Saturday, October 26, 2013

Jane Austen, Lady Susan


Opening Passage:

Langford, Dec.

MY DEAR BROTHER,—I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted of spending some weeks with you at Churchhill, and, therefore, if quite convenient to you and Mrs. Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with. My kind friends here are most affectionately urgent with me to prolong my stay, but their hospitable and cheerful dispositions lead them too much into society for my present situation and state of mind; and I impatiently look forward to the hour when I shall be admitted into your delightful retirement....

Summary: From the first moment we meet her, when Lady Susan Vernon is telling her brother-in-law -- telling, not really asking -- that she will be staying with him, we find her lying. It turns out that the "hospitable and cheerful dispositions" of her current hosts, the Mainwarings, have led her into an adulterous affair with the man of the house, to the not-so-hospitable and not-so-cheerful response of the wife. Nor is that all. Lady Susan is extraordinarily beautiful -- "delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes; and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older" and with "an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy, and grace" (Letter 6) -- and she has been flirting with the beau of young Miss Mainwaring (Mr. Mainwaring's younger sister) simply to prevent him from marrying her, because Lady Susan has marked the man, Sir James Martin, to be her own daughter's future husband. This is not the sort of situation into which anyone falls without being an inveterate manipulator, and 'manipulation' is an understatement for Lady Susan. Catherine Vernon, her sister-in-law, calls her "Mistress of deceit" at one point, and it is an apt title. She lies in practically every paragraph of her letters, she lies in her behavior toward others, and she lies to herself.

It might be a slightly jarring comparison, but there are two characters in literature she most reminds me of: Satan in Paradise Lost and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. Like both of these figures, communication for her has nothing in itself to do with truth; it is merely a tool for getting what she wants, for coming out on top. Words and behaviors are machines to do work rather than things that express character. Like both of these characters, her ability to seduce has extended so far that she has convinced herself of a view of the world in which she is always right, and too often misused. It's ironic that the only two times the phrase 'I repent' is used in the novella, it is used by Lady Susan -- and telling that, in a story that shows her having an adulterous affair within months (if not before) of the death of her own husband, leading on multiple men at once simply because she can, and subjecting her daughter to terrible emotional treatment, she only uses the phrase to express regret over having done something that let other people inconvenience her. The difference, of course, is that in different ways Satan and Saruman are fallen angels; Lady Susan is all too plausibly human.

One wonders at her backstory, which is tantalizingly unpainted. Her husband apparently had severe money problems before his death, but, while she occasionally makes comments about not being able to afford this or that, she herself notes that she is not in any immediate need for money, and given her ability to live off of others, and the ruthless planning with which she is planning to marry a wealthy husband, it would be surprising if she were. The fact that she is called 'Lady Susan' tells us something -- it's Lady Susan, not Lady Vernon, and the distinction is quite important, because it means she has her title by birth and not by marriage, and is thus almost certainly the daughter of at least an Earl. (There was an Austen-based work a few years back called Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, which by all accounts was well-written, but shows one of its absolutely crucial divergences in the title.) If Lady Susan approaching forty can repeatedly outcompete Pretty Young Things on the marriage market, she must have been one stunning young woman when she was in her teens and twenties. Thus one has the suggestion -- although never really more than this -- of a woman born to privilege and who, being beautiful from a young age, is perpetually over-indulged. But it is perhaps to the best that we don't know her backstory: she enters mistress of deceit, she exits mistress of deceit, and, honestly, she's all the more splendid a character from the fact that this is all-in-all of who she is.

One of the nice things about the work is that Austen, being Austen, is capable not just of telling us how charming Lady Susan is, but showing how charming she is. She is just so utterly shameless as to stagger the imagination. Just when you think you've got her number, she will do something that teaches you that you are an amateur compared to Lady Susan. But the utter brazenness of her is part of her charm: to be so malicious and yet so impregnably confidence in her own rightness, while at the same time being so competent in achieving what she wants (being the villainess, she has to be foiled, but it is more by bad luck than anything), makes her just comic enough to be almost admirable, but so impressive that she cannot be treated as a joke. All those hateful deeds, and you cannot hate her. She is magnetic, and even as a reader knowing the whole backstory you can see yourself how it is that she can succeed with the other characters.

