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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
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Miriam Burstein
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Sean McCann
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Adam Bede Again

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 01/15/10 at 07:48 AM

Remember the good old days, when we all read Adam Bede together and fretted about realism, Hetty’s eyelashes, and whether it was immoral or inevitable to want to crush kittens? Happily, I have an excuse to work through the novel again this year in a graduate seminar I’m teaching. In last week’s discussion we spent quite a bit of time on this passage:

At this moment a smart rap, as if with a willow wand, was given at the house door, and Gyp, instead of barking, as might have been expected, gave a loud howl. Adam, very much startled, went at once to the door and opened it. Nothing was there: all was still, as when he opened it an hour before: the leaves were motionless, and the light of the stars showed the placid fields on both sides of the brook quite empty of visible life. Adam walked round the house, and still saw nothing except a rat which darted into the woodshed as he passed. He went in again, wondering; the sound was so peculiar, that, the moment he heard it, it called up the image of the willow wand striking the door. He could not help a little shudder, as he remembered how often his mother had told him of just such a sound coming as a sign when some one was dying. Adam was not a man to be gratuitously superstitious; but he had the blood of the peasant in him as well as of the artisan, and a peasant can no more help believing in a traditional superstition than a horse can help trembling when he sees a camel. Besides, he had that mental combination which is at once humble in the region of mystery and keen in the region of knowledge: it was the depth of his reverence quite as much as his hard common-sense, which gave him his disinclination to doctrinal religion, and he often checked Seth’s argumentative spiritualism by saying, ‘Eh, it’s a big mystery; thee know’st but little about it.’ And so it happened that Adam was at once penetrating and credulous. If a new building had fallen down and he had been told that this was a divine judgment, he would have said, ‘Maybe; but the bearing o’ the roof and walls wasn’t right, else it wouldn’t ha’ come down;’ yet he believed in dreams and prognostics, and you see he shuddered at the idea of the stroke with the willow wand. (from Chapter 4)

What interested us is the stress placed on this moment by the different priorities and perspectives it attempts to do justice to simultaneously. Some felt that the narrator’s commentary spoiled the affect of the scene, its mystery and suspense, by distancing us from Adam’s emotional response, blaming it, somewhat condescendingly, on his peasant blood: it’s a kind of anachronism in his mental constitution for which we are not to blame him. Yet we are not to go along with it, either: we aren’t allowed to experience what he experiences, the shudder and trembling of belief in the supernatural. “Nature has her syntax,” as we are told in another place, but we don’t understand it, not yet. The weight of the book overall, though, as of this moment, is against reading it as supernatural or revelatory. Adam’s capacity for belief in the supernatural is a relic, a tradition: he’s a man of his time. Is it George Eliot the historian, then, as much as George Eliot the philosopher, who feels the need to make sure we don’t go along with Adam too far here? If we did, the genre of the novel (its commitment to realism, as well as to a kind of scientific naturalism) would come under threat: it’s a gothic moment that’s contained, or at least inhibited, by the narrator’s cool analysis. What do we do, then, when we discover that in fact the rapping at the door does presage Thias Bede’s death? If you’re going to ruin the atmospheric spell by discrediting the magical thinking it requires, why retroactively render Adam’s fear anything but “gratuitous”?


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