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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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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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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Edward Dowden Reads George Eliot

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 05/20/08 at 06:43 PM

I’ve realized that since I was invited to guest post here at The Valve, I’ve been trying hard to think of posts I could make that seem like Valve material, rather than just posting things at The Valve that interest me.  In doing so, perhaps I was rather missing the point of that invitation.  So here are some excerpts from (and then a few remarks on) something I was working on today and appreciating very much--an 1872 review essay on George Eliot by Edward Dowden, who was Professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin.

When we have passed in review the works of that great writer who calls herself George Eliot, and given for a time our use of sight to her portraitures of men and women, what form, as we move away, persists on the field of vision, and remains the chief centre of interest for the imagination? The form not of Tito, or Maggie, or Dinah, or Silas, but of one who, if not the real George Eliot, is that “second self” who writes her books, and lives and speaks through them. Such a second self of an author is perhaps more substantial than any mere human personality; encumbered with the accidents of flesh and blood and daily living. It stands at some distance from the primary self, and differs considerably from its fellow. It presents its person to us with fewer reserves; it is independent of local and temporary motives of speech or of silence; it knows no man after the flesh; it is more than an individual; it utters secrets, but secrets which all men of all ages are to catch; while, behind it, lurks well pleased the veritable historical self secure from impertinent observation and criticism. With this second self of George Eliot it is, not with the actual historical person, that we have to do. And when, having closed her books, we gaze outward with the mind’s eye, the spectacle we see is that most impressive spectacle of a great nature, which has suffered and has now attained, which was perplexed and has grasped the clue--standing before us not without tokens on lip and brow of the strife and the suffering, but resolute, and henceforth possessed of something which makes self-mastery possible. The strife is not ended, the pain may still be resurgent; but we perceive on which side victory must lie.

This personal accent in the writings of George Eliot does not interfere with their dramatic truthfulness; it adds to the power with which they grasp the heart and conscience of the reader. We cannot say with confidence of any one of her creations that it is a projection of herself; the lines of their movement are not deflected by hidden powers of attraction or repulsion peculiar to the mind of the author; most noteworthy is her impartiality towards the several creatures of her imagination; she condemns but does not hate; she is cold or indifferent to none; each lives his own life, good or bad; but the author is present in the midst of them, indicating, interpreting; and we discern in the moral laws, the operation of which presides over the action of each story, those abstractions from the common fund of truth which the author has found most needful to her own deepest life. We feel in reading these books that we are in the presence of a soul, and a soul which has had a history.

At the same time the novels of George Eliot are not didactic treatises. They are primarily works of art, and George Eliot herself is artist as much as she is teacher. Many good things in particular passages of her writings are detachable; admirable sayings can be cleared from their surroundings, and presented by themselves, knocked out clean as we knock out fossils from a piece of limestone. But if we separate the moral soul of any complete work of hers from its artistic medium, if we murder to dissect, we lose far more than we gain. . . .

Of rights of man, or rights of woman, we never hear speech from George Eliot. But we hear of the duties of each. The claim asserted by the individual on behalf of this or that disappears, because the individual surrenders his independence to collective humanity, of which he is a part. And it is another consequence of this way of thinking that the leadings of duty are most often looked for, not within, in the promptings of the heart, but without, in the relations of external life, which connect us with our fellow-men. Our great English novelist does not preach as her favourite doctrine the indefeasible right of love to gratify itself at the expense of law; with the correlative right, equally indefeasible, to cast away the marriage bond as soon as it has become a painful incumbrance. She regards the formal contract, even when its spirit has long since died, as sacred and of binding force. Why? Because it is a formal contract. “The light abandonment of ties, whether inherited or voluntary, because they had ceased to be pleasant, would be the uprooting of social and personal virtue.” Law is sacred. Rebellion, it is true, may be sacred also. There are moments of life “when the soul must dare to act upon its own warrant, not only without external law to appeal to, but in the face of a law which is not unarmed with Divine lightnings--lightnings that may yet fall if the warrant has been false.” These moments, however, are of rare occurrence, and arise only in extreme necessity. When Maggie and Stephen Guest are together and alone in the Mudport Inn, and Maggie has announced her determination to accompany him no farther, Stephen pleads:--“‘We have proved that it was impossible to keep our resolutions. We have proved that the feeling which draws us to each other is too strong to be overcome: that natural law surmounts every other; we can’t help what it clashes with.’ ‘It is not so, Stephen. I’m quite sure that is wrong. I have tried to think it again and again; but I see, if we judged in that way, there would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty. We should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be formed on earth. If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment.’” . . .

