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?

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New Poem: "Phrasebook"

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