Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An Imaginary Correspondence

The Scottish man of letters Andrew Lang (1844-1912) was a friend of Rhoda Broughton, and in his book of "epistolary parodies," Old Friends (1890), he imagined a correspondence between Professor Forth in Broughton's Belinda and Mr. Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch. The correspondence also includes letters between other characters in the two novels. Having just read both Middlemarch and Belinda, I was amused by Lang's interweaving of the two plots. The complete correspondence, courtesy of Google Books, can be read below.


Reading Journal: "Belinda"

Rhoda Broughton, Belinda. Originally published in 1883 in Great Britain. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics in 1984.

"All my energy was directed upon one end," Professor Mark Pattison writes in his memoirs, "—to improve myself, to form my own mind, to sound things thoroughly, to free myself from the bondage of unreason, and the traditional prejudices which, when I first began to think, constituted the whole of my intellectual fabric. I have nothing beyond trivial personalities to tell in the way of incident. If there is anything of interest in my story, it is as a story of mental development."

Pattison, the Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, devoted his life to scholarship. His major work was a biography of the late sixteenth-century classical scholar Isaac Casaubon, and it is as the putative model for another Casaubon—Mr. Edward Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch—that Pattison is remembered today. Although the identification of Pattison with Eliot's Casaubon is disputed, Pattison was indisputably the model for Professor Forth, the dull, irritable "Professor of Etruscan" in Rhoda Broughton's Belinda. The unflattering likeness was so widely acknowledged that Pattison himself, on a visit to Broughton's home in Oxford, had himself announced as "Professor Forth."

The novel begins in Dresden in the spring. Belinda Churchill and her spirited, dog-loving younger sister Sarah are on holiday with their grandmother. While Sarah avidly collects beaux as if they were Dresden figurines, Belinda falls for the young English student David Rivers. Unfortunately, Belinda's shyness and insecurity make her appear cold, and Rivers fails to press his suit. The couple is parted, and Belinda, believing she has lost her true love forever, resigns herself to a loveless marriage with Professor Forth, who proceeds to suck every ounce of joy from her life.

Then Rivers reappears, still ardent and unattached. These days, Belinda would feel little hesitation about writing off her mistake and leaving the Professor. But in late Victorian England, she finds herself in a bind. Although Broughton's novel is a shocking depiction of the soul-crushing tyranny of a bad Victorian marriage, it's difficult to warm to Belinda. Her beautiful cold exterior masks a rather foolish and rather shallow interior that easily fills up with bitterness and self-pity. Even her relationship with Rivers fails to generate enough of a spark to thaw Belinda. Her reserve freezes her out of her own life.

Belinda's husband is a monster—but so, in some way, is each of the characters: the flirtatious Sarah, the self-absorbed Mrs. Churchill, the tactless Miss Watson. Broughton creates a world in which the seeds of sympathy fall upon barren ground.

Professor Forth's major contribution to scholarship is an edition of the fragments of Menander. He is Professor of Etruscan, a language that exists only in a few scattered fragments and loan words. With the professor, Belinda is only able to find fragments of happiness, and Broughton seems to imply that such is life.

After she had posted a copy of her wedding announcement to Rivers, Belinda sits down to read to her husband. Curiously, the passage she reads to him is from Darwin: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous successive slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. No doubt many organs exist of which we do not know the transitional grades."

There is growth and change and survival. There is something that connects the apparent fragments of life, but poor Belinda cannot find it. She falteringly reads the passage to her husband, he asks her to repeat it ("pray repeat that last paragraph; I am unable to follow you; you are making nonsense of it!'), and she faints.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Dino Kale and Chicken Pizza

Dino kale is in season and available at Just Food Co-op. It travels about fifteen miles from Gardens of Eagan to the produce section of Just Food. I picked up a bunch of dino kale yesterday and fashioned it into a pizza topping, along with grilled chicken and fresh cherry tomatoes from a friend's garden. Most of the ingredients—except for the olive oil, salt and pepper, and mozzarella—could be found in season now from local sources. Barbara Kingsolver, whose Animal, Vegetable, Miracle I'm in the midst of reading, would approve.