“If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie?” As the life of the race lying behind our individual life points out the direction in which alone it can move with dignity and strength, so our own past months and years lying behind the present hour and minute deliver over to these a heritage and a tradition which it is their wisdom joyfully to accept when that is possible. There are moments, indeed, which are the beginning of a new life; when, under a greater influence than that of the irreversible Past, the current of our life takes an unexpected course; when a single act transforms the whole aspect of the world in which we move; when contact with a higher nature than our own suddenly discovers to us some heroic quality of our heart of the existence of which we had not been aware. Such is the virtue of confession of evil deeds or desires to a fellow-man, it restores us to an attitude of noble simplicity; we are rescued from the necessity of joining hands with our baser self. But these moments of new birth do not come by intention or choice. . . .

. . . All that helps to hold our past and present together is therefore precious and sacred. It is well that our affections should twine tenderly about all material tokens and memorials of bygone days. Why should Tito keep his father’s ring? Why indulge a foolish sentiment, a piece of mere superstition, about an inanimate object? And so Tito sells the ring, and with it closes the bargain by which he sells his soul. There is, indeed, a noble pressing forward to things that are before, and forgetting of things that are behind. George Eliot is not attracted to represent a character in which such an ardour is predominant, and the base forgetting of things behind alarms and shocks her. It is noted, as characteristic of Hetty’s shallow nature, that in her dream of the future, the brilliant future of the Captain’s wife, there mingles no thought of her second parents, no thought of the children she had helped to tend, of any youthful companion, any pet animal, any relic of her own childhood. “Hetty could have cast all her past life behind her, and never cared to be reminded of it again. I think she had no feeling at all towards the old house, and did not like the Jacob’s ladder and the long row of hollyhocks in the garden better than any other flowers--perhaps not so well.” Jubal, after his ardent pursuit of song through the world, would return to Lamech’s home, “hoping to find the former things.” Silas Marner would see once more the town where he was born, and Lantern Yard, where the lots had declared him guilty. But Hetty is like a plant with hardly any roots; “lay it over your ornamental flower-pot and it blossoms none the worse.”

This is the life we mortals live. And beyond life lies death. Now it is not hard to face it. We have already given ourselves up to the large life of our race. We have already died as individual men and women. And we see how the short space of joy, of suffering, and of activity allotted to each of us urges to helpful toil, and makes impossible for us the “glad idlesse” of the immortal denizen of earth. . . .

I feel about this commentary the way I have felt about some of James Wood’s reviews: I appreciate that it offers a sympathetic, rather than a suspicious or symptomatic, reading, one that helps us move into the artistic, intellectual, moral, and emotional world created by the author, clarifying, amplifying, and illustrating what’s on offer, or at stake, there. There is something to be gained by reading with the grain sometimes--something to be lost if we, in our turn, “murder to dissect.” And there are some real critical insights here, too: for instance, Dowden’s idea of the authorial ‘second self’ anticipates by nearly a century Wayne Booth’s concept of the ‘implied author.’ I like the way Dowden insists on the significance of Eliot’s dramatic and aesthetic form, even as he acknowledges and then dedicates much of his analysis to her ethics. He shows the stringency of the demands she makes, explicitly on her characters and implicitly on her readers, to let go their “baser self.” He also helps explain why Eliot’s novels are not easy fodder for Hollywood adaptations: love is too often not the answer, or not the right answer, or not the only answer.  But mostly I just appreciate the way he illuminates the experience of reading George Eliot thoughtfully: reading his reading will make my reading of her novels more rewarding.  That is not the only purpose of criticism, but it’s a good one.


Thank you for the fine post Mr Maitzen.  Where may one find Dowden’s piece in its entirety?

Many thanks, TW

By on 05/20/08 at 08:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry: I should have given a fuller reference.  Dowden’s review appeared originally in The Contemporary Review in August, 1872. Excerpts appear in a number of critical sources, including the recent Broadview edition of Middlemarch and the Critical Heritage volume on George Eliot.  A full (and pretty fully annotated) version will appear in an anthology I’m editing for Broadview called The Victorian Art of Fiction (due out in 2009).

