Tuesday, February 20, 2018

In Lieu of Middlemarch, a Tale from My Brain

First of all, Middlemarch post is delayed a week for international travel. For those of you asking "Where should I be caught up to?", the post next Monday will cover the final chapters (28-33) of book three, "Waiting for Death."

But, since I don't have anything on that story today, I'll tell you another one, this one from my own brain. Which is a strange, strange place sometimes.

This week begins a crazy time of conferencing. This weekend, I have a weekend symposium in Frankfurt. Next weekend, it's the Medieval Academy in Atlanta. I, meanwhile, reside in a place in the Pacific time zone. So this week has required a lot of mental preparation. Over and over again, I've been repeating the litany: "Teach on Monday; Laundry/pack on Tuesday; Leave for Germany on Wednesday; Arrive on Thursday; Return home on Sunday; teach Monday-Weds; leave for Atlanta on Thursday; present on Friday; Return home on Sunday; teach on Monday..."

It's a long litany, and not an interesting one, but it's been helping me by cementing in my mind that there's a precise order to everything, and if I stick to it, I'll be more or less fine. Tired, but fine. The papers are done, anyway.

So, today (Tuesday) I had set aside as my calm-before-the-storm day off, a day to charge the batteries before two weeks of chaos. I was going to meet a friend for morning coffee, then go to yoga, do laundry, pack, etcetera. And this morning, I woke up at 4:30, because I was a little cold. As I found another blanket and resettled in, I reminded myself that I needed to remember to take my passport info to the coffee shop, because yesterday when I had tried to check in for my flight, I didn't have what I needed with me.

And then it occurred to me to wonder: Why would the airline send me a check-in notification two days before the flight, rather than the usual one day?

And then it hit me.

Oh, shit.

And at 4:30, I was suddenly wide awake, checking my e-mail. Yes indeed: I had miscalculated my departure. I'm not leaving tomorrow.

I'm leaving today.

Happy travels!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Thinking of Money (Middlemarch chs. 23-27)

“Think no ill of her, pray: she had no wicked plots, nothing sordid or mercenary; in fact, she never thought of money except as something necessary which other people would always provide.” (chapter 27)

This week’s chapters find us back with the wide and varied middle of Middlemarch: those striving to move from the middle class to the gentry, those hanging on to their middle-class livings by their fingernails, and still coming up short, and those for whom money (or other people’s lack of money) is a way to exert power. But it’s also about a self-absorption that afflicts most of the characters.

A quick synopsis: We learn of how Fred Vincy has gotten into financial trouble, and has thought to get out of it by “investing” in a horse that almost immediately kicks a groom and then lames itself. Worse, his most recent debt extension has Mary’s father, Mr. Garth, as a cosigner. He confesses to Mr. & Mrs. Garth, who will now have to use their savings for their son’s education, plus whatever Mary has saved up. And we meet Mr. and Mrs. Garth, in-laws to spiteful Featherstone, but about as far from him in temperament as one might imagine. Anyway, Fred confesses to Mary, who is angry at him: first for lowing the money; second for caring more about his reputation with her than the real harm he has done. But she does soften to him a little, and when her father comes, who turns over her savings, and assures him that she won’t become engaged to Fred. Meanwhile, Fred takes to his bed with what turns out to be misdiagnosed typhus. This occasions a conflict between Lydgate, who is now treating him, and Dr. Wrench, who provided the original mistaken diagnosis. The petty feud is grist of the rumor mill in Middlemarch, but the illness and Lydgate’s attendance on the Vincy household throws him into closer contact with Rosamond. Here, too, are signs that Middlemarch may swallow Lydgate up, in yet another way.

On Money, and how it might be used and abused:
  • [Mr. Garth] was one of those precious men within his own district whom everybody would choose to work for them, because he did his work well, charged very little, and often declined to charge at all. It is no wonder, then, that the Garths were poor, and ‘lived in a small way.’ However, they did not mind it.” [ch. 24]
  • Mr. Featherstone’s opinion of Caleb Garth: “…felt himself ill at ease with a brother-in-law whom he could not annoy, who did not mind about being considered poor, had nothing to ask of him, and understood all kinds of farming and mining business better than he did.” [ch. 26]