Dino Kale and Chicken Pizza

1 grilled chicken breast, cubed
half a bunch of dino kale, chopped
olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper
cherry tomatoes, halved
grated mozzarella
pizza dough

Preheat oven to 425°. Heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan. Add minced garlic and cook, stirring often, until lightly golden. Add chopped dino kale and sauté over moderate heat until limp, 5-10 minutes. Stir in chicken during the last minute or two of cooking. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roll out pizza dough, brush lightly with olive oil, and top with cooked dino kale and chicken, tomatoes, and mozzarella. Cook in preheated oven. Makes one large pizza.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Reading Journal: Burke's Speech on Conciliation with America

Edmund Burke

The British politician and writer Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is often claimed as the father of modern conservatism, and in the pages of Burke's great speech on Conciliation with America (1774), conservatism sounds eminently reasonable. In tone and intellect, there is a vast difference between Burke and the living, fire-breathing conservatives of Fox News, whose object is to inflame rather than to persuade. One wonders what Burke, for whom conservatism was a matter of civility and the preservation of polite civilization, would have made of Glenn Beck, for whom it's a matter of fear- and hate-mongering.

It's true that Burke had an Irishman's hot temper. "Burke's faults," says Hammond Lamont, the editor of a nineteenth-century school text of the speech, "were clearly those of an ardent temperament." Edward Gibbon called Burke "the most eloquent and rational madman I have ever known." Most television conservatives these days strike me more as simple madmen, without the eloquence or reason. In nineteenth century American high schools and universities, Burke's speech was studied as a model of good writing and argumentation. It still remains compelling and inspiring.

The two most frequently cited characteristics of Burke's conservatism are his appeal to experience over theory, and his preference for slow and incremental change over sudden innovation. The two are closely connected, since for Burke tradition is the accumulation of human experience and wisdom, and should not be lightly abandoned for an untested theory. "The question now...is," he tells Parliament, "whether you will choose to abide by a profitable experience or a mischievous theory; whether you choose to build on imagination or fact; whether you prefer enjoyment or hope..." His whole understanding of the function of government is summed up in a passage near the end of the speech:
All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniencies; we give and take; we remit some rights that we may enjoy others; we choose rather to be happy citizens than subtle disputants.
In 1774, the question before Parliament was how to deal with the American colonies, who were refusing to submit to taxation without representation and were in open defiance of Parliament. Burke, who would later be a passionate opponent of the French Revolution, stands squarely on the side of the colonists. Why did he support one set of revolutionaries and execrate the other? As David Womersley (the editor of my Penguin edition of Gibbon) explains: "In France it is the revolutionaries themselves who are the peddlers of political, financial, legal, and moral innovation. In America, political and legal innovation had come from Great Britain and had been resisted by the colonists." In Burke's view, the system of taxation proposed by Parliament for the colonies was an untried theory, an "innovation," something that went against the traditions of the British Constitution. The American Revolution was, in Womersley's words, "that paradoxical thing, a conservative revolution." It was about restoring the traditional rights and liberties of British subjects, and resisting the innovative and arbitrary exercise of Parliamentary power.

Burke's analysis of the American character—the American love of liberty, reinforced by democratic assemblies and dissenting religion—is masterful. His peroration argues that the best method of securing a revenue from the colonies is not by a mass of legislation, but by cultivating their "interest in the British Constitution"—by stirring their patriotic sense of inclusion in the civil rights and privileges of British citizens.
My hold of the colonies is in the close affection which grows from common names, from kindred blood, from similar privileges and equal protection. These are the ties which, though light as air, are as strong as links of iron. Let the colonies always keep their idea of their civil rights associated with your government,—they will cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance.
This idea resonates down through the great speeches of American statesmen like Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln. One hears the echo of it in Lincoln's invocation of the "bonds of affection" in the First Inaugural Address.*

In his Memoirs, Edward Gibbon wrote: "As soon as I understood the principles, I relinquished for ever the pursuit of the mathematics; nor can I lament that I desisted, before my mind was hardened by the habit of rigid demonstration, so destructive of the finer feelings of moral evidence, which must, however, determine the actions and opinions of our lives." Burke expresses a similar sentiment: "Man acts from adequate motives relative to his interest, and not on metaphysical speculations. Aristotle, the great master of reasoning, cautions us, and with great weight and propriety, against this species of delusive geometrical accuracy in moral arguments, as the most fallacious of all sophistry." Again, at the root of modern conservatism, in the eighteenth century, is a rejection of abstract reasoning in favor of practical experience and moral sensitivity.