Looking around, I see that the most common complaint about this book is its epistolary format. This is unfortunate; if there's any story that benefits from the epistolary format, it is this one. We don't just get insight into Lady Susan's mind; we get her own perspective, too, and can compare it to the perspectives of others. That makes her stand out even more vividly than she otherwise would. Further, the story benefits from being spooned out in small doses. In the end, I think the difficulty people have with the epistolary format shows how flattened modern storytelling has become.

Favorite Passage: Lady Susan, of course, writing to her correspondent Alicia Johnson, when Mrs. Johnson has noted that Mr. Johnson has used the gout as an excuse for making it impossible for Lady Susan to meet with Mrs. Johnson; it is also the source of one of the most memorable phrases in the book:

My dear Alicia,—There needed not this last fit of the gout to make me detest Mr. Johnson, but now the extent of my aversion is not to be estimated. To have you confined as nurse in his apartment! My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.

Recommendation: Jane Austen writing a novella about a villainess? Highly, highly, highly recommended.

Poem a Day 26

Consolation of Philosophy, Book II

You seek, O human folly, far and wide
that thing that gives to life a joy and bliss;
you fail, and it were needful that you miss,
for wisdom seeks such joy and bliss inside.
What stupor wreaths your mind that you will quest
for joy already had, and seek outside
for what can only inside be possessed?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Deuterocanon Friday: Epiphany

Acknowledge the Lord, for he is good,
and bless the King of the ages,
so that his tent may be rebuilt in you in joy.
May he cheer all those within you who are captives,
and love all those within you who are distressed,
to all generations forever.
A bright light will shine to all the ends of the earth;
many nations will come to you from far away,
the inhabitants of the remotest parts of the earth to your holy name,
bearing gifts in their hands for the King of heaven.
Generation after generation will give joyful praise in you;
the name of the chosen city will endure forever.

Tobit 13:10-11 (NRSV-C)


I had all sorts of visions of things getting done today, and then came down sick as a dog last night. Gang aft agley. There's no particular reason to think there any historical connection between the two following passages, but I thought the juxtaposition was quite interesting, nonetheless.

An affection so amiable was advancing each in the opinion of all who had hearts to value anything good. Henry Crawford was as much struck with it as any. He honoured the warm–hearted, blunt fondness of the young sailor, which led him to say, with his hands stretched towards Fanny’s head, “Do you know, I begin to like that queer fashion already, though when I first heard of such things being done in England, I could not believe it; and when Mrs. Brown, and the other women at the Commissioner’s at Gibraltar, appeared in the same trim, I thought they were mad; but Fanny can reconcile me to anything”; and saw, with lively admiration, the glow of Fanny’s cheek, the brightness of her eye, the deep interest, the absorbed attention, while her brother was describing any of the imminent hazards, or terrific scenes, which such a period at sea must supply.

It was a picture which Henry Crawford had moral taste enough to value. Fanny’s attractions increased—increased twofold; for the sensibility which beautified her complexion and illumined her countenance was an attraction in itself. He was no longer in doubt of the capabilities of her heart. She had feeling, genuine feeling. It would be something to be loved by such a girl, to excite the first ardours of her young unsophisticated mind! She interested him more than he had foreseen. A fortnight was not enough. His stay became indefinite.
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Chapter 24 (published 1814)

Considered as a principle of action, a cultivated moral taste, while it provides an effectual security against the grossness necessarily connected with many vices, cherishes a temper of mind friendly to all that is amiable, or generous, or elevated in our nature. When separated, however, as it sometimes is, from a strong sense of duty, it can scarcely fail to prove a fallacious guide; the influence of fashion, and of other casual associations, tending perpetually to lead it astray. This is more particularly remarkable in men to whom the gratifications of taste in general form the principal object of pursuit, and whose habits of life encourage them to look no higher for their rule of conduct than the way of the world.
Dugald Stewart, The Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers of Man, p. 266 (published 1828)

