Middlemarch and other thoughts

I just finished the first section of Middlemarch. It’s very promising so far — Eliot is a very readable writer, with an interesting perspective on society, character, and marriage. She makes judgements of character with the cool, somewhat wry precision that is so striking in Austen’s novels, but seems a bit pricklier, perhaps more cynical, with a narrower prospect of happy endings. Last fall I tried reading Ulysses and supposed that perhaps I didn’t want to read a large novel, but now I think that perhaps I just don’t care much for Joyce — or, if I were to come to appreciate him, it would not be in the same way; I can appreciate Eliot as a readable, thoughtful, and accomplished novelist who is always hinting, and even saying outright, that which she is trying to show — Joyce expects a great deal more attention from his reader, and I don’t know that this is entirely just — or at least justified — for most readers. He has the opposite problem from the populist who is always writing down to his audience; he presumes too much upon my cleverness, with, at least at this point, somewhat disappointing results.

The question which expresses itself most strongly in the first section of Middlemarch concerns the place of the female ardent religious and knowledge enthusiast in society, in the person of Dorothea Brooks. She begins with a short forward where she brings up the life of St Therese, who went out as a child seeking martyrdom, and ended reforming an order of nuns and writing an influential account of her own mystic experiences. What will come, she asks, of a person of such a disposition who is born to a family of moderate property in contemporary England; she is pretty, tolerably well educated, enthusiastic, and wants to do good. Society expects her to marry a respectable landholder, keep a respectable house, and raise children, but she is, perhaps, ill prepared for this by her naive application of virtue, lacking a steady guide who is in sympathy with her enthusiasms, surrounded by people who are always misunderstanding her, belittling her desire to help those in need, serve God, and sacrifice herself for loving devotion. I haven’t seen yet how this will turn out, but I’m sure she is in for disappointment — I don’t yet know how disastrous this will be.

The difficulty, which, as Eliot is at pains to point out, Dorothea is ill prepared to confront, is how (or if) we are to reconcile the realities of life in the segment of society to which we belong, with the radical ideals taught us by Christianity. Most of the characters so far seem to deal with this by not taking those Christian ideals very seriously. Dorothea is the exception, and she is seen by those around her as “clever” (which seems to be their equivalent of “book-smart”), but impractical and not to be taken seriously. She’s just a girl, and if she happens to have a hobby of giving things up, designing peasant cottages, and talking about Biblical commands, then we may as well indulge her whims so long as she does not carry them too much to excess. On several occasions her feelings by trivializing her ideals as simply a matter of her peculiar taste, or perhaps as a reasonably wholesome hobby for a girl to have, so long as she doesn’t tax her girlish mind too far.

I don’t know how Dorothea’s question will play itself out in Eliot’s 19th century England, but having spent much of my life in the company of religious enthusiasts or those aspiring toward that state, I am in sympathy with it. Ardently hopeful enthusiasm is one thing — something that American evangelicalism encourages very strongly, backed by emotionalism and effusive rhetoric — but knowing how, precisely, to live that out in one’s life as a wife or student or seller of books or clothes or teacher or whatever else is, perhaps, a more trying question. It is not, however, only an evangelical question, but a Christian question — one that must be faced by Christians everywhere and always. In evangelicalism it may look like the conversation between “give everything up” and “you are either a missionary or a mission field,” and the person who wonders: does that mean that I should give up my car and my house? Does it mean that I should give up my music and books? What if I marry and have a family? Who should I evangelize, and how — what if I’m a wretched street evangelist? What if I want to go on this mission trip just because it sounds fun? In Orthodoxy the same question play itself out, only with a greater consciousness of historical precedent, and with a template of living out Christianity that’s deeply shaped by the monasteries.

In modernity the question of how to live out Christianity plays itself out against a very strong modern tendency toward individualism, which is always pulling at us, to treat Christianity as a matter of private preference; as a kind of hobby or club. You like to play soccer in the afternoons, and I like to go to church. Sometimes you don’t especially like soccer practice and sometimes I’m a bit tired of church, but we stick with our respective hobbies anyway. Some young ladies prefer to amuse themselves with gossip and embroidery; others prefer to read religious pamphlets. To each her own (as they say so often in Middlemarch). This attitude permits many different religious to coexist peacefully, but often at the cost of trivializing all of them, as both women and religion are often trivialized by the characters of Middlemarch.

This is a problem, not only because it offends religious zeal, but because it is necessary for virtue and happiness that we should order our lives in accordance with their proper end (telos). In Christianity this end is communion with and likeness to God. The living out of this proper ordering constitutes virtue. But it is precisely what constitutes this end that we are so often intentionally vague about for the sake of getting along in society (and often because it’s easier anyway). This confusion comes out and lends confusion to many of our undertakings, however, often unexpectedly. I tend most often to encounter it in education, because that’s something I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about, and because I’ve always been left to make up my own curriculum, based upon whatever principle seems best to me. My curriculum ends up being haphazard and chaotic, not only because I am lazy, and it would be difficult to go into the question of what it means to be an educated person — what the proper end of education is — in any depth; but also because I am wary to go there, because I might find that what I believe is not consistent with how I am actually able to teach, and that I could only reconcile them by trivializing my belief as a mere opinion or personal preference.

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