The Power of Insignificance
[ . . . ] the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.George Eliot, Middlemarch
The Greatest English novel of all time
Does anybody read George Eliot anymore? I have come to believe that Middlemarch is the greatest novel ever written in the English language. For sometime I was convinced that the accolade had to go to one of Thomas Hardy's many novels. Hugh Hood, novelist and my professor of the 19th-century novel, assured our graduate seminar that the title of greatest and most influential novelist belonged to Charles Dickens. The officious, online award of number one is invariably given to James Joyce's Ulysses--that novel that everyone knows about but almost no-one has read.
Literature is "an arrangement of words"
Literature, it is commonly claimed, is "an arrangement of words." This may not sound like much, but stop to consider: arrange a bunch of atoms one way and you get a slug, arrange them another way and you get Claudia Schiffer, another and you get Elon Musk. (You can insert your own examples.) In writing, the range of possibilities is from an inarticulate twitter tweet to Eliot's Middlemarch. Having been through the novel a couple of times now, I know that I can drop my index finger on any one of its 880 pages and I will discover a sentence that impresses me in its construction, its euphony, its rhythm, its humour or irony or pathos, but mostly I will find myself saying "ahah, yes that's exactly right and the right way to say it," or I find myself full of new questions, wonder and insights.
Durrell's Alexandria Quartet
When I was an undergraduate in the 70s, a local newspaper asked some of my professors to provide a list of their top ten great novels. A number of them listed Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. I had to wait for retirement to find time to read its 896 pages (884 in some versions). I understood immediately why it would be the choice of English professors. For one thing, in my list of newly learned words (yes, I keep such a list), the Durrell novel accounts for about 80% of the entries. Durrell's luxurious descriptions of scenes and scenery are comparable to the landscape paintings of the Dutch masters. There is a texture, refinement and sensuality in his prose that is breathtaking. At the same time, getting to the end of the story is torture. "Please, dear god, not another layered description of a tortured artist and heavy breathing against a purple horizon, without any clue about what is really going on!" For reasons that escape me, we must read to around page 800 before Durrell reveals the plot which has governed the action of the novel from the beginning. Prior to this point, we have been reading a philosophical prose poem.
The Age of pornography
We live in the age of pornography. In this era, it is difficult to grasp the argument that Durrell was denied the Nobel in Literature because there was too much sex in his novels. We might struggle to appreciate Eliot's subtle allusions and characters so trapped in decorum, propriety and protocol, that a hint of scandal would destroy a reputation and, consequently, a life, and a gesture or gestalt might alter a character's destiny. Contemporary readers of Middlemarch will be tested because the first kiss of the young lovers whose fate ties the story together does not occur until chapter 83 of the novel's 93 chapters. I wonder if the kind of readership that such literary works require isn't on the verge of extinction.
If you were young, beautiful and independently wealthy, would you marry this man?
The patriarchy might well dismiss Middlemarch as a "women's" novel. It was, after all, written by a woman, largely about women (in particular, the heroine, Dorothea Brooke), and is addressed, arguably, to a female readership. Mary Anne Evans was, doubtlessly, very aware of this likelihood when she chose to write under the pseudonym George Eliot.
Much of the mystery, intrigue and suspense of the novel is generated by the young, beautiful and independently wealthy Dorothea Brooke's decision to marry an elderly, sallow pedagogue, the Reverend Edward Causaubon. The theme and plot of the novel might be disparagingly reduced to the search for a mate or, more precisely, finding the right husband (which invariably involves finding the wrong husband first), but the majority of classic English novels could be similarly reduced.
The portrait above is not of Reverend Casaubon but of John Locke, the English philosopher, academic, political theorist and medical researcher. It is via this portrait that we are told, in a dialogue between Dorothea and her sister, Celia, what Mr. Casaubon looked like:
"How very ugly Mr. Casaubon is!"
"Celia! He is one of the most distinguished-looking men I ever saw. He is remarkably like the portrait of Locke. He has the same deep eye-sockets."
"Had Locke those two white moles with hairs on them?"
Dorothea's imagining that Casaubon approximates John Locke goes a long way in explaining her attraction to him. In fact, the heroic male figures in the novel, both objects of Dorothea's admiration, Dr. Lydgate and Will Ladislaw, show clear intimations Locke.
The Power of Insignificance
Nothing that I have written so far in this post is what I originally intended to say. My intention was to write on a theme that I had mentioned tangentially in previous posts: the advantages of insignificance. I have felt at ease expressing my opinions because, ultimately, they were not significant enough, not widely read enough, to cause a backlash. As a relatively unknown, retired academic, I have the privilege of saying what I think without much risk. I have even considered that I have the additional benefit of operating autonomously and independently within the "degrees of freedom" described by Daniel Dennett which I referred to in The Mystery of the Off Switch. However, the morning after I published "The Mystery of the Off Switch" post, in which I said some unflattering, in fact, pretty damning things about big technology companies, I was suddenly and absolutely cut off from the internet.
On Being Rich, Famous and Powerful
This is probably the best example of "sour grapes" that I have ever written on this blog, but I have often felt that I was not as envious of men with wealth and fame and position as I should be. No doubt, if I was offered any one of these possibilities, I would accept it, but mostly out of curiosity rather than a burning desire. Even when I consider wealthy, famous, powerful men whom I admire, I find little evidence that they are/were happier than I have been over most of my life. When I consider, in particular, the freedom which they have enjoyed--or not--I find myself concluding that important is the opposite of free.
How did I end up writing about Middlemarch?
As I was musing on "insignificance," I rediscovered the penultimate paragraphs of Middlemarch. [Spoiler alert: If you are planning to read the novel for the first time, you might want to skip these quoted paragraphs.]
Sir James never ceased to regard Dorothea's second marriage as a mistake; and indeed this remained the tradition concerning it in Middlemarch, where she was spoken of to a younger generation as a fine girl who married a sickly clergyman, old enough to be her father, and in little more than a year after his death gave up her estate to marry his cousin — young enough to have been his son, with no property, and not well-born. Those who had not seen anything of Dorothea usually observed that she could not have been "a nice woman," else she would not have married either the one or the other.
Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother's burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.
"We insignificant people" have the power to make the lives of many Dorotheas great, by making them difficult, by forcing them to defy us (as was done with Saint Theresa and Antigone). We are the butterflies that cause distant hurricanes. "With our daily words and acts," we can also affect, for good or ill, the lives of those around us. Dorothea herself chose to be insignificant. Her strength and virtue showed in her decision to be insignificant; her strength and virtue showed more clearly in relief against the foil of insignificance, but ultimately, she showed that there is freedom, power and virtue in insignificance.
Today, I received an email "letter of apology" from my internet provider for the interruption caused to all of their subscribers which was beyond their control. I wondered, self-mockingly, if I should send the company my "letter of apology," explaining that everyone lost their web access because of nasty things I had written on my blog. No, I continue to believe in the power of my insignificance. Although, I must admit, there was a moment when the thought crossed my mind that I had lost the power of my insignificance. Thankfully, I am happy to report that I remain unworthy of anyone's surveillance but, at the same time, I am reminded that we must all work to protect the freedom of our un-surveilled insignificance.