Friday, August 21, 2009

Middlemarch Revisited, Part II: Dr. Lydgate at the Opera

We have already met Dorothea Brooke, ardent and idealistic and eager for knowledge that she can translate into social good. To achieve her end of arriving at "the core of things," she has married the dessicated scholar, Mr. Casaubon, whom she hopes will open up new vistas of knowledge to her. She has, in other words, made a Faustian bargain.

Book I of Middlemarch was published in 1871, but is set half a century earlier, in 1829, the year in which Goethe published the corrected second edition of the first part of Faust. Dr. Faust, like Dorothea, is hungry for knowledge of "the core of things;" as Goethe puts it, was die Welt im innersten zusammenhalt." Faust promises his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge.

Dorothea is not the only Faustian character in Middlemarch. Tertius Lydgate is, like Faust, a doctor, a physician and scientist determined to discover "the very grain of things" (178). His ambition is to build upon the work of the French pathologist Bichat and answer the question: "What was the primitive tissue?" (178). In this, he is also like Casaubon, whose research is an attempt to arrive at the original "revealed truth" behind the multiplicity of world mythologies. Lydgate, the physician, is evidently attempting to discover stem cells.

George Eliot was a fan of opera, and one of her favorite operas was Charles Gounod's Faust. She was "much thrilled by the great symbolical situations, and by the music." In July 1863, a few years after the opera's premier, she saw the opera twice in one week, and told a correspondent: "The opera is a great, great product—pity we can't always have fine Weltgeschichtliche dramatic motives wedded to fine music, instead of trivialities and hideousness."

Eliot finds Verdi's La Traviata trivial and hideous, but she reserves a few words of praise for the composer's Rigoletto: "Rigoletto is unpleasant, but it is a superlatively fine tragedy in the Nemesis. I think I don't know a finer" (George Eliot to Miss Sara Hennell, July 11, 1863).

In Book II of Middlemarch, we are given Dr. Lydgate's back story, including the story of a love affair during his student days in Paris, where he became enamored of an actress whose performances he attended regularly. Eliot tells us that the play he attended was a "melodrama," in which it was the part of the actress "to stab her lover, mistaking him for the evil-designing duke of the piece" (180). This is strikingly similar to the "nemesis" in Rigoletto that Eliot admired: Rigoletto pays an assassin to stab the rakish Duke, but the assassin ends up fatally stabbing Rigoletto's daughter Gilda instead.

The episode in Middlemarch is operatic. Dr. Lydgate, the young medical student in Paris distracted in the midst of his scientific experiments by a doomed love affair with a woman accused of murder, seems further marked by the episode as a Faust figure.

Lydgate leaves his experiments in "galvanism" to attend the theatre. He's been applying electric shocks to the muscular tissues of frogs and rabbits. It was his scientific hero, Bichat, who famously distinguished between voluntary and involuntary muscles—between muscles like the muscles in the leg, which we move voluntarily, and muscles like the heart which move involuntarily. In his work Physiological researches on life and death, Bichat writes: "The exterior movements of the passions are not a fair criterion of the inward feelings of the individual, for these movements may be feigned as well as real: feigned if they originate in the brain; real if they have their sources in the heart;—in the first case voluntary, in the second involuntary. Touch the pulse of an angry man, if you wish to know whether he really is in anger."

Lydgate, the star-struck lover, is convinced that the actress's foot slipped and caused her to kill her husband accidentally. Finally, months later, he confronts her about it.
"I will tell you something," she said, in her cooing way, keeping her arms folded. "My foot really slipped."

"I know, I know," said Lydgate, deprecatingly. "It was a fatal accident—a dreadful stroke of calamity that bound me to you the more."

Again Laure paused a little and then said, slowly, "I meant to do it."
Her foot slipped, but the action was voluntary. Here, as everywhere in Middlemarch, Eliot is interested in confusion between brain and heart, in the difficulty of discerning true motives and interpreting the minds and hearts of others. Even the trained physician doesn't always judge the pulse of a situation correctly. As Eliot writes at the beginning of the chapter in which this episode is recounted: "For surely all must admit that a man may be puffed and belauded, envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband, and yet remain virtually unknown—known merely as a cluster of signs for his neighbours' false suppositions" (171).

Part of Rosamond Vincy's repertoire: "Voi che sapete," from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, sung by Maria Ewing.

Read "Middlemarch Revisited, Part I" here.

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New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .