“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Further notes on solitude

... I started out last month positing a tentative binary – individualism vs. solitude – that I took from Rousseau. It seemed to me then that Rousseau could not bring together his view of civil society founded on a fundamental equality and his view of the continuing dependence of women The contradiction imploded in his narratives. And the move, late in Rousseau’s life, to elevate solitude seems to me to be a political move, or hold the seeds of a politics. Contra Todorov, Rousseau did not represent his solitude as an exception. It was, potentially, the right to solitude, the development of solitude, that provides us with a whole new view of the relationship between the self and society. Solitude is a social development.

This made me wonder about the right to solitude of women. Solitude, as I am trying to understand it, is not the right of the property holder who can shut the door on the public sphere and stay at home. That kind of privacy does fit with an emerging individualism. But solitude has aspects that are strikingly different from the ideal individual of the individualist ethos.

I’ve held solitude on the margins, so to speak, as I’ve been looking at the culture of respectability, and the question of the condition of England – that is, why England’s greater political freedom was embedded in a palpable moral narrowness, as Herzen, among many other foreign observers, noted. A longstanding story about Britain claims that it was the first developed country to develop a strong, modern sense of privacy. Privacy, self-improvement, order were the hallmarks of respectability. De Stael, for one, attributed the English excellence in the novel to the greater role played in England by the private life. To her, the novel introduces epic proportions into the bedroom and the study, so to speak.

Now, are these rooms of someone’s own the equivalent of solitude?
This is where my binary should help me a bit. I want to associate solitude with extremes, with limit cases – with the sublime that Edgeworth condemns. The extremes are either the retreat from enlightenment to the archaic, or the leap over the enlightenment to the revolutionary. The equal right to solitude, from the point of view of the culture of respectability, muddies the divisions between the public and private sphere. It brings the question of equality, which is the question of justice, into the dimension of how we are to live, here, on our beds, in our chairs, as well as in our work, in our laundry tubs, offices, mines. A right to solitude, rather than a right to property, would give us a much different political discourse, and a much different sense of where politics is going on, and what it is for.

Can solitude bear this weight?

The England de Stael sees in 1793 and in 1814 was, perhaps, passing through its most European phase. It isn’t surprising that German philosophy, sentimentalism, and romantic poetry were creating a cult of solitude, making it one of the central motifs of romantic poetry. Peter Conrad’s in a brilliant essay I need to discuss has claimed that the movement in English literature is to pastoralize epic themes, to release the poem from the heroic in order to celebrate the private. But I think this use of the private, like de Stael’s, is a way of drawing a division between the public and private sphere that goes against the grain of solitude.

In fact, as the modernists of the nineteenth century came to recognize, solitude is more naturally connected with the crowd – as Hoffmann, Poe and Baudelaire saw.

oh I assure you, cried she, he is the best of men

This letter was sent from Juniper Hall Dorking Surrey in 1793:

“When J learned to read english J begun by milton to know all or renounce at all in once J follow the same system in writing my first english letter to Miss burney after such an enterprize nothing can affright me J feel for her so tender a friendship that it melts my admiration inspires my heart with hope of her indulgence and impresses me with the idea that in a tongue even unknown J could express sentiments so deeply felt my servant will return for a french answer J intreat miss burney to correct the words but to preserve the sense of that card best compliments to my dear protectress Madame Phillipe.”

The writer is Madame de Staël, who is learning English by reading Milton. Perhaps a method that is not as abstruse as it sounds, for who is more Latinate than Milton? And by our etymological roots shall we embrace each other, brothers and sisters.

I began this thread by thinking of an encounter that did not take place: the one between de Staël and Austen. We know that Austen was invited to meet de Staël in September 1814 and refused – although we know this from Austen’s brother, whose memoir of her is intended to project an image of such respectability that she could be excused for the offence against it that consists in being a genius.

The visit in 1814 was the second time de Staël visited England. The first, when the note was written, happened because her lover, Narbonne, had chosen to exile himself in England. As it happened, her coming to see Narbonne put her in proximity to another lover, Tallyrand. Fanny Burney, in 1793, was famous as the author of Evilena and Cecilia. As a girl, she’d known Samuel Johnson. As a woman, she was to know Napoleon Bonaparte. But in 1793, she was not to know de Staël for too long, after Burney’s father disclosed that de Staël was Narbonne’s lover. .

One would think that Burney’s father’s influence would not be so decisive to a woman who was, as Burney was, 41. In fact, meeting the Juniper Hall circle led to the daring act that divided her life in two and got her out from under her father’s wishes – for among them there was a genteel but poor French soldier named D’Arblay, a former aide de camp to Lafayette. He tutored her. He married her. Her father did not attend the wedding.

Her letters about the émigré set are fascinating, and revolve around her point of view:

“New systems I fear in states are always dangerous if not wicked. Grievance by grievance wrong by wrong must only be assailed and breathing time allowed to old prejudices and old habits between all that is done….”

Therre is a famous passage in a letter from Burney, one of those anecdotes so beloved by Calasso – perhaps he includes it in The Ruins of Karsch. At the height of Burney’s fascination with de Stael, she attended a dinner – this was after the execution of Louis XVI had depressed the spirits of the émigré group, who saw it as the end of their own lives. It was in the shadow of the execution of the King that Burney’s romance with D’Arblay was enacted –perhaps it was only through the tragic glamour cast on the group by a grief at once so public and so existentially and financially devastating that allowed the 41 year old Burney, the obedient daughter whose sense of respectability had been reinforced, as by Pavlovian shocks, when she attended George III’s wife at court, to burn down her scruples and actually marry the poor French officer. In any case, she sat next to de Stael at the table:

”M. de Talleyrand opened at last with infinite wit and capacity Madame de Stael whispered me How do you like him Not very much I answered but I do not know him Oh I assure you cried she he is the best of the men.
I was happy not to agree… “

De Staël was a writer in the sense that Voltaire was a writer – she mixed her experience into her writing and her writing into her experience so as to make a sort of scroll of her existence. Unlike Voltaire, however, whose observations were still rooted in a Plutarchian sense of character, de Staël had a sense of larger groupings – she had a sociological imagination, rather than a moraliste’s. She was one of the first person to understand literature not as an ornament of character or a fund of moral observations, but as a form of social self-reflection. Perhaps she owes part of this idea to Herder. In 1793, she had not yet formed it. While the king was on trial in Paris and Narbonne was considering going back and testifying for him – which would have put an end to Narbonne - de Staël was writing on the passions. The stars form their constellations for the wise shepherd, and themes fall helplessly into speech on the page when one has a Gnostic sense of history: de Staël read part of her book to Fanny, the part entitled: On happiness.

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