One finds this oversimplified in remarks like those of conservative commentator David Gelernter, who writes about "a conventional liberal or a conventional academic who would rather think than act. (Pure thought is no good—is top-heavy and likely to capsize—without the ballast of everyday, practical experience.)" These same conservatives find something suspect about Sonia Sotomayor drawing upon her own experience to animate her jurisprudence. Central to Burke's conservatism is a respect for tradition tempered by what he called "a moral imagination," which the conservative Russell Kirk defines as "that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events." In other words, it includes "empathy."

At the center of Burkean conservatism is something that, these days, I associate much more with "liberals": the ability to enter the experience of someone different from oneself, and be morally and intellectually enlarged by that experience.


*As a classicist, my favorite passage in the speech is when Burke says: "It is the spirit of the English Constitution, which, infused through the mighty mass, pervades, feeds, unites, invigorates, vivifies every part of the empire, even down to the minutest member." Here he is quoting Dryden's translation of a passage in Vergil's Aeneid:
...One common soul
Inspires and feeds and animates the whole.
This active mind infus'd through all the space
Unites and mingles with the mighty mass (982-985).
In the original Latin:
Spiritus intus alit; totamque infusa per artus,
Mens agitat molem; et magno se corpore miscet (6.726-727).
The Latin is quoted by Daniel Webster in his Bunker Hill oration (1825) to characterize the spirit that animated the Americans in the Battle of of Bunker Hill. John Dickinson quotes it in 1776 when he argues, in Burkean fashion, that "the wellfare of the people...perpetually animates the [English] constitution, and regulates all its movements."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Frontenac State Park

September woods

The steep walk down from the bluff

In Yan Teopa Rock

Lake Pepin, from above In Yan Teopa Rock

Frontenac State Park is located on the bluffs above the western shore of Lake Pepin, about 10 miles south of Red Wing and 5 miles north of Lake City, Minnesota. From the top of the bluff, there are impressive views over Lake Pepin. A rather steep path leads down the bluff and runs parallel to the lake shore, eventually arriving at In Yan Teopa ("rock with opening" in the Dakota language), a natural limestone arch. On this Sunday morning in September, we saw numerous warblers in the woods, beginning their fall migration.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


Middlemarch is back on the shelf, and my next big read is Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon's monumental work originally appeared in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, and is available in various modern editions, including the hefty three-volume Penguin edition elegantly introduced and edited by David Womersley. Pictured above is the 1114-page first volume.

There are some interesting affinities between George Eliot, the philosophic novelist, and Gibbon, the philosophic historian. Both probe into the dark recesses of human motivation; both approach their subjects with an equal measure of irony and sympathy. David Womersley, in his introduction, writes: "[T]he belief in unintended consequences naturally led the philosophic historian to form surprisingly nuanced judgements prompted by unexpectedly broad sympathies... Individuals and institutions, which he could only condemn as in themselves criminal or perverse, at moments contributed positively to human society, while, in obedience to the same principle, those he admired or loved may, despite their best endeavours, have exerted a harmful influence" (xxiii).

Thus Gibbon praises and admires the good emperor Marcus Aurelius, but shows us that, through his indulgence as a father, Marcus bequeathed to Rome the troubled reign of his unstable son Commodus. On the other hand, he dates the beginning of the end of Rome to the reign of the murderous and self-interested Septimius Severus, who temporarily restored a measure of peace and justice to the empire.

Of Marcus Aurelius, Gibbon writes: "The mildness of Marcus, which the rigid discipline of the Stoics was unable to eradicate, formed, at the same time, the most amiable, and the only defective, part of his character" (108). This is typical of Gibbon's style, contrasting, in the same sentence, a positive and negative assessment of a person's character or actions. "The most amiable, but only defective, part of his character." There's a kind of dizzying, dazzling even-handedness about Gibbon as he performs his stylistic juggling act, making judgments while seeming to keep judgment suspended in the air.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Let Them Eat Shrimp

Yesterday afternoon was the annual "garden party" at the college president's house to celebrate the first day of classes at Carleton. In the past (at least since we arrived at Carleton in 1990), the party has been known for the heaping trays of jumbo shrimp served to the faculty and staff. But this year there was no shrimp. According to an article in Time magazine, the shrimp was eliminated as a cost-cutting measure: "Carleton College will save $3,800 by skipping shrimp and wine at annual faculty parties."

