Saturday, November 12, 2005

On Not Being Able to Write this Morning and Jane Austen.



Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (New York: Bantam, 1985) (1st Pub. 1818).
Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 43-75.
Valerie Grosvenor-Myer, Jane Austen: Obstinate Heart (New York: Arcade, 1987), pp. 14-15.


As I sit at my computer, my daughter is practicing the piano behind me, her mother is explaining what we have to get at the grocery store later ("when you are finally done on the computer!"), and there is a television set on. I hear the mechanical laughter that is the hyena-like shriek of television's chorus accompanying our lives. A neighbor is playing his guitar and loud music is coming from downstairs. I began a novel a few days ago. Hackers altering the text have made it necessary for me to write that novel by hand.

Under these hostile circumstances, I think that it would be unwise to attempt a complex philosophical analysis today.

When writing, the opportunity to listen to the sound of one's sentences is essential. The effort of concentration involved in achieving this listening to one's unspoken words as they are formulated into sentences amidst the screeching and noise of a crowded city apartment is heroic.

I dream about a quiet space and uninterrupted "writing time." A cottage in the woods (make that Scarsdale, Connecticut), a penthouse apartment with a view of Central Park, a typewriter in the toilet. I'll settle for a rent controlled place somewhere on the Upper West Side. O.K., rent stabilized near Columbia University. I'll do the house work.

This experience reminds me of how many young people in this city must try to study or attempt to carve out a small psychic space in which to find silence together with privacy for reflection and aesthetic experience. In an apartment with one bathroom that is shared by nine people, such an achievement of privacy amounts to a small miracle.

I am not in such a situation myself -- not at the moment -- but every immigrant to the U.S. will recall early days similar to this. It is necessary to develop one's imagination and some capacity for disappearing into the self in such circumstances, or one gives up any semblance of an inner life. I chose to disappear into myself. Also, certain events in my life more than re-enforced that decision. Today, I will have to disappear into K-Mart, which is far worse.

Yesterday I saw the new movie version of Pride and Prejudice. I admire Jane Austen's writings because I think that she also chose to disappear into herself. I am sure that she struggled to become the person she knew herself to be, managing it only on the page. Based on the little reading that I have done about her life and of her work, my guess is that she loved someone (transformed into Mr. Darcy, Mr. Knightly, and a few of her other male characters) then lost that loved person -- the man she wanted -- in the Napoleonic Wars.

Ms. Austen re-created "him" in her work by imagining a witty, loving conversation that was her ideal life with him, inviting those capable of understanding them both to join them for tea. And we do. In a way, I have tried to do the same in my blogs.

There is much shrewd observation of human foibles in Austen's fiction, political ideas and other commentary (often indirect political discussion), a meeting between an eighteenth century skeptic and a Romantic sensibility is found in her narrative voice. Jane Austen is both "sense" and "sensibility." There is a lot of female erotic fantasy and wish fulfillment. You will learn a lot about women's romantic dreams through Austen's work. In fact, she has partly shaped those dreams for generations of young "ladies" all over the world.

Mr. Darcy says to Elizabeth: "You have bewitched me, body and soul." Well, that is exactly what women do to us. One of the little vixens has done exactly that to me, and boy do they love it when they've got us. Jane Austen is not some minor, frivolous, "lady novelist." She is one of the greatest literary artists in world literature. Among novelists, she is in the same league with Tolstoy, Dickens, Eliot, Cervantes. Austen's Northanger Abbey is a kind of response to Don Quixote's dreaming power. Jane read Don Quixote and Richardson's Pamela, along with Shakespeare and some guilty pleasures (Mrs. Radcliffe) these were the primary influences on her prose. Incidentally, "God and religion" were pretty thin on the ground in her world.

This most recent film version of Austen's work, which is pretty good, suffers from an estrangement by all of the lead actors from the very bizarre notion of aristocracy -- as opposed to celebrity -- so that Mr. Darcy comes across as only a jerk. Darcy was a jerk, to some extent, and he did some growing up during the course of this story, but he was (like all of the other characters in this novel) trapped in a class system that was as binding and inhibitting on him, as it was on everyone else, maybe more so. Terry Eagleton's Marxist toes curl up when he reads words like these.

Darcy could not have been more open and forthcoming than he was -- Elizabeth really appreciates this only when she fully understands his social position -- this constraint is comprehensible in her world, even by a rebel like Lizzie, as a limitation on what she can ask of him.

Jane Austen was ambivalent about this class-determination, in her pre-Marxist way (despite her fascination with property as freedom). She tried to explain it to her characters and readers, especially to Miss Elizabeth Bennett. Miss Elizabeth is one of those characters in literature that one falls in love with: her wit, intelligence, courage, quest and need for freedom are echoed not only in her creator's inner life, but in that of readers, the (mostly) young women who have known what it is like to be imprisoned by beauty and the obligation to be "lady-like" in a sexist society.

The symbol of a butterfly caught on a pin is used to get the point across in this film. Jane's weapon against the system is mine too: language, wit, imagination. I refuse to drop a handkerchief in order to draw the attention of a woman I love. I may throw a shoe at her instead. I am subtle in my flirtation method.

I must admit that I have given up all hopes of being considered a lady. Most of the women I know have never tried it. As for being a gentleman, as defined in sixteenth century dictionaries, a gentleman is one who steps "out of the bath to urinate." By that standard, on a good day, I may qualify as a gentleman. On a good day.

From my window, I see a beautiful, clear and cloudless sky. It is chilly, a breeze is stirring the leaves. This is the sort of day when Mr. Collins likes to come calling. Fortunately, I am off to K-Mart. Of course, Mr. Collins is no longer a clergyman. He is a lawyer with a large firm, specializing in corporate taxation, which he describes as "very sexy." I pity, with all my heart, those women forced by life's cruelty to spend an hour or two in the company of a Mr. Collins, engaging in what he would describe as "clever conversation" about "indentures and bonds."

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