On Self-Absorption:
  • “[Mrs. Garth] had made Fred feel for the first time something like the tooth of remorse. Curiously enough, his pain in the affair beforehand had consisted almost entirely in the sense that he must seem dishonourable, and sink in the opinion of the Garths; he had not occupied himself with the inconvenience and possible injury that his breach might occasion them, for this exercise of the imagination on other people’s needs is not common with hopeful young gentlemen. Indeed we are most of us brought up in the notion that the highest motive for not doing a wrong is something irrespective of the beings who would suffer the wrong.” [ch. 24]
  • “Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! The scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere e impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection, These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person…” [ch. 27]

And now, with apologies for the bullet points nature of this week’s post, I'm going to sign off. I’m at the office almost four hours after my last class ended, I’ve eaten an egg, a piece of cheese, and an orange all day, and I really need to post this and go home. But please do jump in!

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Bestest Week Ever

Considering that I came down with the flu on Sunday and am still suffering symptoms, you'd not think that this was the Best Week Ever (lately). But it was. My old blogfriend Squadratomagico does Friday Facebook posts asking what was the best thing that happened all week, and for once, I had trouble picking one. And so right now, with a stuffed-up brain, here are some of the truly excellent things, all of which happened between Monday and Thursday:

  • Little Brother and Youngest Nephew arrived in town for a visit to the Beehive and points south. There was beach time and delicious food and general silliness.
  • My last M.A. student (for the forseeable future -- we've had to temporarily shutter my field in the grad program) just got notified that s/he's been accepted into one of the best Ph.D. programs in the country for hir field.
  • The students in my Mediterranean seminar absolutely killed it last night, in a week where they -- undergrads and grads -- had to read 450 pages of Pirenne, Braudel, Goitein, Horden & Purcell, and Abulafia, and process it all. They totally got into it. One undergrad even professed his love for Braudel by calling him "the Beyoncé of the Mediterranean."
  • I got reimbursed for my major travel expenses for one of two upcoming conferences.
    I'm mostly caught up on grading and lectures and stuff, and even ahead in some places.
  • I knocked out a near-final draft to the second of two upcoming conference papers, and can now return to writing on the "Sometimes an Adequate Notion" chapter of my book.

Okay, so I'm still going through about a box of kleenex a week, and don't feel like I can ride my bike or do yoga without exhausting myself and/or making others ill. And my body is drained of all moisture. But even with all that, life is excellent this week.

How about you guys?

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Least Partial Good (Middlemarch, chapters 18-22)

A quick recap: Most of these chapters are set in Rome, following Dorothea, Casaubon, and Ladislaw (remember him?), but the first one is set in Middlemarch, finishing off the election of chaplain, in which Lydgate surprises none of us by going along with the general consensus and voting for Bulstrode’s candidate Tyke, rather than for Farebrother, whom he obviously prefers. Meanwhile, in Rome, Dorothea is beginning to realize that she’s made a terrible mistake when she runs into her nephew-by-marriage Ladislaw, still on his aimless European tour to find himself and his purpose. He’s fallen in with a German painter named Naumann, and has caught the Romanticism bug, which appeals to his spirit (he being sort of an off-brand would-be Byron, minus the talent and the true commitment to self-destruction). Ladislaw begins to develop feelings for his aunt by marriage, seeing in her a kindred ardent spirit, and realizing at once what Dorothea has slowly been coming to: that she’s not going to be happy with a dried-up old stick like Casaubon. Dorothea may be feeling something for Ladislaw as well, but she is still committed to her course, trying to smooth over the bumps in her marriage even as she is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with it, and seeing the flaws in both her new husband and her own decision-making abilities. Casaubon, for his part, is coming to a disturbing realization of his own: that Dorothea may be capable of not worshipping him unconditionally.

Oh: And Casaubon doesn’t know German! For you non-historians out there, the Germans were at the cutting edge of historical scholarship in the mid-19th century — though probably more in Eliot’s own time than in the period that the novel is set in. Basically, this fact about Casaubon is meant to communicate that what seems like erudition is really antiquarianism, and that even if he ever finishes his book, it will never amount to much.

On Middlemarch as academic novel: As I read chapter 18, which is the very last Lydgate chapter before moving to Rome, I couldn’t help seeing the committee of medical men (by the way, does anyone know why medical men are the committee to elect a chaplain?) as an academic department — and the kind of ugly, dysfunctional portrait one gets in academic novels. I was particularly struck by this quote: “[They] concealed with much etiquette their contempt for each other’s skill. Regarding themselves as Middlemarch institutions, they were ready to combine against all innovators, and against non-professionals given to interference.” And, of course, in the end, Lydgate, like most academics, goes along to get along, laboriously convincing himself that he’s doing the right thing, while all the while that little voice in his head tells him that this is wrong. Anyone want to take bets on how long until he’s assimilated into department culture?