Poem a Day 25


Deliver, O Lord, from all wrongdoing,
save from those who do deeds of violence;
may my prayer be incense before you,
my upraised hands an evening sacrifice.
When my spirit is weak, you know my way.
In my path they have hidden a dark trap;
thus my spirit grows faint deep inside me,
the depths of my gut are appalled within.
Bow down your heavens, O Lord, and come down;
descend on the mountains that they might smoke!
The might of your great deeds shall be proclaimed,
and I will declare out loud your greatness;
justice you perform for the oppressed,
food you give to those who hunger and starve.
You cover the heavens with layered clouds,
make rain descend and grass grow on the hills:
on mountains there grow fruit trees and cedars!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Philosophical Topic that Most Disorients Young People

Sometimes people give as the aim for liberal arts education things like "to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to re-orient themselves." I think these sorts of things are truly ridiculous things to aim for in the context of any kind of college education, as I've argued, but suppose I were to take this as my goal in a philosophy course? What would I have to teach? What is the topic that has come up in my courses so far that has most consistently and most clearly had these effects? Neoplatonism. Nothing, nothing at all that I have ever taught, generates as much controversy and distress as Neoplatonism.

If you just look very briefly and vaguely Neoplatonism, students just think it's weird. But start getting into details, when they start to realize that the weirdness is heavily argued, at great length, by arguments to which they often have no ready answer at all, and things change. I have had -- and I mean this quite literally -- students freak out, try to shout me down, or storm out. Fortunately those are not hugely common, but I have had all of them happen. There's no other topic that more consistently gets students arguing so intensely that it becomes difficult to keep them from all arguing at once. When people say that liberal arts, or philosophy, should challenge students' beliefs, they usually mean religious beliefs. I tell you true, if you really want to challenge the actual beliefs your students have, go over Plotinus's arguments for the One, or Boethius's argument in Book III of the Consolation of Philosophy that all human beings naturally seek the Good, which is God, which the One, and that true happiness consists in being God -- not being godlike, being God -- or even just go into detail into the Divided Line and how Neoplatonists argue for various things that Plato represents by means of it.

And surprising as it might be, I think it's less of a surprise if you think about it: it really is radically different than anything most people are taught, but if you actually get into it, it is very tightly argued. It's alien to almost all the obvious features on which modern man congratulates himself for being reasonable about -- and it attacks these very features as not merely unreasonable but irrational, with arguments that modern people usually have never even thought of, and so have no defenses against. They can wave their empiricism, or whatever, at it, and it will look at them sardonically and proceed to eat their arguments. And why wouldn't it, really? Most of them have been building their philosophical views of the world by patchwork and piecemeal over a couple of decades; it doesn't really matter whether Neoplatonism is true or false, they're not going to have anything that can compete with any of the major examples of a philosophical approach that spanned centuries of intense and systematic philosophical discussion, ate most of its competitors, and spread itself through vast numbers of cultures from Spain to Persia. It's a mighty dragon, Neoplatonism, mighty enough to mock their assumptions as ridiculous. And never having come across the full thing, they don't have many weapons against it. Of course, that's all a melodramatic way of putting it; but really getting into Neoplatonism is generally like taking students through the looking-glass into a world they've never imagined.

Yes, I am currently teaching Neoplatonism (Boethius and Plotinus on happiness) in one of my classes. Fortunately, no shout-downs or storm-outs with this class, but not a small amount of controversy, either -- very good and sometimes intense discussion.

If you teach philosophy, what topic do you find most disorients students? Or, if you've had a philosophy class, what topics did you (or your class) find most disorienting?

