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.


Amstr said...

Here are some of my favorite moments (I apparently really liked Chapter 20; all the quotes are from it except the last, which is from Chapter 21).

In elaborating on Dorothea's tears in Chapter 20: "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all of ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity." There is a sense in which Eliot's narrator sees this stupidity as necessary for survival, but s/he also seems to mourn the loss of our attentiveness--that we are blind to so much in the world because its frequency makes it merely background noise. While so much of Middlemarch is about the human in society, moments like this point to how much it's about the human condition.

On Dorothea's discoveries concerning Casaubon: Casaubon "was as genuine a character as any ruminant animal, and he had not actively assisted in creating any illusions about himself. How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither?" I just love the turns of phrase. We see Casaubon as a tragicomic figure here, and Dorothea as becoming aware of her own naiveté.

Casaubon's cluelessness: "He had not found marriage a rapturous state, but he had no idea of being anything else than an irreproachable husband, who would make a charming young woman as happy as she deserved to be." His lack of self-awareness puts me in the mood of Ladislaw below.

And in the spirit of the academic etiquette, the description of Ladislaw's attempt to handle his inclination to laugh or "burst into scornful invective" when thinking on how Casaubon had managed to woo Dorothea: "For an instant he felt that the struggle was causing a queer contortion of his mobile features, but with a good effort he resolved it into nothing more offensive than a merry smile."

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I do love these quotes. And the first one... we're just getting more (dare I say it?) existential despair about the human condition. "Stupidity as necessary to survival" -- could anything better sum up our times?

And yes: that last Ladislaw quote *does* go well with the Middlemarch-as-academic-novel thing, doesn't it? :-D