Wednesday, September 02, 2009

the dark image of respectability

LI, a scared pigeon when all is said and done, said yes yes yes to everything last month, fearful that he was otherwise going to swallow his last mouthful of food and shrivel up. It turns out that saying yes yes yes means much less time to direct the all powerful mental rays at the problem of respectability. Besides which, my original idea about respectability has been somewhat changed by reading Pride and Prejudice, in which Elizabeth Bennet becomes a larger and larger figure as respectability turns out not just to be a static regime of outward signs put in place in reaction to the old order (as I was thinking naively thinking of it), but as a much more interesting modality of passions - the inward signs of certain collective feelings, especially about shame. As I’ve often pointed out, the total social fact of happiness is opposed, dialectically, not to unhappiness, but to nemesis. It is, surprisingly, nemesis that one sees in operation in Pride and Prejudice.

I don’t have time for this thread. Instead, let me quote from Maria and Richard Edgeworth’s book on Practical Education, a bestseller in 1795. The Edgeworth’s created a sort of codebook of respectability, with much advise about running a household and raising a child. When it comes to cultivating the aesthetic sense, the Edgeworth’s lodge a caution:

“We have hitherto spoken of the taste for what is beautiful; a taste for the sublime we should be cautious in cultivating. Obscurity and terror are two of the grand sources of the sublime; analyze the feeling, examine accurately the object which creates the emotion, and you dissipate the illusion, you annihilate the pleasure.”

The Edgeworths quote a poem by Akenside about a village beldame who tells a ghost story to show two things: first, the sublime preys on the imagination of children, depriving them of sleep and debilitating them; second, the sublime comes into the household from that vector of superstition, the servants. At the same time the Grimm brothers were discovering or inventing the peasant world through the tales of servants, Edgeworth was warning against it:

“No prudent mother will ever imitate this eloquent village matron, nor will she permit any beldam in the nursery to conjure up these sublime shapes, and to quell the hearts of her children with these grateful terrors. We were once present when a group of speechless children sat listening to the story of Blue-beard, "breathing astonishment." A gentleman who saw the charm beginning to operate, resolved to counteract its dangerous influence. Just at the critical moment, when the fatal key drops from the trembling hands of the imprudent wife, the gentleman interrupted the awful pause of silence that ensued, and requested permission to relate the remainder of the story. Tragi-comedy does not offend the taste of young, so much as of old critics; the transition from grave to gay was happily managed. Blue-beard's wife afforded much diversion, and lost all sympathy the moment she was represented as a curious, tattling, timid, ridiculous woman. The terrors of Blue-beard himself subsided when he was properly introduced to the company; and the denouement of the piece was managed much to the entertainment of the audience; the catastrophe, instead of freezing their young blood, produced general laughter. Ludicrous images, thus presented to the mind which has been prepared for horror, have an instantaneous effect upon the risible muscles: it seems better to use these means of counteracting the terrors of the imagination, than to reason upon the subject whilst the fit is on; reason should be used between the fits.[66] Those who study the minds of children know the nice touches which affect their imagination, and they can, by a few words, change their feelings by the power of association. “

The intrusion of this gentleman, the turn of the conversation from death to laughter, the ridiculing of Bluebeard’s wife – in this complex of motives I see the dark image of respectability itself.

PS I'll add something to this tonight. Like a blind surgeon, I often feel in a text something under the skin that I cannot see, and knowing that it is there I make what cuts I can to get it out. Of course, I don't want to make messes of my texts, but words must follow the hand, here, instead of the eye. And so it is with this gentleman who interrupts the Bluebeard tale and a certain moment in Pride and Prejudice. It is when Lady Catherine begins to inquire about Elizabeth Bennet’s education. From the point of view of the novelist, there’s an interesting choice to be made here, a sort of dare. For, on the one hand, Elizabeth Bennet could, like many another heroine, discuss her education, her upbringing – what brought her, as the character she is, to this point – with a normal gesture towards a tutor, a governess, a school. But what happens, instead, is much more audacious – Austin opts for presenting Elizabeth as an ex nihilo creature, someone whose education comes, like Emile’s, from no set institution at all – springs from book, or a book, the one in which she is written, itself:

Why did not you all learn? You ought all to have learned. The Miss Webbs all play, and their father has not so good an income as yours. Do you draw?"
"No, not at all."
"What, none of you?"
"Not one."
"That is very strange. But I suppose you had no opportunity. Your mother should have taken you to town every spring for the benefit of masters."
"My mother would have had no objection, but my father hates London."
"Has your governess left you?"
"We never had any governess."
"No governess! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education."
Elizabeth could hardly help smiling as she assured her that had not been the case.
"Then, who taught you? who attended to you? Without a governess, you must have been neglected."
"Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might."
"Aye, no doubt; but that is what a governess will prevent, and if I had known your mother, I should have advised her most strenuously to engage one. I always say that nothing is to be done in education without steady and regular instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it. It is wonderful how many families I have been the means of supplying in that way. I am always glad to get a young person well placed out."