Although Time presents a gratifying picture of elite cake-eating college professors having to go without their shrimp and wine during a severe economic downturn, there seems to be another side to the story. The garden party followed the opening convocation, at which the address was given by Gary Nabhan, a leader of the local foods movement and author of books such as Coming Home to Eat (2001) and Where Our Food Comes From (2008). And Carleton's new food service provider, Bon Apétit, is committed to using locally-sourced foods and to promoting sustainability, and is aware that jumbo shrimp (along with most commercially-available seafood) is neither local to Minnesota nor, for the most part, harvested in a sustainable manner.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Joe Wilson in Historical Perspective

A contemporary political cartoon of Preston Brooks beating Charles Sumner on the Senate floor.

May 3, 1910. Senate candidate Frederick Hale (R-ME) horsewhips newspaper editor Charles Thornton Libby for allegedly slandering Hale's mother in the rural Six Town Times. Hale is later elected to fill a Senate seat once held by his father, and has a long career in the United States Senate.

September 4, 1813. Future President Andrew Jackson, horsewhip in hand, approaches future Senator Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO) in a Nashville hotel and shouts, "You damned rascal! I'm going to punish you!" As Jackson attacks Benton, Benton's brother Jesse Benton shoots Jackson point blank in the back. Jackson is carried from the scene, and as he's being treated, the blood from his wound soaks through two mattresses. Years later, when Jackson is President, Tom Benton becomes his most loyal ally in the Senate.

In 1851, when Charles Sumner (R-MA) joins the Senate, Benton tells him he has joined the Senate too late. "All the great issues and all the great men are gone," Benton says. "There's nothing left but snarling over slavery..."

July 11, 1804. Former Vice President Aaron Burr fatally shoots former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel. After the duel, Burr flees to South Carolina (the future home state of both Preston Brooks and Joe Wilson). In 1807, Burr conceives a treasonous plan to raise a private army and go to war against Mexico, and attempts to enlist the support of Andrew Jackson. Jackson's nephew Stockley Hays joins Burr's abortive expedition, and is later on hand to thrust a sword at Jesse Benton after Benton shoots Jackson in the back. (A metal button on Benton's coat deflects the blade and saves his life.)

Preston Brooks

May 22, 1856. After a speech in which Senator Charles Sumner ridicules Senator Andrew Butler (D-SC),* Butler's kinsman Rep. Preston Brooks (R-SC) attacks Sumner on the floor of the Senate with a gold-tipped walking cane. (Brooks has to walk with a cane because he was shot in the hip in a duel with future Texas Senator Louis Wigfall.) Brooks beats Sumner until Sumner is blinded with his own blood and falls unconscious. Sumner spends three years recovering before he can return to the Senate. Brooks becomes a hero in his home state of South Carolina, and receives dozens of new canes as gifts from constituents. He apologizes to the Senate, explaining that he meant no disrespect to the Senate, and that if he had meant to kill Sumner, he would have used a different weapon.

*In his speech, Sumner said of Butler: "Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight. I mean the harlot, Slavery."

February 27, 1859. Rep. Daniel Sickles (D-NY) murders U.S. attorney Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key, in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, after discovering his wife Teresa in an affair with Key. In his murder trial, Sickles is acquitted, using the first successful plea of temporary insanity in history. Sickles later serves controversially as a Union general in the Civil War.

