Sublime Writing

Anybody familiar with Middlemarch by George Eliot?
I’m in the midst of reading (as usual, with my old eyes, listening to an audio-recording of) Middlemarch…
Eliot’s writing is extremely cerebral; everything is observed in the most nuanced way. Sometimes, the narrative x-rays of the character’s thoughts and feelings are over-extended; there?s a sense of icy dryness about… However, for the most part, these analyses of the characters’ internals lives are pin-pointedly accurate and often sublime.
There is a great deal of plot movement; a lot actually does happen?marriages, deaths, travel, accidents, reversals of fortune? But you don’t really notice it very much?and you certainly don’t get carried along by it in great emotional waves as you do with Dickens. And that’s because Eliot’s focus is almost always internal.
There is, in Middlemarch, the inevitable theme of a woman trying to survive and even thrive in a man’s world. I say inevitable because the book was written in the late 1800’s and publishing, along with everything else, was 99% dominated by men. And, since George Eliot was, in fact, Mary Ann Evans, she had, to say the least, very strong opinions about this subject.
I suppose you could almost say?looking at it in modern terms?that Middlemarch is a more a woman’s than a man’s book. (But Yo! I can dig it cause I’m sensitive!) In any case, great art is great art?it rises above gender and other temporal divisions the way a soaring bird rises above the heaviness and darkness of earthly cares. You know what I?m sayin?.

Our heroine, Dorothea, a beautiful, intelligent, feeling young woman, marries a dried-up, sadistic old scholar?overlooking, in her girlish enthusiasm for new and lofty ideas (which, at first, he seems to possess) his almost total lack of a beating heart.
?She?s on her honeymoon trip to Rome, where old meany dry-bones is researching his long-planned book in the library of the Vatican. He essentially leaves her alone all day in a foreign city and suggests she “amuse” herself by visiting art galleries with a guide. Every attempt she makes to go with him to the library, to help him in his work, or to share anything with him at all is coldly rebuffed.

Finally, after weeks of this we see her in her hotel room, sobbing her heart out. She wants to experience everything, see everything and feel everything?and it is all thwarted.
And here is one of Eliot’s great eye-in-the-sky observations. She points out that, of course, this is how people grow up? their youthful enthusiasms and dreams can never realistically be met and they have to come down to earth; they have to experience the eternal smoothing (if not blunting) of the bright edges of childhood. So far, so good… It’s just that in this case, we’re dealing with extremes (of course we are?who would care if the story and characters weren’t extreme? For that we have our own mundane lives). The extreme in this instance is that Dorothea is SO very interested and feeling?she sees the tiniest twitch of emotion on another’s face or the moment-to-moment shifting of sunlight on the patio outside her hotel sitting-room.
Here is how, in her sympathetic and realistic description of life?s hard road, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) describes such a circumstance and such a nature…

[…If we had a keen vision and feeling of all 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.

Whoa! Stop the presses. You can’t beat that kind of writing.


– Mike Feder (New York City – April 9, 2012)

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