U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What I’m Reading: The Subterranean River of Eliot and James

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.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I read Middlemarch with tremendous pleasure as a freshman a long time ago. Still have the same paperback copy. I’ve dipped into it now and again, but never really re-read it, and I didn’t recall these passages, so thanks for them.

    This —
    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.

    — strikes me as sounding somewhat like Thoreau, or as something he might have written. Walden I believe predates Middlemarch, but I don’t know whether Eliot read it.

    Never thought of her in connection w/ Wm. James. Interesting points.

    Btw I tried reading The Mill on the Floss some months ago. Couldn’t get past page 50 or so. Don’t know whether that says something about me, or the novel, or what… Middlemarch though I think is in a class by itself. The conclusion is one of the things I remember clearly, but if you haven’t yet got there on your re-reading I won’t spoil it by quoting.

    • p.s. I meant to write “a freshman in college” though I guess that was obvious enough (I would have to have been quite precocious to tackle it as a freshman in high school).

  2. Thanks Louis. I finished my re-read a few days ago — posted the concluding paragraph over at my own blog, along with some other remarks. (I read Herodotus as a freshman, and I read Eliot as a senior, but looking back I have to wonder if I didn’t pick up the story of Cyrus and the river from Eliot, not Herodotus.)

    On Mill on the Floss, that’s a good book to read when thinking about the “stream of consciousness.” Eliot’s is a very riverine imagination.

  3. Wonderful post, not the least because there’s a great reminder about how intellectual history sometimes works, an idea about how ideas and their transmission and relations go, the “floating around together” and “sympathy.” So good. I was especially happy to see squirrels in here, seeing how James began “Pragmatism” with a discussion of squirrels. There it’s potentially grave tragedy reduced to an occasion for comedy, in the form of a “ferocious metaphysical dispute.” His sense of humor gets him into trouble since it’s anti-philosophical and democratic. The commonplace can occasion tragedy, and tragedy can be found in the commonplace. That’s why it’s funny at the same time. I’m also curious what you make of the “going round” trope here. Who goes around whom? Who goes around with whom? That’s all too vague, I know, but anyway, here’s the quote from James:

    SOME YEARS AGO, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel – a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Every one had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared therefore appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”

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