Here, of course, under cover of helping Elizabeth, Lady Catherine shows her claws. She is perhaps the most dangerous creature in Pride and Prejudice. Though she confines her tyranny to her little corner of England, she has money, connections, prejudice, and an invincible sense of right. This conversation, with its ripe hint of Elizabeth’s proper place in the hierarchy and the not-rightness – the lack of respectability – in her upbringing signals the great confrontation between these two near the end of the book.

So anyway, why, blind as I am and without one plea, do I feel some affinity under the surface between the Edgeworth story and this moment in which Lady Catherine tries to put Elizabeth in her place as a nobody? That moment in which Elizabeth wins every reader's heart by claiming nobody as her very place? Who is the gentleman who demystifies Bluebeard? – who knows how to separate the dead from the living, the human from nature, and the foolish wife from her neurotic fear – all the cards, all the old worn cards we play with century after century? And here’s a phase in the game between common sense and sublime in the English novel, which is all too ready to end in laughter at serious things put in the wrong place. In the culture of respectability, the true sight of the enemy is this disjunction and unholy alliance between archaic and the revolutionary, the old nurse and the young romantic - this skipping over present comforts and known incomes. There will be no rescue: Bluebeard is simply a retired businessman, and Mrs. Bluebeard an hysteric, fearing the cold, owning touch of Bluebeard’s fat fingers as he does the allowed business in the marriage bed.

Yet, of course, ex nihilo Elizabeth Bennet is not a condemner of respectability – rather, she is a figure of it, with a deeper sense of Bluebeard than one might think.

pps - on an entirely different topic, all people of goodwill should visit Rough Theory today for her post on the joy, the sheer joy, of incompetence


N Pepperell said...

Can I just say yes to this as well:

said yes yes yes to everything last month, fearful that he was otherwise going to swallow his last mouthful of food and shrivel up.

You keep writing things here that I want to link and discuss at roughtheory (your brilliant cellulite post from the other day was just calling out for a response :-) ), but overcommitments have given me just no time this year... Summer's meant to be lighter - but then, every season looks lighter until I get to it... ;-P

But wanted at least to say thanks for the link, and I'm glad you enjoyed McArthur Wheeler... :-)

roger said...

Enjoyed isn't quite the term, unless the bowling pin enjoys the ball that knocks it down. I was plumb astonished and amazed and in a flash understood my whole life in a new way!

Anonymous said...

LI, that is such an amazing articulation of Richard Edgeworth's bestselling 1795 book on Practical Education and Jane Austen's books. I didn't know of the Edgeworth book, and cannot help but think of the self-help books in vogue in our own enlightened times and how they deal with Bluebeard and how the cards are dealt.
Rereading Austen, I am struck more than before that she had a sense of how the century old cards are dealt and that Bluebeard and Lady Catherine don't just exist in books. And they will put you in your proper place alright, respectability my...

I love the passage you quote from Pride and Prejudice, in particular the line, "those who chose to be idle, certainly might".

I think it relates to the Mary Collier poem you quoted earlier of the washerwomen worked to the bone, a poem written in response to an accusation by a man of women merely "sitting in the fields" rather than working. Mary Collier found the time, or "made" the time to read and write, to respond and bear witness. Idle time indeed.


roger said...

Amie, thanks for those comments!

Sometimes I feel like my method is that of a nighttime thief, casing a house. Casing a joint. What is joined. So, forgive me if I reply with some indirect thoughts.

In this case, I'm prowling around that whole strange culture of respectability which was emerging at the time Austen is writing Pride and Prejudice, and positioning itself against Bluebeard and his tellers, the beldames and the rakes and the roughs. I prowl around, seeking entrance.

But you know, Elizabeth Bennet has made me see that respectability is not a laughing matter, or merely a moral blindness, or a reactionary sign system.

She has two great confrontations in this book - one with Darcy, the proposal scene, and one with Lady Catherine, at the end - that are like the full electric discharges of everything that has been stored up, all the things seen in the corner of the eye, all the things which form a structure of being unmentioned.

And perhaps here I find the Mary Collier poem so relevant - in that her whole existence goes into trying to transit from the unmentioned to the mentioned.

As I've been reading more about this period - from the 1790s to the 1820s, in which Jane Austen wrote her books - I'm finding that rough culture was very much alive. And in rough culture, Mary Collier's heirs - her spiritual entail - working class Jacobin women, as they were called - were also very much alive.

Well, I need to write a post about this...