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Showing posts with label English literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English literature. Show all posts

Friday, 15 January 2021

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.

John Locke

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.

Afterword

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.


Friday, 13 November 2020

What is Comparative Literature?

From English to comparative literature

Equipped with a collection of degrees in English language and literature, for two decades, I taught, researched and published in a field called "comparative literature."  As near as I can judge, the discipline got its English name in the early 20th century from a faulty translation of the French expression "littérature comparée."  The literature which comparativists study isn't comparative in any meaningful sense.   It would make some sense to call the subject "compared literatures" (a literal translation of "littératures comparées") or, even more obviously and aptly, "comparative studies of literature." However, we specialists learned to succumb and accept the terminology that got us tenure without a whimper until some first-year undergraduate asked us "what exactly does 'comparative literature' mean?" Then we mumbled and grumbled about students who hadn't done enough reading.

Comparative literature = literary theory

It might be a stretch to describe comparative literature as influential, but whatever fashionable nonsense we didn't originate we were quick to support and promulgate. Over the postmodern period, comparative literature became code for literary theory, and comparative literature never met a theory it didn't like enough to adopt. Whatever nascent passion a student might bring to the study of literature, you can be sure literary theory was ready to quell it.


 Identity crises


Comparative literature has been suffering from an identity crisis for about as long as it has existed  (see Gayatri Spivak's Death of a Discipline), as has the discipline of English literature (see Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature). I have come to accept George Steiner's definition from his lecture/essay "What Is Comparative Literature?": "[...] comparative literature is an art of understanding centered in the eventuality and defeats of translation" (10).  There has been a turf war (more of a squabble really) between comparative literature and translation studies in recent decades.  Having done some translation work and research in translation studies, I came to the conclusion that Steiner got it right: comparative literature fills in the gaps in translation and tells us about what any translation is forced to leave out or leave behind.  We need a comparativist to tell us why a joke is funny in one language but not in another.

Comparative = 2 or more?

I think the expression "comparative study" means something because it suggests that the study is marked by "a consideration of at least two things."  I actually proposed this starting point at a meeting of comparativists once and was roundly told that my definition was "too narrow."  An additional irony (paradox? absurdity?):  for as long as I was active in the field there was a strident movement against explicit comparisons in the field of comparative literature on the grounds that such comparisons were out of date and smacked of "binary thinking."  (See Binary Thinking Versus the other Kind.)

Binary = bad!

In Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction, Susan Bassnett traces the notion that “comparative literature should involve the study of two elements (études binaires)” (27) to Paul Van Tieghen’s La Littérature comparée (1931) and argues that “[i]t is possible to see almost all French comparative literature from the 1930s onward as coloured by the études binaires principle” (28).  Bassnett describes a binary approach as having served comparative literature “so ill for so long” (24) and cites the “narrowness of the binary distinction” as the first of a number of reasons that “[t]oday, comparative literature in one sense is dead” (47).  

 

         

Studies of Canadian literatures in two languages = binary = bad!

In his introduction to Textual Studies in Canada 5: The Aux Canadas Issue, Robert K. Martin argues that the “binary model is no longer acceptable to many Canadians” (3). Claiming that “the paradigm of two founding nations leaves little place for the native peoples of Canada” (3), and he invokes the need for Canada “to go beyond duality” (3) in order to remain open to other voices.  Insisting that it is not enough to “simply add a soupçon of otherness to an otherwise unchanged recipe” (3), Martin points out that “[t]he comparatist enterprise has too long sought to produce a paradigm with variations, without adequately recognizing how much the apparently descriptive paradigm becomes prescriptive.  If major Canadian works are like this, then one that is like that can’t possibly be major, or even Canadian” (4).

Major Canadian works of literature?

The problem with the counterfactual problem that Martin imagines is that the average Canadian scholar of literary studies would be hard-pressed to name a "major" Canadian work of literature and reluctant to even describe a literary work as Canadian.  The postmodern scholar would dismiss the concept of "major" or a canon of major literary works, and equally dismiss the notion of a national literature.  The postmodern project was the stalwart investigation of the eccentric and the minor in opposition to a major or mainstream national literature.  What Martin and Bassnett fail to acknowledge, which anyone who has ever touched the keyboard of a computer knows, is the incredible possibilities for refinement, subtlety, inclusion and advancement that a binary approach can offer.


Everything old is new again!

Ultimately, literary studies, both English and comparative, was born out of an attempt to escape philology.  No doubt, historically speaking, philology has a lot of tedium and absurdity to answer for.  My career was spent studying the intersections of language(s), literature(s), culture(s) and disciplines which, everywhere I look, is a basic definition of philology.  In fact, Spivak's new comparative literature sounds a lot like philology to me.  As Sheldon Pollock points out in World Philology:  "The lowest common denominator of philology is [. . .] how to make sense of texts."  Turf wars aside, making sense of texts--which today means making sense of intertexts--has always been the lowest common denominator of literary studies, comparative studies, translation studies, and a host of other disciplines both new and old.


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