Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Pride, Prejudice...and Perfection

I’ve been taking a bit of a vacation recently-- taking a jaunt on one of my periodic Jane Austen love-fests. I watched the 1995 BBC version of  Pride and Prejudice—with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle—surely one of my favorite movies. Then, for good measure, I re-read the book again. I’ve read it many times. My set of Jane Austen books, a Roberts Brothers Edition, 1892, has been a part of my library since 1964—since I was a junior at Concord Academy. I think it was the best thing that happened to me from my boarding school days. At least it was a most memorable, cherished, and never-to-be-parted with addition to my life.

Pride and Prejudice is justly acclaimed an enduring and beloved work of art, an all-but-flawless comedy of manners. There hardly seems to be a word out of place, a character underdeveloped, or a scene too many. I wonder how Miss Jane wrote it. It almost seems to me “received,” as it were, entire, from the spiritual world—from a place where angels  record and converse,  filling  the gaps of human society with their longer views and superior understanding.

I write these words now because, after the movie on DVD, I watched some of the “bonus” material put out by the producers. It was an outstanding production; every character seemed to be true to Austen’s inspiration. Such excellence is rarely to be met with in the world of film. But why, then, did the director remark that the novel is about “sex and money”? Of course it’s about “sex and money.” But so much more! And that gross reduction of the moral dimensions of this work to “sex and money” is a telling symptom of modern materialism. But that such a coarse and rather dismissive judgment  of the work was made by a director who did such an outstanding job with it—such, such are the contradictions of our era.

In this reading I was struck by the forcefulness of Austen’s portrait of what happens when people persevere “in willful self-deception”—as the clergyman, Mr. Collins, is described. The passage occurs just after Mr. Collins has tendered his most unwelcome offer of marriage to Elizabeth. Her decided refusal he interprets as the  “coquetry and affectation of an elegant female.” Elizabeth finally left the room in silence, deigning no more to address a man so literally incapable of hearing.

Another passage relating to willful deception occurs a few pages later, when sister Jane remarks that  she believes that Mr. Bingley’s sister “is incapable of willfully deceiving anyone.” In this case sister Jane was  subsequently to be proved deceived in her “universal goodwill,” as Elizabeth puts it.  But the occasion of Jane’s expression of goodwill leads to Elizabeth’s finally exclaiming that “The more I see of the world the more am I dissatisfied with it; and everyday confirms my belief in the inconsistency of all human character, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense…”

This novel deals with appearances and reality, with social conformity and prestige; with influence and sycophancy;  with careless, immature,  unformed or ill-informed judgments—all the repertory, in fact, of life in  society. It is speech, social speech, that involves questions that might be debated in philosophy – issues of truth, perception, sincerity, cogency.  Only these are not the questions of philosophy but questions involving happiness. If taken and digested in the inward solitude that is the prerequisite for truthfulness,  there can be creative development, fruitfulness. Or if they are not so taken, if there is lacking that inward solitude and self-reflection, there can be misery, moral mistakes, bad outcomes. Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine, is worthy of that title, for she is, in a manner of speaking, a practicing philosopher: she meets with herself in the crossroads of solitude and battles not only for love, but for the truth of love, or the truth in love. Nor will she have love on any other terms. Truly this is a noble purpose.

In our time the “speech of society” has been taken up into the electronic realm—political speech, the speech of corporations, governments, journalists, the “interests.” Two things have fallen away so fully, so silently,  so completely that we are hardly aware of it: the speech on which happiness depends;  and the speech on which truth depends. For the speech of society depends on dialogue, on the inter-communication of persons. Sometimes it may be an imperative form of speech for the sake of action; at other times it may be disinterested for the sake of truth; still at other times the word may be offered like a life preserver to a drowning man.  But the speech of the television is the monotone or the monologue, "speechifying"-- the speaker versus the mass or the mob. It discourages dialogue if not makes it impossible. 

We have exchanged dialogue, the speech of society, the speech of the village, for the speech of fate. It is thus that modern societies, in periodic intervals, go marching into disaster. To read Pride and Prejudice is to immerse oneself in living speech. For us today this is rather a novelty. That this should be the case is a telling--or is it a tolling?--commentary on our society. But it does allow us a new outlook on the form of the novel--that is, not only the telling of a story but as an embodiment of living speech.    

                                  Piano music for Pride and Prejudice

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