Explicit and Implicit Philosophical Dialogue

In Mansfield Park, Austen represents a philosophy of education in which the most important good is the development of constancy, the most important end is the proper use of liberty (with a special emphasis on leisure, or free time and space). The primary means is the inner conversation and reflection regarding modern life with its competing conceptions of law and virtue and the incoherence created thereby....

Austen's philosophy emerges within a polyphony of voices that creates two kinds of philosophical dialogue. First, she creates an explicit dialogue in which the narrator represents different perspectives, including that of an authoritative, ironic, and/or corrective voice, over against other perspectives voiced by characters at different points in the narrative. She also creates an implicit philosophical dialogue by juxtaposing throughout the narrative contrasting representations of education.

Joyce Kerr Tarpley, Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, CUA Press (Washington, DC: 2010) p. 60.

Poem a Day 24


True love is that which makes the virtues shine.
As this is so, then no true love is mine.
It does not make me seek the juster part,
nor rein in passions raging in the heart,
nor gives the strength on which the good relies,
nor sharpens thought to make my head more wise.
It makes me not rise up to be divine,
endure for truth, or take the Good as mine.
Then what can be the good of such a thing,
that makes me want to lesser living cling?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Music on My Mind

Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon, "Sigh No More". This song alone is inclining me to buy the soundtrack.

There are various things in the pipeline, but I've just come down from a week-long grading marathon over several different classes, and need to recuperate.

Poem a Day 23

A Walk after Rain

The sky was blue, but the clouds still thundered;
the streets were glossy with rain.
In the wind a sigh seemed to shift; I wondered
and felt, with a heart full of pain.
The evening was near, but it was not arrived,
and the world was sharp in the light,
vivid and clear; my soul had survived,
but I yearned for the comfort of night.
The sparking of cloud everywhere save above
brought a rumble of warning and ache;
too proud I had been to speak of my love,
and you the unspoken to take.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Poem a Day 22

Cool and Crisp

It is cool and crisp this morning.
The moon is still on high
while hanging low
is a peachish glow
as birds sing lullaby.

The skin is tickled with shivers,
like gently biting pups
that wrestle and play
to ring in the day
and wake their masters up.

To stretch is a sovereign pleasure;
the linen feels like silk.
But now we must rise
and set flame to fry,
to have bacon and eggs with milk.

It is cool and crisp this morning.
Outside is the ball of the moon,
and hope is high,
love without lie,
and the sun will be rising soon.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Populated by Bronte People

Where James is complex and obscure and subtle, and prone to delve into a kind of moral microscopy of observation, Austen is direct, naturalistic, acerbic, and more than a little cold. There are no sensitive, metaphorical images or delvings into the minutiae of a given motivation. Rather, Austen mocks, strips away rationalizations, and reveals what is contemptible quite ruthlessly.

I will indulge myself here in a restrained and abbreviated diatribe simply to forestall confusion on the part of those readers who are more familiar with film versions of Austen's work and to whom teh above description will probably seem utterly alien. A few recent screen offerings, Pride and Prejudice (written by Deborah Moggach and directed by Joe Wright) and Mansfield Park (the 1999 Miramax iteration) for example, seem almost exclusively to be populated by Brontë people, swooning and sighing, rather than any such persons as Austen may have had in mind (with the possible exception of Marianne Dashwood in any version of Sense and Sensibility). Here is my heretical thought on the matter, or at least heretical by Hollywood standards. Austen is not a romantic novelist. She writes novels about romantic entanglements, but she is not often inclined to be sentimental in the pejorative sense.

E. M. Dadlez, Mirrors to One Another: Emotion and Value in Jane Austen and David Hume, Wiley Blackwell (2009) pp. 13-14.

Radio Greats: The Laughing Corpse (The Shadow)

The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay.

