Friday, January 8, 2010

Middlemarch: A Progress Report

I am only about three-fifths through the book, but I need to gush, and to recommend Rohan Maitzen's recent article about Eliot's Felix Holt in the latest issue of Open Letters.

Middlemarch is already the most perfect book I have ever read. I forget I have coffee beside me when I'm reading it—a feat no other book has yet achieved. I forget there are other books; when I finally do look up from its pages, some comparisons strike me, but only, I think, so that the disorientation of emerging sadly back into the real world is checked to some extent.

All the principal characters are incomparable. Eliot somehow manages to make each one repel identification or even much sympathy, yet also to evade complete repugnance. One doesn't necessarily like any of the characters, yet one never wishes they would go away—not even Casaubon. And unlike the characters of, say, Henry James, of whom most of the preceding could also be said, I never wish any of them would shut up—again, not even Casaubon.

Eliot is also as epigrammatic as Nietzsche or Pope, but not as sententious because her aphorisms are not the products of mere thoughts, but of moments actually inhabited by people. Of Ladislaw: "very little achievement is required in order to pity another man's shortcomings." Of Mr. Vincy: "The right word is always a power, and communicates its definiteness to our action." Of Ladislaw again, "Our sense of duty must often wait for some work which shall take the place of dilettanteism and make us feel that the quality of our action is not a matter of indifference." It's like the Williams command "No ideas but in things," only altered to "No sentences but in people." General truths are never merely universal.

Similarly, what could be called the surplus intellectual content of the book—the ideas about ideas that builds up so much of the work of writers like Mann and Lessing—is always grounded in quite material problems facing the characters. Casaubon's Key to All Mythologies is the ultimate expression of pedantry and stamps Casaubon as a type of character, but it is not simply that, it is also what holds together the emotional problems that he and Dorothea have as a couple with the limitations—both physical and intellectual—that become obvious and insuperable when he thinks of and interacts with Ladislaw. The fact, for instance, that his Key is intellectually crippled by his lack of German is not an inert or abstract element, is not just something to add to our knowledge of the character, but is a sort of substrate for the relationship between Casaubon and Ladislaw. And in speaking his doubts to Dorothea about Casaubon's capacity for contributing something new to scholarship, Ladislaw does not merely cause Dorothea to re-estimate her husband's omniscience, but creates an emotional distance between the wife and her husband. Casaubon becomes a different person to her, and she begins to think more about herself and what she values.

Now, back to the book.

5 comments:

Rohan Maitzen said...

Thanks for the nod, Andrew! And of course I agree with you completely about Middlemarch. I like your point about the way the ideas live so fully in the characters and situations. I can't wait to get around to it in this term's graduate seminar. We're on Adam Bede now, which is making me kind of nostalgic for last summer's Valve event.

Adam Roberts said...

Like Rohan, I completely agree with you on Middlemarch -- a wonderful, wonderful novel; though what's lovely about this post is its wide-eyed 'hey! some of these books they call classics are actually ... pretty classic!' tone. I wonder to what extent you are unearthing the secret springs of your literary taste.

Rohan: that Adam Bede event (great though it was) was longer ago than last summer, I'm afraid.

Rohan Maitzen said...

I guess I meant, the summer before the most recent one....though any kind of summer seems kind of distant on a day with a projected high temperature of -7 (that's -7 C, but still!).

Molly said...

Don't worry...the "perfect" impression won't stay with you until the end! I'm glad to see some Victorian lit up on your blog.

schultzie said...

My favourite of Eliot's is the Scenes from Clerical Life - the first book that ever made me cry. The Mill on the Floss is also a favourite, but Middlemarch never really grabbed me for some reason.