Friday, August 3, 2007

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park Jane AustenThis is my first Shameful Omission Admission for the blog, and I must admit that I chose it first (rather than some of the shockers which will be coming later) because it is not so very shameful not to have read it; not as shameful, at any rate, as not having read Pride and Prejudice (which I have read). But there is an element of shame in admitting not to have read the whole of Austen, for an English major at least.

Also, I wanted to categorize MP as such because it would allow me to talk about a book that just came out in England by Frenchman Pierre Bayard, titled Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? or How to discuss books one has not read. I hardly need to say that I haven't read M. Bayard's book, but I do feel somewhat qualified to talk about the phenomenon, and I may as well take this time to get some confessing done. I am a cardinal sinner when it comes to discussing books I haven't read, and I feel terrible about it. I fully intend to read everything about which I opine, but the simple fact is that I get distracted quite often by things which consume vast amounts of time and which are completely worthless when it comes to rounding out my reading of the Jamesian canon (I've read only Daisy Miller, "Turn of the Screw," and The Aspern Papers)—things like fantasy baseball and sleeping.

M. Bayard argues (it seems) that this feeling of guilt is unnecessary and detrimental to the possibility that one might very well have fruitful conversations about books which no one has read. I completely agree with him—I have had a number of those—but I can't shake the feeling of guilt, or feel that my lack of authenticity isn't somehow deleterious to my integrity. And it is just in reading a work like Mansfield Park that I find some validation for this feeling.

M. Bayard speaks (or at least the reviewer speaks) of the existence of "virtual libraries"—"works we cannot help but be familiar with." I completely affirm the existence of such libraries and I do think they have a certain use—without them, pedagogy in the humanities would grind to a halt—professors forcing their students to read the entirety of Freud's General Introduction before discussing the ego, id, and superego, or Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit before explaining the dialectic would grind classes to a halt. Of course we know that we should read what Hegel actually wrote, and work to put it in the context of his much larger arguments, but we don't, and if we suffer for it, we're pretty much all suffering together.

However, while this may be perfectly fine for someone like Hegel, to whom is attached minimal cultural assumptions or iconological baggage, this "virtual library" works much to the detriment of a writer like Jane Austen, who will shortly be the subject of a (very fanciful) "biopic," and whose novels have been ossified in the cultural eye as a certain type, from which can be reproduced various Darcy spinoff novels or that insufferable Bridget Jones or (much more pleasantly and rather ingeniously) Clueless. When a writer is over-determined by her (and it's usually a her—other examples are Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson) cultural/iconic image to the extent that most "readers" approach her through tertiary cultural products (i.e. products that have very little to do with the books themselves—that aren't criticism—but are rather in reference to the popular notion of the writer's personality and, more generously, authorial preoccupations—love, marriage, English country houses), then I believe the effect of "virtual libraries" becomes positively harmful. Shakespeare is still allowed enough internal differentiation that few people believe a modern-dress "adaptation" of one of his plays—the Twelfth Night-lite She's the Man, for instance—to be paradigmatic of all of his works—one still knows that, in addition to comedies about gender-switching and fortunate misidentifications, there are also tragedies. No one, I think, assumes Shakespeare's plays all say the same thing. That unfortunately cannot be said of the popular perception of Jane Austen, and that is most unfortunate because Mansfield Park, for instance, says and does some very wonderful things which almost completely turn over much of what is said and done in Pride and Prejudice.

Or so says the critic Lionel Trilling, whose essay on MP is referred to in one of my favorite films, Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (which is itself a sort of adaptation of MP). In a wonderful exchange, Tom, a young man of rather humble background, is speaking to Audrey, a member of a set of the old moneyed youth of New York. Audrey is an Austen fan.
Audrey Rouget: What Jane Austen novels have you read?
Tom Townsend: None. I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it's all just made up by the author.
Tom goes on to defend himself in a very Bayardian way, saying "You don't have to read a book to have an opinion."

The idea of reading good literary criticism not merely to supplement or to refresh one's reading of an author but to replace it is, I must say, occasionally enticing. I have the Trilling essay in question in a book that also includes essays on James's The Bostonians and Dickens's Little Dorrit. I have read neither of those and would rather read many other books before them. Would it not do to read instead Trilling's essays and, if I'm feeling very generous, seek out a second opinion on the books to give myself a rounder knowledge and appreciation?

Or there is the new-ish justification for using criticism instead of reading: Franco Moretti's "distant reading," an idea which I must again confess does in some ways appeal to me and make some sense. Moretti's process of distant reading is premised on the idea that literature works as a system, and that we should study it as such and give up our narrow (and rather theological) approach which is focused (as much as we may deny it or try to expand it) on the principle of canonicity, the principle that certain books are worthy of intense study, and nearly all others are not worth any study whatsoever. Moretti instead looks at other scholars' work in recreating bibliographies of genres or national literatures—counting how many detective stories were produced in England in the period 1890-1910 or how many novels total were published per year in Japan under the Meiji Restoration, and trying to explain certain trends sociologically and/or historically. Moretti doesn't—or professes not to—read the books in these bibliographies, but merely to count them, to graph them, and this he calls "distant reading."

I am to some extent thrilled by this—I have my own doubts about the heavy reliance on hermeneutics in literary study, and I am convinced that more sociology would shift our perspective to cover some of our blind spots of today. I am also completely thrilled by the renewed emphasis on form Moretti's project demands, although projects like Caroline Levine's strategic formalism or D.A. Miller's renewed emphasis on style are equally exciting to me.
I find I haven't said anything about the novel Mansfield Park itself; I wanted to write about some of these issues, and I do think they tie in with certain themes and questions in MP, but that connection will have to wait for another post. Part II coming soon.

In the meantime, watch Danny Boyle's SUNSHINE if you can. It's astonishing.

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