February 5, 1860. Lawrence Keitt (D-SC), who had drawn his pistol to prevent other lawmakers from intervening to help Senator Sumner, starts a brawl on the House floor. The brawl ends when Rep. John Potter (R-WI) pulls the toupée from the head of Rep. William Barksdale (D-MS). Potter holds up the toupée and exclaims: "Look, boys! I've scalped him!" The House dissolves in laughter and the brawl ends.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Middlemarch Revisited: Rosamond and Dorothea

Shallow, self-centered Rosamond fantasizes that Will Ladislaw is hopelessly in love with her. When Dorothea finds them together, in what appears to be an attitude of some intimacy, Rosamond thinks the situation is entirely to her advantage, never imagining that Will is in fact devoted to Dorothea. Eliot writes:
Shallow natures dream of an easy sway over the emotions of others, trusting implicitly in their own petty magic to turn the deepest streams, and confident, by pretty gestures and remarks, of making the thing that is not as though it were. She knew that Will had received a severe blow, but she had been little used to imagining other people's states of mind except as material cut into shape by her own wishes... (834).
"Making the thing that is not as though it were." It sounds, for one thing, like a definition of what a novelist does. It also sounds like Dorothea herself, who, as Celia says, sees only what isn't there. But Dorothea's imagination has been shaped by sympathy, and by knowledge gained through her own suffering. When Dorothea reflects on the scene she's witnessed between Will and Rosamond, Eliot writes: "It was not in Dorothea's nature...to sit in the narrow cell of her calamity, in the besotted misery of a consciousness that only sees another's lot as an accident of its own" (845). How different from Rosamond, who imagines "other people's states of mind...as material cut into shape by her own wishes." As Dorothea reflects, she asks herself: "Was she alone in the scene? Was it her event only?"

"She forced herself to think of it as bound up with another woman's life."

Dorothea has gained "emotional intelligence." As Eliot says: "[A]ll this vivid sympathetic experience returned to her now as a power: it asserted itself as acquired knowledge asserts itself and will not let us see as we saw in the day of our ignorance" (846).

Feminists have always objected to Dorothea because, after asserting her maturity and power as a woman, she settles for becoming a wife and mother. In Sexual Politics (1970), for example, Kate Millett writes: "[Eliot] stuck with the Ruskinian service ethic and the pervasive Victorian fantasy of the good woman who goes down into Samaria and rescues the fallen man—nurse, guide, mother, adjunct of the race. Dorothea's predicament in Middlemarch is an eloquent plea that a fine mind be allowed an occupation; but it goes no further than petition. She marries Will Ladislaw and can expect no more of life than the discovery of a good companion whom she can serve as secretary" (139).

Eliot herself anticipated this criticism. "Many who knew her," she writes, "thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done..." (894). Eliot, though she was able to choose a different life, was keenly aware of the limitations placed on women in Victorian society. And she was ambivalent about the alternatives. Her letters, for example, reveal a brilliant and independent-minded woman who signs herself "Mrs. M.E. Lewes" and who has strong maternal feelings. Although she moved as an intellectual equal in a world dominated by men, Eliot seemed to find value in the traditional sphere of women, in what she saw as women's greater sympathy, care and sense of justice. Perhaps, she seems to say, feminism shouldn't only be about women gaining an equal footing with men in the traditional spheres of male activity. Perhaps it should also be about valuing what women have always done, such as raising children and making a home.

Eliot wants to see a sympathetic partnership between men and women, based on shared knowledge and values, rather than the independence and rampant individualism that men have traditionally pursued. In her perceptive biography of Eliot, Jenny Uglow writes:
The message for the lives of women seems to be that although change must come (preferably gradually rather than suddenly), it must not be at the expense of traditional female values. Although it is wrong for women to be excluded from access to common culture and common stores of power, they should demand them for the sake of partnership with men and for the good of society, not just for their own separate fulfillment... The vital thing is not to launch women into a masculine sphere, but to "feminise" men, because the feminine strengths have for so long been trampled underfoot and undervalued.
As a former stay-at-home father, who spent years working within the traditionally feminine sphere of domesticity, I sympathize with Eliot. I'm reminded of a passage in Rosemary Radford Ruether's ecofeminist book Gaia & God that had a profound influence on my thinking as, like Dorothea, I abandoned a life of pure scholarship for a life of domesticity:
The "liberation of women" cannot be seen simply as the incorporation of women into alienated male styles of life, although with far fewer benefits, for this simply adds women to the patterns of alienated life created by and for men... Rather, what is necessary is a double transformation of both women and men in their relation to each other and to "nature." Women certainly need to gain some of the individuality that has been traditionally purchased by men at their expense. But this individuation should not be based on exploitative domination (of other women or subjugated men), but needs to remain in sustaining relation to primary communities of life. The ways of being a person for others and of being a person for oneself need to come together as reciprocal, rather than being split between female and male styles of life (265).
With this, I think George Eliot would have agreed enthusiastically.