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/20/08 at 09:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . just posting things at The Valve that interest me.

As far as I can tell, that’s generally what we do around here.

By Bill Benzon on 05/20/08 at 09:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course, all other things equal, it’s a better purpose for criticism the more accomplished or more vital the novel/novelist. The less accomplished or less vital, then the less can be said for that purpose of criticism. Which is why, I assume, James Wood so thoroughly ripped Tom Wolfe’s prominent writing. To offer a “sympathetic” critique...not much purpose there worth serving, at least in the eyes of many, understandably so.

By Tony Christini on 05/20/08 at 11:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As a Valve reader, I thank you for this piece and more generally about reconsidering your approach to the site—I find group weblogs become a more rewarding destination when contributors simply post “things that interest them.”

By Ray Davis on 05/21/08 at 09:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dowden’s “second self” is strikingly benign. I’ve written before about friends misunderstanding “Death of the Author,” and how Barthes had described an effect they themselves labored to create. But Barthes certainly chose a hyperbolic and aggressive way to describe it. I wonder if it’s due to his greater distrust of what that shared writer/reader voice was after. Constructed narrators are unreliable unintentionally at least as often as intentionally. I’m sure we can all think of writers whose ends weren’t particularly ethical, or even who use the voice of vatic poetry or common-sense discourse as tools of sociopathy.

Of course, thoroughgoing hermeneutics-of-suspicion is just as dishonestly self-inflationary. When I read this Dowden excerpt, I feel the relief of hearing a now underexpressed truth, and George Eliot is a great vehicle for it. (Henry James wrote something about her most powerful aesthetic effect being her ethics.) In a way, though, our contemporaries who want to claim that literary consumption inherently makes us better people are trying to bring back that more positive view of the Second Self, and I resist them. Maybe it’s because I’m a literary reader, and so it feels too grossly like flattery? I usually find myself most suspicious of the implied narrative voices closest to my own social identity—my reaction to Zore Neale Hurston is far less troubled than Richard Wright’s was.

By Ray Davis on 05/21/08 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment


In a way, though, our contemporaries who want to claim that literary consumption inherently makes us better people are trying to bring back that more positive view of the Second Self, and I resist them. Maybe it’s because I’m a literary reader, and so it feels too grossly like flattery?

I’ve been reading some of the material posted on the new blog OnFiction, where the contributors are experts in the ‘psychology of fiction.’ They talk about some interesting studies that do seem to show beneficent effects from reading fiction. But it does seem unlikely that all fiction has the same good effects--as you say, literary techniques may be used “as tools of sociopathy” (which goes to Tony Christini’s point above, as well)--or may be read that way, if a reader does not catch a narrator’s unreliability, for instance, or a text’s irony.  Also, as Richard Posner has pointed out, I think in his essay “Against Ethical Criticism,” if reading a lot of literature makes better people, we’d expect English professors to be particularly, distinctively, moral.  Not!  Though the OnFiction folks give some clues about why that might be, since the good effects they talk about rely on things like identification with characters and reading for self-transformation (these are my own crude summaries)--this is exactly the kind of reading the professional criticism has become mostly antithetical to…

Bill: . . . just posting things at The Valve that interest me.--As far as I can tell, that’s generally what we do around here.

I’m sure you’re right!  It’s just that when the same set people do that for long enough, their particular interests can seem to define what the site is supposed to be about.

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/22/08 at 07:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m one of the members of the new blog OnFiction, in which we offer thoughts and articles on the Psychology of Fiction. On the subject of beneficial effects of literature, the very first comment to our blog was from Rohan Maitzen, whom we thank. She mentioned a project Changing Lives Through Literature, started by people at the University of Massachusetts. It took me a bit of time to look up the project, but I have now done so and also read their book: Trounstine, J. R., & Waxler, R. (2005). Finding a voice: The practice of changing lives through literature. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
This project involves offering repeat offenders the possibility of going on probation and taking a seminar on American Literature, as an alternative to going to jail. We have put a post on the project at our site http://onfiction.blogspot.com/

By Keith Oatley on 05/23/08 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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