Thursday, October 05, 2017

`An Abstraction Is Alchemised into Concreteness'

Late in The Transferred Life of George Eliot: The Biography of a Novelist (Oxford University Press, 2017), Philip Davis, at the conclusion of his chapter on The Mill on the Floss, interpolates a quotation he leaves unsourced in the text:

“Of all the pleasures of reading I rank this the highest – hearing a voice, speaking as if it were directly to you – almost as a confidence – of something the writer has come to know for himself: come to know at a cost, or as a joy. . . . I believe that the intimate, naked voice of indurated experience is what stays with us after all the paraphernalia of plot and what else has been forgotten.”

Only in the notes does Davis identify his source as the English novelist Howard Jacobson in his essay “It’s the Thought That Counts,” published in the summer 2008 issue of The Reader, an apparently defunct English magazine. “Such is the voice of George Eliot,” adds Davis, “arising out of the struggle of human psychology.” That’s not quite the right word. “Psychology” suggests the academic and pseudo-scientific, the opposite of literary accomplishment. Great writers encourage a sense of intimacy and trust in readers – a rare literary gift. Even vast narratives like War and Peace and Daniel Deronda can seem whispered confidentially into our ears. But the first illustration of Jacobson’s observation that comes to mind is not a novel but a memoir. Nadezhda Mandelstam writes in the first chapter of Hope Abandoned (trans. Max Hayward, 1974): “I am going to write about myself alone though. . . I am really concerned less with myself than with the scraps of experience I have stored up during my life.” Her “experience,” not to be confused with the person she is, and she is becoming, echoes Jacobson’s “indurated experience,” a phrase suited to Mandelstam’s hard-boiled sensibility and her volumes of memoir.

In his chapter on Middlemarch, Davis cites Jacobson’s essay a second time. Dorothea Brooke marries Casaubon, he writes, “with the abstract idea of self-devotion, projecting upon the old man her own youthful need for idealism.” Through the unsuitability of the marriage, Dorothea comes to recognize, Eliot tells us, her husband’s “equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.” Like it or not, she learns a degree of respect for her husband, for a person fundamentally unlike herself. Eliot enacts this with exquisite subtlety. It is an essential life lesson, part of a profound moral maturation, lost on so many of us. Davis writes and then quotes Jacobson:

“Here with some future Dorothea, as Howard Jacobson rehearses it, `an idea is wrought back to sense, an abstraction is alchemised into concreteness, until the thing we call sympathy is discovered, not in an act of voluntary loving kindness, but as an actual sense perception.’”

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