In Dead from the Waist Down: Scholars and Scholarship in Literature and the Popular Imagination (2003), A.D. Nuttall writes of Middlemarch: "The slow accumulation of asphyxiating, counter-heroic ordinariness in nineteenth-century middle-class life has produced, very naturally, a nineteenth-century three-decker novel ending in marriage and a baby." But for me, Middlemarch celebrates that "counter-heroic ordinariness" as much as it finds it suffocating. When I read about Dorothea, early in the novel, wanting to arrive at "the core of things" through Casaubon's scholarship, I recall its distant echo in Barbara Pym's No Fond Return of Love (1961). Early in that novel, Dulcie Mainwaring, an academic indexer, is attending an academic conference and finds herself at church on Sunday morning with a congregation full of fellow academics:
The lay reader gave a short address. He tried to show how all work can be done to the Glory of God, even making an index, correcting a proof, or compiling an accurate bibliography. His small congregation heard him say, almost with disappointment, that those who do such work have perhaps less opportunity of actually doing evil than those who write novels and plays or work for films or television.

But there is more satisfaction is scrubbing a floor or digging a garden, Dulcie thought. One seems nearer to the heart of things doing menial tasks than in making the most perfect index. Again her thoughts wandered to her home and all that needed to be done there, and she began to wonder why she had come to the conference when she had so many better ways of occupying her time (emphasis added).
Although Dulcie is not concerned with building improved peasant cottages, as Dorothea was, she is concerned with practical, day-to-day domestic arrangements. These simple domestic tasks are what give her a grounding in reality. Dorothea, in another life, is one of Pym's "excellent women" whose lives are simple but whose influence is, as Eliot says, "incalculably diffusive."

It is not far to travel from the end of Middlemarch to the middlebrow and middle-class pleasures of Barbara Pym, or Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, with their frank celebration of ordinary middle-class life and the role ordinary people have in sustaining the world.

"For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Middlemarch Revisited: Judgement

We have known from the beginning that Dr. Lydgate and Rosamond are essentially incompatible. He's a serious, ambitious doctor whose goal in life is the advancement of science. Rosamond is a pampered doll whose goal in life is the advancement of her social position. To maintain her in the style she expects, Lydgate falls into debt, and is nearly ruined. I expect that most of us find our sympathies on the side of Dr. Lydgate, but he bears his share of the responsibility for the marital difficulties he and Rosamond face. Like most of the men in Middlemarch, Lydgate has an autocratic streak that contributes to Rosamond's exasperating immaturity.

When a pregnant Rosamond wants to go out riding again with Lydgate's fashionable cousin, Lydgate tells her: "surely I am the person to judge for you. I think it is enough that I say you are not to go again" (629, emphasis added). His caution seems reasonable—and, as it turns out, warranted—but his tone is disturbingly paternalistic. It has, as Eliot remarks later, "a touch of despotic firmness." When Lydgate's medical practice has begun to fail, Rosamond suggests that he "should be more careful not to offend people." Lydgate snaps: "What I am to do in my practice, Rosy, it is for me to judge. It is enough for you to know that our income is likely to be a very narrow one..." (700, emphasis added).

Later, one one of several occasions when Rosamond does something significant behind Lydgate's back, he asks her: "Will this be enough to convince you of the harm you may do by secret meddling? Have you sense enough to recognize now your incompetence to judge and act for me—to interfere with your ignorance in affairs which it belongs to me to decide on?" (716, emphasis added).

Rosamond has been spoiled, yes, and her education has been superficial, but Lydgate persists in treating her as a kind of household ornament rather than a full partner in marriage. Conversation becomes nearly impossible between them: "His indisposition to tell her anything in which he was sure beforehand she would not be interested was growing into an unreflecting habit, and she was in ignorance of everything..." (812). Both of them act behind the other's back, and fail to confide in each other. Their initial incompatibility deepens into a nearly impassable gulf.

