Monday, August 14, 2006

"The Impressions of Theophrastus Such" George Eliot

Written two years before her death, this is Eliot’s summing up, her distillation of her atheistically yet humanly ethical philosophy, her ultimate meditations on the nature of life and writing, her analysis of character without the need to create plot to help the reader along. Couched as a series of reflections on the nature of his friends by the narrator called Theophrastus, the book thus situates itself into the genre of character writing, invented by the eponymous Greek philosopher. However, the book signals its intention to be taken as a meditation on human character generally by the strangeness of the character’s names, which ostensibly hide the identities of the originals and at the same time awake echoes of Medieval morality literature and Latin literature: Ganymede for the writer who was famous when young, Sir Gavial Mantrap for the immoral swindler, Mixtus, Scintilla, Lentullus etc. About half way through the book, in the essay called ‘Debasing the Moral Currency’ it seems as if Eliot herself hijacks the narrative voice, and Theophrastus is lost. It’s not so much a stridency of tone, but rather an intensifying of the intellectual argument without the illustration of character: Eliot decides to make no concessions to her readers, and discontinues her attempts to illustrate her arguments by fictional character studies. The book thus swerves from fictional literature to expository literature. The text bristles with erudition in a host of European languages, both living and dead, and there are constant references to contemporary cutting edge scientific and geographical knowledge. This shift in the narrative voice effectively shifts the book into a new genre, that of the humanistic essayist: in her attempts to understand and get to the bottom of her individual relationship with the reality of life and the perception of it by consciousness, Eliot joins Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius and Bacon in a tradition that ultimately descended from Socrates's dictum: the unexamined life is not worth living.

Consciousness does not come off too well: it is a futile cargo […] screeching irrelevantly, like fowl tied head downmost to the saddle of a swift horseman, or an idle parasite on the grand scheme of things. This increased cynicism of tone towards the end of the book, is balanced by a perceptive, candid and humble analysis of Theophrastus’s meditations in the opening chapter, which warn against the coming cynicism: I began […]to watch with peculiar alarm lest what I called my philosophic estimate of the human lot in general, should be a mere prose lyric expressing my own pain and consequent bad temper.

Structurally, each essay develops an idea or theme first brought up in the opening chapter, and there is lots of reiteration of ideas, a circular, meandering structure which is organic rather than linear. This exemplifies Eliot’s belief in the interconnectedness of humanity with each other and with the world, an idea that she develops to its aesthetic conclusion in Middlemarch. The first and last essays function as book ends: the first essay prefigures many of the themes developed later in other essays, while the last essay deals with the strange theme of similarity, or diversity within general sameness. There is a constant and subtle shifting of emphasis in this essay. Is the opening section on the nature of similarity and diversity a lesson drawn from Eliot’s/Theophrastus’s reflection on the nature of the Jews; or is the description of the nature of the Jews an exemplification, like the character drawings of the other essays, of the theme of similarity and diversity? What is the correct balance of emphasis here? One is never quite sure. Eliot has an obsession with Jews as we know from Deronda, but how ironic that this extended meditation on the history and nature of the Jews sits in the same space as Eliot’s/Theophrastus's repulsive high Victorian views on nationalism, that could almost come from Mein Kampf: …not only the nobleness of the nation depends on the presence of this national consciousness, but also the nobleness of each individual citizen. And yet also in this essay we have the distillation of Eliot’s humanism, in her categorization of vice, evil and naughtiness. She delineates what she considers to be vices, and in place of the conventional high Victorian morality which one would expect (greed, sloth, avarice etc) one has this:

Eliot’s (Such’s) vices:
A spirit of bitter isolation
Scorn for wolfish hypocrisy
Triumph at prospering at other’s expense
Lying conformity
A pretence of conversion
Outward renunciation of hereditary ties
Lack of real love towards society
Unscrupulous grinders of people

The implication here, of course, is that turning away from vices such as these, as Theophrastus attempts to do in his first essay, is Eliot’s program for life, her view of the virtuous man.

The sentences meander and subdivide and split further hairs, and enact marvelously the process of thought itself. Late James was no originator of this type of sentence. Eliot commands your concentration, and once given, it is richly rewarded with the occasional brilliant epigram:

It is in the nature of foolish reasoning to seem good to the foolish reasoner.
Is it really to the advantage of an opinion that I should be known to be the holder of it?
Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say, refrains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact.

The matter (to use an Eliotic word) of most of the chapters shows a preoccupation with change, the change wrought on character by the exigencies and disappointments of life. She cites many examples of people who have become unaware of these changes in their characters and who keep behaving as they did when they were young. Other themes are the hypocrisy of society (from which Eliot suffered enormously in her personal life) and the worth wrongfully attributed and rewarded to mediocrity. She is relentlessly and fearlessly highbrow and serious (see how she barges in on the fictional Theophrastus of whom we have become fond, elbowing him out of the discourse) decrying, for example, with her usual astonishing prescience, the habit of the English of pouring irony over everything and turning everything into a joke. What must she have thought of the current English obsession with comedy, in which it has become acceptable to seriously debate whether cancer is a suitable subject for stand up!? And the concurrent anti-intellectualism that pervades education, writing and journalism, indeed every aspect of English cultural life? How she would have despised and despaired of our time.

And the overarching metaphor through the book is writing itself. Many of the cautionary characters are writers, low-brow, high brow, lowly, over praised or over extended.

When we come to examine in detail what is the sane mind in the sane body, the final test of completeness seems to be a security of distinction between what we have professed and what we have done; what we have aimed at and what we have achieved; what we have invented and what we have witnessed, or had evidenced to us; what we think and feel in the present and what we thought and felt in the past.

On reading this book, one feels a sense of hopelessness at ever being able to be such a perfect human being as the writer of stuff like this, and at the same time, also filled with a sense of how worthwhile a project for life the attempt at least would be.

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