On sensuality and rationality: Eliot has several times hinted at a deep vein of sensuality — a capital-R Romantic spirit — in Dorothea, and how scrupulously Dorothea has suppressed that in herself. But apparently she can only do this for so long. Her time in Rome — and her realization that her new husband will never see what she sees — has become the trigger: “What was fresh to her mind was worn out to his, and such capacity of thought and feeling as had ever been stimulated in him by the general life of mankind had long shrunk to a sort of dried preparation, a lifeless embalmment of knowledge.” Perhaps the painter Naumann sees her most clearly: “a sort of Christian Antigone — sensuous force controlled by spiritual passion.”

On doing the least partial good: in chapter 22, Dorothea, speaking with Ladislaw ostensibly about art, veers into a discussion of life and its little turning points: “I see it must be difficult to do anything good. I have often felt since I have been in Rome that most of our lives would look much uglier and more bungling than the pictures, if they could be put on the wall.” In both Dorothea and Lydgate, we see people whose great purpose is slowly eroded by their own small compromises (Lydgate) or idealistic but ill-informed decisions (Dorothea). This is where the title for this post comes from: a quote in chapter 20 in which the narrator tells us that “in Dorothea’s mind there was a current into which all thought and feeling were apt sooner or later to flow: the reaching forward of the whole consciousness towards the fullest truth, the least partial good. There was clearly something better than anger and despondency.” All things told, this is probably the best she can do. But the phrase “the least partial good” I read as Eliot’s wry inversion of the core of Utilitarian philosophy (the “felicific calculus” of “The greatest good for the greatest number” — see my interlude of a couple weeks ago). Dorothea is neither a Romantic like Ladislaw nor a Utilitarian; she is starting to see that it will take most of her effort to cause as little unhappiness as possible.

Gah. That’s a grim note to end on. So let me finish on the one laugh-out-loud quote in this week’s reading. From chapter 18, in which the learned gentlemen of Middlemarch are debating the Tyke-versus-Farebrother question: “Nobody had anything to say against Mr. Tyke, except that they could not bear him…”

That’s it. Next Monday we begin a new book (“Waiting for Death” — sounds fun!), and we’ll take the first five chapters (23-27) in which we return to likeable, hapless Fred Vincy.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Getting Romantic: A Middlemarch Interlude

Welcome to your latest installment of “The Victorian Era by and for Nonspecialists.” If you find me wrong in any particulars – especially if you are a specialist! – please leave corrections in the comments section.

As we turn to the second half of book 2 next Monday, we are going to return to Dorothea and Casaubon in Rome on their honeymoon. I don’t think it’s going to be too much of a spoiler to tell you that they’re going to bump into Will Ladislaw again. Remember Will? He’s the young man of artistic temperament with no particular goals. But understanding him – and maybe his and Dorothea’s interaction – requires understanding another cultural movement around this time: Romanticism.

Romanticism was, to put it very roughly, the artistic equivalent to Methodist emotionalism, but in literature, painting, even architecture. The movement in general is a conscious rejection of artifice in favor of nature, of cold rationalism (like the Utilitarians) in favor of mystery and the exotic; a belief that the imagination can create something truer than reality, a glimpse behind the veil of sense perception into the world of the transcendent/sublime. The movement had different variants in different parts of Europe. In Germany, for example, it was linked with mythology (think Wagner) as much as it was with nature. English romanticism was less nationalist-mythologizing. Rather, literature, poetry, and painting manifested the movement primarily in three themes: pastoralism (as a rejection of industrial modernity), exoticism/orientalism, and a fascination with the glories of past civilizations -- and, through their ruins, a fixation on the evanescent nature of even the greatest of human achievements. These themes also were reflected in architecture, where the fascinations were with both the gothic and the eastern, as symbols of mystery.

The movement also gave birth to a new type of artist: the "Romantic hero" (perhaps best personified by Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and their circle) is a genius who rejects worldly concerns and defies moral convention for their class in order to pursue higher truths. Like a certain young man we have met…