This week I’ll take a break from my series on feminist texts from the 1970s and return to another thread from a while back: “What I’m Reading.”
As a procrastinatory strategy, as a soul-restoring exercise, and as a way of approaching my current project via some back roads, so as to catch an idea or two unawares, I am reading and re-reading some Victorian novels. A few weeks ago I was keeping company with Charlotte Bronte; last week I walked down memory lane with George Eliot, re-reading Middlemarch a couple of decades after my first stroll through its pages. How the view alters.
People love to argue about “greatests” – what else are canon wars? (don’t ask) – but I think I’d be on pretty solid ground to affirm that Middlemarch is the greatest novel in the English language. It is a whole world, round and full. If you haven’t read it, I commend it to you. George Eliot’s voice is wonderful company.
And it’s familiar, even if you’ve never read it before – it will sound familiar, I think, to students of American thought. It sounds like nothing so much as William James. Or, rather, William James sounds an awful lot like George Eliot. I’m not sure if it’s a question of the “influence” of Eliot on James’s thought so much as a question of “confluence,” as Eliot and James seem to be floating along together, kindred minds, in the same flood tide of the stream of consciousness.
In his Bancroft-winning biography of William James, Robert D. Richardson notes the affinity between Eliot’s ideas of experience and James’s own:
James’s understanding of how each of us operates in the world is like George Eliot’s description of the pier glass and the candle in Middlemarch. “Your pier glass or extensive surface of polished steel,” Eliot writes, “rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination and lo! The scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric cirlces round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the little scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable,” she concludes. “The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person.” For William James, too, the world as a whole is random, and each person makes a pattern, a different pattern, by a power and focus of his own. There is no single overarching or connecting pattern, hidden or revealed. “We carve out order,” James wrote, “by leaving the disorderly parts out; and the world is conceived thus after the analogy of a forest or a block of marble from which parks or statues may be produced by eliminating irrelevant trees or chips of stone.” (4-5)
Indeed, when I came across Eliot’s pier glass and candle this time around, I saw the Jamesian-ness of it straight away — something I had missed the first time through because then I had not known William James.
But the likeness to James is not so much in the conception of experience as it is in the use of language and the flow of narrative. “These things are a parable,” Eliot writes. I think that’s where Eliot and James are the closest, for James’s brings forth his philosophy metaphor by metaphor. Again, this is perhaps not “influence” so much as “sympathy.”
Anyway, if you’re casting about for something to read to take your mind off of whatever you’re supposed to be writing at present, you could do worse than to visit or revisit Middlemarch. I’ll wrap up this dilettantish post with a few more passages from the novel that delighted me, and that, in their own way, might shed some light on the mind of William James. Eliot and James may have sunk their wells in different places, but both were drawing from the same subterranean river.
From Chapter 19:
…many souls in their young nudity are tumbled out among incongruities and left to ‘find their feet’ among them, while their elders go about their business. Nor can I suppose that when Mrs Casaubon is discovered in a fit of weeping six weeks after her wedding, the situation will be regarded as tragic. Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
From Chapter 23:
With regard to horses, distrust was your only clue. But skepticism, as we know, can never be thoroughly applied, else life would come to a standstill: something we must believe in and do, and whatever that something may be called, it is virtually our own judgment, even when it seems like the most slavish reliance on another.
Plenty of confluence between Eliot and James in those two passages, I think – and perhaps quite a bit in this last passage as well, though I quote it not so much because it’s Jamesian avant la lettre but because it’s funny as hell. It’s a disquisition by one of the most marvelous comic characters in all of literature:
Mrs Cadwallader said, privately, “You will certainly go mad in that house alone, my dear. You will see visions. We have all got to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, and call things by the same names as other people call them by. To be sure, for younger sons and women who have no money, it is a sort of provision to go mad: they are taken care of. But you must not run into that. I daresay you are a little bored here with our good dowager; but think what a bore you might become yourself to your fellow-creatures if you were always playing tragedy queen and taking things sublimely. Sitting alone in that library at Lowick you may fancy yourself ruling the weather; you must get a few people round you who wouldn’t believe you if you told them. That is a good lowering medicine.”
You must get a few people round you. That’s good advice for those too-contemplative souls among us, within us. It certainly worked for William James.