The contrast with Dorothea is interesting. At the beginning of the novel, she impulsively marries Casaubon. Instead of being initiated into the mysteries of scholarship, she gains an education in sympathy. Near the end of the novel, Dorothea wants to rush to the aid of Dr. Lydgate, who has fallen under a cloud of scandal. Her male advisors warn her against it. Her brother-in-law, Sir James, says: "Surely, a woman is bound to be cautious and listen to those who know the world better than she does" (791). Her sister Celia tells her: "I think it is a mercy now after all that you have got James to think for you." She adds: "And, of course men know best about everything, except what women know better... Well, I mean about babies and those things" (792).

But Dorothea is right. She has matured in sympathy in a way that pampered Rosamond hasn't, in a way that even Celia doesn't understand. The novel is full of harmful talk that spreads as malicious gossip and potentially helpful talk that remains suppressed through polite caution. Dorothea has the courage and the sympathy to speak honestly, soul to soul, with another suffering human.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Scenes from Labor Day Weekend in Chicago

My avatar (Emperor Hadrian) at the Art Institute of Chicago

Cloud Gate in Millennium Park

Waterlilies in Lincoln Park Conservatory

The Chicago skyline from the roof of the building where we stayed

Moonrise over Lake Michigan from the roof of the building where we stayed

A little boy running around the fountain in front of Navy Pier

Nicole Mitchell and the Black Earth Strings at the 31st Annual Chicago Jazz Festival

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Middlemarch Revisited, Part VII: Riddles

Doubtless a vigorous error vigorously pursued has kept the embryos of truth a-breathing: the quest for gold being at the same time a questioning of substances, the body of chemistry is prepared for its soul, and Lavoisier is born. But Mr. Casaubon's theory of the elements which made the seed of all tradition was not likely to bruise itself unawares against discoveries: it floated among flexible conjectures no more solid than those etymologies which seemed strong because of likeness in sound, until it was shown that likeness in sound made them impossible: it was a method of interpretation which was not tested by the necessity of forming anything which had sharper collisions than an elaborate notion of Gog and Magog: it was free from interruption as a plan for threading the stars together (Middlemarch, chapter 48, p. 520).
Dr. Rolleston, who obliged George Eliot by dissecting a brain for her, had an aunt named Frances Rolleston, who in 1863 published a book called Mazzaroth; or, the Constellations. "In it," says Dr. Rolleston's biographer, "she discovers primeval prophecies in the signs of the Zodiac, ending with the Fishes, to her an anticipation of the well-known Christian emblem, and a prophetic type of the multitudes of the Church to come. Educated people are now apt to smile at the etymological vagaries which were this learned lady's grounds of argument; thus it seemed quite obvious to her that the Hebrew word or, 'light,' was the source of the French word for 'gold.'"

Mr. Casaubon's scholarship was like Frances Rolleston's, based on nothing more substantial than a "likeness in sound," a superficial resemblance. It's tempting to see Miss Rolleston behind Mr. Casaubon, as a hidden source for his character. In her book on the constellations, Rolleston was, after all, constructing a literal "plan for threading the stars together." As far as I know, no one else has suggested Frances Rolleston as a source for this passage.

Numerous originals have been suggested for the characters in Middlemarch. Most notoriously, the Oxford don Mark Pattison has, since the novel was published, been seen as the model for Mr. Casaubon. Mrs. Pattison was convinced that she was the model for Dorothea. Dr. Rolleston believed that another Yorkshire-born doctor, Dr. Thomas Clifford Allbutt, was the model for Dr. Lydgate. But George Eliot herself, in the passage above, cautions the reader away from making such conjectures on the basis of superficial resemblance.

In an a passage that I discussed earlier, Eliot talks about the parabolic nature of her fiction, in which a monkey might indicate a margrave, or a looby a lord. Here, too, she plays with accidental similarities of sound—alliteration—and suggests that a connection can, in fact, be made in the form of a parable, or allegory. Fiction can discover truths inaccessible to scholarship. Instead of attempting to connect Casaubon to Mark Pattison, for example, the reader should attempt to discern in Casaubon's character deeper and more universal truths about human nature. Do we associate Casaubon with Pattison, or some other distant model, because we are uncomfortable associating him with ourselves?

In Middlemarch, social appearances are often at odds with moral reality. Middlemarch society sees Will Ladislaw as an unprincipled opportunist, and possibly a foreign agent, determined to stir the flames of political unrest and enrich himself at the expense of a wealthy widow. The truth about Ladislaw is quite different. On the other hand, one of the things that draws Dorothea to Will is the family resemblance she sees between him and a portrait of his wronged grandmother. She draws a sympathetic connection. Eliot encourages us to draw connections based upon true moral sympathy, not upon false social inference.