One of classic radio's greatest icons began as a promotion that failed to promote. Detective Story Magazine was having a slump in sales, so they funded a promotional radio series using their stories. (The philosophically inclined might be interested to note, incidentally, that the magazine was one of Wittgenstein's favorites; and he more than once insisted that it was less a waste of time than reading philosophy journals. He at one point told a correspondent that it was beyond him why people read Mind when they could read Detective Story Magazine, since if philosophy is pursuit of wisdom, you can't find it in Mind but you might find it in a detective story.) To do this they needed a narrator, and they came up with The Shadow, who was little more than a sepulchral, sinister voice. The radio series was a smash hit -- and failed to boost sales. When they looked into the matter, the discovered that, simple as the magazine title was, people wouldn't remember it. Instead of asking for Detective Story Magazine they'd ask for The Shadow detective magazine. But, of course, The Shadow wasn't in the magazine -- he was just narrating, for radio, magazine stories with which he had nothing to do. But the people didn't want random detective stories -- they wanted The Shadow.

Faced with a problem like that, you can either cut your losses or adapt to what people actually want, so the publishers started up The Shadow Magazine that everyone had been disappointed to find didn't exist. And, since the radio version of The Shadow had been so effective that he had succeeded in getting people to try to hunt down a magazine that didn't exist, he continued on radio as well as in the pulps. At first he was mostly used as a narrator on various programs; but then a new series was begun.

The two versions diverged almost immediately, in part because the media had very different kinds of restrictions. In the pulps, The Shadow is sort of super-noir detective, a burglar-vigilante in black whose modus operandi is using mind games to terrify criminals into submission. But they discovered immediately that within the constraints of a thirty-minute radio program this wasn't enough. A pulp story can go into detail about The Shadow's intricate strategems and tactics to avoid detection; this is simply not possible on radio, and you can't just leave it all unexplained because that would be too confusing. So they hit on a solution: The Shadow could become invisible and project his voice, because he had learned the power "to cloud men's minds" while traveling in East Asia. He could hypnotize people into not seeing him. It was the perfect move for the character who was, in real life, more than anything, a Voice; by the power to cloud men's minds that is precisely what he becomes in the stories, as well, to great effect.

A similar simplification occurred in the case of The Shadow's identity. The pulps could afford to play bait and switch with The Shadow's identity, but this was just not suitable for the radio. So all of it was reduced to one, Lamont Cranston, wealthy playboy. Likewise, the pulps could afford to proliferate characters, but radio could not -- radio is a quite restrictive medium for characters, much more than print or television, because you have to keep all of the voices distinct and recognizable, since that is the only way anyone can distinguish characters at all on the radio. (This is an ongoing feature of radio drama, and many of the more interesting moves in radio were governed by it. It's how, for instance, we got Sergeant Joe Friday of Dragnet; how do you have a radio show about an entire police department? By having Everyman take all the different roles in the department, now in traffic, now in vice, now in narcotics. So Joe Friday remains the same, and the department itself changes around him from episode to episode.) One of the more interesting features of The Shadow in the pulps, in fact, and one of the few things about him that is more interesting than The Shadow on radio, was that he impressed peopled he saved into helping him fight crime -- if you were saved by The Shadow, The Shadow might be calling on you for a favor someday. This would have made the radio episodes too unwieldy. So they kept Lamont Cranston's police commissionar uncle, and they kept Moe "Shrevvy" Shrevnitz, who was the most important and likable of the pulp secondary characters, and, eventually, they invented a character to be The Shadow's associate and right hand, Margot Lane. She had to be a woman because they needed someone who would be a clear vocal contrast without being a distraction. She was modeled after Brenda Frazier -- the original celebutante, ancestress of all the Paris Hiltons ever, 'famous for being famous', and also famous because she knew how to play the media perfectly -- which was not, perhaps auspicious, but she was also modeled on Margot Stevenson, a successful stage actress who did indeed play her. Lane worked so well in radio that she began to be written into the print versions (as 'Margo' rather than 'Margot'). But even here we see the difference: the radio Margot had to be in on The Shadow's secret, whereas in print Margo Lane was the Lois Lane (but she was so before Lois Lane was invented).

