Thursday, January 05, 2012

Middlemarch, and Being Human

A long time ago at a college far, far away (well, about 6 hours away by car), I was supposed to read Middlemarch by George Eliot for a 19th Century British Literature class. I ended up dropping the class and never reading the book, but then recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been talking it up, and I love him, so I was inspired to pick it up. I haven't finished the book yet - I've been reading it several hours a day for over a week, but it's a long book - but I want to talk about it a bit.

Middlemarch at first reminded me of Jane Austen's novels - the setting appears similar (Eliot was born around the time Austen died, but from this distance in time, it feels the same) and the book has a large and interwoven cast of characters and is heavily about courtship and marriage. There are three really clear differences, though:

  1. Eliot is much harder to read than Austen; the sentences are longer, use more fancy vocabulary words, and are structured with more complexity.
  2. If you read Austen novels and think, "But what about once they are married? These people barely know each other! Marriage is every day for years and years and years! Also women especially had no options and they didn't even have divorce back then," Middlemarch may be for you, because getting married is just the start of each story, and you get to find out exactly how the matches turn out.
  3. Eliot doesn't limit herself to describing conversations between women or between women and men; she also describes conversations that solely involve men.

There are other differences, one of which relates to an obsession of mine. The obession is the one I'm thinking of when I say, "I don't know how to be a human being," so let me digress for a moment.

Life to me seems like a constant struggle between being a decent human and being a shitbag, and we have two choices - unabashed shitbaggery, or shitbaggery accompanied by struggle and abashedness. I don't see any cure for it, and this, to me, is almost the sole appeal of Christianity - that it starts with a frank admission that we are basically horrible.

Pondering one's own "stuff" gets into what I call fractal territory, which is to say, it leads to an endless descending cycle of realizing what a crappy excuse for a person one is, at the end of which cycle I usually declare, "I have no idea how to be a human being."

I'm not talking about temptations like lying or theft, but actual internal attitudes. I'm talking about things like mocking people we don't like for qualities we readily accept in our friends, or detesting others for traits we ourselves possess, or continually (despite any efforts to the contrary) seeing the world as revolving around ourselves, or constant unremitting disregard for sometimes even really obvious things about the experiences of the people around us, or the bizarre selfish pride most of us feel.

So I guess what I'm really talking about is fundamental selfishness. Of course, some people simply embrace their own selfishness - either by conveniently not noticing it or by taking up a philosophy that justifies it. I know some people who actually seem not to be shitbags at heart, but I have no idea how they attained this state, or whether it's basically illusory. But I know that when I look at myself in terms of my internal states I basically disapprove of my overall implicit attitudes.

And the thing about Middlemarch is that George Eliot seems to really get this. She writes about this sort of thing a lot, and I like it.

Here are some good quotes (not all relating to this topic):

For my part, I have some fellow-feeling with Dr. Sprague: one's self-satisfaction is an untaxed kind of property which it is very unpleasant to find depreciated.

We are angered even by the full acceptance of our humiliating confessions - how much more by hearing in hard distinct syllables from the lips of a near observer, those confused murmurs which we try to call morbid, and strive against as if they were the oncoming of numbness!


There are answers which, in turning away wrath, only send it to the other end of the room, and to have a discussion cooly waived when you feel that justice is all on your own side is even more exasperating in marriage than in philosophy.


She leaned her head back against the window-frame, and laid her hand on the dog's head; for though, as we know, she was not fond of pets that must be held in the hands or trodden on, she was always attentive to the feelings of dogs, and very polite if she had to decline their advances.


But Duty has a trick of behaving unexpectedly - something like a heavy friend whom we have amiably asked to visit us, and who breaks his leg within our gates.


It is true Lydgate [a doctor] was constantly visiting the homes of the poor and adjusting his prescriptions of diet to their small means; but, dear me! - has it not by this time ceased to be remarkable - is it not rather what we expect in men, that they should have numerous strands of experience lying side by side and never compare them with each other? Expenditure - like ugliness and errors - becomes a totally new thing when we attach our own personality to it, and measure it by that wide difference which is manifest (in our own sensations) between ourselves and others.


The spiritual kind of rescue was a genuine need with [Bulstrode]. There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we belief in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world; whether we regard the earth as a putrefying nidus for a saved remnant, including ourselves, or have a passionate belief in the solidarity of mankind.


I think any hardship is better than pretending to do what one is paid for, and never really doing it.


There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.

So there you have it, folks: Tam's guide to Middlemarch.


Sally said...

Sounds like something I want to read.

Tam said...

Yeah, I think you would like it. I actually think anyone who likes Jane Austen and not just in a moist and dewy way would like it.