if I add one little amending phrase, “except for the parts that are fictional.” . . .

What is a current equivalent to Blackwood’s Magazine?  The New Yorker, perhaps.  I don’t want to say that everyone read Ruxton, but that would not be so far from the truth.  Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, and so on would all have at least looked at Ruxton’s pieces, and the subject matter is so exotic and interesting that I do not doubt many of these writers read some or all Ruxton.   I find this amusing.

You would!

4 thoughts on “Reading Around: Spinoza, Dickens, and … Ruxton?

  1. Colleen June 14, 2011 / 11:27 pm

    It’s funny that you mention Spinoza. Several months ago, I read a brief overview of the history of philosophy in graphic novel form (very accurate, according to the philosophy prof who recommended it to me), and decided I wanted to read Spinoza directly (and that I never wanted to read Kant). It took me months to go looking but I found something on Sunday, and the book-seller told me that a Spinoza Renaissance was currently in the making….I’d better read him soon, before I become hopelessly out of date (in this, as in everything else!).

    As for me and the Victorian Lit,,,I am engaged in a very exciting Vic Lit reading project, after all. The tally is up to 49 (of which I’ve read four) as I keep adding Trollope novels. Any thoughts on what I might add to make it an even 50? I finally begin reading Vanity Fair tomorrow!!

  2. Amateur Reader June 15, 2011 / 12:03 am

    That’s wonderful news about Spinoza! Good for him.

    Colleen, for #50, may I suggest Life in the Far West by George Frederick Ruxton? Or, maybe, Lewis Carroll (for #s 50 and 51)? Whichever.

    Rohan, I thought you would get a kick out of the Ruxton post – a sequel just made it onto the internet, finally – exactly because it is on a topic we both enjoy, the errors that come from over-generalizing about “the Victorian novel,” which is of course a Big Thing that encompasses all sorts of odd business that was supposedly “discovered” later or abandoned earlier. Some Victorian novels were didactic anti-Catholic screeds; at least one was a detailed and brutal account of the lives of American mountain men.

  3. Rohan Maitzen June 15, 2011 / 9:40 am

    Colleen, is Gissing’s The Odd Women on your list already? Or Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography–or Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte?

  4. Colleen June 15, 2011 / 1:50 pm

    Amateur Reader: I’ve read Carroll and not enjoyed him. I may consider Ruxton.

    Rohan: Yes, I’ve got The Odd Women already. I’ve read the Gaskell. I’ll keep an eye out for the Oliphant autobiography too.


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