If The Shadow sounds a lot like a superhero, it's because superheroes were partly modeled on The Shadow. Batman (or Bat-Man, as he was then) was originally a rip-off of The Shadow, particularly in his print version, so that even the early stories are pretty clearly based on some of the more popular Shadow stories. He only takes on a distinctive character through his interaction with a rather different kind of criminal.

The actor who first played The Shadow in the series was the 22-year-old Orson Welles. I don't think it's Welles's strongest role, and he only was in it for a year. He left to do The Mercury Theatre on the Air, one of the greatest of the great radio series, so it was a good move. He was replaced by Bill Johnstone for five seasons, then Bret Morrison, then John Archer, then Steve Curtleigh, then Bret Morrison again, who then played the character until the series ended in 1954. Different fans of the series will pick different actors as The Shadow; most people will pick Orson Welles, but my own view is that this is mostly because he was Orson Welles, and my own personal preference is Bill Johnstone. Welles can pull off a good Voice, but the radio Shadow needs to be able to pull of Lamont Cranston as well, and I think Johnstone does a better job of this -- it's certainly the case that Johnstone's Cranston is a stronger character than Welles's. But there were also some differences that had nothing to do with either actor: The Shadow was toned down a bit to make him more likable, and while Welles had the sinister vigilante who had no qualms about killing bad guys down, Johnstone was much better suited to playing a version of The Shadow who always found a way to bring people to justice without killing them.

There are various good Shadow episodes. One that's probably a general fan favorite is "The Temple Bells of Neban" from the Orson Welles episode. The one I've chosen, though, is "The Laughing Corpse" from 1940, in which The Shadow is played by Bill Johnstone. It lacks some of the pizzazz and mysticism of some of the common fan favorites, and unlike some of the more straightforward ones, the solution to the mystery is actually not an important part of the story, and on its own is rather pedestrian. But it is a well-liked episode, and I think this is because the crime itself, which is a series of murders, is so strange, and the deaths, which we hear, are so chilling, that it really doesn't matter what the explanation is. In fact, I think it ends up being a strength of the episode that they don't strain to make it a clever explanation; it would have just seemed silly and would have distracted from what makes the episode work.

You can listen to "The Laughing Corpse" here at My Old Radio.

Poem a Day 21

A Buddhist Fable

Once a cunning old woman was out and about,
nosing in things she did not understand,
when she was attacked by a mighty bear
and fled up a tree.

The bear with his claws reached 'round a fork
just below her, and with a swift, cunning hand,
she grabbed both its paws and held them there;
it could not reach her, nor flee.

Along came a man, a simple lout,
afraid of the beast, and she said to him,
"Help, and together we will kill this bear,
and both be free."

And he grabbed the bear;
and she ran away;
and no longer alive was he.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Hutcheson on the Sense of the Ridiculous II

By the aid of these senses, then, some of the things that happen to us appear delightful, fitting, glorious, and honorable to us, while others seem vile and contemptible, and we may discern yet another reflexive sense: a sense of things that are ridiculous or apt to cause laughter, that is, when a thing arouses contrary sensations at one and the same time. In the case of men’s intentions and actions, bad behavior that does not cause grievous sorrow or death gives rise to laughter, because there is some dignity in the very name of man because we have a certain opinion of his prudence and intelligence, whereas bad behavior that leads to serious pain or death rather excites pity. In the case of other things, we are moved to laughter by those which exhibit some splendid spectacle at the same time as a contradictory image of something cheap, lowly, and contemptible. This sense is very beneficial, whether in increasing the pleasure of conversation or in correcting men’s morals.

Francis Hutcheson, Logic, Metaphysics, and the Natural Sociability of Mankind (1730), Part II, Chapter 1.

Poem a Day 20


Hidden stars behind dark clouds yield no light.
Were the sea roiled by wild south wind,
however clear a mirror else it might be,
the muck below would be churned up.

And so are we all! Though minds are bright,
seeking truth, yet all this may end,
the once mighty mind made wholly unfree,
clouded, doubtful, like silt in a cup.