Sunday, December 26, 2004

Special Circumstances

I spent a quiet Christmas Day. I re-read the Gospel of Luke (it's a good exercise just to sit down and read the whole thing through in one sitting; you pick up rhythms and patterns of word and thought that you would miss in our usual piecemeal approach to the text - I came away with a strong sense of the unity of the book), and finished re-reading George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss. Having read it again, I think people who criticize her emphasis on the brother-sister relation (some critics have claimed she sees it as more important to the novel than it really is) need to read the novel again. The problem with the work is not that the relation between Maggie and Tom is treated by the author as more important than it is; the problem is that Eliot largely loses sight of Tom in the sixth book, and so the sixth book wanders from the main line of the novel. It's not a serious flaw, I think; but it's enough to make the ending of the book seem a little jarring after so much Stephen Guest. And that brings me to my second beef with the critics; there is a long tradition of criticism that thinks Eliot's presentation of Maggie's temptation by Stephen is not plausible: Maggie's just not the kind of girl to turn so easily from Philip after this coxcomb. But I think anyone who has read the story up to that point in a way sympathetic to Maggie should also be tempted by Stephen; that is, there should be part of the reader that does almost wish that she would eloper with Stephen. After all, by the time Stephen arrives on the scene, we've seen relatively little of Philip; and he hasn't presented himself as much more than a nice, but occasionally peevish, cripple. Maggie's affection for him is more pity and gratitude than anything robust. But more importantly, I think a reader sympathetic to Maggie's plight will be very alive to the desire for things finally to go right for her, and Stephen is very tempting in this regard. He is the easy way; and I think Eliot highlights in many ways that this is where much of the temptation for Maggie is: he's strong, protective, persistent, and Maggie after such a wearying sequence of trials finds a genuine pleasure in someone deciding things for her, smoothing the way, protecting her from further troubles, giving her an easy way to pursue her interests without the hard work of discipline. I think a reader who has really understood Maggie will tend to recognize this, and, though knowing as well as she that it is not right, feel that almost it would be better if it were.

In any case, an interesting passage from book 7, chapter 2:

The great problem of the shifting relation between passion and duty is clear to no man who is capable of apprehending it; the question whether the moment has come in which a man has fallen below the possibility of a renunciation that will carry any efficacy, and must accept the sway of a passion against which he had struggled as a trespass, is one for which we have no master-key that will fit all cases. The casuists have become a byword of reproach; but their perverted spirit of minute discrimination was the shadow of a truth to which eyes and hearts are too often fatally sealed,–the truth, that moral judgments must remain false and hollow, unless they are checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot.

All people of broad, strong sense have an instinctive repugnance to the men of maxims; because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy. And the man of maxims is the popular representative of the minds that are guided in their moral judgment solely by general rules, thinking that these will lead them to justice by a ready-made patent method, without the trouble of exerting patience, discrimination, impartiality,–without any care to assure themselves whether they have the insight that comes from a hardly earned estimate of temptation, or from a life vivid and intense enough to have created a wide fellow-feeling with all that is human.

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