Late in the novel, Will Ladislaw attends an auction, at which one of the items up for bid is a book of riddles. The auctioneer tells the assembled crowd:
"What can promote innocent mirth, and I may say virtue, more than a good riddle? — it hinders profane language, and attaches a man to the society of refined females... Carried in the pocket it might make an individual welcome in any society. Four shillings, sir? — four shillings for this remarkable collection of riddles and the et caeteras? Here is a sample: 'How must you spell honey to make it catch lady-birds? Answer: money.' You hear? — lady-birds — honey —money. This is an amusement to sharpen the intellect: it has a sting — it is what we call satire, and wit without indecency. Four-and-sixpence — five shillings" (653).
Society is itself a riddle. How are we to assign a true value to things—and to people? Based upon an accidental similarity to a preexisting model or a preconceived notion? Or based upon sympathy, and a familiarity with deeper moral truths?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Parallel Universe

This morning, I had the rare pleasure of seeing my friend Shannon out school shopping with her two adorable little girls. We seem to move in different circles in the real world (as opposed to the virtual world of blogging and Facebook), and seeing Shannon and Julia and Genevieve is such a treat that, after one such rare meeting, I wrote a poem about it. Coincidentally, this afternoon's mail brought a copy of the most recent issue of Green Blade: The Magazine of the Rural America Writers' Center, featuring the poem "Parallel Universe (for Shannon)." The magazine also features poems by fourteen other poets, including my friend Joyce Sutphen (a Minnesota Book Award winner and occasional guest on A Prairie Home Companion).

Parallel Universe
for Shannon

When I met you downtown, I think I understood
why Julia and Genevieve acted as if I wasn’t there—
perhaps I wasn’t. Perhaps I was only seeing into
the parallel universe where you were living my life.
I recognized the stroller, the cantankerous toddler
in a moment of calm, the preschooler aloof
but absorbing everything around her like a sponge.
I think I recognized the happiness, both precarious
and profound, that sometimes visited me on such
spring mornings, when the world had finally expanded
to its proper size. I think I recognized the exhaustion,
and the claustrophobia of my own personality—
and I think I knew how tenderly and how impatiently
we can remake our lives around the ones we love.
We become someone else, but we are still ourselves.
We may come to wonder how many times we’ve passed
ourselves on the street, smiled in recognition,
felt that stirring of envy, and gratitude, and relief.


Copyright © 2009 by Rob Hardy

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Held Back

Each child who walks into a Minnesota classroom next Tuesday represents a unit of state education funding, known as the "per pupil" allowance. A school's general education revenue is calculated by multiplying the per pupil allowance by the "average daily membership" of the school; that is, by the average school enrollment over the course of the year. Because enrollments can vary over the course of the year, the state holds back a percentage of state funding until the beginning of the following school year, when enrollment numbers for the previous year have been finalized.

In the past, the state "hold back" has generally been between 10% and 15%. This year, because of the state's budget crisis, Gov. Pawlenty has increased the hold back to 27.5%. This amounts to $1.8 billion in delayed payments to Minnesota schools.

For every $100 a school district spends, state funding on hand only pays $72.50. The state pays the remaining $27.50 in the following fiscal year, but in order to meet its immediate obligations, school districts need to draw upon a line of credit.* The interest on that line of credit becomes part of the school's operating budget. Money that should be going to the education of children must now be budgeted to make interest payments on loans. To balance the state budget, and maintain his inflexible stand against raising taxes under any circumstances, the governor is using accounting sleight-of-hand to take money out of the classroom.

*For charter schools, the 27.5% hold back creates an additional problem. Under state law, charter schools must lease their school facilities. Because the state prevents charter schools from owning real property, the schools lack collateral to secure a loan. Charter schools also lack the ability to raise local property taxes, as traditional public schools often do to meet budget shortfalls.

Now Available: Domestication: Collected Poems 1996-2016.

Domestication: Collected Poems 1996-2016 . Published February 25, 2017.  Available now from Shipwreckt Books in Rushford, Minnesota, ...