Sunday, June 21, 2009

`Compassion, Reverence, Self-Control'

My friend the retired English professor writes:

“I just read your delightful entry on Daniel Deronda, one of my all-time favorites. I first read it as a senior at Carleton College (1950) in a course on the English novel. Our handbook was [F.R.] Leavis's The Great Tradition (just out). We had a memorable time being guided (by a fine instructor) through novels of Eliot, James, and Conrad. DD was out of print at the time so our teacher searched the Chicago used-book stores for copies -- a number of them three-deckers. Now of course there are many reprints -- I must have 4 or 5. I've used DD in my Victorian literature courses with surprisingly satisfying results.

“Of all the Victorians Eliot had the most refined and powerful moral imagination--surpassing, I think, in this respect Arnold and Newman. I plan to get [Gertrude] Himmelfarb’s book on DD -- I've been reading her since she started publishing, especially for her studies of Burke.”

It’s a measure of how far we’ve fallen that I’m surprised an academic can write this way and so well. The fervent pleasure he takes in literature and the quiet assumption of its centrality to our lives; the respect for Leavis; the one-time unavailability of Daniel Deronda, one of the greatest of English novels; the appreciation of Eliot’s “most refined and powerful moral imagination”; the regard for Himmelfarb’s work – all are evidence of a sensibility long eclipsed by politics, fashion and a general fascination with the trivial. Implicit in my friend’s e-mail is a mode of civilized being (“the disposition to be conservative,” in Michael Oakeshott’s words) identified by Adam Kirsch in his review of The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot published recently in Tablet:

“Yet if her ideas were radical, her fiction glorified the `conservative’ virtues—compassion, reverence, self-control. Indeed, Eliot believed that the more freely men thought, the more disciplined their behavior must be.”

This too, I suppose, sounds as quaint as Leavis’ “Great Tradition,” “moral imagination” and “three-deckers.” One mark of Eliot’s greatness is her slipperiness, the ease with which she eludes pigeon-holing and ideological recruitment. What she once wrote of women applies with justice to each of us, in particular the readers and writers among us:

“Women have not to prove that they can be emotional, and rhapsodic, and spiritualistic; everyone believes that already. They have to prove that they are capable of accurate thought, severe study, and continuous self-command.”

1 comment:

Buce said...

Um--wouldn't it be worth recalling that Leavis' own opinion of DD was mixed. He greatly admired the Gwendolyn story, hated the DD part. I should add I think he's own the right track here, though I would say that the DD part is not so much bad as (especially coming from such a one as GE) surprisingly ignorant. She really doesn't seem to know much at all about the social situation of Judaism in her time, and doesn't seem to know that she doesn't know.